It’s not so big, I said, and yet we screamed when the room shook, a carnival-ride fun house, time dancing slow motion across the crest of room-waves.
Wow! and Oh my god! Shit! Bent knees like shock absorbers, the floor a surf board. My electric fry pan skaddadled across the floor and the row of books scattered and slid and then, the shaking eased and wave-lapping onto beach we landed, stood, laughed nervously.
Earthquake! Kate said and we laughed louder.
Damn! There was no end to expletives. But then I assured them again, it’s nothing. These happen all the time in San Francisco.
Really? Kate asked. It seemed kind of big.
No. I shook my head. Not too big….
Eva talked slowly, each word a flavor to identify, savor. I’ve never been in an earthquake, she said. Her words were a confetti cake and we laughed.
Neither have I, Kate added.
All the time, I assured.
Soon then, I was nervous, checking my watch. I have to get to work, I said.
Maybe you don’t have to work? Something subtle, chicory maybe, sprinkled in the question. Eva pulled on her long hair, then slid a band from her wrist and wrapped her hair in a pony tail.
I considered, but no. I shook my head.
I passed my key to Kate. I’ll meet you guys back here after.
Outside, chunks of stone on the sidewalk and a long thin wound on the corner of the building. People spilled onto the street and greeted each other like friends, these my neighbors I’d never seen. There were backslaps and handshakes and worried inquiries. Strangers mingled, some cracked open beer, and two boom-boxes competed at ever increasing volumes. Feels like Carnival, I thought, though I’d never been, and I swallowed the bitter taste of resentment towards work, I had to go.
Hey, a stranger waved. You OK? The sun radiated veils of light, this scene a painting, the opening of heaven. But I hurried to my car. I’d found a dream parking spot on the street and pulled out reluctantly, knowing it was lost.
I had traded the waitressing gig for a shop at Fisherman’s Wharf. The restaurant hours had been excruciating–this new job at the toy store meant I was home by midnight and more rested for the magazine.
Of course, working on the Wharf meant I had to un-park my car and fight traffic. And on this day, the drive was abnormally slow. I watched the dashboard clock and began to panic. I’ll be late, I thought, though an earthquake is a good excuse. Maybe the store would close, the electricity would be out. The traffic signals weren’t working, and the traffic crept towards me, an army of mutant insects from a 1960’s B movie, shining, metallic, ascending. People gathered on sidewalks and waved as I passed I was in a parade passing the parade the only one going opposite. And by me went a yellow bug car, a red Festiva, white and black and faded green sedans, vans and lumbering delivery trucks halting for breath, the burden of their trailers like heavy as with the snail and his shell–and who can bear the weight of the their home on their back? And I detoured and backtracked and wove my way downward toward water, cars honking people waving and now truly late, I turned on the radio for music and maybe some news on earthquakes…fire in the Marina District sections of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge collapsed Embarcadero crumbling don’t leave where you’re at the World Series cancelled and all power out! Shit! Damn! I swore, one ways and where to turn! But finally I turned, and joined the exodus, the creeping animal of cars and on the radio, the numbers, 6.8, 6.9, 7.2, 6 dead, 15 fires, 7.1, 18 dead, 17 fires, Interstate 280, 6th and Bluxome, 3rd game, 5:04, 6.7, 1906, 10/17.
It took me a good hour to get back the short distance I had traveled, and still, the party on the steps, but a different color, the light was relief, the earthquake had cracked open the day, stripping, unpeeling, plucking, and what remained beneath the layers of obligations, clocks and routine was naked and vibrant, and everyone was the same in their survival. And in the laughing, hysteria.
I buzzed my apartment and Kate buzzed me inside. The sun had arced past my window and what came through was gray, the color of the blanket descending upon the powerless city. Kate and Eva sat on pillows in the center of the room around a camping lantern. Three or four flashlights where placed upright in front of them and they were drinking wine from camping mugs. Eva poured me wine and motioned for me to sit.
You didn’t have to work? Kate asked.
It’s all so fucking surreal. We walked downtown. People were looting, Eva said. And outside the hotels, champagne! She laughed. I think she was drunk.
It was a big earthquake, I said. Kate lit the lantern and we watched our shadows flicker on the walls.
The car was long and black with darkened windows, and it kept pace behind me. I walked faster and it stayed on my heals, and when I turned a corner, the patient purr followed…. There was no one else, my feet, my breathing, the cereal-crackle of wheels on pavement. I looked for doors to dash into, but all were dark and locked. Damn-it, I thought and faster still, imagining abduction scenerios and the sidewalks all shadows, even the drunks and hookers gone. Tossed into the backseat, how how long until someone missed me? I saw my body bloated and bruised on a beach, and my friends, I hoped they’d celebrate, life. And the purr and my patter, a few more blocks. I was too slow and the car passed and turned the corner, I ran. Gone, I hoped. But then, behind me again goddamnit!
Want a ride, window down and a voice barked from the shadows, ringed fingers on the door.
I stopped and stared, murky hat over formless face, I gave the phantom my finger.
And then there was a moment, the stopping of time, heartbeats and gold rings tapping, and I, a deer in a rifle scope. I turned and walked. The car moved forward, the skin on the back of my neck, listening. And then, the acceleration, red taillights like eyes, winking shut as the car disappeared down the block.
I closed the studio door and paused, and the shaking was from exhaustion. I stepped carefully over the bodies stretched across the floor, limbs buried under blankets, deep breathing and a whistle snore. Who, I wondered then remembered, friends of friends, from Germany, three women and one man, to see the city. Claudia’s funny, I thought, effervescent, and Sven, a tree of a man, spindly, an aspen. A nearby street light tipped the smallest pool of light through my window, and it was all I needed to change. I lay down, and when I closed my eyes, the tail lights, purring, and the letting go….
You’re a dumb ass, Beth said a few hours later when I told her of my early morning walk home from the restaurant. You can’t walk. .
Yes. I said. You’re right.
Just take a cab. Women get picked up all the time. Raped. Killed. It’s not worth it. (Now at least someone would know if it happened for real.)
No. You’re right…. Coffee later?
Sure. I get a break at ten.
I sat in on the editorial meeting at the magazine, big shots around the board table talking about the response to the Castro issue, what’s happening with aids, national parks, how are the blue lines, and, what features next? There was some tossing around of ideas, Eastern Europe, Tianamen Square, Aung San Suu Kyi, aids. Some anecdotes about reporters, budgets, what Spike Lee said…. This room, these people, were the eyes of the universe, their sacred seeing, picking through the reels of all that was is, archbishops of information and their mission, holy. And me in my metal chair sucking down coffee, adjusting to keep alert and no position comfortable, desperate to join this priesthood.
The first step, of course was to come up with an article, a short piece for the section the magazine opened up to it’s interns. Something shocking and new, Seinfeld, fortune cookies, women walking alone at night.
Any ideas? Margaret asked when we met back in the closet?
No. I shook my head. Her boyfriend was coming to live with her, she was feeling distracted. Operation Rescue might have to wait.
At the restaurant that night, Jorge forked his steak, lifting to his head to gaze at the doorway and chew, while Phillip sucked down whiskey cokes two at a time.
Why don’t you kick her the fuck out. It was a statement. Phillip nodded toward the corner booth where Luna sat withering, her dried hair poking out of a chipped clip like the thin bones of Medusa’s dead snakes. Her fries had eroded over the course of the evening and what remained resembled a mash of decomposing fall leaves.
She’s all right, Sam said, fiddling with his coffee cup. He had a small stack of poems near the salt shaker and for the moment, his pen lay on the counter.
She’s crazy. Phillip turned away and now, his drink.
I set a coffee in front of him, paused to stare.
What the fucks that for?
You have to get home at some point.
He snorted and pushed it away.
Fuck that shit. He finished both whiskeys, to make a statement.
I walk, he said, and pushed forward his cups.
Ever get followed? I asked, and he gave me his look. I stood at the end of the counter and wiped down menus.
She was a dancer, Sam said. With the San Francisco ballet.
What the fuck you talking about? Phillip turned to stare at Sam.
Some tragedy. She was never the same.
You writing that story? They call it fiction. Phillip glared and Sam grabbed his pen and and twitched it in his fingers, clicked it on the counter.
I left them to their discussion, out of sight behind the beverage counter where I poured a diet coke, leaned on the counter and closed my eyes and felt a sinking, my green quilt and shutting down what the fuck two hours to go, this, the effects of the multilayered sandwich that was the magazine and restaurant, the thinnest taste of sleep spread between, and now, the bell on the door as another customer came into the restaurant. Awake! Awake! I chanted to myself as I and walked back into the dining room.
My universe was shrinking–physicists only dream but I could see the collapse of space, the walls tightening brown and outside, the darkness was a vacuum, a sucking in, and I was vibrating. I stopped to study the shake of my hand. Fuck, I couldn’t stop swearing. And who else but the Knife was pulling himself up to the counter, hard steal, a menu, water. Damn-it!
I circled around him, dashed to the beverage counter for coffee, black, and he sent me back for more creams, the tiny plastic cups.
Tapping, he’s tapping I circled closer, deep breath and yes, gold fingered hand tapping
I’ll do the burrito, he said and his fingers tapped, gold rings and I wrote on my pad tapping fingers.
You. I couldn’t stop myself. Exhaustion wiped away inhibitions. That was you! You were following me. I hissed and moved toward him. He grew hard and stared, knife eyes, but took his time. The plastic water cup looked delicate in his enormous hand when he lifted it to his mouth. For crushing, I thought, about the hand. Cups, and bowls, and heads would burst in that enormous grip, like overripe fruit and I backed away with a picture in my head.
He set his water down, and his tone was hard and he met my eyes. Now my shaking was fear.
Yes. He said and studied me. I remembered an eagle at an exhibition that had looked at me with that same unseeing stare, a looking through–I was neither prey nor predator, and thus, I was not. The scraping of plates, twirling of cups, and scribbling on paper at the counter seized.
It’s not safe to walk alone at night, the Knife finally said. He picked up his drink in his enormous club-hands.
You were rude. He continued staring at me. Someone chuckled quietly, it sounded like Phillip.
Yes. I finally said and felt my face grow red. He took me off guard. I’m sorry…. I didn’t know…
He didn’t reply.
I’ll put up your order. I waited for a response, but his eyes remained cold.
We didn’t talk again. The Knife left his usual tip of quarters and never returned to the Orange and Black. And after work, I called a cab to take me home.