I’ma Bay Area native. After going to college in Oregon and marrying an Oregonian, I moved to Oregon, Pennsylvania, and then back to Oregon. My childhood best friend, Jessica, moved from college in Santa Cruz to Colorado and then to San Francisco, where she and her husband stayed in a rent-controlled, well-lit, one-bedroom room near Fillmore in Pacific Heights.
Because of our friendship, Jessica and I candThe frequent trips back and forth to each other’s home, no matter where they were. Usually we would take a food cation and play tourists in our own cities. We went rafting in Colorado, tried our first cannoli at Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia, ate all the ice cream in Portland before SF got its own salt and straw, and walked San Francisco way too fast for my spoiled, flat legs.
After my husband surprised me with the bomb that he wanted a pandemic divorce in June 2020, I asked him to text Jessica because I couldn’t bring myself to contact anyone and say divorce myself.
I was decimated. I was in bed.
I should mention that, as was the case at the time, Jessica grew up to be a psychiatrist. In her BFF-with-mental-health-and-medicine training way, she got me out from under the covers and helped me have my first conversations about what was going on in my marriage.
She talked me out of my first, but unfortunately not last, anxiety attack and we realized that at this point in time I needed more than texts and Marco Polos. I needed my boyfriend.
We have planned a secret Covid-19 trip. When I visit Jessica, I usually move all over Instagram.
I take pictures of my food. I photograph the water. I take photos of the hills she takes me to for food and see the water. However, this trip was secret. She hadn’t been on call in the hospital for two weeks and was virtually looking around with the patients. Her husband was at home too. I didn’t see anyone outside of my own household. We popped our bubbles.
I haven’t told anyone, not even my father, who still lives in the East Bay – sorry father – secured my N95, got on a nearly empty plane, and fled to San Francisco.
I usually take a Lyft, but Jessica and her husband Ari were able to pick me up this time to limit my exposure to others. I got into the car, took off my mask, and breathed fresh bay air for the first time in ages. My face was marked by the N95 and I had no food or water on the short flight to minimize the need to move the mask. I haven’t had much of an appetite for the past few weeks anyway. Now, in the cool SF summer air, I wanted a burger. A meaty one. You have made a commitment.
We picked up burgers from Roam, brought them home, sat at the table and nibbled together when I heard a noise that sounded like the recycling cart was pouring a full container of glass bottles onto the bed.
Jessica was standing in front of the fire escape window and her mouth fell down. (Let’s remember that she is a psychiatrist.)
She’s on duty at hospitals where she sees people go crazy – my term, not hers – has to keep a straight face and pretend everything is normal. Jessica got up and knocked her chair over behind her.
“Oh. What? Oh my god!” she exclaimed.
I did not understand it. I peeked out the window.
A building next door exploded. Black smoke rippled into the previously blue sky and bright orange flames blazed over the skyline.
Jessica, the doctor, called 911. Ari ran around the apartment, looking out all the windows and uttering wordless exclamations like a puppy seeing a threatening squirrel on his property. He ran from room to room and grabbed his skull.
“What the -” he kept saying.
Meanwhile, I closed all windows calmly and sensibly so that the threatening smoke could not get in. I checked my carry-on luggage and wondered if I should put on my shoes. Then I glanced longingly at my burger, wondering if I had time to peel it to safety before our inevitable flight. My heart rate was constant. I’ve had anxiety attacks at 7 a.m. every morning since my husband made his statement.
My poor little trauma brain had just exploded in its own way. A building next door wouldn’t panic me. My body told me this was just another box to check off my to-do list.
Hire a lawyer. Check.
Find a new house. Check.
Escape from a towering inferno. Check.
We decided to go up to the roof to see what we could see. We were the first up there, but others soon joined. With all the hustle and bustle, most of us forgot to wear our masks, so we tried to hide our seedy faces and keep the smoke out by pulling our shirts up over our mouths. A nice neighbor came up to us and told us that there were reports of an out-of-control barbecue fire on her Citizen app, which I had never heard of, not a terrorist attack or systematic failure.
We watched the flames lick the roof of the building and talked through our shirts over the crackling of fires and sirens as the flames turned to smoke. We knew they were spraying the building and no one thought we were in danger. We went downstairs and ate our cold meal and watched the smoke rise further.
“It’s my fault. I caused this.” I said. They laughed. “I bring destruction.” I was mostly joking. Mostly.
Ari flipped through the channels until he found a message. It was a barbecue fire. Everyone got out safely. The sound I heard was the glass exploding from the windows so residents were evicted until it could be replaced but everyone was fine.
I was fine. We saw Hamilton on Disney +. We talked for hours. I slept. I woke up to the cheerful houseplants on the windowsill and the fresh air that flowed in. We walked past the burning building and watched the rebuilding begin. We walked the quiet streets and ate two blissful days to go. We saw Waiting for Guffman. It was almost normal. I went home and took care of my divorce.
Sometimes it takes a shock to the system to get one out of your head.
Sometimes it takes a friend to tell you what you know deep down is real.
I didn’t cause the explosion. All of them. Sometimes you need a change of scene, even if the scene was briefly on fire. San Francisco, you dramatic, wondrous thing – I love you so much.