Popsicles Can’t Fix This New Heat
We are slicing fruit and fixing cold sandwiches, swiping mayonnaise on slices of multigrain bread and tearing leafy greens into salads for supper. Of course we aren’t cooking, we’re under a heat dome. It’s nearly 100-degrees in our kitchens, even with the windows wide open and every fan blowing. Our bare feet stick to linoleum floors.
Outside, the fruit trees are motionless; not a leaf twitches on the dogwood that didn’t bloom this year, its leaves already gone brown. The neighbor’s weathervane, a sailboat with an aged patina and a post that creaks during windstorms, is dead in the water.
We move slowly, especially Cori who is pregnant, and pause our meal preparations to wipe the backs of our necks with dishtowels, to hold glasses of ice water to our foreheads.
Around six o’clock, just as we’re about to call the kids to eat, it’s Alex in the group chat who texts that she’s going to lose her shit. Em says she’s already lost it and sends the smiling poop emoji. Alex types back, “Sea Otter Cove? 8?” Cori texts, “I’ll drive.” So now we just have to make it to bedtime.
We knew it was coming. We checked the forecast and sent our husbands into attics for dusty box fans. They leaned step stools against our houses and secured AC units to bedroom windows, holding
screws between their teeth and balancing cold beers on windowsills. We bought popsicles and sports drinks and filled our coolers with gas station bags of ice. When temperatures first broke triple digits, we made shakes with frozen bananas and sipped them while soaking our feet in kiddie pools, ignoring the dirt and grass and dog hair gathering at our ankles.
We took the kids to the lake and waded in after them, splashing cool water on our arms and legs, skimming the toddlers across the surface and sprinkling plastic watering cans on their heads. When the fire department showed up to spray a truck’s hose into the air, showering the roped off swimming area in cold water, we laughed and shook our heads that there weren’t more urgent matters. Wasn’t this a state of emergency?
Yesterday, we still had the energy to make things fun. We filled water bottles with electrolyte tablets and ice cubes and left the strollers and bikes in our garages and instead drove, air conditioning on high, to the splash pad at the city park. While the children shrieked and skinned their knees running too quickly across slick concrete, we worried about the weather. “Did you see the melted power cables?” asked Em. “Even the asphalt is buckling in this heat.”
There are headlines about elders dying, so today, we checked in on our neighbors, especially the ones who live alone. We brought along our kids, who squirmed on front porches and handed over scribbled drawings and sports drinks. We donated cartons of bottled water to the homeless shelter. Cori gave the mail carrier a can of bubbly water.
All day we were thirsty, and there are quarter-empty drinks on the counters, the tables, the arms of lawn chairs. Em’s youngest keeps grabbing for her breast and the constant nursing has increased her milk supply. She sent us a photo of the milk she pumped yesterday before her shift. Three, four ounce freezer bags of breastmilk, captioned 11 fucking ounces. She’s soaked through her second bra of the day, and she’s not sure whether it’s due to sweat or milk.
Meteorologists are calling it a once-in-a-millennia heat wave. Each day we’ve broken record temperatures set the day before. And we are starting to break.
It’s impossible to eat indoors, so we ask our husbands to haul picnic tables into whatever shade we can find. At supper, the toddlers in their high chairs pull apart sandwiches and lick the mayonnaise from the bread. They peel chilled hardboiled eggs and make faces as they crunch down on tiny flecks of stuck-on eggshell.
The older kids refuse to sit still. All day they have subsisted on water and sugar—popsicles, juice pouches, melon slices—and now they’re wired. They spray each other with garden hoses until someone starts crying, comes back to the picnic table to pout while picking at food from their mother’s plate. Alex’s kids have worn their swimsuits for three days straights and are refusing to bathe. Em’s have foregone clothing altogether and are stuffing their mouths with handfuls of potato chips, then sprinting to the slip and slide still chewing. We call out warnings halfheartedly, unable to muster the energy to shout. We’re worn out just by sitting, by breathing; even our nostrils feel swollen, stuffy with heat.
Shortly after seven we herd the children indoors. They flop to the floor as if their bones have melted or dart into other rooms, contorting themselves into corners and under beds, anywhere but the bathroom. Cori muscles her toddler upstairs, prying his hands from the spindles and nudging the back of his head down the hallway with her pregnant belly. Em’s toddler refuses the little potty and instead throws it across the bathroom, laughing as hours-old warm pee sprinkles the walls. Em yells, “No!” Then bites her tongue to keep from cussing and instead narrates a script from Instagram: “Mama is feeling frustrated. Mama needs to take a big, deep breath.” The older kids lie about brushing their teeth and we let them.
We can hear the youngest kids still crying in their cribs while we stuff our tote bags with beach towels and swimsuits. Alex packs her son’s insulated lunch box with mochi ice cream and canned rosé. In parting, we say, “love you,” to our husbands in the way that means, I need this, don’t ask when I’ll be home. And Cori picks us up in her CR-V, air conditioning so loud we can barely hear her pool party x goop (tropical drink emoji) playlist. The bank sign flashes the time and temperature on our way out of town. 8:27 PM. 94 degrees.
We take the old two-lane highway down the coast and it curves along sandstone cliffs that slope to shore. Cori opens the sunroof and we look up as golden light flashes through moss-draped trees. She shoulder parks and we descend a trail through redcedar, fir, and madrona. Even the forest smells sun warmed.
At sea level, we cross the railroad track that cuts a line between forest and cove. A sandstone bluff separates two beaches. Voices echo on the western beach, so we follow the point around to the other beach, and find it empty. We unfold a cotton blanket over sand and crushed shells, slide out of our sandals and lean back on driftwood to watch the sunset.
We are sweaty, but together. Alex offers mochi, and we let the rice flour and ice cream melt in our mouths, cold and sweet. Em passes around a can of rosé. When the sun sinks below the islands, darkness falls without its usual reprieve.
Cori gulps from her water bottle and finally says it. “I hate that this is our new normal.” She leans her head on Em’s shoulder and wipes at a hot tear. We sigh with our mother tongues. Alex scratches Cori’s back. “I know, sweetie. Me, too.”
And then, Cori is running toward the bay. She lifts her tank top and lets it fall behind her to the beach. She wriggles out of her maternity shorts and plunges into the waves. She goes under. When her head reappears she howls, a cry so feral it scares us. It calls beneath our skin. We are burning up and running naked into the waves, and howling.
Cori is floating on her back, belly raised to the moonless sky, when we see that her rage glows. Faint blue lightning crackles through the waves with each stroke of her hand. She is cupping fire.
It’s too early in the season for bioluminescent plankton, but they flicker at our fingertips. We are charged. Em splashes to shore and returns with two mussel shells held to her swollen breasts. “I’m a goddamn mermaid,” she yells before diving into the next wave, her whole body aglow.
She surfaces beside Cori and floats beside her. She slips her hand into Cori’s and the water sparkles. “Like sea otters,” Em says. We wade over and join them on our backs as the littlest lights flare above and below us and we hold hands to keep from drifting apart.