J u l y   2 0 0 5

Guest Writer

Enough about you
by Rachel Mendez

t really is the humidity, but the heat doesn't help.

I lived in Baltimore one summer. Summers there are miserable. It's hot, unendingly hot. And nighttimes do not bring cool relief because the humidity is so thick that the heat stays in the air, suspended like fruit in Jell-O.

I remembered, living through that summer, about a torture during the Vietnam War I'd heard about as a child. Torturers would lay a heavy, wet cloth over the mouth of the POWs and the prisoners would struggle for breath. The heavy, wet air of the Baltimore summer felt that way.

I'd leave the bathtub full of water and sleep in a cotton nightgown. In the middle of the night, unable to sleep because of the ceaseless, oppressive heat, I'd throw back the sweaty sheet and lie down in the tepid bathwater. After a good soak, I'd get back in bed wearing my soggy nightgown, leaving a trail of wet footprints from bathroom to bedside. The resulting coolness would last an hour or two before I'd have to get up and repeat the whole thing.

One day I was inspired by watching "The Seven Year Itch," in which Marilyn Monroe's character keeps her undies in the freezer to cool off during a hot summer. I started doing the same. In the middle of the night I'd change into a frozen nightie, dip myself in the tub and then head back to a little bit of cool sleep.

I had no air conditioner in my attic apartment, but I had a fan – a small, old, metal one with the kind of grill that one could easily stick fingers through. I'd sit in front of that fan, trying to feel some cool air but sweating all the while, my face covered in perspiration. I'd finished graduate school and had no ties in Baltimore. It was too hot to stay another summer.

I needed to move.

I didn't want to return to New England where summers are rather humid, too. I couldn't afford San Francisco, which I knew had cool and foggy summers. I didn't know where to go. The answer came from a newspaper piece about the cities of Portland and Seattle.

At that time, the summer of 1989, Portland and Seattle, according to the article, had low rent and lots of rainy weather. So I gave away all my belongings and drove across the country to live in Portland which, in the classified ad research I did at the public library, appeared to have slightly lower rent than Seattle but paid about the same for the type of restaurant job I'd be looking for.

Portland was not wet and green when I arrived that August. Turns out that Portland was in the middle of a hot spell. The grass was dry and the air was cruelly free of either breezes or rain. I felt ripped off. Still, it was not as bad as Baltimore. Not even close. So I stayed.

I've never liked heat. It must be something genetic. The half of me that is Hispanic does not seem to have passed on the gene for enjoying warm weather. Instead, the half of me descended from centuries of people who inhabited chilly, gray England has prevailed.

Heat makes me grumpy, impatient and lethargic. I am pale and burn easily. Summer has always been the time I dread. Come March, I start worrying about summer. The first warm days of April make me panic: How will I make it through three long months of summer?

I learned ways of coping: jobs in air-conditioned workplaces and movie theaters on hot nights. Once I even stayed in a motel because my house was too hot for sleeping. But I got a room with a broken AC and watched cable all night with wet washcloths on my head.

I also learned to protect my home from heat. I'd shut the windows as soon as the morning air was warmer than the inside air and leave them shut and covered with dark blankets all day. As soon as the outside air cooled a bit, I'd open all the windows and turn on the mismatched assortment of fans I'd picked up at thrift stores over the years.

At night I learned to sleep with five fans running full bore – two pointed out the windows to exhaust the hot house air, two placed in front of other windows to suck in the cooler night air and the fifth pointed right at me. It sounded like a jet engine in my bedroom and I'd wake up with the most awful dry mouth. But the method brought me enough relief from hot nights to allow sleep.

In recent years a few things happened.

The first, and most wondrous, was that friends who owed me money paid me back with a brand-new, window air-conditioning unit instead of cash. I'd have never shelled out the 200 clams myself, since it seemed like a waste of money and a candy-ass way of dealing with our short summers here in rainy Portland.

It sat in its box in my bedroom for months. I refused to use it, to raise my electricity bills, to have that ugly thing sticking its drippy back end out my window, marking my window as the window of a wimp.

One miserably hot night I lay in bed – my five fans valiantly but pathetically trying to cool me down – and started wondering how much it costs to run five fans all night. Could it really be that much less than running AC for a few hours until the room was good and cool?

And so out of its box it came, that unit, and into the window. Soon my room was too cold for comfort. I snuggled under a blanket – a blanket! – and fell asleep listening to sounds I'd forgotten, sounds normally muffled by my five-fan symphony. I don't use AC a lot, perhaps seven nights out of the whole summer. But I know it's there, in the attic, waiting to come out and squat in my window. Makes me feel a lot calmer.

The second thing that changed was that I decided to stop being so damn grumpy about heat.

I started really looking at the people around me during the summers. They were not, like me, moles afraid of sun, choosing only boyfriends who could stand to sleep with the sound of five fan motors and jobs with air conditioning.

On sunny days other folks left their blanket-covered windows behind and filled the streets and parks of our city. They put on shorts and tank tops and lay out in the grass. They played Frisbee and rollerbladed by the river. They went to outdoor music venues and sat at alfresco cafes. These people, these normal people, seemed to actually like the sun.

What if I tried to like the sun? What if I pretended, just for the heck of it, that the sun felt good on my skin?

I got some clothes fit for summer, clothes not in the shade of the sun-absorbing black I normally favor, but white clothes in cool fabrics. I wore sandals. Like a character in a play, I took on the role of "Woman Who Enjoys Sun and Warm Weather."

When the heat started to make my skin burn, when I started to feel irritable and lethargic, I told myself some lies: My doesn't this warmth feel delicious? I am like a lizard on a rock! I am soaking in the sun!

I imagined being cold in the winter and thought of how much I like the heat from my car's vents on cold mornings. I realized I could enjoy heat like that all day during the summer. I like hot baths, I like saunas and hot tubs, I like to sleep with a lot of blankets. So the summer was nothing more than three months of glorious warm blankets and hot tubs, all outside, all free, all day.

It worked.

Combined with my little window unit, used on the hottest nights only, my new attitude toward summer has changed me. I can honestly say I now welcome the sun. Now I look forward to more warm weather when we start getting some nice days in April or even March. Soon, I think to myself, I can be outside all day, sipping a margarita while the bees buzz about the rose bushes.

Only now I've started to hate the rain and cold.

Winters are mild in Portland, but gray. There is lots of rain, lots of cloud cover. During winter and spring we can easily go nine days in a row with no sunshine. It's really starting to get to me. Just two more months of summer, and then the rains start. And then what will I do?

How will I make it through those long months of rain before next summer?

Find more from Rachel in our archives.

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