The morning my front door freezes shut, I decide I will move from Massachusetts to New Orleans. Three years have passed since Hurricane Katrina, two since I uneasily came out as gay, when I wake one February morning to find that the drain pipe on the roof has twisted during the night, releasing its water not harmlessly down the side of the house but across my apartment door, locking the door beneath a thick white sheet of ice. Through the window I can see it’s hopeless, but I try anyway. A blowdryer, a knife, my body thrown against it. Nothing. While my dog whines at my feet to go out, and while I wait for the maintenance man to come with a chisel, I decide: I will move.
I will move even though there is finally a girl in my bed, a tall girl with close-cropped hair and large breasts she chooses not to flatten, though the men’s clothing she favors catches taut on them. From the back, Kris looks like a boy; from the front, her breasts give her away. Even now that I know what the slopes of her body feel like naked, I still sometimes pass her by on the street if her back is to me. Then my brain registers only a tall, trim boy in a Red Sox club jacket, perhaps a student at one of the local colleges. A boy perhaps waiting for a girl.
The girl she is waiting for dresses every morning by reaching around to zip a dress up from the back, sliding a foot into a heeled boot, slicking a mascara wand across lashes. No one would ever mistake me for a boy; I make sure of that. I make sure of that though I have started to think—suspicion in my stomach like a mouse—that I would be happier if I stopped, that the devotion with which I daily apply lipstick has something to do with staying safe, with how desperately I do not want to be gay. I am accustomed to such trapped feelings. I am a writer who doesn’t write. I have a law degree though I never wanted to be a lawyer. Gay and living in the gayest neighborhood in a gay city in the first state to legalize gay marriage, I still can’t bring myself to walk into a gay bar—not because I don’t want to, but because then the people inside would know I was gay. Naked, between white sheets, in bed with the girl who looks like the boy I still think in my quiet heart I should be dating: that is my only refuge, body over exhausting, doubting brain.
And so when the door freezes, the metaphor is too literal for me to miss. I am stuck. When the man with the chisel arrives, I take the shattering of the ice as the necessary shattering of something else. I find a subletter for my apartment, secure a leave of absence from my graduate writing program. I tell the girl who looks like a boy goodbye, that though I will miss her I need to go. I load my eighty-five pound dog and my seven-pound kitten into my convertible, and the guitar I’ve never learned to play but have always wanted to, and together we hit the road. Somewhere in rural North Carolina I get a flat tire. Somewhere else in rural North Carolina the electrical system on my car quits in a rainstorm in the night. Somewhere in Alabama the cat gets sick, and then the dog gets sick, and then I get sick, too. When we arrive we three are all hungry, we are tired, we smell and need baths and sleep. But we make it to New Orleans.
“Who moves to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina?” asks a man I know back in Boston, when he calls to say hello and instead learns I’ve moved halfway across the country. “Who moves to the South from the North when they’re gay?” Though I’ve only been in New Orleans three weeks, I have answers. A woman I’ll call Dee, for one, who left her girlfriend of eight years and the tenure track academic job she’d spent her life training for to come down here for an explicitly temporary fellowship. No car, no health insurance, no next step and no partner. The move makes no sense, but Dee’s found a pool house to rent in one of the famed Garden District mansions, can tell you where the best jazz bands are each night and where to get the best sno-ball, and has learned to ride her bike over the streetcar tracks without flipping. She’s the happiest she’s ever been, she says.
And there are others. Meg’s a post-doc, a short philosopher who still hasn’t finished her dissertation, though it’s been eight years. Two more and her school will stop counting her credits and she’ll lose her job. Her father long dead, her mother sits in a tiny town in Texas, slowly sinking further into an Alzheimer’s haze, while Meg downs bottles of Abita beer and tries to imagine herself both jobless and parentless. And Michelle. Wiry and tall, with biceps cut like electrical cord, Michelle left an Air Force post to work with FEMA redesigning the New Orleans school system. FEMA, which everybody hates. FEMA, a word you can’t say in a bar without having somebody glare at you like you didn’t just steal their beer, you stole all the beer in the whole damn town. You especially can’t say it in our crowd. Don’t Ask Don’t Tell made Michelle hide in the Air Force. Now when she puts on a tank top to show off her biceps her sexuality shows, too, in a homemade tattoo of the circle-and-cross female symbol striped in splotchy rainbow colors. Here she can wear her identity on her skin—but she can’t tell anyone where she works.
And me. In this band of people fleeing one story to make up another, I find a home. I stop wearing the earrings, the mascara, the lipstick. I buy one necktie and then I buy another. When I meet a closeted Jehovah’s Witness, I’m the one to drag him to his first-ever gay bar. There are no lesbian bars here, nowhere I should expect myself to feel comfortable, and somehow this makes me braver. Using an online site, I start a social club for lesbians. At our first meeting, there’s just me, Dee, Meg, and Michelle, and we lift our bourbons to each other and make lewd jokes and I end up going home with Dee. But the next month strangers appear. Word has spread. Another month and there are so many of us we move to a bar with a patio. The patio is lined with candles that have been pasted with pictures of dead saints, and as we laugh—new friends, strangers, refugees all to this place together—the light from the saints’ faces catches our smiles, casting our faces half into shadow.
Each night, I walk the dog in what photographers call the golden hour, the time just around dusk when the sun seeks refuge behind the earth and its soft glow spreads across the land like a kind of grace. I love the peace of the hour; I love the chance to walk quietly and slowly in this slow city that is rarely quiet. There’s a sweet perfume that fills the air then, too, and while at first I thought it my imagination—my love for the city creating sense memories where none really were—the perfume is real, the night-blooming jasmine flowers all across town opening their petals just as the sun sets.
Down the road from my apartment, there’s a peach mansion set back behind a high wrought-iron fence. I live on the border between neighborhoods, in a railroad apartment that used to belong to squatters and before that was servants’ quarters, but I walk my dog among the grand houses of the Garden District. The color of the peach house, garish in the daylight, softens at this hour until it’s perfect against the pink-streaked sky; it looks like a set designer chose it. Even the dark gray spikes of its fence go velvety in the light. I spent a summer here in New Orleans five years ago, and I lived then in the Garden District that I live on the edge of now, but I don’t remember there being as many fences then, pointed and strong. Each house now looks like its own fortress—not in the wake of Katrina, with its winds and water no fences would have held back, but in the wake of what happened to the people of this city afterwards. There were lootings. There were murders. The crime that had always characterized parts of “murder city” spread beyond the clotted shotgun houses into the land of mansions. The effect was fractious—New Orleanian against New Orleanian, everywhere a threat—but it was also unifying. No more was the crime just something for half the city to deal with. It became everyone’s problem, everyone’s grief.
Later, some newspapers would discover that the crime wave hadn’t been equal after all, that while it was true some people in white neighborhoods had died, far more blacks had. Articles were retracted; beatings reported turned out to have left no bruises. The fear turned out to have been in part a collective hallucination brought on by the uncertainty left after the storm, fear of the wastrel world soaring as rumors spread.
But there were still the dead. The dead left behind bodies. Not everything was imagined. Now New Orleans is back in a murder spike.
Down the street a bit more, shaded by the leafy tops of slumped trees, is the cemetery, visible from blocks away because of its above-round crypts. The city lies below sea level, which means that the water always wants to rise. Dead bodies buried don’t stay that way. So they must be interred above ground, amidst the living. When you drive out of New Orleans on the main road, Highway 10, the pavement swoops above the four biggest cemeteries and there is a moment when the pitched white roofs of the crypts line the horizon below you to the front, the back, the left, and the right. As a child I rode an amusement park ride in a car designed to look like a small ship. Its sail swept me over the dollhouse city of London, tiny, pitched roofs below, pinprick stars twinkling through black cloth above. I was a giant, I was forever, I was nowhere and I flew to Neverland. The effect of the cemeteries is like that. For a moment in the sky New Orleans belongs to the dead you sail above, those who lie under pitched white roofs, whose lifelessness lasts longer than your life ever will. They will lie there until you join them, they will lie there when you do, and together you will all lie buried longer still.
Then the road dips back to green earth again, and the illusion shatters.
The cemetery in this neighborhood is smaller and has boulevards between the cement houses, each with a front door as though for visiting, a place to leave flowers. Sometimes I see couples strolling the paths hand in hand, cameras slung from their necks. Still, I don’t walk my dog through it. I think she’s allowed, but the worry—her sense of smell, human remains, how long is too long for anything to last?—makes me squeamish. Instead I walk her along the tree-lined street that abuts it, so we can visit the artist who lives in a small cottage catty-corner to the houses of the dead.
The artist is dying. He’s on oxygen full-time now, little translucent tubes protruding from his nostrils, the silver canister trailing him like a devoted pet. But the doors to his studio are open, and he works at its long tables late into the night, bent over under lamplight. This man makes metal sculptures of flowers that are, to the eye, undistinguishable from the real thing. He has lived here for decades, alone, and has worked on his flowers for decades here. He is a neighborhood institution, and when an architect friend of mine comes to visit me from Boston, I take him to see the artist.
We walk to the cottage on a Sunday morning, hot cups of coffee in our hands. The cemetery is alive with tourists, their loud voices echoing off the crypts. I’ve never been to visit the artist in the morning before and I have never seen him look so sick. His skin reminds me of an origami elephant I once saw, the thick paper folded again and again until it lost its stiffness and learned to sag. He is the color of the paper. He sags. He smiles when he sees us, though, and tells us to come in, come in. For the first time, I cross into his studio. And what he says next, he says looking into my eyes, so I wonder just how many times he’s watched me when I thought I was only watching him. How many times I walked past with Dee. He wants to tell us about the way New Orleans is, he says, and the way it used to be. About growing up here, living and dying here, “Gay.”
At the sound of the word I flinch a little and am surprised to discover that reaction still in me. I have been living openly but it turns out I am still happier when the word for what I am is not said. My architect friend is a man I used to sleep with, right after I first came out. That was how badly I wanted not to be gay: when I finally said the word out loud, I had to flee from it. He loved me, my friend. He became my shelter. Standing in the artist’s studio, I realize I’ve changed. I now know that this man will remain my last male lover. I know that it is not possible to run from who you are forever, and that I am finally finished doing so.
Every evening, a man wearing a silver Mylar suit with a red felt heart pinned to his chest bicycles by my front porch and doffs his oil can hat to me. I raise the glass of wine I like to sit with at night to him and I nod my head. Even repeated evening after evening, this moment never stops feeling like a small improbable gift. I am breathing better, here in this strange town. I am breathing. I am falling in love with the city’s cadences. And like the lover who seeks to delight and cajole, the city seems to arrange for needed coincidence. When I agree to go with a friend to a show downtown, the other girl in the cab, the girl I don’t know, is pretty: straight brown hair cut shaggy, thin-framed and loose-limbed and easy about the world. She’s the kind of girl I’d like to date, but she’s the kind of girl who doesn’t date trying-too-hard girls like me. She came here a year ago in February for Mardi Gras, driving with a friend from the sleepy town where she’d been living. They parked their car on the outskirts of the French Quarter and walked right to Bourbon Street, not wanting to miss a minute. Then they spotted a crowd of people further down the street. There was something in its energy—roiling, frantic. A fight, they thought. They walked towards it. Whatever the crowd was watching, they wanted to see, too. Hadn’t that been why they’d come?
But it wasn’t a fight; it was a man with a gun. Her friend got shot in the leg. She went right home, says she doesn’t need to ever come back.
The girl stayed. She stretched one Mardi Gras trip into a new life, the way so many do here, and she tells this story to me now as though she tells it to anyone who’ll listen. “Of course,” she concludes wisely, “you go towards a fight. You run away from a gun.”
Then I understand how I can be so much happier here than I am in the home that’s more explicitly welcoming to me, and why my friends are, too, through the stares we get when we walk down the street together and the stares we get when we walk down the street alone and the trash that after Katrina doesn’t always get picked up and the mail that doesn’t always come and all the ways that living here is harder than living at home. Why so many of us have come anyway, so many that at our gatherings now the bar is full, and the patio, too, and the light from the candles falls mostly on faces I don’t know. One in the crowd I don’t yet know to notice. Don’t yet know I’ll be asked to remember.
While being here is hard, it is also clarifying. There’s an unkind formulation that says we’re tourists to a tragedy that isn’t ours, but that’s not quite right. It’s more that no matter where we are, we feel like we’re fighting, trying to make lives that look true to who we are in a culture that won’t wholly accept it. To be here—to have to fight openly in a place where the whole city must also fight—feels more honest. What you fight for, you love. You go towards a fight.
But in the end the fight finds us. Late one night, Dee and I are standing on a dark street corner saying goodnight, the only sounds the music from the bar we’ve just left and the rhythmic heaving of a guy who drank too much and is now throwing up into a gutter. There is a cop with him, holding him up, so we avert our eyes and turn our attention back to each other. Things between us are sweet. In the bar I had her perched on my lap and my arms around her. She’s in a flounced skirt with her short dyke hair spiked out and I’ve got on a wife-beater and boy’s cargo shorts I bought from a confused clerk at a suburban Louisiana mall. We feel like ourselves, like the selves we have wanted to be.
My car’s parked two blocks away, her bike’s in the other direction, and I am leaning into the sweet sweat of her neck, making the goodbye last as long as I can. I kiss her. I kiss her, and then I pull away just slightly.
Right into the cop’s face.
He’s got his head pressed six inches from our kiss—I can see the grit in his pores and the glisten of saliva on his lip—and he’s smiling. “Now, don’t get me wrong,” he says, one eyebrow shooting up, “I could watch two ladies kissing all day. All,” he repeats, drawing the word out, “day. But you can’t do it here.”
“Excuse me?” Dee asks, confused.
“You can’t do it here. It isn’t allowed.”
The drunk guy is now actually lying in the gutter and he is moaning. Somewhere out there in the broader city, New Orleans is still in its murder streak.
“Yes, it is,” I say. “We can kiss anywhere we want to.”
“Not here,” he says.
I will reason with this man. “Yes,” I say. “Of course here.”
“Anywhere you want to,” he says, “but not here. It’s against the law.”
“I am a lawyer,” I say, stupidly. Because that will matter. Because he wants to argue the real law. But I have just remembered this fact and I will brandish it as the only weapon I have. “I know the law,” I say. “Tell me where in the law it says we can’t kiss here. Tell me where it says you can stop us.”
“It’s there. It’s in the law. You’re not allowed to. That’s my job, alright? To tell you what you’re not allowed to do.”
“No,” I say. “Tell me where in the law it says we can’t.”
“Children could see,” he says.
“Look, we can do this the easy way or the hard way,” he says, and that’s when I realize that sometime in the last few minutes I’ve stepped in front of Dee, shielding her from the cop. I’ve got my arms cocked at my sides, my chin jutted out, trying to make myself bigger.
“The easy way or the hard way,” he repeats.
“Oh, yeah,” I say, “What’s the hard way?” Dee’s tugging on my arm now. It must be midnight, past it. The street’s dark and empty. Even the drunk guy’s dragged himself off somewhere. It is, I realize, not the moment to be challenging an armed officer on a power trip. I can’t help myself. He’s wrong. We’re right. We’re just kissing.
But then I give up. I step back from Dee and from the cop and I let my arms go slack at my sides. I let him win. Because we do both have places to be in the morning and because, when it comes down to it, I do not want to know what his hard way will be.
For days we are angry. We telephone everyone we know and tell them the story. We spend hours in Dee’s apartment and in coffee shops, poring over the right words for letters we send to the newspapers, the ACLU. We file a complaint with the NOPD and when we don’t get a response we call them, and then call them again. I take Dr. Suess’s, Oh, The Places You’ll Go! and rewrite it to be a list of places gay people can kiss in public in the U.S.—everywhere—and I register a domain name to create an educational website before I suddenly, finally, realize the obvious: I am fighting a battle that doesn’t exist. No one’s actually unclear on the idea that we can kiss anywhere we want to. And of course the NOPD hasn’t responded. The city’s in a murder spike.
The future is coming, it is coming for everyone in this story. Someday that cop will turn on his TV and see the first black president, the first president who looks like he does, say that he thinks couples like me and Dee ought to be able to marry if we want to. Which probably means we ought to be able to kiss. Before I write this essay, three states will go to the ballot and by unprecedented popular vote say that Dee and I could marry there, and when they do so it will have been unthinkable just six months prior and obvious three months afterwards. The week I finish a draft of this essay, I will travel to the Supreme Court to stand in front and wait while it considers our rights. With me will be thousands. And by the time I publish it, we will all be living in a changing country.
But the future isn’t coming fast enough for the artist, who will die alone before any of this happens. It’s not coming fast enough for Michelle to keep the job she loves or not to need a tattoo on her arm to remind herself who she is. It’s not coming fast enough for me to not have to learn to stop apologizing for—stop struggling with—who I am.
And it’s not coming fast enough for the dead girl.
My months in the city add up slowly and eventually my grad program wants to know if I’m ever coming back. I think about dropping out, but I still don’t want to be a lawyer, and if I leave without finishing there’s all the debt to pay but nothing in return. Hurricane Gustav materializes off the Gulf Coast, and because so many didn’t evacuate last time, this time the state of Louisiana wants everyone out of the bottom half. It seems silly to evacuate only to come back and then move. So this is it, I decide. I pack up my dog and my cat into the convertible again, along with the guitar I still haven’t learned how to play. I say goodbye to Dee and the others and find someone else to lead the gay group and join the line of cars on Highway 10, which has been turned one-way, out. When I get back to Boston, my front door opens, but the city isn’t the same for me. I’m homesick for New Orleans with a force that has me wearing fleeces in late August because I’m convinced I’m cold in the wimpy Massachusetts heat.
One day my email has a note from a man who says he’s a detective. He is with the NOPD homicide division, he writes. Could I please call him?
He is polite on the phone. Courteous. He even sounds tentative, but not young. Just worn out, maybe. “You founded a women’s group in New Orleans, is that correct?” he says.
“Yes,” I say.
“And you’re all—well, you’re all gay, isn’t that right?” he says.
“That’s why I started it,” I say. “So we would have a place to come together.”
“I’m calling about one of your members,” he says. “A woman named—“ and he reads me her name.
I don’t recognize the name. I tell him that.
He sighs. “That’s what I’m calling about,” he says. “We can’t find anyone who knew her. She was found dead in her kitchen, stabbed a couple of times. She had joined your group a couple of weeks ago online. Before the last meeting. She’d just come out as gay. The violence of the crime makes us think someone wasn’t too happy about it. Whoever killed her didn’t steal anything.” He sighs again. “I’m not too optimistic, but would you email your members? Ask them if anyone knows anything?”
After we hang up, I do. In the email I tell them, most of them on the large online list strangers to me, that there’s been a tragedy. That I just spoke with a homicide detective. That he tells me one of us is dead. I give them the dead girl’s name and I ask them to think back to the last dark night at the bar with the saint candles, the patio. Did they see her there? Did she talk to anyone? Does anyone remember her? I plead and hardly know what I am pleading for. If you know anything, I say, write. I tell them it’s important we stick together in the face of this tragedy because that seems like the kind of thing you say in the face of a tragedy. It seems true. Please, I say, even if you don’t know why you want to talk but just do, here is my number, please call.
No one does.
I’d like to say that later I think of the dead girl often, that I hold onto an idea of who she might have been. But I don’t. She becomes part of the tangled memory of New Orleans for me, part of a tangle of love and grief I don’t know how to unweave. Years later, I am sitting in a gay bar with wireless Internet, out alone one evening on a visit to my architect friend and the woman he marries in the small Midwestern city they move to. It is a nice city but on the walk to the bar everyone still stares at my necktie on the street. I think of the girl and look her up online. Her name’s in the email from the detective, but I don’t remember that clue at first, instead I look up the murders from the right month. There were so many. Male, male, male—and then there she is, a name I know immediately is hers with the words “Cold Case.” Four years after she died, no one’s found her killer. Online there are accounts from friends who lived in the town she left. One keeps an emotional blog on which she still writes to the dead girl regularly. I read every word, feeling all the while like I’m peering over someone’s shoulder, and again I can’t decide whether I’m a voyeur to a tragedy that isn’t my own or whether some share of this belongs to all of us.
In nothing I read, not in any news article and not in any of the blog entries, not in any quotes from family members and not in any vigil photograph, do I find the information the detective told me: that the girl was gay, that there’s reason to believe she was killed because she’d just come out. In the stories, I am surprised to find a grieving ex-boyfriend leading the search for the killer.
My own surprise surprises me. I had the architect, after all. But for her I want something else. I want her to have gotten free.
It is both too much and too much of nothing to weave into a proper story— the dead girl, the jerk of a cop, the staring and the many tiny insults and the nurse in the Emergency Room when I fall suddenly, desperately ill and we’re worried that it will be fatal and in the middle of that long, scary night the ER nurse yells at Dee to get off the hospital bed where we are sitting up and she is holding me, lest people get, the nurse says, the wrong idea. I know couples that send their kids to Catholic school because they want their kids to be able to read and the kids come home and tell their mothers that being gay is wrong. The only time the Massachusetts girl, Kris, did visit me, before we let distance end us, when she looked not quite like a boy and I still looked like a girl, we walked down Bourbon Street holding hands. A teenage girl with too-skinny arms and big, haunted eyes followed us through the streets for four blocks and then came close and asked if she could have a hug. We were startled, but she looked so young and so sad that we obliged. Her arms held tight as rope. Then she whooped with joy, and started, quietly, to cry. She was from Kentucky, she said. She was gay. She’d run away from home to New Orleans a month before but we were the first lesbian couple she’d ever seen walking down any street holding hands. Someday she wanted to do the same. “Oh, honey,” I said, but because it was still the first days of my time there that was all I knew to say. I couldn’t tell her to join a group I hadn’t started yet, didn’t yet know to tell her that there were many of us, even if she couldn’t see us at first. Instead my instinct was to scoop the girl up and take her back to the Massachusetts I’d just left. As though that way I could save her from the need to fight, as though if I just brought her to a place where being gay was okay it would be okay to her, too. As though I didn’t already know it didn’t work that way. Catching Kris’s eye, I offered the girl some food, some money, but no, she was embarrassed now, really all she wanted was the hug. Really all she wanted was to know there would be a place for her.
It’s not that I think I myself will die if I live in a place that won’t let me marry a woman I love, that won’t let us raise children together, not without being the town freaks, the tolerated characters, the weird ones and the lonely.
Only this: I won’t be able to live.
I keep thinking of New Orleans, yet I can’t move back. I keep thinking of the dead girl. I keep wondering what life she left behind and what life she found, what life she would have come to. But I know I’m not really thinking of her, not the person she was, a person I never knew, but of this problem, this knot of loneliness and grief and how change can come and still not be fast enough.
Maybe if I didn’t carry the fight inside of me, none of it—the cop, the nurse—would matter the same. Maybe I’d be able to see the dead girl more for who she was, not allow the struggle to get in the way of the person. But I do carry the fight inside of me. I do. Until the world finishes changing around me, there can be no moving towards or away from it.
Rumpus original art by Lauren YoungSmith.