This Is What Your First Earthquake Feels Like

A Napa home damaged by the earthquake (Credit: Alvin Jornada/EPA)

A Napa home damaged by the earthquake (Credit: Alvin Jornada/EPA)

Around 3 A.M. early Sunday morning, quaking reached into my dream state and shook me to life.

I was having a very odd dream involving queer friends of mine, and combating menacing, disabled, homeless men who, when kicked, turned to sand at my feet before my eyes. Needless to say, it took a moment before I got a grip on what was going on.

In about three seconds, I went from, Am I still dreaming? to, It’s just a car passing by on my busy street, to, Damn, is that my roommates doin’ it? to, Holy shit, this is an earthquake.

I bolted upright, my silk nightdress crumpled and my headscarf askew. My new bed frame was shaking with the gentle ferocity of a mother trying to alert her child of an emergency, but without inciting panic. Wake up baby, you need to wake up.

The rumbling sounded like an airplane was about to land right outside my Oakland apartment building. It sounded like the sky and the earth were simultaneously stomping. All the windows were open and a stream of yellow street lights added their own drama to the scene.

Chloe the cat scampered with claws extended. It was like she believe that if only she could dig her nails deep enough into the vibrations, she’d stop quaking. It didn’t work. All she managed to do was launch herself from the couch, already marked with her nervous etchings, to the kitchen, where the rumbling wasn’t any better, and then back past me to my roommate’s room.

When I first moved into this apartment, I hung a framed drawing of Woody Allen that a friend of my father’s had drawn in 1978. The frame is already heavy without the accompaniment of a thick glass barrier to protect the art. It used to hang above my sleeping head before I rearranged what little furniture I had. What if there’s an earthquake? I’d thought to myself. There probably won’t be, but just in case . . .

I was vaguely glad I no longer slept beneath the drawing for more reasons than one. I recently saw Magic in the Moonlight and decided I was no longer a fan—I couldn’t be. Either way I was glad as hell it wasn’t vibrating above me.

“Whoa!” I heard my roommate whisper from her open door. “Whoa . . . Simon! Simon!” She whispered and I imagine she shook her partner with that same sort of alarm that gently shook my bed frame. Her boyfriend, who was apparently not shaken enough to leave his dream self behind, groaned and was absorbed into the rumbles, seemingly undisturbed. Definitely not doin’ it.

Shit. My next thought hit me like rubble in the dark. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. I’ve never been caught in a quake before. I didn’t know what action to take. I was glad I wasn’t the kind of person who kept a lot of knick-knacks above my bed, and I was already away from the windows. What if this gets worse? I thought.

For the first time in those seconds of shaking, a spring of doubt began to uncoil and expand inside me, as I realized that this might not just all fade away. Eerily, my roommate and I had recently talked about the faulty foundation of our building. Our brief conversation was followed by jokes about the bathtub upstairs collapsing through our ceiling.

If the roof falls through, said my brain to my heart, I’ll die in this bed alone. It wasn’t a fear. It was just a fact.

And then it was over. Doubts recoiled as the invisible hands with a hold on my bed released their grip. It all lasted less than a minute, I’d wager.

I immediately picked up my phone and Googled, “Earthquakes in California,” then remembered that even the Internet doesn’t work that fast. I’ll have to wait until morning.

Sure enough, come 7 a.m. the reports were rolling in. A 6.0 magnitude earthquake had hit Napa—the worst quake in 25 years. According to reports, 70 people were injured. Windows were left shattered. Highway 37 needs structural repair. Fires were ignited. Power outages are sweeping the city. And many wine bottles are broken.

"I've got a lot of broken wine, being here in Napa," one local told CNN. "We tend to collect wine, so I have wine all over my kitchen, and glass, and pictures off the wall and books off of bookshelves."

Earthquakes are phenomenal. They’re one of those powerful forces of natural destruction that remind us we don’t just live on a floating rock in space—we live our lives on the surface of something breathing, something alive. There are no absolutes during the confusion of what should be a calm crisis mode in your mind. My city was not left with gaping cracks in the streets, and my home is not a catastrophe. At least this time.

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