Gobs of glitter smeared across eyelids that should be heavy from a lack of sleep catch the light. Arms dangle like pale vines from the balcony, neon wristbands blooming above orchid hands. It is hot, hotter even than outside, and a brass band shakes the speakers, sends the floorboards vibrating. Wilted dresses flash underneath glistening faces. I cup my hair in my hand, a fistful of curls slick and heavy with sweat. It’s a Friday night and I’m exhausted, as usual, from work, nine hours in an office. But it’s Free Music Friday. I’m already tipsy from dinner wine and my friend’s cute new roommate has promised to be there. And it’s my first summer in New Orleans.
For all three summers of college, I escaped from the city — North Carolina, Paris, Poland. But two years ago, I was intrigued by sticking out a sweltering New Orleans summer at last. It was something a true New Orleanian had to experience, I thought, and as a hopeful permanent New Orleanian, I wanted to make sure I didn’t miss out. I anticipated those sulfur pink nights with the only relief the slow swing of three squeaky fan blades. Splaying out naked on damp white sheets, windows letting in the mournful wail of barges on the Mississippi, train whistles at the crossing along the levee. Knowing that, hot as it was, I would fall asleep eventually, a cold morning shower, a starchy blouse that would grow soggy and soft by the time I reached the bus, bag over the top of my skirt by the time got to work.
That first summer was a slow blur of Maple Leaf ice water from the giant orange cooler at the door, tight black dresses soaked through by the first set, seeking out one of a number of pairs of eyes across the balcony at Tip’s. It was a solitary first summer. Hurricane Isaac blew out my power and I drove down Tchoupitoulas with my windows open, growling out BB King lyrics at the top of my lungs. It was too hot to cook; I ate only salad for weeks, ice-cold baby carrots dunked in hummus. My skirts ballooned at the waist, shorts held up with a belt. I fixed this by eating mint chocolate ice cream out on the porch every night after dinner.
I have always been immune to mosquitoes and I watched them flit underneath the porch bulb, then I shut off the light and watched the moonlight glint off the spire on the convent across the street. The nuns were fast asleep, industrial fan twirling inside a second story window. The thinnest breeze blew through the line of porches, and below, my neighbor mumbled to a friend in Arabic, ice in their glasses like timpani.
The second summer was sharp gin and tonics from Miss Mae’s, saccharine nectar cream snoballs, Creole Creamery sundaes that melted in minutes. Not drinking to get drunk, just to cool off. To keep cooling off. I lost a dozen hair ties a day, left a trail from the first bar to the second, from the second to the third. Swirled in the sheets of the bed. A river of bobby pins. Or I forgot them and held my hair in a knot while we danced. I wore high-heeled sandals so I would almost reach my new boyfriend’s face with mine. We met the previous winter, lumped together on my porch rockers in sweaters. A New Orleans native, he complained at the first chilly hints of winter. Summer fit us better. He wore clothes the colors of ice cream, ran down the streetcar tracks even when the temperature peaked in the nineties, grilled Andouille out on his porch in the oppressive heat with an Abita sweating in his hand.
That August, fat drops of four o’clock rain pelted the windows of the nearest conference room of the office where I worked. I stuffed a stack of papers to file in a desk drawer and watched storms roll in from the west. Below, Poydras Street was an empty black ribbon until the clouds lifted, and seersucker and linen dots emerged from the buildings.
One morning, I waded to my car from the driveway, praying the water didn’t reach my tailpipe in a pair of shrimp boots that swallowed my feet, water swirling in my footsteps. A truck parted the calf-high water, sending silent tendrils through the café au lait-colored soup.
I spent my nights walking down Prytania and St. Charles and Magazine, hands locked in my boyfriend’s palms, watching the roaches scuttle as the streetlights flickered on. They worked, more or less, on these streets. Not on his, though, and we felt our way home through the dark, tripping over oak roots. The chill on bare arms as we emerged into the air-conditioned stairwell. His roommates kept the windows closed, but I wanted to fling them open, let in the streaks of headlights and faint smell of night jasmine and the bounce music emanating from the car stopped at the corner.
There is something about those New Orleans summers that makes me miss them —sundresses sticking to my skin, Abitas paid for with change, never quite being able to cool off. The heat makes us see ourselves as we truly are. It’s too hot for makeup, and straightened hair springs into curls. It keeps us from covering up our bodies, even if we want to. We smell. Kids and grandmothers melt at bus stops. Abandoned blocks look even bleaker than usual, crushed-in houses bleaching in the sun. And of course, at any time, a hurricane could roll in from the Gulf.
Still, I am nostalgic about those months of oppressive heat.