Max and I decide to paint our kitchen green. He pours water over coffee grinds with the fancy kettle a friend gave us as a gift after we bought the house. It has a digital thermometer.
I scroll through the morning news.
America’s Sweetheart is in trouble.
For being a terrible cunt to everyone on the set of her stupid talk show.
Most famous people are cunts. Are you surprised?
The headline says: THE DOWNFALL OF AMERICA’S FAVORITE TALK SHOW HOST
What else is happening?
I tell Max about the end of the world but I can’t scroll any further. I’m fixated on the picture of America’s Sweetheart, her blue eyes shocked wide.
I text a screenshot to Alex, my best friend. I know he will laugh. He texts me back immediately:
In the paint aisle, I look up America’s Sweetheart’s Wikipedia page. She grew up in a suburb outside of New Orleans. Maybe twenty-five minutes from our house in the Lower 9th. I ask Max if he knows this. He asks me to help him choose some samples. I slide my phone into my back pocket and look for colors that remind me of the time a few Springs ago when we called out sick to work and drove to Bogue Chitto near the border of Louisiana and Mississippi. We ate gas station sandwiches with fried pickles, drank cokes, and floated in the murky sage river all day.
1. Coastal Seaglass
2. Sugar Snap Pea
4. Truly Olive
Max takes the long way home from the paint store. Less stoplights, more trees. He connects his iPhone to the truck stereo’s bluetooth and puts on Neil Young’s On the Beach. It’s our summer album. I roll my window down. Ooh baby, that's hard to change. Pass the cute shiny diner that neither of us have been to, but always talk about going to whenever we see it. I can't tell them how to feel. Pass a fruit stand. Max suggests stopping for strawberries, but we don’t have any cash on us and there is a sign that says: CASH ONLY taped to a basket of oranges. Some get stoned, some get strange. Pass the Jesus mural where someone has graffitied a blunt into Christ's mouth. Sooner or later, it all gets real. Then we pass the billboard. A shirtless man in blue overalls with a multitude of Mardi Gras beads strewn around his neck. He is wearing one of those Voodoo top hats with a skull and bones on it and he holds a hammer in one of his hands. He is wearing too much eyeliner and looks plasticy and airbrushed. In purple, yellow, and green letters, the billboard reads: BIG EASY BUILDERS. It’s for a local television show about home renovations. He looks like the construction worker version of Criss Angel, but instead of performing magical illusions he fixes up houses which I guess is a kind of conjuring depending on the condition of the house. If it weren’t for the hammer in his hand, you’d think he was about to give a vampire tour in the French Quarter, not build brand new kitchen cabinets made from reclaimed driftwood. The billboard’s been up for years. I’m always quietly embarrassed when we drive by it. Look away. I’ve never seen the show. I hate the billboard. Walk on, walk on. Walk on, walk on.
Sylvia owned the house before we did. She was a small Cajun woman who grew up on the Bayou. She had long witchy hair she kept tied in two neat braids and most days she wore tan Carhartt overalls with rainboots. Years ago, I lived in this house with her and her son, Ty, who was sixteen at the time, loved glitter, blue eyeliner, and punk rock. Ty started taking hormones that year and Sylvia gave him a testosterone shot every morning before school. They seemed to be endlessly exhausted with each other, themselves, the world.
That August I moved into Dauphine Street. Someone had broken my heart. Someone told me to get out. I needed a place to live and Sylvia’s husband wasn’t going to live in the house anymore. No one knew where he went.
She said: He left like a thief in the night.
She said: We could use some fresh, new energy in the house.
The bedroom Sylvia let me stay in was once the missing husband’s office. I had a mattress on the floor and a plastic tub where I stored all my clothes. Sylvia encouraged me to get more settled but I didn’t want to commit to living here. Buying furniture for the room would make my stay feel more permanent.
I ask Max if he will help me look around the attic for some old paint supplies that I am sure are up there. A few nice brushes. A tarp. No point spending more money on something we might already have, but the attic is dark and there are random things scattered around everywhere. An empty suitcase with a broken zipper. A cracked flat screen TV. Trash bags full of costume supplies from Mardi Gras past, sequins, a hot glue gun. A set of old vhs workout tapes that I found at a thrift store years ago. I told myself once I found a VCR I was going to get the 10-Minute Abs like the oiled up shirtless man on the cover promised. The tapes sit forgotten up here collecting dust instead.
Look what I found, baby!
What is that?
It’s a hand-carved recorder. It was shoved over in this corner underneath a dirty sweatshirt. Isn’t it cool?
I shine my phone’s flashlight on the instrument. It looks ancient. There is a dolphin carved into the front. I take a video of Max attempting to play the melody of ‘Walk On’ and post it to my Instagram story. I don’t remember Ty ever playing the recorder. What if it’s haunted. I get creeped out and tell Max to put it back. There aren’t any paint supplies afterall.
We go to our separate sides of the house to work on our art projects. Max is recording another demo and I am supposed to write. Like most houses in New Orleans, this one is a shotgun. All the rooms are arranged one right behind the other.
Recording Studio > Living Room > Kitchen > Laundry+Pantry > Bedroom > Office+Bathroom > Back Porch > Backyard > Chain link > Levee > River
I try to write a story about a guy who works at a gas station in New Mexico and is the joke of his town. He is convinced he saw aliens in 1969, but no one believes him and thinks he is crazy. The window above my desk looks out onto Flood Street.
My phone buzzes. It’s Alex again. He sends a video of a hot young starlet being interviewed on America’s Sweetheart’s daytime talk show. America’s Sweetheart is upset because she says the starlet didn’t invite her to her birthday party. The starlet says:
Actually, no Bonnie. That’s not true. Ask anyone. Ask your producer, Jonathan.
The starlet also tells America’s Sweetheart that another famous comedian performed a surprise stand-up set at her party and it was so special because they are her favorite comedian and then America’s Sweetheart frowned and the starlet laughed uncomfortably.
I text Alex back: lololololol
I give up on writing about aliens. The story is stupid and I don’t care about it. I google more headlines about the downfall of America’s Sweetheart. I find one that says:
AMERICA’S SWEETHEART COMPARES SOCIAL DISTANCING IN HER MANSION TO BEING IN JAIL
I text Alex the headline. In the front of the house Max isn’t playing guitar or recording. He’s out on the front porch smoking a spliff. He turns to me and says: Heyyyy babyyyyyy.
Sylvia was a very well-known chef and owned a restaurant. She usually didn’t get home till late. Someone stole something from me and ran away with it. Someone left me alone with a huge hole in the pit of me and I didn’t know how I’d ever fill it. I stopped talking to everyone. People were worried. People were nosey. People would ask, How are you holding up? or You doing ok?
I didn’t want to talk about it and everywhere I went I kept running into someone I knew who wanted to talk. I was ashamed of what happened, embarrassed, so I stayed inside the house. Most nights, it was just me and Ty eating macaroni and cheese dinners, smoking cigarettes on the back porch, and watching whatever was on TV until we both fell asleep on the couch. Ty didn’t care how I was holding up and I didn’t ask Ty any personal questions.
We still haven’t even painted the samples in the kitchen and we aren’t sleeping because someone who lives a few houses down keeps leaving their puppy in the yard. It doesn’t stop barking or crying until the sun comes up. We’re tired and out of coffee and decide to finally go to the diner we always drive past. Breakfast is shit. Cold eggs, burnt toast. Coffee sucks too. Gritty and tastes like chalk. We leave cranky and bloated. On the way home, Max points at the billboard:
Big Easy Builders. You ever watch that?
Who would trust a dude in a hat like that to restore their house?
I’ve never mentioned to Max that I know the man pictured on the billboard, that we used to share a bed, a life together. He didn’t dress like a Mardi Gras vampire back then. I’ve tried to forget about that time. If you believe something long enough it becomes real. It’s not pretend anymore. I pick coffee grinds out of my teeth and spit them out the window, turn the knob on the stereo way up. We’re on track number five of On the Beach. Neil sings from the voice of someone sucking the life out of the planet or something like that. It’s got a good groove. I make my hand do the wave motion out the window as we drive home.
There is a picture of America’s Sweetheart on Twitter sitting and laughing with George W. Bush at a Dallas Cowboys football game. Someone responds with a picture of a tiger vomiting. I find a YouTube clip of her defending her friendship with the former president on her talk show. She tells America we need to be nicer. Being a good person is her brand. Then I find this article:
WHAT REALLY HAPPENS WHEN THE CAMERA STOP ROLLING: HOW AMERICA’S FAVORITE TALK SHOW’S HOST’S FACADE OF KINDNESS CRUMBLED.
Another picture of America’s Sweetheart with her mouth turned down, hurt. The article accuses her of being abusive to staff members and throwing daily tantrums on set. Seeing this celebrity being forced to reckon with her past behavior brings me joy. I screenshot the photo.
I keep sitting at my desk to write, but I keep getting distracted. I should just paint the kitchen or I should get a job. But there aren’t any jobs for me to get right now. I don’t have a lot of skills either:
I often woke to Sylvia and Ty fighting. I’d hide in my room, staring at my phone, going back and forth between a photo I had saved on my phone of me and a man looking happy to one of the same man in an article I had found on Nola.com recently about him and his new television series. It hadn’t been long since we split, but he looked completely different to me.
One morning I had to pee so bad I was afraid I would wet my pants if I waited. I tip-toed out of my room.
Mom! You’re fucking hurting me!
Ty was standing with his pants halfway around his ass and Sylvia was on her knees holding a needle. They both froze and glared at me when they noticed me standing in the doorway.
She’s giving me my T shot and she fucking sucks at it. Give me that.
Ty grabbed the needle from Sylvia and stabbed himself and yanked up his pants. Sylvia stormed to the front door and yelled, I’ll be waiting in the car. Five minutes or you're walking to school!
I wake up before Max and paint four long fat streaks of odd green on the wall. I pour some coffee in a mug and sit at the kitchen table. Think about the Bogue Chitto river. We drifted underneath a tunnel of trees the color of Sugar Snap Pea. Think about America’s Sweetheart’s money. Has she ever swam at Bogue Chitto? I pull out my phone and begin trolling her. An audio recording has been released on TMZ of her screaming and berating one of the production assistants on the set of her show. The sound isn’t great but at one point you can hear America’s Sweetheart yell: I’m just trying to fucking help you, you fucking bitch. Figure it out yourself you stupid cunt!
I search for a comment from the production assistant and all I find is a statement that basically says everyone gets worked up sometimes.
When Max gets up and comes into the kitchen, I put down my phone and point at the wall: Well, what do you think? Which one’s your favorite?
Every morning after Sylvia dropped Ty off at school, she would build a fire in the backyard and drink herbal tea and smoke cigarettes. She threw away all of the alcohol and caffeine in the house. She said cigarettes were okay because she was going through a divorce and she needed at least one vice. I would watch Sylvia from the back porch while she stared into a blazing fire. I understood her, but her intensity scared me.
Someone told me to burn things too, said it could heal me. I wrote a letter to myself. I told myself:
Don’t be bitter. Please. Don’t be bitter. Don’t be bitter. Please please please.
When Sylvia went inside to refill her tea I brought the letter to the fire and threw it in. I watched the paper disintegrate. I waited to feel healed, waited for an answer or relief. But I just felt ridiculous. Sad too.
Later, I brought home a sage bundle. I thought Sylvia and I could walk through the house together cleansing every room of the missing husband’s bad vibes. Sylvia wouldn’t go into my bedroom though. She told me to cleanse it by myself.
Ty came home from school and asked: Why does it smell like hippie shit in here?
By October there was still no sign of the missing husband. Sylvia called this house The Home for Wayward Women. It didn’t sound like something I wanted to be. I hadn’t been touched by another human being in months. I was trying to fall out of love with someone who broke my heart. Oh yeah, Another skill I have:
Loving all the things that are bad for me. I will love you so hard. I will love you so hard for as long as you let me.
I cleansed every corner of the house, I burned more intentions, I took tinctures, I held crystals to my forehead, to my heart, to my uterus, I prayed. Nothing worked. I couldn’t sleep through the night. I’d wake up at 2 or 3 a.m and be on fire. I thought going on a date might be a good distraction so when Max asked me if I’d like to go on a walk, I said yes.
I was in my room getting dressed and I knew Max was at the door because Ty yelled: There’s a man on the front porch!
Sylvia responded from the kitchen: No men in the house!
Sorry, sorry! It’s for me! I won’t let him inside! Sorry!
I rushed from my bedroom and slipped out the door.
We walked on the levee talking awkwardly, our day and things we liked to do. We didn’t talk about anything serious, nothing about past relationships. I certainly didn’t talk about the man who kicked me out of his house after I told him I was pregnant with his baby. Or that there was a huge billboard out on the highway promoting his new television show, documenting the renovation of that house. Max probably passed it on his way to Dauphine Street.
How easily that man had deleted me from his life astonished me.
I didn’t say anything about the billboard man to Max. I would have seemed insane, unstable. He probably wouldn’t have believed me anyways.
We walked along the river until the sun went down and when we returned to the house Max asked:
So, no men allowed inside huh?
I laughed and said:
You heard that? Well. It’s just . . . yeah, no men allowed.
Alone in my bedroom, I lay on my mattress, closed my eyes tight tight and brought my thumbs to my third eye. Pleaded with the universe to teleport me to the future where nothing mattered.
The sample colors stay on the wall.
Someone called animal control on the people who kept locking their dog out.
America’s Sweetheart says she is going to ‘look into’ the allegations made against her and her talk show.
Someone makes a 100% organic cotton pocket t-shirt with the hot young starlet’s quote on it. Alex and I want to buy it for each other, but they are thirty-five dollars.
America’s Sweetheart is accused of wire fraud and bribing a prestigious university to admit her unqualified daughter. Lawyers are getting involved. Maybe there will be a trial.
The sample colors stay on the wall.
Ty and Sylvia’s fights continued to escalate. Ty broke the television set and Sylvia began locking herself in her bedroom for hours at a time. I stopped hanging out with Max. We had gone on a couple more dates after our walk, but my heart was too tender plus Sylvia really really didn’t want any men coming around the house. She told me she thought I was crazy for seeing a new person in the first place. I wanted to run to men for comfort and Sylvia wanted to do the opposite. We were all trying to get better, but I wasn’t doing it the right way, the way Sylvia thought was best. I started to look for other apartments. One night I tried to talk to Sylvia about me moving out, but she ignored the idea and said:
Listen, can you just please take Ty to Whole Foods with you and get us groceries or whatever you want. We have a gift card and he is driving me crazy. I need to be alone here for like an hour without someone telling me what a horrible mom I am. Please?
Ty and I got in my truck. He sat with his feet kicked up on the glove compartment, the same way I used to sit in the passenger's seat of my parents’ car when I was his age. He said: Can I play music from my phone?
I passed him the auxiliary cord and he put on some new, fast, pop punk music I’d never heard before.
You ever listen to Bikini Kill? I was really into them when I was your age. Here, pass me your phone. I’ll show you.
I put on Pussy Whipped and turned up the volume. We nodded our heads along. I remembered how good this music felt when I was sixteen and pissed off at everything. It still felt just as good. We got about halfway through the album before we arrived at the Whole Foods.
We grabbed a cart. I told Ty I was going to get a slice of pizza and I’d come find him after.
While I waited for my slice to heat up I felt a tap on my shoulder. A generic looking man with an expensive haircut and well-groomed beard. An old acquaintance, a friend of the billboard man. He looked at me all pitiful, his lips pouting and his brow furrowed as though he were deeply concerned for me. He said:
We haven’t seen you around in such a long time. I heard about what happened between you and . . . you know. I just wanted to tell you, I’m so sorry about the miscarriage. My wife had a miscarriage too, so I completely understand how you feel.
The person working the counter handed me my slice. Pools of grease rested inside pepperonis. I didn’t feel hungry anymore. Something else was bubbling up inside me. Rage. Sylvia was always telling me that I needed to start getting angry. She said anger gets a bad rap, that actually feeling angry can be a positive and powerful step towards healing. I stared at the man then back at my slice. I thought, fuck this bull shit and I smashed my pizza in his face. Rubbed it in hard for a second too long until he grabbed my wrist hard.
What the fuck, what the fuck.
The pizza slid off of his face and slapped on the linoleum.
You psycho bitch! I always knew you were a lunatic.
A piece of pepperoni was still stuck in his beard.
An employee who looked like she could have been my grandmother approached us and asked if everything was okay. I shook my wrist from his grasp. The man told her everything was fine, but the woman was looking to me. I nodded, Yes, yes.
I wasn’t in my body. On the verge of a panic attack. I rushed to find Ty who was wandering down the ice cream aisle. He had already filled the cart with cookies and gummy snacks and candy and popcorn and boxes of Annie’s Mac and Cheese.
Ty, can you just check out without me? Here, your mom gave us this gift card. Just make sure you get some healthy stuff, like kale or something green so she doesn’t get mad at us. I’ll meet you back at the car.
I ran away before Ty could answer me and stole a bag of cheddar cheese puffs on my way out.
In the parking lot, I hyperventilated and stuffed the cheese puffs into my mouth and sobbed. They were the nasty healthy version of Cheetos, but I hoped shoving as many chips into my mouth as I could would stop the crying. It sort of worked. I saw Ty walking towards the car with two paper bags.
What the hell is your problem?
I wiped my face with my sleeves, smiled. An attempt at composure.
Want to keep listening to Bikini Kill?
No, I don’t want to listen to your stupid fucking music. You and my mom need to get your shit together.
Another week passes and Max and I have not chosen a color to paint our kitchen. I like Sugar Snap Pea. He likes Coastal Seaglass. I am losing my mind. I need a project. I take long walks on the levee. The river is low and there is a beach where my dogs roll around in the sand. This time last summer the river was so high every time it rained we all thought it was going to top the levee and flood the Lower 9th. I do yoga. I’m positive I am getting all the poses wrong besides Corpse. I look up headlines about America’s Sweetheart. I text Alex every headline I find and each time his response is the same:
I write about the guy who works at a gas station and thinks he saw aliens in 1969 again. I practice guitar by myself. I practice guitar with Max. I sing songs with Max. We get in a small fight because he tries to teach me how to sing harmonies, but I get frustrated because it’s hard for me to sing harmonies. We have sex. We sing more songs together. I read poems. I read two books. Oh! by Mary Robison and Absence Makes the Heart by Lynne Tillman. After I finish each book I find myself scanning the acknowledgements page in the back. I am searching for a husband, a wife, a lover, a someone, anyone extra special that the writer felt compelled to permanently thank. I make a list on a piece of scratch paper of people I would want to thank. So far it just says: MAX, ALEX.
I write poems. I meditate. I make dinner with Max. We watch one of Max’s favorite movies, Miracle Mile. It’s about the apocalypse. That night I have a dream that Max moves to Jupiter and leaves me alone on our burning planet.
I talk to Alex on the phone. I wait for America’s Sweetheart to respond to any of the allegations.
America’s Sweetheart is accused of being sexually aroused by cannibalism and then a picture is leaked of her dressed in a racist Halloween costume.
I take a bath. I take so many baths. Max finishes the demos he was working on and the roof no longer leaks when it rains. I finish writing the alien guy story and read it to Max one evening on the back porch while we sip gin and tonics.
At night I lie in my bed. Stare at the ceiling. Turn on my side. Turn on my other side. I wait desperately for America’s Sweetheart to say sorry, but she stays quiet. If it wasn’t for Max I would wish to be abducted by aliens.
In December, Sylvia told me she couldn’t be in the Dauphine Street house anymore. It hurts too much. Ty and I are going to live at my parent’s house for a while.
They’re gone the following week. They left small Christmas presents on the kitchen counter. Ty gave me a packet of incense with a sticky note on it:
Because you like smelly things. Stay in touch with me. —Ty
And Sylvia left me a poetry collection by Albert Belisle Davis. She didn’t attach a note to it and I don’t know if this was on purpose or not but she dog-eared a page.
I was a woman of promise
someone determined to go
where she said she was going to be
While others around me prayed
I set apart on the plane
thinking of my adopted son
and the promise no one should make:
to always return.
I stayed. Walked around naked in the house. Played records loud. It felt strange being in the house alone. Like I should put on clothes and turn the music down. Like at any moment Sylvia and Ty were going to shoot down from the sky and scream: BOO! GOTCHA! and zap me out of the house.
I bought a bed frame and small wooden desk from the thrift store. I turned the back room into a writing room and painted it coral because the color makes me feel happy and light. I soaked in the bath for as long as I wanted and thought:
Maybe it’s okay to be wayward. Maybe I like it.
I reached out to Max and said men were now allowed. We ordered Chinese food. We drank wine. We built a fire in the backyard. We laughed a lot, something I didn’t notice I had stopped doing before.
Years go by and I stay. Max moves in. Sylvia falls in love with an English professor. Ty goes to college and graduates from college. They never return to Dauphine Street. We still haven’t painted the kitchen. Max chops vegetables and I want to dance. I go into the living room and pull Patsy Cline from the shelf. I’ve learned how to two-step. I’m in the movies when Max dips me at the end of each tune.
Come on, put that knife down and give me a twirl!
He grabs my waist, dips me and kisses me.
He’s smiling, but not at me. He’s looking at the wall with the paint samples on it. He says: Sugar snap pea.
I’m in the back of the house editing another story. This one doesn’t have aliens in it. I can hear Max listening to On the Beach in the front of the house on the turntable. Summer’s over, but we still listen to this album all the time. He flips the record.
Max yells for me.
You better come here, babe!
I shut my laptop. In the green kitchen, Max stands awkwardly with a man I recognize, but can’t place. His skin looks cracked and sunburned and his realtree overalls are covered in mud. I smell mildew and urine. I look to Max whose arms are folded across his chest and his eyes are wide saying: what do we do?
The guy starts talking and that’s when I realize he is the missing husband. I remember watching Sylvia toss photos of him into the fire pit, watching him turn into a pile of ashes. He looks different now, like he just crawled out of the swamp. He would blend in with the walls if it weren’t for his red face.
And so yeah, I was in the neighborhood. Figured I would stop by, check on the house. I see you painted.
He waves his hand around.
Under his breath, Max mumbles something like: well that’s kinda weird of you, but ok.
‘Ambulance Blues’ plays. Final song on the album. Another harmonica solo to cut the silence.
Listen, we don’t really know each other, but I always wanted to talk to you. I knew you were living with Syl and Ty after I left. Do you talk to them still? I’d just like to talk to them. Tell them I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have.
Max and Swamp Thing look at me. Wait for me to say something. More harmonica. Why are there so many harmonica solos in this song? I say:
Sylvia and Ty haven’t lived here for six years. They’re gone. I own the house now so if there isn’t anything else . . .
Well, there is one thing. I left an old recorder here. It’s really special. And I’d just like to get it back. I’ve missed it.
Max laughs, howls, says:
That’s why you’re here! You want your recorder! It must have been so special to you!
Max keeps laughing. Swamp Thing looks confused. The record ends.
Sorry, buddy. We donated it. It’s gone. Check the Goodwill. Let me walk you out.
I wave goodbye and go back to my desk.
We don’t talk about our surprise visitor until later that night in bed after we turn the lights off. I snuggle up underneath Max’s arm and say:
We didn’t donate that recorder. It’s still in the attic.
Then why’d you tell him we donated it?
Max faces me.
Because you don’t get to leave your wife and kid and then show up six years later looking for something you left behind like that.
I kiss Max goodnight. Make a mental note to myself to text Ty a picture of the recorder and see if he wants it tomorrow. I decide that if I ever have enough stories to ever have an acknowledgements page I will also thank Sylvia and Ty.
We start to think about painting the other rooms in the house. I’d like to paint our bedroom a deep-sea blue. We talk about going to the paint store. We talk about how deceiving that cute looking diner was. We talk about how much we hate harmonica solos. We never talk about the missing husband though.
Eventually, America’s Sweetheart addresses the allegations made against her. Makes jokes in between excuses for her behavior, an effort to be cute.
She says she’s a work in progress. She says sh is kind, but also many other things. She asks America for forgiveness, but never apologizes.
No one ever apologizes. Not really.
I text the video to Alex. He texts back:
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