I am terrible with directions. I am so terrible that, one morning during my visit to Costa Rica as a college student – the same morning that I managed to get my sneakers stolen and sold back to me by the same enterprising thief on the beach at Jacó – I had actually gotten up early to run and watch the sunrise. As the sky slowly lightened over the ocean and the sun failed to appear, a similarly gradual enlightenment took place in my top-notch brain. I realized I was on the Pacific coast, looking west, and that the sunrise might best be contemplated on the other side of the country; this was a place I might someday visit, if I could ever get my shoes back. Did I say “terrible with directions”? I believe it might be more accurately translated as “más tonta que las gallinas de noche” – “dumber than hens at night.”
At any rate, you won’t be surprised to learn that it took me nearly ten years to realize the orientation of our house. I was outside with you a couple of months ago, watching the sun set beyond our gate, when it occurred to me that my favorite spot, the back corner where I sit at night as you fall asleep, is also our northernmost corner. It is the place where I read you Pat the Bunny or Baby Listens, then pull out my own book, and read, and wait. From our armchair, I can look out over the whole quiet length of our little house. Over the sound of your little noise machine, just enough to mask throaty motorcycle engines and loudmouthed neighbors, I can still hear the crickets outside or, one evening during Lent, a somewhat toneless but oddly beautiful chorus of old ladies at the stations of the cross I’d seen them putting up earlier in the day, their dutiful sons and husbands following the women’s orders as usual in the gated porches and entryways of our neighborhood.
I sit like this until you’re fast asleep, eyelashes lushly curved against your cheek, hands curled. Some nights, it’s not that simple (look in the index under “crankiness,” “Keeping Up With the Kardashians reruns,” “begging” or “maniacal laughter”), but when it is, it’s the most peaceful, quiet, and happy moment of my day, my week, my life.
So I was thrilled to discover that when I sit in that armchair, I am at the northernmost point of our house, looking south. It makes sense. It means I’m sitting as close as I possibly can to the place I’m from. I sit as close as I can to long, shadowed summer evenings made for the far-off sound of a tennis-ball thwack or the swoosh of a net, to bare feet on cedar chips in my mother’s garden where I fill my outstretched T-shirt with arugula leaves and butter beans. I sit as close as I can to autumn, crisp leaves on top and muddy below, scuffed up by age-old Bean boots my thrifty father keeps resoling. I sit as close as I can to winter, to red, numb legs after a run, to dark mornings that I don’t miss in the least, to muted heather sunsets that I miss terribly. I sit as close as I can to spring, to the joy of the first bare leg and the first sandal, even when you realize halfway out the door that you jumped the gun and are freezing cold. I sit as close as I can to the seasons of an earlier life, seasons that now pass without me, and I feel a little acabangada – the Costa Rican word for the particular melancholy of missing a person after a breakup, or an animal that has died, or a place. (You can also estar de cabanga or, the best, tener un cabangón, a serious nostalgia attack that in my world would require a box of wine and a rainy window to gaze through.)
But the cabangón is not for me, not tonight. I sit in the north corner, knowing that at my back, behind the window and the neighbor’s flower-covered wall and the streets and tin roofs beyond; behind the Nicaraguan border where ladies in frilly aprons sing about the cheeses they have to sell; behind all the borders after that, the state lines, the rivers and lakes and ocean waves of increasing frigidity; behind me, way behind me, is the life I left, but before me, to the south, is the life I came to find. Before me, to the south, is the land where the streets have no name or logical layout, where rain falls in sheets, where MacGyver is a noun used in daily conversation, and where I have so often found myself “a lo chancho chingo” – as happy as a naked pig.
At any rate, for now, none of it matters, none of what’s behind or before us. Because for now, for right now, the only latitude and longitude that matters are the degree, minute, second, and circle of lamplight that hold the two of us together. That’s why I linger so long. That’s why I take my time setting you down. I want to delay the moment when thought resumes. I want to delay the moment when the lamp goes out. I want to delay the moment when the armchair creaks goodnight, the northern corner empties, the bedroom door closes, my feet take me back into the world, the world begins to move once more.