The Neutral Ground
In this summer you are two and I am 32, and on certain Sundays, the city is ours.
We wait for our streetcar in the thick heaviness of mid-morning August. I can see it up there stopped at the end of the line, which is also the beginning of the crescent our city is named after. It’s as distinct as a dimple because the green of the neutral ground ends abruptly in concrete and traffic light and strip mall. These things crowd the other side of the intersection as if built up against an imperceptible wall they can approach but not breach. As vulnerable as this city is to swirls of wind with warm hearts and floozy names, it has kept at bay the more formidable threat of homogeneity.
The neutral ground, that’s what they call this airstrip of grass with two sets of tracks that divides the avenue. We begin our journey here, in this place owned by no one. The driver of the streetcar reads a newspaper and pretends not to see us, biding time until he can figure out whether we’re actually waiting on him or just idling here on the grass. You’re doing your dance of discomfort: you want up, then down, then to cross the street but by your damn self. I struggle to keep you on the green. It’ll be over 90 before noon. I smooth the damp chestnut hair off of your face and point to the parked streetcar with exaggerated gesture to both hold you in place with anticipation and signal to the driver that we are indeed his passengers, the only passengers on the morning that the rest of the city sleeps or prays. It works. He folds his newspaper exponentially until it is as small as physics will allow. He begins pulling levers. The grunt of the released brake succors my anxiety and the streetcar begins its crotchety, begrudging glide toward us.
All aboard, but it’s just you and me on this train. Its interior is a hollowed and spit-shined redwood. Bare light bulbs hang like inverted ideas, illuminating the grains that streak from front to back. The high-gloss bench seats are set at rigid 90-degree angles. Our seat creaks and jerks in reaction to the slightest movement. I’m aware of how I place my body, as if on the ascent of some ancient Big Dipper, unreliable in its antiquity, where the crack of spine on wood is perhaps more frightening than the impending drop.
I have to use both hands to push the window open along its track. The torpid air of the train is permeated by that of outside, no cooler in temperature, but it’s moving at least and that is infinitely relieving. As a child of New Orleans, wind is a novelty for you. A couple times a year, a bizarre weather phenomenon might stir the still air of our troubled and shallow waterways enough that a spooky remnant airstream, maybe even salt scented, will blow the hair off of our shoulders. When this happens, you say the word you think means “scared” in your girl-baby voice and pull your fists up to your eyes in an exaggerated gesture of fear. But on this train, the rush of wind delights you. It dries our sweat until our skin is stiff and crystalline.
On this streetcar, we don’t have to talk or sing. I don’t have to be your teacher, explaining life as we move through it in an overly enunciated, high-pitched voice I swore to never use. We’re tuned into the workings of something larger. What was at first a cacophony — the squeal of iron wheels scraping iron tracks, the creak-crack of the wood seats and the shriek of brakes signaling a stop at every two blocks — has become a harmony that matches the resonance of your relentless fidgeting. Finally still, you are damp spongy calmness in my lap, content to absorb and process the noises and reverberations.
I wrap my arms around the orb of your stomach and though I can’t see your face, I know you are smiling. You reach up with one hand and grab a rope of my hair — your instinctual response to worry or excitement — and I’m swept with an emotion I can’t name, but I know it has something to do with the feelings I’ve heard mothers talk about with a certainty assured by biology. It’s a rare moment of poignancy that comes on fast and fierce and sparks a throbbing glow in my chest so powerful that my body cannot contain it and my eyes well up and spill over. I’m grateful that, for now, we’re the only ones on this streetcar. This joy, this rare animal feeling, is accompanied by my own brand of pathos. I cannot enjoy these unadulterated moments with you free of guilt, as if these scenes are already memories I’m cursing myself for not fully enjoying. As if the rest of life were a dementia and these stolen mornings with you are flashes of clarity, so beautiful yet so jarring in their transience. Still, though, I want to prolong the feeling, to commit it to memory before I slip back to wherever it is I am the rest of the time. It needles an unnamable wound, but I want to draw out that pain because it’s pain itself that brings me into the present, where I want to be, where I know I’m supposed to be.
As we turn onto St. Charles and approach Audubon Park and the thriving green sphere of life within, the brassy roar of the cicadas outdoes even the machinations of the streetcar. Suddenly it seems possible that the swarms of phantom insects could generate enough electricity to keep the park lighted along with the surrounding streets come nightfall. Their powerful call reverberates strangely inside our streetcar, massaging the ear canal as if striated by pockets of heat.
Austerlitz. Amelia. Antonine. We’re really cutting down the avenue now, whizzing past the street signs at close range. You want to wave to everyone below us on the sidewalks but I hold your hands inside because there are mere inches between the streetcar and the obstacles outside. Nothing in this city is up to code. The streetcars roam as freely as the animals in the Audubon Zoo, even sometimes colliding with runners and plowing into cars whose unaware drivers roll languorously across its tracks.
Delachaise. Toledano. Harmony. From afar I make out the sturdy shape of a stout black woman on the corner of St. Charles and Harmony. She’s clad head to toe in the pristine white of the church ladies, topped off with a stiff-brimmed hat clinging in an impossible tilt to the side of her head. She has one arm held up in an inflexible 90-degree angle, but the only part of her that moves is a flicking wrist as it waves a white fan up and down, up and down.
The train stops every two blocks to pick up passengers. Each time we slow, you turn an expectant face to me and say, “All done, train.” Once your tone of voice signals that this is a request instead of an observation, I know that we’ve gone as far on this line that I can take you and this must become our halfway point. I pull the cord that makes the buzz and I carry you to the back of the train. I lean with the weight of both of our bodies against the narrow glass doors until I feel them relent. The jaw slackens and the doors open outward from the middle, lowering two steps like the reluctant tongue of a child caught chewing gum. During our time in transit the sun has moved higher in the sky toward noon and as we step down onto the un-shaded neutral ground, the air is a second barrier to push our weight through.
Like the other mothers, I hold your small hand as I pull you across the neutral ground, but whereas the others are hurrying to make it to church before their tardiness is noted, you and I are going to a coffee shop six blocks away. I know you want ice cream and it’s our day but it’s also the Lord’s day and those ice cream shops are devout. I’m praying that this coffee shop is open, the one with the dark brown walls and darker music and vegan baked goods. I know if it is, I can find something you like, but it’s got to be open.
We’re walking down Napoleon Avenue now and it’s lush and beautiful but still unbearably hot and those trees can’t shade us from everything and you’re still learning to walk and it’s not until we’re out on this big avenue that I notice how slow you are. It’s too hot out here even for the yapping dogs. Each house holds them in like ghosts, their noses resting between their front paws, the only part of them I can see sticking out from that cool, dark, space with the secret cellar smell between the house and the ground. They built the houses levitated like that so that drafts would run under the house as well as around it, but if there aren’t ever any drafts, what does it matter?
We’re sweating so much. If we weren’t alone, if your dad were here, this would be a failed mission, my failed mission, and he wouldn’t have had a chance to say let’s go back, she’s too hot because I would have already sensed failure looming and said let’s just go back I knew this wouldn’t work, conceding in anticipation of his disapproval while hoarding resentment as a private retaliation. His constant, indiscriminate risk assessment is more oppressive than this heat, which we can handle, but I would have buckled under the weight of both together.
I can see that even though you’re miserable — working those chubby legs back and forth, studying the ground for obstacles — you’re still curious. I try to remember that you’re a person in addition to being a baby, and people like new things, new experiences. The streetcar, this neighborhood, and an afternoon with just the two of us — it’s all new, it’s different and you’re curious. I can tell. “Babies like routine,” the books say, or I imagine the books say. I never read those books, any of them. I tried, I really did, but the first one spoke to me, addressed me directly like we were in conversation, except she called me “luv” and I couldn’t call her anything and it felt so goddamn condescending that I traded it in at the bookstore for free coffee. We tried again, because that’s what you do. I gave your dad a book about raising daughters but the only thing it discussed were the threats to your sexual purity, and unfortunately he read the whole thing before I had a chance to trade it in so you’ll have me to thank for that someday. In the meantime, he remains doggedly focused on threats to your immediate being: wet hair, ill-fitting shoes, and my carelessness.
Something catches your eye — a fountain almost entirely enclosed inside a ring of gargantuan ginger plants. “Agua?” you plead. Every moment we spend on the street feels closer to implosion, but you asked permission and by the time I can tell you okay, you’ve waddled into the front yard of this stranger’s mansion and have plunged one arm into the basin. “Mommy’s pelo,” you tell me, as you run your fingers through the lily pads’ ethereal roots, dangling below the water’s surface.
This last stretch is the worst part because the trees have left us and we’re crossing a blue clay basketball court that’s like the moon, not because of the blue but because there is no one out there because who in their right mind would be . . . It’s open! Thank you Jesus, it’s open! Now we’re inside and the dark and the cold welcome us and I swear I hear the door suction closed behind us like that of a freezer and I don’t even care because I’m just so goddamn grateful that we’ve found refuge. I’ll buy you any dairy-free soy-less treat you like. Hell, pick two. You earned it. Yes, we do still have to get back home somehow, but let’s not worry about that now. Let’s just sit over here at this corner table and you can eat the frosting off of all three of these cupcakes and I’ll just be glad I didn’t fail.
The door swings open and cracks into the wall behind it. A man stands framed in the doorway, the sunlight behind him darkening his figure so that all I can see is his outline: man pushing dolly stacked with netted product. He bellows: “Who’s it left dat bicycle out here?” A faceless voice from a back room answers back: “That’s mine,” but no one emerges and all the while the deliveryman is beaming like his announcement was the purpose in itself. “Well, you know I can’t get by, baby,” he says with a foolish smile, and then lets the door close in front of him.
I give you two quarters because there is one of those old-timey candy machines, but instead of candy it dispenses a tiny hand-drawn comic book. I know you’re disappointed not to feel the weight of stale M&Ms in your hand, but just look at this! Every single one of these tiny pages is drawn by hand. You grasp the significance, I know you do, and you call it your book. You press it into your pudgy wet palm and there it remains, stuck like a tattoo.
We get back on and the streetcar and this time it’s full of tourists who smile at us like people do who ride a train for the hell of it. We take the only seat left, and I wedge you into the corner. You pull your sandals up on the bench and lean back against me. I whisper to you in what my mom calls our secret language but is really just Spanish. I hope you think it’s a secret language too.
I had forgotten about your book but there it is resting on the windowsill and the window is open and wind is blowing in, so how has it not blown away somewhere? “Your book!” I yell, and you slam that wet palm on top of it and it disappears back into your hand.
We’re back under the trees, finally, under those enclosing canopies of oak that let us go unnoticed by the rest of the world. Though they deliver their own ruthless destruction — chewing up our sidewalks from underneath until another hurricane rips them from the asphalt, their protection is the reason for the beauty in this city where things are still made of wood. I wonder what it will be like for you to grow up here, to know only this strange and beautiful place, which will seem neither strange nor beautiful to you — just normal. I think maybe I should tell you about the rest of the world — that plants don’t necessarily eat houses if left unattended and that there is no tree whose fruit is colored plastic beads — so that you will not be tethered to this city by disappointment in everywhere else.
I’d thought the heat and your exhaustion and the vibrations of the train and its screeching white noise would put you to sleep. I’d imagined carrying you home those last two blocks in my arms, your eyes closed in that still-fetal way. I’d use my free hand to wipe the sweat from your face and neck and draw upon inhuman maternal strength to find the keys and open the front door without jostling you awake. Instead, the length of our trip has increased your bravery. You’re kneeling on the seat to offer maximum surface area to the wind. You look back at me, thrilled, looking for the concern that lets you know what you’re doing is worrying me, which you find even more thrilling.
By the second-to-last stop we are alone once again on the streetcar, just as we were when we began. When our feet make contact with the neutral ground, sadness and regret return with the familiarity of our surroundings. I know that once we step off of the grass’s soft yield onto the unforgiving asphalt, I will have already begun my metamorphosis back into a wallflower — a morning glory cowering into myself with the first sign of dusk. The recognition of our setting has the opposite effect on you: your face registers the pride of one who has just realized that she knows where she is and in which direction to continue. You reach for my hand because we are about to cross but also because it is you now leading me.
2 replies on “The Neutral Ground”
Breathtaking sense of place and clarity of focus. Wonderful work, Annie!