san francisco: after the flood
short story. our protagonist is named after a piece of fruit
Valencia Street turns into Venice overnight. When the earthquake hits, San Francisco has already been flooded for seven days. The streets are swollen with suspicious looking water, water that swallows tires and sidewalks, water that remains permanently waist deep (the only measuring stick are the homeless people wading through). The SF City Gov tweets hourly about the dangers of sewage (and syringes and feces) mixing with the flood water, warns everyone to stay inside. Pointless, Clement thinks, clicking the mute button. No one in their right mind wants to go outside right now. Although there are plenty of people in their wrong mind in this city: there have been a few viral tiktoks of teenagers paddling the floodwaters on surf boards, and since the fifth day, there is sometimes a white sailboat blasting bad bunny.
Clement is scrolling through twitter on his phone— a habit he adopted during company-wide zoom calls—when he reads the tweet that causes his heart to lurch.
He looks down at the time stamp. One minute has passed since the tweet was published. 20,874 retweets. 1,009 likes. The quote retweets:
"there’s no way this is real…right?"
"shit u guys there's no time to run"
"My fiance lives in Hayes Valley and he isn't picking up the phone pLEASE help"
"the largest recorded earthquake was a 9.5 in Chile in the 1960s. sending prayers to the souls in California"
Clement takes a deep breath and closes his laptop. The product manager, a delicate man who wears $500 t-shirts, is in the middle of describing "the parameters of the protocol" for the new marketing campaign they are launching.
The ground beneath his feet is still. Clement walks to the window and peers outside. Nothing has changed. Palm trees, victorian houses. Gray clouds loom. At least the weather was somber, he thinks. Clement has lived in this apartment for 6 years, with partners or roommates, and for the last year—with a stroke of good fortune from early crypto investments—by himself. He likes how the west-facing windows frame the sunset perfectly, and how the oldest ice-cream store (and his favorite pistachio ice cream) is half a block away.
He has not been outside for 8 days. The day before the flooding, the city was slammed with torrential rain. Because he could afford it, he paid someone to get his groceries for him: 20 minutes later the instacart guy showed up looking resentful and drenched (the last order before brown men on bicycles were replaced by brown men in kayaks). Clement left a reasonable tip to offset his guilt. In retrospect, he wishes he went outside anyways, that final day where sidewalks were walkable, wishes to have done something entirely impractical like put on swim shorts and ran through the streets singing.
His heart is beating more rapidly now. He crawls under the dining table with his personal laptop this time. Feeling a little ridiculous, he opens a notion page on his laptop and titled it "will". Clement has always been the kind of person who leans towards over-preparing. This is completely precautionary, he says out loud.
Looking at the empty document, he realizes: despite spending the last 6 years working, he doesn't have much to his name outside of what’s in this house—and everything here will presumably be destroyed if the will becomes useful. While compared to the rest of the world, Clement is undeniably well-off, for San Francisco, he has always been unspectacular. The budget for his company’s Christmas party exceeds his annual salary. He's a mediocre employee—competent and intelligent, but easily distracted, often preoccupied. His last manager's end of year review: "brilliant when he is invested in a project—which is about 20% of the time.” Scathing, but he felt oddly seen by this— he wasn't aware she payed enough attention to notice how half-heartedly he tended to his duties. Truthfully, he has always been indifferent about work, though it occupied most of his waking hours. It made the most sense in college to study Computer Science, and it made the most sense to get a job in the field after. His life panned out how he planned: He has a generous salary and will likely never be without employment.
What does he do? Most days, he isn't sure. Hopping between calls and scrolling through twitter, mostly. For the last few years, he had been the go-to person for coding rounded corners (and occasionally changing the color) of "Submit" "About" and "Accept" buttons on e-commerce websites. Work has never consumed him. His job makes the most sense when he imagines he would die peacefully from old age (after he cashed out his 401k). But now, unmarried at 30, he feels less certain that he charted his life correctly. To have spent most of his youth curled like a popcorn shrimp in an ergonomic chair—for what? A few nice trips a year, an apartment with more space than he needs?
Clement decides after today, he would quit his job and look for something that excites him. He would start fresh.
He begins to type.
To Stephen [stepdad]: chickpeas (if they are salvageable)
Right at the beginning of the pandemic, he made the prudent decision to buy a dozen industrial sized cans of chickpeas. Over the last two years, he has made hummus, chickpea curry, chickpea salad, and he still has enough chickpeas to last the next decade, probably.
To Angelina [half-sister]: Calvin and Hobbes comics
Angelina is now 14 and rarely looks up from her phone when he visits home. For the last 3 years, the distance between them seems to only widen, but he loves her and worries about her constantly. One of his happiest memories was a weekend when she was seven, he pulled out a stack of his favorite comics and sat her on his lap. She became immediately absorbed in this world he also loves, with stuffed tigers and snowmen that came to life and spaceships to other galaxies. Their joy that day left a bright spot in his mind—the opposite of a scar, something more like a light switch. He would like her to remember a time when he knew how to make her happy.
[his comic books are read by Angelina’s children, 20 years later. ]
To Lorraine [mother]: all my savings.
His mother who fell in love with a navy seal at 21 and never looked back, who had Clement at 23 on a military base in Seoul. In his earliest memories Lorraine was always humming around the house, filling vases with flowers and collecting smooth rocks, turkey feathers, pretty glass jars. When Clement was 7, his father died in a car accident. Just like that, all the magic in their lives vanished. He never saw his mother cry but for the next ten years, he didn’t hear her laugh either. To be fair, he barely saw her. They moved to a small one bedroom apartment near Clement’s grandparents. Lorraine got a job cleaning rooms at the Hyatt downtown and worked nights at the casino next door. This was the loneliest period of Clement’s life. But his mother managed to pay for his piano lessons, viola lessons, skiing trips, his CS degree at Carnegie Mellon and grad school after.
To Samantha [girlfriend]: my music books, Lola's [Clement’s grandmother—deceased] emerald earrings—and the corner of my jawline.
He hesitates and deletes the last part.
Too intimate. And he isn't sure how seriously people take wills, if a mortician will actually deliver a piece of his skull to her. The first time Sam spent the night Clement told her to pick a spot on his face that could be hers and she chose the dropped angle from his ear down to the chin. She said: when we're 90 and we’re losing our memories we’ll kiss the corner of each other's jawline. This is how we will remember.
Where does he send this? He has no idea how wills work and little interest in reading a wikihow article. He decides he just needs to ensure it makes it to someone on the list. Clement considers who would be most unfazed by a will via email during work hours and ends up sending the link to his stepdad. Subject line: just in case (SF earthquake).
Next he moves on to consider the seven people starred on his contact list. He wants to leave them a message that wouldn’t alarm them if he survives, but would console them if he doesn’t. He records:
"Hey, it's me. I love you, you know that? A part of me exists with you always, and that part will always love you"
He clicks send.
[After Clement dies, this voice recording will be played a total of 4,297 times over the next 6 decades.]
There is that question that sometimes arises at parties or on dates when they run out of things to say "if you could only save one thing from a burning house, what would it be?"
He climbs out from under the dining table to fish out a jar of old letters, birthday cards, polaroids from college and movie stubs from high school. More than anything, Clement wants this jar to survive. He opens the window next to the dining table. Clement double checks that the lid is sealed shut and ties a long piece of string around the jar and carefully lowers it out the window, until it is bobbing in the floodwater. He ties the other end of string around his wrist as he climbs under the table once more.
He hopes if there is one way he is remembered, it will be through this jar of letters now bobbing in murky water, the contours of his life traced by every sentimental things he’s ever saved.
[the jar is shattered by a fallen telephone line 20 minutes later, the contents turn into pulp]
He imagines the things he wishes he could change are rather boring, they are things everyone wishes to change.
He wishes he gave more of himself to the world, or maybe just this city. Every time a friend visits, they comment on the downward spiral that is San Francisco: the chaos of market street, the sheets of cardboard and comforters and sleeping bags outside of nice restaurants, the homelessness that seems insidious and spreading. Clement never knows what to say—poverty makes his stomach coil and he prefers to not think about it. Every time he walks by a homeless person, he averts his eyes and a part of him knows this is terrible, to look away from someone vulnerable. He regrets knowing this and doing it anyways. He wishes to have acknowledged the people sitting on the streets when they asked for money, he wishes to have looked at them, long enough so they feel considered, carefully enough to notice the colour of their eyes. He wishes to have stopped and listened more, listened without judgement or impatience for five minutes even, to have bought someone a sandwich or a hotel room on occasion. He wishes to have done more interesting things with his wealth.
He wishes he asked Samantha to marry him before she left for her music residency.
Samantha. He tries his best not to think about her because it is easy to get lost in those thoughts. They call every night but he misses falling asleep with his hand cupping her left breast, misses how their bodies curve to fit each other. The last few months have made him certain: this is the woman he wants to spend his life with. (To be honest, he was already certain halfway through their second date when she turned around and grinned at him, holding a daisy between her teeth). Clement will not survive the next 48 hours. There is no future in their story arch. But he is not thinking about that right now. He is only trying to hold onto the fragments he knows. The arch of her spine, her hair unspooling like loose thread and covering her face, her eyebrows furrowed in concentration. How she looks waking up in the morning, squinting and rubbing his back, asking if he needs coffee. Samantha at her most magnificent: wearing a ratty sweater and sitting on old newspapers with her legs crossed, using kitchen scissors to snip the ends off string beans.
This is what Clement thinks about in his last moments on earth. Once, the woman he loves made dinner for the two of them at this table. This is his last thought before the ground begins to shake.
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