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I sat on the rough white carpet; a slight, moist breeze flew through the window and sent goose bumps up my arms and legs. A shiver bolted down my spine as I watched the TV. My mother sat on the couch, listless. The red and white emotionless headline bordered our old television. The raindrops on the TV dropped like bombs and left clouds of water growing higher. My sister and I sat on the floor, cross-legged, watching the television intently. My father had his arm around my mother, her eyebrows furrowed with worry in her eyes. We still watched, not saying a word. The only sound was the snapping of rain on the windowpanes and the trees creaking in the wind. I was too afraid to look any longer… I slowly picked myself up and walked to my room, wondering why Ms. Katrina was so very mad. August 28, 2005.
Two and a half years later, I sat on a plane. The stale, over-breathed air made my nose twitch while my ears popped. I closed my eyes and took a long, deep breath. The plane began to descend downward and I gripped the armrests on the seat. A wave of nausea blanketed me as I squeezed my eyes shut and tried to breathe deeply. My family had always told me I’d outgrow the motion sickness, but I never believed them. Suddenly, I heard and felt a loud pop. I opened my eyes and looked out the window. I saw my favorite city, the sun shining down and soaking up my worry, replacing it with excitement. Well, my assumed city. All I could see was the airport but the same sun beat down on the metal roofs of hangers and awaiting planes.
“We’re here.” I smiled, turning to my mom.
“Yep.” She replied, “We’re here.” She seemed a little relieved.
We stepped off the plane and a wave of humidity and heat hit us like a wet cloth in the face. I remembered that smell of pungent humidity. My father squeezed my arm and smiled down at me, as we stood outside the airport, waiting for the shuttle to pick us up. The sun had begun to set. We stepped up into the shuttle, which smelled the same as the airplane—an over-breathed stench of body odor and humid air. I peered out the large, tinted window and surveyed my favorite city. It was reflected orange and yellow from the setting sun, and long dark shadows cast by the trees shaded my vision of the city, which had been so patiently waiting for me. March 17, 2007.
We picked out our rental car and I silently slid into the back seat. It smelled of new car, with smooth leather seats and seatbelts that made a zipping sound when you moved them. My grandmother climbed in the back seat with me and pulled on her seatbelt as well. I propped my elbow up on the ledge of the partially cracked window and stared out at the vast parking lot that radiating the infamous New Orleans heat. A breeze came through the cracked window, but it was as warm as the air outside and the leather beneath my thighs. As we pulled out of the parking lot, I felt my stomach churn a bit. My fear of finding a destroyed city returned. I gripped the seat belt as we zoomed down the long strand of highway with the GPS spewing directions at my parents in the front seat. My fear began to dull away as a wave of fatigue washed over me. Travel always sucked the energy out of me like a funnel. I fell fast asleep.
I awoke the next morning in a soft bed in a room I did not recognize. I sat up quickly and looked around, wondering if I had fallen into a dream. I looked at the clock and at my sleeping grandmother in the bed next to mine. I realized this was my uncle’s home, and one of my parents must have carried me from the car. My orange suitcase sat unopened. I opened it up and grabbed my toiletry bag. I went to shower with anxiety still waving under the surface of my stomach. The bathroom window was cracked open, but it felt ten thousand degrees. I turned the water knob to “COLD” and hesitantly stepped into the basin. I showered as quickly as possible. I wanted to go. I dressed myself and grabbed an apple; always the first one ready. With my purse packed and my sandals strapped, I waited patiently at the front door for the rest of our crew. I wanted to see my city.
“Let’s go!” I called, getting more impatient. “I want to go!” Finally my family came down the stairs one by one, ready for the day. We climbed back into the car and began to drive, over the bridge, into the heart of New Orleans.
Some neighborhoods were hit harder than others. We stopped at my cousin’s old house. I was speechless. Every house on the block was vacated, each the empty shell of a crab who had moved on. Water lines were twelve feet tall, way over twice my height. I sat in the backyard and felt the grass around me as my parents looked in the windows and my grandmother sat in the car. I didn’t want to look in. I didn’t want to kiss goodbye the sweet memories of running barefoot on cool pink tile, or driving down the halls in a pink Barbie Jeep. I couldn’t just let the hurricane sweep away my childhood memories of what was once such a magical place.
“Let’s go.” I said tearfully to my parents.
We silently climbed back into the car and I fastened my seatbelt.
“How was it?” My grandmother asked, nervously.
“It was…” my mother began.
“Empty.” I interjected. “I don’t want to look back.” I whispered as we drove away.
We drove down some streets and passed more waterlines and spray painted X’s. Shells of abandoned houses and buildings lined the streets. Finally I began to see something reassuring to
the southern eye. Wrought iron began to appear on the buildings, around archways and windows. I smiled to myself, knowing where we were. We passed Café Du Monde and around Jackson Square where the artists painted and the trombones played. Where the soulful songs mixed with coffee and beignets, where the water once surged.
We parked and stepped out of the car into the humid New Orleans air. A slight breeze carried the smells of seafood and the sounds of sweet jazz and I looked around. Everything seemed so in place there; the colors, smells, sights, tastes. The way the air touched you was like a gentle nudge from the spirit of the city, smiling deep within.
“I really love this place.” I said to myself as we began to walk… and the city smiled.