I never had much of a sense of direction, although it is also, of course, infallible, and so I find the doctor's office with ease. Everything is bright, festive, resplendent. Plants abound. A world map sprawls across the wall, along with a banner announcing "Let the World Be Yours!" I see what he's done, on closer examination—each side of the room teems with a distinct kind of plant life. Cacti and succulents dominate the Southwest, with evergreen shrubs, dried out but clinging to some pine aroma, against the opposite wall. A veritable slab of the tropics lolls in a third corner, and I feel a bit like I've stumbled into some mismanaged arboretum. The magazines form a crazy-quilt of exotic destinations—I might as well be in a travel agency.
As she slides open the glass window, the woman's exuberance mirrors the banner's. "Found us okay, I see, Mr. Levine?" she says.
"Yes, I suppose the question is whether I'll be able to find my way back," I say, levity a balm of sorts.
She laughs excessively, and gives me forms to fill out, and I sprint through the physical stuff and the psychological history and the genetics and it's only on page seven, when I am asked to elect the Direction that I will reorient to that I pause, pen hovering over the page, not so much paralysis as a frenzy of micro-movements. I have arrived fifteen minutes early, as instructed by the office's automated message, which means I have fifteen minutes to decide, give or take.
I come from that last generation—most would say unfortunate, though I tend to think otherwise—for whom directions were not pure instinct. I can remember going on road trips with my parents with my sister and brother and actually fighting over the map. We would each have our portion of it, but it was never enough, no one satisfied with their lot. Three oversugared, overtired, disgruntled kids. Once the map tore, though, the more terrifying sound was that which instantly followed, our father lambasting us while he continued to drive, our mother attempting to calm him. He kept turning around and looking back even while the car hurtled onward, and we instinctively knew that if he had to stop the car the shit we'd be in would be deep: a trial by the side of the road, a gavel that could leave welts. So, tremblingly, we scrambled as kids can do, forged some fragile sibling harmony, held it together. Between the rattle of the car and our own twitching, it felt as though our tearing had set into motion an earthquake of mammoth proportions, one that would leave the land altered, would require new mapmakers to step in and chart the territory anew.
Of course we try to be different parents than that. To raise a hand against either of my children seems so outside of the realm of possibility that I will sometimes curl my fingers one by one into a fist and stare at this formation as you might a Brancusi or a centurion redwood and marvel at its very existence. Perhaps that is why we enrolled them in Tae Kwon Do from an early age, so they could defend themselves not only against complete strangers but against the strangers we would be if we were the parents that we came from. Shira, too, has violence in her past, and though we don't speak of it often, it surfaces occasionally in her work in the darkroom and occasionally in three a.m. muttering, as though emboldened by the actual night and the room that mimics it.
I've tried to explain to Devon and Britta what it meant to get lost, to be lost, and I think for them it must be like imagining being lost in our own house, a possibility that can only seem to them humorous and slapsticky. "Is it like sleepwalking?" Britta asks, and Devon cuts in with a story about a classmate of his who sleepwalked and -talked, who sashayed out of his house and wandered into his yard and shimmied up a ladder to his treehouse, where they found him in the morning after a neighborhood-wide dragnet. They argue about whether he was only faking. Britta is skeptical. "If you want to go to a treehouse, go to a treehouse," she says. It might as well be her personal motto. Devon defends his classmate as though it were him. "You don't even know him know him know him," he says again and again, his words repeating in rapid-fire till the enamel of sense has worn away.
Our bedtime rituals have this way of flaring up like this. It's better than some of the alternatives, though. Britta thinks cosmically, about the fate of humanity. If an asteroid eventually does strike the earth and bring about global cataclysm, we won't be able to say that Britta didn't warn us. I try to calm her and get her to think more locally, at least staying inside of Mars's orbit, but that doesn't work because even here lurk stretches of time that exceed the life of the solar system, and that doesn't lead us anywhere near the prospect of sleep. She saw this video at school that takes the viewer from the subatomic to vast cosmic stretches, and now she says she can't stop thinking about it, going back and forth in her mind. It annoyed her that everything on the screen was the same size—I think she herself wanted to be both small and vast, and it peeved her that she would have to settle for this mediocre in-between state, in which she is a galaxy to atoms and an atom to galaxies. As a father, I think I should still be able to comfort her with warm milk and the tracery of a finger on a cheek, with a few words about a penguin who uses a flying carpet to get airborne, but I am outmatched by her brain now, which to me does feel already larger in scale, somewhere between the size of a human skull and a galaxy.
But tonight, just as I'm sure I've lost her to the suck of faltering light into the void, she comes back to our original topic. "What is it like to be lost?" And then Devon chimes in. "Yes, tell us the story again."
I can tell them the story now for the umpteenth time because it comes cinched with a happy ending, the teller perched on the edge of Devon's bed regaling him with it. How I went out for a short walk in the woods one day. "I didn't have my phone that day," I hasten to add, because that is a key element. I didn't have a compass either. What happened was that I glanced at a map and promised myself I'd stay on this one trail, and it turned out they'd rerouted the trail because of a beaver dam, the beavers unwilling to alter their own plans to accommodate novicey stumblers in the woods such as myself. The trail was well-marked, but by blazes whose blue faded quickly in the waning light. I tried to navigate by the position of the sun in the sky, but this was challenging—I'd never been a Boy Scout, never mastered a single survival skill.
Somewhere a few miles from the road, I lost the trail and could not regain it. A little opening had thrown me off, and when I returned to the spot I thought I'd departed from, everything looked different, torqued and alien, and I couldn't tell where I'd come from versus where I was going.
Nowadays, this is mostly unthinkable, of course. It would be akin to forgetting your own name.
"Is it like when you've had too much to drink?" they ask.
"When have I had too much to drink?" I say.
"Like at the Hendersons' party. Two weeks ago, Saturday," says Britta. As though she has been keeping a log of my every action. Maybe she has. Maybe she has whatever chromosome spawned Shira's spreadsheets.
And she's right. Two weeks ago, at Preston and Vanessa Henderson's house, I had had a few too many Pomelo Pummels and wound up wandering into the midst of a heated Bocce match and causing an uproar. Only afterward had I gotten filled in on the Bocce debacle and the way I'd had to be escorted off and kicked Jerry Denmar's ball sheer beyond the horizon of play, thus invalidating hours of intense Bocce-ing.
I hadn't known that the kids knew. I suppose I ought to always assume they know everything until proven otherwise. Part of me, of course, is a bit dismayed to realize my shortcomings are so patent. But another part is proud of her for being so trenchant, because she's right, that is a bit what getting lost feels like. It's this part of me that reaches out to tousle her hair, which she has coiffed and air-dried to perfection in the hours before bed as though it were comprised of clay and time itself a kiln.
"Oh yes," I say. "It is a little bit like that. Don't ever—"
"I know, Dad," she says. "I know."
But after I leave, the door ajar just enough to allow in the nightlight from the hallway that she still isn't quite ready to part with, it occurs to me that even getting shitfaced now, now that we all have the Directions, is different. Even in a stupor, a stagger, you feel shreds of north. You might trip over south; west might sneak up on you. East might be the place you lay your head.
Britta loves east, leans slightly SE, like maybe five degrees, but otherwise due east. It is still hard for me to think this way about the Directions, that they amount to anything more than glorified astrology. I still can't believe the number of otherwise reasonable people who will say, "Ah, well, so-and-so's a Taurus, so that explains everything." "He's a Libra, she's a Gemini. 'Nuff said." Saying that a Northwester and a Southeaster will always be at odds is not really all that different. But the scientists proclaim that it is so. They cannot say why, why someone is drawn in a particular way so that they will, given the choice, always face that way. But this, at least, explains for me why Britta will stand and stare east wherever we are. Why if we are staying in a hotel, she will stare at the wall, even if the wallpaper is repugnant or mind-numbingly bland. She will stare at a billboard advertising that "God Punishes Those Who Seek to Punish the Unborn." Sometimes we have to take her away. We have to forbid her from it, or make her close her eyes. She doesn't resist, doesn't seem to mind. A south, a SE continues to pull on her from within, her eyelids becoming corridors only she knows and through which only she can journey.
To dwell in harmony with one's orientation—is there any greater bliss? To be moving north as a Norther. To feel every sinew aligned with the magnetic pull of the earth. To feel every chakra, every organ in its optimal state, the liver detoxifying, the blood its own sea. For this sensation we are willing to abandon roads, to scale rock faces and cliffs, and sometimes even to die—in a mire of quicksand, in a ravine, in a flash flood, in the desert. Who is to say that it isn't worth it?
I mean, everyone tries to recreate the good ol' days, right, so why should I be any different? I'm from the generation that came before dead reckoning became about as exotic as indoor plumbing, and it is only natural that we'll try to stir up those days before. We spin our children more fervidly on the carousels and swing them from our shoulders without reserve, spinning ourselves around as well in the process, of course. They never get as dizzy as we do, not nearly. I'm not one of those parents who makes them call out the compass points as they spin, because when will they need that, and who needs that kind of pressure? But sometimes I will go and watch them from the sidelines, because it is good entertainment, and it makes me feel like I am watching gymnasts or Olympians even though what I am watching is the ordinary children of a generation whose parents want to spin them like the globe itself.
It started, as so many things do these days, with a hack—no need to specify where the hackers were from, as it is irrelevant now, though probably a place where hackers thrive, where they are able to come out in daylight and work in sunlit cafes and call across the room about their exploits. They got into the GPS systems, into the directions. It sounded absurd, fodder for comedians: the Night of the Missed Turns, where it dawned on hundreds of thousands of people out on the roads—not all at once but in the steady pelting of social media —that they had been sent astray.
But it wasn't all funny, not by a long stretch—some were sent the wrong way down one-way streets, and there were casualties, drivers and passengers, people walking their dogs, the dogs themselves. One woman had driven straight into a lake, and the video played again and again on the news, what had been caught of her little hatchback bobbing like some leisure boat, like she'd meant to go there, consigned to a place where the cardinal directions held no sway, only up and down, and eventually, for her, only down.
This happened to unfold around the time the President, a reader and curious (some are, some aren't), learned about this tribe in the rainforest that could find their way around without maps. They knew which compass direction was which even if you took them to a remote location and twirled them around like some kind of Skull and Bones initiation prank. It blew his mind, safe to say. The First Lady was always getting lost. If she didn't have the Secret Service, he had joked, she would not be able to find her way back to the White House. She'd probably wind up at a different white house.
Truthfully, I cannot deny that when I face southwest I feel something settle in me, like a lock yielding at last after a series of mismatched keys. How do a Southeaster and an Easter come out of a Northeaster and a Southwester? Genetics doesn't seem to reveal much. Time will tell, of course—science is always advancing, and tomorrow's headlines might point to some chromosome, long-overlooked, that holds the key to all of our directional proclivities, our tropisms, our insatiable yearnings.
It's a stereotype, I know, that those from my generation love nothing more than to get together and reminisce about times we were lost. I have a friend who was lost at sea once and wound up many miles off course, propelled by a storm out to sea, radio waterlogged and shorted out. It was his own father's boat, the family boat, and he could still recall the quality of the air that morning as they set out, how it had no edges, as if the wind itself had been smoothed down by other wind and turned into something capable only of caresses. How deceiving that wind had been, so that you couldn't help but think of it as devious, as having volition and a vendetta. He'd sent his family below, which already felt like dooming them, as if he was sending them to the lowermost point on the boat only because they were headed for the bottom. Now the thrashing came, a pummeling that made a laughingstock of the very idea of navigation. There were mirages aplenty, so many places where the water seemed to conspire with the wind in its trickery, offering not only the rudimentary outlines of land but hotels with lavish lighting and people dressed as if for a masquerade ball—he swore he could see pearls gleaming through the raindrops now legion, could hear the music of a band that was bowing and plinking and plucking its way merrily through its numbers. He was alternately sure he was losing his mind and then only his life, except that it wasn't his life alone but that of his wife and children, who were holed up in the bunks beneath that had seemed so cozy, so welcoming, a chocolate with a bow on each one that morning in anticipation of a late-afternoon treat. Were they playing music, somehow, below?
Then it occurred to him that maybe one of them had packed something with a radio and maybe, just maybe, its reception could guide them toward something other than the finality of static. He flung himself below deck just as a wave hit that there was a good chance would've knocked him down, and going overboard wouldn't have been out of the question either. And finding himself like that, he stayed there for a while, all of them forming themselves into a protective ball of human twine—that's how he described it. And after what felt like hours of relentless lurching, the ball came to a still point, a rest. They remained that way in the creaky darkness until it was broken by a child saying, "Daddy, can I have this chocolate?" in a voice he barely recognized because it sounded at once both younger and older than either of his children's, and he was convinced they were in the afterlife and this his first run-in with an angel but he said yes, of course, and moments later that same child vomited chocolate on his shoes, and so he absolutely knew they were still in this one.
I spin a dreidel for them, because we still do practice some of the old rituals, though much more haphazardly than the way I was raised with them. And now Devon, mesmerized, asks, "Does the dreidel always know which way it's pointing?"
"No," I say, "it doesn't. The dreidel has no mind. It has no thinking at all. It doesn't collect comic books and it doesn't worry that its underwear is on backward and it doesn't dislike cauliflower and it doesn't know what direction it is facing. It just is."
"You said 'backward.' It's backwards," he announces. Now he cares about things like this? It's like he's borrowing his sister, channeling her.
The next time I am spinning Devon, he pants, "I'm a dreidel! A dreidel, see!"
My son blurs and I can no longer see the hair that is starting to come in thicker and darker on his arms, only the red collared shirt, even that becoming more of a swirl as he spins.
He sings the dreidel song, but because he is spinning and gasping for breath and also is a fairly off-key singer to begin with, it has little of melody and jumps around, sounding a bit like someone who is singing while freezing to death.
Britta, who is sitting nearby and doing her French homework, snorts (in a Francophone way) and says, "You still dislike cauliflower."
We use this word, migration, for birds, and we use the word migrant to describe humans who undergo the same motion, only for birds we think of it as an annual event and plugged into their nature, but for humans a leap, an anomaly, a Plan B or M or something beyond the alphabet. Sometimes I wonder if we'd all be better off as migrants, each of us choosing two points to go back and forth between. To become a nomadic people again, but retaining our individuality as we each chose our own places (it's the American way, I know). But retaining the primacy of movement. Parts of it we could drive. During thunderstorms, especially, I wouldn't want anyone caught out in the open.
Why do we call them "thunderstorms," even, when lightning is what will kill us? We name them for the messenger instead of the one who does the deed.
The signs were hung everywhere—it was the WPA and the New Deal and the Great Society all rolled up into one, but it was also an educational bonanza as well. We were languishing in Social Studies, had been for decades; students couldn't locate Texas on a map, much less Yemen. And now every student would know direction as readily as they knew left and right.
It wasn't hard to see that there was something else going on here, something deeper. A nostalgia for objectivity, for certainty. To no longer measure everything by the gazer—the Directions were there, out there somehow beyond us, swaddling us like babies, forming a protective cocoon around us always, practically humming in their various harmonic registers so we could not help but hum along, not with our lips but with chests, organs, our nether parts. You could argue all day long that north was south, but you'd feel the neuropathic pinpricks of the truth, and eventually you'd relent.
And so we'd have children who would know, always, that there was something real and true, something that couldn't be denied. Fake moon landing? We'd put them on the fucking moon.
Plus it gave us all something to do together. The country had been ripped apart in various ways—shredded would not be overstating it—I will not give you the litany of the history, as you already know it. We craved healing, needed something like the Space Race to bring us all on board together, a shared vision, a mission, something that would synchronize the rolling up of sleeves. And here it was. I tell you it was every bit as exhilarating as they make it sound. We grabbed hammers, even those of us tool-inept. We had power drills and buzzsaws and paint, we hummed. We thought of ourselves as the 21st century versions of those surveyors who'd laid down geological reference points, triangulating from sea to gulf to sea. Within a month, the country was festooned with the Directions. From nearly any vantage point, if you looked close enough you could catch a marker, a simple symbol. North was red, south was blue, east was green, west a rather sickly shade of yellow that became the subject of many jokes. We blazed the country like a wilderness, as though it weren't already subdivided into a million lots and properties, strip malls and tire shops and golf courses, as if it were all virgin wilderness. Those who objected on the grounds that their constitutional rights were being violated—even most of them came around, though a few holdouts just peered from afar through cross-hairs. The Directions stayed up for a year, and by then, many people had internalized them, so that when the physical signs came down, it was as if their essences hung there, floaters of signification.
I met Shira on one of those outings. I don't think it was my tuneless humming she was drawn to, nor was it the way my hammer swings left contorted nails half-gaping from their posts or thumbs throbbing. She was already documenting it in photos that would show up on the social media page of our local work chapter. Her photos were beautiful, even those that included me, too many for it to be pure coincidence. I asked her if she wanted to grab a drink some evening.
More crucial was how we began teaching our children. Mothers held recordings to their wombs, chanting the names of the Directions like lullabies, like mantras, like prayers. By the time they were born, already they had some sense of where they were, so that before long there were reported cases where "South" or "East" was an infant's first utterance, followed, at some point not long thereafter, by "Mama" or "Papa." And this was Britta and Devon's generation. Shira was not so keen on training them this young. During her pregnancies, though, she wouldn't venture into the darkroom, afraid of exposing them to the chemicals. So instead, introvert though she was, she started spending a bunch more time with other moms. With them, you couldn't avoid the Directions. Along with the gossip about who was sleeping with whom and the juicing tips and the gym snark and so on, the competition started early. And Shira found that her immunity to it broke down. When scientific studies corroborated the theory that each of us has a deep, primal Direction, she could hardly turn away, deny it. Did your fetus kick with particular Beckham-esque verve and panache when you were facing a certain way? Somebody was trying to tell you something! The craze was on—everyone determining their child's Direction, comparing them, positioning them on the ground and watching them crawl, picking them up and pointing them otherwise. Were there psychological traits as with horoscope signs? Things got complicated once gradations between the cardinal points got added into the mix. Soon there were experts who would claim to tell you beyond a shadow of a doubt where your child fell on the 360, which was sure to make their life more productive, more harmonious, raise their earning potential.
Many turned the orientation of their houses. Others refused to do so, believing that they had done just fine facing this direction and that to shift at this point would be a betrayal of sorts. For some it was a rush simply to sit behind the crankshaft of a crane, scooping the earth, something they hadn't done since they were children commandeering Tonka toys in sandboxes, the sand caking to their hands and worming into the snaps of their overalls. There were places where so many were changing direction at once that it was hard to know if you'd changed at all, or if the whole world had shifted and you'd remained still. The stars, at least, didn't move, at least not any more or less than they already had, even though we'd been told that their light was ancient and that they'd long since expired, and what we were looking at, these points that anchored us somewhere, were only their echoes, photonic gasps.
Shira had nothing but disdain for all that. By this time, she was back to taking scads of pictures. And Britta had an independent, skeptical streak and would've sat scowling in the testing room until we freed her. She simply wanted to get lost in her head most of the time. That was before she hit herself, came off the swing and that impossible thing—she spun, clanged her head against the frame of the swing set. A set which, using the same hammer I'd used to hang up the Directions, I'd built.
Shira and I stand sometimes and do the clichéd thing—we each face our Direction, stand at opposite sides of the room, and then slowly, silent and expressionless, we walk toward one another. And we do the other clichéd thing, where we stand back-to-back, surprised always by where our shoulder blades happen to meet, again facing our Direction, gazing off into the distance, to anything other than us. We sit on opposite sides of the table, food growing tepid on the plate, windows enabling us. The house is situated along the axis of northeast to southwest—it is this, mostly likely, that drew us to it to begin with.
The view to the southwest is this—our neighbors' yard, the Blitzsteins' split-level. To the northeast, a row of tract-houses that occlude a hill and the local utility plant. So neither of us exactly hit the jackpot. But I definitely got the better end of the bargain with the Blitzsteins. There is always the chance that they'll leave their curtains askew and lights on, and that I'll see Letitia Blitzstein zipping up one of her blaring dresses, or that Harold Blitzstein will be pacing, working on one of his hand-rolled cigars, or, if I am truly lucky—and this has only happened a single time—that I'll spot them too drunk to remember to draw the curtains, Harold running kisses down her lithe neck, the arch of her as she cranes toward him with her supple lips, and then the two of them, their passion seemingly undiminished by thirty years together, three children having grown and passed through under their careful watch. Nothing like that is even possible on Shira's side—the only thing that she is likely to see of note is a bolt of lightning soldering a tower.
The time I watched the Blitzsteins make love, the kids had gone to bed, and Shira was down in the darkroom, where she seemed to retreat more and more. I almost called her upstairs. Though she might have thought I was being voyeuristic, maybe it would have rekindled something, excited her. Maybe she would've grabbed her camera and seared the moment onto film, and maybe that shared moment, however much it wasn't ours, would've become something of ours, and we would've later returned to that moment in the bedroom, and she would've whispered "Harold" in a way that indicated that it was ironic, that I was not fully Harold, who is, I happen to know, an Easter anyway, and yet that in that moment I'd be enough of him to detach myself from my body and slough it, momentarily, off, and in that fleeing to perform acts upon her that I as myself was capable of but not prone to. All of this I fantasized about extensively, but since I didn't disturb her in the darkroom, left her to her own hours, nothing materialized of this, just a little bit of extra awkwardness with Letitia when I passed her, she in her streamlined aerodynamic running garb, me walking down to retrieve the paper as gracefully as that can be done.
After the concussion, we took Britta to see a specialist, someone who could help her find her new orientation, or find her old one, bring it back. The specialist's method was to take her out for the day, because it was important to be with her, to experience her and interact with her, in many different conditions and settings, so they started the day at a Denny's, then went windsurfing, then went for a run then to a movie then to a barbecue then to a flea market then a hike then a concert. With dancing. "Sounds like a funfest," I said, only half-facetiously, since it did, after all. "All you need to do is get a concussion and you can join us," said Nina, the specialist, and I thought for a moment that she was flirting with me, but that moment was fleeting, and I reminded myself that what was hanging in the balance was my daughter's future, and so I nodded and sent them to go off and do the widest variety of things you can possibly do in a single day.
That day! That year! How we rallied for her that year. The doctor visits alone metastasized to days if you added them all up. MRIs and CAT scans and exotic forms of neuroimaging I'd never heard of. Most alarmingly, she claimed to have lost her sense of Direction at times—would get these dizzy spells where she would throw herself on the ground, clutching her head and rolling around. And we didn't know what to do. We pleaded, we bargained, we bribed; we tag-teamed, we stormed the length of the hallway, one at a time, cursing the photos that hung there of her swimming at the lake or cradling her hamster, because it was that or face head-on our sheer helplessness.
Once I tried to explain to her that that was what it was like for us, all the time, not always knowing where we were. I wanted to forge some kind of bond with her, wanted to find even in this wretched circumstance something to celebrate.
She wailed and then sank into me, and I felt the consolation of my body, the warmth of tears saturating my shirt, but this was followed by a jab of pain as her teeth clamped down on my arm. Her shrieks sounded muffled, as if they were coming from elsewhere, and for a moment I simply marveled at the force of this jaw in tandem with this throat, these lungs.
"Let's . . . let go," I said, in a soothing way, almost. I twisted slightly to shake her off, but then she redoubled her grip—it had been no accident, she wanted me to know—and I could feel the skin her bite wanted to claim, and then her simple words, which seemed to rearrange mine, and traveled up my arm like some old telegraph message: "GET. LOST."
And then, like that, after a year, she was better, black cloud gone. It was like prying out the signs after we had spent a year hanging them, except that in Britta there were not even any visible scars the way there were gouge-holes left in trees, stray paint marks. She was back to being fierce, self-assured, on-a-mission Britta. We no longer shared a common Direction, and she wanted to begin preparing for her migration, even though we were cautious, hesitant. Shira perhaps less so than me.
Something else for us to fight over.
But there was more relief than added tension and torque between us. The tests had almost bankrupted us, and now Shira went back to work with renewed vigor—for once no wedding was too glitzy, no commercial account too vapid.
Poor Devon didn't find his way back as quickly and fully as his sister. Dragged from appointment to appointment, he'd gotten to know hospital waiting rooms intimately, had exhausted the puzzles, assembled intricate marble chutes till his eyes seemed to take on the glassy iridescence of those marbles.
How laughably easy, still, to get lost in a blind spot, a story, a life.
That people can change is something I cling to. Usually not 180 degrees, but there is always the possibility for a conversion. There is always the chance that one day Britta will join me, or we will compromise, and both stand southeast. Or even that I might shift my own position, and pirouette—I use the term loosely, for it implies a grace that I do not have—to the east. I've tried to do it, not the pirouetting but the reorienting, and though it is against my nature, I can appreciate the allure of the foreign, something neglected in my own inner world. I stand there, sometimes, looking due east and imagine I am seeing the world through Britta's eyes. Of course to truly pull this off, I'd have to do more than just stand facing that way—I'd have to slip on a cute, polka-dotted dress, preferably one with dayglo pink and orange, since those are the colors du jour, and shoes that resemble cartoon puppies, giant floppy ears and all, and I'd have to crouch down a bit and imagine my hair tessellating in braids down my back, and even then, practically feeling them dancing there, I would never quite know.
All children pity their parents for having missed the real time, the right time to be alive. And all parents pity their children for the same reason.
The concussion was the most terrifying thing we'd ever experienced. Britta was a trooper and her recovery full. Easy to say in retrospect. I have to remind myself that in the year after the accident, before it became a foregone conclusion that she would recover, we were sometimes living hour to hour, minute to minute. Shira had a penchant for spreadsheets that I'd long suspected existed but that grew wild, ran rampant in the post-concussion year. She had columns for food, columns for activities, a pain scale, an emotional timeline. In another life she would've canned and jarred countless vegetables and preserves, kraut to kumquats. In this one, though, her zeal for orderliness was played out on the screen. It was a Life-Tetris in which she was trying to get things to line up and then eventually to make them recede into the ether of the past. She was good at it, but I don't know if it really helped Britta at all. Britta, being Britta, was going to get well at her own pace, in her own fashion, using her own patentable methods. But for a long time she seemed to trip up her own progress. She wasn't supposed to read, for instance, but keeping that girl away from a book was no mean task. After swallowing fish oil tablets, she'd insist on puffing out her cheeks and "swimming" around the house, and I have to admit there was a fluidity to her movements that made me feel that the climate scientists' predictions had come to pass, and that gills had formed where those lungs had been.
The day after she bit herself and told me to get lost, I decided that only by giving myself a mild concussion would I be able to empathize with her enough to help her. It is not as easy to give yourself a concussion intentionally as you might think, and it is not as difficult, either. Something recoils when you go headfirst at a wall. Not just any wall would do. I drove around, picking out the wall that would do the deed. I have no idea why I spent time worrying about this. Maybe it was just a delay strategy, my mind's way of tricking myself into avoiding the act. I found a building that felt right, somehow. It was an old factory building that had been refurbished and partly turned into condos that sold for close to seven figures. At first I leaned headfirst, my hair picking up the grainy tug of loose cobble, but then pulling away. I stood back, contemplating it as I thought Shira might size it up for a series of architectural stills, even noticing the interplay of light. Or like a rodeo rider, waiting in the chute for the bull to come pounding through. Except that instead of a bull, there was only this wall—still, imperturbable. I tapped it several times, knuckle to mortar. I had to get the angle right, had to make sure that the right—which is to say correct—part of my brain would take the impact. Most importantly, I had to work up the will. It was like what I imagine committing suicide is like, except that in a suicide there is the promise at least of nothingness on the other side, of not having to answer for one's actions, at least not in this world. Whereas for me there was the opposite—a slew of questions. Would I see stars? Knock myself unconscious? When I woke up, would I know where I was? I'd written a note, and pinned it on myself—yes, I've seen Memento and know how these things go. The worst thing, I thought, would be to go at it with only 80% conviction, to flinch at the eleventh second, not enough to avoid contact but to avoid my aims. There were reflexes, you see. There were instincts that had to be overcome. I had to outwit myself. Sleight of mind. In the end I gave myself the concussion. The pain was monstrous. The worst part of being in the after was that having lost any notion of time, I could not appreciate that it was over, and so lay on the ground without relief, still in a state of anticipation, a looming dread.
In a way, though, I would say that maybe I never recovered, or maybe we never did.
The nurse comes out to call me in and takes my paperwork. She flips through it, takes my height and weight, asks me if I have gotten enough fluids, wonders how I am feeling—am I ready? She arrives at the page where I'm supposed to specify my new Direction. What am I seeking? I've signed all the disclaimers, the ones that say that the doctor cannot be held responsible for any side effects. I might be pulled irrevocably in one Direction not of my choosing; I might be driven to leave home, numb to family, destined to journey, to replant myself in other soil. But all of those are the rare instances. Most of the time, I will walk out feeling like a new man, sense of self honed and glinting like a knife-edge, raring to face the day. But I have not chosen my new Direction. Do I want to steer myself toward my daughter, or my wife, or my son? Any choice is appealing and appalling.
I think of those who share a Direction with their sons and can sit with them fishing off the same pier, buds, practically clipped together by an invisible, binding belt. Or who have the exact opposite direction from their sons and thus can play catch, facing one another, each hurtling the ball in the direction nature intended. The thwack of pigskin, a language that consists solely of throw and catch. What needs no saying between fathers and sons in such exchanges I imagine as filling volumes, glutting libraries, demanding new wings.
But I am also on the verge of leaving Shira, and suspect she is on the brink of leaving me. And then there is the enigma, Britta.
So I ask, "Can I just let him decide?"
She squints at me like I'm putting her on. "You want to . . . leave it entirely in the fate of someone else."
"And you do understand that the procedure is only approved a single time?"
"I get that."
She shrugs. "I'll have to ask him." A few minutes later, she's back. "You did sign all the waivers, right?" she says, double-checking them one by one, and then again, as if I might be some kind of elaborate scam artist.
I have signed them, the hand tremulous but mine.
"Well then," she says, "hope you like roulette."
They tell you not to drive for forty-eight hours afterward, so I walk, and my walk stretches to hours, as I go wherever I feel. I am trying to be attuned to where my body wants to take me—it is a windless day, fortunately, and so I should be able to feel the Direction to which I'm now betrothed. And while I still can sense each of the cardinal points and am not exactly lost, I'm also not able to guess for sure. Maybe it will settle in and become obvious—this, like the recovery of one's driving ability, can take up to forty-eight hours. In the meantime, there's a buoyancy in my step that I haven't felt maybe since I dangled a hammer and stepped outside to join the work crew.
At some point, my energy starts to lag, and it is this, rather than any sort of internal compass, that draws me home. Britta is there to greet me and tell me all about her science project, which involves recycling and nanotechnology. Devon is playing a video game, but he wants to show me something in it, and even that seems notable. As for Shira, she has not yet started on dinner, because she was down in the darkroom. Yes, the kids allowed her to do it, only called for her like a dozen times. No, she cannot tell me about the project she's working on currently.
Since they're all trying to talk to me at once, they're all in the same space, and I think of those human knots, how we are almost close enough to form one, and think that more families should do this, just for the heck of it, that if we formed a daily human knot and then disentangled ourselves it would somehow benefit everyone. I realize at some point that in this convergence they have taken up their compass positions, sort of, each facing their Direction, but a different kind of compass that is made up of us, that has nothing to do with the compass in the universe, and in that moment they are already fighting, fighting already I tell you about the remote and who gets to watch what show first tonight, and who is next in the shower. Then I want to spin them, all of them, us, into a blur, like one of Shira's photographs, her non-commercial ones—not the ones that make a shoe look like a modernist building or erotica, but those that parse the world into smears of color, as if every moment is fledging, not yet fully itself, a blur that momentarily takes away what makes us individuals and turn us into arcs of light and color and shape, but she will not be able to photograph it because she will be spinning too and I won't be able to describe it because I'll be spinning and finally, I'll reach out to them all till we become a ball of human twine, in this way, together, riding out the storm.