I looked it up once in the dictionary — earthquake (noun): a sudden release of energy. We had our share of them. The first time we had sex, a small earthquake rocked our bed and another the city of Los Angeles. We were oblivious to the earth’s orgasm, too busy with our own, until the following morning when we found all the plates smashed on the floor. We joked, ‘It’s the earth’s fault.’ And it was true; the earth had faults, cracks like we did. But the earth with its tumults and its tremors never hurt me.
When I first moved to LA, I checked the Internet for what to do in case of an earthquake. If you were inside, they all recommended to drop to the ground, cover your head to protect yourself, and hold on until it stopped. The big one struck last night, our biggest in magnitude and I forgot all the advice I had read and later scribbled in my notebook. I stood still, and I stood straight. I didn’t protect myself as instructed, I didn’t look for cover. Afterwards, they suggested, you should check the building for damages and find a safe path out. Even though the walls were still standing, our home was in ruins — nothing could survive the destructive force of our anger, least of all our relationship. There was no safe path, so I sat on the floor, among the shattered things we’d thrown on the ground. We broke up, and then we broke down. Who was left to pick up the pieces, and I wondered who was in more pieces: you or me?
Earthquakes had defined us from our very beginning, and not just because of where we lived, or maybe because of it. Would our story have been the same if we had lived in New York or Boston, a place where the earth lay dormant, and photographs didn’t fall over?
The air was warm, and daylight still hung around long after the evening started, giving the few clouds stretched across the sky a pink hue. I had been dragged to a party up on the flat roof of some apartment complex by Jenny from work who occupied the cubicle next to mine. She had made me her pet project, determined to get the new girl from Richmond out to meet people. A warm wind seasoned with salt from the nearby ocean kept playing with me, sending wisps of hair stick against my lip gloss. I pulled at them each time with the hook of my finger. We were drinking margaritas out of oversized plastic cups while Jenny teased me about the earthquake survival notes pinned to my workstation, when you jumped in.
“Did you know that in Japanese mythology, a giant catfish called Namazu is responsible for earthquakes?”
“Is that so?” I replied with a smile. ‘Is it only responsible for earthquakes in Japan or does its tail stretch all the way to California?’
“Well, I have no idea.” You laughed. “I’m Jonathan, by the way.”
“Maia,” I replied.
We talked, and somewhere along the way Jenny disappeared, leaving us alone; and we never noticed. When you discovered I was freshly arrived from Virginia, you made it your mission to show me what Los Angeles had to offer, besides the potential for natural disasters.
“Are you hungry?”
I nodded in response.
“How does Pink Taco sound to you?”
“You’ve never heard of Pink Taco?”
This time, I shook my head.
“Well, do you trust me?” you asked, extending your hand as the first step to an adventure.
“Ask me again in the morning.” I smiled, slipping my hand into yours.
We kept seeing each other, and dates turned into a relationship.
“Did you know that osmium is three hundred times stronger than steel and harder than a diamond?” I told you, not long after we moved in together.
“That’s us, our relationship isn’t just rock solid, it’s osmium solid,” you declared.
I loved your spontaneity, showing up at my work for unexpected lunchtime picnics in the park. You loved my shyness, how you made my cheeks blush, and my weird appreciation of Japanese horror. We would eat off each other’s plates, tangled ourselves on the sofa, watching TV, but never fully listening. We sealed our relationship by trading habits and quirks. I started using ‘well’ at the beginning of my sentences, and you started using almond instead of regular milk in your morning coffee. At parties, we were that corny couple who loved telling the story of how they’d met. A well-rehearsed routine — I would always start, and you would take over halfway through before the finale when we would deliver the punchline together. We alternated whose hand was on whose arm.
For our first anniversary, we drove to Parkfield, a small dot on Google maps, lost between Santa Barbara and San Jose. An otherwise unremarkable town in every way, apart for its status of earthquake capital of California. The wind played with my hair, but now your fingers pulled the wayward strands off my lipstick. We kissed on the bridge that united the two tectonic plates and stretched over the San Andreas fault. Why do we name hurricanes but not earthquakes? I asked you, but you didn’t answer. I wondered if we only named their faults as if we wanted to draw attention to the earth’s inability to hold it together.
“Did you know seism means to shake in Greek?” you asked me one Saturday morning after we made love. I kissed you in response, my lips hungry with a desire to have you again for breakfast, daring you to put words into practice once more, show me what the Greek had meant with the word, seism.
We shook a lot — in bed, on the sofa, the kitchen table, behind the shrubs at Beverly Glen Park. With you, ceilings and clouds danced every time I looked up that them. But in our haste to become a couple, we forgot to make our foundations an earthquake-resistant structure. With all our shaking, cracks were bound to start appearing. The first ones had the shapes of the post-it notes I stuck all around our place, the silliness of the mismatched socks you insisted on wearing every day. They ran as long as it took me to get out of the house, always making us late, they stank of the sickly-sweet cherry scent from the E-cigarette you started to smoke.
Things shifted subtly at first and then all at once, like those holes I kept getting in my jeans. Unseen threads worn down by the motions of daily life, until that sudden instant when they ripped altogether. We sat on the sofa, two distinct entities and could hear the people on TV over our silence. We lay side by side, and I stared at an immobile ceiling, a new fault line running the length of our bed keeping us apart, neither of us quite sure how it got there.
There was one definition from the dictionary I had ignored — earthquake ( noun ): a sudden movement of the earth to release accumulated stress. We should take out a loan and redecorate the apartment, you told me. We should wait and save the money first, was my answer. You wanted to be bold, I wanted to be sensible, each staying true to who we were. A silly disagreement, but it turned out to be the movement needed to release all our accumulated stress. It all came pouring out. We argued, and our voices bounced off the walls and shook the windows.
That’s when it burst out of you — there was someone. You hadn’t meant to, it just happened. You said she made you feel young. How did she do that? I replied. Did she read you bedtime stories? Did she throw you a cowboy-themed birthday party? You replied, I should quit being a sarcastic bitch. Silly me, I just wanted to make you feel loved but clearly that wasn’t enough. You told me I should accept some of the responsibilities before accusing me among other things of not being fun anymore. I threw a vase at you and it shattered against the wall and that wasn’t San Andreas fault, it was your fault. Was that fun and spur of the moment enough for you? You didn’t think so as you left, slamming the door behind you.
I took refuge in the bedroom where I stripped off all my clothes. Naked in front of the mirror, I searched for changes, physical evidence of how I had become a killjoy. Was the grass in her eyes and between her legs so much greener than mine? I pinched the soft skin on either side of my waist, the low curve of my belly, rolled the new fat under my fingers. Was it why I was no fun? I had let myself go. I had become a comfortable pillow you would rather squeeze than hump. I cupped my left breast and released it. As the fat with a nipple wobbled, I remembered that documentary on French showgirls. The casting director had explained the pencil test to choose dancers: if you stuck a pencil in the under-boob and it fell, you had breasts perky enough to dance topless. I dashed around the living room in the buff, rummaging through drawers and boxes. Who knew how annoyingly difficult it was to find a pencil in the age of tablets and cell phones.
We were two tectonic plates who had briefly come together and now we were pulling away. But even though a few weeks later, the big one shattered all our walls, and I couldn’t breathe afterwards or for a long time, the world didn’t stop. The earth kept moving and the plates kept shifting. In the months that followed, I sometimes checked your Instagram or Twitter in the middle of the night to see if you were miserable and life had halted for you too. But the thoughtful sunsets in a warm filter, and the stylised shots of brunch food I had hoped for didn’t appear on your feed. Instead, I was taunted by selfies of two faces squished together in a variety of poses — stills of the you and her after us. The sight woke up a coldness trapped beneath my skin and I wrapped my arms around my chest, tight, fingertips resting on my back.
Life resumed, and it was flat and stable, apart from a few minor earthquakes encountered in bars or at parties, some even followed by the odd aftershocks but nothing earth-shattering. Until I attended Jenny’s wedding. I had agreed on the premise she wouldn’t make me a bridesmaid and wrap me in pink gauze.
I mingled on the lawn, a glass of champagne in one hand, when I overheard a tall bearded man in a camel-colour suit discussing the tremors that had rocked the rehearsal dinner two nights ago.
“Did you know that in Japanese mythology, a giant catfish called Namazu is responsible for earthquakes?” I said.
“Is that so?” He smiled. ‘And did you know that in Hindu mythology, earth is held in place by eight gigantic elephants, all balanced on the back of a turtle, which itself stands on the coils of a snake. If any of those animals shift or move, an earthquake occurs.”
It was my turn to smile. “No, I did not know that. But, enough about earthquakes.”
Laure Van Rensburg
Laure Van Rensburg is a French native, living in the UK. Her short stories can be found in online magazines and anthologies including Across The Margin, Ellipsis Zine, Danse Macabre and Reflex Fiction. She has been longlisted for the Bath Short Story Award and shortlisted for TSS Publishing Summer Flash Competition.
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