This time last year, I knew that I was leaving New Orleans. Yeah, New Orleans had been great and everything, but I felt stuck. I wanted to move to Portland and live near my sister, where it was always raining, no one danced in the streets, and plaid and moustaches were a dime a dozen. I'm from Portland, for the record; it's not like I just arbitrarily decided to move from an increasingly colonized white-hipster hotspot to the white-hipster mothership. I wanted to live closer to my family. (Also, sorry, but the coffee is just soooo much better there.)
I had a yearlong part-time teaching artist job lined up on a limited contract, so I felt like this would be the perfect opportunity to gear up to leave. I was sort of dating this guy I was completely in love with long distance -- we visited each other and had sex; it was not monogamous -- and he agreed to move to Portland too. (Let's call him Brian; he comes up again.) Everything was all set up. This was it. This was the end of this chapter.
I have always liked thinking about life in chapters. I like breaking events and time periods into manageable chunks that can be titled, judged, and placed squarely on a shelf labeled "The Story of My Life." I also enjoy predictable literary symmetry. Examples: "The First Boyfriend" chapter of my life begins and ends at The Northwest Children's Theater; "The Insomnia Chapter" has a recurring looking-at-the-clock theme that comes up at the top of the chapter and has a different meaning at the close; "The Chapter Where I Am A Baby" is launched with a car trip from a hospital and finishes with a car trip to a gas station (that's the least interesting chapter, but I wasn't thinking like a writer back then). I'm sure I think this way because the apex of my life as a reader came when I was thirteen, and my understanding of narrative arc has not really evolved since then.
In 2008, when I stepped out of my car and into New Orleans for the first time, I recognized immediately that I'd made a terrible mistake. This was definitely not where I was supposed to be. I had diverted from a promising lifelong path of becoming a journalist, and had disrupted the best relationship I had ever been in (it was with Brian -- yes the same Brian) to relocate to this swampy dystopia? Had I lost my mind?
I hated everything about New Orleans. I spent my first six months here eating frozen pizzas, watching "Gilmore Girls" under the covers, and crying on the phone to Brian. Then Brian broke up with me, which was a good call on Brian's part, but felt like the end of the world to me. That night, I went to my first party in New Orleans. I went mostly because I was afraid that if I didn't leave my own house I was going to sprout mold from my pores. (The combination of endless crying, marshy air, and constant sedentary behavior can be toxic.)
The party was at this charming, quirky little house in Mid-City that belonged to a girl named Leah, and the people she invited were way cooler and classier than anyone I'd met in New Orleans so far. Leah had slaved over this lavish meal with grilled yucca root and cucumber-lime-coconut ice cream, and everyone there mingled like real-life grown ups. I got drunk within ten minutes. The only thing I really remember from this party was that I was wearing a Greek-style navy blue summer dress I'd bought in New York, and that there was another girl at the party wearing exactly the same dress. I remember she walked up to me to point out the coincidence, and I responded by saying, "WHAT AM I DOING HERE?! BRIAN BROKE UP WITH ME! WHAT'S THE POINT OF BEING ALIVE!?!?!? I HAVE NO DIRECTION!!!!!" The girl -- whose name was Karaline -- whisked me out to the deck and held me while I cried into the folds of her (matching) skirt.
At that point, you couldn't have convinced me I was going to finish the year in New Orleans, much less stay for six more. I had no idea that I would end up living in that house with Leah, or that Karaline would meet us (and another girl named Hannah) for dinner every Wednesday night, where we'd gossip and laugh like we were a younger, weirder-looking parody of "Sex in the City" ("Girls" wasn't a show yet, so it felt more like "Sex in the City"). Honestly, that first night at the party, I was secretly plotting my exit; sure I could get back to the Pacific Northwest where things made sense and my path was still waiting for me.
There is something beautiful about living your last year in a place. You say yes more often; you make a point to enjoy things that you might long for after you leave. It was pouring the coldest, heaviest rain this year on Mardi Gras Day, and any other year I would have stayed inside and skipped it. But it was going to be my last Mardi Gras, so I put on my rain gear and got on my bike. Adventurous people still danced to the insistent brass bands in the street, while their painted-on faces and crepe paper costumes melted into the wet cement. I've never experienced anything so beautiful and strange.
But as sure about leaving as I was, the year started taking some unexpected turns. A creative project I'd been working on and had hoped to take with me to Portland abruptly collapsed, and with it several friendships I never imagined would end. I loved Brian (yes, the same Brian; we had started seeing each other again, after four years apart), but we didn't live in the same city and weren't great over the phone. Plus, we were both dating other people, and I got this sense that Brian didn't really want to move across the country to potentially get involved in a very serious, grown-up type of relationship. I think he wanted to want it. But his heart was somewhere else.
Meanwhile, being a teaching artist was better than I'd imagined, and the organization I worked for told me they wanted to keep me on another year. I told them that I was very flattered, but I was moving to Portland. They wanted to know why I was moving to Portland. I searched my brain for an answer, but I couldn't find one that made sense. This is supposed to be the end of this chapter. This is how this part of my life ends. I just feel like that is how it should go. Isn't that enough?
The realization that I wasn't going to move wasn't joyful, and it wasn't devastating. It wasn't difficult, and it didn't have an air of finality. It was simple. I was in the bath, and, with the same brutal sureness I had felt a year ago that it was time to leave, I knew all at once that it wasn't. Just like that: I am staying here. In the past, "staying here" has felt triumphant. This time, it felt mundane. It felt obvious.
That was in April. Since then, everything has felt slightly off. I told Brian I was staying in New Orleans, and he said that he had decided not to move to Portland either. I told my parents I was staying in New Orleans, and they said that was a financially responsible choice. I told my roommates I was staying in New Orleans, and they said they'd expected as much. So what was the lesson? What did I get out of this year? What was I supposed to learn? What kind of a weird, lopsided, never-ending chapter was this exactly?
On Saturday, I put on the navy blue summer dress I had worn to the first party I went to in New Orleans. I never wear it anymore because it has stretched out and now it hangs too low on me, but I like how cool and breezy it feels. I thought I'd wear it with a fancy bra underneath and see if I could pull it off. That night, I did an improv set at the comedy theater that has come to have myriad bittersweet personal connotations in the past year. After a tepid performance for an audience whose numbers were in the single digits, I decided I needed a drink. That's a rarity for me; I hate bars, and I'm not a drinker, but I ran into a friend who wanted to catch up after the show, and I thought, "Why not?"
The bar was loud and smoky; four straw-thin blonde girls danced at the front of the room like they were the only people at Coachella. I ordered a gin and tonic -- a drink I think I only like because Brian liked it and I wanted him to think I had good taste in alcohol (which I don't -- I truly can't differentiate any of it). And then, about ten minutes into my unexpected bar visit, who should walk into the bar, but my friend Karaline.
She was wearing the very same navy blue dress.
This is the kind of literary symmetry I dream of. Had this been my last year in New Orleans, I could have written about all the things I learned since the first time we wore those dresses. I could have said something like, "We've changed so much, but we haven't changed at all." Man. That would've been amazing. It would've been narrative gold.
But I'm not moving, and this is not the end. Karaline came to the table, we laughed about the dresses, she kissed me on the cheek, and then flitted off into another room to play ping pong with her friends. And I went home, frustrated that I didn't know what any of this meant; annoyed that my path was so different than I'd thought it would be.
There is something beautiful about living your last year in a place. I went to Belize with my co-worker Carrie and dove into kite-blue water in November to look at fish that resembled fungi and fungi that resembled aliens. I wouldn't have gone if I hadn't thought it was my last chance to go. I'd have missed the men building their homes out of spindly banana trees. I'd have missed the oozing reggae radio stations seeping under the cracks of taco stands.
My sister and I were talking about boy stuff on GChat (because, obviously), and she sent me this Rilke quote. When we were talking about boys, I didn't think much of it; Rilke has no place in gossip. But after I saw Karaline in the blue dress at the bar, something told me I should return to it. At 2 a.m., I looked it up:
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
For the first time in my life, I realized that the literature of our lives is not necessarily linear. The symmetry is augmented; there are answers that manifest themselves years down the line, decades after you've forgotten the question. There is no neat bow that can be tied around anything; there are no endings.
There is only now. "Live the questions now." There is something so beautiful about living your last year in a place. As this one comes to a close, I am moving forward with a new intention: to live my questions just as they are, as fully as I can, as though I might leave at any moment. I want to have each experience with new eyes, with appreciation, with a sense of adventure, with the wisdom of the journey. I wish to live as though this is always the end, and always the beginning. Who is to say that it isn't?