Kincade Fire

San Francisco haze from fire
Photo by Patrick Perkins on Unsplash

San Francisco looked more like Beijing when I taxied home from the airport. The fires in Sonoma had set an eerie haze—warm and thick, like cream—over the entire city, shooing away what I had once thought was an impenetrable fog. I’d never noticed the striking difference between smoke and fog until that afternoon, driving down 19th. The bright houses that lined the street were muted to pastels and the trees of Golden Gate Park up ahead looked blurry and vaguely yellow through the smog.

The moment I got home—a second story flat in Pacific Heights—Mom told me to throw my smoky airplane clothes in the wash. Her asthma had confined her to the two-bedroom apartment since the Kincade Fire started on October 23rd.

I didn’t belong here in October. Ever since I left for college six years ago, I only flew home for the holidays and never stayed for more than a week. But now I was home prematurely, out of necessity, indefinitely, for one of the more shameful reasons: I ran out of money.

I showered then dressed in my childhood bedroom. It was relatively unchanged since I moved out. My twin bed was nestled in the far corner beside the large window overlooking the courtyard out back. A painting of Muir Beach my mother bought at the Sausalito Art Fair hung above my dresser on the other side.

By the door was a floor-length mirror. I looked myself up and down: my hair stringy and dark, wet from the shower; my posture slouched; my curves hidden in a baggy sweatshirt and loose jeans. Portions of my reflection were obstructed by rogue postcards and magazine clippings tucked into the thin frame of the mirror, including an image of Misty Copeland in her Black Swan costume.

“What are you doing in there, duckling?” Mom didn’t have to raise her voice to get my attention from the kitchen—these walls were made of paper.

***

Mom and I caught up over red wine from Trader Joe’s in the living room. We sat in the plush armchairs nestled in the bay window overlooking our street—it was empty save a few brave neighbors hurriedly walking their dogs. Mom had told me over the phone about the fires, but they’d seemed abstract all the way from New York—I hadn’t realized how apocalyptic it all was. Though sunset was still hours away, the sky was a sickly orange.

“I mean the damage that’s already been done is just horrific.” Mom was going on about the fires, her wine balancing in her left hand while her right one gesticulated. She had long, spindly features that I’d envied all through high school. Her soot-black hair was loosely pulled back with a scrunchy, and she only wore a little lip gloss and mascara on her tanned face, prematurely wrinkled from growing up in Southern California. “We’re 60% contained now which is a huge improvement, but I think something like 76,000 acres have already burned.”

I didn’t know what 76,000 acres looked like. Anything larger than the 800 square feet of my Brooklyn apartment was an unattainable number.

“PG&E still has the power shut down in a lot of areas. And with the amount of people who’ve been evacuated—” her voice wavered like she knew these people, “—apparently it looks like a refugee camp up there.”

Mom had developed a tendency to get sucked into the local news ever since Dad died seven years ago. She sometimes spent all morning hunched over her laptop at the kitchen counter, scrolling through her various subscriptions. She would often call me after several hours of research to inform me of a stabbing in Harlem or a newly endangered species in North Dakota.

“I don’t think you can say that it looks like a refugee camp,” I mumbled into my wine, looking at the living room instead of her. Above the dormant fireplace, family photos riddled the mantle, partially shadowed by a vase of tulips several days past their bloom. I paused on an old picture of the three of us hiking in Tahoe—me smiling with my mouth closed to hide my braces, Mom’s eyes slightly unfocused as she concentrated on angling the digital camera, Dad resting his arms over both our shoulders, his sandy hair flapping around in the wind.

“Why? Is comparing Sonoma to a refugee camp offensive?” Mom’s thick eyebrows stitched together as she shifted in her seat, tucking her long legs under herself. She wore black leggings and a thin, blue sweater. “These people have lost their homes in the fires. They’re literally refugees.”

“I don’t know.” I wasn’t entirely sure if it was offensive, but I’d graduated from a politically correct, liberal arts college and, up until last week, lived in Bed-Stuy with a street artist and a social worker so I always aired on the side of abundant, if not paranoid, caution.

“My God, everything is offensive these days.” Mom took a sip of wine, her wedding ring clinking against the glass. I didn’t have the energy (or interest) to further engage on the topic, so I asked instead if we were cooking or eating out for dinner.

“The air is terrible. I can hardly stand taking out the trash.” Mom lightly wrapped her hand around her neck like the outside air was creeping in through the warped panes of our old windows. “I thawed out some chicken; it’s in the fridge.”

***

We cooked dinner together, playing Seinfeld on Mom’s iPad for background noise. There was something nostalgic about cooking in this kitchen with her, even though I hardly ever helped with dinner growing up. I usually didn’t get home until seven, going straight from school to dance rehearsal. Mom would make dinner while Dad picked me up from the studio—he and I would trudge through the front door, him still in a suit from work, me in my leotard, my hair curled like Medusa’s from being stuck in a ballet bun all day.

We’d sit at the dining room table and eat voraciously. Mom would share neighborhood gossip, Dad would discuss the movies coming out that he wanted to see, and I would inevitably get annoyed with one of them for breathing too heavily or asking the wrong question. Now I miss those evenings with a painstaking desperation.

I boiled water for pasta, then chopped up the vegetables while Mom lathered the chicken in olive oil. She caught me up on the local gossip (some things hadn’t changed since Dad died)—who from my high school was getting married too young, and which couples were getting divorced or renewing their vows (she believed both were equal signs of separation). Mom started telling me who was still living at home with their parents but cut herself off when she realized that I too was one of those deadbeats now.

“It’s just temporary,” I reassured her, trying to sap the discomfort that had flooded the room so quickly. Mom and I often walked on eggshells with each other—some were freshly cracked while others had been there for years, the yolks long gone, a thin film of mold growing around the smooth, brown exteriors.

“I didn’t mean it like that. You know you can stay as long as you want, sweetie.” Mom patted my shoulder which made everything so much worse. “I’m excited to have you home. It’ll be like old times.”

It wouldn’t be like old times. It was just the two of us now. This house was built for three.

“Right, but eventually I’m getting back to New York. I’ll find an actual job, something that pays rent.”

“No more dancing?” Mom’s voice was careful, tentative. More eggshells.

“Dancing isn’t paying rent.”

“It will, eventually. You just have to keep pushing.”

I was the best dancer at my studio in San Francisco growing up, so I went to a college with one of the best dance programs in the country. There, I wasn’t the best, but I was certainly one of the better dancers. And then I moved to New York, where I wasn’t the best or better—I was fine, but too curvy, not flexible enough. For the last two years I’d worked five different jobs from receptionist to teacher’s assistant, went to nearly fifty auditions, got all of three roles, and reached a maximum annual salary of $30,000.

Given my parents had been to every recital since I was five, I didn’t say any of this to my mother as we cooked dinner in a kitchen that was built for three. Instead, I said, “maybe I don’t want to keep pushing.”

“Just take a beat for now. You can think about it more in a few weeks.” This had always been Mom’s tactic. Let’s put a pin in it; we don’t have to decide anything right now. It diffused every conversation without ever making me feel like I’d changed her mind or convinced her of much of anything.

We put the chicken in the oven and tossed the vegetables onto a frying pan. The kitchen fan nearly drowned out the canned laughter of Seinfeld’s audience. The water came to a boil, and I tossed in half a bag of pasta. We’d been quiet for so long that by the time Mom spoke up, I didn’t realize she was continuing the conversation.

“In the meantime, I’m sure ODC would love to see you. Maybe you could teach some classes.” She leaned against the kitchen counter and faced me.

“I thought we were taking a beat.” I didn’t mean to sound so defensive. But the thought of returning to my old studio like the star quarterback lurking around high school years after graduating made me nauseous.

“We are.” Mom wrapped her arms over her narrow chest like she was hugging herself. For as long as I could remember, she had made this gesture. And whenever Dad was nearby, he’d come up and replace her arms with his own, wrap them around her tightly. She always looked so small when he hugged her. Sometimes I wondered if I misremembered them as more in love than they really were.

I wrapped a plastic band around the pasta and put it back in the pantry. I wanted to tell Mom I hadn’t given up because I was tired, but because I knew I wasn’t good enough, even if she thought I was, even if Dad told me to keep dancing no matter what when he got sick. I wordlessly put out two place settings at the kitchen counter.

“This should be ready in the next ten.” Mom peaked at the chicken.

The smell of roasting onions and nearly-done chicken delivered me back to my childhood when I used to put on dance performances for her and Dad in the living room.

I watched my mother close the oven door and then get a head start on the dishes piling up in the sink. Her neck curved long like a swan’s over her task. Her brown eyes—the ones she gave me—were warm under the kitchen light.

I tended to study my mother, often from a distance like this, when she wasn’t looking back at me; I took note of her breathing patterns, any irregularities on her skin. I didn’t start doing this until Dad died. Before that I hardly saw my parents as people. But dying was so human of him. Now I watched my other parent closely, on a constant hunt for any signs of trouble. I would check the rhythm of her heartbeat if she allowed it.

***

We ate at the kitchen counter—the dining room table hadn’t been touched in years—and continued watching Seinfeld. A little square painting of our old lab, Pacey, hung on the wall next to the outlet where the iPad was charging. Dad had had it made as an anniversary gift to Mom when I was in middle school.

Mom scrolled through her phone, reading out updates on the Kincade Fire as she found them—this many dead, that many unaccounted for. I tried to change the subject more out of boredom than upset over the news. Staring at the hyper-realistic image of Pacey—lurking in that haunting space between painting and photo—I asked Mom if she thought she’d ever get another dog.

“No way.” Mom talked through a large bite of chicken, covering her mouth with the palm of her hand. “They’re way too much work. Maybe a cat.”

“I didn’t realize we were cat people.”

“We could be. I was never a dog person.”

“You loved Pacey.”

Mom shrugged, subsequently fracturing several of my childhood memories—Mom playing with Pacey in the park; her picking me up from school with Pacey wagging beside her.

“You guys loved her. And I loved how happy she made you both. I was the one who picked up all her shit though.”

“Yeah, but that brought you closer together.”

She shoved me playfully and for a moment, the Kincade Fire was forgotten.

***

The following night, I picked up Chinese takeout for dinner. Mom sent me out with a disposable mask which I instantly took off and shoved into my pocket once I turned the corner.

It was nearly six, but it looked later in the evening. A permanent dusk had settled over Pacific Heights. I looked up at the grey-orange sky and smelled the soot in the breeze, dusting my throat with every breath, settling in my lungs like debris at the bottom of a lake. It was warm for October, and everything felt a little suffocated, stifled, like being wrapped in a thick blanket. The city was quieter than usual. Most people were staying inside; fewer cars were on the road. I imagined many of our wealthier neighbors had fled the city all together for their second homes in Tahoe or Washington.

The food wasn’t quite ready when I got to the restaurant, so I waited outside, leaning against a no parking sign, hands in pockets, baby hairs tickling my forehead. I closed my eyes—everything sounded muted like I was underwater. That could’ve been from the fires or my own haze of jet lag—of being home.

Home. It had been a complicated word for seven years. I had felt myself running away from it ever since Dad’s funeral. New York was far away enough to forget my other realities—in New York, nothing was on fire. In New York, my dad wasn’t dead and my mother wasn’t pouring over the news all day. In truth, I hated the city. The trash, the disproportionately large cockroaches, the brisk people on the sidewalks, the overpriced apartments with uneven floors and bathrooms so small you burnt your ass on the heating pipe whenever your dried off from the shower. But it was far from home. Far from a house built for three.

***

Mom and I set up dinner at the coffee table in the living room and watched Jurassic Park—one of Dad’s favorites. She was always looking for ways to fight off the quiet of the apartment—the quiet that had been infecting it for years, much like the smog now creeping through the city, wrapping against the windows, trying to find a way inside. The both of us sat on the worn-in couch, one cushion apart, eating fried rice and pork dumplings directly out of the gleaming white to-go boxes.

“And what’s really heartbreaking about all of the people missing,” Mom went on—we only played movies we’d seen before so we could talk over them—“is all the undocumented workers. It’s so much more difficult to track them down. Or they feel unsafe coming forward, making themselves known because ICE is having a field day with this tragedy. And a lot of their families aren’t even here to worry about them.”

“I’m sure they’re worried about them. They’re just not here.” I wiped the grease from a potsticker off my lips with the back of my hand.

“Exactly. When you’re worried about someone, you want to be right there. You have to be. Otherwise, the doctors, the police, they won’t care. They’ll forget. That’s what family is for. To not forget.” She pressed her hand against her chest like she was trying to pause her heartbeat. I pursed my lips. Perhaps the most awful thing about all this was watching her refuse to cry in front of me.

“I know it’s terrible, Mom.” I looked at the television just as a Tyrannosaurus Rex attacked the jeeps on the road. “But I think it might be helpful for you to lay off the news for a bit.”

“You always say that.”

“It’s just,” I picked out the remaining broccoli from the stir fry, “you don’t know these people. You don’t even live in Sonoma.”

“I live an hour away. Or have you not looked outside?” She pointed at the window where the sky loomed somewhere between dusk and ruin. It was a grey-orange now.

“I’m not saying it’s not affecting you. It’s just, there’s plenty of other things to think about.”

“You think I’m projecting.” She sighed like I was missing the point. “You have to engage with your surroundings at some point, Jess. Participate. Did you ever think that you aren’t projecting enough? Not reading the news doesn’t mean it’s not happening.”

We never talked about Dad. We talked about wildfires and my career and whether Stacy Carter got a nose job. Mom labored over the tragedy of strangers; I labored over the life plans Dad had drafted for me that I seemed to fall short of every time. We talked around Dad. Even seven years later. Rather creatively, mind you.

I shrugged like I was squirming my way out of the conversation, eggshells clattering on the couch cushion between us. We returned our attention to the movie until I eventually said, “maybe we just mourn differently.”

Mom nodded, pleased with our truce.

By the end of the movie, the air had softened in the living room; the eggshells temporarily dissolved. Each scene of Jurassic Park uncovered a different memory with Dad until he nearly sat between us on the couch, feet propped up on the coffee table, Tufts Law sweatshirt stained with a little sweet and sour sauce from dinner, a bowl of mint chip ice cream melting in his lap, his laughter taking up every corner of the apartment which suddenly felt so little again. The sky had finally given over to night—a rich, hazy grey—and I could nearly forget about the fires again.

The credits rolled. Mom said goodnight, kissing me on the forehead. She smelled of wine and spring rolls. I looked up at her and remembered her kiss on my forehead after my first dance recital. She glowed in the soft light of the living room. Her face looked hollow, but warm and familiar. For the first time in years, I wanted to be home because this was where she was. I wanted to be home, not because I had to be, because I’d failed; but because I missed her and I wanted more than anything to sleep in that twin bed again and wake up to the smell of French Roast coffee and the sight of her at the kitchen counter, aglow from the blue light of her laptop as she scrolled through the news and worried about strangers.

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