Wildfire smoke makes the sunset extra cotton-candy pink tonight. The air is so thick you could lick it. It melts into the cheeks, cakes along the throat’s lining.
When the sky reaches its saturation point, we seek relief indoors.
“Who am I to be given a bed instead of an ash pile?”
I say this and Alex smiles, drags from a cigarette with calloused fingers and chapped lips, replies, “They’ll come for you sooner or later, love. It’s only a matter of time.”
The other night, on my walk home from campus, I saw a man fishing in the park. Just standing there in the grass. He raised his pole and swung the line out into the middle of the lawn. Maybe he’s practicing, I thought, just in case the rivers come rushing back. He stood there for quite a while, then reeled his line back in and started again.
When my mom calls, she says that her air purifiers are out in full force. I wait for her to say that my house needs one, but she doesn’t. It feels so uncharacteristic that I almost prompt her. I almost say, “Yeah, we definitely don’t have one of those.”
I know that Alex and I won’t work; he is depressed and I am naïve.
On Friday, Liv and I go to Target after class because we don’t have anything else to do. Liv gets worked up in the Halloween aisle when I tell her my recent pizza drama.
“Basically, I’d been craving pizza all week and suggested getting it the other day. But I forgot that no one in my house eats dairy, so it quickly turned into a vegan fifteen-dollar personal-sized-pizza situation.”
“No,” Liv says.
“And I couldn’t do it.”
“Yeah, I couldn’t do it, so I literally just ate my lentil soup instead.”
Liv is about to rip a plush spider’s leg out of its body. She loves to get like this. “No. That literally makes me so mad. We have to get pizza right now. Let’s do it, let’s go.”
I don’t point it out, because it doesn’t matter, but Liv doesn’t eat dairy either.
Does this mean that we’re dying?
The sun announces itself in the room as red. It seeps through the slats in the window shades and pools against the cabinet doors. “Look,” someone says, and we all give a collective whoa. Someone gets their phone. Someone else gets their polaroid. Someone else turns the kettle off when it screams.
Alex’s hands, made of hardwood and cigarette smoke, hang gently over the wheel. The gas needle shudders near empty, and he shifts the stick into neutral so that we cruise down the canyon.
“Why do you have so many callouses?” I ask him and immediately feel childish.
He laughs. “From climbing.” I should’ve known. Everybody climbs these days. Alex likes to talk about climbing, but I don’t mind because I like when good people talk about the things they’re good at. Or else, I like when attractive people talk about the things they’re attractive at.
The beanie-clad man at the coffee shop is wearing cargo pants and a flannel shirt with its sleeves cut off. “Yeah, bro, I storyboard all of my shit now,” he says to his friend. I stifle a laugh and end up choking on my decaf oat milk agave-sweetened latte.
Liv and I place bets on when all our friends will marry. Andrew is already sprinting to the altar, but it’s hard to guess who will go second. “Does it jinx it if we show each other our lists?” I ask Liv. “Like how wishes don’t come true when you tell them to people?”
“This isn’t wishing,” Liv replies, so we show each other. We’ve both put her last. She’s both smart and cynical, a double-antidote for marriage.
My first-year roommate, Willow, who I still see sometimes, tells me she has formed a juuling habit, and for some reason, I’m confused.
“Like bejeweling?” I ask.
“What? Juuling?” Willow holds up her sleek rectangular vape pod.
“Oh my god. Oh my god. I’m so dumb.”
“Girl, are you joking?” For a second, I think about saying Yes, obviously I was joking, but I’ve been trying to stop lying unnecessarily, so I just bury my head in my hands.
“When you said that, it’s like I completely forgot that juuling exists.”
Willow sucks at the juul’s teat and exhales a cloud of mango and coconut smoke. Or maybe it’s blue raspberry.
Did you know that Frank Lloyd Wright built a Mayan Revival-style house in Los Feliz and you can walk right up to its walls? My housemates and I FaceTime our mothers from its gates and produce an echo in the street: “Ennis House…It’s called Ennis House…Look…Frank Lloyd Wright …Lloyd Wright…Yeah, Frank Lloyd Wright.”
Alex and I take barefoot walks on LA pavement, red-carpet cement lined by cactus bushes. If I could never wear shoes again, I wouldn’t, we agree. We practice saying the word bougainvillea. We accentuate each syllable in our mouths. We tell each papery pink flower its name.
“Would running be really bad for my lungs right now?” I ask. Instead of responding, Alex takes off down the street in his bare feet and rolled-up jeans.
Yesterday, I saw a dog tip over on the sidewalk. Just fall sideways like a tipped cow.
After our big midterm, Liv and I buy cigars and take them to the hilltop at the back of campus. It’s dark out, no stars out, but the spread-eagle city blinks steadily beneath us.
We puff with chipmunk cheeks. “I feel like Kramer,” I say.
“Lol.” Liv replies. “I think you’re actually not supposed to inhale the smoke.”
“Yeah, you just hold it in your mouth for the taste and then blow it out.”
“Hm.” I puff again and cradle the smoke against the roof of my mouth. From below the hill’s edge, two heads emerge and slowly grow into full bodies. We nod in their direction. Liv and I are quiet for a while because I’m awkward. I hope she doesn’t mind. Usually I would bring up TV shows or celebrities, but I don’t because I want to respect the solemnity of the dark.
It’s not a memory unless you think about it. Otherwise, it’s just something that happened.
Alex and I go hiking. I watch his back in front of me, search for a sign of the spot where his spine supposedly snapped not so long ago, until we reach the cliff’s edge and sit on the dirt, legs pressing into each other before dangling into thick air.
We’re quiet for a while; Alex always finds the city’s quiet spots.
And then he talks about his depression. I don’t know how to respond. I say, “Sometimes I like to sleep with the lights on.”
“Mm. That way the shadows can spoon me to sleep.” That’s nice, I think, then immediately feel bad for being too mock-poetic. I should’ve just said I’m sorry or touched him on the thigh.
My family has always said that when the world is ending, we’ll go to the Dodgers game. I wonder how to know when the world is ending. I wonder how much time I will need to drive to the stadium.
At Erewhon, everything is sold in mason jars. There are jars of every color, an edible art store. There is a bright turquoise juice called “Hempseed and Lemongrass” and an orange one named “Turmeric and Ginger.” I imagine they could bottle the smoke in the air and sell it at a good margin. “Aerosol and Ash,” they could call it, or maybe just “Wildfire and Warming.” The “Turmeric and Ginger” juice matches the shirt of the man who is sitting outside eating an also-orange wild salmon wrap. He’s wearing white bell bottoms, and when he gets up to leave, he kicks as he walks so that his pant legs don’t get stepped on.
It’s nice to realize that a memory is solid. To return to a spot and think, yes, that’s just how my mind left it.
For dessert, Liv and I stick our hands into peanut butter jars, lick Dollar Store adulthood off our swelling fingers. Our tongues stick to the roofs of our mouths and we gag with laughter, smack our jaws open and shut, open and shut, so that our laughs escape in gulps from our bellies. And it smells, our laughter. It smells like peanut butter and cheap beer and digested smoke. And the circulation in the room is bad because all the windows are closed, so we end up swallowing each other’s laughter all over again, and it tastes like peanut butter and cheap beer and regurgitated smoke.
The taco truck and the vegan mac n’ cheese truck have competing lines on opposite sides of the street. We are slowly learning the power of our wallets. “Hi, can I get one carnitas, one asada, and one al pastor? …Sí, con todo …Thank you.”
Alex and I don’t work. He is depressed and I am insensitive. Or he is hot and I am naïve. The embarrassing part is that he voices it before I do. “I mean, look at your body language right now.” We’re in the car. I’m hugging my legs to my chest, my sneakers on the seat and my chin resting on my knees.
“I’m mostly just cold,” I lie unnecessarily. He cranks the heater up and the car is quickly stuffed with hot air. I crack a window to keep from choking and the car is quickly stuffed with barbeque-scented air.
“What if we take it slow?” I say. Attraction is still ballooning in my chest, inflating bit by bit.
“I think I want to get back with my ex.”
The lemons on the back tree are actually grapefruits. The grapefruits are oranges.
The smoke is still needling its way into our eyes, so Liv and I flee to the beach. Liv mentions leaving LA and the ocean smacks her against its rocks without my even having to ask, steals her bikini top so that she must crouch beneath the foam, thighs aching, a drop of blood where my selfishness struck her temple.
As she squats there, we laugh our seagull laughs, wide mouths, small pupils, and then we drive home in my minivan, drip into synthetic seatbacks. Look how pink we are.
Look how beautiful it is, the sky’s blood. Cranberry red, monarch orange, flamingo pink. Look at us, with our raw baby flesh, our sandpaper hair and scorching throats.
Liv and I stop at the taco truck on our way home. We cradle al pastor in our palms and let salsa drip down our knuckles. Our noses run from the spice and we wipe them with the backs of our hands, leave lines of grease along our upper lips. Everything is dripping: our noses, our knuckles. Look, even the sky. Dripping, dripping. Thickly dripping beneath a smoke-screened sun.
Caroline Fuller is a writer and Energy Analyst living in San Francisco, California. She enjoys long walks, microwave mug cakes, and I-hate-it-when-that-happens jokes. Her previous work can be found in Spires Magazine and Blue Marble Review.
© 2022, Caroline Fuller