People say the world will end when midnight strikes December 31, 1999, but Amy comes to hope it won’t, and then it doesn’t, and then she graduates from the University of Tulsa and she flies to Berlin. She is eighteen, it is June 1, 2000, and the world’s unfolding and in bloom, and it belongs in its entirety to her.
When she disembarks at Tempelhof she shakes her wrists loose and hurries out into the airport as though she knows where she is going—and in a way, she does. Tomorrow she will take the train to Moscow, and in Moscow she’ll become a whole new person—luminous, herself.
She finds the baggage claim and claims her luggage—an old off-white suitcase of her grandma’s, from before suitcases had wheels—and nudges through the throng of those awaiting the arrivals of their relatives and friends. Her terror she will hear her name’s in vain: by leaving Oklahoma, Amy has freed herself of everything and everyone she’s ever known.
Soon the room gets lighter, and she begins to hear the street. From inside the inside pocket of her jacket she extracts a grayscale map; she holds it up to the light from outside like it’s amber.
Berlin glows most around the page’s perforated edges, the current limits of Amy’s expertise—yet now, just beyond her grasp, she sees what she’ll soon learn are fragrant lindens, leaves quivering in gleaming sheets of glass, and closer, as she lets the map drop, people flicker past, their certain steps seeming to keep the flecked and polished floor in place; these gliding silhouettes all intermingle like the languages she doesn’t know or doesn’t know completely yet, which rise and fall in flurries.
In all of this activity, in all this mystery, in all these intersections, Amy can sense the nearness of the world’s quickening pulse and feel her own rising to meet it.
Between now and when she gets the picture that will shatter her and every map, Amy will traverse dozens of cities, navigate men’s bodies, calculate exchange rates and learn words. She’ll lie and be lied to and be lighter in translations because words without memories are beautiful and hollow like painted Easter eggs. She will take pictures of bridges over their strangled reflections, venture onto islands to capture seas with surfaces the pictures pucker, stopping.
She’ll take pictures of spiral staircases that remind her of tornados, hunt mushrooms and flick her fingers over the ridges of flesh under their caps and get shivers, write letters—but not to Zoe—and elongate her stride and shift her center of gravity one centimeter forward and weep in a graveyard on All Saints’ Day and wish that she could write her sister and be happy that her sister isn’t there.
She’ll memorize itineraries, terminals, webs of bus and subway lines, because the more she knows by heart, the less she’ll miss her sister. Her anchor. Zoe.
She will get lost—often at first—but she will not get homesick. Until, with the sickening snap of the sole remaining puzzle piece, the last portrait—the first portrait—falls into place, leaving Amy not with any vision of the shape her life has taken, but rather with the dread—familiar but forgotten—of having nothing left.
By that time, Tempelhof Airport will be closed. Amy will go anyway. She’ll gather all her pictures up, and she’ll go back—not to what can never be her home again, in Oklahoma, but to the runways where her world began, their asphalt burst by tiny stalks, the once-white lines that guided planes now overshadowed by a million little leaves and yellow blossoms.
To finally accomplish what she couldn’t on the night she nearly killed herself, and in so doing, to bring these still lives back to life, so she can let them go.