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Other Real Girls

Cold in New Orleans emptied the air. The buildings stood sharply separated from a sky now diluted, as if the air had moved one state of matter farther from wood and stone. Cold was perhaps the same in other cities, but Allie imagined that it could not feel the same in a place without the walloping contrast. New Orleans’s atmosphere remained humid through all of its seasons, bathed in the swamp’s green halitosis, until that point when the mayor—always a man the color of café au lait, the city’s mélange and its compromise—came on the television to tell everyone to tuck their plants into their beds and bring their animals inside. There would be a cold snap, there was the potential for frost. And the city, defiant, would slip off its dress made of water, leaving it white over the shocked grass, to gallivant, naked, in the cold. The sense of being cast suddenly into a vacuum made Allie want to fill it. She felt light within her skin—depressurized.

She could not sleep, while Marin stayed in bed for two days straight under her comforter, watching Japanese films. Allie got into bed and then she got out again. She left the house into the sleeping evening, the dogwoods budded, the labs next door quiet on their veranda. The Peugeot’s engine turned over as if whispering, and she backed into the empty street and drove the dozen blocks to Oak Street. There were few cars—unusual—but then again she’d only ever been here before for Rebirth, and who knew what the cheese man and his band could do. She parked around the corner in the gravel and ran to the door. No music yet, but the man took her three dollars and stamped a lion in her palm. She bought herself a bourbon and sat with her back to the bar and sipped it, flanked by two skinny men she wanted to call denizens, both of whom looked at her like to talk and then looked away. “Has the show started yet,” she said to no one, and a man passing through to the toilets said no and she looked straight in front of her at the beaded wall and the Christmas lights they had hanging from the pressed tin ceiling and waited.

She felt the cheese man come up to the far end of the bar and lean over to procure beers for his band and himself. Allie buried her nose in her cup and pretended to be waiting for someone. Where is Scottie, she thought to herself in order to heighten the appearance. He should have been here twenty minutes ago. Best not to look stood up, only waiting. Onstage, the band were recuperating the wires from the floor and plugging in guitars, miking the green drums. Jerome walked towards them, his hands splayed among six Mardi Gras cups of Abita.

“Hey, Academy,” he said, walking through.

She thought hey and said nothing. She walked back to the patio. The back bar and the pool tables were sheeted, and a tarpaulin ran down from the roof into the far flower beds. It heaved in and out, breathing, with the intermittent wind. Two people sat along the bar—a girl with her cowboy boots up on the gutter and a boy, talking about salmon fishing in Alaska. She sat on a corner of the pool table, over a pocket, and listened. They made no indication of minding. They seemed to know each other and yet not to; the girl challenged him and mentioned his mother twice, while he told her stories—broken bones and a year long trip to Nepal—she looking at him as if it were all new.

Everyone in the city, at least the parts she knew, was related to each other. Marin liked the story of how she had one day tried to pick up a guy during the Endymion parade who had turned out to be her second cousin, and there were black, white and Creole Leperes in every corner, all of whom traced their lineage back to a single plantation owner. But beyond genealogies of blood were the unending networks that ramified from clubs and schools and law firms, the permanent guest lists of annual parties, the memories of houses. Coming home early from skiing once, alone, Allie had taken a cab from the airport, and the driver had asked her if she was one of the Mealings, the family who had sold her parents their house. “My grandmother worked for Mrs. Mealing until she was ninety-seven years old. Or she lived there I guess and peeled potatoes for Christmas when she got late in life. They was always real good to her,” he’d said. “Y’all still have a party on Mardi Gras day?” Allie said they did—it was impossible to stop it, as people came whether or not anyone was even home—and she invited him.

The girl at the bar, who sat on her stool as if she’d been out of town for a while, kept their conversation from sinking too deep, turning an anecdote he began with sleeping arrangements in narrow tents into a discussion of yurts before he’d gotten to his punch-line. When her hand fell in a gesture against his thigh, she pulled it back quickly to her own knee. From the front of the bar, the drums began, a short riff applauding the rest of the band onto the stage. Allie pushed herself off the pool table and followed the pair in. The girl lagged a little, and in the dark doorway, Allie watched her drop her eyes to the boy’s back pockets and then straighten herself with a disconsolate skip.

The room was sparsely populated, almost uncomfortably so, and she hung back along the right wall, in the shadows by the trash barrel. Jerome stood on the left side of the stage, dangling a trumpet from his fingers, his head down, rocking as the band started. Funk which was like everything and nothing she’d ever heard before. Like the parade bands fucking off while they waited for the big floats to make the turn from Napoleon onto St. Charles, inventing music against the pop blasting from speakers behind them for the West Bank girls to dance to and the Longhair falling in sheets from somebody’s balcony. Like a gospel organist on LSD. The guitarist occasionally took his hands off the strings and said something indecipherable into the microphone. The denizens had gotten off of their bar stools and bopped along in the front of the three-deep knot of people by the stage. Jerome stood waiting. Allie moved slowly forward, thinking if she only got close enough she might catch something. People pressed warm around her. The bassist bounced on the low strings, and she let herself be pushed, something starting in her thighs. She began the controlled flail, the only way she knew to dance—to get inside the drums and try to keep from falling off the curb into the oncoming floats. Jerome brought the trumpet to his lips and let out a long howl which pushed her back into the crowd’s raised hands. She felt herself dancing, her hands syncopated, her feet keeping something steady up, her belly singing. She looked to him and found him, behind the brass, watching her. Neither of them blinked. He was playing his trumpet into her mouth and she drank the sound. It colored her muscles and her bones. He stood stock-still suspended from the music and she had become the music. She went on and on. The denizens applauded her through the long bass riffs. Every time Jerome blew, something flared between her pelvic bones. There were hours of it, or minutes. Who knew when the music made the time?

When it was over, it wasn’t over; her ears rang as she walked back to the ladies’ room. The girl in the cowboy boots came out of the stall amid flushing, staring blankly into someplace else as Allie passed her. Allie wondered how she could be tired. There was blood in the toilet, and Allie flushed it again. She squatted over the seat and tried to pee, but her body wouldn’t be calm. Relaxation took the wrong form. She shuddered and braced herself on the toilet paper dispenser. She forced herself to think about moths and puddles on the summer sidewalk after rain. In the mirror, as she washed her hands, she ran with sweat. She tamped the beads that hung down her temples and pulled her hair back tight. Her teeth were white and wet when she smiled.

from my short story “Other Real Girls,” published in

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