They kept forgetting there were no lights—there was no electricity. When Cassie returned to the apartment building she had to walk up the six floors, the elevator was down, daylight filtering dimly through shafts so it wasn’t dark. She could see the mess in the living room, one bookcase toppled, the potted plant that had sat on it shattered in its own dirt. The large lamp, on its side, fallen into the sofa. A crack that hadn’t been there zig-zagged across the wall.
She’d dashed to the kitchen, a small affair with open shelves for her dishes, shelves that sat smugly and intact as thought they had watched the action in the next room. Where was Nick? A coffee cup sat on the table near the fallen bookcase, the coffee still a little warm; the Mr. Coffee still warm in its decanter.
“You’re here!” Nick threw open the door. “I went looking!”
“I know—I walked toward there—”
“You were here?”
“The ceiling—the chandelier waved—the bookcases!”
They talked at the same time. They embraced, safe after all. It had been an earthquake, big enough to shake the apartment, intense enough so that Cassie, sitting in her car at a red light, thought men had jumped onto her back bumper and kept jumping, like children on a mattress. It was October 18, 1989.
Nick walked to the TV. “Let’s find out—” Of course, no electricity. They’d forgotten. No radio either, as it turned out. Cassie found a few candles—the red one from last Christmas she’d forgotten to put away, a box of dinner candles that they could burn two at a time since they had only two candleholders.
“Don’t we have a flashlight with the camping gear?”
“Maybe the electricity will come back on.”
“At least we have a gas stove. I’ll make dinner.”
The rooms were dimming, then dark. The refrigerator was dark. They looked out their living room window, which faced St. Mary’s Cathedral. All was dark. They looked out their bedroom window, the one that faced the street: dark there, too, but with an aura down the hill. They groped their way back down the six flights with the flashlight where, out front, several people hovered over a radio. They joined the group, all sitting on the edge of the sidewalk.
“The Bay Bridge!” Cassie said.
“Shh!” said the others. “It’s down.”
Nick squeezed her hand; she could tell the others she’d just crossed it that afternoon in a little while.
A helicopter chop-chopped dramatically overhead, lowered with a deafening beating of wings to land on a field two blocks below where they sat. That field had lights—an emergency headquarters of sorts. They’d hear the helicopters for the next few days, although they didn’t realize it that moment.
The Cypress Structure had collapsed, crushing commuters—who knew how many? Here Nick spoke: “My wife takes that road every day! Today, even—”
“I came home early—right after school. Dentist appointment.”
They knew this. Otherwise Cassie could have been, most likely would have been, driving across the Cypress at five o’clock with the others, the crushed ones.
People from the apartment building huddled over the little radio; they didn’t know each other. The evening was balmy and beautiful. The air, gentle and dark. It didn’t seem possible that a bridge and a highway had been destroyed—that a building was in flames across the city, that others had crumbled and killed people. They listened in the dark, sirens persistent, the helicopters coming and going, suggesting war.
Back upstairs Cassie said they had to call their children—out of state. Certainly their mothers, who’d be frantic. The phone was dead—again, of course. No way to reach anyone.
The daylight the next morning was cheerful and consoling, belying the experience of the night before. They adjusted to no coffeemaker, boiled water for instant. (“We probably shouldn’t use the gas, either,” Nick said.) They ate bread and jam and cereal with milk, which was still cold. “I can’t go to school,” Cassie said, “with the bridge down.”
They would walk the city—see what had happened for themselves. They walked to the disaster on 6th and Townsend and from there to the Marina. They forgot that stores and restaurants would be closed, the ATM machines down. No electricity. They walked and walked, horror struck, with a camera. The sun shined brilliantly and happily on the wreckage and, as they sat looking at the calm bay from the Marina green, the whole episode seemed a strange, contorted dream. But it wasn’t.
Daylight began to dim again. They had forgotten this! They were in a bar on Greenwich Street—a somber but welcoming assembly of people around warm beer and candles—but they had to get home. It was dark on Greenwich Street, but they could find their way to Van Ness. Van Ness was dark, too, no streetlights, a car here and there. Cassie and Nick walked close to the buildings. “Why didn’t we bring a flashlight?” “It was daylight, then.” It was so dark! Imagine what could happen. It had happened; they couldn’t think further, just keep walking in the dark.
They walked for an hour barely discerning each other before they heard, then saw, the swooping helicopters. People were out front of the apartment building again, the lobby and the stairway dark still. They felt their way up the six floors until someone, descending, lighted them a path, then they sidled along the walls to their apartment. They’d improvise again for a meal. They were safe, in the dark.