Sunday, August 29, 2010

a clean slate

This is my Katrinaversary post. This is my harkening back. This is the story I didn't tell amongst the ones I did (if you click, scroll down and go to the start; I re-read it the other day and was stunned by its immediacy and wavering).

Nowadays, this is the story I need to tell. After all these years, it's time to come clean. And move on.

For the last five years, my two traumas have been twinned, but separate. There was Katrina and there was the end of my marriage. Only recently, with the passage of time, have I come to understand the connections between the two.

This article, from today's NYT, draws a similar connection to the time since. In recounting her losses, through the eyes of her family, author Natasha Trethewey offers up this poignancy: In speaking about her brother's girlfriend, she says: "For her, Hurricane Katrina is simply the beginning of a larger pattern of loss." So too for me.

* * * * * * * * * *

We left New Orleans late on Saturday, August 27th, 2005 with two cats and three days of dirty clothes. We had been busy with our business and the laundry had piled up. There were no drawers in the drawers and all of our favorite bits were piled in the hamper. Unlike Ivan, the year before, we didn't plan and pack. We just got out.

I was supposed to go to Lafayette that day, off to "ooh-la-la" for the Rauschenberg exhibit. Mid-day or so, I got into the car, Ariana at the wheel, Cynthia riding shotgun. We had a pit-stop to make in Baton Rouge to pick up another friend but I called for a turn-around just a few blocks into the ride.

"Take me to my office," I said. "I have some work to do."

G was already there and I think he was pleased to see me. We had been running (running, running, running...) the business together for two years, meeting a measure of success and most of our expenses. Just a month or so before, we finally moved the biz into its own space and out of the back bedroom of our apartment, providing a much needed break between home and work. We were still settling in, but it was bright and airy and we could work without looking at each other.

Dividing the line between us was difficult, as we were both responsible for procurement and delivery, but on that given Saturday, I had a specific job to do. A client was waiting on a project and a quick call to FedEx revealed that the go-time was 4pm and then nothing. The airport was shutting down. I had to get it done.

And I did. I drove to the drop-off a few blocks away and returned to the office to announce that it was "time to go."

(I had been toggling for the previous few hours, putting the report together and flipping with key strokes from Excel to Word and over to NOAA. I was well aware of the encroaching whirl from the gulf.)

"We've got to go," I said, with every bell in my body ringing.

And we went.

Unlike Ivan, when we took our hard drives - with all their treasures - this time, we walked away from our business with just a bit of paper. Important paper, yes, the contact list. But none of the hardware. None of the "investments."

I remember asking him, looking at him: Are you sure? He nodded yes and we were quickly off to home to collect said cats and clothes (as well as a neighborhood friend who had no where else to go).

We landed a few hours later in St. Martinville, at the "Church," which quickly became a command center.

We had wi-fi, cable and reporters in residence. Smiley Pool, on loan from the Dallas Morning News, was making loops over the city via helicopter, flying out of Baton Rouge, and coming back to us each night with his devastating pix.

Friends with press passes were making footed forays into the city and reporting back on our various domiciles. G and I knew we were all right - or at least, our places were. Home and new office were both on high ground. That shit was covered. But our city?

Shit.

The city was fucked.

And our business - as far as we knew - that was fucked too.

In the days before the storm, we sent out a huge survey project (a mega $ deal), with returns by return mail, and now, who knew what would happen to that, since there was no return to return to.

In those first few days, stranded in Lafayette/New Iberia, I spent hours on the phone: talking, re-routing and figuring. Conversations with clients, purveyors, friends and family. There was, gratefully, a lot of reassuring on both ends of the line. No one knew anything and no one knew how to take care. We were all grasping (and gasping) at that point.

A day or so into it, when we still didn't know anything, G came up to me, with a wild in his eye: "It's a clean slate," he said. "We've got a clean slate."

I knew what he meant. The business. Maybe it was washed away? (And maybe that be good!)

We left and left our computers behind. With all their work and worth. Since the beginning, the business had been more trial than pleasure (or profit). Neither of us had been happy in it for some time, and together, we couldn't figure out how to get out of it. But this? This unhappy tragedy? Maybe a great wash. A clean slate. A new start.

We talked about what we'd do. Where we'd go. What we could do. We carried the conversation from St. Martinville through to our landing in St. Augustine, Florida (a multi-day loop-around through Atlanta, Georgia - thanks to the wash-out of the I-10 bridge going East - and we spent those worrisome days wondering about the availability of gas for the truck and respite for the suffering, panting cats). We did meet with a business lawyer in Atlanta who counseled us against "making too many changes at once." Take it easy, he said. Play it out.

Our first stop in St. Aug, after checking into his Mom's, was to a bookstore. G wondered about our funds, but I knew what I needed. Journals and reading material. Both necessary for sustenance. We had left so much behind and I needed input and a place to output. G had recently expressed an interest in Buddhism and meditation and the book I picked up for him proved more crucial for me in the coming months: "When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times." I didn't know then how much I would need it, nor how many of my people would need it as well. I read it, re-read it, and bought and sent it on to others.

We spent seven weeks in cushy, comfortable exile in St. Augustine. My in-laws and the locals treated us as forlorn orphans. Thanks to G's forethought, our business files were backed-up online and we were able to download to a borrowed laptop and get back in business. Our clients were generous and business boomed back. But we were still asea.

What next? What now? What do we do? Where do we go?

Me, I followed his lead. Indulged his whims. (An instinct that earned me a slap: "Some feminist you are," he said. Maybe not then, at that time, but in the time therein, thereafter. It blurs, after all this time, but the sting remains. I do recall the calling out. And gasping. Sputtering. How do you answer that?)

While in Florida, with future uncertain, we tossed around ideas. We talked about hiking the Appalachian Trail (inspired by Bill Bryson, one of our post-K bookstore selections). What's six months when you lose a life in one night? Fine, I said. Let's plan, let's go. (Or, go on your own if you need that.) We talked about a road trip in search of a new home city (Portland, maybe?), stopping to visit friends and family all along the way. I wasn't worried; we had good people everywhere. And being good people, I knew we could land and sprout wherever we landed.

And then, in early October, word came that the city - and our neighborhood - was open again. G got excited, wanted nothing more than to get back. And I was ready for that too. I also wanted my home.

We returned to New Orleans on 14 October 2005. Spent that night at Le Bons Temps Roule, a bar in our neighborhood. I recall vividly standing out front on the sidewalk, a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other. A band was playing in the back room, kicking off early and rocking hard due to the midnight curfew. We were talking to a good ol' boy from Alabama, in town with his tree-trimming trucks and crew doing some work. As we chatted out there, we had to make way for the National Guard patrol, boys recently returned from Iraq, walking through our American city with M-16s in arms. It was real beyond surreal.

On the home front, as the normal amidst the anything but, we became the de facto hosts for many of our friends. With Pableaux MIA and without a kitchen to cook in, I gladly assumed the mantle of hosting Monday night red beans and (having studied at the heel of the master) I regularly cooked for thirty-plus, including accommodations for vegetarians. Our place became a gathering ground, for good grub and sad stories.

For a short while, G stepped out of the business to do some deconstruction work and I ran the day-to-day. For the first time in a long time, we had something to talk about over dinner. It was momentarily promising.

Mid-December, we got some good news. The return mail eventually came in and we were able to close the big ($) project. I recall fondly riding home, via bicycle, from the Louisiana Avenue post office, my back-pack full of returned surveys, making me feel like I had a turtle's shell.

This good turn came on the heels of our Thanksgiving back in Florida with his family (my family), from which we brought our cats back home to New Orleans. For Christmas, we went to Utah to spend time with his family (my family). And then New Year's, back in NOLA, where we witnessed the unrivaled ribaldry of the Mid-City Christmas Tree Bonfire (and the last of it). That, given the burnt-out, flooded neighborhood all around, was some very creepy shit.

And then, mid-January 2006, it all fell apart.

We were due for a visit to my family (my family) and on the morning of, he said he wasn't going. "Okay," I said. "I understand." We had slept apart the previous night (and maybe more than that). Trouble had been brewing.

"I get that we need some time apart." The business, it suffocated us. And in the aftermath of Katrina, we were bewildered. "But there are consequences for this," I said. "We'll talk on Monday."

I cried at the airport and suffered through the weekend. When he met me in the terminal on Monday and placed his ice-cold hand in mine, he announced that he had moved out (and into our office, a place without a kitchen or shower). Katrina didn't give it to him, but G found a way to wipe the slate clean.

A few weeks later, while I spent some time in Boston repairing in the loving arms of good friends, he cleaned out our home of everything he deemed "his." Pictures out of frames and off walls. Magnets off the fridge. Recipes and cookbooks. Kitchen utensils. Christmas ornaments out of packed boxes. The wedding china and silver. The cup my pens were in (he left the pens). And the contraband box next to the bed (but not the condoms therein; those he stuffed into a French Market coffee can - one that held some Mardi Gras doubloons - and then, purposely, set it upon our former bedroom's mantle, making it an obvious left-behind - in my subsequent wild after his departure, I made good use of every one of those rubbers). He also took 80% of our music collection. Everything he brought into the union (fair), and everything acquired since (not fair).

I only made a little bit of fuss. Mostly for the music. I got some Nina Simone back. A few other treasures. But really, truly, I believed at that time that I would get it all back, including him. I saw no sense in making a big fuss over stuff. I was worried about him. Only an asshole walks out on his wife of five-plus years, and surely I didn't marry an asshole. G will come to his senses, I thought. Maybe do this right.

In March, I got an email telling me that he had accepted a job in California, thanks to some grad school connections. He'd be moving in a month. We were over and done. G was moving on.

True to form (me, being a damn fine person, solid and kind), I helped him move. Built the ramp into the trailer that towed his motorbike to greener pastures out West. I know (thanks to the internet, friends, facebook, and twitter) that G is doing very well these days. His pastures are not just greener, but also greater, wider, curvier and international. He's living his dream, and there are very few of us who get that glory. I sincerely hope he's happy. He was never content with me (ironically, he was always worried that I would leave him; I wouldn't have; I'm loyal to a fault).

And me? And my slate? It's smudged and shadowed. A wee bit stained. It carries the marks from all the prior writings. Like the scribbles on my shower walls, I bear the marks of a life writ-large (and unlike the shower walls, no amount of Ajax or elbow-grease will erase them).

I accept my Katrina scars (and all those prior and since), for they are reminders of loves and loves lost and of a life so far well-lived (as well as some ill-fated encounters with chiggers). I take on the chin the indignity of G's leaving, knowing that I did the best I could at the time and that I loved him earnestly and totally. He made me proud at one time (at many times) and I have no regrets about the years I spent as his mate. We were good business for a while, aiding and abetting each other, in both good and bad ways.

* * * * * * * * * *

Thanks for the memories, G. And thanks for all the people you brought into my life. I may have lost you, but they've kept me. And we are all the richer for it.

Bon vivant. A bientot. Laissez les bons temps rouler!

a luta continua...

1 comment:

Frank said...

The scars do not show in your words, heart or birthday picture. Nice to have you back.
Frank