Today I read the Yarn Harlot’s entry about her visit to New Orleans and the funniest thing happened; just for a few minutes, I felt homesick.
I lived in New Orleans for a little over a year, from Thanksgiving of 1999 until April of 2001. I don’t talk about it a lot because I was miserable there, and the entire time I lived there I couldn’t wait to leave. But seeing pictures of places I used to drive past every day, and either seeing that they’ve been restored–or tragically, still haven’t, usually because they belonged to someone poor and probably not white–it made me sad, and in a strange way it made me miss the city that I hated so much, but somehow loved. I guess I didn’t realize how truly dysfunctional my relationship with New Orleans was.
I also think that my hatred for the city had more to do with my hatred for my life, and the place I was in as a person, than with the city itself. Mind you, they have roaches there the size of Rhode Island, and I have a serious phobia of roaches. No kidding, just looking at a PICTURE of a cockroach, or even talking about them for too long, my skin prickles, I start to perspire, I feel sick to my stomach and my mouth does this weird salivating thing that always happens when I get really scared. Roaches freak me out in a way nothing else can. I probably need therapy, or hypnosis, or something, but eeeewwwwwwww. *shudder* And did I mention the roaches there FLY? And they live outside, but they like to come inside, so EVERYONE has roaches. Roaches don’t discriminate, they’ll hang out in anyones kitchen. Or the bathtup–they really like bathtubs and sinks.
And let’s face it, the weather sucks–in summer the city smells like the armpit of hell and it’s so hot and humid that you feel like you’re wrapped in a thick blanket of hot, wet wool. In the winter it rains and it’s damp and cold and if you don’t have much money (which I didn’t) you will be cold, because the house you rent will have neither decent insulation, nor decent windows (i.e., windows that keep the wind from blowing through the house), nor any source of heat besides a small space heater or two. Also, you will probably have a fireplace that is not safe to use but lets in extra drafts. And your ceiling will probably leak. Okay, all of this was PRE Katrina, so these days if you are there and poor you are probably living in a FEMA trailer still, OR living in a falling down pile of boards and broken windows. In any case, New Orleans is a bad city to be poor in. Or even, sort of lower middle class.
But what made me miserable in New Orleans was probably not the roaches or the summer heat or the dank winters. I was in a relationship that started out with a great deal of optimism, but very quickly spiraled in to a heart-breaking place of blaming and denial. I thought I loved and understood her, but quickly realized I didn’t really know her at all well, and that we were the last two people on earth who should try to live together. She was a whirlwind of noise and chaos–I only wanted quiet and time to think. She was a nomad, longing to wander from city to city without being held back by anything–I was longing to find a true home and put down roots. She had dreams of urban living, needed concrete under her feet and a city skyline to feel at home–I discovered, through living in a city, that I needed a cool, green place, trees, birds, breezes, and privacy. In spite of our incompatibility, I think we were weirdly codependent. I felt like the relationship HAD to work. I had moved to New Orleans to be with her–so here I was, in a strange city, feeling frightened and vulnerable, suffering from serious culture shock (I grew up in small town MICHIGAN, y’all). I had come because of her, and I had NO money, my job paid very poorly and I was scared of what would happen if we split up. Furthermore, I couldn’t go back home, because I had just come out to my family for the sake of this relationship, and for several months my mother wasn’t speaking to me. When she finally DID start talking to me again, it was clear that she thought I had gone over to the dark side. There would be no help from that direction unless I mended my wicked ways. I had lost friends because of this. If it didn’t work out, all that pain and trouble would be for nothing, right? She was an amazing woman–I’m sure she still is–but we were SO wrong for each other, and we hurt each other so deeply, for so long . . . my memories of New Orleans are inextricably wound up with my memories of her, of the harm we did each other, and of how hard we tried to keep something alive that just wasn’t meant to be.
Still . . . in spite of the roaches, the hateful weather, and the heartache that colored everything about my life . . . well, there’s nowhere else like New Orleans. Love it or hate it, I think maybe you can’t ever quite get over it. When I think of the city these days I mostly remember driving past those old houses in the French Quarter, the ones with a jungle of green plants and a bevy of gay men on the balcony drinking fabulous wine and eating something exquisite. And I think of the impromptu parades in the Bywater where I lived, a line of African American men with trumpets, tubas, a drum, an umbrella or a hanky heading up the show. I remember the Botanica a few blocks from my house, owned by a Voodoo Priestess named Sallie who had a book published and did the artwork for the New Orleans Voodoo Tarot. Sallie was really nice, down to earth, friendly, and the shop always smelled like really good incense. I remember Flora Cafe, with the world’s best peach pie and Women’s Open Mic Night, with the butchest barista the world has ever known, until she quit to work on bicycles or something like that. I remember the little bar in the Marignee–did it even have a name?–where our friend Juliana tended bar and only charged us for half of our drinks, where we had a lesbian potluck and danced to Prince and the Squirrel Nut Zippers on the jukebox. I think of beignets and iced au lait at Midnight in the summer, outdoors at the Cafe du Monde, with the little boy across the street tap dancing for pennies, and how it made me so sad that he was alone on the streets of the French Quarter instead of tucked safely in bed with a fan blowing the humid night air through his window, while his mama sat on the porch drinking a cold drink. I remember the first cool days in the fall, when the temperature would drop below 90 degrees for the first time in months, and you would feel COLD because it was only 80, and in the evening I would drive home past the projects and the sidewalks and spaces between buildings were alive with the residents all dancing and talking and laughing in the delicious changing air, and someone had music on their car stereo, and it was this huge party just because.
As with the city, there were moments with the woman I loved then that were amazing: sitting in our bathroom while she cut my hair, holding hands at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, creating a stir in the French Quarter on Halloween in vinyl costumes and bat wings, the time I came home from work on my birthday and she had bought me all kinds of little herbs and pots and a trowel and potting soil because she knew how I longed for a little space to make things grow. The way we wept and held each other after watching that Bjork movie with all the sadness and singing. And when I’m being honest with myself I know she was a catalyst for vital change in my life, change that helped me become who I am now.
I hated living in New Orleans, but . . . part of me will still always think of it as home. When Katrina hit and all the footage of the city underwater and torn to bits was splashed all over the media, my heart ached more profoundly than I would have expected. I guess my relationship with the city was like my relationship with my lover–a poor fit, doomed, miserable, but in some ways, achingly beautiful, and always dramatic and exciting. And in a serendipitous fashion, this reminder of New Orleans has come only two days after I stumbled across my ex-lover’s profile on Myspace, and my heart lurched. There was her picture, and for a moment I couldn’t decide if I wanted to cry, or laugh, or try to revive all the anger I used to feel at the way she behaved when things fell apart. I thought about sending her a message, about attempting some kind of friendship now that nearly 6 years have dulled the edges. But in the end I just clicked “home” and went back to my own account, and I still haven’t decided whether this act makes me a woman who has finally learned her lesson about inviting drama in to her life, or a coward. I also still haven’t stopped wondering what she’s up to these days, if she still wants to be a midwife, if she’s involved with anyone, how she’s changed, what she’s done since we stopped being in contact.
Don’t get me wrong, I have no more desire to get close to her again than I have to move back to New Orleans. I’m glad that both Nisha and New Orleans are in my past.
But some times I wonder what it would be like to visit them both. Maybe someday I will.