Wednesday, August 26, 2015

of stars and tsunamis

I am sitting on a rooftop in Arch Cape, Oregon, surrounded on three sides by the crowns of pine and fir, one papery birch at my back. Before me lies a mist-smudged horizon and between us the cold Pacific, incessant and majestic. Overhead the sky is a dark, cloudless blue. The first night we were here, after everyone was in bed, I climbed the ladder to close the roof hatch and happened to look up. An intricate light webbed the space above me, perhaps a deck light reflecting off millions of wet pine needles. I screwed my eyes to make sense of the ghostlike streaks and stopped with a bolt of fear. The Milky Way lay parallel to the roof, a pale arc in the dark vault of ever receding space. What I understood as something near was instead our galaxy; the reflection of light off needles the burning of a million suns.

It's been twenty years since I last saw the Milky Way like this, bright in a moonless sky. The face of night seen as humans have seen it for two hundred thousand years at least, but unfamiliar enough to momentarily unlatch my breath and set my heart thundering. As if my heart wasn't thundering enough.

I shouldn't have read the article. I quickly flipped the page when I first saw it in the New Yorker. I ignored links to it on Facebook, the accompanying blood red map. I've heard this before, earthquake to hit Portland, skyscrapers tumble, bridges collapse. Twenty-year-old fears reared their gigantic heads: friends sleeping in tents, withdrawing wads of cash from the bank, stocking up on bottled water. I was at the beach on that day, in the mid-1990s, when some outspoken Evangelical man predicted--based on a dream--that a massive earthquake would hit Portland. I fell asleep imagining the water being sucked out from shore, leaving fish flopping and exposed like in the story of the Seven Chinese Brothers. And then a roar, a wall of water.

But that was then. Heck, now I've lived through two nice rattley earthquakes, nothing major. I was just outside of Manhattan on September 11th and watched the towers fall on television--the broadcast sound cut out while grainy images of smoking buildings and things falling from the sky shimmered silently on the screen. Less than ten years later I waited in Washington Heights for Hurricanes Irene and Sandy pass through Manhattan, each time stocking water in the closets, filling the bathtub.

But what the New Yorker earthquake article predicted was something far worse. And it was no dream; it was good science and vivid storytelling. And I read it, heart racing. A few days later I drove down to the beach for a few days with my dear friend Julia, all jittery. And now, less than a month from when I read the article, I am here again, enjoying two full weeks at our favorite house in Arch Cape.

Let us say that while the days have been generally relaxing and mostly wonderful, I am nonetheless on edge wiggle-wise, jumping at the noise of a truck downshifting or the slam of a door. Mid-conversation I find myself assessing my location, panickedly rehearsing what I'd do if the room started to wobble, the trees bob, the sand boil. The locations of children appear before me first, then husband, shoes, purse. A calculation on whether my iPhone is worth it. Or the beach tent, in the back of the car. The tsunami maps appear, the names of roads and alphabetized meeting places. (I drove the route on our second day here). I see myself dashing upland, grasping my son by the hand. I calculate the minutes I have until I hear the wave, high as the second or third floor this beautiful house. I take consolation in that, according to Google Maps, the walk time to high ground from where we sleep is only four minutes; the run time must be less.

Each morning I thank the earth that it continues to sleep, stuck; silent rock jammed against silent rock and staying so. I have three more nights to sleep perched next to the beautiful Pacific, and as much as I have enjoyed these two weeks of blackberries, tide pools, creeks washing out to sea, ice cream, and quaint beach town grocery stores, I will be happy to get in the car and drive out of this godforsaken tsunami zone. A hundred miles back to Portland affords me the luxury to worry about earthquakes minus tsunamis; and I will take that hundred miles thank you very very much.

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