The map my father gave me was torn along the folds, frayed, the ripped spots almond-shaped, like the eyes of my Japanese friends. You don’t really need a map in New Jersey, he’d say, as long as you know in what direction you’re headed. He’d take a puff on his pipe, look at me all serious. There are so many roads… Miss one, you’ll find another. Had that ring of wisdom without actually being wisdom. Like when he used to tell us that the Atlantic could cure anything. We took it literally, ten, twelve years old. Every time one of us stepped on a broken crab shell or blistered our heels on the hot sand, we’d dash into the water and check our feet, see if the blood had stopped or the blister disappeared. Never did. Later, when broken hearts came into the picture, I’d slip into the deep water, dip below the surface, stroke until I couldn’t hold my breath any longer. Surfacing, the same pain. Still, he was probably onto something.
First time I drove home from college — it should’ve been a five hour trip — it took thirteen. Early on I knew I’d passed the exit, but giddy on freedom just kept heading south and west, remembering all I needed to do, when I was good and ready, was find east and north. For the last thirty minutes of the trip I cried every time I saw an exit I recognized. Sandy Hook, Keansburg, Aberdeen, Keyport. It was a clear night and the stars seemed navigable, like I’d learned to find my way in the dark. Everyone hugged me when I opened the door. I’d become a visitor from somewhere else, something different than a daughter or a sister. Maybe something better. They fed me a weird assortment of leftovers, as though they’d forgotten what I liked. Cold pizza, figs, broccoli with lemon, a platter of sushi they picked up last-minute at the supermarket take-out. A heel of cheesecake with strawberry topping. Newspapers were stacked on the table next to me and I noticed odd collections of like objects all over the house. Batches of old photographs, wobbly piles of hardcover books, jars and cans of pens. My mother had hung new curtains on the kitchen windows, and there was a blanket with a vaguely southwestern pattern on my bed. Have any trouble finding us? my father asked. No, I said. Just did what you told me. Headed in the right direction, didn’t worry about getting lost.
Nobody would’ve been surprised that I couldn’t sleep that night, overtired from the drive and feeling like I’d entered a house of amiable neighbors. Walked down to the beach in the dark, the stars familiar as old friends. Brought the map with me, sat on a curved hip of sand and folded it best I could, clumsy origamist, into the shape of a sailboat. Walked into the waves, holding my arms up over my head, protecting the paper for as long as I could. This can cure anything, I whispered to the sail. Then let it go into the current.
Donna Steiner’s writing has been published in The Bellingham Review, Utne Reader, The Sun, Fourth Genre, and Isotope. She’s been twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize and won the Annie Dillard Award for nonfiction. Her work has been included in college textbooks, and can be found in the anthologies Women on the Verge and Under the Influence. She teaches writing at the State University of New York in Oswego.