In St. Thomas, where I live as a child, I stand on the verandah at noon watching heat itself shimmering aluminum flecks across the Caribbean. I cool my face with a fan constructed of small palm fronds – woven strips attached to a wood handle. At dusk, when the trade winds finally gust the heat away, I don’t need my fan at all. But the next afternoon, when the wind hibernates, the fanned breeze sounds like a green rustle, brush-brushing through long curly hair.
One summer in Washington, D. C., I stay in an un-air-conditioned women’s residence hall. A small electric fan is propped by the windowsill. It’s old-fashioned (I’m a poor college intern), and it creaks as it slowly oscillates. At night, while I lie alone in my narrow bed, the metal blades waft humidity from one side of my room to the other. Yet the current delivers energy from outside the open window: the hiss of air brakes; acrid oily diesel; shouts from bars on M Street full of Saturday night beer and trouble; rock ‘n’ roll – the Doors, the Beatles – from car radios. The breeze almost cools the sweat at the base of my neck. In the morning, I watch strands of a cobweb swaying from the corner of the ceiling, empty, the spider no longer home.
In Galveston, I stand at the edge of the Seawall and stare across a sandy field toward a bungalow, the windows open, the rooms dimly lit. I’m married and lonely and want to have an affair with the man inside the bungalow, which belongs to his girlfriend. Their vague images cuddle on the couch: faint laughter, Bee Gees on the stereo. They would never be able to see me here in shadows, under a cloudy sky dim with dark stars. No breeze off the Gulf tonight, just mosquito wings vibrating like miniature fans.
In Rome, Georgia, I lie atop sweaty sheets all summer in the second-floor bedroom of my log cabin home. My husband is away on a research project; I’ve just had an affair that ends badly. Humidity drips down the walls. The mortar between the logs is disintegrating. During the day the plastic box fan, placed on the wood floor, churns sweltering heat, the dull blades streaming contrails of cobwebs and dust. No rain, no coolness, no relief.
I switch off the fan at night, feeling feverish, as if my skin – not just the cabin logs – is losing its mortar. Without the whirring, the room quiets. Then, through the open window, I hear the buzzing of restless insects. Stray cars chug past my dark house heading up Lavender Mountain. I turn on the fan again the next morning. I press a damp palm against the floor to feel the fan’s vibration caused by the warped wood. I hold my hand there for hours.
In late August my husband returns. I place the fan in the closet. I walk outside and sit under a live oak tree. The faintest breeze stirs the leaves, just enough to know autumn is coming.
A few years later, shortly after moving to Michigan, I sort through an old trunk that once belonged to my mother. I find a fan that my father brought to her from the Philippines, where he traveled on business. The turquoise wood frame is decorated with gold curlicues. Open, the material looks like starched linen edged with lace. The faded design shows two black-haired women walking across a field, mountains in the distance. They wear red blouses with turquoise skirts. A basket is strapped to the back of one woman, who leans forward, bent under the weight. The other balances a basket on her head.
When I close the fan, the women and their baskets disappear in the folds.
I display the open fan in a china cabinet. Whenever I pass, I glance at it. The women must feel immobilized in tropical heat. I want to fan them. I want to remove their baskets weighing them down. I want them to feel a breeze, sometimes offered to us, sometimes not.
Sue William Silverman’s memoir, Love Sick: One Woman’s Journey through Sexual Addiction, is also a Lifetime television movie. Her first memoir, Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You, won the AWP award in creative nonfiction, while her craft book, Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir,was awarded Honorable Mention in ForeWord Review’s book-of-the-year award. She teaches in the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts.
Artwork by Gabrielle Katina