Not a Place on Any Map


Phoenix to Yorba Linda, 1982

No Place on Any MapMom hauls west on I-10 through mirage and heat shimmer, but there is no time for physics because she wants to make it to Blythe by Noon. She is leaving my father, or he is leaving her, and getting out of Arizona by morning seems important. She banks miles for hours, and I track the inches with my thumb-joint on the map. The baby waves his fat limbs from the car seat and babbles, while I turn knobs on the Etch-a-Sketch, drawing the last Phoenix house before I forget what it looks like. Absorbed in perfecting the arch over the doorway and shading the suitcases on the front step, I look up occasionally to see Mom lighting slim cigarettes and tapping on the steering wheel. The air grows cooler near the Colorado River, and Mom pumps the window open and reaches her arm out to tilt the side mirror. Toto comes on the radio, and the baby bounces as Mom cranks the dial. The song is “Africa,” and the car is awash in the crash of cymbals, and synthesizers, and a feeling that everything could be okay in the next place. As a rule, Mom sings the wrong words: “God bless the rays down on Africa.” All these years later, I still sing the wrong words too, part muscle memory, part homage.


San Francisco to East Coast, 2003

On our way out of California in a Civic packed to the headrests, my friend and I turn off Interstate 10 in Blythe, the last stop in California, 607 miles southeast of San Francisco and 150 due west of Phoenix. I’m leaving behind cocaine and some bad years and now that I’m in Blythe, the memories reach for me. With decent reception, I extend the little black antenna and call Dad on my new mobile phone. “I just wanted you to know we’ve made it to Blythe,” I say. They sound like the words the father might repeat on a Dateline special, after some terrible accident, after his daughter has been left in pieces for the desert coyotes. “She just wanted to let me know she’d made it to Blythe,” the father might say ruefully, searching for some meaning in a last phone call.

“Ah, Blythe,” Dad says, acknowledging a place we often stopped on our way to visit family in Yorba Linda. “Halfway between Phoenix and L.A.” Blythe is remote, has no fraught history, offers only milkshakes and gas. This is how we share affection, by trading panned nuggets of trivia that intersect with shared places, like how Richard Nixon was from Yorba Linda, or that Houston, Texas is the fourth largest city in the United States. We talk in map points and routes and population density and flora and fauna. I tell him about the coyotes and arroyos and jackrabbits and how they pull from me a deep nostalgia for the desert I didn’t know was left, from the early childhood years before we moved back East. I don’t tell him about the sadness that swamps me, how it feels new and familiar both, or how I wonder if Blythe is a place to let it in finally, a place with no past, a place where someone could go to disappear.


Florence, Italy, 2001

I am 6,097 miles from my apartment on Russian Hill in San Francisco, in a cold, stone office in the bowels of the stazione policia, on Via Zara in Florence. The night before, I had dinner with friends on the Piazza Della Repubblica, fifteen minutes by foot from the police station. The night before, I wore an outfit I bought special for the trip: red pedal pushers and red blouse, heeled sandals, and lavender head scarf. We chatted gaily with our waiter, who joined us after his shift for Fernet Branca and Prosecco. He spoke little English, and I little Italian, but in broken Spanish and flirty eye contact, we managed well enough. My friends and I and the waiter walked over the Ponte Vecchio, but at some point while browsing the trinket shops and smoking cigarettes with our arms draped through the stone portholes over the Arno, he and I drifted from the group. At another point, I figured they’d gone back to our hotel, and he offered a “corto trayecto” on his moped. Still drunk, sun-baked from the day, and dizzy from the ridges of terracotta rooflines undulating by, the ride exhilarated me in those first moments. But after twisting down more dusty lanes and bumping over cobblestones and emerging onto a faster, wider boulevard, my giddiness evaporated. I began to feel sick and to spin, adrift from my friends and the hotel and the center of town. He slowed the moped to a stop, hopped it onto a sidewalk in front of an apartment building and with his strange, sweaty hand, the nice waiter led me up a flight of steps and into a small apartment.

Why did I go? I think now, as a translator from the American Consulate mouths the Italian words for the images that flash into my mind without a linear timeline. The words sound cheerful when the nice lady says them in Italian, the words for oral sex, for finger penetration, for erect penis, for without consent, for kick-start scooter, for champagne headache, for swarthy waiter, for slim build, for a Calabrian driver’s license, for his email address scrawled on a napkin, for No, for a partial apology in Spanish, for a cigarette afterward, for a walk over the only bridge in Florence to survive World War II, for permission to call my father, for the correct change in Liras.

High on adrenaline and instinct and a lifelong good sense of direction, I lead the officers back to the man’s apartment, some four-plus back-switching miles from the piazza. Since I have the napkin with his name and email address, the officers match it with one of the occupants listed in their records. “Ben Fatto!” one of the officers shouts and pumps his fist from the front seat of the little police car. “It means good job,” the translator says. “I know,” I say. When I pack for my flight just hours later, I flatten the words on the police report in the bottom of my suitcase like a freighted souvenir, underneath the red pants and blouse and stacked heels I wore the night before. I realize then that my panties are gone, probably still in the man’s apartment. Once on the plane and headed back to California, my seatmate asks if I’m going home, and I nod, then: “Well, yes, I live there,” I say, thinking home is not a word I understand anymore, not a place on any map.


1900 West Loop S Service Road, Houston, 2005

This is the address in tidy block print on my arrest report for drunk driving. Google Maps converts that same address to 1900 W Loop S Fwy, Houston, Texas, 77027. The crash occurred, technically speaking, on the frontage road, a feeder to the freeway proper. The 610 Loop is the major artery that encircles the city in a blobby square. Those who live “outside the loop” are considered suburbanites, and those who live “inside the loop” urbanites, though the population density feels mostly the same in Southeast Texas, where land is not a premium.

The loop confuses me, because its name changes depending on the direction traveled, and the shift from one arm to the next—while clear on the map—isn’t all that clear on the ground. Houston is not a city of landmarks—no ocean on the left if headed north as in San Francisco; no ocean on the right if headed the same direction on the East Coast. No arroyos or piazzas or characteristic predatory fauna, as in other places on other maps. Just mile upon mile of new construction, bleached-out faux-Mediterranean shopping plazas, ice houses, apartment complexes, and then more miles of pavement, gleaming SUVs, and chain restaurants—all the way to the haze-smudged horizon line.

Starting at the accident and arrest site, where the freeway crosses San Felipe, and following it all the way around the city, the loop runs 38 miles, comprising the West Loop South Freeway, the South Loop West Freeway, the South Loop East Freeway, the East Loop Freeway, the North Loop East Freeway, the North Loop West Freeway, and the West Loop North Freeway. Though clear in a technical sense, the sameness of the Houston landscape, along with these names, only disorients me further.

Early after the crash, I look up the location on Google compulsively, travel down a rabbit hole of memory and geography. I map the site to my apartment, to my job, and inevitably to other places. I shuffle my memory and pull places like cards. The compulsion helps me play chicken with time and reality and trauma. I know this now. But then I’m thinking only that if I can pinpoint the location, I can somehow reshuffle the deck and change my hand: the Jeep un-crumples, popping into perfect relief, then reverses out of the crash and back down the feeder road. I pour wine back into the bottle. I wonder about certain ifs. If I had left work earlier or later. If I had not been drunk that night. (But on what night was I not drunk? I couldn’t remember.) If I had not moved to Houston. If it had been raining. If. If. If.

From the accident site, my apartment at 1901 Binz is 8.7 miles. I had covered less than a mile from where I started in Uptown Park, so I probably wouldn’t have made it home anyway, presuming I was headed there.


When I look at maps of where the accident occurred all these years later, I am drawn to its proximity to I-10, a possible escape hatch to other places far from my problems and even to places from my childhood. What if I had gone the other way, north to I-10; would I have made it, spared everyone? I realize it’s a kind of magical thinking, but I look at the map and the 3.1 miles to the Interstate and I think drive, girl, drive west—back to Phoenix or Blythe, to a place before Florence and San Francisco and Houston, to a place before your own high mileage.

I-10 runs 2,460.34 miles from Florida to California and is the southernmost transcontinental highway in the Interstate Highway System of the United States. Driving west on Interstate 10, you can put a lot of distance between yourself and a place you shouldn’t be.


Alexis Paige’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Pinch, Passages North, Fourth Genre, The RumpusPithead Chapel, and has been featured on Longform and Freshly Pressed. Winner of the 2014 New Millennium Writings Nonfiction Prize, she holds an MFA from Stonecoast and is Assistant Editor for Brevity Magazine.