by Renato Barucco
He never felt safe on those banks, where the river ran at its deepest, at its fastest. Yet, there he was, a somber tribute before the bash. The wind smelled of saltwater. Low clouds subdued the late afternoon light, covering the land in gray hues. A tropical storm was maybe on its way, maybe not. The city was sweaty and wet and luscious.
“It’s easy to disappear here,” she’d once told him, her mouth full of beignet dipped in Irish coffee. She’d loved it there, an affinity rooted in something other than their drunken weekends. The empty streets and their shadows, jambalaya and magic, the jazz and the blues and the soul. She’d ended up in there, in the river. He didn’t know that for sure, of course, but where else?
Her parents would call next Wednesday. “Did you look for her?” they’d ask, as always. He’d lie. He knew she was gone, but he neither had the guts nor the reasons to confess his inkling. They still made the trek three times a year with a bunch of flyers in their carry-ons. Missing. People who vanished the way she did never came back. He’d given up on his best friend a long time ago. All he could do now was visit the river to salute her before losing his mind in the arms of strangers.
She wasn’t meant for New Orleans. The city followed foreign rules. Her Brooklyn assets were liabilities. Fearlessness registered as imprudence, weakness. She was too bold, too daring. She confronted the catcaller, the manspreader, the junkie, the boomboxer. Her head was high, a constant furrow in her brow. In New York, if someone dared to come for her, she would get louder. They’d see the fire in her eyes and let it go. People wouldn’t allow a woman to pull those numbers elsewhere. That’s how she’d ended up in the river. Again, he didn’t know for sure.
Another wind gust, another splash. He heard someone yelling obscenities somewhere behind him, the hoarse voice of a man. He looked over his shoulder, electricity in his spine. An empty can of beer rolled down the concrete stairs. Someone laughed, a mad chuckle. A person sat on the wall at the edge of the park. Who wears a hoodie in this weather? He knew that place wasn’t safe. His cowardice came with rewards. He’d paid his respects. It was time to party.
He stopped by the bar of a hotel off Canal Street for a whiskey, then another, then one to go. Disinhibition was a requirement for partying like he meant it, and alcohol was the substance for the job. The French Quarter drowned in the queerness of the Southern Decadence tsunami. He walked through the crowds for a couple of blocks, then deviated to a side street and into a store that sold magic. Inside, the humid air met the smoke of the smudge sticks, making it hard to breathe. Still, the shelves of talismans, potions, and voodoo dolls had an unexpected, soothing effect on him. The whiskey went to his head then, a mellow high that reddened his cheeks and warmed his heart.
A woman in a pair of bright red flats examined a drawer full of stuffed dolls as if her life depended on them, and maybe it did.
“Which one should I get?” she said.
He turned around to make sure she was talking to him. She was.
“What’s it for?” he asked. It was for a benign love ritual. By hanging it in the doorway and projecting her desires onto it, the doll would drag her soulmate home. To him, that sounded like a threat, but the woman was ecstatic at the prospect.
“I know nothing about love,” he said. “You should pick. It’s for the best.” He smirked.
She shuddered and chose a doll in a blue dress. He could tell by the fervor in her eyes that her dream would come true.
On his way out, the store owner, an older lady in sunglasses, stopped him. She leaned on her cane and pointed at the well behind him, at the row of tiny, red bottles on the shelf, each with a handwritten label that said Love Potion and a golden tag listing essential directions. (Warm the bottle in the palm of your hands. Shake it well. Pour it at moonlight.) He chuckled. He could do without love potions or even love. But the expressive wrinkles of the store owner moved him, so he handed over twenty bucks and put one of the bottles in the front pocket of his shorts.
He met the guys at a diner. He hadn’t seen them in months. They all arrived from different corners of the country and different walks of life, their friendship held together by the slippery cement of gayness and masculinity. He got there late, carrying a to-go cup he picked up along the way. His flimsy yellow tank top stuck to his chest, drenched in sweat and rain, covered in glitter. He had dozens of beads around his neck. The diner consisted of a long, skinny room packed with people, not his people. A look was all it took for the waitress to realize he was joining the party on the second floor. He found his friends sitting on a corner bench under a Saint Andrew’s Cross in a poorly lit room that resembled a torture chamber. They’d picked up acquaintances and strangers along the way. They all looked alike under the red lights — beards, chests, biceps, dilated pupils. They didn’t notice him right away. He stood at the top of the stairs, trying to discern who was who. He’d been in that room before. He’d been there with her the year she disappeared.
He ordered a burger, which arrived just as the guys got restless, eager to join the crowds in the streets. The meat tasted of smoke and blood. Whiskey went down like water, and from that moment, the alcohol in his system hit the center of his brain, filtering the world through an opaque glaze of confusion that softened the hugs and the laughs, the cold bench against his thighs, the music from the speakers. (Beggars Banquet by the Stones.)
“It’s getting bad out there. I heard they are canceling flights,” said one of the guys.
They walked toward the gay bars on Bourbon, finding all sorts of excuses to pause along the way. At an intersection, a drag queen directed traffic with a whistle and a fan, almost intimidating in her precarious heels. Makeup ran down her cheeks like tears of joy.
He saw them then — the “Jesus people,” as he called them, an imprecise nickname. As far as he saw it, those folks had nothing to do with Jesus. They congregated in the middle of the street in matching t-shirts, a compact dozen standing shoulder to shoulder like bison fighting off wolves. They held signs and spewed chants. HOMOSEX IS SIN. ABOMINATION! YOU’RE GOING TO HELL — the usual repertoire. Their megaphone could barely rise above the pop music. People danced around them, kissed in front of them, flashed them body parts, then kept on celebrating away from their maledictions. The Jesus people were part of the package, like the humidity, the heat, the cheap booze, the storm. Yet, the echo of their words lasted longer in his ears that evening. Their signs stung deeper.
A knot formed in his stomach and slowed him down. He told the guys he’d catch up later. He felt like crying but didn’t. He leaned against the column of a double gallery. Forgotten fragilities from the past flooded his mind — his days as an altar boy, the catechism on Saturday afternoons, lents and advents and advents and lents. For the third time that day, she came to mind — the twelve interminable years at Saint Augustine, the school they attended, private and Catholic. She’d been his lifeline, holding him down, teaching him to let their words slide off his skin, for they were using God as an excuse to keep their world controllable, simple, irresolute. She’d smelled his future on him before he even knew how to picture one. And in general, she loathed people who twisted and cherry-picked passages from the scriptures to fit their minuscule world. In their hands, a forgiving father had become a hateful god, his promise of eternal empathy reduced to eternal damnation.
Something happened then. As he pictured her elbowing her way through the protesters, the ghost of her took hold of him. He walked in front of the Jesus people and stood there, his muscles lucid and fuming, the hint of a smile in the corner of his lips. He looked at each of them. Their chants grew louder. The flecks of spit out of their mouth mixed with the patchy drizzle. The only woman in the group laughed at his yellow tank top, at his beads. His eyes lingered on the man in the middle, a fellow his age with a tensed jaw and the word SAVED written on his forehead with a black marker.
“You’re going to hell,” the man told him. His voice wasn’t loud, but his aim was purposeful. The pop music and the chants faded away. The wind found its way under the yellow tank top, lifting it, but he didn’t shiver, didn’t move.
A minute of heavy rain dispersed partygoers and protesters. He and his nemesis remained.
“You’re going to hell,” the man said again. The tremor in his brow betrayed his conviction. The other protesters called on him to join them as they walked to the gay bars in search of more souls to admonish. The man took a step closer. They now stood face to face, at kissing distance.
“You’re going to hell,” he repeated, angry now, but our man, normally avoidant of confrontation, didn’t flinch, didn’t walk away. His smile gained conviction. Sweat and rain dripped on his beads.
“You’re wrong,” he finally said. “There’s no hell. Today is all we have.” The man blinked twice, then walked away shaking his head, a small man carrying on his shoulder the weight of a world without redemption.
He found his friends and lost them again. They danced on a metal platform on the street, feet like drumsticks. The faces of strangers formed a carpet of smiles in his mind. He ran into a friend he didn’t even know was there. They looked for the darkest bar they could find and played pool with a shirtless man who had only one nipple. The night ended at a party in a hotel room overlooking Bourbon Street. He poured himself a tall one and observed the crowds from above. The last drop of whiskey down his throat and the beautiful, flawed people below almost moved him to tears. He’d always known when it was time to call it a night. He left the room as quietly as he could, like a phantom.
He turned a couple of corners and found himself on a spectral street with no people and no music, only feeble streetlights and the shadows they cast. Thick with rain, the night clouds reflected the turmoil below, a silver hue. He paused at a corner to reorient himself. It was then that he heard someone whistling a familiar tune, “Nearer, My God, to Thee,” in sharp, prolonged notes. He checked his surroundings and saw no one. He walked faster, but the whistle followed him — the Jesus man coming for him, a beggar about to slash him for a couple of dollars, the ghost of her singing from beyond. It didn’t matter. He stumbled toward Canal Street with the blind determination of a man at peace with himself, high on life. At the traffic light, he put his hands in his pockets and found the love potion. He downed it. It tasted of cherry and bitters and syrup, sweet to a fault, comforting.
Photo credit: Doruk Yemenici