For four months after Katrina, my family split into uneven halves. My husband lived in Baton Rouge, and I took our son, Andrew, to Houston for his fall semester. He went to Jesuit High School and four hundred of the students migrated to Strake Jesuit in Houston. At the emergency meeting held at a Mexican restaurant, the priest we all trusted with our sons, Father Hermes, opened with the Aeneid: “Perhaps someday we will rejoice to remember this day.” We weren’t ready for hope, and wasn’t Hermes the god of mischief?
After his talk, the mother of one of Andrew’s friends stopped me. “You lost your home, too, didn’t you?” she asked.
“I didn’t,” I said, apologetically, and she looked disappointed.
Most of the Jesuit parents moved into apartments by Houston’s Galleria, but I didn’t want to live in near a monster mall. I found a two-bedroom loft with gray polished cement floors and thick white walls in Hermann Park, across the street from a green space that reminded me of our own City Park.
Andrew played soccer and his Jesuit High teammate, Blake, came to live with us. His parents had just gone through a rough divorce and his mom stayed in New Orleans to work. His older brother was living in a complex a few blocks away with Ellen, another New Orleans mom, there with her son. Her husband owned an electrical contracting firm and he was working to restore power to the city.
Charles, another teammate, was in our complex with his mother, Inda, while his dad stayed back to gut their ground floor.
I pinned up a calendar in the new kitchen. Come December the semester would be over, and we’d be home for Christmas. Blake’s house had flooded. His mom had rented it when she split up with his dad, and made it cozy with pillows and throws, their trophies and school photos. Blake didn’t talk about what he’d lost; he just helped me wash dishes, sorted his laundry and finished his math. I wanted to be easier on him than a parent, to be a refuge from the divorce and the Katrina mess that waited for him in New Orleans. I teased him, called him my other son but I knew he was biding time, maybe feeling dumped on me. His mom was the banquet manager at a French Quarter restaurant that hadn’t flooded. Twenty thousand bottles of wine had been soured by heat, but the dining room was up and running. Blocks away at Brennan’s, the eggs they used had rotted and the kitchen had to be gutted because the smell got trapped in plaster.
Houston’s Jesuit Strake already had 600 boys in their student body, and then there were so many more coming from New Orleans, too many to absorb, so the school ran two discrete school days. Faculty from New Orleans came over to teach. Our sons’ class schedule was a teenager’s dream: 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. The boys’ alarms got set for noon, they woke up for lunch, homework, and they were in the car for 2:30. Inda drove “morning” carpool; I handled the late one. There was something soothing about waiting in a pickup line in the dark with other New Orleanians, connected by sadness and sons.
Because Malcolm and I didn’t lose our house and I had Andrew with me, I thought I was okay. I motored on. I shopped for groceries in the Albertson’s on Spanish Trail, traipsed up and down foreign aisles. I felt myself list, like a boat with cargo shifting in the hold. Parenting my son and Blake had been left up to me.
I got the boys off to school and then I held still, made vague notes in my journal about the evacuation, and watched CNN—the footage was so horrific—lootings, mothers with babies on rooftops waving down helicopters, prison inmates stranded on an interstate overpass, dead bodies bloated and floating in front of Circle Foods – it was hard to remember this was real life. I saw houses a block from my family’s with water up to the second floor. I saw a wharf on fire near Malcolm’s office downtown.
My sister who lives on the West Coast phoned and left a message. She was upset that I wasn’t touching base to let her know how we were doing. She’s never really liked New Orleans, thinks it’s dirty, hot, too flat, and I was in love with New Orleans, and nonplussed by anyone who wasn’t, even before Katrina. We lived there on purpose.
My parents were divorced and lived in the middle of Mississippi. My mother was dealing with the pine tree that had crushed her roof. My father phoned to see how I was doing. He was upbeat about how the storm offered new chances, a clean slate, and a tabula rasa. “You can do anything,” he said. “Go anywhere.”
This reflex was his, not mine. And maybe why, when I was young, my family moved so often, usually after something went wrong for him. We put down roots that got ripped up again and again. In Pennsylvania, Rome, New Jersey, Calgary, what we wanted was to live only there. I’ve never known how to explain myself to him. I fell hard for every town, every one of our houses, and I still pine for the dozen best friends and cute boyfriends I couldn’t hold on to long distance even when I wrote them many soul emptying letters.
I never got over the missing. The Italians have a word for it—la mancanza—but the definition—shortage, failing—doesn’t do it justice. Sento la tua mancanza—I feel the missing of you, is different than I feel the missing in you, which is different than I miss you, but they all describe an ache I carry in my bones.
In our Houston compound, Inda did most of the cooking. She slow-roasted racks of smoky ribs and threw together delicious, cheesy casseroles. Rotel was her secret weapon. We’d eat dinner at 10 p.m. Our sons filled plates and watched ESPN highlights, or yucked it up over reruns of Jackass, while the moms drank wine. The experience of living with women was novel and comfortable. We talked to our husbands a few times a day. We were apart, but not estranged. We missed them, but we had privacy and uncluttered schedules while the boys were at school. For those four months after Katrina, we were like widows with living husbands, available but taken.
In 2001, Malcolm and I had separated. I enjoyed certain things while we were apart, the frictionless mornings, the quiet and privacy. Here they were back again. An unshared life has more space. On Malcolm’s side of the bed, I spread out novels I wanted to read; I woke up beside my journal and my laptop.
The Houston apartment building had cement walls and floors, and to talk to Malcolm on my cell phone I had to stand on the balcony and hope the connection held. Some conversations never had a chance; others lasted long enough to devolve into frustration. My news was local, quotidian, and mostly about Andrew. Malcolm’s news from Baton Rouge was about bureaucratic logjams and people’s suffering. His mother and sister and aunt were living in FEMA trailers in their driveways. He was sharing a small house with his oldest son, Marc. Marc and his wife had lost their Lakeview home, the furniture, the wedding gifts, the antique baby crib. Malcolm had broken down when Marc called him from the house to say water had poured out of the high cabinet where they kept the wine glasses.
“That should’ve been me,” Malcolm said.
His guilt would have been better shared with his first wife. “That would’ve been us,” I said.
Marc’s daughter, Lucy, had been born in Baton Rouge, two weeks after Katrina. Malcolm told me how at night when he got home from the command post, Marc would put his tiny new granddaughter in his arms and he’d rock her and himself to sleep. “She’s the bright spot in my day,” Malcolm said. Before Katrina, that bright spot might have been me. He sounded so tired; I just wanted to put my arm around him and tell him to take it easy.
Liz came for the weekend to see her sons. We’d all been friends for years, through soccer but off the field, too. She waited at Inda’s for Blake to go downstairs.
“It’s noon,” I said finally, standing outside the shut door of the boys’ room. “Blake, don’t you want to have lunch with your mom?”
No one answered. I knocked. “Is it safe to come in?” I heard a boy’s voice grunting yes. Once I got in, I saw that Andrew’s air mattress had deflated into a rubber mat on the cement floor. “That needs to go back to Target,” I said.
“It happens every night,” he said. The room had no furniture, just the two of them sleeping in the center.
Blake said, “I’d rather eat up here with y’all.”
I said, “Your mom drove all the way to see you.”
Inda knocked on my front door, all business. “Blake!” she said, walking into the middle of the room. “You get your butt downstairs right now to see your mama.”
That night the Houston moms all got buzzed. Liz had taken her boys aside to tell them she was getting married again, but like he’d been about his flooded house, Blake was stoical. We told stories on the sons and Liz smiled. She was going back to New Orleans the next day and she started to cry. She hugged our necks, thanked us over and over, and said she didn’t know how she’d ever make it up to us. She would visit a few more times, bringing trout filets from the restaurant, quarts of crabmeat, spinach soufflé, and, for Blake’s birthday, a baked Alaska on dry ice.
By October, when Andrew and Blake weren’t in school, they were in the apartment, battling each other at FIFA, celebrating goals Brazilian-style “Ole! Ole! Ole! Ole!” Their laundry output multiplied. They were playing real soccer every day before class, and burning through shorts and socks, leaving sweaty Tees and wet towels on the floor. Their dirty underwear I picked up with a wooden spoon and flung into the machine.
The appliances made a racket. The washer spun too hard and shook the glasses on the kitchen shelf, the dishwasher shuddered and you could hear water blowing around inside the box. I relished the seconds of pause between cycles. The tumble of the dryer was gentler, except for the scrape of zippers and loose change.
My brain developed sinkholes into which the simple stuff disappeared. The levees had breached and sunk a matchless city. My levee needed to hold, and I didn’t know how to suffer on my own behalf. I left milk overnight in the car, when that’s what I’d run to the store to buy. I kept headphones on for two hours after the music had stopped. I’d been forgetting to breathe, as if air was in short supply and I didn’t want to use more than my share.
I had a dream about looking for red lipstick. A vibrant color I pictured but couldn’t find because the cosmetics counters at the mall were scattered about.
After a few weeks of living in my head, Ellen and Inda knocked on my door. “You’re spending too much time alone.”
“Okay,” I said.
We started morning walks in Hermann Park. They’d brought their dogs: Inda’s black Lab, Ellen’s skittish Keltie. My family’s brown Lab, Eddie, was an outside dog and 100 lbs. At my sister’s where we left him he had a big yard to roam and a swimming pool.
On our walks we bitched about slow insurers, FEMA, the toxic ground, our flummoxed mayor, the obstacles our husbands faced back home. We talked about our sons who were accepting the pop-up school, but not Houston because Houston wasn’t New Orleans. Our sons missed their friends; they missed soccer. Their fall season was going on without them. They could scrimmage with the Strake soccer team but they couldn’t play for the school. We moms didn’t complain about our own displacement. We had the means to set up shop for four months in a different city. We were with our kids and, we thought, away from the wreckage
At first, we felt too guilty to go to lunch, shop for flowers, get hair cuts. Other evacuees were living in crowded houses, wearing out welcomes with relatives. As the weeks went by though, we stepped out. We tooled around the curvy streets, learning the neighborhoods. Houston wasn’t spanking-Texas-new, but more like a 170-year-old oil rush town filled with big trees and genteel homes. Rice University looked like the Ivy League. There were strips of funky shops and restaurants on Westheimer Drive that reminded us of New Orleans and eased our homesickness. We graduated to dinners out, a bottle of wine. We learned each other’s families. I showed them pictures of my sisters and their kids, and of baby Lucy; Inda’s widower father was an elegant WWII hero and at the beginning of dementia; Ellen’s mother had recently died and her father was on an oxygen tank and a pack-a-day smoker. He’d lost his home and her sister in Pittsburgh had taken him in, but after a few months she was sending him back.
“This is bullshit,” Ellen said, her eyes flashing. “He likes it up north. You don’t return people like sweaters.”
Malcolm came to Houston every other weekend, or Andrew and I would drive to Baton Rouge to see him. Being reunited was fresh, and a chance to be shy again around your man. I felt girlish waiting in the apartment for him to arrive, antsy, with my new red lipstick on. I liked being visited in this different place by a person who looked a lot like my husband, his clothes in a backpack, wallet and keys tossed on the clean countertop, who had to leave Sunday night for work on Monday, so time was measured, and meals felt like the ones you eat on holiday. His presence in the family reassured Andrew that things between his parents were okay, I hope, even though we were living apart. He watched baseball with his dad, answered questions about school, and then took off with Blake to meet up with Charles.
“What’s he up to?” Malcolm asked, sharing the small couch with me. He rubbed the foot I’d angled into his lap.
“He’s doing okay,” I said. “Considering. How are you doing?”
“Traffic in Baton Rouge is a nightmare. The locals hate the pressure they say we’re putting on their city. I’m dealing with the Feds, FEMA, red tape. The days are long. We’re sitting in an abandoned shopping center, working on top of each other.”
But he relaxed with us in Houston. We napped on my air mattress; a Coleman Double-High that looked like a box spring was involved. I took him for late afternoon drives through leafy neighborhoods, showing off our new stomping ground.
“You already know your way around,” he said. “Could you live here?”
“No,” I said. “That would be like breaking up with New Orleans.”
“People are deciding whether to give up or stay. There’s no power, no A/C, no lights, no water, no phone. The place looks like Viet Nam,” Malcolm said. “Burnt grass, dead trees. There’s no birdsong.”
We went grocery shopping at Albertson’s and bought a pot roast, potatoes to mash, and Fordhook limas so he could make heavy-pot foods for us like he did at home. Within minutes, he had the apartment smelling like it was his place, too.
He’d brought some photographs and a small painting from our house, picture hangers and a hammer. We hung work on the bare white walls.
Andrew was fifteen and he wanted to practice driving, so Malcolm took him over to the University of Houston’s empty campus, where he could gather speed, work the blinkered turns, diagonal-park. With his father he drove better than he did with me. I dreaded every minute of my son behind the wheel, afraid that every approaching car would veer into us, and airbags would explode in our faces.
I thought I’d gotten the better half of the split because I had Andrew, but my son and I didn’t talk as much as we usually did in New Orleans. Some afternoons while he and Blake were at school, I’d visit the Rothko Chapel and stare through black into deeper layers of blue, purple, gray.
I’d loiter in the Twombly Pavilion, hang around with his blackboard paintings filled with chalky scribbles, and his huge white paintings with their baroque crayon scrawls. They didn’t need to make sense. “Perhaps only silence and love do justice to a great work of art,” Dominique de Menil once said. Was she speaking about parenting, too? I wanted to spend the night with the Twomblys on one of the long benches, and take a break from being a mother.
There was too much time in my day when I was alone, and too much time without Andrew when he was around. Fixing dinner – buttery risotto, roasted chicken, lasagna—things I usually made at home—filled up space, but Inda needed the stability of cooking. She’d fix chicken Parmesan, a tray of garlic bread, and Andrew and Blake would want to eat down there. The shared meals were fine, but I wanted an occasional dinner with my son, a private conversation, because even though he lived with me, I didn’t really know how he felt about what had happened to New Orleans. He’d always been my built-in company, but now it seemed like he didn’t want to be alone with me. The safety he needed was in numbers and with his buddies.
We fought over something small—him not answering me quickly enough—and I snapped. I left the house furious, my heart racing. I parked in a lot at the medical center and read his texts flying through my phone, his repeated concern that I ignored. I’d grown up in a house where anger stuck like lightning. I’d break curfew and my father would call me a conformist, a follower. To him, to be disobedient was to be disloyal. He thought I was still in his thrall, when really I was trying to break away. Years later he told me that he and my mother, during this time, were desperately unhappy and he was lonely. But I didn’t want to be her substitute. Why should Andrew be Malcolm’s? Sitting alone in my car in front of the nursing school all I wanted was to mend things, quiet things down, give my son room, but never lose him. Because my parents had a vicious divorce and it’s been years since my father and I have spoken. When I walked back into the apartment, Andrew was waiting for me on the little sofa with the TV off. He said he was sorry and so did I and I fixed us dinner.
Later on that night I looked down from my little balcony into the flickering blue light of Inda’s where the boys were probably playing yet another blistering game of FIFA.
I missed touching Malcolm’s shoulder in the middle of the night. I missed coffee talk in the morning, cold Abita beers on the front porch after work. The park across the street from our New Orleans house was filled with live oaks that had survived the Civil War. Their ancient roots had been under brackish water for three weeks. Would they make it through?
In my life before each of my two marriages, I’d toggle between possibility and panic. Without a man, both anything and nothing seemed possible, a cue I fear I picked up from my mother. I’d bail on the ones I loved before they bailed on me. With my first husband, there’d been no child; when I left Malcolm, I also hurt Andrew. The separation gave me time to realize all I wanted was to love and to be loved by this family of my own making. When I’d asked Malcolm to come back to me, he told me he’d never left.
Blake didn’t want to talk about his mom’s engagement, or about losing his house and all of his stuff. Like usual, he toasted his bagel bites when he got up, and straightened the sheet on his air mattress, but he was slipping away from me. I asked Andrew how his buddy was doing, but he shrugged. If he’d been my real son I would’ve put Blake in the car to talk without eye contact, but his problems were about his parents and not my business. I think he knew his mom had stayed in New Orleans to work, but also to be with her new love.
By November, he was finding any chance he could to run off on the weekends, over to Baton Rouge, where his other soccer buddies were going to high school. He’d clear the trips with Liz and catch rides with people I barely knew. The chain of custody got fuzzy. Blake was my “other son,” but not really. He followed the rules of the house, but not the rules of behavior I laid down for Andrew. Blake wasn’t really my son to raise; and I wasn’t his real mother to obey. Like the soccer player he was, he saw the gap and played the gap, taking a shot at freedom.
On a weekend in Baton Rouge, he and Charles got caught smoking pot. The father of one of their friends did his own phone tree to let the parents know. He was a decent man whose house had floated off its foundation, but our boys thought he’d ratted them out. “We’d rather know,” I told Andrew, but I’m not sure that was true.
The moms were in an uproar: Liz called me crying; Inda was threatening to have Charles drug-tested. Andrew was watching the incursion, his dad and I thought, from the sidelines. We talked to him about smart decisions, and suggested ways he could help New Orleans when he got back. Twins from Jesuit had teamed up with Habitat for Humanity and they were rebuilding houses after school. They’d been in the newspaper. “Yeah, I know those kids,” Andrew said.
I talked to Blake in the kitchen about just saying no. He looked trapped. I sounded like McGruff, the D.A.R.E. dog from junior high. Blake agreed with m, but only so he could bolt down to Inda’s.
Ten days later we let Andrew go with his buddies to see an LSU football game. They all got caught smoking pot.
I broke the news to Malcolm and then put Andrew on the phone. Malcolm yelled at him and I felt like the rat. “Katrina’s grinding me down,” he said, “and now this?”
“This isn’t the end of the world, right?” I took back the phone. Would Andrew have done this with a dad in the house? Was that what Malcolm thought? That this mess happened on my watch?
But Malcolm just asked how I was doing. “Sounds like you’ve got your hands full,” he said. “I hoped he’d be older when he tried it for the first time.”
“I smoked in high school, eleventh grade. Did you?”
“Not until college,” he said. “I loved it.”
“And so there’s the real concern,” I said, and I knew he was smiling.
That night Blake lay low at Inda’s, and Andrew and I watched back-to-back “24s” on TV.
The next morning Andrew got up before noon.
“Maybe you want to give your dad a call,” I said.
“I was thinking that,” he said.
I made French toast, hanging around the edges, until Andrew hung up.
“He said we’ll work this through together.” Andrew’s voice cracked when he told me this, which cracked me.
“You realize,” I said, “you’re loved by us more than you can stand.”
Strake Jesuit gave our sons a longer break for Thanksgiving. Andrew and I drove the five hours to New Orleans to be with Malcolm’s family. We visited his sister in her FEMA trailer, drank cold beer and jammed potato chips into French’s onion dip that tasted good as gold. She was living in there with her two grown kids and a big dog.
Malcolm’s mother lived across the street. She only used her trailer for sleeping. During the day she sat in her car, her head cradled in her hands, and cried. No one knew what to say. Malcolm’s father had died after Hurricane Betsy in 1966, a few days before Thanksgiving. The family had eaten dinner that year in a cafeteria. Katrina had freshened this old suffering and given his mother a new load to bear. She was angry for all of the elderly who deserved dry houses and quiet days. I admired her for not rolling with the punches or saying “we’ll make do” or “at least the family’s together.” Thanksgiving had always been her day. Instead, we went to eat at a cousin’s who lived in a high and dry neighborhood. My mother-in-law brought her much-loved oyster dressing in a salvaged pot.
In December the Strake semester was over and the dads came to Houston to help the moms pack up the stuff we’d accumulated. The Ikea furniture, dishes and pots and pans would be passed on to Marc. Leaving our Hermann Park compound was bittersweet. We moms were separating, and being returned to our regular lives, except nothing about New Orleans was regular. We’d be leaving robust Houston for a fragile place that needed us home.
Our last dinner was with our sons and husbands. Inda bought a gargantuan filet from Costco, covered it in foil and Worcestershire sauce, and roasted it all night on 150 degrees. I hand-mashed potatoes with chunks of butter, hot milk, and garlic salt. The sons tossed Caesar salad and buttered the tops of dinner rolls. Ellen made a double recipe of walnut brownies. The moms, again, drank too much wine. The dads did, too, adding a layer of laughter and noise and reality. They talked about the future of the city, how it would take every bit of ten years, which at the time seemed overly dour and like forever. Photos were taken of just the moms, just the sons, the moms with their arms around their sons.
“You had the tough job,” Inda’s husband said, raising his glass for a toast. Our husbands had needed us, but they knew we had no choice but to be mothers.
“Here, here,” the moms said, clinking. “To also being wives again.”
Blake didn’t ride home with us. His father came to pick up his brother and him. As a thank you Liz sent the Houston moms gift certificates to dine at her restaurant when we were hoping for a deeper friendship. She and her husband live in a fine old house now, not far from the one she and her boys lost.
Ten years later, Inda and Ellen and I still take weekly walks in City Park, but now it’s without dogs. They’re either gone or too old. A couple of years ago, Ellen moved next door. Our sons have all graduated college, two of them from the University of Texas, go figure.
I saw Blake last year at Mardi Gras. He hugged my neck and I said, “Hey, my-other-son,” like I always do. “You think I did an okay job back then?”
He said, “I was hard-headed, Mrs. Pia.”
“Me, too,” I said. “I thought I could get you to talk to me.”
“Nah,” he said. “I didn’t trust parents.”
Andrew recently told his dad and me that the night before Katrina was when he really first tried pot.
“Because a hurricane was bearing down?” I asked. That would make existential sense.
“Because someone brought a bag,” he said.
He said some nights after the moms went to bed, he and Blake and Charles would leave Inda’s and walk to the 7-Eleven for cigarettes and beer bought with fake drivers’ licenses they acquired from “Mr. I.D.”—a sketchy dude with a storefront near the Astrodome. Some nights, Andrew told us, he’d take my car so they could make longer runs for Jamba Juice and Subway, and slip the keys back into my purse before morning.
(Inda’s husband died this summer of a massive stroke. This essay is dedicated to him.)
Pia Z. Ehrhardt is the author of Famous Fathers & Other Stories (MacAdam/Cage) and a recently completed novel Just Live Here. Her stories and essays have appeared in McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Oxford American, Narrative Magazine, Guernica, The Rumpus, and The Morning News. She is the recipient of a Bread Loaf Fellowship and the Narrative Prize. She lives in New Orleans with her husband and son.1