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Sisterland(4)
Curtis Sittenfeld

“Do we go to the basement?” I said to Jeremy. The shaking had definitely stopped.

“That’s tornadoes.”

“What is it for earthquakes?” In retrospect, it’s hard to believe I needed to ask, hard to believe I had reached the age of thirty-four and given birth to two children without bothering to learn such basic information.

Jeremy said, “In theory, you get under a table, but staying in bed is okay, too.”

“Really?” We looked at each other, my husband sweet and serious in his gray T-shirt and blue-striped boxer shorts, our daughter draped across him.

“You want me to check?” He meant by looking online from his phone, which he kept beside the bed at night.

“We shouldn’t call Courtney, should we?” I said. “They must have felt it if we did.” Courtney Wheeling was Jeremy’s colleague at Washington University—his area of study was aquatic chemistry, hers was seismology and plate tectonics—and she and her husband, Hank, lived down the street and were our best friends.

“It doesn’t seem necessary,” Jeremy said. “I’ll look at FEMA’s website, but I think the best thing is for all of us to go back to bed.”

I nodded my chin toward Rosie. “Keeping them with us or in their own rooms?”

Rosie’s head popped up. “Rosie sleeps with Mama!” A rule of thumb with Rosie was that whether I did or didn’t think she was following the conversation, I was always wrong.

“Keeping them,” Jeremy said. “In case of aftershocks.”

In our room, I climbed into bed holding Owen, shifting him so he was nestled in my right arm while Jeremy helped Rosie settle on my other side. I wasn’t sure whether to be alarmed or pleasantly surprised that Jeremy was all right with having the kids sleep with us. In general, he was the one who resisted bringing them into our bed; he’d read the same books in Rosie’s infancy that I had, half of which argued that sharing a bed with your kids was the most nurturing thing you could do and the other half of which warned that doing so would result in your smothering them either figuratively or literally. But I liked when they were close by—whether or not it really was safer, at some primitive level it felt like it had to be—and the thought of them sleeping alone in their cribs sometimes pinched at my heart. Besides, I could never resist their miniature limbs and soft skin.

Rosie curled toward me then, tapping my arm, and I turned—awkwardly, because of how I was holding Owen—to look at her. She said, “Rosie wants a banana.”

“In the morning, sweetheart.”

Jeremy had gone to the window that faced the street, and he parted the curtains. “Everyone’s lights are on,” he said.

“A monkey eats a banana peel,” Rosie declared. “But not people.”

“That’s true,” I said. “It would make us sick.”

Jeremy was typing on his phone. After a minute, he said, “There’s nothing about it online yet.” He looked up. “How’s he doing?”

“He’s more asleep than awake, but will you get an extra binky just in case?” Surely this was evidence of the insularity of our lives: that unless otherwise specified, whenever Jeremy or I said he, we meant our son, and whenever we said she, we meant our daughter. On a regular basis, we sent each other texts consisting in their entirety of one letter and one punctuation mark: R? for How’s Rosie doing? and O? for How’s Owen? And surely it was this insularity that so irritated Vi, whereas to me, the fact that my life was suburban and conventional was a victory.

Jeremy returned from Owen’s room with a second pacifier, handed it to me, and lay down before turning off the light on his nightstand. Then—I whispered, because whispering seemed more appropriate in the dark—I said, “So if there are aftershocks, we just stay put?”

“And keep away from windows. That’s pretty much all I could find on the FEMA site.”

“Thanks for checking.” Over Owen’s head, I reached out to rub Jeremy’s shoulder.

I felt them falling asleep one by one then, my son, my daughter, and my husband. Awake alone, I experienced a gratitude for my life and our family, the four of us together, accounted for and okay. In contrast to the agitation I’d been gripped by before the earthquake, I was filled with calmness, a sense that we’d passed safely through a minor scare—like when you speed up too fast in slow highway traffic and almost hit the car in front of you but then you don’t. The argument with Vi, inflated prior to the quake, shrank to its true size; it was insignificant. My sister and I had spent three decades bickering and making up.

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