Nothing special going inside work today: I’m pointing and clicking my way through some HTML around 3:00 in the afternoon. I can barely hear anything above my headphones, which are blasting a song I’ve already listened to twice today.
And then there comes a rumble. I don’t hear it, exactly. It’s the kind of low noise that touches the dark primitive things in you — the ones located somewhere underneath your ribs. I peel off the headphones and listen.
It’s only a cart being rolled down the hallway. Not a thunderstorm.
Not the thunderstorm the weathermen said would happen today. They’ve been calling for it all week, but I think it’s just because they pity us. It’s only April, but this week the days have hit 90 degrees. A thunderstorm would be like the do-overs offered at elementary school kickball games: drop back the temperature back into the low 70s and pretend this random heat wave never happened. Pretend that the course of the world is going completely the way it should.
They called it a 40 percent chance all week, which is a probability for people too cowardly to even say “it’s probably not going to happen.” So I am not too pleased with the weathermen right now.
Thing is that I love thunderstorms. They make me think of summer. There’s some science that explains why thunderstorms almost always happen in late summer afternoons, but I’d rather just think of it as magic. You get just enough time to play in the world before the dark clouds appear over the horizon.
I spent most of my summer vacations from school at the neighborhood pool. The ritual we framed around each storm was nearly holy. The first crack of thunder would come rolling in from some faraway, made-up place. The lifeguards would blow their whistles and wave their arms like a cyclone away from the pool: it was an odd rush to pull yourself out of the water into a shifting wind.
We stood around with bright fuzzy towels wrapped around us, talking about whether this was really it, or if it was just a fringe of a passing storm. In that moment, we and the lifeguards were no longer adversaries — we never trusted anyone who could take away our right to swim in the deep end.
We were just human beings at the edge of a storm, shuffling our feet on the brittle concrete and thinking the same thoughts that people have always thought about storms.
When the rain came, we ran home in flip-flops that swelled into thick calumphing plastic beasts. There was no way to avoid the puddles — we just kept running through the clammy water.
It was peaceful, staring at a world gone dark and wet from inside a quiet, cool house. Seeing everything moving around you while standing still.
A lot like prayer.
But not today. I put the headphones back on and resume feeling smug about the world. This kind of thing happens a lot while I’m working. It’s impossible to distinguish the onset of rain from the air conditioning system getting riled up. The only sound from the outside that can penetrate the building is the whistle of a train that passes by us many miles away, and even then it’s just low enough that I sometimes wonder if it’s only one of my memories stirring in its sleep.
It’s because offices everywhere are sensory deprivation tanks. No matter how you decorate them, no matter how sleek the desks are, no matter how opulent and comfortable the chairs are, the main purpose of the enterprise is to make you forget you have a body.
I know that the idea is to let you concentrate. I wouldn’t want to try to Photoshop some video grabs next to a steel smelter. But it’s sort of strange to sit in rooms that were designed to slip from my memory, to be hemmed in by colors robbed of their hue. It becomes part of the culture, of the unwritten rules: to even take off your shoes and touch a bare foot to the carpet would be blasphemy.
I love my brain. But I also love my body.
Two hours later, the storm hits for real.
I can tell it’s the real thing because I can hear the rain rolling across the roof in waves, as if the raindrops need each other to lead them down through the atmosphere to us. I take off my headphones and go out to a window.
The first thing I always notice about storms is brown: the color of sopping wet sidewalks. When people talk about storms, they talk about rain — but rain’s not really there. A raindrop’s life lasts only a few seconds, and it’s impossible to record with our eyes. All it is is a fleeting bright line among so many others.
You can watch the lines, or you can watch the tiny splashes against the sidewalk. But not both at the same time. I look at one for a while, then the other, and then walk back to my cubicle because this kind of thing looks sort of odd to coworkers if you do if for much longer than five minutes.
The storm breaks right at 5:00, so I scurry out of the building along with some other meek souls. The sky is more or less clear but the air tastes like a child that’s just been scolded. A quick grin, a lukewarm joke — the rhythm of the workplace is played out again between us until a bolt of lightning crackles up only a few football fields away from us.
Then we just get into our cars.
That’s the other thing I find so interesting about storms. They’re about the most random event that can happen to you — but they become so personal. A storm comes; we cower and marvel. The storm ends; we escape; the storm returns and we start cowering again. It’s like a kind of battle or maybe a game.
But almost nobody thinks anymore that there’s anybody on the other side of the table. It’s just a story we make up, like Greeks naming constellations. But you don’t realize that you’re making it up. You just feel it.
Small things, like driving home, become lengthened and storied in our minds. Normally it takes me about 20 minutes to commute to work, and I usually spent it flipping stations on the radio or thinking to myself about bits of things. It’s an essentially forgettable space of time.
But now, as I drive at barely 20 miles an hour through a dense downpour that smacks against the windshield of my car, every second can be counted. The lines painted on the road that I can feel instinctively on a clear day disappear: this is a highway I have never traveled before. I can only follow the tail lights a few feet ahead of me. And the stranger behind me does the same, and the stranger behind him, and the stranger behind him. We are pilgrims.
I wonder what we would look like if the storm could be made invisible. I wonder what we look like in God’s eyes.
I turn on the radio at a stop light, but the only way to drown out the roar of the storm is to turn the volume up to the point that the guitars start to sound broken and the singer’s voice strained. So I leave it off.
The light turns green. We move slowly again. The rain wavers as we ascend a hill and come to another stop. It’s all orchestrated.
Eventually I make it home. And there I get to indulge in my final, favorite thunderstorm joy: the final sprint through the rain. It’s inevitable that I get caught out in storms without an umbrella. I don’t like carrying them around. They make me feel like too much of a grownup.
Running through a heavy thunderstorm for me is almost the same as dashing through fire. It’s hard to see anything, and my body gets flooded with sensations too strong to be remembered fully. The only difference is that after it’s over, I can take off my wet clothes if I want to.
But I think it’s better to leave the wet clothes on for a while. To let the storm touch my skin. To breathe its evaporating teardrops. To feel what can never be crafted by anyone on this earth.