The weather in Los Angeles has finally turned hot which means that domestic anarchy reins in our household. The kids lay around in their underwear reading most of the day. We all snooze whenever we feel like it. Nothing gets cleaned. I can’t make myself move from the fan in my bedroom, so the children forage for food in the kitchen like possums. Even though I’m terrible with heat, I have learned to give into it and allow it to slow me down.
This was not always the case. I used to resent the heat. It made keeping up with our usual routine even harder. The heat felt like a persistently annoying baby brother – dragging on me, demanding attention, never going to bed. Last year, however, when Los Angeles had its HOTTEST DAY EVER ON RECORD I learned that abandoning the routine is the only reasonable response. And one that offers unanticipated philosophical riches.
The annual Santa Anas were blowing through southern California, kicking up dust and causing erratic spikes in temperature. Spikes might tip temperatures as high as a hundred, but usually meant that that we’d be in the mid-nineties for three or four days, with a pardoning cool off at sundown. This particular temperature spike appeared to be unexceptional, marked by the usual e-mail exhortations to send bottles of water to school with the children and a mild crime wave. I was writing in the library, enjoying the top notch air-conditioning while the children were at school and my husband was working.
“Holy shit,” said a man at my table. Such random pronouncements are more common than one might think in Los Angeles, so I glanced up casually. A young man was holding out this IPhone for all of us to see. A couple of people gasped. I looked closer – the phone displayed the temperature: 112 degrees.
“Holy shit,” I said. How could this possibly be? I had left the house that morning, prepared for an uncomfortably warm day, but this was unprecedented. I joined a couple of people already at the window to see if a giant meteor had crashed to earth, sending radioactive heat waves out to melt buildings and burn inhabitants to the size and molecular make-up of one of my sons’ marbles. This is not impossible. Thousands of years ago, a meteor fell into the heart of the Sahara desert turning the miles of sand around it into a sea of glass.
Outside the window, however, life appeared to be clicking along. A man watered his lawn. A woman held her toddler’s hand and crossed the street. Perhaps the IPhone had been wrong. I stepped into the library bathroom to call my husband at work.
“Hi honey,” Pat’s voice answered after the second ring.
“Have you seen the temperature?” I asked.
“Yeah, it’s hot,” he said.
“No. Have you looked at the actual temperature?”
“Nope. I’ve just been working. The air-conditioning here is great.”
“It’s 112 degrees.”
“Holy shit. Really?”
“Check your computer.”
I held on for a moment, before I heard him say, “Holy shit. You’re right.”
I was right? I deeply wanted to be wrong.
“It says here it’s 113.”
“113,” I said. “That’s impossible. It was 112 a minute ago. What in God’s name is going on?”
Pat cleared his throat, “I guess this is a bad time to tell you that I’m going to be held up here and can’t pick the kids up from the bus.”
“You’re kidding. I was hoping that you’d pick me up after you picked them up. I can’t walk out in this weather. You know how I am.”
“Yes, I know how you are. But I don’t think I can do anything about the work situation. Can you call a mom to pick them up and bring them to the library?”
“Forget it,” I said, incapable of keeping the edge out of my voice. “I’ll handle it.”
“Don’t! Don’t do that,” Pat barked.
He was right. Saying “forget it” in that tone was code for, “I knew I couldn’t count on you. I always have to do everything by myself.”
“OK,” I said, sheepishly, tears stinging my eyes. “It’s just so hot.”
There were two hours before I would have to pick up the children. I wandered around the library with others who were moored there. Everyone seemed to have stopped working and the ‘quiet’ rule had been totally abandoned.
“It says here that it’ s the hottest day ever recorded in Los Angeles history,” announced an Asian woman at a library computer.
“It’s up to 115,” a man yelled from fiction stacks.
We looked out the window every few minutes to see if the world had changed. Remarkably, it continued to look the same, only less and less peopled. As I packed up my computer, preparing to pick up the boys, I realized that our little living room air-conditioner would be no match for this heat. How would the boys be able to do their homework? How would I be able to make dinner? The only solution I could imagine was dropping my computer off at our apartment and picking up our bathing suits. That way we could go straight from the bus to the pool, hurl ourselves in, and stand around in the water until night fell.
To this day, I am not sure how I managed to get to the apartment and then to the bus stop. I can only assume that I tapped into some primordial need to survive and protect my young. I have heard stories of mothers finding the strength to lift automobiles off of their children. This must have been the same kind of power I accessed. I remember thinking that if we couldn’t make it to the pool, I could burrow under the parking lot adjacent the bus stop with my bare hands. I remember forcing myself to imagine each destination like a distant planet that was within reach if I only stayed the course. I charted various air-conditioned pit stops, notably the 7/11 where I lay my cheek against the window of the freezer housing frozen burritos until the man at the cash register told me to move along.
When I got to the bus stop, I crouched behind a tree and waited. Another mom was kneeling in the shade cast by a car. A few other parents were jostling for position behind a flagpole. I couldn’t imagine what the rest of the day would be like. It could, I supposed, get even hotter. Who knew? I found that I couldn’t imagine anything in the future. What would the children be like as they got off the bus? Would we be able to sleep tonight? Would it be this hot tomorrow? Normally, my mind ranges over many real possibilities of what the near future might hold, but in the shade of that tree, I was stuck in the present. The future was a drop-off and the past was irrelevant.
My sons got off of their un-air-conditioned busses -- damp, miserable, and stunned. They looked like junior versions of movie stars in DUI mug shots. As we huddled behind the tree, I laid out my plan.
It was standing room only at the pool, with no room to swim. No matter. The boys and I would stand chin-deep in relative comfort for the four hours until nightfall. As we threaded our way to through the throng to the edge of the pool, I tried to review what dinner items were in the cupboards. But dinner seemed a far-off country. I could not imagine it. All I could conjure was this moment with my children slopping beside me. Normally, I don’t talk to anyone at the pool because I’m shy and because shy people are even shyer when scantily clad. Unless Margaritas are involved. After an hour of standing inches away from several bobbing strangers, however, I started to join in the conversation.
I met the Armenian couple immediately to my left. They had immigrated to this country in their twenties. He was one of seven children, two of whom were identical twins who developed a circus act in which they lifted each other in the air with the power of their minds. At least, that was how I understood it. She had worked at a bank downtown for forty years and she confided that her copper red hair color wasn’t natural. A woman hanging onto the edge of the pool told me that her husband was going to leave her for another woman last year, but he had a heart attack the week before he was going to move out of the house. He stayed with her during his recovery and now they were back together for good. “That heart attack was the best thing that ever happened to me,” she said, cheerfully. The man behind the Armenian couple tried to sell me a “Fruit of the Month Club” membership. And a youngish hipster dude claimed that the video game “Blood Redemption” would be freakin’ awesome for the kids.
As the sun sank behind the women’s changing room, my sons and I dragged ourselves from the pool, did not dry off, and dripped our way home. Pat’s arrival coincided with ours and we settled in front of the air-conditioner to hone a strategy for getting through the night and the next couple of days, which promised to be only slightly less hot. The plan, as I remember it, was loose. Do as little as possible.
That settled, Pat’s chair scraped the floor as he rose to make sandwiches for dinner. I sipped my ice water, listening to the boys chattering about the many uses of double sided tape.
I felt inexorably present. This, I thought, is what I hang on to – my husband in the kitchen and my children’s glowing skin and matted hair. All the rest I can let go. I can let go of a proper dinner, completed homework, and dirty dishes in the dishwasher. I can let go of a fixed bedtime and returning e-mails. It’s too hot. I have to let it all go -- all but the important stuff. This, I understood, was the gift of the hottest day. Communion. Stillness, And a reminder of what to let go of -- and what to keep.