Monday, May 08, 2006

Random thoughts on air conditioning

Kay and I once lived in a shack on Onion Creek which had neither air conditioning in the summer nor much in the way of heat during the winter, nor insulation at any time of year, and the roof leaked. It was not a comfortable existence. While we lived there we would commonly sweat through the sheets during the sweltering summer nights. On the other hand, we often wore coats inside during winter days while sitting close to the only space heater.

Despite the harsh terms of creekside existence, it turned out to be a happy time for us. The view was beautiful and life there took on a certain vividness it had seemed to lack during our previous preoccupations with things less real than weather and the threat of rising water.

But the sojourn on the creek was intended as a financial recovery move—the shack came to us more or less free, and given that we were renting out our house in town and had almost no expenses living by the creek, we were soon out of debt, and a time arrived when we left the shack for good. We bought a house nearby.

Several years after that, in September 2001, Kay got sick with leukemia, and died 8 ½ months later. During her illness we moved temporarily back into town to a small place offered us by a friend. It was convenient to the hospital. It wasn’t much bigger than the shack on the creek, but had some amenities. It had window air conditioners.

Kay died in May, 2002 just as it was getting really hot in Austin.

The night she died, after I got home from the hospital, I turned off the air conditioners. I didn’t turn them on again the rest of the summer. I opened the windows and bought a couple of small electric fans. There was also a ceiling fan. The ceiling fan had 2 noises, one like a dog panting and making its tags jingle, and the other like the metabolically extravagant frantic knockknock heartbeat of a small high-temperature mammal. Complicated fan rhythms orbited around one another in extended planetary cycles all night. I grew familiar with them.

I wanted to feel like I was in a real world. The heat and the epicycles of fan sounds reminded me I wasn’t dreaming, and seemed to connect me again to life as we shared it on the creek.

During the summer after she died I thought there would be a point where absence goes from a sense of “she’s missing” to a final sense of “she’s gone”. It’s the point where I imagined she would become a memory instead of a presence. But now, four years later, I find that what has happened is that I pass back and forth over that boundary daily. The four years seem to prove that forever and yesterday and now can unpredictably occupy the same moments.

Last night when watching a Woody Allen movie that I wasn’t particularly engaged with, I realized, without expecting to, that it was the fourth anniversary of the last movie Kay and I ever watched together, another movie I didn't pay much attention to. I can’t even remember the title now, or much about it. Seems like I should. Kay was very ill. We just held hands. Four days later she was dead.

In the fall after Kay's death my daughter and I moved back to the house we had been living in before Kay's illness. It’s quite a pleasant house to live in, though this comes at a price. A contemporary house has some things in common with a sensory deprivation tank. You can't hear what's going on outside, and the temperature is the same all year long. That’s fine during the day, say when I am washing clothes or sweeping the floor or sitting in front of a computer screen, but sometimes during the night I get up and sleep till morning in the hammock on the back porch, where it’s hot and I can hear the noises of the night.

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