At 4:15 a.m. all of my jeans and jackets and T-shirts and the suit I wore for the mock trial competition were folded on shelves or hanging on their IKEA hangers. By 4:20 a.m., the shelves were empty and the hangers, at least most of them, bare.
At 4:15 a.m., January 17, 1994, I was asleep in my bed. At 4:20 a.m., I was awake, terrified and confused about how I had ended up feet from my bed on the floor of my closet.
A bookshelf was one of the few pieces of furniture I brought with me to California. I had just bought all of my textbooks for my last semester of law school. Heavy volumes about professional ethics and copyright were squeezed in between earlier treatises on torts, contracts and civil procedure. The earthquake mangled the bookshelf. The books were scattered across my bed.
Getting outside from my bedroom was not easy. I had to climb over the water heater. It had ripped from the wall in the utility closet and was, presumably, leaking gas. The emergency lights in the stairwell were bright enough to illuminate the two-foot gap between the concrete stairs and the wall. I jumped without thinking. I don’t remember other people on the stairs, but there must have been. I do remember the people outside. It seemed like everyone made it outside before me.
I found out that wasn’t the truth when I watched a person jump from a four-story window next door. The building next door was a mess. People were screaming and crying and calling for help. Later that day, I was told that two floors of that building had collapsed on each other, crushing people sleeping in their beds. Even later I learned that 16 of the 57 people who died as a result of the quake had lived next door to me.
Our parking lot, by contrast, was quiet. Neighbors, strangers before and surely strangers after, huddled in small groups in the middle of the street. I joined a group of my own, stepping over a fallen streetlight. Sparks danced in the half-light from the exposed wires. The whole thing hummed. Everything vibrated, even between the aftershocks.
“Don’t look over there. There’s a dead dog,” someone said.
“There’s a cat over there.”
“And another dog.”
There was no way to avoid looking. Dead animals were everywhere, at least that’s how I remember it. The strange thing about them was how undisturbed they looked. There weren’t any signs of trauma. Just dead cats and dogs seemingly asleep.
At the end of the block, a crack had opened in the street and flames from a broken gas line shot into the air. There were fires in every direction. Forty-foot flames burned untended, singeing the air with a chemical smell. Time passed slowly. The glow of the fires softly faded into the pink of the breaking dawn. It was January, and that type of cold that Californians complain of before the coastal layer burns off. I was relieved my Kings sweatshirt had ended up on top of the pile of clothes in the closet.
With each tremor, we moved farther and farther from the apartment buildings and closer to the green space across the street. An occasional scream pierced the muffled silence. It felt like we were on the set of a disaster movie. Except our movie was missing its action hero. The only alarms were the car alarms that sounded with each consecutive shock, wailing and honking out of time and tune with each other. No first responders. No responders at all. We were alone together.
Word came that a pay phone a few blocks away was working. I waited in a line of 50 people to leave a message on my parents’ answering machine. I knew they were on an airplane somewhere between Philadelphia and Miami. “Hey, it’s me. I’m OK,” was all I could get out before breaking down.
I drove away sometime that morning with only the clothes on my back. Luckily, I hadn’t parked in one of the spots underneath the building that were now littered with chunks of concrete and covered in dust and debris. I was able to escape when someone figured out how to pry open the electric gate.
I had lived in Malibu, in a dorm apartment, my first year in California. The graduate school dorms sat just below the posh faculty condos at the top of the hill. It was a familiar, insular academic setting. It was transient and impermanent. People from all over the country were marking time, just taking up space until it was time to go back to Oklahoma or Washington or Tennessee.
Moving out of those dorms made California feel more like home, but there was no way I could afford to stay in Malibu. So I went east, away from the water, first to Thousand Oaks, then to the apartment in Northridge. Few I went to school with lived in the San Fernando Valley. I loved the Valley. I was coming of age in the land of “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” and “The Karate Kid.”
A friend of one of my friends from home had been looking for a roommate to share her two-bedroom, two-bath in Northridge. The building was a mix of working families and students who went to Cal State Northridge. People were always coming and going here, too, but in a way that felt like progress. The whole block was apartment buildings. It was really an apartment community, like bad copy from one of those Apartment Hunter magazines by the door at Denny’s.
Heidi didn’t know any of my classmates and none of them knew her. She worked for a German equivalent of Star Magazine, so she was always interviewing celebrities. I went with her to drop something off at David Hasselhoff’s house. Hasselhoff was a big “get” for her. She had a picture hanging in the apartment of Hasselhoff’s concert at the Brandenburg Gate after the fall of the Berlin Wall. I never saw any of these celebrities (except when “The Hoff” answered his front door), but, even so, I was having my own excellent adventure, just like Bill and Ted.
Does anyone ever remember how relationships with roommates change, seemingly overnight, making a sharp turn from buddy comedy to horror show? Unlike that morning in January, I can’t pinpoint the moment when the break happened with Heidi. By October, we were no longer friends. By November, we weren’t even friendly. The Valley was suddenly hot and far away from everything that mattered: my friends and school and the ocean. Reseda Boulevard and the 101 Freeway became a daily gauntlet of traffic and suburban misery. I lived two lives, halved by the sharp turns of Malibu Canyon Road. I spent many nights on my friend’s floor in Malibu.
“Did you put crumbs on the kitchen counter?” Heidi yelled at me one day before I had the chance to shut the door behind me. She meant “leave” not “put” but English wasn’t her first language. She didn’t appreciate my grammar lesson.
“You drink too much Diet Coke. I don’t like it in the refrigerator.”
“You must pay rent two months in advance in case you can’t be trusted to pay.”
When I was at home, I stayed in my room with the door shut. I left Mo, my cat, at home with my parents at Christmas break. Heidi hadn’t liked Mo from the beginning. Those last two weeks in Northridge, I was sad, scared and lonely, and I missed having Mo sleeping at the foot of my bed each night. Her full name was Movado because she was a watch cat.
Earthquakes are caused by a sudden movement of rock in the earth’s crust. The FEMA website explains: “When one block suddenly slips and moves relative to the other along a fault, the energy released creates vibrations called seismic waves that radiate up through the crust to the earth’s surface, causing the ground to shake.” The 1994 Northridge earthquake was a blind-thrust quake, which means that the faults were invisible on the surface. It produced the highest-ever, instrumentally recorded ground acceleration in an urban area in North America. It had the fastest peak ground velocity ever recorded. Those 20 seconds caused an estimated $25 billion in damage and left roughly 25,000 people homeless. It holds a spot on the list of the most costly natural disasters in U.S. history.
The damage was very localized. Northridge and Reseda, later learned to be the actual epicenter, each took bad hits. Santa Monica saw the worst of it among the coastal communities. Malibu was virtually untouched. My classes weren’t even cancelled.
I was homeless and what remained of my things had been looted in those hazy days after the quake. The building had been condemned but that didn’t stop thieves from crawling through the wreckage of other people’s lives. Months later, I filed a police report because one of the looters had used the mail from my desk to open a Discover card account and go on a spending and gambling spree in Vegas.
My only clear memory of Heidi during those initial post-quake days is when I emerged from my bedroom. The first of thousands of aftershocks hit while I was climbing over the broken water heater. I slipped and cut myself on some sharp edge. She was naked and screaming in her doorway, clutching the doorframe like they tell you to do in the safety brochures.
I don’t remember how Heidi got out of the apartment or how we made it to the house of one her co-workers from the magazine. He and his wife lived with their two children in a cozy, wooden, one-story bungalow.
“Don’t worry,” he told me as we rode out yet another aftershock during that endless first night. “These wooden houses have give. They move with it, not against it. Bend without breaking.” We were all in sleeping bags in the family room. They never lost power and no one ever turned off the television. The two kids weren’t scared. They were enjoying the excitement and the novelty of it. The little girl would hold my hand during aftershocks to comfort me. She was curious about my fear, but didn’t feel any herself.
I left the next day. I never saw or spoke to Heidi, or her kind friends, again. I got a letter from her a couple of months later, addressed to me in care of the university, with a check from the apartment management company for half of the security deposit. I never got back any of the rent I paid for February or March.
I never returned to the Valley.
I missed school for a week, after fleeing California for Dallas. It was the first flight I could get on Southwest out of Burbank to a place where I knew somebody, a former classmate who hadn’t returned after our first year in Malibu. I chose a window seat. The moment we took off, I relaxed. I could breathe. The ground beneath me, the California that I had loved from afar for so long, had betrayed me. I had taken my safety for granted and I had been wrong. From the air I could see the collapsed portion of the 10 Freeway, but the destruction all quickly disappeared as we crossed over the San Bernardino Mountains and into the desert.
My parents were waiting for me back in Malibu. My mom and I went to Thousand Oaks and she bought me new clothes. My dad sat with me in the housing office of the university, flipping through a binder of rooms for rent. We drove up and down the Pacific Coast Highway in a rented Lincoln Continental. My dad took me to buy me my first cell phone.
“In case of emergency,” he said.
My parents didn’t leave until I spent my first night on Point Dume.
“I don’t have any books,” I said at lunch my first day back.
My friends tried their best to commiserate.
“It was the weirdest thing. It woke me up when my cologne fell off my dresser and broke,” one classmate said to me. “My carpet smells like shit. I think I’m going to have to rent one of those steam cleaner things from Hughes.”
“I slept right through it, but it seemed pretty bad on the news.”
“That guy from our ethics class lives in Santa Monica. I think a streetlight broke his windshield.”
“You should totally go down to the Red Cross. They can give you clothes. That’s why they’re there. For people, you know, like you,” someone else said.
Larry, from across the street, mows his own lawn. He always waves when I see him. His wife, Elizabeth, the one with the violet eyes, is mostly confined to a wheelchair. She is rarely outside. Mr. Carson, who lives on the corner, retired a few years ago and comes and goes hidden by the tinted windows of his chauffeured cars. In the mornings, I walk along the cliffs overlooking Zuma Beach.
I moved into a spare room in February. The green ranch house dotted with birds of paradise was almost hidden at the end of a surprise dead end next to the locked, white wooden gate. Lois, my landlady — in her 80s — had owned this property for decades. With the property comes a key to the wooden gate that leads to the world-famous Point Dume surf break. A surfer said to me once, “The waves belong to no man,” but access to certain choice breaks along the Malibu coast? That’s a different story. My friend, a self-proclaimed soul surfer, went crazy “locals only” when he rented a condo up the road from Point Dume at the County Line break. County Line earns its name being the border between Los Angeles and Ventura counties. It is a quiet spot on the Pacific Coast Highway name-checked by the Beach Boys in “Surfin’ USA” and home to the legendary dive, Neptune’s Net. Even if you haven’t eaten a shrimp basket at Neptune’s Net, you’ve seen it in the movies. Remember when Johnny Utah wants to learn to surf in “Point Break”? The place where Tyler works? Neptune’s Net.
A point break is a surf break where the waves are created by the change in depth caused by a point of land jutting out from the coastline. When an ocean wave starts to feel the bottom — when the distance decreases to half of the wave’s wavelength — the molecules in the water are tossed into motion by the energy running into the seafloor. The water is pushed upward as the depth decreases. The energy and speed of the wave increase pushing more and more water higher and higher. The wave tilts more and more forward finally tumbling forward and breaking.
I see my apartment building on the news one afternoon. I am at my friend’s condo at County Line. He closes the blinds to cut the glare on the TV screen — something he rarely does because he is always watching the sets rolling in. Usually, the reporters do their “stand-ups” in front of Northridge Meadows or in front of the parking garage at CSUN that folded in on itself. But this time, she is in front of my building. The story is about how many low-income families had been displaced and are now homeless and living on welfare.
I open the blinds.
“Let’s go for a walk,” I say.
If I am home from class on time, Lois and I watch “I’ll Fly Away” together. I stretch out on the green shag carpet of her den the same way I used to watch Sesame Street with my mom. PBS and Point Dume are safe, commercial-free places for me, away from the reminders of what happened in Northridge. I remind myself that I didn’t actually lose everything, even if most days it felt that way.
We don’t feel many aftershocks in Malibu. There is little visible damage. On Point Dume, the well-tended gardens like Lois’ and Larry’s are in full bloom. Lois has a big guesthouse in the far corner of her property. A screenwriter who won an Oscar lives there. He’s an asshole who keeps his Oscar in the window for everyone to see. I pass it every time I head for the gate to the beach.
I watch my friends paddle out to the break. I know my life is broken in two. I live in a reality of before and after. A giant fissure bisects everything. I moved to California planning to stay forever, but that was all an illusion, a promise as false as a Hollywood backlot. Living with Lois, in a small room in an ordinary house in a neighborhood with big neighbors with their extraordinary lives, is just a rest stop before my afterlife begins. I have a little time to catch my breath.
I hide in my room here, too, but not for the same reasons.
Soul surfers surf for the joy of the connection and spirit of the ocean and the waves, practicing their craft like other people do with yoga or meditation. They thrive off the energy of the break. It is a kinetic connection of body and soul with the wildness of the environment around them.
Even though, before, I used to put on a borrowed wetsuit and paddle out from Broad Beach, I was never any kind of surfer. Turns out I was never even really a Californian, hardly anything more than tourist.
I don’t go out in the water at Point Dume. It is a hidden, nearly impossible-to-reach cove. The rocks that make the break so special are dangerous and deadly. Surfers can crack open their skulls or drown. Great swimmers drown surfing, the force of the wave holding them under, collapsing on them like the roof above the sleeping tenants of Northridge Meadows.
I like walking around the neighborhood. It’s a surreal mirage of a life I’ll never really have. I will move away. I will refashion a future, like people do after.
But, at least for a little while, I enjoy living on the break.
Leigh Raper writes from her home on a rural postal route 12 miles north of New York City. Her work has appeared in The Weeklings, Mental_Floss and Atlas Obscura. She regularly writes about television for ScreenPrism and Refinery 29. She has an MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts from the University of California, Riverside — Palm Desert Graduate Center and a J.D. from Pepperdine University School of Law.