As Friday approached, wildfires exploded in Sonoma and Napa. Smoke spiraled downwind and blanketed the peninsula. No one would drive anywhere that weekend. And so, on the fifth day of the Tubbs Fire, Jack, Nathan, and Nigel called off their camping trip and planned a dinner party—chicken with garlic cloves, kosher salt, and herbes de provence; the recipe had come from the New York Times and they thought it sounded vaguely French.
Nessie climbed the steps of the row house clutching a bottle of pinot noir—a light red—per Jack’s instructions. Earlier that day, she had called him to ask what they were going to cook, and he had only laughed and said it was a surprise. I’m a vegetarian, she said, I think I told you that, but I like surprises. She hoped the wine would be okay. It wasn’t expensive by any stretch of the imagination, nor was it cheap; she hoped it was, simply, an innocuous and suitable offering from a 35-year-old woman to her younger lover and his friends.
Smoke rolled in with the fog, painting the sky pale yellow. Nessie waited on Jack’s doorstep with watery eyes, breathing into her scarf. She had gone to work that morning, worried, but she and her coworkers had kept their heads down—went to their meetings, discussed quarterly milestones and competitor analysis. On the thirty-seventh floor, Nessie drank the company’s free kombucha and watched smoke creep across the Bay Bridge.
She scrolled through her phone, skimming articles. There weren’t wildfires like this where Nessie was from, and she was scared. She wondered if the wind could carry the flames into San Francisco. A story caught her eye about an old conservationist who had rescued a thousand exotic animals from his private zoo in Sonoma County. Incredible. The man owned giraffes, hyenas—even rhinos—and somehow, he had managed to save them all, single-handedly, by running a fire hose up and down the length of his property. Nessie was thinking about those animals when Jack opened the door.
He gave her a quick kiss. She was dressed in all black again: black leather jacket, black t-shirt, high-waisted black jeans— too much black for his liking, but she looked good. He thought her hair was pretty. Long and dark with blonde tips, like she used to bleach it, and these shaggy bangs. Jack hoped his friends would like her.
“Well, are you just gonna stand there or are you gonna shuffle on down to Buffalo?” he asked. “Come on in and get out of that smoke.”
She followed him up the stairs, admiring his behind. So many reasons why she liked younger men. Jack had a full head of auburn hair—his best feature. Aside from that ass, of course.
A garlicky smell filled the house, a respite from the stink outside.
“We made chicken,” Jack said over his shoulder.
“Oh. I…” Nessie stopped at the top of the staircase. She could hear his housemates puttering in the kitchen, their laughter. Abruptly, Jack pressed her up against the wall and kissed her.
“I know you’re a vegetarian,” he breathed into her mouth. “Don’t worry, we made lentils just for you.”
“Oh,” she said. “Thanks.”
He took her hand and pulled her into the kitchen where Nigel and Nathan stood by the sink, eating sardines from the can with their fingers.
“You’re the first guest,” Jack said.
The boys were the same age—23—but Nigel already had thinning blonde hair. She had noticed him first the night they all met—Howard the Duck playing on the TV above the bar—and she had hit on him. Looking at him now, she wasn’t sure why. It must have had something to do with the dim lights and his faint British accent. Nathan was, by far, the most conventionally good looking of the trio: a quiet boy with brown, thoughtful eyes. She hadn’t noticed Jack until she realized he had been lingering by her side for a good ten or fifteen minutes. A broad face and deep-set eyes. Light freckles dotting his nose. There was something—the high cheekbones, the delicate nose and mouth—that gave him an elven appearance.
Jack was a generous lover—eager to please. And often, he was very sweet. But Nessie had to admit, he had a weird sense of humor—always snickering, like he was tickled by an inside joke he shared only with himself.
“Have some sardines.” Nigel shoved the can toward Nessie.
“No thanks, I—”
“Nathan has a theory about sardines,” Nigel said. “He says heterosexual women don’t like ‘em.”
“Wow,” Nessie swallowed, “That’s presumptuous.”
Jack offered her a small, tight-lipped smile.
“Is it Nessie like Nessie the Loch Ness Monster?” asked Nigel.
“It’s short for Vanessa,” she said, releasing a good-natured laugh. “Vanessa Ann.”
“Derrick and Megan just bailed,” Nathan interrupted. “Said they can’t breathe out there.”
“Bummer,” Jack said. In that case, he hoped Nathan’s girlfriend would arrive soon. She was good at making small talk—she would put Nessie at ease with his friends. He watched her pick the flesh around her thumbnail from the corner of his eye.
“Yo, when’s Rebecca gonna get here?” he asked.
Nathan shrugged. “You know how that woman is, can’t show up anywhere on time. Let’s just start without her.”
“Hey Nessie,” Nigel said, jabbing the serving fork in her direction, “You’re going to help us eat this extra chicken.”
“Oh no, I’m a vegetarian.” She smiled, looking at the tines of the fork.
“Look, you don’t have to eat anything you don’t want to,” Jack said, taking Nessie’s hand and guiding her to the living room couch.
Jack had dated a handful of girls in college—a couple of girls he had really, really liked— but he had never been in love. There was Robin, but she hadn’t loved him back so that didn’t count. It had almost been a year since he’d last seen her, and he hated how he still felt a little bruised.
Jack loved his friends; Nathan and Nigel were like his brothers, and he couldn’t imagine his future without them. He wanted a romantic kind of love that would make him feel the way his friends did: Accepted. Like the funniest guy ever.
“I’ll bring out the wine!” Jack said.
Nathan grunted in approval. “Are you going to open the vuh-ray?
“Naw, we’ll open Nessie’s bottle right now. We need to save the vuh for dinner.”
“Voo what?” Nessie asked, tentative.
“Viré-Clessé. Nothing but a fifty-dollar bottle of French wine.” Jack winked.
Jack brought out Nessie’s bottle and poured the pinot noir into each of their glasses.
“S’not bad,” Nigel said, sticking his nose deep into his glass.
Nessie had felt like she was on top of the world when she arrived in San Francisco that summer. She had escaped her siblings’ fates: married to loser spouses with kids sucking up all the money, stuck in Auburndale, eating Beef O Brady’s, watching the game, watching old episodes of Touched by an Angel, working at the air conditioning company their grandfather had once owned.
She laughed at herself when she remembered how big Orlando had felt when she moved there—the first in her family to graduate college and get a master’s degree. The folks in her family were fine people, one could say, the salt of the earth, really. But aimless. Hell, she knew they made fun of her too; more than once she found out she’d been dropped from the family group text so they could talk shit about something she’d said or posted online. But was it so wrong to want to be better than the salt of the earth? Was it so wrong to want more for herself? Nessie was hungry.
“Nessie, any song requests?” asked Jack.
“Yeah, how about Dust Bunnies by Kurt Vile.”
Nigel changed the music to jazz—Charles Mingus. “This is better,” he said.
Nigel perched on the arm of the couch and stared at Nessie. A doughy face, big tits, and kind of ridiculous bangs. Man, he really hated bangs. She wasn’t ugly, but she wasn’t someone he would have noticed on the street either. All week, Jack had been strutting around, preening his feathers, proud of himself for scoring with an older woman. He hadn’t mentioned she was a total techie. An aging techie.
It’s not that Nigel didn’t want Jack to be happy—he did. Nigel had known Jack since he was eight, fresh from England with his dour family. They had grown up together in the same San Jose suburb. He just couldn’t remember the last time he had hung out alone with his best friends. And he’d been meaning to talk to Jack about his manic desperation for a girlfriend—almost any girlfriend, it seemed. Nigel frowned, staring down Nessie’s obvious cleavage. This should have been their camping weekend.
Nigel tore his gaze from her breasts and glared at the back of Jack’s head.
“So, Nigel. Tell me what you do,” Nessie said. “Do you work in The City?”
“Yes’m,” Nigel said. “I work at a non-profit education fund. And you’re from Orlando, I hear. Florida? I went to Florida once, Panhandle. Redneck Riviera!”
“Well, I grew up in a tiny town called Auburndale,” Nessie said. “But I’ve been to the Panhandle. I went there once on a road trip with some friends.” Nessie looked down and surprised herself by blushing. “Actually, we called it the ‘Dirty South road trip.’”
Jack put the sardines on the table.
“We went to Tallahassee, and Atlanta and—”
“You went to Woo-wooo!” said Nigel. “Is that what you did, a little wooo wooo?”
“Um, no?” Nessie squawked. “I don’t think I know what you mean by that.”
“Hey, are you a dog person or a cat person?” Nathan interrupted. “Dogs or kitties?
“Actually, I’m a bird person,” said Nessie, brightening up. “Like parrots.”
“That’s cool,” Nathan said, turning back to his phone.
Nathan didn’t have much of an opinion about Nessie, or any of the girls Jack brought home. More than anything, he was annoyed because the introduction of a new girl meant the little dance between Nigel and Jack would start up again. Though neither one of them would admit it, they had a jealousy thing going on.
There had been an unspoken competition between all three of them over who would get a job first. Of course, it had been Nigel just one month out of school. A few weeks later, Jack landed his boring but well-paid job at the bank. Nathan spent eight months applying to every media company in the Bay Area, only to interview with four—none of which offered to hire him. He passed those long days at home by himself while Nigel and Jack went to work then happy hour then Bumble dates. That first summer wasn’t so bad, but then Rebecca started graduate school for speech therapy, and he was all alone.
Nathan eventually found contract gigs writing marketing copy for two separate startups. He hoped one of them would hire him fulltime. Didn’t Jack say Nessie had a good job as a UX designer? Maybe if it went well tonight, she could hook him up with an informational interview with someone on her team. He wasn’t sure how he would broach that subject. He’d have to think it through; He didn’t want to appear too hungry.
Aside from the clatter of kitchen sounds, a lull had fallen over the living room. Finally, Nessie picked up a handbook of French phrases from a pile of books on the coffee table.
“Who speaks French?” she offered.
“Do you speak French?” Nigel leaned toward her.
Nessie began to stammer. Un peu she wanted to say, though she couldn’t quite get her mouth to make the right sound.
“A poo,” Nigel chuckled.
“No!” Her voice rose an octave. “The word that means ‘a little.’”
“That’s pronounced un peu,” Nigel said. ‘Puh’ he pronounced it on a short, easy breath.
She let out a slow exhale when Jack summoned them into the kitchen.
“Come and get it!”
They got up at once to grab their plates and serve themselves. Nigel switched the Spotify station to John Coltrane.
Nessie stared at the lentils burnt to a bluish green pile at the bottom of the pot and wondered whether the boys had cooked them in chicken broth. They brought their plates to the high wooden dining table. Nathan sat closest to the kitchen and Nessie sat between Jack and Nigel.
“Let’s open the Viré-Clessé,” Nathan said.
The chicken smelled delicious. Nessie was, admittedly, a terrible vegetarian. She enjoyed meat—no, loved it—especially steak medium rare. Once in a blue moon, and only in the privacy of her bedroom, she would eat thin slices of prosciutto straight from the package.
“I see you eyeing that thigh,” Nigel said. “You can have it if you want.”
“We won’t judge you,” Nathan said.
“So,” Nessie said. “How did you three meet?” She sounded too cheery, and she knew it.
“We met at a Korean internet café,” said Nathan.
“That’s where all the kids went to watch porn,” added Nigel, his mouth bunching into a tight, red knot.
Nigel brushed against Jack as he leaned over to pour Viré into each of their glasses. Nessie took a sip. It was tasty and sweet, but no different than any other wine that she could discern. She tried not to look at the chicken or savor its aroma. A shimmering pool of juices caught the light on Jack’s plate.
“You guys hear about Safari West?” Nessie said. “The wildlife preserve in Sonoma? The owner had a choice to either save his house or save the animals, and he let the house burn. Did you see that photo of the giraffe in the smoke?”
“Huh, you like that, Nessie? You like that wine?” Nigel said.
“It amazes me how people can go to work like normal when the state is burning!” Nessie said.
“Welcome to California,” said Nigel. “The wine’s good, right?”
Nessie cleared her throat. “It’s good. Like, sweet. But I don’t have a sophisticated palate. Not like y’all.”
“Nessie, I want you to try this chicken.” Nigel cut a slice from his plate and waved his fork at her. “Just one little bite.”
“It won’t kill you,” Nathan said, with a full mouth.
“You’re going to hurt my feelings if you don’t try a bite of this.” Nigel grinned and waved his fork.
“Knock it off, Nigel,” said Jack.
Nessie batted Jack’s hand away.
“It’s fine,” she said.
She grabbed Nigel’s fork and slid the chicken off with her fingers. She looked at it a moment and put it in her mouth.
It was fantastic: the meat juicy, the skin perfectly browned and crisp. It satiated that craving she tried hard to ignore. She remembered—and even missed—how she used to be: unconcerned about waste, factory farming, and God damn climate change.
Immediately, she regretted giving in.
Nessie opened her eyes to Nigel’s smirk. She saw Jack purse his lips together tight. Then, he began to giggle.
“That chicken’s gonna make you cluck,” he whispered to her.
“I beg your pardon?” she said, her eyes opening wide.
“The Viré-Clessé. So good,” Nathan said.
The rhythm of chewing and sipping sounds filled the room. Jack looked feline chewing on a bone, one eye small and squinty. Nessie tried to think of something to talk about besides the fire but came up short. Nathan and Nigel aerated their wine. An obscene amount of lentils remained on Nessie’s plate.
Nathan’s phone lit up with a text from Rebecca.
Can’t leave house, babe. Smoke gave me asthma attack. I’m okay tho. Call me later.
“That sucks,” Jack said between bites. “Maybe you should call her?”
“Yeah, in a second. She said she’s okay.”
“Maybe you should go see her,” Nessie suggested.
“Naw, if it’s that bad out, you shouldn’t leave the house,” said Nigel.
“I made it over here okay,” Nessie said.
“I probably should,” Nathan groaned. “I don’t want to.”
“I don’t blame you,” Jack said, shrugging. “I wouldn’t want to go out there, either.”
Nessie put down her fork.
“His girlfriend had an asthma attack, Jack.”
Everyone looked up at her.
“Everything gives her an asthma attack,” snapped Nathan.
“This is our dinner party,” said Nigel. “No one is leaving this house.”
Silence. Forks scraping plates. Nessie tried to catch Jack’s eyes, but he was scrolling through his phone. Eventually, Nathan stood and his chair screeched against the wood floor.
“I should go see her,” he said.
“Bye, ass clown!” Nigel shouted, watching Nathan carry his bicycle down the stairs and out the door. He turned his attention back to the table. “We need a new cast iron pan,” he sighed.
“You ever been to Cookin’?” Jack asked Nessie. Before she could respond, he continued. “It’s this great consignment shop with some of the best kitchenware you’ll ever find.”
“The owner is a hoarder,” said Nigel.
“A big, old surly woman,” Jack giggled.
Nessie fell silent as the boys regaled her with memories of the Cookin’ owner throwing them out of the store or humoring their incessant questions with stone-faced silence.
“I spent five-hundred bucks there and the next time I came back, she said she didn’t remember me. I said, ‘Annie, don’t you remember me? And she said, ‘Nah, your face looks the same as everyone else’s.’”
They were both talking so fast, Nessie wasn’t sure who was speaking anymore. Heat rose in her cheeks.
Blushing again. “She probably knew you were making fun of her,” she said.
“No way, we respect the fuck out of her,” Jack said, looking boyish and hurt. “Dude, she sells shit to Alice Waters.”
“Oh! From Chez Pahnay?” Nessie asked, genuinely curious.
“It’s Chez Panisse,” said Nigel. He pronounced it Chez Pah-neeeese.
Nessie went all the way red. “She probably thought you were an asshole,” she snapped.
“What’s that?” Nigel said, frowning.
“Now, now,” Jack giggled. “Don’t you get a burr up under your saddle, little lady.”
Nessie spoke again, with force.
“I said, she probably thought you were both assholes.”
Jack’s nostrils flared as if she had struck him.
“You can’t just walk into someone’s house and call them an asshole,” he said, and his voice broke a little.
Nessie cupped her face in her hands. “You’re right, I’m sorry.”
She meant it.
“That’s all right,” Jack said, leaning towards her. He put his hand up on her thigh. “I’m still gonna pluck the meat off your bones.” He began to giggle; he had meant to say fuck. “And make you cluck”—his lips trembled against her ear—“like a hen.”
Nessie jerked back and Jack picked up his knife and fork.
Nigel smiled into his phone, scrolling.
“Okay,” said Nessie. She stood and brought her plate to the sink. Jack followed her into the kitchen. Nessie turned on the hot water.
“You don’t have to clean up this mess,” he said.
She looked past him into the living room where Nigel was laughing at his screen.
“I have it, thanks.”
“Don’t thank me,” he said.
She dried her dish and put it away. He followed her down the stairs. Alone, outside, on the stoop, his features seemed to soften, grow kinder.
“Can I convince you to stay?” he said.
Nessie stood in the threshold and remembered her first weeks in San Francisco. How she’d walk and walk alone for hours after work, through Chinatown and North Beach and into the Marina as dark fog settled on the bay. She had felt ecstatic, like the whole world had blown open with possibilities, and she had felt lonely.
She’d sit near the window at Vesuvio’s, nursing whiskey tonics with an open book, her eyes drawn to the red light blinking from the top of the Transamerica Pyramid. She’d weave through tourists to buy bread from the Boudin Factory, and she remembered those sourdough alligators lined up in the window—glazed and perfect, their candy eyes winking. They looked like they’d been made with such tenderness, Nessie thought she might cry.
She’d eventually make her way down Valencia and Mission Streets, her hair streaming behind her like a dark banner, in her new dark clothes, feeling free, feeling homesick, feeling a throbbing ache to meet the people who’d become her people—the people who’d become her friends.
Now, to the north, the fires were only a quarter contained. For another week, or two, they would burn through wine country, chewing on the bones of houses and ancient, beloved land. Across the peninsula, the air would turn yellow, and the sky would spit up ash.
Smoke streamed into the house—everything would smell the same now. Jack’s eyes were red and watery. Nessie heard pleading in his voice.