We learn geology the morning after the earthquake. — Ralph Waldo Emerson
I felt the tremor in my feet before I heard the familiar groan in the walls — my home bracing itself for a shake. Pre-tremble creak usually means a major quake, so I steadied my stance. I heard something dinging below. I was pretty sure nothing had fallen. I dashed downstairs while the building wobbled around me. By the time I’d reached the kitchen and stretched my neck to locate the source of the clanging, the noise had stopped, and so had the shaking.
Jane called a moment later. “Did you feel that?”
“Yup, it was a long one — but taller buildings tend to sway for a while,” I said.
“Bella, it’s okay, come out from under the table,” Jane commanded, somehow managing to sound both patient and exasperated. I heard commotion in the background — two little girls talking at once, one in a bid to get her mother’s attention, the other balking at it. “Bella’s freaked out,” Jane said to me. The announcement induced an indignant howl from Bella.
“Why? There’s nothing to be worried about, just a little shake,” I said.
“Will you tell her that? Bella, I’ve got Aunt Barb on the phone. She wants to tell you something. It’s okay. Come out from under there and listen to Aunt Barb.” Jane makes sure the girls never miss my segment on the morning news; because they’re still young enough to believe anything they see on television is gospel, I’ve established a high level of cred.
“Hello?” The little voice was squeaky, nothing like the usual bellow of the brazen six-year-old.
“Hey, Bella Boo,” I said. “You’re completely safe, honey, it’s just a little shaking, nothing to worry about.”
“But — but my friend told me that an earthquake will make your house crumble to the ground and your whole house will be disappeared,” Bella whimpered. Her wavering words revealed the freshness of her fear — the dread of a child who realizes that what she loves can be lost, that not everything is forever.
I transitioned to my authoritative, news-narrating tone and said, “That does happen in some places, Bella, but it won’t happen where we live. The places where houses get swallowed up are on fault lines — San Diego is not on a fault line. So you have nothing to worry about.”
“Are you sure?” The little voice sounded sturdier.
“Yes, so you can tell your friend that you guys have nothing to worry about because we’re not on a fault line.”
Fortified with facts, Bella was back to her buoyant self when she thanked me, said goodbye, and handed the phone back to her mother. “Is that true?” Jane asked. She must have overheard my explanation. It hadn’t occurred to me until that moment that my niece was not the only one in need of reassurance.
“I’m pretty sure,” I said. “During that big one on Easter, the worst that happened was a bunch of stuff fell over — books on the floor of my office, glass candle-holders in the bathroom, little things.”
I saw no need to mention the larger objects that almost fell, like the tall vase in the kitchen or the 300-pound television that David had rushed to prevent from falling over and shattering. Despite the severity of the Easter earthquake, I’d found time to tweet, “Holy Shit,” before safeguarding the vase. At no point was I really worried.
To me, weather phenomena have always seemed more exciting than frightening. Of course, all of the storms and quakes I’ve experienced have been too mild to be destructive. The only kind of “natural disaster” I’ve lived through is a bad hair day.
When buildings aren’t being toppled and people aren’t dying, “acts of God” seem more like “natural entertainment.” Blizzards in Alaska meant a day off from school and tumbling through the snow before gathering around candles with the entire family for an in-home camping adventure. By the time Hurricane Gloria reached our Navy housing development in Rhode Island, the winds were just strong enough for the boys on the street to sail around the cul-de-sac using sheets and skateboards.
Now that I live in San Diego, the quakes are my only form of natural entertainment. There’s nothing fun about wildfires; they don’t affect me, anyway — I’m in the middle of a concrete jungle, far from the windblown canyons. Located well above the ocean at the height of Hillcrest, I’m also safe from the unlikely tsunami. As far as I know, there are no volcanoes around, so I needn’t worry about lava. And though earthquakes do rattle my walls from time to time, the risk of damage where I live is so slight that my insurance company doesn’t even recommend earthquake coverage.
David came home about an hour after my call with Jane. I knew he’d felt the earthquake because he’d texted, “Whoa!” while I was running down the stairs. Mid-dash, I’d managed to text back, “Still shaking now.” It’s amazing how much one can accomplish in the 15- to 45-second span of an earthquake.
I explained to him how I’d talked Bella and Jane down and then added, “A bunch of people on Facebook seemed really freaked out about the quake.”
“Were they from out of state?” David asked.
“Not sure. Does it make a difference?”
“People not from this area have only heard about the big quakes that are reported on the news, the ones with massive devastation,” David said. “They don’t tell you, ‘Today in California there was a mild earthquake that jiggled a little water and some people felt it, but not Heather, because she was driving at the time.’” I laughed. “Just like people in San Diego don’t understand tornadoes or hurricanes — they think every gust of wind is capable of carrying off a cow and dropping it on a car.”
“I think they’re kind of fun,” I said. “And cool, if you think about it. The earth is moving, like a gigantic old woman shifting in her seat to find a more comfortable position.”
“They are kind of fun,” David agreed. “We just have to make sure Jane and Bella don’t worry that the gigantic old woman is going to sit on their house.”