[Names have been changed]
“I love you,” I whispered. Perched on my chest, Ava repeated the words back to me.
A little over a week later, she broke us up to be with someone else.
This story is, as all of them are, more complex, but in the next weeks, as I obsessively replayed the movie in my mind, these were the only two plot points that mattered.
We met in Chicago when we were both in long-term relationships. Like my own relationship at the time, Ava’s was perpetually rocky, and so we confided in one another about the circumstances of our dissatisfaction, as friends.
Then she visited me two summers later. Newly single, she and another friend, Nadie, came to explore Seattle, beauties sans commitments. On the first night of their visit, having given them my bedroom for their stay, I was preparing to sleep on the couch when Ava came into the living room, bent over, and kissed me on the lips.
I’d never had a woman make the first move before and it caught me quite by surprise. The following day was spent exchanging furtive looks until that night, with Nadie gone to bed, Ava once again came to me. A couple days later, the two of them returned to Chicago and that was to be the end of it.
New Orleans is far and away the most idiosyncratic city of all I’ve lived in, a village from the past thrust haphazardly into the future, with a personality so distinct that, at times, it could feel like a foreign country. It was exhilarating, but also wearying.
I avoided Hurricane Isaac by three days, but not the damage. Almost all of New Orleans outside the economic hub of the French Quarter was without power. With temperatures in the 90s and humidity thick as taffy, I sweated through my first weekend, unable to sleep, crushed by the atmosphere.
Like many of the inhabitants of New Orleans, my new roommate, Donatella, was not locally grown but had nonetheless embraced the city as her one true home. She did her best to give me a proper welcome, greeting me with a shot of vodka the moment I stepped out of the taxi before bar hopping me to the French Quarter. Insistent air conditioners whirled in the Quarter, but there was no escaping the oppressive heat.
I wasn’t suffering alone. The entire city was on edge, even with Southern Decadence providing a festive aura of greased up, naked men dancing in the streets. My first night, I tagged along with Donatella who was tending bar at the AllWays Lounge, a home and performance space for the proud mutants and outsiders of New Orleans. Nudity and liquor were flowing, but the move and the heat had melted my energy.
“One second,” Donatella commanded after I told her I was calling it a night. Reaching under the counter and into her bag, she came back up wearing her radiant, incorruptible smile and holding out a box cutter. “Take this. Just in case.” The darkened St. Roch neighborhood was no place to walk without protection, especially on a roiling September night.
As had been the case with some of my previous moves, a budding romance distracted me from the difficulties of adjusting to a new locale. This year, it was Ava.
Ever since Seattle, we’d been exchanging daily texts and emails, with plans for her to visit in October. Built upon a three-year friendship, our relationship blossomed quickly. In discussing the future, it was suggested that she move to New York City where she could further her fashion career. It meant more time apart, but after seven years of travel, two didn’t seem so long. To have a beautiful woman waiting at the finish line felt like a perfect, Hollywood ending.
Meanwhile, even though my savings went a long way in New Orleans’ cheap economy, I wasn’t taking any chances. I accepted the first job offer I received, working at one of New Orleans’ most mismanaged 4-Star restaurants. The nightmare conditions were due almost entirely to the GM, a ladder climbing egotist who ruled disinterestedly as the restaurant’s sommelier, yet rarely made appearances in the presence of a customer.
That job taught me that New Orleans rewarded free-spiritedness and penalized a work ethic. As the year progressed, I naively believed I’d be rewarded for dependability, but instead, my coworkers enjoyed their holidays off while I served an empty dining room. I should’ve heeded Donatella’s warnings. She encouraged me to look for less regimented employment in the essentially citywide, gig economy. Alas.
I suffered through the heat until it broke in October. The city came alive again as it prepared for its second favorite holiday, Halloween, AKA warm-up for Mardi Gras. I explored the city with my roommate, but the party generally came to my door. Donatella’s irresistible personality drew in everyone, and so our apartment was a hive of varied and interesting strangers blowing through. Almost literally.
Donatella had sold me on the “shotgun”-style house, a floor plan that abandons hallways and fourth walls for an unbroken passage from front door to back. In my roommate’s perspective, this nurtured a free-flowing, open, and creative living environment. Fine in theory, but in practice it meant no privacy.
My room was the only route to the kitchen from Donatella’s room. I erected a partition out of thick sheets, but even with flimsy doors between our separate spaces, all barriers were essentially ornamental. Sound carried indiscriminately. With Donatella being a fully realized, independent, and carnal woman, I went to sleep many nights with headphones affixed to my ears.
Work drained my spirit and home didn’t provide the rejuvenating solitude I needed after spending the day with people. New Orleans was exhausting me, and not in the fun way.
For this reason, Ava’s daily messages and looming visit were my sole source of restoration in those early months. When she finally did arrive at the end of October, we had the kind of sublime reunion so rarely enjoyed by long-distance lovers. Seeing New Orleans – its towering churches, the Museum of Art, the street performers – with Ava’s fresh eyes made the city beautiful. There was no awkward acclimation period, no time wasted on rediscovering our groove. Laying together after reacquainting our bodies, we spoke of our love.
But she couldn’t stay. On my own again, real life nullified the highs of our romantic weekend, each day proving anew that the Big Easy cared nothing for my worsening mental state. My daily notes to Ava grew increasingly despondent, and so, when in early November she told me she couldn’t keep the relationship going, a part of me expected it.
I couldn’t even reel in private. Donatella walked into my “room” just as I hung up with Ava. She was kind enough to offer a comforting hug and invite me out to drown my sorrows in booze. Strangely, that night I turned down her invitation.
Depression was overwhelming my entire being. I knew it was too much to count on Ava to shoulder my burden, so while the breakup devastated me, I understood. Until, that is, the inevitable Facebook post of Ava with her new boyfriend some weeks later. Now there was an acute sense of rejection to go with my loss.
For a time, Donatella was an unbelievably gracious source of comfort. When I had to work from 9 am to 11 pm on Thanksgiving – the one holiday I celebrate – she greeted me upon my return with a bear hug and a plate of leftovers. She then escorted me out for drinks and lively karaoke performances (her, not me).
After tiring of Kajun’s Pub, she used her key to let us into the closed Allways Lounge. Under a soft, orange glow, we sat together at the empty bar’s piano, shoulder to shoulder, neither one of us knowing what we were doing, and riffed for hours. From our staccato notes emerged restorative, shattered music. I felt weightless for the first time in months.
We walked home with the rising sun, raw with emotions. That night I’d seen the darkness in Donatella that she mostly covered by emitting light like a strobe. She opened up about a history of abuse, a wound still tender, both from the pain she had endured and the guilt she felt for another victim left behind. Her heavy and intimate confession underlined a growing platonic affection between us more substantial than anything I’d had with Ava.
Naturally, it didn’t last.
Years of itinerancy had taken their toll. I was unable to make the simplest human connections knowing that in a short time I’d be gone, a barely remembered name popping up in a newsfeed. People were temporary and I was a ghost. Ava’s disappearance had been particularly crushing; for a brief time, I’d fooled myself into believing in her permanence.
Amplifying this instability were the unending guests passing through our doors. Donatella signed us up to host couch surfers. I’d wake up to unknown out-of-towners on the couch; sometimes they were bar patrons she’d met the night before who’d taken her up on an offer of a place to crash. If I had had a door on my room, I might have found the rotating cast of strangers vaguely endearing.
The depression would not relent. Under a confluence of factors, no one cause, my mind had become a tempest, volatile, erratic, boiling over one moment in manic rage, then leaving me hollow and weeping on my floor. I couldn’t even feel in possession of my own emotions.
It’s easier, now, to accept why Donatella lost patience, but at the time it was just one more battlefront, our once close friendship degenerated into screaming matches. It was a cruel irony that a woman who welcomed everyone and readily accepted any sexual, gender, or racial identity, found my illness so intolerable. Perhaps it just hit too close to home.
And yet, no one hates a person with depression more than the person themselves.
In December, distraught over everything – my job, my home, my broken heart, myself – I resolved to end it. Suicide had always hovered in the back of my mind, a personal nuclear option, but now, I woke up and went to sleep contemplating it. I made a plan: At month’s end, I’d throw myself off of the Crescent City Connection into the Mississippi River. The thought of sinking brought me rare moments of peace.
I suppose I gave myself a buffer, in part, because my brain goes through cycles and I knew there was a possibility I could still rise out of stark misery. Instead, each day, I felt worse. I became a practical mute at work and stayed offline, falling further into isolation. When no one seemed to notice, I took that as confirmation of my worthlessness, justification for my choice.
On an evening in mid-December, my D.C. friend from college appeared on the caller ID. Surprised, I almost let it go to voicemail, but succumbed to curiosity.
“Hey,” she said in her hesitant, unassuming way. “Hadn’t seen you post lately, thought I’d check how things were going with you.” Without hyperbole: Marianne saved my life that night.
I didn’t admit to her what I planned to do, probably attempted to sound lighthearted and casual, but after we talked briefly, I hung up and bawled. For once, the tears brought relief. Such a simple act; Gomorrah spared for the benevolence of one friend.
Clear Skies, Again
Life didn’t immediately improve. Climbing out of the depths is a process.
My rift with Donatella grew apace and after five months, I relocated to a new apartment in Mid-City with co-workers. The job remained a drudge, but an incredibly lucrative one. I earned more money serving the well-heeled of New Orleans than I’ve ever made at any other job. I could pay to see a show or buy a necessity without checking my bank account. I reached my savings goal so easily that I gleefully quit my job a month and a half early.
Despite my mental state, NOLA gave me extraordinary, one-of-a-kind experiences: waking up early on Fat Tuesday to drink Irish coffee in a crowd of colorful costumes on Frenchmen Street; sinking into mud while watching Fleetwood Mac at Jazz Fest; dancing upstairs at Blue Nile and being kissed by a stranger; feeling the city’s incomparable rhythms pulsing from every street corner. Hell, even the graphic gay porn playing on the TVs upstairs at Phoenix Bar was delightful in its own way.
Cracked by Mother Nature and enshrined by ineffectual governance, the city’s splintered infrastructure can’t hide that underneath it all, NOLA and her people are big-hearted and dynamic. Still, like that friend who always knows where the party’s at, sometimes you’re just not in the mood to answer her call.
Which is to say, I’d take any opportunity to visit New Orleans; I’ll just never live there again.
In the summer, New Orleans’s suffocating heat and humidity returned, but planning for Boston invigorated me. After only one more year, I would finally arrive in the Promised Land.