The goodbye party at the lake is going exceptionally well. The lake was chosen because it’s outside and big and there’s always space, and if you’re brave you can go swimming. ("If you’re brave" because the city regularly advises against people swimming there; Lake Pontchartrain is dirty, and every once in a while someone dies in it for reasons that can’t be explained.) There is watermelon, a summery tape playing on a “Do The Right Thing”-inspired boombox, and an inflatable dolphin. It’s hot, but the shade and the breeze off the lake makes the heat tolerable. The people who have come — and there are lots — are people you love. You’re standing by the grill (green peppers and rings of onion are softening slowly over white coal) when someone you once kissed in a tree asks: “What have you been doing with your last few days in New Orleans?"
You have mostly been ignoring that they are your last few days in New Orleans. You have been saying, “I’ll be back in two years, don’t worry.” You have been believing yourself, although one never knows. It’s nice to make plans: this is why people get engaged, or buy houses, or discuss getting dogs.
You say, “I don’t know, actually!” You flip the yellow squash at the edge of the grill that’s gotten black underneath. “Someone will eat this, right?”
Then, the thunder clouds in the distance that have been quietly whispering threats all afternoon make a decision: they roll in rather than out. The people swimming in the lake feel it first: comical little waves get quickly serious, crashing like they are under the influence of an invisible tide. Everyone at the party pretends it is cool — even beautiful — although mostly they know how New Orleans weather can be cool and beautiful and simultaneously scary. You remember when you stood outside in a hurricane once and felt little bits of oak tree lacerate your thighs in the wind.
What have you been doing with your last days in New Orleans? Shouldn’t you have been climbing the shady trees with Spanish moss and watching cormorants and ibises? Shouldn’t you have been licking powdered sugar off of plates in places where men who do a mean Louis Armstrong are a dime a dozen? You have been packing boxes and watching cartoon reruns.
Everyone packs up the party frantically. Your underwear gets thrown in with oily-hot grill tongs and an open plastic bottle of bubbles. People run down to the car and muscle everything in: “This was fun! We’re gonna go!” The guests who rode bikes throw them in someone’s truck. Everyone quickly, privately makes plans. In the end, you are by the lake with three stragglers; the wind rolls the grass like a player piano. The rain starts. You throw a flamingo-pink water balloon at a red-lipped girl in a white bikini, because you’re not ready to leave yet, and lately you’ve been hanging on to things you would otherwise let go.
A fraction of the crowd makes it to the rain location: your boyfriend’s sister’s house in Gentilly. (You are moving to Chicago with your boyfriend! You’ve always wanted to move with a boyfriend. Now, finally, you are at an age at which you can move with a boyfriend and people don’t think you’re making a huge mistake. Or, if they do, they’re not telling you anymore, because everyone has learned to let people make the mistakes they need to make in order to grow up.) People sit on the front and back porches trying to drink through all the beer.
What have you been doing with your last days in New Orleans? Why didn’t you call more of these people you love? Here they all are now, and you don’t even know what to say to them. Someone has had a baby since you last saw her; someone else has gotten engaged. And while love is patient, it is a participation-based sport. You can’t say you’re playing if you’re not on the field.
After everyone has left, you try to scrub chunks of sausage out of the cast iron pan someone used to cook it. You haven’t eaten sausage, ever — you’re one of those finicky, die-hard vegetarians who keeps clinging to the cause against logic — but it smells terrific, and you like the way it turns the water in the sink the color of rust. Given enough time and space, you have always loved washing dishes. It is a small act of change that requires repetition and lets you be near water. The sausage is stubborn. You scrub for twenty minutes.
It is while you are scrubbing that you start to cry. You’ve been wanting to cry. You have been telling people that you are lately a creme brûlée: all you need is a good whack from a spoon to come caving in; there’s plenty of mush just beneath the surface. It’s been some time since you’ve really cried like this, and it hurts your eyes in a way that you sort of like; like sweat finally coming after an hour of moving boxes in winter.
You begin the great undertaking of remembering. There was that Tuesday night Okkervil River concert before you knew the names of the neighborhoods; and regular Wednesday dinners with three girls whom had never seen “Sex In The City” and liked Mediterranean food. There have been three houses, and two cats.
There was the downstairs neighbor uptown who let you watch her dog while she was in Chicago, and the hurricane came while she was gone, and the dog died of a heart attack. Then later you washed her tiled kitchen counters to try to make up for what nature took from her, and a baby rat wormed onto your toe, eyes not even open yet. You kept the rat in a pencil case with holes in the top and tried to feed it milk and keep it warm, because you thought that if you could keep it alive, that would somehow indicate that everything was going to be alright. When it died, you kept it until maggots came to eat its belly.
You watched yourself fall in love. You fell in love a lot. Your brain makes a list, which plays through like a slide show at a cheesy graduation party: the man who brought you an orchid neither of you could take care of; the man who visited from Portland and blended watermelon and mint in the food processor on hot afternoons in July; the one you made toast and honey for when he couldn’t sleep (and he often couldn’t, but you wanted to sleep by him anyway); the one whose house you slept at when it snowed because yours was too cold and he had a squirrelly kitten; the man who taught you about Greek tragedies, and who you let keep a drawer of things in your room; the man you wrote long e-mails to and lost sleep over and whose heels you touched with your toes under public tables. And then there were people you wanted to love, but were too afraid to, because in New Orleans you learned that you get to decide how much love hurts; you make a choice early on, and you have to know that if you let yourself sink into it, eventually it’s going to rip you apart.
That made you think of your roommates, whom you loved unconditionally. There were dinners every Thursday night punctuated by quiet handholding that looked like prayer, and complex salads with a rotating cast of greens and seeds. These always dragged out for hours in luxurious stretches, with the conversation turning over and over like movements in an orchestra. You bring up for yourself the night you felt like you were going to die and drank a bottle of flavored vodka and broke a lawn chair; your roommates picked you up and climbed into your bed and watched TV with you, and that was the moment you understood love as something impossible to break into pieces, if a person is lucky enough to truly find it.
What have you been doing with your last few days in New Orleans? Now you are crying, simply, in someone else's kitchen. This was what you wanted: the space to sit and remember just the things you remembered, without needing to make sense of them. Your boyfriend’s sister comes in, and then your boyfriend, and you stop crying, and you know it is time to leave. At some point, you have to leave.
On the porch, over a final cigarette (everyone else is gone now, and you will be gone soon, too), your boyfriend pulls out an issue of this old literary magazine called “Nkombo,” which his sister has been holding on to. It was published in June 1974; it’s the last issue. He tells you that “nkombo” is the word that is the origin of the English word “gumbo.” The journal has poems and essays by people you’ve met while you’re here, whose wisdom still stretches across the city, even as the city has changed. He reads the first lines of an editor letter by Kalamu Ya Salaam: “There is no eternal anything except, of course, change.”
You don’t say anything, because those are just the words you needed, and you want them to hang there like ghosts of light, for as long as you can hold the echo.