“7.9 Earthquake—Home Alone”

                                                             In memory of those who did not survive

August 15th, 2007

Lima, Peru

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It was a pretty apartment on the 10th floor, a bit noisy with the traffic of Camino Real, but it had a magnificent view of the lush, green course of the San Isidro Golf Club. It was about 6:30 p.m., and I had just gotten back from my yoga class, so I was wearing a sweatshirt, exercise pants, and sneakers. I unlocked my apartment door as the deep smell of onion mixed with squash tickled my nose. It was winter, and Elenita had made a delicious calabasa soup. I looked at the soup and thought: I need to go out and buy ham and cheese for tomorrow’s lunch. Then, a second thought crossed my mind: shall I go now or after I have a bowl of soup? I walked over and saw it was still warm. So, I decided: Soup first!

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After serving myself a bowl, I went into the small TV room and started channel-surfing. I slurped a big spoonful, licked my lips, leaned back, and looked out the window at the bright lights. Then I heard it. The deep, rumbling sound. Maybe it was a big truck that had just driven by? Sometimes the windows shook because of the traffic below, but the noise sounded different. It was deeper, darker, almost incestuous—too connected. I realized it came from the belly of the earth. Within two seconds, logic registered: it was an earthquake. A BIG one. I was on the 10th floor. And I was alone.

I jumped up. My body swayed a bit as if I had drunk a few too many glasses of wine. My hands were shaking. But it was the sound that I can still hear in my ears today. A gurgling noise, a scratching noise—our building and the one beside us were built together. Stuck at the seams. And now they wanted to dance by the beat of their own drum. It was as if they were Siamese twins, trying to finally separate from one another.

Ignoring the sounds, I ran through the living room, ready to open the door. My heart was beating wildly as if to the rhythm of some tribal beat, but then again, it may not have been beating at all. Time was frozen as I saw my cell phone and keys on the couch, five meters away from me. I hesitated. I needed to get to my phone. If I survived this thing, my husband would be worried and would inevitably try and call. I needed my phone! But then I stopped. If I turned back, would those be the three seconds with which I could have gotten out of the building alive? Just to retrieve my phone, was I foolishly choosing be buried under rubble when the building collapsed? And when it collapsed, would I be trapped under slabs of concrete with a silly piece of technology in my grip?

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I went back anyway. I grabbed the phone, the house keys; my body was rocking back and forth. Things were falling—short, sharp sounds; a series of crashes—someone’s TV? Someone’s porcelain? Then a long, heavy rumble . . . my God, someone’s building? I was still thinking. Thinking rationally, that is. I had to get out of there: yes! Down the stairs! Just the week before, I had seen Nicholas Cage in the movie World Trade Center. The words of Sergeant McLoughlin reverberated in my head: “The stairwell is the strongest part of the building.” I needed to make it down the stairs. Get out of the building.

I was running, fast; my heart was on fire. BUT STOP! There was a man. Another human being. He was standing in the frame of his door holding a dog. A grey, kinda ugly thing. He was young-ish (the man). Thirty-something? I had seen him before. He had an array of sexy women pass through his apartment regularly. He was sort of handsome in the rugged “I haven’t shaved for a month” kind of way. But I didn’t think any of this. All I thought was My God, another human. I wasn’t going to die alone. I heard the rumble again. I lost my balance while running past him, but managed to say in my fractured Spanish: “VAMOS A BAJAR!” (Let’s go down!) He looked at me. Then he stretched out his hand—WHOOOOOOOSSSH. He grabbed me. “NO!” he screamed. He said something in Spanish, but I didn’t understand. Suddenly, I found myself hugging this man like he was the last person on earth, accepting his invitation with alacrity. His one arm was wrapped around his dog, and I wrapped myself around his other arm. I had my eyes closed, my face tucked into his bicep, my back pressed against a moving wall. He kept repeating, “Tranquilizate, va a pasar” (calm down, it will pass). Later, he told me that I was mumbling, “We’re going to die, we’re going to die.” I remember none of this.

For 2 minutes and 43 interminable seconds the earth rocked. I remember thinking: when will it stop? And what a way to go. I pictured myself again under sheets of metal and piles of debris, my arm sticking up through a crack, my fingers twined around a cell phone—but this time there was a DOG in the picture, and he was chewing on my bloody hand! Then I saw my mother down on knees wailing, my husband with his face hidden in his oh-so manly hands, shielding his tears from the rest of the family. Suddenly, I pictured a cruise I wanted to go on; then, the little island in Greece where my husband and I had been the summer before; my mother’s face reappeared again. After that, there were no more pictures in my head. It was over. And I was still standing. And I hadn’t died.

With disheveled hair and spirit, I quickly pulled away from the stranger and said: “Gracias!” Running down the ten flights of stairs, I left him standing there with his dog.

ImageI have told this story many times to family, friends, students, loved ones, anyone who would listen. I guess I thought I was going to die, and I needed to process it. But what I needed to process was nothing in comparison to the people of Pisco, Ica, Chincha and San Vincinte de Canete. In Lima, we were very lucky. For others, it was disastrous. In Pisco about 85% of the structures were leveled, and throughout the region, 519 people were left dead; 1,366 wounded. Of course, these numbers are relatively low in comparison to other natural disasters, but one death is always too many. Just “1” represents someone’s mother, brother, aunt, sibling, child, or spouse.

About two months later, my husband and I were in the elevator, and a rugged man walked in. He had two dogs now and smiled sheepishly at us. I felt awkward. This was a person with whom I had spent two very intense minutes, and yet now, I didn’t know what to say. Normally quite loquacious, an unnatural reticence made me avert my eyes. My husband, stuck out his hand, grabbed the man’s shoulder, and thanked him for supporting his wife through a traumatic event. That’s when our neighbor told us that I kept repeating, “We are going to die!” He said it was not exactly what he wanted to hear during those crucial moments. We all laughed.

The next day, my husband and I decided to start looking for a little house (close to the ground) to live. Too many memories in this place.

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“My Naughty, New Habit”

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I have very few vices. I juice every morning (fresh spinach, kale, carrots, an apple, an orange, a banana, and flaxseed swirl in my Ninja); I go to the gym twice a week, do yoga once a week, and cook healthy meals. I eat a biscuit or a piece of chocolate every afternoon and drink alcohol moderately, a bottle of wine with my husband two or three times a month. But I love coffee, sometimes drinking up to five cups a day. Overall, I give myself a B+ in the “taking care of Kimberly” arena with copious cups of coffee as my only vice. Recently though, I’ve picked up a new, not-so-healthy habit.

I was in a liquor store buying some munchies for a road-trip when I saw something that looked like a fancy pen—and it was pink! I asked the guy behind the counter what it was, and he told me it was an electronic cigarette. I was instantly curious. I smoked for one year from 16 years old to 17, and then quit one day. I don’t remember how I started or why I stopped. I did continue to smoke Djarum clove cigarettes on and off in my 20s, but only when my smoker-friend provided them. The smell of cloves reminds me of a Greek church, so the experience of clove-smoking always took me back to another place, another time, not a wholly religious experience, but one that certainly calmed me. Overall, though, I was over being a smoker. Been there, done that. My husband (who told me he also smoked for a brief time before we met) and I shared a Marlboro at a party; we both felt so god-awful the next day, we went for about ten years cigarette-free.

Then I met the watermelon e-ciggy. First, you have to understand, I love watermelon. Especially Greek watermelons. Next to juicy, red, Greek tomatoes there’s no fruit more delicious than a Greek watermelon. My favorite dessert is a piece of Greek watermelon with a slab of feta on the side.

As we stood there in the liquor store, I looked at my husband like a naughty teenager, batted my eyelashes, and asked him if I could buy the watermelon cigarette. (I’m a feminist through and through, but hubby always knows what’s best for me . . . or when to concede.) He laughed: “Okay, I’ll get one too.” He bought mango-peach flavor.

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Last week in Boston, on a working vacation, we had our ciggies while downing pints of Harpoon IPA. I felt kind of rebellious. I’m a straight-laced person and don’t do anything illegal or immoral and always try to be kind to others. Well, I do drive over 65 once in a while, but since my only consistent vice is coffee, I rationalized an occasional puff on an e-ciggy couldn’t possibly hurt.

On our third outing, as we inhaled the ciggies’ flavors and mild nicotine, I suddenly realized a new habit was forming. It was legal, not too bad for us, and simply fun. But last weekend, back home, when we shared a bottle of wine, I found myself wanting my watermelon, nicotine vapor fix. I wanted to experience that sensation of hand-to-mouth. See the smoke rings in the air. Taste a bit of Greece.

But. The angel sitting on my shoulder and I came to the conclusion that e-cigarettes may be beneficial for smokers to slowly wean themselves off real cigarettes, but I don’t recommend trying one unless you can truly afford a new vice in your life. In fact, in Vienna “at the European Respiratory Society’s Annual Congress 2012”  Professor Christina Gratziou and scientists from the University of Athens in Greece, “set out to determine what the short-term effects of smoking with e-cigarettes might be on different individuals” and the result was that “electronic cigarettes, seen by many as a healthy alternative to tobacco smoking, do cause damage to the lungs”  (http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/249784.php). So I kept Googling and reading. So much information out there and so many different points of view.  (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/05/study-finds-e-cigarettes-_n_1187166.html and http://health.howstuffworks.com/wellness/smoking-cessation/10-facts-about-e-cigarettes.htm)

After reading these articles, I decided that though it was “fun” to have a pink-thingy in my hand and feel pleasantly naughty, when the 600 puffs are over, I will bid adieu to this newfound toy that can’t possibly be good for me. Darn! Why did they have to make it pink!

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“About Failure . . . and Success”

Alfie Kohn, in an essay that appeared in The Huffington Post on October 3, 2012, argues that children experience enough disappointment in day-to-day life that adults do not need to feed into the popular belief that failure “motivate[s] them to try even harder next time and prepare[s]” them “for the rigors of the unforgiving Real World.” In fact, he goes on to say that “The idea that ‘kids today’ have it too easy is part of a broader conservative worldview that’s been around for a long, long time. Children are routinely coddled and indulged, overprotected, and overpraised. But I’ve been unable to find any data to support this claim . . . there’s simply no proof that that the phenomenon is widespread, much less that it’s more common today than it was 10, 20, 50 or 100 years ago.”

On Saturday my UCSD students read and responded to an essay in a two-hour writing exam. Wednesday, when they receive their scores, many will experience failure.

So can I take a moment to coddle, praise, and indulge?

To my students: If you experience success, congratulations!

But if you wake to the news that you must retake the class, retake the exam, and try to pass next time, I would like to say a few words. Words that I try to live by. “Your best is going to change from moment to moment; it will be different when you are healthy as opposed to sick. Under any circumstance, simply do your best, and you will avoid self-judgment, self-abuse and regret” (Don Miguel Ruiz). And I know you did your best, and for that you should be proud. I am.

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“A Walk in Kamena Vourla”

[This is a deleted scene from my novel RED GREEK TOMATOES. It was hard to cut, not because anything major happens (precisely why it had to go), but it details a place in Greece that I hold so very dear to my heart, a place where I spent most of the summers of my life.]

“In younger years, when I felt this sort of nervous energy, I would jump in a car and drive. Today, older, (more mature?) my feet carry me and help me think.

I walk all the way to El Camino Restaurant, past it, and to the very edge of the town. There’s a small street to the right, so I follow it down, right by the water’s edge. A few houses on the left, noises can be heard. A Greek family comes out to take an afternoon swim, and as they smile, I greet them politely; then they are off. I keep ambling along and find myself crossing a large, dirt parking lot, toward an unattended kiosk that says: “Enter. Pay Here.” I see a bedraggled sign hanging sideways that looks decades old—it says “LAXMI.” The place looks like an old discotheque with an empty pool in the center and a dilapidated DJ box. I walk across this forgotten dance floor and see tents sprawled on gravel and realize I have entered, unknowingly, into a camping area. This must be where my American friends stayed, a camping area at the end of town. Apart from the tents, there are small bungalows and people scattered throughout the grounds. A small shop is in the corner, and there’s a chubby Greek girl sitting in front Imagesmoking a cigarette. The entire place looks run down, may have been nice at one time, but now has paint chipping off every building.

I keep walking and find myself crossing a patch of land that has weeds all the way up to my waist. There is a small path, so I continue to follow it. When I reach the end of the path there is a large eight-foot fence that encloses the camping area. Great. On the other side of the fence, there is a road. I follow the fence all the way as it curves to the right and then—it ends in the sea, literally in the sea. A couple meters of fence are built right into the water, and then just end abruptly like a bad joke; rusty wiring gets splashed with the afternoon waves. The water is neck-deep, no way to get around it. I notice around fifteen feet to the left, closer to the street, a part of the fence is pulled back exposing a hole the size of a large dog. I bend down and maneuver my way through the space, the fence scratching my back slightly. Like Alice in Wonderland, I am on the other side, but it is no wonderland—just a small, dirty beach. I see a sign on the street that points north. It says “Kenourio”—meaning new. I have heard Kyrie Thanassi talk about this village; it’s the one right next to Kamena Vourla, really small he said, not much to see. Still, I keep walking.

It’s a long paved road, and every so often, a car whizzes by and almost runs me over. I try to walk along the water’s edge but it’s bumpy with weeds and rocks, uneven, uncomfortable. So I am back on the paved road. There are a few houses that face the beach. It’s not a very pretty beach and the water has small brown waves, the first murky water I have seen in Greece. I pass two women who are wearing tennis shoes and seem to be doing a sort of jog-walk. They both have huge breasts and skinny legs. They are talking loudly, arms flailing with exaggerated gesticulations; I hear something about the bastard husband. They don’t even look at me. I keep on walking and see a tavern on the left side of the road; on the beach, to the right, under a thatched roof, they have set up some tables. A young boy, early teens, who assumes the role of a waiter, stares from across the street, beckoning me to sit at a table. He is standing by a cooler, and I am dying of thirst. Making my way to his side of the street, he greets me as I ask to buy some water. All they have are two-liter bottles, so I end up getting a Coca Cola with a straw. I pay the woman inside, and she says they have delicious seafood if I want to come back for dinner. I thank her and keep walking. I look over my shoulder in search of the glorious white church that marks the center of Kamena Vourla. It barely looks like a grain of salt in the horizon and realize I must be walking now for several hours.

I have no idea what time it is, but there is a slight breeze. I reach a small pier. There are some boats tied to it, and on the other side of the street is some sort of park. I can hear a lot of kids screaming.

Something bites my arm, and I realize that there are a lot of mosquitoes. I don’t know what to do. I need to turn around. The sea has gotten darker, the waves more aggressive; dusk doesn’t look pretty, and I am actually getting cold. It’s getting harder to see. More cars are on the road now, and they are going faster and faster. I am not afraid of the dark, but I feel uneasy about these crazy drivers who probably don’t see me till they are too close for comfort. I can feel my hair blow up when they zoom by.

My legs are so tired. I don’t have the energy to go back. I must be walking now for three, maybe four hours?  I see a Mercedes whiz by, and it says TAXI. I wave, but he does not slow down as there are people in the back seat. He is going towards Kenourio, opposite of Kamena Vourla. I keep my eyes peeled in case he comes back this way, hoping he will see me on the return. A few minutes later I hear another car, but it’s pitch dark now, so I can’t see—until it’s almost upon me—if it’s the taxi or just another reckless driver.

A red car speeds by.

I am dangerously close to the road, but I don’t want to miss that taxi. I hear another car, but I can’t see what it is. It’s the taxi! I wave frantically, but he zips past me as I feel the blood rush from my head and fall into my stomach in a heavy, sickly way. I am so, so tired. I just don’t think my feet can go another step. Then, suddenly, the taxi slows down and the brake lights illuminate the night. The driver turns into a dirt road, and he is gone again. I run about fifty feet and see the dark road he turned down. I walk a few steps, but the darkness becomes even heavier; I can’t even see my own hands. I hear all sorts of noises: cicadas, owls, slithering sounds in the weeds. It looks like the perfect setting for a Hollywood horror film. I quickly turn around and wait at the corner of the dirt road. An interminable wait, (probably only five to ten minutes), then I hear a car coming again, and, anxiously, my heart beats faster. It is the taxi again, coming back a bit slower. He slides into the stop sign, looks left, ready to peel out, so I scream, “Taxi!”

I am determined to bang on the window if he starts to gas it again, but thankfully he looks over, and I realize it’s Stelios! The cousin or someone who brought me to Kyria Akrivi’s pension the first night.

I can see there is an older woman in the backseat who does not look happy. He rolls down his window and just looks at me. I ask if he is going back in Kamena Vourla and that I would like a ride. I will pay of course. He unlocks the door; the woman seems perturbed—I guess they don’t like to share taxis in this part of town. I get into the front seat since she is sprawled in the middle of the back and makes no effort to readjust herself. My heart beat begins to settle. I say “Efharisto” and start to tell them about my endless walk, but neither is interested, nor wants to make small talk. Still, I feel like I have been saved. I don’t know how far I am, but I know that if I had to walk all the way back, it would have been tough. I was hungry, weak, cold, and already covered with bites and a few blisters. And I was a bit afraid. Not of any real danger except possibly of being run over. But I did feel so alone. I could just see the headlines: Greek-American Girl Gets Hit by Car While on a Dark, Desolate Road: Why She Was There, All Alone, No One Will Ever Know.”

Inspired

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She’s fit, forty-three, married with three kids, works full-time—and has written twenty books and has a few more coming out soon! I’m forty-three too, married with three bulldogs, and work part-time. I have been teaching for twenty years and have written one book that is looking for a home.

As I sat on February 17th at the Southern California Writers’ Conference and listened to the keynote speaker, Michele Scott, who wrote a series of books (Wine Lover’s Mysteries), I was hugely inspired—not only because she is sweet and humble and spoke well, but because—I have to admit—I saw myself in her. Except for a few things. She balances a marriage, children, a family business, and a love of horses with writing; my responsibilities include teaching two college classes, making homemade lunches for my husband, going to the gym, cleaning every so often, and sometimes feeding the dogs (my hubby is their primary provider; mostly I just give them hugs and rubs). Needless to say, my life is certainly less complicated, and I certainly have a lot more free time.

I often wonder if because I never had children, I never had to learn to budget my time hyper-effectively. Time has always been mine, so though there have been points in my life when I have been busy or have struggled, I’ve always allowed myself “down-time”—maybe too much. The hours dwindle away: I drink Greek coffee with my mama in the morning and chat about nondescript issues; I watch The View, go to the gym for a few hours; I often take two-full days to correct students’ essays while checking Facebook and email intermittently; and then I write. I did finish a 130,000 word novel in a year (revised it for another); now it’s the hard part—trying to get agent representation and sell it. I have weighed the pros and cons of self-publishing, but first want to give the agent search a fair shake. Whatever happens, at least I am writing. And I so love writing. I create little stories for my FB page, have started this blog, and have outlined a second novel—but after hearing the keynote address, I feel like I am not producing like I should be.

I am so darn grateful every day that I have a healthy body, a loving husband, a supportive family, and kind friends, but I want to accomplish more. As I listened to Michele Scott speak, I was in awe. I admire people who follow their dreams, persevere through tough times. Michele wrote for more than ten years before she landed an agent and a book deal with Penguin. Throughout it all, she never stopped writing, and now all her books, those traditionally published as well as her e-books, have made her into a successful author. If she can juggle so much, then—I felt—I need to do more.

After the conference, I set my alarm for 6 a.m. and by 7 a.m. I was writing. I didn’t watch The View, cut my morning coffee with my mama, went to the gym at night, and corrected my students’ essays in a one five-hour session while camped out at Einstein’s. Two bagels and three coffee cups later, I was back home catching up on social media.

It was a great week. This week though, I am moving a bit more slowly. The View was interesting this morning; I Skyped with my Greek family; and now—finally—(it’s noon) I am ready to write. I guess I just can’t push as hard as Michele Scott, but I am okay with that. We all have to do what feels right. I have kept my gym schedule at night to maximize my days, will continue to visit Einstein’s once a week rather than labor days over essays, and my visits with mama are shorter, so I have, indeed, made some changes. And, overall, what counts is that I am happy. And writing.