A friend once told me that he thinks Californians grow up thinking life is easy because they don’t have to deal with bad weather. He’s not entirely wrong: At home, the seasons melt into each other almost unnoticed—the sun shifts its shade, the wind picks up a chill, suddenly it’s dark at 4 p.m. San Francisco’s hills get their few weeks of winter sun. Crowds of children biking to school thin out a little, the city bus starts to run late from the traffic. Little indications of time slipping away.
The first time I fell for a girl, it was summer and I was spending a week in Ohio for a writing workshop. The asphalt burned in the sun, and everything felt a little fake and liminal. The air smelled heavy with cut grass and humidity, and at night the cicadas would fill the wind with their shrieks. Once, walking back from a late night swim, we got lost and almost stepped on a frog, squealed and laughed. I barely said anything all week, and she made fun of me for it, just a little. That was the year I first learned what frozen custard was, and first fell in love with someone else’s poems. On my way home, I got stuck overnight in the Atlanta airport, and spent the entire night crying, my heart tight with a sense of loss.
I think it offends our state, how much people talk about its lovely weather. California has tried to shake its starry-eyed admirers off its back for so long, and still we refuse to leave, writing songs about how beautiful it is, a place where dreams are made. To make us pay attention, California breaks its calm open with violence.
I was 13 or 14 when my mother first started imagining my glittery future: me, with a husband and kids; my parents, just next door, coming over unannounced, spoiling my children. I snapped at her, got up from the dinner table. Locked myself in the bathroom and cried, not really sure why I was so upset. I couldn’t imagine a future where someone would love me enough to marry me, maybe. I didn’t know why, but I felt sure I’d grow up a disappointment. From then on, each time my mother brought up grandchildren, I pivoted the conversation away and tried not to cry.
It’s difficult to describe the experience of growing up knowing that, at any moment, everything you call home might quite literally fall through the ground. I learned about earthquakes before I learned about evaporation and condensation, about the types of clouds. If you feel shaking, children, duck and cover. Sit under your desks. Get away from trees. Don’t hang shelves on top of your bed. Hope for the best. The next big one is coming.
Actually, I think I’m lying to myself. The first time I fell for a girl I was in California, at camp—a summer of sweaty hiking and feeling weak and being made fun of for the way I said sorry too much. One night, we fell asleep under the stars, and she told me stories about the constellations, how their names came to be. When we went home, we exchanged email addresses, our only form of communication. I no longer remember what she looked like, but I do remember her name.
In third grade, my class took a field trip to the San Andreas Fault, the tectonic boundary that is going to kill us all one day. We hiked under the hot sun through the dry, yellowing grass, the last rainfall of the winter several months behind us. It had been 20 years since Loma Prieta, just over 100 since the Great Quake of 1906 which burned San Francisco to the ground. Inevitably, the next one was coming. There was nothing anyone could do, it was just a question of when.
In 2013, two years before Obergefell, gay marriage was legalized in California. I was 11, and I didn’t know what that meant. I remember walking through my town with my mother and seeing a group with rainbow flags gathered in a circle, cheering. I didn’t know why, I didn’t know how to ask. For some reason, though, it stuck with me over the (unfortunately few) years since then. That moment of celebration. I can imagine it now.
The fires started sometime around my sophomore year of high school. Biking home from school, my lungs filled with ash, my throat turned to sandpaper. The neighboring high schools canceled class, but we kept showing up. At sunset, the sky burned a beautiful, apocalyptic red, and we took photos to remember the blushing clouds.
For the longest time, I couldn’t say the words “I’m queer” out loud. Even now, they stick in my mouth like curse words. In high school, when people asked me if there were any guys I liked, I held my tongue, until, a while later, they’d add “or girls…” Like it was some sort of revelation. I didn’t answer that either. Maybe all I was was quiet and shy. Even when I first got to college, I still felt, for a long time, not queer enough. The queer community on campus felt so immediately cohesive, so sure of themselves. So comfortable talking about it. I felt like just a kid, with no experience, no knowledge, no grand coming out story. I was confused, lost. Not getting that, for better or worse, that’s just how it works.
Now, we refer to October as fire season. When I call my parents, I ask them if the fires have started yet, and it’s just small talk. It hasn’t rained in four months. Has the ash been falling? Yesterday, the air smelled of gasoline and burnt rubber. In October of 2020, the sky turned sulfur-yellow from the smoke, and it felt correct. Just another day in the end of the world as we know it.
This summer, I saw the sun rise over the Atlantic Ocean, turning the entire world rosy. I looked out at the water and let myself feel, for the first time in a while, truly myself and truly free. The round red sun, the half-clouded sky, the calls of morning birds, the crashing of waves, the sand pulling on my legs. Quietly, carefully, I took steps into the water and felt my heart crack open. These days, I’m slowly giving up on doing things the “right” way. At every corner, I’m knocking into feelings I’ve never let myself notice. It’s scary to think that my life and relationships might not be a catastrophe. It means having to figure out how to exist.
On the East coast, I started noticing the day-to-day weather for the first time. People who’ve lived here their whole lives will laugh at me when I get excited over the littlest things. The smell of the rain on the sidewalk. The way flakes of white fall from the sky and leave drops behind on my cheeks instead of staining my lungs gray. The way, each time I step outside, the first thing I notice is nature running circles around me, making itself known. Allowing me to know it. Or maybe it’s me, allowing myself to believe that, despite the months of frigid 3 p.m. darkness, the light will eventually come back to play on my pillow, tinted red by the leaves.
A few weeks ago, I stumbled upon a thick book of poetry entitled Queer Nature in a book shop. I started reading it by candlelight, sitting on the roof, looking up at the stars, holding a girl’s hand. I couldn’t put it down until it started to rain, the pages at risk of crinkling. It felt like a good omen, or a book of symbols. What it means to be queer, and to exist in the world. I turn their words over on my tongue, let them fall into my mind.
And then, of course, there’s spring. In California, it’s undoubtedly my least favorite season. My allergies start acting up, and the morning’s prickly cold turns to suffocating heat by mid-afternoon. The end of rain, the start of yellow grass and reminders to keep your showers short. I’d never understood the exhilarating feeling of seeing the first snowdrops pop out of the frozen earth and the light stay out for a little longer. There’s nothing like watching the world wake up, reminding me of life. I get stopped in my tracks by daffodils and unfurling green leaves, and I want to say thank you. I think I get it now.
It’s November. The leaves have changed their colors and are drifting from the trees. Back home, fire season has probably ended—or at least I haven’t heard about it in a while. It rained for the first time a few weeks ago, and they had an earthquake, but it wasn’t a big one. On the cusp of fall and winter, I am falling in love, maybe for the first time.