: : Here Be Dragons
// A Smythe
Geographers ... crowd into the edges of their maps parts of the world which they do not know about, adding notes in the margin to the effect that beyond this lies nothing but sandy deserts full of wild beasts, and unapproachable bogs.
Plutarch, Life of Theseus (circa 75 AD)
I am standing in front of an illuminated map of the Houston Galleria, attempting to locate myself within this 2.5 million square foot shrine to material consumption. I used to know my way around this place blindfolded. It’s the country’s fourth largest mall in its fourth largest city, a city I abandoned four years earlier. The mall in our new little town is an hors d’oeuvre compared to this one. It’s spring break and I’ve brought my tween daughters back to the cradle of their childhood and they are on a giddy mission to revisit Dylan’s Candy Bar, the Disney Store and Libby Lu’s but I can’t remember which wings and which floors these stores are on—new geographies, among other things, have occupied my brainspace. We’re on a tight agenda this trip and I go back and forth on whose priorities should take precedence. I want to squeeze in all the places my girls miss most, the places that will remind them of what is normal, happy and enduring, that might extract whatever refrains of carefree childhood laughter that remain despite their parents’ failings. I am also desperate to drag my devastated heart into the embrace of old friends and the places that had been mine long before I’d married—the skating path in Memorial Park, my writing table in the courtyard of Brasil, a restaurant at Dunlavey and Westheimer with no signage, the apartment on Sul Ross I lived in when I was in grad school. I’ve conceded Indian fare at Khyber House for James Coney Island, an afternoon at the Menil for overpriced rides at the Downtown Aquarium where, after consuming industrially produced chicken dino nuggets, the girls will decorate star-shaped rice crispie treats with colored icing and sprinkles. We’ll only have time to accomplish the top tier sacred stuff. Well-heeled shoppers from uptown and on quick jaunts up from Mexico City jostle me as I scan the large map and I want to bark at them to back off, conscious of every minute I’m wasting, anxious to match store code to colored rectangle and formulate an efficient route through the incessant din of chattering voices and elevator dings. I locate the “You are Here” marker. Relief wells up and I exhale in the same moment I realize I’ve been holding my breath. Tears poke at the corner of my eyes. Someone knows precisely where I am. I am here. I am here.
For some months now I’ve woken up at various hours of the night with no sense of where I was, a common experience for the newly displaced. But it’s coincided with the sensation of not knowing who I was or even what I was—I suddenly emerge into darkness as a blinking wad, void of consciousness of a self, a detached observer newly hatched into the universe, suspended, before any defining facts cohere and establish me in place and time or even as “me.” Floating in this waystation before my eyes begin to adjust, my mind flails about for purchase: Am I twelve? Twenty? Forty-five? Is this the house I grew up in? My Cambridge apartment? The house I built with my husband, our daughters sleeping peacefully in twin beds down the hall? I orient myself on these awakenings by triangulating the position of the bed in relation to the emulsion of windows and doorways, mentally culling through rooms I have woken in until a wallop of recognition whacks me upright: I am in Columbia, Missouri, alone in a bed I once offered to guests, in a strange house, my new house, my daughters sleeping miles away in the home of their father. Where I used to sleep. Oh, yeah. That me.
After four unbearably long months of bleak winter days, parcels of sunshine arriving in minutes and hours, and still hostage to mood ravaging atmospherics I’d not reckoned on when we departed the perpetual summertime of Houston, the X’s marking the squares on the calendar finally completed their interminable march to spring break. I herded my daughters, their bathing suits, flat irons and electronics into the car, filled the tank and, after a hard left at Kansas City, fled south on I-35: to warmth, to light, to riotous blooming, to the place we’d left behind for what I’d been certain would be greener pastures.
I was traveling without my husband of 13 years, having moved out of our home two dreary months earlier, in the frigid temperatures of January. Plans for the next chapter—raising our daughters in an idyllic college town featuring fresh air, four seasons and a scenic natural landscape in which to grow old and gray together—crumbled almost on arrival. Marital troubles, exacerbated by addiction and mental health issues we thought we’d left behind in Houston, arrived as tightly packed as the boxes of clothes and books we offloaded from the United Van Lines semi. Now, four years on, Missouri had come no closer to feeling like home, and though I could no longer say where or what home was I was consumed with the desire to return to former places and faces, to wallow in the long known, the worn out and used up, the spurned and rutted paths of the deeply familiar.
Innumerable incidents had transpired to bring me to exactly this place, starting with events that occurred long before I was born, such as the precise strength of gravity that allowed the universe to coalesce but not collapse and including every action taken or not taken by a countless multitude of people besides me and including my parents, their parents and so on. “Go back just eight generations to about the time that Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln were born, and already there are over 250 people on whose timely couplings your existence depends,” writes Bill Bryson. 250 people, of whom I’d only ever known a handful, yet whose existences directly determined almost everything about me. I had as little say in who those 250 DNA donors would be as I did of my nationality, economic status, race, appearance, talent, intelligence, physical and mental health, the family that would raise me, the cultural mores that would and would not have access to me and whether my epoch would extol pharaohs or princes or presidents, which is to say, absolutely none. All of these vastly formative influences, not to mention the fact that I showed up at all, completely beyond my control.
Once my entry into the human race was fait accompli and I began my unique-as-a-snowflake 10 billion heartbeat death march through the pages of history, was I indeed, as William Ernest Henley yowls, “Master of my fate and captain of my destiny?” How many times (and how many times not) have I been conscious of the fact that one seemingly tiny action, my own or someone else’s, has changed the course of my life? In looking back over my past is there really anything I could have done differently since, however promising other forks in the road might now appear from the perspective of time and wisdom, the salient fact is I did not take them?
Which is to concede that my life, every life, is a nonreplicable narrative, tweaked and turned on the mundane and the miraculous, a story being invented instant by instant, one that we cannot control or accurately predict very much about, leaving us equal parts unsettled (it’s pointless to try to guess what might happen next) and exhilarated (something will happen next.) I’m forever rereading and critiquing the novel in which I have been and remain the protagonist and the villain, waltzing with angels and demons, friends and strangers, through inexhaustible reversals—a book I can’t put down.
I am here and you are not. I googled your name again today and still nothing comes up. There is no digital record of you ever having existed, much less departed. Poof. It’s still hard to digest that you’re gone though it’s been 15 years, longer than the duration of my marriage. Death, in our modern scattered geographies and digital relationships, can feel like just another version of absence. He is not here, said Jesus to Martha and Mary after their brother died, he is sleeping. He’s out of town. He’s offline. He is not here.
Not here. My first best friend, Robin, moved into the new house two doors down from our new house in New Jersey.
She had a log playhouse identical to the one in my backyard. Robin had a Barbie doll and I had a Tammy doll, Barbie’s cheaper rival. We trapped squirrels in her hamster cage, fed baby rabbits with eye droppers, pressed maple leaves in albums, rode bikes around the block, and asked every long haired teenage boy that passed on our sidewalk if he was one of the Beatles. Paul and John were regulars, and we saved all the autographs they scrawled on the paper bags we’d grabbed from our kitchens before they got away. I wore my “friends forever” necklace for a year or two after a moving van rolled up and carried her to Illinois. We wrote letters for a while, until we didn’t.
Not long after Robin moved away, my grandmother died. Our grandmother, although you were still a few years away from your debut in this story so you never knew her. She lived with a parakeet named Pete in a tiny basement apartment in Queens. On weekends she’d ride the bus to Matawan and Dad would pick her up at the station. She’d arrive with the same Macy’s shopping bag which held her modest weekend supplies and from which she’d surprise me with tiny wooly suits she’d knitted for my Tammy doll, which looked like something Barbie’s grandmother would have worn. When Bremmon was diagnosed with cancer she didn’t go home anymore, she slept on the downstairs pullout couch, until she didn’t.
And Cathy Mac? When she’d come home from college with me you’d follow us around all googly-eyed. You weren’t even shaving yet. She pronounced cantaloupe “can-ELL-o-pee” and thought marshmallows grew in swamps. We didn’t hold that against her because she’d spent her childhood in France so how would she know? And because two of her three brothers died of muscular dystrophy by the time we were seniors. Several years later she carried a child through a cancerous pregnancy, postponing treatment to protect the life she held in her womb. The daughter she lived to hold in her arms will retain no memory of her touch. At least we all remember you.
I thought your loss was the worst I would ever be required to bear. I didn’t think I would ever cry harder, grieve more deeply, ask so ferociously Why? I never understood how you could choose to exit, how anything could become unbearable enough that for relief you’d opt to cease to exist. I do now. But because you did, I know I never will.
Houston is internationally famous for its Galleria. I’m not particularly thrilled it’s the spot my kids most want to revisit. Upon our move to ten acres in the country, it became evident that they were more comfortable with concrete than grass, with A/C than fresh air, with the 24/7 whoosh of traffic than sounds of owls and coyotes outside our windows, or the silence we encountered under the vivid stars we introduced them to, stripped of ambient city glow. I was grateful to have moved before they were swallowed whole by a culture of consumption and manmade environments. At our mall the Gap is as fancy as it gets.
When I was a child, I was as much of the world as a rabbit or bird. I swam in it, climbed on it, played with it. I picked its fruit, skipped its rocks, splashed in its puddles, squished in its mud. I didn’t notice the world, I was in the world and I was of it.
It wasn’t until I went off to college on the vast, flat plains of West Texas that I began to notice I lived in a landscape. I was enthralled by the size of the sky and its wild sunsets, sandstorms, and starlight. How the horizon was a clean seam between heaven and earth. I began to see the world that hosted my existence. I felt the crunch of sandy soil under my feet and the way the hot air blasted my face, I saw rows of cotton striping fields and smelled the stench of pig farms north of campus. After leaving Lubbock I moved to Boston which, treed, hilly and architecturally dense, felt claustrophobic. In the city the sky was an afterthought. Without a car, I’d ride the T out as far as I could to get to the coast where I could find the horizon. But come my first fall, on a winding drive through the rises and troughs of the White Mountains, foliage ablaze in every direction, I was enamored again. I’d seen leaves turn before, I’d pressed them into books in my childhood. But I’d only seen the leaves, not the trees.
As my daughters mature amidst the green hills we’ve moved them to, I hope they, too, come to recognize there is no birdsong, no thunderstorm, no unfurling petal to be found within the confines of a mall, whatever its size.
A map: a rendering of a place someone else has encountered, traveled, pondered, measured. And returned from. It’s a record of the verdant, the hazardous, and the pathway through. Everything we believe, all we think we know, requires us to place our trust in the testimony, perceptions, and analysis of someone who has gone before us. Roman and medieval cartographers inscribed the classical phrase, “Here are lions,” to denote unexplored areas. In Asia, a 15th century globe’s uncharted territory warns, “Here be dragons.” These areas at the edges of charted lands were illustrated with serpents, sea monsters, dragons and mythical creatures with the assumption that to venture on into the unknown is to embark on a frightening and treacherous journey. To leave the charted is to embrace risk, danger, discovery. Most of us will never leave the four corners of our known worlds until forced to, until something drives us past the security of recognizable borders. Propelling ourselves beyond the comfort and assumptions of the known is our only avenue to unfiltered experience, our ticket to peer clear-eyed through an unsmudged lens, our means to confirm what is true and dispute what is not in the accounts of others who have gone before us. It is how we expand the borders of the map, mark a new path, leave our gifts of insight to those that follow after. Ahead may well lie wild beasts and unapproachable bogs. But so did the past. The dragons I’ve already encountered have prepared me for dragons to come. It’s just as likely that ahead may lie fairies, unicorns, and unspoiled oases.
Not here. My daughters have just driven away with their father, my time over, and again I feel my insides rip away as they disappear around the corner, the loss I will rehearse weekly until the day I wave and they don’t return at all. This is not the path I signed up for. The sun is coming back to Missouri, standing on the front step I feel it on my face, a solace. The air is ripening with greening things returning from the long ache of winter, the hard season veined with spring.
Here be a blank white page. The past was once the unknown I journeyed through, the charted merely the illustrated version of what was previously uncharted. I am mapping the one journey in the entire history of the world that only I can take. Everywhere I have been and everything I have done has led me to this point. So far on my clean white sheet of paper I’ve drawn one small rectangular box, the words inside inscribed in lead.