- Swim, Memory
Leaving New Orleans when hurricanes threatened was a joke. The one year I left town, my friends who stayed in town called me from their barbeque at the levee where the sun was coming through rainbows and rain. Other years, when we learned to stay, we put peanut butter on tortillas when we lost electricity, and listened to palm trees rake futilely at the windows. Post-storm damage only ever amounted to: shredded branches strewn across the streets, power lines hanging like lions’ tails, and enough standing water to gently push a canoe through with an oar.
So, the day before the worst storm we could never even imagine, before we knew we were leaving, my brother Michael said, “Let’s take pictures of places that might end up underwater.”
I said, “Don’t you think that’s kind of morbid?”
And my roommate Kate said, “As long as we can get daiquiris first.”
The only place I know of where you can get drive-thru daiquiris is New Orleans. As long as the seal isn’t broken where you poke through with a straw, you’re not drinking and driving. You’re holding and driving and peeling back the lid and gulping. Two very different things.
I wasn’t driving, anyway. I drank my frozen White Russian in the back of my own car, and looked at my straw-haired brother in the rearview as he punctured the top of the cup. Kate’s face shone like Kahlua and cream in the side mirror, and I gave her a raised-eyebrows look from above my sunglasses when she said, “Hurricane? I ain’t scared.”
When she saw me looking at her, I pushed my oversized shades back up on my nose and watched what we were supposed to remember. [End Page 1]
First, we went up to the levee, to the stretch of grass where spiced fingers hoisted handfuls of red crawfish from 30-gallon tin pots, dogs dripping with river ran through bikinied screamers, and old men with long hair blew their harmonicas against the backdrop of the wide gray water.
Our initials are still on the planks above the river: MN, MN, KP. There are snakes under those planks, and river rats, and rocks painted with new paw prints. Curled limbs from every northern city on the Mississippi rush through its eddies. We threw twigs at the passing driftwood. Quincy, my red dog, swam just so far into and out of the saddles of water that he knew he’d come back. Animals know their bounds better than us.
Flanking the non-river side of the uptown levee are the train tracks and the Audubon Zoo. Later, they would load zebras, alligators, elephants, orangutans, giraffes, black bears, pythons, and wolves onto freight cars, some holding each others’ tails like hands, others screaming in their confusion like a modern-day Noah’s Ark. Or that was one version of the story. We didn’t know about the myths that would surface yet, not when we were taking pictures. We didn’t know the photos would never get developed.
Kate, holding a glass of red wine, framed herself in the yellow doorway of my bedroom and parted the smell of sautéed onions and cheese.
“What do you want to do?” she asked.
Decisiveness is stubborn when it feels a summoning. I looked at Quincy, who was looking at me with his head on his crossed paws, and I felt, despite the hassle of packing and the uselessness of most evacuations, that everything in my body was saying: Run, run.
In 1864, P. O. Hebert, the state engineer, warned New Orleanians and their governors that the city either needed better protection, or they needed to breach a series of openings in the Mississippi to let out the building pressure. “We are every year confining this immense river closer and closer to its own bed, forgetting that it is fed by over 1500 streams—and regardless of a danger becoming every year more and more impending,” he stated in his Report on the Drainage of the City of New Orleans.
One thousand five hundred streams...