What do you grab when your house is on fire?
How do you compartmentalize your life down to what you can carry out of the blaze?
Our house is not on fire- not yet. Our neighborhood is, though. The sky looks like the end of the world. It is an angry, wounded red, flickering on the horizon. Terrifying and awful. I imagine I can feel the heat on me- licking up my arms, blackening my feet, melting my skin off my bones, leaving behind nothing. I remember when I was a kid, seeing those perfectly preserved bodies at a science exhibit on Pompeii. The mother clinging to her child. Forever.
My husband tells me to grab what’s important as he dresses the baby in pajamas. We have time for that. My mind goes blank. The power is out. I hurriedly stuff things in bags- a handful of clothing for me, an armload for the baby. I shove a few pairs of socks and underwear for my husband in too- just in case he forgets to grab his ready-bag.
On second thought, I grab some toys- a stuffed Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, Lex the lion, Sly the fox, Tortuga the turtle. All of my son’s favorite humanized objects. Pausing from stuffing underwear in my bag, I grab my wedding ring in its box from the side table, my son’s storybook Bible. Hurrying downstairs, I take in, just briefly, our life in photos- me and my husband, my husband and I, smiling on Catalina, at Disneyland, in Banff National Park, on our wedding day, on the day we got engaged, when I was 6 months pregnant. Photos of our son, peacefully swaddled. We don’t have more recently prints yet. No, everything is digital now. I grab my favorite book- a worn copy of C.S. Lewis’ underrated novel, Till We Have Faces. It is replaceable, but still. My Kindle, my phone of course. My computer, oh god, with the work I was doing just an hour before, when the power suddenly winked out. Our wedding cake toppers- cute wooden pegs painted to look like us. A single ornament from our Christmas tree catches my eye- a preserved maple leaf from Banff. Our honeymoon. Into the bag.
“None of it matters,” I mutter, racing downstairs and throwing our bags in the car, not sparing a glance at our books, our instruments, our home we’ve worked so hard to build. “It can all burn.”
My son is screaming now. His routine was thrown off. He just wants to go to sleep. I do too. I just want this to be over. He’s screaming like he hasn’t in ages- a scream of utter confusion and desperation. “It’s okay,” I tell him without conviction. I don’t forget the formula, the diapers, the wipes, or the nursery water. Those were the first things I grabbed in my confused race through the dark house. My husband, more methodical, has packed a bag quietly, selected a single guitar to save. He has his computer, his chargers. “We’re not in danger yet,” he says calmly, hearing my heavy breathing. “We have time to get what we need.”
“What we need is to leave,” I try to insist.
“It won’t do to leave in chaos and be left with nothing.”
We are very nearly fighting, my anxiety at odds with his calm collectedness. Finally, we are in the car. We watch neighbors fleeing. We are not alone in this exodus. “Where are we going?” my husband asks.
“I just want to get away. I just want us to be safe,” I repeat. “I don’t know, but away.”
A few agonizing moments where he tries to figure out a plan. How I want to strangle him. But I am feeding the baby, strapped, exhausted, in his car seat, bewildered and tired and hungry. At least I have a task. Just another ounce, sweetie. It’s okay.
My husband senses my panic, drives us down the road to a parking lot to reconvene. Others do the same around us, I see. My husband makes calls, has me make calls, send texts, on dying phones- I forgot my damn charger.
He lines up a place to stay.
“I still have work tomorrow,” my husband, the dedicated teacher says. “I can’t abandon my kids.”
Fuck them, I think. I want to get away. But he has their respect, hard-won. He can’t lose it now in a crisis. He figures out accommodations near the school. Accommodations that, after an agonizing day I would spend alone in the house of strangers with nothing but the baby and terror to keep me company, we would quit. We would check on our house- it would be fine, but the air quality would make us sick. We would flee further south, to fresher air, far from the fires. We would sleep in the bed all together for the first time since our son was born, united by love and fear. We would wait for days.
I would say, as we became calmer, more secure, “Your level-headedness makes me want to slap you in the face, sometimes.”
He would say, “Your panic makes me want to slap you in the face, sometimes.”
We would kiss and cuddle and laugh, so glad to have each other and our son and be alive and safe. Our son would giggle and smile and clap his hands.
But that night, we drive in the dark, down the desolate highway, surrounded on both sides by fields of abandoned crops. We see the mountains lit up like volcanoes, throwing bright yellow and orange flames into the air. It is like nothing I’ve ever seen. Our son is now fast asleep, peaceful, in his car seat. I think of Pompeii, and start to cry.
If I don’t make it, I think, I just need them to be safe. I could immolate if they were safe.
And I knew I meant it, too.