|New Orleans Lover: A Creole Christmas Tale by Lush Jones|
Mary Jane Woods sat alone on a sticky plastic seat inside Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, afraid of having fun. It was two weeks before Christmas as she waited for her friends Mandy and Lila to arrive on the flight from Chicago.
Mary Jane wasn’t about to go anywhere alone. No, she’d prefer to stay put until her friends arrived and they dragged her along on whatever drunken escapades they thought appropriate for the three-day weekend.
Mary Jane thought none of it appropriate—not Mandy’s exhortations to “drink till we forget we’re too old for this” or Lila’s suggestion that they sing karaoke and pick up men.
They’d planned the trip for some last-minute shopping and to see the Christmas lights, a respite from holiday stress, they claimed.
But Mary Jane knew better. Mandy wouldn’t leave a house full of messy children and a distracted husband just to buy tourist trinkets; she wanted to throw back Hurricanes and lose herself in the whirl of strangers and alcohol. As for Lila, she, like Mary Jane, was divorced, so her holiday chores were few. But unlike Mary Jane, she filled her schedule with a busy roster of dating and volunteer work, and she lived for the chance to go away for the weekend and spend an hour—or an evening—with a man whose calls she’d never have to return.
Mary Jane didn’t have much in the way of holiday stress. No children to wrap gifts for, no parties to juggle around. No active social life that ramped up to a fever pitch during December. She had no one to worry about at Christmas time, and that was perfectly fine with her. In fact, this weekend she would have been quite content to stay home, address Christmas cards and lose herself in the fantasyland of Netflix.
Mandy and Lila had insisted.
“Mary Jane, you have to see New Orleans at Christmas—you’ll love it!”
“You can send me pictures.” Mary Jane tried to weasel out of the invitation.
“You need to get out of the house! Every time we talk, you’re in the middle of doing nothing. Just because you don’t live in Chicago anymore doesn’t mean we can’t check up on you. There is life beyond your couch, you know.”
That had been Lila’s comment and it stung, though Mary Jane insisted to herself that it stung only slightly.
“I’m very busy, for your information. I work hard during the week. I just like to relax when I get home.”
Mandy’s sigh over the phone didn’t sound particularly convinced. Mary Jane did work hard as a paralegal. And she did like to relax when she got home—so much so that a neighbor had once reported her missing over Labor Day weekend because she hadn’t left the house in three days and her newspapers lay in an unclaimed mound on her lawn.
“We know you like to relax,” Mandy replied, “but you’ll just spend the whole weekend in your pajamas watching movies, anyway. What are you going to miss?”
Even Mary Jane had to admit this was true. She loved movies; they were the only companions she needed at night. Or at least, the only companions who never let her down. Not the latest blockbuster, mind you, or even a recent romantic comedy. Since her divorce two years ago, Mary Jane refused to watch anything released after 2005, the year she’d gotten married. Films were either Before All That Marriage Mess Happened or they didn’t exist at all.
Her Friday night movie pick would have been Sense and Sensibility, a fine romance if there ever was one, in Mary Jane’s mind. Not that she was an avid Austenophile; she just harbored a secret crush on Alan Rickman. She was probably the only woman in history to watch Harry Potter just for Professor Snape.
Mary Jane knew she had issues. But she had no intention of exploring any of them while in the Crescent City. She had allowed herself to be cajoled into this trip, so she would indulge in a few cocktails and good meals, and then she would return home, none the wilder or wiser.
But first, she’d wait on her friends. Glancing around the terminal, she spied a young couple weaving their way down the hallway, as they giggled, obviously already tipsy. Or maybe just in love. The man pulled the woman closer and kissed her, hard. Mary Jane looked away. Passion hadn’t been on her radar for quite some time—if it ever had been. Somewhere, beneath her brittle exterior, she might have once wished to experience lust and desire. And occasionally, after a cinematic orgy of period costumes and unrequited love, she might have let her mind drift into fantasy for a moment. But for the most part, she stamped out those feelings—and pretended not to care.
The scent of chicory-laden coffee drifted past a Café du Monde kiosk, distracting Mary Jane from people-watching and tempting her with the prospect of caffeine. She checked her cell phone. No word yet from Mandy or Lila. According to her copy of their itinerary, they still had at least more twenty minutes in the air.
Scanning an overhead monitor, she saw that the flight from Chicago still blinked Scheduled for Departure. But if there had been a problem, she would have heard from Mandy by now. She glanced down at her phone again. No messages. The monitor must be running behind.
So Mary Jane stood up, grabbed the handle of her black roller bag, and followed her nose to the coffee stand.
“Café au lait, darlin’?” A burly older man beckoned as he reached for a stack of disposable cups. He beamed at her, his round cheeks shiny with sweat, and before she could turn down his suggestion and request a sensible black coffee, he was already handing her the steaming concoction of milk and thick, tarry brew. She handed over a five dollar bill, but he shook his head. “Your money’s no good here today.”
“Excuse me?” Mary Jane didn’t intend to sound snotty, but she knew she did. She couldn’t help it. Yet the man didn’t take offense. He just winked at her and said, “Oh, you’re excused, all right. Just drink your coffee, darlin’—it’s good for you.” Then before she could ask him exactly what he meant, he turned his back on her and began to whistle a vaguely familiar Sinatra tune as he poured a sack of fresh beans into the grinder.
Well. Free coffee was nothing to turn down. But in the back of her mind, she couldn’t quite quell the notion that there was no such thing as free.
As she sat down with the coffee, her cell phone rang. Mandy. That’s odd. Maybe the flight was early.
“Hello, Mandy? Are you on the plane?”
“Mary Jane? Hey. We haven’t even boarded.”
“Oh, you know Chicago—an early winter storm hit and everyone’s freaking out like they’ve never seen snow before. So all the flights are grounded temporarily until the snow lets up.”
“You’re still coming, though, right?”
Mandy answered cheerfully. “Of course. We’ll be stuck in the airport for a couple hours, and then they’ll thaw the damn plane’s wings and get us on our way. In the meantime, Lila and I are headed to the bar for a Bloody Mary.”
“Well, don’t drink too much before you get here.” Mary Jane hated how prim she sounded.
Mandy laughed. “Don’t worry. We’ll be fine, just a couple eye-openers to keep us from going stir-crazy and we’ll be there before you know it. But don’t wait for us at the airport, go on to the hotel.”
“But… But check-in isn’t until 3.”
“Relax. I’m sure they’ll at least let you store your suitcase. Go out to brunch or something, walk around and get some ideas about where we should eat tonight.”
“Right. Sure,” she replied through pursed lips.
“We’ll text when we finally get on the plane. Bye.”
“Bye.” Mary Jane barely had time to reply before Mandy’s number on the phone’s display screen flashed from red to black.
* * * * *
Nine hundred miles away, Mandy stashed her phone in her purse and sighed. “God, I hope she’s going to make it without us. I hate to think of her hiding out at the hotel all morning. You know how she gets when things don’t go as planned. She better leave the damn airport, at least. If she’s still at baggage claim by the time we get there, she’ll be in such a mood we’ll have lost any chance of making her have some fun.”
“What can we do?” Lila shrugged. “She’s a big girl, she’ll be fine. Maybe she’ll be forced to talk to a stranger or actually venture out into the world for a few hours, which wouldn’t be such a bad thing. Now, let’s go find that drink.”
Back in New Orleans, Mary Jane stared at the phone and took a deep breath. She hated going places by herself. Don’t be ridiculous, you’re just going to take a cab and go to the hotel. She stood back up, still clutching the coffee; now just one more thing to carry. She contemplated tossing it, but the cup was full and its contents smelled divine. She wasn’t one for waste, so she blew across the top and hastily gulped down the brew, nearly scorching the roof of her mouth in the process. The flavor was rich and exotic, despite the temperature, and the taste lingered on her tongue as she tugged her bag toward the exit.
What will I do when I get to the hotel?
She didn’t—couldn’t—go anywhere without a plan, so she calmed herself by envisioning entering the hotel lobby, handing over her suitcase to the front desk clerk, and then going out for breakfast. I’ll find a little café, have a croissant and another cup of that coffee.
Plans made, she felt better and swept out into the cool drizzle of rain. The blizzard in Chicago seemed worlds away—but the weather in New Orleans wasn’t very different from the mild Dallas winter Mary Jane had left behind, so she was prepared. Sensibly dressed in a light sweater and jeans, she’d chosen her clothing based on season, not sex appeal.
But her jacket was packed away in her suitcase, and the rain made her run to the row of taxicabs. She was hurrying to join the line of waiting passengers when a honk jolted her from her path. A window rolled down on a yellow sedan idling at the curb. A young man leaned out and beckoned to her. “You need a ride?”
She hesitated, not wanting to cut in front of the line-up, but the man was already out of the car, his muscular arms plucking the bag out of her hands as though it weighed no more than a tissue box. He swung it into the trunk of his car and opened the rear passenger door. “Too chilly to stand out in the rain.”
“But those people… They’re all waiting ahead of me…” She pointed toward the line of people. Taking shortcuts made her nervous.
The driver sized her up, his glance quickly flickering up and down her body. “You don’t need to stand out in this weather. You don’t even have a jacket—you want to catch a cold before you even get to the French Quarter? Get inside.” And he held out his hand to help her into the car.
He’s already got my bag, and she complied, letting his hand brush her elbow. She wondered briefly why a taxi driver who couldn’t be much younger than her thirty-five years handled her like a senior citizen. Then she shut down that train of thought, sinking into the upholstery as he shut the door.
“I’m going to the Hotel Andrew Jackson,” Mary Jane informed him. She would have preferred to stay someplace fancier. But it didn’t seem prudent to splurge on a luxury hotel for a girls’ weekend, so Mary Jane had taken charge of the accommodations and suggested the same place they’d been staying in since college. Mary Jane never considered that her own comfort or pleasure might be worth a little extravagance, let alone that of her friends.
The driver nodded, glancing at her in the rearview mirror. He had pale green eyes and caramel-colored skin. His strong jaw and upper lip were dotted with black stubble, and he stared at Mary Jane for a moment as if trying to place her.
“Do you know where the hotel is?” Mary Jane asked, feeling a little uncomfortable.
“Oh, sure, I do. You gonna get some breakfast after you check in, or maybe a good, strong cup of something to perk you up?”
Now why did he say that? Mary Jane was instantly irritated, though she couldn’t have said why. “Maybe.”
Her response seemed to amuse the cab driver, as an easy smile slid across his full lips. “Maybe,” he repeated. “You’re not much of a talker, are you?”
Now Mary Jane felt put on the spot, so her voice was a tad curter than she intended when she answered, “No.”
The driver didn’t seem bothered. He nodded and turned up the radio, and Mary Jane heard through the fog of annoyance a song she hadn’t heard in decades, back before she’d become the buttoned-up version of herself. When she’d drunk beer from plastic cups and laughed loudly with Mandy and Lila. When she hadn’t worried quite so much about what other people thought about her or whether she was behaving appropriately. And without realizing it, she tapped her toes ever so slightly.
The driver caught her eye. “I see you back there. You can dance in the backseat if you want. Nobody’s gonna arrest you.”
Mary Jane scowled, but her toes kept tapping. “I’m not dancing, I just like the song.”
“Uh-huh.” He grinned as he turned up the volume.
Mary Jane simply listened to the music for a few minutes. She looked out the window as they passed a densely packed cemetery, peeling gray and white crypts crammed into tight rows. A ceramic angel perched atop one of the tombs caught her eye. The city was full of such statues but in the blur of motion as the car sped past, the white figure’s arm almost appeared to move. Ridiculous.
She closed her eyes and leaned back against the seat. She was tired, that was the only explanation. She’d been up so early this morning, afraid she might miss her flight or forget to empty the trash or turn on the house alarm. But she’d done all those things, checked every to-do on her list, and now she could rest. As the music drifted into another song she recognized, she smiled, closed her eyes and fell asleep.