I was not quite ten weeks pregnant when the 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck off the coast of the Tohoku region of Japan. Although Geordie and I made it through without any injuries or damage, it changed our lives. For today’s Nanowrimo writing session, I spent a good chunk of it writing down my memory of that day. Here’s an excerpt about the exact moment the earthquake hit, just those first few minutes as it happened and before I knew the full extent of the damage.

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March 11.

A Friday. A good day, then, because Geordie would be coming home. He’d meet me as I was finishing work, and we’d probably have dinner together in Loc City. Ramen, maybe. Then home to relax a bit together and to talk about the week. Those were all the plans we had made.

My shift started at five, though I usually went in early, around four. I did my hair in the morning but would not bother with getting fully dressed until three or so. A little after two, I sat down to the computer to write an email to my brother. I had been putting it off, as I often do; I am not the best of penpals. It even took me a while just to get the email written. As I wrote, the apartment began to shake – another earthquake, a minor occurrence in Japan, for the most part. It gave me something to share with Ryan, and I added a sentence about it to his email.

The ‘quake started small. It felt like any other ordinary earthquake, one of dozens I’d felt since I arrived in Japan. After the few seconds of shaking, you go back to your usual business, as though nothing had really happened. One had woken me from my sleep on Wednesday morning, a little stronger than usual but nothing to get worked up about.

But the shaking did not stop. Instead, it intensified. That made me pause.

“Don’t panic,” I said aloud to myself. It would die down in a moment; it always did. I had never before been in an earthquake that had actually scared me.

Then a can of soup fell off the shelf above the kitchen sink, and I knew that this was not an ordinary earthquake, that it was something big, that I could not just sit there and wait for it to stop. Other things began to fall, including one of my rose pictures in the hall. I leaned over my computer and took down my diploma so it wouldn’t fall on the monitor.

I stood and pulled open the curtains of the sliding glass door at the front of the apartment. Across the narrow street was an empty house, and a couple hours earlier, two men had shown up to do some work on the interior. They ran out into the street as the shaking continued, holding their arms out to balance themselves. They spoke to each other. Often, I could hear when people on the street spoke, but because of the noise of the earthquake, I couldn’t hear the workmen. Some earthquakes are quiet, but with some come a rumbling, a deep and earthy sound like terrestrial thunder. This earthquake brought that sound.

Everything in the apartment moved, rattling about, a surprisingly tremendous noise. I suddenly did not what to stay in the apartment any longer.

I had on only a t-shirt and a pair of around-the-house boxer shorts. Grabbing the closest pair of pants to me, I pulled them on and put my cell phone and wallet into the pockets. I went into the hall and pulled on my heavy winter coat, leaning against the wall for support. Without bothering with socks, I slipped into my shoes and reached for the front door. My hands shook as I laid them on the door handle, and I thought that it was not just because of the earthquake’s shaking and the cold. After at least one minute, the ‘quake still had not abated. It felt like it would never end.

I can’t say how long exactly the earthquake lasted – somewhere between two and three minutes perhaps – but it felt like an eternity as I stood on the street and watched the houses shake on their foundations. The street moved – back and forth – and the electric lines overhead swayed and jumped, pulled taut before sagging and then going taut again. No tall buildings were in the area, so I didn’t worry about anything falling on me, but those wires made me uneasy. It was hard to stand up straight; I rocked from side to side as though I were on a boat.

Most of the buildings on my street were residences, but because it was the middle of a week day, not many people were at home. Only a few came out into the street, and all of them save for the workmen and myself were elderly. They clung to fences or carport supports and said very little. A crash came from the home across from my apartment, and one of the workmen ran back inside.

After a time, just as it felt like the earthquake would never end, the earth began to calm, and the shaking died away. It did not stop altogether, not immediately, but the buildings ceased their swaying, and it was possible to walk easily again. I stood in the street, pulling my coat around me, shivering with cold and fear. I did not know what to do.

My direct neighbor in the apartment home came outside and into the street, looking around amazed but unshaken. She said to me in Japanese, “Are you alright?”

“Yes, I’m okay,” I said. “Are you?”

“I’m alright.” She nodded her head and added, “That was very big, wasn’t it?”

“Yes.”

“Very big,” she repeated. “Probably a 5.”

It did not occur to me until later, after I knew the full magnitude of the earthquake, that I realized she meant that by the Japanese scale, which tops out at 7.

She waved at one of our neighbors down the street and called to them, leaving me alone. My thoughts flew to Geordie; I didn’t know where the earthquake had originated, but I was sure he had felt it to some degree. I pulled my cell phone out of my pocket and dialed his number. All lines were busy, as I had guessed they would be. That didn’t stop me from trying again.

I went back into the apartment to survey the damage. Only one plate in the sink had broken, probably from the soup can that had dropped on it. Books and other odds-and-ends had fallen off the coffee table and my tall bookshelf, but nothing had broken. My desk had been pulled away from the wall. The wall on the left side of the window over the couch had cracks at the window’s edges. Everything was in disarray, but that seemed to be the extent of the damage. The power was off.

The aftershocks came steadily, some of them stronger than other earthquakes I had felt in the previous two years. The sliding doors that separated the two rooms rattled constantly, and I knew I could not stay there. I decided to dress properly and go to work. I could think of nothing else to do.

(to be continued)

The Earthquake (II)

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