Shoshona got her period the day after the Fallbrook Fire erupted east of Highway 15 and incinerated hundreds of acres of pot and palm tree farms. Her boyfriend blamed blue balls. Her nana blamed MTV. Us? We knew better than to point fingers.
We knew there were other ways to start fires.
“I’m so sick of this shithole,” Kelsey told me over a carne asada burrito in the hotel beach access. It was Good Friday. The air was still cottony with weed smoke and palm ash. We should’ve been in AP Chemistry, but Kelsey’s parents were at a Harley show in Reno, so we got stoned in Kelsey’s bedroom and spent the morning making out. The beach access was our shared version of limbo. We would sit fifty feet up from the sand, claim the cement landing between three stories of multi-million-dollar luxury real estate as ours—and scowl at the narrow frame of sea below.
“I wonder what it was like,” I said, “to not be afraid of water.”
Kelsey dug a piece of charred meat out of her teeth and flicked it towards the waves. “After graduation,” she said, “I’m moving to New York.”
“What’s in New York?”
“Cement. Steel. Fire departments,” Kelsey winked at me through a triumph of red curls, “and real lesbians.”
We both knew everything burned. We’d come of age in endless smoke. We’d survived on desert shorelines and learned to extinguish our bodies in the Pacific. The sea, they said, would asphyxiate what was programmed to combust. So when our brothers and boyfriends and parents grew fearful, they sent us west, sent us to water, demanded we submerge, stay under until the North Pacific gyre had made us sufficiently numb.
They called it curing girls for fire season. But we knew that was bullshit. They were trying to do so much more than douse our phantom fires before they started. They were trying to extinguish the light at the source, to prevent it from shining at all.
Some of us took matters into our own hands. We knew the droughts would keep coming, that we would be blamed for the fires, that there was a reason we’d be given nothing to protect ourselves.
Emily survived the Elfin Forest Fire by creating a controlled burn beside her grandma’s jacuzzi. She used Asa’s love letters and the bottle of Popov her brother Joe left under the bed when he deployed.
They used to send us away from May to August. To church camp, to grandparents’ houses in the sticks.
That’s all changed now that the world is dying and fire season never ends. Summer is longer—and not in the ways we wanted it to be.
There were millions of dumb ways adults tried to “cure girls for fire season.” For whatever reason, most started with a home remodel or relandscaping.
Ilene’s dad was first to install tile floors and buy flame resistant sheets, but Nikki’s mom was the first to talk to us about the real risks of nights, all their unspent heat and desire—“the time of greatest flammability.”
“Fourteen. That’s when I started using metal cases for my cigarettes,” she said, taking a long drag on her Capri. She was trying to caution us, to comfort us with her experience. But I couldn’t take my eyes off of her fresh acrylics, the way they reflected the light of the sun like tiny mirrors.
The summer before I started high school, I got breasts and three smoking tickets from the same beach cop on bike. Dad razed the ice plant and honeysuckle and installed a fence-to-fence pool and granite patio. It was like the fucking Parthenon.
“I got this system,” Dad said, gesturing towards his $50,000 investment. “If a teenage boy’s penis so much as skims the top of that pool, the water will turn blood red—and I’m going to know.”
Our parents didn’t understand. They thought we avoided the pools because we were focused on our tans. It didn’t matter that California was in a drought and had been for fifty years. For my parents, the cost of curing was not even a question.
Lydia pierced her bellybutton the summer we lost our virginity. She fell asleep on the beach while listening to Patti Smith and woke up with a constellation of glass in her stomach. The barbell in her stomach looked like a fresh railroad tie. To be fair, the Santa Anas had been blowing all week, so it was only a matter of time before one of us got too hot for too long and melted a thing or two.
“Lydia, who’ve you been dickin’ around with?” Anita whispered. We were huddled in the corner of an air-conditioned waiting room full of construction workers and a boy who’d shoved a Lego up his nose.
“No one!” Lydia wept. “Not since Brian.” Then, “Do you think it’ll scar?”
“Those Yellow House boys are sketch,” I said, uneasy. I still hadn’t told her about the sleeping bag and the Underground and how I’d hooked up with Brian two weeks before she’d hooked up with him at Beth’s Motel 6 party. It didn’t bother me the way I knew it would bother her. I liked Brian, but I liked a lot of people. Girls. Boys. People. And anyway, fucking Brian hadn’t been about fucking Brian. It had been about seeing the forest for the trees. And it felt good. Everywhere. But, still. I wondered. Will I be next? Would I have to atone for pleasure? Would I wake up to see my mother’s jacaranda burned to the ground? Would I succumb to shame and shrapnel like Lydia or Aubrey or Dani or Natasha?
Any girl can start a grassfire with her bare knees. They told us that from an early age: Keep your skirts long and your shoulders bloused. Before you leave for school, check your risk level. Raise your arms above your head and squat down onto your haunches. Is your ass showing? Can you see your hip flexors? Think about where you fall on the danger scale. If it’s a Red Flag Warning kind of day, call the school and tell them to send your work home. If it’s prom week, know where your portable extinguisher is. I kept an E-Jet aerosol in the water bottle pocket of my Jansport that Mom bought from Duluth or Bartact when they had sales, usually around Easter or Memorial Day.
To be honest?
I’d never seen a girl start a fire.
But I’d felt the blistering heat of a lie. All of us had.
The last summer they sent me away to my aunt’s house in Humboldt, everything changed. While my aunt and uncle were off playing disc golf with friends from their local mycological society, I smoked an unfinished joint I found in one of the ashtrays and stumbled across a slim book, “Against Curing Girls for Fire Season,” tucked between two vegan cookbooks in the pantry. It didn’t have an ISBN number or a publisher or copyright year, but the paper felt like silk between my fingers.
I snuck the book home in my college applications Pee Chee, and when I wasn’t wearing the sheen down on its glossy pages, I hid it in the Thriller vinyl tacked to my bedroom wall.
Sometime in November, I think it was right after the Valley Fire wiped out the last of Escondido’s vineyards, Kelsey accepted a full ride to NYU for their music industry program. I was still waiting to hear back from a handful of film schools, all west of the Mississippi.
“What if it’s the same there, too?” I asked her. “I heard there are sharks in the East River.”
“Pink dolphins, too,” Kelsey smiled, leaning away from me, into the beach access railing. “You can’t get any gayer than that.”
I read it to Anita and Kelsey in the Taco Bell parking lot while we waited for AJ to pick us up and take us to Yellow House.
“‘…all this talk of catastrophe and fearmongering,’”—it was my favorite part—“‘is willful baptism by fire. We cannot let fear silence us like smoke. Fear itself is the accelerant.’”
Kelsey lit a cigarette, listened with the intensity of a barracuda. “‘…we must stop them from proselytizing our bodies. We must teach each other how to recover from these lies. We must show each other how to rise from the ashes of our oppressors and live anew.’”
The words ricocheted off the parking pylons, into the afternoon traffic. Anita passed me her horchata and stood up. Her eyes glistened. She was awake.
“Here,” I placed the pamphlet in her outstretched hand. “What do you think?”
“I think…” she started, watching AJ’s white Seabreeze pull into the parking lot, “things aren’t going to be the same anymore. They can’t be.”
Spencer opened the passenger door and gestured at his crotch, “There’s room on my lap for a hottie.”
“You wish, Spoons,” Anita said, eyes glued to a page I’d marked in red.
AJ, motionless behind the wheel, fist-bumped me through the driver’s side window as I sardined myself onto the split-leathered back seat. Anita rode bitch, her face pushed deep into the book’s loosening binding. I could feel my heart racing to catch up with the excitement of this secret I’d discovered and released into the world. I had no idea what we would do with it. All I knew was that everything had changed, and I didn’t want it to go back to the way it was.
Halfway to Yellow House, Kelsey unbuckled her seatbelt. She tossed her half-smoked cigarette out the window.
“Come here,” she whispered, reaching, swimming across the fishnet landscape of Anita’s lap until she arrived at the horizon of my body, until she crested me like a rising sun and everything was touch and light and so hard, so hot, I couldn’t tell who was melting who—I didn’t care—all I knew was that we’d never let them force us underwater again.