Sweet Tea


     All I remember from that night is the smell of fried frog legs. If I really think and try to go back to that day, there are other Cajun scents, city sounds, and human annoyances that come to mind, but it’s fried frog legs that linger in my nose. I’m not sure why; maybe because I never liked them to begin with. Now the smell sickens me. I can’t walk down Bourbon Street without getting caught in the whirlwind of that day.
     I stick to the French Quarter now, when I can. The week after it happened I hunted out a small one bedroom in the heart of the Quarter and moved all my boxes and bags there. I remember the day so clearly. It was blistering, the heat making the city wriggle and squirm, but I didn’t really notice at the time, even with the four flights up and down for every load. All I could think of was starting a new life, far, far away from it all. And him. I knew the Quarter was the safest place for me, ‘cause he’d never venture there. For a reason I never cared enough to ask, he hated the Quarter. We’d never gone there together in our day. I was always fascinated by it, like a kid looking at ants with a magnifying glass.
     But now the Quarter has worked its way into my heart and I wouldn’t leave it for a mansion on Wealthy Street. My little apartment with all its quirks, the climbing plants hanging over the wrought iron balconies, the cracked pavement under their shaded walkways, the violent colors of sun dresses and bags hanging from glassless windows in the corner shops filled with their ethnic incense and spices—it all stole my heart as soon as I dove in. It’s as rich and fragrant as Nanny Laroche’s flower garden in full bloom up on the roof of our building. She’s the block’s favorite granny and matriarch, and reminds me of my own Granny.
     The French Quarter is like a Caribbean coral reef, full of life and activity; vibrant, phosphorescent colors; and strangely shaped creatures that are perfectly ordinary in their fantastic strangeness; but most of all, a balance of life that exists harmoniously, entirely separate from the New Orleans ocean that flows on around it.
     I plan to stay here the rest of my days. I’ll raise my children here, if ever I have any. I won’t bother myself with a man. Not long term, anyhow. I know their uses now, and they are few to me. Any child of mine will grow up smothered with motherly love, unbothered by male patriarchy and dominance. Feminine love and rich French culture is all any young one of mine shall need, yes indeed.
     That’s how it all began, really. So that’s one thing for which I am grateful to a man—driving me here. It was the middle of July, mid-afternoon, the cruelest time in a Southern summer when the heat is sultry and curvaceous and loiters on every corner, hiking its skirt to the knee provocatively. The sun was baking the pavement and canvas overhangs, but tourists were still crowding the sidewalks with their visors, cameras, and fanny packs, like herded sheep or curious monkeys. We were just walking along. I was blissfully unaware of the plot worming and scheming inside that big square head of his, and if I had been, I would’ve walked off then without a glance behind.
     Despite all its later downfalls, the start of the day was Paradiso, and he was Beatrice. We strolled along Chartres, hand-in-hand, talking of warm sun and the sparkling Mississippi. Sweat was dripping from everyone, but I didn’t mind the summer heat. It made me feel porous and alive, like an extension of the living, breathing, seething city around me. I dropped the flyer I was fanning myself with and started to bend to pick it up, but he stopped me with his sprawling hand and insisted to retrieve it for me. I smiled, and we walked on again, making our way to an open-air café for Beignets and Café Au Lait, my mind rocking and clucking over thoughts of southern gentlemen like a mother hen over her eggs. As we walked, we caught little blusters of cool air pouring out of shops with open doors and rotating fans, pushing back the heat for a split second before it came settling back around like a wet second skin.
     Under its forest green canvas covering, the café was pleasant. The heat was diffused into a sulking warmth by the fans twirling lazily overhead, and the lacquered table tops sucked in every drop of cool air and pressed it back soothingly against flushed palms and arms. We sat and ate and drank and listened to the happy couples chatting—it was like Valentine’s Day, they were all so in love. But, I’ll confess, I was happily within their ranks that day.
     The sun sloughed its way down, bleeding and floundering in its own heat, splashing red over the cracked streets and old brick buildings like Kool-aid. Once the street lights flickered on, we ambled over to the Famous Door, his favorite bar, whispering and laughing together over lovers’ secrets that I can’t remember now. I just remember how his arm felt around me as we walked—uncomfortably sticky, but I wouldn’t have replaced it—and the look in his eyes when he smiled down at me; possessive and loving. It should have scared me, but it didn’t. I didn’t really know what it meant until hours later.
     Turning a corner, I smelled fried frog legs, boiled crawdads, and alligator tails. I disliked the smell then, but didn’t tell him so. He was soaking it in, and I didn’t want to spoil it. In a way, he was like a child to me. Full of fun and enthusiasm, and I couldn’t ruin it with mother-like reason. That probably should have scared me too, but I ignored it. I was good at that back then.
     A few more steps and we were in the Famous Door. Live music pounded from the stage, and he ordered drinks I didn’t like, but I didn’t tell him that either. We just danced in the searing crowd, and I tried to keep his hands out from under my shirt, but couldn’t. The lead on stage spotted me in the mash of bodies and said a few things I can’t recall, but they made me blush. He just howled and laughed, reaching up to high-five the singer, which he could do from the dance floor, as tall as he was.
     I sipped on my drink and crinkled my nose at the citrus tang, trying to ignore it all, but he kept tangling his fingers in my hair and putting wet kisses all over my mouth. I pushed him back—or tried—and told him he was drunk, but he just stuck his hands in my back pockets. When we got too hot on the dance floor, crammed between sweaty bodies writhing to the beat, we slipped out the back door into an alley, and he picked me up and pinned me to the wall. I was used to it, so I didn’t mind, and the cold brick that had been shaded all day cooled my back. I just wrapped my legs around his waist and gave in. It was too early to do more than kiss and pant, but we did plenty. It didn’t cool us down, but it felt better than being in the mixing bowl inside.
     He couldn’t stop pawing afterward when we went back to the dance floor. The band started up a slow dance. He knew I liked it, so he did his part and acted a gentleman, and we swayed to it. I realized then he wasn’t drunk, but just an ass before. I shrugged it off and kept dancing, the gentle back and forth of the music soothing my dizzy senses. He took one of my arms down from up around his thick neck and toyed with the ring I always wore on the middle finger. He slid it off and told me with his crooked smile that he’d give it back soon.
     I didn’t mind too much, and the ridiculous fruity drinks he kept buying me had gone to my head enough to make me think he was handsome in the flickering yellow bar light. After a few minutes, when the song was winding down, he took my left hand again, and dropped to his knee. I felt my smile flash freeze across my face. Looking up at me with those brown puppy eyes heated from dancing and kissing, he slid my own ring onto my fourth finger and slurred out an obscenity. My ears full of cotton balls or crashing ocean waves or something, I didn’t actually hear the words, but I knew what he said. I could see by the crooked, half-cocked grin that he was sure I’d say yes.
     I pulled my hand back and stared down at the ring, resting there like a committed abomination on that forbidden finger, and I had a sudden urge to chop it off and be rid of the possibility of rings and monogamy forever. Tearing it off, I threw it at him and shrieked in furry that he knew better. He fumbled for the ring, then stood up, looking at me in foggy confusion, trying to thrust it back into my hands. I screamed louder, and the music all but stopped, hundreds of eyes trained on our little scene. His stuck-out ears started flaming, and his puppy eyes turned hard and angry. With a chest-deep growl he grabbed my arm and dragged me out into the street, away from the watchers.
     The beat stuttered and skidded back into action, and the usual bar noises resumed behind us. I yowled and struggled, but his ice cold iron fist held me fast. With a brutal shove, my back was against the stone wall, my head cracking on the bricks and blurring my vision for a moment. He boxed me in with arms on either side and snarled in my face, asking what the scene was about. I seethed back at him that he knew never to ask it of me, slapped him violently across his troll face and ducked under his arm as he reeled. I ran for it, turning a corner and disappearing into the roiling crowds on the next street. I heard him bellow after me, but I ran like hell and hailed a cab a few blocks away.
     Panting like the messenger of Marathon, I slid in and choked out my address. The cabby was unperturbed, and took me home—he’d already seen a dozen cases like mine today. By the time I got upstairs, I was covered in mascara, tear stains, sweat, and dried saliva. I fell into bed and blacked out.
     I was comatose for a while, but awoke in the middle of the night to wild pounding on my door like someone hailing the apocalypse. He was screaming my name and I could hear tears in his voice. But I had strong locks, and even he wouldn’t risk breaking and entering. I checked my phone and saw 27 missed calls. Switching it off, I pulled the blankets over my head and slept again.
     The next day I rustled through the paper to the personals and hunted out an apartment. I knew the only place he wouldn’t come looking was the French Quarter, so I considered no other alternatives. It didn’t take long to find a place to my liking, and several dozen cardboard boxes plus a futon later, I was settled.
     Before I left, I received a fat envelope from him, stuffed to splitting with pages of hand written drivel. I pitched them into the wastebasket without a glance, but fished the ring from the bottom. Looking at the blue stone doubtfully, I hesitated, then fished through a box for a chain and slipped it on, then around my neck, satisfied that this eliminated its evil. Tired of his phone calls and whining, sniveling voice mails, I changed my number. I deleted all my silly internet profiles and disappeared out of his life forever. Things were simpler, and I embraced it.
     The last box unpacked, sitting on my lumpy little bedcouch eating greasy take out, I eyed the hand-shaped bruise on my arm critically. I poked it with my fork, and my muscles twinged in protest. I shrugged, then went on eating, gazing out the balcony window at the red-brown brick building across the way with its vibrant purple climbing plants conquesting across the side of the building. I hated that bruise, but I didn’t let on, even to myself, how much it bothered me; I pretended it didn’t exist, and that I was hard and solid against its existence. I pretended it wasn’t a reminder of seeing man-inflicted bruises all over her body and mine before he snorted himself to death. I built my own redbrick wall, and admired its sturdy bulk. I shut out the sobbing and pleading memories pressing against my eardrums with the sounds of the streets, spending as much time swimming in them as I could, drinking in the culture like sweet tea on a hot summer day.