A Western

Now you’re here too in the apocalypse your ancestors made.
–Natalie Diaz

It’s not fucked up to want to feel safe. We were drawn together by that desire. In Providence, in Oakland, in Charlottesville. Circumstances make it feel so impossible, you would think that there’s something wrong with you, for wanting that.

I was reading about the Camp and the Woolsey fires while listening to “You Must Remember This” (the one about the Manson murders and California in the 1960s) in a cubicle inside one of the largest natural foods distributors in North America, fantasizing about fresh hachiya persimmons at the Temescal Farmers’ Market in Oakland in December, teaching my coworkers how to spell “Aleppo,” like, Aleppo pepper.

I was learning that my brother and I say we’re from two different places. We were both born at the same hospital. I’m “from California” because that’s where I was born and he’s “from New Jersey” because that’s where he grew up. California is where I was born, where I keep returning.

I went to college in Oakland and have ping-ponged back and forth ever since. To and/or from Brooklyn, to and/or from Oakland, to and/or from Providence. It all, Oakland, and my frenetic state of returning, seeming so much like the apocalypse to me right now. Displaced by the cost of inelegant lifestyle, by the fires that sweep up and down like a broom, in search of beauty and substance.

I was learning that in Hollywood in the 1960s rock stars wanted to appear bad. Beach Boy Dennis Wilson strode around with Charles Manson to appear like an outlaw. The Manson family camped on the abandoned former set of a Western, sleeping in a log cabin that once belonged to Will Rogers. Sneaking from one habitat to another, popping LSD.

Now the Camp Fire displaces, burns out the edges like film stock destroyed in a warehouse fire. Rent, taxes, displacement. Molly photographs page after page of Joan Didion’s essay “Los Angeles Notebook,” the one about the Santa Ana Winds, sharing each one.

In the time of the Camp Fire, I swipe from friend to friend on my phone, frozen in place, observing who’s wearing a mask and who’s not when indoors and outdoors. Stephanie, Maya, and Tati take pics of themselves with masks on indoors. School canceled, book release party canceled.

To know you would have to leave them. Before the Camp Fire, I flew to San Francisco for a job interview. The purpose of the trip was to determine if I could live there again, if I wanted to live there again. In the mornings, Truong and I left his apartment at the corner of Haight-Ashbury to get coffee among the homeless population in what was historically the epicenter of 1960s idealism. People fret, plead, and die in daylight.

“Which city?” Dave responded when I said, “I feel like I’m breaking up with an entire city.” I looked around the room, sprawled out on Truong’s sofa, and said with certainty, “This one.” The source materials of my education were stacked bedside, while tourist-piloted go-carts whizzed by, while the news that the poet Tom Clarke was hit by a car in Berkeley hung like a disorienting fog in the air.

“I am in California” is not the same as “I am from California.” Can’t “in” and “from.” To be from somewhere, other than where you are, you would have to have come from somewhere else and arrived at that conclusion. Committed ownership of the phrase, “I am a bleeding wound.”

Imagined awkwardness of friends about to leave the house, putting masks on before they walk out the door. How normal this is going to be soon. Not, and yet, normal.

death toll expected to rise             wreckage the two-story building burst into flames
DNA and dental records, officials asked victims’ families to preserve potential DNA samples
from a hairbrush, toothbrushes to assist in identifications                        working with the transgender community to identify some of the victims saw you wearing a mask
flames too high sky changes color, blue then red, home deteriorates, detritus         not there
it disappears

“Hope the flames don’t jump the city!” Peter said on speakerphone while I drove unblinkingly through the snowy US/Canada border to Montreal to get a tattoo that said “I am enough.” “You know the name of the town that’s the epicenter, right?” he said, chuckling. “Paradise” I replied under my breath. “Paradise!” he said, chuckling incredulously, my answer drowned out by the sound of the windshield wipers’ relentless frenzy and the cough of the motor.

Many people arriving when it started; dance party supposed to go until very late. Golden Donna to perform. John Evanofski at 31st Avenue; giant flames lit up the night sky amid the billows of black smoke. “You could feel the heat of the flames…Most of us were crying or unable to react. It was so hot and so terrible knowing that so many of us were still inside.” Wondering if anything I can do but think I’ve done everything that I can do. Pippi: “I invented googly eyes.” Take another sip of your tea and you’ll fall asleep faster. Everyone here looks like someone else.

Former California state chief fire marshal said “firefighters move slowly and cautiously for several reasons: falling debris, building collapse; you don’t want to disturb evidence that’s critical for the fire investigation….So the key is, you’ve got to move slowly and preserve the scene so that investigators can determine area of origin and subsequently the point of origin (of the fire), and then the cause.”

I was seated on the train from Providence to New Jersey, watching the window move through the landscape, texting Cheena about my new tattoo that says “I am enough,” wondering how Zoe remains lovely and pleasant in spite of it all. I was trying to be better at being focused and disconnecting, so that home stays at home, so that I don’t “bring home with me,” visualizing Lea’s body, her hand grasping mine and tongue filling my mouth. Lea drove me home from the bar last night then sped away so quickly.

The pickup truck came from her dad, my voice comes from my mom, my teeth’s misalignment comes from my mom, her hair came from her mom, her tattoo came from Amherst; wanting to ask her about it, having a religious family and deciding not to tell them that she’s gay. “They want someone like me to go to Hell,” she said haltingly. Then why are they your family? I wondered.

I was dancing alone, wearing marching band shorts with fringe on either side, on New Year’s Eve, in the ballroom of a warehouse three years after the Ghost Ship Fire, noticing how much safer I felt there as opposed to the house where I grew up in New Jersey. “Have you ever been involved with a woman like this?” I said and referred to myself, seated across from her at the bar, not drinking alcohol, inevitably pointing to my breasts when indicating “me” “myself.”

It all just comes through like static little bursts: “Would love to see you again” he said. “You did nothing wrong” she said. All your messages after sound angry, even though you are supposedly having a good time. I was wondering if it was “all over my face,” not knowing. Queer because of the memory of a smile after, not because anything lasted, because nothing lasts.

The message from California: “Where is the California hellscape?”

When we’re all gone, what will be left
What will they learn about us?

In her room, Molly left a note asking us to handle her record player with care because it belonged to someone who died. Floating my palm above the record player’s spindle arm made me feel closer to Nick, her friend, to Molly, her, to Kiyomi, my friend, to Oakland, the idealistic place where I’m from, where they disappeared, a place in time, rapidly vanishing.

Katie calls on the second anniversary of Kiyomi’s death in the Ghost Ship Fire saying, “Me and Belinda were supposed to be there.” Didn’t know you were gone until we noticed how long your car had been parked outside. Alex’s mother appears on network news to say: “I lost my only child. Nothing can replace that.”

I visit Oakland friends on the East Coast. Britt and Zoe live in Northampton. Zoe: “It’s been a minute since we’ve entertained a friend from the old country.” The most idealistic aspects of home get recreated in our behaviors, in our engagement with each other, our energy and delirious comfort in our mutual oddness.

Kate: “we are breathing the literal homes, playgrounds, concrete, cars that belonged to other communities–right to our noses.”

The City of Oakland identified the first eight victims Sunday night eucalyptus flammable warehouse                         composed of extremely flammable gorgeous furniture firefighters put out             blaze             Saturday, building deemed too unsafe to enter roof collapsed onto second floor             parts of that collapsed on to the first floor

How do I contain this much sadness?
The importance of being somewhere where one’s existence is understood
I hadn’t realized how important that is until now

Wanting to smoke but can’t

Paradise is burning and maybe the way to come to terms with it is that nothing lasts. A blaze never before seen in modern California history. The Camp Fire reduced Paradise to ash, 76 people killed, more than 1,200 missing. Before, a 1933 fire in Griffith Park, Los Angeles, stood for decades as the state’s deadliest.

“This is just a head-spinning trajectory, these past few years in California.” “It’s just a stack of papers.” “I knew this wasn’t going to be the last huge fire, but one of the first of the huge fires. The whole landscape of the West is going to change.”

soot and ash, friend is ash
charcoal peel scrub

“Around Paradise, air quality is considered hazardous for everyone. The county health department is urging people to remain inside. But this has been difficult for evacuees. More than 81,000 people forced from their homes, sleeping outside in tents, unable to find other shelter.”

I’m 33, I don’t have kids, I have never been married. I work in higher education. I have a graduate degree.

“In PARADISE, Calif.–the wildfires that laid waste to vast parts of California present residents with a new danger: air so thick with smoke it ranks among the dirtiest in the world.”

I’m 4’11, I have little to no retirement. I have some savings.

“Closest to the Paradise fire, apocalyptic fog cloaked the roads, evacuees wandered in white masks and officials said respiratory hospitalizations had surged.”

She comes home to her room in a shared apartment and likes to light a candle to relax.

“The building is known as the ‘Ghost Ship.’ Photos posted online show an interior cluttered with drums, keyboards, guitars, clocks, ornate beds, plush sofas, mirrored dressers, tables, benches, and artifacts. Exotic lamps hang from the ceiling, and paintings adorn some of the walls. Not for residences, but artists pushed out by the rental market created homes there. Not signed off on a special permit for the event, no evidence of sprinklers in the warehouse.”

What if I’m incapable of having a relationship, what if I’m bad at relationships forever, what if I’m bad at communicating, what if I only know how to communicate with my body and I’m bad at boundaries because my boundaries aren’t respected and I’m so often criticized when I speak? What if I don’t feel comfortable expressing myself except with my body? What if everyone else knows how to be in a group and I don’t and I never will?

“The fire, which ignited Nov. 8 and destroyed 13,696 homes in and around the town of Paradise, north of Sacramento, is by far the most destructive in California history.”

What if I’m a bleeding wound. “And researchers warned that as large wildfires become more common–spurred by dryness linked to climate change–health risks will almost surely rise.” “If this kind of air quality from wildfires doesn’t get people concerned,” said Dr. John Balmes, a pulmonologist at the University of California at San Francisco, “I don’t know what will.”

“At fault, researchers say, is a confluence of two modern events: more people are moving to communities in and around wooded enclaves, pushed out by factors like the rising costs of housing and the desire to be closer to nature–just as warming temperatures are contributing to longer and more destructive wildfires.”

What if I’m coming to terms with all of my expectations and beliefs up to this point before burning it all down

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Sara Wintz

Sara Wintz is a graduate of Mills, a small women's college in Oakland, California founded in 1852 to educate the daughters of California's first gold rush, and earned her MFA in writing from the interdisciplinary Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts at Bard College. Her writing appears in print and online, in publications like Art Papers, 6x6, The Creative Independent, and Chicago Review and is forthcoming at JSTOR Daily. Since 2013, she has been a staff writer for the Poetry Foundation's official blog, Harriet. Ugly Duckling Presse published her first book, a personal history told by way of year-by-year Wikipedia searches through the twentieth century, in 2012.