Even the New Orleanians told me it was crazy to spend a summer in the city. Humidity clung to the area, and every breath felt like it was inhaled through a wet towel. I had arrived in May, and the heat index had only crept up since then. Everyone I met complained about the heat in the same way I’ve always complained about New England snow: the fact that it’s expected doesn’t make it any more bearable. But there were things I loved about living in a place with the climate of a hot yoga studio. The humidity was an equalizer, and the whole city resigned itself to a democracy of sweat that didn’t exempt even those with the most powerful antiperspirant. And, of course, no one in New Orleans let the sweat keep them from having a good time.
On a Thursday in July, when the humidity threatened to liquify anyone who left the comfort of air conditioning, the French Quarter was still humming with happy, sweaty people. On Frenchmen Street, the music seeped out from different jazz clubs and combined in a pleasing dissonance. Bachelorette parties in matching polyester sashes stumbled into bars, and the sky was dotted with constellations of lit cigarettes glowing from balconies. A brass band on the street corner argued persuasively that any music can be good if it’s played loud enough. I lost myself for a moment before I realized my group was slipping into a club, the one we knew didn’t card.
The seven of them were all older than me, old enough to follow the sound of swing into any club they’d like. I felt grateful for them because they were more mature and much cooler and kind enough to include me in their revelry. I was led to New Orleans by an internship offer with housing and the desire to have a dress rehearsal for adult life, but I didn’t think too hard about the details of what that meant. When I arrived in Louisiana, I realized that for the most part, I was alone, and it didn’t take long before feeling alone turned into feeling lonely. I didn’t quite know what to do with myself. I occupied my time by beginning to explore the city on my own, talking to strangers and learning the landscapes of New Orleans. But the happiness of these moments quickly faded when I found myself alone in my room with all the people I cared about only reachable by phone.
Even as I sat uneasily with this loneliness, it felt easier to resign myself to this feeling than to reach out to my roommates and go through the difficult process of making new friends. The thought of being rejected made me stay in my room even when I heard voices in the kitchen. It took weeks of stuttering courage for me to finally get to know them. Over half my summer had passed by the time I felt comfortable as part of the group — by the time that I could fully enjoy a night like this one.
Inside the club, we saw the band was unplugging amps and packing up instruments. The bartender said another set would begin soon, leaving us with fifteen minutes to sit in the now empty bar. Someone spied the fluorescent glow of a tattoo parlor across the street, and we wandered there like moths. The space had the bright lighting and antibacterial smell of a doctor’s office, only with binders of tattoo designs in place of the waiting room copies of People Magazine. As we crowded the desk, we talked about how crazy it would be to get a piercing, maybe, or a little tattoo, but soon the group began to make excuses that no one requested either. One girl had promised to get her first tattoo with her best friend, and another, now that she thought of it, was really quite afraid of needles.
“You know,” I said, sensing the waning momentum, “I’ve always wanted to get my cartilage pierced.” I pinched the top of my ear lobe where this hypothetical piercing would go as the group responded with affirming nods. I’m not really sure why I said always; it was really only a thought that had occurred to me once or twice. But the group suddenly buzzed at the thought me of getting a hole poked through my ear, and I couldn’t think of a better souvenir to bring home from New Orleans. I signed a waiver, swiped my card, and picked out the most subtle stud. Two friends elected themselves as the ones who would join me in the piercing room, where I was asked to recline on a padded bench covered by paper. The whole process paused only when I struggled to decide which ear to get pierced. I settled on my right because it’s my dominant hand, and that seemed like a concrete rationale at the time. The technician told me to breathe out and briskly poked a sterilized needle through my ear. It didn’t even hurt because I was drunk. She ran through how to care for my new piercing, instructing me to clean it twice a day because apparently the body doesn’t appreciate foreign pieces of metal. She handed me a small mirror. Glancing at my newly-adorned reflection, I couldn’t help but smile. “I love it,” I declared.
I was greeted by cheers in the waiting room. Someone said it looked perfect, like it was meant for me. I glowed as we sailed back across the street where a new band had taken the stage. We started dancing before we even reached the door.
A week later at the airport back in Boston, my mom told me that if I made this a habit, I would soon run out of acceptable body parts to pierce. As I hoisted my suitcase from the baggage claim belt, she brushed my hair away from my ear before announcing that it actually didn’t look terrible. I gave her my best teenage daughter eye roll as a response because I didn’t quite know how to explain that the piercing wasn’t the boldest thing I had done that summer. Navigating a new city and new friendships took a lot more bravery than a split second decision made while drunk on a Thursday night out.
As we passed through the airport’s sliding doors into the mild New England summer, I didn’t feel like the type of person who would come home from a night out with one more piercing than she’d had that morning. Nor did I feel like a person who could live on her own or remember to floss or do her own grocery shopping and sometimes even remember to bring coupons. Or a person who could be lonely, but not let that feeling consume her. Who could be lonely, but could also, by luck or determination, turn it into an opportunity for growth. Who could give herself the space to recognize that things had been hard, but could find gratitude in the fact they had gotten better. I didn’t feel like that person, but I had a piece of metal in my ear and a summer’s worth of memories that proved otherwise.
Elizabeth Hopkinson | firstname.lastname@example.org .