Melissa Faustine Chang
Melissa Faustine Chang is a Taiwanese-American writer and visual designer based in Southern California. She is an avid traveler, swimmer, and a one-time chocolatier.
The earth shakes violently and often this year, and I am not sleeping well.
I only float in shallow slumbers, jolted awake by any tremble—imagined or real. This must be the one, I whisper in the dark, but it is only my husband turning in his sleep, the rumble of traffic, the deep bass vibrating from our neighbors’ stereo at ungodly hours of the night.
My husband has not been well in quite a while, but we don’t know why. He was young only yesterday. He was young until a doctor told him that his heart hiccupped just slightly—nothing to worry about—but a doubt was planted and it could not be unsown.
He slumbers with two fingers to his throat, counting his heartbeats until he falls asleep. He has started to hurt from within, he says, the pain gnaws from deep in his bones, an invisible unrelenting ache. I cannot see what he feels. I cannot see his pain. I do not know what is there and what is not. It makes me feel guilty to wonder.
My father calls me in the middle of the night, gasping for breath. Come, he says, I am having a heart attack, it is almost time. I fall for this twice, running to his side, before I realize the ruse. He is not ill, he only tugs at the end of a string, testing my presence and demanding my attention where little had ever been offered in return. He so deftly inhabits the role of the aggrieved: the correct, desired response is for me to run to him to prove myself as the loyal, dutiful daughter. The third time he calls, I ask if he wishes me to call an ambulance. His voice falters—it’s not so bad, I am okay now, he mumbles. I hang up the phone.
I remind myself that my husband is not the same.
I arrive home to find thousands of tiny carcasses gathered underneath the bedroom windows. They are termites, mostly dead—a few twitch, stumble, and exhale their last breaths. They have been living in the windowsills and walls, softly gnawing at the wood, unseen, biding their time until finally choosing to break through the grain of the wood, boring through the plaster and paint, towards the light. They are swarmers; their only purpose to reproduce or perish. They had poured out from the seams of the windows, a speckled cloud of darkness billowing in the empty bedroom for a brief airborne moment, searching for new mates and new land, until fruitless, their wings snapped and they collapsed, a thirsty, gasping pile of broken wings and bodies.
To keep them out we press clear masking tape over the window frames, over the cracks in the walls and the seams of the jambs, a fragile seal, catching an errant insect or two under the plastic in the process—taxidermied termites, encased in a clear coffin.
We don’t open the windows again.
On a dry July day the earth trembles and heaves beneath us. It's just the bus on La Cienega, my husband murmurs, but the walls lurch again and we bolt out the door and down the stairs.
During an earthquake, convention says to stay inside, to frame your bodies beneath a doorway, to crouch and clutch at table legs, to shield your body from the falling debris. We are told that the strength of such structures will save us, that beams and rafters are built to bear weight and shelter us within their negative spaces. But our apartment is old, a crumbling Spanish Colonial relic that perhaps once held a vague glamour—now its bones creak and bend, and there is no assurance that it can weather the earth’s shudder. It is hollowed out on the inside.
I press my bare feet into the cracks on the sidewalk as we watch our building sway.
We watch to see if it will hold.
“ This story began as a meditation on places and people on the verge of decay, anticipatory fears, and living on unstable ground. ”