The wings of the Boeing 747 were tilting in the great abyss of the night sky, there was yellow lights dotting far below and it always was the most beautiful image to see, to ingrain in your mind. The kind if image you store and archive for your old age.
The irony was the year had started similar to how it was ending new opportunities capped by endless possibilities and yet I was such a different person. Everything had changed.
I had been through so much in the span of 10 months, but no one could see it. To the outside word I was still the same vain, Fendi wearing 30 something that wrote petulant prose as Instagram captions and posted about existentialism in french. I was still the same pessimistic hopeless romantic who cannot phantom wearing yoga pants out to anything that isn’t yoga class and wears sheer black blouses with handmade lace trim and brand name jeans to a six hour flight, the kind of woman who contemplates life sipping vodka and staring at the mirror and who rain, shine or personal tragedy makes sure she looks good because that is the way her grandmother brought her up.
Yes on the outside I was still her, my outside coat of paint was still shallow and expensive. I wanted desperately to live true to my ‘Jetset life’ hashtag that donned my social media presence but inside I was no longer her.
I was no longer sure of anything, and I often cried myself to sleep.
The lights outside my oval window faded into the distance and I wanted to be everywhere but where I was going. I could have stayed in that plane forever, in that first class row two because work was paying. I didn’t know where I wanted to go, but it wasn’t home. It wasn’t the fake lights of tinsel town. I wanted to stay in my hometown in the broken edifices and the cracked pavement, and the leftover ruins of a devastating earthquake, I wanted to stay with the hardworking people who in the middle of a tragedy when they could have laid broken just like the skyscrapers that came tumbling around them, they chose to stay standing, to dry the tears and offer what they have to help each other. That is where I wanted to be, in the house I grew up in and the walls that had raised me. In the walls that had managed to stay standing without a single broken bone throughout 32 years and two shattering Earthquakes.
Perhaps it was that single fact, this one event that had changed the core of who I was. The creaking of the wooden benches in the eerie silence of a polished cemetery. The echo of the building moving and the hallow church broke my sobs and I turned to my mother tear streaked face and said
‘Its an earthquake’
I didn’t run but for the first time in my life I thought I was going to die. The ground was shaking, the church where I used to go as a child swayed as if trying to detach itself from the very ground it stood in and flee. The chandeliers moved from side to side like trapeze acrobats in the vaulted ceilings and then it stopped. I was used to earthquakes, had grown up around them all my life but none had been so unexpected and so strong.
Silence, pure, dead, unadulterated silence in the city that is never silent.
It wasn’t just my life, it was my mothers and my aunts who lay in a hospital bed, a complete different person from the glamorous, energetic woman I had grown up with, always laughing and full of life. No this woman had told me a day before that she wanted to see the ocean one last time. That she missed the ocean and her now grey opaque eyes paled over.
She was the real reason why I had come home, to say hello and maybe goodbye. The odds were not in her favor to connote a tried movie phrase. I had rushed onto an airplane with a carry on and few shirts to see her. I had bitten my lips, batted my eyes and kept the tears from falling when I saw her.
It was a cruel flashback from six years ago when in the same hospital my grandmother, the woman who I most admired in my life had died.
Perhaps it hadn’t been the event of this week, but the gradual sadness of her loss that has been compounded since that Wednesday in 2012 when I received the call, and then hanging up the phone I didn’t cry then but I cried now.
I cried for a few moments outside the white washed walls of the hospital room, in a long semi lit hallway, I grasped the wooden rail that lined the wall for support and let a few stray tears run down, but not too many because my mother was near and the rest of family and I could not cry, not now I could not be the one breaking down. I was the strong one, I never cry and always keep my calm. Call it an acquired skill from my hospitality days, where you always smile and nod even if the restaurant is falling apart. I think that is my biggest flaw, but I never say it. Instead every time I get asked in an interview what my biggest flaw is I say, that it is being a perfectionist, overly critical of myself.
I don’t cry. I pat my cheeks as not ruin my perfectly applied make up, the bronzer to accentuate the cheek bone and the glittery highlighter to contour my face. I take the iconic blue glasses off and make sure my eye lashes haven’t come off, the expensive mink kind that I should not be buying but I do. On the outside I am still the same person who swallows her tears and keeps a calm facade, but on the inside I want to lean against the wall and cry. Loud and heartbreaking, without reverence or care, to break down and let all the impotence and anger slide out like snakes from Medusas hair.
I don’t. I never do. I have to pretend. That is what I do good I pretend.
The coincidence you see is that today is the anniversary of another earthquake, that broke the city then too. I was not yet born but my mother was expecting me, she was four months into expecting me. I don’t remember that Earthquake, I only remember what my mother has told me, what my father has mentioned, what I have seen from old news reels. Now 32 years later, in the same month, in the same day on an unplanned, never would have done this kind of visit it happens again. It is as if it was waiting for me, lurking in the shadows of the tectonic plates and waiting to leap out. I know that is only a figment of my imagination, I am not important.Nevertheless it changes me. To hear the silence for long ticking seconds before it burst into commotion, before the radio stations run over each other to report the magnitude, the damages, the death tolls, before the sirens blast and the firefighters and ambulances run their engines,, before the insistent dialing of cell phones that drop all calls and frantic people swamping the city streets, to hear the silence one only hears in death changed me. I ran deep inside me, the desire to talk to God, the God my mother believed in, the one that sat front row and center in the swaying church.
It wasn’t a last minute repentance it was an inspiration. While my mother walked into the parish office after the Earthquake had subsided I stood outside, not knowing if I wanted to cry, or sit or walk, the sun shone harshly outside and it burned through my white knitted top.
I found myself muttering words to God. I wasn’t kneeling in front of the cross, or sitting in a church bench I was simply standing outside looking at a poster for some Sunday Service. “If you save her,” I found myself saying, making promises I never thought I would. I was sure that he would help me, that our barter would save my aunt, but I wasn’t sure of what would happen with the rest of the victims. You see at this point in the middle of calming my nerves and trying to get cell phone service we had no idea what the damage was, we had no idea where the epicenter was, if building had fallen or if there would be more. I eventually joined my mother in the office and the priest said I should take my sunglasses off and introduce myself, I did and I’m sure they thought the tears that still hung around my eyes were from the earth shaking and not because I had been crying before, not because I had been telling my mom I was overwhelmed and lost, and I missed my grandmother. They were unimportant.
We walked to the car in a somewhat rare mood, talking about the 1985 Earthquake and the priest and avoiding the elephant in the room. Maybe it was then as we rounded the corner of the houses draped in patriotic flags for Independence Month that changed me. I felt a deep pang of sadness that strums my soul, I used to walk these streets so often when I was a child, the realization that they such a distant memory that I don’t instantly remember them, saddens me. I recognize them, my heart aches for them but I have lost the visualization of them in my mind. I want to stay here, to absorb it all my home and yet I know that I don’t completely belongs here anymore, more than I belong in the streets of Orange County. It is a hard prize that first generation immigrants or expats, whatever the correct social and political term is, have to pay. You can’t take it back the years change you, and the missing pieces of the puzzle never fit again, they have been standing in the rain too long, they are now soggy and peeling and they don’t quite fit in the spot.
I have promised to watch over my aunts in the same way I should have watched over my grandmother, I have indebted myself to caring for their well being if he saves her and this odd, long lost forgotten part of me truly believes he will, it doesn’t doubt, it doesn’t waver… faith. I had lost her and now she was coming home, much like I was home.
That night I can’t sleep, instead I walk around the house, the old quiet house with it’s plush green carpet and white floored garden. I stare out the main bedroom’s window like my grandmother used to. In her old days it was her window to the outside world, the remorse of what I could have done creeps in again. It has been creeping in and out for the past five years, I should have come home that November, I should have come home for good. I didn’t and I never saw her again, never heard her voice, never told her how much I loved her.
I pack the few shirts I had brought, the few mementos my aunt had bought for me, in thoughts of a happier visit. I pack my memories and my newfound promises because I have to go back to work. tell my aunt I love her, that she means and has meant the world to me, that all the years she raised me, came to visit, sent gifts, have shaped my life and I wave goodbye as I exit the room. She waves a back, a weak smile forming on her makeup less face. I miss her as soon as I leave the hospital and even though I know she will be fine I cry again.
The plane takes of in whirl, the take offs and landing are always my favorite parts of traveling, they encompass along with the airport so many mixed emotions. Hellos, goodbyes, tragedies, celebrations, businesses, and memories all compounded in neon lights and engines. There is butterflies at the pit of my stomach whenever we takeoff, the little bell goes off and the wheels detach themselfs from the tarmac. The city becomes a canvas below the plane and wherever you’re going is full of possibilities.
Only this time the emotions are raw, the people on the plane did not talk about it, the free newspapers splashed the news across the front page and every page. I had downed a shot of vodka in the ten minutes I had to spare between getting to my gate and last call. The waiter didn’t utter a word and I left him a 100 percent tip. It numbed everything in a sense, alcohol always does that.
I stared at the window all the time we took off, until it became a dark peaceful nothing below us, I stared then too because it was calming. We existed outside the realm of the damaged Earth, just for a second. A few tears streaked my cheeks but the only witness was the cold glass upon which I was pressing my face, it didn’t mind I’m sure it has been witness to other tear streaked faces.
When I landed the calm of the late summer night in California swamped me in silence and I contemplated all that had happened. I could not phantom this shallow life we live,, so appeased and unfazed. The truth is I can’t pinpoint when it happened, perhaps it was inside the swaying church of my youth, inside the sacred walls that I had refused to visit in months. Maybe it was that moment I saw my aunt, when she grabbed my hand and told me she had enjoyed her life, maybe it was outside in the bright Mexican Sun in my imaginary bargain with God, or maybe it had been a long time coming from the moment my Grandmother died in each and every tear I shed months after, in all the pent up silence of those first weeks when everyone asked if I was okay andI simply nodded. The truth is I missed her, everyday in every important event, in every sad moment.
When she passed away I slept with her sweater on my bed for weeks, this time around I found another of her sweaters, a soft, plush pink one that she used on cold rainy nights. I brought it with me, it doesn’t smell like her anymore but it smells like home. I don’t know what that smell is but I remember it.
I remember it almost as well as I remember the building collapsing, the screams of the people and the rubble that formed after. Almost as well as the tears of uncertainty I shed that night and the sirens that still blared two days after when we headed to the airport. Almost as well as the cracks in the terminal floors and the cancelled flights because Control Tower had lost communications. Our world centers around numbers and electronics that fade in a second and all we are left are human connections that are willing to go out there and help without a single thought. Upon my return and in the guilty comfort of my bed I sent some supplies to the victims but is it enough? The hungry disasters pile up one after the other tearing our American Continent apart like no other time that our generation has seen. That is the innate change, how can I help them. I still dress up every morning and coordinate my outfits, and I still peruse the perfume counters at Saks but it no longer captivates me, doesn’t hold me over like it used to. I have had time to re asses my life, a whole decade to question what impact I want to make. I could have always told you that I wanted to make an impact in the world, a positive impact, to save lives or change laws but that was the vain me speaking. A few weeks ago I contemplated going back to school, becoming a doctor or an epidemiologist, I still want to but I have come to realize in the span of five days spent in Mexico that we can make an impact in so many other ways. I learned about strength in those five days like I haven’t in years. I have always been a self-center person, and my problems have in a way revolved around myself from my years battling bulimia to the battle against self-harm, overcoming them both was a show of strength but no like the one I saw that week. Strength from both my aunts as one pulled all nighters to stay with her in the hospital, putting her life on pause to hold her sisters hand and from the other holding on to life to reciprocate. And the strength from the nation, that against corrupt governments, disasters and drug wars stands tall and proud, and caring. They all came out to help, the well off and the poor, the doctors, the architects the rescue teams. Small stores and huge chains donated in their capacities and the normal people came to help in droves, to help their fellow brothers and sisters.
I had never felt so proud to carry the tricolor flag inside me, and I had never felt so sad to do so. And all that I learned was that the world was not about me, it wasn’t about me being in the Earthquake, it was about the fact that all of us who are safe and sound, who have a home, and money in the bank are luckier than we can imagine. It was about the people in Oaxaca sleeping in the streets because their homes and their jobs are gone. I cried in the car as I drove to wok, after I counted all the cracks in the freeways and checked five times that we have emergency supplies in the house. I cried after I hung up on my mother today and she told me that the verdicts on my aunt are not optimistic, but the tears are becoming normal this week and everything that isn’t helping has taken a backseat. I am not the same person I was when I landed on the ancient Aztec soil, on that country that was built upon a prophecy of an eagle eating a snake, on a prophecy of doom and a calendar of proof, but perhaps that is how it’s supposed to be. My mother often says that things happen for a reason. I used to think that it was a cheap saying, something people say when they can’t justify what is happening, just like religion. I used to think many things I don’t believe anymore, and the timing of everything that has happened in this week has come to make me believe that things do happen for a reason. The reason is to help, make that impact I so badly wanted to fulfill my life and change someone else’s.