After The Earthquake

One day I stood with my father outside my old elementary school waiting for the bus to my new elementary school, and the ground beneath our feet went wild. The flagpole sproinged wildly, side to side. A minute, maybe two, maybe only seconds, and then it was over. No one came out of their houses. In that moment between my father and me on the empty early morning street, it seemed the earthquake had never happened at all. The bus came. I looked at my father. He gave me a cheerful nod. At school, they wouldn’t let us into the building. I sat on the asphalt in the dull gray Los Angeles sunshine until my mother came to pick me up.

I can’t remember if my father had already moved out the morning of the earthquake. It was right around then, in any case. If he had not, we had walked to the school from the house I grew up in: down one hill, until Talmadge Street, then up another, less steep, to the school. If he had, we walked only up the hill from Talmadge, where his new apartment was.

It was my mother’s decision to change my elementary school to one farther away, in Eagle Rock. My father made fun of this decision and disapproved of it, but didn’t override it. This was how things happened between them.

My mother minded the divorce so much. I was relieved about it at first. They had been fighting for months and months, shutting doors against me and shouting at each other behind them. Worse, before that for a long time they had not seemed to like each other. Or, rather, my father had not liked my mother, had not wanted to be there at all. And watching her love him through this scraped at my heart.

I thought that the divorce would mean the end of all that. My parents, when they told me, carefully reassured me that the divorce was not my fault. I had never thought that it was.

Before my parents divorced, I spent a lot of time with my father. My mother, a professor, had gotten tenure by the skin of her teeth, and still had not finished her book. My father, also a professor, had written two. So in the summers I would go with him to France, to his mother’s. We drove cross-country and slept in sketchy motels. Then we would come back home, where my mother was working on her book. We worried endlessly, all three of us, about my mother’s book. But while my mother worried she wrote articles and taught and kept the house clean. While my father and I worried, we went to Triple A baseball games and amateur productions of the Pirates of Penzance.

I was a girl and my mother was a woman, but my father and I were the same genre of thing. She was different.

A year after the divorce, my father would be much farther away, living across the country with another woman, and I would see him only on holidays and for a month in the summer. During those years, I would believe I was angry at my father for a variety of reasons. What I was really angry about was being stranded with my mother.

Eagle Rock was a sleepy small town plunked down at the outskirts of Los Angeles, about twenty minutes north of the neighborhood I grew up in. Every day the school bus wound its way north, past scrubby golden hillsides and the bowling alley and the bottled water plant with its green painted delivery trucks, the name of the company in watery sequins, and I sat there, staring out the window.

Now my friends who are lawyers live in Eagle Rock with their young children. My friends paint rooms in their house bright pink and plant drought-resistant plants in their yards.

My fifth and sixth grade teacher at Eagle Rock was Ms. Glassford. Ms. Glassford had a glossy brown bob with bangs marching straight across her forehead and rich brown eyes to match. She was perhaps ten years older than my mother. She would not respond if you called her Mrs. Glassford or Miss Glassford, she told us on our first day of fifth grade, because Ms. was the title she had chosen.

Ms. Glassford had a wardrobe of muumuus in bright colors, but to call them muumuus gives the wrong impression, because there was nothing slack or sloppy in them. The bright fabric, and on any given day it would be yellow or pink or blue in the brightest and deepest variety of that color, went down to mid-calf without any interruption in the way of waist, and terminated in a ruffle. She had a Gucci watch with a variety of colored bezels, and every day the color around the watch face matched the color of the muumuu as well as the color of her handbag and shoes.

At that time I had no friends. One day I was playing with Christy, one of the girls in my class, at my house. I don’t remember how it came about that she was there, but we were having a good time. My house had a backyard in three levels running up the hillside. Each level was divided from the next by a steep drop of ivy and linked to the other by stairs, but also I had trampled a secret path through the lantana to get from the second level to the third, and you could swing down a rusting laundry pole to get from the second level to the first. It was an excellent place to play. The second level had a tiny apple tree in it that never bore fruit except once in my life (when it did we made applesauce) and also an orange tree that had merged with a lemon tree and grew bulbous sour fruit. The third level had a concrete wall on it wide and low enough to climb and look into the neighbor’s yard. I asked Christy why nobody liked me. She looked thoughtful.

“I don’t know,” she said. She was blonde and brown-eyed and smart. I had gone to the same school as her for two years and would continue to go to school with her for another four, and during that time everyone always liked her. “I’m having fun.”

At the end of sixth grade we had to turn in a final project. There were strict rules about it. It had to be bound in a cover, and it had to feature art as well as writing. The paper would be graded both on content and presentation. We were given a list of subjects on which we could write, all connected to archaeology. I picked Herculaneum and Pompeii to write about. I lay in bed and read book after book about those doomed cities. I was a little bored by them.

I did not write a single word.

When the divorce was final, my mother’s best friend invited us over for dinner. She had made a chocolate cake with chocolate icing and it said, “Happy Divorce!” My mother burst into tears.

Christy and I did not become friends after the day she spent at my house. I started to think of it as a moment out of time. But towards the end of sixth grade she came up to me on the playground with one of her friends and delivered to me a painstaking summary of why every single girl in our class didn’t like me. She delivered it in a spirit of true helpfulness. Everything she said made sense. I could not blame these girls for not liking me. I had stolen Elizabeth’s idea for a presentation. Grace had a habit of writing “How rad” on her hand; an anagram for her boyfriend, Howard, and I had written that phrase on my egg in one of our classroom egg-decorating contests because Grace was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen and I wished I was her. Also my panty line showed when I was wearing leggings.

I had imagined myself friendless because I was invisible. I was wrong.

Two days before my final project was due, I had not written anything. My mother was annoyed, also concerned. The day before it was due, she said, “You’re not going to school today.” And we drove all the way across Los Angeles to Malibu, to the Getty Villa.

There are now two Getty Museums in Los Angeles, but at the time there was only one. It is a fake Roman villa perched on a Malibu hill from which you can see the sun set on the Pacific Ocean. It has olive trees and cypress trees and tiled floors that copy Roman murals and other murals along the walls. It has two pools, ankle deep, that sparkle in the sunlight.

As we walked in everything I had read and absorbed came to life inside of me; I hadn’t known so much was in there. We went back to the house, and for hours I dictated to my mother my thoughts on Herculaneum and Pompeii. Sometimes she asked me questions. She asked me questions and I answered them, and they led me to think of other things that I knew, other things that I had learned. Also I drew, as best I could, renditions of the various styles of murals. I was not artistic, I was not even coordinated, but I tried, very hard, to recreate the look of these eras in ancient Greek art.

“You did a good job,” my mother told me.

At the very end of sixth grade we had a graduation ceremony. After graduation, Christy came up and asked if I wanted to go with her and some of the other girls in the class to Foster’s Freeze, to get ice cream. My mother was standing by my side. No, I said, I didn’t.

My mother said, “Oh, you should go.”

I told her I didn’t want to. In the car on the way home, she was angry with me, or baffled. She said that I was always complaining about not having friends, but that you made friends by saying yes to things, even things you would rather say no to. I told her about the list of reasons why people didn’t like me. The invitation to Foster’s Freeze was a bridge, but it was one I couldn’t walk over.

My mother listened in silence. “What a bitch,” she said. She was not talking about me. We went and got ice cream at the diner by my house instead, just the two of us.

Towards the end of the year, Ms. Glassford returned our projects to us. Before she did, she stood up in front of the class and made an announcement. She said that for the first time ever, she had given someone an A+ on both parts of the presentation. This had never happened before.

Every single elementary school award, for as long as I can remember, I had hoped would go to me. Even awards I was disqualified from, like perfect attendance, I would pray for my name to be called. Now I hoped desperately that it was my project she was talking about. This would truly be something that I could hold onto for the rest of my life, something to plant my feet on.

She was talking about my project. Later I had to learn that the prestige associated with a sixth grade project will not carry you through the rest of your life. But, truth, it is still something I think about at times, something I take out and roll through my mind like a jewel, letting it catch the light.

I wish I could tell you that once my father left things between my mother and me changed, that I learned to treasure how she fought for me and my father, that I prized the gifts she gave so freely of her love. I wish I could tell you that I saw the wounds she sustained in fighting for us as scars of honor. But I knew those things about her already. I never doubted for a second that my mother would lie down in traffic for me. That love and pain would be my inheritance terrified me, sent me running the other way.

When I moved back to Los Angeles at the age of 27 I looked Ms. Glassford up on the internet. She had died, the internet told me, near Palm Springs, with her partner of many years. I imagine her in the flat desert brightness, by a swimming pool, the sun shining on her face. I wished I could tell her what I owed her.

When my father left, a bridge got built over time between my mother and me. But it was not a bridge built of virtue and strength and love. It was a bridge built of being two people together in a house, of eating dinner with books propped in front of us. It was a bridge built of moving together into the future, whether we wanted to or not.

In seventh grade I received an academic honor, in common with several hundred other seventh graders. We were allowed to invite a teacher to the ceremony that followed. I invited Ms. Glassford.

She came and she brought her partner. He was shorter than her, very tan, and you could see the chest hair where he had left his shirt unbuttoned. Ms. Glassford and her partner took us out to dinner afterwards. There was a restaurant she knew by us, she said, called Sarno’s. The decor was pink and white, like being inside a wedding cake. It featured singing waiters. I thought it was a little tacky; I could tell from looking at my mother that she felt the same way.

But everybody knew Ms. Glassford and her partner. They brought us free desserts and dragged the partner up to sing. He stood, a small man in a shirt unbuttoned more than I thought was tasteful, and he opened his mouth. What came out was rich beyond belief. “He’s an Israeli opera singer,” Ms. Glassford explained, and then she tilted her head back and watched him, laughing in delight. My mother and I sat there, blown away by the beauty of the moment, a beauty that we hadn’t planned on, that was going to be given to us anyway.

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