That’s the thing about this city.
Literally—it smells terrible. Between the massive landfill along the interstate and the old papermill across the river, the stench of pollution and hard-earned money from both sides ride on the wings of the wind through the streets, whishing between the tall, dilapidated buildings of downtown.
Good old Monroe, Louisiana. The city used to be a big deal back in the early- to mid-1900’s. The infamous Bonnie and Clyde hid in one of the old hotels, the first bottles of Coca-Cola were produced here, and the Ouachita River flowing through the city allowed for a major trading post for a while.
Now, Monroe is known for other things. Duck Dynasty. Highest crime rate per capita in the country. A special strain of meth. The whole shebang.
And I was returning to it today.
After three days of driving, I supposed I was ready to finally reach my destination, though my destination may be nothing short of the nightmare I call my hometown. The smell had honestly slipped my mind until I’d been about five miles out of the city, cruising down Interstate-20 East with my windows rolled down. However, as soon as those familiar sulphuric fists pummeled my nose, I quickly rolled up each and every one of my windows and smashed the “Inside Air” button on my car’s A/C.
But it was too late. The fumes were stuck in here with me now. So, I resorted to strictly mouth-breathing as I took my exit toward the Civic Center. Upon taking that turn, my very familiar panic set in once more. I’d told Jamee before ever planning this trip that I didn’t want to take her here, that it wasn’t safe. Not for her, not for me. But she’d been so adamant about meeting my family, about my need to make amends. I’d told her that not every family was as accepting as hers was, but she didn’t care.
My family made it hard to miss them. My father could rot for all I cared. My older sister had been the “perfect” daughter—good grades, business degree from the local college, married with two kids now that I’ve only FaceTimed. I couldn’t hate her for that, but I could certainly be jealous that our parents had spent all their affections on her that there’d been none left for me. I missed my mom the most, but the disappointment in her eyes still burned like acid in my brain when I’d told her I’d had a crush on a girl in my eighth-grade class.
“Olivia,” Jamee said from the passenger seat, “it’ll be alright.” I felt her warm hand rest on my knee. “I’m right here with you.”
I hadn’t realized that I’d been clinching the steering wheel, my fingernails digging sharply into the brown leather, or that my teeth had been clamped so tightly that my jaw was silently screaming for reprieve.
I slowly released one hand from the steering wheel with a sigh and laid it on top of Jamee’s, her smooth skin a comfort to me. In the sunbeams shining directly through my driver’s side window, her beautiful dark tone was illuminated against my pale, freckled thigh.
Monroe, Louisiana was not always the place to be for anyone openly gay, nor for any type of interracial couple. We were here hitting two birds with one stone.
You’d think, in big cities, that there is a plethora of different types of people, each living their life shamelessly because there are too many people to care if one or two thinks of you a certain way. That the types of people living in cities are so diverse, in fact, that those differences can be overlooked. Maybe even accepted in most circles.
Those are false sentiments, and I venture to say even more so for Monroe, given its location right above the starkly different, fun-loving South Louisiana.
There were, of course, rebels like myself and Jamee. And my sister had told me that things in the city were getting better, both with the infrastructure and with the people. I hadn’t cared to return to see any proof, though.
We drove down Forsythe Avenue and turned down my family’s street, North 12th Street, where Cormier’s —my favorite place to get delicious boiled crawfish— sat on the corner.
“Wanna stop here?” I asked suddenly, more excited about a potential distraction than about the food. I’d already put on my blinker to turn into their parking lot. “Their gumbo is amazing—”
“Olivia.” Jamee’s firm voice reverberated through the car. But her brown eyes softened, and her hand on my thigh remained cool and comforting. With a gentle tone, she encouraged me. “Come on. We’re almost there.”
So, with a groan, I turned off my blinker and continued down the street into the depths of the Garden District.
The Garden District, where my parents and now my sister had always lived, used to be The Neighborhood to Live In. If you were anybody, you lived in the Garden District. The old houses were grandiose even to this day, and the huge Grace Episcopal Church still rose over the massively branching hundred-year-old oak trees. However, according to my sister, the younger population has begun to move to a newer neighborhood called Frenchman’s Bend, out of the city since the crime rate was especially high in the nearby downtown.
The familiar two-story house, its blue paint more faded than I remembered, loomed in my periphery as I pulled into the wide driveway. And to my absolute delight, the first one to greet us was my parents’ Pembroke corgi, Captain.
“Hey, dude!” I hopped out of the car and vigorously rubbed his happy face, but his apparent age made a sad lump rise into my throat. I hadn’t seen him in eight years, and his black muzzle had turned gray, his dark eyes clouded with cataracts. He had to be at least fourteen years old, now.
Footsteps scuffled beside me, and Jamee’s hand found mine as I stood.
The red front door creaked open, and my two nieces ran out onto the lawn, their little voices clearer than they’d ever been through my phone screen, and so very sweet to my ears.
Aubrey came bounding over, followed by her younger sister Nora, brown curls bouncing everywhere. “Auntie Olive!” They crashed into me and I laughed, feeling these two little girls start to wash my anxiety away one hug at a time.
“Hi, Auntie Jamee!” Aubrey cried, turning then to Jamee and curling her little arms around her legs.
“Hi, sweet pea!” Jamee exclaimed just as animatedly. She side-eyed me, as if to say See? Not so bad so far, right?
My sister came out of the house then, and a surprising burst of joy surged through me as she wrapped her arms around me. I’d expected to feel bitterness, jealousy, pain, or even nonchalance. Not happiness.
“It’s so good to see you, Olivia,” she murmured in my ear, her voice thick with emotion.
“I’ve missed you, Megan,” I whispered back, and that was all I could manage, for I found that my own throat had seized, my joy feeling like molasses. Was there even…relief?
Then, the door creaked open again, and my panic made a quick return. My throat remained closed, but this time it was tension clasping my windpipe shut.
My mother stood before me, timidly holding her hands to her chest, her bright floral dress and brunette updo clearly picked out for this occasion. Her blue eyes bored into mine, a sadness present behind nervous caution. I’m sure my eyes mirrored hers.
But over any other emotion, her eyes burned with relief. She was so beautiful.
I tried to imagine what she saw standing before her. Both of her daughters and granddaughters, Megan and Nora clinging to me, and Aubrey hugging a stranger. That stranger, with her natural hair and bright smile, grasping my hand.
“You must be Mrs. Guillot,” Jamee suddenly said cheerfully, breaking the taught silence. With the utterly unapologetic confidence that I adored, she stepped forward and held her free hand out to my mother.
A relieved smile broke my mother’s timid features, and she reached out and grasped Jamee’s hand. “It is so nice to meet you, Jamee.” Her politeness put me even more on edge; I didn’t know if it was genuine, if I could trust it.
Then, with a steeled sigh, my mother turned to me. “Hi, my sweet Olive.”
I searched her tone in those four words, looking for any sign of hatred, shamefulness, judgement. But I found none of those.
Instead, I found every bruised knee that she kissed better. I found her cheers from the stands during my volleyball games. I found her shoulder upon which I cried when I failed my geometry test.
With those four words, my guarded resolve began to crumble. For I found love.
I stepped forward, letting go of Jamee’s hand for the first time since we took the exit into this too-familiar city, into my mother’s open arms. “Hi, Momma.”
Her arms tightened around me, and her shoulders began to shake. “I am so sorry. So sorry.” Her sobbing whispers were loud in my ear, but I only hugged her more tightly, soaking in every part of this moment.
“I forgot how amazing your hugs were, Momma.”
“I’ll show you around inside,” I heard Megan say softly to Jamee. I felt Jamee’s hand touch my shoulder lightly, seeping reassurance into my being, before she followed my sister into the old house, my two nieces bouncing behind them.
My mother and I stood near my car, relishing in this reunion, however broken it may be. The sun still shined overhead, warming my scalp through my bright red hair.
After a moment of silent, healing bliss, my mother sighed into my shoulder. “I’m so happy that you’re home, sweetheart.”
“This isn’t home,” I snorted. As if to emphasize, the sour punch of the papermill filled my nose as I did so. “New Haven is my home. My home could never be where he is.”
She lifted her head and clucked her tongue disapprovingly. “Olivia, that’s not very fair—”
But I cut her off quickly. “What isn’t fair is the way he treated me.” The shunning. The disowning. The brief reprieve from shunning only to blatantly shame me in front of all his friends at his favorite bar down the street. The removal of my name from his will. Those actions weren’t fair.
“Sweetheart, if I can show you—”
“No. I don’t want to see anything of his.” Nothing of my father’s held any interest to me whatsoever, so help me God.
My mother hesitated, her lips pursed in stubbornness. “Well, won’t you at least visit him while you’re here?”
“No.” I unwrapped my arms from around her and loped toward the front door of the house, my crumbling resolve leaving small bits of mental gravel in my wake. I needed to hold myself together.
That night, we decided to have dinner at Doe’s Eat Place downtown. I drove my car with Jamee sitting beside me, and my mother in the backseat. My mother was gracious during the ride, talking very chipperly and clearly making a point to ignore my hand resting in Jamee’s lap.
Well, baby steps.
It turned out that my high school classmate was our waiter, and he was beyond excited to see me. He was so much nicer than the Johnny Foret I remembered. He even joked with Jamee at one point, recalling an old memory I’d kept locked tightly in a drawer in the recesses of my mind.
“I asked Olivia to our senior prom, you know,” he smirked. “She turned me down. I can see why she did if this is what I had to compete with!” He gestured to Jamee’s whole form, and they both laughed jovially.
Johnny caught me again before we left, pulling me aside near the hostess’s stand before as everyone else left through the heavy door.
“Hey,” he said quietly, eyes sad but unwavering from my own, “I’m sorry about high school. The nasty things I said about you. You didn’t deserve that.” He touched my arm softly. “I’m really happy for you.”
His sincerity was so genuine, so real, that I’d murmured my quiet “thank you” through a returning emotional lump in my throat.
As we pulled out of the parking lot, I was so full of emotion that I wasn’t aware of the turns I was making, the red traffic lights I stopped at only by instinct. I vaguely noticed that downtown had improved, just as my sister had said. The old, tattered buildings still outnumbered the nice ones, but there definitely were renovations being made. The Riverwalk looked especially nice, with new wooden planks, railings, and quaint string lights.
Perhaps, just as my sister had said, more than downtown had improved. If Johnny, the boy who’d spread the not-so-false rumor that I was a lesbian around high school, could have a change of heart, then maybe the city had come a long way than where it’d been when I’d left it for college, with no plans to return, eight years ago.
I’d been listening to faint thoughts, distant memories, more hopeful than before in my mind, that I didn’t know where I was going until I’d pulled over against the curb.
“I’m going visit Dad,” I announced quietly. “Momma, can you show me where he is?”
My mother nodded, silent tears in her eyes as she stepped out the car. Jamee and I followed her through the rusted iron-wrought gate, our hands intertwined together. I wanted Dad to see us together.
We followed my mother down the concrete walkway, overtaken by weeds and vines, past the headstones and tombs that dated centuries back. You can tell who still had family visiting them; their tombs were pristinely white, with fresh flowers placed in their vases.
Down an aisle, my lead feet dragging through haphazardly cut grass, I was suddenly riddled with panic once more. I felt his presence, smothering me with his disapproval, his hatred. I’d thought I didn’t care, that I could write him off just as he’d done to me, and that I’d been successful in doing so these past few years. But as we came to stop in front of my father, I found myself unable to breath.
RICHARD ANTHONY GUILLOT
His epitaph made me fall to my knees.
“MY HEART BELONGS TO MY WIFE, CHERYL, AND MY DAUGHTERS, MEGAN AND OLIVIA.
OLIVIA, I AM SORRY.”
Olivia, I am sorry. Engraved into the granite above two etched doves, for the entire city to see as long as his headstone stands.
“It was the only way your father could be sure you’d know he meant it,” my mother said quietly.
I didn’t realize that I’d dragged Jamee to the ground with me until she rested her head against my shoulder, her hair cushioned against the hollow of my neck.
How could this man, who I’d thought I’d overcome years ago, garner this much emotion from me? How could he still make me yearn for his love, and still feel relief to know I’d never truly lost it underneath his anger and unacceptance?
In the cast of the dim streetlight overhead, I realized that it was because my own love for him hadn’t been lost, either. My love for my family, and my love for this city, may have been buried deeply underneath my own mountain of anger and pain, but it hadn’t been forgotten.
It just took a trip back to the most wretched-smelling city in the country to dig it up.