One never has resources for 1,700 fires. Who has the resources for that?
Afternoon at the Russian River
The bathing suit I’d borrowed didn’t fit. Wet polyester crawled into the fold under my breasts, too tight and too loose at once. Slick river rocks slid beneath my feet and the barbeque burned. Watched you talking on the shore. Hated you some for bringing me like an offering out into the loud sun, loud talk of strangers. Swam upstream to spite you, leave you wondering where I’d gone. Drought made the current mellow. I floated back down on the surface, belly up, arms open, ears underwater.
The August afternoon drains into evening, a thin t-shirt loose over my swimsuit dampening two circles at my breasts. He whispers, nose nestled in my wet hair, breath trickling into the curl of my ear – when I lifted myself from the pool and water slid off my skin, he says, he saw the strands of dark new hair peeking from the edges of my swimsuit and it thrilled him. Too embarrassed to lift his head from mine, he hides his face in my hair. But I, perched on his lap, tilt my face up, tips of my toes grazing the patio, his warm thighs under mine, and watch the blushing sky, eager for the first bright pinpricks that announce the coming darkness.
Climbed to the top of the water tower just outside town. Not yet night but close; heat loosening its grip on the day; wind quickening in the conifers. Couldn’t see far with the mountains and haze, but felt the ground drop away, felt rivulets of pipes running through town, faucets rasping on and off, baths drawn for children, wet hair on the pillow, wet mouth lifted for kisses, cups on the nightstand attending midnight thirst. We twist off taps and check for leaks.
Darkness vibrated between the buildings; the tower sank into the sky. I dangled my legs off the edge of the landing and felt gravity threaten.
What was it like before the water came? Once a dairy and a winery, tucked in the El Dorado hills. We panned for gold in the river. was a fire. They built a dam. town was flooded. bodies But we lived. But we drink. The town was built exhumed. are many We pan for rusted nails lakebed. footprint of a dairy and a winery tucked in the El Dorado hills. What is it like after the water’s gone?
Hopefully we will never see it.
Northern California Lightning Series
Streetlight orange sky and a flash, another, no sound or rain.
There’s been no rain for weeks, and not tonight. Drops dry up before they even hit the ground.
You turn in your sleep – friction of covers and sighs, but nothing wakes you because nothing makes a noise.
That white heat, it’s the same as what zaps children’s fingers down the slide, lifts their hair to a birthday balloon. It jolts you when you close the car door in winter, in your red wool coat, jumps between our lips when we kiss in stocking feet. It crackles in our bedsheets after washing, follows even there.
The lawn lights up again; the palm tree bends. I remember the static voice of the science officer on the radio: no one has seen a springtime like this with the winds.
The Dry Season
In July the bushes burst into flame as effortlessly as they had burst into bloom a few months before.
Smoke crept to the edges of the state like an overcast sky. When we walked to her school that afternoon I almost told Lucy to bring a sweater.
She wheeled her scooter alongside us and I held her small hand. Her sandals smacked on the soles of her feet.
Even at midday, the orange sunlight was dusky and our shadows were long against the desolate blacktop of a school let out for summer.
Lucy dropped my hand and I watched her zip across the empty asphalt, into the murky collision of playground and smoke.
Her neon green baseball cap shrank as she sped away.
Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups
We sealed the windows tight against the smoke but she won’t sleep, keeps rolling and sweating in the dark. The ceiling fan cycles hot air.
I cannot properly explain particulate matter. I say soot, bad air, air that hurts.
How could she understand? All spring her imagination games transformed our street into a maze of treachery.
Driveways ponds of ice, lawns plunging canyons, the beds of decorative California rock pits of lava.
She navigated between the havens of parents’ porches. Balanced, skated, swam, and flew, but never not once fell.
I tell her a story of a world getting warmer. A brighter sun, a bathtub ocean, a glacier creaking from melt.
I wish for her a dream of relentless summer, paddleboat avenues and waterslides, popsicles, sudsy car wash water on the pavement.
For me though it’s thirsty crops, a creeping shoreline, and these fires.
At her bedside I rock and inhale deeply, feel my chest tighten. Her shallow breaths, her small lungs expanding.
The cracks: under the door, between pane and sill – how many? How wide?
Our friends married by the Sacramento River in the heat. You and I had clinked glasses with them and kissed for the new year. Now, another beginning and more champagne but we sat at different tables. Sometime during the reception we left to sit by the pool and talk.
The water glowed a green and still cradle for the July moon; a circle of lamplight enveloped us but shadowed your eyes. It was nothing like the time we lay in the sand and I closed and opened my eyes to see you newly. Or that afternoon on the hill, in the dry eucalyptus casings. We knew what the problems would be and did nothing.
Music and our friends’ laughter floated through the windows and I turned to face an orchard of almond trees, untouched and heavy with fruit in the scorched fields, a vista wide enough to get lost in but not nearly enough to sustain me.
For Someone Else
The airplane’s porthole window, grey with mist, frames the peachy amber smudge of horizon, dark deltas edging grids of San Francisco’s pinprick lights. Pockets of pressure rattle the cabin; I can’t tell how bad it is. I have to wring the details from this moment: the pressure to describe the faded grey tray-tables, the indeterminate smudges evidencing other bodies. It’s painful but I’m not supposed to tell you that. Instead, here’s the smudge of smoke over the city, orange groves and olive groves covered, fields of poppy and sunflower, neat rows of wine grapes choking, the pressure in my ears before they pop.
Once my ex said, “Don’t tell me you think she is magnificent, tell me she is magnificent.” Why couldn’t I tell him that I was jealous of the girl in the white dress, of her thunderstorms that came with rain, of her lakey eyes and the months she spent with rows of canned vegetables in a field of snow? Why wouldn’t he let me tell him that? He tried to wring something else out of me. Something dry.
Boxing Day: Lime Ridge
The trouble is I never let go of anything. Not the red and teal crumpled wrapping; not the day we walked up this hill with champagne shoved in your bag. All week I’ve been ten places at once but never here. Your cat knocked her jaw on my cheek and time collapsed like a telescope. Tomorrow and two years ago: an aerial glance at fallow fields before the fog closes over. But today, my mom’s too large fleece sweater, a spiral notebook dusty from the garage, boots wrested from a closet shelf. The hill is just as steep and I lose my breath. We checked that tree for figs all summer but found only hard small fruit. Or at night, trying to see all the sky at once, to chatch the Pleiades. That smoke, all summer. The dirt splits in the sun – my state: golden, but too dry and always on fire. Eucalyptus leaves smell the same, but I remember a man who still feels new; the cracks in us could be fractures or hatching, stretch marks on a growing body. Moments inside moments, like nesting dolls. And I keep leaving, mostly California.
When I dream of California, it’s not golden hills glowing orange fire at sunset, or the sprays of poppies scattered on the hillside, misty redwoods and salamanders seeping out of the moist earth, oranges hanging full on the neighbor’s tree, the sweltering summers or consuming fires, the suction of icy waves sinking my feet into sand, zipping through the Caldecott Tunnel at dusk, windows down, stereo up, on my way to a party in the city where I will stand outside at midnight and the sky will be clear, the deck still warm to my bare feet from the full sun, a cool drink in my hand and crickets finding their voices, or the fog that will roll over the hills in the morning that I miss. It’s your eucalyptus eyes and how they brightened in the sunlight the summer we searched for figs.