And she was stunning.
Though not in a young and firm and brimming with idealistic optimism sort of way.
No, this lady was weathered, full of hard-won wisdom, and capable of captivating me utterly.
“Thank you!” I said that first evening when the rain sprang up and I was caught unprepared. She offered me her smile, yellow, and her umbrella, jet black. “My name is Juliann. Who are you?” I asked as we strolled the rain-drenched streets. I stole a sideways glimpse at my stranger-rescuer and tried to imagine the truth of her beneath the thick coats of color: crimson lips, indigo eyes, streaks of rose painted on sagging cheeks.
She caught me looking and stood a little taller, threw back her long hair the color of lies. “I am whatever you want me to be,” she said, her voice full of gravel and devil may care. “Your lover, your teacher, your corrupter, your regret. What do you want me to be?”
I stopped, not trusting the shifting slate beneath my feet with such a weighty question.
“Honest,” I said, terrified my answer would insult her. “Show me the real you.”
She laughed a gut-shaking, breast-heaving laugh as her sour breath floated into the air and was captured by the umbrella, forcing me to breathe her in. “Oh lord! I do love your answer! But I’m sorry. I never held much with honesty.”
“You were beautiful once,” I pushed. “You still are.”
“Oh, honey, you are sweet, lying to an old lady like me. But the truth is I never take off my make-up. I just flop into bed and fall asleep listening to the sax player on the corner tell his truth and in the morning I mop up the mess and then I add some more.” She smiled and I knew she’d been honest with me. “But you are sweet, honey, calling me beautiful.”
I breathed out a long sigh of relief because I wanted to see her again and hear more of her truths.
We met early the next afternoon, my stranger-rescuer and I. “Mornings are for praying and working and thank God I don’t do much of either!” she declared, and I repressed the urge to point out the irony of her statement because her eyes held only a hint of shadow and her lips were only lightly glossed and this pleased me. We ate beignets by the river, she somehow with grace while I ended up dusted in powdered sugar, and then we window-shopped, staring hungrily at glittering fleur de lis earrings and imagining we were Royal and born to wear such finery.
“You go two blocks over and see Dauphine,” she whispered to me, her breath hot and sweet in my ear. “She’ll hook you up real good with the same earrings and for half as much.”
“Who are you?” I asked once more, hoping to catch her in a generous moment.
“This again?” She grew stern. “I already told you. I’m whatever you want me to be.”
And though I didn’t want her to be silent, she was all the rest of that afternoon. We strolled—she filled with rue for trusting and I a penitent saint—and if she spoke at all it was through the wailing violin and guitar that played at the intersection of regret and piety.
I listened and was awed by her honesty.
I didn’t see much of her over the next two days. Work intervened and I spent my days and evenings in a bustle of handshaking and hobnobbing, telling my own truths and finding my voice strong and firm as I did so.
But I missed her, this lady who was my first and last thought of each strange day of my adventure. So I asked her to meet me at Cafe Soule, a quaint open-air restaurant I’d found near my hotel, for breakfast before I had to wing my way back to all that is home and known.
So she did, though not without grumbling. “Planes fly all times of day and night,” she said, swirling her celery stick in her Bloody Mary. I smiled, said nothing, and looked at her in the clear morning light.
The loose skin around her unmade eyes sagged in folds. She lifted her glass and took a long sip of tomato juice and vodka. And when she put her glass back on the table I caught a wiff of Tabasco sauce and noticed her straw was, for once, free of lipstick.
“Did you figure it out?” she asked, her breath smelling of stale nicotine.
“Figure what out?” I puzzled, confused by her question.
“What you want me to be,” she answered.
“How can I when you won’t even tell me who you are?” I asked, puffing up my indignation because the question grew less urgent the closer I got to leaving.
“I did better than tell you.” She laughed, sending the many beaded necklaces on her chest into a fit of raucous clinking. “I showed you! But you won’t quit yapping ’til I tell you my name. Fine! I got a million of ’em. Some people call me The Big Easy. Others call me NOLA. I don’t much care as long as you don’t call me N’awlins, honey, ‘cuz I don’t answer to that. Truth is, I’m exactly what I told you I was that first day when I found you looking all sad and standing there in the rain. I’m anything you want me to be.”
She took a last slurp of her Bloody Mary and stood, turning so the light from the window fell on her face, naked and exposed, revealing her truest beauty finally to me. “You travel safe now and come back to see me once you figure out where you at. I’ll be here waiting for you in the Quarter.”
I sat there in the quiet cafe after she left as the minutes ran down before my taxi arrived, thinking of when I would see her again, my stranger-rescuer. I even ordered a Bloody Mary.