A Cli-Fi Short Story By Edward L. Rubin
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Edward Rubin is Professor of Law and Political Science at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. He is the author of an academic book titled Soul, Self, and Society: The New Morality and the Modern State.
COPYRIGHT 2020 (C)
PUBLISHING HISTORY FOR HIS FIRST NOVEL:
TEXT OF SHORT STORY:
When the impending heatwave was announced, with a warning that people
should plan to stay inside their homes for at least a week, my first
thought was that this would be an opportunity to move in with Dahlia.
Given her health problem, she was likely to need help. Then I realized
it was weird that my immediate reaction to a climatological disaster
was that it would provide me with an opportunity to get laid. But
this flash of self-conscious irony lasted only a few seconds, and I
went back to thinking about Dahlia.
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 show up 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 could 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 thought, 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 and 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, 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
With the supplies safely deposited in my apartment, 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 down the street, 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 my 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
"Hard to say. We don't really know how bad it will be or how long it
"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 after she undid all three
door locks, we went in.
"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 a lot 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
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 insistence on
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 sitting enthralled and
watching as the wheel spun and shapeless lumps of clay morphed into
graceful containers between her quickly moving hands.
My own work for Smith Mandeville 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 in 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 "Wow, you were 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 a number of restaurants within a few
blocks walk 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
all the stages of our love-making. 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
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
"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, lots of 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 I 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 gloom
that our typically shadowed Manhattan windows offered in the absence
of electric light. I wasn't sure what to do other than sitting beside
her and attempting 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. 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. Dahlia assured me that she was all
right, and in fact managed the walk without more than the expected
amount of discomfort. As we proceeded, I cautioned myself to be
generally friendly and avoid trying to prove that I was smarter or
wittier than Richard Davis. The apartment was in a newly built
high-rise building. 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 through the rooms that had been
designated for the party, from the dining room where the food was laid
out and conversations tended to begin, to the living room where they
continued in small groups. 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
"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
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 around. 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
it, and missed. The person – I could see his head now through the
window pane -- suddenly seized my hand 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.”
“There must be so many people out there in the heat—they must be
dying. Maybe we should have let him in.”
“Are you crazy,” I shouted. “That guy was getting ready to kill us.”
But she kept crying and her gasping increased. “Maybe not ---- maybe,
maybe he was just desperate. Maybe we could have helped him – saved
his life or something.”
I was tempted to start shouting again, but I restrained myself. I
could see that she was deeply upset.
“Look, Dahlia, even if he was just trying to find an air-conditioned
place and some food, we certainly couldn’t trust a complete stranger?
What would happen at night while we slept? Anyway, most of the
restaurants are closed now, and we don’t have all that much food.
We’re going to need it for ourselves.”
“I know. It just seems so terrible. And I think you really hurt him.”
“I didn’t know what else to do.”
When I called 911 to report the incident, I got a recording giving a
number to call if I wanted to arrange for pickup of a cadaver, and
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.
I expected her to calm down after a while but her gasping continued,
and she finally told me that the stress had triggered an attack of her
“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
“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 certainly 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 bicycle 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 – it was actually just a block or two further from us than
Karen’s apartment. 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 was in fact
quite 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
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, “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 building were closed, and through the ones that had
glass fronts I could see groups of armed security guards standing in
The heat was brutal. Because First Avenue was 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
careful of the broken glass. I was drenched with sweat by this time,
and very tired; my legs felt like they were made of wet 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, about my age, with
dark, pulled back hair and large round glasses.
“Is Dr. Greenspan available?” I asked, in a voice that shocked me with
“No, he’s at the hospital,” she answered. “Are you Dahlia’s
boyfriend?” I nodded, feeling pleased, in the midst of my discomfort,
that she 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 I woke up
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 simply 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 brick s 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 Professor of Law and Political Science at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. He is the author of an academic book titled Soul, Self, and Society: The New Morality and the Modern State.
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