By: Monica Louzon
Sweat evaporated off Bernice’s forehead as she shoveled. The firebreak was nearly complete. Soon, she and the rest of her crew could rest for the first time in nearly thirty hours. Soon, she’d be done fighting this latest Wallowa-Whitman fire. Tomorrow, after nearly three months, she could head back to base camp and, from there, back to San Francisco while another hotshot crew rotated in.
Soon, Ruth would —
Bernice stopped herself. She couldn’t think about what Ruth would do, not now. Not while the forest around them burned. For now, there could only be Bernice, her shovel, and the conflagration devouring the trees before her. Her arms ached, but she kept digging. The flames were tireless, so she would be, too.
A gloved hand thrust itself into her field of view, startling her. “Pack it up, bunny!”
Despite the heavy equipment on her back, Bernice whirled. “Fuck off, Dale.”
He held up his hands. “Hey, you wanna work another sixteen hours? Fine by me. But you look like you could use some beauty sleep.”
Ruth would have snapped at the Pennsylvania crewman, would have ordered him to cut out his sexist bullshit, but Bernice was bone-tired. As it was, she barely had enough energy left to camp, eat her MRE, and crawl into her Forest Service-issued sleeping bag. On top of that, tonight would be her last chance to ask Ruth —
He clapped her on the shoulder, then clasped it for a moment longer than necessary. “You did good today, Bern.”
“Thanks, dude.” She shrugged his hand away and looked away from the fire.
Her all-female hotshot crew was already trekking into the untouched forest and up the mountainside to find a safe place for the night.
Bernice hurried after them, leaving Dale and the sweltering blaze behind, wondering what Ruth would have done if Dale had interrupted her like that. Ruth probably would have cussed him out, maybe even threatened him with her shovel. Dale and the rest of his crew were from Pennsylvania, and though they’d proven themselves more than capable of tackling West Coast blazes, it had taken them nearly two and a half months to admit that the crews of female hotshots from California, Oregon, and Washington working alongside them were just as skilled — if not more.
As Bernice trailed after her crew, following them to higher altitudes, the murky red-orange sky above darkened, and the air temperature plummeted.
Her mind kept coming back to the problem that she’d obsessed over in her free moments for weeks: what would Ruth say? Forget dealing with Dale and the rest of the Pennsylvania hotshot team. She was sure she’d never see them again. But would she ever see Ruth again after this?
Bernice desperately hoped so, but that hinged on her own bravery.
Ruth was brave — and a radical. Ruth’s fierce spirit blazed brighter than any flames they’d fought side-by-side this summer. Ruth didn’t tolerate the harassment from male crews and even told them where they could shove it.
Ruth was fearless. Three years ago, Ruth had driven halfway across the country to be part of the first Gay Pride Parade in Chicago. Ruth didn’t care that the world knew she liked women. When Dale’s friend Maurice had told Ruth she was mentally ill and was going to go to Hell, Ruth told him they were already there, so she planned to enjoy herself.
Bernice wished she was strong like Ruth. Sure, she could beat male hotshots in arm-wrestling matches, but talking about her feelings was a different beast.
No one knew Bernice liked women, not even her best friends back home in San Francisco. She imagined some of them must suspect the truth, but no one had ever asked her. Homosexuality was a mental illness, after all — that’s what the American Psychiatric Association said. Besides, who’d want to be associated with a friend like that?
People like Ruth, that’s who.
And Ruth was Bernice’s best friend now, her closest one. It didn’t matter that Ruth was nineteen and Bernice was twenty-three. They didn’t know everything about each other, but they knew they could count on one another to beat back flames and wind-blown embers for thirty hours straight, time and time again.
Tonight, like every other night for the six weeks, Bernice would place her sleeping bag by Ruth’s, away from the rest of the crew, but not too far. They’d lie there, near enough to feel the other’s presence through their fire clothes inside the cheap, recycled material, touching but not touching.
Unless Bernice did something, this would be their last night together — not that they’d ever even had a night together in the way that normal couples did.
Bernice was brave, but she wasn’t Ruth-brave.
But maybe, just maybe, Ruth wasn’t Ruth-brave all the time, either. Maybe she was waiting for Bernice to be the brave one. Or maybe she wasn’t. Maybe she just wanted to go home, and their time together would fade into fond memories.
Lost in her own anxieties, Bernice nearly tripped as she entered the rocky clearing where her crew supervisor decided they’d make camp. There was a spring nearby, and Bernice queued up behind a couple of the other women to gratefully wash her face and refill her canteen with much-needed water.
By the time she was done, most of the other female hotshots were already falling asleep. This close to the fire, there was no point in stripping out of their fire clothes — in case the winds fanned the forest fire toward them — but this far from the fire, the night chill could kill anyone without sufficient protection.
Bernice found Ruth quickly. As she wrapped her shorter friend in a tight embrace, Bernice felt the remaining grime on her face crack as she smiled.
“Missed you, Phoenix,” Ruth murmured, using the nickname she’d given Bernice after a shift when a fire had separated Bernice from the crew. She’d been forced to dig a hasty trench and bury herself under a tarp and dirt until after the forest fire passed directly over her. They’d all thought she was dead — except for Ruth.
“You didn’t have time to miss me, you were too busy putting out fires,” Bernice retorted, forcing herself to pull away. She tried to ignore the sudden warmth in her lower belly.
“Maybe so.” Ruth stripped off the water bladder, her Pulaski, and the emergency pack strapped beneath them. She gave Bernice a wicked grin. “But I know you missed me.”
Bernice’s knees trembled. From exhaustion. They were trembling from exhaustion and definitely not the mischievous look in Ruth’s eyes. “How — “
“Come on, girl! I’d have to be an idiot to think you weren’t happy to see me after you gave me a hug like that!”
Bernice removed her own equipment, feeling a thousand times lighter. At least she didn’t carry a chainsaw. She rummaged in her pack until she produced an MRE and the paper sleeping bag in its waterproof sleeve. There wasn’t much else in her emergency pack — malnutrition and stress meant she hadn’t needed tampons since she’d started hotshotting this season.
After all the smoke she’d inhaled over the past months, Bernice could have done without the smoked ham in the MRE, but food was food, and right now, it tasted like Thanksgiving dinner. She downed it quickly as Ruth did the same.
They were unrolling their sleeping bags when Ruth asked, “Are you excited to go back to San Francisco?”
Bernice glanced at her companion. Was Ruth intentionally avoiding eye contact? It was hard to tell in the dark, but she thought she might be. “Kinda. It’ll be nice to sleep in a real bed again.”
“I’m looking forward to a nice cold beer,” Ruth said.
“You and me both,” Bernice laughed.
They climbed into their respective sleeping bags. Bernice shuffled hers over as Ruth followed suit, only stopping once they could feel the sides of their thighs and arms touching through all the layers.
Stars poked through the haze overhead.
Ruth’s breathing evened out, and Bernice was gripped with a sudden fear that her friend had fallen asleep. “Hey, Ruth, you still awake?”
“Mhm. What’s up?”
It was now or never.
“Hey… so, um… You gonna go back to Oak Park after this?”
Ruth sighed. “Yeah, I guess. My nieces still like me, even if the rest of my family doesn’t.”
“What was it like, telling them that you’re, you know…”
“A lesbian? I was terrified. It went about as well as it could have, I guess. I already lived on my own by that point, so my parents couldn’t throw me out. My siblings were… surprisingly okay with it. I didn’t expect that, but they said they’d figured it out a long time ago.” Ruth sighed and shuddered. “I lost some friends, though, even if it was easier to tell them first.”
Bernice felt her throat tighten. She pressed against Ruth. “That must have been awful.”
“It wasn’t pretty.”
Bernice swallowed. Why was this so hard?
“You– you should come to San Francisco and visit me, after this.”
“I–” Bernice paused. “I dunno. You just should.”
That wasn’t the right thing to say. She felt Ruth edge away. “Wait, give me a sec. There’s not gonna be another chance for me to say this, and I want to get it right.”
Ruth stopped edging away. “Say what?”
“I– I really like you, Ruth. I want you to come to San Francisco. I want to take you around, show you the weird houses, the parks, the bars, the piers, the arcades… all of it.”
“Sure, that’d be nice sometime.”
Bernice inhaled. “No, I don’t mean sometime. I want you to come to San Francisco tomorrow. Come home with me. Be my girlfriend.”
Bernice’s heart was pounding so loudly that she was sure it must have awakened the whole crew by now. At least it was dark, so no one could see how badly she was blushing.
Why wasn’t Ruth saying anything?
Had Bernice misread things?
What if Ruth hadn’t actually been flirting with her at all?
Ruth finally spoke. “Can I get a rain check?”
Bernice blinked. “Huh? What do you mean, a rain check?”
“I really like you, Bernice. You’re amazing! You’re everything I could possibly want in a girlfriend, but I need some downtime after this. I need a chance to make sure I’m thinking straight before I pick up and move to San Francisco.”
Bernice was mortified. “Sorry, I should have thought about that before I sprung this on you. I was just so worried tonight would be the last time I’d have the chance to be brave and ask you, and I — “
A sudden rustle of sleeping bags, and then Ruth’s lips were on hers — warm, gentle, and smoky.
Bernice froze. Given the way the conversation had gone so far, she hadn’t been expecting the kiss, but that wasn’t going to stop her from returning it.
As their lips parted, Ruth said, “Don’t apologize. You’re the bravest woman I’ve ever met, my Phoenix. I’m honored to be your girlfriend. I just need the rain check so I can get my shit together for you.”
Bernice felt as if she were soaring, riding the forest fire’s updrafts to the stratosphere. “Of course. Whatever you need. Anything you need. As long as you promise to come to San Francisco.”
Ruth gave her another kiss, longer this time. “I promise. I’ll rest, get my things together, and then come stay with you.” A third kiss. “But. We should sleep. The sooner we sleep, the sooner I can come to San Francisco.”
Bernice laughed and extricated an arm from her sleeping bag, pulling Ruth against her. As they nestled, Bernice whispered into Ruth’s curls, “I can’t wait to cash that rain check.”