This is my family’s favorite game: geography. During blackouts, we all climb into my parents’ bed and name countries. One person names a country, city, state, or continent, and the next person comes up with a country, city, state, or continent that begins with the ending letter of the first.
We play until one of us protests that we can no longer take it or until we run out of countries beginning with the letter A.
For my 10th birthday, I asked for and received a globe from Pier One. It was bumpy and rotated on a wrought iron stand, and I spent hours locked in my room, stroking it. On my walls hung two enormous maps, one of the world and the other of the United States, and before I fell asleep I stared at them, committing everything to memory. This was made easier by the fact that my fear of the dark meant my room was so light that I could make out every river and capital city. I wanted to know where everything in the world was, how it all fit together. Maps unlocked the secret to the universe, the organization of space and time. There it all was, laid out and simplified. The lines were drawn, the barriers established. For me, maps were heaven.
It wasn’t lost on me that I studied my maps in solitude. I was an island, and I maintained the oceans between me and fellow humans with a particular brand of hermit-derived fervor. It was a deep comfort to be alone, studying my maps, finally free from the annoying tendencies (constant coughing, warbling voices, incessant breathing) of my classmates, parents, sister, and friends.
When I was in sixth grade, my teacher announced that there would be a geography bee. Well, she specified after a pregnant pause, it would be more of a geography contest because a bee sounded too formal and might inspire stressed-out parents to call the school to complain. But in my head, it was forever and always the geography bee. Our task was to label every country in the world on a blank map. We had a few weeks to prepare.
As soon as I got home from school that afternoon, I barricaded myself in a room alone and set to work memorizing. North America was a piece of cake, and I mastered South America easily. Asia was a good challenge because the countries are big and uniquely shaped, for the most part: Europe and Africa were nearly impossible;Europe because there are about a thousand tiny countries, and Africa because there are many similarly shaped, similarly sized countries (thanks, colonization).
I carried maps with me everywhere. I eventually got all the countries down pat. I didn’t talk to anyone unless absolutely necessary. I brought my atlas with me to the dinner table.
The day of the competition came as a surprise to most of my classmates, who had completely forgotten it existed; they wrote down America, Mexico, Canada, China, and Russia (an ambitious few added Brazil, Spain, and France) and called it a day.
I, however, took the entire allotted time, triple-checking to ensure that I hadn’t missed anything. My competition, I ascertained, was a few of the resident geniuses and a hard worker who had also been memorizing the countries in her spare time. I eyed their sheets nervously as we all handed in our papers. I pretended to be humble and said, “Wow, look how many countries you named!” but in my head, I knew I had this in the bag.
The weeks between the end of the test and the announcement of the results were agony. Every morning I arrived at school hoping that my teacher would tell us who had won, but it seemed to be taking her an exceptionally long time to tally the results.
Finally, the fateful morning came. My teacher, a Mississippi native with one exceptionally long hair that grew out of her shoulder (“It just keeps growing!” she exclaimed in her southern twang), cleared her throat and read out the results. I dug my fingernails into my friend Amari’s forearm, drawing blood, but I didn’t care.
Third place, having named 50 countries correctly: one of the resident geniuses.
Second place, having named 65 countries correctly: the hard worker.
First place, having named 127 countries correctly: me.
I’m sure I imagined this, but as I walked in front of the class to receive my prize—a bag full of chocolate and a gift card—confetti fell from the ceiling and an orchestra played a jaunty Mozart tune. In any case, my classmates applauded, I shook my teacher’s hand, and I accepted my chocolate. It tasted like gold.
Since the geography bee, I’ve relaxed the borders of my little island. It happened gradually. My border police have grown lazy, but they are still employed. I don’t like hugs, and when people touch me I fight the urge to physically recoil. But I choose company over solitude more often than not. People have become less annoying. A few weeks ago, I experienced the sensation known as loneliness.
I’m no longer a geography fiend: the topographical globe lives in the basement, the maps that hung on my wall are furled in some dusty corner, and the atlases are tucked behind rows of novels on my bookshelf. I can no longer name all the countries, or even most of them. The obsession with territories and lines has faded, but I still carry a certain fondness for maps.
Davis is a member of the class of 2017.