The post-levee breeches and devastation mix by
(Dedication: For E, who has shown me such strength this year. I wish I'd seen your New Orleans.)
Lance doesn't know if he'll ever remember what Louisiana used to look like, before.
The first time he had seen footage of the hurricane was when he was idly flipping through the channels and landed on CNN. He'd been talking to his mom earlier about it, making sure they had gone to a hotel out of the path, that they had canned food and batteries just in case. But nobody really thought it would be this bad. Water-logged streets and trees bent in half, razored through houses. And that had just been the first day.
People were homeless, people were being ignored by their government. Life wasn't going to be the same in the gulf for a long time.
Lance had done what he could. He had organized the auction. He had encouraged people to donate from the soapbox CNN had willingly provided. He did everything expected of an admittedly now-minor celebrity. But he hadn't gone back, couldn't go back, at least not right away. He had too much going on, he had told himself. Meetings with UPN, premieres to attend, everything West Coast that had consumed his life as of late. He'd be back in Mississippi for Christmas anyway, he had told himself. No need to rush back to Louisiana right away right away.
But when they had approached him for help with the Mardi Gras special, he hadn't been able to say no. The Golden Rule of Hollywood right now: saying no to something Katrina-related was the kiss of death. Lance had used that very fact to his advantage, so he looked at this as his penance. And he'd missed, well, the New Orleans he tried to remember, snatches of it that survived the never-ending stream of images of destruction in the fall. Going there would be going home in ways that Mississippi and Orlando and LA could never be, and it was time.
They get in on Friday, with just a few bags between them because Joe has gotten good at packing for two. They check into the hotel without much hassle; the real pros are already pretty drunk by noon and could care less about an ex-boybander in town. Steven Seagal is the grand marshal for Orpheus. Lance is small potatoes in this town.
"They kicked people out of the hotels."
"Huh? What?" Lance is looking for his new Armani shirt, but Joe packs with no regard for whose item belongs to whom, so everything is jumbled between the bags. He won't even have time to iron it at this point.
"These hotels, refuges were staying in them until last week, but they cleared them all out to make room for the tourists." Lance looks up; Joe is reading the complimentary copy of the local newspaper, and he's already turned on CNN. Joe has a strong jaw and is a smart guy; he actually has a law degree and is about to take the bar in another month. Lance can't figure out why someone like that wants to hang out with him, except that he drinks like a fish and barely ever sleeps, which is right up Lance's alley.
The shirt is under a pair of Joe's jeans. Lance lays it out on the bed and starts unbuttoning his cuffs. "And? What do you want me to say to that?"
Joe just rolls his eyes and keeps reading. "Nothing, nevermind."
They've had a few good months, and Lance knows now to take it for granted, but still. Joe had been excited about the trip last week. They'd gone shopping for new outfits. If Bob were here, he would sit Lance down and tell him that he needs to engage more, that he needs to open up emotionally. Sometimes Lance wants to pinch Bob really, really hard.
Lance leaves Joe in front of the news and heads to production meetings all afternoon.
Mardi Gras is Mardi Gras as well as he remembers it, which is never any more from one year to the next, except floats and awkwardly oversized cups of liquor, topless girls and mangled beads in gutters. Lance smiles and laughs at the right times, drinks an endless flow of Hurricanes and weaves down the street arm-in-arm with Joe until they find somewhere to eat.
Joe sneaks off to order and Lance sits squashed in the tiny cafe, almost shoulder-to-shoulder with a twenty-year-old girl on her cell phone. She's drunk, Lance can tell, but not as much as most of the people on Bourbon Street. She keeps waving her arm dramatically and slamming her palm down on the table, almost smacking Lance in the face several times.
"And you just don't understand, last week they had to gut the first floor. Everything, everything just ripped out. No, yes, I'm out right now. Everyone's so happy, but tomorrow we have to go back home and deal with the fact that our mail isn't coming and we still don't have telephones. Lake Charles Drive still doesn't have lights, I'm afraid to drive alone at night." The girl pauses, and takes another sip of her drink, nodding her head. "Right, right. I'm drunk. I'll call you tomorrow. Love you."
Lance can't help but overhear, and when the girl gets off her phone, he makes certain not to look at her, pulling his cap down low over his face. Joe returns with a basket of French fries and starts a monologue about the ugly people they see. Joe is drunk now and sloppy, and Lance tries to let what he overheard slide off his back as he downs another Hurricane, but he can't. Joe keeps talking about the problems with organizing the black krewes this year thanks to the storm, which was on the local news the night before, but with the lilt and cadence of someone drunk who's only remembering the details because he's forgotten everything else useful he knows. Lance is pretty sure Joe wouldn't be able to tell him their address right now, but he's pulling random statistics that Lance could Google in a few hours and they'd be 100 percent accurate. Luckily, they've met up with a few more people and Lance zones out and let's them keep Joe occupied. When they get back to the room hours later, Joe kisses him on the cheek and tells him he smells before flopping into bed and promptly falling asleep.
Lance spends two hours on the balcony, watching people walk down the street and trying to see over the landscape. It's too dark to tell, but he imagines he can see the waterlogged houses on the horizon, boarded up windows and duct-taped refrigerators on the side of the road. At four a.m. he calls down and has the valet bring the rental around. It's maybe almost morning, but there are still partiers to dodge on the streets. The lights are bright in the city, but once he gets out by the lake it goes black for long stretches. No streetlights, no cars on the road, just eerie silence.
He wants to go find the skyway and the treetops, but as the sun starts to come up, Lance realizes he'll never make it back in time for their flight back to LA. Instead he pulls to the side of the road and hits speed dial three.
JC sounds groggy when he answers, but Lance can tell it's the 'I haven't slept yet' kind of groggy and not the 'just woke up' kind. "Lance, you okay?"
"Hey, C. I'm good, how are you?" Lance pushes the cigarette lighter in and watches, waiting for it to pop.
"Fine. Tired. You just getting in from a night out?" JC sounds confused, but pretty focused, which is different from his normal telephone presence. Then again, Lance hasn't called him at this time of the morning for years.
The lighter pops up and Lance regrets leaving his cigarettes in the hotel room. "No, I'm in New Orleans for that thing, remember?"
Not that JC should remember, but he feigns it pretty well. "Right, yeah. How's that?"
Lance gets out of the car and squats down beside it, leaning his back up against the door for balance. There are bits of gravel mixed in with the grass, and a soda bottle half filled with some green liquid.
"JC you wouldn't believe it, everything's just. Nothing."
Lance starts pulling up blades of grass, one by one. There's a long pause, and Lance can hear JC breathing evenly into the mouthpiece. Then a clicking noise, like his throat opening up to draw in a sharp breath. "Lance."
The PopOdyssey tour had been the last time they were in Louisiana together. The performance they'd taped for the DVD, the one that Lance pops in when nobody's around and he's feeling especially maudlin. JC had been keyed up even more so than usual, which was a lot for him. They'd all been so high, exuberant. When Lance and Joey's bus rolled out behind the three-man, Lance pressed his forehead against the glass, pretending he could see it in front of them, and stayed that way until they crossed into Mississippi. Lance had been back to Louisiana since, multiple times, but none he specifically remembers. Louisiana will always be this small set of memories for him, will be the sharp points of JC's hipbones and blankets stretched to fit over two sets of shoulders.
"I wish you were here."
"No, I know." Joe's waiting back at the hotel, he'll probably roll over and wake up any minute, and then there'll be frantic phone calls and a fight.
"It's not the same."
The end of a conversation is so much more difficult than the start, but they fumble through it with promises to talk again soon, like always. Then it's just Lance again, getting dirt on expensive jeans, the slim phone virtually weightless in his palm. On the drive back he passes by construction workers, sizing enormous wood planks on table saws set up in front years, passing slate tiles from stacks up along ladders to roofs, rebuilding.