“The girl with the map face has lived on my block since I moved here twelve years ago. She lives in a small two story house with a small one story tree in the front yard. I’ve never seen anyone else in her house. She must live alone. I wish I lived alone.”
The girl with the map face has lived on my block since I moved here twelve years ago. She lives in a small two story house with a small one story tree in the front yard. I’ve never seen anyone else in her house. She must live alone. I wish I lived alone. But my house is always filled with things that won’t go away. There’s a cherry blossom tree in the bath and there’s a brownstone in my living room. My kitchen is filled with giraffes and a bird’s nest grew at the foot of my bed. Sometimes new things pop up and sometimes the old ones grow. Some were there when I moved in but they were smaller then. About the size of saplings.
Today I’m out of orange juice so I head to the store. Walking down my block I see the girl with the map face. As she walks she laughs. Head back, shoulders heaving she laughs wholeheartedly. I wish I could see what she was laughing at, but maybe I did and just didn’t find it funny. She could’ve been laughing at the sound of someone stirring their tea in the café. Or at the laundry making rounds in the laundromat on the corner. Or at a fly that buzzed past her. She’s funny that way.
She turns with me as I make a left into the parking lot of the supermarket. We walk along past the parked cars and the lost shoes and the shopping carts. People turn to look at her as they walk by, wondering if they’ve seen her correctly. When they do she smiles and waves. I’ve never been as confident as that. I’ve never been anything like her. She walks into the store, opening her arms wide as the automatic doors swoosh open. Once she’s in she shuts her arms together as the doors swoosh close. She laughs and turns on her heel, disappearing inside. I follow shaking my head, almost in embarrassment, at the people staring in shock or disgust. They’ve never understood the girl with the map face the way she understands herself. They’ve never understood themselves the way she understands them.
* * * * * *
My name is Johnny Garage and I love people-watching. I’m good at it too, I notice the smallest details. On the subway my favorite thing is seeing people’s pupils race as they follow the signs on platforms as they rush past them. My second favorite thing is making up stories about people in my head. New York City is a good place for people-watching. There are stories walking down the street, in the park, in the library. My notebook is almost full with them, their lives and thoughts and what they’re eating for lunch spread out across my wrinkled pages. I have several sections devoted to the girl with the map face. Each page suggesting a different disaster for her to overcome. Volcanic eruptions, or robberies, or murder mysteries, or lost in the desert, or something.
Today’s subway ride home has a sobbing baby at one end of the car and a man playing loud music at the other. It starts to get to me and so I decide to lose myself in the girl with the map face’s miraculous escape from an underwater cave. I am writing intently until we reach my stop. It’s late and the darkness outside shocks my eyes as they go from the flickering fluorescent lights to the pitch black outside.
I pass by the laundromat and the café and am walking by the playground, empty of kids now. A shadowy figure is laying on the bench. I can tell it’s her by the dreamy way she looks up at the stars. I stand outside the wrought iron gate and watch her. Her hands are up, pointing at the sky, tracing constellations. She lifts her head suddenly and smiles up at me. Lit up by the streetlamps and the moonlight, she sits up and beckons to me. I stay there, watching, waiting. She turns away with her back to me. I cautiously take a few steps in, then a few more until I’m there, sitting on the bench next to her. She doesn’t look at me or say anything. We sit there in silence. The girl with the map face and I are sitting in silence.
We stay there for a while, watching the sky, watching each other. Then she turns to me. “You should come over sometime.” She hops up and walks away. I sit in the dark a while longer.
A map has attached itself to the wall in my stairwell. That’s the way it is with the things in my house. They spring up out of nowhere and nothing I can do will tear them down. I wonder if the map could have anything to do with tonight. I don’t know how it knew. How my house knew.
The goldfish bowl in my cupboard has grown to the size of an oven. My cereal boxes are pressed up against it, fighting for the bit of room left on the shelf. I pull them out, make myself some cereal, and eat. Some of my best thinking is done over cereal.
I don’t know how I know, but I can tell that today is the day she wants me to come over. The map in the hall grew a few inches and when I walk out to get the paper it winks at me the same way she beckoned last night. I sit at the kitchen table. What if she isn’t home? What if she doesn’t actually want me there? I can’t think about it too hard so I get dressed. I stand in the doorway of my house looking out at the sidewalk. There’s a sharp red line folding down over the stairs and curving sharply left, sketching out the way to her house. It propels me to walk, to go down the stairs and follow it. Her house is finally there, looming with a kind of forgetfulness. I open the gate. I’ve never even thought about opening her gate. I’m the kind of person that watches. And now here I am, opening her gate. The walkway up to her door is the same as any other but it feels different. I stand on her porch and hesitate. But the red line urges me forward and I ring the buzzer. A bell sounds throughout the house and then I can see her coming towards me, opening the door. She’s standing in front of me. She is barefoot, her toenails painted an orchid shade of pink. She grins at me. “I’m glad you came.” I follow her inside.
The girl with the map face leads me through her house. I don’t look at any of it as it goes by. I look at the back of her neck, forming delicate creases as she turns her head around to smile at me. I look at her arms dragging along the walls, her fingers tracing the picture frames. I look at her heels and the way they pound the floor making a thud that spreads like a spiderweb through the house. We reach the back door and walk out into the backyard. It’s small and grassy and in the center is a blanket, food laid out on top of it. She turns to face me. “I thought a picnic would be nice.”
We eat ham sandwiches and chocolate chip cookies. “I’m sorry, I’m not the best cook,” She says. I shake my head. “Oh, I don’t mind.” She lays back on the blanket and I do the same. “I’ve seen you before, you know. Before you came to the playground.” She turns her face to me. I could watch it for hours. “I know,” I say. I didn’t know. Her face flickers and for a second I can see the laughter from a few days ago.
“What do you write in your notebook?”
“Am I in any of them?”
I contemplate a lie. “Yes.”
She sits up. “Why?”
I’m confused. “Why what?”
“Why am I in them.”
I have to think about this for a while.
“Because I like thinking about you.”
This makes her grin. She falls back onto the blanket. Her face is shining as she smiles and laughs, making the map dance.
“You like thinking about me,” She repeats. I don’t say anything.
“Let’s take a walk tomorrow,” She pronounces.
“Yeah. A walk.”
I think about it. Then I say the only thing I can think of.
* * * * * *
Tuesday was a drizzly day. The sky all grey and the clouds all grey and at sunset the clouds outlined in red. I stood on the corner, in front of the park where I saw her before. I checked my watch. Each girl I saw, each swinging hips, each long legs, each red lips, I thought it was her. But none, no face was her. And then she was coming down the street and her hair was streaming behind her as she ran and her cheeks were flushed behind the map and she was wearing a blue dress that I liked a lot. When she stopped in front of me I looked at her and I watched her pant and catch her breath. “How are you?” Never had I thought harder about a question. “I’m here,” I smiled. She grinned. “You are.”
We walked on down a long avenue. I hadn’t been to that part of the neighborhood before. At least not to my memory. I may have been there before but just didn’t see it. I think that when I’m with the girl with the map face I open my eyes wider.
We stopped in front of a church. Not a big one. Not one that belonged. Not one of the normal city ones, the ones made of brick or red and brown stone. Not one of the stacked monsters as present as air that practically shamed you into going. And it wasn’t one of the little ones. Not one of the falling down ones where Sunday School takes place in the basement. It was a country church, the kind you see in a Quaker town in Massachusetts or along the coast of Maine. Pale blue wood and a steeple with a cross on top, and white double doors left open. “Let’s go in,” said the girl with the map face. We traipsed up the steps and into the musty church.
The pews stretched far into the back, with a scattering of people draped along them. The church was dark and the wood floors creaked as we walked along to the front. The first few seats were all empty, the church-goers preferring the anonymity of the back pews. The girl with the map face sat down at the front in the very first row. I sat beside her. I’ve always liked churches. I like the way the air reverberates with a hum and how the electric fans spin lazily above you. I like the people who go in churches on Tuesday afternoons, the ones with repentance or pinchy high heel shoes. And I liked sitting among them, with a unanimous decision to leave the silence unwrinkled. I looked over at the girl with the map face. Her eyes were closed and her back was slumped and if I hadn’t known any better, I would’ve thought she was asleep. But I knew that behind her eyelids her pupils dilated and constricted and darted about as if she could still see it all.
We stayed in the church for a few minutes and then, startling me, the girl with the map face stood up and walked out. I stayed on the bench for a second and then ran to catch up. She was standing on the steps waiting for me. “Where to now?” She asked. The map crinkled as she smiled brilliantly at me. I shrugged. I liked that she left me speechless sometimes. “Are you hungry?” She asked.
We walked down the street and as we turned at the corner she slipped her hand into mine.
After that Tuesday in October, I didn’t see her much. I looked for her when I passed the playground or at the orange juice in the supermarket. The other day I went by the church we had gone into. But for some reason our paths never crossed. Then one Saturday in November I was in my room when the phone rang. The telephone receiver was cold in my hand and the voice on the other end garbled. “Hello?”
“Johnny. It’s me.”
I knew who it was.
“Do you want to go to the museum tomorrow?”
“Come on, Johnny!”
I thought about it for awhile. Or rather, I told myself I thought about it for awhile. I already knew what I was going to say.
“Alright. Let’s go to the museum.”
“Okay. Come to my house first.”
She hung up first.
The museum. We were going to the museum tomorrow. I liked the fact that she had called me first. I liked the fact that before calling she must’ve been thinking about me.
The museum was seven blocks and a long subway ride away. I met her at her house and then we walked to the train station. It was a pretty day, pink and blue and white sky and you could still see the moon a bit. The train was filled to the brim with people and they spilled out the second the doors burst open. We shuffled on and filled it back up with our haunted thoughts and plaid scarves and frozen breath. I leaned with my back against the pole and measured her with my eyes. She smiled silently at me and then slipped an earbud into my hand. We listened to songs I didn’t know. I tried to remember every word. I wanted to sing them to her.
We bought two tickets to an exhibit on the fourth floor, one I had never heard of. The art itself was unimportant to me. I just liked being with her. We talked about each piece and it didn’t matter that we were the only people talking. It didn’t matter that we were getting glared at from all directions. She made things stop mattering.
The girl with the map face seemed to always know the intent of the artist and exactly what the piece meant. Well perhaps she made it all up, but she said it with such conviction that I couldn’t help but think it was the only possible explanation.
After the exhibit we explored the gift shop. She slipped a postcard into her coat pocket. I pulled a pin up into my sleeve. We carried our stolen prizes outside, exchanging them on the street.
The day had changed from the pastel sky to a royal blue as we walked in the cold back to our lonesome block. “Come in,” she said as we stood outside her gate. We walked up the steps and she unlocked the door. In her room, a small one smelling of lavender, I sat on her bed while she rummaged beneath it for something. She pulled out a box and set it down beside me.
“These are pictures.”
“Of everything. But mostly barbed wire. Barbed wire is one of my favorite things to photograph.”
She lifted off the lid and inside were hundreds of polaroids in mismatched stacks. I reached a hand in and pulled out a few. Barbed wire set against a blue sky, against a sunset, a dog in an alleyway, a lost shoe in a parking lot. A picture of herself, of a pale pink house, of a fire hydrant, of her friends. I pulled out stack after stack and looked at them all. She pointed out her favorites or told me what she was wearing the day she took it or something like that. And then I came across a picture of me. It was taken through the laundromat window on a day I didn’t remember.
“When did you take this?”
She thought. “I don’t remember exactly.”
I laughed a little bit thinking about my notebooks and about the endless stories I had written about her. Maybe I’d show them to her someday.
I felt strange when I was with her. I felt a gingerbread warmth that made your eyes sparkle and your cheeks blush, the bewilderment of Times Square and the rushing crowds like the tides, and a certain iciness and a fog over my eyes.
I reached home and sat on my bed staring off into the wall. A string of Christmas lights had appeared there.
* * * * * *
Over the next few weeks we went places. We went to the movies, to the beach, to libraries, we went to a casino. And then it was Christmas. And the thrift stores and Salvation Armies were filled to the brim with moth eaten red and green sweaters. And there were people in red bibs on corners, shying away from the cold and ringing their bells to keep their blood flowing. And then there was snow. There were snowmen in the streets and masses of children in the parks and I was in my pajamas staring out the window when I saw her. She was standing across the street in a long grey coat, and her cheeks were pink and her nose was pink, and her dark hair had a sprinkling of crystalline flakes glistening over it, and the map was blushing with chapped lips and melted snow. She didn’t look up at me, sitting alone by the window, drinking coffee and staring intently. Look up, look up, look up, I thought to myself. And then she did. And she laughed and smiled and waved up at me. I waved back and found myself thinking I had never seen someone look that good in New York City in the wintertime. She raised a Polaroid camera and I saw the flash go off. And then she skipped away, holding her developing photo to her chest. I smiled to myself and then went to watch TV.
“It’s funny how many songs there are about Santa Fe,” the girl with the map face said to me.
“How many are there?” I asked her.
“I don’t know… I can think of at least six just off the top of my head.”
“Well, why is that funny?”
“I don’t know. I’ve just never thought of Santa Fe as being important. You know, I could understand New York, or Texas, or California, and you know there are a lot about those. But why Santa Fe?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe people just like how irrelevant it is.”
“Well I’ve never been there. And I’ve never even thought about going there either.”
We were standing outside of a travel agency. The snow was falling heavily and everyone on the streets rushed past us. But we stood, in our overcoats and knit hats, outside of a travel agency. She turned to me.
“I want to see the Rockefeller tree.” She said with a smoky look in her eye.
“Let’s go see the tree.”
We took the F up to Rockefeller Center. As we walked we sang Christmas carols. She didn’t have a good voice but no one really cared. I didn’t have a good voice either. We shoved through the crowds and made our way up as close to the tree as you could get. She stood with her neck bent all the way back and stared with wonder. I looked at her and then at the tree, hoping to see whatever it was she thought so amazing. But all I saw was tree.
“It’s beautiful,” She murmured.
I shook my head. “I just see a tree.”
“But it’s more than that. Look closer.”
“See there, that’s the park where we met. And there, that’s the little church we went to. And there’s the museum. And there’s my backyard, the picnic we had. Don’t you see?”
I looked harder, and harder still.
And I didn’t see it.
Then she looked to me, “You see it don’t you?”
I looked to her. And that’s where I saw it. I saw it in her face. I saw wet pavements and Polaroids and sunsets and barbed wire. And it was breathtaking. I felt as though I was looking past her skin and past her skull, as if looking beyond the sky and seeing outer space.
“I see it,” I told her.
She nodded. “I see it too.”
We walked lazily home, swinging our arms. We stopped in a bar and got drunk and then swung our arms even more.
I walked her up to the porch of her house and kissed her sloppily on the cheek. That was Christmas Eve. And that was the last time I saw her. Some friends called me up Christmas morning and we went out to New Jersey and spent the day walking around and making fun of everything. I didn’t think about the girl with the map face until the next day, the day after Christmas, the loneliest day of the year for someone like me. I wanted to see her, but I didn’t call. And then a week later, on New Years day, I got a call from her. I wasn’t home for it, but after I got home from my friend’s party, I heard the message.
“Hey, Johnny. I… uh… It’s me. I need to tell you something.”
It was the first time the girl with the map face didn’t sound sure of herself.
“I’m leaving. I’m not leaving you, I’m just leaving… this. This place. I’m sorry, Johnny.”
She sounded so
“And It’s not as if I’ve been planning this for a while. I just decided. Last night. I’m so sorry, Johnny.”
Small. So unlike herself.
“I know you’re thinking about what you could’ve done to make me stay.”
I thought of what I could’ve done to make her stay.
“But I promise you, nothing. It was so absolutely not your fault, not anyone’s fault.”
I knew it was my fault. I knew I should’ve done something.
“Please Johnny, don’t be sad. Please just forget.”
Or she should’ve told me so that I could do something.
“I love you so much Johnny. I just woke up this morning and…”
She loved me. And yet she left me.
“I knew I needed to go to Santa Fe and I…”
She was in Santa Fe.
“I know why they write all the songs about it.”
“It’s because of the view. Because you can look around you and see everything, your whole life, spread out against the sand like a map.”
Like a map.
* * * * * *
It’s been years since that day in rotten December. But I still write about her. I still stop outside of churches and travel agencies and listen for Santa Fe songs.
The map still hangs in the hallway. It’s grown a little bit since she left, it’s about the size of a doorway.
All in all she was classic rock radio stations and artificial cherry flavoring. She was leaves shaped like elephant ears and she was marathon runners and checkered floor tiles. She was black ankle boots and American Bandstand. I remember the days of the girl with the map face with a burnt orange kind of fondness.
I never saw her again. But once every year I receive a blank Santa Fe postcard and a pressed flower in the mail. There is no return address, no note. Yet even an idiot would know who it was from.