America was two things for me. It was New Orleans and San Francisco. It was stray cats rustling through the grass of abandoned lots. It was a dog leashed to every homeless man. It was oaks that leaned their branches to the ground, beckoning. It was stairs set in the abstract inclines of city streets. Dust between my toes. Cold summer wind on my cheeks. Raw brass. City preachers. Vomiting bile on the footpath before I presented my conference paper. Setting out without purpose and always finding new parks to write in. Waking up in his bed like normal, going back to the hostel and hearing that Bin Laden had been killed. A poster on the BART that heralded the apocalypse the next day.
It was him.
It was her.
I was a year or so out of a serious relationship that had been an engagement at one point. I had left two lovers back home, one of six months and one of far less. Feelings of hesitation about the longer-standing one but attributing it to cold feet. It was a ripe time for me to completely lose my head then find it again.
The New Orleanian
We met on the tram. The next five weeks belonged to long walks and philosophical conversation at the local bar and in his bed and around his block down the oak-lined streets of Mid-City. I’d say whatever came to my mind. He told such specific details it was almost certainly rehearsed. I wanted to hear it all though. Truth didn’t seem to matter as long as he kept telling stories.
Those weeks belonged to nights in his single bed in the middle room of a shot gun house. People walking through to sheets hurriedly flicked over bare asses and grinding hips and me only able to giggle and whisper in his ear how much younger the whole business made me feel. The last morning we were together and he got ready for work like it was any other day. Said goodbye the same way too. As I walked back to the hostel I started crying and wondered if he’d look out of his tram window as he passed me. And I kept on crying right until I got to San Fran. Half for the loss of the city and half for the loss of him and very rarely able to distinguish the two.
Back home. Stretches of several days here and there where I wouldn’t leave bed except to piss, eat dry noodles or find more goon. An e-mail out of nowhere saying he wanted to move to Australia. Taking him seriously. Saving up what I could. Time slipping by. A brief phone call every couple of months. Always sirens in the background. I don’t think those conversations would have felt the same without the sirens. Me wising up far too late. Drinking all I’d saved.
The Cali Girl
The first time I fell for a girl I didn’t even know it because my head was always at the little shot gun house even when I wasn’t. She was in New Orleans to make money during Jazzfest. Seven hundred bucks a night she said. Cash in hand. It started to sound pretty good to me; the only money to my name being two American dollars in my back pocket – an admin fuckup had cut off my PhD scholarship. Only she got bitten by mosquitos so badly on her legs that she couldn’t go for the audition and I had to borrow money from my mother instead. She worked in a spiritual sex temple in San Francisco, had done escorting and stripping, was part of a polyamorous community and was the wisest person I had ever met. Not the kind of flashy cheap wisdom of somebody who’s aware of it, but the kindthat draws out thoughts and experiences you didn’t know you were holding back from yourself. I remember one such day when she held me on a bench at the hostel and I came to understand why I was enjoying my time with the New Orleanian. Because when we were finished he would ask me to come closer so he could hold me. For six months I had been used to physical isolation after sex. My lover at home wouldn’t want any part of us touching afterwards.
And then a whole heap of other things all came together. The blood noses. Bleeding out of my vagina and ass for days at a time. The blue grape-sized bruises that lived on my breasts those six months like little bullet holes. Her holding my hand as we learned about it together. Between nights with him and days with her I came to repair something I didn’t know was broken. Find respect I hadn’t known was lost. And maybe it was for that too that I cried so long. For the loss of the place where I’d finally come to feel a sense of self.
She was in an accident recently. A lot of head trauma. She says she’s lost context for most things in her day to day life and spends much of her time overwhelmed. And like a child I can’t understand how a woman who gave so much to me could have it all taken away from her. It seems somehow unfair. But even as I say that word it sounds foolish to me.