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For Better, For Worse

Ten years ago, massively sleep-deprived and indescribably hormonal, I sat on my sofa in my cozy mid-Missouri house holding my week-old baby and watching the news of Helen Hill’s senseless murder coming out of my beloved hometown and sobbing. I didn’t know her, didn’t even know people who did, but as a brand-new mother, her story hit me hard. She had a child. She loved New Orleans. She was killed in her own home. My tears soaked into Ruby’s baby blanket as I rocked her back and forth.

“We can’t move back,” I said. “We can never move back.”

Nine years ago we moved back anyway. And I was so happy. It was the height of Carnival season, and I truly had a sense of not just being home but of being Dorothy waking up in Oz: I drove out of a cold, boring, gray Missouri day and ended up in a warm sensory wonderland with King Cake and the St. Aug marching band. A week after moving back, I helped an old high school friend make grits and grillades and then we walked the Endymion parade route drinking mimosas while I held 1-year-old Ruby in a sling.

“We’re never leaving,” I said. “I am never, ever leaving New Orleans again.”

Eight years ago, Wendy Byrne was killed in the French Quarter. Again, I didn’t know her, but this time, I knew lots people who did. I’d been out in the French Quarter that same night myself, on a sort of save-the-marriage date night with my ex-husband, and we’d ended up arguing about how much he hated New Orleans and had gone home angry immediately after dinner and woken up to this horrible news.

“Can we leave now?” he asked.

“No,” I said, but I was angry at my city, heartbroken for her friends and family, and Mardi Gras decorations that year made me furious — “just wash the blood off the sidewalk and hang up the purple, green, and gold,” I muttered while working on a story about the “best-dressed balconies” in the city.  “Let’s just move on to the party and get drunk and forget all about it.”

Seven years ago, the Saints were about to win the Super Bowl and I’ve never felt the city quite so electric. We were nervous. We were superstitious. We were proud. We were giddy. It all seemed like so much more than football — and it was. I watched the last probably 10 games of the season with the same group of people — once we realized what was happening, none of us dared to change a single variable, including where we all sat — and after the final triumph, we all yelled and cried and spilled champagne everywhere and accidentally broke a bunch of stuff and laughed and ran out into the street and hugged strangers. Even my ex kind of got into the spirit, although I knew as soon as he pulled for the Rams against the Saints in the middle of the winning streak that we were probably doomed (I’m only half-kidding; I still feel like anyone who could be in New Orleans at that time and pull against New Orleans is a little insane).  (And also, in all fairness, our marriage was so damaged by then that I was in a mindset where if he pulled against the Saints, he was disloyal, but if he pulled for them, he was just a bandwagoner.) Our marriage ended a couple of months after the Super Bowl.

Six years ago, I didn’t know it yet, but I was about to lose one of my best friends. Nobody killed him; it’s not a death that can be blamed on violence. But he was the kind of person who can’t live anywhere but New Orleans but really shouldn’t live in New Orleans at all.

For the new year, he told me, he was going to quit drinking.

The last time I ever saw him was the night of Muses, and he was too drunk to walk.

“I love this fucking city,” he yelled into the night as I stood next to him holding Ruby’s hand. “Ruby gets it! Ruby is a NOLA girl! Ruby, where do you live, babe?”

“The Who Dat Nation,” she replied dutifully before tugging on my hand and asking me why he was acting so weird.

He was dead less than a month later.

Five years ago, my husband and I got married on Epiphany. We picked the date partially because I was pregnant and time was of the essence but also because we both love this city so damn much. Starting our married life at the beginning of Carnival season felt exactly right, and we ate King Cake beside our wedding cake from Sucré and toasted with champagne I couldn’t drink.

The five years since have been much calmer than the five years that preceded. There has still been crime. There has still been loss. There has still been heartbreak. There has still been frustration with the city and with each other. The Saints aren’t winning so much anymore. But overall, the past five years have been some of the best of my life.

Robert and I are compatible for many reasons: we love food and language and "Jeopardy!" and wine and each other. But I honestly think a big part of what bonds us together is that we both consider New Orleans home, for better or worse. I first fell a little bit in love with him reading some of his passionate post-Katrina defenses of the city. We tease each other about our respective high schools and debate where you can get the best po’ boys and sno-balls. We speak a shared language — not in the cliched “You Know You’re From New Orleans If …” sense of “neutral grounds” and “dressed”  sandwiches but a much deeper, more nuanced way of understanding the city and its people as well as anyone can, of acknowledging its flaws but never even considering living elsewhere.

This city is not always easy. Marriage is not always easy. But both can be just so good that it’s impossible to consider things being any other way.

New Orleans. And us. It’s nothing short of a beautiful love story. 



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