The moment Mom got home from work on Friday, I told her that I was going to a concert with Radar and then proceeded to drive out to rural Seminole County to see Collier Farms. All the other subdivisions from the brochures turned out to exist— most of them on the north side of town, which had been totally developed a long time ago.
I only recognized the turnoff for Collier Farms because I’d become something of an expert in hard-to-see dirt access roads. But Collier Farms was like none of the other pseudovisions I’d seen, because it was wildly overgrown, as if it had been abandoned for fifty years. I didn’t know if it was older than the other pseudovisions, or if the low-lying, swamp-wet land made everything grow faster, but the Collier Farms access road became impassable just after I turned in because a thick grove of brambly brush had sprouted across the entire road.
I got out and walked. The overgrown grass scraped at my shins, and my sneakers sunk into the mud with each step. I couldn’t help but hope she had a tent pitched out here somewhere on some little piece of land two feet higher than everything else, keeping the rain off. I walked slowly, because there was more to see than at any of the others, more places to hide, and because I knew this pseudovision had a direct connection to the minimall. The ground was so thick I had to walk slowly as I let myself take in each new landscape, checking each place big enough to fit a person. At the end of the street I saw a blue-and-white cardboard box in the mud, and for a second it looked like the same nutrition bars I’d found in the minimall. But, no. A rotting container for a twelve-pack of beer. I trudged back to the minivan and headed for a place called Logan Pines farther to the north.
It took an hour to get there, and by now I was up near the Ocala National Forest, not really even the Orlando metro area anymore. I was a few miles away when Ben called.
“You hittin’ those paper towns?” he asked.
“Yeah, I’m almost to the last one I know of. Nothing yet.”
“So listen, bro, Radar’s parents had to leave town real suddenly.”
“Is everything okay?” I asked. I knew Radar’s grandparents were really old and lived in a nursing home down in Miami.
“Yeah, get this: you know the guy in Pittsburgh with the world’s second-largest collection of black Santas?”
“He just bit it.”
“Bro, I don’t kid about the demise of black Santa collectors. This guy had an aneurysm, and so Radar’s folks are flying to Pennsylvania to try to buy his entire collection. So we’re having a few people over.”
“You and me and Radar. We’re the hosts.”
“I don’t know,” I said.
There was a pause, and then Ben used my full name. “Quentin,” he said, “I know you want to find her. I know she is the most important thing to you. And that’s cool. But we graduate in, like, a week. I’m not asking you to abandon the search. I’m asking you to come to a party with your two best friends who you have known for half your life. I’m asking you to spend two to three hours drinking sugary wine coolers like the pretty little girl you are, and then another two to three hours vomiting the aforementioned wine coolers through your nose. And then you can go back to poking around abandoned housing projects.”
It bothered me that Ben only wanted to talk about Margo when it involved an adventure that appealed to him, that he thought there was something wrong with me for focusing on her over my friends, even though she was missing and they weren’t. But Ben was Ben, like Radar said. And I had nothing left to search after Logan Pines anyway. “I’ve got to go to this last place and then I’ll be over.”
Because Logan Pines was the last pseudovision in Central Florida— or at least the last one I knew about — I had placed so much hope in it. But as I walked around its single dead-end street with a flashlight, I saw no tent. No campfire. No food wrappers. No sign of people. No Margo. At the end of the road, I found a single concrete foundation dug into the dirt. But there was nothing built atop it, just the hole cut into the earth like a dead mouth agape, tangles of briars and waist-high grass growing up all around. If she’d wanted me to see these places, I could not understand why. And if Margo had gone to the pseudovisions never to come back, she knew about a place I hadn’t uncovered in all my research.
It took an hour and a half to drive back to Jefferson Park. I parked the minivan at home, changed into a polo shirt and my only nice pair of jeans, and walked down Jefferson Way to Jefferson Court, and then took a right onto Jefferson Road. A few cars were already lined up on both sides of Jefferson Place, Radar’s street. It was only eight-forty-five.
I opened the door and was greeted by Radar, who had an armful of plaster black Santas. “Gotta put away all of the nice ones,” he said. “God forbid one of them breaks.”
“Need any help?” I asked. Radar nodded toward the living room, where the tables on either side of the couch held three sets of unnested black Santa nesting dolls. As I renested them, I couldn’t help but notice that they were really very beautiful— hand-painted and extraordinarily detailed. I didn’t say this to Radar, though, for fear that he would beat me to death with the black Santa lamp in the living room.
I carried the matryoshka dolls into the guest bedroom, where Radar was carefully stashing Santas into a dresser. “You know, when you see them all together, it really does make you question the way we imagine our myths.”
Radar rolled his eyes. “Yeah, I always find myself questioning the way I imagine my myths when I’m eating my Lucky Charms every morning with a goddamned black Santa spoon.”
I felt a hand on my shoulder spinning me around. It was Ben, his feet fidgeting in fast-motion like he needed to pee or something. “We kissed. Like, she kissed me. About ten minutes ago. On Radar’s parents’ bed.”
“That’s disgusting,” Radar said. “Don’t make out in my parents’ bed.”
“Wow, I figured you’d already gotten past that,” I said. “What with you being such a pimp and everything.”
“Shut up, bro. I’m freaked out,” he said, looking at me, his eyes almost crossed. “I don’t think I’m very good.”
“At kissing. And, I mean, she’s done a lot more kissing than me over the years. I don’t want to suck so bad she dumps me. Girls dig you,” he said to me, which was at best true only if you defined the word girls as “girls in the marching band.” “Bro, I’m asking for advice.”
I was tempted to bring up all Ben’s endless blather about the various ways in which he would rock various bodies, but I just said, “As far as I can tell, there are two basic rules: 1. Don’t bite anything without permission, and 2. The human tongue is like wasabi: it’s very powerful, and should be used sparingly.”
Ben’s eyes suddenly grew bright with panic. I winced, and said, “She’s standing behind me, isn’t she?”
“‘The human tongue is like wasabi,’” Lacey mimicked in a deep, goofy voice that I hoped didn’t really resemble mine.
I wheeled around. “I actually think Ben’s tongue is like sunscreen,” she said. “It’s good for your health and should be applied liberally.”
“I just threw up in my mouth,” Radar said.
“Lacey, you just kind of took away my will to go on,” I added.
“I wish I could stop imagining that,” Radar said.
I said, “The very idea is so offensive that it’s actually illegal to say the words ‘Ben Starling’s tongue’ on television.”
“The penalty for violating that law is either ten years in prison or one Ben Starling tongue bath,” Radar said.
“Everyone,” I said.
“Chooses,” Radar said, smiling.
“Prison,” we finished together.
And then Lacey kissed Ben in front of us. “Oh God,” Radar said, waving his arms in front of his face. “Oh, God. I’m blind. I’m blind.”
“Please stop,” I said. “You’re upsetting the black Santas.”
The party ended up in the formal living room on the second floor of Radar’s house, all twenty of us. I leaned against a wall, my head inches from a black Santa portrait painted on velvet. Radar had one of those sectional couches, and everyone was crowded onto it. There was beer in a cooler by the TV, but no one was drinking. Instead, they were telling stories about one another. I’d heard most of them before — band camp stories and Ben Starling stories and first kiss stories — but Lacey hadn’t heard any of them, and anyway, they were still entertaining.
I stayed mostly out of it until Ben said, “Q, how are we going to graduate?”
I smirked. “Naked but for our robes,” I said.
“Yes!” Ben sipped a Dr Pepper.
“I’m not even bringing clothes, so I don’t wuss out,” Radar said.
“Me neither! Q, swear not to bring clothes.”
I smiled. “Duly sworn,” I said.
“I’m in!” said our friend Frank. And then more and more of the guys got behind the idea. The girls, for some reason, were resistant.
Radar said to Angela, “Your refusal to do this makes me question the whole foundation of our love.”
“You don’t get it,” Lacey said. “It’s not that we’re afraid . It’s just that we already have our dresses picked out.”
Angela pointed at Lacey. “Exactly .” Angela added, “Y’all better hope it’s not windy.”
“I hope it is windy,” Ben said. “The world’s largest balls benefit from fresh air.”
Lacey put a hand to her face, ashamed. “You’re a challenging boyfriend,” she said. “Rewarding, but challenging.” We laughed.
This was what I liked most about my friends: just sitting around and telling stories. Window stories and mirror stories. I only listened — the stories on my mind weren’t that funny.
I couldn’t help but think about school and everything else ending. I liked standing just outside the couches and watching them — it was a kind of sad I didn’t mind, and so I just listened, letting all the happiness and the sadness of this ending swirl around in me, each sharpening the other. For the longest time, it felt kind of like my chest was cracking open, but not precisely in an unpleasant way.
I left just before midnight. Some people were staying later, but it was my curfew, and plus I didn’t feel like staying. Mom was half asleep on the couch, but she perked up when she saw me. “Did you have fun?”
“Yeah,” I said. “It was pretty chill.”
“Just like you,” she said, smiling. This sentiment struck me as hilarious, but I didn’t say anything. She stood up and pulled me into her, kissing me on the cheek. “I really like being your mom,” she said.
“Thanks,” I said.
I went to bed with the Whitman, flipping to the part I’d liked before, where he spends all the time hearing the opera and the people.
After all that hearing, he writes, “I am exposed. . cut by bitter and poisoned hail.” That was perfect, I thought: you listen to people so that you can imagine them, and you hear all the terrible and wonderful things people do to themselves and to one another, but in the end the listening exposes you even more than it exposes the people you’re trying to listen to.
Walking through pseudovisions and trying to listen to her does not crack the Margo Roth Spiegelman case so much as it cracks me. Pages later — hearing and exposed — Whitman starts to write about all the travel he can do by imagining, and lists all the places he can visit while loafing on the grass. “My palms cover continents,” he writes.
I kept thinking about maps, like the way sometimes when I was a kid I would look at atlases, and just the looking was kind of like being somewhere else. This is what I had to do. I had to hear and imagine my way into her map.
But hadn’t I been trying to do that? I looked up at the maps above my computer. I had tried to plot her possible travels, but just as the grass stood for too much, so Margo stood for too much. It seemed impossible to pin her down with maps. She was too small and the space covered by the maps too big. They were more than a waste of time — they were the physical representation of the total fruitlessness of all of it, my absolute inability to develop the kinds of palms that cover continents, to have the kind of mind that correctly imagines.
I got up and walked over to the maps and tore them off the wall, the pins and tacks flying out with the paper and falling to the ground. I balled up the maps and threw them in the garbage can. On my way back to bed I stepped on a tack, like an idiot, and even though I was annoyed and exhausted and out of pseudovisions and ideas, I had to pick up all the thumbtacks scattered around the carpet so I didn’t step on them later. I just wanted to punch the wall, but I had to pick up those stupid goddamned thumbtacks. When I finished, I got back into bed and socked my pillow, my teeth clenched.
I started trying to read the Whitman again, but between it and thinking of Margo, I felt exposed enough for this night. So finally I put the book down. I couldn’t be bothered to get up and turn off the light. I just stared at the wall, my blinks growing longer. And every time I opened my eyes, I saw where each map had been — the four holes marking the rectangle, and the pinholes seemingly randomly distributed inside the rectangle. I’d seen a similar pattern before. In the empty room above the rolled-up carpet.
A map. With plotted points.