Thirteen years ago today, I married the city of New Orleans.
I’d moved there the day before, with nothing but some boxes full of books, and a white Mexican-style dress embroidered with red flowers, purchased for this particular occasion. I didn’t know a soul in town, but I knew the soul of New Orleans—or thought I did—well enough to pledge my eternal and undying love.
I stood on the wooden steps leading down into the Mississippi River, the candy-colored French Quarter at my back, overcome by all it had taken to get here: extricating myself from some bullshit in Phoenix, driving across the sunblasted southwest in a beater car without AC. Explaining to my parents that no, I was not home to stay; I was on my way to New Orleans. No, I didn’t have a place to live or a job—I’d figure it out when I arrived.
A handful of other people lounged on the dock: a lanky man drinking a tallboy, a couple of tourists photographing the St. Louis Cathedral behind us—these were the unwitting witnesses of my wedding. I could feel them giving me side-eye as I removed the battered silver ring I’d been wearing as an engagement ring, purchased in New Orleans the year before. I threw the ring into the river, and whispering my vows, replaced it with another ring purchased earlier that afternoon.
It was an unorthodox ceremony to be sure, peculiar and solemn as the girl I was then. I loved New Orleans the way you love a person: passionately, even obsessively. I wanted to gather New Orleans into my arms and kiss her. I wanted to whisper sweet-nothings in her ear. Obviously, this presented some complications. The best I could do was to devour a plate of etoufee, which is what I did next. I asked the waiter to seat me next to a window, so I could gaze at my city.
As with any marriage, the first months were a roller coaster. Delirious highs followed abysmal lows. I was the poorest I’d ever been—at one point things were so bad that I shared a can of potted meat with my cat. But I was also rich: I had my own apartment, an odd conjunction of small rooms that had probably once been servants’ quarters. And I had my own life, at last. I came and went as I pleased; I slept and woke accordingly. I bought a set of plastic plates shaped like flowers, and a coffee mug painted like a flamingo. For the first time in my life, I was free to be myself, free to discover who that was.
New Orleans was all around me all the time. She was there when I got out of bed in the morning, sun shining through the dirty windows. She sat on my balcony with me, sharing a cup of milky coffee and a cigarette. She sent me evening love notes on the breeze as bits of song, tootled forlornly by a clarinetist somewhere on my block. For supper, we ate boiled corn and potatoes, $1.50 for a whole sack. We drank Dixie beer. We walked shoeless through dirty puddles after a rainstorm. And when I got held up at gunpoint, she saved my life.
I thought I would live with her forever, but Hurricane Katrina, that conniving bitch, had other plans. Like so many, I was too poor to go back when there were no places to live and no jobs to go back to. By the time the city was on her feet again, I’d married a real person.
But once loved, a thing can never be un-loved, not completely. I don’t have that kind of heart. Just like my flower-shaped plates and my flamingo mug, I left part of myself there when I evacuated. And every time I go back, my heart thumps dangerously in my chest. To be back with her! Her hot breath putting a shine on my face, smelling her smells: beignets and beer and dumpsters and river water and magnolia blossoms big as pie tins. Hearts love what they love, no matter how little sense it makes.
Happy anniversary, New Orleans. I’ll always love you. Maybe one day I’ll come home for good.