As long as I can be with you, it’s a lovely day. Ella Fitzgerald’s voice, smooth as poured cream, was lilting in my head when I woke up. It’s April. It’s soft outside.
Fitzgerald’s duets with Louis Armstrong are a favorite of Bento’s, and they were playing on his phonograph when, with the key I’d reluctantly accepted, I let myself into his little Creole cottage in Mid-City last night. The love songs of the 1950s, laced with the warm crackle of vinyl.
Bento always grips the black discs delicately in his large brown hands, spinning them, inspecting them, blowing off a speck of dust before settling them down on the silver spoke. Sweet simple duets, a man and a woman singing about autumn leaves, moonlight, dancing cheek to cheek—all the lovely, lulling bullshit Bento actually believes, which is why I’m finding it harder and harder to go there in the evenings, to sit at his wooden table sipping Spanish tempranillo, to watch his hard calves as he stands at the stove, snapping off little sprigs from the herb pots on the sill and dropping them into the paella pan. Dark curls cluster at the nape of his neck. His shoulders are broad, his torso long.
Despite his rugged charms, it’s become more and more difficult to dance merengue after dinner, until he slowly steers me down the hall to his bed, where he does the warm, wordless things he knows how to do so well. To wake up bleary at two or three A.M., to tug on my clothes despite his murmured Stay, querida, and drive home through the black streets of the city. To wake at five-thirty for my run, those damn romantic tunes still wafting through my mind with their promises of some lazy, lovely future where men love women and women love them back. Simple, golden, natural. A future that Bento’s trying to conjure with his saffron and whiskey and snifters of 43 and low delicious voice. A future where I don’t get up and run home to my own place. A future increasingly at odds with what I see on the crime beat each day and what I carry in my head.
I know I should be grateful. Good looks, good job, and good ethics. He’s a coastal geomorphologist at the University of New Orleans—tenured, no less, which is nothing to sneeze at since the recession hit last year. He works on restoring Louisiana’s marshlands—the buffer zone between the Gulf and the city—trying to prevent future catastrophes like Katrina. He cooks, he’s funny, and he knows a thing or two in the bedroom. Plenty of women would snap Bento up. Yet he wants me.
Problem is, I may not be cut out for the love of a good man.
I don’t do relationships. Never have. Until now. Never saw one growing up. My father took off before I was born—I don’t even know the man’s name, despite years of asking—and my mother raised me on her own in the Desire Projects. She called me Nola, after the city’s acronym, and gave me Céspedes, her own last name. In the projects, single mothers were as common as the other kind, and plenty of kids didn’t know their fathers. When it comes to lasting relationships, I don’t have a lot of models.
Which is why I’ve got Daddy Yankee blasting in my earbuds as I run through Audubon Park in the half light of dawn, pounding my feet into the path, obliterating the strains of old-style romance with its thumping reggaeton. The morning breeze cools my face. Moonlight in Vermont? No, thank you. Dame la gasolina.
It’s been a year since I met Bento, a year since I broke a big story on sex offenders and got moved to the crime beat at the Times-Picayune, a year since I entered therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder. A year since I shot the man who raped me when I was eight.
Vengeance isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, even when the guy’s been starring in your nightmares for two decades. Even when he’s been abducting, raping, and murdering women from the streets of New Orleans. The beautiful, searing, righteous high of vengeance can only last so long. Then you’ve got the fallout. The horror, plain and simple, of taking another human life. The guilt, because the public thinks—as you’ve led them to believe—that you’re a brave, heroic girl who killed a sexual predator in self-defense, when in truth his death was the pure product of vendetta. The new, uncontrollable trembling in your wrists when you pick up your gun.
The bad dreams of a different ilk, where you’re the monster now.
Shiduri Collins has helped. I’ve told her everything in her peaceful office on a tree-lined street, including the fact that I think I started planning Blake Lanusse’s death from the moment I opened his case file—that the interviews were little more than a ruse, a way to get him alone in his French Quarter condo, to see for myself if he’d changed. Dr. Collins is the only one who knows about my premeditation. When I told her, she only said softly, “I’d like to have put a bullet in my uncle’s head.” When I confessed the full, serene, blossoming joy I’d felt when I learned that Blake Lanusse hadn’t changed at all—had deteriorated, in fact, upping the ante from rape to murder—and that no one would miss him, except perhaps his duped, overstuffed wife, Lily, pobrecita, which gave me the moral greenlight to take him off the streets forever, Dr. Collins only smiled her soft, ambiguous smile. “There are other ways, Nola,” she said. Ways to deal, she meant. Healthy ways. Legal ways. But the shine in her eyes looked like pleasure.
Shiduri Collins is the therapist I interviewed for the Times-Pic feature on sex offenders—my big break, the story that flicked all these dominoes tumbling. For the last year now, she’s been helping me sift through the debris of my rape at eight years old and the messy “mechanisms” I’ve been using to “cope” ever since: the drinking, the workaholism, the no-strings sex with random strangers. Dr. Collins works with me on deep relaxation breathing and EMDR. I sit in her office and count backward with my eyes closed, loosening each part of my body from my toes on up, melting into her soft little couch. I visualize myself in hammocks on warm beaches. I write accusation letters that I read aloud to her and then tear up. I hit the little couch with a foam bat, feeling stupid. If I could only learn to meditate, she’d be thrilled.
* * *
A lot can change in a year. I’ve gone from being a frustrated fluff reporter, covering fashion and charity balls and gallery openings, to the City Desk at the Picayune, reporting rapes and murders. Drug busts, when the NOPD can manage them. I love it, and my editor, Bailey, loves my work. Crime is my métier.
Thanks to the sluggish post-Katrina real estate market, I’ve moved into my friend Soline’s elegant condo on St. Charles, which wouldn’t sell when she bought a new place with her husband, Rob. I live there now “as a favor,” she keeps insisting, but I’m paying only half her mortgage, after vaulting several social classes for the price of a one-day U-Haul rental. I left behind my good friend and roommate, Uri, in our creaky, comfy old apartment over Fair Grinds. I miss him. I miss his humor, his kindness, his brown dog Roux. I miss the way he bails me out of my own messes. Soline’s apartment is pretty like a magazine, but it’s lonely in the evenings.
Other things have changed, too. My mother, in an inspiring late-life renaissance, has come out of the closet in every respect, moving in with her girlfriend Ledia, joining a seniors’ water-volleyball team, of all things, and getting loud at immigration rallies. This transformation for my shy, quiet mother, who lived in the projects for years, muted by her broken English, her poverty, and her fear, is little short of a miracle—though not one the Pope would approve.
Running faster to keep up with a quicker beat, I round the bend under the live oak trees. Spanish moss dangles down in gouts of gray. Up ahead, the lake glimmers.
My friends’ lives have changed, too. Calinda, who always loved the single life, hit thirty this year. Baby fever blindsided her. Having already dated all of this city’s eligible bachelors and most of the ineligible ones, Calinda abruptly gave up on what she now calls “the propaganda of the nuclear family” and has been browsing local sperm banks. A crack public defender, she’s still working at the DA’s—and still complaining about it. But I’ve noticed she hasn’t been applying to any cushy private firms like she always used to say she would. Maybe grit’s addictive.
Fabi, our Chicana princess, is still ambivalently stringing along her Italian stockbroker-and-restaurateur Carlo, who keeps pulling out the fat pear diamond and having it rebuffed. She still teaches high school as an act of charity and dreams of becoming Mother Teresa, as soon as she can relinquish designer clothes. Already as waifish as a ballerina, she’s become a vegan—for environmental reasons, she says—and may soon disappear altogether. She calls it planetary awareness. I call it a problem.
Soline, whose shop Sinegal is flourishing on Magazine Street, remains ensconced in newlywed bliss. She’s working on plans to open her first branch, Sinegal Miami, and keeps hinting around about a girls’ trip to South Beach, which I cannot afford, for the ribbon-cutting.
My weekly visits with Marisol, my Little Sister through Big Brothers Big Sisters, have mushroomed from two hours each Saturday afternoon to four, and sometimes she stays for dinner. We’ve explored the city, done homework, and are currently trying to skateboard—at Marisol’s instigation, and to her great amusement. Wobbling and weaving down the sidewalks together, I’ve been unlocking, a little at a time, my memories of what it should have been like to be twelve, thirteen. To really be a kid.
And romance. I won’t call it love. Bento. That’s a change, too.
I don’t know what most bachelor bedrooms look like in New Orleans. My previous escapades rarely took me that far. But I’d lay money they don’t look like Bento’s.
He shipped everything over from Spain when he came here. On the walls over his bed, old Moorish mirrors face each other—which makes for a pleasantly pornographic view, depending on the occasion. The intricately carved wooden frames, peaked at the top, make it strangely mosquelike, as if the Kama Sutra were framed by something holy.
The bed itself is low and plush, a mattress and box spring flush to the floor, clad in simple white linens. The mattress is one of those Tempur-Pedic memory-foam things that welcomes you down. You sink, and it cradles you. You wonder why you ever left the womb.
At the foot of the bed on a carved wooden trunk sits a beautiful old backgammon board, inlaid with marble and mother-of-pearl. In candlelight, it glows. One set of pieces is turquoise, the other green jade. The small disks are cool and smooth in your fingers. They click against each other with the pleasing heaviness of river stones.
The first time I went to Bento’s house—the first time we drank wine on his couch, night fell, and he took my hand and led me to his bedroom—I was surprised. He didn’t tear my clothes off, didn’t make a move. He sank to the mattress, gathered the dice into the cup, and shook it, smiling up at me.
I stood there. I didn’t know how to play.
* * *
I drop to a walk, wiping my hand over my forehead. Four miles at a quick clip is enough. A man bicycles past. Sweating and breathing hard, I switch off Daddy Yankee and cross my arms up over my head, opening my lungs, stretching my spine.
Ducks swim and flap on the lake. It’s still so early, so quiet. Audubon Park is nearly empty. At dawn, before the people come, it feels a little like Eden. It’s where I run now. My haven. It used to be a plantation, of course, like all the land in New Orleans. A sullied Eden.
I step off the path into the green grass by the water, breathing deeply, and all the fertile smells of spring rush into me. Words like peat and loam and fecund come to mind. The sun’s not fully up yet, and the wind is cool. The lake lies silver and smooth beside me, swathes of green algae veiling its surface. Far over to my right, across St. Charles Avenue and its light traffic, are the redbrick buildings of Loyola University. As I keep walking, the creamy stone campus of Tulane appears, still fast asleep. Tulane, my alma mater.
Beneath my steps, spears of green grass push thickly up, and the tune seeps back into my head. As long as I can be with you, it’s a lovely day. So much for ridding my mind of romance. I walk, humming.
Up ahead, I spot something. A little distance off the path lies a small, shining, black thing. An odd thing, an odd shape. I approach and crouch down.
It’s a severed head. The head of a crow or grackle or blackbird, its beak pressed tightly shut, its feathers iridescent, its small eyelid closed. There’s no stench, no sweet rotting smell of carcass. It’s fresh. A tiny clean white stem, its spine, protrudes slightly from the black feathered neck.
Among the fragile green blades of grass, the head lies there like an icon of violence, so small I could hold it in my hand. But I don’t. I photograph it with my cell phone. Odd: just lying there, like something from vodou.
Its beak points in the direction I’ve been walking.
I stand and move on, heading across a span of grass toward the water’s edge where the pine and cypress trees thicken. The soft wind blows my T-shirt against my spine.
Another small black thing. I move close, chilled and curious. It’s a second head—a grackle’s, almost certainly—fresh, lying with its eyes closed and its closed beak again pointing like a slim black arrow toward the water.
And suddenly there’s something too coincidental about them, too creepy. Too human. No other animal does this. A shiver spins across my shoulder blades, and I feel my small aloneness there in the green bowl the land makes, alone in my jog bra and shorts, my little phone and lip balm and keys zipped into my pocket. Alone in the grassy field with tender new shoots springing up and severed heads scrying a path forward toward the lake’s lonely edge.
Abruptly it runs through me: a cold quickening down my spine and through my limbs and gut. The sick, sure tingle of a crime scene. My legs begin to run of their own accord, carrying me clumsily at first and then swiftly toward the lake in the dim gray morning air, and I spot them, the running shoes upturned with their reflective stripes shimmering in the gloom, the pale ankles, and now I’m moving faster, desperate, Please let her be alive. I know it’s a woman, and as I get closer I see that it is, that her clothes are torn away and her limbs are limp in the dirt between the knobby roots of the cypress, the green leaves of elephant’s ears smashed and splayed around her. Her head tilts back off the bank, the ends of her loose hair snaking lazily into the water. There’s something familiar about her face, and I’m crouching down next to her, muttering Please as my fingers search the flesh of her still-warm throat for a pulse but find nothing, nothing, nothing.
Copyright © 2013 by Joy Castro