When it is very hot, so hot that breathing in the thick summer air feels like work, so hot that the fat flies lag and I almost feel too bad to smoosh them, so hot that the only relief in an airconditionless flat is a head-plunge into an ice-cold bath, I think about all of the very hot summers before, spent with my mom. Even at its hottest, summer in London does not compare to Missouri's swampy mug. But sometimes the early, early morning light stirs me, and I wake with the unmistakeable film of dried sweat from a damp night's sleep. Here, a tinge of humidity feels like a nostalgic kiss. Even though the memory of drought and sticky skin is nearly too unpleasant to bear, in the sweltering summers of my 20s I've learned to trick myself, to see those hot days as the good ones. As the best ones.
I don't remember waking up on mornings in Missouri. I don't remember eating breakfast. I will, however, always remember the heavy heat that seemed to live permanently on the fringe of May through most of September. I will also always remember plodding barefoot down the stairs, on any morning of summer vacation, to find my mom in her swimming suit. Each year it was a variation of itself. Always black, always a one-piece. The backs of some styles dipped into a classic U-shape. Others were crisscrossed or racerbacked. She'd sit at the round kitchen table with the day's Kansas City Star and coffee, dog at her side and joined for a few hours by the voices of Bob Edwards or Steve or Renee. She'd cross her legs, turn the page. Read. Sip. Cross. Turn. Read, sip. Until the voices stopped or the pot was empty, or there were simply no more pages to turn. Then she might walk to the washing machine, remove the load, stride onto the back porch and clothespin the pile of tops and bottoms onto the line to dry.
Before it got too hot, she'd unwind the hoses and set the garden sprinklers out across the drying lawn. All morning she'd weed and prune and shovel and water and plant and wonder why the deer had to eat the heads off the tiger lillies. Sometimes she'd stop for a secret cigarette. Sometimes she'd raid the fridge for a can of Diet Coke. Sometimes, instead, she'd make an instant glass of raspberry Lipton. Sometimes we'd eat lunch together — peanut butter and cheddar cheese on Club crackers was our staple. But always, my mom existed in her swimming suit.
After lunch she'd take me and my brother to the pool. She drove a white Oldsmobile minivan. Its electric doors opened with a touch of a button and the back was filled with inflatable rafts. I put down towels to keep the leather bucket seats from sticking to the backs of my thighs. With its new-car scent long-gone, the minivan smelled like Banana Boat sunscreen year-round. Even in winter, that car felt like an escape-craft. We had the cheap membership at the country club — the one that doesn't let you golf, but lets you hang out at the pool as much as you want. My mom's favorite spot was in the southwest corner of the lounge area. The sun there was excellent, unobstructed, blistering. She'd stretch a pair of purple beach towels over a padded chaise. And that's where she'd remain. For hours, she'd drink Diet Cokes from white styrofoam cups with straws and voraciously consume whatever million-page novel she happened to be reading that week. She'd lie on her back and then lie on her front. When she'd sweated through the sunscreen, she'd walk to the pool's edge, drop her sunglasses on the concrete and disappear with a splash. She swam the breaststroke for slow, even miles. When she'd had enough, she would paddle to the south ladder, climb up, round the corner, find her glasses and return to the chaise. By then, my brother and I would be long-bored of inventing new formations to make down the winding water slide. We would have exhausted the life guards with our endless contests off the high and low-diving boards. We would have expended our snack allowance on lemonades and Bomb Pops and chicken fingers. By late afternoon, the busy pool would empty of warm and tanned bodies, and we would still be there.
When could we go? "What else do you have to do today?" she'd ask us. My mom had a point. But it was summer and we lacked the minds and will to relish in the nothing in the sun. Still, if we bothered her long enough and if our swimming suits were dry enough, we'd pack up the oversized totebags with our books and toys and various bottles of SPF and head home. I don't remember what I did on the rest of those days — maybe a ballet class or a cello lesson or piano practice later on. Yet, I always knew to look for my mom in her studio in the basement, where she'd paint until it was time to make dinner. Always in her swimming suit.
That was years ago.
The first time I noticed it was happening, I was living alone in my college apartment on Cherry Street. The air conditioner was too loud and it didn't help anyway. And unless you were sitting right next to the screams of the Vornado, the portable fans gave little relief. So I turned everything off and opened the rest of the windows. The sun had just started to set. I poured myself a glass of white wine and walked into my studio, where I sat down at the desk to write for the rest of the evening, in my swimming suit.
That was four years ago.
Yesterday, when Tom and I awoke, the weight of summer film was there. He was running late. He jumped out of bed, hurried into the front room. I stayed there for a while, supine, above the duvet, scratching mosquito bites, licking salt from my lips, listening to the neighbors cling their plates and chatter the morning away. That was when I spotted the swimming suit, under some clothes on the wicker chair. I got up, dug out the article and slid into its lycra form — a black one-piece. On this day there was breakfast to be made, coffee to drink, a lido to visit and work to be done. And I looked forward to doing it all in the outfit of every summer. It would do. Always, it would do.