Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Earthquake Day One

At the river, an old man in a shiny blue jacket said good morning, ohayou gozaimasu. A woman pedaled her bike as if through sand across the bridge, river walkers walked by and pretended not to stare. Here we all were, on this archipelago, rifted from the mainland and set out to sea, set apart and all alone.
At work Kevin told Tomoko, the school manager, on March 18th the moon is supposed to be really big, really close to the earth, a perigee moon. He said he hoped this didn't cause a big earthquake because a lot Japanese friends said there haven’t been enough little earthquakes this year to diffuse a big earthquake. Tomoko said that this scared her, and the sincerity in her voice gave me goosebumps.
"Well, I hope nothing happens March 18th," Kevin said passively. "I hope it's a clear night."
I stood in front of the copier, gazing out the window, thinking about the perigee moon. I looked down, the copier was wobbling.
"Look, it's an earthquake," I said, pointing at the copier. "Isn't that weird?"
"Look, Keviiin!" Tomoko shouted into Kevin's classroom. "Earthquake!"
She pointed to the coat rack, the hangers clinking together.
The noises around us grew louder, violent, banging doors, clattering venetian blinds, hundreds of little things slapping against the walls. We froze, staring at each other, waiting for it to fade, but it didn't.
It went on minute after minute, we were on the fourth floor, the top floor of the building, swaying like a drunk salaryman. I ran into my classroom to shut off my heater and the floor was unsteady, like a boat, rocking around on big rolling waves.
“Let’s go under the desk,” I finally said, pulling out the rolling chairs.
Tomoko and Kevin quietly obliged, bending themselves half under the desk and half outside keeping an eye on the shaking ceiling. I tucked myself completely under the desk, and felt the bulging pulse in my neck, realizing for the first time I was scared. I imagined the ceiling crashing down, everything collapsing around us, would this desk protect us when the world caved in?
I waited, wide-eyed, searching my mind for a smarter survival strategy. Before I could think of anything better, the noise quieted, the violent shaking passed, leaving us in a building trembling with memory.
I crawled out from under the desk and roamed the school. I picked up a small wood plaque that fell off a shelf, a metal rod that keeled over from a forgotten corner, a tin box that squeezed itself out from a tower of boxes still standing in my classroom.
Nothing was harmed, nothing broke, no furniture toppled, not even a book fell off the bookshelf. Everything was okay, and I wanted to cry. I saw tears unshed collecting in Kevin and Tomoko’s eyes. The fragile world we build, that we call life, was taken by the neck and jerked around and there was nothing anyone could do but wait for it to end, not knowing what the end would be.
In the dark place that was pushing up tears was the knowledge that our world was not solid, no matter how hard we try. The solid ground we stand on waved underneath us like water washing away our trust with reality. But no one cried, ever, because what would we cry for except every emotion?
As the numbing shock wore off and we began to realize what happened, Kevin’s student walked in and sat down to talk to Tomoko.
“I feel like I’m gonna puke,” Kevin said. “And now he’s here.” He gestured to his student who he’s afraid of, who wears white towels wrapped around his head and who Kevin thinks is yakuza, Japanese mafia.
I felt the student shouldn’t have been there, and we shouldn’t either, but wondered where else we would go. Kevin’s student looked unperturbed, his face calm and his booming voice steady, making me question if the earthquake really happened, but as I learned later eavesdropping into his class, he was scared too.

The day continued, laced with aftershocks, but we stayed, rarely acknowledging that the building felt like it rested on Jell-O. Intermittently the earth grumbled loudly, causing everyone to stop, look, wait, laugh nervously, carry on.
Stories circulated of tsunamis no taller than a 5-year-old child sweeping out towns, oil refinery explosions, mushroom clouds, muted black chemical skies dripping with fire. Stories from my students, of a co-worker who complained he felt sick and was about to go home when the earthquake hit. My student mimed an upset stomach as she told me, her husband grinned. “He say he will go to home, but then, earthquake happen and we tell him, ‘oh it was just earthquake make you feel sick!’”
“He stay!” her husband said, nodding, laughing loudly, wanting to laugh, and not think how nauseous we all felt.
“How is your home?” I asked.
“It is okay,” she reassured. “Books fell off, and his mother say she won’t clean. Probably there are more earthquake she say books will fall again so… she leave.” They sat back in their chairs and laughed some more until shortly there was nothing more to laugh about.