Bon Voyages and Beginnings

Letters

“So when do you think you’re going to start missing New Orleans?”

We’re in the car, riding on a high of McDonald’s french fries and almost 900 hours of summer camp. The music is pulsing, reverberating, through the bones of the car. Mississippi pine trees go by in a blur, the sun as well.  My fingers tap against the window, feet slung up onto the dashboard, head bopping from side to side. I’m humming along absentmindedly to some summer anthem, making up words, picking at my split-ends, dotting mosquito bites with my fingernails.

Miss New Orleans?

I don’t expect this question. Didn’t expect the conversation to go from Lucky Charms’ marshmallows to cabin pranks to early-onset nostalgia.

But I have been wondering this for a long time:

When will The Missing begin?

When will I begin clicking my heels in remorse, squinting my eyes at faint outlines of familiar people, turning my head looking for ghosts?

I think about it for a few seconds, make a few calculations in my head– the time between now and school, the time between now and visiting family, the time between now and road tripping– and blurt out, “Mid-September.”

***

We cross the Lake Pontratrain bridge, the dusky glow from the water blurring the windshield. We curve around a bend, and there is New Orleans: the Crescent City Connection glittering over the Mississippi, the billboards for bail bonds and cheap beer and 5k walks, the offices and hotels and faux-skyscrapers, the woozy spiraled bridges of I-10, and at the end of it all, the Superdome, nestled between an abandoned hospital and a prison.

I take a deep breath, take my feet off the dashboard, open the window, and trail my fingers through the rain-speckled air. Close my eyes.

“You ok, Kat?” my friend asks, still driving, but turning his head to look over.

“Yeah,” I wave my hand through the air for a few more seconds, then close the window, “I’m just trying to take a mental snapshot. For later. When I won’t be seeing this anymore.”

***

Four days later, I wake up and run along the bayou. Watch the water as the sun glides across it. Smell the stickiness of the uncut grass and the leftover crawfish and the fading magnolias. My eyes, still crinkled with sleep, try to take in everything. Try to sweep all of it into the back corners of my mind to remember. For later.

I come home, take off my shoes, and load 10 boxes into a rental car.  Drive to Buttermilk Drop bakery, order sugar-soaked apple fritters and honey buns and buttermilk drops. Drive a little further to Pagoda, meet with a friend for coffee. Smile, hug, say bye to a few more friends.  Hand them golden envelopes– “Here. This is for you. Your own June Projects.”

Hop back in the car.  Coast down Broad to I-10 to the East to the Northshore to Mississippi.

***

I begin to feel something pulling at my stomach. Begin to tally the letters I forgot to write,  forgot to leave and to give and to deliver:

to the Windchime Tree at City Park, to the covered porch at Bayou Beer Garden, to my favorite corners in coffee shops, to the oak tree by the Cabrini Bridge, to the intersections of the Endymion parade route, to the Lakefront levee, to the glitter and joy of Mardi Gras, to the ebullience of the Red Dress Run, to autumn picnics, to dazzling winter days, to at least a dozen people I didn’t have the chance to hug or to say goodbye to or to laugh with one last time.

I blow a stray hair out of my face. Turn the music up. Way way up. Until the bass enters my bones. Until the repetitive dundundun overpowers my thoughts and pushes them down, away, and gone.

***

Five minutes across the Mississippi state line, a thrumming starts in the back of my head. A bubbling up through my chest, coursing through my throat–

The Missing.

This wasn’t supposed to happen until later! I think angrily to myself, MONTHS later!

But my lungs start heaving, my head curls over the steering wheel, and the tears cast the road in a haze of dots and striations.  

A tiny part of me whispers, “pull over pull over pull over.”

A larger part of me keens and yowls, “I want to go home I want to go home I WANT TO GO HOME.”

45 minutes out of New Orleans, and I am already wishing– with every single cell, organ, tissue, brain, body, and power– to be back on the bayou.

To be back home.

And in that moment, almost turn around.

Almost decide to throw everything out the window and run back.

Run all the way home.

***

A day later, I find myself sprawled on the floor of a hot yoga studio in the foothills of Chattanooga, TN. Around me, people are moving in and out and side to side, twisting and turning and sweating on their mats.

“Breathe in and out, sync your breath with your movement,” the instructor tells us.

But I can’t move out of Child’s Pose. Can’t move off my mat. My heart is slamming against my chest and my breath is stuck in my stomach and there is a whole lake — not droplets– but a whole lake of sweat surrounding me.

***

Normally, I love to move. Can do it without thinking. Can run and jump and make and talk and connect and eat and love– all without thinking. Reflexively.

But sometimes moving is hard. Really fucking hard.  It’s hard when I can’t move as fast as I would like, when I know I am able to move faster but can’t, when a million things are pulling at my brain and my body is tired and things feel mixed up inside and things feel mixed up outside and—

In those moments, my body overrides everything and seems to say:  

“Enough is enough already.

You need to stop with this bullshit of busy and fast and speed.”

And shuts down. Shuts completely down.  

Which is how I found myself on a yoga mat. In Tennessee. Realizing that my body, over and over and over and over again, is always right. Always knows when enough is enough.

And always tells me when I need a break, when I need more time,

and when I need to give myself a little bit more forgiveness.

***

For the past three weeks I’ve been in suburbia preparing for the next phase: Chicago.

“Preparing” meaning having internal debates about whether or not I should bring four boxes of books, “preparing” meaning attempting to swim when it’s not raining, “preparing” meaning visiting my grandma and listening to her stories from her time in Chicago.

“Chicago’s a beautiful place, Khak,” she tells me, her eyes going soft, “Just be careful not to wear a hat with a feather– I did, and the feather flew away! So windy! Mmm, so windy…” she closes her eyes for a second, then opens them again,

“You’re going to do amazing things, Khaki. Amazing amazing things. They don’t even know what’s coming for them.”

I smile, tell her she’s full of something, help her up to go check on the bird feeders in the courtyard, listen as she tells me about her cousins in Ohio and about the time my dad flooded the courtyard for a party.

“Us Walkers, we’re always getting into something, I’ll tell ya,” she says, “Now if we could somehow manage to get rid of all these books we’ve accumulated over the years, then that’d be something. Sure you don’t want to bring any along with you?”

I shake my head, laughing, and we go back inside.

***

Someone told me recently that New Orleans is an easy place to miss, but that Chicago is an easy place to love.

I realized this about New Orleans 45 minutes– and a shit ton of snotty tears– into a 1500 mile drive north. As for Chicago, on verra as they say.  

We shall see.

But there are certain places in this world that seem to have a gravitational, visceral hold on whoever enters.  These places pull at you– pull at your heartstrings, pull at your memories, pull at your body. And beckon you back. Call you home.

New Orleans has been this place for me since I was a semi-dumb 19 year-old on a Spring Break trip. Since I was a less dumb 20 year-old on a similar Spring Break trip. Since I was a 23 year-old having a baby existential crisis. Since two days ago when I re-packed my boxes for the fourth time and found Mardi Gras remnants smashed between running shoes and a food literacy curriculum.

Today I leave– with my books with crinkled pages, with my letters and notes folded and packed, with my severely constricted Mardi Gras costume box, with my parents smushed next to me in a small SUV– to head north for a new place. A new adventure. Carrying New Orleans with me, always, right here, in the tiny and sometimes big, recesses of my heart.

As they say down in the swamplands, “Laissez les bons temps rouler.”

Let the good times roll.

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