Issue Twenty-Three -- Winter 2014

The Safest Place in an Earthquake

By Sara Greenwald

Myra, riding the inbound express to the Financial District, looks up from her cell phone at 33rd Avenue and sees bullet points. She can make out part of the text:

• Polaris calculates the probabilistic critical path …
• Polaris quantifies the lead sources and schedule-revision impacts…

She likes that. Polaris applies statistics when things are going wrong. The bullets are on a rolled-up poster in the hands of a man with blond hair trimmed along the sides to casually mingling layers, and on top a soft blond curl like a cresting wave. Under the wave are blue-gray eyes and cheeks just tan of pink, so well scrubbed they remind her of sand at the beach at the other end of this bus line, the cliff edge of San Francisco. She has seen him twice before on this bus, but the interval between sightings was so long that she didn’t bother to record him. Now, she minimizes the market RSS feed on her cell website, clicks to the calendar function, and enters “38AX” for the bus line, and “Rob.” Wait, no need to make up a name. She backs the cursor over Rob and enters “Polaris.”

Polaris must be on his way to show that rolled-up poster at a conference. His black suit looks cost-aware. The cotton shirt of a nearly denim blue hints that his firm has guys who work. Indeed he’s one of them, lugging in his work to stand beside it at the poster session to explain and pitch and generally sell. She clicks to her office calendar. Before the first meeting at 8 a.m. there should be time to do a couple of internet searches on keywords “Polaris + conference” and maybe “program management.” Another quick look at the poster. “Polaris + NASA.”

He glances at her, maybe because she’s wearing an ugly chemical-green jacket her company handed around to employees when a product launched, which she never wears, except today when she couldn’t find her regular coat, which was strange because Myra never loses things. She is the tidy daughter of a tidy mom. She grew up in a tidy low stucco house in an inland part of South San Francisco where all the houses are low, so that in case of earthquake they merely flex or tilt or fall apart completely, leaving few perilous big chunks of debris. If an earthquake comes while you are sleeping, the safest course is to stay in bed. She learned this from a booklet given her on the occasion of her first communion by her Uncle Dom, and put by her mother on a too-high shelf where it sat for years before a teenaged Myra noticed it. Last week she saw the book when she and the relatives were there to divide the estate and close the sale on the house, which her mother had willed to her.

She laughs now, in the middle of Japantown where the streetlights aren’t synched and the bus creeps slow. She never realized the first-communion gift of a book about earthquakes was a comment on faith. She almost laughs aloud again in the office, when she thinks of it while she waits for the results of her web search on Polaris. No wonder mom stuck the booklet on a shelf so high.

Uncle Dom is Myra’s favorite relative, the only one who didn’t criticize when she was suspended from high school for posting charts on the school website of the “um”s she counted in different teachers’ lectures. He said, “Discovery is observing what others have only seen.” He let her stay at his place when she fought with mom, and when she finally moved he unpacked boxes while she found a place for each item and typed it onto her spreadsheet. When it was done, she showed it to him. He said, “You’re a woman who needs to live alone.”

The internet tells her Polaris is the North Star. She wanders through images of stars over moonlit water and astronomy sites. Most likely it’s a spinoff from project planning at NASA, which could be interesting though she’s never paid much attention to public sector. She writes “North Star” in her calendar just as the reminder that she set to Snooze pops up and she has to dash for the conference room. Checking social websites will have to wait.

At the 8 a.m. meeting, while higher-ups draft a goal statement for work already done, Myra remembers where she left the coat. Mom’s house. The relatives had fallen once again into questions of furniture, and to whom mom promised what, and when. Myra sat absolutely quiet, reviewing the chart on her calendar of the length of the property fights in their series back almost to the day of the funeral. This one had almost run the projected length and wound down when a little cousin ran in from the bedroom, having opened the top dresser drawer to play with the bright plastic bracelets and necklaces that decorated every artsy California woman three or four decades ago, and found mom’s wedding ring. Mom wasn’t buried in it because she separated from Dad years ago, and Myra had forgotten about it. So this spat became an outlier on the chart, with every aunt and uncle and second cousin shouting about what to do with the ring. Actually Myra didn’t get a good data point for the length of the argument, because it was still going on when she and Uncle Dom went out for tacos, so hastily that Myra forgot her coat.

It’s almost noon when she happens to think of the man on the bus again while a software emulator reboots from a minor crash. She searches “Polaris + planning + convention.” Surely whatever event he’s presenting that rolled-up poster at has a website – yes, after a lot of junk about space exploration and how to get rich in a business of your own, she finds a meeting of an organization for dental-equipment suppliers, now going on a couple of blocks away.

Dental suppliers emerge from morning sessions as Myra stands fingering the swag on one of the vendors’ tables, no specific plan in mind. The attendees make a typical flow pattern: trailing edge still in the rooms, leading edge in the elevator, one or two already on the street. The bulge of the bell curve, meandering around the vendor booths and posters, includes an ex-classmate who waves. She waves too, but he’s drawn away to an eddy of dental people swapping business cards and inviting each other to lunch. She continues examining t-shirts emblazoned with pictures of teeth.

Polaris strides out of a meeting room. Passing the table without a glance, he strides on, down the row of booths and posters and out of sight. Myra, strolling cautiously, finds him rolling up the poster he held on the bus, thanking a pair of coworkers who head for the elevator. His company must not have paid for the afternoon session. A stocky black-suited man with a security badge takes a quick glance at Myra’s tagless chest and gives her a friendly smile, so she goes to the elevator behind the coworkers. As the doors open, all three of them look back toward Polaris. One of the men tells the other in a vaguely foreign accent, “He’s taking the stairs.”

They’re on the fifth floor. So Polaris likes to walk. He may stroll a bit in the morning, either before or after getting off the bus. The 38 express buses run about 15 minutes apart during morning commute hours. She might double or triple her chances of spotting him just by taking an earlier bus than her usual and walking around for half an hour. It’s good exercise. In the early morning she can sometimes smell the ocean air from her bus stop, since the 38 runs along Geary Avenue almost to the sea. On the way back to the office she picks up a cheap jacket that will do as a substitute for the ugly chemical green until she has time to get her overcoat back from the house, if the new owners haven’t thrown it out.

When she does spot Polaris, after a couple of weeks arriving rosy-cheeked at work and falling asleep in 10 a.m. meetings, the office to which she follows him is an unmarked door in a big old brick landmark called the Mills Building that houses all kinds of things. The bottom floor has an exhibition of paintings with an explanatory poster, but he isn’t there looking at it, and she wouldn’t learn much by coming back later to watch him look or even stop for lunch at the street-floor café. No, she has learned all she can from the early walks. She stops them, glad to spend that extra half hour in bed. She prefers to go to the gym after work and on weekends. Most likely that’s when Polaris goes, as he must; he can’t possibly stay in that shape with a stroll or two a day. A downtown gym would explain why she never sees him on the bus going home.

Meanwhile, at the office a lead designer is infected with bright ideas, for the realization of which they are all expected to work late and early. It annoys them all to have to rush to break down a perfectly good design so they can rebuild it to fit the new vision of someone who hasn’t touched his finger to a keyboard in years. She works until she’s nearly asleep; she wakes to read office email as soon as the morning alarm goes off. There’s always a stack of messages that piled up in the wee hours and a new crop of voicemails on her phone. Team members with spouses and kids make rueful jokes. Everybody starts to bicker over tiny things. Somebody eats what somebody else had put in the break room fridge and shouts echo down the hall so loud that people come in and yell full volume, “Shut up!” The only days she rides the bus at commuter hours are on weekends.

It’s odd that when she steals a moment over double espresso to websurf, she can find no San Francisco address for the Polaris company, not even at the building to which she followed him. His desk must be in one of those tiny outposts the home office doesn’t want heard of, lest they decide to close it down and financial bloggers trumpet the closing as a sign of some big deal gone flat, which in all likelihood would be true. She thinks of this while undoing her own work to make room for the bright idea. So much of the industry is building in little features nobody uses, and jostling for work that doesn’t need doing because the contract will profit someone who’s already got too much. In a fury of exhaustion she downloads some work that shouldn’t leave the office and takes it home.

Furthermore, she doesn’t get off at her stop but takes the bus all the way to Land’s End, where she can get out while the driver takes his break and look over the ocean softly gray in the moonlight and the bright foamy tips of the breakers along the shore. She thinks of the patterns of ripples on the sea surface, always changing for such an intricacy of reasons that there is no predicting them. Real modeling is always like this if it is worth doing, she thinks. The world provides a miracle of data that the statistician approaches humbly, watching and building predictions and breaking them down to build infinitesimally better ones.

Finally her work group’s task is done. The higher-ups bore them with cashless praise. That evening Myra leaves a bit early to stroll along the Embarcadero after work, admiring the soft blue-gray trail of a sunset that must have lit the whole sky. Now is the time when things restore themselves. She feels calm about her mother and the relatives and can barely remember the fights about whatever they were about. The same for work; the quibbles were only fatigue and now the brilliant plan has gone on to the next department and the next, and maybe the work was good. Now, of course, the team will go back to the work that’s fallen behind in the rush. And soon another bright idea will dawn.

Walking down Market Street, she sees Polaris drive by in a car. Well, so much for that. On the bus she considers all the men attentively, but finds no one to record. In the morning the bus is equally full of strangers. She gives up and devotes her rides to sleep.
After several days, she wakes up when the bus honks loudly at some obdurate car. They’re on the hill with the furthest view, the long wide boulevard leading to the bright tips of the clustered towers downtown that catch the early sun. Two men across from her are ones she’s charted before. Two good new data points.

It’s alarming to flip to her calendar and find she can’t remember which code name belongs to either one. Worse, she has recorded virtually no data in the Personal Life mode for weeks that isn’t about Polaris. She flips to the special folder in her email for keep-in-touch notes from ex-coworkers and classmates and the like. None of them announce an event to add to her database; nothing needs more than the automatic “Thanks for writing! Keep in touch” that she set up her filter to send in reply. She deletes what looks like spam from an address she doesn’t recognize, but doesn’t want to go back to Personal Life. She goes to the trash and clicks.

“Great to see you at the dental assoc event. Coffee next week?” For an instant she almost gasps, but of course it’s not Polaris, only the ex-classmate who waved to her that day. And the email is so old she’s glad she opened it from the trash so that her “accidentally deleted” excuse, if he checks, will seem almost credible.

The ex-classmate texts back. He (Eric is the name) seems only too glad to forgive, or perhaps he’s forgotten sending his email and is even now searching her name in his contacts list. No matter, they both work downtown so they set up a quick café chat between fictional meetings invented as excuses to keep it short. Checking a few social-professional sites, she discovers that he interned in Florida for a summer with Polaris, but resolves not to ask about that.

Eric talks for almost half his coffee about his success and a recent promotion and how a leap like that strains relationships, most particularly in his case with a woman in a different department who —or more correctly, who used to but no longer does.

Myra tells him he ought to persist with the woman. His inter-relationship gaps in college and grad school averaged three months, which is how long he has been at the new pay grade. He has reached the stage at which he generally falls for the first new person to come along, and the durations of his relationships show a definite pattern of long and short, with short defined as under two weeks. She shows him the chart. “Not enough data points for statistical significance,” she concedes. “But.”

“You kept track of… of… All through college?” He’s glancing toward the door.

“We were friends,” she says.

“But you recorded–” He points toward her cell phone, cautiously, finger at a distance, as though it might give him a shock.

“Why not? I like stats.”

He’s still looking at her cell phone, but now he smiles. “Did you keep records on everybody? Let’s see what you’ve got.”

She turns the screen toward herself. There’s information here that people wouldn’t want him to see. She offers aggregate data plotted just as total relationships vs. time. It shows interesting ups and downs after summer and winter breaks, and a frenetic bulge around graduation that resulted in some awful marriages he can name just by seeing the dates. He’s laughing, so she shows him a correlation with full moons that comes tantalizingly close to significance. The football team’s winning games make an almost predictive match, although no one she knew ever went to or watched them much.

At this he falls silent. She must be boring him with her hobby, and is about put the cell phone away, but now he touches the screen. “Which points here are you?”

She hesitates.

“Hey, it’s only fair. You’ve got mine.”

True. She clicks to her PR (personal romantic) filter and hits a graphing function. “This isn’t normalized to my friends and I’m making finer distinctions,” she warns, but he still looks agog for a moment at the sheer number of data points. She says, “Some are guys I pass in the hall.” Only after she’s let him gaze a while does she realize he’s not looking at the Y axis, number of occurrences, but at the X axis, time.

“This covers your whole adult life,” he says, quite as if she’s a hundred years old. Maybe to cover the gaffe, he asks quickly, “What do the different colors mean?”

“Type of encounter.” She shows him the legend box with its black dot for sightings, green for exchange of greetings and so forth, but clicks away from it quickly, hoping he didn’t read down as far as red for bed.

He studies the graph again. “These are all sightings. Practically all the points on here are black since…” He pauses.

She looks and it’s true, there is a time when all the colors stop. She ought to have noticed that.

“What would you do if this one walked up and said hi?” His finger is on Polaris. She knows she’s turning a bright, ridiculous, grade-school-girl red. He lets her off by going on, “It’s a cool hobby. I’ve heard of some modeling clubs. Are you in any?” She isn’t. Most of the statisticians she used to know outside of work were meteorology buffs who charted patterns of climate change. The better the models, the sadder the meetings made her feel.

“Not that stuff,” he says, “Fun things. Batting averages against number of wives. Changes in cheese plasticity for different kinds of pizza with temperature when they get cold. I’ll send you the link.” He gives back the cell phone. Their cups are empty. They part.

That night she dreams that Polaris walks up to her. His eyes are the color of the moonlit ocean she saw from Land’s End. He opens his mouth but there is no “hi,” there’s a thunderous cave with the seawater rushing in and out, and now she is inside a cave during what must be an earthquake, the rock walls cracking apart and falling and in a moment the cave is gone, leaving only quiet water. An odd dream but not a nightmare, she decides when she’s turned on the light and brushed her teeth, because she didn’t feel afraid. She felt that she was in a safe place in an earthquake, though of course she would really have drowned. Maybe this thought makes her go cold, but heading out to the bus she wants her overcoat, her real coat, not the flimsy jacket she picked up as a stand-in for the chemical green.

She studies the Polaris chart on the morning bus. Only sightings, but so many sightings! She graphs the intervals between them and the line tends slightly downward; the sightings became more frequent. Was he seeking out her bus? But the square of the distance from the line to the points shows that the trend was never statistically significant. It could be an artifact of the weeks when she rode early and took the morning walk. On the other hand, the graph shows no break in the sighting frequency when she quit the walks and reverted to her regular bus. Anyhow, downtown is such gym-rich terrain that it might take years to run across him at one of those.

But now she clicks to the other chart, the one she showed to Eric at the café. She looks again at the time when the colors stopped. Mom’s death. She touches the phone icon and calls the new owners of the house. That very day, she goes at lunch in a cab to get the overcoat, still in the closet where she left it. The new owners, an extremely skinny old couple who speak mainly Tagalog, have not moved in. The boxes, stacked up on the old carpet where she learned to crawl as a baby, look dented and waterstained and sad. She huddles into the coat in the taxi, hands in the coat pockets, wishing she had called Uncle Dom.

The fingers of her left hand touch an unfamiliar lump with a wad of crumpled paper folded around it. The lump slides into her fingers. It’s the wedding ring. The driver offers a tissue as though accustomed to passengers bursting into tears.

She stays late at the office to make up the time lost on the long lunch. That night, Polaris boards the bus. This is a major deviation from the pattern. He has never gotten on the night bus. “Hello,” he says. “My name’s Drew. What’s yours?”

Her throat is dry. Her tongue cleaves to the roof of her mouth. She can’t remember. Her hands plunge into the pockets of her coat. Again she feels the wedding ring. She makes a fist in her pocket, so strong is the urge to slip the ring onto her third finger so he’ll go away. Her fingers are gripping the wadded paper when she pulls out her fist. At least she hasn’t pulled out the ring.

“The safest course in an earthquake,” he says. He’s moved to her side while she prized out the crumples and unfolded the sheet of paper in her lap. It’s the title page torn from that book of Uncle Dom’s. Maybe he tried to fit the book in the coat pocket but it wouldn’t go.

“What is the safest course in an earthquake?” Polaris asks. Not Polaris. Drew.

She turns over the page but the other side is blank. She can’t send him back to the anonymity of statistical data, but neither can she bear to tell him it depends on so many things that there are only probabilities, that life is a toss of the die. She says her name.

Copyright 2014 Greenwald