Natural Disasters, p.4
I want to tell her what I saw, but I can’t. I’m not ready to make it real yet. So I lie again. “I was at Carter’s place.”
“At a party?” she asks. “And everyone’s okay?”
“Yeah, it was like how it was here, I guess. Nothing much.”
As I’m telling the lie, I hear the sound again, the roar like a train, the crack of the beam. A girl falling backward, her head hitting the rail. A pool of blood spreading through the carpet as she screamed, as everyone screamed, including me, and the ground kept moving. I shake my head to try to clear it.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” Mel asks again.
I crush my smoke out with the heel of my boots, and when I’m sure it’s out, I pick it up and throw it into the desert.
“Yeah,” I say, shortly. “I’ve got to get some sleep. You okay, Mel? Your family?”
“Yeah, we’re fine. Good night, Jared,” she says, backing up, her eyes still on me as she slips through the cacti.
I answer the empty desert night that Mel leaves behind. “Good night, Mel.”
Well, not exactly. It isn’t night anymore. I look East toward the first lightening of the sky. Not night, and definitely not good.
in the Light
Corrina lies across my bed while I dial one number after another, trying to find an open, unbroken pool. At least my phone is finally working. I heard on the news that only two providers have any phone service. A lot of people don’t have power yet. The damage from last night’s quake was way worse in other parts of town.
If I don’t get in the water soon, I’m going to die. I haven’t skipped a day of swim for years.
“Maybe you should float in the tub or something,” Corrina says, her head falling off the edge of the mattress.
“I’m not a flounder. I need to swim, not just be wet,” I snap.
“Whatever. You should look on the bright side. While the Northside pool is broken, you can take a little vacation from practicing all of the time. Give yourself time to be distracted.”
“I don’t need distractions. State is one week away, Corr.” I don’t know why I’m saying this. She knows when State is. Anyone who has spent any time around me in the last few months knows when State is.
“What about Alec Newton? He could distract you…” She winks at me, her face upside down.
“He is not a distraction. He’s an annoyance. I don’t know why I said yes about that dumb dance. I was taken off guard. I just haven’t had a chance to tell him that I’m not going.”
She groans. “I know you said you weren’t going, but I can’t figure out why. Newton is a total cutie.”
“Since when have you thought Newton was a cutie or anything else?” A disconnected tone breaks through the phone line. Darn. I cross another pool off my list.
“Just because I have a girlfriend doesn’t mean that I can’t tell if a boy is cute. I’m gay, not blind.”
“Just because you have a girlfriend doesn’t mean that the rest of the world needs one too.”
“I never thought you needed a girlfriend,” she answers, flipping her hair out of her face as she sits up.
I roll my eyes at her and dial the number for the Oro Valley municipal pool.
“Ok, listen, I need your help tonight. I have to take care of my cousins, and I can’t handle them alone. None of those pools are open, Mel. Face it. You can come to my Tia’s house, and we can call Alec from there. I’ll coach you. Flirting 101.”
I have to snort. “I can’t flirt. I can barely talk. And seriously? Your cousins? It’s like a death sentence. Maybe even literally. Why can’t Whitney help you?”
“She’s not into kids.”
“I’m not into kids either.”
“Please, my Tia is trying to be cool, but she isn’t ready to come face to face with my mortal sins. I need your help, or I’m going to drive the littles out into the desert and leave them there,” she sighs again.
I feel for her. The last time that I helped Corina take care of the girls, the oldest locked the youngest in the closet and flushed the key down the toilet.
“Listen, Corrina, I need help too. Last night, before everything happened, my mom was acting weird.”
“So? Parents are always weird.”
“Yeah, but then I think, last night after the earthquake, I saw my dad holding hands with Mrs. Portillo in the backyard.”
Corrina’s eyes go to confusion. “What? What do you mean?” she asks, sitting up on the floor.
“Like holding hands, like something was up. Between them.”
Corrina screws up her face. “Holy yuck, Melanie. Come on. Really?”
“It wasn’t the hand-holding thing that creeped me out. It was the look on Mrs. Portillo’s face when she saw me standing behind them. She pulled her hand away, fast. And she looked…” I close my eyes for minute, picturing my neighbor’s moonlit face. “She looked like she felt guilty.”
Corrina exhales deeply and slowly. We sit in silence for a minute. “Wow. So have you said anything to your dad?”
“Both my folks were so shaken up like everybody else, and I haven’t seen him today. He’s been helping friends around town.”
“You should talk to him,” Corrina says.
I shake my head. “No, it’s too weird. It just seems impossible, and if I’m wrong, it would be such an insult. I don’t want to make things weird.” Even as I say the words, I think about all the other things that I never could have imagined possible that I’ve come to accept in just one day. I fall onto my bed and close my eyes. I’m completely exhausted, more tired than after a practice. I just want to crawl under my covers and shut it all out. I want to pretend that everything is how it has always been, that Tucson is whole, and my dad isn’t guilty of anything. That all of this is just runaway nightmares.
Despite all efforts in opposition, I have a vision of Mrs. Portillo naked. Yuck. Super yuck. And then, I have a vision of Mrs. Portillo naked with my dad, and I’m pretty sure I’m going to puke. This isn’t the first time I’ve had visions like these today, and they are all equally unpleasant in a very serious way, like the bad dreams I had in the few sleeping hours last night. I’ve tried to nap today, but just when I start to fall asleep, my body twitches, or my cat jumps on my bed. I think that the ground is moving again, and I can’t sleep anymore. After that comes one gruesome image: my cheating dad.
“No way that this is happening, right, Corrina?” My brain hurts. “You know my dad. He tells bad jokes and wears bad shoes.”
Corrina shrugs. “I can’t imagine anyone over twenty-five having sex.”
“Yuuuck. Don’t even talk about sex in the same context as my dad.”
Corrina rolls her eyes.“Well, that is what we are talking about, right? Adults don’t have subtweets, Mel. They have sex.”
“But Mrs. Portillo?” I shudder. Gross.
Corrina crawls up on the bed and snuggles into me. “You know, maybe you should just wait and see. If you never see anything weird again, it was probably your messed up imagination. Plus, you have other, more dangerous things to worry about.”
I look over at her.
She raises an eyebrow. “Like my six very scary little cousins.”
“So where were you?” Christina asks me again. She’s only a few feet from me, but the space feels big. The early morning sunlight is bright at the horizon, burning my tired eyes. Like most everyone in town, I haven’t slept much since the other night. She’s looking at me, waiting for an answer
“Really, Christina? The world fell apart and all you want to talk about is why I didn’t show up for a desert party?”
“The ground shook a little. Our aquarium broke. Don’t be dramatic,” she says, rolling her eyes.
I can’t see for a minute, blinded by the sunlight and by darkness at the same time. My shoulders feel heavy, and I can barely focus. Christina, standing in front of me, seems smaller than the smallest thing. I’m too distracted by nightmares that are real, and Christina is tough to understand under normal circumstances.
I turn away from her, and I start over again, telling the same story I’ve already told three times. “Like I said, I was down on campus. Will and I played basketball for a while, and I lost track of time. We had a few beers at his place, and then, it happened.”
“Why didn’t you call me?” she asks.
Damn, I’m really trying to be patient, but it’s hard.
“Christina, have you even turned on your TV? Look, before…it happened …” It’s hard to say earthquake, like it’s an impossible word. “It was really loud at Will’s house, and after, the phones didn’t work.”
It isn’t easy to tell her only the parts of the truth that I’m ready to share. The reality of that night is loud in my head, dying to be shouted, not silenced. I can’t talk about it yet, though. If I talk about it, it becomes real.
I force a smile and look into her eyes. “Come on, Stina.” I try to pull her closer to me.
She crosses her arms over the front of her fuzzy pink sweater. She isn’t going to give in easily, and I wonder why I’m bothering.
“Everyone kept asking where you were, and I felt like an idiot because I didn’t know. And then all day yesterday, I was just worried,” she pouts, but she lets me touch her shoulders. I pull her a little closer, and she settles her cheek into my arm and takes a deep breath. I gather up her hair into my hand, feeling its weight. Her hair was like magic to me, mystical stuff, when we first got together. I drop it down her back, and I look past her at the mountains that rise up behind her neighborhood.
“So how was the party?” I ask, even though I don’t care at all.
“Same as always.”
Same as always, except that people in your own town were dying while you drank warm beer.
“Typical Carter’s stuff. Julia was dancing on a picnic table, wasted, and she fell off her heels onto the ground. It was hilarious. And Caryn sat in all of the boys’ laps while they stuck their hands in her bra. She’s so gross.”
It’s quiet on her street. No traffic. No birds. Not even a desert breeze through the mesquite. Earthquake weather. Stillness.
“Jared? Are you even listening to me?”
I push her away. I’m not here, in front of her house. I’m in the shadows of downtown, wandering through the other night in my mind.
Stina clears her throat. “What’s wrong with you?”
“With me?” I snap. “Don’t you know what happened here? It doesn’t matter where I was or who I was with. People are gone, Stina. Their houses are gone.”
She looks confused. “I thought you said your house was okay? And what do you mean, who you were with? I thought you were with Will?”
My throat is tight. I’m snapping, brittle as the ceiling beam.
I can’t take it anymore.
“I’m not talking about my house. I’m talking about our home, this town. The hospital where I was born collapsed while I was at a fraternity party and you were out in the desert. I’ll bet the keg stayed tapped all night and even after it happened, right?”
She stares at me like I’m an alien.
“I watched people die, Stina, in front of my eyes. A girl’s neck broken, she was lying in dirt. People’s houses, burning. Kids like you and me, bleeding, screaming, crying.” I can’t stop it; tears in sobs down my face, and it becomes real for the first time when I say it out loud.
Christina reaches for me.
I push her away, wiping away my tears with my sleeve.
“No. I have to go.” I walk to my car, so pissed off, but with what? With whom?
Now Stina is crying too, and she calls out for me, trying to stop me from leaving. I start the car and pull out of her driveway. As I drive away, she stands in the driveway, arms crossed over her chest until she turns away and looks up at her house, shaking her head.
and Falling In
It’s about a mile from my house to school, and the walk feels good. I’ve got my music, and I kick along in the desert dirt by the side of the road. The sun is warm, and the desert wind is cool but not cold. I almost feel guilty for feeling so good when everything around me is so messed up.
I wonder what Northside will look like. I keep trying to prepare myself for the worst. Earthquake, earthquake, I recite to my steps. Sure, I’ve prayed for school to fall into a hole before a big exam or something, but still, school is kind of like a home. I spend more time at school than I do at home, especially if I count my time in the pool.
I saw a picture of the gym on my phone two days ago, and it looked pretty bad. A lot of the roof had slid onto the tennis courts. All of the schools in Tucson are closed, even the ones without any damage. No one knows when they will open. The Governor declared a “state of emergency” which is weird to me. In a lot of places, like right here, there isn’t any sign of emergency at all. It’s not bad up here like it is downtown. A few neighborhood buildings are halfway collapsed, like the Circle K on the corner where I usually buy a lemon-lime Polar Pop everyday. And part of the Texaco station fell down too. Alec posted a picture of that.
I haven’t talked to him since the earthquake, but maybe he’ll be at school today. Corrina is going with some kids to start cleaning up the rubble, and I’m going too. I’m so bored, I’ve got to do something. I can’t swim. None of the pools will hold water.
A breeze blows cool air and shakes the thin spines on the mesquite trees. The desert is quiet except for an occasional car driving past and the quail that are cooing, out of sight, in the brush a few feet from the shoulder of the road. A “state of emergency” should feel more urgent, like a fire truck racing with the sirens blaring, not the oh-so-boring monotony of no practice, no school, nothing to do but watch hours of depressing disaster footage on CBS, NBC, FOX News…
A car pulls over into the dirt in front of me and shakes me out of my head. I recognize Jared’s red Honda. He rolls down the passenger side window. The speed metal coming out of his car is super-deafening, but he turns it down as I walk over.
“You going to school?” he asks, not looking at me as he messes with his ipod stuck in his dash. He doesn’t see my nod, but he says, “Get in, I’ll give you a ride.” I want to walk, but I don’t feel like explaining myself, so I go ahead and open the car door. Jared looks up at me and down at the front seat full of trash. Without changing his expression, he grabs up handfuls of paper, magazines, water bottles, and Monster cans and dumps them in the back.
He nods as he turns up his music again, pulling out of the dirt and back onto the pavement. We’re only a few blocks away from school, and I’m starting to feel anxious.
I look over at my neighbor. His arms are tan and strong, more muscular than the lean swimmer guys on our team. I’ve heard girls on my team talk about him. He’s beating out the loud-as-hell drumbeat from whatever this noise is. His eyelids are half-closed even as he drives, and he’s scowling like everyone else these days. His eyelashes are long, and they curl up at the ends, but haven’t they always? It’s hard to merge the pictures in my mind of Jared, the school hottie, and Jared who u
He glances over at me. “What?” he asks loudly over the music, raising his eyebrows when he sees me looking at him.
“What?” I answer back.
“You’re looking at me,” he yells.
“Lots of girls look at you,” I say. He looks back over at me, surprised. I blush. Why do I even talk?
He switches off the loud music abruptly. We drive in silence for the next block.
“Are you going to Homecoming with Alec Newton?” he asks.
“How did you know that?”
“No,” I answer.
“They don’t?” he asks.
“No, I mean, no, I’m not going to Homecoming with Alec. He asked me, but I’m not going. I just haven’t had a chance to tell him.” I think for a second. “There probably won’t be a Homecoming now anyways.”
“Yeah, maybe not. Who knows anything?”
“I don’t care about Homecoming at all,” I say. “I was kind of nervous about telling Alec I couldn’t go. I don’t get stuff like dances and boys and dates and stuff, and now, all of that seems even more pointless.”
“I don’t know about pointless, but you’re right. A dance doesn’t seem like the right thing to do when some people have it so bad.” He glances over at me again. “I’m surprised you’re going to this school clean-up thing. It doesn’t seem like your scene.”
“I had to get out of the house. The news of all the death and all the people left behind numbed me into a puddle. I haven’t gotten off the couch for the last few days. I guess I’ve just been sad.”
“Me too,” he says. His hands grip the wheel so tightly, veins pop out of the backs of his hands.
“You’re sad too?” I ask.