Quaking in my birthday suits
The last two letters came addressed not from Thu-Huong Ha but “the weekly grief.” If they escaped your notice, please direct your attention to reflections on pre-spring and once in a lifetime strawberries.
On Wednesday night, I was woken up by a little shake. I had been deep asleep, which is a state that often eludes me, so I was annoyed in addition to the usual confused. But I drifted back into the plump embrace of my duvet quickly, only to be harangued fully out of bed a minute later, panic scooting me across the room.
The second quake lasted longer and felt the strongest of any since I’ve moved to Tokyo. In a daze I gripped the legs of my desk and hoped I wouldn’t have to evacuate into the street naked. As the seconds ticked through the molasses I thought about how much I didn’t want to be united against a common threat with my loud, mean neighbor, nor the loud friendly one. As soon as the shaking subsided, I grabbed for my phone and turned it on.
The only kind of twitter I find reassuring is Tokyo earthquake twitter. I’m certain it’s the only calming use case of the platform. It starts with one: “Quake?” Followed within seconds by a stream: “Felt that big jolt” “Bouncy quake - not good” “Holy fuck that was terrifying” “Still shaking, must be big somewhere” “Huge quake in Tokyo.” Then early estimates of the magnitude come in, followed by recirculated safety tips. Scrolling after an M5.9 in Chiba last October, I felt further reassured by the apparent communality of this experience:
This week’s earthquake measured an M7.4 off the coast of Fukushima, about 300 kilometers from Tokyo. Japan, one of the world's most seismically active countries, uses its own scale of ground-level shaking and intensity (not energy), which has a maximum of 7. By Fukushima this earthquake ranked an upper 6, “crawling is necessary to move around.” In my ward, the shaking lasted several minutes and registered a 3, “most people indoors can feel shaking.” I could walk fine. But I could only think about having my first face-to-face interaction with my loud upstairs neighbor. I rehearsed saying “I think you could have a very bright future in STOMP” in Japanese as I imagined them landing on my floor.
I had just been thinking earlier that day that it had been a while since I felt moved at a tectonic level. In the completely one-sided rivalry between Fukuoka and Tokyo, it’s often mentioned that Fukuoka has fewer earthquakes. This fact never seemed important when I was living in the city with fewer earthquakes but no good pizza. Considering my paranoia about other human beings, I have a relatively high tolerance for other forms of danger; others might say I am missing a key risk assessment function. When consulting various friends in Tokyo about choosing an apartment, everyone brought up earthquake resilience, and I nodded energetically in feigned affirmation.
A few weeks into moving to Tokyo, high off the thrill of an amazing pepperoni slice and a few art exhibitions, I was sharply rebuked for my smugness one night at 5am. The walls of my subconscious suddenly pulsed, and in my dreams my guts seemed to slosh about, like I was a gambler on a boat full of good Christians. I woke up from this dream quake to find the actual walls of my then-apartment creaking, threatening to send the mansplaining Spaniard with the room above me down onto my bookshelf. Four days later an M6.9 aftershock hit Miyagi Prefecture around 6pm, and the room trembled in the late March dusk.
“Sleep is the most moronic fraternity in the world, with the heaviest dues and the crudest rituals,” writes Nabokov, “It is a mental torture I find debasing.” I am intensely jealous of legacy members of this fraternity, who can fall asleep anywhere, anytime; I share conspiratorial communion with anyone else who labors for admittance. (Nabokov: He’s just like me.)
I’m well aware that, like being someone who remembers dreams, being someone who isn’t good at sleeping, does not a personality make. And yet I spend an inordinate amount of energy on both. I enter each night like I’m ticking boxes on a wellness influencer’s insta checklist: I stop eating x hours before bed, turn off my phone y hours early, cool the room down, dim the lighting, meditate, say my prayers to the gods of sleep, slip under the covers. But no amount of yoga can change who I am once I’m in that zone of terror. My dreams are still full of jealousy, humiliation, unreasonable deadlines. I’ve yet to find the lifehack that gets Dream Me, slowly perceiving an imminent betrayal, to take a deep breath and count to ten.
I had just been in the middle of hiding something from you, something I knew would hurt you, I was making a plan I shouldn’t have been, I was feeling guilty for a prophecy I had no control over, I watched a woman party so hard her head popped off like a barbie’s, I was late on a script for a conference, I was struggling to make it up a hill with three grown man on the back of my motorbike, I was sure the dog was illegal, I didn’t know what to tweet—and just then the world started to fall in on my head.
The earth will grind like the teeth of a sleeping monster, the stress will build between the plates, and the big one will come for you nonetheless. First you’ll be in the air, and then on the ground. For when the time comes, keep your running shoes ready by the bed.
PS. But wait there’s more. Those pre-spring velvety buds were pre-magnolias. Goddamn!