Monday, January 30, 2012

How it Always Was

by Kat White

We laughed our way down Rue Decatur: storefronts cascaded with ferns, drunken sweaty tourists navigated cobblestone, and horse-drawn carriages provided percussion for trumpeting street musicians. I was between Beth and Laura, how it always was—like a study in contrasts. Headed to The French Market for groceries, the sole routine of my deliberately vagabond life was making Sunday dinner for my friends. Beth, petite and tan in plaid Capri’s, dark sprouts of chin-length waves with a rogue, and natural, blonde curl at her right temple. She was married and had two kids, a husband, and a retirement plan.
My waist-length, magenta curly hair was piled into a bun to counter New Orleans’ August humidity. I wore a sundress, like I always did in the French Quarter days. Tattoos spilled secrets down my arms, which were linked into my two friends’ sweaty limbs. Strangers had been known to stop us, ask Beth and I how we knew each other, sure it must be some story because we looked unlikely to ever cross paths. Beth and I always met eyes—her blue to my hazel, and said with grins tugging at the corners of our mouths, Oh, from way, way back. She was my oldest friend in the world.

Laura was on my right; we met after I moved to the French Quarter when I was nineteen. We both had worked at the same bar, now closed a decade later, The Shim Sham. We bartended, danced burlesque, and drank more bourbon and met more dawns together than anyone else I knew. She had a manner of looking down her lengthy Romanesque nose and saying, “Oh, look at all the fuck’s I do not give,” with her arms outstretched in the air, palms up, that made her seem wise, flippantly so. She dressed like a 1920’s flapper, all angles. Her blonde cap of curls bounced in tempo as we strolled, the three of us. We were all twenty-nine years old.
“Natalia’s working,” I said, referring to our friend at The French Market, an open air grocery store that sold produce, fresh meats and fish, and even cheap sunglasses for the tourists. “Last night she said she would put aside crawfish for us.”
“Natalia Marina Cologne. Most beautiful name ever,” Beth said.
“Whatever, B. No one else has your one blonde curl.” Laura had become Beth’s champion over the years, embracing my oldest friend into our world of dancing all night in jazz clubs and waking up at 3pm. Beth made Laura give some fuck’s; she softened her. I squeezed my closest friends to me as we dodged in zigzags last night’s vomit and discarded plastic red go-cups on the sidewalk. We crossed cobblestone Decatur and veered in tandem into the bustling French Market, like we did every Sunday afternoon—talking and laughing about all those small details that make up lives, but that no one really remembers after the fact. I didn’t look at Beth or Laura, but I’m sure we all entered grinning. I’d bet my life on it.
There is a math term, outliers, and it applied to all of us makeshift families in the Quarter: the ones who claimed this city, or perhaps this city claimed us. An outlier is extreme and unusual data that is discarded. That is who we were. We were the dreamers, the writers, and the artists. We were the anarchists, the saints, and the lovers. We did not blend well and did not care to. We chose each other as family not for lack of biological families, but because we didn’t make sense anywhere but together. Kismet.
Natalia’s voice found us amidst the 300 or so people wedged into The French Market. Her name was the only soothing thing about her.
“Hey, Bitches,” Natalia screeched from behind her booth to get our attention. She sold live flower headpieces to the tourists. They bought the Medieval looking head adornments for fifty bucks a pop, knowing the flowers would die by night. Tourists were referred to as suckers and we always gave them incorrect directions, protective of our claimed home, not wanting to share it.
Natalia rummaged under her booth’s table and pulled out a red cooler with eight pounds of crawfish. “So, who’s all coming tonight?” she asked in that nasal way she couldn’t help. We were immune to it after five years of friendship, but strangers turned to stare at this skinny, blue mohawked girl with the foghorn voice.
I counted off, “Well, us: me, Beth, Laura, you. And Dave, Brian, Carrie, Geoff, and Sam. The nine of us.”
“Saaaaam,” Laura teased me in a singsong voice. Sam was my girlfriend of three years and she had recently proposed in my courtyard, in front of all of us, after a Sunday night dinner of my seafood gumbo, fresh rolls, and bourbon sangria. She stood tall and lanky, jeans resting on hipbones, amidst my hanging metal candle lanterns and white dripping twinkle lights intertwined in the trees. Nina Simone’s smoky blues was on the record player. When she got down on one knee she was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen, butch and delicate, clear voice and trembling hands, offering me a lifetime of her. “Yes,” I said in response. “A million fucking times, yes.” No one was more shocked than me.
“The only bitch to keep Kat’s attention. She deserves a fucking medal,” Natalia joked as the four of us pealed with laughter. I came to New Orleans wild, breathless, and Sam with her limitless patience waited me out. Dave introduced us, thinking Sam needed some breathless and I needed some safety; they were both massage therapists at the same day spa in the Bywater. He was to be our best man in the wedding.
“So it’s just us tonight? That will be so nice,” Beth said, referring to our core group of friends; except for Sam, who had ingrained herself as more than just my girlfriend, there were no partners or spouses tonight, some out of town and some just busy.
Beth and I grew up in Athens, Georgia, together, had known each other since we were three, but my first memory of us was in Beth’s mother’s strawberry garden in Athens when we were five. Our mouths stuffed full with strawberries, that time of the sudden downpour. Sticky, sweet, pink-ish juice running down our chins, the hard rain pelleting our bodies; we used a wheelbarrow for cover and waited it out together in the strawberry patch, not wanting the moment to end.
Beth and her brother, Brian, had followed me to New Orleans when Beth and I were both twenty and Brian was twenty-two. We all went way, way back. Brian was a long-time drug addict, photographer, and the kind of kid you see on the street and instinctively want to gather close and make soup for. Skin and bones, held together with duct taped Vans tennis shoes and a silk argyle tie he found on Royal Street, used as a belt.
Carrie was a newer friend, more settled, like Beth. Carrie was Vietnamese, an ex-patriot once she found New Orleans, an anxious graphic designer with constantly moving hands and inkiest sheet of hair I had ever seen. Laura brought her into our fold, a crush gone bad, but their friendship remained. Carrie seamlessly melted into our world, took our teasing about her love of kitten calendars while managing to maintain the filthiest trucker mouth—in Vietnamese, when bourbon drunk.
“Mẹ của bạn liếm nhăn nheo thằng khốn nạn,” Carrie would say with a shy smile and a raised glass tumbler, letting us know she had enough of our teasing. Also letting us know what she thought of our mothers.
Geoff was an artist without a definable art—lost with dark matted hair, my drinking buddy for the broken hearted nights. He was my worst blind date in history, before I came out. We fell into each other as friends though, naturally and without pause. Separately, the nine of us: me, Sam, Beth, Brian, Laura, Natalia, Dave, Carrie, and Geoff were just discarded pieces that no one had taken the time to figure out. When we all found each other, we became a family. Life for struggling artists and writers is always hard and money-poor, but those days were tinged with gold and gilded with promise. At least that’s how I remember it.
“I haven’t seen Brian for days. How is he?” Beth asked.
“He’s doing better, really,” I lied. Brian, greasy blond hair and ribs visible through a thin t-shirt, showed up at my house a few nights back, stinking of sour crystal meth sweat, like rotting cantaloupe, which overpowered the night blooming jasmine in my courtyard. He was only two years older than Beth, but those two years might as well have been galaxies that planted him firmly in my world of excess, countering Beth’s suburban Metairie world of driveways, tying kids’ shoelaces, and shrieking alarm clocks. I lied to keep Beth smiling; Brian promised not to use before he came over tonight. I just wanted to protect them all. They often referred to me as their center because I melded them all together. But they were all wrong. They owned the universe and I orbited them.
“Let’s roll. I still have to pack before I start making dinner.”
“Shit, I forgot. When do you leave for your folks’?” Laura asked, crinkling up her nose at any place that wasn’t the Quarter.
As with most things requiring a precise answer, Beth answered for me, as I was prone to ramble. “She leaves tomorrow for the dreaded ‘vacation’ in Pennsylvania. And I’m house sitting!” Secretly happy for her Mom and Wife Respite, Beth would inhabit my world with a fridge full of beer, a desk drawer full of red opium, and my two pit bulls, Henry Miller and Bukowski, Beth couldn’t contain the words from rushing out.
“Uh-huh. Look at all the fuck’s you don’t give about getting out of the ‘burbs,” Laura’s eyes met ours and we roared as we sauntered out of The French Market.
My yellow kitchen with the brick floor Dave painstakingly laid rumbled to overflow with crawfish boil, eight drunk friends, glasses being toasted and sucked dry, two pit bulls running in between legs and parting us like water, and Nina Simone playing loudly on my outside record player.
Sam, forever my organizer, herded everyone outside the blue gingham curtained kitchen door into my courtyard. When I bought that house two years prior, which is when I really started getting my shit together, I bought it for the courtyard. Maybe 40’ by 60’, it was huge by French Quarter standards. I laid the stone floor myself, in a skirt, platforms, and liquid eyeliner, and helped Geoff build my high wooden privacy fence. An ornate metal overhanging awning offered weather protection for the twenty-person dining room table, which used to be an altar that Laura and I found in a crumbling, forgotten church in the Lower Ninth Ward. Dave’s truck brought the altar to my home, rendering it then a table. None of the chairs matched, all picked up cheap at estate sales and flea markets, but they fit it perfectly.
I placed the pot of crawfish boil, rife with gleaming mudbugs; fresh-shucked ears of corn; and slick, baby red potatoes in the middle of the table covered in newspaper, sat beside Sam, and our fingers intertwined—just like how it always was. Then I looked around at all of us: me, the drunken burlesque dancer; Sam, the only girl to wait out my stubborn; Beth, my oldest friend in the world; Brian, the junkie who actually showed up sober; Dave, best man and surly massage therapist; Natalia, the screeching one with the beautiful name; Carrie, shy and awkward until bourbon-tipsy; Geoff, matted and lost; and Laura, who hurt too much to give any fuck’s away for free.
We gathered in our usual places around the dented and dinged table to begin Sunday dinner how we always did: by saying grace the only way mismatched people, who only make sense when together, truly can. Nine tipsy malcontents, each giving thanks for each other—our version of grace. I wish I could remember the exact words of everyone, but I cannot. The word “love” was used too much. Can it be used too much? If so, then we did.
I raised my bourbon and began our tradition, “I love each and every one of you assholes. Thank you for coming to dinner, eating me out of house and home, and I’ll miss you more than you know when I’m at my parents, AKA ‘The Land of White Republicans.’ I am just so thankful that we all have each other. Here and now, forever.”
Bukowski, my white stocky pit, barked as if he agreed and we all laughed. He and Henry Miller both used to be fighting dogs. Brian, Laura, and I stole them from a crack house, hustled these snarling dogs over a barbed wire fence in the Lower Ninth on my whim; I rehabbed them. My dogs, like all of us at that table, were definitive proof that if you love something enough it can be saved.
“That dog is human,” Dave said, bending down, stroking Buk’s ears. His dark, floppy hair fell over his forehead, tattered Sonic Youth t-shirt stretched over his stomach. Dave, who couldn’t get along with most humans, had a soft spot for animals. I felt the same way, and as such, had a soft spot for Dave.
“I’ll go next, if no one minds,” Carrie said and let her sheath of black hair partially cover her face, with slender hands lilting in the air. Beautiful and shrouded.
“I am thankful for Kat, for having Sunday dinners and keeping us all together. Is it too much to say we’re each other’s magnetic north? Well, I think we are. I also got that new account and I’m doing the logo for Bubba Gump’s,” Carrie’s words tumbled out and she blushed, raised her bourbon sangria glass to the table.
“Hear hear,” we yelled in our usual bawdy manner, our unspoken, yet somehow agreed upon response. Glasses and fists hit the table in agreement.
Geoff stood, ropey dreadlocks swinging around his pale frame and said, as he did every Sunday, “To the best date I’ve ever been on with a dyke,” and we all laughed those drunken, messy laughs, seeming to have no end, nor beginning.
Our grace eventually ended after everyone had a turn, we ate heartily, the boil pot emptied of crawfish, my dogs occasionally barked, the air grew thick with the sticky sweet jasmine that grew up along the back of my house, and bourbon bottles met their end. We talked long into the night around that old table, occasionally dancing to Nina’s lamenting on my record player, laughing and teasing, telling tall tales and near lies, only as friends who know each other from way, way back can do.
“I love you, Katy-Did,” Brian said as he hugged me tight, readying to leave. He called me by my Grandmother’s nickname for me. I saw Beth watching out of the corner of my eye. She lay in my hammock, suspended between two mango trees I planted myself, with darting glances toward her junkie brother.
“Listen,” I said. “I’ll be back in a week-ish and we need to get your shit together. Why don’t you come and stay here, with me, for a while?” I tugged at a rip in his torn sleeve, afraid to meet his eyes. I had stopped rimming my bourbon glasses with crushed Xanax, but I was as out of hand as Sam would let me be. A free spirit afraid of convention, tethered only to this world by a family I had created.
“Yeah?” he asked softly and touched each side of my face with a palm of his hand. “You’d let me do that? I want to do that, you know. Get clean, I mean.”
The heavy breeze shifted, blew jasmine and Nina’s voice over us.
“Sam,” I called out, not knowing where she was in the courtyard behind me, but knowing she would be there. “Brian’s to come stay with me when I get back from Pennsylvania. What a stellar idea, right?”
“Abso-fucking-lutely,” she called back, as I knew she would.
I met Beth’s eyes, under the mangos and the twinkle lights. Her teeth shone in a smile under the night-draped dark.
One by one, we hugged and said, “I love you,” when each person left, which is also how it always was. Unconventional bound by routine.
Sam tucked me into bed, bookended by two snoring dogs. She had to work early Monday and didn’t stay the night. She kissed me, pulled my Grandmother’s blue toile quilt up to my neck and said, “I love you to the moon and back down to the sea. And then back again,” and quietly tiptoed out to her bike and peddled home to Toulouse Street. My heavy eyes closed before she left my bedroom, before I could say it back.
I fell asleep feeling absolutely lucky and completely cherished. I clutch that feeling so tight, even now, that I remember the exact date. It was Sunday, August 21, 2005, which was also the last day I saw any of those eight people alive. There was no next Sunday dinner in my courtyard because I was still visiting my parents in Pennsylvania. I remember that date, too—August 28, 2005. That’s the day Hurricane Katrina crashed into New Orleans. Crashed into my chosen city and my chosen family—they were gone. Who I was, then and to them—also gone.
Through police reports, I know where everyone was when the hurricane hit. Sam and Dave went to work and they were boarded up in the day spa in the Bywater before the winds ripped it apart; Beth and my dogs were drowning in my yellow house on Esplanade Avenue after the roof and top story blew off—the waters smothered them faster than they could escape; Brian was somewhere in the Lower Ninth Ward, likely scoring crystal meth and Geoff was with him, trying to talk him out of it, I hope; Natalia was hawking flower headbands likely until the power went off at R Bar in the Bywater, Laura was with her, drinking her ass off and I’m sure giving a few fuck’s as the walls crashed in; and Carrie was huddled up in her shotgun house in the Garden District, before it was yanked from the ground.
They weren’t rattled by hurricane sirens because August, the worst of hurricane season, is regularly punctuated with those amplified shrieks and they didn’t evacuate because just as kismet tied us to each other—we were just as tied to that place. August 28, 2005: the date Hurricane Katrina touched down in New Orleans, the same date typed neatly on all eight of their death certificates, and the same date now neatly inked on a Nina Simone concert ticket tattoo on the inside of both my wrists—half on my left wrist, half on my right. Split in two.
On Monday morning, August 29, I got into my white 1989 Hyundai and drove 18 hours straight from Pennsylvania into that storm, stubborn against reason and my mother’s pleading, to get back to my chosen home, back to my claimed outliers, no matter if it and they had already been washed away. I abandoned my car outside of the Huey P. Long Bridge on Tuesday, August 30, the day after the levees broke, the day after the water choked the land. I raced into the bellowing storm, past screaming cops and clanging army tanks. I swam when my feet no longer touched the ground. The pull of my magnetic north was just that strong. And my friends would have done it for me; I’m sure of it. That’s just how we were with each other. That’s just how it always was. 

 Kat White is an MFA in Creative Writing candidate and Instructor at the University of Memphis. Her creative nonfiction has been published in Phoebe Journal and Photosynthesis Magazine. Her poetry has been published in Blue Collar Review, Axe Factory, Lullwater Review, and Stone Highway Review; she had an upcoming poem in Fade Poetry Journal. Kat is currently at work in Memphis on her nonfiction novel, A Personal Cartography. Contact her at

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