November 10, 2018
Steve and I had debated the night before whether or not to take the kids to their Saturday morning activities at all. Smoke from the Camp Fire had been pouring in for the last two days; the county advised all children stay indoors and reduce activity levels. It was going to be a long weekend with everyone cooped up, we reasoned, so they might as well go.
After teeth and shoes, I fitted the N-95 mask to Henry’s small head. It was an adult-sized mask, which I’d read was not very effective for kids—but what was I going to do, not put one on him? Outside fine, white ash fluttered down and stuck to our clothing like dandruff. Driving, I could see the block in front of us but not the one after that. The sky was like a pencil drawing someone had tried to erase with a stale eraser. I remembered that on Instagram, I saw someone describe the light as peachy, which I understood. It was a soft, yolky, golden hour that lasted all day, beautiful in its way but profoundly unsettling. It was the sky of an unfamiliar planet.
Henry took his mask off to snack in the car and I strapped it back on him after I parked. He looked at the lemon bar he’d been snacking on with confusion, then anger, as he realized there was no longer a clear path to his mouth. Mask off again, Henry joined the karate group that had already started. Parents waited in a big, open conference room near the entrance, and I wondered whether to leave my mask on or take it off while I sat. I left it on and started a new book, about a woman who is training a goshawk. One dad was telling another that he’d taped his daughter’s mask to her face, under the chin, to make a seal. I told myself to remember that.
The smell from the fire had started out piney and sweet, like a campfire, but today had an acrid note. I needed to go grocery shopping, but from karate I drove us to the vegan donut place instead, where inside it smelled oily and sweet. I said hi to a couple, old friends I recognized from behind by their mohawks. They asked Henry about kindergarten and karate.
Outside, a cat, white with calico markings and light blue eyes, gritty with dust, yowled and trotted towards us, snaking around our legs, rolling on one side. “It was nice to meet you, have a good day,” Henry told her as he brushed some leaves off her back.
At home, the day took on a hunkered-down quality, as if we were cozying up for a snowstorm. I read my book on the couch while my children played nearby with Legos and Hello Kitty dolls. It was a pleasant morning with an undercurrent of dread. The slash of sunlight on the carpet was pumpkin orange. Between chapters, I compulsively checked Purple Air on my phone for the latest Air Quality Index.
Steve and I resolved to use all the indoors time to pick up and unpack boxes we should have dealt with five years ago. I put on a movie to occupy the children. I wanted to get their beds away from the window and to beat back the tide of mess and decay. Lifting back the rug to vacuum, I encountered dried spaghetti, dust, a pile of glitter, dismembered Lego men, and a pocket Pema Chodron that Jane likes to “read” to her dolls.
Ever since Jane left the crib, Steve and I put them to bed with a song and a tuck-in; then I sit on the edge of their beds, first one, then the other. Now that the beds were no longer pressed against walls, there was no good spot for me to sit vigil. I told them that now that they had this big kid room, after tuck-ins, I would sit on the other side of the wall, drinking my tea. They accepted the development gravely but without protest and I left, after checking to make sure that the air purifier was working.