This is how it happened. You were 26, a year out of grad school, with a pile of debt and a handful of freelance clips. You took a long holiday from your office job – humming fluorescents and petty cubicle dramas – and headed south: south of the Canadian border, south of the Mason-Dixon line, eventually all the way south to New Orleans.
On your first day there you parked your rental car on St. Charles Avenue and just walked and walked, past winter trees draped in Mardi Gras beads, past churches and chicken joints, with the streetcars – newly restored, post-Katrina – rattling by alongside you. You crossed Canal St., a wide belt of high-rise hotels and brand-name chain stores, and zigzagged through the French Quarter: delicate wrought-iron balconies, Big Ass Beers on Bourbon St., tourists gawking on every corner. In the afternoon you sat down in a bar on Decatur and ordered an Abita Amber and a fried catfish sandwich. The bartender was blond, with a few days’ stubble and a ball cap and a t-shirt that just barely let you know he liked to work out. He asked you questions about yourself, where you came from and what you were doing in town. Even though you knew that paying attention is a bartender’s job – you’d been a bartender yourself – you were charmed.
He told you he was making plans to hike the Appalachian Trail. You said, forgetting for the moment to sound carefully un-awed, “Really? Is that something you’re just doing, all by yourself?” He smiled and said, “Driving around the South? Is that something you’re just doing, all by yourself?” And you felt a little kick of pride in your own moxie, of pleasure in meeting someone who understood.
He scribbled his number and the names of a few Frenchman Street clubs on a napkin. “Just follow your ears,” he said. He got off work at 11.
You killed the evening pacing the streets, watching darkness soak the colors out of the Quarter, leaving only porch lights and shadows. Later that night you sat in a dim corner at d.b.a. while an African jazz band worked the stage and the two of you worked your way through the beer list. He talked about the old-timey blues shows he’d seen growing up in Jackson. He said he’d come down to NOLA for a weekend getaway after graduating from Ole Miss, and had never left. You liked the romance of that, the spontaneity. You were a creature of five-year plans and pro/con lists; you’d grown up in a city of bureaucrats. You wanted to feel that kind of passion for a place. He said he wanted to show you all the most beautiful spots in the Quarter; he said you only had to turn a corner at sunset to fall in love with the city all over again. At the end of the night he leaned in for a quick kiss and walked you to a cab, and as you rode back to the hostel you found yourself daydreaming about golden evening light hitting wrought iron railings.
The next day the two of you met up in Jackson Square and walked and walked some more, past the shotgun houses painted in yellows, blues, purples and pinks, with their wooden shutters flung wide, the sweating musicians playing the hot damp streets. You went out to eat at a little Italian place, and he knew all the waiters by name. After dinner, you helped him hang framed photographs on his living room wall – instant domesticity – and fell asleep on his couch while a Civil War movie starring Robert Duvall flickered on the TV screen.
Later that week, he asked, “So how many times have you been married?” You never met his roommates, or any of his friends.
The two of you went uptown for March Madness at Cooter Brown’s. After the game, you bought enormous daiquiris to go from a place on the corner, and loitered around the cool, leafy streets. Stepping carefully over sidewalk segments shattered by the enormous root systems of the live oaks, you said how amazed you were by the way the trees disrupted the concrete. He said, “I like to think of it as the concrete disrupting the trees,” like he was a first-year philosophy student drunk-lecturing a dorm room audience, like he was reciting something he’d memorized for just the right moment, and it seemed for a few silent seconds that the spell might break. But between the warmth of his hand in your one hand and the condensation of the daiquiri cup in the other you let it slide.
After you left town there were texts and emails and eventually nightly phone calls. He called you “my Canadian sweetheart.” Southern boys could get away with things that Canadian boys couldn’t.
You’d told him back in the city that you wanted to leave your job and write full time; he’d encouraged you to up and quit, to just go and do it. You’d hinted at wanting to come back to New Orleans – the city made you want to write, you’d said – and he’d said you could crash at his place for the summer.
After a couple of months you’d gone and done it. You’d quit your job and given notice on your apartment and booked your flight for early July. You called to tell him the good news, still hardly believing it yourself. He sounded enthusiastic on the phone, and signed off by telling you he was headed to Houston for a couple nights.
He would never call again.
You went back to New Orleans anyway, of course. (“Is that something you’re just doing, all by yourself?”) You settled in at another hostel, in Mid-City, and ran around Bourbon Street at night with a pair of Swedish backpackers, and during the hot, lazy days you laid in the pool splashing the mosquitoes away, or went for long walks up and down Canal and Carrollton, your fingers swelling in the heat.
Eventually you went back to the bar where he worked – you couldn’t just keep walking on by – and when you saw him with his back to the room, making change at the till, you sat down at the counter, judge and jury, ready to tell him what a mistake he’d made while he stammered guilty, regret-laden excuses. But he turned and saw you and smiled and said “Hey! You’re back! Girl, why didn’t you let me know you were coming back to town?” and somehow you wound up chatting like old acquaintances, like no one had ever been anybody else’s Canadian sweetheart.
After that you were drawn back almost daily, between the lunch rush and the dinner rush, and every time he’d slide you a beer, no charge, and you’d talk while he puttered behind the bar. You waited and waited for some acknowledgment, some mention of unanswered phone calls and punctured summer plans, until you began, almost, to wonder if it had all been in your head. Then one day another girl – The Other Girl – came in and sized you up and the kitchen staff looked at you and at her, and at him scrambling for the right words, and then they doubled over in the back of the bar, laughing.
She was a fake blonde with fake breasts, a Southern Mississippi sorority sister who you couldn’t picture setting foot on the Appalachian Trail. In that yuppie bar on Magazine Street – the next day, after she’d snatched his phone and found your number and called you up, and then come to fetch you in her silver Miata – you pieced it all together, the months of deceptions and near-misses, the diverging biographies tailored to suit you both, the recycled one-liners whispered over the phone at night. (“I can’t wait to take you to Jackson so you can meet my mother,” he’d told you. And “I can’t wait to take you to Jackson so you can meet my mother,” he’d told her.) You slammed back shots of Jaeger together and made lists of his various deficiencies; you giggled in forced, drunken sisterhood and hatched hazy plans for revenge.
Yeah, you were angry. But when the rote indignation had worn off, you found gratitude; you realized he was just a conduit, really, to this steaming city that you loved. He had brought you from that fluorescent-lit cubicle to the rows of votive candles burning in the Saint Louis Cathedral, the brass bands blowing their guts out on the corner, the grace and dignity of the Quarter’s quieter blocks, even the tawdry lights of Bourbon Street.
It was New Orleans you’d been romancing all along.