On the way to Marie’s Bar, I make a detour. I know what’s waiting there: a row of bearded, old men sipping from plastic cups. They are on their way from besotted to plain drunk. Some will leave, others will come, nothing will change. So I go out of my way — a right on Chartres, another at Marigny and then a left onto Royal until I arrive at a rusty lock wrapped around an iron gate, the Aquatic Gardens.
Between the bars, I can see a Victoria lily. It lustily opens its pads — two feet wide and mantis green — towards the sky. The Victoria dwarfs the man-made pond in which it resides. Each pad has an inch-tall, vein-covered lip around its circumference. When I send Kat a picture of the lily, she asks why the edges curl up like that. “For protection?” I answer.
The Victoria is the largest lily in the world. It’s native to the Amazon River basin and its flowers resemble those of a lotus. The two species, however, are distinct. While the lotus holds its leaves haughtily in the air, the lily indolently lays its pads upon the water’s surface. Once thought to be related, they’re no longer considered of the same family.
I had never seen a Victoria lily before I moved to New Orleans. In New York, my neighborhood garden had marigolds, geraniums, some knapweed and a wooden beehive resembling a small dresser. The bees flew through the garden seemingly at random, constantly hunting for some paltry clump of flowers, on a windowsill or back stoop, to suck dry.
Since moving here, I haven’t seen any bees. I do stop by the Aquatic Gardens almost every day. The first time I made it inside, a rawboned horticulturalist escorted me to the back greenhouse. Dozens of types of lilies were being husbanded in aquatic pens. Tangerine, violet and vermillion blossoms shot out of the water, competing for attention. “This is the Barclaya, Euryale, the Ondinea,” my guide explained. “The Victoria is only there to lure people in.”
Walking to the bar, I have a missed call from Kat. I call her back, but she doesn’t pick up. I listen to her voicemail. She’s in New Haven. Most days — from whatever indistinct corner of the Cloud it echoes — her voice sounds bubbly and energetic. Today, her tone is saturnine. I imagine her rushing around Manhattan for fourteen hours, meeting with her editor, stealing snacks from The New Yorker, finally catching the train out to Yale. Sitting next to the window, she’s reading Lacan for a class that she’ll skip.
A sudden surge of rage fills me. I think about the email to brainstorm for the upcoming issue of the magazine where we work. Nervously, I suggested a poet, who turns out to have stirred up a controversy after reading the Michael Brown autopsy. Some girl on the all-staff email scolds me for insensitivity before making her own suggestions for the issue. I feel foolish and out-of-touch. A part of me wishes, albeit irrationally, that Kat had said something to defend me.
After a few drinks, I return home to sit on my front stoop. The newly-potted oleander, foxtail fern, and the crown of thorns proudly align themselves under a cerulean sky. I think about Peter and Oliver’s, the artists with whom I lived in New York, and their vast secret garden — on the second-floor, back roof of the house — overflowing with tomatoes, peppers and herbs of all ilk. For a moment, I miss it. For more than a moment. But in a way I am glad my garden opens onto the front. Any passerby can pet the leaves of the foxtail, or ruminate upon the flowers of the oleander. The two large French doors of my apartment open onto the sidewalk garden, allowing the sun, symbiotically, to pour in through gossamer drapes.
Sewer comes up and rubs his mangy, feline head against my knee. He makes an affectionate gurgling sound. I remember baking sweet potato pies with Peter and seeing Jurassic Park with Oliver. Watching Peter’s paintings blossom and grow in the basement studio. Oliver returning from his exhibitions in China with acidic sweats. They took me into their home, for one short year, when I was plaintive and bemused, and nursed me back to health like a blighted artichoke.
Now, in a new city, not quite as big but just as chaotic, I have a few terracotta pots of my own. In December, when it gets down to 50 degrees, I will have to take the crown of thorns inside. The oleander and foxtail (despite its name, a member of the lily and not the fern family) will weather the Louisiana winter.
I wake up and it’s 1:40 A.M. I wake up again at 3:50 in the morning. I sleep too much during the day to be an insomniac, but I haven’t had a full night’s sleep in more than a year. I’ve learned that husbanding an irregular sleep schedule is an art. I get out of bed and sit at my desk. These stolen crepuscular hours are the most precious of the day — I spend them writing a letter to New York.
A lily’s pads sprout from a central underwater root. The stalks reach towards the surface in a rosette. The Victoria’s rose-colored stalks are festooned with sharp, emerald thorns. Vying for space, the Victoria shreds its aquatic competition from below.
It’s hard not to think of this as a metaphor for the time I spent in New York. Brutal competition is a cliché, but also an overwhelming truth. The city bleeds you of sympathy. Empathy becomes a luxury or stupidity. Some escape into wealth, others by sequestering themselves in their professions. This is a privilege afforded to few.
My memories of the city open up like the peltate pads of the lily. Atop one pad, I see us going to Film Forum, buying egg creams and holding each other so close that I thought we would never part. On another, pacing the veiny paths of Washington Square park bedraggled and yelling into the phone. One more, treating myself to hot coffee and Sunday jazz after spending the night intertwined. And I feel no threat of getting wet, because there are so many immovable pads that I can hop across them to the water’s edge.
The next time I walk past the Victoria, a few carmine buds poke their heads out of the water. One of the peculiarities of the Victoria is its flowers. The first day they bloom they are white. After that they turn a deep, enchanting red, modulating from crimson to a dark burgundy.
In the Amazon, the Victoria lures a scarab beetle into its blossom and shuts around the creature. The flower traps the beetle inside for twenty-four hours before releasing it to pollinate. When I tell the bartender at Marie’s this, she calls it “rape-y.” I order another drink and tell myself to be patient.
I don’t want to miss New York. I want to “brag as lustily as chanticleer in the morning” about our time together — wear the memories as rhapsodic laurels unburdened by sorrow. But I’m not the specter who misses no one. Holding the past close while embracing the present is a precarious balance. I don’t know where it will take me.
A friend tells me that if you go to the aquatic garden at night you can hear the toads croaking. I fantasize about this for weeks, but somehow always forget to visit after nightfall.
Kat calls me. My phone is at home. I’m watching a film about the evergreen forests in Oregon, played backwards and in slow-motion on two 16mm projectors. She calls again, but my phone is on silent as I ride through City Park, lost among the oaks and Spanish moss. She calls on my birthday as I am driving across the Pontchartrain Causeway, the longest bridge in the world, after visiting the the Abita bassigator — a mythical creature, half bass, half alligator.
She sends me the new edition of Vladimir Nabokov’s Letters to Véra and a copy of The Intentional, with my favorite of her stories in it, ‘Summer Under the Bee Tree.’ I read both. Nabokov was married to Vera for over fifty years until his death: his early letters are romantic to the point of mawkishness. I send Kat a hand-printed book about a miniature elephant (that reminds me of Babar) and a collection of letterpress pocket creatures for her protection.
We talk on the phone. She sends me pictures of her wet body after getting out of the shower. Her nipple is carmine next to her jade Buddha necklace. A generous picture of her tanned butt, parted slightly with three fingers. The tattoo of a Tibetan peony on her thigh is hidden from view.
I wake at midnight. I must have fallen asleep early. Outside, the sky is mute and azure. I walk around the apartment. I’m restless. I try to read.
“The flagstones were covered with bees, so many of them that I had to slow my pace to avoid crushing them. I picked one up and held it in my hands. It was so light, I wondered how its body could possibly contain all the things it needed to stay alive.”
I hear the door closing behind me.
When I arrive at the Victoria, its scaly pads are barely visible. I press my cheeks against the cold iron gate and hear a moan. Then, a chirp and a whistle. Cloaked in night, the toads come together in a bewitching symphony. I can’t see them on the pads of the Barclaya, the Euryale, the Victoria, but they are there. And, next to me, I feel Kat’s body, listening to the same amphibious harmonies.
Jacob Kiernan is a writer and critic. His work has appeared in Guernica Daily, Pelican Bomb, The New Orleans Review, On-Verge, and The Jordan Center.