Summer gothic

Everyone becomes unhinged, to some degree, during summer in Toronto, and this has been a particularly bad one. Most of the summer, but especially July and August, were made up of endless, blurring weeks during which the windows could not be opened and the A/C was never turned off; even so, it was often still too hot to sleep. I went out only in early morning and late at night, if at all. My brain and heart and soul paced restlessly in their cages, though my body generally felt too warm and sick of itself to do the same.

The madness of summer here is not Joan Didion’s violent dreams of California summer; here, violence creeps close but generally defers to an essentially Canadian listlessness, a sort of melting irritability made worse by the feel of one’s hair laying wet and heavy on the back of the neck. But the line seems too fine sometimes. Now that it’s perhaps over–the A/C is still on, but we might possibly turn it off after the sun goes down tonight–it occurs to me that the mental dislocation the comes with inescapable heat bearing down on a city as bone-cold as this one is unique. It is also a little frightening, but it may be the only thing that makes Toronto ever seem inhabited by real humans recognizable to one another.

One night a few weeks ago, no longer able to bear being trapped at home, I found myself on darkening streets that were throwing off the terrible heat they’d been absorbing over days and days of cruelly persistent sunshine. I walked the ten minutes from my home to the partly air-conditioned subway, which would take me, after another brief trek on burning sidewalks across town, to an air-conditioned bookstore.

My clothes, my very skin, my internal organs, felt like overladen packs I was doomed to carry under some biblical curse until the end of time. In that short walk, I bore witness to a whole world losing its sweaty grasp on its own sanity: a filthy dog perched on an infested sofa; a horrifically sun-burnt young woman in a backless dress dragging a queen mattress down her driveway towards a street already stinking of the next day’s garbage pickup; a doll hung in mysterious effigy, of warning or loss, on someone’s front porch.

Summer gothic doll

On the subway platform, I dreamed tiredly of taking my skin off just like any other unwanted layer of clothing as two trains passed me, the heat radiating out of un-cooled cars which were somehow, unimaginably, cooking at an even higher temperature than the world outside. Eventually, a car with working A/C came along to take me to the book shop, but it had already begun to seem as unreal as a desert mirage that’s already shimmered away.


I slouched into the shop, brightly light and cool, thinking about a list of songs for a mix tape devoted to summer and its horrors; I was thinking of Robbie Robertson’s beautiful, sexy lie about the sleeplessness of hot nights but was immediately distracted by the slow consuming fire of the Cowboy Junkies’ “Misguided Angel,” a song which always makes me feel a strange mixture of sickness and exhilaration.

I barely remember being in the store, although I stayed quite a while and surely bought more books for my rapidly disappearing shelf space. I more clearly remember the subway ride home, the lights of the cars flickering in the heat, a young man looking at me with the kind of frank interest I can now only reliably expect either on the east coast or in crowds involving men at least old enough to be my father. People rarely look directly at one another here, and I noticed a couple of years ago that I’d become especially invisible to youth. Yet, during the walk from the station back home, the streets mostly empty, I passed a group of teen girls who also gazed directly at me, some even smiling, their youth and beauty a glorious and glowing proof against the heat dragging at my own less elastic flesh.

The absurd heat, somehow, seemed to be making people real to one another in ways this city (“black and cold like a piece of lead,” yes) has managed to mostly damp down. Indeed, everything and everyone seemed to me almost too alive, too persistently there for either comfort or safety. There seemed too little space between me and those near me, with the air holding us all so violently against its feverish, monstrous body.

Further along, closer to home but still not nearly close enough: A little girl standing on her bleached lawn holding a wilting pink balloon; an older man, slow in gait and singing something low and mysterious, like a hymn, as he passed; the crickets or frogs singing their own wild praise song in small thickets of forest buried in the dry and dusty urban grid. Perhaps we are none of us ever more alive than in this dangerous, blazing heat, when existence feels like an affliction that also, somehow, drags us up and out towards something eternal, something terrible that cannot be looked upon, but can’t be looked away from either.


One day last week, or maybe it was the week before, I remembered what it was like to feel at home in summertime. I remembered how summer can seem like a soft and caressing memory of itself as I happily swung (on a swing set!) side-by-side with a good friend whose youngest son was playing nearby; I was reminded of how the sun can, sometimes and somewhere, feel like a gentle kiss on the cheek.

Yet, while I can rationally perceive that summer is now, in fact, finally slinking away, it is still close enough to feel mostly like a vendetta that can no longer be outrun, or like some old and shameful debt that must be paid now, though all the coffers are empty.


4 Comments Add yours

  1. That piece is a knockout, Colleen: rich poetic prose that manages not to be excessive. I wrote a poem once about a hot August in downtown Baltimore and might well have taken a few tropes from you had this been to hand.

    I’ve been missing your posts and am glad to see you back

    1. Colleen says:

      Thank you kindly!

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