After the Big One brings it all down, what lives might we try building out of the rubble?
Zoe van Djik
Today, a tale of love, loss, reincarnation, drought-proofing, sex, and hanging on after the Big One reduces our cities to ash. Enjoy. -the ed
I’m in this bed – night, summer. Cool air is breathing out of the walls – the paint, in particular. The apartment purrs with efficiency, but I can barely hear it. My blood is pulsing loudly in my ears because I’m in love with someone, you. In those lush, spent, breathless moments after sex, you told me – in a whisper, your breath at my neck – that you’re in love with me. I didn’t say a word, but you weren’t angry or needy or pained. You accepted my quiet and fell asleep.
I’ve told you a little about my childhood. Jokes, mostly, about growing up in a model home only a few miles from the Faultline. But I haven’t really explained it. We were called New Families, for example, but there weren’t Old Families as much as many, many Dead Families. The Big One – you saw it on the news and so did I. We didn’t live there at the time. We were in some other model home in the desert. My father was a Waterman then, able to sell the Watermaker for Drought-Resistant Housing.
You were a kid in a fancy house in Conshohocken, like you told me. With lots of brothers, and money, but you holed up in your bedroom and watched shows about strange and beautiful future worlds. You wanted to blur into those other realities.
When you whispered I love you, I said nothing. I froze up because I haven't told you the whole story, the full truth about me. I should have told you that I have sketches of my parents that my therapist helped me put together in a holo-diorama. (I haven’t even mentioned my therapist, have I?) The holo-diorama is in a box in the top of my closet. Maybe I’ll find the courage to show it to you. In all of the sketches, my family – there were just three of us at this point – seem like fresh creations, built to be bold and resilient, made of the same recently brought-to-market technology that went into the construction. Maybe I could pick that scene at one of my parents’ dinner parties; they were eternally hosting. I could show you my father, resurrected, in vivid detail, holding a cold raw egg over his head. “I can drop this egg directly onto the give-and-go flooring, and it won’t break!”
My mother is reincarnated, too. She’s not old. She’s not surrounded by parakeets in cages, their claws nervously gripping the wires. No. She’s young again, her hair spins into an auburn up-do.
“Honey!” she says to my father; they only called each other pet names in front of guests. “Not this again! One day it is going to break! It is!” She was only newly pregnant – just starting to wear pants with stretchy front panels, but the panels were still puffy. My parents finally had enough money for a baby. The economy had been decimated by the earthquakes, and we got lucky. I was looking forward to the baby; I was an only child. I wanted a sister so that I could brush her hair and put bows in it.
You’ll see my father smile at the guests, egg aloft. He had a salesman’s smile – bright and wide. Do I have a fake smile that I can put on like his? That’s the danger here. I’ll think I’m eposing my parents but I’ll only expose myself.
“Three, two…” He looks around, eyes flashing. “One!”
The egg will drop. The give-and-go flooring reads the egg’s fragility, accepts it with tenderness and ease. I remember being amazed by this. The egg wouldn’t ever crack or bounce. It would wobble and roll – sometimes right to my father’s loafers. Wholly intact.
Maybe you’ll need me to back up. I prefer this. Some attempt at facts.
My father’s company was rebuilding the entire town of Altadena. Our planned community was just one piece. There was a school, a small hospital, an interdenominational place of worship, a police station, a restaurant, eventually a mall… There were more murders per capita than most places, sure. Those who’d survived the quake were still trying to rebuild on their own, and they were starving. They broke into the gated lots and got vicious sometimes.
My mother would hear the news and get shaken. “It’s the Wild West. Complete with long-horn cattle!”
This was true- ish. Some parts along the Faultline were so leveled that they were reconstituted as farmland. New breeds of buffalo and cattle were brought in. The creatures were bred not to fear tremors and quakes. They rarely spooked anymore.
My father said that my mother was being overly dramatic. “Listen!” my father said. “Do you hear that? That’s the sound of money.”
I listened. “What sound?”
My mother laughed. “She doesn’t even hear it anymore.”
I listened harder. And then I heard it but hearing it was more like remembering something I’d forgotten. It was the constant ticking of the house itself, calculating the earth’s tremulations, our footfalls, our weight and bounce, being ready to shift and give and settle.
And each time there was a tremor – they happened a few times a week – the house knew when and how to crumble – just a little – and then its self-generating building materials would kick in, filling in cracks, reproducing itself to keep everything in one piece.
My mother lied to the guests about the egg. It wouldn’t ever crack. The house didn’t know how to let it.
I’ll have to tell you that the guests weren’t really guests. A confession -- my parents had no real friends. The guests were people on vacation up the coast and, in return for some collection of freebies – like a free hotel night and dinner – they had to come to Altadena, to our model house, and attend this cocktail party.
But it wasn’t a cocktail party.
It was a model of a cocktail party full of resentful strangers who just wanted a free hotel room and dinner. Some were nice. Some drank too much. Some walked around and opened all of our closets and made remarks about how the lighting seemed off. (The lighting was off. Creating quake-resistant lighting is infinitely harder than creating a quake-resistant sofa.)
My parents were model parents. I was a model child. If it was the evening, I was supposed to sneak out in my pajamas and then I was shushed back to bed. And I wouldn’t put up a fuss. None at all.
If it was during the day, I helped with the lemonades and refreshments. My parents would smile and tousle my bobbed hair.
Sometimes I wondered if my mother was pregnant at all. Or if it was just part of the act.
Children were luxuries. Children were showy. Children were a sign of wealth and hope.
We had a gardener. I feel a pang when I think of him. It won’t be easy to tell you about Bertrand. He wasn’t full service. He only knew how to rake the rock bed and pull weeds. He was also a sign of wealth and hope. He had a multi-lingual setting, and my mother would sometimes set him on French and tell him to teach me French. He didn’t know how to teach. He only knew how to speak. But he would talk to be me about rocks and weeds.
And my mother.
Bertrand might have been in love with my mother though he wasn’t supposed to be programmed for love. I was obsessed with love, even back then. Obsessed and afraid. I didn’t think my parents had love. My parents were business partners in a joint venture. My parents never felt real.
Sometimes I didn’t just wonder if my mother was really pregnant. I wondered if they were like Bertrand, only higher quality.
One thing that made my parents real was that they argued. And, unlike other people who hated it when their parents argued, I was relieved. I would stay up and listen. Who would create models who argued? It would be illogical.
Does this worry you? Should you really let yourself fall in love with someone who thinks this way?
This is a cautionary tale.
On nights when they didn’t argue, I would listen to the house weaving and tinkering and calibrating – ever-watchful, always poised.
You might think that the house was bracing itself for something awful. But no.
The house was ready to hand itself over – to be a little wrecked, a little ruined and destroyed. Poised to repair itself.
There could always be another Big One. We knew this. My parents signed waivers put in front of them by the company. The houses were quake-resistant. Not quake-proof. There were risks.
When the bigger quakes hit – and they did, every few months – the house was good to us. Everything was bolted down – the dressers, the tables, the paintings hung on the walls. Our dishes were all made of give-and-go materials. All of the drawers and cabinet doors had extra levers.
The house cradled us. It would shudder and rock. Soothing music would pour in through the sound system. We were taken care of.
Of course, if the ground opened up, there’d be nothing.
But that didn’t scare me, as a child.
This is what scared me: If my parents were models, then the baby that now grew inside of my mother – her belly was filling the elastic panel sewn into her pants – could be a model.
If the baby was a model, I could be a model.
My great fear as a child was elementally existential.
I wasn’t sure I existed at all.
And I think of you as a little boy, trying to stay away from your brothers. Trying to blur into the distant futures of those shows so you could exist there – in non-reality – and not where you were.
Your mother and father, your brothers – with their cruel remarks, each time they punched you, or dangled spit over your face while pinning you to the carpeting – these things made you real. They drilled you into a time and a place, moment upon moment. They made you incarnate.
I did not have an incarnate childhood. I was not manifest.
In the glow of the light from the hall, when you rolled over, the sheets lightly twisting against your skin. You are real. You told me that you loved me and this gave me a rush of feeling real.
I was, in that moment, real.
It didn’t last.
It didn’t last because I’m the only one who can prove my own existence. I can lift up my hand and say, “Do you see this hand?”
And you can say that you do.
But I can’t hold up my consciousness and say, “Do you see this consciousness?”
Sometimes when there was a couple who seemed serious about buying a house in the community, my parents would set up a second appointment.
Sometimes these appointments would be held at our dining-room table with one of the loan officers, trying to help them make the numbers work.
But other times, when my parents thought the potential buyers were “into it,” I was sent to the house of the woman across the street to spend the night. She was elderly. She’d survived the Big One. Her house was smaller. Its house noise was louder. It didn’t have the amenities that ours did – walk-ins, self-cleaning surfaces, Bertrand…
But she had burns on one hand from the fires during the Big One. Her skin was brown and this one hand seemed blurred. It was as if it were always underwater, rippled and shiny. I always wanted to ask her what she’d reached into a fire for. But never did.
She’d paid for her house. My parents got a bonus.
I knew she was real.
The consumer is always real, especially in comparison to the object being sold. I was an object. I was part of a world that someone could buy and step into.
That’s why I like to buy things. I exist. I’m real. It’s powerful.
And when you say that you love me, am I the object? Can I buy something? Can I claim you?
We’re no longer equals – unless I say I love you back.
Is that true? I don’t know.
You, as a child, didn’t want to be seen. Didn’t want to be real. That seems like a luxury to me.
At night, when they thought I was asleep, my parents fought about the guests. You’ve probably guessed that they had sex with the guests sometimes. I didn’t understand that then, but I do now.
It was all supposed to be good and easy and freeing.
“We could die at any time,” my father would say. “That’s what I’ve learned from all of this.” He didn’t want to bow to the confinements of society.
And around the time my mother was getting more obviously pregnant, she scared the other couples. “They look at me like I’m an alien,” she said. “What am I supposed to do? Sit there and be a referee? The only person in the audience? Should I shout out suggestions? Should I clap for you?”
Was this part of the deal? Were they trying to say that this rebuilding of the Wild West would look like one thing on the exterior, but, within it, there were no rules? For some buyers, that would be exciting, which would lead to more bonuses.
The fights got more and more heated, and I was drawn to them. They were raw and true and undeniable. I would sneak down the hall and watch.
My father once threw a tumbler across the living room. It struck a pane of glass in the bay window. The glass bowed out. The tumbler fell to the floor where the floor gave. Nothing broke. My father looked disturbed, scared actually.
My mother said, “We should go to bed.”
But he remembered that he was angry and stormed out of the house, slammed the car door – which wasn’t very satisfying – it only gave a rubbery puff of air – and drove off.
I stayed where I was and watched my mother power-up Bertrand. She touched his arm and asked him to pace in front of the bay windows with the lights on so it was clear there was a man in the house.
How do you think it all goes?
My father catches Bertrand and my mother, having fallen asleep together after making love?
My father eventually falls in love with a buyer and moves into a new house down the street?
My father storms off, and, while driving out on one of the new roads alongside the cattle fields, a quake rips opens the earth beneath his car and he’s swallowed whole?
Actually, none of these things happen.
This is what happens: it simply goes on like this. My father and mother fight often and my father sometimes storms off. Other times, my mother gets angry and demands that he leaves.
My sister is born, and my parents still fight.
Altadena is rebuilt, bit by bit. Property values rise.
My father gets a new job, and we move into a new model, two towns over.
Bertrand is left behind because he actually belongs to the house, not us. Bertrand looks broken, but only to me. He waves to us from the yard, a stone in his fist.
When I’m a teenager in my bedroom in the house two towns over, I try to start a fire in my bedroom. I’ve stolen a lighter from a friend’s mother. I’m the only one home. My parents have gone to a parent-teacher night. And I put the lighter to the white curtains in my bedroom and flick it on.
I barely know that I’m doing it, but I know, deep down, why. To see the destruction made real. To see it with my own eyes.
The curtains don’t catch fire. They start to brown and then smoke a tiny bit. I breathe it in deeply. But then it’s all snuffed out – done – and the curtains reconstitute themselves so they aren’t even singed. Purely white. Quake-resistant housing wouldn’t allow flammables. But I knew that, didn’t I?
I’ll have to tell you all of this because you need to know that I am forever a kid in a house that’s not real, in a family that’s not real, in a world that’s not real because it can’t break or burn. I’m forever looking for signs of authenticity to hold up against all of our collective human fraudulence.
I’ll tell you all of this because I prefer a house that breaks and burns.
Here’s the truth: I love you, too.
That’s why I have to warn you. I will try to destroy us, over and over again. And, each time I succeed, it’ll feel good to me and it will feel awful for you. And then it will feel awful for me too, but that won’t stop me. I’ll do it again.
I will do it for a simple reason. To know that we are real.
And you know that already.
So. What do you really want? And how badly do you want it?