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Burn by Elissa E. Minor

Creative Nonfiction - LGBTQIA+ Prose and Poetry Contest Winner

The hills to the south of our house were burning. We saw the fire over a distant ridge, the sky a viscous, irradiated orange, and felt everything but the crackling heat itself. Normally, Mt. Hood’s goddess-like silhouette stood sentry on the far side of Portland, but in her place was only smoke. The Beachie Creek and Riverside fires were moving swiftly in our direction, at the whim of nothing but the changing winds. The acrid smoke crept in through the cracks along the sides of the windows, the bottoms of the doors. I checked the Air Quality Index obsessively as it slunk up and down—mostly up—depending on the wind and how the embers carried. When I went to bed on Wednesday night, the AQI registered 450, deemed “extremely hazardous.” We were already wearing masks because of the virus, but now I layered mask on mask and instructed my kids to hold their breath as we ran between the car and the house. It felt as though we were moving through sludge, as though I could physically touch the smoky slop as it moved in front of my face and tried to work its way through the layers of fabric hammocked over my mouth.

Our lungs. This was the year it sunk in that our breath was our most precious—and precarious—asset. For the last six months, we’d been worried about Covid laying claim to our lungs; 2020 was the year of holding our collective breath, of sharp, panicked inhales, shallow exhales. I’d fallen asleep each night thinking about what it would feel like to be on a ventilator, the plastic tube snaked down my throat, the mechanical buzz on each draw of air. Now I faced a new, more imminent, threat to my family’s lungs. There was nothing safe left to pull into our windpipes, nothing that wouldn’t leave our lungs ossified and diseased.

Thursday morning, the forest service placed our town in a Level One evacuation zone, the first prelude to actually fleeing. It was time to take assessments, to decide what to pack, what we had time and room to take with us into this potential new life where behind us was only ash. On the news, we watched as the agglomerated fires razed entire towns, as people in neighboring cities fled outward to places also filled with so much smoke that they looked to be burning themselves. So much loss. So much left to the impulse of the winds, the capriciousness of flames.

Flames have the curves of a woman, soft and fluid around their edges.

I’d already lit a match, months earlier—the sky still blue, the air still clear. I am a lesbian, I’d finally said aloud to my husband of twenty-three years and my three teenaged children. We waited to see where the sparks would land. Sparks became embers; soon Chris and I were entrenched in the painstaking work of uncoupling, and the whole family—individually and as a group—was taking stock of what to carry with us into the next chapter, what to save from the supping flames I’d created and what should be left smoldering. Chris quickly started dating, and the kids were struggling to adjust to life with parents who were baby-stepping apart (different bedrooms now, different houses soon), all of us painfully aware that the stolid, steady vision of the five of us around a dinner table each night had been shattered. In so many ways, we’d started the breath-holding long before the actual wildfire smoke skulked in through the cracks in the windows, before all the décor in the home was obscured by a filmy brown vapor.

And this was all enunciated by a global pandemic, by lockdowns and rising death numbers and the rush to a vaccine. By Black men and women dying at the hands of police officers in horrific numbers, by my children as they took part in protests in downtown Portland, where President Trump had sent National Guard troops to tear gas and flash bomb them. By an aggressive campaign for a contentious and crucial presidential election.

Which is to say: flames, flames, everywhere.

So what do you pack when the literal flames lap at the end of your driveway?

I followed the fire map closely; despite the suffocating smoke, the flames were still over almost-distant crests, pirouetting on the other side of the Willamette River. Certainly we were safe. I didn’t pack the day they told us to ready for evacuation, but I jotted numbered lists in the writing notebook I kept by my bedside:

  1. Necessary for Survival

  2. The Irreplaceables

  3. Extemporaneous—Grab if Time

I went to bed.

I dreamed. I was the only person on an empty cruise ship with my three cats. Mochi, Busy, and Finnick kept getting out of my sleeping berth and running past swimming pools, past restaurants, past glass railings through which I could see nothing but shimmering water. I chased all three of them from bow to stern and port to starboard, occasionally catching Mochi’s furry body (or, with luck, sometimes Finnick’s, too), only to have them writhe out of my arms when I moved to scoop Busy into the pile. I had them and then lost them repeatedly on an endless loop. All three jumped soundlessly fore to aft, further and further away from me, and then disappeared altogether below deck. The ship hurled forward, a gigantic unsympathetic vessel.

I woke at three in the morning ready to brave the smoke and buy two more cat carriers the minute the pet store opened. Without them, I’d actually be herding cats into my four-door sedan, chasing them through the neighborhood as the blaze encroached. It was time to move from theoretical to literal.

1.Necessary for Survival

First, the medications. So many bottles for me and the kids. For my soon-to-be-ex-husband, extra asthma inhalers.

I’d seen the asthma almost kill him, even when the air was not all gritty smog. When we were college Freshmen in Hawaii, a serious attack came on fleet-winged and furious. I can still hear the labored breathing, the high whistle from his lungs at each inhale, his lips a faint blue. We were on a rural part of the island without a car, a cell phone, or even a dorm equipped with a land line. I ran around campus, looking for anyone who could drive us through the middle of the island to the nearest hospital. The friend of a friend—a jovial Samoan business major—offered to take us in his twenty-year-old Chevy. In the backseat, I held Chris’ head in my lap through the full hour and a half drive, the mountain roads winding us towards the military hospital. The nurses took him through the double doors of the ER, leaving me next to the plastic fig tree in the waiting room to imagine the worst.

I wondered what it would feel like, to not be able to breathe.

Yes. I would pack all of Chris’ inhalers. Though he was no longer mine in that way.

I packed Tylenol in case we got headaches. Advil in case fourteen-year-old Clementine got cramps. Tampons. Band Aids. Three gallons of water per person. Enough food to keep us comfortable for three days: granola, power bars, apples, pretzels. I tetrised it all into old suitcases and reusable grocery bags that I stacked in the living room, ready to grab and go.

The cat carriers, two of them brand new. The dog’s leash. Food and water for the animals. A Rubbermaid container and meal worms for our bearded dragon, Tupac. A container for Tupac’s water. Kitty litter.

Soap. Shampoo. Underwear. Chargers. Masks and hand sanitizer, because fire does not trump virus. Insurance paperwork. Passports. Birth certificates. Three days’ worth of clothes for each of us.

The more I packed, the more I realized we needed. It hit me anew how many creatures’ lives I was responsible for. No wonder I’d forsaken my own for so long.

Each time I threw something new in a bag, I noticed my lungs constrict and my breathing tighten. Is this how Chris felt, back on the island? The air around me was heavy, particle-filled. Our house smelled like campfire and my eyes felt pricked as the AQI rose into the mid-500s. The fire already had us in its maw. The newscasters all repeated the same fact: the air outside was so noxious that breathing it was the equivalent of smoking twenty packs of cigarettes in a day. Portland was officially the spot on the globe with the worst air quality in the entire world.

As I packed, I frantically texted Jamie, a woman I’d just met with whom I shared a mutual flirtation. After leaving my marriage for the hypothetical idea of a woman, here was a real one, flesh and blood. She was headed to the coast to escape the smoke. Did I want to meet her there?

(I wanted to meet her there. God I wanted to meet her there.)

The living room filled with suitcases and bags. This was just the first list. How would we fit everything? Outside, midday looked like night, the sun completely obscured by the screens of smog from the fires that were now razing eight-hundred-thousand acres of Oregon. In the distance, the sky was an uncanny orange, the color of pumpkins left on the stoop to rot.

The apocalypse. We’d been joking about it for months—2020 being what it was—the apocalypse. Now it was actually coming.

2. Irreplaceables

The photographs. I pulled the box of albums, loose photos, and slides from under the bed I used to share with Chris (I slept on the edge still, as I had for years, the California king a ridiculous size for my petite body alone). The pictures dated to my dad’s childhood, and were already in a giant Rubbermaid container that I could add directly to the pile in front of my couch. From the bookcases, I pulled the stack of family albums from the last twenty years: the five of us in front of freshly-cut Christmas trees, posed school portraits, our cats snuggled up with each other. These memories felt skewered by my coming out, by the unraveling of everything we’d known.

More packing. In the recesses of my closet (I could call it that now: my closet) I found our wedding album. Some of the photos had water damage from a move just five years into our marriage, but most of them had survived, and I hadn’t looked at them in over a decade.

All of my wedding day memories are tinged with fear. I loved Chris fiercely—still do—and yet putting that wedding dress on at twenty years old, waiting while my mom fastened the dozens of fabric buttons in the back, felt like signing my own arrest warrant. This was it. This was the next step. As a Mormon youth, the course of your life is somewhat mapped out for you. If you are a girl, you’ll start at a church college, then get married and have babies as soon as you meet the “right” person, which, in Mormon culture, is often by the age of twenty-one. Chris and I had been dating since I was fourteen. If he wasn’t the right man, I knew, no man would ever be.

One of the surviving pictures in our album is of just me, serious, in my modest white wedding dress. My hair is up, my flowers are dropped casually below my waist, my eyes downcast. I stand in stark relief against the white marble temple behind me. In the foreground of the photo is my mirror image in a wading pool. There must have been a slight breeze that day, because the reflection is muddled, ripples where the white fabric should be smooth, a blur where my head should be.

We were supposed to have sex for the first time that night. Instead, I cried in the hotel room while Chris held me.

The wedding album went into a suitcase. I walked through the house, making decisions about which pictures to remove from the walls and which to let burn. How do you triage memories?

I started wheezing in earnest. I took a pull from Chris’ inhaler and hoped it would open my throat enough to once again feel the smooth passage of air. I thought of Jamie at the coast, where I’d read skies were still blue. I pictured the bed in her hotel room. Her chestnut hair against a stark white pillow.

Finish the irreplaceables, Elissa. Pack faster. My grandmother’s wedding ring. My wedding ring, which I hoped to pass on to one of my kids. The blanket I knitted for Clementine when she was a baby. Walter, the stuffed sea lion my late father gave me when I was eleven years old. Elias came into the room with the irreplaceables I’d asked him to gather (his dead dog’s ashes in a box, his old Tae Kwon Do uniform, the baseball signed by half of the Giants from a game we attended when he was twelve), and told me it felt like someone was sitting on his chest, that his throat hurt.

I was playing through it in my head, over and over—where would we go the minute they moved us into the next evacuation level? Due East, maybe? Towards Idaho? My best friend lived there. She said they’d take us in, all of us, the kids, the animals, the ex-husbands. The suitcases. But the wind was shifting that direction, and the AQI in Boise was slowly creeping up. I also wanted to avoid dense local evacuation centers at all costs, knowing the virus was still leaping from host to host.

I wanted somewhere I could breathe without rales in my lungs. That’s it. Somewhere I could breathe.

3.Extemporaneous—Grab if Time

By Saturday, they evacuated parts of Oregon City, just five miles across the river from us. I asked Alexa about the AQI (still 560, she said) and turned on the news to see half of the residents of Oregon City in their cars, the roads tangled and impassable, smoke resting on their bumpers. We’d lived there for a short time, three years into our marriage, when my oldest was an infant. I recognized the street on the news as the one I drove down every other day to come into Portland and visit my parents. The reporters were wearing gas masks and seemed as frantic as the people sitting in their cars.

We were still Level One. We still had time.

The bags in our living room had grown, but I knew we could fit more into our three cars. I fielded texts from out-of-state friends wanting to make sure we were safe, from in-state friends with every latest news update (the fire just jumped near Santiam, had we heard? The entire town of Talent was destroyed. Does Lindsey Maynard still live there?).

So, with extra time, I decided to gather up my plants. I gave each person in the house one box to fill with clothing they loved and didn’t want to replace. I packed my favorite dresses, my leather jacket, the jeans I’d worn for three years and never wanted to stop. The fancy throw pillows from the couch. The painting from the family room wall that my mom had made for us.

Jamie texted me a picture of her feet in the sand and there it was again: my new friend, desire. I thought about the life I could have had (the life I was trying to have now), partnered with a woman, honest with everyone I loved about who I really was. She wasn’t the first woman I desired, by any stretch, and she wouldn’t be the last. I had blown up my life because of the lure of the frank bows of the female body—the arch of the back, the soft skin at the nape of the neck.

The pharmacy called to remind me my migraine medication was ready (see: Necessary for Survival), so I layered a bandana on top of my filtered mask and braved the smoke. It was only eleven in the morning, but it was as dark as if it were eleven at night. Still, I wore my sunglasses, because I wanted an extra layer between my corneas and the smoke. Through the beams of my headlights, I saw piles of ash collecting on the sides of the road, shifting and snaking with the wind and the passing cars, other-planetary. If it was an exaggeration, what the newscasters were saying about the AQI being the equivalent of smoking twenty packs of cigarettes a day, it sure felt accurate.

But I knew almost nothing about smoking.

I’d smoked only a single cigarette, about a decade earlier. I’d asked Chris for a separation that lasted about three months, because I’d fallen in love with a woman but never acted on it—a brilliant poet—and it rattled me to my core. When Chris and I decided to take a break, I did not date The Poet or any other woman. I chose instead a man I’d recently met, someone unavailable, aloof, someone decidedly not The Poet or Chris. I must have wanted it not to be true, that I was a lesbian. I wanted to it to be just my marriage, that I was with the wrong man. Or this: I knew things with this new acquaintance would implode and maybe my whole life wouldn’t have to blow up. I wanted to prove what I already knew, that Chris was the only man who could make me happy. After my first night with this man, I wore his shirt, and he said you need to sin at least once in your life (he said this, he who was not my husband), and he took me outside to smoke in the rain. I held the cigarette in my hand like an old pro, inhaled as people passed on the street. We smoked them all the way down to their nubs, our hair wet from the drizzle, and I was proud of my lungs, that I did not cough.

More extemporaneous items made their way into the pile: expensive speakers, two of my well-worn William Stafford collections, the fuzzy blanket from Clementine’s bed that I had paid way too much for.

That night, on the news, the story broke of a thirteen-year-old boy found dead with his lifeless dog in his arms. They were curled up in a car, where they’d sought refuge from the encroaching flames. Nearby, officials found the scorched body of the boy’s grandmother.

The strands of the news stories intertwined with the smoke inside the house. Hollowed me out.

I didn’t need extemporaneous things. I didn’t need things at all.

The next day, the winds turned, and the evacuation orders in our neighborhood were lifted. Nothing immediate had changed: the skies still blazed red, the air still reeked with the acridity of burned timber and felled structures. It took almost a week for me to feel safe enough to put away the suitcases, hang the pictures back on the walls, put the medications back in the bathroom drawers.

Then the rains came.

A thunderstorm so resplendent it felt like there might be a god.

Smoke persisted through the rain, but not for long. Within two days the ache in my throat cleared and I could blink without the feeling of grit on my eyeballs. The AQI dropped into the three hundreds, then the one hundreds, then into solidly double digits. We worshipped each spit of rain. How it felt to breathe again.

It wasn’t a win. All told the climate-fueled inferno razed a million acres of land, taking in its wake four thousand homes, five entire towns, and nine human lives. And although we were in the clear, our house was still sweltering. Chris would be moving out soon, the kids would have to adjust. He had a new lover I would have to accept as part of the loss that came with coming out. When that first spark is fanned by a wayward wind and converts to flame, there is no predicting what direction it will go, what it will take down. I had started the process intentionally, but there was nothing intentional about it now; it felt like I was completely at the fancy of the elements around me, a queer woman in this not-so-brave new world. I could move forward through the smoke or I could capitulate to the flames.

Fire kindles more fire.

Desire kindles more desire.

I first admitted to myself that I liked women ten years ago, on a lone night in Washington DC at a writer’s conference. The Poet lay down on the crisp white hotel bedspread holding an almost-drained glass of whiskey, and kicked off her boots. I did not so much as touch her wrist, but my body responded in her presence the way it had never responded to another bone-and-sinew human. Standing five feet from her, wanting to kiss her, wanting to trace her décolletage with the tip of my index finger, I learned the difference between being desired and desiring. My whole life, I’d thought love and sex meant being desirable to a man, meant giving yourself in to the lust of another. But here was real desire—the lust my own, a corporeal draw, full-bodied and primal. Move closer to her, it said, and you will burn. Breathe her in, it said, and the world will blaze.

Which is to say: flames, flames, everywhere.

The week I told Chris I was leaving the marriage, I’d had another dream about my cats. It was the kind of dream where I was trying to walk but I couldn’t, not because my feet were cement (I’d had that dream, certainly), but because I was carrying too much. I had all three cats in my arms, a bag of chips, stray laundry, my blue light glasses, magazines. Every time I took a step forward, something fell from my grip. I’d lose a shirt, or Mochi, or a book. I’d bend down to pick it up just as something else fell out of my arms.

Listen: to move forward, you have to let some things go.

Some things have to burn.


 

Elissa Minor‘s stories and essays have appeared in Juxtaprose, Baltimore Review, The Ledge, Crab Creek Review, Carve Magazine, Honolulu Magazine, Peregrine, and the Beacon Street Review, among others. Her short story collection, The Prisoner Pear: Stories from the Lake was published in 2005 by Ohio University Press/Swallow Press and was a New York Times Editor’s Choice pick. She is the recipient of the Juxtaprose Nonfiction Prize, a Peregrine Prize for fiction, the National Society of Arts and Letters Cam Cavanaugh Literature Award, a Honolulu Magazine Fiction Award, the Swarthout Fiction Award, and the Leslie Bradshaw Fiction Fellowship from Oregon Literary Arts. Elissa writes and teaches in Portland, Oregon.

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