Mom cannot afford an Earthquake Room for our apartment, not this year either. Which is nothing to get extremely red in the ears about. She is standing near her bedroom against the rounded wall. So I try maturity when I go about the subject, tell her I am nuts for safety, tell her I found coupons for a Flood Room instead. Everyone knows that a Flood Room is a more frugal, sensible option. We have a small nook right between the kitchenette and the front door where it could fit like a dream. Or we could convert my bedroom, and I could sleep on the sectional. You can never pay too much for preparation. But my mom, who does not have life insurance for her big cheeks or her thinning hair, peels a peachy bit of wallpaper from around the doorframe. She asks me how likely it would be for our fourth floor apartment to sink under water, and I clarify: this is for a flood of the more biblical variety. Then she flicks the piece of wallpaper on the floor where there is a little pile forming, because she always peels the wallpaper in the same spot. She gives me an in-your-dreams-young-lady kind of look.
"Sylvia, why not want a bicycle or a pet chinchilla or a hobby for a switch?" Now: I am wise to the facts. That insurance companies make a killing on Natural Disaster Rooms™. Foisted on overly careful parents for routine practice scenarios. But everyone at McKinsey School uses their Earthquake Rooms as an excuse to cop a feel. All of that chaos, confusion, and how!
So when my mom is working late, I can usually be found at a friend's place, after school, making safety come first.
Like the time Bridget threw a party for her thirteenth birthday last year and everyone was invited to her house and into the Earthquake Room. Her parents gave each kid a piece of candy at the door. The mom was smiling and patting my shoulder when I walked in. Sung-Jin, who has opinions, thought that they had confused her birthday with Halloween as an irrational reaction to Bridget's impending womanhood. Bridget was wearing a really low-cut shirt and laughing as an excuse to show off her lack of braces. Sung-Jin was whispering about it but he didn't have to. Bridget's parents are so tall that they are deaf. My mom is petite and I say that means her center of gravity is of the down to earth variety.
Bridget's parents slid some chocolate cake into the room and closed the door behind us. They did not understand why we wanted to celebrate with an earthquake, but they wanted us to have everything we wished for. I wouldn't call her party orgiastic, which is this word from vocab class. But my performance on her birthday did win me an invite to several other Earthquake Rooms for some one-on-one natural disasters. I used to be a regular at Sung-Jin's place, but not anymore.
The thing about the room is that it always looks the same, no matter the house. A fairly small space, but with vaulted ceilings. A rough type of carpeting. Not so good for lying down. The far wall always has built-in bookshelves, but only one of the books is ever real. It belly-flops down from the top shelf right at the start of the simulation, so you can predict the fall pretty easily. Bridget was so distracted by all of the birthday attention that it conked her in the noggin. She has these blonde bangs that half-shade her eyes; she's always peeking at you. Now the bangs were flying crooked and her eyes fluttered.
"Duty calls," Sung-Jin said. We had been bumping a little, just idly grabbing at whatever we could. He pushed me towards the wall and caught Bridget, because he knows I can take care of myself.
The walls on either side of the Earthquake Rooms are decked with heavy curtains that shift and sway. Beneath the curtains, each room is installed with digitalized windows. The glass in the windows breaks, but not really. You can see outside, but not really. The world is cracking apart, but not really. The room rocks back and forth, and there is an electronic voice that guides you through proper earthquake procedure. Basically, we would just try and fall on top of each other. At Bridget's party, I bumped into a guy and made him fall into the cake. That was how I met Jonah. He had chocolate in his ear.
I call Jonah from the kitchen phone while I'm making tea for my Mom, and tell him that she said no to the Earthquake Room, no to the Flood Room.
"It's okay, you're still invited over obviously," he says.
"Listen: I'm doing the favor here by spending time with you. Not vicy-versy."
"I know." Jonah's voice is really calm. The hot water is boiling over onto the stovetop, and down to the floor where it always pools. The floorboards are warped in that one puddle-spot.
"Where are you right now?"
"In my bedroom," he says.
"What are you wearing?" I ask.
"A shirt and pants, and also a belt."
"Do you want to hear about the wildfires?"
"You have a Wildfire Room? No way."
"No," Jonah says. "There are wildfires going on right this minute. Do you want me to tell you about them?"
"Yes," I say. He tells me about the wildfires, and other natural disasters happening right this minute.
Jonah and I aren't friends, but nowadays I go to his house. He doesn't really have many friends, or at least he has less than me. He just basically strikes me as naïve, if I'm honest. His parents are professional type people. And he has a Natural Disaster Hallway™ , which means exactly what it sounds like.
One day, when my mom is working late at the office, I am at Jonah's giant house, in his Landslide Room. These rooms are much more realistic than the older models, more realistic than the Earthquakes. We are covered in mud. We try a different room each week, and get turned on by all the danger. One week it's the Tornado Room, then maybe a little Tsunami. This week, I let him touch inside my thigh. I am wearing shorts because it's springtime, so he's touching my actual skin.
"Don't you care about messing up your clothing?" I want excuses for more skin.
"No, not really. I can get more."
"I don't want to wear messed up clothing to school."
"You don't ever do that."
"But maybe I should not mess up this shirt anymore?" Jonah is slow on the understanding what I want. The room tilts up like a seesaw to get a new landslide going, and instead of letting me fall into his lap, he protects me from the mud and rubble by seatbelting his arm in front of my chest. I let it stay there while we coast down the floor and to the opposite wall. We slide out into the hallway with our noses running and the carpeting gets soaked with clumpy rivulets, which is a word from vocab that I always use in essays for an easy wow. We are still sliding around, and Jonah's father is home early, at the top of the stairs. He sees the mess, so that isn't good. His face turns into a stale prune and I think it's time to leave.
"Bye Jonah, sorry things got messed up."
"Sorry about your shirt, Sylvia."
"Goodbye, Sylvia," his dad says.
Known to me by drips and drabs is that Jonah gets the occasional black eye. I can stick around and watch the show, but that's what I did with Sung-Jin, and that's how his dad gave me my one-occasion black eye. So I don't go to Sung-Jin's house anymore, even though it's closer to my apartment by bus than Jonah's. I'm not a hero, I just know how to take care of myself.
At home, my mom is asleep on the couch, looking small. The upholstery is busted at the seams on this couch, the same one we had at our old house. I creep back to the shower and peel off my landslide garb, climb on under the leaky faucet and get everything back to normal. I'll call Jonah later to find out if he's okay, to find out about when Bridget's parents are going splitsville, which drugs Sung-Jin is using these days, hearing about other people's disasters until I fall asleep.