Temblors

The temblors became frequent, just as the seismologists had predicted. The ground shook while people slept. It shook during breakfast. It jolted Angelenos out of their office chairs while they worked. It was a prelude to the Big One, experts warned—any day now, worst earthquake in California history, the fault line would erupt, the earth would swallow them whole. But for now, they dealt with swaying chandeliers, jiggling cherry tomato plants on windowsills, and Lucy Nguyen ducking under her desk when the coffee in her Moomin mug shimmied, no longer waiting for her coworkers to yell “QUAAAAAKE!” before she took action.

You k? her brother, Norm, texted from the other side of the world twelve hours after Los Angeles trembled in the night.

Fine, she wrote back. It was a small one.

Mum wants to FaceTime.

Can’t, Lucy texted. At work right now.

U always have an excuse. When u coming back?

Lucy was overdue for phone call with her mother, and even longer overdue for a trip to Sydney. The last time she’d set foot on Australian soil was four years earlier, when her mother’s dementia diagnosis didn’t yet feel real, when the elder Nguyen was, at worst, a forgetful menopausal woman who didn’t have an indoor voice. Norm had warned Lucy that for every year she was away, her mother’s memory of her would diminish until there was only dust.

Not now, Lucy wrote.

Not now because she was at work, on deadline, and still had five inches of a newspaper column to fill. Not now because the last time she FaceTimed her mother, Mrs. Nguyen’s smooth but sun-spotted face was vacant in a way that made Lucy want to drop everything and run—to where, she had no idea. Not now because what did home have to offer, anyway?

Lucy silenced her phone. She ignored the messages from Norm that lit up her screen, sending her notification count up one, two, three, four, five. When she finally glanced, Norm’s words made her acutely aware of the blood thumping in her ears

Fuck u, Lucy, he’d written. This isn’t fair.

***

The day after a 6.4 magnitude earthquake shook a remote region outside of San Bernardino County, killing no one but damaging three liquor stores, the paper’s editors brought in a seismologist from UCLA to walk reporters through doing their jobs when The Big One hit.

They crowded the main conference room one newspaper section at a time: the Metro reporters went first thing in the morning, followed by the National desk, Foreign, Business, Sports, Arts & Entertainment, and Food. It was standing room only when Lucy squeezed in with her fellow business reporters. A woman who looked like she’d memorized the tax code sat at the head of the conference room’s oval desk. She wore red-rimmed glasses connected to a silver chain.

“Your editors have this wishful idea that you’ll want to keep working when the San Andreas fault goes,” she said without first introducing herself.

The reporters chuckled. Many of them had families, young children, needy dogs. They’d missed birthdays, anniversaries, recitals, and Christmases for their jobs, each of them hardwired to run toward chaos—notepads and tape recorders in hand—while others fled in the opposite direction. Lucy wondered whether they would drop everything for this story when it inevitably broke.

“Best case scenario is you’ll survive and won’t have to tend to any personal emergencies, and still care enough to try to put out a newspaper,” the woman continued, her tone unchanged. “So, I guess I will speak to that scenario, since the worst case is, well—”

The woman’s earthquake primer went as such: The San Andreas is the longest fault line in California. Every second of shaking equates to roughly five miles of the fault line rupturing. If 500 miles of the San Andreas were to go, the ground would shake nonstop for two and a half minutes. Fifty seconds after the earthquake starts, all of western North America—not just California—could go dark because of the interconnected power grid shutting down to protect itself. An estimated 1,600 fires will be started by the earthquake, most from electricity, the rest from gas and chemical accidents. It could take up to a week to restore power to Los Angeles. And structures that are “built to code” are designed only to stop a roof from collapsing and killing you.

“If you crawl out alive, the code has succeeded,” the woman said, ignoring the ashen of reporters who were each calculating the likelihood of returning to work if their homes turned to rubble.

“The internet will survive the earthquake,” she said, adding that every router in the newsroom should have uninterrupted backup power. “It was designed to survive a nuclear holocaust. Actually—” she leaned forward, her face lit up for the first time—“the Church of Latter-day Saints—now there’s a role model!”

“Mormons?” said Stevie, one of the paper’s columnists.

“Yes. They’re always planning for the end of the world, so they take this stuff very seriously.”

Half the room made a “you gotta hand it to them” face.

“So, what’s the first thing you do when it starts to shake?” Lucy said.

“I count.”

“Sorry?”

The woman sighed, rested her forearms on the desk. “The moment it starts to shake, I begin counting. One, two, three, four, five. It tells me the size of the earthquake. You should do the same.”

And then what? Lucy thought, but her tongue suddenly felt too thick to form words.

“And if you need to contact anyone, always text,” the woman said. “Calls take too much bandwidth. Don’t even try to send photos or video. And, not to tell you how to live your lives, but—” the woman sat back in her chair, crossed her legs—“don’t waste bandwidth on ‘I love yous’ and ‘I’m sorrys’. Figure that stuff out before your house buries you.”

***

The last time Lucy visited home, her mother was demented to the point of retelling old stories like they were new. In Lucy’s mind, that was just a thing mothers did, but Norm had insisted it was different now, that there had been a shift in their mother’s awareness of what she was saying, that, unlike Lucy, he’d been keeping track. 

“Do you know how your brother avoided cavities his entire life?” Mrs. Nguyen said in Teochew during Lucy’s last visit. The family was seated at a bustling Cabramatta restaurant—the kind where the menu was entirely in Vietnamese and the wait staff never smiled.

Lucy looked at Norm. Both he and his wife Tammy were on their phones, the circles under their eyes dark like smudged make-up.

“I made him drink water after he ate lollies,” Mrs. Nguyen said, tapping a plastic soup spoon against her teacup. “I told him, you drink water, you swish it around in your mouth, and the sugar doesn’t get a chance to kill your teeth. His whole life! Not a single cavity!”

“There’s still time,” Lucy said.

Norm glared.

“Not for you, there isn’t,” Mrs. Nguyen said. “When are you getting married?”

“I’m single.”

“See what I mean?” Mrs. Nguyen said, giving Lucy a firm slap on the back. “It takes time to lock down a husband. You should have started ten years ago!”

“I was literally in school ten years ago.”

“This is why I can’t die yet—” Mrs. Nguyen shook her head, raising her voice so that neighboring tables could hear—“my children don’t know how to fend for themselves! They need me!”

When their orders of phở arrived, Norm and Tammy sprang into action. Norm tucked a napkin into his mother’s shirt collar and layered several in her lap, ignoring her protests to be left alone. Tammy asked the server for a fork.

“I’m not using a fork!” Mrs. Nguyen said. “Are you out of your mind?”

Tammy’s lips pursed.

Mrs. Nguyen wrapped her hands around a pair of chopsticks, but her fingers appeared cramped, like a child lacking fine motor skills. Lucy had never seen a grown Asian person struggle like that. She wanted to rewind to moments earlier and hit pause, to permanently un-see her mother’s hand gnarled around awkwardly angled chopsticks.

“Mum, you’re going to make a mess,” Norm said. “Just use a fork.”

“Don’t talk to me like that,” Mrs. Nguyen said.

“Then at least try this—” Norm reached into Tammy’s handbag, pulled out a packaged pair of training chopsticks. A Hello Kitty clip held together the tops of the sticks, so they resembled long, skinny tongs.

“What the hell is that?”

“Chopsticks,” Tammy said.

“I’m not an idiot,” Mrs. Nguyen said. “I know what chopsticks look like.”

“Do you want me to feed you?” Norm said.

“I’m not an invalid!”

Norm removed the training chopsticks from their plastic sleeve.

“No one said you were. And they’re just modified chopsticks, mum. Look—” he clicked them together.

Lucy wanted her mother to stand her ground, to refuse the infantile cutlery and to regain command of her skinny fingers. She wanted to see some glimmer of the fiery spirit that made her mother the fiercest person in Lucy’s life—the mother who loved through criticism, who criticized because she cared, who was so hardy and robust that Lucy felt like she could leave for the United States and never look back, because what good was she to her mother, anyway? Right now, she needed her mother to be her mother, to quash this newfound role reversal, because Lucy couldn’t stand to watch.

But, instead of fighting like Lucy had so desperately wanted, Mrs. Nguyen loosened her claw-like grip of the restaurant’s chopsticks. Norm gently lifted them from her hand and wrapped her fingers around the training chopsticks. They ate in silence, Lucy swallowing the lump in her throat.

***

Later that afternoon, when Lucy’s brother had tucked in Mrs. Nguyen for her nap and placed her dentures in a glass of fizzling Polident, they got down to business.

“We’ve decided to put your dad’s life insurance payout into a medical fund for your mum,” Tammy said.

The three of them sat around a wooden dining table that still had its original protective plastic covering. As children, Lucy and Norm had asked their parents to remove it because it made weird squeaking noises, because none of their white friends kept the covering on tables or sofas or remote controls, because it made them feel like nothing the family owned actually belonged to them, like they were guests who could never enjoy the feeling of a rubber button on the TV’s remote, or the plush softness of a corduroy sofa, or the smoothness of a polished dining table. When Mrs. Nguyen told them that it was in the interest of the furniture’s longevity, the two of them had thrown their hands in the air and groaned.

“What’s the point of making anything last long if it sucks the whole time?!” a ten-year old Norm had said.

Lucy now played with the air bubbles that had formed under the plastic covering.

“Did you hear me, Luce?” Tammy said.

“Yeah.”

“It’s not a lot of money, but it will probably pay for at least two years in a nursing home when the time comes, and we can figure out the rest after that.”

“Wait, what?”

“At the current rate, we’re going to need help pretty soon,” Tammy said.

“She seems fine to me,” Lucy said, convincing no one.

“Are you kidding me?” said Norm, his eyes wide and forehead creased. For the first time the entire trip, Lucy noticed how exhausted he and Tammy looked. It wasn’t just the bags under their eyes. They seemed deflated, like gravity had done a number on them. “What you saw today barely scratches the surface. I have to lay out her clothes for her every morning and night, otherwise she gets confused. She forgets to flush, and guess who has to keep unclogging the toilet. Her vision is shot. She pretends she can see, but she can’t coordinate for shit.”

Tammy rested a hand on Norm’s forearm.

“Your brother and I are checking in on her every day,” she said. “Norm even learned to cook the meals she likes because she won’t eat my cooking. We both work full-time. It’s a lot, Luce.”

Lucy had never stepped foot in a nursing home, but had been told repeatedly as a child to never put her mother in one.

“My aunty was put in a nursing home,” Mrs. Nguyen had said to an eight-year old Lucy. “She died a week later.”

“Did they do something to her?” young Lucy asked.

“No, the spirit just knows these things,” Mrs. Nguyen said. “My aunty’s spirit knew she was in a nursing home, dirty and crowded, like a tofu box full of shit, so the spirit made her die. Good for her, you know?”

Lucy didn’t know, but she came to associate nursing homes with near-instant death. Mrs. Nguyen then told young Lucy to kill her before even considering putting her in a nursing home.

“But, won’t I go to jail?”

Mrs. Nguyen considered this for a moment.

“I’ll give you some gold to bribe the police,” she said. “Very easy peasy.”

Back at the dining table with Norm and Tammy, Lucy searched for the words to describe how her insides felt wrung out at the thought of her mother in a nursing home, strapped to a soiled bed, forced to watch English language soap operas from a tiny communal television. It would be a betrayal. She would feel too much guilt.

“But,” Lucy said, her hands clammy, “don’t we owe her?”

“We?” Norm said, raising his voice. “Yeah, Luce. We owe her. But it can’t just be me and Tammy doing all the work. We includes you. Where you been, huh?”

Tammy squeezed Norm’s arm to calm him. He shook his head, pinched the bridge of his nose.

“Look, Lucy,” Tammy said, her words careful, her face showing the gears in her head turning as she searched for diplomatic phrasing. “Ideally, we would all chip in to take care of your mum. But, you’re not here. And if you don’t plan on being here, it’s really not fair to your brother and I—”

“But aren’t there drugs to slow the progress of dementia?” Lucy said. “I read about clinical trials for a new treatment, maybe we can get her on that, and it’ll halt—”

“For fuck’s sake!” Norm dropped his hands to the dining table, his boney wrist knocking against the plastic-covered wood. “How fucking selfish can you be? You’ve already spent five years abroad! You got to do whatever you wanted; you’ve had more freedom than anyone else in this family. It’s about damn time you grew up and took some fucking responsibility.”

“Norm—” Tammy began, rubbing his back.

“No, don’t tell me to calm down. Tell her—” he pointed at Lucy, who suddenly felt pressure behind her eyes—“that she’s living in a god damn fantasy if she thinks she can just fuck off overseas and expect things back home to be fine—”

“It’s not my fault she has dementia!”

“No, it’s not,” Norm said, his breathing heavy, “but please let us know when you’re ready to start acting like a member of this family, because we’re fucking tired of waiting, and we’re tired of being disappointed. This isn’t fucking fair.”

Lucy didn’t dare blink; if she did, she knew she’d cry. Instead, she stared at her hands and held her breath—her body’s natural response to confrontation—and counted down to when he and Tammy would lose interest, get up in a huff, and leave her alone.

***

When a 7.1 earthquake struck Ridgecrest weeks after her session with the UCLA seismologist, injuring no one but spooking the entire newsroom, Lucy and her reporter friends replaced one of their monthly book club meetings with an evening of building earthquake survival kits. Marina supplied the cheap champagne, Francine the chips and guac, Lucy a dozen Yum Yum donuts. They piled their online orders in the middle of Francine’s living room: packets of shelf-stable water, vacuum sealed bricks of high calorie cookies, water filters, first-aid kits, flashlights, hand-cranked radios, 3M particle masks, decks of playing cards.

“So, here’s what I don’t get,” said Francine, a thirty-something copy editor who squinted as she read the ingredients on the bricks of food. “Say an earthquake hits, and things are so bad that I actually have to start eating this stuff—” she dropped the food back into the pile, put her hands on her hips—“am I meant to just stay in my house with my emergency supplies and wait for orders to come through the radio? Or am I meant to lug this fifty-pound bag around L.A.? And if I’m meant to lug it around L.A., where do I even go?”

Lucy had never planned that far ahead. Ordering the earthquake kit online had felt enough like an accomplishment. To think about it anymore would be an admission that things could get worse, that she might have to truly fend for herself, that she would have to reconsider her priorities and what mattered to her.

“Well, I think, for people like us, we’re meant to grab that bag and get to work,” said Marina, the only Metro reporter among them, who kept an overnight bag under her desk in case she had to be dispatched at a moment’s notice to a fire or a flood, whose beat occasionally required her to wear a Kevlar vest, who now locked eyes with Francine, an alpha challenging everyone around her. Francine’s eyebrows formed tildes.

“Right,” she said.

Lucy picked up a switchblade, surprised herself when the knife sprang open at the push of a sticky button, tried to figure out how to close it without cutting herself. She silently commiserated with Francine—what the hell was she meant to do when the Big One hit? Did not having a fast answer like Marina mean there was something wrong with her? That, maybe, she lacked the instincts needed to be a good journalist? Sometimes, she didn’t know whether she was in the job because she genuinely liked the work—like Marina did—or because she had too much pride to walk away. Growing up, Lucy had told everyone who would listen that her dream was to be a journalist. She liked the idea of her name on an article, of telling stories for a living. She fantasized about covering Canberra and, later, the White House. She’d imagined being a foreign correspondent in China, Mexico, Indonesia, accepting a Pulitzer. In her ten years as a reporter, she intentionally took on beats she didn’t want with the hope that she would toughen up, develop Marina-like instincts, become, essentially, a different person. But the more she cycled through rough beats, the more she questioned whether she was cut out for it. When her mother had asked years earlier her why she had to move to America when she could get a perfectly fine job in Australia, Lucy had belligerently defended the move as being part of a career plan, part of a dream. Leaving her family behind was a sacrifice worth making. But, now, whenever the ground shook, a growth of doubt crowded her chest.

“Hey, Mar,” Lucy said, handing the switchblade to Francine to see if she could close it.

“Yeah?”

“Do you ever get scared doing Metro stuff?”

Marina stopped fiddling with her N95 masks, which looked industrial compared to the flimsy surgical masks Lucy had gotten at a discount.

“Why would I get scared?”

“Because you run into fires and drive into active shooter zones,” Francine said, switchblade in one hand, the other hand reaching for a champagne flute. “I mean, more power to you, but there’s a good reason I stay on the editing side of things.” She raised her glass to no one in particular.

“I rely on adrenaline,” Marina said, returning to her kit. “Plus, our work matters.”

“And you never have doubts?” Lucy said.

“About what?”

“About, I dunno, whether you should be doing something else?”

Marina studied Lucy.

“Do you have doubts?” she said.

“Well,” Lucy said, her hands now fiddling with a hand cranked radio, “sometimes I wonder what my career would look like in Australia, if I could do all this but be closer to family, or maybe if I decided to do something else entirely—”

“Lucy—” Marina put down her N95 masks—“we work at one of the biggest newspapers in the world. Some people try their whole lives to get here and never manage. It doesn’t get better than this.”

“No, of course not,” Lucy said, her body stiffening, her cheeks warm with the embarrassment of revealing too much.

Francine handed drinks to both of them.

“Here’s to nothing getting better than this!” she said, raising her glass again with a wink.

Lucy pressed the mouth of the champagne flute to her lips, the glass fogging from her breath.

***

On Lucy’s last trip home, her mother had repeated a handful of stories like they were brand new and revelatory. There was the one about Norm’s non-existent cavities. There was another about the time she fled Vietnam in a crowded fisherman’s boat, how motion sick she’d been, how people on board had become so delirious they’d starting drinking vomit like it was water, how pirates had ambushed them for their gold and jewelry and, while they didn’t kidnap or rape anyone, they did use the butts of their rifles to smack people in the face so hard that teeth went flying. Lucy had heard that one before. Only one story was new to her—until it was told so many times it became old. It was about the time her mother volunteered to accompany Lucy’s year two class on a field trip to Featherdale Wildlife Park.

“Your friend was so stupid,” Mrs. Nguyen said in Teochew. “She crawled into the kangaroo’s house! If I wasn’t there, it would have kicked her to death!”

Although her mother was prone to exaggeration, this story checked out. Lucy recalled that her classmate, Jillian Woo, had crawled under the fence into the kangaroo enclosure because she wanted to hug the ‘roo. Wasting no time, Mrs. Nguyen got on her hands and knees, reached under the fence, and grabbed Jillian Woo by the ankle, dragging her back out. The girl emerged in tears, mouth filled with dirt.

“Gió Ơi,” Mrs. Nguyen said on her fourth recounting of the same story. “Your friend was so, so stupid!”

But Mrs. Nguyen had left things out of her version of events, and as Lucy ironed her mother’s clothes while Norm and Tammy were out running errands, her own memory filled in the gaps: The way the teachers on the field trip had reprimanded her mother for being so rough with a student, even though an agitated adult kangaroo could have easily killed an eight-year old, and even though she was the only person to have leapt into action. The way those same teachers had spoken to her mother slowly, and loudly, like she couldn’t understand them, like she was an idiot, even though she could understand them perfectly. The way her mother had held a plastic grocery bag under her chin the entire bus ride to and from the wildlife park because of motion sickness, because her stomach—like so many other parts of her—hadn’t been the same since her escape from Vietnam. The way none of the popular girls wanted to be in Lucy’s field trip group because they thought her mother was weird, because Mrs. Nguyen spoke English with a sing-songy accent, because she smelled like Tiger Balm, because she brought a packet of preserved squid snacks for the bus ride—knowing that they were Lucy’s favorite—without realizing, or perhaps without caring, that to a white person’s nose, they were pungent and foul. The way Lucy had stomped her feet and cried when they got home, accusing her mother of being deliberately embarrassing, of ruining the whole trip and her whole life, for that matter. The way she’d said through sobs that her mother was the worst mother ever, and why couldn’t she just be normal like everyone else, and why did she bother coming to Australia if she wasn’t going to act like an Australian, and why not just stay in Vietnam if she so clearly preferred acting like a Vietnamese? The way her mother’s face didn’t respond in anger. The way her mother swallowed hard, once, twice, three times, like she was suppressing a hurt in her chest that was traveling up her throat. The way she’d silently gone to her room, closed the door, and refused to look at Lucy for the rest of the week.

Lucy cringed at the memories, at the shame they unearthed. While still ironing a pair of slacks, she apologized to her mother for what she’d said all those years ago, with the hope that the apology could stand in for everything else for which she was sorry.

“What are you talking about?” Mrs. Nguyen said, popping pre-peeled boiled peanuts into her mouth.

“I said, I’m sorry for being a brat on that trip, and for all the bad things I said afterwards. Remember? When I yelled at you and told you—”

“What?”

“I said, when we were on the bus, and I told you—”

“What are you going on about? I’m talking about your stupid friend. The girl who went under the kangaroo fence. I still can’t believe it! So, so stupid!”

***

What was unfair, Lucy wanted to tell Norm, was that the universe didn’t put a cap on an individual’s suffering. Like, why did so many people—the rich, the blonde, the blessed—get to live peaceful, easy lives while others ended up as refugees with their teeth knocked out, then had their memories eaten away before they were even done forming them?

What was unfair, Lucy wanted to say, was having to choose between caring about her mum and caring about her career. Because so what if she could have a career from anywhere? And so what if she had doubts about whether this career was even the right one for her? And so what if it was selfish to cling to a dream that increasingly looked like it belong to someone else? Why couldn’t she just see where her own desires and mistakes would take her? Why did she have to make sacrifices and compromises now, or, really, ever? Didn’t her parents already make a bunch of sacrifices so she wouldn’t have to? Wasn’t their very existence in their current shape and form enough of a compromise?

What was unfair—what was really, truly unfair—Lucy wanted to say to Norm, was that the people you love take a piece of you, and they never give it back. Lucy couldn’t bring herself to say how much she resented them for it. The guilt she felt when they were alive. The guilt she’d feel when they were gone.

***

On the hottest day on Los Angeles record, Lucy typed the lead of a story about a company reinventing the business model for memory foam mattresses.

“Basically,” she wrote, “you can buy it online. That’s the ‘new’ business model.”

She grimaced at her own writing, deleted the line, massaged the bridge of her nose as she thought of something better.

Her phone vibrated, a text from her brother: Mum wants to FaceTime.

She held her phone, her thumb massaging its side like she was petting it, like the people on the other end would feel her through wireless signals. The Qantas website sat in a browser on her computer, hidden by writing and editing; it advertised a flight sale—Los Angeles to Sydney, nonstop, starting next month. Lucy had decided that once she was off deadline, she’d buy a ticket. She’d fly back, spend two weeks in Australia, use that time to decide next steps. What she liked about it was that it was action that excused inaction. She was doing something—visiting her mother, checking in with Norm and Tammy, trying on the glove of Australia to see how it fit—but there was no finality, no promises being made. Maybe, on arrival, something about her mother’s face would make Lucy’s decision for her. Maybe she would end up staying, moving back for good. Or, maybe, seeing that her mother was no longer there, she would interpret it as permission to walk away. Sitting at her desk, her lips naturally pulling upwards into the subtlest of smiles, Lucy felt like she was actually open to things going either way. The answer, she’d convinced herself, was at home.

She continued cradling her phone in one hand when a jolt startled her, the coffee in her mug swooshing into the air and onto her keyboard. Instinctively, Lucy ducked under her desk, one hand clutching the table leg, the other around her phone as it, too, vibrated, the caller ID showing a photo of her mother—the proud, smiling face of a much younger Mrs. Nguyen, arms wrapped around a toddler-sized Lucy, posing for the camera cheek-to-cheek. The lights overhead flickered, her desk lamp crashed to the carpeted floor. The light from her phone’s screen continued flashing, buzzing. She heard screams from the other side of the office, the lights going out, filing cabinets colliding, the moving floor dizzying, Lucy, gripping, with both hands, holding on, holding her breath, counting the phone vibrations, counting, just counting, one, two, three, four, five.


First published in The South Carolina Review, April 2021.