Every time tourists arrive for a visit to New Orleans, their questions are the same. Awash in the cold neon of some soulless titty bar on Bourbon, their fingers clasped about Hand Grenades or Huge-Ass Beers, they smile red-faced smiles and ask if it’s really true that my city has no rules. To this, I answer always with a wary yes and a plaintive no. Yes, you can dump your cocktails into go-cups and head for the streets whenever you like; no, you cannot simply turn the corner and take a quick piss. Sure, you can stare up at the balconies and watch wealthier tourists rain beads upon boob-flashing drunks; no, for the love of God, please don’t put your hands on said boobs. And if you feel like staying out all night and carousing the bars until dawn, more power to you. Just don’t forget: New Orleans isn’t Nantucket; here we have murders, here we have real crime. These, I say, are your basic rules. Otherwise, let the fun be had. Get drunk; get crazy; go scream in the streets. And later, after our night has passed us by, after I’ve led them away from Bourbon, past Lafitte’s and into the Marigny; after we’ve bounced around Frenchmen, from DBA to Maison—after we’ve found ourselves drunk and sweaty and ready to part ways, I tell them just one more rule. Be sure to avoid a visit to Orleans Parish Prison. Take a taxi; take a streetcar; just don’t drink and drive. And then, having performed for them tour guide rites, I catch a cab back uptown and call it a night.
But one Friday night in the spring, that’s not what I did. Instead, much later, having hitched a ride with a gang of now-vanished friends, having wandered for hours in the darkness of my inebriation, I found myself alone at a bar called Twelve Mile Limit. Dead-drunk on the whiskeys I’d poured atop my stomach’s already ocean-sized puddle of booze, I’d somehow convinced some curly-haired girl to give me a touch of her time. At first she laughed at my slur-speech advances. She shot polite smiles, deflected with grace. But then there followed my artful persuasion: the taking of shots and the jukeboxes; the convulsive undulations of my earthquake dancing, the half-tender-half-wicked way I last brushed back those curls before laying upon her lips my first kiss. And then later, seconds or minutes or hours later, the words, of course, those magical, late-night words came whispered into my awaiting ears: “Hey, baby, come home with me.”
I took her hand and, with the rules in mind, said, “Sure, but let’s take a cab.”
She looked at me and started to laugh. “Baby,” she said. “I’m fine.”
But after we’d stumbled around and found her Explorer on Telemachus, she was singing a different tune. “Whoa,” she said as she dug in her purse. “Whoa yeah,” she said. “I’m drunk.” And so she dropped the keys jangling into my hand and left the drive to me.
“It’s okay,” she said as I buckled myself in. “Just drive, baby. You’ll be fine.”
And here, with a sober man’s clarity, I remember every ounce of me shouting, “No, man, don’t do this. You’re breaking the rules, and you won’t just be fine.” But so late into that night, so deep in the throes of the booze and my lust, not a sane word on Earth could’ve stopped me. And so I slid the key into the groove and cranked the ignition, feeling all the while sick with the certainty that the machine I’d awakened was beyond my control, that its heft was more than enough to cause real damage, that I’d just made a big mistake.
These were my thoughts as I zoomed north on Carrollton, taking the turn too fast and clipping the curb at the Beauregard circle; these were the thoughts that raced through my brain when whatever I’d jostled loose beneath her car started to rattle against the undercarriage like a machinegun’s report, like a rat-tat-tat echo of guilt; and these were thoughts I thought when the NOPD cruiser trailed me like a phantom for a mile by City Park, and my curly-haired passenger would not stop crying, and I—I who could no longer recall her name—was shouting for her to calm down—please, just calm down before I throw up, and please, just let me handle this, please just calm down; and these were the thoughts I thought when, of course, at last, our rearview came to life in a flood of blue and red lights, and I pulled off to the side of the road.
After a glacial wait and a thunder-like tap, I swallowed hard and rolled down the window, revealing the face of the officer who would surely arrest me. He was white and near thirty with deep-sunken cheeks. By then it was past three a.m. The sky overhead was infinite and black, and he glared at me with the vacant eyes of someone who’d been too long on the job.
“What seems to be the problem?” I asked, the booze at once gone from my system, perhaps shocked from my blood by the moment’s cold reality—by the face staring back at me, so similar to my own. At that moment I was still afraid—still tremendously afraid—but for some reason, I felt assured. If there’s a cop in this town who’ll let me off, I thought, then this must be the guy.
But then my officer grinned a matter-of-fact grin and said the problem was simple: I was drunk, and I was driving. Right then my heart went heavy and felt packed with loose change. I pictured the night to come: me hunched in some piss-stained corner of Orleans Parish; me, some skinny and scared white boy in an ill-fitting jumpsuit, trying his best to choke tears while he waited in line to call mommy. And as I sat there in the nameless girl’s driver’s seat, I tried hard to see my next move. In the end, though, all signs seemed pointed to prison.
For some reason, I couldn’t accept that. For some reason, some voice inside me said take a chance and fight. And so I looked into my officer’s face, looked right into the eyes of the man on the other side of the door, and I thought of all the articles I’d read in the papers—of all the crime, all the homicides I’d heard about on my morningtime commutes. I thought of the headlines: all the spiking violence that had as of late made our city famous for the wrong reasons. And then all at once I remembered that all of us—me and the officer and the curly-haired girl—all of us lived in America’s murder capital, and I knew then that my drunk driving must’ve been the least of all the things he’d seen that night.
I looked up at my officer, and in my calmest of voices, said, “I didn’t make the right choice tonight. I screwed up. I shouldn’t be driving, and you had every right to pull me over. But, sir, I’m a good guy—a decent guy, a teacher, someone who’s never gone to jail. And if I get arrested tonight, if I get charged with DWI, everything in my life is gonna take a turn for the worse. And you probably hear this all the time, I’m sure, and I’m sorry to sit here and—”
But then the cop put up his hand. “You say this would be your first arrest?”
I gave him a look and said yes, and after he’d left for his cruiser to run a background check, I found myself waiting in silence with the curly-haired girl. Here we were, I thought. Whatever drunkenness that’d carried us to this moment of our lives was long gone, and it was almost as though we’d never met. I thought of telling her I was sorry—sorry for screwing up her car, for putting her through this whole ordeal. But in the end, I just sat there and waited.
Soon after, the cop came back and handed me my ID. He cut me a hundred-dollar ticket for improper lane use and said, “You’re free to go.”
For a moment, I didn’t react at all—just sat there counting my breaths and blessings. Then I looked up at the cop and told him I was going to vacate the car, that either way, I was still drunk and better not drive. He nodded his head and asked if we were going to my place or the curly-haired girl’s. And when the girl piped up and said hers, the first word she’d said in what felt like days, he nodded again and gave us a ride.
And so, near dawn on a Sunday in New Orleans, I did in fact find myself in the backseat of a police car. Only, unlike every other person my officer had stopped that night, unlike probably every drunk tourist or every black or brown or poorer-looking person who’d broken the rules anywhere in the city that night—unlike all of them, I was not going to jail. Instead, the three of us drove to Gentilly, where the cop parked in front of the curly-haired girl’s apartment and wished us both a pleasant night. And after I got out of the car, and after the girl had disappeared inside, I peeked into his window and asked him if he’d please get out, too. At first he gave me a look of confusion, but after a second he stepped out without question.
As soon as he stood there before me, I gave him a long, hard hug. I wasn’t sure then why I was doing it, and while it happened, neither of us said a word. But later that morning, as the sunlight crept over the horizon, and I lay sleepless beside the girl whose name I still couldn’t recall, I saw very clearly that the hug had come from both sides. First, from me to him: a thank you, a simple thank you for seeing a little of himself in me, for watching me break the rules and then for pitying me while still letting me learn my lesson. And then, second, from him, I hope, to someone else, maybe everyone else he’d stopped that night. I’m sorry, it said, sorry for not giving you the same chance.
William Torrey lives and works in Baton Rouge. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Florida Review, The North American Review, Washington Square Review, Colorado Review, the Hawai'i Review, New Madrid and Zone 3, where his story "Trabajar" won the 2011 Editors' Prize. He is currently at work on a novel. @wshametorrey | firstname.lastname@example.org.