“Do you remember that day a couple years back when the ashes were raining like snow?” Nick yelled to the back room.
“I remember that,” I said. I only had to whisper because I was hugging him so tight, sitting next to him on the orange velvet couch, facing away from the peanut butter-smeared world. Everything stole orange-brown, like colors went on strike under the smoky sun and the trees battering each other snapped twigs down with a whirl.
“I don’t want to do anything with my life!” came bellowing from the back room where the blinds pushed back the darkness onto sleeping shirtless boys. Dirty bunched up blankets stretched to cover cold, bending toes in the blackness, and all of the windows in the dorm suite held tightly to their frames, closed because the dark was turning smoky.
It was the first day of fire season. I napped at three to blue skies and high winds, and when I woke one hour later, the hills and light were sneezing, jaundiced, fevered. Walking twenty feet between buildings made my static hair smell smoky and fight itself, tangling as the wind took water from skins and leaves. The red sun wheezed in a centimeter circle. I can stare, should I stare, will I be blind?
Fire season. A church burned down because little boys played with fire. Lighters and matches, hoses and hydrants, asthma and dry skin spin like a slideshow, skip to their Lou like background music. Outside the peachy smokers paced the parking lot, fine breathing smoke, while other lungs wrestled themselves and carpenters would have work to do.
“Anyone want Taco Bell?”
They do, they do. “I’ll pay you back, man, for a . . . two chicken enchiracos and grande nachos. Get sauce.”
Cars thicken a hair with the ashes, the roads still gray, the sky a sudden beast who only roars because the wind is so frustrated and won’t stop and think about anything. Instead it just pushes fires around and pushes smoke into eyes and branches into windows and wings into each other so birds and bugs slip in flight. Rocks roll a little, chairs bump and fall across patios, and newspapers tell everything to no one as they ditch recycling bins defiantly, stolen by the quickening wind.
I stayed while the others left. Nick stayed too and his arms stayed around my waist and I stayed heart-pounding and eyes-wide and where is my book and I don’t even want to read it. I should. And I have to consider my other plans why should and when could and would, with care, while the atmosphere is all impulse and itch and ferocity.
Snow fell months ago around the Silicon Valley. Squintingly I see blue hills at indigo morning and icy trees, but only as distantly as valleys and memories can keep them. Smoke lifted away in icy air from Camels or Parliaments or bonfires left on beaches by swishy-walking marshmallow-bellies or barefoot, push-up-crazy agents of sex and intellectualism, or maybe left by whoever you are one night, whoever you are.
Smoke runs from chimneys on hills, and on beachfronts, hail bleaches sand. Carvings and glass on the sand disappear as waves yell goodbye to the dunes.
Blazing firelight and mellow heat snuck between the blinds, but the only romance was that it would disappear on Saturday. The burning-house smoke was novel: beautiful trash like the glass broken in the caves that have paintings of money bags, cars, and televisions, trash like glass scattered by kids without brooms on sunset drunken hilltops, but more beautiful because we knew it would be cleaned soon. It had to go. No smoke allowed. Hell no. You see, it would rain on Saturday.
We kissed, and with eyes closed, opened, closed, I got a tongue who knew pears and popcorn. Slam down books for a kiss, throw off coats and have a kiss, watch different fires get turned into TV, and then why not kiss. He was good at it and I felt good too.
They came back with hot sauce whose wrappers said, “This is just ‘til I hit the big time,” and “Watch it, mild!” and the saucy packets split and gushed like laughing, gushed over lettuce creased by a knife that couldn’t cut it, and over cheese whose cow was happy because this is California.
“No flames in Thousand Oaks still? They should evacuate us . . . I don’t want to go to class tomorrow,” said the back room.
“If you’re buying a house in Malibu, you should know the hazard and have house insurance.” Meanwhile, insurance agents ran off paperwork.
“Can the news get interesting? It’s been on this same story for hours.”
Hours. Hours pass for kisses, movies and candy, but vegetables too and homework, skin, hair-smell heads, a prickly chin, and we should vacuum. Different hours spent walking and stopping, sitting and standing, never going but always coming, during fire season, or the rainy time, or during flower season.
Flowers don’t know this. Standing, bending trampled, without brains to care about hours, fires, or the cold of storm season.
Flower season comes months later than fire season. Tulips, irises and daffodils spew their colors at the clouds and they hit me in the eye harder than light bulbs I don’t expect. And when I smell honeysuckle I smile too big for being alone, which feels like a secret, and in flower season there are always the clouds that make me cry.
Clouds that make me cry are not hazes of dripping smoke but white and high which makes the sky look like forever, too big for this walking barefoot with pins in my hair. And the sky breathes in and out: shade, sun. Shade, sun. And then later the breeze makes fire season over the far hills, and far on the mountains’ majesty, clouds that are pink and warm feel like they are my insides.
The silence of slow-drifting or hurried clouds crashing is flower petals folding into each other’s velvet cheeks, opening to clench the sun.
All softness, all daydream: it is still fire season.
My petals, my petals, my nails peeling and dry like smoked tree bark or earthquaked pavement, fall fragmented. My hair scrambles into knots so I keep a comb in my purse but never use it, my feet need lotion because I am a drying sponge on an ashen countertop, just a
porous human girl wilting in a blissful and ruinous heat that intimates more than I grasp.
My petals, my eyelashes, bear mascara and eyeliner, gunky black to calm my head when it says other girls are prettier and I should care. My petals, my arms, legs, muscles squeezing or not, wanting to squeeze a man, where is he, where is he? He just went to his car for a book.
Class is not cancelled but fire surrounds our city of safety, the second safest of its size, Thousand Oaks. Our thick oak bark and swinging piñata leaves do not flame during fire season and the maple leaves do not flame rusty scarlet until winter.
Home from Southern California, fire season is only a news story my relatives recall. It isn’t fire season anymore or flower season yet, but storm season and the roadways are collecting leaves, twigs and fallen trees who see saws and get split and set aside. Power- outages in pouring rain and hurricane-force winds mean light the fireplace. Storm season means winter.
Roadways are closed. Mudslides or flood sites help cones stand proud with
invisible hands on hips, preventing vehicle entrapment. Cones protect workers from fast-traffic puddle spray. Traffic cone orange was the sun during the fires, except when smoke was thicker and the sun was a drop of blood.
The radio tells which roads are backed up and why, and I want to go running but wet
shoes take too long to dry so I won’t do it. Don’t go outside, they say. Don’t drive. Don’t even walk around in the gusty downpour. But indoors is still and I want to know the night.
“Are you going to the Y in the morning?”
“Yeah, I will, but after I sleep in,” Dad says.
The gym parking lot will be pouring puddles as wet cars spray dripping cars, the whole world pouring parts of gutters, roofs, glasses, shoes, nests of sodden twigs. Bright moths wait for their wings to dry. Rainbow plastic donuts stacked in a cone are for the baby.
Storm season turns my heart hard like gum turning stale and I can’t spit it out, even though I know the violent pounding is good for the world, for flower season. The gray sky booms and I look for lightning, and the power fails, and a month apart is hard.
Nick and I are far apart so I crochet rainbows and flowers, glaring through wet windows, thinking about butterflies whose wings trick birds. Stitch after stitch, this second is like that second and time sails through gutters. Soon I will see him. “Want a bite?” he’ll ask. “Wear my coat, love” he’ll say. Looks in the eye beat hours on the phone. There are more freckles on my hand than I knew but sunscreen doesn’t matter when it’s storm season.
Standing in a white kitchen, watching gray fearless rain, I eat blueberries out of season, one by one, and picture them growing wild on the hills of Thousand Oaks whose grass and flowers will dry and threaten to burn come fire season. And when I traipse the cactus landscape trails to watch fog slither in the morning, crows will panic in the dry grass and my heart will be pounding in my cold ears.