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Disaster Anxiety

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EST. READING TIME

9 minutes
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On March 11, 2011, an undersea megathrust earthquake registering a 9.0 magnitude on the Richter scale shocked the Pacific coast of Tōhoku, Japan. Nervous Canadian seismologists advised that the sudden high energy movement of the Pacific plate, submerged beneath the ocean in northern Honshu, could send seismic waves rippling through the earth, triggering tremors at the subduction fault between Canada's Juan de Fuca plate and the overriding North American plate, releasing centuries of tension and unleashing a catastrophic meqaquake.

The west coast waits.


i

The earthquake is coming and it will topple your favourite bakery, so on your way home from class, you buy a cake. At the counter, you hover over pastel confectionery shielded behind a glass dome. The scent of sugar, of cinnamon, of cocoa, of warm yeast, and baked fruit muddle the air. Do you choose cheesecake, topped with blueberries? Light, springy lemon cake? No – you know that in your last days it has to be chocolate – three layers of cake sandwiched with fudge icing. The baker, in a white scalloped hat and coat, packages the cake in a cardboard box. You carry it home.

You place the box on your small kitchen table. Twine, tied around the box in a bow, comes away in your tugging fingers. You sit at the table with a fork and excavate the cake like a backhoe. The first layer is a luxury – a swath of creamy icing with each bite. You dig a quarter of the cake away. It is sweet, rich, and good. Your belly fills with cake, then your throat.

You jam the fork in the cake and bolt from the table. In the bathroom, you vomit into the sink. Once, twice, you pause – you're fine. You've eaten too much cake, but there is still more than half left. You return to the table and begin eating again. This is what kings and queens of Medieval Europe did at feasts. They excused themselves and quietly puked in brass cauldrons placed beneath the tables –   then continued eating. It's fine. In your final hours, you're living like royalty.

 

ii

The big one is coming, advise geologists.
The big one is coming, advises CBC News.
Prepare yourself, they say, it's inevitable.
Today is one of your last days; you have four thousand dollars in cash and nothing to lose.

During the summer, you worked at a tree nursery in the Okanagan. You weeded rows of fresh-smelling pine seedlings and saved up four thousand dollars to supplement the income of your part-time job during the school year. The earthquake is coming and money means nothing to a dead person.

You visit the bank and remove all four thousand dollars, cash. You bus to the SPCA. On your occasional visits to the shelter, the dogs netted in wire cages broke your heart. Each head that rose, the eyes beseeching, that tentative tail thumping once, twice, on the yellowed linoleum floor. Those raised eyebrows that asked, are you my forever home? Those dogs left you in tears.

You adopt six dogs: a red dog with a long brushed tail that wags and thumps your legs. Two Shih Tzu-crosses with doleful Spaniel eyes, brothers, and marked like they're wearing miniature tuxedos. A thin yellow Chihuahua who shakes and looks up at you with adoration in his bulgy eyes. There is a blonde dog with a genetic abnormality that causes him to lean back on his hind legs with his ears folded down, forced into an expression of permanent enthusiasm. You rescue an old Border Collie named Willie, gray in the muzzle and too old to continue his career nudging sheep into a bundle. You can't leave Buddy behind – an angular German Shepard who comes with a red bandana tied around his neck.

These dogs are your dogs.

You wrap six leashes around your wrists, three on each, and let your six dogs guide you down the sidewalk.

 

iii

The Richter-scale smashing megathrust quake is coming and everyone is having a party.

A girl you met in first year psychology class, Megan, invites you to her loft. She refers to it as the 'Rainbow Connection,' because the house is a heritage home with a peaked roof painted yellow, purple, and red. And she hosts a lot of parties. Megan majors at your university in poetry and psychology: a double intellectual punch. She weaves poems about deep, nuanced characters. Her words are glyphs that conjure humans on paper.

The Rainbow Connection hunkers in the neighbourhood of Victoria that curves into Rock Bay. You feed and water your six dogs before leaving for the party. On the way, you stop at the liquor store and purchase Bordeaux Jus de l'Enfer 2006, a $300 bottle of French red wine. The label describes the flavours: earthy as grave dirt overturned in the Père Lachaise at midnight, notes of cedar smoke passed from a lover's mouth, leaves a lurid smear of cherry on the tongue.

Outside, the air hangs cold and moist, leaving your face damp. It's spring and it feels like you're inside the chilled lungs of the earth as it begins to respire, restoring moisture and warmth to the soil after the rigidity of winter. It's strange; you hover on the verge of destruction during the season of rebirth.

You march up two sets of rain-soaked wooden stairs and climb a ladder to Megan's loft. You knock, tentative – you've only been there twice before, at parties festooned with young artists who lounged on pillows, immersed in the glow of multiple lava lamps, drinking throat-scalding American bourbon. Megan answers the door topless, her breasts covered with whole, round slices of orange cantaloupe. You stare. You forget to greet her. She acknowledges your silence with an explanation:

“I've always wanted to be a melon mermaid. Who cares if it's weird: we're all going to die, anyway.”

It's admirable, Megan exploring her caprices while balanced on the precipice of death. It's funny. You wonder how many years she longed to be a Melon Mermaid, before the first quivers of an earthquake pushed her to fulfill her dreams.

You move to hug her, remember the sticky fruit tied to her chest, and kiss her cheek instead. She ushers you inside. The bachelor suite is crammed with people. They lounge on the bed, lean against the wall, sit cross-legged on the carpet, and even perch on the edge of the bathtub. You take a breath and pour yourself a generous glass of wine.

You immerse yourself in conversation with students you recognize from your mutual class with Megan: introductory psychology. A plan is formed: Mount Doug is high above sea level and close to the university. When the quake hits, you'll flee the tsunami and congregate on the peak. You'll bring a can opener. Marc promises both a lighter and matches. Ryuto will stuff a backpack with canned fruit, yams, and fish. You laugh, finish your glass of wine, and pour another.

How could you have missed him? There - in the corner! The pelvis-tingling god whose been crossing campus all semester.

He leans against a bookshelf, half of his sculpted, (you assume,) torso hidden behind a leafy house plant. He grins. His dark hair is swept to one side, cut below his ears. Scruff lines his jaw, just enough to tickle if he kissed you. He has the hands of a piano player: fingers long, loose-jointed, and expressive. He wears a black crew-neck sweater over tapered blue jeans. This is your chance. It could all be over tomorrow. You knock back your cup of expensive wine and pour another.

You approach. The girl he's speaking to, (blonde, pretty, slim arms, with bare breasts artfully overt beneath a thin cotton shirt,) glares. You smile and offer her a sip from your cup of expensive wine. She frowns and moves aside to make room in the conversation, if just to be farther away from you.

Hey, you greet him, aren't you in my Introduction to Art History class?

You know he is not in your Introduction to Art History class.

I don't think so, he says.

His torn sneakers promise punk romance: smashing bottles, scaling chain-link fences, shotgunning canned beer in alleys. You look at the girl and angle your shoulder, eschewing her from the conversation.

Hey, you say to the god, do you want to get the fuck out of here?

'Fuck' adds a promise of adventure to your offer: a painful pleasure, like fingernails on flesh. Cool, he says.

You leave the incredulous blonde girl and weave your way through the packed room to the door. You wave farewell to the Melon Mermaid, who lays supine on a stack of  velvet pillows. She raises her cup to your departure with the handsome stranger. Beside her, a girl with curly hair and square-framed glasses clutches a bottle of red-labeled vodka and dips to nibble at the cantaloupe covering her left breast.

Neither of you have cigarettes, so you stroll down the empty blocks seeking a corner store. It isn't raining for once. The air smells wet and mossy. His name is Jeremiah and he's American, imported from the south to study political science and sculpture at the university. His vernacular is different, drier and more confident. You unravel anecdotes for each other under the comfortable darkness of two in the morning, entering periods of brief illumination under streetlights. You tell him you adopted six dogs today. He laughs; he thinks you are joking. You are suddenly nervous. You miss your expensive French wine. Your pelvis tingles.

You stop at a Zesty Mart. The attendant sells you a package of Belmont king-sized cigarettes. Jeremiah passes you a crumpled five dollar bill. Together, you pledge to share the whole pack. Yesterday's newspaper headline reads: Japan's Killer Quake: Are We Next? Your pulse quickens. You leave, opening the door with palms pressed to the greasy glass. A bell tinkles.

Somehow, you wander down to Government, the street that bisects the city and the ocean. You stroll, chain-smoking, until you both stop. You're of one mind. You kiss next to the concrete divider between the wharf and the street. His kiss is unhurried, but insistent. His hand eclipses your face. Beside you looms the ancient and glamorous Empress Hotel: temporary home of the Queen of England when she visits Canada.  You grab the collar of his jacket and pull him towards the bedecked building.

Come on, you say. I know how to get in.

There is a door to the right side of the hotel, discreet between two tall juniper bushes, that remains unlocked 24-hours a day. You know this, because three months ago you stumbled in drunk, after the bars closed. Inside, the carpets are Persian, plush, and absorb your footsteps. You lead him by the hand. Gold brocade papers the walls. Chandeliers dapple the ceiling. Cherubs moulded in brass hail you from pillars lining the hall. At a glowing Exit sign, you find a stairwell and swing inside. It's late. The hotel sleeps, hushed. You climb to the third floor – there are four floors, but the third feels lucky.  You take him down the hallway and listen for guests.

You're not sure, but it feels like there isn't anyone staying in this section of the hotel. You kiss, pressing Jeremiah against the wall, glad you wore a skirt, because his fingers are hooked in your turquoise lace underwear and he's pulling them down your thighs. He slides down the wall and you climb on top of him – straddle him like he is already yours. Tonight, you think of nothing as you pop the button on his jeans and work them open. You may fall in love tomorrow – it's not tonight's problem. You may not fall in love tomorrow – it's not tonight's problem. There is so little time; you seize the opportunity with the man whose been giving you heart palpitations all semester.

You're fucking Jeremiah on the floor when you hear someone shout from the other end of the hallway. A young man with shaggy blonde hair, wearing the dorky hotel uniform, stands with his legs spread shoulder-width apart. He poises, twenty feet away and ready to take action. Already exposed, he seems caught between telling you to stop and sneaking around the corner to crouch and watch from behind the ice dispensing machine.

You dig into the pocket of your jacket and produce a twenty, dregs of the four thousand dollars you sank into adopted dogs and French wine. You wrap it around your lighter and toss it down the hallway.

Take it, you say.

Tonight is your night and you're not finished yet.

The lighter skips once, twice on the plush carpet and stops. The young man considers the offer. He drops, scoops up both money and lighter, and strides back down the hall, disappearing behind a corner. He is likely spying. You accept this compromise and resume fucking.

A colossal roll of Jeremiah's hips shudders the entire building. You gasp. The floor ripples under both of you. No – it's not Jeremiah. The Empress Hotel shifts on her foundations. From far off, you hear a groan ripped from the land. The chandeliers clatter above you. You grip the shoulders of your lover and hope that old buildings sway.

Violetta Leigh resides in Vancouver after completing the creative writing program at the University of Victoria in British Columbia; she thinks perfection is ugly and in the things humans make wants to see scars, failure, disorder, distortion.

Published on August 8, 2016.