Louisiana Lightning

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I’m rosy in the music club heat and this flush feels a little like love, like a spring in my spine. The air is fluid, juicy with Herbie Hancock’s “Cantaloupe Island.” The band massages Herbie till everything melts. The keyboard player is slicked back and smooth, his hair shiny like someone licked their fingers and left a trail over him. I love him because he never looks at the keys. Behind the musicians is a window dripping with a fairy light frame. And I know that I love the crowds sipping their frozen vodka-and-candy cocktails on Frenchmen Street outside, but I love my barstool in the Spotted Cat Music Club more. Even the walls are my favourite colour: seafoam, which is stoic or bubbling depending on your mood. Tonight, the room is pure carbonation.

 

And with all this love, it only makes sense for some of it to be directed towards Jon, whose knee is pressed to mine, his hand on the back of my chair. I wouldn’t be here — the Spotted Cat, or New Orleans at all — if it weren’t for him. The song is ending, the moment is already slipping away. I turn to smile at him. And I feel it again: the flush, the spring in my spine.  

 

It was hot the night that I met Jon, too. It was August, eight months earlier, when he stumbled into my kitchen in Victoria with a group of other boys — friends and friends of friends. I was fresh out of a long-term relationship, a breakup that should have made me sad but instead left me vacant and untethered. The summer was a long, dizzying exhale after years of holding my breath. I oscillated between feeling elated and depleted. The idea of having anyone close made me exhausted. I don’t remember much from that night.

Jon had just moved from the Maritimes to go to school in Vancouver. He looked strikingly like Vincent Van Gogh. He made a joke about Margaret Atwood and talked about math too much. I liked his shock of red hair and his sarcasm. I probably would have kissed him if I’d had a chance. I didn’t think I’d ever see him again and that didn’t mean anything to me at the time.

A month later we reconnected via a chance dating app encounter. We agreed to meet for drinks in a dark underground bar — chosen solely for its beer list — just outside of Vancouver’s Gastown. By the time he’d done his impression of a Cape Breton accent, I decided he was fun. When I spilled an entire glass of Lemon Gose down the front of my dress, he suggested that we find somewhere to dance and I agreed.

Our first date marked the beginning of a relationship that resisted definition. We understood implicitly that neither of us had any expectations. He was in Vancouver, I was in Victoria. Beyond that, he was moving to Toronto in May for work. So, we spent time together when we could, stole weekends when school wasn’t busy, but kept each other at an emotional distance to match our geographical one. Neither of us were the type to talk about it. It made him easy to be around.

Over the next few months we grew closer, though it happened so slowly that I didn’t realize it at the time. In February, he began musing about taking a trip on his last week before moving to Toronto. In March, he asked if I wanted to come with him to New Orleans. I knew at the time that it wasn’t the practical move. I grasped at my sense of logic, but Jon talked about jazz and Cajun spice and I agreed to come along.

We spent our first two days exploring the French Quarter, the essential tourist experience. We snapped pictures of the bone-white towers of St. Louis Cathedral, split a muffuletta in the courtyard of a crumbling restaurant, and drank coffee on a sidewalk café below hanging baskets. I loved every building, pointed out every wrought iron balcony that dangled above us.

On our second day we wandered Bourbon Street, the Las Vegas Strip of New Orleans. And as much as I tried, I couldn’t love Bourbon Street. We arrived around noon and already the street was rollicking. Everyone around us seemed middle-aged and fluorescent-clad, sloshing buckets of neon daiquiris. It was months past Mardi Gras but there were beads everywhere, rolling in the gutter and strewn across balconies and looped around people’s necks. We cut off Bourbon Street and found a cool bar to duck into. We sat on stools along the counter and watched a man shuck fresh oysters, his muscles straining against the shells. Behind us a woman half sang to people passing on the street, “Come get your ice cold be-eeeeer, marg-a-ritaaaaas, hurricanes, saaaaan-gria!”

Jon slid his hand onto my knee and we both felt it but didn’t say anything. Instead, I said, “Bourbon Street is not my scene.”

Jon laughed, “You know, I was thinking, I don’t think we’ve talked about anything but balconies for the past 48 hours.”

 

We spent the next few days wandering the Bywater with its quirky Creole Cottages decorated with liberal political signs, and down on Magazine Street, ducking into small vintage stores to escape the sun. We drank happy hour beers on trellis-lined patios and watched every street performer we could. We spent every night watching a different live band — jazz and zydeco and reggae — and drinking strawberry beer in the bars along Frenchmen Street. Every day was sweltering and clear skied until one morning when we awoke to thunder.

I grew up in Vancouver and this rain rivaled anything I’ve ever heard. We watched the lightning from our window and our desire to stay inside was confirmed. We had plans to go to City Park and finally try beignets and I knew I should feel like this was a morning wasted, but from where I was curled under the covers, I didn’t. The lightning flashed outside the window and I remembered that we were leaving Louisiana soon.

In hindsight, it’s clear how my emotions were crystallizing, taking on a new form with New Orleans as a catalyst. We had spent months weaving a love like lace and I had told myself it was beautiful for all its absence — defined by the negative space. But New Orleans held me accountable. New Orleans allowed me no alibis. When they talk about New Orleans’ soul, I am convinced, what they really mean is marrow and meat, pulp and flesh. Substance.

The lightning didn’t last, as lightning never does. By the afternoon, the storm cleared and I insisted that I needed a beignet. City Park was huge and lush. It was flooded a little from the recent storm, but that only added to the heavy swamp of it. The trees sprawled across the ground, spreading their branches wide as if cradling the muggy air with curtains of moss. Nestled among the trees were neo-classical pavilions, concrete stages with columns and stone lions to guard them. It looked like a dreamscape in the abandoned post-storm mist. We ate beignets with a view of the pavilions and watch the trees drip with the last remnants of rain.   

 

We spent our last night almost lost in the maze of the Maple Leaf Bar. We had planned for weeks to watch the Rebirth Brass Band play, staying up all night before our early morning flight. The Maple Leaf felt formed at random — walls torn down without rhyme. The centre room was too small, everyone close and mixing sweat as an 8-piece brass band wailed at the front, but the closeness felt right. Beside me, a man leaned over and yelled in my ear, “Ain’t this the truth!” and I didn’t know exactly what he meant, but I nodded in agreement. In the back, a man painted a New Orleans street scene, dashing his brush across the canvas in time with the music. The walls were a patchwork of red paper, worn down in places and covered by curtains in others. The embossed tin ceiling was a canopy of dull metal that just barely caught the light. At intermission, Jon and I traded descriptions of the room: decayed decadence, crumbling opulence, moulding majesty. It was beautiful for its decline, its willingness to embrace impermanence.

And when the band started their last set and I knew that the music would end and there would be no recordings, nothing tangible of this moment. But then we were flushed and dancing. The music was loud and it was hard to imagine silence in New Orleans.   

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