Wednesday, August 31, 2005

New Orleans

It is August 6th and I am carrying my bags from the New Orleans airport as the hour of my birthday approaches. I packed smart, a carry-on and tote bag linked neatly over my forearm. The wet heat of the city greets me as I step between the red and yellow lanes of the airport traffic to hail a cab.

This year I made plans to go out of town on the weekend of my birthday. I want to avoid a painful day of obligatory phone calls and the .

Even though I have been respectfully employed for the past eight years I have worked seasonally at the Retail Tobacco Dealers Association (RTDA) show for Porsche/Bugatti designs selling lighters and accessories to smoke shop buyers. It's leftover business for friends, part of another life that I just can't seem to let go of.

The RTDA show occurs once a year in August-usually on my birthday-but always in some fabulous city of sin. About 3,000 overweight married men smoking cigars descend upon the lucky city for four days of buying and partying like rock stars past their prime. The tobacco vendors fall over themselves competing for the vendors attention with conflicting parties and events.

After I check into the hotel, I walk around the city exploring. I take a photo of the man playing sax in front of the church. I admire the French balconies and old street signs. I buy local jewelry from a woman with a thick Creole accent. I stop in to the overpriced specialty shops and chat with the women that work behind the counter.

There is the sound of French music lilting through the streets. I drink Espresso and eat a pastry in an open courtyard as the sun sets. Walking back to the hotel down Bourbon Street, I can feel the energy as the night begins to explode. There is something about the New Orleans air that smells like the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland. Perhaps it is old water. Or perhaps I am experiencing sensory memory. But the vision of a man on a balcony trying to entice me to flash him for the delight of some plastic metallic beads reminds me of that Anaheim Pirate chasing that woman round and round the mechanic balcony pole in Disney's version of the Bayou.

Now it is later that evening and I am one of only twenty women in a bar of four-hundred drunken men smoking Cubanos. I am sweaty from clapping my hands and dancing to the beats of three trumpets, two guitars, a banjo, a steel drum, an accordion, sounds like a harmonic and and certainly a tambourine. I feel like I have been swept into another time and another country.

An incredibly handsome man is dancing a few people over from me with no care for the fact he is sweating through his crisp, French cuff shirt. He is taller than anyone else on the dance floor so I can see his head moving above the crowd. He rocks his head and shoulders to the Cajun beats and moves his hips smoothly with great confidence. He doesn't look at me.

Not even for a moment.

My friend Thorston presses his way through the mob, grabs my hand and says in his thick German accent, "Pull yourselv avay from them - they are go-ing to eat you vith a spoon. Come meet my friends".

And he swings me around, and I am face to face with the beautiful tall man and his seductive hips.

"Frenchie, I think she likes you," Thorston says.

With a slight French accent, he extends his hand to me and dips his head in the middle of the swaying mosh pit, as if it's 1763 and I was just presented in the Royal court.

Just then I am bumped from behind and my nose falls right into his lower chest. He places a protective hand on the nape of my neck. I feel safe and like I belong to someone. I can feel the tremor of his chuckle through the light curly hairs under his shirt that are cushioning my fall. He bows his head down to my eye level and very slowly and cool-like he says in his staccato French accent, "So nice to meet you."

But then Thorston is tugging on my shoulder and he wants to twist me around in some crazy Euro-trash swing jumble. Frenchie turns back to the stage and begins stepping in time to the rhythm. He sways and dips his hips and shoulders like a salsa dancer. A really tall, really hot, really cool salsa dancer.

I keep looking back over at Frenchie. But he doesn't look back. He is swept up in the local Creole tune that has everyone in the House of Blues on their feet and moving. He wont look over and I can't look away.

There was something in that moment. I am not like this... I feel giddy, like a teenager and I am jostling to try and find myself in his line of vision. But he won't look and I feel like I am sixteen, in the third row of a Pearl Jam concert, trying to catch the eye of Eddy Vedder. Because when he sees me, he is going to want to tell me his secrets and love me forever. I am so retarded.

As I take turns being swung around the dance floor by filter paper salesman, I scold myself for my high school antics and focus on the groove of the music. By the last song I am glistening, my body's been felt up by every man on the dance floor (but Frenchie) and I am sore from hip swivels and fancy foot work.

Thorston and the other Germans are leaving and I can't wait around any longer for 'him' to talk to me. It's just not going to happen, and I can't manipulate the situation so it will. He is just not that into me... and I am too old to linger. I am ready to go back to the hotel, lay in bed and fantasize about how I really want the night to end.

I walk outside with Thorston and the others and raise my hand to wave goodbye when I feel the coolness of breath along my neck, sticky from the dancing and the humid Southern air.

"You can't go just yet. You have to save a dance just for me without all those terrible men around you."

I turn to see that the source of the lovely French accent whispering in my ear. Frenchie.

He looks fresh and full of energy and he signals to Thorston's German's and his own gang of merry Frenchmen wearing Italian suits.

"Let's go gentlemen." He politely guides me towards Bourbon Street and all the others fall into step behind us.

They are speaking in foreign tongues so I can't understand a word and I am trying not to sound like an idiot every time I open my mouth to speak to Frenchie.

It's a seven minute walk from House of Blues to the bar we were going to on Bourbon Street. But in seven minutes, we discover that we both studied International Affairs, owned our own business's, had enjoyed equally entertaining 15 minutes of fame, both wanted to travel the world as diplomats, love to dance and have a passion for voodoo.

After we arrive at the bar, we dance salsa to twelve long hard rock songs in the middle of the dance floor before Frenchie grabs my hand and sneaks us out the back door. We flee the bar, the ACDC cover band, the metallic purple and gold beads, our drunken friends, the rowdy crowd, the whore houses and strip clubs littering the sides of Bourbon Street.

We walk rapidly away from it all and fall softly into the shadows of the dark cobblestone streets of New Orleans. Even at 1:30 in the morning on streets only lit by vintage gas lamps, there is a spirit amongst us and a taste of adventure in the air and a feeling we are not alone on these haunted streets.

We are like kids on a field trip, we stop at every historic plaque, we weave through the dark alleys singing funny songs. I make him look in the windows of every significant building. We dip our toes into the Mississippi and tell dirty jokes and funny stories. He tells me about his culture, his life at home, his ambitions. I tell him mine. We walk through Jackson Square, he tells me historical facts about the early shipping years in Louisiana. He convinces me to slide through the locked fence and lie on the wet grass looking up at the stars over the mystical city. Even though only our shoulders touch it's like our bodies are tied together. I can feel every chain effect of movement in his frame through that shoulder and even the slightest increase in pressure makes me shake down to my toes.

We talk about pirates and treasures and the bones of ancestors. We step out from under the statue of Andrew Jackson and walk towards the river when he stops me to say, "I was so nervous after Thorston introduced us. I couldn't even look at you."

My ego swells. My heart opens. The sun is starting to come up.

We throw rocks in the river and try to skip them along the glassy surface. When the sun begins to illuminate the waters edge we both realize we have to be on the sales floor in an hour and a half.

"We should go," I say reluctantly, tossing my last rock into the water.

His gaze stays on the ripples now breaking up the peaceful slumber of the Mississippi and he says a little boyishly, "I could keep talking to you all day."

It's the kind of sweet thing I would never expect a tall, suave, Frenchman wearing flat front suit pants that after twelve hours of walking in the Southern heat still look as if they were just pressed to ever say to this girl-next-door.

"Me too."

We start the walk back and even though it's 8:00 AM and I've been up all night dancing and my hair is pressed to the side of my head, he takes my hand like I'm a delicate porcelain doll and glides me back through the maze of the French quarter.

He doesn't try to kiss me good morning when he leaves me at the hotel. He doesn't even try to rub up on me. He just tries to talk to me more until I see my co-workers coming down for breakfast.

"I will see you soon," he says.

"And we can go for lunch today and dinner tonight and brunch tomorrow morning?" His slickness has melted away to reveal an eager little boy trapped in the suit of a business man. I pull away from him laughing and he looks at me like I'm Gloria Steinem, Marilyn Monroe, Margaret Thatcher and Lucille Ball all wrapped up in one. I've never felt so seen. I've never felt so pretty.

After he walks away and I'm riding the elevator back to my room, my cell phone rings and they tell me I'm leaving on the early plane back to New York. It's too late to catch him. I don't have his number. My heart falls into my gut but it's out of my hands now... And well, we will always have New Orleans.

here to see a list of organizations accepting donations on behalf of Hurricane Katrina victims.

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