A Hurricane on My Television
August 26th, 2005
I am sitting on my balcony in Los Angeles, listening to the rush of the freeways and the clinking of my neighbor’s dog’s collar as it trots around their concrete yard. It is a Friday afternoon. I am avoiding the living room because my roommate is watching the news, and the news is not good. Both of our televisions are tuned to CNN, where excited young newscasters are gesturing at weather maps. The sleeves of their hundred-dollar shirts are rolled to their elbows and their eyes are wide with a caffeinated exuberance that flashes: something important is happening. A steady breeze is blowing the ocean air inland. My dog comes out and presses her muzzle between the bars of the railing, licking her nose to the fishy smell of salt air and gasoline. I can hear bits of chatter from the television through the screen door, the voice of one anchorwoman fading in and out against the radios of passing cars.
I hear: Worst-case scenario.
Anne calls my cellphone and sounds upset. She asks if I am watching the news. She says everyone’s been asking about me and wants to know if I have talked to my parents. I tell her that I haven’t spoken to them since this morning, and that as far as I know, nothing has changed. A long pause follows, and I hear her take a few breaths through the static.
“Call me when you speak to them next,” she says, her voice a little shaky. I straighten my shoulders and tell her that everything will be fine. I tell her that I love her, that the dog loves her. She hangs up, and I scratch the dog’s muzzle as I punch up my drug dealer’s number.
Wind speed and intensity measured on the Saffir-Simpson scale.
My dealer does not answer. His voicemail is a static and pop recording of a song off of his car radio. I wait it out and leave a message. My dog starts to bark at a squirrel running along a power line, and by the time I get her inside, the neighborhood is echoing with a howling dog chorus.
Unprecedented since Betsy and Camille.
I lock the door and head for my room.
Life is slow in our apartment. We have two televisions in our living room. One is fixed to a rotating coffee table so that my roommate Matthias can watch Forensic Files while he cooks himself dinner. Our sink has standing water in it, and the wood veneer of our cabinets is sticky to the touch. Clutter sprouts up like moss, and it clings to the carpet and walls, encroaching on the paths we have cleared to connect one room to another. We are surrounded by everything, yet can never find anything.
I live with my best friend from college and my girlfriend of seven years, both of whom are rarely around because they work evenings. Matthias spends his time at UCLA’s neuroscience lab studying the spinal cords of paralyzed rats, and Anne wears herself out managing a hotel restaurant staffed with part-time movie extras and catalogue models. When I come home from school the lights are usually off, the dog is asleep, and they are both puddled onto the couch, bathed in TV blues. This is the dampening effect of our household. The dirty carpet, the smudged walls and low-light hum of appliances; all of it holds me captive once I step inside. It is a tangible feeling, a thickness to the air, like breathing steam in a shower. In these moments, I can see myself through Anne’s eyes, walking through that door into our dark hobbit-hole. It is impossible to miss my deceleration from the world of to living to the world of the sedentary. I can see my shoulders droop, my stomach relax and stretch against my t-shirt, and my eyes begin to glaze as the gears grind slowly to a halt.
I often think about how, when I was younger, my dad used to come home from work and immediately change into his running clothes: tiny old-man shorts, a t-shirt borrowed from my dresser, and a bright orange hat to make him visible in the night fog. Knowing what was coming next, my brother would disappear into his room before Dad re-emerged, stretching his gangly legs and trying to get my attention.
“Ready for a run?” he’d ask me jokingly. I’d give him a list of excuses as he tied his shoes. To him, my excuses boiled down to “high school is hard, and I’m tired.”
“For me,” he’d explain pensively, as if someone had asked him, “running is a way to process all the pain and frustration of the day. I run and time slows down, problems become clear; all the chaos just washes off of me.”
It sounded silly and trite, but I believed him. I remember standing in our front yard one evening, watching him disappear into the dark like a day-glow fishing bobber and wondering how parents and children could possibly feel so differently about such things.
“Hi, sweetheart. I’m glad you called.”
“Are you still watching the news?”
“Yes we are, and dad has the NOAA weather station on upstairs. We’ve spent the afternoon closing the shutters and boarding up, so it’s pretty dark inside. We’re saving the kitchen windows for last, because dad needs to have some real light in the house.”
“That sounds about right.”
“Yea, but you know how he is. You should hear him—he’s pretty convinced that the storm will turn east and take out Mobile.”
“What an optimist.”
“Well, your father loves the idea of those floating casinos getting hit. He had a piece published in the Times Picayune a few weeks ago about coastal development and regulation. He has an eerie sense of timing.”
“So, do you have a plan yet?”
“Sweetheart, we’re going to talk it over tonight and you can call us tomorrow if you are worried. Didn’t you say you had a dentist appointment today? The root canal thing?”
“That’s tomorrow, actually.”
“Your brother was scheduled to have some dental work done too you know; I think he’s going in next week and he is not too happy about it.”
“I’ll call him after tomorrow and tell him it’s a piece of cake, mom.”
“Good. Take care of yourself, sweet boy.”
“I will, you guys too.”
“Love you too, mom.”
Anne gets home around midnight with a hangdog look that means work was rough. She shoves a to-go cup filled with soup in the refrigerator and drops onto the couch to pick through her mail. I realize that she is talking, and has been since she came through the door, but her words are soft and out of focus against the TV screen. There is a graphic showing a cross-section of the elevation of New Orleans. The weatherman is sweating and pointing with his hand to the numbers onscreen. Then Anne is suddenly holding my hand and her voice emerges as if she has just pulled me out of a swimming pool.
She tells me about the grad school applications she got in the mail today. She is sincere, but her eyes are searching mine for a reaction, to see if this bothers me. I blink and talk into my shoulder so that she cannot smell that I have been smoking the last of the pot. We go on like this for a few minutes, each of our minds on something other than the words floating through the air at each other. She is first to break the standoff. I watch her go to the kitchen and pour a glass of merlot from the cabinet. She sees the empty pot baggie on top of the microwave and gives me a tired smile that seems to dot the period on our dwindling conversation.
“Smokey the bear,” she calls me, and takes her wine into the bedroom. I smoke the ash in the pipe until bitter flakes coat my mouth and try to imagine how different these dark rooms will be when she finally leaves me for good. I change the channel and fall asleep silhouetted against the white smiles of an infomercial.
August 27th, 2005
My older brother Cyprian is laughing me at through the phone, distorting at the edges because he gets terrible cell service. I am entertaining him by continuing to talk, my voice marshmallow-cheeked because of all the Novocain in my jaw.
“It’s a weird feeling,” I say to him, drool glistening on my lip in the sunlight as I walk up Venice Boulevard to the Dollar Mart. “It doesn’t hurt when it’s happening. It’s just annoying to have three sets of hands in your mouth.”
He laughs some more at my pronunciation of “mouth” and tells me that he isn’t as scared as mom thinks about his dentist appointment next week. I call him a liar but he ignores me, telling me instead that his new girlfriend has left New Orleans to be with her family in Virginia because of the hurricane. He says that the mayor has recommended that everyone leave, but since most of the city is already jamming the highways to get out, there hasn’t yet been the need for mandatory evacuations. I ask what his plans are, and he says that he is going over to Mom and Dad’s in a few hours to figure it out. He says his boss asked him and a few other guys to finish boarding up the office while he got out of town with his family. His voice now sounds uneasy, and I make some funny noises with my droopy mouth but get the sense he’s no longer listening. He says he’ll talk to me tonight, and I hang up, feeling suddenly lost in the afternoon sunlight. I pick up some knock-off Tylenol and head for the safety of home.
Cyprian having a girlfriend astounds me. When he told me about meeting her over the summer, I actually called mom to make sure he wasn’t making it up. Her voice warbled, her words skipping through the lines like a schoolgirl so fast that I just let her tell me the whole story all over again. We laughed together, and I pictured the smile of her words, the corners of her mouth turning as she spoke and her small cheeks all pinched and ruddy. Neither of us had wanted to get carried away, but it was impossible not to see this as something momentous, something like a very late awakening. She spoke with the force of twenty-nine hard years of worry gently easing from its prison, and with it, the knowledge that my wonderful, fascinating, intractable brother was finally, possibly, emerging from his. When there was nothing left to say, she just giggled in the empty line, her voice like water and electric waves.
I scored a goal on my brother when I was nine, a few weeks after I had been smuggled onto the 10 -12 soccer team despite my age. The coach was a German guy named Franz who ran a soccer clinic out at the lakefront, and my brother was the backup goalie for the other squad. I remember that I celebrated my goal on the field in front of him, and he just watched without moving, biting his tongue in the corner of his mouth until the coach came in and took us both out of the lineup.
I still remember that tryout because of the shame I’d felt afterwards, but also because Cyprian leaned overtop the front seat and talked to me the whole car ride home. This was new. My big brother did not talk to me. Life was at that time a constant, quiet war. He ate almost no food, was pathologically shy, and would retreat to his room when my father lost his temper and screamed at him to at least try his goddamn dinner or leave the kitchen. Because of a learning disability he did extra work with tutors and was enrolled in school two grades behind his age. When he turned thirteen he finally quit the swim team in a costly act of defiance against my father, revenge perhaps for force-fed carrots and nutrition shakes. Coded in his very name, Cyprian, were the seeds of his anger, this feeling of desperate separation from the world, but he never spoke about it to anyone. Some malevolent harmony between all of this, his crippling shyness, and his academic trouble had slowly built a wall between him and everyone else. By high school he had switched schools three times, twice because kids had bullied him and once because he’d been caught with prescription drugs. Soon after he disappeared, completely, to a boarding school on top of a cloudy mountain in Tennessee.
This was the color of our universe growing up, so when he leaned over the car seat that afternoon and told me what a great soccer player I was, I was completely at a loss. It was the first taste of a secret and problematic knowledge that I grew into by degrees, that I possessed religiously from that day onward at the deepest roots of my self. It didn’t have to be said to be understood, because it was there in the whispered conversations between my parents at night. It was in the way our parents didn’t talk about our grades when we were together, and in my brother’s wild brown eyes as he watched me through the windows of our Jeep Cherokee as it rumbled away towards the smoky green uplands of the Cumberland Plateau on his way to boarding school. This secret knowledge rested in my chest like a hot little motor, pushing me outward as it pushed him further away. I was, and maybe now would always be, the big brother.
I arrive home from the dentist. I am quarreling with Anne over the phone about an important date I seem to have forgotten. On this day exactly, August 27th, she and I have officially been in Los Angeles a full year. I am good at forgetting things like this, and she is as agitated about my thoughtlessness as she is about the actual event. Her voice on the phone is growing increasingly tense and high-pitched as we talk, and I hear a tinge that echoes back to the darker nights at the frayed edges of our relationship.
I know that this is about more than a date; that I have missed something in my fog, that my absenteeism has been a dismissal of the promises we made before our move out to LA. It is a whitewashing of the sacrifices she made in leaving her family behind to follow me, the non-Catholic boyfriend, to the other side of the world for school. Where have I been all this time? How can all of this be happening now? My cartoon voice, all numbed slurs and bubbles, cannot rise to meet hers.
“I am coming home tonight and packing,” she is saying. “I will put in my two weeks on Monday, because this is going nowhere.”
A deepening amber light slides sideways through the Eucalyptus trees in our front yard. I am waiting for my drug dealer, Shawn, to arrive, wearing a hat that used to be red but now is the color of an unwashed bloodstain. Anne finds my hat repulsive, but Shawn thinks it is great. He thinks that there is some kind of fashion behind it. He often wears a deep purple shirt-pant combo made of bath-towel material that is covered in logo-patches of professional basketball teams. When Shawn shows up, he is in a silver Monte Carlo, driven by a sullen-looking woman who usually wears those thick sunglasses that hide the faces of all the California girls this time of year. In past visits I have imagined that this woman is his chauffeur, perhaps sizing me up with a bladed stare as I stand curbside like an idiot in broad daylight, forty dollars palmed in my hand as I try to think of conversation that will make our transaction appear ordinary and innocuous.
She doesn’t have her glasses on today however, and without them she becomes a normal person. Crouching beside the passenger door, I get her talking about dentistry, and we all pretend to be comfortable in the relentless afternoon sun. Shawn clumsily shakes my hand, pressing spit-sealed baggies of marijuana into my fist while I tell the woman that the pain from root canals is mostly hype, and that any good dentist would prescribe her pills that she can save for later. She laughs at this, and for a few seconds we all sit in the interstitial happiness that leads up to the end of good conversation. I watch as kids down street start up a game of cricket and I say my goodbyes, and just like that I am standing on the curb again with my hands stuffed deep into my pockets. I am on my way back inside when Cyprian calls me.
The plan, if there ever really was one, has not worked as my family had hoped. The hurricane has not turned eastward, and the eyewall of the storm is predicted to come ashore across the spillway connecting Lake Pontchartrain to Lake Borgne. New Orleans is to be on western edge of the eye, catching winds from the north that forecasters are hoping against hope will reduce to the level of a category four. My brother is upset because my dad has refused to leave, even when the gravity of the situation became much clearer this morning. Mom and Cyp were planning to head north to Baton Rouge, but the highways are still completely impassable, and now it seems that there would be a real danger of their being caught somewhere in-between if they tried to evacuate. As he talks, I picture them in the long lines of traffic on television, both directions of the highway clotted with outbound pickups and station wagons and crowded 2-door sedans. I see clouds darkening over the Gulf.
We talk into the evening, and soon I am pulling out the hair of my beard in little chunks as I surround myself with TVs and computers. I have three different weather sites running, along with a few local New Orleans broadcasts online. I do not notice Matthias come home, and see him only later, scooting from his room to the bathroom. He peeks out at my screen-lit face, perhaps to see how I am, or perhaps just to gauge how bad things are getting. I have both televisions on mute because I can’t shut out the excitement in the newscaster’s voices. It seems they have been waiting their entire careers as weathermen to be relevant to something as colossal as this storm, and even the most seasoned anchors can barely contain what sounds to me now like glee. It is hard to listen to them, but it is even harder to turn them off.
Mom and Dad are on the phone now, both of whom are putting on brave faces for me. I can hear the shudder in Mom’s voice as she tells me about all the smart precautions they have taken. Dad tells me that he has finished boarding the kitchen windows, and that they have even brought the canoe into our living room, where the family dog has taken up residence. While he is speaking I listen hard for anything that sounds like fear or doubt, yet all I feel is frustration in the swell of his words. Their confidence, a New Orleans tradition in the face of inevitable catastrophe, is illogical. They have turned off the excitable weathermen. They do not see the monster on false color radar that is sitting on their doorstep. And now it is my dad, the one man island. I am almost in tears on the phone, angry at him for being so stubborn, for not listening to Mom and Cyp when he could have, for knowing that they wouldn’t leave him behind, alone with a bad shoulder to face the storm. My cellphone starts to get scratchy, and I get Cyp back on the line, my heart beating with the blink of the low battery warning. He has pulled himself together a bit, and he says he is sitting in the canoe with the dog in his lap. He says the power is out.
“Take care of them,” I say, almost shouting. I listen to the hiss and snap of circuitry, trying to pick up his voice. There is a long moment where I hear nothing, and then his voice comes in, suddenly clear and level with a warm strength I do not recognize.
“Don’t worry,” he says. “I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”
August 28th, 2005
I am used to staying awake all night. Many times over the summer I spent what felt like epochs stuck to our couch, ignoring the phone and navigating the vast wasteland of satellite television. Tonight I can only watch for so long before I’ve heard everything new that is fit to be reported. I take breaks by smoking pot and sitting on the porch in the soft night breeze that smells of motor oil and wet lawns. Now that the cable news networks have gone to non-stop live coverage, they are scrambling to fill airspace until something actually happens. The horrible irony here is that everything is happening, but tonight the news agencies are limited to interviewing tight-lipped national guardsmen, tired meteorologists, and a host of confused, ad-libbing anchorpersons, none of whom have any new information to offer.
I think back to 2003, when my roommates and I huddled around our television in Baltimore to watch the news orgy that lead up to “Shock and Awe.” The idea that you could watch a war was still new to us then; we were entranced by the morbid appeal of the graphics and night vision updates. We’d known at the time that something huge and awful was happening. There had been a presence in the room with us, a magnified sense of witness, like the breath of unseen time-travelers crowding around to re-watch the disaster. But somehow as the days drug on, the coverage became more about itself and less about what was actually going on in the war. Eventually we found that something had changed, and we were no longer watching history. We were just watching television.
August 29th, 2005
Monday morning, when the bulk of the hurricane has blown onshore over Biloxi, feels like a magnified version of those minutes when an airplane is stuck on the runway after a long flight. The surroundings that have been an accepted part of my environment become unbearable obstacles to my freedom, but in this case I am not waiting to get off a plane – I am sitting in a pile of blankets and soda cans, my skin crawling and my eyes like burnt milk, desperately searching for news. There is a progressive silence now on TV, as if once the hurricane has passed there will be nothing left to talk about.
Anne wakes up and watches me from across the living room. I must look awful because her eyes are watering, but I’m still ashamed from our fight from Saturday. She comes over to me and leans across my back, her chin resting on the crown of my head. The smooth baby skin of her inner arms bushes my cheeks as she hugs my head and rocks back and forth. We sit like this for a long time, the dog curled against my ankles as we watch the news ticker on the screen.
She tells me she is sorry for the fighting.
Total structure failure.
I kiss her wrists and tell her it is my fault.
I kiss her wrists and tell her that I know she’s caught in the middle of my own inability to figure my life out.
Levee breach reported in the 9th ward of New Orleans.
I tell her that I always imagined that I would do so much, that I would be so many things before I ever had to think about getting married.
Flooding reported along the lakefront.
I tell her that I always figured I would know when the time was right, that it was something that would just happen to me; that there would be signs.
Not out of the woods yet.
I tell her I am sorry that I have let her down.
I tell her I am sorry again.
I get through by phone on Monday afternoon, after hours of hitting redial on my cellphone only to be greeted by the familiar voice of the disconnection lady. It is actually by accident that I get through to them, for in my delirium I end up selecting my home number in New Orleans instead of my parent’s cell, and with a jolt that actually hurts my bones I am set fully awake by the sound of ringing at the other end. Somehow, without power, the landline has stayed intact through the storm. Cyprian answers on the fourth ring.
The house has lost part of the roof and a few windows, but things are still standing. Five or six neighbors apparently took shelter with my family, along with a few of my father’s law students and their pets. Trees are down everywhere. Our housecat got out through the hole in the cellar wall and is missing. There is water to the front of the yard, but no major flooding yet. I am listening to Cyprian’s voice as he speaks to me, and I picture him at a news desk, his pudgy face set in a calm mask as he puts to rest all the nightmarish possibilities that germinated in the factual vacuum overnight. Mom is crying in the background, I assume over the cat, and I hear Dad shout a hello. Cyp asks me for news, and I fill him in on what is happening on television.
I have been awake now for nearly 48 hours. My skin feels translucent in the digital light. My hair jets in every direction like wires, and my eyes have retreated back into the recesses of my skull. Anne calls in to work sick, cooks me soup, and walks the dog. I am a ghost to the world outside my apartment now; I am settled in my hurricane headquarters, as the TV channel coins itself. All the screens are turned towards me like an audience of white faces.
August 30th, 2005
Tuesday morning, the 17th Street canal levee breaks. All coverage turns to this, and immediately speculation begins that if the breach goes un-repaired, the city will likely fill to lake-level, which would put even my parents’ area of town under 8 feet of water. I get Cyp on the phone and explain what is happening. He reports to me that Dad has invited the neighbors to stop by for a cookout and wine by candlelight. On television, families are stranded on rooftops, looters are breaking into stores with forklifts, and refugees are being compacted on top of one another in the few spots of dry land left downtown. These things are happening on my television screen, some literally just blocks from my house, and yet somehow on the phone things sound like just another day after a storm passes.
Dad does not want to leave. He does not believe the reports that uptown will flood, and says that they have plenty of water, food, and supplies. He says they even have the canoe if need be, and so he and Cyprian cycle back and forth on the phone as we talk it out. Mom takes a walk with their dog, and thirty minutes later returns, sounding upset. She says that she spoke to a policeman, and that the water is coming up Carrolton. It is already a few blocks north of the house, and looters have hit the Rite Aid around the corner.
We all take this in for a moment, and I can hear the frantic high notes of my mom’s voice in the background. I am trying to picture them in our house, to see my parents’ faces. I want to see the house as it is in that moment; canoe by the stairwell, books stacked on tables, plastic-wrapped couches and the low-hanging pictures all taken off the walls. Instead, I see Cyprian as a teenager. I see him watching me with a mop of brown hair almost covering his big eyes. He is watching me from the window of our car as it disappears down the road into the shadows of live oaks, away to Tennessee. There is silence on the line. And then he does something I will never forget.
“Listen,” he says to me, pulling the phone out of my father’s hand. “We’re getting in the car and heading west along the river to the Huey P. Long Bridge. The elevation along the river is the highest in the city, and if we get across the bridge I think we can take I-90 and meet up with I-10 west.”
I mumble that this is a good idea.
“We are going to leave in an hour or so, after we have time to pack and move all the important stuff upstairs.”
“Don’t forget the dog,” I interrupt stupidly, and he laughs.
“Call this number in two hours,” he says, “and if we don’t answer that means we made it out. Otherwise we will come back here and get in the boats.”
“Two hours,” I say.
“Love you, little brother,” he says, and then hangs up.
October 5th, 2005
Cyprian is sitting in my living room, talking on his cell phone. The sky is white, browning at the horizon between sun-baked palm fronds that hang still in the heat. I am on my porch, smoking in the sunshine, scratching my dog behind the ears and watching through the smudged glass of the sliding door as my brother’s mouth moves. He smiles as he talks. He’s been smiling since he arrived in LA, a trip arranged by Anne through a program at her hotel to house hurricane evacuees. When he first arrived, I read that smile as pure relief, a second escape, this time from the couches and the rollaway beds and the near-toxic proximity to our parents that had characterized their role in the Diaspora over the last five weeks. They’d been up and down the east coast, and they were road weary. They’d all lost weight. I can see Cyprian’s cheek bones flex through his cheeks when he speaks.
On his first night in L.A., Cyprian had told me about that Tuesday, about their escape. They’d driven across the Mississippi River bridge, through crowds of black New Orleanians being driven back into downtown by white suburban cops, connecting eventually to I-10 and the remaining arteries out of town. That first night they’d made it as far as the compound of an old acquaintance in rural north Louisiana. Cyp didn’t know how our family knew the guy, but they’d been offered a wide spread of acreage in his red-clay pinewood yard, plenty of room for a family tent near the dog kennel. He remembered that there had been a flag pole in the yard that clanged in the breeze. It flew the stars and stripes, the stars and bars, and the Gadsden, in descending order. The day after they’d arrived, the guy had taken Cyp and my father out to a shed in the back and handed them each a rifle.
“If you’re staying here, y’all are going to need to learn to shoot,” the guy had said.
My brother looked at my father doubtfully. My father asked what for.
“For when they come,” the guy had said. He gestured vaguely south, through the deep green pine boughs, towards the wreckage of New Orleans.
Cyprian is on the phone with my folks. Their section of the city is being opened up for residents to return, and I can see that he’s excited even though I can’t hear him through the glass door. I ash the pipe on over the side of the porch, and the dog adjusts under my chair to stay in the cool square of shade. I am in gym shorts and a ratty t shirt. Cyprian is in a dress shirt and slacks. He is poised in such a strangely casual way, the way my father stands when he lectures his law students – one hand on hip, gesturing unconsciously when he speaks, straightening his shoulders rolling back on his heels now and then. He is laughing. I am watching his mouth, I see his teeth – the new dental crowns now in place – flash in the sunshine that paints the near side of the living room. And without intending to, I find that I am looking back in time, to five weeks ago, to uncountable ages ago, to that Tuesday, layering my disheveled form over his like a shadow, watching myself hang up the phone, count out two hours, and then dial their home number, watching my chest go still as I hold my breath, watching the long pause, watching that merciful release of breath that eventually escapes my lips when the phone on the other end of line just rings and rings and rings.