My compass rose is a one-story green house on a street called Prospect, with a red mailbox and three bushes and a Japanese maple out front. Above the square white garage door are mounted three white tiles with a ribbon pattern and the numerals 4, 7, 5, beneath gutters that invariably clog with leaves in the fall. The porch is solid concrete. The two trees on the right of the lawn have thick metal hooks embedded in their sides; the ropes that held up the wooden swing were taken down a few years ago, once they began to change color from too many winters.
Everything in the universe lies relative to this house. Behind it, Patricia’s pool; to the left, the street towards the elementary school, and high school, and downtown. In front, the clump of pachysandra that was once decorative, and a single cedar tree, and the dark asphalt driveway (repaved in third grade). Turn right, and you will eventually reach the lake, and my grandparents’ house, and eventually New York, and eventually Iceland, and eventually the porch of this house again, if you follow the curvature of the earth. If not, your straight line will jut out into space, and you can keep going forever, occasionally glancing back to check how far you’ve traveled from the porch of this house back on Earth. It is and always will be anchored snugly between Patricia’s pool and Mr. Pearlman’s home art gallery and the rebel wisps of grass between the bricks leading up to the front door. This little house sits perfectly centered at zero, zero on the Cartesian map of my life.
You are not the center of the world, we’re told. The world doesn’t revolve around you. Don’t be self-centered. So you’re not. You center around somewhere else. You zoom in on it when you play around with Google Earth. It is the first place your eyes land on the map, consciously or not. Everywhere is a matter of hours by car or by train or by plane—two, six, fourteen—from there. Tuvalu or St. Petersburg or Iowa City is far away because it is far away from there. When people ask where you’re from, you are from there, even if you aren’t, originally.
Disorient (v.): to cause to lose one’s orientation, direction.
You don’t always live there. I didn’t live in the house for all my life. For the years we lived abroad, we had a different house. We rented out the house at 475 Prospect, and I remember coming back on leave once and running my fingers across the back of the white baby grand piano that our tenants, a nice lesbian couple, had stationed in the living room. It was smooth and alien, a beluga whale lounging on the hardwood floors. My parents made me sit on the couch. We left after a little while, to go back to where we were staying at my grandparents’ house, and it was clear to me then that our other house was part of an extended trip, one that lasted for years but would be over when we returned to this house, our real house, right here. It was only a matter of time. Eventually, we did.
I came back again a few days ago. I sat in my car across the street, hands on the steering wheel, and looked at the house. I hadn’t planned to stop. I would just drive by, get it over with, continue on across town, but my foot still damped the brake just as it always did, at the exact moment we passed the Taggarts’ mailbox with the painted-on ducks. Muscle memory—annoying, isn’t it? My driving feet had calculated, over many years, the perfect slowing distance for pulling into the driveway. My body was already expecting the slight rectangular bump as the car’s front wheels dipped up and down over the gray granite curbstones. But I pulled to a stop and just sat, looking across the street at my house. The house. A house.
My parents always sighed that the house would be knocked down immediately if they ever sold it. McMansions were popping up everywhere in the neighborhood. Classy, reasonably proportional McMansions, but McMansions nonetheless.
I sat in my car and wondered: How long will it take before my foot stops braking, just here, by the mailbox with the painted ducks? Before the compass needle points somewhere else?
It is humbling to be reminded so instinctually and so forcefully that I do not dictate my internal geography. I am more than a migratory creature. I am a homing pigeon.
To everyone’s surprise, the buyer wasn’t a developer, but a lady in her fifties who enthusiastically outbid everyone else. She just loved the house, she said. Or so I heard. She had no children. My parents signed over the deed separately, in their separate lawyers’ offices. Before she left for a trip, my mom said to me, as if she’d been turning it over in her mind it for a while: You know, you and your brother were the only children ever to grow up in that house.
Disorient (v.): to confuse by removing or obscuring something that has guided a person, group, or culture; to cause to lose perception of time, place, or identity.
From the French désorienter, to turn from the east.
I had a dream that I went back to the house and sat in the yard, by the corner, in the pachysandra. The woman who bought the house came out and asked me what I was doing there, and the trees stepped in, ushering her out of the way like lawyers gently outranking the police. It’s okay, they said, she’s with us.