On October 17, 1989, I was unknowingly on a collision course with a lifetime of future regret.
I was riding my bike home from my Clinical Psychology class at UC Davis, looking forward to watching the Bay Bridge World Series Game 3—San Francisco Giants vs. Oakland A’s—on TV with my boyfriend, when the earthquake struck. The Loma Prieta earthquake.
I didn’t even feel it.
The 5:35 game hadn’t started when the quake hit at 5:04, and so in a complete coincidence, the many TV cameras recording pre-game excitement at Candlestick Park actually televised the earthquake to millions of people. It would, in fact, become the first large earthquake ever to be broadcast live.
Right after the shaking stopped, the fans at Candlestick had let out this cheer—thinking, like all diehard fans, that it was a sign that the team they were rooting for would win—but murmurs of confusion and fear rippled as reports of damage outside the park started to trickle in. Within minutes, people were told to leave the park—their money would be refunded—they just needed to get back to their homes—try to anyways--to check and see if everything was okay. All the circuits were busy in the area, and power was out, so if they didn’t leave then, it would have been even more chaotic.
It was completely surreal, watching events unfold from my rental house in Davis, rocking in my great-grandmother's rocking chair.
My boyfriend, S., was pretty much the Gold Standard to which nothing else has ever measured up. And he was there. And what happened next will remain a lifelong, heartbreaking shame.
The earthquake hadn’t been centered in San Francisco; it had been centered in the Santa Cruz mountains, where my parents home was. Or where my parents home had been, before the separation. The earthquake had rocked our geodesic dome so violently that it had slid off it’s foundation—with my 14 year old sister inside—and now lay cockeyed and broken against the slope of the hill it had once stood upon.
My dad had been at the well, and happened to be overlooking the home as it hit, watching it groan and lurch—windows breaking--knowing my sister was inside. He screamed, and tried to run inside but the doors wouldn’t open anymore. Everything had shifted.
She was fine—having found a doorway to get into—but the house was gone.
And I was feeling a million tons of grief—about a childhood filled with moves, about the divorce and the fact that no one was talking to each other, about the fact that I didn’t even have a family home anymore—so when my boyfriend, watching the TV footage, seemingly drew in a breath when a ballplayers beautiful girlfriend came on, I started to shut down. Because I couldn’t even process everything I had lost already let alone all the things I feared I would lose. Like him.
And, it’s unfortunate, because it really might have been a total misunderstanding. Maybe he took a breath about something else. But timing is everything, and I was just too vulnerable to even ask him.
Four months later, I broke up with him, in spite of the fact that I loved him and was happy, and didn’t want to hurt him. And then lived a lifetime of regret (for lack of a better word [is it regret, if you have children now that you love more than anything]) and guilt over it. I can still picture the tears on his eyelashes.
But I didn’t want to care about anything anymore; I was discouraged and disillusioned.
And so incredibly tired of having stuff taken from me.
The earthquake had been such a perfectly chaotic end after everything that had happened. Earlier that year, Mom had announced she wanted a divorce. She was ticked that Dad was so withholding, and he immediately promised to be better, but she didn’t believe him. Dad was shocked, and it was extremely upsetting—when I came home to visit—to see him sobbing in an armchair. I tried to convince her to give him another chance, until she finally told me not to come home (from college) if I couldn’t support her. The summer of ’89 saw my little sister removing herself from the home to go live with my dad, which sent mom into an emotional tailspin. My mom let my dad move back into the home with my sister--while she moved out--and then my sister cut off all contact with anyone but my dad. She didn't talk to any of us for many months. Six months or so. Not until the earthquake.
I dropped out of college, moved out of the place with S., and moved in with my mom’s friend, M.—who lived in Clayton--and her live-in boyfriend. I didn't have anyplace else to go.
I was 21--an adult--yet felt like I had no home. Or family. I had left for college in late '88, and everything had disintegrated, and now--post-quake--the disconnect between me and my family was severe. My mom was in a new relationship and blissfully happy, and acting like a total stranger. My brother--homeless too--had accidentally gotten his girlfriend pregnant while squatting near our damaged home, had gotten into drugs, and planned on moving to Michigan to live near his girlfriends family. And my sister and dad were doing their own thing, being a little family unto themselves; until they moved back into the family home--after mom had relinquished it--I didn’t even know their address or phone number.
The chaos after the earthquake completely matched the inner landscape of my entire family.
It was during my stay with my mom's friend, M., that I watched the movie New York Stories—which is made up of three separate mini-movies—and loved one scene in the segment directed by Martin Scorsese, which was titled “Life Lessons”. In it Nick Nolte is pissed and jealous about his sexy, young, live-in artist wannabe protégé, and takes his anger and spite of her out on canvas. Throwing globs of paint at it like he was trying to exact revenge on life—or himself—he blasts a live version of Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.” (click title for sample)
And of course the main chorus is familiar
How does it feel
How does it feel
To be without a home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone
And it's just a wonderful scene, made better by a song whose live version is completely mesmerizing.
I bought the soundtrack, and sang it in my car at the top of my lungs. Because—at the time—Nick Nolte’s anger and Dylan’s lyrics nestled inside me, and--when I sang--I did so with what I thought was contemptuous anger towards the shallow heartless lady—the actual subject of the song--who wouldn’t even give a bum a dime and was now busy reaping the harsh consequences of a turnabout in her fortunes.
Except, now, I realize that I don't actually think I was singing to Dylan's fictional woman. I think I was singing to myself. Because I was hurt, and angry--feeling homeless, and alone, and without a family--and was completely binging on the fallacy called, "I don't need ANYBODY!!"
I think I was singing it to myself. Because--in fear and hurt--I had pushed things away that I needed and wanted--just like the rest of my family--and justified it because circumstances had made it seem as if there was no other choice. And I was--at once, and for my part--mad that I'd done it and also mad that life had made me do it, and was singing--brow furrowed, eyes narrowed, lip quivering with rage--as if my higher self was trying to reach through me to teach "me" a lesson. The lesson called "don't push everyone away because when you wall yourself off, you usually just end up feeling misunderstood and alone."
But I didn't heed the advice, and--instead--escaped everything and moved to Maryland to live with Chris. (of Presbyterian Chris).
The smell of the house is what I remember the most. The refrigerator had been slammed forward, tipped and opened, and food lay rotting where it had been flung. This was mixed with the odor of my sister’s smashed fish tank—gravel and glass and her beloved Angel fish strewn onto the floor—and the many perfume bottles that had broken and leaked their contents all over the walls and the carpet. The smell was truly like no other—rot, and fish, mixed with the entire contents of many different perfume aromas--and lies inside me in a very emotional place.
The floors were sloping and rising—and almost spongey—like a fun-house floor, and the tilted doors made us slightly nauseous. Like an undertow; not knowing how to orient our line of sight. The house groaned and creaked as we walked about--in distress—as we disturbed it in it’s obvious state of structural instability.
The weirdest thing I saw that day was this baby blue chest of drawers—my brother’s old dresser--that my parents had put under the deck of the house. The shifting of the house had caused it to land on top of the dresser, somehow making it an inexplicable symbol of strength. Because the dresser still stood—under the deck, baby blue—and refused to be crushed under a weight of many tons.
I know we shouldn’t have been inside. But we had gone back for a good reason.
We had to get the family pictures.
I've spent twenty-plus years resolving the fallout from that time, yet even as I write this—all these years later, in a different city, and having resolved so many issues that have previously sunk me—uncontrollable heart palpitations and immediate tears force me to turn off the YouTube videos of the earthquake footage.
Since, I guess, some things always stay with you. Like smells. And tear-tipped eyelashes. And imperfect families. And you just try your best to move past them.
Because life, I've since learned, is certainly not all perfect moments filled with utter clarity and wisdom. Sometimes, life is just hardship, and mistakes and hurt and anger, and standing like a baby blue dresser, bearing what seems like an impossible weight of sadness and regret. Until time passes--years and years--and you reach quiet acceptance, and can revisit things from a better place.