The baby and I are playing our favorite game.
"I love you," I call from the front seat. I'm waiting at a red light, spraying the windshield with wiper fluid because it's been a dusty day, a dusty summer.
"No," she calls from her car seat, "I love you!"
"No," I singsong back to her, "I love you!" The light turns green and I inch forward in the lineup to turn left.
The dusty summer has in fact bled into fall. It's October now. People say it feels like the sun is inches above us. What it feels like to me is that the sun is under my clothes, against my scalp, in my eyes every second of the day. I have a permanent red indent at the bridge of my nose from the cheap sunglasses I never take off. I veer into my daily casual panic about global warming. I know there's a distinction between climate and weather, that a snowy winter in places that have always had snowy winters doesn't discount the fact that the planet is getting hotter. Here in Southern California, weather has always been a little more subtle than that. It wouldn't take much to tip the balance, for the summer heat to last just a little longer each year, gradually crowding out the other seasons. It wouldn't take long for a perpetual August to seem like nothing worth mentioning.
"Noooo, I love yooooouuuu," the baby coos. Our love is a baseball we toss back and forth. It can only be in one place at a time.
We come to our street and I feel a sudden tightness in my chest. I try to take a breath, but it catches before I can get a full one. I breathe out and try again, the intake burrowing through my ribcage like a horse pill taken without water, and still I can only breathe halfway. This happens sometimes. I know I ought to go to the doctor, but the last time I went for this sort of thing, it took a battery of tests and a chest X-ray for the doctor to determine I was suffering from anxiety. It's been years, plenty of time to develop an actual medical problem, but it always seems to pass before I can get an appointment, and then it just seems silly to go.
I pull into the driveway. The radio is on, but I can't place the song because the blast of the AC is drowning it out.
"I wanna get out!" the baby yells. She's two and a half, not really a baby anymore, but she has short, wispy hair and her same baby cheeks, so I feel justified in continuing to think of her as my baby for as long as she'll allow.
"Give me a minute, sweetie," I say, as my breathing slowly returns to normal. My chest still aches, but I know it will go away, it always does.
Earthquake weather is a concept so heavily represented in West Coast literature that I feel as though I know what it is. I think of Joan Didion's "surreal" heat, and sky with "a yellow cast." I think of hazy sunshine and air so thick you could almost lick it. I read an interview with a famous seismologist who said there's no such thing as earthquake weather. She said people who have experienced major earthquakes just associate all earthquakes with whatever the weather was like when they felt the big one. Of course, there isn't just one "big one." I was a kid living up north when one of the big ones hit San Francisco, in a bookstore with my mother. When the building started to shake, I rolled underneath a display and gripped the table legs, well trained by our elementary school drills. I don't remember what the weather was like, but it was October then, too, and I was sweating in a little wool peacoat. When the shaking stopped, I heard my mother calling for me, frantic. I crawled out from underneath a green tablecloth to find her running toward me, books scattered all over the floor. She got down and scooped me into a hug, her heart beating like a jackhammer in my ear.
Now the seismologists are saying a big one is imminent down here, on the San Andreas fault. Or, might be. There's an increased likelihood for the next four days, which seems a bit arbitrary, but I'm not a seismologist. I'm not sure what exactly one is supposed to do with that kind of news. As the planet warms and "surreal" weather becomes the norm, the cues—unscientific though they may be—become even more nebulous.
We have an earthquake kit in the garage, some water and non-perishable food, flashlights. But there's not much you can do to avoid being the person the tree falls on, or the power line, not without becoming a shut-in. And even then, it could be at your house that the gas line ruptures, sending the whole block up in flames. While I was getting briefly jostled around in a bookstore, forty-two people were being crushed underneath the upper deck of the Nimitz freeway, where they had moments before been sitting in traffic thinking about what to make for dinner. I was able to give it all a fatalistic shrug when it was just me. Now, with a husband and daughter to think about, I'm . . . I wouldn't say paralyzed with fear. But something like it. I'm moving through a narrowing tunnel, squeezed by fear, weighed down by how much I have to lose.
All through dinner, I find I'm not listening to my husband, who is intermittently playing his own favorite game with the baby.
"It's your birthday, daddy, blow out the candle," she says.
He sets his fork down, takes a big breath and blows out the imaginary candle nestled in his stir fry.
"Yay!" She claps and kicks her legs. It is no one's birthday.
I am thinking about the seven-day pillbox on my bathroom counter. My husband loads it with all the vitamins I should be taking, fish oil and B-12, the same ones he takes. I forgot to take them on Thursday and Friday, so I shifted the pills to the vacated Sunday and Monday slots. Now I have a head start on next week. I don't really believe in vitamins. I've never had a vitamin make me feel any healthier. The fact that it's so easy to fudge the pillbox system reminds me how easy it is to manipulate any situation to the same result. Like a deleted to-do list, there are needs and musts that can evaporate if you decide they don't matter. But I know I'm only playing at nihilism.
My husband smiles. "It's your birthday. Blow out the candle."
"Baby," I say as she continues to applaud, "are you going to eat any more? You barely ate a thing." I'm always worried she isn't eating enough. I push food on her constantly, which she frequently ignores, some days seeming to live on air and Cheerios.
She giggles and shoves a broccoli floret into my mouth. She thinks it's all a big joke, my desperation to keep her alive and growing.
The baby is tucked into bed and I'm doing dishes, periodically sipping from a glass of red wine that is only okay. I need to stop choosing wines based on the way the image on the label makes me feel. This one is in black and white, footsteps in the sand receding into the horizon. The label hits my zen sweet spot, but the wine kind of tastes like perfume.
My husband is at the table, doing some work on his laptop. The house is more or less clean. These are the quiet times I fill in one of two ways: Deep Satisfaction or Nameless Dread. There's no pattern. They can even co-exist. I can feel it rising in me, the state at which I am most one-on-one with the world. The feeling is still unfurling, and hasn't yet clued me into its ultimate shape.
The saving grace of Southern California summer—or summer-fall, or springtime-and-counting—is that it always cools off at night. The breeze starts to ruffle the drapes and it feels like a loosening of the vise, an apology. Like an abusive mate, I forgive and love this place in spite of its existential threats. I step out onto the porch and take in the sunset, which I've mostly already missed. The sun has ducked behind the distant hills, leaving a fiery blur in its wake.
When we say a night is beautiful, what we mean is that life is beautiful. In reality, every night looks the same. The sky repeats itself in perpetuity. It's the only sky we have. But the darkness, first looming, then enveloping, casts a spell that is no less powerful for its banality. The darkness hushes my nerves, until I wonder if this, too, could be earthquake weather. Well, of course it could. A new literature could spring out of it tomorrow: the inherent menace of the lovely, cool night. If I focus on the clear darkness, I'm sure I can isolate its prickly edge, like a hand beckoning from behind doom's curtain.
I hear my husband's footsteps behind me. He wraps his arms around my waist. He smells like a mountain spring, or, I guess, like soap that is formulated to smell like a mountain spring. I breathe him in gratefully, desperately. Hold me down, I think. Tether me here, to the porch, to the stillness.
"How're you feeling?" he asks.
"Better," I say without thinking.
"Did you make that doctor's appointment?"
"No. Not yet."
We lean together against the railing. A neighbor bikes past, wearing elbow pads but no helmet. Birds are chirping, as they will all night, confused by the light pollution.
The brick in my chest returns, a pulsing weight, but it vanishes again as soon as it appeared. I roll my shoulders. It was nothing. It is nothing. It is the negative image of the vitamin. Of the earthquake kit. It's the voice saying something is wrong against the current of voices saying ssshhhh, look at these stars.