RONGORONGO

ONE

When the Loma Prieta earthquake struck, I was living in San Francisco's Inner Sunset district, on Moraga Street near Tenth Avenue, sharing a small bungalow with a couple, two sou-chefs, Marie and Paul. 

Marie was at work and Paul and I were in the house alone. When the tremors began, we hurried to the archway between the living and dining rooms and braced ourselves there. The tremors lasted about fifteen seconds, a long time, we thought, but when inspecting the house afterwards, there seemed little damage: toppled bookshelves and bric-à-brac mostly, and no wall cracks or fallen plaster.


We also still had electricity and water, though the phone lines were down. And, as night fell and we followed the news on radio and TV, it sank in how devastation the destruction was.


MUNI and BART had stopped running, and Marie didn't return home until late. Though exhausted by the long walk from downtown, she was otherwise unharmed.


We climbed to the roof with a bottle of wine. Eastward rose Mount Sutro while westward sprawled the Outer Sunset and Ocean Beach. Fire and smoke furled everywhere, and sirens blared through the blacked-out city.


The next day, like most people, I stayed home. I walked through the neighborhood. Though most houses nearby also sustained little damage, there blocks away, along Seventh Avenue's heights, block after block of houses lay shorn or pancaked.


I walked toward the shops and cafes along Judah Street. The local power grid was working, and I joined a crowd watching the news on TV at the Fireside Bar. I recognized a few faces but no names save one, a young woman, Joanna, who I recently met at a party in Bernal Heights. She was pretty but lean and bony with lank brown hair and hands and elbows roughened and scabbed.


I remembered Joanna worked as a part-time housecleaner using only organic products. Nontoxic, she'd said, but which made her job a lot tougher. I could tell she considered her work a calling.


We left the bar and walked toward Golden Gate Park. A helicopter whirred overheard, trees trembling in its wake. Tall eucalypti, Monterrey pine and cypress, scrub oak and gold sycamore.


A shimmery autumn day. Holding hand, we headed toward the Japanese Tea Garden.


I too had a calling, curating films and managing a small repertory theater (our current program features early silent films from Tibet, China, and India). Once though I entertained more lofty ambitions. I'd worked as a Hollywood scriptwriter and critic for the more esoteric film journals. I also hobnobbed with young filmmakers before they made names for themselves. But I didn't stick around long enough to benefit from such associations.


The Japanese Tea Garden was closed, also the De Young Museum and California Academy of the Sciences. Joanne suggested we walk to her place in the Richmond district on the other side of the park. (She'd spend the night at a friend's house near her last cleaning assignment.)


Her apartment was tiny, a single room with a kitchen and a bathroom nook and a futon on the floor. We sat on the floor eating salad and sipping Yerba Mate tea. Then we spent the rest of the afternoon, and following night, on her futon.


Marie was frantic when I returned home two days later.


"I called every hospital, the police too," she said. "Why didn't you phone? There've been aftershocks, more buildings falling and people injured—"


I hadn't known Marie and Paul long, and found her concerned obtrusive and irritating. We were housemates, not friends, and lived together to save money. Or so I thought.


Our relations continued to cool over the next few weeks. In December I took time off to fly to Acapulco for a few days. It was my fourth trip in as many years to Mexico, and the country's charms were wearing thin on me. After I returned I moved from Marie and Paul's house to an SRO hotel in the Mission district, a small furnished room with a shared bathroom and shower.


Joanna and I had stopped seeing each other. But early in the new year I ran into another woman I knew at a bodega near Twenty-fourth and Mission. Her name was Lisa, and we'd worked on as literary magazine a few years back. Lisa had gotten her law degree and moved into a house in the Outer Sunset near Ocean Beach.


Lisa drove me home. I invited her to my room. I had a microwave and TV but no chair, so we both sat on my bed. She didn't stay long.


On her way out she said, "My housemate's leaving. Would you like to move in with me?"


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