I have seen pictures and documentaries, but I can only identify a very few landmarks that have anything to do with my own memories of the place. I saw a photo, on the internet, of the shotgun house in the French Quarter where I lived with my girlfriend Natalie in 1997, and it had that spray-painted X on the door with numbers on it, like a rudimentary gang sign—two people had died in my house.
I guess I was excited, when I saw the photo, to verify that there had been deaths. It gave me a Katrina-related anecdote that would actually hold someone’s attention for a minute or two, and it would be my anecdote, even though I wasn’t actually there.
I moved to New Orleans in late March, so I missed Mardi Gras. I was drunk so much of the time that my memories of the place are comprised of snapshots that seem to have been taken from the periphery of an actual event, or direct frames with some compromise like they’re underwater—nearly colorless, grayish aqua with spots of garish hues that might not be right.
Five of my photographs are of Natalie, taken in the very early stages of our relationship. I didn’t know how to wind the film right, so most of the shots on the first roll got messed up. I took more photographs than just one roll, but I lost the roll from the last four months of my residence there.
I am writing all of this down for my wife, who thinks I am still in love with Natalie, and I’m not, and I don’t know how to talk to my wife about it. She doesn’t confront me directly about still being in love with Natalie. Instead, she sets traps for me, at least once a week, and I wish she would stop.
I have had imaginary conversations with her about that, and many other things. How does one begin a discussion like that? I’m genuinely asking. I know other couples do it all the time. I can write all this down, but I don’t think I could really show it to her. I couldn’t really print it all out and present her with a sheaf of paper one morning. I’ll have to delete this; I’ll have to hide it. I’m afraid to even be writing it on the computer we share. Maybe I just want to organize my recollections, put those mushy mental snapshots into an album with some kind of continuity, and when that has been done, maybe then I could find a way to broach the issue, or any issue that might affect us.
People say we have the perfect marriage.
I am sure that most of my memories of New Orleans have been compromised, what I can recall of location or timeline. I don’t know if I want to find out which of my memories are wrong. My wife says she’d like to go there with me someday, just the two of us, maybe when the kids are older, and I usually say, “That would be fun,” presuming it will never actually happen.
I moved to New Orleans with my friend Grant, who had gotten into the University of Louisiana, but he dropped out before he could complete even one semester. He ran out of money and went home, but I stayed. I’m not sure why I decided to stay, before I met Natalie. I couldn’t afford my house by myself, and I knew I couldn’t afford it. I think I was still young enough that I just wanted to see what would happen next.
I was at a party in the Ninth Ward when I met Christian for the first time. I went to the party with a co-worker named Travis, who was not gay despite his apparel; he wore vintage stovepipe trousers and bow ties. He seemed to exist as a resource for ambiguous references to music and books and film, he talked about those things like he thought I should have already known about them, which was flattering and insulting at the same time. “That girl looks like Solveig Dommartin in the first part of Until the End of the World, where she’s wearing that wig.” There wasn’t any Wikipedia in 1997, so I just had to nod and then wonder about it. I could have said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” but nobody says things like that, or at least, I never would have.
The Ninth Ward, Travis told me, was the next up-and-coming neighborhood for cool people, because it was cheap. “But it’s kind of dangerous,” he cautioned. “The last party I was gonna go to in the Ninth Ward got canceled because a body turned up on the front lawn of the house, and there was police tape all around the fence and everything. We moved it to a storage unit over in the Marigny, where my friend’s band practices.”
The Ninth Ward party was in something that seemed like a warehouse, or maybe it was an old antebellum house that had been gutted, so the studs and rafters were showing, exposed roof beams. It was dark inside, there was a makeshift stage, but I don’t recall how it would have been built. I think the picture in my mind is a hybrid image from pictures of other stages I have seen. I remember drinking whiskey outside, near or on something like a back porch, with old rotten lattice around the base, but why would a house in New Orleans, with such a high water table, have wooden lattice? I think some of them did, though it seems not to make any sense. Maybe there was no back porch at all. I took pictures that night, but they’re among those that were ruined when I opened my camera before the roll was wound all the way. It was a brand new camera.
Christian’s band was playing at the party. The band didn’t have a name, they had been playing together for just a couple of months, but they were so polished they might have been playing together all their lives, or maybe I was just very drunk. Maybe it was jazz, but it was eerie and dissonant and jarring, and I was altogether undone by what I was hearing. It was so much louder than I might have expected it to be. Christian played trombone. I had not encountered many live horn bands at that time. Most of the bands I had gone to see play live had been three or four or five piece guitar-bass-drum combinations, but there were a lot of things going on in New Orleans that deviated from what I was used to seeing and hearing and smelling and eating and thinking. I am from a small town in southern Washington state, it’s called Camas.
There were plenty of striking characters at this party, as there were at every party in New Orleans. Particularly noteworthy was a girl wearing a strapless velvet bustier with olive green corduroy short-shorts; on her head was a top hat, coated in pink glitter. Her hair, dyed red with dark roots showing, was braided into two pigtails. The pink glitter from her hat had rained down over her hair and onto her shoulders, her skin tacky from the humidity, causing her to periodically twinkle in the dim light. Her ample cleavage was sparkling, but I think it was her smile that drew me in. Every time she smiled I could see a glint of the pink glitter catching the light between her incisors and canine teeth.
I watched her talking to a friend from across the room for a little while. I don’t know why I singled her out, there were plenty of other pretty girls there. I’ve never understood the chemistry of attraction. My wife gets irritated about it, people who claim to fall in love with each other before they’ve ever even had a conversation. She says she can’t be attracted to someone that she hasn’t known for a little while already. I haven’t tried to argue with her about it for years.
I crossed the room to introduce myself to this girl. I said, I liked your hat. That wouldn’t have worked with some girls, some girls would have smiled a little and then turned away, even though a girl obviously wears a hat like that in the first place to get attention.
She told me she was an aspiring fashion designer and she had made the hat herself, in fact she had made her entire outfit herself, and we continued to talk, which went well until the middle of our conversation, when the band stopped playing, and we were approached by the trombone player, and she said, “Eric, this is my boyfriend Christian.” And then the entire dynamic of the conversation changed, because I realized I had been trying to flirt with a girl who had a talented and interesting boyfriend and I had no chance with her at all. And I felt a little angry with her, for seeming to flirt back with me, and I understood that she had only been trying to be polite. And then I got horrifically drunk, and I have no recollection of how I would have gotten home, but I made it to work the next day, so I must have gotten home somehow.
I worked in a store that sold souvenirs, which is what most of the stores in the French Quarter sold. This particular store mostly sold postcards and art prints, images from local artists. Primary colors, blocked-out shapes representing beachscapes and crawfish and brown-faced men playing bright yellow saxophones on red and green backgrounds. We also sold shot glasses.
I was not making enough money to stay in New Orleans much longer, unless I found someone to move in with me and share my rent, but the house was claustrophobic already. Before Grant moved out I had been sleeping on the couch, now I occupied the single bedroom. I doubted that I was going to find anyone who would be willing to share such a small space with another person, and anyway, there was a tangy smell to the whole place. It was a smell I sometimes encountered in other parts of the city. It was like pontifical incense and old leaves and burned coffee and feet. I have never smelled it in any other city.
Natalie came into my work to talk to me, the day after the party, for no reason. She had been living in New Orleans for two years already, she had little need of posters or porcelain bells or Cajun cookbooks that weren’t actually any good. We also sold cigarettes, though, so she bought some cigarettes, and then she talked to me for about an hour, and I couldn’t believe she was there. Why would she want to talk to me, when she had a boyfriend like Christian?
I didn’t know that Christian wasn’t funny, at all, and I kind of am sometimes, or at least Natalie had thought I was, for those fifteen minutes that we had talked at the party, before Christian joined us. I also didn’t know that Natalie didn’t like some of Christian’s band mates, and she thought the band took up too much of Christian’s time, and she had been annoyed with him for a couple of months, since even before he’d joined the band.
Within two weeks, Natalie was living with me, and Christian and I were definitely not friends.
This morning my wife asked me, over coffee, “When was the first time you ever saw The Accidental Tourist?” and I hesitated before I answered her. I told her, “I can’t remember,” which wasn’t true. The first time I ever saw that movie was with Natalie. We rented it, on Natalie’s recommendation. It made perfect sense that it would have been one of her favorite movies, because she was so very like the Geena Davis character. She looked like her, actually, with an overbite and a cleft in her chin, though her hair was different.
Maybe my wife was looking at my five photos of Natalie recently. I don’t go to any lengths to hide them or anything, they’re just in a box with some of my things, and I’ve never told my wife to stay out of that stuff. The resemblance is pretty striking I suppose. My wife knows that The Accidental Tourist is one of my favorite movies, but I’ve never told her why. I said, “What made you think of that?” and she just shrugged. The matter dropped, but if my experience with my wife is any indicator, it will get brought up again sometime soon. I don’t know what I will say about it.
Natalie didn’t have a job, when she first moved in with me. She had been living in a large house in the Garden District with about twelve people, including Christian, and she had not been paying any rent. Her only income was from her parents, and it was sporadic. Christian bought her meals, paid her share of the rent and otherwise supported her, and she spent most of her time and money working on designing clothes.
I had told her about my situation, that I was going to lose my house if I didn’t find someone to split the rent with me, and she replied, “It’s no big deal, I’ll just go be a stripper for a little while. You can make hundreds of dollars in just one night here, if you have the right personality.”
I didn’t want Natalie to be a stripper, but it seemed like the wrong thing to tell her. I probably said, “Are you sure?” but I did not prod it any further than that. She did make good money, though not typically “hundreds” of dollars a night. She definitely had the right personality.
I went to see her one time. At first it had seemed exciting, to watch other men seem to want my girlfriend so badly, knowing that it was me she was going to come home to. But then it wasn’t exciting anymore. I don’t know exactly when or how it changed, but it seemed to happen right after the third drink I consumed. Right after I made eye contact with her, and she looked away from me and looked at a middle-aged guy in an ocean blue polo shirt, who was leaning on his hand and smiling on only one side of his mouth. He was wearing a gold watch. He was with two other guys who were also in polo shirts, who had similar watches, who would probably be gone from New Orleans in a day or two, and they would remember Natalie as the stripper they saw on their business trip to New Orleans, and they might talk about her in their office, sometime in the future. They might discuss her breasts, but they would not call them breasts, and they would muse over whether or not she was horny for any of them.
When I left the strip club that night I found that someone had smashed the wing window on the passenger’s side of my car and had tried to steal the stereo. The perpetrator must have gotten interrupted, though, because the stereo was still in the car—just banged up and hanging from some wires. I had to duct-tape a piece of cardboard over the window after that, and duct-tape the stereo back into place, and I expected it would only be a matter of time before the stereo really did get stolen.
Natalie and I broke up about five months later. It happened on a Wednesday, which I know because it was garbage day. I had forgotten to take the garbage out, and she had yelled at me for that. By that time, it seemed like she yelled at me more often than not. We hardly saw each other. We worked opposite schedules, and she spent the bulk of her free time sewing and sketching designs.
She had said, “I’m the only one bringing any real money in, and I do all the cooking around here, so can’t you at LEAST remember to take out the garbage?” It felt like it should have been the kind of fight a boring married couple would have.
After she left for work, I realized that the very thought of her was starting to repulse me. It was making me so sad I felt unsteady on my feet, as though I had to catch my breath from running up several flights of stairs. The sadness was physically heavy, a dark, clotted syrup running through my entire torso; I wished I could gouge it out with a grapefruit spoon, burn it away with radiation. I decided to surprise her by doing the laundry.
I gathered up all of our laundry and took it down to the corner all-night Laundromat, and then I went to the market next door and drank as many beers as it took for the laundry to be done. But when I went back into the Laundromat to switch the load into the dryer, I found our clothes and towels in a heavily wet mound on the gritty concrete floor, surrounded by a gray puddle, a thin trickle streaming toward the nearby floor drain. It hadn’t even made it to the spin cycle.
It took several hours to dry it. As I was folding, I realized that some things were missing. One pair of my jeans—not even designer jeans or anything—Natalie’s olive green corduroy short-shorts that she had made herself, and all of her underwear. The underwear was all expensive stuff—Natalie never scrimped on lingerie, but I suspected that it wasn’t the intrinsic value of her bras and panties that had caused them to be stolen.
I anticipated that Natalie would be furious at me. I thought I was tired of getting yelled at all the time, although I must confess—sometimes I wish my wife would yell at me. But when Natalie got home from the club and I told her what had happened, she didn’t yell at me at all. She just sighed and looked away. That was when I knew we were over.
I said, “I think I’m going to go back to Washington.” She didn’t say a word. She wasn’t angry; she just didn’t care about me anymore. She didn’t care about losing the short-shorts that she had been wearing when we had met. At the time, I didn’t care about that either. I’m not sure if it even crossed my mind.
Two days later I drove back to Washington. It took me three days to get there. I stopped first in Texas, where I stayed in the worst motel I’ve ever patronized in all my life. I couldn’t sleep, because people were coming and going, to and from the room next door all night long. At one point, I dozed off, but I woke up because a woman had begun pounding on the door of the room next to me. She was shouting, “Let me in, I brought money this time!”
When I left the following morning, I discovered that the cardboard I had duct-taped over the wing window of my car had been peeled back. The stuff in the glove box had been rummaged through. Nothing was stolen, not even the duct-taped stereo, except for one thing—a roll of film. It had been in one of those black film canisters that people used to use, back in the day, to store their marijuana, or other drugs.
Whoever stole it must have certainly been disappointed, even if they went to the trouble of developing that roll of film. It was primarily just pictures of tourist attractions, many of them with Natalie posing in front of them. I could have just purchased a bunch of postcards of the same attractions. I have five other photos of Natalie, and I don’t need any more than that. I remember what she looked like. She looked like Geena Davis in The Accidental Tourist, except that her hair was different.
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