The stranglehold of Louisiana’s swamps chokes out the last desperate cry of Texas’s strip malls in a clean line along the border. The border is made of water, crossing it feels like a baptism, going in big and dry, then coming out in the furrowed bayous covered in Spanish moss. Gone are the cowboy churches and here come the little egrets trailing their cows. The swamp makes itself known before the strip malls trickle to the surface again, peppered by roadside Adult Superstores.
In the Goodwill an hour before closing, we find Smashmouth and Jessica Simpson on CD and add them to our rotation.
It seems appropriate that we are unable to stay in our own tent because the forests are flooded and the parks are too expensive, so we sleep in someone else’s tent in a backyard rented on AirBnb. The night is loud and long and full of back porch stories. Through cigarettes, joints, glasses of wine, the stories intertwine and top one another, sometimes seated, sometimes standing, with physical embellishments and bouts of laughter. There are more people than we’d been ready for.
“Welcome to the South!” “Welcome to the South!” “Welcome to the South!” She says it over and over as if we are mystified and folks sitting around drinking and swapping stories is a foreign experience for us. I feel as though we have been brought in for them to see their lives as a movie set. We wonder how many times they have each heard the stories they relay to us. Are these stories fascinating to them again, watched through our faces?
The chili is eaten, the music turned off on the bluetooth, on on the radio, then back to the bluetooth again, seeking the perfect song and settling for shuffle. It feels as though in everyone there is a tragedy prickling up behind a surface – like the noses of mosquitoes desperately poking through the mesh of a tent, searching for blood. When we retreat for bed, the party is winding down, everyone’s lungs wheezing, everyone’s body falling apart. Here it seems the underbelly of a life is not pushed down but accepted as part of the tangled root system above ground, mixed up in stories of getting lost with children led in a summer camp, or a video-game addicted son who can’t remember to take the dog for a walk, or the French AirBnb guests who are viewed from slatted windows as they take dips in the pool, or hog’s head cheese that we are told we would love if we came home drunk one night, or going around the table to say the best part of your day before beginning a meal, or an ex’s meat bikini show, or a date to a rodeo who ended up being in the rodeo, or a flood that took everything, or horror stories from the kitchen of a local restaurant, or laughter — always laughter.
But there is dust in the corners here, or maybe ghosts, and with the party always swinging, there are things in the shadows that get shapes without stories — plantations backgrounding every historical site, minstrel art hanging comfortably next to the encouragement to “Dance Like Nobody’s Watching,” the death of a loved one a month before, a cage of exotic animals to sell. There are things we don’t see and maybe aren’t ready for. We ask lots of questions but they are never the real ones. We are just the next float in a parade of guests staying in this house – a way to make money and feel excited and feel special. They see their southern-ness amplified in comparison to our Yankee-ness. Anything above I-10 is Yankee-Town they say.
We try to visit a swamp, but the only information there is about dead presidents and mid-century explorers, non-native species and manicured gardens. So we drive through, passing palms and flowers and statues taken from far away, crocodiles grinning lazily atop it all.
New Orleans is a different kind of swamp – the swamp we see is not of locals but of white gentrification and assumed ownership of place and boxes never unloaded. A swamp that can turn to quicksand for those that do not tread lightly.
We stay in a house full of students that could be anywhere: empty cans and rescued roots growing in jars, food splattering the stove, clumsy sex jokes, and the inevitable tip into debauchery. We drink shitty beers under lamplight and everyone is generous but vague, all the cups are plastic. A waiter keeps asking if we need anything like he wants us to leave, but assures us he’s just checking, it’s totally cool, just didn’t want to miss us. The hint is not subtle and we eventually take it.
New Orleans is tired like Vegas but with a history rooted in something real. An old soul with a youthful, self-destructive streak. A city with a shelf life for newcomers because of what they believe it is before they even know it. Spanish moss a veil over pain, displacement, rebuilding.
We think we are out of the swamp in the downtown, until I step in a foul puddle and my foot and shoe smell rank even after I wash it in the sink of a café. Memories and feelings and trains of thought flooded back as soon as I stepped into this place and the only thing that helps is running.
I buy beer and pickles down the block, I eat pepper jelly and homemade gumbo z’herbes, and I fall asleep on the couch mid-nature-doc, padding to the porch for coffee as the sun comes up and fills the gaping hole in the street in front of the house.
Leaving, we drive the bridge across Lake Pontchartrain and I think it is the loneliest place in the world. The way I sometimes feel at parties. Let us go in nature to be with god. And let us throw a party to be in heaven. Let us never leave the party to never question the heaven and never question the god.