Missing New Orleans More Than I Miss the One I Care For
by Sophie Unterman
The first time Adharsh told me he loved me was on Mardi Gras Sunday 2013, after the Thoth parade rolled down Henry Clay Avenue, right past my front porch. Brand new strands of beads slithered down the power lines and oak branches and clung to my baby fig tree. It was mid-afternoon, and the party I threw was finally slowing to a halt as the last of the vodka and champagne disappeared. Everyone shuffled out the front door, saying they would see me at the next party, starting now, a couple miles downtown.
“We’ll catch up with y’all,” said Adharsh.
“We’re just going to clean up a little,” I slurred, giving them wobbly hugs.
I waved goodbye from the balcony and then started plucking empty plastic cups off of windowsills and bookshelves. The house was a mess: beads and feathers littered the floor, pancake batter and rogue chocolate chips speckled the kitchen counter, and a daunting pile of dirty dishes loomed in the sink.
“We can do this later,” said Adharsh, wrapping his arms around me.
It took longer than usual for him to undress me, thanks partially to our drunkenness but mostly to my costume. We made a colorful trail to my bed: heels, tutu, fishnet stockings. With a heavy clunk, he dropped my tangle of beads onto the floor and tossed me onto the mattress. His hair was smoky from the neighbor’s charbroiled oysters, and his kisses tasted like the screwdrivers and chocolate chip pancakes we had been inhaling since nine. Afterwards, we lay tangled in the sheets. I ran my hand through his short black hair, and he turned his head, kissed the inside of my wrist. His long eyelashes brushed my skin.
“I love you,” he whispered.
He looked up and registered my face, which was blank with shock. “I know, you don’t have to say it, too. I’m just telling you so you know.”
“We’ve only been dating for a couple months,” I stammered. “You can’t love me yet.”
“Well, I do.” He kissed my collarbone.
The fan blades swung slow over our bodies, and I could hear the first post-parade Magazine Street bus depart from the corner and rumble over the root-buckled street. Sunlight streamed in through the huge picture windows, and we had all the time in the world to make it to the Bacchus party, where we would eat more oysters and drink more beer and dance to more brass bands with more friends. I pulled him closer, kissed his slow, gap-toothed smile. I wasn’t in love with him, but at that moment, I wanted to be. I wanted to love this New Orleans native with a slight drawl and legs thin and muscled from running down the St. Charles Avenue streetcar tracks, this native who spent his Thursday nights dancing to the Soul Rebels and his Sunday afternoons hosting crawfish boils, this native who wanted, more than anything, to stay in this city.
The levees broke on Dad’s birthday, August 29, 2005. It was the second week of my sophomore year at Shawnee Mission East High, in suburban Kansas City. I woke up and wandered down the stairs with sleep-stuck eyes. Mom was in the kitchen, NPR blasting even more loudly than usual. The TV was on, too, tuned to CNN. Onscreen, brown water swirled between houses, and Anderson Cooper frowned into the water-freckled lens. Mom’s face shared the sickly shade of the water.
“The levees broke,” she said.
“What’s a levee?”
This was a legitimate question for someone raised a couple thousand miles from any major body of water. I had lived in Kansas City my whole life, and although I had been to my parents’ favorite city, New Orleans, several times, I had been more preoccupied with the sunsets over the river, and with the river itself, than with the cement and grass hills that rose to meet it.
“They’re the walls that hold the water out of the city,” said Mom, rummaging through her address book next to the phone. She began dialing all of the 504 numbers to make sure everyone was okay. None of them picked up.
Over my Cheerios, I watched the camera zero in on a torrent of water gushing from what I would later learn was the 17th Street Canal. Mom was unusually quiet as she drove me to school, NPR’s coverage of the breach cutting through the silence. As Mom, Dad, my sister Phoebe and I watched the projections the past week, that green and red snarl that two-stepped in boxy pixels toward New Orleans, I had prayed it wouldn’t destroy that city, the city I was supposed to grow up in.
After his ophthalmology residency at the University of Kansas Hospital, Dad accepted a corneal surgery fellowship at LSU. It was the fall of 1987, and he and Mom moved into a duplex at Fontainbleu and Octavia, where geckos crawled into their running shoes and water pooled in the streets after a hard rain. The fellowship was to learn how to perform a groundbreaking type of cataract surgery, and surgeons flew in from all over the world to train with Dad’s professor.
Patients came in from all over, too, to receive the first experimental surgeries.
Dad spent his days in operating rooms at the Hotel Dieu at Charity Hospital and his nights being taken out to dinner by the visiting surgeons. He and the other fellows rang up ridiculous, paid-for bills at Galatoire’s, Antoine’s, Commander’s Palace. He took a gig moonlighting every weekend for an ophthalmologist out on the bayou, in a town called Thibodaux.
Mom taught herself how to cook shrimp Creole, landed a job archiving film in the art department at Newcomb College, ran four miles along the levee trail every morning.
Naturally, they fell in love with the city. They decided to stay — Dad would likely get a job offer down there. But a year and a half into the two-year fellowship, the University of Kansas Hospital gave him a job offer he couldn’t turn down. With the salary they were offering, he could pay off his undergrad and med school loans, put a down payment on a house, start a family, not have to worry about money like his parents and Mom’s parents had. It was January, and they packed up the moving van in shorts and T-shirts. When they stopped to fill up in Shreveport, they had to put on sweaters. By the time they got to Kansas City, there was snow on the ground.
If this were a short story I were writing, they would have crossed Lake Pontchartrain and started to head into Mississippi, and WWOZ, the best music station in the world, would start to burp with static. They would look at each other and, with a shared smile, swerve into a dramatic U-turn. Cut to a scene of two babies playing on the porch of an Uptown shotgun off Audubon park, Dad in Charity Hospital scrubs getting out of the Honda that had, a couple years ago, made that pivotal U-turn.
But I did not write my parents’ story, and so I grew up in Kansas City, playing with a wicker basket of 1988 Bacchus parade beads and eating a stale king cake every year on Mardi Gras. I visited my future city for the first time when I was eleven, when Mom and Dad decided to make it our annual spring break trip. It was love at first sight. The air was thick and heavy, giving my wavy hair tight curls. Everyone walked around in clothes the colors of ice cream—white sundresses and pastel shorts and seersucker button-downs. After dark, night jasmine perfumed the air, and people sat on their porches with glasses of wine, calling hello to the neighbors over the hum of cicadas.
At a tchochke shop on Decatur, the street that runs along the Mississippi in the French Quarter, Phoebe and I spent our allowance on cheap feather boas that shed all over our clothes. I insisted on wearing mine around until Mom banned it from dinner at Pascal’s Manale. We stayed at a bed and breakfast on Perrier Street, right off Audubon Park, and Mom woke us up early every morning to bike around the running path while she and Dad ran. At Café du Monde, I blew beignet sugar into Phoebe’s face, and Mom and Dad drove us by their old house, which was hidden by a tangle of philodendrons. We rode the streetcar downtown, and Mom and Dad walked us to the foot of Bourbon and Canal at night, which I later bragged about to my friends, saying that I walked the whole length of that famous street.
“I saw the naked ladies and the bars and everything,” I told them, exaggerating until their eyes widened to the appropriate circumference.
When I visited several years later, I didn’t really have Tulane on my college radar. A tie dye-wearing, cello playing overachiever, I assumed I would end up at Oberlin or a similar liberal arts school, not a university with an Animal House-like frat row and Division I sports. Students played out on oak-laced Newcomb Quad in sundresses and Sperries. There was an absence of the pasty, thrift store clad types I assumed I would befriend and become. Instead, these students were clean, fit. Tan, even. They looked more like Phoebe, who straightened her long, blonde hair and wore makeup and ran cross-country. I wondered what it would be like to go here instead, splay out under the magnolias with a book, to reinvent myself in the city I was already coming to love.
When I met Adharsh, I was in the midst of a four-and-a-half-year love affair with New Orleans, which I had fallen hard for my first semester at Tulane. While the majority of freshmen spent their Friday nights shuffling through the Uptown bars, my new friends and I crammed into a forbidden Camry and drove downtown for the midnight show at Snug Harbor. We rolled the windows down and blasted Beyonce, St. Charles passing by in a blur of olive-green streetcars, the dark smudge of Audubon Park, antebellum mansions lit up from below. I fell in love with those nights, the sweet jasmine that perfumed the block of the house on Audubon Park I moved into junior year, the sulfur-pink night sky over the Mississippi. I revisited the spots I had visited with my family years before, getting weird bursts of déjà-vu when I stepped into a bookstore and realized I had already knew where to find the used fiction section. I passed the bed and breakfast on my bike and peeked into the windows.
I loved everything about the city, the parts I had been exposed to already and the parts I discovered myself. I loved taking the bus downtown to work in the morning, the black nanny with the little white baby, who blessed every passenger with a ringing “Good morning, Jesus!” I loved the condensation that streamed down the windows in summer, dancing barefoot to brass bands at Lafayette Square, the sweet tinge of chicory coffee I gulped at my desk to nurse a hangover. I loved the bluegrass that leaked out of the Apple Barrel on Frenchmen Street, the raw Delta blues out of La Maison, the zydeco street music on Royal. I loved eating sugar-dusted beignets as the sky turned pink in the east, exploring neighborhoods on my bike, riding down streets silent since the storm. I fell under the city’s spell.
When the two-and-a-half-year relationship with my college boyfriend unraveled, I drove up and down Tchoupitoulas and watched the lights glitter on the Napoleon Avenue pier, stereo blasting inky blue Dylan. I spent nights studying at my favorite coffee shop, where once, during a particularly heavy rain, water began seeping underneath the door, and I waded across Carrollton Avenue, parting the knee-high water with pale, bare legs.
After graduation, I fell in with several groups of other Tulane graduates who stayed. At a birthday party for one of them, I met Adharsh. For our first date, he took me to watch a Saints game at a bar in the Irish Channel; I slipped his lucky Saints shirt over my head in his truck on the way. I was taken in by his huge dark eyes and corny jokes, his muscular frame and obsessions with This American Life and Trombone Shorty. But most attractive to me was his fierce love of New Orleans. Although he was born abroad, midway through his parents’ journey from India to the United States, he considers himself a New Orleanian. Local phrases spice up his speech—he “makes groceries,” greets his neighbors with a “where y’at.” Last summer, he moved to a majority black neighborhood, and he is so dark that one neighbor greets him daily with a Black Power fist, which Adharsh good-naturedly returns. He strikes up conversations with strangers, a habit that went against my un-Southern nature.
It was not lost on me that with him I could relive my parents’ time in New Orleans and what they would have had if they stayed. He was going to be a doctor, like my dad. He lived across Claiborne from their old neighborhood, made shrimp and grits for dinner, wanted to stay in New Orleans forever. Sure, he would probably have to leave for a few years—he is on an army scholarship and has to spend several years on a base after medical school, and there are no bases in New Orleans. But he made it clear that afterwards he would come home to New Orleans.
He admitted to not exploring much of the city’s music scene, and I loved showing it to him. I introduced him to Frenchmen Street and Harvest the Music and the Revivalists. My friends and I brought him along to Kermit Ruffins’ wedding after-party in the Treme. We went to our first Super Sunday, where we watched the Mardi Gras Indians dance down Washington. “The other Indians,” he called them, with a smile. We balanced each other out, New Orleans-wise: I showed him the concert halls and the festivals and the literary culture, and he showed me the Saints and the crawfish boils and the dive bars.
I wanted to be a local, but he was the real thing. “Come on,” he would insist, “you’re a local.”
“But you’re a native,” I lamented.
One night, he showed me his parents’ house in Lakeview that flooded in the storm and told me his Katrina story—a semester in Baton Rouge, moving out to the suburbs. He had not been a thousand miles away when it happened, but close by in a stifling hotel room. As much as I thought I was becoming a New Orleanian, I would never have a Katrina story, never be part of the community that had weathered the storm together. I don’t mean at all to glorify it, but it was something I would never be part of. It is the disaster that brought the city together. I could read about it as much as I wanted, find high-water mark lines, collect other people’s stories, but it was not my story and never would be.
As the relationship progressed, I began spending most nights at his house. On the weekends, he slept over at my place. We woke up late and made challah French toast and bacon to the gospel hour on WWOZ. We explored the city, sharing our favorite spots and bands and restaurants. He fit perfectly into the fantasy I had of my life in ten years — living Uptown in a shotgun with philodendrons swallowing the front porch and blues leaking from the open windows, teaching at Tulane and spending every Friday afternoon cooking up a giant pot of gumbo. We joked about this—which schools we would send our kids to (Franklin, his alma mater), how close we would live to the parade route (he wanted to live on it, I wanted to live closer to the park), which restaurant he would have a table at (Galatoire’s, no question). But as we kept having this conversation, I realized that although we shared the same fantasy, mine was rooted more in a love for New Orleans than in a love for him. I did care about him a lot by then, but it wasn’t love, although I wanted to be. I wasn’t sure I could see us together in ten years, but I’m slow to fall in love, and I kept waiting.
Then, in August, I moved to New York for grad school. On my last couple visits back, I tried to attribute more of my feeling of homecoming to being back with him instead of being back in the city. When he had class, I went for runs down St. Charles, trying to convince myself that I was happy foremost because I was visiting him, not just New Orleans. It shouldn’t have been hard—he was by far the best guy I had ever been with, attractive and intimidatingly smart, a med school student who ran marathons and referenced Voltaire on our nightly phone conversations. He challenged me, balanced out my judgmental sarcasm with his open-mindedness. But sometimes I felt like I wasn’t ready for a relationship this serious. The wait of long-distance was worth it to him, but I wasn’t sure. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but something was off. I didn’t love him like he loved me, and at some point I had to tell him.
I broke up with him the night before I was supposed to fly down for what would have been our second Mardi Gras. He was blindsided, told me he needed to process it and call me back. When he did, his tone was unnaturally even.
“You should come down anyway,” he said in that weird voice. “I know how much you’ve been looking forward to it.”
But I didn’t want to go anymore — it wouldn’t be the same, not being with him. He was wrapped up with New Orleans now; I couldn’t cleanly separate the two. Mardi Gras Day, I stalked his parade photos from New York, where I sat on my bed in my tutu, nibbling at a Whole Foods king cake and trying to convince myself not to call him.
I feel guilty that I couldn’t make myself love Adharsh. I felt terrible when he asked what it was he had done. “Nothing,” I echoed. I pictured him pacing across his porch, eyes pressed closed behind his glasses. “You’ve done nothing.”
I wanted so much to love him, to live that life my parents left. And he held the key to what they never had—an unwillingness to leave. He was a native who wouldn’t let me down, who wouldn’t pack up and leave for some job in the Midwest. Instead, I was the one who left—first the city and then him. I was a double traitor. But I knew that one day I would return to New Orleans, although I knew I wouldn’t return to our relationship.
Years from now, when I’m back in New Orleans for good, I picture myself running into him at the parades. He will be camped out in front of his antebellum mansion on St. Charles, after a long, boozy lunch at Galatoire’s. He will be decked out in his tricolor costume, house full of drinkers and revelers. I will greet him with his signature “where y’at” and thank him again for opening up a new layer of his city to me, for helping deepen my love of it, even if ultimately, my feelings for him were never deep enough.
Sophie Unterman is an M.F.A. student at Columbia University in New York. Before moving north, she spent five years in New Orleans, four as a student at Tulane and one working as a secretary because she wasn’t ready to leave the city yet. Her work has been published in Nolavie.