Today, I helped Linds pack up her entire life, like you could stack up twenty-eight whole years and put them in a box. Somewhere between the folds of her prized Stairway to Heaven flag was me. A chunk of me, like I'd gotten stitched right into the pattern—somewhere in the expanse of black below the lantern's halo. I'd have tucked myself up in the attic gathering moth-holes for decades if it could have kept us from the finality of it all.
Eight-thirty this morning, she was already working. The Crescent City sunrise had already come and gone by a few hours, and if I was a betting woman, I'd bet she had been up to see it. A smile widened on her face when I shambled into the room, all zombie grunts and bad hair.
"Hey Jazz." She barely swallowed a laugh as I tripped over the case of my fold-up easel.
Jazz always sounded better to her than Jasmine. It went along with the single syllable informality of Linds for Lindsay. She borrowed my socks without asking. We shared a hairbrush.
"Coffee's in the kitchen if you want some."
She knew me that well. Without being one cup into the day, my most intelligent comment would be something like what I said in response.
Fifteen minutes later, after I'd scalded my tongue and pulled my choppy blond bob into a stubby ponytail, I went back into the room we called our study. Not that we'd ever done much studying in there, unless you can count drinking too much Shiraz and philosophizing drunkenly about love and whether you had to have a committed relationship to have it. We didn't find many answers, but those conversations weren't ever about answers
Linds was frowning when I came back in the room.
"Just can't remember where I put that Chekov collection . . . you know, the hardback one?"
I nodded towards the bookshelf.
"Next to Janet Fitch."
"That's right, I can't believe I didn't remember that."
The thick, clean cover of White Oleander made uneasy neighbors with the ornate leather-bound Complete Works of . . . beside it. The main character Astrid read Chekov, so it made sense. That was our organizational system; if a work referenced another work, we put them next to each other. It was a Dewey decimal nightmare, but it worked fine until both of us forgot the joke.
"I guess I'll have to get used to Fitch and Chekov being on different shelves," Lindsay said. She cradled the book to her chest, her blue eyes catching the light through the blinds and shimmering for a moment. "Tara's got a library, an actual whole room with just books. Like . . . library-organized, dusted every week kinda deal."
Linds and Tara were finally moving in. Nobody had made jokes about how lesbians always brought a U-Haul to the first date because it had taken a year and a half. Long enough for people in our circle of friends to start teasing them about their lack of commitment, if you can believe that.
Tara Altman was the real deal to a lot of people—the kind of woman you wanted to move in with. A huge house in the Garden District, a successful career as a lawyer even though she was only thirty-eight. Tara wouldn't ask you to hide in the closet either—she was out to not only her family, but the larger New Orleans community as well, and she didn't make any apologies about it.
"She's probably not allowed to read Janet Fitch anyway," I was saying. "Anything in Oprah's Book Club probably smells too middle class."
"Stop," Lindsay said, not able to keep from giggling. "You're so bad, Jazz."
Her mimosa bloom cheeks told me that she agreed with me, even though she couldn't do it aloud.
"Don't forget this" I said, picking up her worn and dog-eared copy of Inga Muscio's Cunt.
Linds frowned a little and looked down at the box she was packing. It seemed too small. The things inside were chips that had fallen off of her being, dull gray flakes of limestone. She was the geode underneath.
"I'd better not."
"Why?" It was one of her favorite books
"Tara and I had a big fight about it one time. She doesn't like the word, and she thinks the book is a bunch of pseudo-science."
"Pseudo-science? Come on, that book was important for way more than just its science. Looking at it from only that angle is too narrow-minded!"
"I know." Linds shrugged. "I just don't want to start anything."
I looked down at the book in my hands, its worn paper cover, flipped through to see the highlighted phrases, words that Linds swore had revolutionized her being. Where did your relationship go after your girlfriend started telling you what books you could read?
"You keep it," Linds said, and when I looked at her, I thought I could see something smarting in the depths of her eyes. "Talking about that book together is one of the best memories I have of living with you. It'd be weird if there wasn't a copy of it in the apartment somewhere."
Beth Cannon had taken my copy. She was a philosophy major at UNO, two years younger than me. A year and a half ago, I'd been trying to date her, which meant I needed to impress her with my choice of post-modern feminist texts. It hadn't worked, and she'd kept the book.
"Okay," I said, agreeing with Linds. Holding the book made my stomach feel like a spun sugar balloon, fragile and hollow inside.
I set the book on the shelf, next to a smart, stark black copy of The Vagina Monologues. The two didn't go together, not what Linds called the victimized anger of the play versus Inga Muscio's free-and-easy empowerment. The two of us had discussed this once. We had agreed never to put the two of them next to each other.
We taped the first box shut. I held the edges together while she ran strips of clear tape across them, securing them for the ride across town. We took down her six boxes of books, each of us carrying one at a time. Her wardrobe, small as it was, was already packed in the back of her beat up truck, the dresses still on hangers and laid across her backseat. Without Linds in them, they looked as empty as her room did now. I stacked the box I was carrying on top of a pile with a white cotton sundress at the top. That sundress was her favorite, and she wore it often in Augusts like this one, when the air was thick with humidity, mingled liquid from the Mississippi, and the Gulf, and Lake Ponchartrain.
"I love that dress," I said, breaking the monotony of our hard, panting breaths.
"Me too," Linds said, smiling as she looked up at me. "I always thought you would look better in it than me."
I looked up at her, caught off guard. "No, that's not what I meant. . . . I mean it looks like it was made for you. It makes your skin look even more golden."
"Really?" Her cheeks flushed with pleasure. "Maybe I'll wear it to the housewarming party . . . "
"You should." I said it even though I didn't want her to. Who could understand the simple elegance of Linds in that dress in the midst of a sparkling gilt Garden District palace?
Tara's short-cut hair would gleam under the chandeliers with too-bright russet dye—as though her own flaming autumn orange locks hadn't been enough. Tara would demand all the attention when she walked in the room, because she deserved it. Linds deserved just as much, but I knew she would stand quietly near her girlfriend, greeting their guests with her warm smile, but never demanding anything. That was why the eye was naturally drawn to her. More than once, I'd wanted to commit her loose, thick chocolate curls, her freckles to charcoal or canvas. But I was a painter, and painters were given to sentimentality.
Tara, on the other hand, was a people trainer. Drink this wine, laugh at that joke. She liked the idea of having a trick pony. Lindsay would be her lit student ingenue with the pedestrian fascinations. The way she never missed an episode of "Gossip Girl," the fact that in grad school, she lived off of $15,000 a year, how she didn't know the difference between a Manolo and a Fendi. Tara would like having Lindsay around because from now on, she could take her to dinners and show her off in front of people who didn't know what it was like to pay less than a thousand bucks a month in rent. The image of it deflated me, cutting my insides like the jagged glass from a busted mirror.
There were only a few of her things left in the apartment. In the heat, we couldn't even jog up the stairs of our walk-up, so we went slowly, not pressed for time, and not caring when we got finished. I wrapped her dagger in tissue paper, one that we got from a trip to a Renaissance fair, with a fairy painted on its delicate ceramic handle. On top of that, I set a turquoise box with an embroidered cloth cover. Inside it were tiny seashells, the ones that burrow back into the sand when the waves wash out.
We went to Pensacola Beach once, and that's where I remember her collecting them. She and I woke up just after sunrise and went down together, the sea still high and the beach absent of human voices. She walked so carefully that her footsteps didn't seem to disturb a single grain of sand, and for almost an hour, we walked in near silence, Linds pointing at shells as they dug back into the cool, moist April sand. You weren't supposed to take shells from the beach, but she didn't care. She told me that the morning felt magical to her, like there was a spell over her and the whole beach that she would have broken by speaking. A hint of that magic was still there when she saw me pack that box, when she smiled and caught my eye.
"That was a great trip."
"Most relaxing vacation I've ever had," I nodded. Our Spring Breaks had normally been noon-to-sunrise party affairs. We'd crash on the couch still reeling from all the alcohol and get up at eleven to do it again the next day. That year, we decided we didn't want to go to Panama City, and picked Pensacola instead. We saved our money and ate at the best restaurants in town. Lindsay had insisted on going to Hemingway's Island Grill four times that week, the glow in her eyes ethereal as she had picked apart her favorite of his stories for me over Havana Harry's Pork Tenderloin.
There was a very different spell over us now; it was funereal, and even the little windchimes that hung from our fan didn't tinkle when she turned it up on high. The leaves of the small poppy plant on the sill seemed to droop, even though she had watered it yesterday. The plant was hardy, and all it needed was to be watered and set in the sunlight. Poppies bloomed in early summer. Linds had worked hard on them this year, and they had been spectacular. Today was sunny, the blinds dividing the light into sharp shafts that warmed the hardwood floor in evenly spaced strips. But the poppy stalks didn't reach for the sky, didn't even seem to care.
"Do you want to keep these?" Linds asked.
They were two brass statues, a full-grown unicorn and its young. Linds loved that kind of thing. In some ways, she was like a seven year old kid, still dreaming about being a fairy princess when she grew up.
"But you love those . . . "
"Yeah, I know," she said, looking up at me guiltily. "You understand that. But I can't see Tara's friends seeing a couple of brass unicorns as being cute. Or understanding why I kept something my Grams gave me when I was six."
I heard her, but it didn't make sense what she was saying. Words welled up at the levees of my lips and threatened to rush over the banks. This wasn't right, moving wasn't supposed to be like this. The things you left behind when you moved were supposed to be junk, things your new life didn't need, a busted vacuum cleaner, a ruined chair. Not something essential. Linds stood before me, stripping the flesh from her bones.
"I'll keep them," I said, and I knew I would. I would guard them, a dragon sitting on its hoard, until the day when she came back to reclaim them.
She took her dishes because I made her. They were white, and sprigged with Japanese cherry blossoms, blush pinks and reds. She picked those dishes out when she was eighteen, moving out of the house to go to college. Those dishes survived Katrina.
Just short of five years later, Linds was still having nightmares about Katrina. She'd been like a lot of other people in the city, didn't really believe it could be bad. She got out late. A man named Daniel Fox came down her flooded street in a tiny aluminum boat, and Linds hitched a ride. But she had to leave her cats behind—the mother Flo and five three-week-old kittens. She still couldn't forgive herself for it.
Tara didn't have to go through that. The Garden District hadn't been that bad off during the storm, but Tara had fled her grand house to weather Katrina somewhere else. She had flown up to Nashville on one of her partner's private jets. She gave Linds the pity treatment when Linds told her the Flo story, but she didn't understand. How could she?
The dishes and the tiny TV set were the last things we packed up and took down. Collected in the pickup's bed and backseat, Linds's things looked tiny. They were scattered puzzle pieces of her, and I hoped they would get put together in the right order again, but I really didn't think anyone but me would know how to do that.
She hugged me close as the sun snuffed itself out under the melted milk-chocolate waters of the Mississippi. I wrapped my arms around her, and felt like I shouldn't let go, that when I did, something would change forever. This wouldn't be the last time I saw her, I was going to their housewarming, but she wouldn't be Linds then, even in her white dress. She'd be Tara's girlfriend, and that was different, it was as different as drinking chicory coffee all your life and then tasting coffee without it, something foreign, something wrong.
"Bye Jazz," she said softly, looking up into my eyes. I was close enough that I could smell sweat, and her perfume, Bath and Body Works Sweet Pea. I had always liked it. Her pillows smelled like Sweet Pea, delicate and fresh, with a hint of floral.
I didn't try to keep her, though part of me wanted to. She shut the door of her truck quietly, like she didn't want to disturb me. I didn't hear the soft purr of her engine as she pulled away to leave our house in Algiers for good, and I didn't feel the whispery, moist touch of the summer wind running its fingers over my cheek as I turned to go inside.
When I got back upstairs, the poppies bore down on me with the unseeing eyes that topped their waving, skeletal arms. They seemed ugly now without their flowers. They wouldn't bloom again until next May or June. I might water the plant religiously, a nun saying her beads, but I knew it would die without Lindsay's care.
I couldn't look at them, so I took out a blank canvas. I unfolded my easel from its case and straightened the legs, its smooth ash-colored wood cool under my fingertips, and I placed the canvas just-so. The metal tubes of my paints were cool too, untouched by the heat of the day, and refreshing under my fingertips. Once I got out the palette, I started mixing colors.
Peach, mixed with soft pink undertones. A dusky rose color that matched her cheeks when she blushed. A dash of black for her thick eyelashes, a smooth ocean blue for the iris of her eyes, but flecks of sky too. Two colors, then. Last, a rich chocolate brown for her thick, soft curls, and a honeyed brown for the highlights that only showed in the sun. Of course I'd paint her in the sunlight, because it suited her, and sometimes it emanated from the core of her heart and lit the room. I didn't need to sketch any lines. I could have done this in my sleep.
But I might as well have been frozen solid. The brush hung between my fingertips, suspended in the black hole that suddenly sucked at me. I couldn't make my hand move. The apartment was quiet, without even the whispering, shivering ghosts of our past conversations in the air. I didn't feel sick. Nothing turned in my stomach. My breath was imperceptible. I was hollow and dry, the husk of an unpicked gourd left in the sun and forgotten.