I’m in Los Angeles, in an airport hotel… Couldn’t get a connecting flight to DC until tomorrow. And as tempting as it is to hop of a bus tour of famous peoples’ homes, we’ve decided to stay here and watch HBO. Lame, I know, but I’m tired.
Getting through customs was sort of a drag. The US has the neat distinction of being the only country I’ve ever been to that actually goes out of its way to make you feel unwelcome at arrival. I got aggressively asked by four different people what exactly I was doing in the US and why I had ever left it in the first place and where I’m going to be staying (and with who) for the next two weeks. I guess an American passport is no longer enough to justify me being in the country.
I was kind of annoyed and spent most of the time in line making up new national slogans. ‘Welcome to America! But just for the record, we don’t want you here.’ and ‘America: where you have the freedom to stand in line where we tell you to.’ I was in a bad mood.
Better now. Showered and napped. And far away. So I’m going to throw up the last post about the earthquake, the one I half-wrote a few days ago. It’s kind of a downer, but it’s honest. Just don’t worry that I’m super depressed or anything (I say this specifically to my mother: I’m fine).
The only good thing I can think of to say about the first earthquake, the one in September, is that it sort of gave a basic idea of what thoughts and feelings come after a major natural disaster. The first time, after the initial panic, I had a day or two of total I’m-so-happy-to-be-alive elation followed by a slow decent into malaise that culminated in five minutes of desperate shouting at the television. Three weeks later, the university started up again and I transitioned back into normal.
So when the one in February hit, after the initial panic, I sort of knew what was coming. I thought maybe I could manage it this time though, through ingenious measures like not watching TV. I didn’t want to see pictures of the crushed up buildings (I had seen them enough in person) and I didn’t want to hear any analysis about the cost of the damage (it would be a sum of money so large that it wouldn’t make sense to me anyway) and I really didn’t want to watch the rising death toll. So I thought I’d just stay away. Read a book, watch a DVD, think of new frozen vegetables to put into ramen for dinner…
So I had my moments of elation, though they were much shorter-lived this time. And then I had the malaise, though it felt less directed and more like cabin fever this time. All of it felt very controlled. Coming, then, was the breakdown, which I expected to occur in the privacy of my home. I planned this to occur in the privacy of my home. As such, I avoided going out when I was feeling especially mopey and I tried to give myself plenty of alone time to think and potentially have the inevitable breakdown. Even still, despite all my awareness and preparation, it happened in a convenience store.
It was the same store I got the tampons from on the day of the earthquake, the dairy down the road. Jake and I went later in the week for candy, looking for a treat to make the evening seem a little more pleasant.
The dairy was open and operating like normal a few days after the quake, though with barer shelves. The rubble from the bookstore next door was still in the street, taped off with a white plastic ribbon. The hood of the green car was still sticking out, and I watched a woman put a bouquet of flowers on it. There were about five of them, I assumed it was the family of the man who was killed in the bookstore. They were crying.
Jake and I went inside and he started looking at candy. I was still sort of fixated on the bookstore. See, back in September, when Jake and I were bracing ourselves in a door frame listening to things falling of shelves and out of cabinets, I was absolutely sure that somewhere in Christchurch people were dying. It was just too violent for an entire city to escape.
I was shocked in the morning when the news said that no one had been killed. So when we had another earthquake six months later, even though I had seen the damage downtown (so much worse) I had this naive assumption that everyone had survived. Because why not? Everyone did the first time.
The moment that assumption was destroyed was when I saw the bookstore and heard the dairy-owner tell the other guy that the man was still in there. It was a bad moment, and it was hard to be back there to see the actual human impact of the earthquake and the associated losses.
While Jake was looking at candy, I was standing next to the news rack. This was the day that the names of the first identified victims were released and the New Zealand Herald had printed about twenty photos of them on the front page. Little babies and old people and people my age and slightly older people with school-aged kids and mortgages… A complete cross-section of a city.
And I started thinking about all the people who just got up in the morning and went to work or school or shopping or just walking and about how it was, for every one of us, a matter of arbitrary decisions and stupid timing (when and where we took our lunch breaks, what bus we hopped on, appointments made and appointments broken) that meant we lived or died. Decisions made that morning and decisions made years ago: where you built your dream house, what new job you accept, what beautiful old brick building to put a used bookstore in.
A lot of nice people made these big and little decisions that had the final say in whether they’d make it through this random Tuesday or not. Decisions that were probably wonderful and hopeful once.
It was all just way too sad and I started crying in the store. Poor Jake turned around to ask if I preferred gummi worms or jelly beans and found me sobbing by the news rack. We left soon after.
But I’m glad I got it out. It was about two days of on and off crippling sadness but then I felt a little better. Still sad, but OK. I will probably find a new dairy to go to though.
And that is the last self-reflective, melancholic, earthquake post. I promise.