The Summer of Lemons

Photo by Terrye Turpin

I moved into my first apartment in 1979. The place came with shag carpet striped in an acid trip rainbow of purple, green, and brown. By the time my roommate Ann and I lived there the rug had collected a gummy overlay of tobacco and pot smoke, beer, and other substances we ignored. Our floral print couch had broken springs that sagged our butts toward the ground when we stretched out to catch up on Love Boat and Fantasy Island. The world’s biggest fan of the rock band Queen lived next door. He serenaded us every night with “Another One Bites the Dust” and if we pushed the couch close to the wall, it would rock us to sleep with the vibrating bass line. That apartment was the first place we had ever chosen all on our own, without help from parents or school administration.

Ann and I discovered our home in August, about three weeks before the fall semester would start at Texas Woman’s University. We drove over to Denton, Texas in her 1967 Dodge Dart. The car did not have air conditioning. We rolled down the windows and hung our heads out like dogs to catch the hot air blowing off the highway. By the time we made the hour-long trip from our hometown the backs of my legs stuck to the vinyl car seat with a tacky layer of sweat glue. We pulled into the parking lot of the first complex on our list and slumped out of the car, careful not to brand ourselves with the hot metal on the outside the Dart. In the full sun we stood there pondering the faded pink brick buildings. I imagined the rubber soles of my sandals melting into the black tar pit of the asphalt parking lot and I wondered if some later civilization would find my bones, preserved and still wearing flip flops.

“There’s a pool,” Ann said, pointing toward a shimmering patch of blue in the center of the courtyard. The sharp summer scent of chlorine hung in the air and we heard laughter and soft splashing coming from the lucky residents enjoying the water. We wiped the sweat out of our eyes, abandoned the car, and raced to the manager’s office to sign a lease for our new apartment.

We moved in over the next weekend, figuring to get settled in before classes started. We unpacked in air-conditioned comfort, without realizing we enjoyed the last bit of the previous tenant’s billing cycle. On Monday we woke to the end of that free ride. No electricity meant no radio, no television, and no air conditioning. Our friendly neighbor set down his bong and turned down the bass on his stereo long enough to explain how to go about getting our own account set up. A phone call to the utility company later, we had an appointment for them to come out the next day, Tuesday.

We opened the windows and the front door and spent the day at the pool. By early evening we were both the color of the Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill wine we had been drinking all day.

“Is there any more ice?” Ann asked from the couch where she stirred the hot air with the magazine she had been reading.

“No, maybe we should go to the store.” My voice was muffled because I had my head in the open freezer, waving the last of the cool air onto my face.

“We’re also out of wine,” I added.

Ann and I moaned about the lack of air conditioning, ice, and alcohol and decided, since we were heading to the store to get ice and wine, we would stop at K-Mart to pick up a fan–yes, an electric fan, a fan that would need electricity to run.

Most people would notice the glaring gap in logic this purchase presented. However, Ann and I, stunned from the heat like lizards, and brain damaged from inhaling chlorine fumes and cheap wine all day, loaded into the Dart and headed to K-Mart.

Once we arrived at the store, we discovered the fans displayed right at the front entrance. We walked through a wind tunnel of spinning blades and overlooked the cords dangling from the back and running to the hidden power supply. We pictured our fan set up in the living room, spinning cool air out of nothing. Fan chosen and placed in the shopping cart, we picked up cleaning supplies and added a bottle of lemon scented ammonia to our cart as we headed to the cashier.

While we stood in line, Ann picked up the cleaner. “I wonder if this really smells like lemons. You know, like real lemons or just some sweet stuff.” I took the bottle from her and read the label.

“It says ammonia,” I said.

I unscrewed the cap, held the container close to my nose, and inhaled a strong breath. A line of lemon scented fire raced up my nose and entered my brain.

“Well, does it smell like lemons?” Ann asked.

I couldn’t answer as my lungs seemed to have collapsed from the ammonia. Instead I waved frantically, hoping it would be interpreted as “Yes, but help!”

I held out the bottle toward Ann and before I could warn her, watched as she took the bottle from me and inhaled. There we were, in the line at K-Mart, gasping for breath and crying, passing that bottle of ammonia back and forth between us like two drunks sharing a can of Sterno.

We recovered enough to put the cap back on the bottle, then looked at the fan sitting there in the cart. The ammonia must have loosened something in our brain because we realized then you can’t run an electric fan without electricity. We traded the fan for a pair of flashlights and left the ammonia at K-Mart. We stopped for ice and headed back to our apartment, our home where the moonlight beckoned off the dark, still surface of the swimming pool and the night air smelled of chlorine and not lemons.

©2018 Terrye Turpin

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