It had been a while – three years, maybe – since the four of us were together here. Behind the wheel, I struggled
with the simple math. Familiarity worked against me, closing time’s negotiable gaps. A sequence put me back in my seat: Chik-fil-a. ARCO. Total Wine. Driving was no longer driving. I saw things and my mind raced. The wheels beneath me simply followed.
Far enough along Rolling Oaks Drive I pulled into the complex, into one of the resident spaces as Jonathan and Michael had always directed when they still lived here. The car powered down, depositing itself into me – a tiredness suddenly reenergized, a feeling one gets only when pulling into his own driveway. All that could’ve changed in three years’ time didn’t. In a single week, the entire landscape had shifted.
I announced my presence in the group text, a pattered response to the slow contracting sound of the engine’s cooling pipes. I arrived later than I had hoped. The wildfires forced me in over the top through Simi Valley. Camarillo had already pocketed the sun but the last remaining light hung exhausted in a dying blue overhead. I got out of my car and stood at the darker foot of the hill where cold emanated from the brush. Come up, Josh said.
The shooting happened Wednesday. The fires broke out the next day. Today was Saturday – things had only gotten worse – but in the thin, cooked air was the smell of gun smoke.
Already in the first quarter of the way up, to give my nose some relief, I began sucking through the straw of my mouth. Darkness grew evermore threatening with each trying step; between each one, two shortened breaths. Every now and then, a sizeable rock disrupted a foot’s landing. After the rocks had cleared, I was able to pick up my pace, but not without drawing alongside me a cloud of dust the remaining way. The taste of cold dirt lined the inside of my mouth causing me to spit often. Withheld from my own point of view, I imagined from above, me walking the soft path – an ant zigzagging in a line drawn in cold ash. In the distance were the houses, whole neighborhoods sitting along the mountains, a thousand vigil candles burning if now was ever a good time.
Once at the top, the moon announced itself over the large clearing. My eyes had adjusted slightly and was able to sort out the blacks – overgrown shrubs in the place of an abandoned construction site. It had never gotten to building anything, and now, three years later, nothing still. Across the plateau, maybe a football field away, I saw three silhouettes standing at the far edge.
I closed the distance, my own heartbeat now disrupting each breath. As I approached, I blew into my hands to meet them appropriately – each dap and almost-violent hug, a double witness of that rare, fleeting warmth.
The initial focus was material. The red and blue sirens sprinkled throughout town. The section of the 101 reopened but empty. The mountains to the southwest where flames licked at the ridge. The special bottle of Jameson in Michael’s hand, for special, in time, had become the brand of his own generosity for every bottle he’d ever providedus. Josh and Jonathan’s cigars from Arsene’s down the way. The hand-rolled in-shop, something we had always saved for a special occasion down the road. Now was that time. Even if the added swirl of cigar smoke seemed nonsensical, even contributing to the sky’s wretchedness, the burning of their local sticks grew intoxicatingly ceremonial. After all, it was our goal to stand in the middle of it all. On a barren table in the midst of a burning house that was, at one point in time, home.
Jonathan pointed in the direction of the bar and grill. From what I could see, a perimeter had been set up along with government vans and temporary trailers. I could just make out the neon beer signs from inside, and I was surprised to see them still on. I looked away before its buzzing reached my ear.
Partaking in the present accouterments, my own body became a stage of the surrounding forces at work. Warm air blew past the frozen bulb of my nose, which inside was already scorched. I rinsed my mouth with cold whiskey and felt its warmth pass into my abdomen. I shuddered whenever I felt the cold of night and whenever my memory brought me inside that bar we, too, used to frequent in this compromised state.
The three had gone to a bar last night and spoke on it, only confirming what I could imagine. Near-empty. But a worthy point to be made. The bars could never be empty. What you might find in a near-empty bar, in speaking with one side of the split, is that divided response to tragedy. Not those who have resigned to danger but have come to terms that there’s hardly such thing as a preventative measure. Not anymore. And maybe in the face of that which can’t be prevented, you resist by showing up. No one could tell you that today wasn’t safer than tomorrow. These are the times. In my heart, now, I feel aggressive. Like running to the fire. Eyes bloodshot with bags beneath them, heavy with tears only wishing to save us all.
When the cigars expired in the solemn silence of our conversation, it was time to head down. The two pressed their roaches into the ground until completely sure that they were out – a thoughtful final act in our peculiar homage.
Driving my heels against the rush of a downward step, exhaustion became our haste to another bar down the way.
Angelo Antonio Jr. is a second-year graduate student of English at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.