At first, Devan doesn't want to go with me to visit my sister. He's afraid, he says. He starts to tell me about the crime rate, but I stop him. Eventually he is persuaded by promises of spicy gumbo and live jazz. "We'll be careful," I tell him as I book the tickets on-line. He closes his eyes.
But our second day there he starts having fun. We go to a cemetery. He is fascinated by the above ground caskets tucked into their little concrete tunnels. He takes pictures of leftover hurricane damage. Casey takes us under the highway ten overpass where there are still refugees sleeping in colorful tents. An unwashed black man jogs up to the car at a red light. Devan tenses visibly in the backseat. I will the light to turn green. The man centers his face in the car window and puts his fingers to his lips. Casey rolls the window down and hands him a cigarette. The traffic signal changes.
"You got a light?" he yells as we drive away.
I wear white high heels to Casey's graduation. On the way to the Loyola lawn, my family dodges spiny green caterpillars the size of steak knives.
"Careful," Casey says. "Those are poisonous. The spikes stick in your skin."
"Why haven't I seen them before?" I ask.
"The city usually sprays for them. But this year they couldn't because of the hurricane," Casey says. "Brian can't even let his dog out. She got stung like fifty times. He keeps her locked in the house now. She pees on newspaper."
I look carefully at the grass. It is alive with the movement of the poisonous green bugs. They are everywhere.
It is becoming fall, but the humidity is holding strong. Madeleine and I fly down for Labor Day weekend. We have lobster cheese dip at The Cheesecake Bistro, drink hurricanes on Frenchman Street, and ride the streetcar to Bourbon and back.
We spend a sunny afternoon in Jackson Square. There is an outdoor flea market there and my sisters move slowly from table to table in search of treasure. The wind pulls watercolor paintings away from chain link fences and long beaded bracelets roll over themselves. It carries the smell of warm kettle corn clear down to the fresh lemonade stand, where I wait.
I can see bits of them in the crowd: a lock of Casey's blond hair; a mouthful of Madeleine's tiny teeth; the Irish freckles on their bare shoulders, the last hint of summer.
To my left three bearded, black octogenarians play Dixieland. Their feet in brown shoes pound the pavement in perfect four to the bar time. To my right a man in silver body paint stands on a bucket, statue still. The aluminum can in front of him says "pigeon peas," but it is filled with change. I put in a dollar and he tips his hat to me, moving robotically. His hair is spray-painted silver. His eyes are mysterious behind his silver sunglasses.
It is our first night in Casey's new house on Robert Street. The man with the gun tells Steve to lie down on the floor, and Steve tells me. I army crawl into the living room from the kitchen. I keep my head down. I think, if I don't look at him, maybe he won't kill me.
The robbery lasts about forty minutes. I spend most of them fighting to stay conscious. Every now and then the man says something like "I'll kill you," or "I will blow your brains out," and a fresh batch of adrenaline floods my system. My heart feels too big for my chest; the ground beneath me swings.
Casey is closest to the unlocked front door. She does all the talking. She hands things, one by one, to the man. She listens carefully to his instructions, but he raises his voice anyway.
Steve and I lie still, two feet apart. I want to reach for him, but I don't. This is Steve's first visit to New Orleans, and his last during the two years we are together. He doesn't try anything heroic, which is the most heroic thing he can do. Everyone survives. The man with the gun takes a total of eighty-seven dollars, our cell phones, a pair of Steve's shorts and drives off in my sister's car.
When it is over, Steve reaches for me. Casey cries, finally. And we wait for the police together.
My first visit to New Orleans is for Mardi Gras in Casey's first year of college. Breathless, she shows me all her favorite spots: The Camellia Grille, Audubon Park, Magazine Street.
We go to the Zulu parade on Lundi Gras. It pours. Casey and I both catch coconuts; "2003" is written on them in gold flakes of glitter. The city floods easily and the gutters are backed up by three in the afternoon. A pink foam flip-flop swims by on a downhill current. Casey points and laughs. "Hold onto your shoes!"
When we head back at midnight we have thick stacks of beads around our necks and our sweatshirts are soaked through with rain water. We get one-dollar slices of pizza from The Boot on the way to her dorm. We pause under a streetlight to eat.
"Isn't this place amazing?" she asks. Her hair is slick against her skull. Her melting mascara has dyed her collar black. A lacey yellow pair of panties, a favor from the parade, hangs from her pocket. She looks wilted and sleepy bringing a piece of wet pizza to her mouth. But she smiles, even as she chews.
"Yes," I say. "It is."