It wasn’t just me. October 17, 1989, was burned into the collective consciousness of Northern California in a matter of seconds. I was at the beginning of a piano lesson with Brian Wu, a third-year student of immense talent and sloppy habits, when it happened.
Often I gave up correcting Brian and stared out the front window, simply listening to how he played. There was an ethereal quality in the careless way he played, as if he didn’t notice his own hands. It was this lack of care that gave his music life. He didn’t merely play the notes—I used to do that—but rather seduced meaning from the music.
The initial jolt of the quake was swift and violent, then smoothed into smaller waves. Brian jumped up from the bench and grabbed my arm, his nails biting into my skin. Together we moved to the kitchen doorway.
My cigarette and ashtray fell from the arm of the couch to the floor. The blinds swayed and rattled against the windows and the clock in the kitchen stopped at 5:04. A brass candlestick fell from the top of the piano and smashed three white keys and a black one. By the time I reached the burning cigarette, the house was calm again. It was then that I noticed how still the air was. The leaves of the trees outside weren’t moving and the day was too warm for October. Earthquake weather.
We were 63 miles northeast of the epicenter yet it felt as if it was directly beneath me. When the aftershocks abated, I made Brian help me check the house. He was skittish and wouldn’t go into the garage, so I sent him home. Only when I was alone sweeping up broken glass in the kitchen did I shake with fear.
In the weeks following the quake, I read and collected everything I could about those who died. The mother and baby trapped under their collapsed Marina District home. The woman driving on the top deck of the Bay Bridge as it cracked opened underneath her. I pored over the heroics of everyday citizens and joined a victim support group. Brian didn’t return for lessons, which was just as well, as I couldn’t bear his clammy hands running over the damaged piano.
I dragged my friend Franny to the fault site at Loma Prieta near Santa Cruz. She waited off to the side, panting from the hike up, as I traced the jagged grass growing up the mountain like a scar.
Other quakes struck in Japan, Turkey, and Greece. They came in bunches, or only during the day, or only on minor faults. I watched the news, read books and kept notes, trying to find similarities in all the different incidents.
A month after the quake, my tenant—a sophomore music student at Berkeley named Abigail—moved out. Her parents, a sensible Ohio couple, decided tornadoes were less frightening than earthquakes and insisted she move back home. Abigail had lived with me since her freshman year and, after a month of loneliness, I began interviewing replacements.
The most promising prospect was Laurie, a sophomore studying art history who wanted out of the dorms. She perched on the edge of the armchair, tapping her foot to the Schubert concerto on the stereo. I was smoking and telling her about how the earthquake damaged the piano, when something in her damp, babyish face caught my attention. There was an odd familiarity in her polite blue eyes, in the lids that drooped at the corners.
“What was your last name again?” I asked.
“That’s right.” I exhaled smoke. “Unique name. Did I tell you, I received my music degree from Santa Barbara?”
“I’m from San Luis Obispo.”
“Too far north, I guess.”
“No offense.” Laurie rose abruptly, her sneakers making indentations in the carpet. “Can I have the room or not?”
“Ever been in an earthquake?” I stamped out my cigarette.
As she looked away, trying to hide her annoyance, I studied her face. She was nothing like the docile Abigail, but I was curious.
“Move in whenever you want,” I said. “The room’s all ready. We’ll have the fire and earthquake drill in a couple weeks.”
“A what?” She waved her hand at me. “Whatever.” She hurried out the door, her blonde ponytail disappearing from sight.
“Zamboni, Zambrosky,” I muttered, moving to the kitchen to make a fresh cup of tea. “About the right age.”
It was possible. Paul Zambrosky had a daughter, a pale blonde slip of a thing when I first saw her more than a dozen years earlier. If this was her, she had grown up healthy and intact; no visible scars. Today her face had been confident with the smoothness of youth. It would be ten years before that began to fade.
I hadn’t thought about Paul in years, but it could be her. The last day I had seen Paul, a hot May afternoon, was the only time I’d seen his daughter. She was just five then, staring at the two of us in the dry heat of the Santa Barbara hills while I tried to tell him my theory about earthquake weather.
By June of that year, I finished my graduate studies, and left Santa Barbara and Paul behind. I followed the San Andreas Fault north to Berkeley, where I found the Shaw house. On my first visit with Mrs. Shaw, I followed her impatiently through the rooms, just as Laurie had done with me. Mrs. Shaw growled at me that she normally rented to students, not teachers, but when I sat down at the mahogany piano in the living room and played for an hour, she relented.
I taught music at the university and, sooner than I imagined, all the playing destroyed my hands. That’s when I began to study earthquakes in earnest, trying to piece together theories about when they occurred and how to predict them. Gradually, earthquakes began to crowd out thoughts of Paul. I discovered the earthquake notations in the weather section of the newspaper. The earth moved every single day and I had never noticed it.
When Mrs. Shaw died, five years after I moved in, her oldest son stood in the living room surrounded by photos of his parents and asked if I wanted to buy the house. I was 27 and thought it would be a good place to wait for my future.
When the doorbell rang at three o’clock, I opened the door just enough to tell an Indian woman that the room was taken. I taped a sign to the door and headed to the garage. I found the old shoebox marked “Paul” and took it upstairs.
I turned over the shoebox and dumped everything—shells and letters and photographs—onto my bedspread. Paul’s letters and poems were tied together with faded ribbon. In each photo, Paul was alone. I remember—at the beach, a hotel pool—there was never anyone to take our photo together. I wondered if he had kept any photos of me. I took the photos to the bookshelf, propping them up against the dusty books.
I lit another cigarette and spent the fading afternoon hours looking through the box and thinking about Laurie Zambrosky.
The day Laurie moved in, a 6.8 earthquake struck Mexico. Up early to make sweet rolls, I heard it on the news. Hundreds were dead, thousands injured, people buried alive under the rubble.
The kneading hurt my hands but I took a pill and kept going. There was nothing better than homemade sweet rolls. Laurie would smell them and know she made the right choice. Maybe her father—Paul—would come, too, carrying her boxes up the stairs. He wouldn’t notice me until Laurie introduced us. Then he would smile and hold out his hand to me.
That afternoon in the hills, I followed them along the horse trail, far enough back that Paul didn’t see me. They rode together on one horse; Paul holding the bridle with his daughter tucked in front of him. Suddenly the girl cried out and Paul jumped off the horse. I raced up to them as he examined her arm.
“Let me see.” I got off my horse and grasped at her arm. A small patch of skin was turning red.
“What are you doing here!” Paul pulled her arm from me. “You aren’t supposed to be here.”
For a year before that last day, Paul told me repeatedly, Don’t worry. Nothing to get hysterical about. His marriage and child were just things to be worked out, like kinks in a garden hose. But in that moment when I touched his little girl, everything changed. I spilled into his real life. It was no longer me—my true love, he told me—standing there on the dirt trail. I didn’t exist beside his daughter; we couldn’t exist in the same space.
“She’s not having a reaction,” I said. “It’ll just hurt.”
“You need to leave,” he said. The girl had stopped crying and was staring at me.
“You haven’t called in three days,” I said.
“We are not having this conversation.”
“We can talk about anything you want. What about the weather? Feel how still the air is?”
“Get out of here.” He climbed back on the horse.
A group of riders passed along the trail, turning to stare at us.
“The air’s always tight like this when we’re about to have an earthquake,” I said.
“I don’t think so.” He turned the horse away. The girl stared at me over her shoulder as Paul led the horse down the trail.
Now here she was—I was sure it was her. Once her friends finished carrying boxes up the stairs, the house was quiet again except for muffled sounds from her room. I went upstairs with a plate of sweet rolls.
Laurie was bent over a box, close enough that I could see the creamy skin of her arms.
I lingered in the doorway of her room and saw picture frames stacked on a light blue dresser.
“Do you need any help?”
“No, thanks,” she said.
I set the plate on her dresser and went back to my room. I turned the radio to the news station—now 200 dead in Mexico—and opened the window. The breeze was moist from the rain.
On her rental agreement, Laurie listed her home address in San Luis Obispo and her emergency contact was a brother named Seth in Sonoma. I didn’t remember another child; he must have come later. I bribed her with what had worked on Abigail—elaborate dinners, homemade sweets, and free piano lessons. Anything to get her to spend time with me. I thought I was getting somewhere but the night before the anniversary vigil, while getting ready for bed, I overheard Laurie on the phone.
“I keep telling myself, ‘the rent is cheap, the rent is cheap,’ whenever she starts in on me.” She paused, then laughed. “She has books all over the place. Sooner Than You Think: The Big One. How about, 101 Ways to Safeguard Your House or What to Expect During the Big One. She leaves her bedroom door wide open. As if I’d want to go in there.” She laughed again. “I’m telling you, she’s obsessed.”
I turned up the radio and stared at the photos of Paul on the bookshelf. A few minutes later, Laurie knocked on my open door, staring at her feet.
“I’m going home tomorrow morning,” she said. “I’ll be back late.”
“I thought you were going with me to the vigil?” I motioned her inside but she stayed in the doorway. “And we were going to have the drill.”
“Something came up. Take Franny to the vigil.”
“Is everything okay?” I reached out toward her.
“Don’t worry. Just family stuff. You know how it is. Nothing to get hysterical about.”
I stopped dead, my hands reaching out. Could it just be a coincidence, I thought, her using that phrase?
She yawned and rubbed one foot against the other. I stepped away from the bookshelf so she could see the photos but she looked back toward the hallway.
“Actually,” I said. “I don’t have much family. Did I tell you that?”
She shook her head and vanished before I could say anything else.
The next day, I stood alone in the dry dusk at Justin Herman Plaza in downtown San Francisco. Light lingered from the west; it was the final days of daylight savings. Marcella Nuñez, whose mother died when the ceiling of a video store collapsed on her, was sobbing in the arms of another woman from our support group.
The moment of silence lasted 63 seconds. I tried to pray for each victim but my thoughts kept flying to Laurie and our earthquake drill. We were just begging for something to happen.
9:07 p.m., December 26. The moment I stepped out of the shower, the room began to slip. A few seconds later, everything was still again. Normally, I would have turned on the television but I had to hurry. Laurie would be back by ten.
Inside her room, I stood before her dresser. There was a pair of chopsticks strewn among the barrettes and perfume bottles. I pulled my wet hair into a bun and stuck a red chopstick through it. Then I peered closely at the framed photos on the wall.
There was Paul, his whole face staring out at me. I couldn’t be positive but it felt like him. His hair was grayer but the eyes were the same robin blue. I picked up the next frame. In the photo a young girl stood in a plastic wading pool holding the same man’s hand. He sat in a lawn chair, feet in the pool, shading his eyes from the sun. The girl was blonde with nothing definite about her features yet.
I went to the closet and pushed back the clothes to reach the wall. After Loma Prieta, there’d been a superficial crack down the back wall side but I couldn’t find any trace. I must have painted over it. It was hard to remember everything that had happened.
I leaned into Laurie’s clothes, sniffing, hoping to find some scent of Paul but there was only the smell of fresh soap. All around me, I could feel Laurie’s vitality, the energy that oozed from her youthfulness.
Hearing no sound in the house, I lay down on Laurie’s bed and ran my hands along the green bedspread. Maybe Paul had helped her pick it out when she left for college. If things had shifted a different way, it could have been me.
Downstairs, the side door creaked. I closed her door just as Laurie reached the landing. Before she looked up, I yanked the chopstick it from my hair and shoved it into my nightgown pocket. Laurie said hello then disappeared into the bathroom.
At eleven, Laurie sat in the armchair filing her nails and watching the news with me. I smoked on the couch, questions about her holiday at home hovering on my lips. The television showed a woman sweeping up broken bottles inside a store on Main Street in Bolinas, a one-stoplight town 40 miles north. The earthquake had been a 3.4. No injuries and no major damage.
“During the big one,” I said, “you wouldn’t believe how well people worked together. The Marina District was on fire, the bridge collapsed, freeways fell down. But all the emergency preparedness worked like clockwork. Just goes to show we can’t be too prepared.”
Laurie didn’t look up from her nails.
“Where were you when it happened?” I asked.
“Home. We watched it on the news.”
“Didn’t you feel it?”
“What?” I pointed at the television. “People felt it up and down the entire Pacific coast. Alaska even. There were reports from Mexico. I don’t think there was a single person in the state who didn’t feel it.”
Laurie looked at me sideways. “That was the day my dad moved out,” she said flatly, blowing on her nails. “So, no, I didn’t feel a thing.”
I fingered the smooth chopstick in my pocket, wanting to hand it to her and confess. But there was a tightness to her lips that suggested any sudden movement would make her flee and never come back.
The earthquake hit at 5:43 a.m. Light was just breaking over the eastern hills as I stumbled to the landing with my flashlight. I pounded on Laurie’s door. When she didn’t answer, I opened it. By then the shaking had stopped. She was sound asleep, the comforter strewn sideways over her body, her hair swept across her face.
“Laurie! Wake up!”
“What is it?” she mumbled.
“How can you sleep?”
“What?” She sat up and pulled up the covers. “Get out of here!”
“How can you sleep? It was at least a 5.0.” I pointed to her desk. A pile of books had fallen to the floor. “You should be under the desk.”
“It’s no big deal. They happen all the time.” She narrowed her eyes, focusing on my nightgown. “You took my chopstick.”
I grasped at the front of my nightgown. The red chopstick was sticking out of the pocket.
“I didn’t mean to.”
“You have no right to snoop.” She jumped out of bed and grabbed the chopstick from me.
“I just wanted to see the photos,” I stammered. “I think I knew your father.”
Her eyes narrowed against the sharp morning light. I should have known it was coming. All week it had been seventy degrees with no wind off the bay, unusual for that time of year. I was already sweating.
“I don’t think so,” she said.
I grabbed her arm and looked closely at it. She pulled away, still scowling, but not before I saw that there was no mark, no scar, no sign at all. I grabbed her other arm. There was nothing there either.
“Don’t touch me.” She backed up to her bed.
“In Santa Barbara,” I said. “I knew him.”
“I don’t even know my father.” Her voice went soft. “He sends me things from Phoenix. Calls me on Christmas. I mean, anything’s possible, right? But I doubt it.”
“Did you ever go horseback riding with him?”
She exhaled, her face a mixture of anger and pity. “Please, just stay out of my room.”
She handed me the chopstick and pushed me out the door, slamming it behind me. I stood in the hallway fingering the smooth, tapered wood and listening to the bed creak as Laurie settled back in.
Jen McConnell received her MFA in creative writing from Goddard College in Vermont. Her debut collection of short stories, Welcome, Anybody,was published in February 2012 by Press 53. A California native, Jen currently makes her home in Ohio. Her website is www.jenmcconnell.com.