New Orleans had been a disappointment: pre-mixed cocktail syrups churning in industrial plastic drums; laminated menus of identikit Cajun staples; endless voodoo and mardi gras souvenirs; tired drag acts; the cockroaches lumbering across the hotel floor coupled with the dire warnings about not venturing out in the local neighbourhood after dark for fear of becoming victim to violent assault and robbery. The gratuitous baring of breasts had proved an unexpected thrill – how come the guide book left that out? – but it was a novelty that soon wore out. It was Blackpool relocated. And the worst of it was that coming here was my idea. She wanted to go to Miami. Get a suntan.
Leaving the city after five nights – five nights where we drank the over-sweetened cocktails with increasing and desperate urgency – we stopped at a McDonald’s. She was hungry. The girl taking our order had bad skin and braces on her teeth. She was charmed by our accents. Do you come from London? Is it real pretty? Her soft Southern drawl raising a pitch, as though just meeting two people from Britain was the fulfilment of a lifelong dream. Did no visitor to New Orleans venture out this way? We were still within the city limits on the main road out to the bayous.
We had booked to stay in an old colonial-style bed and breakfast. The rooms felt grand compared to the hotel in New Orleans, and the welcome was warm. In bed that night, we watched a film. They had a whole library of DVDs to choose from. Good ones too. She had never seen Citizen Kane, so we watched that. I envied her ability to lose herself in a film: in a fiction. I would watch her – eyes widening, the odd little gasp, or frown – living the film. Being in the moment. I could never be like that. I was always thinking about the lighting rig just out of shot. Imagining Orson Welles leaning forward on his canvass-backed director’s chair, metal megaphone gripped in hand. Wondering about what happened to the extras – this highpoint in their failed acting careers – creating an anti-climactic biography for them filled with bad whiskey, cheap motels and doomed relationships. After the film, we slept.
Following a day kayaking through the bayou – she was terrified of the alligators, snakes and spiders – we had more or less run out of things to do. The guide book was no help. At least in Miami you could just sit on the beach and get a suntan, she reminded me.
So the next day we just drove. Follow our noses, I said. We’re bound to discover something of interest. Some stunning piece of landscape the guide book writers haven’t seen, where nobody else is. We’ll find extraordinary diners which only the locals know about. We will delight the waiting staff with our quaint accents and tiny British appetites. We will impress them with our pioneer spirit. America will be ours. I could tell she wasn’t convinced, but she acquiesced. Driving out on the interstate, I had succeeded in convincing myself that our journey of discovery was to yield excitement, adventure and surprise. Optimism and instinct were my co-pilots as I pulled the car off on a spur road, heading for who-knew-where-exactly, watching with greedy eyes for Louisiana to reveal itself.
Time slipped by. Optimism and instinct bailed out to be replaced by boredom and impatience. A strained silence filled the car. Her gaze was locked stubbornly on the passenger window. When she did look my way, her eyes were brimming with barely-concealed hostility. She was hating this. Industrial plants clung to the banks of the roiling, brown Mississippi – wider than a motorway – whose smokestacks funnelled grey-blue gases into the oyster sky. Long, straight roads connected town after town in which high-rise signage advertised cheap meal deals at the Wendy’s and Subways and Taco Bells that squatted below them. Each new town as similarly unremarkable as the previous one.
We stopped to get a drink. A young black man, maybe nineteen or twenty, stood outside the store watching me. The forbidding warnings of the anxious proprietors of our hotel in New Orleans crowded my thoughts; an uneasy feeling crept over me. I roamed the store, trying to not to look like a tourist: feigning nonchalance and desperately masking my childish curiosity at all the different brands, attempting not to marvel at the packaging and the out-of-control portion sizes. On the way out, I flung the door open with an effortful confidence and brio borrowed from any number of American actors I had observed in any number of films I had seen. The young man, who had clearly been waiting for me, stepped into my path. I stopped – as though the director of the film had barked for the protagonists to freeze. The man spoke to me in a voice insanely low and drawling. He sounded tired or drunk or stoned, or some ominous combination thereof. I had no idea what he was saying. Was he trying to mug me? Was he going to shoot me? Adrenalin fuelled my veins. He moved closer. I could smell him – sweet and oniony. He was taller, wider. He gestured for a cigarette. I told him I had no cigarettes. He regarded me quizzically. You from England? he asked. I nodded. He looked me up and down. That’s cool, he said. And I went on my way, exhilarated by the encounter with this slice of real Americana.
Back in the car, she asked what had occurred between myself and this dangerous representative of the American underclass. She placed her hand on mine and searched my face with eager eyes. Did he threaten me? Demand money? Did he have a weapon? She thought we had finally found what we had been looking for: the real Louisiana, the real America. The America I had promised her. That hidden country the guidebooks leave uncharted and undocumented. I wanted to please her. To affirm that, yes, we had stepped out of our roles as mere sightseers to become a new kind of tourist seeking authenticity, experience and jeopardy; that my story of facing down this ruthless, violent totem of broken America would be one that we would endlessly recycle, retell and embellish. That this was the beginning of a new journey for both of us. When I told her the truth – benign and banal – the light went from her eyes. She took her hand from mine and I felt her heat dissipate from my skin.
Can we just go back now, she asked. I nodded and flipped open the road map we had abandoned for the day. Do you even know where we are? The name of this place?
I stared blankly at the tracery of coloured intersecting lines, stubbornly refusing to yield up its secrets.
Are we even on the right page?
GC PERRY’s stories have appeared in Litro, Shooter, Open Pen, Hobart, Neon, Bull, Prole, and elsewhere. He lives in London.