I never liked Basin Street. That was where she lived.
Adelaide, if I remember correctly. You see, she was gorgeous...and also the daughter of the American governor in this city. Blonde hair with piercing emerald eyes, not a combination often seen down here. She took me by storm the first time we met on the river. Both of us were heading to the Presbytere when I caught her glance. She smiled and I immediately fell over the banquette and into the street. That had not been paved yet. As I attempted to brush myself off (not an easy task when it's hotter than the inside of a steamship outside) I caught her just as she damn near slid across Chartres trying to help me up. So, picture us, both covered in mud laughing even as passersby Creole, Acadien, and American alike paused to look at the scene unfolding in front of them.
I didn't know she was American, born in Baltimore. What more could I say?
She offered to take me home. No, not like that. I lived by Tivoli Square on Nyades, something I let slip to her on the way down St. Ann. Now my family was not poor by any means, just unpopular. Soirees were not our style anyway. She asked me my name. Charlevoix, I replied. Normand Sieur de Charlevoix. Adelaide Wilkinson she replied. Now this was a point of contention, especially since my father was jailed by hers. You see, ever since the peace offerings and parades ended three years ago New Orleans was not exactly the best place to, you know, have fun. James Wilkinson was the primary cause of this. He put New Orleans under de facto martial law and arrested anybody who objected otherwise. My father Marquis Charlevoix did just that and was carried out of town in shackles to a prison far away. It made me wonder how that monster had such a beautiful daughter though. Kind and sweet at that. We talked the entire way home, laughing even as we passed the remains of my long dead ancestors whose tombs spoke in a way nothing else in the city did, except the mosquitoes. It was dark by the time we reached her house. She invited me in and I politely declined, loathe to see the General. Just before we parted way I brushed her cheek with a kiss, a generous word of thanks, and an address.
She was stunning...but not mine. Not now. Not ever.
Dawn was a blessing for Normand Charlevoix when Chloe pulled the curtains open. His family's slave, Chloe cooked, cleaned, and looked after his sister Alsatia, who was seven. But not even the sweltering rays of sunlight or a mischievous good morning hug from Alsatia could calm the storm inside of his soul.
Two angels. One devil. But who am I to judge?
The dream he had shook him to his core. It opened and ended in the port of Cherbourg, France and on board the ship his family would take to New Orleans. As he boarded one singular figure caught his eye. An alluring beauty, swathed in white, with a charm around her neck and a string of flowers caressing her hair. Laura. The girl he left behind.
They met forcefully in Paris, Normand pulling her boyfriend off of her in the middle of an argument. He sent the man home with a black eye and a bloody lip. The bruises on Laura's arm failed to mask her bewitching radiance. A brunette with pouty lips and a captivating stare, they spent the rest of the day in each other's arms. "She was the one," Normand thought to himself. Before the fireworks faded, however, a death knell to their love had already been enacted in the form of marching orders to Nouvelle-Orleans. No ifs, ands, or love about it. Their last night together had been magical. Dinner on the Seine, lying under the stars, and a little extra-curricular activity after Normand commandeered a carriage all the way to Versailles. It broke Laura's heart for him to leave. Once a traveler in the world of love, she had finally become a settler. She knew what she had in Normand. A handsome, caring man who cared too much for her. It was alright though. She loved him for it.
It couldn't last beyond Manche. As Normand turned for one last look at his true home one singular figure caught his eye. An alluring beauty, swathed in black, holding a gilded necklace from Versailles he had given to her and a fleur de lis caressing her hair. Crying. Laura. The love he left behind.
It didn't get any easier for Normand as the day progressed. He wandered the streets after dropping off Alsatia at the Ursuline Convent, wondering out loud what he had done and where she was even though the "she" in his mind changed back and forth from the one he truly loved to the one he felt obliged to love. He just didn't know who that "she" was. He ended up on the levee where he caught a view of the city. Save for the Place d'Armes he didn't know what to think about New Orleans. It was unruly, drunk, rowdy, and definitely not the place for a Frenchman. Though, he had to admit there was something special about this city. Something he had never experienced before. Something...like Adelaide.
She was innocence juxtaposed. With what? I couldn't say.
Adelaide saw me from across the Place D'Armes as I was picking up Alsatia from the convent. She glided over in a Carolina sundress which accentuated her slight but angelic frame. She greeted me with a peck on the cheek and a look of consternation when Alsatia shrieked in surprise and started yelling "Normand has a girlfriend!" to anyone who would listen. Alsatia was too young to remember Laura and that thought made me recoil from Adelaide, blaming my sister for the sudden motion. I offered to take her back to my house seeing as Alsatia had to be home soon otherwise my mother and Chloe would worry for us.
However, the moment she obliged her father spotted her and ran towards us screaming epithets. She had left her house without warning, apparently something she was prone to doing as indicated by her father's pointed insults. General Wilkinson was not the most amicable person in the city and the moment he spotted and identified me as a Frenchman (it was easy to distinguish, Americans have no sense of style or purpose) the slurs began. Even with Alsatia staring in wonderment I felt my dressing down had not been censored in any way whatsoever. When he ended the conversation abruptly by calling me one of Napoleon's less-desired body parts, I began to leave before Adelaide called my name. "Au revoir, mon petit-ami!" she cried across the square, inciting another round of shrill giggles from my sister, cursing from the General, and weary looks from citizens who had come to know this all too well.
It was dusk by the time we arrived home. My mother almost had a fit herself when she saw us walk across the porch but cooler heads prevailed after Chloe stepped in and calmed everyone down. I made Alsatia promise to not tell mother about the incident in Place D'Armes and that Adelaide was very special to me, but I had made a promise long ago to a girl I loved. As a result, dinner was quiet until interrupted by a knock on the door. It was Adelaide, sobbing. Her public beratement by her father was the last straw in their relationship. As he rose up the ranks in the military the structured and disciplined atmosphere he craved was extended to his only child, who was loathe to respect him. She was a free spirit through her mother, dead of malaria and buried in a mass grave with Normand's eldest brother in the St. Louis cemetery. Adelaide loved the carriage rides they took through the French Quarter and down Nyades. She loved the way her mother tut-tutted her father for the slightest thing wrong with his demeanor. She loved her...and hated this city. Hated the city for taking away her best friend and most cherished memories. Hated the city for what it had become under her father. An empty, soulless place on a disgusting brown river. Nothing mattered to her but rekindling the fire of experience her mother had lit in her and she had found the tinder in Normand.
I invited her in and explained to mother who this was. Almost immediately she advanced on me yelling "Vous n'avez pas oublié votre père ? Mon Dieu!" I stiffened, retorting that father had been jailed in opposition to General Wilkinson, not Adelaide. She was different. "Different will not bring Marquis back, nor will seeing the swine child of that bastard!" she yelled, throwing a saucer at Adelaide. We ran out of the house as the accompanying teacup crashed above our heads. I turned to a visibly distraught Adelaide and cradled her as she collapsed.
We spent the night at her friend's house. Melissa was an old friend of Adelaide's from Baltimore and her family had come with the American delegation. Her father, Joseph Bellechasse, was one of the highest ranking politicians in the city and promised to smooth things over with both families. Otherwise, we were under ironclad orders to stay in the house. Sleep was not a struggle after such a traumatic day and Adelaide's head rested on my chest as she dozed off. I too was not one to fight the waves of solace but as I drifted away I could hear a honeyed voice whisper "Je me souviens. Je me souviens." and the last thing I saw before somnambulism overtook me was a face from long ago.
Laur...and then blackness.
Angels don't come along very often. That's when I knew...
I woke up to a radiant halo next to me, the steaming New Orleans sun illuminating the face I gave so much for yet got so little in return save a sensuous kiss and a spirited wrestling match in the covers. Love had never felt this pure, this organic. I loved Laura, of that I was sure. With her though, something was different. It was meted, measured passion. Adelaide had none of that. She was spunky and sparky, a raw delight like the oysters harvested in the winter months. After my father left, I hated this city for a long time. Adelaide began to change that and I found it so hard to quantify anything meted, even the love of a lifetime.
By the end of the day it was clear Basin and Nyades would never intersect again but the biggest revelation lay not with me but with someone I never thought would save me.
It was right before bed when Alsatia jumped in my lap. It was something she had started when we were banned from the salon while my parents entertained the bourgeoisie of the city and Chloe feverishly worked to clean up after them. I would always play a little with her then put her to sleep. Over time and especially after my father was arrested, though, I became a her confidante. I knew she hated molasses, liked a boy in her primary class, and didn't mind when our dog Laurent woke her up by licking her face. I told her things too. Things primarily about Laura but never mentioning her name. To Alsatia my oceanic love affair was a fairy tale, something I had dreamed about in Paris before she ever saw the light of day. Born in New Orleans, Alsatia never saw the life we lived in France and to tell her of a place she only dreamed about visiting was more than enough to satisfy her imagination. I told her of our trysts under the moonlight, the way her brown eyes sparkled like the Seine right before we kissed, and the honeyed voice that kept calling back to me in despair as we left the port. And then it would end like that, with the lights out and tears rolling down my face.
Tonight was no different. Alsatia curled next to me in bed, resting her head on my shoulder. I began to recount the time Laura and I accidentally fell into a river after she wanted to get a better look at her reflection but Alsatia stopped me. She inquired if this was Adelaide, something that left me at a loss for words but not emotion. She knew. As I sat there fumbling for words, she said something that would haunt me for a long time.
"Normand, who do you love?"
I replied, "You, ma petite soeur. You and you alone." painfully before retreating to my room. I knew I didn't have to choose. Adelaide was a tryst. An escape from this damned diseased-ridden, spite-laden exile called New Orleans. I loved her because I had to. I loved Laura because I wanted to. Because I spent every night of my miserable existence thinking about her. The way her voice floated across the Normandy fog, soft and melodious. The way she wore her hair knowing she would let it down just for me. Everything that swirled around her: the scents of romance, the nature, the innocence. Adelaide had none of that. But even with that thought, I headed out. Out of the door into the pouring rain and howling winds. I couldn't. I just couldn't. Damn it, why can't this decision be made for me. Why couldn't Laura stand right in front of me and say, "Yes! I'll do it! I'll marry you!"
That was the last thing I remember before the darkness.
I awoke to a sobbing Alsatia and a pounding headache. As my vision reset from a blurred mess I caught a glimpse of my blood-stained shirt and trousers, muddy, with no mention of the branch that took my consciousness and nearly my life. In the downstairs salon I heard an authoritarian voice arguing with my mother.
"Mrs. Charlevoix, your son committed an act of reckless endangerment. What he did was his burden to bear and he damn near died for his foolishness!"
"I don't care, you said you would fix the branches and the street. It's Marquis, isn't it? Since he left, you, you, treat us like swine! Like the leftovers from a fancy American party. Get out! Get out now!"
My head spun for a moment but for only that as Alsatia rushed over to me and began sobbing into my chest. Why, Normand, why? She asked. The truth was, I didn't know. All I remember was thinking in the split second before the branch hit was "Adelaide." Then nothing.
Wait. Adelaide? The girl who had occupied my mind for a fortnight, toying with my emotions like a puppet on a frayed string? No, it couldn't be. I remembered yelling "Laura, marry me!" but that last image was of Adelaide and there was no mistaking that. The dirty blonde hair and effervescent smile, fairytale eyes and effortless Southern grace, it was all there. Was this it? Was Laura a hollow spirit, floating around like the oil lamps in the room? It had been decided, I said to myself. Then my mother walked in.
Cursing and screaming like the devil she ordered Alsatia and Chloe out and for the next half hour, until the sunrise, systematically ripped into me like General Wilkinson had to Adelaide. However, with every sharp stab at my judgement, every pointed glare and putdown I felt no anger nor sadness. I felt pity for Alsatia, that she had to hear this. I felt shame for Chloe, who protected me so many times over the years but most of all I felt a warmth in my heart from seeing the sun because it reminded me of every time I saw her. The walks on the levee. The midnight carriage rides. The good night kisses. I sat up in bed, looked at my mother, and with a focused stare broke her tirade long enough to utter
"Mother, I love you but I have a new love in my life as well. You wouldn't let Laura into my life and I won't allow it to happen again. I am going to find Adelaide Wilkinson and confess this whether you, Father, or the entire country of France disapprove."
Mother was stunned for a second but only so. With an uncontrolled rage she cursed me through the room, down the hallway, and through the door. Before I left I knelt down to Alsatia, kissed her forehead and told her "You are a beautiful girl. Let the world dictate your cares and whims, not your dreams and desires."
Then I was out the door.
I expected to see her here.
St. Louis Number 2, the final resting place for my brother Rilleux. I had walked here from Nyades to clear my mind, thinking nothing of the gathering storm clouds threating to drench and drown me. As if they haven't already done enough for my health today, I thought. When I got there the gate was open and I could faintly hear a girl sobbing. It wasn't commonplace, after all the myriad diseases down here kill more people than anything else combined. As I got closer, however, the sobbing became more and more familiar and as I turned the corner I knew why.
Adelaide was sprawled in front of a mass grave clutching a rosary, tears stained across her dress. It was a site that affected me so I almost turned and ran. I didn't want to face her. Not with a blood-soaked shirt and bruises across my body. I didn't want her to think, especially here, that I caused all this with an accidental slip so many days ago. But I kept moving, some invisible hand guiding me. I knelt down, pulled out a rosary, and began to pray. As I did, I heard the sobbing stop as Adelaide approached me. She felt my arm, scarred from where the branches ripped my skin apart then my hair, matted with blood and Alsatia's tears. Only two words shuddered from her
I could've started to explain. The tree. The branches. The argument. But I didn't. As if on command I could say only one thing
"Adelaide, I. I love you."
She threw her arms around me and began to cry. It was her turn to explain. She told me about the last straw her father tried to pull by preparing to send her back to Baltimore. She exploded in a rage and left. She didn't know where to go; the daughter of the American governor would surely attract attention anywhere in the city. So she came here to visit her mother Ann, buried in the mass grave along with several hundred other victims of a yellow fever epidemic, Rilleux included. She had been here for hours, sobbing her life away. She didn't want to live anymore. Not in this city full of hypocrites and whores. Her father was no better than the Kentucky riverboat porter who lived off whiskey and women. She just wanted it to end.
As I held her, no words escaped my mouth. They meant nothing. We stayed there, holding on to each other every though every time she leaned against my body a sharp pain shot through my side. Whether it was the scars or my heart I didn't know. Eventually she ended up laying with her head on my chest, staring up at the steel-laden sky. The gleaming white marble statues descended upon us, their forms silhouetted against the grey. I knew this wouldn't last forever but I wanted it to so badly. As she rolled off my chest a single tear from the sky fell on my cheek. I bolted up, my sudden motion surprising Adelaide. I grabbed her instinctively and motioned her to follow me.
The rain became a torrent and we fought through the sheets before ending up in the Place d'Armes. In the shadow of the Presbytere, where we first met, and the Cabildo, where her father threatened to end us, I knelt in front of Cathédrale Saint-Louis and asked her to marry me. No branches nor visions of Laura haunted me this time, only the hope and promise of a better life. Fairytale endings never happened in New Orleans. No, the malaria made sure of that; but as the lighting illuminated our consummation to the entire square it was everything I ever wanted, ever needed from my Adelaide.
The next morning I woke up with my wife-to-be beside me, finally.
The sudden announcement, passioned kissing, and crackling thunder only served to distract us from the uphill battle our matrimony faced. Here, the son of a shunned sugar cane planter and the daughter of a despised American governor had found a miracle amongst the malaria and malevolence. Love. We held on to this dream in the land of the free, or so they say. "La Louisiane" was part of America in name only, otherwise we clutched onto our French roots more stubbornly than a child holds onto her mother the first day of primary. Marriage was simply not an option for us, not here more than anywhere in the vast Purchase so we ran.
With the help of Chloe we secreted Alsatia out of her bedroom in the dead of night and commandeered a carriage en route to Baton Rouge, a now American plantation town north of New Orleans. When we arrived we settled in Beauregard Town near the city center and laid as low as the son of a shunned sugar cane planter and the daughter of a despised American governor could. Over the next few weeks we enjoyed the city which, while being devoid of the character of New Orleans, was a cozy little hamlet in its own right. Adelaide was right at home here in this British town and I became close friends with a young Acadien lady named Lisette whose description escaped me but whose shyness surprised me. An alluring brunette with pouty lips and a captivating stare she would smile at me, but that smile would be tinged with the memory of sadness almost as if her deepest, darkest secret was me. One day, on the levee, I would know why.
Adelaide, Chloe, Alsatia, and I settled on the levee overlooking the river for a Sunday lunch. Mass had let out and we made the short trek to the bluffs to enjoy the pleasant cloud covered afternoon, a rarity in the sweltering Louisiana summers. Adelaide remarked that Sunday lunches were a tradition of her and her mother's and I was glad to have her by my side when Lisette passed. I invited her to sit and she graciously accepted...that is, until she slipped in the rain soaked grass and fell. I ran to her aid and promptly fell in the morass of mud and manure as well (you may know by now I am not attuned to chivalry). We all laughed heartily until my eyes fell on Lisette's necklace, before hidden by her dress. It was unmistakably gaudy, a gilded necklace from Versailles. Wait...gilded from Versailles? I excused myself but Lisette gave chase. It was there, thousands of miles from home, that my past came crashing back onto me.
"Normand. Tu me souviens? Je m'appelle...Laura."
The last, desperate words to escape her lips haunted me.
"Normand. Tu me souviens? Je m'appelle...Laura."
I wanted to recoil but knew I couldn't. From who would I? My fiancée? The love of my life? The realization those two things were indeed a devil's dichotomy dropped me to my knees. Shocked and stunned I looked at Lisette. How could I not remember her? The stare, the gait, the eyes; they were all there. I felt betrayed by love, of all things. The one thing that every Frenchman believes he has in spades had cut me in a British city with an American wife at my side and my Acadien Cinderella in front of me. For all the confusion it had to be Alsatia to break the tension.
Immediately grabbing Lisette's (Laura's!) hand she cried in joyous delight and began recanting the stories I had told her at bedtime. With every word, however, the pit in my stomach deepened. Adelaide didn't know and her glare was consternating. I feebly mustered myself upright and cleared my throat. Alsatia stopped talking and all eyes were on me. Caked with mud and sweating through my clothes I managed a few sentences before all hell broke loose.
"Adelaide meet Laura. My last and lost connection to France. Laura meet Adelaide. My bride to be."
Immediately the attacks began. Adelaide demanded to know why she didn't know about Laura beforehand. Laura dissolved into tears over the news and I wished for the life of me the river had been up today. I would rather take my chances swimming over two angry, arguing women.
Tempers cooled after a while, mercifully. Night had fallen on the levee and the three of us remained: myself, Laura, and Adelaide. Chloe had taken Alsatia home hours ago and as the mosquitoes began their relentless assault we turned for home. The moon sparkled over the Mississippi, illuminating the river with what seemed to be thousands of diamonds as the warm glow of fires emanating from the various plantations could be spotted up and down her banks. Adelaide and I returned to our home in Beauregard Town while Laura ventured back to her plantation north of the city.
During our time on the levee Laura told me what had become of her after Manche. As Acadien descendants living in France her family was forcibly deported not long after I had left for the United States. They settled just outside of St. Jean du Vermillionville and she had even ventured to New Orleans for days at a time to pick up supplies. We were in the same city together and didn't even know it, I thought. Only the cruelest of fates could tie us together yet keep us separated like that. During her time in Vermillionville she also met her fiancé Terrence Currieau. He was the heir to the LeBoeuf plantation and that's where she lived with her family now waiting for the wedding bells. Meeting me, she said, would not change those plans. She believed our tryst was just that, an escape for two star crossed lovers looking to escape the grasp of a government that did not know right from love. And the love was wrong, but beautiful. Enough to make my predilection for her last all the way across the Atlantic. "Fate brought us together to say goodbye Normand. I will always love you because you saved me but you shouldn't marry guardian angels," Laura recanted as she stared over at Adelaide, "He loves you, mademoiselle. I see it in his eyes. I am but a relic of his past now." And with that she walked away. Out of my life. Out of my dreams. And into my heart, forever.
The rain began falling as we walked back to Beauregard Town. Adelaide was quiet the entire way home but as we made the turn onto our street she turned to me and into the light, revealing a dress stained with tears and redcoat eyes. "Normand, how did you cheat fate? You leave the love of your life and land with me? Why me? I'm not her. I'm not the pretty, gliding, amorous French girl. I'm a rough and tumble American. She's nothing like me! Why?" I stopped her in the middle of the street and grabbed her hand, the one with my ring around it and kissed her.
I couldn't leave Laura alone, I told my bride to be. She kept haunting me night after night with everything you're not. I found you because I; I'm not a Frenchman anymore. That part of me died with the mosquitoes and the bar fights and the reveillions and everything about that city. I couldn't love her anymore after I met you. You found me in that decrepit swamp and you turned me on to the most beautiful things about this cesspool. I love you more than I ever loved Laura and the final realization was when she said "you can't marry guardian angels" because I am marrying mine. Without you this place is unbearable but with you it's magical. I left everything I had because of you, because of us. You did what no one else could; you turned me into an American. Not by name and never by nationality but by love. You are my hope in this world and you don't deserve me but....
....and then she finished the kiss.
Love is supposed to last forever.
After that fateful day on the levee, Normand's life had finally been righted. He took the one girl he truly loved, Adelaide Wilkinson, as his bride a week later under mossy, draped oaks which did nothing to hide the wilting heat of a Baton Rouge summer. Laura was not there for at the same moment she was being wed across the river at the LeBoeuf Plantation, an arrangement indicitive of many things but not planned nonetheless. Normand and Adelaide left for their honeymoon the same day, venturing north to Quebec. When they returned, Adelaide was starting to show. Nine months later she would give birth to a girl. Normand and Adelaide decided to name her Laura. Little did he know that the woman he once chased across the Atlantic with was resting with her mother in St. Louis No. 2. She passed of scarlet fever during childbirth. Laura, with her dying breath, named her son Normand. Normand never found out of Laura's untimely death, even when he returned to New Orleans to bury Chloe, a victim of a house fire that also claimed his only son, Luke. The two lovers, connected by so much, had only become tangents in each other's lives from that magical point. Normand and Adelaide were also buried in St. Louis No. 2, mere rows from Laura's grave. For many years after Alsatia would return on All Saints' Day and place fall flowers on her brother and sister-in-law's grave. But she would always leave a fleur-de-lis on Laura's as well. Rumor has it she was buried in her coffin with one in her hair and a gilded necklace from Versailles around her neck.