It’s July 31st. I hear Carole King singing in my head and dream of waking up beside the man I love on the first day of August. Hers is a love song to summer. It’s not yet noon, over 100 degrees, muggy. Clouds piled against the mountains move toward us. One good thing: this weather gives us cleaner air. Second good thing: cicadas loud in the two trees. They change pitch, volume, breath, weave sound in and out, insect orchestra. I have just read the chapter of Natalie’s book where she talks about teachers, about Wendy. She is right. Wendy’s rich prose makes me envious. But right before, she tells us to copy Hemingway, to write a piece in one or two syllable words. I think: I do that. I don’t need to practice that. It’s organic, what comes to me. Today is the eve of the halfway point between midsummer and the fall equinox, the veil between the worlds thin. I make a small altar on the courtyard table: two tomatoes grown in the big terra cotta pot, bougainvillea, tecoma and Mexican birds of paradise from our garden, orange calcite, yellow citrine. I light one candle for this harvest time, for this turning of our world, and a second candle for all the beings I know who’ve died in recent months, feline, human, canine: Sunny, Auntie Christel’s brother in Germany, Bob, Colleen’s father, Annie. I ask for blessings on their spirits, on the ones left behind, still in bodies. May we honor both sides of this thinning veil. I take a deep breath, hear small chirpings in our tree. A verdin, I think. One lone dove sits on the wooden fence, Boo sprawled beneath the apricot mallow. Sofia comes outside, drinks water. Everything goes still. And then the cicadas begin to buzz again, and I draw another breath, keep my pen moving across the page. Sweat rolls down my right temple. My stomach growls. I twitch a fly off my forearm. I am in love with the last day of July.
I eat the best mango I have ever tasted. It wasn’t much to look at when it was still whole. It never got that lovely red blush. There was a small patch of yellow on the skin. I even put it in the refrigerator because I’d bought too much fruit. I didn’t want it to spoil. When I peel it, inside it is a rich orange, the flesh wet and firm. I cut it up in big, messy chunks, the mango slipping out of my hands. I gnaw on the big white pit. (I always want to save the pits, make art with them, but I resist.) I eat it in the courtyard with a small pile of Brazil nuts. I eat with my fingers, savor each bite. The cicadas—two of them, I think—begin buzzing in the Palo Verde when I am chewing the last piece. I don’t know how long I sit there, mesmerized by the lingering taste of sweet, delicious mango and the exotic summer song of the cicadas, the bowl propped against my belly. I come to with my hand still poised over the empty bowl, my fingers slick with mango juice.
It’s the small things that stop me, give me breath. The unbelievable yellow of the new kitchen cloth from Trader Joe’s lying in a bright wet clump on the edge of the sink, the fleeting perfection of its spotlessness. The messy lumps of peeled mango piled inside the red glass bowl, waiting for me to finish writing and open a chilled bottle of Topo Chico to go with them. The surprising thunder of the cicadas in the neighbor’s tree, filling our courtyard garden, growing louder and louder as dusk darkens to night, their wild crescendo crashing through the open windows, the abrupt silence at full dark. I still find myself rubbing my fingers against each other sometimes, evidence of my hidden anxiety. But tonight I listen to the now-quiet air and feel the kind of peace I’ve been longing for.
[Editor’s note: This was originally written shortly after “The Thinning Veil.” As I work to return to my blog, there will no doubt be a mix of things past and present, maybe off season–this was in the heart of the summer–and so on. But here I am!]
The air has been terrible for weeks. It brings back dim memories of smog-choked mountains from my first nightmare summer here, images I’ve told myself in the intervening years I must have misremembered or exaggerated in my own dark gloom. I check the air quality in the Los Angeles Times every morning, little colored circles, green, yellow, orange or red. We have been orange almost every day, “unhealthy for sensitive individuals.” Once we were even red, the only one, a danger for everyone, while the rest of southern California was green or yellow. It’s so bad it makes me not want to live here, has me back on craigslist combing for rentals, a part of me screaming inside to get away. Do I live near a nuclear power plant? Head for Blythe or Algondones? Can I trade this sun, this warmth I’ve become so spoiled by? They’ve been in the 60s at the beach all summer. It makes me shudder. (Oh, and yes, I realize summer has not yet actually begun, but we’ve been in the 100s for over a month already. It skews my perspective.)
Can I live like this, with this foul air, if it’s only for a handful of months every third summer? In Ajijic it was the spring months that were bad. I arrived in April, shocked by the horrible air. They allow agricultural burning, so all the fields in Jalisco were turned to ash in preparation for the summer planting, and the smoke would gather above the lake, blotting out the mountains on the southern shore. Like here, people would gaze back at me, a blank look on their faces, when I lamented the smog. How can they not notice? It’s with me always, my body’s instincts on guard against it. My lungs take shallow breaths, as though they might reduce the damage. And our mountains, our glorious mountains that are a presence everywhere, are diminished by the smog. My eyes seek them out again and again throughout the day. But instead of their surprising nearness, their magnificence that makes my heart leap in my chest, they are made distant, dulled, lessened by the ugly air that clings to them.
When I lived in Ajijic I imagined a life where I would escape each spring, moving the cats to Puerto Vallarta for April, May, June. Now I fantasize about escaping to Ajijic for July, August, September. Soon the cicadas will arrive in the village, if they aren’t there already, harbingers of the nighttime summer rains. I lived in the hills where the lightning clung, the thunder crashing close to our tile roofs in the middle of the night, like no noise I’ve ever known, the fierce roar of the gods. I’d lie on my back in the dark, my bedroom windows open to the north and east, the lightning bright behind my eyelids. I’d listen to the thunder’s echoes roll out across the lake below, the sound reverberating for long moments as it traveled across the basin. At some point the downpour began, rain racing off downspouts like Niagara Falls, making rivers of our steep streets. In the mornings the wet cobblestones would shine in the sunlight, all dust banished from our world. I’d look out my kitchen window to the nearby ridge, the crest of our hill. The air would be washed clean, too, in the brilliant summer light, the kind of sharp clarity that makes you want to launch yourself from the rooftop out into the blue sky, to take wing across our world.