I was 19 years old, with a few weeks before my twentieth birthday, making what appeared to be a regular coming of age decision: I picked out my first apartment. It was April 2005, and the New Orleans humidity was suffocating.
I remember a sense of relief as I saw a girl walking down Broadway unabashed by the sweat marks permeating her gray t-shirt. My concern about managing the moisture oozing out of my skin was replaced by the freeing understanding that you just go with it.
The realtor walked my father and I around to several apartments in the University/Riverbend area. She openly shared with us her opinion that anything beyond Willow was “unsafe,” so we kept toward the St. Charles/Carrollton side of Tulane’s campus. She made small talk about hurricanes and how when they pass through all of the kids go north and throw a party in Baton Rouge or other inland Louisiana cities. “Did I have a plan?” she wanted to know. What she was really asking was “Did I have friends – you know, for the party?”
A transferring sophomore, I was looking for a one-bedroom off campus, within walking distance to school. I was unfamiliar with the shotgun-style house and I frowned at the idea of having guests walk through my bedroom to use the toilet. (Clothes. I can be messy.) My dad was concerned about his daughter living alone in a basement apartment so after crossing off one apartment after another, we settled on a third floor apartment on Maple and Cherokee.
My unit was on the top floor in the middle of the U-shaped building. The interior was standard carpet, central A/C, closed off kitchen and a separate bed and bath. The exterior was brick and had the charm I associate with the architecture of New Orleans. It sat on a shade-covered corner and boasted an enclosed courtyard with benches and a fountain. There was a dark iron fence surrounding the property.
That summer, 2005, I spent on the west coast of Africa. I packed one suitcase, stuffed to capacity, with what I’d need for a summer volunteering at a sickle cell clinic in Kumasi, Ghana. The rest of my belongings were gathered and sorted into boxes and suitcases to travel south ahead of me. I wasn’t to return until the weekend of August 28, just days before school started.
While I was gone, my parents brought down all of my belongings and unpacked my pristine apartment. The property management company recently outfitted it with new carpeting. My mom and dad shopped used furniture stores and found a great desk, couch, coffee table, chair and ottoman. They set up my new bed, unpacked all of my belongings and organized my clothes neatly in the walk-in closet. They suffered through a few nights in the pizza-oven of my apartment while the A/C was out mid-August.
I returned to the States and the weekend of August 28 we filled the car with odds and ends – heavy things you don’t fly with such as books and lamps. My dad diligently, obsessively tracked a massive hurricane off the Gulf Coast, but with school slated to begin that Monday, my mother, sister, two cats and I set out for the drive anyway.
We spent three days in Knoxville before turning around and going home.
I never had a doubt about returning to New Orleans following the storm. Though I’d never lived in the city, the mere fact that everything I owned reseted in that pristine apartment we’d so carefully selected kept me, as well as my future, bound to the space. So I waited. And waited.
Once I got word that the apartment building was intact, there was more waiting, this time for the second semester of school to start.
Finally after months of waiting, my life on pause, in a Twilight Zone-like instance as though time chad merely skipped,we packed the car once more and again my mom, sister, two cats and the lamps and books and headed south.
Driving directions, specifically MapQuest, don’t differentiate the “scenic view,” they take you the direct way. In this case, we knew we were getting close when we saw the tree line – or lack thereof. We approached the city via a barren wasteland. We arrived to see lines of people waiting for food from Red Cross trucks. People, we thought, were a good sign. I grew up in the suburbs. I’d only really seen the Garden District, so I’d be lying if I told you that this desolate stretch of Claiborne Avenue didn’t leave me unsettled.
Then we arrived at my apartment. Untouched, a tomb of my things sat protected and unscathed amid the upheaval of nature and humanity that raged outside the brick walls. These belongings, familiar things, seemed almost to belong to another. Every shirt, every trouser was perfectly placed and seemed to have nothing to do with me or anything in New Orleans. In a city where you’d be hard-pressed to find a roof that wasn’t slightly askew, not a single item in my apartment was displaced.
The air was slightly stale because no one opened a window in months, as if a ghost had spent the last months floating through the space, an intangible presence that was stuck eternally sitting, waiting with everything in place for the guest of honor.
My first instinct was to destroy the eerie order, make a mess of my own space, mimicking that of everything around it…to take the first t-shirt off the stack and refold it the way that I like to. But then, as we attempted to navigate the necessary tasks in a fractured city, it became a place of solace, a protected alcove that had evaded the destruction. We — my sister (who decided to live with me for a few months) and I — made it a home and I’d soon return from class to two loud-mouthed cats and my sister asking what I wanted for dinner. We played house and learned the city together, as it was slowly pieced back together.
I like to think that if I’d lost everything I’d still come back, still stay. Part luck, part personalities, somehow choosing my first apartment played a larger role than I could ever fathom. I’m thirty now and the resonating feeling when I think back to that time was that here, this place, was my future. And everything that happened between September 2005 and January 2006 were just fillers to get me here, to get us to now.