2 weeks ago
“Girl, it’s 9 o’clock. Wake up. La.”
It’s always kinda strange when my mother addresses me because she sounds just like me except where years of corporate life has sharpened her diction, I still often sound like I went to school on the south side of Atlanta. Half asleep and confused, I remind myself where I am, what I’m doing, that it is not me talking to me and telling me that it is 9am and thusly somehow implying that I shouldn’t be balled up under the covers and grumbling like an angry kitten.
I sit up straight in the lumpy bed, my eyes sweeping over the space, stopping only momentarily to observe the crevices of the room that Katrina still lives in; the warped bottom inches of the door, the faded colors of the carpet, the slight ceding of the baseboard from its union with the wall. I open the heavy drapes on the eight foot windows in the room and look out at the street car tracks as it cuts through Lafayette Square. It’s beautiful out.
“We need to hurry. I don’t want to miss the viewing.”
It’s always increasingly humorous to me that my mother expects her urgency to become my emergency. I recall that she was asleep right along with me. She even heard the alarm that I missed. And truth be told, I would rather miss the viewing. I don’t want to see anything but the old columns of the buildings leading into the Arts District.
I get up, moseying, putting on my clothes in layers, like armor, debating the merits of a pantsuit versus what is usually my grown and sexy happy hour little black dress, appropriately dressed down with a tank underneath. The dress eventually wins out as summer in the south, New Orleans especially, ain’t no joke.
In the bathroom I notice the rounds of my eyes look sunken into my face and dark against my light skin. Part of me wants to put on makeup but I’m pretty sure it will be an exercise in futility given our plans for the day. I instead concentrate on my hair, fashioning its length into soft and full curls that fall well below my collar bone. I take my time with each curl, concentrating hard, paying attention to the shape and smoothness and position of each, wasting time really. To the untrained eye it probably looks like I’m styling my hair but to me, because I know me, I recognize that I am merely raking my fingernails across my scalp, forehead to nape, as I am prone to do when I am thinking. Or tired. And Lord knows I am so tired.
Despite it being 2008, driving down the streets of New Orleans is much like driving down the streets of your favorite country town in the south, certainly not a vestige of American backwoods life pre-Civil Rights, but definitely not a glittering metropolis. There are no towering glass condos going up or immaculately pedicured lawns. No abundance of sprawling houses or even fast food places. No one wants McDonald’s when you can get a crawfish po’boy next door. The streets are raised and cracked from the heat and the water. The houses are still the same shotgun style boxes that I imagine they were when afros were in and the Black Panther was king. New Orleans is the city that still looks like a small town, like Gretna, Virginia, like Americus, Georgia, like Clinton, Mississippi.
If any of those had been hit by a category 5 hurricane in the last few years that is.
On the way to Saint James Major, I watch the juxtaposition of life and death through the car windows. We pass the po’boy place on the corner of Gentilly where we once got hot sausage po’boys and plotted on a high ball at the juke joint further in 7th ward. That building stands across from a duplex, formidable black Xs painted on the front porch declaring 7 found dead inside on one side, 3 on the other, and 2 pets. Through every street named after a flower (Jonquil, Gladiolus) New Orleans stands as a physical manifestation of what we all should know and respect; life and death teeter in a precarious balance around us every day.
Inside the cathedral, we greet our family, exchanging hugs and smiles and small talk dutifully, the chords of our laughter just barely strained out of tune under the weight of the forced pleasantries. To the layman, these melodies are as they should be, but to the trained musician of emotional distress, the orchestration is all minor chords and flats.
At the realization that she has not in fact missed the mandated viewing time, my mother walks towards the ornate altar all purposeful and swollen, the way I imagine she walks into a meeting full of men who aim to make her feel unimportant. I take that opportunity to escape into the bathroom, barely larger than that of an airplane, and squat on the toilet, not having to go but needing release. For a second my surroundings take me back over my history and I am young again and in the bathroom of a neighborhood church in Clarkston, Georgia, hiding from my stepfather and fumbling through the index of my well-worn Bible and trying to find any and every scripture pertaining to divorce. But the moment is fleeting. I remind myself that I am an adult, that I should be able to conduct myself as such. And if all else fails, I know that staying in the bathroom all day won’t tip the delicate universal balance of this life and the next in any particular direction or the other.
Though I haven’t stepped foot in mass in many moons (my own liberal views on abortion, gay rights, women’s equalities, and just about everything else long conflicting with the strict practices soliloquized to me amongst the Seven Sacraments and scripture), the habitual nature of Catholicism comes back to me without even concentrating to recall it; the genuflecting at the pew, the responses when called, the prayers I haven’t uttered since I kneeled in a confessional booth in a cathedral in New York, rosary gripped tightly in my palms leaving marks oddly like stigmata, as a priest told me to pray for forgiveness for the things that I’d done. I am physically present there in the pew, but in my mind I am in Scottdale, right outside Atlanta, a few years ago burying my grandmother. I am in religion class, raising my hand and asking the teacher if being gay is wrong, why did God create gay people? and quietly being ushered to confession. I am ten and singing in the choir, oblivious to the song’s message, but thoroughly enjoying the power that comes from being the center of attention. I am eight and crying in a bathroom at school because a boy in my social studies class told me my parents were going to burn in hell because they were divorced. I am sixteen and apathetic, lazily scribbling the notes I am forced to take on the sermon being screamed at me from the pulpit, counting the seconds until I am free to go home and finish reading the book on Buddhism hidden between my mattress. I am nine and practicing Hail Marys and Our Fathers until I get the exact words and intonation that is expected of me correct. I am twelve and I am Esther for Halloween at our church’s watch night service. I am fourteen and noticing the stares of the congregation that know the minister of music has slept with and knocked up some chick from his job. I am walking down the aisle staring them back, knowing that the minister of music is also my stepfather.
I walk my entire religious journey until there I am, the me I am in the present, tears streaming down my face as the last rites reverberate through the vaulted ceilings. I can’t discern if I am crying because of the finality of this moment, because of what is yet to become, because of all the memories I have just relived, or because I recognize that I, as I am today, am not who I wish to be when my last rites are promulgated.
A little while later, I watch the heat rise from the cement as I make my way through a cemetery cluttered with weeping willows and stone. It’s mere minutes after noon, and there is sweat pooling in the curves of my back. I stay as far back from the lid of the shiny mahogany coffin as I can, the sun beating at my back, blind to what lies ahead of me. I can’t understand a word the priest is saying, he’s too far away, but the prayers are like a lover I haven’t seen in a while but still remember how they felt inside me. After a few more muffled words, the family pulls the purple ribbon on a wicker basket, releasing a gaggle of white doves that immediately wing towards the southern sun. For a moment, I imagine myself a believer, and try and take comfort in the fact that they can safely usher the spirit past purgatory, directly onto the side of the equipoise of life and death where it is to exist from this moment on.
May peace be with you.
And also, with you.