What’s Not There
There is a man who stands at the door. You don’t know him.
It’s night, a peculiar venue. Why is this man standing at your door? You thought you saw a shadow earlier, creeping around the house, the black top of a bare head rising briefly outside the window when you were in the bathroom. Now you are awake, you can’t sleep. Thoughts are too crammed and coalesced in your mind for rest to be found with any immediacy. Instead, your thoughts are free to wander, for the fear to abate, for possible scenarios to come through your head like a movie reel with no ending.
You’re probably not going to answer the door. The man is too strange. You peek out the window. The lights are on in your house. The man must know you’re awake. He must still be waiting there. But why so late? What could his business possibly be?
No one is there. The porch light is on, illuminating an empty doorstep. You check again, leaning forward in your seat, checking the corners where someone could hide. Light floods the porch; combined with the streetlight right across the street, it’s brighter than the day out there. Someone could hide in the shadows of your porch. There is a small brick patio with lawn furniture, a few chairs and a glass-topped table for your neighbor to entertain his Turkish family and friends. But you don’t want to check. You’re naked anyway, too vulnerable. The night is too hot. Even the air conditioning has you off guard for a moment, a sneeze that gives you pause.
I wonder who the man was…
The feeling when you wake up in the middle of the night to make love and you’re not smoking a cigarette right afterward. It’s been a few years since that habit was indulged. Or maybe last summer.
You’re awake, a whale, lolling about on the sands in your living room, the cool breeze from the ceiling fan above ruffling your face and you’re smiling your bright whale smile, alive and well. The air is cool, the air is the water you swim in, and you wake up enthusiastic for breakfast in the morning and singing with a soft moaning deep in your throat in this class called Community Kirtan, where the leader sings out and you sing back, waves of sound that ascend, like the wind is rising, echo through the room painted blue among you, among the people, the harmonium, harrr-mo-niiiz-ing to the sound of Lokah Samastah Sukinoh Bhavantu, and it’s a rock concert to the gods of the East, Hare Krishna, Jai Radhe, Govinda Radhe, Om Gum Ganapati Namaha. You’re singing to the elephants and the blue skinned boy who jams on his flute, and all the pretty ladies with their lovely eyes outlined in kohl and the stars are dancing on their faces in joy. And the beautiful men too. Everyone is beautiful in the East. You the whale are singing, floating in the sea, you don’t even have to move, just swaying. Just feeling this quiet joy in your heart, the knowledge of being happy when you sing.
Karaoke, when you don’t drink, can be liberating, not quite like stepping from a cliff. (And did you know, karaoke means “empty orchestra” in Japanese? No orchestra, no live components except you, the only living thing up there? No one but you and the voice you sing with.)
It’s evening, a few months ago when you’re out with these strangers from out of town who know your friend in Portland, and out you go, out out out, catching rides with strangers courtesy of a handy addicting new app called Uber (and you used to think it was a purple taxi service). There’s a sake and sushi bar Uptown off by Oak Street, around the corner there you are.
Well shit, what do you sing? Usually it’s a sad song, or a love song. It goes perfect with the theme for the evening; there are a few jocks in attendance with their equally sporty girly sidekicks (or girlfriends), a lonely disgruntled couple seated in a booth near the front door that plan on leaving in a minute, and then you and your two friends. You’ve been getting along well, old chums from the same can. They’re not too enthused about karaoke, wincing at the three-minute diva up there pouring out her heart into a Madonna re-rendition “Like A Virgin.” Still, you’re excited. Encouragement enough. No booze to get your throat open for the right and left-wingers.
What’s the theme again? What are you going to sing?
You sit there at the open end of the booth, cheering on the three girls that have gone up in neon track garb to sing “If you wanna be my lover you’ve gotta get with my friends. (Something..) friendship never eeeennnds.” And that’s the way it is. I can see you’re torn. Scared to make a fool of yourself, that you’ll be too soft or sound tone deaf to your discriminating audience, or fuck it, get off your bum and sing us a song tonight because we already feel alright.
“Are you going to sing a song?” Toni asks, chomping on that Spicy Edamame across the table. This guy – he is one of the most loving and lovable people you will ever meet. He should be the definition for Love in the dictionary. He’s not from around here, moved into town around the same time Monica came here from Ohio. She sits next to you, darling “wife” and dear friend. Toni’s got big, poofy brown hair that curls and explodes around his face and hangs past his shoulders. He also rocks belly shirts, even when his is hanging out and free. He’s not bothered by it, and he’s wearing a sweater since it’s cold tonight.
“You should go up there to sing a song if you really want to,” he says.
“Y’all want to sing with me?” you joke, grinning.
He leans back in his seat, glancing at the disgruntled bartenders who’ve had to deal with this all night. “Well, not that I have anything against it, but I’ll decline. It’s really not my thing.”
Monica shakes her head. “Yeah. You can go up there if you want to though. We’ll cheer for you here,” she says. Gives a smile, glad that it’s you and not her willing to put yourself out on a shoestring.
You keep turning your head around, back between them and the stage, smiling and self conscious.
Monica giggles, taking a sip of your beer. Deliberating. You go up to the bar, where there’s a computer with a mouse, old school Windows 98, no keyboard or touchscreen so the name of a song or artist has to be put in one mouseclick at a time, and Monica’s at your shoulder, going over names with you, and she and Toni have given you a song to sing, a request from them, and now’s your time and your nerves are twisting your stomach up for you, but you sip your beer, your hand shaking, and you go up to exchange the cool glass for a microphone to put your lips to.
It’s Goodbye Earl by the Dixie Chicks. Your ears are red, your face is heating up by degrees, you’re not sure if anyone can hear you since you can’t hear your own voice over the speakers, but you sing anyway, waving your body around like a buoy rocking on the waves after a ship has passed by, your right hand glued to the microphone because you’re afraid the sweat will cause it to zooop right out of your hands, but you’re singing it out, up there on that tiny stage with the lights not quite in your face.
Your eyes glance between Toni and Monica giving you thumbs up at the booth, the drunk group near the bar looking like they actually enjoy your singing, and even your server, who Toni has cheered up since y’all sat down, is smiling. You feel kind of stupid, but you love it, it’s so cheesy.
“Let’s go out to the laaake Eaaarlll
We’ll pack a lunch! And stuuuuuff you iin the truuunnk Earll, hey!”
And for a grand finale, before the night is over, a triple duet –
“A whole neeew world! A dazzling place I never kneeew!
But when I’m waay up here, it’s crystal cleear, that now I’m in a whole new world with youuu.”
You’re helping the drunker tongues who can’t keep a tune by singing both parts, sometimes simultaneously, sometimes laughing, while Toni and Monica look ready to leave (after we finish that spicy edamame though).
Then the music is gone, the night is dripping in sweat, and we’re walking along Frenchmen Street. It’s a hot summer evening, the less you wear the better. There’s a different tune playing tonight, spilling out from the bars along this one section that seems to be overflowing with the effluence of tourists. They come in their summer dresses, cut off at the ankle or the knee; black is a popular shade of darkness, orange and red, deep blues, gold. Clanging jewelry, large purses, strapless, plunging off the breasts of the women who walk by, their heels as high as cliffs, about to fall over, they have to keep walking so as to not fall face first to the pavement, the concrete with the piss and vomit of these bent tourists, couples and groups, and the water that fell, rain that cleaned the streets for a while, left things smelling great before people came out again in their numbers to stride back and forth, crowding the sidewalks.
You walk along in the late evening, around ten thirty at night, alone, dressed against whatever going out code there is for everyone else: no dresses, no skirts, toe shoes that keep you pressed to the earth, an old t shirt with a videogame logo and jean shorts, loose hair falling over your shoulders and sweat, since the night is hot and the air is dense with the water that coalesces and you can’t keep it off of you no matter how many showers you take.
You’re looking for someone, but you don’t want to admit it.
Through the crowds you walk with a blank stare, not quite stony, observing, watching with a keen eye, swiping your gaze back and forth for one familiar face out of a whole ocean. You’re not swimming, you’re diving through these throngs, searching for a teardrop that was mixed in with the rain. You’re not expecting to find much. Instead you feel a hole in your gut, there’s a leak inside of you and you’re bleeding onto the street, walking along like it’s nothing, rubbing your stomach because it hurts a little, but otherwise you pretend not to notice, mostly forget about it, even the wetness that slides down your leg. The night is steamier than your blood.
There are seven or eight clubs on this street; the Apple Barrel, the Spotted Cat, Blue Nile, Bamboula’s, Vaso… You’re checking them all with your blank face and your faraway eyes. You’re a neutral. There’s jazz, rock and roll, rollicking good music, the sounds filling up the tiny one roomed bars, and at the Spotted Cat, wow what a crowd! It’s packed with people, and the musicians are scrunched into a corner right in front of the window, and the trumpet is singing and careening all over the place at the top of its lungs, and you watch the drummer counting the beat and looking at the player with peace of mind and pride, being there in the moment with his band, his brothers, and you are separate, outside looking through the glass…
He’s not there. He’s not anywhere.
There’s a flatness in the air all around you. You find it hard to find inspiration to do anything… You turn around, looking down the street, and in the crowd inside of the Apple Barrel, sitting at the bar, you take pause, and a kind of shock comes over you, and a great sadness… Someone turns, someone you know only too well, and you feel your heart beat quicken with a sudden jerk, skewered, and the blood is coming faster now, roaring in your ears, and you walk in jerky motions to the doorkeep sitting on a stool, praying that you haven’t been seen, and praying that you have… Walk past the guitar player and the drummer, who both look at you with expressions of tiredness, of a sort of misery and dejection born from their line of work, hustling, and always tired, on edge, wondering if they’re going to make enough in the three short hours between now and closing time… You glance by, and you see them, seeing you, and what can you say? “I’m sorry”?
You walk past, feeling as though time has slowed down considerably, as though a crack has opened and you might break if you walk a step further. You saw Jon at the bar, your old “flame,” really an ex boyfriend. You loved him dearly, but it was a downhill fight. Tears are waiting in your eyes, ready to bust down the door and pour down your cheeks. You weren’t expecting this, one shock to the heart after you already had your heart broken so soon.
Things quiet down in your hearing and you see the face of Jon turned towards you, holding a beer in his hand, about to take a sip, and he pauses, solemn in his gaze, remote in his acknowledgement of you. You pause at the doorway, taken aback by his eyes, which you’d forgotten for a while – light blue like a clear sky in your dreams, with green like the light turf of a childhood summer – and he puts down the beer, raising a hand to you, open palmed, a wave. Farewell? What? No.. You want to run right up to him, grasp his hand and hold it down, keep him there to ask what the hell is he doing here? But you’re too stunned and then you take a step, then another, and there’s a wasteland between you, nothing but dying grass and decaying hands that peek through the earth, and you want to cry out to him! But it’s too late, and you watch as someone passes in front of him, and he’s gone. The seat is empty, and you are left feeling emptier, bereft, and helpless.
You realize your hand is held out in supplication, and the musicians are giving you a weird look, wondering if you’re on something, yet there might be a hint of empathy in their looks, but you turn away, too embarrassed to look them in the eye as you turn away and you turn right around and walk out of that place, a hand up to your face as you struggle against the tears starting to fall down your face like bricks from a crumbling house, and you begin to run, down the street, past the gazelles in their short black dresses and their hooves of varying height walking hesitantly and appalled at one another, their beaus taking up the rear because they couldn’t keep up with their audacious gaits, ready to go and get angry by the end of a shitfaced night. It’s in everyone’s face as you walk by them, even when you can’t look them directly in the eye; shared tensity, not altogether comfortable as they needed to move, keep moving, keep going, and something ugly and treacherous stirs beneath their attempts at easiness with the drinking and the music, but no one looks really happy. Just unhappy trying to get happy.
You end up at Walgreen’s that night, walking down the street, walking past a woman singing in a deep rough voice, like the rocks along the Mississippi River; “I don’t need a husband, to tell me what to do.” She was still singing when you came back and got your bike. The French Quarter is too uncomfortable at night to stick around for long. There’s no fun, just a few familiar faces and a deep stirring that tells you to go home, but you ignore it.
“Bitch where were you when I was walkin’?”
You were walking with your bike down Decatur, ducking into Walgreen’s for some cigarettes to smoke in Jackson Square. Maybe your friend the fortune teller is there, and he’ll let you play on his phone again while he throws quips at the ladies with their purses clutched tight to their naked thighs, trying to induce them into finding out about their love lives or their futures in mainstream society. These bullshitters ride by every night in their high heels, and you don’t know how to feel about them. You serve coffee to people like this and sometimes they surprise you with a bit of their personality that instantly warms you to them or makes you want to back up to the wall to keep away from their artificial venom and their need for that number one drug that keeps the whole world running on a clock that ticks too fast. Nothing will stop the need or the craving.
You want to keep it simple, just some cigarettes, a need to give in the to the vice since you feel like you are out of your skin and pretty and alone tonight. You’re not the master of reality, not feeling slick while listening to Panda Bear through your tiny headphones, which you take out so you can talk to the cashier while you hand over the money to buy a death you can control. That’s how a friend put it once.
Dazed, wandering around the aisles, wasting time walking at an exaggerated pace to glance at the things sold in a department store like this. Some shit’s at a discount, like the Valentine’s Day candy and St. Patrick’s decorations near the front of the store. There’s also small space heaters you wish you’d had back in February when the bathroom was an icebox at 6:30 am while you took a shower. They sell the heavier booze at the front, and beer alongside the Gatorade and Coke in the cold fridges. The other isles are full of every day utilities; questionable supplements you have no interesting in buying but will look over anyway, foot pads and creams, joint aches, candy, packaged food you remember buying when you were in college, postcards and t-shirts, one piece summer dresses, bagged snacks, kitchen implements, beauty supplies, hair ties and brushes, toothpicks, hair combs, eyelash curlers, cuticle fixers, hair dye, tabloids, newspapers, magazines, art supplies, notebooks which you can’t help but pour over, pens and paper clips, water bottles and other charming accessories, travel supplies, miniature sized, cigarettes and batteries, car chargers and wall plugs, phone cases, more candy. (Please, why more candy?)
You get the cigarettes at check-out, pay the tired woman behind the counter who probably wishes for better places, and say a quick thank-you when she good-byes you; “Thank you for coming to Walgreens.” You want to leave now; it’s late, and the later things get, the shadier people seem, and you see the homeless vagabonds and so-called bums sleeping on street corners and on the steps of businesses, setting up camp while you’re on your way, feeling a faint sense of guilt when you see them, but you smoke your cigarette and keep on passing through, a guest really, no more a part of this town since you’re a transplant; but this fucked up place with so much life and dirt, fallen stars and gritty teeth, seeking their start in the French Quarter, seeking a place elsewhere in the solace of this city that claims its own, and it has claimed you for a reason, whether you like it all the time or not is not your choice, and you live here because this is where your heart, and even though there is darkness there is also a light here that guides you, so you can’t feel down for too long before something else will take you by surprise, whip you off your chair and onto the street, pull your hair and wow you with its infinite ability to constantly fucking amaze you, cause life does that, and where you live has a role in your life, and New Orleans fucking took your pants off and now here you are, struggling to keep those pants on and to take a deep breath at the same time, but life is breathless here.
The first time you stood in this city, taking it in for what it was, you were drunk and clasping at a balcony rail, gripping it like it was the only solid thing in your life, and you were smoking a cigarette and it was in your hand, half gone like the the night and the sweeping beauty of the life below, and you were talked to on three sides, keeping track of your drink and where you deposited your ash at the same time, intoxicated by the air and the people, the drink an added bonus since you were underage and a guest, and how the hell were you so lucky? But you looked down on a guy dressed in black below smoking and whistling to himself, and you wondered what the song was, and you were smiling at yourself because hell, this could be your town and someone said you were like a local already.
And then you lean too far, off the rail, the balcony rail broke, and you clasp it in your hand, holding it as you fall to the street, and you’re falling into the street, and there’s a parade below, Mardi Gras floats skimming by on an ocean of people intoxicated with the unreality of it, and they’re throwing shoes at you in gold and glitter, a stream of beads that threaten to drown you in the wash of unending color, and you’re alone while you fall…
It’s like a river that won’t stop its course. And you were straining to hold yourself back, hold back the loneliness, holding back yourself. Now there’s damming those feelings, and you let loose in a torrent, finally letting go…
© 2015 Christina Lissfelt