Day 1: I have no idea what I'm doing, but I've made it to New Orleans. It's 8:50 p.m., two hours ahead of my normal time in Seattle, and in 10 minutes I'm going to meet a stranger I met on Instagram. His name is Marc. He's 31, he has thick black hair, and I think I have a serious crush on him. So much so, I traveled across the country to stay with him for a week. I've never done something like this. I don't even like meeting guys off Grindr because it feels like too much work. Yet somehow here I am, waiting on Magazine Street in New Orleans. I've quit my awful tech job and cashed in a measly year's worth of retirement (enough for one month's rent back home), and would be certain I'm having a mental breakdown if this didn't feel so good.
I've been thinking about this moment for a month. Every night, Marc and I talk on the phone, remarking how we don't believe in romance and how we like loud female punk bands but also secretly cry to Radiohead (only sometimes). We tell each other how surprised we are at our feelings for each other; how we've never met someone from Instagram; how we never expected something so fake to yield something so serious. We're suspicious, and so the only way to resolve it is by meeting, which we do, right now.
"Hey punk," he says. Good news: He wasn't catfishing me. More good news: He's stupidly handsome, wearing a white tee and jeans, like a hustler in a Tennessee Williams play. (Later, a street singer also tells him he looks like a Tennessee Williams hustler. It turns out he gets this all the time.) I giggle and cover my face. He kisses me. "Fuck," I gush. The kissing is perfect, and then so is the touching, and then later the fucking, but the simple novelty of watching his face move makes the trip worth it.
Day 2: We have our first meal together at the Joint, a barbecue place in the Bywater neighborhood. It's surrounded by Easter-colored shotgun houses and street cats. Inside, gutter punks eat slow-cooked pork next to tourists from southern suburbs. Like many things in New Orleans, the food demands your attention. Our eating is only interrupted by us gawking at each other. "You're here," he says, astounded, again and again.
Day 3: Our first days are filled with dates, but our "first date" is an accident. This time, our meat eating feels romantic under dim lighting, next to art made from beer caps. He tells me about missing his family in Portland. He's crusty Pacific Northwest scum at heart, but the crawfish and humidity and tinsel-wrapped porches of New Orleans turned a weeklong trip into three years. "This place does that to people," he says, as a tattooed server with severe bangs delivers macaroni and cheese, oysters, and foie gras, which feels hedonistic, like everything else here. He tells me he's known ASL forever since his sister has hearing loss. Spanish, too, because he's Mexican and Spanish. "How many languages do you have to speak to be a polyglot?" I ask, but he starts to cry, which makes me start to cry. "I'm sorry," he says. "You're making me think a lot about home." We smile and then blame our tears on the whiskey.
After dinner, we sit on rope swings attached to the branches of a live oak tree. These are trees that have lived through hundreds of years of hurricanes and heat, but here we are, two bloated queers full of booze and duck liver, worried the branches will snap under our weight. "I don't wanna leave," I say. "Then don't," he says. We laugh. Ships pushing up the Mississippi blow their horns.
Day 5: Marc is working. I walk from his house to his store in Uptown. It's a five-mile stretch that curves with the Mississippi, passing over the crumbling sidewalks of the Bywater and through the French Quarter, where clumps of tourists appear and vanish like cattle. The noise of New Orleans is as dense as its humidity, and it's on this walk that I realize a week will never be enough. Two weeks, maybe. But a week? No.
At night, I make him a proposition on the streetcar home. "It's silly for me to leave now," I say, "because all my work is remote, and my friends say I should stay, and I don't wanna go." I expect a pause, but he hugs me and says, "Stay as long as you want. Please. Really." I take him up on the offer and decide to stay a month.
New Orleans is as nourishing to extroverts as Seattle is to introverts. In New Orleans, celebrations happen on their own time, and they require everyone's participation. Day 8: I'm stopped by a bike parade. Day 9: A real parade, but parades happen every day in New Orleans, without warning. Day 11: I find the decapitated head of a stuffed Miss Piggy and bring it home to Marc. That same day, he brings me a sequined shirt from Spongebob. There are trinkets everywhere. On Day 12, after another night of risky daiquiris, Marc gets quiet then says, "I love you. I want to be your boyfriend." I respond, "Yes, please," then remember to say what I think is obvious: "I love you, too."
Day 14: I try not to think about Day 31. The days are passing more quickly.
17: Everyone in New Orleans says alcoholism doesn't exist, but then how do I explain the carnie who is always outside that dive bar called Big Daddy's who keeps asking me to cuddle with him? 19: As much as the city gives, it takes, and hangovers are its weapon of choice. 21: We decide it will be romantic to have sex in a graveyard. I dress for the occasion by wearing all black. First, we get a drink at Big Daddy's. 22: We are still at Big Daddy's and the sun is out. I'm not sure anymore that I like bars being open 24/7. 23: I secretly vomit in the bathroom at Marc's work. For the first time in my life, I deeply respect and admire a 2 a.m. bar close.
25: One-tenth of his hair is gray. How gray will it be next time I see him? 27: We start telling our friends and family that we're dating. We feel like an eHarmony ad, but for Instagram. 29: I tell Marc, "A month isn't enough. I don't know if any amount of time will be enough." "Duh," he says. 30: We prepare ourselves for months of FaceTime by squeezing and biting and poking each other, trying to leave bruises so we remember we're real.
Day 31: I get a text from him while the stewardess is giving her safety speech. "I'm still here," it says. "I know," I send back, tallying the ways that's true: a tiny bruise from the pinching, a hickey from the good-bye. New Orleans left me with marks. "I'm here, too," I say, and then I fly out of the swamp.