In 1912 thousands of tons of sand were dredged up from the ocean floor and deposited at the northern edge of the city overlooking Alcatraz Island. A seawall had been constructed to enclose a boat harbor and the area came to be known as the Marina district. Little did the engineers know when they converted acres of marshland into what would become one of the most affluent neighborhoods of San Francisco, that the sand it sat upon would liquify in the next big earthquake. Now, as the ground beneath them seemed to melt, grand mansions slipped off their foundations knocking one another over like a house of cards. Gas lines burst and fires erupted throughout the Marina harkening back to the devastation of the great 1906 quake.
“Son of a bitch, that was big.” Eric exhaled from underneath his desk. He could see Aaron, arms and legs straddling the doorway in an X pose, his face a pasty expression of fear. Once on his feet, Eric surveyed the chaos the earthquake had caused. The filing cabinet had toppled and spilled its contents like a snowdrift across the office floor and the ersatz reproductions of Monet’s water lillies hung askew on the wall. Aaron hadn’t moved a fraction of an inch from his Vitruvian man position in the doorway, seemingly in a state of shock. Eric became alarmed, knowing his co-worker’s extremely fragile disposition.
“You ok, Aaron?” he asked quietly, placing his hand gently on Aaron’s shoulder. Aaron shifted his blank stare to Eric and nodded his head slightly.
“Let’s get out of here,” Eric urged, helping Aaron unglue himself from his pose. Their office, located in a two-story building, stood on what was know as the Golden Box, the only area of the Marina built on bedrock. While they had felt the full force of the quake, their building had withstood it well, rolling like a boat on angry waves. It wasn’t until they walked into the street that they learned of damage a few blocks away. Men and women were running in the direction of the bay and multiple sirens were approaching from a distance.
“What’s going on?” Eric yelled as one of the runners passed.
“Beach Street’s on fire! They need help!” the woman shouted over her shoulder.
“Come on. Let’s go,” Eric solicited Aaron.
“No. I’m going home,” Aaron replied in a dull tone. Depression had replaced shock and all he wanted to do was go home and go to sleep.
“But they need help,” Eric said with dismay.
“I’m going home.” Aaron walked toward the office to retrieve his jacket and keys.
“Well, don’t lock me out! I only just now realized what a selfish prick you are, Aaron,” Eric spewed, then took off running with the others.
Aaron gathered the scattered papers from the floor, piling them neatly on his desk then straightened the pictures on the walls. He righted the filing cabinet, his chair and desk lamp, took his jacket from the back of his chair, put it on, then calmly walked down Chestnut Street to his car. He settled in behind the wheel, slipped on his seatbelt and before he could put the key into the ignition, he came completely unraveled, slumping his head onto the steering wheel.
While everyone else’s natural instinct was to run in aid, his was to run away like he always did. His problems had begun as extreme shyness in childhood and developed into full-blown fear of intimacy in adulthood. Aaron couldn’t feel compassion for anyone, not even his own family. He was constantly plagued with guilt, acknowledging his deficiency. His relationship with Barbara was the only time he had felt almost normal. She made no demands of him and he could quiet his fears with her. She loved him and, out of the closest thing to affection he could feel, he let her go rather than ruin her life in a loveless marriage. In a backhanded way, breaking Barbara’s heart was the only unselfish thing he had ever done. Eric was right. He was a prick and he had the black hole of a life to show for it. He was too weak to do the hard work of changing. It was much easier to admit to himself that he was a lost cause.
When he’d pulled himself together he drove home, carefully navigating the intersections where the earthquake had knocked out the stoplights. At his apartment, he got into bed fully clothed and pulled the covers over his head. Meanwhile Eric was one of eight volunteers at Beach and Divisidero wielding a fire hose at a Victorian that had slipped off its foundatipn. Two doors down, a four-story apartment building had crumpled during the liquefaction and people were cautiously climbing the exterior fire escape to check for others possibly trapped inside. Neighbors from all over the district were consoling one another in the streets and asking for information about missing friends.
Back in the office Eric’s cell phone was ringing.