A New Last Year

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This last year, some of the people who I’d grown to care about the most moved away. One of the first friends I made when I moved to New Orleans in the summer of 2010 headed north, more than a thousand miles outside city limits. Mark was like a sibling. He even looked like a healthier, handsomer version of me, and we’d regularly be asked if we were brothers. We also talked a whole lot of shit: on the gentrification that we were contributing to; the rapid, often unwelcome change of the city that we had only recently transplanted ourselves in; the violence and dysfunction that was here long before we were; the appropriation of culture we ourselves wished to assimilate. Together we articulated our own personal grievances and complaints about a city full of so many people who’ve suffered so much more than we socially advantaged twenty-something white males ever have or will.

 

The last night we spent together, Mark’s car’s starter mechanism died in a drugstore parking lot on Carrolton Avenue. This was the vehicle that was supposed to move him to Pennsylvania. A more superstitious person might take this as a sign. I have a friend who once believed himself destined for Wisconsin. He tied up his loose ends and packed up his car with everything he owned. Not only did he fail to make it outside of city limits, he didn’t he even make it past St. Claude Avenue. Just as he was leaving, his car shit the bed—a quirk of fate accredited to an ignition coil—so he stayed. That was years ago. He’s been here ever since.

 

One of Mark’s routine criticisms of New Orleans was that it’s too dangerous to comfortably walk around after dark. During the past year, when bicyclists got pushed over and beaten unconscious with baseball bats on Esplanade, people freaked out. These sorts of incidents compromise the illusory sanctity of all the newly-paved streets with designated bicycle lanes. For the people who don’t know any better, erroneous estimations of inner-city safety are irresponsible and perilous. I feel for those who receive their reminders of the hard facts through personal experience. Unfortunately, urban renewal isn’t synonymous with social justice, and just because they resurfaced your street doesn’t necessarily mean you’re any safer.

 

On a typically humid summer night, a few blocks above Broad on Orleans, I hugged one of my best friends goodbye and haven’t seen him since. “I’ve lived in New Orleans for years,” he said. “Now I’m going to do the one thing I’ve tried to avoid the whole time I’ve been here: walk home alone at night.” This city definitely divulges its own messages, although the meaning is often cryptic. Mark made the last couple of miles back to his house with the backyard practically underneath the Claiborne overpass. Nothing bad happened. He got his car fixed and he left.

 

***

 

Sophie departed on very different terms. In actuality, her most recent exit wasn’t her first. She disappeared from my life once before. We’d been on somewhat strained terms after having sporadically made out a couple times without communicating about it. After not seeing her for a few months, she called me in the early spring of 2013 from her parent’s house in Atlanta. I hadn’t even realized she was gone, although in reality she’d been out of town for weeks. A doctor’s visit regarding a swollen lymph node had unexpectedly led to a diagnosis of thyroid cancer after a drawn-out series of medical examinations. It’s hard to know what to say to a person in her mid-twenties who has malignant growths inside her body. When she came back to town, the fresh scar etched across her neck and up both sides of her throat evidenced her recent surgery. This winter, Sophie left the city a second time, the cancer apparently either not fully removed or gradually growing back.

 

As a general rule, I try to keep friends who are better people than I am. Ideally, I associate with people whose individualized brand of whatever makes them special might wear off on me, even if only by a slight degree. Sophie and I share an inexplicable friendship. She is much cooler than I am. In spite of my habitually grumpy disposition and my lack of social grace, she genuinely cares about me in this rare and powerful way. She’ll also likely use all these compliments against me after she reads them, requisitioning the words to find a clever and all too incisive way of making fun of me at some point in the future. As a matter of fact, I’d be disappointed if she didn’t.

 

If you can find yourself a devoted friend who can candidly call you out for all of your self-imposed shortcomings—your flawed-yet-fixable personality traits and your superficially concealed insecurities—do your best to keep that person around. The vast majority of advice is bullshit but I truly believe these people will make you incontrovertibly better and I suggest seeking them out and endearing yourself to them. And if they leave, cry about it. Seriously. Their presence is valuable in ways that can never be measured.

 

At Sophie’s goodbye party, our farewell embrace at 3:30 in the morning was sloppy and heartfelt. I yelled over the music in the bar, “I’ll miss you!” and she said, “What?!” and I yelled once more, “I’LL MISS YOU SO MUCH!” and the next song came on and drowned out anything either of us had to say that we might have believed was of any importance.

 

My sadness about Sophie’s leaving is selfish. I don’t mean to give the impression that I don’t worry terribly about my beloved friend’s totally unfair, straight-up terrifying health issues. I get so intensely upset by Sophie’s struggle with cancer that I lose the ability to express my anger. However, Sophie made it pretty clear to me early on that she wasn’t interested in my own grief about her personal problems. So when she left, I did what I do best and felt bad for myself. I told her so, and she totally understood.

 

***

 

Sometimes the bottom falls out when bidding farewell. Whatever holds a person together can essentially give way. We unravel, relinquishing our composure. Guts spill everywhere. We float above messes of our own making and observe the wreckage through flooded eyes, usually at which point the one thing I can think that will make me feel any better is this will hurt less, later. There is a final separation left to explain, full of sorrow. When saying goodbye to the girl I’ve loved the most, I came undone.

 

We moved to New Orleans two months after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill started. Crude continued to gush into the Gulf for another month after our arrival. We spent the Fourth of July swimming in the Pearl River, before the Temple-Inland paper mill in Bogalusa exceeded its wastewater discharge levels and killed 500,000 fish. That inaugural August, The Times-Picayune reported roads buckling “under the stress of excessive summer heat.” We shared the middle room of a shotgun house where the side-door had been walled over by the absentee landlord long before we moved in. Our lofted mattress, left by a stranger who lived there before us, was perched underneath a small transom, our only bedroom window. We took turns sleeping with our faces in front of it, though it sometimes seems impossible to find a breeze during the dog days in this southern quagmire disguised as a city.

 

By fall, she and I had found a new room to share and the months in which we could see each other’s breath when waking in the morning were soon upon us. The subsequent winter was the one many of my friends commemorate as the worst in memory. This somber designation is upheld in particular by those of us who transplanted ourselves into the area after it had seen its own devastation, the likes of which we can attempt to imagine but will never come close to fully comprehending. When our second summer set in, we both took respite from the city, traveling together at first and then splitting off from one another to go in different directions. Shortly after reuniting in the following September, our relationship as we knew it ceased.

 

When we moved to New Orleans we were totally in love, our adoration for one another not yet mired by the inevitable difficulties of sharing a life with another person. We didn’t fall out of love as much as things fell apart. Afterwards, we haunted one another. Years passed, neither of us able to shake off the feeling of being abandoned. Every time we tried to piece things back together we only ended up doing more damage. I think falling in love with another person is one of the most reckless things we can do, handing over our hearts in spite of our implicit understanding that we are fallible, that nearly everything eventually fails. We’ll give away pieces of ourselves at the risk of a lifetime of emotional peril, all for that feeling of being loved back. Bare in mind, it has been said: you have to know you’ve got a thing to give it.

 

On parting, we both cried. Seven years of emotions spilled out. There were admissions of guilt, requests for forgiveness, acceptances of apologies. We made declarations of something we still haven’t figured out how to define.

 

“I fucking hate Oregon,” I told her.

 

“I know,” she said. “Me too.”

 

 

***

 

I don’t really like to think that as soon as we begin to know a person, that person inevitably begins to leave. I try to avoid viewing the passage of time as a buildup to a departure, a procession towards long distance silence. I feel a need for a reality fixed in something less fatalistic and more hopeful. Perhaps it’s the tendency, when faced with any sort of loss, to weigh out the discernible absences, to carry the feeling of the heaviest void in place of whatever has gone missing. People leave and that’s painful; sometimes so much that we feel debilitated. Conversely, we also have the funny habit of being able to get past nearly anything, at least enough so we can carry on with our daily lives. Although, some things stay with us forever. Everyone has ghosts.

 

As much as I’d like it if no one else I cared about left, I should also say: if you don’t want to be here or if you can no longer stay—if the challenge is too great or you are called to other places—I hope the opportunity is available for you to leave and that you take it. I’ll miss you.

 

Andru Okun lives in New Orleans, LA, where he is currently employed as a civil servant.

 

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