On August 24th, I injured my left knee lugging heavy boxes while
vacating my apartment in Brooklyn; the owner was selling the building.
Back in Mexico, an MRI revealed that I’d torn the anterior cruciate ligament. On
September 6th, I underwent surgery, and returned to our apartment that
night with crutches and instructions not to bear weight on my leg. Jon
Lee was in Mexico to report a story and staying with us. The next
evening, Jovi and I were in bed when the seismographic alert—“¡Alerta
sísmica! ¡Alerta sísmica!”
—began to sound. There was no way I could get
downstairs. We tried to make it to the back of the apartment, to the
corner with the laundry sink and gas boiler, which our landlord, who
lives upstairs, had told us was the safest spot, but the floor was
rising and falling too violently. Jon Lee, who’d been asleep, joined us
as we crouched in the doorway, hugging each other. The young people who
live in the other apartment on our floor emerged, looking panicked. “Run
downstairs!” I shouted, and they dashed down the stairwell. The mirror
in the hall seemed ready to fly away. The walls sounded like they were
tearing themselves apart. Jovi, who clearly thought it was time to say
goodbye, told me she loved me. I kept thinking that the earthquake had
already lasted too long, that it had to stop at any moment, but it
didn’t—until, finally, with a groan of settling concrete and steel, and
the sound, like soft rain, of crumbling and falling plaster, it did.

The electricity was out, the elevators down. The stairs were covered
with white dust and rock-sized pieces of plaster; Jon Lee supported me
as I made my way down the stairs on crutches and in my underwear. For
the next few hours, we stood outside on the sidewalks and in the park
with our neighbors. People were wary of aftershocks and didn’t want to
be alone. Our landlord, Dr. Ángel del Parral, a chain-smoking
seventy-something cardiologist who has become a dear friend, thought
that this earthquake felt stronger than the one in 1985. This was
reassuring, he said, because it meant that the efforts to reinforce the
building had worked. “Our building did dance, but it withstood,” he
said. Eugenio, our stalwart doorman, had gone down to inspect the
basement, and saw no signs of damage.

The epicenter of the quake, Mexico’s strongest in more than a century,
was in Chiapas, and fifty-eight kilometres beneath the surface. In that
state, and in the state of Oaxaca and its impoverished, beautiful
isthmus of Tehauntepéc, in the glorious matriarchal Zapotec town of
Juchitán, there was death and devastation. But in Mexico City the damage
was light and nobody was killed. Instead, the earthquake provoked a
sense of communion, a haunted experience of terror and loss that we all
shared. The spectre of 1985 is present to everyone who lives here, even
to those who didn’t experience it. That quake had a magnitude of 8.1,
and lasted two minutes; this one was 8.2, and lasted perhaps a little
longer. But had it seemed stronger or less strong? Everyone had an
opinion. Mexico City was given the democratic vote in 1998—before that,
the ruling party, the PRI, appointed the city’s mayors—and since then
has been governed by a series of center-left mayors who have enforced
stricter building regulations. Perhaps that had saved the city, many
speculated. Or were we spared because the epicenter of this earthquake
was farther away, and deeper beneath the surface? Was that why this
earthquake had come with the familiar side-to-side swaying, rather than
the jarring up-and-down bucking of the 1985 quake?

Two weeks later, as the anniversary of 1985 approached, everyone seemed
to have earthquakes on their minds. Jovi avoided the elevators in our
building. I kept checking the UNAM’s seismographic Web site to monitor
the aftershocks, of which there had been more than two thousand, mostly
all minor, their epicenters all located in southern Mexico and close to
the Pacific. On the morning of September 19th, there was a 4.2-magnitude
quake at 4:58 A.M., in Michoacán, uncomfortably close to Mexico City.
Did it mean anything?

Our bedroom overlooks a Catholic junior high school that regularly holds
earthquake drills. The neighbors had been so freaked out by the recorded
male voice robotically blaring “Alerta sísmica” at odd intervals
that the school now hands out calendars of all the drills scheduled for
the year. Jovi knew that there was to be an alarm at 11 A.M. on
September 19th, in commemoration of the 1985 earthquake. She hates the
sound so much that she had decided that, when the alarm went off, she
would run down the stairs anyway. She walked to the Tuesday market in
the Condesa. I worked in bed, still unable to sit at a desk for long.
Jovi came home with a rotisserie chicken and other groceries, and
prepared lunch.

At 1:14 P.M., just as she had taken the first bite of her chicken taco,
and I my first spoonful of soup, everything began to move. “Esta
temblando,
” Jovi said, springing up from the table at the first sound
of wrenching wood behind the walls; the kitchen door was slamming, the
lamp above the table swinging violently. “We have to go!” she shouted. I
insisted that she go without me. Jovi left as I made my way over the
lurching floor, to the corner in the laundry room; I have a distinct
memory of the floor rising like an ocean swell. I heard loud cracks
and crashes, glass shattering, bookshelves falling in my office to the
left. To my right, the gas boiler toppled to the ground. A mix of water
and strong-smelling gas flooded the floor, which was ominously carpeted
in rubble. I wondered if the mixture might ignite. The concrete edifice
rocked back and forth dementedly, heavily, impossibly; rubble, trash,
and broken glass skidded back and forth in the water and gas around my
feet. Leaning on my crutches, I fixed my gaze on a corner of the ceiling
that seemed to be billowing like a tarp filled by gusts of wind. That is
where it would crack open, I thought. I found myself shouting: “Stop!”
But the quake wouldn’t stop; it went on. I told myself that I wasn’t
going to die but, for once, I really wasn’t so sure. Finally, with a
sound like a dump truck slowly discharging a load of pebbles, it
stopped. I could feel the massive building settling heavily back down
into the quelling earth.

I noticed for the first time that all the glass in the door to the
kitchen had blown out. I poked at the rubble with my crutch, looked into
the office at all the books lying in water, and, with some effort,
pulled open the door to the kitchen, where the plates and kitchen
appliances and the coffee maker were smashed on the floor. I was covered
in white powder. A few moments later, Jovi and Memo Osorno burst in and,
with Jovi clearing rubble out of the way ahead of me, we began the
descent once again.

For the first couple of hours, we waited in the park for news. Nobody
had phone or Wi-Fi service. I found a place to sit. A group of men ran
through the park carrying a a muscular young man, perhaps severely
injured, on a litter, a woman alongside them
calling for help. Several people rose and followed. We heard that there
were two dead bodies in the store on the corner. City officials
instructed over megaphones against the lighting of cigarettes because of
gas leaks. It took a surprisingly long time for the sounds of ambulances
to fill the air. The scale of what had just occurred had barely dawned
on us. Now and then friends stopped in the park with the news of another
building that had collapsed. Our neighborhood and the Condesa had been
especially hard-hit, again.

Eugenio took Jovi to retrieve some essentials from the apartment. It was
risky, but we needed clothes, medicine. She brought down our computers,
too. I sat in the park, working on my novel for a bit—a way, I suppose,
to stave off a sense of utter uselessness. I was unable to go anywhere,
unable to pitch in. I sat next to Betty, a housekeeper in the building,
who was desperate for some word from her husband; she was pale, her face
drained by terror. Doña Gloria, Memo’s elderly housekeeper, sat with us
for a while. She was worried about her dog, and later set off on foot,
to her home in the neighborhood of Observatorio. It was evening when our
landlord finally came back. I told him that our apartment was no longer
inhabitable. He seemed skeptical, but when he returned from seeing his
own apartment, he was shaken. “It’s not habitable anymore, Frankie,” he
said.

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