I am trying to remember you
as the sweet boy leaning against me in the taxi
while we surveyed the wreckage through the window
after an evening of beer and beignets in the Quarter.
We sped through the ninth ward,
gaping at the collapsed houses,
doorless, windowless, and abandoned.
Garbage rotted in mildewed piles,
and it was curiously erotic.
It was disaster sex, like New York after 9/11.
We landed in the parking lot of an old betting track
and you apologized for making me pay the fare
as if you could ever have the means to pay,
as if anything could ever be equal, or normal.
I am a romantic, but not a hopeless one.
In fact, hope is what helps me
to remember that you refused to hit your own children,
even though your father punched you directly in the face,
and smothered you with pillows for fun.
Did you become a criminal because your dad was a cop
or because you thought everyone was stupid enough
to believe the lies that flew out of your mouth like bacteria?
You lay beside me because it was too cold to sleep,
and you needed warmth desperately,
squeezed my hands so hard that my wedding ring
cut into my fingers, reminding me
that all promises and bets were off for the evening.
Afterwards, we went at it whenever we could—
sex like packing to leave town at the last minute
stuffing everything unfolded into a suitcase
haphazard, urgent, afraid of being late.
Sex on a single bed in a plywood shack,
watching an old Risky Business
while your friend, the bipolar cowboy
whom you'd rescued from the streets of the Quarter
snored outside in your donated tent.
Everything you had was given to you
in moments of altruistic weakness,
and you atoned by trying to save others
who were even weaker than yourself.
It was a mission I could understand,
the reason why all of us were there,
ladling food onto the plates of those
who could not afford to feed themselves.
On the last morning, you kept waking up
as though you were in pain;
you paced outside with rationed cigarettes,
complaining that you were too warm.
Then you stood in the parking lot
doorless, windowless, and abandoned
and whined about everything you lost—
your laptop, the cell phone that UPS was supposed to deliver.
You complained about being out of cigarettes,
then turned and walked away rapidly
without looking at me.
It didn't surprise me when I heard
you had an extensive jail record
an assumed name, a crack habit
and that after I left New Orleans
you stole two hundred dollars
from the people you worked with, then disappeared.
I have no way to talk to you except here
but you will never read this because you don't read,
you don't think, and you don't feel,
you just make everything up as you go along.
I stare at an atlas of the continent
with Louisiana at the bottom like a ragged sock,
and I wonder where you are hiding,
and I wonder which parts of you were real.
I fucked my shadow, but I'm not sorry.
It wouldn't be the first time.
I had to choose between passion and necessity.
I could always return to necessity—
my fumbling and well-intentioned husband,
my children, my yoga practice, my too-high mortgage
on the house in a city I don't even like.
I have sacrificed for years on the altar of necessity,
It has to accept me back,
no matter what I've done.
And I wonder whether my daily, subtle thefts
like the piles of bills I refuse to pay,
are really that different from yours,
or the gulf between who I am
and who I pretend to be
is really that much narrower.
Next time, I will build a stronger levee
that can withstand the wind, and the flooding,
but in the meantime
I sort through the piles of debris
and salvage whatever I can.
Leah Mueller writes from Chicago, Illinois.