California is on fire and we’re driving through it. I sit shotgun with my Keds flat against the dash, bowlegged, in a rental car northbound on the Pacific Coast Highway.
It’s the end of August, the final dregs of summer. Thirty-seven separate wildfires are actively eating the Mendocino National Forest, though there are no visible signs to me.
Julian is driving. For four days, Julian is driving.
Our plan: he’d pick me up in Southern California, where I was visiting my childhood friend, and he was completing his artist’s residency. We’d make the drive back to Seattle together in time for him to officiate his best friend’s wedding.
Not our plan: the 128,050 acre Dolan wildfire ravaging the Big Sur Coast, sending us back the way we came to reroute inland.
Not my plan: the end of our relationship. Julian uses words like “can’t” and “too much” and “bad combination.” This is not the first time I hear these words from this mouth. Julian and I were famously on-again-off-again—emphasis on the off— before deciding to try in earnest, both of us older than we’d ever been, single, and slated to be living in the same city. This is us, two months in. Should I be surprised? It’s like when someone tells you to relax, and only then do you realize your jaw is clenched, your body rigid. I’m not expecting it, but when it comes, I think hi, welcome back. Beer’s in the fridge.
Why do we knowingly put ourselves in the line of fire? Because we believe we won’t burn? What’s the definition of insanity again?
A park ranger stands in khakis shorts at a pull-out just before Big Sur, clipboard in hand. The road is closed, she says. To go forward, we have to turn back.
There are no sirens in wildfires. No warning blares or big red trucks laying on their horns. They begin and end—I’m told by a fire ecologist— often silently. A single beam of lightning connects with a tree, and the flames evaporate an entire forest.
As a reporter in Alaska, I wrote about the record burn seasons. I interviewed people threatened by the disaster and spoke with the experts who predicted it each year.
The bulk of forests in both Alaska and California are composed of softwoods whose moisture content and chemical composition make them highly flammable; fire danger exacerbated by deep moss and organic material layers on the forest floor. Those with lower moisture content in their roots, starving for water, are the first to go up in flames.
Some trees, like birch in Alaska and oaks in California, are meant to burn. They have seed cones that require intense heat to open, spilling out the means to new life. They also benefit from lightning fires that disappear thick layers of dead underbrush, leaving behind exposed soil for seed germination. Some fires are a wanted part of an ecosystem, paving the way for new growth.
"The system,” the fire ecologist told me, “is definitely designed to burn.”
When I touched down in Santa Barbara a week before the drive, I was buzzing. An east-coaster in a foreign land, I pressed my temple against the window and glimpsed a view past the plane’s wing. Plumes of palm-studded the sky. The sun warmed the window pane.
Outside, my friend pulled up in her black Volkswagen bug with the top bunched like an accordion at the rear.
I’m so pissed about the smoke, she said by way of hello before she even put the car in park. It’s literally neeeever like this.
Sand decorated the upholstered passenger seat and floor like it was choreographed. There was a crushed la Croix can—pamplemousse—by my feet and a bottle of spray sunscreen in the door’s cup holder.
As the wind worked my hair into dreads, I observed the earthy hills, the notebook margins created by highway palm trees, the distinctly California scene of homes on a hill. Santa Barbara gets two hundred and eighty-three sunny days a year, more than one person told me over the course of my weeklong visit. This nearly eternal groundhog’s day allows Californians to normalize ideal weather. Fire season shocks and offends them each summer.
Barely detectable was a filmy cover, a haze, like someone put scotch tape over a camera’s viewfinder.
I squinted. What smoke? I asked. I was serious.
Him: an Italian-American in earnest, five years my senior, raised predominantly in Seattle with early years and summers at his father’s home in Florence sprinkled in.
Me: an eighteen-year-old girl from New Jersey looking to get as close to the flame of Florence as physically possible.
It wasn’t enough for me to live in Italy; I wanted my lifestyle to mirror that of a local Italian. I wanted to be Italian, rid of the negative associations Florentines have of the American study abroad students that bring drunk chaos to their city. I bought white converse high-tops I saw Italian women my age wear, crossed the Ponte Vecchio away from the city’s center to drink beers on church steps where you were less likely to hear English. I thought I would learn Italian by way of osmosis.
My neck craned upwards at a trash nightclub; I saw him on an elevated stage in the VIP section. He looked young with a clean shave, his clavicle pronounced like a hanger above the stretched-out collar of a t-shirt. He was handsome, with a strong nose, deep-set almond eyes, and—I would never say this if I didn’t mean it in its truest sense—a swagger. A command. He defied style and made up his own, taking a marker to a T-shirt or branding sunglasses with his own name in label-maker typeface. A naturally gifted artist, creativity spilled into his bloodstream; last summer, he glued a penny from my birth year to a pin: a gift. He walked like he was stepping on bouncy balls. How’d you get up there? I asked.
Before anything else, we were friends. I didn’t take Julian’s interest in me seriously because I’d seen him flirt with several of the girls in my program. We had a standing teatime at his apartment where he’d draw while I’d read, sometimes with my feet piled on his lap or shuffled under him for warmth. His father, Bruno, often used his spare key to enter Julian’s apartment for bathroom breaks from his tourist stall selling linen tablecloths in the San Lorenzo market on the street below. Bruno opening the door to us benignly on the couch, reacting with an overly dramatic oh! hello!—is how I was introduced to Julian’s father, who would later take me for coffees, to small osterias, on a drive to the South of France.
We walked laps around the city aimlessly, punctuated by good meals and bougie window shopping. Julian impersonated study abroad students with a valley girl voice when we passed them in the street, catching a line of their conversation out of context and making them sound airy and unflattering. You’re not like that, he would say. Don’t ever be like that. We lived across Piazza San Lorenzo from each other, on opposite ends of a bell tower that kept the time for me that year. My parents would later dig up a photo of the two of them seated on the steps leading to the basilica feet away from my door from their honeymoon to Europe decades earlier. Isn’t that wild? my mom said. Such fate. Julian would text, “look out your window,” and he’d be on cobblestone below with his head turned skywards, whistling through his teeth.
Those first two years, I learned quickly that when Julian was on, he was an indomitable force of good humor and a mouth that was never all the way closed. His eyes went to slits in smiling. He dropped out of college and had a stronger intellect than most of my peers. He taught himself Portuguese, upping his language literacy from three to four. He had a casual, generous way about him and used words like “dope” while also possessing the ability to distinguish between types of trees and Pacific Northwest Indigenous tribes. Handwritten quotes—but not corny ones— appeared on the faces of Moleskine notebooks or on a chalkboard above his kitchen table. Reminders to fight against a propensity for cloudiness. For a number of months the chalkboard read, in hollowed-out bubble letters: why not go out on a ledge? Isn’t that where all the fruit is?
Maybe six months after we met, he got mad at me over chocolate, and we didn’t speak for days. I think I was trying to come to his apartment drunk with my roommate because he had a secret stash of Swiss chocolate and I always wanted to hangout. That’s all I remember. Just his palpable, bull-like anger, his eyes sinking into sideways commas, depressing my buzz and obvious flirtation.
Over what? Maybe that’s naive and I do remember. He tried to kiss me for the first time outside a bar in a downpour, and I shuffled backward. I remember feeling like I always wanted to be friends with this person. He said he told his mom about me and I made a face like you’re full of shit. But then, curious despite myself, what’d you tell her?
We had lots of dead underbrush, Julian and I. With our blooming romance in year two, our natural composition changed. We became erratic: him inconsistent, me bitter. We were sleeping together and not, and sleeping together and not. I moved back to New York for school, and our undefined relationship was strongest at a distance, contained in regular Skype calls and long trips and, at most, the three months I returned to live with him above the bakery one summer.
He got stuck on certain habits, over-indulging until he was done: the rising crescendo of Kanye’s Blood on the Leaves through a small Bose speaker was the soundtrack of our summer. Florence heat is omnipotent June through August, and the quaint lack of air conditioning in his apartment meant a fan in every room. He baked one cheesecake and became obsessed, shirtless in the kitchen with a towel thrown over his shoulder until every shelf in the fridge was occupied, and we gorged on cake for weeks.
I should say that I love ex-boyfriends. They’re easy, familiar. In my twenties, I moved just about every year of my life—countries, cities, or states. What this means is, I’ve mastered beginnings. Breakups usually happen by virtue of my leaving, amiably and in a way that ensures we’ll keep in touch.
For years, I sporadically sent mail to Julian’s oldest nephew—the first baby I ever held in my arms—now a full-blown seven-year-old obsessed with race cars. Julian’s father met me in Greece for an overlapping vacation. I road-tripped west one summer with two girlfriends and broke into Julian’s aunt’s house when she forgot to leave the key to her loft for our middle-of-the-night arrival. His brother drove across the West Seattle Bridge in rush hour to meet me for drinks while I was in town. His aunt mailed me a box of her old vintage coats. Always, they said—and Julian? When will you and Julian…?—like it was something I controlled. All of this made me feel uniquely validated. It feels prestigious to be beloved by both a person who rejects you and his entire family.
I had always thought of Julian as my best example of a failed romance, proof positive that love can exist and outlast romantic relationships. Last year, at a bar in New York with my girlfriends, he proclaimed that I was “his favorite ex” while pinching my cheeks across the table. I knew exactly what he meant. What we were saying was: Look how much we like each other! Look how cool and evolved we are to have persevered past hurt feelings! In retrospect, I felt pride in our bulletproof relationship because I liked what it said about me: I was a viable partner, desired even after I was gone.
When I was ghosted by a guy I was interested in while living in Alaska, I called Julian tipsy outside a bar. He was a house I returned to again and again, seeking stability. He told me to get over myself in a way that made me laugh.
The older I get, the more common it is to have kept people in my life for decades. Julian and I didn’t accidentally remain in touch for all those years. For the vast majority of it, we’ve lived on opposite sides of the world, then the country. Keeping each other close was intentional.
What do you call an ex who went to Barnes and Noble when a magazine you wrote for was published, and re-shuffled all the copies to the front of the kiosk? Who sent political podcasts and Facetimed frequently to talk about the state of the world? Who encouraged your pursuit of another relationship when you said it was important? Julian called it home; I called it family.
Years three through seven were messy—nonlinear—charred by events that don’t sit right with one another. I reconstructed a timeline of our eight years to understand details and search for weight and significance. After large burns, firefighters fly planes overhead in reconnaissance trips, seeking information on the cause of the fire, burn area, and probability of repeat behavior from their bird’s eye view.
I’d forgotten the order of happenings or entire events altogether. I dredged up a memory and thought, how did we get from A to D? There was a memory gap between a fight we had when I left Italy that first year—something about him seeing my request to store suitcases in his apartment while I travelled to Ireland as taking advantage—to my return the following spring for a ten-day vacation together.
Julian showed up in New York after I graduated college and held a job with a nameplate pinned into the soft wall of a cubicle on Spring Street. He wanted me back despite, or maybe because of, my budding relationship with someone else. I followed him back to Italy, explaining to my new partner I needed to see Once And For All what this was with Julian. The smell of his Florentine apartment above the bakery when I returned—sugary bread mixed with something equally potent, a dank must—felt like home to me. Unfortunately, so did his oscillating moods. I left Italy thinking only Julian could make Julian happy.
When Californian homes are lost to wildfires, contractors and homeowners often decide to rebuild in the
NPR interviewed a Sonoma County family that lost everything in a large blaze in 2018. The precise area had been subject to another large fire fifty-four years earlier, but still, the homeowner told reporters he decided to rebuild in the area because “this was our home.” What’s the definition of insanity again?
I rarely let go of anything, but I especially don’t let go of Julian. Instead, after we broke up that first time, we rebranded as friends. When I came home from Asia after two years away, he was the first friend I saw: a fixture among chaos at the top of the escalator at Penn Station. His hands jammed in his pockets, all bashful.
Sometimes, I thought Julian was an extension of myself that could not be denied or ignored. Other times, I just liked the way he looked at me. He was butter left out.
So much of what I felt for him felt buried underground, imperceptible yet immovable. An entire garden starved of water that could either be revived or ignited each time we saw each other.
The final year with Julian came together, then apart, as the world jockeyed to get its footing amid a global pandemic. It was summer, and I was planning a move to New York City. Moving back east, where most of my close friends lived—including Julian— felt as inevitable to me as the implications of living in the same city as him for the first time since college. But this decision didn’t happen to me; I chose it. I chose to be with Julian, though I couched it by harping on about access to journalism jobs and my tight-knit girlfriends. He agreed, wordlessly acknowledging what I wasn’t saying: that I was, in part, doing this to be together. I can get you to go anywhere for me, he said to me once years before. I hated how much this truth threatened my independence.
For once, it felt attainable. Fated, even. We’d never been this old and this geographically close to one another, he said. We had grown up and loved other people and lived in different places, and here we were, almost a decade later. He said I love you, but I also like you a lot. Does that kill you like it killed me? I love you but I also like you a lot.
In June, we drove west together, from New York to Seattle. At his brother’s intimate wedding in July, his ordained uncle read the vows wrong, and so quietly that everyone had to pick up their lawn chairs and scooch them, hilariously, right up to the feet of the bride and groom. “We’re booking you next,” Julian publicly proclaimed to his uncle in the round-circle afterparty. His aunts turned in unison to me, and I shrugged my shoulders like he’s crazy! but I loved it. Two weeks later, when we began unraveling after he was invited to a painting residency in Los Angeles and needed space to make art—meaning he wanted to talk, but only when he felt like it—I reflected on this memory as a salve.
In wildland fire, you don’t put out flames, you contain them. You suppress them. You use chainsaws to cut all vegetation around the circumference of the burn. Then, you light your own fire.
It’s called a controlled, prescribed burn, an Alaskan smokejumper I interviewed in the local library told me. The idea is, if you can starve a fire of the fuel source it needs to spread, it will burn out on its own. The more prescribed fires you have, the less extreme the damage.
I was ugly almost right away. I felt like I could be. I was addressing the underbrush, prescribing the burn.
At a highway restaurant in South Dakota, I stared at Julian’s untouched Ruben, my own plate marked by grease.
He’d been talking to our waitresses' teenage son, who stood diagonally behind me, volleying conversation about New York City for forty minutes. It’s my dream, the kid said. Oh, you gotta, Julian egged him on. He gifted the kid his Yankees hat with his Instagram handle scrawled on the inside brim as a contact “when you make it to New York.”
I didn’t realize it then, but I was jealous of this teenager for capturing Julian’s attention and annoyed at Julian for not including me in a conversation about a place I’d originally brought him to. I wasn’t saying New York was mine, but I was saying it wasn’t his, either. This man had so wholly marked my life, it felt like a condemnation he wouldn’t feel the same.
I thought we were arguing about dinner manners, but Julian’s eyes were far-off, like he was seeing something else.
There are those who flee from fire and those whose job it is to run straight into them, suppressing the flames.
The firefighter I interviewed told me that, despite the job description, even professionals must fight against their natural inclination to run. "Every fire is all fire. It's this strange substance that's always the same,” this firefighter, simultaneously in school to become an English teacher in his off-season, said. “I stole that from Cormack McCarthy, but he said it better." Just like anything else, he said, it takes practice to pass through fear and get really good at your job.
The End (Refrain)
Rerouted inland in California, I noticed the smoke only at the fire’s epicenter, on the highway just a few miles away from the National Forest set ablaze. Entire snatches of road were blotted out by a stinking thick smoke that came in through the air conditioning vents. At points of high caffeination and—I’ll say it—dumb joy, my body turned towards the driver’s seat. When reality flashed or the joke we’d been laughing at subsided, I shifted as far up against the window as I could go.
The therapist I’d recently acquired reminded me, before the drive, that I could always get out of the car. On the side of the road? Julian asked when I abruptly commanded him to pull over at the exit for Berkeley. The closer we got to Seattle, the more claustrophobic I felt at the reality of our breakup. I clawed to get out of the car, wanting for him to ask me to stay in it. At least let me drive you to the airport. He wanted to make this parting as easy as possible, to deposit me somewhere where he knew I’d be ‘safe.’ I wanted the opposite. I thought, if you’re going to leave me, this better be hard. I imagined myself sticking out my thumb to hitchhike—strong-headed, indignant, pissed—as I grew smaller and smaller in his rearview mirror. I imagined the quickened pulse of regret he would feel.
Julian doesn't let go of me easily, either. He crossed the Golden Gate Bridge, made invisible by a low hanging fog, and brought me first to address my full bladder at a public restroom near the amphitheater seating of the San Francisco Modern Museum of Art. I hauled my rolling suitcase to the steps, turning over my exit in my head, halfheartedly texting the friend of a friend I knew in the area. He waited in the parked car on the curb, Whatsapping me. are you sure about this?
if you make me leave you here, you’ll never see me again.
When he called, I picked up the phone. I got back in the car.
A week after Julian and I arrived in Seattle, when the smoke crept up the coastline and blanketed the city, starving even the sunlight, I was shocked. Like I didn’t see it coming. Like I didn't follow the fire here myself. He dropped me off at my brother’s house, tears alive on his cheeks, holding my face hard in his hands. His wet nose on mine, he assured me we’d see each other again. He couldn’t imagine otherwise. I told him this was it for me, that I had to close the door. Maybe just leave it cracked? he asked.
Landmarks were blotted out by an inky yellow film. The temperature dropped ten degrees, and the air quality index read hazardous for human health.
The Dolan Fire was still burning, two months and more than 2,000 miles later. An article I read told me that, generally, the Big Sur coast ecosystems are fire-adaptive and recover rapidly. But the Dolan Fire wasn’t an ordinary wildfire. That one scorched more earth over a greater period of time than is typical. Dangerous debris can linger for two or three years, the article said, and it can take up to seven years for debris buildup to approach pre-burn levels. In the clearing where trees once stood—now barren with sooty, dead earth—I imagined you could see for miles.
Seeing is believing, but what happens when there’s nothing to see? In breakups, you want to believe you can view relationships with clarity in the distance created by a fallout. But when something burns down, there’s little evidence to hold as proof of what existed. I think: Oh my god, was that just nothing? I think: where does all the love go? I think: Was that even love? I think: Ouch. Ouch Ouch Ouch.
Initially, my family and friends treated me as though I’d lost my home. As though I was a victim of a natural disaster. You can always rebuild, I can hear my elementary school teacher saying during fire safety week. Everything is replaceable except for yourself. My friends told me they were sorry. One said we will get through this together. Julian’s family told me they loved me.
I used to count the Tuesdays it’d been since I last saw him, like an addict collecting sobriety tokens. I think I was clocking my healing. Have you ever heard that it takes half the number of years you were in a relationship to get over that relationship? That’s a lot of Tuesdays.
I live in Little Italy in lower Manhattan now, with a mailbox nameplate that reads “Florence.” Outside my window, there’s a huge police dome appearing like the Florentine duomo framed in my long, south-facing windows. A man living in my fifteen-unit building shares Julian’s name, I note with a blink each time his packages pool in our shared doorway. Maybe none of this means anything. Maybe it’s a part of healing to find meaning in the seemingly insignificant. To give shape to the amorphous vacancy of what used to be there.
Picture me, standing on the deadened earth of an entirely scorched forest, my finger extending towards the limitless distance: and to your left is the apartment building I used to occupy in Italy, I’d say to the curious group ooing and ahhing at my insides. And over the loudspeaker, you’ll hear Julians’s voice I could never quite replicate or shake, pronouncing Italian cities in perfect dialect; Cinque Terre, Sorrento, Livorno.
It’s been more than thirty-two Tuesdays, though I hardly think about time gone by anymore. I recently heard from my friend that Julian’s brother, whose wedding we attended last summer, had his first child. I don’t know the name, or even the gender, of this whole human being who was growing in utero while Julian and I were dissolving. This, too, feels like healing.
At the conclusion of summer, I rode an electric bike to meet Julian one final time on a white-out day in Seattle, where the weather channel and my brother both beseeched me to stay inside. We got an Airbnb downtown. It was his idea, but I made it happen, sending him links and Venmoeing him half the cost.
I wore an N95 mask to keep the smoke out of my lungs but still my head was cracked open with ache thirty minutes later when I arrived.
We got Vietnamese food, then went to a railroad-style bar with red vinyl booths and similarly bloody lighting. I think there was a baseball game on the TV behind the bar I kept glancing at to stifle the pinpricks of tears I felt coming. I knew this was the last time I’d see Julian by the assured way he enunciated, for the fifteenth time, that he did not want to be with me. Usually, there was a caveat. Right now, or, at this point. When no caveat came, I turned hysterical. He, wanting to spend time with me but not to upset me, turned inward.
I ordered a third round and made a break for the bathroom. On the commercial toilet paper dispenser, the flat surface where you might put your phone while peeing if you were drunk, in skinny, pronounced print above past graffiti, read: HERE COMES THE HURT.
The ash from breathing in the wildfires, the same invisible smoke that had surrounded me for months came out of me onto q-tips and into tissues—charred and impossibly black—for days, weeks, longer.