I didn’t know it then, but I would soon be leaving New Orleans. I would go to New York for eight months, where I would share an apartment with a call girl and get my first job as a bartender; then I would come back for a second, longer, and much happier stay in my favorite city.
But at that moment I was sitting in the empty kitchen of a barge, rocked by heavy weather in the Gulf of Mexico. We’d been out for a week, I think, when a tropical storm made the grade and became a hurricane, stalking the Gulf with evil intent. The barge was turned around and heading back to Corpus Christi, Texas. We’d secured most of the pots and pans, the tin cans and plates and coffee mugs, in the kitchen, where I worked as a cook. We’d removed the napkin dispensers and the condiments from the tables. Still, sometimes something would come loose and the pitch of the barge would send it clamoring to the floor. We sat there and tended to it, me and whoever was off duty, eating saltine crackers and gulping dramamine.
We were told it’d take the better part of two days to reach port. Rumors of the hurricane’s location and trajectory were the coin of the realm; no one knew anything except what the captain told us, and no one believed he was telling us everything. I remember one of the roustabouts, young and terrified, claiming that he’d heard that the waters here were shallow enough that if we were caught in the trough of a big enough wave the barge could hit sea bottom and split its hull, damning us all. In retrospect it’s outlandish, but at the time it seemed an inevitable truth.
I thought about my best friend, an Australian expatriate who’d moved into my one-room apartment with me following the dissolution of his marriage. We’d been close for years, and I’d never had a better friend. We both applied to be offshore cooks together, and though we were both hired, he chose at the last minute to decline the job, staying to work in the city instead. At the time, I congratulated myself for taking the more interesting path; now I pictured him watching The X-Files on my couch, unpitched by the earth, tables level and static, and I envied the hell out of him. He was moving back to Australia before I was scheduled to get home, but was planning on returning in a year. I had given my thirty day notice on the apartment we shared; I’d come home with just enough time to pack and move out.
There was a girl back home, too. I’d only been seeing her a short time; before starting work offshore I worked in a bookstore in the French Quarter. She did too. She was small and lovely, funny, and very smart. She had short, wavy dark hair and a hard-edged femininity that made me think of a character from a Hemingway novel. I am always slightly amazed when a woman chooses to be with me — a walking, talking tangle of fear and neurosis — and I was amazed then: dumbstruck with fortune.
I would be moving in with her, and her roommates, when I got home. The storm held no fear for me. A new life was about to begin.
It was the last night on the barge, and I was in my bunk, trying without success to read. It was Henry Miller, I believe — Tropic of Cancer or Quiet Days in Clichy. The wild, urgent poetry of the book and the heaving of the ship boiled me in a cauldron of romantic fervor. I couldn’t concentrate. I lay back on my thin little mattress and it occurred to me that I was in a storm at sea, a beautiful and terrifying experience, and I didn’t even know what it looked like.
So I got out of bed and I went outside to see.
The world was a calamity of wind and rain and risen sea. I stepped over a snarl of heavy ropes and stood at the railing. It was night, but it would have been as dark at any hour. The sky boiled with black clouds; the wind and rain were a horizontal blast of beautiful fury. The sea moved like muscle: huge, shifting energies, spraying mists of foam and water into the sky.
In the midst of all of this tumult, out over the waves, were a handful of tiny birds, turned against the brunt of the gale, seemingly hovering in place a few feet above the water. One would dip down every now and then and skim the surface of the water, angling up again a moment later to rejoin the others. I don’t know what kind of birds they were or whether they were in any danger. But they seemed serene: points of stillness in the upending of the sea and the sky. It remains one of the most astonishing and beautiful things I have ever seen.
Soon I would go back inside and go back to my bunk. The next day we would reach Texas safely, and I would board a bus that would take me home, where I would discover that my new girlfriend and my best friend had discovered each other and started a relationship of their own. He would already be in Australia by this time and beyond direct confrontation; she would be as kind as she could be, but, as they say, the heart wants what it wants. I wouldn’t fault her for it. I would move in with another friend instead, work offshore for a short while longer, and soon be offered a place to stay in New York. Sick of New Orleans and sick at heart, I would accept, and leave it gladly.
I would mourn losing her, but because our time together had been so short it was more the promise of her than the reality of her that I’d mourn. The true loss would be my best friend. I loved him and I would miss him terribly. They would end up getting married, and would stay that way — which I would come to regard as a happy ending.
That was all a day or two away, though, as I stood at the railing, watching those tiny birds glide through the storm, as untroubled as stones in a brook.