Elena’s toes pressed against the windshield as I cruised across Lake Pontchartrain back to New Orleans for the last day. I yearned for coffee and donuts. It was mid morning already and my belly ached for sustenance.
The lake extended for miles and miles ahead of us, like the pavement of our vast interstates, broken evenly by light ripples. The road seemed to float just above the surface.
I circled the block once, finding a parking spot just outside the doors of District Donuts Sliders and Brew, in the Garden district of New Orleans. The roads leading to it were lined by rows of shotgun homes alternating with much prettier plantation style houses. There were a series of blocks that were very obviously lower income, but just as they were noticed, larger house began to pop up again.
We enjoyed a variety of donuts. One made into an ice cream sandwich and another a breakfast sandwich toppedwith a dippy egg and the last two of odd flavor- strawberry lemonade and root beer float. Each one was delicious in its own way. They were by far the best we’d had on the trip.
I insisted we do a bit of exploring of the urban decay from Katrina, though I’m sure my compadres wouldn’t have gone without me.
We rolled down Claiborne Avenue towards the Lower Ninth Ward, but passing it first, only finding refurbished homes and new builds spaced out by vacant lots in a nearby parish.
“This isn’t that bad,” Ellie started, “but you know all these grass patches used to be houses. See,” we all stared out the windows, “driveway there, and there, and there.”
I followed the road to the end of land, looking for water, but only finding manmade hills of earth, at their crest a barrier ran the extent. Finally, I found Claiborne and followed it back to a main stretch of the Ward, where now the vacant lots and refurbs became neighbors to boarded up ranchers and gravel cross streets, many closed. It was obvious they had been paved in the past, but now stones lay rubble to their history.
I was hypnotized, in complete awe of the extent of desolation and decomposition. Around every turn, another site awed me. I ventured down one of the side streets to find it closed just a hundred feet ahead. I began my three point turn, and looked up to see an entrance stairway standing alone, wild grasses growing alongside it. It announced an empty lot, grass lush and glowing green in the intense summer sun.
We cruised slowly down a main stretch out of the Ward. Two building sat next to each other. The first, a corner store, the shattered front glass and boarded windows a solemn testament to decay; the other, a barber shop still open for business.
Farther down the block, an aged black woman stood on her front porch, separated from the commercial buildings by three grass lots, the driveways still distinct, but just barely. She looked out in the street, watching us pass by from her front porch, living the life she’d always known, but knowing so much change, so much heartache, so much pain. I could see it on her face, even from the shelter of window glass, potholed pavement, and stop signs.
Elena noticed a ‘For Rent’ sign above our heads just before we found Bourbon Street, with an extra plack that hung below reading ‘Not Haunted’ and pointed it out to me. At the corner of Bourbon we stumbled upon our destination, Tropical Isle, where we made friends with the bartender, Angela.
We each ordered a hand grenade- it was a ‘when in New Orleans’ drink- and sat down at the end of an L shaped bar across from Angela. Her fine sandy blonde hair fell down past her shoulders, her pencil thin eyebrows were darkened, and her smile was a little crooked. Her smile was nice though, charismatic and welcoming. She wasn’t young anymore, but we’d soon find out that her spirit was youthful.
At first, she didn’t speak. I took a few sips of my frozen drink. It was refreshing against the hot, humid New Orleans weather, and took a moment to survey my surroundings. Across the bar from us an empty nook full of classic video games, on its perimeter, a breathalyzer test. I pointed it out to my companions and we made a few halfhearted jokes.
Behind Angela, two tall large cardboard boxes were tucked underneath the drink counter, full to the top of plastic hand grenade cups. They were translucent, flourescent green with shape similar to that of a tall vase, but the base the impression of a miliary hand grenade. We each held one ourselves, and they were ours to keep, if we wanted them.
I looked up at her, “So how many of those boxes do you go through typically?” I wanted to talk.
I don’t think she expected my question, responding, “Well, that depends on the day.”
“How bout tonight?” It was a Saturday. “I bet you go through a lot.”
“Yeah, well…” she started, thinking about it, “On a busy day we’ll go through almost ten boxes.”
“Wow,” that was a hell of a lot more than I expected.
“Yeah, it’ll get crazy in here later.” It was only early afternoon now, and the bar was busy. Not packed, but busy. I imagined it later on, shoulder to shoulder with tourists just trying to get close enough to the bar to talk to her. I heard the loud hum of a busy bar.
Her manager came from out of the kitchen, opening the guide on the television. He changed it to Half Baked, at her request. I stared at it for a minute. It was the date montage, the scene with the money counter in the corner.
“I love this movie,” I said, turning back towards her. She nodded. She hadn’t opened up to conversation just yet.
Elena broke the silence, “So… what’s in a hand grenade?”
She smiled at us, “I can’t tell you.”
We both gawked at her, our jaws fell and our eyebrows lowered. Ellie had gone outside to talk on the phone.
“No really,” she started again, “I had to sign a release when I started working here. It’s patented. I’m not allowed to tell.”
“That’s so crazy!” I exclaimed.
“Yup,” she replied, “but it’s true.”
“Will you tell us if we guess?” Elena had the right idea.
She grinned at us, “Go ahead.”
“151?,” my first guess. She shook her head.
“Absolut?” I guessed again. I knew it had to be a clear liquor.
She shook her head again, “Think higher alcohol content.” We both paused.
Elena guessed, “Tequila?” Wrong again.
“Oh, oh…” she paused, the thought on the tip of both our tongues, “Everclear?”
“Bingo! And triple sec, pineapple juice, and the special mixer.”
We both cocked our heads at that one, wondering.
“Yeah, see this,” she picked up automated drink dispenser, “It’s premixed. There’s a button for the regular hand grenades here and sugar free here too.”
“Mmhmm,” she was proud of it. It was very cool.
We went on, talking about nonsense, learning about her background. We shared with her about the road trip, how much I already was in love with New Orleans, about camping on the other side of the lake.
She was originally from Missouri, had moved to NOLA with her first husband and then back home briefly. She couldn’t stand being home.
Then, we found out her age. She was 37, but I swore to her she didn’t look a day older than 32. She accepted the compliment graciously. I told her I’d been to Mexico, Missouri for a wedding a few years back, and she commented on her hometown.
“There’s just nothing to do there. I knew I had to come back here,” she went on, “And the people… The people here are so much nicer, they’re friendly.”
“Yes!” I agreed with her. “I love the South for that. Nobody has a problem talking to you, even if it’s about nothing. The people here that we’ve met, just in the last few hours, are great.”
We chatted a bit more, as the hand grenades started to set in. It was only two o’clock, but I was three drinks in and I was feeling heavy.
We left, but not before exchanging affections for the friendly conversation with Angela, and headed east on Bourbon St, towards a whole lot of commotion.
People were starting to flood the streets. All of the sidewalks and the bars alike were packed full of tourists. We heard about as many foreign languages there as we heard in the National Parks, but it was crowded and we were drunk, not quite ready for more drinking.
A humid, laborious walk, with a couple pit stops, landed us at the St Louis Cemetery, the most famous of the New Orleans burial grounds. I tried at first to disregard the signs stating that you must be accompanied by a certified tour guide, but I was stopped by a large, tall black man.
I joked with him, “I was gonna make a run for it,” smiling goofily up at him.
He laughed, “Go across the street there,” he pointed to the grass median, “the woman in the red skirt is Jennifer. She’s the best tour guide around.”
We woke up hazy from our late night endeavor of pitching the tent at Fontainebleau State Park. Ellie had hardly slept, overcome by her irrational fear of bears. Elena had slept some, but me, I’d slept like a baby. The moon shone brightly in on my face through the side window of the tent which we’d opened for air flow.
I’ve always slept wonderfully in the woods and that night was no exception, even as the temperature dropped and I curled up tightly in my blanket. The rhythmic humming of bugs provided the perfect white noise for my slumber.
The first drive over Lake Pontchartrain was breathtaking. Thirty miles of four lane highway across the massive body of water. In the center, only a faint outline of the New Orleans skyline was visible. We ‘ooh’-ed and ‘ah’-ed at it for the first fifteen miles, and for the last fifteen, spent time trying to capture a good photo of it. I didn’t realize just how extensive the Lake was until I was in the middle of it, although the map never lied to be. The actual experience is always so much more than what a book can tell you. We found our way into the French Quarter but first wandering into downtown and passing the St Louis cemetery on the way.
As we wandered back down to the Quarter, I was full of anticipation. The next right put us just on the outskirts. My jaw dropped. Beautifully stylized rowhomes lined the streets, many with cast iron rungs on porches hanging above street level. The detail in the iron work amazed me, but they weren’t all adorned with porches. I glanced down an alley between homes and was teased by half an image of courtyard with a water fountain overgrown with lush, green plant life.
We found a parking lot to leave the car between Decatur St and the Mississippi River, which was a struggle to get into, the street flooded with tourists. We passed Cafe Du Monde. I craned my neck around, trying to take in the white and green awning hanging above all the tiny tables. The line of people to get the most famous beignets extended down a couple of blocks.
We decided to explore around, find food elsewhere, and not lose time standing in that crazy line. Just before the parking lot while we were stuck at the an intersection, I noticed Cafe Maspero on to our right.
“Let’s go there,” I suggested. “My friend’s friend grew up in New Orleans and said we should try it out.”
On foot and ready for a meal, a girl with beautifully clean blonde dreads greeted us at the door.
“I really like your dress,” she told Elena who glowed with satisfaction. It was the jumper she’d bought in Daytona, which I’d approved in the beach shop dressing room.
She seated us across the dining room against a window which opened outwards like a shutter. The glass was frosted slightly from age. Across the restaurant a couple archways separated us from the bar, atop which two large glass infusers were full of olives, pickled onions, roasted red peppers, and vodka. I soon learned that vodka infusions were a specialty of New Orleans’ French Quarter. Later that day at the Royal House, an infuser sat atop the bar directly next to me. Their kicker in the mix was spicy green beans. Our lovely bartender Cindy had handed us an entire cup of them for munching.
I scooted my chair in as far as I could, shaking the whole table as I bumped my knee against it. Soon, our waitress stood above us, young and tan, dark-haired, and smiling.
First she brought us a round of bloody marys, which were exceptionally good, the spiciness exactly what I wanted it to be. Then our food came out.
We’d worked out quite a spread of creole dishes. Jambalaya, red beans and rice, a famous Muffalata, and an alligator sausage sandwich. We dug in, passing around our plates periodically, so everyone got a bit of everything.
The food was absolutely amazing, full of flavor and authenticity, and filling us with our first NoLa experience. Ellie stepped outside to smoke as Elena and I waited on the bill and our to-go drinks. That was a completely new, but captivating idea to me- the to-go drink. I even learned a few days later that in Mississippi, you are not only allowed to have an open container, but you’re allowed to have it open while driving, just so long as you blow under the legal limit. I was stunned.
We walked away from the bay, deeper into the Quarter, more wandering than anything, but hoping we’d stumble upon Bourbon Street. We were on a mission for our first hand grenade when the bright sounds of a brass band caught my ear. I looked back at the girls with a look on my face of excitement while picking my feet up a bit faster.
The end of the block revealed to us was an eight piece band, the lead trombonist sliding around on a solo, the tenor sax and trumpeter hitting chords behind him through the changes, as two men held down the percussion alongside a standup bass.
My heart exploded in my chest at least twice as we stood there listening to the group play with their hearts and their lungs, all dancing a little as they grooved out notes. The song ended and the crowd that had formed around us clapped. The bass brought in the next tune. The horns joined in after eight bars. I recognized the Ray Charles standard, as the trombonist lowered his horn and began belting out,
“I got a woman/Way over town/She’s good to me”
Elena and I danced in the street as his voice echoed off the quaint Quarter homes, leading alongside the timbre of his horn friends. We stood still for the rest of the song, and I fell very deeply in love with New Orleans.
I’m finally having a Southern California experience. The idea was to wander all the way to the water, to the Ocean, for a spiritual Pacific sunsets. The ones where pinks and blues stain the coarse sand grains as waves crash over igneous rock formations.
I realize in the middle of writing that sentence how far in the past my imagination was. My venture began for nostalgia, remembering a Big Sur sunset, one from more than two years prior.
My instincts don’t lead me to far though, about five blocks from the hotel. I zigzag along the streets looking for Old Town San Diego, guessing its location by the directions of well dressed Californians. Women wear long flowing dresses with round-brimmed straw hats and sunglasses, and men sport short sleeved button ups and loafers or sandals. The energy that flows through their small groups is magnetic like the start of every great Friday night. It allures me to follow.
It’s Friday anyway and though most all of my teammates are back in the hotel playing games, swimming, or sleeping, I thought it best to get out and away for awhile. I invited Sal along, but she was enjoying the pool to much to venture with me.
I knew I was getting close when I noticed locals with handmade ‘$5 parking’ signs on the street pointing in their driveways. It only took a couple more blocks North before the street I’d been flanking ended into Old San Diego square.
The beginnings of it underwhelmed me, a candy shop and a cafe and a couple others selling taffy and popcorn. There was more sidewalk space between them than I’d seen in a historic area ever. The sidewalk was concrete and for pedestrians only, but wide enough for at least two lanes of traffic.
Then as I noticed a man ‘cawwing’ back to his running partner, I realized that I’d stumbled right into the grassy knoll of a historic square, just the way I’d known them. A grand old tree leaned towards me at the corner and up into the air more than two hundred feet, extending its canopy out over a wooden picnic bench where no one sat. I told myself I’d go back and sit with the tree sice it’d spoken to me so clearly, but for now, it beckoned me forward.
I continued along slowly, trying not to lose the tree, but not ready to stop quite yet, while making mental snapshots of beige stucco buildings with low awnings and ceramic red roofs. Looking up at their roofs, I notice the hills of houses around Old Town and their contrast of scenery, lush green palm trees and assorted hues of cacti.
The square ended so I made a right, noticing a man snap a photo of an overgrown bonsai underneath which his friend sat posing. I overheard them compliment the beauty of the bonsai tree.
I strolled past a Mexicali restaurant smelling heavily of hot peppers and spice that lacked a single open patio table. I gazed in as a pair of patio patrons cheersed one another and took a sip from their oversized margarita glasses. I caught glimpses of others grabbing bites of fajitas between the tortilla that lined their fingers. Then the real attraction.
Casa de Reyes. Fiesta de Reyes. Tienda de Reyes. I entered another era beneath a log decorated archway announcing its contents. Immediately I noticed a stage at the center of the block where people were beginning to fill in the split log benches. Half a wall and low height garden alternately divided the center section of music and food from the perimeter shops. It was impossible to see the world beyond this, the authentic Old Town square. Shielded by pepper trees and wooden awnings, the stucco buildings only broke to the street where I’d just entered and then barely at the corners. Even the hills and houses that had hung above it disappeared. Stone walkways gave way to brick ones and then back again. Lush palms and cacti stood testament that anything could grow here.
I walked slowly still, peeking into the shops on the north walk, hearing more Spanish than English, loving the rich colors of blankets, pottery, and hand painted tile for sale. I found my way around the square and up to a blue Southwest patterned rocking bench, taking a seat to write, just as the band started playing.
Now couples poured in alongside families. Most of the seating inside the courtyard was already taken, but none of them were deterred. The garden surrounded them carefully like a barrier from the wanderers. These people knew what they wanted.
A few times, families arranged themselves in front of me for a photo op. My bench was just barely offset from the grand archway of Old Town, but even now that I’ve lost my seat, I’ve found another nook for tourists photographing. There are no places hidden from the eye of a tourist here, not even a place to sit and write.
Where I sit now, two vases painted vibrant colors sit on a stone ledge, leaves and latice lay below them. Wrought iron handrails adorns tiles stairs that lead up to some private place with a little awning for peeking down at the stage. It’s perfect for a full body photo, for the young and old alike to remember, at least a part of their stroll around the square.
A few minutes ago my pen ran out of ink. This is how I lost my rocking bench, the first place to write, but the man at the tile shop was kind enough to give me another. It was the second time tonight he was kind without uttering a word. It seemed he chose only to communicate in head nods, even when I tried a little Spanish with him.
The band really got me going for a little while too, first with a transitions perfectly executed from “Oye Como Va” to “Black Magic Woman.” I fell in love with them on my way back from the tile store though, singing in Spanish again to a bachata beat, while the women spun beneath their partners lead hands. Others moved without rhythm. Others still kept along, awkwardly with their hips, but keeping their feet moving patterned with the salsa.
Here is culture. I am surrounded by it, and though I am different here, I am surrounded by something that intrigues me. I can’t say it’s not American, but it isn’t strictly something else either. It’s a split, it’s a meld, it’s Californian.
We had dinner reservations in Ardmore, but it wasn’t quite time yet.
My mom and stepdad Mikey, brother, aunt and uncle had traveled together, embarking on a two week road trip around Ireland. My aunt and uncle and mom wanted to do a little shopping in town so Mikey, my brother, and I embarked on a mini journey of our own.
We followed the road up a narrow stretch of cobblestones following signs towards a castle. I lost the road at a switchback up the steep street, but backed the van out of the hotel parking lot on the cliff and with encouragement from my companions found the road again. We nearly bailed when the road got too narrow for two cars to pass, but eventually we found our way to the top. Here, the road became deep dirt ruts where a grass island grew between them, isolated from the great meadow around us.
We spotted a tower in the distance and I drove towards it. We were going exploring. I knew my brother would be into a little wander, but I wasn’t so sure about Mikey.
I parked close to the tower, and we all got out, my brother and I first while Mikey hung back near the van. I bee-lined straight for the tower, whose stairs did not reach the top, but rather only brought me to the center of the fortress where I peered out of a small window. Mikey still stood back near the van like he wasn’t quite ready for a detour. My brother had already made his way out across the lush meadow to the edge of the cliff, where the earth dropped dramatically a few hundred feet to the sea.
I climbed down from the tower and made my way across the field to join my brother. At the edge, I peered down to the water where the waves crashed with all their force against the earth, but the earth did not move. It had been taken a beating for quite some time. Though erosion was undeniable, it appeared now to be holding shape firmly.
By the time we’d come back up from the edge, Mikey had made his way to the tower. At the first of its steps I watched as he craned his neck up, surveying the stone surface of the bygone structure. He took a few steps inside, and as I approached, I beckoned him to turn and face me for a camera shot.
Time had flown by without notice, but we were due to meet back up with the rest for dinner reservations, so we hopped back in the van and made a loop back down to town. On the way, we passed an olden, haunting graveyard speckled with Celtic crosses, tucked in beside the beautiful medieval church for which Ardmore is known. The Round Tower at the center soared high above the town, too high for even the most dramatic camera angle, though the allure to capture the scene was too great not to try. The weathered stone was darkened with time, spotted unevenly, and the blue sky and glowing green grass against it were in beautiful contrast. The sunlight gleamed around us.
Our spread at dinner would make a rotund man jealous. There was hardly room for all our dishes. We ate delectable seafood, fish and shrimp and perfectly seared scallops, hearty brown bread, roasted potatoes, asparagus, lamb chops, (I could go on), and washed it down with a variety of beer and wine. Our bellies were more than full, and the check was paid. We’d all begun rustling up out of our chairs, but Mikey and I were first out the door.
Outside White Horses, I looked up and down the street, but first down towards the sea. The crashing of white foam on sandy beaches will forever allure me. Then I peered up the street where Mikey stood. He’d pulled open the sliding door of the van and left it open, waiting for us. He never really stands still though. He swayed back and forth, shifting his weight from right foot to left and back again. He faced a glass window front of the building next to Whitehorse and read the postings in his best Irish accent.
He hadn’t yet seen me, but I had a hunch he knew I was listening. His hands were stuck halfway in the pockets of his black Lee jeans, and his right wrist bent out slightly to relax his elbow. The white teeth of his smile glimmered through brightly as he giggled at his own goofy joking, and at the end of the line he was reading aloud, he turned his head to me laughing and pointing at the poster.
I’d been stopped in my tracks for a few minutes, just looking up the street at him, falling in love, though first I’d walked half a block away. His pull was stronger than the sea. After an eternal moment, I mustered up some words.
“Why’d ya leave the door wide open?” I playfully questioned, smiling.
“Well,” he stammered a bit, “I thought they were coming out…” His words tapered off as I climbed the hill towards him, and then past him to the van, pulling the door shut.
Standing down the street watching him, I’d become overwhelmed by the desire to slide under his arm and wrap my arm around his waist. I remembered how well I fit under his arm, how naturally my shoulder felt tucked into his armpit, and how his arm draped comfortably around my shoulder.
Now that I’d found a reason to walk back up the street, I’d gained the courage to find the place again.
I approached him from behind bowing my head down to nuzzle open the space between his arm and his body, and immediately felt the warmth of his side against mine. I wrapped my arm around him, laying my hand of his hip at his belt, as his fell over my shoulder right where I’d expected it.
He didn’t squeeze me. I was close enough that he didn’t need to. I couldn’t have gotten any closer. And as I stood there, figuring out that I have a terrible time mimicking an Irish accent, I felt our spirits know one another. I felt love exchange back and forth between us. I felt safe and well and perfect, like I was exactly in the right place. I was a little girl again in the protective arms of her father, though now that I’d grown, I knew we were both here for each other.
I botched another word, and as he corrected me, I jumped out from under his arm and across the street to read more billboards.
His friend and assistant coach owned the loft on the river where we were going to watch the game. Tim enthusiastically explained to me how they would often banter back and forth, casually arguing about the logistics of the game. Dickie was a retired Eagle.
The kid inside of my head was losing his mind, had lost his mind, I was so excited to have found rugby people and to be having such an easy connection with a stranger. That’s how rugby is though. Rugby is family, no matter where you go.
The All Blacks vs Ireland game, at a loft, overlooking the Mississippi River in the home of a retired Eagle. I was freaking out. And Tim shared my enthusiasm. As we bounced back and forth in conversation, our energies increased. We talked faster and more vividly. We made more bad jokes and laughed heartily.
“…yeah, and there’s a rooftop desk and we’re gonna have mimosas. We’ll go up on the roof during halftime. And there’s a beautiful white couch…,” he joked, “…a beautiful white couch that no one’s allowed to sit on,” and he laughed, teasing about his assistant coach.
We talked and talked and talked some more, as continuously as possible while also eating, which is pretty continuous for a couple of rugby players. We talked so much that his girlfriend was no longer involved in the conversation. There was a break for a minute, and I looked over at her,
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” I pleaded a bit with her, knowing she couldn’t get a word in edgewise.
Tim said, “Yeah, she’s used to it. It’s ok.”
She laughed pleasantly and nodded her head telling us that she knew when this man started talking to someone about rugby that he wasn’t going to stop, and she knew that with whomever he was talking also wouldn’t stop. There’s an intensity about rugby players that I’ve never found in another group of people. It’s a passionate subculture, no doubt.
As 3 o’clock approached we paid our tabs, and got ready to go.
“How did you get here? How are you getting anywhere?” he asked me.
“I walked here,” I told him, “I had an uber drop me off in the Square earlier.”
An idea popped up and the expression on his face changed, revealing it.
“Do you wanna come with us? You could just catch a ride to the match with me.”
“Yes! Of course! That would be so great!” I can’t believe how everything is lining up so well.
I grab my pack full of clothes, and follow him out the door.
I thank them both over and over, excited about the great opportunity and how wonderful it was that I found them, so kind and welcoming
“I didn’t know what I was gonna do,” I continued, “I mean, Saturday’s a rugby day. I wanted it to be something, ya know?”
We piled into a Mini Cooper in the parking lot. Before I realized what car were taking, his girl climbed into the backseat.
“Are you sure?” I asked her. “I don’t mind.”
“Yeah yeah,” she assured while pulling the front seat back towards her, clicking it in place, “I’m small. I fit back here just fine.”
We take the Cooper back to their house, Tim telling me, “We gotta get my car.”
I chuckled to myself and decided to tease a little, “Oh, so this isn’t yours?”
He laughed back at me, motioning to the backseat, “No, no, this is hers.”
Their house is a rancher in a cute suburbanish neighborhood. It doesn’t seem like the city.
As I walk in the door, I’m greeted by a couple of dogs, wagging their butts and tails simultaneously. One is young, and jumping up and down. I calm her, kneeling down to petting them both while I wait for Tim to get ready to leave.
He comes back out from the kitchen carrying a six pack with four left. He’s ready to head to the loft. I tell his girlfriend it was very nice to meet her, which she reciprocates.
“Have fun,” she tells us, “I know it’ll be a good time,” smiling at us both.
Outside, we hop in his early 00’s Jeep Wrangler. The top’s off. It’s a two door with no back seat, so I toss my pack over the frame and nestle it into the bed by the wheel well. He jumps in, cracking a beer and offering me one. How can I say no?
He’s drinking Fat Tire. I point it out, “Even you, there with your Colorado beer, New Belgium. I see you.” We cheers to that.
On the way to the loft, we chat more about rugby. Parked, I grab the two leftover beers in their cardboard cradle and the one I’m still sipping on, and my pack. I wasn’t sure if it’d walk away. Maybe it wouldn’t have, but I thought it best to bring it with me.
At the bottom of what appears to be a warehouse, we ring the buzzer. Dickie responds over a crackly speaker, buzzing us in.
Inside, we walk through a foyer area and up to the third floor, and into a beautiful pad with the kitchen and the office at the center of the layout sitting about four feet above the living and dining rooms which surrounded them. On the opposite end of the loft, the living room and the beautiful white couch that is not for sitting.
It isn’t long before Tim sits down on it, crossing his legs out in front of him and extending his left arm across the back. In his right hand, he raises a beer to his lips. It was all definitely a joke with the couch, now fully confirmed.
Behind him, a huge panoramic window, from ceiling to floor, overlooks a couple blocks of downtown and out to the Mississippi. We’re only a couple blocks from the water, and seated high enough that we have a clear view of the sandbar and the bridge and the white foam that topples over itself on the river. A dark green forest across the banks complete the scene.
Tim introduces me to Dickie, and I give a short overview. I thank him so much for having me. I recognize his Irish accent. He dismisses my appreciation in an accepting manner, waving his hand at me in a way that makes me know that he thinks I should expect such hospitality. He’s probably 65 years old, maybe older, small and just a tad bit frail. He’s in good shape though, just past his hayday. His hair is stark white and he wears black rimmed glasses. He’s proper.
He walks up into the kitchen and stands where the sink overlooks the living room. He asks if we would like a mimosa.
“Of course,” I tell him, standing to receive it from above.
Throughout the match, he makes sure our mimosa glasses stay full until he run outs of champagne nearly at the end. He doesn’t realize he’s running out either, until it’s gone and he’s already told me that he’s going to make me another. He apologizes profusely, as I try to telling him it’s ok, but Tim saves us,
“Oh no, don’t worry, there’s another beer in the fridge.”
A few of the Memphis women had shown up and were drinking and watching with us. One has a kid. She’s about six, an adorable blond headed girl. She runs around some, but also watches rugby wit us. We chat back and forth about the game and our clubs, and I tell them that they should all come out to Denver to play or just hang out sometime. I tell them about our D1 side and how we’d have a good match.
At halftime, we take the moment to climb the stairs up to the roof of the building. It’s a flat roof, the kind of building that the stairwells ascending are the only thing that breaks the uniformity. Now we’ve broken it too, leaning on the balconies at the edges where we gaze out on the Mississippi. We’re just south of a big accidental fork, where a road bridge splits the river. The side closest to our bank is muddy, a dark khaki color, the surface water hugging tightly against the sandbar. The opposite side of the leg is deeper, wider water, still foggy but much more diluted. The far bank is wooded, and sticks and branches are floating along with the river.
I am half drunk just staring at the water, in awe of its sheer power. Down the balcony from me, a few of the girls are playfully chatting and the coaches are having a conversation of their own. I look up to see this and for a split second feel very isolated and alone, but I am used to this feeling. It is something that I often inflict upon myself, but in this moment it is a contradiction. I realize this quite quickly without having any deeper thoughts about it, and time saves me. I begin to walk towards the girls, thinking I’d like to be part of their play, but the coaches signal that it’s time to head back downstairs for the second half so we all follow.
The rest blurs by. We settle into the white couch, watch parts of the game, and spin off into talking points concerning some game play or referees call as our little 6 year old friend takes turns sitting still and hopping up, to which her mother commands her back down.
Now, we’re nursing our beers. We’ve all had quite a bit to drink. We’re loose. We’re all friends now. That’s the real beauty of the rugby community. Yes, there’s too much binge drinking, but it’s used as a tool for forming community. I can only qualify that as a redeeming quality.
Once the game has finished, the girls ask me what I’m doing, but I tell them I have a flight to catch back to Denver. Kindly, they offer to drop me off, but I ask more than once if it’s out of the way, because I don’t want to be an inconvenience to them, but they insist. I am so grateful for these wonderful people, especially in this moment, at a time when I didn’t think I could be more full of gratitude.
I realize that my experience of isolation on the roof was in part a feeling that I was separate from reality. The magic of my afternoon was unbelievable, like nothing I could have ever dreamed up, and that I felt separate because I couldn’t realize that it was real.
At the airport drop off, I reach in my pocket and pull out the little bit of weed that Sal and I hadn’t smoked.
“Hey, do you want this?” I casually ask as I extended my arm into the front seat towards the girls.
One of them quickly grabs it from my hand, trying to keep my car seat bound backseat companion from seeing it.
“Yeah, thanks so much!”
“Nah, it’s nothing,” I reply, “Thanks so much from dropping me off. It was so great to meet you all and your coach. I just can’t believe all that really happened. I had such a great time.” I probably rambled on a bit more, saying we’ll see each other again soon, and make promises to come through from the Mardi Gras tournament.
“What’s that mommy?” the little girl interrupts me.
“Oh nothing,” she replies, “…just some candy.”
I shut the car door behind me and wave back to my new friends as they pulled away from the curb. Inside the airport I am full of joy, so much that I could’ve floated home to Denver on my own lightness.