My First Time with River

Date: October 1987 Age: Nine Place: Glendale, California Love of my life: River Phoenix

I heard it first. But I was sure I was dreaming. I fell asleep on the couch that night because I begged Daddy to let me stay up to watch River on Johnny Carson. I wasn’t going to miss seeing Chris Chambers on T.V. It sounded like an enormous boulder was rolling down the Verdugo Mountains barreling towards our building. Then I felt it. My eyes popped open. My presumed dream was now turning into a real-life nightmare. It felt like the vibrating bed my sister Becky and I once sat on when Daddy took us to San Diego for the night on our trip to Sea World. We lived right next to the Golden State Freeway so I thought for a moment that maybe it was one of those big transport trucks careening off of the highway headed towards our apartment. Well, I guess this is how I die. Thanks, River you total fucking babe.

I sat up, screaming.

“Daddy!!” I wailed as he and my sister ran towards the front door.

“Jen, come to the door-now!” Daddy yelled as he opened the door as he braced himself in the door frame, clinging onto my sister.

But I was frozen; anchored to the couch in fear as I heard the four-litre glass jug of apple juice, completely full, tossing back and forth on the shelf in the fridge. The earth was shaking it. It was alive.

“Jen!” my sister screamed red-faced and teary. “Get up!”

Without a word, I threw off the blankets and ran to join them in the door way. Becky and I buried our faces into Daddy’s chest in tearful hysterics. This must’ve been how the empress felt in The Never Ending Story as she was waiting for her new name. Damnit Bastian, where the hell was my new name?!

And then it was over. The silence was almost deafening now.

Becky and Daddy’s faces looked grey in the pale light of dawn. I felt grey inside. And I wanted to throw up.

“Daddy, is it the end of the world?” I asked, still in disbelief.

“No Jen, that was an earthquake. It happens all the time. We’re lucky that we didn’t get hurt,” Daddy assured. “It’s over now. It’s going to be ok.”

He kissed me on my forehead, went into the kitchen, turned on the radio and started to make breakfast. Becky sat on the couch and started watching cartoons. I sat on the couch and joined her as Daddy made eggs. I didn’t understand how to feel. I didn’t want eggs and I didn’t want to watch cartoons. But I didn’t want to think about the earthquake. I wanted to go back to gushing over River Phoenix on Carson and eating Doritos on the couch. But I couldn’t get the sound out of my ears. I ate my eggs and swallowed them feverishly with Roman Meal toast slathered with Country Crock, and a hearty helping of anxiety.

It was Saturday. We had to go to The Eagle Rock Plaza to pick up vacuum bags so Daddy could vacuum the rug before our grandparents arrived that evening from Florida for a visit. Yes, vacuuming let’s do that. We only just almost died, but let’s make sure our carpet is free of potato chip and cereal crumbs for grandma and grandpa.

How could people still fly on airplanes and vacuum rugs when the whole world was just shaking? This was just lunacy to me. There should be news reporters swarming around everywhere and riots in the streets. The world was just shaking, why aren’t people breaking windows and stealing VCRS?

On the way to the car my anxiety caught up to me and brought along its friend nausea. I threw up in the bushes next to our front door.

“Great,” Becky squawked. “Now Grandma and Grandpa will have to walk past your pile of egg barf as they come in the front door.

“Shut up” I wailed. “You don’t even care! You just turned on The Care Bears like it nevepened!”

“So what, you watched too!” she snapped. “It was just a stupid earthquake Jen. Like Daddy said, it happens all the time. So, who cares!”

“Girls, enough.” Daddy intervened calmly. “Lets go.”

As we walked towards the car I thought to tell Daddy that I needed to go back inside to get something to drink. My throat was burning sour after getting sick. Then I remembered the apple juice. I hadn’t looked in the fridge since the night before the end of the world started. I was clearly in crisis mode. I wondered if the jug had toppled over? Daddy didn’t say anything about it. I will never forget the sound of it rocking back and forth in the fridge like a beast in a cage. I was trying to wrap my head around the fact that the earth made it all happen. I was also trying to talk myself out of the possibility that earthquakes were supernatural. I couldn’t stop thinking that they were an invisible entity that would only strike when you were safe in your bed, snuffing out your life as Julio who lived upstairs in apartment four came crashing down on my Raggedy-Ann comforter screaming “Holy shit!” After that visual I decided it was time to get a hold of myself. I asked Daddy to stop at The Circle K so I could get a Cherry Coke. Surely the cool caramel coloured sweetness would set me straight.

For the next few years I slept on the couch most nights. That way I could be closer to the doorway in case another quake hit. It didn’t matter who was on Carson;my memories of rattling apple juice jugs kept me on the couch until Leno took over.

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One thought on “My First Time with River

  1. Jen Thanks for the River story. It was a powerful 5.9 earthquake and there were some big aftershocks. We were all scared. Keep writing it’s good for us and good for you. River was a great actor and touched us all. Good job Love Dad

    Liked by 1 person

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