“Talk to me,” I whisper. My words barely float across the center console between us, hanging in the air, soft and uncertain. The windows of my car are halfway down, the wind whipping wildly past, drowning out all sound. In the distance, the summer night is bending into sunset, blues becoming hazy oranges and purples at the edge of the mountains.
California is burning. I can feel the heat on my face, even though the raging wildfires are miles and miles away. Everything feels hot, anxious. Even my feet, pressed against the pedals, can’t sit still.
I look over to my boyfriend, his eyes heavy, barely open, facing straight ahead. Just two weeks ago his parents evacuated their northern California vacation, driven out by uncontrollable flames licking their way through forests, making their claim. A fiery fearlessness devastating everything that dared to stand in the way.
On the I-5 the heat feels slightly less urgent, but pressing all the same, the haziness in the air something even the rolling clouds can’t erase.
“Babe,” I whisper again, willing him to speak. His eyes are closed, head leaned back. He lets out an audible, “Mhmm.”
I turn back to the road, to the curves that dip through the mountains. The sun sits harsh and uncomfortable on my face—tantalizing, almost—as if seeing how close the rays can come through the windshield until they simply burn.
I pull my sunglasses lower on my eyes, fiddle with the radio dial. I’ve been feeling all sort of anxious lately—absentminded—forgetting which foot is the gas, which is the brake. I’ve been tracing the lines of cars as they pass, finding my wheels slipping closer and closer to the little lines dividing each of the highway lanes.
I’ve been closing my eyes at red lights, even if only for a moment, just to feel the rush when they open and I’m forced to keep moving, full speed ahead. Lately everything feels like we’re running out of time. Like who’s to say a match won’t fall and light up the palm trees by the beach, setting all the blocks to my front door ablaze. Who’s to say this won’t all fall through? That everything we’re running towards is already running away?
Who’s to say it’s not our turn to lose everything we thought we’d always have?
Every time I get on the highway, I can’t help but think about a story I read—one about a girl and her dog stuck in traffic, their home lit up in the distance with the rest of that city, burning burning burning. I remember how she recounted her story, how the flames were getting closer and her tires were rooted to that spot—bumper to bumper traffic—no one getting anywhere. And so she took her dog and her bag of clothes and ran, keys still in the ignition. There was nothing else on her mind but getting out, getting safe.
And at the end of the day, what else was there? What else mattered?
Why is it that we must re-remember what’s important, only in the moments we’re about to lose everything we have?
My heart’s been breaking lately for the people losing their homes, for the animals running through the burnt grass, desperate for release. It’s moments like this where I can’t help but feel so goddamn selfish, driving down the highway worrying about my own problems.
Why is always so hard to feel what someone else feels until you feel the heat, hot and pressing on your own skin?
“Babe,” I whisper again. He stirs and puts his hand on my thigh, a soft comfort I’ve come to accept as familiar, as safe.
I’ve always been amazed by how we learn safety, how we learn comfort, how we find places and spaces within this mess of life to call home. And how we create that home in people, in feelings, and in new spaces, long after the old emotions have gone.
Everything feels hot, but perhaps that’s how it will settle. Perhaps there is no rhyme or reason to this madness, but despite it all, there is still hope.
Perhaps the sun coming through this windshield is a pressing reminder that I must always look outside my own experience, remember that others are hurting, too. Some with burns and scars far deeper than mine.
Perhaps there will be moments of solace in the chaos, where we are reminded that there is still purpose, still happiness, still love. Perhaps there will be peace, even amidst the wildness—a woman running with her dog, a family herding another family into their van, the rest of the world sending money and resources, a girl on the highway with her boyfriend sleeping next to her, praying praying praying.
And piece by piece, moment by moment, the world coming together. In hope, in love.
And someday soon, that sun kissing our faces in blessing, rather than fear.