I want to tell you of a house on fire. And, of virga, rain that evaporates before it reaches the ground.
I’m still twenty-three when I get married and move to New Orleans. It’s March of 2007. Sometime around my birthday in June, I realize what I’ve done.
The previous summer, my heart breaks for the first time. The man I move from Tennessee to Seattle to live with after college is the same man I paint some furniture with, stand on the beach with facing the Pacific, the bright edge of the world. He is the one I talk to for hours. The one whose questions teach me the answer of my self. The one who lets me in, lets me be part of his family.
Turns out, he is also the one who perches me on the edge of the bed upstairs in his parents’ house and tells me he doesn’t love me. He never did.
It takes a couple of hours to pack my things and leave.
I watch a house burn. The stone chimney stands witness as the crossbeams collapse. The floor is cinders, glowing coals of a charred life. A clanging, sag and buckle. The walls subside. Orange flames leap at the winter sky, a paradox of cold blue. There is nothing I can do but let the image gather in my mind like raw wool caught in barbed wire.
It’s August when I leave behind the man who doesn’t love me. I drive east, hell bent across Idaho through a haze of tears and brush fire. By the time I get to Tennessee I’ve stopped crying.
After four nights in my parents’ house, I realize I can’t be there. I send out a few applications and take a couple phone interviews. I’m offered a job working the front desk at a guest ranch in Colorado.
Eleven days later, I meet Nolan. In three months, we’re engaged. Three months after that, we’re married on a windy March day in Kentucky. And, three months later, I turn twenty-four in our rotting apartment in post-Katrina New Orleans.
To celebrate my birthday, Nolan puts candles on top layer of our wedding cake. I wear my blue dress, the form-fitting one with a v-neck in both the front and back.
I have yet to realize how lost I am, though the signs keep showing up. I’m reckless that year. I jump, sometimes, from the car when it’s moving. I cannot bear riding tandem. At times, I have no sense of control.
I leave one day and drive three hours east, to Pensacola, looking for the beach ball water tower. I don’t know if I’ll return. The multicolored beach ball hovers high off the dunes. It reminds me of days past, days spent as a teenager in the hot white sand, flirting with boys and charging headlong into the turquoise waves. The beach ball is a token of myself before I became a wife. Before my identity ceases to be mine. I harbor only the feeling of marrying—becoming someone else’s before I am ever my own.
At some point, I drive back.
Two years earlier. I’m a Junior at the University of Tennessee. I sit slack-jawed on the footrest, autumn light slanting through the curtains as I watch the Weather Channel. On the screen, Hurricane Katrina obliterates the city of New Orleans. A manic wildness shuffles the trees. Harsh rain pelts in sideways. People shout, begging for help. Fear is palpable. There is an undercurrent of horror. The flood rises. Angry voices shake. The whole world hears the profaneness of water.
I arrive in aftermath. This is Katrina—forever here, forever gone. Palms along Interstate 10 are wind-shorn on one side, giving the appearance that the gale still blows. The trauma to this landscape is a door left ajar—the terrain replays the wound. It is as real as the day it happened. I feel this way, too, half blown apart.
Living in Katrina’s wake, I cannot make sense of this haunted world. New Orleans is a place that has survived, but isn’t healing. I can identify. Despite having married the next man who loves me, I am still broken from the last one, who did not.
To learn the city and my place in it, I run the cracked streets of New Orleans. Past corner stores, down the mid-line of St. Charles where drifty shadows from the Spanish moss pass over the streetcars as they travel. Live oaks impart the dark secrets of something old and half gone, something hollow and lingering.
I run atop the levees near our apartment. The paved trails follow the curve of the water. The Mississippi is huge, and I don’t know how its banks hold under normal conditions, much less a hurricane surge. Riverboats run, waterwheels churning up and down the brown current. Trash barges move slowly as I jog past. This is a foreign place. I try to make sense of it by putting my body into the ruined landscape.
A memory. As a young girl, I see a house on fire, rafters and beams burned black. I watch as solid matter turns to ash. Dad parks across the street, giving the blaze space. We have room to gawk. This is spectacle, on the way home from church, but I can think of nothing as holy as this: the mundane on an altar, an offering going up in smoke. It’s as if it were normal, us watching silently as a home burns to the ground. Flames surge around the stone chimney, dark smoke billows across the bone-blue sky. And, it is spectacle. Time slows to nothing. I feel it slip past.
I am witness to this apocalyptic burning-down, implicated by it. I remember that house when I am in the city. Living there, I watch myself, a house on fire. For the duration of my time in New Orleans I hold the feeling of a flame spotting a spark from across the room—Let us join hands and bring this place to her knees.
I come to realize marriage is not a redemption story. Nolan cannot save me. It will take me as long to heal as it takes this city to reclaim herself.
I am in pain, but I reveal only what leaks through the cracks. Keeping hidden seems risky, damaging. The way an old levee keeps all its cracks hidden until the day it bursts and floods the city. There is no putting back the rage that breaks free.
The house burns. The rain falls, but it never reaches the ground.
Visitors come to stay with us. Either Nolan’s parents or mine—there are forms but no faces in this memory. We aren’t yet comfortable together, not having spent much time in the same space.
Cruising the Ninth Ward, where Katrina hit hardest, we drive past graying palmettos with waterlines halfway up their trunks and flat, sandy lots marked by cinderblock rectangles. This is a hurricane tour. Each rectangle marks where a house used to sit. Block after block is obliterated this way. Homes are gone, but cornerstones remain like phantom limbs, phantom pain. Tree branches hold the shape of the wind. They are permanently bent by what has blown through.
The Ninth Ward claims the sense of something stillborn. A held breath. A washed silence.
We tour the place.
We like to think we understand, but we have no idea the terror and rage of water. The will of it, the uncertainty. How it will go wherever it pleases, despite what is put in place to stop it.
We drive, block after block. The sun scorches the autumn sky white. Puffy clouds crop up near the horizon. It is open here, like a desert. So many houses are gone, I imagine I can see all the way to the Gulf, over the ledge of the earth. The emptiness holds a hushed landscape. A topography of pain. A geography of tiny, fallen things.
This is a catalogue of lost stories, of what is left behind.
It’s been two years since the levees broke, and still, there are houses to be gutted, stripped bare of everything the flood touched. Black mold grows thick in rotten sheetrock, creeping up beams and banisters, across ceilings and floors. Some places still have refrigerators sitting by the curb, waiting to be taken away and destroyed.
The Ninth Ward is a museum of abeyance. People wait for their homes to be either torn down or rebuilt. They will wait for a long time. They will wait forever.
Some homeowners have chairs on the lawn. Wicker patio furniture sits inside the rectangle where the home used be. They recline in the open sun, shooting the shit. As though they’re porch sitting, as though walls still surround them. As though they’re protected from anything coming their way. They sit in the space of what is no longer and call it home.
I don’t know what to do with this image. How to process making a home from vapor, from the shape of what is gone. I hold in me the same phantom future, attempting to settle into the held breath of what comes after whatever was before.
Our tour extends to a satellite campus of the museum. Far outside the city, the Louisiana countryside rolls out flat and swampy, gradually rising to higher ground. The road is straight, lined with kudzu-choked trees, and all along it are miles and miles and miles and miles of flooded cars. They keep going, like a child has arranged her Hot Wheels to reach infinity. It is a display of scope, the vastness of ruin. They sit idle, single-file to be smashed paper thin and incinerated.
I can’t make sense of the magnitude. Of how long it will take to compact all these cars. The history of water is the only exhibit here, as metal rusts and the interiors mold in the white, hot sun.
When I need to remember a place, the quality of its light is always my first point of reference. I make distinctions between memories based on the light etched in my mind. In New Orleans, the diffused light is the gateway to the city. It is a swamp. A place that bubbles up, effuses questions, and hides answers. A place that intercepts and keeps things.
I am late. And, I know it. Seven days. Eight. Nine. Ten. And, I am worried. Nolan drives to the store for a pregnancy test. I’m twelve days late. I’ve been married shy of nine months. The numbers swirl.
12 days late.
9 months married.
2 minutes with this white, plastic stick.
I am baffled by the numbers and the way the stick turns bright, whatever color. Bright, indicative of Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes, there’s a baby. Yes, you are sinking to the floor. Yes, you’re not ready, but your brand new husband is. Yes, there. Bright, on the stick. There’s no other way to read it. Yes, I’m pregnant.
Nolan is immediately elated. This is what’s meant to be.
You get married. You have kids. This equation flows seamlessly on the surface of the muddy river, but with a roiling current below. You get married. You have kids. It’s the expected trajectory. And, here it is. Fruition.
The levee breaks. I feel myself tip, become unsteady. An undertow threatens to drag me where I do not yet want to go.
We stand in the tiny bathroom, vanity lights glaring, for a long time, hugging. I am hugging, because I need someone to hold me up. Nolan is hugging, because he is happy. My world is on a tilt. Everything moves at breakneck speed. My head can’t yet wrap around the fact that I am no longer in Seattle with the man who does not love me. I am here, in this wrecked city with the one who does, storing a life in my belly, whether I’m ready for it or not.
Pregnancy stirs up questions continually. The river has turned, and I have not seen it coming. I am growing a human where I have not yet grown a self. My belly swells. I become an unknowable terrain.
I have the sense life is grinding to a halt. My identity is fluttering away before I ever hold it as my own. I am twenty-four.
The river is a dailiness. A slow return to the mundane in this ruined place. The shape, the bend in the river’s path defines my sense of New Orleans, as the shape of my belly begins to define my body. The bend is at the heart of it. It is in everything—in the jazz notes on the street corner, the nuanced flames of the gaslight, the embroidered railings, and the misty nights with porch lights searching into the fog. It’s in everything written about New Orleans. It occupies the sweat and humid gag of the place, the cramped streets and odd silences. It’s in the canted drops of sweat trickling down my spine. The bend in the river is the city’s sense of itself. And still, after I’ve been gone from there a dozen years, it laps at me, molds me, changes me. I too, want definition like this. To know what I am bending towards when I walk away from this place.
In my last memory of that year, I am standing on a shadowed street in a red dress, hugely pregnant in the May heat. My swollen belly makes the shape of a crescent, the shape of my future. I am still lost. But my road is rolling out before me. I am headed toward motherhood and the rest of my life.
From the airplane at twilight, New Orleans glows from inside the bend in the river. It is as if a house has burned and the embers still flicker in the growing dark, tiny flames illuminating the shape of what once was.
Anna Oberg is a professional photographer based in Estes Park, Colorado. When she’s not arranging family portraits with the perfect view of Long’s Peak as backdrop, she focuses on writing tiny memories and small stories. She has been published in Cleaver Magazine, Burningword Literary Journal, The Maine Review, and on HerStry blog. You can check out her photographs on Instagram @annakoberg25.