At the kitchen sink I find a cockroach, his limbs sliding around the glass of last night’s popcorn bowl. The cockroach is a burnished red, but his guts are gray when I strike him with the flat side of a metal spatula, which I bought at Restaurant Depot expressly for this purpose. It is dawn, I’ve just come from work. Spring is arriving, and I’ll be ready.
My life as a sex worker and agrarian is a strange juxtaposition: the gardener’s early mornings, the stripper’s late nights; the principle of “do no harm” and the practicalities that challenge it. Desire and Disgust are chasing each other on the carousel of New Orleans festivals, coming around again, whether or not we are prepared.
She fingers the price tag, tied to one of the leaves. You bought a lemon tree before you bought a vacuum? That’s very “you.” She’s come to pick up the camping pad she let me borrow for my first weeks in the apartment. The mattress I bought off the internet has been slit from its shrink-wrap and is airing out on the floor; we brush packing peanuts off its flanks and fold my quilts on top. I’m using my champagne-room money to buy a van. I’m getting my bed frame and everything from my storage unit and bringing it back from California. She laughs. Will it fit in here, in your box-house? I don’t tell her about the worms.
It is the bike, not the lemon tree, I buy first, out of an air hangar hoarded with spokes and tubes. A man behind his array of work benches; a woman in a housecoat, head lolling over the back of a patio chair. That’s my mother, he says. Ma, wake up. He wheels out one bike, then another. I point to a gray one with red paint dappling through. That one’s too big for you. I step over the crossbar. Big is fine.
The brakes are bad, and who painted her? I shout back to him in the entryway. The fork pulls to the right ‘cause the bike’s been hit, he admits as I ride past him in the gravel. I’ll give you a good deal. I offer him less, then she is mine.
I walk her down the greenway as the sky opens up, pouring down on us. By the time we reach Esplanade, I am carrying my soaked-through shoes, toes stained red from the leather soles. Roots, buckled concrete, sand, litter, opaque in the puddles. Hanging from the oaks, the ferns give off their petrichor over the road.
There are other unassembled things I’ve bought: a hexagonal rotating barrel from Sweden that promises to turn any-and-all table scraps into soil in six weeks, and a quadruple-tiered worm bin made of rot-resistant evergreen boards. New Orleans doesn’t have public compost or much recycling.
On my front steps I am confronted by a package reading FRAGILE PERISHABLE OPEN IMMEDIATELY. At the sink, I cut open the box and find a pile of peat moss and a sheet of directions, which I don’t have time to read. I put the little heap in the five-gallon paint bucket that had been keeping the lemon tree level to the window. I sprinkle a glass of water into the bucket, close the lid, and leave for work.
The clouds churn as I bike into the quarter. This was once a vivid ecosystem: hardwood trees standing tall, their knees peeking from the shallows. The river and the clouds reaching to kiss, the city forcing its way between. This barometric feeling— being pressed on from all sides—how long until I acclimate?
In the ramen shop off Frenchmen street, I sit alone, texting. A Japanese cult movie is being projected behind the bar, huge faces on the bricks. I text Max, breaking some plans we’d been concocting. It’s OK. I know. He is in a botanical garden, somewhere across the Gulf. I tell him about the van, all those things in the storage unit. Look. I get it. I know, I know. I take some bites of my ramen, think about the worms and can’t finish the bowl. The weather escalates through the open doorway.
The last time Max and I saw each other, we were in a northern lake—clear, with lotuses coming up from the rocks. He stood in the shallows, watching me swim. How come you keep saying, I know? Pause. Many years ago, Max changed his surname to refer to an Indian religion founded on nonviolence and respect towards all living things. I’m on acid, he admits. I send him a stack of cheery emojis. He sends me a picture of an egret. A message below it: BE LIKE THIS.
My life as a sex worker and agrarian is a strange juxtaposition: the gardener’s early mornings, the stripper’s late nights
I sink into a velveteen chair as the manager negotiates my new contract. Every hallway and every door is contact-papered with 4x-life size images of women contorting themselves around the club’s corners, pantomiming orgasm from under their long, blonde hair. I resolve to camouflage myself to look as akin to them as I can. The manager adds me into the rotation.
The customers settle into their 2-for-1 beers and stare out at me from the pooling darkness. I idle with my bra straps until the first song’s chorus, imagining myself with hair so long that it hides me like a canopy. I climb up to the top of the pole and wait for the first dollar. At the second song’s bridge, I cross my legs and drape myself over backwards, let go of my top and let it fall. A stray bill finds its way to the pole’s base. For every champagne-room hour, there are whole nights like this.
My bicycle is locked to its usual post on the corner beside a lingerie store, where the street is always wet. The fire hydrant has been leaking since I began working in the French Quarter. Tonight, the rest of the street is wet as well. The windowsills are blackened, like eyelids. The can beside the hydrant is overflowing with Hefty bags and plastic cups: Hand Grenade, Lemon Drop, Mind Eraser, Vegas Bomb. Wartime explosives and industrial fertilizers are manufactured out of analogous petrochemicals, by the same companies. Don’t cry, I say to the hydrant.
A twist of elastic straps and money spills from my bag onto the mattress. I take off my shoes and feel something damp under my heel. The worms are out. They’ve climbed to the top of the bucket, under the lid, over the rim, and are moving directionless all over the floor. I tear off a piece of cardboard from the mattress-box and scoop them (I still don’t have a vacuum).
Vandana Shiva reminds us, “in this handful of soil is your future. Take care of it… soil will sustain you and provide you with food, and clothing, and shelter, and beauty. Beauty is very much a part of it. Destroy it and it will destroy you.” I tiptoe among the worms, placing the strays into the lemon tree’s pot.
BE LIKE THIS.
I know, I know…