Essay

Learning to Love Summer in Phoenix, One Third-Degree Burn at a Time

Tom Carlson





Summer is here, and you’re a whole new person.


Where you once smelled of your favorite department store cologne and occasionally, just after lunch, like a deli sandwich, today you’re redolent of self-tanner and chlorine, sunscreen and perspiration. You look different, cloaked in tiny, gauzy items designed for maximum air flow. You sound different, too, your voice parched and hoarse from screaming at your children, who are all at once everywhere, all the time.

Things you haven’t seen in a very long time suddenly appear. Your knees, for instance, poking out of diaphanous cotton shorts. Also, that basket of flip-flops in the corner of the closet where you once kept proper pairs of shoes, and large blisters on your feet, because you keep forgetting about the basket of flip-flops in the corner of the closet.

click to enlarge TOM CARLSON
Tom Carlson


If June has changed you, it’s changed the world around you, as well. The sun, which appears shortly after 3 in the morning and lingers, you swear, until nearly midnight, illuminates a world lacking things you’d known only last spring — like steaming espresso (replaced by skinny iced coffees) and long pants. Your lush green lawn is gone, along with the fragile box hedge you nurtured through November’s desert frost. In their place are an expanse of crisp brown and a row of charred stumps, in spite of the thousands of gallons of pricey water you’ve pumped into your endlessly thirsty patch of land.

Also missing are all the old snowbirds whose company you’ve grown so accustomed to — driving 17 miles an hour on the freeway; arguing with cashiers about cents-off coupons; appearing out of nowhere, radiating mortality.

You feel lighter, somehow — maybe because you’ve replaced regular meals with diet shakes designed to keep your wee summer wardrobe buttoned and properly zipped. Your wallet is lighter, too, thanks to those $600 monthly water bills and that family vacation to Maui, cut short by heatstroke and an allergic reaction to pineapple daiquiris. It turns out that weekly pedicures, necessary because you’re living in open-toed everything these days, are real spendy. So is the gym membership that’s replaced your daily hiking routine. At the gym, you step up your personal hydration game. The new you is mostly bottled water imported from Guam.

It’s not just that the summertime world looks different. Your relationship with it has changed. Where you once made restaurant choices based on appetite and cuisine and maybe whether the servers were cute, you now care only about whether or not the establishment offers a covered patio with misters. Out of doors, you nervously scan the horizon for patches of shade or a door leading back indoors, where the air-conditioning is.

click to enlarge TOM CARLSON
Tom Carlson

Even your rapport with your car has shifted. You drive now wearing a floppy hat you keep in the freezer and oven mitts to avoid nasty burns from your steering wheel. You’ve been thinking about installing an auto-start feature to cool your auto before you climb inside, and you’ve converted your glove box into an ice chest stocked with Otter Pops and radiator coolant.

You can tell others have grown weary of your descriptions of Phoenix as a “kiln” and your wisecracks about the surface of the sun, though you caught one of the kids smiling when you referred to this week’s 117-degree temperatures as “sweater weather.” By way of apology, you resolve to embrace this arid, sizzling city, to open your arms to the sun and celebrate a sweat-stained, scantily clad summer.

On your way outside to do so, you burn your hand on your front door knob and change your mind about embracing the sun. Back inside, you settle into the darkest, coldest room in the house, where you plan to binge-watch Northern Exposure and Big Hair Alaska. The world will just have to wait for the summer-loving version of you. In fact, they may have to wait until October.