Giovanni and I met in the sauna at the country club. Slight and white, he entered with a green beach towel draped across his bony hips. He had what I thought of as a Rihanna hair style, shaved on one side with messy dark bangs falling over his right eye, ending just short of his jaw line. It was a hair cut that several of my female students had this year, and they definitely wore it better. I noticed that he had no tattoos, the pristine state of his skin being somewhat of an anomaly given his age and the venue.
He sat down, added some water to the rocks, and disrobed. He sat hunched over, with his elbow on his thighs and his head in his hands. We dutifully ignored each other in the dim yellow light as forgettable pop music played in the background. As the heat rose in intensity, I sat up and breathed in deeply. I closed my eyes, hoping to clear my mind, and lose myself in a meditative state. Instead I remained firmly in place, my mind fixed by the familiarity of a song I was destined to forget the second it ended.
“Let me know if it’s getting too hot for you,” he said.
“No, no, it’s fine,” I replied, slightly annoyed. “I like it really hot.”
A few more minutes passed in silence, and then he said “you live here.” A statement rather than a question.
”Yes,” I replied nevertheless.
“I just moved here,” he volunteered.
As a rule, I like my sauna’s silent, and even when they are not, I generally remain steadfastly so in defiance of cultural norms, deflecting conversation with terse one word replies. Usually, the chatterer will get the point and relent.
I was decidedly puzzled then when I heard myself ask “where from?” Even before he answered, I knew that I didn’t actually care.
“Tulsa,” he said. “Do you know where that is?”
“I’ve driven through almost every state in the country,” I replied in what I hoped was a condescending tone.
“Oklahoma.” He said, seeming to miss it. “I like it here so far,” he continued.
I noticed a vague, formless antagonism beginning to arise in me as my subconscious mind processed the casual double insult of this white stranger who had assumed that not only was I too stupid to know where Tulsa was, but that I also needed his opinion of my adopted home town as some sort of validation of my life choice.
“Why did you come here?” I said, my tone more accusatory than curious.
“Well, I dropped out of med school, actually. I decided it wasn’t really for me.” Then he added with a slightly twisted, sheepish grin, “Plus I had developed a bit of a heroin problem.”
Just then, one of the six yellow bulbs in the sauna went out with a hiss.
“Aah…” I said, nodding my head slowly, seeing him clearly now in this darker, danker light. His was a familiar though increasingly rare subtext to the New Orleans new immigrant story - the story of a haunted doll. And this city, stooped with history and riddled with ghosts, has long been a collector of broken toys.
Old new New Orleanians understood this implicitly. They came here not with the intention to fix, but to be in communion with the broken. That was the sense of the place, that nothing would ever work quite the way it was expected to, including and especially the people.
Less enlightened outsiders were often perturbed by this attitude, mistaking this radical acceptance of things as they were as mere indifference or complacency. But what they failed to see was that this tolerance for brokenness was the source of the city’s healing - it was what made the city home for the rest of us. Those of us who never belonged anywhere until we belonged here - among the ghosts of ourselves, among the spectres of the living, and the dead.
We were happy being haunted.
“Well,” I said, “New Orleans has always attracted a certain kind of person..”
I asked him about his connection to the city, if the person he was staying with was from here, but he wasn’t. In fact, he was from Tulsa too. “We were actually roommates for a while when I was staying in one of my dad’s houses after I dropped out of medical school,” he explained. But apparently his friend had suffered a personal tragedy, and it is this that had precipitated his move to New Orleans.
“They were never actually together,” he explained, “but she was his soulmate, and she died.” And so, his friend had fled Tulsa, not to escape this double haunting, but to take the ghost of her ghost with him to the only place where she would have safe keeping, and eventually he had followed his friend, and his ghosts, here.
I nodded my head as I listened to this once common story now fading fast in familiarity - the caravan of haunted dolls come to New Orleans. I considered him more closely now, unsure of how I had missed it the first time - the hollow behind his eyes. Perhaps the slow bleaching of gentrification that had begun to strip this city of all its color had made me drunk on its fumes, causing me to confuse mere whiteness with the harsh fluorescence of artificial light.
He added a few more spoonfuls of water to the stones as we talked in the dim light, the heat rising and then bearing down upon us. We talked about gentrifications, swapping stories about the changing demographics of our respective cities. I told him about the Marigny and Bywater, and he told me about Tulsa. He told me about how the ghettos slowly gave way to hipster wine bars. How poor people of color were systematically priced out of their own neighborhoods and homes. What I described, and what he had seen in his short time in New Orleans looked familiar to him. He shook his head slowly, a fire flickering behind his eyes. “These white outsiders…” he began, and then stopped. A slight smile played on his lips as the irony of his statement found him.
Silence fell. A rivulet of sweat ran down the length of my naked spine, and I shivered in the heat. Eventually I asked him what his plans were, if he intended to stay in New Orleans.
“No…” he said. “I really wanna leave the country… maybe check out Vietnam or Cambodia, maybe South America.” He sounded restless and bored.
Silence returned, and then remained. Eventually, he stood, re-wrapping his towel around his slender frame.
“What’s your name?” He asked. I responded.
“I’m Giovanni,” he said. “It’s nice to meet you.”
“It’s nice to meet you too,” I said as he left.