Chronicling some of my strongest memories.
In 2007, my hometown in North San Diego County was hit hard by a series of ghastly wildfires. On the night in question, my family knew there were fires, but we didn’t know what we were going to do — what we should do. I fell asleep fitfully late in the evening, only to be awoken around 3 A.M. by a quiet clamor of sudden mobilization. It was time to evacuate, Dad said. My father’s habitual procrastination told me that the threat must be rather imminent.
Piling everything important into our 15-seater van.
Failing to locate the skittish cat (Leroy) we had adopted just a week prior.
A faint orange glow on the horizon.
Trucking our seven selves and a whole carload of Things to the local high school’s gym, outfitted to serve as an evacuation center.
Several hundred sets of bleary eyes and crappy cafeteria pizza in the wee hours.
Hearing that we could finally go home.
Stepping outside to find the parking lot deadly quiet and the dawn sky a deep, murky brown.
Not being totally sure any of it was real.
Fading into slumber in the car.
Our house was untouched. The weeks that followed were a curious limbo of enforced school breaks, Surf’s Up on DVD, and precious few moments of leaving the house that were accompanied by the sweet sting of a smoky atmosphere on young lungs. Lost in imagination, trying to sleep, or otherwise caught in the doldrums, the image of that darkened sky appeared in my head frequently. I could swear it had been breathing.
May 2014 saw an even beastlier set of fires besiege our home. We were already planning to leave town for my oldest sister’s commencement when they struck. Things got threatening on a Wednesday afternoon, and we were dismissed at lunch from school. I took the necessary precautions, downloading a few movies and TV episodes and a whole lot of music.
When it became clear that we should probably get out, we did not immediately spring into action. My mother did not want to leave the house. Her reasoning eluded me at the time, but we nonetheless packed up the cars and prayed for the best. She finally relented when a light grey snow began powdering our lawn. I was struck by the way it blended in with the aged tree at the corner of our yard, how ash would land and disappear into the harsh monolith of its great trunk.
Not quite knowing where to go, we convened at a local shopping center. I sat in the van for a while watching Supernatural, until it got too hot and I went outside to join the rest of the family in standing around. I walked over to the sidewalk at the edge of the complex, where a small crowd had gathered to watch the progress of the fire. We had a solid view of the hills, which the news had said was one of the most inflamed areas in the county.
At that moment, a towering wall of flame crested the ridge. Gasps and light exclamations cut through the warm wind, attention was called. But before anyone could properly react, the blaze launched a full assault. Seemingly from nowhere, a hundred-foot inferno moving easily 150 MPH torched half the hillside in a matter of seconds. Mom let out a “Holy FUCK” without realizing. The rest of us dropped our jaws in stunned silence.
It was horrifying to witness that level of natural destruction through the naked eye, and to have all ambiguity about the situation’s gravity erased in an instant. There was nothing you could do to stop that thing if it got to you. Yet it was undeniably sublime, the fearsome strength of a simple chemical reaction on display at an overwhelming magnitude of damage and beauty. I cracked a smile when I realized — it was only so gorgeous because it was so terrifying.
I rose today at 9:54 A.M. I had already woken up mind you, and decided that my 8:00, 8:15, 8:30, and 8:35 alarms were not ample incentive to get out of bed for 9 o’ clock class. The Monday morning after Spring Break is always a cruel mistress. 10:40 class was approaching quickly, and based on the time my morning routine typically takes, I already knew I’d probably be late.
When I entered class roughly four minutes late, my professor handed me a sheet of paper regarding our midterm. The university had sent out an email late Sunday afternoon stating that Thursday and Friday classes were cancelled to test out the online class meeting system that would be fully implemented to replace class meetings in the event of an acceleration of the COVID-19 outbreak in New York City. Our midterm was entirely cancelled, and the assignment for Thursday’s “class” was on the sheet as well.
Midway through her lecture, Professor King quipped lightheartedly about applying hand sanitizer every few minutes. We returned light chuckles. I wondered what might happen if things with the virus got really bad.
When I arrived back at my dorm after class, a text from my sister came telling me that one of our off-campus residence halls had a student evacuated, and that a biohazard team was on site. A few minutes later I saw video evidence. I heard talk of professors voicing accute uncertainty of when they’d next see friends’ classes. Then I heard that Columbia, Hofstra, Iona, Princeton, Rutgers, and other NYC metro area schools were suspending in-person class meetings indefinitely. Before leaving for work, I mused with my roommates that “it might really be happening.” My loose mental timeline was that we were likely to get sent home next week.
Today was the first perfect day of weather we’ve had this year; 71°, 16% humidity, a light breeze, nary a cloud in sight. Upon disembarking from the N train at quarter to 4, Union Square was afresh with life. College students were smoking on the grass, numerous fashionistas were conducting photoshoots, the playground was packed with droves of children. The air was full to bursting with happiness. You were far more likely to catch a smile than you were any kind of virus. Such is urban life in the spring.
I went to work, left, grabbed a couple slices, walked around SoHo briefly, and went home.
Lying in bed on an hour-long phone call with my best friend in California, I hear a knock on my door. Snapped out of the world of my conversation, I pick up on a noticeable buzz rising quickly in the common room. I open the door, and my roommate Anthony stands before me with a cheeky expression.
“Check your email.”
Out of an abundance of caution, effective Tuesday, March 10, 2020, the University is suspending face-to-face instruction at all locations as an additional effort to keep our community healthy and assist with the containment of the spread of COVID-19. There will not be classes of any kind held on Tuesday, March 10 and Wednesday, March 11. As previously communicated, the University will move to online instruction effective Thursday, March 12. Online instruction will continue through Friday, March 27.
All residential students are required to return home by Wednesday, March 11, at the latest.
As I scan the email, I hear students out on the residence village strip hooting and hollering in a riotous frenzy of chaotic energy. It seems we’re all having the same thought: What the fuck!?
The next hour is a blur of phone calls and logistics. I’m calling my mom to check about travel plans, my dad to berate the inconvenience, a friend in Maryland who I might need to stay with, my best friend in California to update her as to what on God’s green earth is going on.
Roommates coalesce. Eric can take anything we can’t bring with us to his home on Long Island, or house us if we need a place to lay low for a few days. Alex’s parents have similarly opened their home. Matt, who just took an 8-hour bus from Pittsburgh yesterday, is quite upset. Anthony is making calls with an anxious grandmother who insists that flight cost isn’t a relevant factor, that he just needs to get the hell out.
I figure out a loose plan: go down to Maryland on Wednesday (pending approval by my friend’s parents), fly out of Baltimore on Monday. I’m still wired. I’m not alone. We sit around for a while, playing video games and burning through snacks that will otherwise get left here, not quite sure what to do with all the nervous energy.
Alex decides it’s in his best interest to leave as soon as possible. We all help load up his car, lugging a whole mess of haphazardly organized items out the gate and to his waiting vehicle. I look down the street we’re on, and it dawns on me. I’ve never realized how infinite the roads in our neighborhood look. They could go on forever. This is probably the last time I’ll see these people for nearly a year. We make a second trip back to and out from the dorm to get and load his girlfriend Sydney’s stuff.
My mind keeps sprinting on the same hamster wheel. I’m going home! What the hell am I gonna do at home? Am I really supposed to finish these classes totally online? I get to see my friends! Should I assume we’re not coming back? I get to go to my favorite theater! I’ve missed the AMC La Jolla 12. Am I getting a job? Am I even going to Maryland on Wednesday? I wonder if I’m at risk for catching the virus.
Throughout both foot journeys, which take place around 1 A.M., the outer edges of campus have the population density of peak class hours. Everyone looks inappropriately awake. There’s a lot of suitcases.
It’s all rather liminal. For such a conclusion, it seems extremely abrupt and untidy.
I’m texting my best friend; she’s feeling the energy too. At one point I say that it feels like the sun and the moon should both be in the sky right now. She knows exactly what I mean.