A Theory of Small Earthquakes

A Theory of Small Earthquakes

Award-winning journalist Meredith Maran, a longtime Oakland resident, releases her first novel, A Theory of Small Earthquakes, this month. Spanning two decades, the family story is set against the social, political, and geological upheavals of the Bay Area. The following chapter opens at a locale well known to many who live in the East Bay.

Chapter 21  

December 2003

Alison and Zoe were navigating a rickety shopping cart through the labyrinthine bulk food aisle at Berkeley Bowl, talking about Corey. Zoe had picked him up at Berkeley High after basketball practice as she often did when Alison was on deadline.

“How’d he do at practice?” Alison asked.

“He didn’t play.” Zoe scooped organic pink lentils into a plastic bag. “He said the coach benched him. He wouldn’t say why.”

Alison’s heart sank. “Something’s up with him.”

“He’s thirteen years old.” Zoe twisted a green tie around the bulging bag. “That’s what’s up with him.”

Alison rolled her eyes. Since Zoe had started volunteering as an art teacher at Alameda County Juvenile Hall, she’d become, in her own unassailable opinion, the world’s leading expert on adolescents.

“Hey!” Alison yelped as a gray-haired, bushy-bearded man in a FOOD NOT BOMBS T-shirt ran over her foot with his cart.

“My bad,” he said, giving Alison a “we’re all in this together” smile, the standard apology for shopping injuries inflicted in the well-stocked sardine can of a store. The man reached over Alison’s head to grab a bunch of organic arugula, assaulting her this time with his undeodorized underarm.

Alison glared at the back of his head, bald spot topping stringy ponytail, and pushed her cart down the aisle. She stood next to Zoe, surveying the bins of white, yellow, purple, and red French, Russian, and local potatoes.

“Fingerlings?” Zoe asked. “Creamer? Yukon gold?”

“I’m going to call his coach tonight,” Alison said. “His teachers too.”

“Chill, Al.” Zoe hefted a bag of organic French fingerlings, the most expensive potatoes in the store. “Corey’s doing what boys his age do.”

“He’s in trouble. I can feel it.”

Zoe gave her an empathetic look. “You’re really worried,” she said.

Alison hated it when Zoe used her Juvenile Hall counseling techniques on her. It made her feel like Zoe’s client, not her best friend. “Thanks for the mirroring, doc,” Alison said.

A woman in a motorized wheelchair sped through the narrow, congested aisle. Alison and Zoe flattened themselves against the mushroom bins to let her by.

“I’m sure Corey’s been picking up on the tension between you and Mark,” Zoe said. “He’s probably worried. So many of his friends’ parents are divorced—”

“Mark and I are not splitting up.” Alison had had the same thought herself. It made her feel worse, hearing it from Zoe. She tossed a bag of portobellos into the cart’s kiddie seat, remembering when Corey used to sit there gnawing on whole wheat bagels, kicking his fat little legs.

“Of course you aren’t.” Zoe checked her Minnie Mouse watch. “If we’re going to get out of here before Corey graduates college, you’d better go get the chicken. I’ll stake out a place on line.”

Alison elbowed her way through the knot of shoppers clustered around the poultry case. The ticket she ripped from the dispenser was number seventy-two. “Forty-eight,” the butcher called.

Mark and Zoe insisted on free-range, organic chicken. Alison decided that once it was smothered in Masala sauce, they wouldn’t know the difference. She grabbed a package of frozen thighs from the Foster Farms case, stopped at the freezer for a pint of Corey’s favorite ice cream, Ben & Jerry’s Chocolate Fudge Brownie, and slid into place beside Zoe, ignoring the glares and mutterings of the people in line behind them.

Zoe raised her eyebrows at the frozen chicken. Alison shrugged. “What he doesn’t know won’t hurt him.”

Zoe winked at her. “I’ll never tell,” she said.

You never did, Alison thought. “I’m counting on that,” she said.

The bed shook Alison awake. Her eyes flew open. The windows rattled in their panes. Is this the big one? she thought.

She bolted upright. Please, she prayed, her earthquake prayer. It felt like a 747 was roaring through the room. The bed lurched again. Please.

“Mark?” she whispered into the dark. Her hand swept the empty bed. I’m in my office. He’s downstairs. The pull chain of her bedside lamp tapped the shade frantically. Gotta get Corey before the house falls down. She leapt out of bed.

The shaking stopped. A car alarm shrieked. Alison stood still, waiting. Was it really over?

She listened for sounds from the bedrooms below. Nothing. Mark was her in-house seismograph; he slept through any quake smaller than 6.0. Corey slept through everything.

It was over. For now. Alison glanced at the clock on her nightstand. 5:45 AM. In an hour she’d begin her daily morning tussle with Corey, attempting to separate him from his bed. She decided to get some work done. She went to her computer to work on her Redbook piece, a roundup of women who’d had breast implants, then breastfed their babies. Alison nicknamed all of her stories; this one was “Tits for Tots.”

She was too rattled to work. She went downstairs to the second floor, the boys’ floor as she thought of it, and drifted toward the front bedroom: hers and Mark’s, now Mark’s. The door was closed, of course. How did this happen to us, she asked Mark silently. Why are you in our room, and I’m out here alone?

Alison touched her hand to the door. She imagined sliding into bed with Mark, kissing him, making love to him, finding him again. She slid to the floor, hugging her knees to her chest, unpacking her hope chest, summoning memories of their better times.

The sex that had brought them together. The wonder of Corey’s birth. The weeks at the Tahoe cabin they’d rented each winter, snuggled up with their beautiful boy, drinking hot chocolate in front of the fire. The hikes with Zoe through Yosemite’s wildflower meadows, the four of them dipping their toes into icy snowmelt streams, screaming. The hours and the paychecks they’d spent stripping woodwork and planting gardens and painting walls, the sweet satisfaction of turning Casa Money Pit into a home.

Alison knew exactly when she’d last felt good with Mark: on the last vacation they’d taken together, two years before, in mid-October, 2001. Along with the rest of the world, they’d still been reeling from 9/11.

Remembering that Tuesday morning made Alison shiver in her fuzzy robe. Corey had been asleep, as usual. Mark had turned on the TV news as he was getting ready for work, as usual. But then Alison heard Mark calling her name, and there was nothing usual about his voice.

She got to him just in time to watch the second tower collapsing, the white cloud swallowing lower Manhattan, the ghostly figures barely outrunning the tsunami of debris. The newscasters said a third hijacked plane was headed for San Francisco. CNN said the target might be U.C. Berkeley, a mile from Mark and Alison’s house. While Mark frantically dialed his parents in New Jersey, Alison frantically tracked the progress of the fourth, missing plane.

Corey woke up, finally, and Zoe arrived. The four of them sat on the couch for hours, unable to wrench their eyes from the screen. At eleven years old, Corey had questions the adults couldn’t answer. “Who’s flying those planes?” “Why are they mad at America?” “Is it going to happen again?” “Is it going to happen to us?” Alison had never felt so impotent as a mom.

Over the next few months, the four of them went to demonstrations in Oakland, Berkeley, and San Francisco, protesting anti-Muslim profiling and hate crimes and Bush’s threats of war. The attacks made their way into each of their work and school lives. Alison put aside her Ladies’ Home Journal piece about the benefits of early morning exercise, and started writing an unassigned essay on fear. Mark assigned an investigative piece on the threats to civil liberties in the name of homeland security. Zoe started a series of paintings called Collateral Damage, images of children fleeing through Manhattan streets. Corey helped organize a walkout at Claremont Middle School behind a banner that read OUR SCHOOL IS A HATE-FREE ZONE.

One month later, Mark and Alison decided to escape their CNN addiction and celebrate their twelve years together—their “sexiversary”—since they had no legal marriage to celebrate. They left Corey with Zoe and spent three blissful days at a Wine Country inn outside Sonoma, marooned on an enormous feather bed, reading no newspapers, watching no TV.

They drank good coffee in the morning and good wine at night. In between they read voraciously, slept voraciously, and made love voraciously, none of which they’d had the time, privacy, or inclination to do for years. Alison privately declared the weekend a no-self-hatred zone. She took a much-needed break from obsessing about the ten pounds she’d been carrying since Corey’s birth, the southward migration of her breasts and butt, the ever-deepening grid of wrinkles on her face. She and Mark left Sonoma brimming with fresh hope and promises to keep that spark alive.

It was a dreamy drive home through a canopy of mossy oaks, soft green slopes of espaliered grapes, turrets of stone wineries towering above groves of manzanita and madrone. Mark was steering with his left hand, caressing Alison’s thigh with his right. And then he cleared his throat in that something’s coming way of his that always made Alison tense up.

“I know this sounds cheesy,” he said, “but 9/11 is making me think about what really matters. We’ve been talking about having another baby for years. I want us to do it now, while we still can.”

Alison swallowed her rising panic. She’d always imagined having two kids, maybe three. She didn’t want Corey to be the lonely only child she’d been. She wanted another child.

But having a second baby could upset the delicate balance that Zoe had called Alison’s “house of cards.” A new baby could expose the lie that Alison had been living since Corey’s conception. A new baby could shatter the family she’d built around that lie.

As much as Alison wanted a sibling for Corey, an infant to glue her and Mark back together, another chance to feel as full and as purposeful as only pregnancy had made her feel, she couldn’t take the chance.

“I’m only thirty-nine,” Alison told Mark. “Annie Leibovitz is pregnant, and she’s fifty-one.”

Mark took his hand off Alison’s leg. He hit the gas, passing an old pickup truck loaded with bales of hay. “Every time I bring this up, you say the same thing.”

“Impossible. This is Leibovitz’s first kid.”

Mark scowled. “You know what I mean, Alison.”

“Everyone’s saying 9/11 is going to put magazines out of business. It’s a bad time to jeopardize my career.”

After a decade of writing predictable pap for women’s magazines, Alison had just gotten her first big break. The New York Times Magazine had published one of her essays in its “Hers” column. Since then assignments had been coming more often, from more prestigious magazines, for better pay.

“Mother Jones isn’t going out of business,” Mark said. “You’ll still get assignments from us. And I can always support us if I have to.”

“You think we can pay for the house and the car and Corey’s guitar lessons and Corey’s Air Jordans and Corey’s CDs on your salary?” Alison said.

Mark had been promoted to senior editor years before, but the magazine was always on the verge of going under. He still made less than $75,000 a year.

“Given 9/11,” Mark said slowly, “don’t you think having a baby is more important than Corey’s sneakers and your career?”

Alison was stung. “You know nothing’s as important to me as Corey.” Her words hung in the silence. “And you,” she added, too late.

Mark pulled the car off the road, unbuckled his seat belt, and turned to Alison.

“I want us to be happy again,” he said.

“No one’s happy these days.”

Alison stared out at the madrone trees lining the road, their branches naked dancers, mango trunks shedding chocolate bark.

“You are—when you’re with Corey,” Mark said. “Or Zoe. But when it’s just you and me, it’s like you can’t wait to go on to the next thing.”

He’s right, Alison thought.

Excerpted from A Theory of Small Earthquakes by Meredith Maran, published by Berkeley’s own Soft Skull Press, February 14, 2012.

Meredith Maran appears in a Berkeley Arts & Letters conversation with Terry McMillan, “The Newbie Novelist Talks Fiction-Writing with the Pro,” Wednesday, Feb. 22, at 7:30p.m. (author reception at 6:30p.m.) at the Hillside Club, 2286 Cedar St., Berkeley. For info: (800) 838-3006 or berkeleyarts.org.

Maran will also speak at A Great Good Place for Books (6120 La Salle Ave., Oakland) as part of an International Women’s Day celebration and reading, Thursday, March 8, 7-8:30p.m. For info: (510) 339-8210 or greatgoodplace.

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