As my patent leather heels sank into the softened, buckling tar between my midtown office and the subway station, I sank into a memory. Not an isolated incident, but rather years of being in a particular place, doing the same thing, feeling the same heat beneath me. When I was in elementary school and recess was over, they’d blow a whistle, and we’d all have to stop in our tracks and drop to the blacktop. As the backs of our legs came into contact with the ground, which might as well have been made from lit charcoal painted with hopscotch lines, we felt our flesh burn and blister. Our little faces screwed up into unpleasant caricatures of themselves, but our mouths stayed quiet, controlled as they were by The Grownups. The restless among us would take a stick, or the end of a jump rope, and dig into the thick, obsidian stuff that had pooled in holes and cracks. I hadn’t thought about those days until this evening, but as my right heel made an impression in the tar on Lex, I knew I wasn’t actually as far from that place as I pretend to be.
I should back up a pace. In case you hadn’t heard, a heat wave has befallen New York City. The weather app on my phone tells me it’ll be a beastly (as my grandmother would say) 97 degrees on Friday. In general, I think New Yorkers are tough as nails because, well, what choice do we have? But last summer, when the temperature reached 103 – making July 6, 2010 among the hottest days in the city’s history – I scoffed at the sissiness of my unacclimated neighbors. In the summer in the small Southern California town where I grew up, it’s 115 degrees on a good day – and the most bristling, face-melting day I can remember exploded the thermometer at 123.
That day is burned into a lot of peoples’ memories, I’m sure of it. There were brownouts all over the state. Air conditioners sputtered and gave out; backup generators perspired through the pressure. Elderly people flocked to Walmart to escape the heat, if they hadn’t been rushed to the hospital first. Some never made it.
My mom, my brother, and I had been visiting friends a couple towns over, and with panic spreading across the valley like wildfire, we decided to ride out the heat wave at their house. Meanwhile, my dad was at home. A man with two decades of experience in the air conditioning field, he was powerless to get the A/C up and running. He’d been feeling awfully powerless in general those days. It was around this time that I, his 8-year-old baby girl, had discovered a fibro-osseous lesion (read: tumor, though I hate that word) in my jaw while fooling around with Mom’s lipstick in the mirror. We knew it wasn’t cancerous, but we also knew I’d need another surgery, and that’s about all we knew.
So on that 123-degree day, his face awash with sweat and tears, my father lit a candle – not because the power had gone out yet, but so he could pray. It was one of those tall, thick ones in a glass jar painted with an image of the Madonna. With the candle in one hand, and his favorite framed picture of me in the other, he prayed. “God, show me a sign that she’s going to be OK.”
And the lights went out.
In our little corner of the grid at first, and then all through the state. Or at least that’s what he says. And who am I to fight a good story? The day wore on in darkness, but as the sun ceded its place to the moon, the traffic lights were restored and they lit our way home. “How’d this picture of me end up on the table?” I asked as I went to set our places for a late dinner.
I hadn’t thought about that day either until just now, when I thought about the tar and the temperature and what it felt like to grow up in a place where heat waves are not flukes but rather accessories of the territory. And I had never thought about the peculiarity of my father’s prayer. Not “God, let her be OK,” but “God, show me a sign that she’ll be OK.” He needed a proof point, a reason to keep praying. And according to him, he – along with the rest of our state, which was probably cursing that same God – got it that day.
And lo and behold, I was OK. Am OK. And look, I even have the shoes evocative of a fancy New York job to prove it. But as far as these feet have taken me away from that place, they’ll never quite shed the layer of asphalt that paves the 3,000 miles between this and my old life. I’m learning that it’s not the place we take with us, but the feeling of being in that place, and the smallest sensation can send us spiraling back. It’s no coincidence that getting momentarily stuck in the ground is what reminds me of home, but it’s no less symbolic that I’ll just as swiftly pick up and keep walking north.