Part 5 of 5. To read previous parts, click here for Part 1.
It’s the holiday season in 1991, and I’m a freshman in college. I’m coming back home to Albuquerque from spending time in Los Alamos, New Mexico, with my first boyfriend Max. I met Max’s family there, saw Star Trek 6 with him in an empty movie theater while I whispered the complicated galactic politics to him. We secretly made out whenever possible: to this day, I have a soft, nostalgic spot for the Drakkar Noir cologne he wore. We get back to our dorms on the UNM campus, and I get the call from my sister: something is wrong, come to the house right away.
I open the front door to my parents’ house, and my life is never the same after that. I see my sister’s tear-stained face, she’s in the living room with her husband Bob. My Dad is stoic but barely keeping it together while my grandmother shuffles around in her slippers, not understanding exactly what happened. My mom is wandering from room to room in the old Victorian house, incoherent, apoplectic, wailing with grief. I know then that my big brother John is dead. This is what it looks like when a family explodes from the inside out.
Fast forward 25 years to last week, and as the plane takes off from Portland, I think about these past years. Why did I not do this before? What took me so long? I had made the decision three years ago, after a particularly intense courtship and unexpected rejection, to confront what I self-diagnosed as abandonment issues stemming from my brother’s death. His overdose and death on New Year’s Eve of 1991 changed me and my family in ways that have taken us the rest of our lives to figure out. But after the rejection by “Joe” during the holidays of 2012, I decided to seek out Mxxxxx Bxxxxxxxxx, the person that some people in my family held responsible for my brother’s death. My search eventually led me to a city in the south, her last known residence of her and her daughter Hxxx, but the project took a back seat when I moved to Portland, started a life in a new city, and fell deeply in love with someone who lived far away.
When David broke up with me, it was a mirror to the suddenness, the time of year when Joe’s rejection happened, and a catalyst to action. As I step out of Louis Armstrong Airport, I take a deep breath of the thick, loamy air of New Orleans. She is somewhere in this city, I think to myself, then I add a question mark to that thought. I think, Damn, I’m going to have to get back to writing funny again or people will call this Mike’s Sad Blog™.
I make it to my friend Peter’s house in the Marigny and then walk to the nearby gallery where his impressive quilt art is being shown. I’m greeted the entire way by people and cats: something this city has in common with Portland. After, I wander to the French Quarter to meet up with a friend. Peter’s advice: “Don’t get mugged. Just, um. Don’t.” So I take his advice, and do not get mugged.
The next day, I call and text the numbers my sister had found online for Mxxxxx and Hxxx, and there’s no reply. Except that’s not their names. Their names are Marcia and Hope Ballantyne, and I am not the only one looking for them. It turns out so many people are looking for them. My heart, my family’s heart, is one of perhaps dozens they have betrayed, and Marcia and Hope’s story is bigger than any of us could have imagined. More about that later.
I take the St. Charles streetcar uptown, find Hope’s last known address, walk up. The neighborhood is nice, well landscaped yards and painted colorful buildings. Hope’s trail is older, is colder, and I’m not optimistic. There’s reason to believe that Hope left New Orleans even before hurricane Katrina in 2005, the scars of which can often still be found on the streets and in people’s eyes here. I look at the names on the buttons: none say “Ballantyne”, but there’s one that’s not labeled at all. I press that one.
In the last three years many people have asked what I would say to Marcia, the family friend who gave my brother money to fuel his drug addiction, who vanished after his death, who some in my family referred to as John’s “killer”. Other people accused me of using a 20+ year old family tragedy for clickbait. When I knew I was coming to New Orleans to find her, the few close friends I told asked me what I would say to her. Truth be told, I didn’t want to plan it that much. I knew I just wanted to have a conversation with her, talk to her about my brother, hold both her hands in mine. I wanted to hear that my brother was happy in those last days.
No one answers the buzzer. I go onto the side porch, find the unit I think the buzzer matches, look into the window like a true creeper. The unit is vacant. Dead end. The few leads leads I have are quickly disappearing.
I wander the city, and it’s full of ghosts and chicory coffee. I don’t know if John ever came here, but his spirit, his memory is strong with me as I walk. I go back to the French Quarter and briefly consider having a voodoo doll made of my ex, realize there’s not a pin that exists to stick in it to make him come back, I give up on that idea. I’m still having good days and bad since the breakup, and on the bad ones, every “How are you doing Mike?” is a grenade that may or may not go off. It occurs to me, absently, that not ever having your heart broken is a form of privilege.
As the church bells start pealing I take the streetcar again, this time to Marcia’s last known address. The streetcars are like those old wooden roller coasters: they’re fun but can be painful. On the way there I Google the address and am startled by the street-view image to see a figure in a dress or robe on the front porch. I peer closer but can’t make out details: was this Marcia or Hope? Did they happen to wander onto the porch as the Google street-view car rolled by?
I walk along Washington, admire the houses, the ancient cemeteries. I pass Magazine, where the houses are less well-maintained, the yards unkempt or concreted over to make room for more driveway space. Then suddenly there it is: Marcia’s house. I notice the FEMA “X” on the front of the house, spray painted there in the aftermath of Katrina to indicate whether the house had been inspected, who inspected it, the number of dead or alive inside. It’s been almost eleven years since Katrina, and there aren’t a lot of those X’s around anymore.
Without preamble or giving myself a chance for second thoughts, I open the gate, walk up the steps to the door. I close my eyes. I say a prayer for John. I thank Joe, who in a way led me here without ever knowing. I reach my hand out to my side: I knew I would do this, this gesture. For the last year I knew this moment would come, but I thought David would be there to hold my hand. I thought he would wait outside while Marcia opened the door, let me in. My hand falls back down. His hand is not there, and all I have of his to carry with me into the house is my love for him. I suddenly remember what a good big brother David is to his brother, how that made me love him even more. I think of texting him. Instead, I don’t.
I knock on the door. A dog inside barks a single, tired, hoarse bark. Feet shuffle. No answer. I knock again. “Marcia?” I stammer, my voice cracking. I leave the porch, see a neighbor taking out the trash, ask him about Marcia, describe her. He’s lived there for a year and a half, he knows the family that lives there but they don’t fit that description. Marcia does not live there anymore.
Then Peter finds this, a Radiolab podcast from around 2008 that chronicles how Marcia and Hope’s lives are ones of desperation and deceit:
I’m instantly fascinated and relieved. My sister and I are not shitty detectives after all, these are people who may have been on the run their whole lives. Ghosts, by definition, do not want to be found. Ghosts, by definition, are already lost.
As the plane takes off back to Portland, I think about expectations versus reality. I think about how even though I never found Marcia, I and my family can still take a bit of closure away from this. I did my best. Sometimes your best is good enough, sometimes it’s not, and sometimes you have to change what “good enough” means for you.
This is my family crying. This is my family healing, separate and together. This is my parents’ love. This is their son, their remaining son, forging on, finding love, giving his heart away, getting it broken, doing it all over again, eventually finding love that stays. This is him marrying that love that he finds, growing old together. This is all of us, getting older, then passing away one by one. This is our collective energies somehow, finally, reunited with John. Laughter. Laughter. Laughter.
Wow, that was a bummer! If you’d like to laugh instead, here’s my next step in the healing process. J/k it’ll make you bummed out too!