11 September, 2005

The Last Minute

[This post is fiction, but also nonfiction. It is written in the style of "creative nonfiction", where the ideas behind the words are real, but the description of them are stylized. It was submitted for a grade in a Creative Nonfiction class with Dr. Stephanie Girard. The events described here are not fully accurate, but they get across the idea of what really happened in my experience of Hurricane Katrina. The text acts as though this was written at the last minute and is only a first draft created in a single hour; in reality, this is the final draft of a paper that I spent several hours working on, and none of it was actually done at the last minute.]

Why do I always wait until the last minute?

"One sentence," Stephanie remarks happily.  "That's a good start, isn't it?"  She's referring to my very uninspired "why do I always wait until the last minute", a terrible opening line (however cute it might seem at first glance) which came about precisely because I had no other ideas worth actually typing out—even though it was already well into the night (3 a.m.!) before the paper—this paper—was due.  "Why don't you write about leaving campus before the hurricane?"

"I tried that already, Stephanie.  Weren't you listening when I said that earlier?"  I don't mean to be rude to her; I just am rather frustrated with that particular attempt.  "Saigon circa 1975.  Our car is the last to leave.  Campus is deserted.  A white plastic trash bag dances in front of us as Matt turns on the ignition.  He makes some random American Beauty comment.  We may never see the campus like this again."  See what I mean?  It lacks...something.  Plus it makes weird references that are totally unnecessary.  And the narration sounds forced.  All in all, it is an extremely bad choice for a first submission to my creative nonfiction class.

"You could write about how sick you got."  That's true, I suppose.  I did get very sick during the hurricane.  So much so that I stayed in bed for literally days at a time.  I had a sustained fever of 102°, with multiple spikes at 104°.  Fahrenheit, of course.  I don't really know Celsius, even though I hear it's much easier to work with.  Guess that's what I get for being an American.

The fever wouldn't have been so bad by itself were it not for the power going out.  The loss of air conditioning severely affected me.  It wouldn’t have been so bad had I lived two hundred years ago.  Back then, houses were designed with the foreknowledge that a/c would not be present; as a result, an actual breeze would flow through the house if the appropriate windows were opened.  But no, the building I stayed in I while having an abnormally high fever and no air conditioning was built in the mid-80s.  Gotta love the eighties.  Even with all the windows open, not a single damn whiff of air came through.  And this is while a freaking hurricane was going on.  I was, as you might imagine, utterly miserable.  I do believe that I have never before been so sick in my life—and I had whooping cough when I was in grammar school.  Oh, I almost forgot: I coughed, too.  A lot.  I don't think I've ever coughed more in my life.  (And this is counting my whooping cough, though of course I might be biased in that grammar school was a long time ago.)  And though I’m mostly over the death cold now, I still cough every couple of hours.  ::cough, cough::  It’s really annoying.

But who wants to read about somebody getting sick during a hurricane?  What a boring essay that would make.  "I appreciate your trying to help, Steph, but who wants to read about somebody getting sick during a hurricane?  Don't you think that would make for really boring reading?"

"Yeah, I guess."  She sounds disappointed.  Maybe she was hoping I'd mention how well she took care of me while I was so sick.  Or perhaps that's my own inward desire for recognition that I'm falsely imposing onto her.

Stephanie's a nice girl.  Quiet, thoughtful, and very nurturing.  It's a good combination.  Every time I think about this assignment—every time I try to think of an experience to describe about this hurricane—I feel unable to move past my thoughts of Stephanie.  For me, she was the hurricane.  I was with her when I first heard of Katrina's impending massacre; I was with her again the next day when I left campus to avoid sleeping with strangers in the new dorm halls; I was with her during the storm's wrath; and I was with her for the entire week before the school's doors opened again.  My only attempt at writing this essay not involving her turned out to be a complete throwaway, simply because I could go nowhere with it.  It's not that events did not occur without her there; rather it is that at the time, I didn't really pay attention to anything more than what was right in front of me (mostly because of my illness), and for better or worse, it was Stephanie who was ever present throughout the entire situation. 

It's weird because my experience of the hurricane just really wasn't the same as anyone else's experience.  I mean, of course I realize that this is true regardless of one’s experience.  But for me, while hurricane Katrina was bearing down upon the neighbors, either terrifying or gleeifying them, depending on their outlook on hurricanes (and willingness to accept made-up words), I was sick in bed being taken care of by a person who had only met me the previous week.  So to be honest, I just didn't notice the parts of the hurricane which I suppose I should be writing about in this very paper.

And that scares me.  You see, this is my very first assignment in my very first writing class.  And to be honest, I’m totally lost.

I’m supposed to be writing about the hurricane.  About what happened during the storm.  I’m supposed to be writing about the devastation that Katrina wrought; after all, it was one of the most powerful hurricanes to ever hit the United States (the second most powerful, in fact), and it simply ruined the city of New Orleans, only a scant ninety miles to the west.  So why aren’t I?

It’s not as though I have nothing to tell.  Perhaps it is true that I was gravely ill during the whole event, as well as the entire week following, but I, too, suffered loss.  Four of my friends live in (or rather near) New Orleans.  Two of them, Mike and Emily, lost their homes to flooding and some of their possessions to looting.  Another two, Greg and Jason, were missing for nearly two weeks after the storm hit—I had presumed them dead—but I later found that they had fled rather late in the storm’s coming, and had taken refuge in an area that did not allow them to contact the outside world for days on end.  How easily I could have written this paper to describe how scary it felt to not know where they were for so very long….  This paper is for a creative nonfiction class, after all.  I could have written about the various disaster scenarios I envisioned them experiencing one after the other, each trumping the last in gruesome detail, only to end with the mass e-mail I eventually received from Jason, proclaiming both of them fine and explaining how they stayed in a hotel with no electricity for a week, and complaining how they had to actually pay for it afterward.

But to be honest, that’s just not what felt right.  I didn’t write that piece because it just isn’t what came out of me when I sat down to write.  I tried writing about something without Stephanie, but it just didn’t work.  Referencing fleeing from Saigon (in an appropriately black car, no less) is nice, but it just didn't feel right.  But this, writing about now, about how hard it is to write about my hurricane experience….   This feels right.

"Eric?"  I turn from the keyboard to see her look questioningly at me.

"Yes, Stephanie?"  She sounds rather sleepy, and I find myself wondering what may be on her mind.

"You've been typing for well over an hour. Aren't you done yet?"  Inwardly, I smile.  An hour is not nearly enough time, and yet looking back upon what I've written, I can see that I've typed more than I thought could possibly come from such humble beginnings.  And seeing how this is but a draft which will be reworked later (and noticing the odd semi-lying that will occur after this has been reworked if I leave this sentence in the final copy), I decide that indeed, I am done.

And so I am.

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