Today is my 45th birthday, and coincidentally the hottest day in Seattle’s recorded history. I spent most of the past three days smoldering in front of a fan with a package of frozen blueberries on my chest. Like most people in Seattle, accustomed to temperate weather, I do not have air conditioning. Even the fan had only been ordered on a whim the week before. Now I find myself getting up in the middle of the night to soak my feet in cool bathwater in an effort not to die of heat stroke.
Last week I flew back to Texas to visit my parents for the first time in a year and a half. We were all finally vaccinated, so it seemed like it would be safe enough to make the trek. I sat on various planes inevitably surrounded by obnoxious families and inwardly fumed at their seeming inability to pull their face masks over their respective noses.
My mother picked me up from the airport in her white, Jeep Cherokee. I was in my customary black, face mask and all, a hold-over from my erstwhile goth phase.
I looked into my mother’s face, at the lines beside her mouth and eyes, the loose flesh of her neck, her thin, gray hair. She was starting to look like an old lady.
“Your beard is going totally gray.” She said, when I took off my mask. She quickly added, “but that’s okay!” And I realized she was just as unsettled by my own aging.
Back at my parent’s house, my mother warned me to always shake out my shoes before putting them on because the place had been overrun by scorpions after recent, heavy rain.
“I’ve already killed six,” she said, with some pride.
I looked around warily for any predatory arachnids scuttling across the floor.
The week passed as weeks with my parents usually do. I sat, watching marathons of HGTV and My 600lb Life. I watched people buy five bedroom mansions in Mississippi for less than I’d paid for a tiny, one bedroom condo in Seattle. I ate way too much and vowed that once I get back to Seattle I’m giving up sugar and carbs.
One evening I went out with my mom and aunts for Mexican food at a place in Madisonville, Texas with a giant, fiberglass horse out front. I watched as they gossiped and complained about how long it took the wait staff to take our order. Considering the abundance of Karen haircuts, I shouldn’t have been surprised at the constant grousing. My extended family are largely Trump supporters who believe that Covid is a hoax, so I prepared myself for an off handed comment that would make my head explode. Luckily the conversation remained apolitical. I had a watermelon margarita which helped soothe my frazzled nerves. When the meal ended, I added a bit extra to the meager tip they’d left as an apology to the beleaguered waitress.
The next evening I stumbled upon a scorpion skittering across my bedroom floor. I searched for something to clobber it with, and the only thing nearby was my mothers bookshelf, so I ended up repeatedly slamming a romance novel on top of it. My mother quietly came in and scooped the squashed corpse up with a paper towel.
One day my mother and I drove to the cemetery where my grandparents, and now two uncles, are buried. Another uncle, not much older than my mom, is in poor health and is suffering from dementia. I watch my mom throughout the week for any signs of memory loss or personality changes, but thankfully saw none. My big fear is that she’ll end up like my grandmother and I’ll have to move back to Texas to take care of her. The cemetery was too hot, so we didn’t stay long. My mother left some food scraps beside the far fence for stray dogs, and then we drove back down the narrow dirt road, a white cloud of dust billowing out behind us.
The town that I grew up in has become a ghost town. Even the few remaining stores and restaurants that were still around on my last trip have mostly closed. It is sad to see the derelict buildings crumbling in the Texas sun. As we drove to a nearby town to fill her truck with gas, my mother conducted a tour of our surroundings. She pointed out dilapidated buildings surrounded by rusting old junk cars, overgrown with weeds. I try to imagine the thriving small town of her childhood, but it’s impossible. It was already well into its decline when I came along.
On my last night, my dad arrived. He’d been off at work in Oklahoma and couldn’t get off. It was nice spending the week with just my mom. My father always adds an energy and tension to my visits.
“You should retire and come back home,” my mother told him. “And you should move back too,” she said, turning to me. “You wouldn’t even have to work. You could just watch TV all day.” My father and I both just stand in the kitchen guiltily. If it weren’t for my parents, I’d never set foot in Texas again, and the thought of living in a tiny, dying town is the worst fate I can imagine.
The next morning they drove me to the airport and I did my best to not seem too eager to be leaving. But as soon as we had hugged goodbye and my mom and implored me one last time to stay in Texas, and my back was to them, I felt an immense relief to return to my life in Seattle.
Now I’m back, and 45, and wilting in unaccustomed heat. My mother and father each called to wish me happy birthday. Sassy Bear sent a series of disturbing gifs. Otherwise the day is passing unremarked. I guess deleting Facebook has done a lot to leave me off the radar of my friends.
I took the day off work before I knew about the heatwave. Otherwise I may have gone into the office to spend the day in air conditioned splendor. Instead I sit in my living room in front of a fan. I bought a portable AC online, in case these high temperatures become more normal. I also bought a new laptop for myself, because I’m middle aged, with no children and a disposable income.
I’m ambivalent about being 45, so steadfastly fixed into middle age. Some days I feel like the same man I was in my early twenties, uncertain, romantic, full of dreams. Others I feel cynical, tired, old.
My birthday always coincides with with Pride. I ventured out to pick up takeout, and was surprised that so many people were out, sweating in the outdoor seating. There were no parades or booths, but it was heartening to see the young people clad in rainbows, making the best of things. I do my best to follow their lead, smiling in my too short shorts. A smile beneath a mask that no one sees, but that I know is there nevertheless.