The Paris Review – Against August

There is something off about August. This part of the summer season brings about an atmospheric unease. The long light stops feeling languorous and starts to seem like it’s just a way of putting off the night. There is no position of the earth in relation to the sun that comes as a relief. Insomnia arrives in August; bedsheets become heavy under humidity. No good habits are possible in August, much less good decisions. All I do is think about my outfits and my commute, constantly trying to choose between my sweatiness and my vanity. People are not themselves. I go see the party girls and find them wistful. I meet up with the melancholics and find them wanting to stay out all night.

In August I cannot think, so I cannot work. This is not not-working in a restful or decadent way. This is not working as a certain doom. And I can’t not-work in peace either: if I leave in July I consider myself traveling but if I leave in August I am just leaving. The best I can hope for, in the absence of a purpose like business or pleasure, is an escape. Maybe a light excursion. In any case I am rarely in the place I can reasonably call my home in August, and instead stay in other people’s basements, in their living rooms, on their couches. I sleep on what was once a little brother’s bunk bed and wash my hair in his parents’ shower. I walk down the stairs and see their children’s fingerprint smudges on the banister. I stay in hotel rooms by myself and think: What a waste. (I am convinced that hotel rooms are designed for sex, even though I am not particularly into the quality they have—sealed, hermetic, identical. Hotels are to sex what time zones are to jet lag, I think. A change of interiors out of proportion with the body.)

I am against August. When I try to explain this position, some people instinctively want to argue. These people seem to love the beach beyond all reason, to have never suffered a yellowed pit stain on a favorite white T-shirt in their life, and to eagerly welcome all thirty-one days of August as though they are a reward for a year well-lived rather than a final trial before the beginning of another. These are people who vacation with peace of mind. To them, I say: Go away. To the people who agree with me, I say: Go on.

Many friends who share my malaise compare the experience of the month to the Sunday feeling of knowing work or routine is imminent after a break. I don’t agree exactly, but I recognize the comparison. In August summer ends, and so whether or not you are done with it you must accept that it is finished. Everything you meant to say or do now exists in the past tense: it was said or it wasn’t, it was completed or never even begun. The month does function, I will admit, as an excellent excuse. I reassure myself and others about mistakes or failures with promises of what we’ll be like in September. Any accomplishment, no matter how minor, is astounding to me: In August?! I think.

***

I note references to August when I find them, and keep them as though I am preparing a defense of my position. I must have my rhetoric for when pettiness alone fails me. There are, of course, many who have romanticized August in art. In Emily of New Moon, LM Montgomery describes a vacation spent in “the long, smoky, delicious August evenings when the white moths sailed over the tansy plantation and the golden twilight faded into dusk and purple over the green slopes beyond and fireflies lighted their goblin torches by the pond.” I probably read that for the first time as a child indoors, while hiding from an August unlike the one she had written about. I have never experienced this delicious smokey August that looms large in our cultural imagination; Instead of white moths, for me, there are mosquitoes.

Some poets agree with me, some don’t. I am always on the lookout for allies. Marge Piercy’s 1984 poem “Blue Tuesday in August” begins:

The world smelled like a mattress you find
on the street and leave there,
or like a humid house reciting yesterday’s
dinner menu and the day before’s.

Like that, yes. “In an invented summer,” wrote Etel Adnan in Sea and Fog, “the world breaks apart … Love is wedded to time, and revelation is their breaking apart. In one of August’s sizzling days, the sea swallowed a woman whose flesh gave up resistance.” Also just like that, yes. In Mary Oliver’s 1983 poem “August,” she writes that she is

cramming
the black honey of summer
into my mouth; all day my body

accepts what it is.

Hmm. “What I want,” Kim Addonzio writes in her poem called “August,” “is to slice open its stomach and watch / its toxic sun uncoil into the sea.” Yes, that’s better. “August rain: the best of the summer gone, and the new fall not yet born,” wrote Sylvia Plath in her journals. “The odd uneven time.” Another entry:

Today is the first of August. It is hot, steamy and wet. It is raining. I am tempted to write a poem. But I remember what it said on one rejection slip: “After a heavy rainfall, poems titled ‘Rain’ pour in from across the nation.”

Many experience it with a sense of finality. “The summer ended,” writes James Baldwin in Just Above My Head:

Day by day, and taking its time, the summer ended. The noises in the street began to change, diminished, voices became fewer, the music sparse … The houses stared down a bitter landscape, seeming, not without bitterness, to have resolved to endure another year.

Then there are movies set in August, many defined by catastrophe: August 5 is the day Do the Right Thing takes place; August 29 is the day, according to Terminator 2the world ends. And there are the movies I believe should be watched in August because they capture something of its claustrophobia (Rear Window, The Talented Mr. Ripley). There are the heroines of Rohmer’s films, undone by the pressures of vacationing alone and the vacuousness of beach holidays.

The Hottest August, Brett Story’s documentary filmed in 2017, has a title that is inherently ominous and incomplete—after all, it shows what is the hottest August only thus far. She interviews people in the various boroughs of New York in front of their homes, in their favorite bars, in parks, on beaches. Each scene has a sense of foregrounding: there are layers between the viewer and her subjects, like sandcastles in front of the water, that both direct and obscure your line of vision.

August Is a Wicked Month by Edna O’Brien begins with a description of the weather as evil incarnate. “People who had hoped for summer wished now for a breeze and a little respite.” Ellen, O’Brien’s tragic heroine, will get neither, no matter how hard she tries. Her marriage is about to end and she goes on a vacation, throws her wedding ring into the ocean, and doesn’t regret it. Even after a true tragedy she finds it hard to return home. It is difficult for Ellen to decide, while grieving, if the month is wicked or if it holds “her own pathetic struggles towards wickedness.” She feels too much, finally, to feel anything at all. “It was a new sensation, indifference,” she thinks. “It was like observing a party as one passed by a sleek and softly lit front room and having no feeling of regret about being uninvited because to walk the streets alone provided a greater and surer pleasure.”

***

In August of the only year I was married, we flew to the West Coast of Canada for a wedding. I was distracted; I didn’t plan. Not understanding either Canada’s geography or its seasons, I had packed for what I considered to be August weather. I spent the entire time cold and cursing myself for the missed opportunity to wear sweaters and jackets. The dress I brought was too big, and so were my shoes. But it was a beautiful wedding. I guess they all are. The bride’s father, a carpenter, made the pews for the ceremony and the tables and chairs for the reception. The sun was on the water and we traded blankets back and forth when the wind blew. At night we drank, and cried. I had already said goodbye to these friends so many times before; when I had moved, when I came back to visit, and now I would again, before getting on a plane to fly to a different city than the one we’d grown up in together. “It doesn’t get easier,” one friend said through his tears. I held my hand on his cheek without wiping them away.

Back in New York the season was what I’d expected and dreaded. Airless, choking heat, sunlight that seemed to burn without warmth. Steam lifted off the sidewalk. The hours were slow but gone before I could count them. The feeling of August was as uncomfortable as the weather. Enough time had passed to know how I would remember this summer. There was still enough time to convince myself the future might prove me wrong. I read the letters that writers I loved had written to the people they loved, and circled the passages that felt important even if I couldn’t say why. One I kept with me for a long time, waiting to understand how I knew what it meant. On August 12, 1971, Elizabeth Hardwick had written to Robert Lowell:

I have had a really fine summer, strange in many ways, in others exactly the same. In the afternoons the light drops suddenly, the day waits and you feel a melancholy repetition, as though you were living moments before, maybe long ago by someone else.

In September she wrote to say that she had started divorce dates.

***

Now I am alone when I leave town in August. I remember one night spent solo at a bar someone had recommended, with a patio with a view that I knew I should see. Behind it the sky was almost-thunderstorm purple. I thought the canopies over the patio would protect us from the rain, but they were, it turned out, mostly for decoration. Half the people scattered under columns supporting a slim roof; the other half clustered around the bar. All of us kept our hands around the stem of our wineglasses. I sat on the stoop with a man, close to the columns. I could see feet poking out and tried to lean over to see who they belonged to, what they thought of the rain. We made eye contact but not conversation, so I lit a cigarette. The photos on the pack depicted the absolute limits of what can happen to a body. The man beside me watched a French comedian perform standup on his phone but didn’t laugh. When the rain stopped skateboarders arrived. I watched them for a while, then went to where I was staying and laid in bed, planning what else I could do in the morning. I pretended to sleep until I was bored and then I showered. Sometimes I forgot to be glad I was alone. I would daydream about bumping into someone I knew. Not a friend, exactly. Someone unlikely but not unwelcome to find in the same restaurant, café, or park. Someone also away from themselves in the month defined by absences.

Still, I don’t text people back. Instead I collect the oddities of the month I see and hear. I sit in the shade of a park beside the cigarette butts and a broken pair of sunglasses half-buried in the dirt. I sit in the sun at a baseball game in front of a man who, only half joking, heckles the other team: How dare you! How dare you try to win! On the way to the game I pass a woman on a patio talking about being too hot, about the ever-present light: It’s like, I get it, I know how the sun works. I walk behind a barber carrying a white bag sticky with pastry oils on his way back to work, a sparkling water and a half-drunk Gatorade in his hands, a tattoo on his neck in Gothic script that reads “In Fair Verona.” A phone call on the bus, a woman explaining to her friend that another person they knew had told her, She doesn’t need us anymore, she has new friends. A girl with pink barrettes holding her hair back from her face, her phone held to her ear, listening to whoever is on the other line with a smile she hasn’t yet realized she’s making. I sit outside the ice cream shop with my friend’s baby and golden retriever, waiting for her return. A man walking by gestures at us. Nice life.

He’s right. It is. There is much to enjoy about hating a month so completely. It would be romantic—except the only tension between us is the dread I feel as I anticipate August’s inevitable return. While I am drifting in the scorched grass under a tree, or hearing the sound of my legs sticking to the cheap plastic melting on a shadeless patio, or feeling my hair curl into a sweaty knot against my neck, I remember that I’ve known it would be exactly like this—that at least I did not exaggerate. As the month winds down, I can feel some sort of solace: after all, I’ll make it to after August.

Haley Mlotek is a writer based in Montreal. Her first book, about romance and divorce, is forthcoming from Viking.

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