I didn’t know what her health problem was, only that she had one. She’d announced the fact on our second date, as a warning that it was something I should be aware of before we became more involved with each other, but she said she didn’t want to tell me the details until we knew each other better. “Better” had apparently not yet arrived, in her opinion. As a result, she had managed to maintain a simultaneous sense of enticing vulnerability and impenetrable mystery. This, plus her liquid brown eyes, rounds breasts and shapely legs, had me going crazy over her.
My sense of Dahlia was that she would only accept my offer to move in with her if it appeared spontaneous. This, I realized, would require careful planning. The best strategy would be to appear at her apartment as if the thought of moving in to help her had occurred to me when I was passing by for some other purpose. So I couldn’t show up with the supplies that we might need — I could bring them only after she had agreed to my proposal. But that might be too late. New York City’s streets are lined with stores selling just about every product a human being can possibly desire, but its residences rise an average of twenty or twenty-five stories, and all those towering tiers of competitive urbanites would be pouring down to ground level with the same thought of securing items that might run short during a crisis. I would have to get the stuff right away and make my spontaneous appearance at Dahlia’s apartment later.
The best way to transport supplies, I figured, was to take a wheeled suitcase. My apartment, as it happened was above average — on the thirty seventh floor — and I had to wait several minutes for the elevator, which I took to be a sign that people were already reacting to the news. I rode down with several worried looking neighbors, and we nodded warily at one another. Sure enough, the grocery stores were already jammed, and I could see lines of irate-looking customers forming at the cash registers in the nearby Gristedes.
My first stop was Citibank, on the theory that heat would not affect the value of American currency, and I withdrew $9,900. Then I proceeded along Second Avenue, going into candy and convenience stores to buy protein or superfood bars, which would provide nourishment without requiring preparation or refrigeration. One place was already sold out and the next had only half a dozen left. Then I found a convenience store that had an entire rack, but the man behind the counter told me that he would only sell five at a time because he didn’t want to disappoint any of his regular customers. “Does that rule apply to the ones that sell for fifteen dollars each?” I asked him. It seemed to me that his eyes actually glinted, and he answered smoothly that there was no limit on those particular items. There were fifty-eight, as it turned out, so after paying the largest grocery bill of my life, I proceeded down the avenue.
On the next block, there was a camping and recreation store whose window featured a variety of flannel and Gore-tex garments, but it occurred to me that they might have backpack food. Sure enough, there was a display of protein bars, trail mix, and various freeze-dried concoctions such as pasta primavera and chicken teriyaki with rice. Since the storekeeper apparently didn’t regard these items as essential to his customer base, I bought them all, plus two large flashlights and some extra batteries. After I paid, a quick realization sent me back into the store and I also bought two inflatable children’s wading pools. By now my suitcase was full, so I hauled it back up the avenue to my apartment building, past people staggering along with bags of groceries, and one woman in front of a convenience store yelling at a young couple that it was unfair of them to buy out all the baby food.
Once the supplies were safely deposited, I took the subway down to SoHo and walked up to Dahlia’s apartment, which was on the second floor of a renovated industrial building. No one was home. Had she left town? Did she have friends or family outside the Northeast, where the warnings said that the heatwave would be worst? I had no idea — the truth was that I really didn’t know her very well. Unwilling to give up, I found the nearest Starbucks, which was three buildings away from hers, bought the New York Times and read through the entire first section while downing two grandé cappuccinos. Then I returned to her apartment and tried again, but there was still no answer. Back on the street now, I had to decide whether to go back to Starbucks, have dinner at some trendy restaurant nearby, or retreat to my apartment for the night and return tomorrow. Then I saw her coming up the block. I met her halfway, armed with the dialogue I had rehearsed.
“Hi Dahlia. I was down here picking something up and I thought I’d stop by and see if you needed help, since I guess we’re going to have a killer heatwave.”
“That’s really nice of you.”
“Do you have supplies?”
“You think I need them? Won’t there still be food deliveries to the grocery stores?”
“Hard to say. We don’t really know how bad it will be or how long it will last.”
“Wow, I hadn’t thought of that.”
“I hadn’t either until I realized I was in your neighborhood. Will the heat affect your health?”
By now we had reached her apartment, and we went in together.
“Actually,” she said, “I hadn’t thought about that either.”
“Dahlia, I’m concerned about you. This could be a pretty dangerous situation.”
“What do you suggest?” she asked, looking directly into my eyes. I returned her gaze. “I’m suggesting that I should move in with you. Let me pick up some things that you might need, and then I’ll stay here to help you out until the situation is resolved.”
“Won’t that be inconvenient for you, Mason?”
“No. All I need are my clothes and my laptop.”
At my apartment, I packed precisely those items plus some toiletries into a second suitcase and wheeled the two into the elevator and back outside. My inclination was to hail a cab or phone Uber, but I could see that the streets had become jammed with people fleeing from the city. Traffic on Second Avenue had come to a halt, and a cacophonic medley of honking horns was rising from the congealed mass of cars, trucks and taxis that filled the Avenue in both directions. It had been a hot summer already, with temperatures regularly above 100 degrees, and the news that it was going to get hotter had obviously created a sense of panic. So I lugged my two suitcases down the steps into the subway, up the steps at the Spring Street station, through five blocks of oppressive heat, and then up the stairs to Dahlia’s apartment where I arrived, contrary to my plans, drenched in sweat.
But my disheveled condition elicited sympathy rather than disgust from lovely Dahlia. “Wow, you look miserable,” she said putting a graceful arm around my waist. “Sit down and relax. You’ve gone to a lot of trouble for me.”
“I hope it will turn out to be unnecessary,” I said as I started unpacking.
“Protein bars are a great idea,” she said. “Sometimes I live on them anyway when I’m working on a project.” I carried them into her kitchen and stowed them in the cabinets, which I was reassured to see were fairly well supplied with pasta and canned vegetables.
“What are those for?” she asked when she saw the inflatable pools.
“Well, I thought we could use your bicycle pump to inflate them and then fill them from the tap in case the water supply fails.”
“How did you think of that? I’m impressed.”
No answer that would sound appropriately modest occurred to me, so I simply gave a self-deprecating shrug.
Next day, as predicted, the heat descended. Despite her desire for spontaneity, it turned out — to my relief — that Dahlia was a person of regular habits, and our life together fell into a pattern. During the day, we each did our work. Dahlia was a sculptor; the apartment consisted of a large studio with a kitchen, bedroom, bathroom and study carved out of what had previously been an open industrial space. She sold some of her work and had achieved a measure of success in the New York art world, although not enough to afford an apartment of this size, which I assumed was being subsidized by her parents.
Her sculptures consisted of clay constructions two or three feet high and vaguely organic in shape, which she painted with swirling colors and then fired in a kiln. They left me cold, but I knew enough about the tropes of artistic analysis to move beyond perfunctory approval — which would obviously have been unconvincing — and comment sagely about the balance of the piece, the way it controlled space, and the variations in its surface texture. She never made these sculptures on a potter’s wheel, but she had a wheel in the studio and used it to produce functional items, such as vases, bowls and coffee mugs, for her friends. The speed and precision with which she could do this was remarkable, and I often found myself watching her enthralled as the wheel spun and shapeless lumps of clay morphed into useful containers between her quickly moving hands.
My own work for Smith Ricardo Consulting centered on statistical predictions of the potential demand for new products that various companies were planning to introduce, and on advertising strategies that could be used to generate increased demand. It was based on empirical surveys, but I didn’t carry out the surveys. I made use of ones that had already been done, or ordered new ones. This meant, as I had told Dahlia, that all I needed was my laptop. In fact, since my most recent promotion, I had been spending an increasing amount of time at home, where I could do my work in a T-shirt and shorts, at odd hours, and at my own pace. In this process, I felt a vague sense of resentment toward the time designations on the email and Word programs. When I emailed preliminary findings to my team members or the VP in the middle of the night, I would invariably get back answers with bemused or fatuous comments like “Well, you’ve been up late,” or “Suffering from insomnia again?” or “Are you a vampire?” When I revised someone else’s work, the Word program recorded the time of each revision, which not only elicited similar comments, but also documented my ADHD-driven need to get up every hour to stretch my legs or get a drink or take a piss. Now however, I realized that a compensating feature for this temporal surveillance was spatial anonymity. As far as anyone knew, I was ensconced in my apartment, working assiduously through the heatwave, rather than living in a SoHo studio with a girl who made ceramic sculptures.
Most of the City’s restaurants stayed open for dinner during the first week of the heatwave, although as time went on the number of items that were “no longer available” increased and the “catch of the day” disappeared. Since there were lots of restaurants within a few blocks of Dahlia’s apartment, we were able to go out to dinner every night with relatively limited exposure to the suffocating air, and thus preserve her pasta and my protein bars. We had sex when we returned to the apartment after dinner. Dahlia was so creative that I assumed she devoted a considerable amount of time during the day to planning, but I knew better than to ask her. Once she filled the room with lighted candles, another time she put a flashlight in the middle of one of her own sculptures so it projected serpentine images onto the ceiling. She left the room one night and returned in a floor-length, virtually transparent dress, which she kept on through our various activities. Sometimes, she engaged in elaborate and languid foreplay, but once she lay back immediately, spread her arms, and whispered “Take me.”
Of course, both our cell phones regularly rang with anxious queries from our families and friends about the heatwave. Unlike the usual call from distant people elicited by news reports of various disasters, these could not be answered by dismissive reassurance (“No, the tornado didn’t affect me . . . Yes, Rochester is in New York State, but it’s a long way from Manhattan”). The heatwave really did affect the entire Northeast. It was necessary to go into considerable detail about the quality of our air conditioner, the continuation of the water supply, our consumption of sufficient quantities of salt, and innumerable other matters. In the course of our amused or bewildered reactions to these calls, I learned the basic facts about Dahlia’s family that — for some reason — I hadn’t wanted to ask.
Unfortunately, this information was also the cause of our first real fight. It turned out that Dahlia’s maternal grandmother, who was Italian, and her maternal grandfather, who was a German Catholic, had moved to the U.S. during the Depression and had three children. Dahlia’s mother married a Lutheran man whose family had originally come from Sweden. They converted to Methodism and were regular church-goers, but since they had moved from Missouri to Philadelphia when her father’s antiques store failed, they sent Dahlia to a Quaker school, which meant that most that most of her friends growing up were Jews. “So as you can see,” she explained, “I’ve got a lot of ethnicity.”
“Seems to me that you don’t have any ethnicity,” I answered.
“What do you mean? Everyone has ethnicity.”
“No they don’t. Beyond a certain point, people get homogenized. Their family background just doesn’t play a big role in their lives, which is certainly the case with me.”
“That’s ridiculous. Do you really think that you can reason your way out of your ethnic background?”
“I didn’t say anything about reason.”
“You’re always saying things about reason. Everything you say is about reason.”
She was getting pretty angry, although I wasn’t sure why. I’d begun the conversation because I thought I could make a connection between our family experiences, but it didn’t seem to be working out very well. Maybe I was wrong about her lack of ethnicity, but I was convinced about my own. My ancestry, to the extent that I knew anything about it, had meandered through so many different European nations and American hyphenations that it had sounded like the answers to a junior high school quiz. But rather than trying to prove the point to Dahlia, I thought it best to drop the entire subject.
A matter of greater concern to me was Richard Davis. His name had come up several times already, often in connection with some idea that Dahlia found illuminating. After this, I became aware that she mentioned him often when talking to Karen Schwab, a friend from high school who lived a few blocks away. These flashes of apparent admiration on her part were sufficient, when fueled by my own incendiary mixture of hormones and self-doubt, to induce a steady burn of jealousy. I was living with Dahlia, but I now began to be concerned that it was the result of a stratagem, and that there was an essential part of her that I could never reach — the part that responded to the absent Richard Davis.
Two weeks after I had moved in, Dahlia told me that Karen Schwab was having a party the next day and asked me if I wanted to go with her. I agreed immediately, convinced that Richard Davis would be there and anxious to figure out the nature of my competition. On the morning of the party, both our cell phones lit up with an announcement that there would be a “strategic brownout” in two hours due to excessive stress on the electrical supply. Dahlia immediately became anxious and nothing I said seemed able to reassure her. When the electricity went off, there was a disconcerting silence that made me realize how habituated I had become to the steady hum of the air conditioning and the refrigerator. The heat began to insinuate itself into our refuge almost immediately, accentuated rather than diminished by the gloomy illumination that our typically shadowed Manhattan windows offered in the absence of electric lighting. I wasn’t sure what to do other than sit beside her and attempt to distract her. After a while, I brought her a cold drink although the announcement warned us not to open the refrigerator during the brownout. She took some pills and that seemed to help, but her labored breathing and tense, faraway expression continued until the lights flashed back on and the machinery resumed its reassuring whirr.
The party was scheduled for nine o’clock, which meant ten-thirty, but it was still appallingly hot as we walked the few blocks to Karen’s apartment on Houston Street. On the way, we passed by a woman and her daughter, both disheveled-looking, who were sitting on the sidewalk, leaning against the brick wall of a building, with a sign that said “No Air Conditioning. Can’t stay in our Apt.”
“We should help them” Dahlia said.
I agreed, pulled a twenty dollar bill out of my wallet, and walked over. Then, after glancing back at Dahlia, I took out a second twenty, handed them both to the woman, and walked back with a sense of satisfaction.
“I don’t think that will help them very much,” she said. “Maybe we should let them come and live with us. We have room.”
“Are you kidding? We have no idea who they are. They could steal stuff from us, or let in some other people who would steal stuff, or maybe kill us while we were asleep.”
“I know. Lots of people are. It’s a bad situation. But that’s all the more reason why we can’t endanger ourselves.”
We walked on in silence until we reached Karen’s building, a newly-built high rise, and took the elevator up to her apartment. As we entered, I cautioned myself to be generally friendly and avoid trying to prove that I was smarter or wittier than Richard Davis. There were about a dozen people there already, and an equal number arrived shortly after we did.
I knew it would be a mistake to hover over Dahlia, so after I was introduced to Karen, I circulated from the dining room where the food was laid out and conversations tended to begin, to the living room where they continued in small clusters. The guests, not surprisingly, were a cross section of Karen’s life: some high school friends, like Dahlia, some friends from her college, which was Bryn Mar, one from the University of Chicago Law School and several from her current law firm. There were also some people, indistinguishable from the remainder of the guests, who knew Karen from the ashram she attended. Richard Davis turned out to be the seventy-five year-old Buddhist monk who was the leader of the ashram. I ended up talking to one of the Buddhists, a remarkably good-looking man my own age named Julian. When I told him my connection to Dahlia, he immediately informed me, for some reason, that he was gay and in a stable relationship with “the guy over there pigging out on the hummus.” Dahlia had seemed interested in Buddhism, he told me, but disinclined to make any sort of commitment.
“What about you,” I asked. “Do you really believe that people are re-incarnated as animals or other people?”
“I do,” he answered, smiling. “That pretty much comes with the territory. But of course you never remember anything about your prior lives.”
“Then what difference can it make? I guess my view is that if there’s no evidence for something, then there’s no point in believing it.”
“Well, the idea is that the knowledge makes a difference in the way you live your present life.”
“And how is that?”
“It’s a perspective. It helps you to get control of your ego and dampen down your desires.”
I started to laugh. “I make a living trying to increase people’s desires,” I explained, and told him about my job. “So I guess we belong to rival firms.”
Julian laughed as well, then asked me, somewhat unexpectedly, if I enjoyed my work.
“It’s fine,” I answered. “I certainly like having the salary. Actually, though, as I think about it, what I like is being good at it. It’s complex, and I enjoy the fact that I can do it.”
To my mild surprise, Julian seemed to approve of my answer. He told me that he was a pediatrician and we proceeded to talk about what it meant to feel competent, and whether it was an intrinsically rewarding experience.
Suddenly, a woman screamed, then started crying and rushed out of the apartment. Her roommate had called to tell her that her dog had suddenly died. This wasn’t unusual — the heatwave had been particularly hard on dogs. But the woman’s obvious distress put a damper on the party, which broke up soon thereafter.
The next evening, after Dahlia and I had eaten a meal of pasta and protein bars at home, I told her how much I had enjoyed talking to Julian and that I was interested in hearing more about Richard Davis, for whom I now had genial feelings.
“Yes, Julian’s a good guy. Did you meet Aiden, his partner? He’s a good guy too.”
“Only at the end, when we were saying goodbye. So you know them from Richard Davis’ ashram?”
“Uh-huh. Karen got me into it, and I’ve been going over there with her. The people are really nice. And Richard’s very wise.”
“Julian told me that you hadn’t really gotten into it though – at least, not as much as he was hoping.”
“It’s interesting –very spiritual — but I just can’t see centering my life around it. There are too many other things I care about.”
“Yeah, Julian was telling me that the main point of it was to free yourself from desire. Somehow, that doesn’t seem very appealing – very desirable, you might say.”
Suddenly, a look of horror came over Dahlia’s face, and I thought that I had said the wrong thing.
“Someone’s at the window,” she gasped.
I spun around and saw a shadow flicker across one of the two windows that looked out on the alleyway at back. Then the glass shattered and a brown hand and forearm reached through the broken pane and started moving around, feeling for the window lock.
I just stared at the hand, watching with a sense of unreality as it moved. Then I realized I had to do something and I dashed into the kitchen, grabbed a chopping knife, and rushed back into the living room. The hand was undoing the lock. I ran to the window, slashed at the hand, and missed. The person – I could see his head now through the window pane — suddenly seized my arm at the wrist. I tried to twist free, but he was extremely strong and pinned my wrist against the window frame. With a rising sense of panic, I struggled to get away, then reminded myself to think rather than just reacting. The next moment, I simply took the knife out of my right hand with my left and plunged it into his forearm. There was a spray of blood into the room and a yell from outside the window. The hand and arm pulled back through the broken glass and then the man was gone, apparently having jumped or fallen from the window ledge.
My heart was pounding, but I felt triumphant as I turned around to look at Dahlia. She was gasping for breath, and tears were streaming down her face.
“You can relax,” I said. “We got rid of him.”
She could barely catch her breath. “That was awful,” she said.
“Yeah, but it could have been a lot worse. I’m glad you spotted him.”
“You really hurt him.”
“He was getting ready to kill us.”
“We don’t know that. There must be so many people out there in the heat—they must be dying. Like that woman and her daughter last night.”
She kept crying and her gasping increased. I was about to tell her how important it was for us to protect ourselves, but decided against it. I could see that she was deeply upset. After waiting a while, I called 911 to report the incident and got a recording giving a number to call if I wanted to arrange for pickup of a cadaver. Then was put on hold and never got through. So I gave up on the police and covered the broken pane with heavy plastic, taped it in place, and barred both windows by nailing up some wooden beams that Dahlia used to support her sculptures before firing them.
Once I had finished this task, I expected her to calm down. But her gasping continued, and she finally told me that the stress had triggered an attack of her condition.
“You’ve never told me what your health problem is.”
“It’s dilated cardiomyopathy.”
So there was the answer to her mystery. I had no idea what it meant. I was about to ask her, but decided that this wasn’t the time for an extended medical discussion.
“What can we do about it? Do you need to go to the emergency room?”
“I have a medicine that controls it if I have an attack, but I was running low before the heatwave and I used the rest of it when we had the brownout.”
“Do you have the prescription?”
“Yes, of course. I can start calling drugstores, but it’s not something they usually carry.”
“Well, let’s try. They’ll be lots of drugstores open, even now. This is New York.”
We started calling. In fact, most of the drugstores didn’t answer and the few that did acted like it was ridiculous to expect them to have a supply of her medicine on hand. I finally decided that the best option would be to get the prescription filled at a hospital and told her I would go to the nearest one.
“Won’t it be difficult to get there?” We had learned from news reports that the subways had stopped running because the rails had detached due to the heat, and that the streets were closed as a result of all the vehicles that people had abandoned when they had run out of gas during the traffic jams on the first day of the heatwave.
“No,” I answered, “Downtown Hospital is just a few blocks south. I’ll take your bike to save time.”
But when I went down to the basement of her building to get the bike, I saw that the tires had exploded from the heat. So I’d been feeling clever when I inflated the wading pools with her bicycle pump – in fact, the water supply showed no sign of failing – but I hadn’t thought about what would happen to the bike itself in an un-air conditioned basement. I went back upstairs, reported my lapse to Dahlia, but told her not to worry. I could easily walk to the Hospital. Dahlia’s expressions of concern for me only increased my motivation, and after telling her to lie down and try to stay calm, I set off.
As usual, the air was astonishingly hot, and I cautioned myself not to walk too quickly out of my sense of urgency. The distance really was pretty short, but when I reached the hospital I could see that something was wrong. There was a police barrier blocking the street that led to the emergency room entrance and the street itself was filled with police cars, tents, and two large trucks from the Hudson Meat Packing Company with signs draped over their sides that said “Temporary Morgue.” A policeman was standing just behind the barrier as I approached.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“The hospital’s closed.”
“What do you mean.? How can it be closed? What happens when people come here for emergencies?”
“What do you think? They go somewhere else.”
“Well, all I need is the pharmacy.”
“I told you, the hospital’s closed.”
“But I don’t need a bed, and I don’t even need a doctor. All I need is to get a prescription filled.”
“Are you deaf?”
“Listen, I’m just trying to explain to you that if the hospital can’t take any new patients, that’s certainly no reason why the pharmacy can’t fill a prescription.”
Instead of answering, he signaled to another policeman and put his hand on his nightstick.
“I want to talk to someone who’ll listen to reason. Where’s the officer in charge?”
By now the second policeman had come over, and a third was walking toward us.
“Step away from the barrier or you’ll be forcibly removed,” the first one said.
There was nothing I could do. Seething with anger, I trudged back to the apartment and explained the situation to Dahlia. Then I went on the net to find the nearest open hospital and learned, to my amazement, that Beth Israel, on 16th Street, and Bellevue, on 26th, were both closed as well, and that the nearest hospitals accepting patients were up by Columbia or in Queens.
“I’m not sure what to do, Dahlia,” I confessed. “I’m at a loss.”
“Well, let me call my cardiologist tomorrow morning. He’s connected with Beth Israel, so maybe he can work something out.”
It was a long night. Dahlia dozed fitfully a few times and I don’t think I slept at all. She told me that her condition resulted from a virus that she had caught when her parents had taken her to Nicaragua for a year so that they could do missionary work for the Methodist Church. They weren’t deeply religious, she explained, but her father thought he could buy silver jewelry cheaply in Nicaragua and re-sell it in his store. Her relationship with her parents had never been very good — they fought a lot and, as an only child, she felt lonely much of the time. But it became worse after she got ill. She resented them and they seemed intent on denying that the illness was their fault. They kept pushing her to become a doctor and disliked the idea that she was devoting herself to art. The money that enabled her to rent a spacious apartment and devote her time to sculpture didn’t come from them, but from an unmarried and presumably gay uncle who had died ten years ago.
These details, told to me intermittently and while she continued gasping, removed a lot of the mystery that had initially intrigued me about her, but that didn’t seem to matter much at this point. She hadn’t had a very good time growing up, it seemed, and I felt sorry for her.
When morning came, she called Dr. Greenspan, her cardiologist, at the earliest plausible time, which was seven-thirty. He got on the phone immediately and explained that he had never gone back to his home in New Jersey when the traffic jams began, but was staying at Bellevue Hospital and working around the clock to deal with the victims of the heatwave. He confirmed that Bellevue was closed to new patients, but said it didn’t matter; he had a supply of her medicine in his office and would gladly provide her with as much as she needed.
“Well, finally some good news,” I said, when she hung up and recounted the conversation to me, “He sounds like a good guy.”
“I’ll go right away and get the medicine.”
“But how will you get there? It’s up on First and Twenty-Third.”
“I’ll fucking walk, that’s how.”
Her expressions of concern only energized me. Grabbing some protein bars and two bottles of water, I ventured forth.
SoHo’s narrow streets were shaded by the buildings lining them, and although blocked by a few clusters of abandoned cars, didn’t look very different from their usual condition. But when I crossed Houston Street, just past Karen’s apartment building, and started walking up First Avenue, I saw that the City had become a different world. The Avenue was filled with abandoned cars and trucks. Many of them had been vandalized and the ground was covered with broken glass. A jagged pathway, presumably for emergency vehicles, had been cleared down the middle of the Avenue by some device that had shoved the cars against each other, with the result that a number of the them had ridden up onto the sidewalk. Nearly all the stores were closed, most by means of their metal security shutters, the remaining ones with heavy plywood that had been nailed into place. The doors to the larger apartment buildings were closed, and through the ones that had glass fronts I could see groups of armed security guards standing in the lobby.
The heat was brutal. Because First Avenue is wider and the morning more advanced, the sun was blazing directly down onto the sidewalk. I tried to stay in the shade of the buildings, but walking was cumbersome — I had to weave around the cars on the sidewalk and be watch out for the broken glass. I was drenched with sweat by this time, and very tired; my legs felt like they were made of clay. Hardly anyone was on the street, just a few isolated figures who moved furtively along the sidewalk, as if hoping that the heat wouldn’t notice them. At Fourteenth Street, there was a dead body lying on the sidewalk. It was an old woman, a street person judging from the condition of her clothes. She was drawn up in a fetal position, with her head throw back and her face looking blankly toward the sky.
Since twenty street blocks in Manhattan are a mile, the total distance from Dahlia’s apartment to Greenspan’s office was about a mile and a half, which I could ordinarily cover in thirty minutes or less. But even apart from the cluttered condition of the sidewalk, I found that I needed to stop to rest or drink some of the water every few blocks before I could get going again. The water was all gone and it seemed to me that I was staggering by the time I reached Twenty-Third Street. I saw the office right away; as Dahlia had described, it was on the ground floor of an apartment building and had a separate entrance. I heaved myself into the merciful air conditioning and approached the receptionist’s desk. She was a thin young woman, with dark, pulled back hair and large round glasses.
“Is Dr. Greenspan available?” I asked, in a voice that shocked me with its hoarseness.
“No, he’s at the hospital,” she answered. “Are you Dahlia’s boyfriend?” I nodded, feeling pleased, in the midst of my discomfort, that Dahlia describe me that way. “He left this for you,” she said, handing me a white paper bag. “You don’t need to pay anything.”
I turned to leave, clutching the precious bag.
“Wait,” she said, you can’t go right back outside. “I think you have heatstroke. You need to stay and rest.”
I turned back. “I guess I should. I should certainly fill up my water bottles, now that I think of it. But Dahlia really needs this medicine. She’s suffering.”
“You really love her, don’t you?”
“Yes, I do,” I answered. Suddenly, to my complete surprise, my eyes filled with tears.
“It’s okay. Look, I’ll fill the water bottles. You lie down on that couch until your core temperature comes down.”
I did what she said. As I felt the sweat drying and my body cooling off, I realized how much I needed rest. But I was too anxious to stay there – I had to get back. I struggled to my feet, thanked the receptionist with a choked voice, took my water bottles and set out again. After a few blocks, I realized I had made a mistake by leaving so soon. My feet were dragging and I felt like I was going to faint. All of a sudden I was afraid, for the first time I could remember, that my body would betray me, that it simply wouldn’t function and I would collapse onto the sidewalk. What would happen to me then? What would happen to Dahlia?
But I couldn’t bring myself to turn back – I had to go on. I remember very little of that walk, except that it seemed interminable. At one point, I started throwing up, although all I’d eaten since last night was one protein bar. My thoughts were jumbled and confused. I kept myself going by focusing on Dahlia’s apartment, on our time together and how welcome it would be to get back to there. It wasn’t until I turned into her street, at the place where I had made my overture to stay with her, that I felt sure that I would make it.
“Oh my God, Mason, you look awful,” she said when I burst in. I felt triumphant, but I desperately needed rest. The sympathy and gratitude with which she gazed at me assured me that I didn’t need to say or do anything more, so I just nodded, tossed the medicine onto the couch, dragged myself into the bedroom and collapsed.
I saw myself walking down a path with high brick walls on either side. It was extremely hot; the bricks themselves were radiating heat. Ahead of me the path narrowed and the bricks got hotter. I didn’t want to keep walking forward but I was unable to turn back. There was nothing else that I could do.
I woke up covered with sweat. The apartment was dark and the air was suffocating. After a few moments of panicked disorientation, I realized that there must have been another strategic brownout, or maybe a real power failure. I sensed that I’d slept a long time — obviously past sunset. Feeling a vague sense of unease, I struggled to my feet and called out Dahlia’s name. No answer. I hurried into the studio. The bottle of pills was on the low table in front of the couch. It was open and lying on its side, and some of the blue pills were scattered on the table. The apartment door was open. I saw Dahlia as soon as I went through it. She was sprawled out at the bottom of the staircase, her head surrounded by a pool of blood. Even before I reached her and lifted her limp arm to feel her pulse, I knew that she was dead.
I didn’t feel like calling the cadaver collection number. I sat down on the steps above her body and stared at her with a sense of desolation. Maybe she would be reborn, I thought. My efforts to save her, which had seemed heroic to me at the time, now seemed contrived and puerile. I envied her vulnerability, and in the grip of overwhelming sorrow, waited — with something akin to desire — for the stairway’s suffocating heat to choke the life out of me and lay me out beside her. But nothing happened – sleep had revived me. I was desperately uncomfortable but I was not debilitated. I realized that I would survive the heatwave, but I also realized that I would never be the same.
About the Author
Edward Rubin is University Professor of Law and Political Science at Vanderbilt University. He specializes in administrative law, constitutional law and legal theory.
He is the author of Soul, Self and Society: The New Morality and the Modern State (Oxford, 2015); Beyond Camelot: Rethinking Politics and Law for the Modern State (Princeton, 2005) and two books with Malcolm Feeley, Federalism: Political Identity and Tragic Compromise (Michigan, 2011) and Judicial Policy Making and the Modern State: How the Courts Reformed America’s Prisons (Cambridge, 1998).
In addition, he is the author of two casebooks, The Regulatory State (with Lisa Bressman and Kevin Stack) (2nd ed., 2013); The Payments System (with Robert Cooter) (West, 1990), three edited volumes (one forthcoming) and The Heatstroke Line (Sunbury, 2015) a science fiction novel about the fate of the United States if climate change is not brought under control.
Professor Rubin joined Vanderbilt Law School as Dean and the first John Wade–Kent Syverud Professor of Law in July 2005, serving a four-year term that ended in June 2009. Previously, he taught at the University of Pennsylvania Law School from 1998 to 2005, and at the Berkeley School of Law from 1982 to 1998, where he served as an associate dean.