by Teresa Yang
C is for ceasefire, as in “Cease, fire!” As if, like telling the universe to stop expanding, we could command the many California wildfires to stop burning.
Taken another way, ceasefire might be a brokered truce between Mother Nature and man, our encroaching development like a stray hair irritating her eyes, one that she decides to brush away or scissor off entirely. A ceasefire, though, does not resolve conflicts; it’s a mere time-out for both sides to recover their breath, or plot new strategies. Breath restored, mankind might grudgingly accept the stark reality of climate change – that, yes – cigarettes do cause lung cancer and maybe that extra cell phone that fell out from your husband’s backpack and his mysterious absences don’t mean he works for the CIA.
A is for awakened. It’s three in the morning and the phone is ringing. Brain disoriented, I think, don’t the robocallers know it’s the middle of the night? But I pick up, prepared for Serenity Haven to say, “Your mother didn’t suffer; she went quickly.” Instead, it’s my neighbor warning us of a threatening newborn fire and the immediate mandatory evacuation. I check my phone and there are NotifyLA alerts wallpapering the dark screen, texts and emails growing like the fire.
Though I have an evacuation list, it provides little comfort. All I can think about is my blood pressure, the one I’ve been diligently monitoring since the other day at the doctor when it was on the cliff waiting to be rescued by a diuretic. The list is in English and Spanish, in descending priority order, created and honed after the last recommended evacuation. I had to consider need versus want. I need to pack sweats and tennis shoes, clothes you wear after your house has burned down. I need to pack my underwear, those hard-to-fit bras and the bikini panties that hide a stomach like a quick finger wiping escaping cake batter, the underwear that cannot possibly be bought online without trying it on first, the underwear whose purchase I’ll have no patience for after my house is gone. I want to pack my mother’s leopard coat, given to her by her mother-in-law, the one she wore so fashionably in those Kyoto wintertime black and white photos. No one needs a leopard coat. I want to pack my thirty-five photo albums, in chronological order, the ones I’m saving to show my future grandchildren. My daughter laughed later, saying, “But Mom, they’re all digitized.” I want to pack their scrap books, Mother’s Day cards made by kindergarten teachers and, later, poignant ones where my son wrote messages he was too reluctant to say in person.
L is for loss, tangible and intangible. There is the obvious potential loss of the house which we just remodeled, for the third time, a few years back. This was the we-will-die-here remodel, the one where I corrected all the features I disliked from the outset but couldn’t afford to change before, the one where I finally got the soaking bathtub. I treated the bathtub like the beach, sand to be admired from afar, and stepped into its pool only once to assure myself it wouldn’t collapse into the living room below. Our dream remodel also produced the great room, one where the kids could hang out with their friends under my watchful eye. Sadly, the kids had their own apartments now and could hang out unobserved. This was the remodel that promoted the washer and dryer from its spidered existence in the garage to its own laundry room, now that we were doing less laundry than ever. This was the remodel where I got my walk-in closet, the one I would’ve been happy to evacuate into and live out of.
Half the house remained unused, freezing in winter and boiling in summer. We considered renting out that portion but soon realized we would need to add an extra kitchen. We had lived in that area of the house throughout the better part of our remodeling year. All the furniture had been put in storage save for the essentials. With one functional bathroom and no indoor staircase, we walked up and down outside to get from the bathroom to the kitchen. It reminded me of our first apartment and I wondered why I thought a washer and dryer would require its own room.
The intangible losses are tougher. This was the place where I learned about nurturing and growing things – children, dichondra, and homemade apple pie with green fruit from the yard.
I is for information, too much and not enough. It’s an endless, anxiety provoking loop, which we watch for fear of missing out, waiting to hear that Arnold’s house, or mine, has burned down. It’s watching the governor, or mayor, in real people clothes, out of their bespoke suits, talking to us like our next door neighbor, which they’re not.
F is for fire, now so common that we’ve given them names. But, like most names, they’re easily forgettable. We should name them Lucifer, or possibly Dante.
Once, when my son was three or four and I was at work, we had a kitchen fire. The first thing my nanny did was take him outside, next to the pool. “Wait here, puppy,” she said. In the chaos, she forgot about the fire extinguisher; instead, she soaked the small rug next to the sink and threw it onto the stove top, killing the fire. He didn’t know how to swim at the time, but wide eyed, he stood glued to the grass.
O is for objects. I’ve long since given away the things that don’t spark joy, like the matching picture frames my mother gifted one year, the ones with too-happy Disneyland fake flowers. I had to wait until she no longer remembered she had given them to me. Now I’m left with twinkles of joy everywhere, like pastel macaroons or hidden chocolate, so many fragile, difficult to pack treasures that I love. I take none of it, unwilling and unable to select my favorites. It’s like asking me to identify which child I love more. Instead I take the cash, several thousand dollars in twenties and Ben Franklins, hidden inside Dennis Lehane’s dark book, Mystic River. I pack my mother’s pair of black and grey onyx bookends that sit on the floor and accent the black fireplace like the beauty mark she used to embellish on her pale cheek. The heavy bookends could come in handy for protection, I think.
I take my jewelry, all of it.
R is for the many reasons that fire reigns now, climate change chief among them. It’s not just the one or two degree increase in average temperatures, but like a two or three pound weight gain, it’s that resultant bloated feeling where waistbands strangle and zippers suffocate. It’s the cascading effect: the extremes in temperature are greater, the devil Santa Ana winds howl that much stronger, the rains become torrential, or the air desiccates in postmenopausal dryness.
It’s the faceless corporations, utilities who didn’t maintain the electric infrastructure, their only remedy with all this power is now to turn off the power.
It’s the explosion and implosion of the California dream, man inhabiting Mother Nature’s backyard, the one wired to burn periodically to allow renewal and regrowth. Only now those areas are crowded with housing developments, Costcos, and grammar schools. And we still have a housing shortage. Yet in my neighborhood, the homeowners refuse to consider the building of “granny flats,” additional smaller units on the lot for, well, grandmothers or other orphaned people. We joked that we had already built our own granny flat in the unoccupied half of the house.
N is for Nola, my sole remaining friend from high school. I’m always the one to suggest we get together. We meet halfway between her home in northern San Diego county and mine in Los Angeles, always at the same Pan Asian restaurant, always ordering the noodles with the secret sauce. I am surprised when I receive an unexpected text from her asking about my well being. I agree with my dad – there’s nothing like old friends.
The texts keep appearing like electronic ash. Why are people awake at this time of night? Busily packing, I don’t answer. Like tracing shell companies, one nearby friend who had sent increasingly worried texts finally texted her son in Hong Kong to text my son in San Francisco to track us down in my silence. People I hadn’t communicated with in months reached out.
Although I was disappointed not to hear from my friend Constance, whom I considered a sister once, not having any myself. She used to live in the very canyon that was now burning. We drifted apart as our children grew up and she became more religious. Once I hinted she was too religious. If you’re at all religious, you know you can’t ever be too religious. Maybe she was traveling in the jungles of Borneo, I hoped.
I is for insurance – like a deadbeat husband, it’s nice to say you’re married, but really, what good is he? When the specter of earthquake became an actuarial certainty, earthquake insurance turned into its own entity and cost, separate from the homeowner’s policy. And now that fire is so commonplace, will it also have its own classification and price tag? No matter, the premiums have already doubled or tripled, or worse yet, entire policies cancelled. Even insurance companies can participate in our “cancel culture.”
A is for air mattress, the queen size one I decide to buy at Target. I pick the cheapest one only to realize after opening the unreturnable box there’s no pump. The evacuation will likely be over by the time I manually inflate the mattress. After another trip, armed with the electric pump, I proudly assess the makeshift bed. Despite its size, it’s not meant for two people. Newton’s immutable third law – for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction – means that every time my husband moves, I am lambasted by a tidal wave of motion. In the middle of the night, unable to sleep, we pump the other queen mattress.
I chide myself for not packing the chairs-in-a-bag we used to lug to soccer games, for there is no place to sit except the dirty floor and the clean bed. With only two changes of clothes, but lots of underwear, I can either sit on the floor in my underwear or put on my flannel pajamas and sit on the air mattress. One day I did take a shower and got in bed at 4pm. I suppose I could’ve picked up a soccer chair, but it would’ve been another reminder of loss, of trying to live in the past, so many wonderful hours spent watching my children from the sidelines.
F is for the fortunate and the fucked. Even the lucky ones, like Lebron James, cannot find shelter. “Man, these LA fires aren’t no joke, “he tweeted. On Twitter, besides some personal invitations that he be their house guest, he was told to check out the Four Seasons in Hong Kong, or to contact the Chinese embassy. Then there’s the man who wondered, anonymously and publicly, how he could save his Lamborghini. The internet might be an even more dangerous place than fire infested California, a place where Lamborghinis, or their owners, could be destroyed.
The unlucky ones are the people whose homes have already burned down once, who have been living in a FEMA trailer, who have experienced serial, multiple evacuations. They’re the ones whose entire town was nearly destroyed, like the ironically named Paradise. They’re the ones without fire insurance, worse off than the people who discover their policies might only rebuild half a house. They’re the ones, elderly, perhaps alone, perhaps diabetic, unable to drive, whose power has been off for a week, looking at their dwindling food supply and wondering: What’s worse? Take a chance and eat the unrefrigerated week old delicatessen turkey? Or mix my white processed sugar with water so I don’t starve? They are the ones too old, too sick, too tired, too dead to resurrect.
They’re the ones who can’t plunk down $350 a night for a hotel room, while the fortunate complain, as one man did on Nextdoor, that an overabundance of caution precipitated the mandatory evacuation notice and, not only does he want to be reimbursed for his $350 nightly expense, he bemoans he can’t be relaxing on his outdoor hammock. The unlucky ones cannot buy air mattresses.
The unlucky ones are the housekeepers, gardeners, and day workers who haven’t been notified by their employers and, for fear of losing their job, go to work anyway, the ones who can’t afford a day without pay.
U is for united, as in firefighters united in a singular cause. They come from everywhere – even tiny Coronado, home of the famed hotel, sent a battalion. Even prisoners, excepting the convicted arsonists, can volunteer in exchange for a few dollars a day and the possibility of better accommodations or a reduced sentence. It’s dangerous, sure, but sometimes less dangerous than the stuff inside the prison, one inmate said. I like being outside, another remarked.
Just think – if our government could work together like the firefighters and fight a common cause rather than each other. Doesn’t the “United” States mean just that?
G is for gossamer, which Merriam-Webster defines as “light, delicate, tenuous,” like goose down or cobwebs. It’s contemporary life, our network connected by fine, sometimes invisible, electronic threads. Is Constance in Borneo or has she really cut our sisterly string? It’s our cobweb, easily blown by a strong Santa Ana, hopefully without us on it, leaving us with the herculean task of remaking yet another delicate and destructible web. It’s our luck, whether we sleep on goose down or cobweb, the commonality being that neither has a solid foundation.
U is for uncertainty. I used to give little thought to the risk of fire, but now uncertainty has become a chronic condition, like hypertension or arthritis. It’s not so bad, I think, sleeping on the air mattress, eating microwave food, watching the news on my phone. I like this urban living, where we share common walls, a parking garage, a cramped elevator. I can listen to my neighbors’ music, their sneezes, their arguments and their rapprochement afterwards. My one friend regrets selling her house in the flats, saying she never had to experience this type of fear. As for unloading her current house in the hills, she says, “I actually don’t have much to miss.” My other more adventuresome friend says I cannot compare my home to “geriatric health metrics.” Life is all uncertainty; only in death do we find certainty.
E is for ending and elucidation: the moment I walk in the door, I know I am home. This is where my beloved closet is, one that can be recreated elsewhere but one that I don’t want to recreate anywhere else. I feel alive here, amidst the green and blue of the outside and the memories inside. Even as the air is shrouded in smoky particulate fog, there is clarity now where the fugue once smoldered.
Teresa Yang is a dentist in Los Angeles. Besides dental articles, her work has appeared in HerStry, Mutha Magazine, As It Ought to Be Magazine, Potato Soup Journal, and Little Old Lady Humor. She is currently working on a dental memoir about the secret life of a lady dentist.