Like a House on Fire

Winding through the hills of northern California, the southern fork of the Yuba River has a lot of swimming holes, and in the summer of 2009 my girlfriend of six months couldn’t wait to show me her favorite one. She parked the Subaru in a widened shoulder on the side of Highway 49, then clambered over the guardrail on the opposite side, beckoning me to follow her. Together we picked our way down a steep wooded trail until we reached the floor of a canyon, where the clutter of trees gave way to a clearing filled with the bluest water I’d ever seen. Kicking off her flip-flops, she stripped down to a bikini and expertly lowered herself into the river.

The water was warm and I let it swallow me too. Giant boulders framed the river as if they’d been artfully arranged, lending the area a sense of seclusion. At one edge, rocks of every striation sparkled up from a shallow pool where tiny fish fluttered around my feet. In a deeper spot near one of the waterfalls that cascaded down on all sides of us, I submerged myself fully, turning one somersault after another and grinning with pure joy when I came up for air. After a while, she swam to an outcropping of granite and hauled herself up on it, plucking a straw hat from her bag and leaning back on her elbows. The laugh lines around her eyes formed familiar creases as she watched me splashing around.

“You love this,” she said.

Maya and I met two months after my 30th birthday, the day before Valentine’s, at a game-night-themed queer women’s singles mixer in Brooklyn benefitting the city’s Lesbian Herstory Archives. I felt the spark the moment I caught her eye across the room. Like my whole body let out a sigh, and the smallest flame kicked on at the bottom of my spine. Within seconds, she walked over to me as if she felt it too. Her eyes shone over a lavender button-down, black suspenders, and jeans as she introduced herself and held out her hand. She kept pushing her dark shoulder-length hair behind her ears while we talked, eventually turning to a table full of board games and opening a box of Twister. I pulled the spinner out of the box, slipped off my shoes and offered to play too, mainly as an excuse to stay near her. By the end of the night I had her phone number, black Sharpie scribbled on the back of a hot pink flyer.

The following week found us devouring vegetarian platters at a Jamaican restaurant and sharing pints over Scrabble at a nearby beer garden. I won three games before it occurred to me that she might be losing on purpose. Four hours later, we hugged goodbye on the the pedestrian path in the middle of Eastern Parkway, huddled against the freezing February night in our corduroys and Carhartts. Her slight frame, a few inches shorter than me, fit nicely into the spaces mine left open.

Soon we were spending almost every night together. The relationship ran away with us so fast that somebody was always late to work, out of groceries, or behind on laundry. Like, as they say, a house on fire. By the time she said she wanted to introduce me to her parents and show me her hometown of Nevada City, California, we’d already taken a ten-day road trip to New Orleans, and I knew we traveled well together. I said yes right away.

Maya’s dad picked us up from San Francisco airport on a hot August day and drove us to her childhood home three hours north, a sprawling split-level nestled deep in the redwoods. Her mom was making lunch when we pulled in, boiling ears of corn and laying out sandwich fixings. She took off her oven mitts to wrap me in a hug and offer me some iced tea. Maya, embarrassed by this enthusiastic display, blushed and looked down at the floor.

The four of us ate lunch on the deck overlooking the backyard while birds chirped from trees and Maya gave me a brief history lesson about Nevada City, a former mining town colonized during the Gold Rush and named for the Sierra Nevada Mountains. She explained that nevada is Spanish for “snowy.” Sounding proud, she added that there were still plenty of mom-and-pop businesses left in this town of three thousand, a permissively rural place that was home to all sorts of folks, from weed-farming hippies to rifle-toting libertarians. I already knew that her parents fell somewhere in the middle, as former conservatives who had become more open-minded over the years and now mostly voted Democrat. They were very hospitable, asking questions about my life and offering me second helpings. After the meal, Maya said she wanted to go for a drive, so we buckled ourselves into the battered blue Subaru she’d driven since high school and hit the road.

Everything looks better when you’re in love, and Nevada City was no exception. Old-growth redwoods towered over telephone lines. Wildflowers rioted along creeks and streams in glorious bursts of color. Throughout the surrounding countryside flowed the Yuba River, a hundred-mile expanse of glittering turquoise water. Maya knew all the best hills to take at top speeds, and when to pump the accelerator just right to send us flying in her rattletrap car. She couldn’t stop smiling as she piloted me through her old stomping grounds: the indie record store, the farmers market, the allegedly-haunted National Hotel, the New Age bookshop owned by local celebrity Utah Phillips. And last but not least, Toki’s.

Toki’s was a tiny café in North San Juan, fourteen miles outside of Nevada City, that Maya swore made the best chocolate milkshakes in the world. We parked next to a police cruiser that was blocking part of the entrance. Inside, Maya pointed out the proprietor, a small aproned woman with her arms buried deep in an industrial sink. A harried-looking waitress scurried around with a sponge and a dishtowel, pausing to take our orders before rushing off again.

We sat down to wait. From a newspaper left open on the counter, we learned that a wildfire – ignited by the burning feathers of a red-tailed hawk after it crashed into an electrical line – had been raging for several days and was still going strong. The blaze had already destroyed two thousand acres of dry brush, and two entire counties were affected by what authorities were calling Avian Powerline Interaction. A few feet to our right, a boy who looked about fifteen slouched alone at the only other occupied table, picking at a sandwich and a paper basket of fries. The waitress continued to bustle around in a manner that indicated an unanticipated closing time. The air buzzed with a palpable electricity, like the moments before a thunderstorm. Maya folded up the paper and shot me a look like, Maybe we should just go?

Before I could answer, a rail-thin woman in a t-shirt and denim cutoffs poked her head around the screen door and announced that the police were closing all the roads, on account of the fires. Seeming to recognize the boy at the next table, she walked into the shop, letting the door bang shut behind her. She knelt down until she was at his eye level, then said she’d just spoken to someone in his family and that his house was on fire. She called him Kevin. Put her hand on his arm. Said she was sorry.

Just then the waitress called out our order, placing Styrofoam cups on the counter. As we stood to collect them, the boy finally looked up from his food, first at the woman who’d spoken to him, then at us as we made our way toward the door. His eyes lit on the car keys in Maya’s hand.

“Where y’all going?” he asked us, without preamble. “Can I get a ride to Grass Valley?”

Maya and I exchanged a look. A silent conversation passed between us. This boy might have just lost his home, he needed a ride, and we had a car. In the moment, it was as simple as that. Grass Valley wasn’t far from Nevada City, and we’d planned to head back to her parents’ house anyway. So when he followed his first two questions with a plea of “Don’t you want to see a house on fire? Come on, I really need a ride,” I couldn’t think of a reason to say no. Appearing to agree, Maya nodded at me and then Kevin, who followed us out.

Once he was settled in the backseat with the safety belt cinched around his waist, Maya started the car and asked him which route he wanted us to take to his house. A long moment later, he said he had a confession to make: his house wasn’t in Grass Valley after all, but a few miles away, in a different part of North San Juan.

“It’s not far,” he continued. “I just want to make sure it’s really gone.”

A little fist of unease began to gather in my stomach. Maya, however, seemed unfazed as she took her foot off the brake and leaned on the gas hard, rocketing out of our parking spot in a spray of dirt and gravel. She lived here half her life, I rationalized to myself. She knows what she’s doing.

Nevada City is located in Nevada County, a 91% white, Republican-majority area comprising North San Juan and a smattering of other towns with names like Truckee and Rough & Ready. The eastern edge of the county buts up against the state of Nevada, just above the bend near the top of California’s state line. Local legend has it that in the mid-19th century, ten years after both Nevada City and Nevada County were founded in California, the people who colonized the state of Nevada liked the name so much that they took it for themselves. As the story goes, this so incensed the Californians that they immediately bought more land for the express purpose of redrawing the county line, this time in the shape of a gun. If you look at a map, you can see that the muzzle of the gun is aimed directly at Nevada, just above its capital of Carson City.

Maya told me about this on the first day we swam in the Yuba. Initially I wrote it off as apocryphal, a colorful tall tale – until I reached for her hand, floating next to mine in the water, and she pulled it away on instinct. Half-apologetic, half-annoyed, she looked down at my fingers and said she wasn’t comfortable being affectionate in public here, in this beautiful place she loved so much but also associated with her complicated adolescence. Even as a full-grown adult. Even though there was no one else around.

“I came out in high school,” she explained as I swallowed my disappointment, “and it didn’t go well. It took my parents a long time to accept me for who I am. And they weren’t the only ones. That’s one of the reasons I left. I didn’t want to be afraid anymore.”

On the other side of the country runs the Delaware River, fast and wide and furious, so dark it’s almost opaque in places. I grew up near the banks of its formidable current, in a rural part of central New Jersey known for bucolic townships too spread out to have a town center. While Maya was diving into the Yuba with her friends, I spent my young summers canoeing, kayaking, and whitewater rafting. My friends and I camped in state parks, snuck beers into the rock quarry, and rode bikes through the overgrown paths in the woods behind my house. But we did not swim. The Delaware was for adventuring, proving yourself, showing what you were willing to risk, but it wasn’t wise to let your guard down. Someone died in it every year.

As a teenager in Hunterdon County, also a 91% white, Republican-majority area, I feared the river more than I worried about homophobia, because I didn’t identify as queer yet, and wouldn’t until the age of 24. Several of the boys I knew in high school scared me though. Some of them had bullied me in fifth grade until I cried; some tipped cows, smashed mailboxes, stole cars, harassed kids in the halls, and revved their truck engines in the parking lot after the last bell sounded. Stories abounded about their various predatory behaviors, their run-ins with authorities. That itchy sense of foreboding I felt in their presence never entirely let me go, no matter how old I got or how far away I went.

Kevin directed us through a dozen hairpin turns on sharply-inclining mountain roads, then instructed Maya to pull over on a narrow shoulder near the edge of a slope. As we did, I noticed the sky had gone black with smoke. A handful of people loitered in the middle of the road about fifty feet ahead of us, near a pickup splattered with mud. Kevin hung his head out the window.

From the vicinity of the truck rang out a loud snarl. “You got your wish, you son of a bitch! I got no house because of you!”

A large man in camouflage overalls took a few steps toward us. Behind him, a girl in pigtails perched on the lip of the pickup’s cargo area, sipping a tallboy. Men in trucker caps weaved unevenly along the road. To our right, flames lapped at a small house tucked into the hillside, a bizarre dance of flickering orange. Firemen trudged up and down the slope beyond the road, carrying buckets of water to the house and returning with the empties. I didn’t see a fire truck anywhere.

A low, gravelly laugh bounced off the face of the mountain to our left. The sound had that languid, insidious timbre I’d long ago learned to recognize as the precursor to a nasty joke. The skin on my scalp prickled. As we sat there, sweating on the fabric seats, waiting for some cue as to what would happen next, I became very conscious of what we looked like. My Brooklyn-compatible buzz-cut, pierced lip, and rainbow tank top stuck out here almost as much as Maya’s androgynously slim, vaguely elfin appearance. Then there was Kevin in the backseat, nervously twisting his hands in his lap. I clenched my arms to my sides, so as not to draw attention to the hair I’d let grow underneath.

The house burned on. Kevin was right; I couldn’t look away. It was mesmerizing to witness the methodical consumption of the flames, the unhurried devastation of a place someone had once called home. The wind picked up and blew the flames to one side. A charred plank of wood fell to the ground from somewhere, and I realized that the house was the only thing ablaze. Everything around it – trees, grass, vegetation – was still, and green, and untouched. All at once, it dawned on me. This fire had not been ignited by a bird flying into a power line, nor was it an outdoor conflagration that could only be managed by letting it run its course. This fire was unrelated to the one currently ravaging northern California. This fire had begun inside the house.

The man in overalls lumbered over to the car and knocked on Kevin’s window, startling me out of my thoughts. Kevin rolled down the window, his other hand clutching the paper bag containing the rest of his lunch from the cafe. A greasy stain crept down the side of the bag. I sucked at my shake, the icy slush a comfort to my overheating face.

“I was at Toki’s,” Kevin implored the man in a high, insistent voice. “These girls seen me. No way I could’ve set that fire.”

The man did not respond, but gestured at Maya to roll down her window as well, resting his fingers on the frame of the door and addressing himself to both of us.

“I don’t know who you girls are or where you come from, but right now you’re aiding and abetting a criminal. If this boy goes to jail, you’re gonna have to go with him.” He leaned back on his heels and crossed his arms. Kevin made no move to get out of the car. I listened to the rhythmic licking of the flames.

In the Subaru’s rearview mirror, a police car trundled into sight, weirdly silent on the dusty road. No sirens, no bullhorn, no tires crunching gravel. Just a ghostly apparition in white and black and chrome, the slam of a door and the silhouette of a man in uniform with a job to do. Kevin’s left hand gripped his knee, knuckles going bone-white, tendons stiffening on the back of his palm. He poked his head between the front seats.

“You girls ready to go? Can I still get that ride to Grass Valley?”

Maya held his gaze in the mirror and shook her head. “I’m sorry, man. Looks like we know too much now.”

The police loudspeaker crackled on, and a perfunctory metallic voice instructed our passenger to step out of the car. Kevin opened the door and folded his long limbs out onto the road, mumbling something about his family always blaming him for everything. He approached the police car like a man heading to his execution. Head down. Shoulders slumped. Feet dragging in the dust.

The cop car departed. The man in overalls walked back to the truck. Maya quickly cranked her window up and twisted around to look over her shoulder. Five harrowing three-point-turns later, she pointed the car down the hill, and we left the scene as abruptly as we’d come upon it.

On the highway, I spoke for the first time since Toki’s. “I think he did it,” I said, quietly. “I think he burned his house down.”

“Oh, no doubt,” Maya laughed, with what sounded like a combination of awe and relief. “Did you see the way he walked to that cop car? He was guilty as hell.”

“That was insane,” I said. “I was really scared.”

“Me too,” she admitted. “But I didn’t know what else to do, so I just kept driving. It all happened so fast. Is it weird to say I’m glad you were there with me?”

“No,” I replied. “I kind of am too.”

I pictured Kevin’s face as I fiddled with the radio, searching for a station without static. Had he thought he’d get away with it? Underestimated the consequences of his actions? Wanted to do something destructive, just to see what would happen? Maybe getting caught was beside the point, maybe he hadn’t even set the fire. Probably we would never know. My nerves still jangled as my body worked to calm itself down and re-establish homeostasis. A Lucinda Williams song came on and Maya began to sing along, and I realized I felt safe with her, in this place she loved, this place I would grow to love too over the three and a half years we would stay together after that.

Just before the exit to her parents’ house, Maya noticed a state trooper behind us. She eased onto the ramp and asked if I could see Kevin in the back. I couldn’t blame her for wanting to find out how it ended, but when the cop car sailed by, the cage was empty. I took in the slow burn of her smile as it lit up her face, then kissed the faded playground scar on her cheek. She squeezed my fingers and didn’t let go.🗺️

Edited by Heather.

The Travel Issue [button: See Entire Issue]

Betsy Housten is a double Sagittarius queer writer and massage therapist who earned her MFA at the University of New Orleans and makes her home in Brooklyn.

Betsy has written 1 articles for us.

10 Comments

  1. This was gripping! And what a strange twist at the end. I can’t help but feel a bit sorry for that kid, even if he did start the fire, but you definitely did well not to get too mixed up in it all.

Contribute to the conversation...

You must be logged in to post a comment.