She had been talking with the man on the balcony long enough that the beads of condensation on their wine glasses had evaporated. The man’s face reminded her of a beach, full of reddish freckles and seashell-white teeth. Even the whisper of Chardonnay on his breath smelled, strangely, like the ocean. She rested one hand on the sun-warmed wrought iron railing and looked past the man into the background, where slanted rooftops and weathered shingles punctured the bottom half of the sky. Glints of color flashed through the layers of rooftops. The facades and shutters in the distance were salmon and forest green, lemon yellow and royal blue, violet and tangerine. Her favorites were the plain weathered brick and cypress, the buildings that looked like artifacts.
On the street below them, a drunk man braced himself against a streetlamp. He patted the pockets of his rumpled jacket each time someone walked past. She couldn’t hear him, but she knew what he was asking, or some version of it. She turned back to the conversation with the man on the balcony. When he finally asked the question, she was surprised by how much it disappointed her.
“So where are you from?” the man said.
“Here,” she answered, adding the qualifier: “Now.”
It happened at every mixer, every meeting, every new introduction to any person, anywhere. But she had come to realize that these people hated mysteries. She pictured them stomping through a jungle in wide-brimmed hats and khakis, stooped over magnifying glasses. Kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species. And anyway, a New Orleanian of three years with no previous life history was not a recognized species, here among the balcony set.
So she explained where she was from, and smiled patiently when his enthusiasm erupted like froth spilling over the emerald rim of a Champagne bottle. She never said what she wanted to say, which is that the thing about paradise is, there is no such thing. She couldn’t explain that to someone whose experience of her heritage was a postcard.
Without meaning to, she curled her hands into fists, feeling the fine webbed lines of scars on her palms. That was just one thing. It was scorching on the trail from the beach to the highway, cutting through acres of lava fields. She didn’t remember what they were fighting about when her ex-boyfriend pushed her onto the a’a. Her blood vanished into the porous rocks, like the earth itself was thirsty.
Her thoughts drifted to the girl in her middle school whose arm was torn off by a tiger shark. When they tossed a lei onto the water to remember her, she felt there should be a red haze in the water, something to mark the spot. But it was just salty blue, like the girl never died. Even arterial blood was diluted into nothingness by the hungriness of nature.
It wasn’t all blood. She thought of the rain falling relentlessly every afternoon on their side of the volcano; her cheeks burning, walking down the toy aisle of Wal-Mart after her Tutu looked at the tally on the register and told her to take it back; the people who washed up there, from California, from Ohio, from wherever, camping in the parking lots, eventually turning the same shade of earthen leather, hair sun-bleached into an absence of color, sleeping in soiled hammocks in the day and scouring the island for a fix at night; how her Ma chased one with a stick when she caught him pissing against the low stone wall surrounding their patch of chicken-scratched garden, chased him until he stumbled and fell in the dust; how she raised that stick high in the air, and hovered, and hovered, frozen, until finally he crawled away, lurched to his feet, and when he was far enough down the road to feel safe, hurled curses over his shoulder. She grumbled that her mother should have beaten him.
“He’s someone’s son,” her mother said softly, looking past her to something she couldn’t see.
But it was quiet. The background hum of the man’s voice had stopped, and he was waiting for a response.
“Yes,” she agreed with whatever the freckled man on the balcony had said. “But I love New Orleans,” she promised. She cited the culture, and the food, and the architecture, and the music. “And this,” she gestured to the streets, where the riot of carnival surged and rolled.
On the street below them, the drunk man lost his grip on the streetlamp and sank down to the curb. He rolled his foot over a broken strand of metallic purple beads and hummed to himself. She squeezed her scarred hand around the stem of her wine glass and looked away.
Laura Brown writes in New Orleans, Louisiana.