The Gray Zone

The fog envelops and imprisons

I grew up in a little house perched high in the Oakland Hills, with a wooden deck that jutted above the forest and overlooked the cities of the San Francisco Bay Area. At sunset, I would pad out barefoot, careful to sidestep any splintered panels, to watch the orange sky turn deep blue, see dusk fall over the glittering cars on the Bay Bridge, and hear the whistle of the train in the flatlands roll up to meet my ears.
But then, appearing on the horizon, the fog would unfurl, first consuming the bridge and then the houses and then, climbing from branch to branch through the trees, me. The scent of eucalyptus and pine were stunted, like everything had been turned to “mute.” No sweater ever proved enough, even when I pulled it so tight across my shoulders that the yarn bit through my shirt to crosshatch my skin. My feet stung as numbness crawled from my toes to my ankles. I imagined that was what the apocalypse might look like—the world slowly being eaten up by whiteness and disappearing against the universe.
My family’s dissolution, a slow march more than two decades in the making, began in that house. The three of us were pushed apart by my parents’ mutual stubbornness, my father’s resistance to change, my mother’s restlessness. Though it’s impossible to point to any single event, or even a series of events, that broke us apart, the fog hangs heavy over my memories of what happened. My childhood and home are veiled in the stuff, cold and unyielding. It connects versions of myself both past and present, alienates me and brings me back, like it or not, to where I belong.
My father grew up in the Richmond District of San Francisco, where he went to school in one of the coldest areas of the city and spent many nights in the bitter fog of Ocean Beach. He moved to the hill house when he was still a bachelor. It was warmer than the Richmond, though not always by much, and even on the chilliest evenings, he would have been content to leave the fireplace untouched and the house as dark and frigid as a mole hole—that is, if it were not for my mother and me.
The two of us spoke of the fog as though it had a personal vendetta against us. Despite her New Jersey roots, my mother would leave the house bundled up, yet shivering. “It is so fre-a-kin’ cold,” she said through a clenched jaw. She traveled frequently, for work and for the sake of her spiritual pursuits: two weeks at an ashram in India, three weeks with a psychic medium in a small town in Brazil, a month at a yoga retreat center in the Bahamas. She always left seeking something that could mend her, make her healthy. Something warm.
For my part, I protested the characteristically chilly summers by lying out on our deck, freezing, in a bikini and insisting on celebrating my always-misty August birthday at the pool.
The gray veil divided us from the rest of the world. We were isolated—I even more so for being an only child. On warmer days, from among the carpet of eucalyptus leaves, I caught salamanders to keep in boxes for the afternoon, learning not to overturn any big rocks, where scorpions liked to hide. In our solitude, we grew close. But we also knew how to push each other to the edge. My mother rolled her eyes when my father blew his nose into napkins at the kitchen table or licked his knife. “Oh, leave me alone,” he’d bark. We bantered at the dinner table when we had company, and my friends would comment on how funny we were. But our jokes were laced with poison.
Microclimates are a way of life in the Bay Area, a place divided by water and valleys, hills and wind tunnels. At times, traveling forty miles east of the city can put you somewhere fifty degrees warmer. The shift can also be subtle: someone entirely shrouded in dreary, damp cold in Golden Gate Park merely has to step a few feet outside of the cover of trees to feel the relief of warmer air. I knew people, not far from my hill house, who were battered by the constant winds dancing off the Bay or living easy in the warmth of the Banana Belt.
But it is the fog that defines the Bay Area in its entirety. The climate sustains redwood trees, salmon, and the salamanders I caught and released; the characteristic terroir winemakers rely on in Napa, Sonoma, and Mendocino; and the creativity of those inspired, often by the fog, to make cocktails and art and films.
The fog doesn’t affect everyone as personally as it affects me, though it always carries an emotional charge. We give it names and personalities. Consider Karl the Fog, a parody Twitter account that has become a beloved personification of San Francisco’s gloomy skies in recent years. Karl was dreamed up by an anonymous person who wanted to give the fog a “chance to defend itself,” as whoever-it-is told SF Weekly. The Twitter bio reads, “All that is sunny does not glitter, not all those in the fog are lost.”
But fog does confound us. It blankets us in the skies. It strikes against humanity, sending planes crashing into mountains and cars spinning off cliffs.
We think of fog slowing us down, but that depends entirely on perspective. Watch a video of fog sped up, and it looks like the white waters of a river cascading along crests and bursting into the air, eating us alive.
I learned to drive along the winding roads of the hills, navigating the bends with easy movements of the wrist. Late for curfew, I squealed around turns, guided by memory and the glowing yellow tiles dividing the road in stutters. On one of those nights, when I could barely see a few feet ahead, I was roaring down a street bordered by a wall of rocks on one side and, on the other, a gravel shoulder that dropped off to an impossibly steep hill. Fog trickled onto the street in broad wisps and stretched from the ground to infinity. Drunk drivers went careening off the road here, my father told me. Here, too, couples would meet to watch the sun fall and then take to their backseats to steam up the windows. But not on nights like that one, when the chill chased everyone inside.
I drove quickly, too quickly, searing through the fog.
Suddenly, from the mist of the cliff side, from the nothingness, something materialized. A flash of brown. In a split second, I registered what had darted in front of me—a doe—and slammed on the brakes. My car shuddered so hard in response that I couldn’t tell if it made contact. If I had hit the deer, I would have clipped her haunches as she tried to scurry out of my path. I peered through the swirling fog to the right and to the left, in front and in back. There was nothing but gray. When I arrived home, my bumper appeared untouched, but I always wondered whether the deer had really been that lucky. Whether she could really just disappear into the fog without consequence, leaving me to wonder what I could have done differently.
I wanted out. I focused on Southern California for college, citing my desire for warmer weather as a key motivation. The plan seemed foolproof, until I moved into a cramped dorm room six hours south and, wearing a sundress, set out for my first evening of parties. Outside, I discovered that the landscape had been rendered wet, white, drizzly. The fog had followed me.
I was still in Southern California nearly four years later when my mom disappeared: one afternoon, my father left home to play tennis, and when he came back a few hours later, she was gone. She didn’t leave a note or a voicemail. The only things she took were a few changes of underwear, a toothbrush, and the family dog.
I found out what had happened when I turned on my cell phone after a weekend of camping in the desert and her three-day-old voicemails appeared. She said she would be passing through and asked if she could stay the night at my apartment. I didn’t know she’d been planning a trip. I called the next morning.
“Where are you?”
“When will you be back?”
“I don’t know.”
My father knew she was safe, but that was all. There were things happening between them that she couldn’t explain, she said. Things I didn’t need to know. It was complicated—isn’t it always?
After two days, she called to say she was heading back, with such nonchalance that I almost forgot she had fled. The only souvenir from her trip was a strange story about a friend’s greyhound that my mother worried would mistake our dog for a fluffy rabbit.
A few months later, I started graduate school close to home—though the weather was, indeed, warmer down south, the people were not. I wondered if my return would change things for my family. It did, in a way, but too much had already been set in motion. My mother announced she was leaving. I wanted to shake her and beg her to stay. Instead, I told her I’d support her in whatever she wanted to do. What I said didn’t matter: I couldn’t stop her.
So she moved, for good, fleeing farther south than I had, to a tiny town on the coast of Mexico that isn’t much more than a long, bumpy dirt road.
“This isn’t how I pictured it,” my dad said to me one night over dinner—it being his life, I guessed. His eyes seemed to be somewhere else for a while. Now, he lives alone. The fireplace goes unlit. The house is cold and often dark. Still, he has been released from their shared unhappiness, free to dine in the city with friends for hours on end, to do as he pleases without anyone to criticize him. The two of us have grown closer, the remaining pieces of the trinity, the survivors of the fog.
Down in Mexico, my mother, who rarely drank anything aside from the occasional glass of wine, sips tequila and goes out to dance. She has a deep tan, and her limbs are strong from boxing lessons and tennis and walks on the beach with the dog. On one visit, I discovered pot brownies in her freezer. Her friends, a tribe of gringa women fleeing discontented lives, know a different person than I did.
My mother returns only for the few months it’s so hot that Mexico becomes unbearable. Inevitably, she encounters the fog and wraps herself in the bulky jackets she leaves in the closet of our hill house. “It is so fre-a-kin’ cold,” she repeats. She stays in the guest room of the house she lived in for nearly thirty years with my father. “It’s like I never left,” she commented during her first trip home. The wedding photos were still on her dresser, and he had watered her plants diligently. Even a pair of leopard-print pajamas remained in her laundry basket, exactly where my mother had tossed them aside the morning she left almost a year before. “It’s like I died and these things are his form of a strange memorial,” she said.
Now, years later, the wedding photos are gone, and the leopard-print pajamas have been washed and tucked away in some remote drawer. The plants shriveled and died in their pots on the deck, weeds sprouting in their stead. But remnants of her life here remain, as if she’s slowly fading away.
The fog isn’t what it once was, either: by some estimates, it has lessened by a third in the past century. Recent years have seen milder winters, and the drought is taking a toll. Everything our earth once sustained is withering, and the ground screams out with thirst. I still cling to every moment of every warm day, but sometimes, like a scorned lover, I miss the fog’s regular presence: the perverse glee of seeing tourists shivering in the T-shirts and shorts they brought for their California vacation, the sound of fog horns guiding ships into the Bay, and the look of the Golden Gate skirted in clouds.
On clear days, I like to drive back up those winding roads and find a solitary spot on the hillside. I count myself lucky if the skies remain open and I can see the sunset and the glittering cars on the bridge and the whole rest of the world laid out in front of me. But if the fog comes, I let it swallow me whole, imagining my mother eating fried scallop tacos from roadside stands and watching whales rub barnacles off their skin on the sand near her house, until I am shivering. Only then do I descend down the hill to the flats, where I now reside.

About the Author

Lexi Pandell

Lexi Pandell is a Bay Area-based writer and a research editor for WIRED magazine. She has been published by the Atlantic, Conde Nast Traveler, Grist, and others. She is at work on her first novel.

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