Today the sky was poison. A two-day-old bruise of reproachful sun. Silence. Even the birds had lost their words. In the morning, it smelled like campfire. Barbeque, even. We joked about craving cigarettes. By evening every breath burned. Our eyes burned, fruitlessly watering our cheeks. Our throats burned. By evening we’d grown hacking coughs. Emphysema. Maybe we didn’t miss those cigarettes so much. Somewhere out there our wildest places burned, twisted and charred wonderlands, sucking away the air. Replacing air with alien skies.
The smoke has found a home here in our valley, settling in over our city, over our rooftops, over our heads. Close all the windows. Turn on the AC. Tiny steps to the kitchen. Tiny steps back to the couch. Tiny breath, no laughs. No sighs, no long monologues, please, only silent meditations. Outside, the succulents have gathered a layer of grey. Flakes of grey fall in a delicate swing-set motion. Alight in our valley, on our rooftops, on our heads. Quiet as snow falling. You could almost go out there and spin in wonderment, grin at the poisoned sky. You could almost don your beanie and your gloves and earmuffs. Reach the tip of your tongue out to see what all that grey tastes like.
A woman posted on the Nextdoor app, in all caps: “BEWARE! I WAS OUT WASHING MY CAR! MY CAR WAS COVERED IN ASH! AND A MAN APPROACHED ME WHILE I WAS WASHING MY CAR! HE WANTED TO TALK TO ME, AND HE WASN’T WEARING A MASK! CAN’T HE SEE MY CAR? IT’S COVERED IN ASH! BEWARE OF THIS MAN!”
Warning: I leave a trail of flakes wherever I go. Something about heartbreak and psoriasis. My skin is angry. Tiny circles of flame ignite and grow uncontrolled, spreading across my thighs, under my breasts. A fast-burning firebrand consuming everything before it, embers jumping the perimeter of my ass crack, bursting into hot spots, leaving unfamiliar terrain. Freckles once lived here. You used to be able to wander your fingers amongst the old-growth of my mons pubis and rest your nose against the inside of my belly button, as clear and pristine as Lake Tahoe. Now my skin falls like snow onto the furniture. Like dandruff from Ally Sheedy’s head. Like ashes from a thousand wild animals. It’s in the water. It’s in the air. You’re breathing it into your lungs right now. Remember: Tiny breaths. Tiny, tiny.
We read the Air Quality Index every day now, day 10, day 15, day giant question mark. Open our phone screens like fortune cookies: what is our daily destiny? Can we leave the house? Walk the dog? Orange means no, yellow means maybe, green means go. Red and purple are cruel colors that mean our tiny circus of tiny steps once again commences. We root for orange, keep our fingers crossed for yellow. Once we woke up to a green, ran outside, jammies half off, stumbling to put on hiking leggings, eyes squinty and hopeful for a real sun and chirpy birds, and then the acrid smell hit our noses, and we looked around, incredulous. Our neighbor Gary, burning his trash. What the fuck, Gary? Are you trying to kill us? We need to breathe! We need to move!
My mom and I were always moving when I was young. We traveled by car, across states, day 1, day 10, day who really knew anymore. My memories of this time take place at night, a great, inky night where stars burn tiny circles into the sky and fall like shedding skin. Where I lay in the backseat, hiding from her heat. Breathing in her smoke. The ember of my mom’s ever-lit cigarette dancing in the hazy space upfront, a dizzy firefly keeping time with the radio. My legs propped up on the back window, peeking between my feet at the sickly glare of a reproachful moon. The thrum of the engine purring under me, reminding me of combustion, of wildfire, of her unbearable sadness. I’d fall asleep those nights, us speeding like icy-hot comets across miles of endlessly lonesome trail, wondering if what my mom said was true: that we weren’t the ones burning. It was the outside world on fire, not us.