This short story won a Literal Latté Travel Writing Award, and first appeared in that magazine.

Strange as it may seem (given its imagery and locale) this early story was written and published long before the destruction of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina.

Wish You Were Here

by Tyler C. Gore

1

We planned it as a reconciliation, “a time to bury all the old dead,” as you called it. But it rained from the start. You said, “I wish there were a camera fastened to this window, so that we could record all the conversation and laughter that will unfold in this car,” as the first small hard drops, like cutting remarks, splashed against the windshield, punctuating the silence that would stretch out like the road before us. I remember thinking, to the monotonous rhythm of the wind­shield wipers: I do not understand time or distance. Is this road that contains us both really an expression of either? But I did not say these things to you.

2

I spend days hiding in the saloons from the curtains of rain that sweep the French Quarter, drinking and writing letters to you that I will later destroy. Sometimes, when I am not writing, I think I see you in the exquisite backs of young women at the bar — white shoulders draped with soft hair, the curve of the spine hinted at under a light summer frock — why is it that I can find you, like a Platonic ideal, in the shapes of other women?

And sometimes I wonder if what I have idealized is not you, but rather my shapeless need, for which you are merely empty vessel, the container of my desire.

But when it really is you across from my beer, I see that your hair is finer and blacker than the girls at the bar, your shoulders carved more delicately, your eyes bright and lively with the force of your own unique soul. You speak cheerfully of your day, describing the iron grill of a terrace, how the chipped black paint sparkled in a moment of sunlight; or the candid smile of the little girl who called out to you from the third story of an old tenement building. I know then who is really the empty vessel, form without substance.

3

Annie spent most days alone — or at least, not with me. One of the first evenings, though, she took me through the narrow streets, guided by her maps and booklets, to one of the more famous saloons. She informed me that this establishment was, half a century ago, instrumental in the birth of jazz. She named musicians, some obscure, some very famous, told me where I could find their re-mastered recordings, and I nodded absently. Most of what she said was printed on the back of the beer list sitting on the table.

An apparently endless line of tourists poured in at the door, drawn by the common belief that by entering this place they could somehow participate in its romantic history. It is a kind of time travel. Annie, I am sure, also thinks this way: she subscribes to the ancient superstition that images contain the properties of the object they represent; by collecting postcards and photographs, by visiting all the important sights, she will have captured the history of New Orleans, and, by a twist of the imagination, shared the life experience of all those who lived and died here.

4

I hated the nights most of all: the nights when she didn’t come home; the nights when she did. Sleep, like a gift, always came easily to her. I would lie awake beside her, listening to the anonymous sounds of this antique city, and carefully study her face for clues to this terrible situation. I was not trying to discern her motivations: I was trying to discover my own. Who is she, I thought, that she has come to mean everything to me? For I was smart enough, on these occasions, to realize that for me, Annie was no longer a person, but a symbol of undetermined meaning. Surely the key to deciphering that symbol could be found in memory — I had to pinpoint the moment in the past when the transformation had occurred, when Annie’s meaning had become divorced from her person and taken on an independent existence. I could not, however, find that enigmatic and shifting point, for it seemed to me that all of our past together had somehow escaped the field of ordinary time and entered into the shadowy realm of mythology. Incidents of no particular meaning had become symbols in themselves, the changing interpretations of which determined the events of present and future. And though I could perform these semantic calculations with clinical precision, fully understanding the absurd implications of my obsession with the past, I was nonetheless tormented by nostalgia and desire, alternatively.

The resentment that is the true core of all religious fanaticism would then rise in me, until, like a believer whom God has disappointed, I would grow enraged at the symbol I had created: I hated her, I wanted to kill her, and thus obliterate the source of hope and shame all at once. I thought about murder. Elaborate plans were constructed. One night, I even placed my fingers around her throat as she slept, and I'm not sure what I would have done if she had not just then turned her head slightly, as though disturbed by an unpleasant dream. I withdrew in horror, and realizing the seriousness of my sickness, my hatred turned against myself. I slipped out of bed and into the bathroom, rummaging about for razors, pills, anything to put an end to my miserable existence. And finding nothing that could be used towards this end, I sat on the cold tile floor and wept — quietly, so not to wake her. Murder and suicide: the two poles of my perception, and once again I was painfully struck by my failure to understand time.