Guest Columnist #71 - Dalia

    New Orleans in January was a hot, sweet dream, a tangled maze of alleys and bars, slow tugboats on the Mississippi. Elevated cemeteries, the graves raised to avoid the swampy earth.  My days were blurring into one another in a pleasant wash of sweat and beer, late nights and pool hall Laundromats, slow lazy sex for hours, forever, in a little yellow apartment with the radio on.  January! I couldn’t believe it, the backyard was such a humid green jungle of vines and trash, I wore just a tee shirt more days than not.
    I drove to the city with Shon, Isabel and Tessa, packed tight into a little brown van that had once been my home. When we coasted down the off ramp, we were right on the heels of a beat up green van, with a scuba shop bumper sticker on the back that said, Happiness Is Being In Over Your Head.
    Everyone told me what a fucked up place it was, and it’s true, but as always not the whole story. From the moment I arrived there were so many little kindnesses. We stumbled wet and deliriously tired into Café du Monde, drank strong, pungent coffee, full of chicory and milk. We wanted benigets, hot little doughnuts in blizzards of powdered sugar, and noticed that people were getting up and going, leaving piles of them uneaten on the little tables.  We nabbed them, sneakily at first but everyone saw what we were doing and rushed smiling to give us their extras, wanting to be in on the fun. Above us beating and flapping in the green and white canvas of the tent, hundreds of pigeons swooped and pecked at the doughnuts we didn’t finish, rumpled grey table divers, like us. They left me at a Texaco station in the rain with my pack and fiddle, and a few hours later I found my friends.
    It was a happy time, walking a lot, riding on the back of Saturn’s bike with my arms around his chest, feeling the muscles expand and contract through the softness of his thin shirt.  We rode that way so much that I wrote on the back of his red tee shirt, If You Can Read This, Dalia Fell Off.  Lights and smells of all kinds bounced off our skin as we whizzed through the streets, and music, music everywhere. Music was the blood thumping through the veins of that city, the pounding bass from passing cars, deep thick sounds you could feel in your chest from a block away. Spilling out of the clubs and bars along with the clouds of smoke and dim light, disco and jazz, recorded and live, metal and blues, and around every corner or crouched in a doorway, someone playing alone on the street. Our house was full of it too, the sweet echoing ring of Theo’s guitar and Saturn’s harmonica drifting up off the porch and through the open window late at night. I practiced my fiddle out on the chipped yellow balcony, starting and blushing one day when someone unseen but very close applauded and hooted from a nearby yard.
    One day walking with my fiddle through Jackson Square I passed through a crowd watching a great blues band, all decked out in hats and leather. The singer yelled through the mike, pointing at my instrument case, “Hey sister, come up here and play that thing!” I almost tripped, yelled back; “I wouldn’t do that to you! I suck!” “I don’t believe you!”, his laughter followed me out of the square.
    I loved it best when I’d play in the busy middle of a Saturday, delivery trucks thundering and clattering on the rough cracked asphalt, kids and drunks yelling, the wind flapping loud. I loved it best when I could hardly hear what I was playing, when I was just another note in the wild symphony of the street.  In every bar there was a jukebox, in every jukebox songs I loved from different lives and times.
    The first song I heard after I found out Sera was dead was Tom Waits singing a hoarse lullaby, piano and guitar twining gently around his voice. “I sleep with my shovel and my leather gloves, a little trouble makes it worth the going, and a little rain never hurt no one…” It had been thundering on and off all that day, there was a waiting electricity in the air. The music floated out of an open window as I leaned on a wall, reeled through the street.
    We didn’t have a phone and I didn’t know our address. I was unreachable and that had been okay until now. As the rain started I ducked into one of those tourist information storefronts to check my email, and the first message was from Sascha. I clicked on the little tag line, puzzled. Kissing the tears from your eyes. Why tears? I read the message. He thought I already knew. I started to shake and stumbled out into the day, all the business of life still whirring and rumbling in the streets, and you know the world doesn’t stop when we die.
    I didn’t know her well. We had just started to really be friends. She had popped up in my life at different actions and eras and towns, I was always glad to see her. We were family in the way of close acquaintances who share a lover, common friends, a similar geography of experience. And I had just been with her not two weeks before, staying at her house; a beautiful old three-story in west Philadelphia. Some of my friends lived there, had bought the place and were hard at work making it theirs. We’d ridden our bikes red-knuckled through the cold, telling stories with coffee chattering through our veins. On New Years Eve I had been at a party in the huge old ex-squat that I used to live in, the place had been packed hot and joyful, all my beautiful friends jumping and yelling and grinning, grinding and kissing. She had been there, showing off her new tattoo, kissing me, once, when it went midnight.
    I was dizzy with grief, the tables had turned. Wandering through the sea of faces, through different cities and years I had always been the listening stranger, interested, or awed or grateful, ready with some change, a smile, a hug or a necessary silence. And now, shell-shocked in the late afternoon light, I needed someone desperately. I’d never been so raw and alone.  I stumbled around the French quarter with my fiddle case in my arms. I didn’t know how to think about it.
    Most of the pay phones in the quarter had been ripped out, I looked for almost an hour getting more and more frantic. Turning and turning in the maze of narrow streets, some of them sealed off; they were filming a movie, the sun was going down, the crowds were getting bigger.   Finally I walked up to a man with a tool belt and asked if he knew where to find one. He didn’t, but he handed me his cell phone and said, “Here, honey. Call wherever you need to, as long as it’s in the country.”  I thanked him, dialing blindly and when the ringing started I realized I was calling Sera to see if it was true. I hung up and tried a different number, held my breath til Sophi picked up. “Sophi, can you tell me what happened to Sera?” She passed the phone to Emily, who sighed. She told me. They had gotten a call from a Maryland state trooper one night, telling them that Sera’s body had just been pulled out of the river. She had driven her truck across the bridge, turned it around, and halfway across, jumped. In January, in the late afternoon.
    I handed back the phone. Trying to blink back tears, failing, they poured down my cheeks. “Thanks. Thank you so much.” He looked at me with great tenderness, squinting out of a lined brown face. He squeezed my shoulder with a thick warm hand. “What happened?” I swallowed. “My friend, I just saw her a few weeks ago, she just jumped off a bridge in Maryland. She’s dead, but I just saw her. She has a new tattoo. She had plans, she was going on a big trip, she was so excited, she just finished her novel, I don’t know what to think, I’m not making sense, I’m sorry…” He smiled, with anxious eyebrows, “Hey, it’s okay, it’s okay. That is so sad, I’m sorry. What was her name?”   “Sera.”   “Did you know she was…did you know she was sad?”
    I thought about the last time I’d seen her. In the kitchen early in the morning, still waking up and shaking off the dreams, her curled up at the table writing, me making coffee for us. She had paused, and when I asked how she was burst into tears. I’d dragged my chair across the linoleum, hugged her while she cried. I felt for her, but I didn’t worry; I’d seen her this way before. She was little and intense, with a strong, dramatic presence, a traveler, always on her way, always arriving. She made me laugh. She was about to move out of the house, go to Europe with a dear friend. Plans and plane tickets, the road ahead, I never thought she would choose to die. She cried, what if it wasn’t any better where she was going, what if she never found a place to belong to, what if it always hurt this much? I rubbed her back, said things. I wanted her to go anyway. I wanted her to see that she was wrong.
    Is it like this for everyone? The involuntary twitch and buckle in the knees when you come to a high place or cliff, I could do that. I thought maybe she was like me, suicide always riding shotgun, a constant presence just around the corner of vision, moving in and out of the periphery. A persistent hum under all the other machinery of life. Driving alone sometimes I notice that I’m looking for a good place to crash without hurting anyone else, on my way through the kitchen for some water the knife lying up on it’s edge makes my wrists flinch and ache. It’s a habit of death, not always about sadness or circumstance. I could do that. But the tail end of that thought had always been, okay, not today. Knowing that I can makes it easier to choose to stay. And I go on, happy even.
    I look at the man with his hand on my arm. He has a kind face, and tired. The creases in it are grooved deep, from sun and worry, laughter, stories I don’t know. I felt a flash of longing, for the lines and scars, for the passage of time, only more time, to keep living with hurt places and bruises, only to keep going, to get old. “Did you ever know anyone who killed themselves?” He sighs. “Yes. Yes I did. That’s the hardest way to lose them. You always wonder…” He doesn’t finish, but I know what he means. He touched my back softly, “I have to go. Will you be all right?” I was so tired all the sudden. “Yeah.”   “I’m sorry about your friend.”  “She’s okay now. She’s all done.” It made sense in that moment. She wasn’t in pain anymore, wasn’t anything anymore. Wasn’t still carrying whatever had been so hard.
    I could feel the warm press of his hand as I walked away crying. Not just for her, but for all of us left. I spend my life apart from most of the people I love. We travel, we work and go to school, we fall in love. Different passions and reasons take us tearing across the country and the world by bus and thumb, by foot and freight. I don’t see or hear from people for months, years sometimes. But my love for them lives, and I know they’re in the world somewhere. That any day now I’ll come home to a big backpack on my porch, a letter, a phone message, some dear unexpected face will rush back into my life through the kitchen door. That there’s still time to take them in my arms, to hear all the new stories, say all the things I haven’t managed to yet. In the meantime there are the pictures curling on my wall, things I remember, mannerisms I’ve picked up, all the inextricable ways we’ve loved and hurt each other.  It’s what we do, keep pieces of each other safe; for later, for hard times, for when we forget. And then they die, and there’s no one to hand the stories back to, no one to look at through the eyes of love, hey, remember this? And the story’s done, and the life we’re left holding is ours to keep. 
    I walked down to the water through a light rain that let up as I reached the shore. Sat on some rocks and played a song, for goodbye.
    It's been years since last we met, we will never meet again
    I have struggled to forget, but the struggle was in vain
    For her voice lives on the breeze, and her spirit comes at will
    In the midnight on the seas, her bright smile haunts me still
    I have sailed a falling sky, I have charted hazards' path
    I have seen the storm arise, like a giant in his wrath
    Every danger I have known, that a reckless life can fill
    Though her presence is now flown, her bright smile haunts me still
—Dalia