Each Houston summer, I experience this deal I call Reverse SAD. You might have just read that and thought, Oh, this dude gets happy in the summer. He must like ice cream, and the feeling of burning sand between his toes, and swamp-ass. But no, I do not like those things, and I do not revel in our Houston summertime (roughly April through Thanksgiving) or in this feeling of being the brisket inside the barbecue smoker.
SAD stands for Seasonal Affective Disorder, a term used by people up north—meaning anyone living above the Grand Parkway—to refer to the blues brought on by the cold weather and, I guess, too much time spent indoors re-optimizing their Netflix queue. Reverse SAD is my term and I use it to refer to my annual experience of mild depression brought on by our lengthening Houston summers.
I catch Reverse SAD from car interiors hot enough to bubble dashboards, from sidewalks reflecting sunlight bright enough to scorch retinas, from Air Conditioning Overdose—that low-level late-afternoon back-of-the-skull brain-ache. And I get Reverse SAD from my children being out of school and underfoot, or hanging from my shoulders, and everyday playing a game of 20(thousand) Questions.
Which is why, yesterday, I ventured down the Gulf Freeway and deposited my contributions (Boy: age 7, Girl: age 3) to the expanding population of Houston at Grandma’s House. After lugging a dresser and a bed frame and some shelves around my childhood home (rearranging is Grandma’s favorite pastime) as childcare payment, I then hustled back into the city to spend a summer day with my bride. Well, first I had to burn a few hours by cleaning the kitchen and the toilets and power napping while my beloved fought the Working-Mom-in-Grad-School fight. But then out we went, at 9:30pm and 93 degrees Fahrenheit, to enjoy the lone comfortable activity available on a Houston Night: watching a movie.
One way to treat Reverse SAD is to sit in an overlarge dark air-conditioned room and watch people as they live elsewhere. To double yourself, to exist here in our damp heat, but image yourself out there, elsewhere, anywhere. On the movie screen, I saw handsome men drive convertibles through the sunshine without heat stroking, beautiful women stroll through midday without liquefying onto the sidewalk, a child sit outside and read a book without sweating through the pages. It was people doing the impossible: being, outside. Eventually the flick ended in some white-hot violence: a dog chewed through a home invader’s pants and into his genitals and his partner got blow-torched. Good child free fun.
On the way home, a bit stunned after witnessing all that gentle sunshine and outdoor comfort, the wifeness and I stopped for post-movie talk and a few doses of Reverse SAD medication: ice cold booze.
I found the neon lights of our neighborhood spot and edged our car into the tiny parking lot. I threaded our front bumper between two rows of half-tons, and then I braked and backed us toward an open slot. As I reversed the car, I noticed a man slumped on the asphalt across the way, holding his head in his hands, while a pair of his friends stood over him, looking helpless and worried. Without immediately realizing why, I found the scene to be both deeply familiar and wildly out-of-context. I parked the car and got out, and just like at the movies, I was doubled. I became two people: I remained this me out here after midnight with my wife going for a drink, but for a moment, also, as I eyed the grounded man’s posture and his breathing and the relative low-level anxiety of his friends flitting around the parking lot, and I slid into other me, the me who has worked a decade as a paramedic and firefighter and who has witnessed the routine violent outbursts of summertime after dark.
Reverse SAD plays out differently at night. During the daylight, Reverse SAD might cause you to overheat and stare listlessly at a blank spot on the wall until your brain cools down, but after dusk, the results get more social and hot-tempered. Also I’ve found that an awareness of Reverse SAD is no help, at least for me. Despite my experiences treating the condition’s symptoms, the bullet holes and the stab wounds and the broken noses and the tire-splintered femurs, I remain susceptible.
A few summers back, when my son was very small, I put him to bed and went out to pick up Chinese takeout. My wife stayed at the house being amazing. Most likely she was folding clothes and offering sage DM advice to her younger sisters and pumping breast milk so I could feed our son while she worked the following day. That’s my memory of her and those days.
I got to the takeout spot and nabbed a parking place right out front. It was hot and dark and damp out, and I went inside to fetch the General Tso and the Chow Fun. There are four TVs above the bar inside there, and I always make a game of seeing how fast I can guess the titles of all four movies running. I’m real good at this game that I play alone and in my head. This night, I won again and they called my name for the order, and out the door I went, passing another dude in the process.
Outside, I found my car blocked in by an all-white SuperDuty, a four-door luxury ride with the extended side view mirrors and the dually tires in back. Dude had parked his rig in the driving aisle, up behind the rear bumper of my cheap foreign sedan, as opposed to driving a half-block away and locating a legit parking location.
I had spent the afternoon indoors babble-talking to my son, reading to him about construction trucks, dancing him to records, throwing toy trains across the kitchen floor, just doing any damn thing to pass another 100-degree day in Houston. I was hungry and restless and charged up a bit from being out in the world without the responsibilities of parenthood. I climbed in the car, placed the food on the passenger seat, and executed a textbook nine-point reversing u-turn around the SuperDuty.
Dude was pissed. He came barreling out the door, cursing and spitting and inviting me to play a different game. I got clear of his truck without making contact, and then I rolled down my window. I tried to explain that he was in the wrong, that we live in a society with rules about where to park and where to drive, but mostly I cursed and spit. He dared me to get out of the car, and I told myself that if he moved closer, if he crossed over the curb, then I would get out and we’d see what’s up. But as soon as the thought landed, I felt foolish. I thought about my son at home in his crib, about our plans to walk over to the park early the next morning before the slides and swings got too hot to ride.
I rolled up the window and drove off, feeling like two people. I felt ashamed for escalating a laughable situation, for nearly fighting over nothing and, also, equally, I felt weak. I imagined myself a coward for failing to match Dude’s aggressiveness. One version of me knew I’d taken the right road, by driving off, and that no matter what happened, had I gotten out of the car, I’d have lost. But the me that is susceptible to Reverse SAD, the me who thrilled at my father and his buddies taunting visiting fans in the Astrodome parking lot, the me who came up watching church leaders concealed-carry under their Sunday best, would not be convinced, and for weeks whenever I passed by that spot I tortured myself with his/my voice.
In the parking lot after the movie, the man sitting on the ground mopped sweat off his scalp and shook his head and answered questions from his friends. He wasn’t down there doing pushups, but it was clear, as my wife and I shut the doors of our car, that the whole scene lacked the mass panic and distress and blood loss of a Knifing or Gun Incident.
Behind us, the other fighter, the winner I guess, stomped about and hollered and cursed. He looked like nothing more than my 3-year-old after I tell her to stop hitting her brother. He was unsatisfied with his victory, unwilling to take the W, he was languishing in Reverse SAD. A barman—the smallest man out there—walked him across the parking lot and insisted he take his ass someplace else. It was impressive, the barman’s composure, his remove, his ability to see violence ended.
I went inside to the bar and waited. Inside everyone’s blood was up and they talked loudly. I watched my wife choose us a seat out on the patio and light a cigarette. An HFD pumper and ambulance rolled up, sirens off and lights flashing. The same barman from the parking lot entered. He came around the bar and he washed and dried his hands, and he asked how he could help me.
Jacob Rutherford lives works and writes in Houston.
For more from our Summer Stories Collection