Apr/May 2004 spotlight


by Ana Doina

When I was a little girl in Romania, visiting my father every other weekend and on vacations, I had to share a room with my brothers. The oldest, Ilie, five years my senior, used to tell us kids stories in the dark before going to sleep.

Thus I found out at an early age how the earth is round like a cabbage, how the monkeys at the zoo are actually our first cousins, how if I wanted to sing with the Beatles, all I had to do was talk with my tongue twisted inward and my mouth half closed, so that I might realize that particular British accent. And if I wanted to be a hippie, I needed to let my hair grow unwashed, not cut my nails, and not wash my feet for a couple of weeks, and the same recipe would work for becoming a gypsy, too. Or if my dream was to be the first woman to conquer mount Everest, I had better start my training with climbing on the walls of tall buildings while holding my breath.

One night during a winter vacation, our cousin Avia, with whom I shared my birthday, was with us. When we were together, my brothers and I, we liked to test each other's limits, each other's strength. How far could we stand verbal or visual images of life's vicissitudes before starting to cry, before crumbling under the weight of fright or disgust? But we became inspired master-artisans at this game when a cousin or a friend was around, and Avia was always a perfect companion, getting into the game, inventing new challenges. After all, she was the one who introduced the fly-in-the-soup game, to see if Ilie would still eat the soup after a couple of flies were thrown in among the noodles.

We girls were about eight, Ilie thirteen, and the baby, Florin, was three years old when one night, with parents gone to a party and Tanti Ana, our Hungarian nanny, in the next room watching a sad Russian war movie, the four of us stood in the dark near the glistening Christmas tree, telling stories and laughing to camouflage our fright. We dared each other to come up with something scarier and scarier, while Tanti Ana's loud sobs and the heart-wrenching music of a balalaika filled the house.

Outside, the frozen bare branches of a wild-cherry tree chimed in the wind, sending darker-than-night shadows across the room, over our bodies, becoming part of our stories. Each one of us was trying to find out what would scared the others the most. What was it that really put the fear of death into us? What image, what notion, what event would really shake us and crush us? But none of us older kids would recognize anything as scary. We were tough.

Only Florin readily confessed that a wolf's cry in a winter forest was what scared him the most, although I don't think he had yet seen a forest or a wolf back then. Nevertheless, he got out of his crib and crawled around the room, howling with his three-year-old voice and coming to frighten and bite us.

We were roaring with laughter when suddenly Ilie shouted, "Stop! Stop!" and jumped to his feet. But I couldn't stop. From his bed Ilie threw a big pillow towards me, and a glorious pillow fight was just about to begin when Tanti Ana marched into the room, turned the lights on, and yelled in her broken Romanian, "You kids, devils, you make house shake. You go sleep now or cake no tomorrow."

Ilie and Avia looked at each other as if something only they knew or understood had happened. Florin was on all fours on the floor, still howling like a lonely wolf. I, up on my feet in the middle of the bed holding a pillow, burst into a cascade of laughter.

"It was an earthquake," Ilie said, and Avia nodded.

"It was not," I dissented, and they showed me the lamp still swinging above our heads.

"Earthquake, shmarquake," said Tanti Ana. "You kids shook house jumping. Go sleep," and she picked Florin up form the floor and placed him back in his crib.

Florin was asking again and again, "What's an earthquake? What's an earthquake?"

After Tanti Ana turned off the lights and the balalaika could be heard again through the walls, Ilie proclaimed, "It was a five on the Richter. Sure it was!"

"It was cool to feel the earth shake! Awesome!" said Avia.

I protested. It couldn't have been. I didn't feel anything, and the lamp? It must have just been hit by the pillow. There had been no earthquake! They declared me "insensitive" and explained to Florin what an earthquake was.

We were getting quiet. Soon I could hear my brothers' even breaths. Avia and I, awake long into the night, talked and giggled and finally admitted to each other what scared us the most. For her, airplane crashes. Her father was a pilot. For me, the possible death of my mother, and we both admitted we were afraid of war and of the bomb.

Earthquakes? I couldn't feel them. The earth would move; some felt it, some not. I didn't.

For years Avia would call me after a short quake, asking, "Did you feel it?" and I wouldn't have. "How could you not feel it?" she'd ask me, excited by the event, bewildered by my lack of registering it. I don't know. I just did not feel them. They were rare occurrences, small, not more than four to five degrees or so, only a few seconds short. It could've been a truck on the road for all I knew, or a slammed door, and there were always slammed doors in my house. Growing up I had learned not to pay any attention to what made a house shake.

We all grew. Avia and I consoled each other through parents' divorces, new stepmothers, new stepfathers, high school, boys. We remained friends even through the biggest trials that friendship could go through at that age: a boy she liked had a crush on me, and then she stole the only guy I had ever had a crush on. Through it all we laughed, danced and grew, and we loved each other dearly.

We were a lot alike, interested in people and books, trying our pen at writing poems and stories, but she was always prettier than I with her huge blue eyes and long, silky blond hair. She was always positive, self-confident and witty, while I was pensive, insecure and moody.

At the time, I was living with my mom in one of the tallest buildings in town, and Avia and I used to love watching the world from my bedroom window. From the twelfth floor everyone looked like a small marionette, and we'd imagine their lives, their loves, just by how their sketched silhouettes moved and interacted with people and landscape. But most of all we loved to watch the sunset from my window. It was a breathtaking view of the eastern side of the town. Parks, lakes, large boulevards, old churches, marble buildings, and the old Triumphant Arch built after the first war, all bathed in the amber and crimson lights of a huge sun going down behind thick forests at the outskirts of town.

Somehow, in the last year of high school and the first few years of college, Avia and I grew apart, busy with admission exams, new friends, jobs. We'd talk sometimes, or meet by chance at parties or on the street, always promising we would again make time in our lives for each other, sometime soon.

After high school and during the first two years of college, I had a part-time job as a sound technician at the tv station, close by my mother's house. I had moved out in a small flat of my own in a different part of town by then, but still I spent a lot of time at my mom's.

One evening going home from work, I met Avia on the bus, and it was as if we had never been apart. She told me of her fiance and her paintings—she was a very talented artist—I told her about exams, work, the guy I was dating. Upon parting we promised to get together the following Friday. It was Monday night. She was very happy, and she couldn't wait to get together again and introduce to me her fiance, so Friday at my house was to be it! I was already thinking of what to wear and what desserts to bake.

Usually on Tuesday after work I met with three friends for profiterol, my favorite dessert, at Casata, one of the city's most popular cafes, but somehow this one particular Tuesday all four of us were busy and had to take a rain check from our weekly ritual. So much the better, I thought. I had a lot to study for a midterm exam.

While studying in my room, I had the door to the balcony opened. It was an unusually warm early March evening with a huge, full, ruby-red moon like a grapefruit. I was fascinated by this moon and could not keep my eyes on the notes or my thoughts on the simple Aristotelian logic, when all of a sudden a roaring noise came from the street, and the building started to shake violently.

"An earthquake!" I said out loud, almost amused, but then I saw how threatening and huge the wall unit in my room was. Full of books, it swayed and buckled right in front of me. I jumped on my bed and covered myself with the thick down comforter, pulling a pillow over my head, but not before I saw a century-old crystal vase I had from my grandfather fall to the floor and miraculously remain intact.

The building shook and shook and shook for what seemed an eternity. The lights stayed on for the better part of the earthquake, but eventually the entire town was plunged into the eerie redness of that moonlit night.

The morning of that same day, while at work at the tv station, I had watched a movie about the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco. I had done some editing to it to make it fit for tv showing. It was scheduled to show the following Friday. Now, all I could think of while my building shook was how San Francisco had been consumed by fire after the earthquake. I feared the same would happen to us. At one point I thought to go out of the building, but then I dismissed the idea, knowing that across from the exit there was an old school, and from its roof tiles would fall during even a simple storm.

When the shaking finally stopped, I could hear people screaming, sirens, and my neighbors, mostly old ladies and retired couples, coming out of their apartments, asking, "What happened? What happened?"

I put my coat on, took my purse. My hands were shaking, and a thousand thoughts were racing through my head: What about my mother's building? Should I report back to the tv station?

I picked up the crystal vase from the floor. The crystal's exquisite cuts caught and reflected a reddish glow. While it hadn't shattered, the vase was indeed cracked.

The air coming from outside was dusty, and in the distance I could see fire and smoke, and I could hear the loud noise of glass breaking, people screaming, honking horns, and sirens, sirens. The night felt like an ultimatum. Ominous, tragic.

For a moment I thought not even to bother locking up the apartment, and then I thought to look for and take with me the deed to the house. Nothing made sense, my thoughts least of all.

My next door neighbor, a very old lady for whom I'd sometimes bought milk or brought the newspaper, knocked on my door, crying. A few of the oldest neighbors, afraid or unable to go down the stairs and outside the building, were congregating in the hallway in front of my door, sharing impressions and fears. An old man, a war veteran, said the Russians had bombed us. "Nonsense!" I said, forgetting that I should be respectful to my elders. "Nonsense! It was an earthquake."

"Really?!" a few old ladies said in disbelief. "How big?"

"Seven," I said. "Must have been seven," and for a moment I smiled in the dark. It really must have been seven, I had felt none of the ones before, the smaller ones.

When I left the building, I noticed the roof on the old school was intact. None of the tiles had fallen. The pharmacy at the corner had all the windows broken, and people were already inside, looting. Two trams were stuck on their tracks in the middle of an intersection, a third one was turned on its side alongside the boulevard crossing that part of town. There were no busses, no taxis, only cars driving haphazardly, many on the wrong side of the street.

I managed to stop a car and begged the driver, an older man, to take me towards my mother's part of town. He seemed to be going in that direction anyway. His wife was with him. She couldn't stop crying. The old man asked me to help her calm down. "She suffers with her heart," he said.

I asked her what she was doing right before the earthquake. "I was cooking," she said. "Chicken."

"And what kind of spices did you use?" I asked, while the old man drove through a town I could no longer recognize.

At times he had to go around large chunks of buildings piled up in the middle of the boulevard. Wires were everywhere. At Lizeanu, a major intersection a block away from where I lived, two buildings had collapsed, each ten stories high. Leveled. I knew that two of my schoolmates lived there. Other places where so thick with dust, the car's headlights were reflected back, blinding us. Driving past the emergency and trauma hospital, we had to brake suddenly when a naked woman holding a bulky blanket jumped in front of the car, crossing the street without paying attention to the chaotic traffic. "My God," said the wife. "People have no shame nowadays." Then we saw the woman's huge, anguished eyes shine in the headlights, her mouth twisted as if she was moaning, and we noticed the young child she was holding wrapped in the blanket, and we saw that she was bleeding from the head. The wife shrieked and crossed herself with wide gestures while the husband begun to mumble something. "He's Jewish," the wife said almost apologetically. "He prays in Yiddish."

I started making a checklist in my mind of where my loved ones were, or where they could have been. Ilie was far in a remote village, a young doctor. My dad was on a business trip in a town many miles away. Florin was in Canada. My mother, she could have been anywhere, home or elsewhere. I didn't know, but I knew wherever she was, she was worried about me, just as I was worried about her.

Normally the ride shouldn't have taken more than fifteen minutes, but it took almost an hour to cross the town, as we had to take back-roads, avoid fallen and falling debris, turn around from blocked streets, drive on sidewalks.

The old man dropped me off right in front of the tv station. The building was still standing. Some windows were even lit. I ran through the streets all the way to my mom's. A few blocks before I got there, I could see the dark silhouette of the building. Good, it was still up.

The entire neighborhood was quiet and didn't show any damage. I felt a bit safer there, but I realized no one in that part of town had any idea of what the rest of it looked like. You could hear laughter and jokes in the dark. I ran with tears streaming down my cheeks and yelled to those I could see, "Lizeanu is down! There are collapsed buildings all over town!"

"You're exaggerating," a few said. "Stop spreading rumors," said another.

In this part of town surrounded by parks, not even the sound of the sirens was heard. In front of my mom's building, a few neighbors were still outside. Poly, our housekeeper, was afraid to go back in and didn't like the idea of having to climb "all those damned stairs," since the elevator was not working anymore.

Mother was not there. She had not been home at the time of the earthquake.

The building didn't seem to have been damaged, but when she fled the apartment, Poly said, she had heard behind her a loud thump. The many bookshelves must have collapsed all over the house.

At one point the entrance doors to the building opened, and Nini, our next door neighbor, a huge twenty-seven year-old man, came out carrying on his back his just as huge, bedridden mother, while his tiny sister was tediously pulling and pushing a folded wheelchair down the last flight of stairs. Their father, a cardiac patient, had decided the chances of being killed by an aftershock were meager compared to the real chance of a heart attack brought on by going down and eventually back up the twelve stories. He remained in the candle-lit apartment, despite his family's pleas to come out.

Slowly, more people returned from downtown, all telling confusing stories. Among them was my mother, who had been visiting with some friends when the earthquake started, and had first run over to my place to see if I was okay. News of the destruction elsewhere was sifting into this surreally calm neighborhood.

Later that night I decided to go to the tv station after all, but once I got there they sent me home, asking me to be back early next morning.

All night long we tried to catch something on the radio. Our radio stations were mute for many hours, and then for another few hours there was only funeral music. We tried Budapest, Moscow, Prague, Free Europe, Paris, London. All said nothing about the earthquake—just their usual programming, music, news bulletins relating the local events of the day. Nobody knew something had happened to us, and we didn't know what we were facing. We could just as well have been wiped from the face of the earth, and no one would have even noticed, while our officials were drowning us in funeral marches.

Finally, around midnight, a commentator at some English-speaking radio post announced jokingly that for the last few hours only funeral marches have been broadcasted from Bucharest. He speculated that in the best cold war tradition, that probably meant Ceausescu was dead. Shortly after, Free Europe interrupted their regular programming with a news bulletin announcing that a fifty second earthquake of 7.2 degrees on the Richter scale had been registered with an epicenter in the Vrancea Mountains. They said that no contact could be established with Bucharest. And then they prayed for us, wishing us luck and strength in the face of whatever it was we were facing.

By midnight the phone lines in some parts of town started to work, and a neighbor whose apartment was on the first floor let me call a few people to find out how they were doing. Most of them were all right, which made me think maybe things weren't as bad as they had first looked.

The idea of having to walk up all those stairs and the fear of aftershocks, not being able to assess in the dark the damage the building had sustained, kept us outside for a long time. But we were tired, worn out and confused, and after a while Poly, mother and I decided to go spend the night at Aunt Lori's, a few blocks away from our place. Hers was a two-story villa, spacious and solidly built in a middle of a garden.

It had started to rain. I was lying on a velvet sofa trying to sleep, but each time I closed my eyes, I saw the face of that strange, naked woman. The terror in her eyes, her incomprehensible specter, her twisted mouth, the bundle she was holding.

Towards daybreak, the sky turned a milky color, and the town was eerily quiet.

I went to work very early, six o clock or so. A few cameramen and a news director were already there. They looked grim and tired. No cameraman wanted to take me on his team. "You're too young," "You kid, stay out of it!" "You're a girl—it's no sight for a girl," "Stay in the studio; you'll get to see enough," they said. Truth be told, I was afraid. My fear was nothing I could name, just anxiety. But there were not enough sound technicians, and I knew the equipment, so I ended up going anyway.

On any other early morning, the town would have been busy with people going to work, waiting for buses, buying bread, newspapers, flowers. The shops would be open, the street sweeper washing the sidewalks, garbage men collecting the garbage, their bulky trucks making traffic impossible. Not that day. Only peasants from the suburban villages were coming with their horse-drawn carriages, bringing produce to market and asking, "What the hell happened here?"

There were a few buildings down at the outskirts of town. One of the news teams was going there, while the rest of us were distributed through the town. Our van took the same rout I had come by the night before. Some of the buildings were visibly shaken but still standing, while some I hadn't noticed the night before were down. Groups of men and women, exhausted, hurt, were pulling rubble out of the way. Some had kitchen knives in their hands, buckets, brooms, hammers, and they were desperately trying to find out if anyone caught under the heaps of wreckage was still alive.

Many of those pulling survivors out of the ruins had just walked out from underneath the crumbled walls themselves. Prepared? Back then, this was not even a concept. Faced with an emergency, one was left to one's lucky star or to prayers, if there were any. Usually, when an emergency struck, families would help their own, and an informal network of friends and neighbors would form, eventually. But now we had all been hit at once.

In all the twenty-seven years I had lived in that city, I knew of only one firehouse. It was a century-old historic building about four stories high, placed in what once was the middle of the old town. As there were very few if any wood structures left (most buildings were made of concrete, limestone, marble, steel and glass), fires were unusual. I had only seen one fire there, the interior of a room burned. An ancient firetruck took its time coming to the rescue, but the fire never spread, and damage was minimal.

Each hospital had two, maybe three ambulances: white vans painted with a big red cross and a noisy siren on top of the cabin, carrying a driver and a nurse with a first aid kit, maybe.

The police were well-equipped and trained to suspect and fight a potentially angry population, but never to come to its rescue. Besides, we didn't trust them any more than they trusted us. There was a lot of animosity between ordinary citizens and officials, most of whom were out-of-towners brought in through political promotions from rural areas and who had a poor understanding of a large city's needs.

This was a city the size of Manhattan, maybe even larger, with a population of two million and growing. It was the capital, the largest city in the country. A vital center for the entire economy and administration of a European nation in the last quarter of the twentieth century, and none of us knew what to do or where to turn.

If there were emergency plans or strategies to salvage the town in case of an emergency like war or foreign invasions, these certainly did not included coming to the aid of ordinary people. Police, medical, news and mass media personal were always instructed to report to their work station as soon as possible in emergency situations, but most other people didn't know what to do.

After thirty years of being menaced and persecuted every time we had tried to associate—to form even innocent, non-political groups or clubs—after thirty years of distrusting the official unions and parties imposed on us by the communists, we were a population who was not only afraid but also too incompetent to put together the most rudimentary network to help us survive in an emergency, to help those who could have been saved had someone come to their aid earlier.

The majority of adults had some military training, if only minimal, to prepare us for a street to street, house to house fight with the enemy. We all knew where to go get guns and ammunition. But buckets? Shovels? Ladders? Medical supplies? Food, water or blankets?

In the large urban area most of us lived in apartment buildings. We each had a bucket and a broom in the house, maybe hammers and screwdrivers. And although there had been other powerful earthquakes in the past, none had happened in recent times. The last one had taken place about eighty years prior, when the city was a fraction of its current size. Now we were two million people thrown in the midst of the most devastating disaster any of us had ever known. Not even the war had brought as much physical destruction to the city or to its people as the earthquake of March, 1977 did.

The center of the town was in ruins. Almost every street had two or three large buildings down, and those still standing were in a precarious state. On one main artery every fourth building was reduced to ruins or damaged so severely that passing by it was dangerous. My hometown looked as if it had been bombed. Driving through it, I couldn't help remembering the many people who lived there, the places I used to visit almost weekly: the French teacher's townhouse, a boy I had once dated, a party I had been at only two weeks before. The collections of books and records this one had, the photo albums I leafed through in that apartment, the silverware, the elegant porcelain china set this friend served tea in, right in this building at the seventh floor... Where was the seventh floor? Where were all those friends?

People walked aimlessly, mourning, crying, calling names of loved ones. Many children were lost and abandoned out on the street. There were scores of dogs and cats running from ruin to ruin. Building after building stood like broken teeth against a gray sky, and there was dust, dust everywhere, thick as winter fog. This was my hometown, where my friends used to live.

Army units were trying to organize search and rescue teams out of the civilians. Men and women digging with their bare hands pulled survivors or dead out of unstable structures, all the while endangering their own lives. The smell was overwhelming: the stench of sewer, gas, diesel fumes, putrefaction, garbage and smoldering fire was everywhere.

At what once was Casata, we stopped to film a medical team searching through crumbled walls. While I was placing the sound equipment on a heap of rubble, a strange object on the ground caught my eye. It looked like a dark leather glove, used, bulky. I was about to pick it up when a mean-looking nurse yelled at me, "Don't touch that!" I felt week in my knees and almost fainted. "That is someone's hand," she said matter of factly, giving me a surgical mask and gloves. "If you're not here to help," she said, "get out of here quick. You're in the way."

Scattered around me I could now recognize body parts, fingers, chunks of arms, legs all over the place. I felt my heart sinking inside me, painfully, as if something that held it in place had ripped. Medics were separating the wounded from the dead; police were building barricades to keep looters out of stores and to shore up falling buildings. There was a desperate race against time to find the missing.

The morgue filled up first. At the entrance someone was giving out tickets to those standing in line on the street, waiting for their turn to look for a loved one. Inside, even the garden was filled with cadavers lying on the bare ground. Stretchers were needed for new transports, we were told. It's funny how the language cannot adapt to extreme tragic situations. "Transports." That is what those alive called those dead, as if they were lumber or some other everyday object.

Our team was out of place. I was ashamed to be doing what I was doing. A feeling of inappropriateness was present among us while moving wires and cameras, lights and microphones, setting or looking for the proper "scene," for the next shot, saying "action" while those around us were dying or mourning or franticly working at saving a life. Usually a tv crew is boisterous, dynamic, whimsical, fun. Most its members are creative individuals, smart, ready to outwit any situation, get the scoop, find the "special" angle and the best light, and have fun while doing it. Not this time. Not even the macabre jokes we had told each other when first leaving the station prepared us for what we had to film that day.

When they saw us, people came with questions about the rest of the town, about where to go for help, asking if we had seen this girl and that boy, showing us wallet pictures, begging to put the images of the missing on the news, hoping maybe someone would know something.

And then there were those who after being pulled out alive and unhurt from under the steel and concrete that had fallen on top of them, walked through the streets for hours, dazed, stopping anyone who would listen to tell them their story. They seemed not quite sure if they were dreaming or if it had really happened. We interviewed a couple of them, as we interviewed doctors and army officers, policemen and on-lookers.

With the radio and tv back on, an official communiqué finally came. We were under a "state of emergency." Aftershocks were possible and expected. Everyone was advised to go to his or her place of work/school and see what if any cleaning needed to be done. Water? Blankets? Only the next day the red cross started to distribute them. Help arrived from all over the world, but it took days. At first we were utterly alone and unprepared.

Some panicked and tried to take refuge in the forests at the outskirts of town or with relatives in nearby villages. An exodus of cars, motorcycles and horse-drawn carriages filled with women, children, and household items was inching its way towards the suburbs, creating a difficult traffic for the incoming troops sent in to help. The army, young kids mostly from other parts of the country, was coming to save us. They were armed with shovels, construction equipment, fresh barricades, and news of other towns just as badly hit as we were. By the afternoon some plan of recovery took shape, and most civilians were ordered out of the ruins, unless they were construction workers, structural engineers, nurses, or doctors.

We saw a lot of looting, too. The usual suspects, ruffian gypsies and trash, hooligans from the poor neighborhoods at the outskirts of town, but also people who would never, under normal circumstances, go take something that wasn't theirs. As if possessed by greed and an atavistic instinct, they would break into the most incredible places, taking things they had no need for ever in their lives. People who did not have kids stole baby cloths and toys, someone stole needles and thread, yet another stole pipes and a toilet top while his house lay in ruins, his entire family missing.

Any and all looters were to be shot on the spot. There were many rumors, but I don't know if anyone was actually shot. Looting is the most horrendous crime in times of disaster, and if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes I would never have believed it, but looting is also a reaction to extreme psychological shock. In the days to come, the looting stopped, only to be replaced with break-ins by organized gangs who hit the houses of those who had fled.

After four gruesome hours that first day, my team went back to the station. My clothes were stained with dirt and blood. I was numb. I couldn't feel anything anymore. Couldn't cry, couldn't feel compassion or pity or even physical pain. Not right away. Back at the station I called my mom and found out that our building was fine, didn't have any damage, but Aunt Lori's house, the spacious solid villa where we had spent the night, was all cracked and falling apart.

The only problem at my mom's: no door could be opened. In every room we had huge wall units overfilled with books, and all of them had fallen like dominos, blocking the doors. By afternoon they got two of the doors out of their hinges, and the big cleanup began. Same with most of the neighbors. Everyone was cleaning up broken porcelain, glass, furniture.

Our part of town was so serene compared with what I had seen that day, it was as if I had stepped into a different life. People were making up jokes about "the big shaking." But by nightfall, with the phone service restored, we could hear wailing cries coming from other apartments. News of dead and missing relatives was coming through the restored wires. And my cousin Avia was one of the missing.

"She went to the movies with her fiancé last night, and no movie theatre had been affected, but she has not called or come by the house since, and she was not at the morgue or at any of the hospitals," her mom said in an even, almost quiet voice on the phone. Could she have been with me? Didn't we have plans to see each other that week?

"She'll come over on Friday," I said. "She promised."

"Please call me the moment she arrives," her mom said, although it was only Wednesday, early in the evening.

I crouched on the floor, suddenly feeling sick to my stomach and wildly hungry at the same time. The whole day I hadn't eaten anything. I took a big chunk of bread and chewed furiously, thinking how there had been miracles, people who walked out of the rubble alive and unharmed. In other places people had survived for days under ruins.

The next morning Avia's mother called to say she knew where Avia and her fiancé had been. A friend who was with them the night of the earthquake had come to tell her how the three of them had been siting at a table in his house when the building started to shake. He ran one way, calling them to follow him, but he couldn't tell if they did or did not. The building was down.

In town, hundreds of soldier and volunteers were furiously working to pull out of the ruins those still alive, with many successes. Many, many incredible stories came out of the rubble for days. Many more tragic stories emerged, too. Entire families wiped out, or worse, only a mother or a father left alive for days under the ruins near the decaying bodies of their children. We lost many friends. A writer friend of the family and his wife died while his son and his fiancée escaped miraculously on the eve of what was supposed to be their wedding day. A child was born while his mother succumbed to her injuries.

At the site of the fallen buildings people kept vigil night and day, and every time a survivor was pulled out, cheers of joy and applause were heard, and we all hoped for one more, and one more, although it had been three days, and then four, and then seven.

When they finally found them, Avia and her fiancé were holding each other in a final embrace. A few hours later, a few feet below them, a young man was dug out alive. It was Friday.

The places that were not affected were back to as normal a life as they could be, and although traumatized and depressed, we were trying to put our lives together, to go on. There was a strange type of solace in the collectiveness of our grieving; there was some heroic stubbornness in the everyday task of surviving. Those who were to get married got married, because that was what those killed would have wanted them to do. Those who were to leave for vacations left for vacation, knowing none of those who died would have wanted them to do otherwise. Those who had planned to redecorate their houses rebuilt them instead, and architects were busy with planning new buildings where the leveled ones stood. The earthquake had killed many public figures and celebrities. A singer, a poet, a few writers, actors, movie and tv directors, cameramen. We were humming their songs, reciting their poems, quoting their lines, watching their movies, celebrating their lives, as if none of us was ready to let go, to lose them forever in the rubble. With the gas back we started baking the most sophisticated cakes and went shopping for Easter chocolates.

Flowers and candles, even priests and public prayers were seen on the streets in a town where any religious display was almost outlawed. There was hunger and thirst for life and for rituals. There was a stick-together and toughen-up, help-each-other and lend-a-hand spirit even between those who usually engaged in puny garden-variety feuds and jealousy, gossip and rivalries. We were all sharing our still-standing houses with those whose houses were condemned, and there was an increase in the number of weddings. About eight months after the earthquake, Avia's mother remarried after ten years of steadfast celibacy. She married a man she had met while they both were searching for loved ones. He and his little girl had survived while the mother had died under ruins.

But the grieving went on for years. In fact, it never stops. If I had only said Tuesday instead of Friday, if she had only gone directly to the movies. She was twenty-one.


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