One day I come out onto a street in New York. A very old man is on the sidewalk selling antique maps. I smile. I walk up to him.
“Sir, do you have any of the Arctic?”
His eyes look into mine more deeply now. For one quick second, we make love, the way strangers who are not really strangers—they just have never met before—touch each other deep inside with their eyes.
“Of course I do, Darling,” he says in a thick and gorgeous Urdu accent. “But,” he hesitates, and holds up his index finger: “I have only one.”
We smile at each other. We are suddenly in love, and we understand our whole love affair—from beginning to end—will take place right here, between our words, for only these few moments.
I look at the map. On the small sheet of paper, there are two frames: the North Pole is on top, the South Pole on the bottom. All the water is white. The scattered lands are green. Besides the fine black print, these are the only colors. In large bold letters across the middle of both poles is the word UNEXPLORED.
Later I will think: how like this map I am. The top and bottom of me—both—so unknown. My most essential pivots: uncharted yet toggling in perfect geometry. My heart a country called Greenland, yet always covered in ice. My brain an Iceland, but greener than every sea. Prehistoric elephants embedded beneath my skin, along with carved ivory ornaments ten thousand years old that belonged to me when I was someone’s wife during the last ice age. Always something in me freezing harder, while another part insists on melting. And then this equator in the middle of my body—so hot, so lush—I can visit, but only for a day.
I buy the map. It is fifteen dollars. The man and I smile at each other. His face is a whole flock of starlings, which suddenly alights upon me—me, bare winter tree. In one minute, we have lived fifty years together. In one minute, we’ve had ten children. I’ve tended a goat and brought him a cup of its frothy milk. He’s covered my head with a white muslin scarf, then stood beside me while we cremated my father. We’ve grown gray together. I have loved his body and mind thoroughly. I say goodbye. I rub red ochre into the middle part of my hair. I throw garlands of marigolds into his casket before the moment closes the lid.
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