California is burning. Or rather, California is always burning. Burning with desire, with the sins of temptation, with the ghosts of legends past. And yet, it is only when the flames overtake the state literally that people start to panic. Start to wonder if maybe their paradise is hell in disguise. After all, it’s the “Diablo winds” that further fan the fires, turning them to living, breathing entities that can’t be tamed or quelled. Like the girls who go to Hollywood to make it. Whatever “making it” means now. It’s not as though the cinema is worth a damn anymore–the webisodes and the Instagram “vignettes” and the Amazon/Apple/Netflix/Whole Foods/Spotify-produced content overtaking the once great medium, whose coffin has been firmly buried by the grotesquerie of former producer giants like Harvey Weinstein.
Still, they say California is the promised land, where anyone can enjoy a taste of the good life while living out their fantasies, be they creative or tech-oriented (that’s about the extent of the spectrum, very narrow–like the fear/love one in Donnie Darko). This is why the wildfires are so unsettling. It doesn’t jive with the bill of goods that you were sold before you moved there. Or, if you were born there, it only further proves that every outsider’s perception of it is utterly false. That you’re somehow complicit in the lie of California.
Though, scientifically and environmentally speaking, the fires start as a result of the ground being ignited by the heat of the sun or, more than regularly, the lackadaisical nature of humans, so content to toss a cigarette here or leave a trash pile there, there is a supernatural element to it. That California is praised for having no shortage of nature, laden with forests rife for being set ablaze is not coincidentally ironic.
Layla Marcuso, a 23-year-old who decided to move to Napa to pursue her passion for wine–and her ultimate goal of becoming a premier sommelier–at the Napa Valley Wine Academy, was too entranced with the myth of California to think about anything like their most common natural disasters–earthquakes being neck and neck with wildfires. Even when she had thought to pay attention to the news, the last time she did hear of a major wildfire there, it was in San Diego in 2007. The fire was called Witch. But that was in SoCal, where the Santa Ana winds were known for, in addition to inspiring Joan Didion stories, propelling fires and human insanity more consistently. No, the north of the state was different. More level-headed and less hype in every single way. This was also the logic she expressed to her concerned parents, who were accustomed to the steady calm of seemingly perpetual Michigan winters. “I don’t know Layla. Are you sure this is where you have to go? We’d almost rather pay for you to go to Florence or something. It just appears to be a less volatile climate,” commented her pragmatic father, Gary, a recently retired Air Force Operations Officer.
“Yes, Dad. I’m sure. It has to be Napa. Plus, I really don’t want to have to deal with applying for a visa or having some sort of Amanda Knox scandal befall me.”
Her mother, Trinity, chortled to herself from her perch in front of the stove. She was making chili again. She was always making chili. It was a wonder Layla was able to develop any kind of sophisticated palate with these two as parents. But her time in Ann Arbor had served her well, opened her eyes to a new world of culinary and alcoholic possibility.
So it was that Gary and Trinity conceded to bankroll her latest educational pursuit, just one last time. Her degree in Classical Languages and Literature had, overtly, proven to be a bust. Though she could probably hit on any well-to-do white guy at any bar in Europe. “If this doesn’t get your career going, you’re on your own,” Trinity, consistently the bad cop, warned.
“Don’t worry, I know what I’m doing this time.” There was no talking Layla out of how convinced she was that California was the key to all her dreams. No one could have prepared her for the fact that it was merely a locked door that you were liable to get trapped behind when the fire came to burn you.
Even though each level amounted to a total of eight days, Layla had no doubt in her mind that she would live in Napa, pre-arranging for lodging at the Olive Tree Apartments in the downtown area. The “downtown” concept, of course, being totally absurd in a quaint town like Napa. It didn’t take very long for Layla to settle in and find a job at Allegria, one of the most well-respected Italian restaurants in the area. She knew, however, it was her flirtatious demeanor with the manager that had truly finagled her the position as opposed to her actual skills and qualifications as a sommelier.
As the months wore on, recommending and pouring wine for people became vexingly rote, even though, yes, the money was good. Her satisfaction level, on the other hand, was not. So it was that meeting Tom Gardman, a 34-year-old firefighter for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, came at an ideal time. Right when she needed a distraction from the everyday.
They encountered one another at the Staglin Family Vineyard; Layla was there to pay her respects to The Parent Trap, Tom was there because he actually was with his family, graying parents and a high-strung sister. He looked as though all he wanted to do was get away from them and when he finally did, there was Layla, getting plastered all by her lonesome.
When she left the winery, or rather, careened off of it, they had made plans to go on a date later in the week. Napa was nothing if not ideal date territory. From the instant Tom arrived at the restaurant ten minutes before her, it was clear she was going to like him. Soon, love him. Because, you know, it’s like the Pet Shop Boys say: love comes quickly. They failed to add that it leaves just as quickly, too.
Perhaps this is why Layla didn’t think much of it when she picked a fight with Tom before he went out to battle the fires that started raging on that strange, almost mystical, Sunday, October 8th. He had been absent both mentally and physically for the past month now, and ever since he had moved in with her, things had grown stale. He was disinterested, inattentive and, most of all, unmoved by any of her niceties. It had gotten to the point where she pictured herself as his parents and sister that day in the vineyard–the one he wanted nothing more than to get away from.
And get away he did. For he never came back from battling that fire, the battle lost to the flames that formerly drove her to move to California in the first place–this paradise, this hell on earth.