Cowboy – Chachi Hauser
Grant’s bike knocked against the plastic bed of my truck as we drove to his house, the sound itself like an innuendo. The deeply hot and humid Louisiana summer was barely combated by the car’s rumbling air conditioning and my body was slippery with sweat. We had gone out drinking with our coworkers after getting off work around five in the morning, so the day was well on its way by the time we’d poured out of that seedy bar onto the warm pavement. I was too wasted to welcome the clarity that usually accompanies daylight, and had decided to drive home, telling Grant I could drop him off even though his place was definitively out of the way.
I barely knew Grant, though for several months we had worked together in a tourist restaurant in downtown New Orleans. He was an irritable guy and not overtly attractive, perpetually scowling as he stood over the grill, pulling up pants that always seemed to sag below his beer gut and using a kitchen rag to mop the sweat from his brow. Sometimes he would come to work in an unfounded rage and would spend the shift slamming around various pieces of kitchen equipment and yelling at no one in particular. His mullet-like hair and thick beard were naturally jet-black as if his genetics anticipated his temperament, and his face seemed to rest in an expression of distaste, the corners of his mouth poised in a perpetual pout. Grant’s kitchen presence never failed to intimidate me and yet I found him, and all of his vaguely repulsive qualities, inexplicably sexy. I watched him from afar with something akin to fascination.
He was now sitting right next to me, in the passenger seat of my Toyota, singing along with shocking sincerity to some song by The Cure that was echoing from the speakers. Light-headed, delirious even, I was smiling to myself, trying to comprehend this strange moment and the incredible set of coincidences that had led to it. I was thinking about how I would tell people of this punk boy from Monroe, Louisiana. I narrated the story of our relationship in the past tense, although I had yet to kiss him.
Grant lived in a complex, all of the apartments with doors that opened to a communal balcony like a motel, a structure that stood in opposition with the many shotgun style houses that surrounded it. He told me that his neighbors were almost exclusively African immigrants who drove cabs. We entered his apartment, a small and oddly damp one-bedroom he shared with his ex-girlfriend, who was out of town for the weekend. It reeked of cat litter and all of the blinds were drawn, black curtains that seemed utterly dishonest at a time like this, a denial of the fact that it was ten in the morning and we still hadn’t gone to sleep. I sat next to him on the couch as he smoked his bong, a massive, industrial-looking thing, and we routinely attempted to ignore the suggestion of the circumstances. I noticed an expensive-looking French press, which was undeniably out of place in his dirty apartment, and he explained that it was his ex-girlfriend’s; she was a barista at an upscale coffee shop. He told me that they had broken up a few weeks earlier and, for money reasons, had decided to keep living together until they could each save up enough to move out. He spoke respectfully of her and it seemed like they had been together for a long time, but it was also clear that their current relationship was not an amicable one.
I think we talked about our respective upbringings that morning. He probably told me about duck hunting with his dad or perhaps about his mother, who was in and out of rehab and whom he had moved down to New Orleans to look after. I told him about growing up in Manhattan, and I’m sure I lied and said I’d been raised in Harlem and not the Upper West Side, the ascent in blocks granting me an edge I longed for.
He sometimes spoke out of the side of his mouth, lazily and with a varying degree of a Southern twang. I loved this drawl of his, words spilling out of his mouth like syrup; they filled me up, coated my insides and made me warm. Our bodies brushed briefly against each other’s and the small distance between us began to hold a degree of intensity, that electricity you feel when you’re sitting next to someone you’re attracted to; you spend every second hoping the other person will overcome that inch of space and soon you’ll be touching, if only elbow to elbow.
I noticed how delicate Grant’s features were, how he had these long eyelashes that framed his big, childlike eyes, how he had a swooping nose much like my own. Before this moment, I had registered only the obvious elements of his appearance: his nose ring, the Satanist symbol tattooed on his inner wrist, the patches with the names of hardcore bands that he had clumsily safety-pinned to his clothing. As I came to know Grant, the harshness of his personality would frequently reveal itself. I remember standing with Grant outside the restaurant around two in the morning once, as he fumed about some injustice, perhaps it was when his electricity had been shut off. “No one likes you, no one cares if you live or die,” Grant said, pointing emphatically towards me with his index finger, although his statement seemed to be directed inwardly. “Remember, everyone will disappoint you.” Occasionally, though, he would laugh and his face would embody an almost impossible sense of delight. Perhaps what made his laughter so satisfying was the act of teasing it out of him, of feeling like his smile was earned. His beauty, like his personality, was contradictory and I was mesmerized by how his toughness slowly gave way to expose his compassion, his sense of humor. I did not think myself capable of swooning, yet when I watched Grant throw around my cat in a way that was inexplicably both gentle and rough, putting the entirety of the creature’s small head in his mouth, I would find myself losing a grip on whoever I thought I was—that stranger from the Northeast, that supposedly serious girl with her pretentious liberal arts education. All I knew was that I was in New Orleans with this boy, and I was happy.
That first morning, I looked into Grant’s eyes and he returned my gaze with a fearlessness I found unnerving. He was challenging me and ultimately I conceded, leaning in and putting my lips to his, my body collapsing into him like an exhaled breath. When we kissed he ran his hands over the stubble of my freshly shaved scalp and I played with the metal pendant he wore around his neck. He smiled at me like he couldn’t believe his luck, like he had worshipped me long before I had offered him a ride home and I’d simply never noticed. He bit his lip and I realized that there was something almost coquettish about his smile, which I came to know well, though it never ceased to be as intoxicating as when I saw it for the first time in the late morning in his dark apartment.
It had been over a year since I’d graduated from Wesleyan. The fall after graduation I’d left my parents’ home in New York for New Orleans. I didn’t really have a plan and at most I’d hoped to get a job in a restaurant and spend my free time reading books, watching movies, and trying to write. I was bored and restless yet at the same time completely void of ambition. Many of my friends had moved to Brooklyn after college and were working at start-up companies, on film sets, in museums—they were probably doing relatively menial labor, but I glorified their work nonetheless. I was bartending at a hotdog restaurant—the word ‘restaurant’ an undeniable overstatement—near the French Quarter, where my uniform was a Hawaiian shirt and I was making $2.13 an hour plus meager tips.
It was July and business was incredibly slow. My closer friends had all left New Orleans for the summer, and I was picking up as many shifts as I could, kitchen shifts along with my bartending shifts, my days off serving as a reminder of my lack of purpose and my newfound loneliness. I drank heavily, ate approximately four hotdogs a week, and was relatively satisfied with my sluggish existence. The days folded together like a strange dream. I would work, drinking all the while, get off of work and continue to drink, eventually fall asleep, wake up and head back to work. I often felt as if I had never left the restaurant. I found myself almost incapable of completing simple errands, such as doing laundry or shopping for groceries, and was accustomed to the salty sweat on my skin, the ketchup beneath my fingernails, the pickle juice on my ankles as I biked home from work. With grease soaked into every pore, my existence was like sleepwalking and at the same time it was rebellion, a rebellion of indifference.
After kissing Grant that morning, I’d dizzily driven home, slept for most of the day, and woken up that night to go to work. We didn’t speak for several days and our shifts didn’t overlap, but soon we agreed over text message to meet at a canal that runs along Bayou St. John. We sat beside the dank, dark water and drank beers, conversing like old friends who hadn’t seen each other in years. Grant was around the same age as me but he had not attended college, nor had he graduated from high school. He was incredibly intelligent and I hated how this continuously surprised me; being around him revealed something superior in me that I did not want to acknowledge. He had read so much, had seen so many movies I’d never seen, and seemed to have an almost encyclopedic knowledge of every band that had produced music since 1970. Grant had been supporting himself since he was fourteen, and in this sense he was almost ten years older than I was. Unlike the guys I’d grown up around, Grant was a gentleman in classic, unfamiliar way that I found disconcertingly charming; as a feminist in the Northeast, chivalry had always seemed forced to me, but in Grant it was helplessly authentic, a rote response like saying “Bless you” to a sneeze. He wanted to wait to have sex, fearing that we would regret rushing into it. He always wanted to pay for our dinner or drinks and vehemently insisted on helping me carry heavy things, like when I would have to set up a new keg behind the bar. I would protest and Grant would make fun of me as he took the keg from my arms; playfully mocking me he would say, “Whatever happened to women’s lib?”
The next day was the Fourth of July and we went together to a coworkers’ party uptown near Tulane. The party was mostly college kids, girls with flat-ironed, blond hair and boys who saw any horizontal plane as a potential for beer pong. “I don’t think those kids had ever seen punks before,” Grant said as we left the party and I laughed; I had a shaved head and a lip ring but no one had ever called me a punk before. I thought it was silly how much his words flattered me, how I thought of this as a sort of induction.
I started spending almost all of my time with Grant. It felt natural, working together and sleeping together. His indignant tendencies started to take on a sort of sweetness in my eyes, perhaps because his frustration was never directed towards me and would quickly dissolve once we had a moment alone together. As I opened beers for a quiet European couple or poured Jäger bombs for a bachelor party, I would hear Grant furiously snapping his tongs together from across the restaurant and I’d smile. We would take long cigarette breaks together and find reasons to be trapped alone in the storage closet or walk-in fridge. He always kissed me like he couldn’t help himself. We would emerge with stupid smiles on our faces, Grant refusing to wipe the red lipstick off of his face, wearing it like a trophy or a symbol of ownership. When he finished his kitchen shifts he would sit at the bar for hours, and I would pour him drinks while he waited for the restaurant to close. Sometimes he would wander around Frenchmen Street while I continued to work, making friends with people he called “quarter rats”, young guys with face tattoos who sold drugs, or else would find an unlikely acquaintance in a group of tourists. He always returned to the restaurant just before close and we would go to 24-hour bar with our coworkers in the early hours of the morning.
We continued on this way mostly because management was so lenient, all of our bosses in their early twenties like us. Many of my young coworkers fancied themselves writers or musicians, artists of some kind, though everyone seemed to be drinking more than producing art. The restaurant and bar were frequented mainly by tourists so people were constantly passing through, this place of hotdogs and beer just a stop on the way to another destination, likely Bourbon Street. Each night, like clockwork, a brass band played on the corner outside the restaurant, and tourists would snap away with their iPhones, excited to capture what they thought was a unique New Orleans moment coincidentally accompanying their dinner. As workers, we appeared to the patrons as fixtures of the restaurant, trapped beneath the fluorescent lights not unlike the barstools or the containers of mustard and ketchup that adorned each table. This didn’t feel far from the truth, lending my fruitless summer a further impression of stasis. Grant became my reason to remain in limbo.
Grant told me he loved me after we’d been seeing each other for three weeks and I reciprocated, which may have had something to do with the combination of my perpetual inebriation and biking around a lot in the oppressive summer heat. We’d spent so much time together, and I didn’t have any friends to bounce my perceptions off. I loved the way I felt when his belly pressed up against me. I loved when he looked at me all wide-eyed and said, “I like your face.” I loved when he played “Girl” by Built to Spill over the restaurant speakers and watched me from afar like the song could communicate all that he was thinking. I wrote in my journal around that time: I never thought I would fall in love in a hotdog restaurant.
One night Grant shaved my head with a pair of clippers as I sat in a foldout chair in my small kitchen. I watched my short, light-brown hair scatter across the linoleum. I noticed a clump of black fall into my lap. I looked up to see Grant standing over me, poised with the clippers against the side of his head, smiling mischievously, a goofy patch of bald where thick, black hair had been. We laughed and I found myself thinking that I wanted to write about Grant someday. He’d be a great character, I mused and then felt sort of disgusted.
I liked to think of Grant as a contemporary cowboy, an outlaw of sorts, sexy and crooked. This was an unfair portrayal, fueled by my propensity to glorify wildness, which was rooted for me in the American South and one of the reasons I’d moved to New Orleans; it was a city girl’s attempt to immerse herself in what she understood as ‘Americana.’ I thought this was terribly ignorant and hoped not to expose my fascination, to not to seem too excited when he said he would take me to Monroe to shoot his father’s guns. I tried to keep my questions about his life at a minimum, especially since I’d been more transparent about my family, and the differences between us were becoming evident. Sometimes, however, I felt as though Grant actually wished to perpetuate this image of himself. He was always ready with an anecdote that furthered my idea of him as a lawless boy, a punk, an addict, even. Stories of having been a roadie for a hardcore band, of multitudes of pills in motel rooms, of living on the streets in Atlanta, of how there came to be a warrant out for him in Mississippi—he told of his transgressions in a vaguely competitive manner. He laughed at the idea of the pair of us, calling himself a ‘good-for-nothing kid from backwoods Louisiana’, and it was implicit that I was only permitted to share in his amusement to a certain extent. I was a rich girl from New York City, and I think he couldn’t help but find fault in himself for loving me. I was the enemy, and I knew that. He mentioned that he’d been to Manhattan when he was traveling around the country for a few years and I cringed to think I might’ve seen him panhandling in Union Square. I wondered if I would have given him any change.
When we weren’t at work we would spend our time tangled in bed with the blinds drawn, having sex, drinking cheap vodka, consumed in the emptiness of each other. We could only be at my house because he was still living with his ex. It seemed as if we wasted endless hours in my bedroom, a long, skinny room with the mattress on the floor, my books in piles surrounding it, and a mess of black, jersey sheets that I always forgot to wash. A few months later I would read James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room and I would think of Grant and the time we spent in my bedroom. Baldwin writes, “I remember that life in that room seemed to be occurring beneath the sea. Time flowed past indifferently above us; hours and days had no meaning.” As the days faded on, I came to know the love I felt for Grant as a form of despair, as if loving him was a space enveloped in darkness. It was overpowering, terrifying, and yet I still wanted to drown in him, I wanted to know what it could be like to lose myself in it.
Grant could never fall asleep and we would often chain smoke into the morning together. My body was beginning to forget the feeling of sobriety, my brain accustomed to functioning at a lower aptitude than usual. One late night as we sat with our legs hanging over the edge of the rusty metal balcony that extended from the back of my house, we watched the sky turn from black to grey and Grant told me he had been snorting heroin somewhat regularly. He had kept it from me, doing it only when I was at work and he was not. He had several friends who had died from the drug and so he was particularly ashamed that he had picked up the habit. I think Grant knew I would be incapable of forming an appropriate response to this, he knew how far this was from my world. I frantically searched for a way to relate to him, but ultimately had to admit that I could not, and this felt like failure.
It was midsummer and we were standing with his friends outside of a bar. The night air was hot and wet but it was worse inside. We could hear the muffled sounds of the band; they were clumsily pounding on their instruments in a manner that was not altogether self-aware. This was the first time that Grant and I were hanging out with people who weren’t our coworkers. Grant’s friends from Monroe were in New Orleans to play a few shows and I was surprised at how nervous I became in the presence of people who had known Grant much longer than I had. Holding a beer in one hand and a cup of water in the other, I took a swig of water into my mouth and, as I sometimes did when we were alone together, I sprayed the contents of my cheeks onto Grant’s face. His friends laughed but Grant, looking at me with plain contempt, turned and walked off. I followed him and once we were a reasonable distance from the bar, Grant asked me why I had chosen to embarrass myself in front of his friends. What seemed to me an inane gesture had created such intense anger in him and I didn’t really understand why. We yelled at each other and I cried drunk, hollow tears, though we finally came to some sort of resolution. I biked home with a friend and woke up late the next morning feeling so humiliated about the whole thing that I could hardly resurface from under my sheets.
The days that followed were characterized by faltering communication via text message. He was shrinking away from me, I could feel it, and I was posturing, trying not to seem like the kind of girl who needs to be delicately attended to. One night, after having failed to respond to some inconsequential text of mine for most of the day, he finally messaged me back to tell me he was about to go to bed. I knew he did not sleep, and I wondered what he could be doing so late at night while he was not in my arms. I thought about how he was still living with his ex-girlfriend and wondered if he ever shared the bed with her or if he always slept on his couch as he’d claimed. I poured myself shots of whiskey and took them in quick succession, listening to a song by Emmylou Harris called “Two More Bottles of Wine” on repeat as I stumbled about my room in my underwear, the air conditioning churning away as I reveled in my riotous self-pity.
We agreed to meet by the canal along Bayou St. John; I was ashamed by how literal this attempt was to recreate one of the first nights we’d spent together. As we drank beers by the water, Grant asked me if I considered myself an alcoholic. I was surprised by this, slightly offended, for though I’d always been a heavy drinker, I’d recently considered my escalating drinking habit as simply my means of catching up to him. “Maybe I am,” I said. In a few days, I was leaving to travel with my family to Ireland for three weeks, and there seemed to be no point in feeding conflict. Maybe I am, I thought.
During the next few days, I helped Grant move out of the apartment he shared with his former girlfriend as their relationship was becoming increasingly strained. He moved in with our coworker, occupying a room with walls painted bright cyan, completely at odds with his black sheets and dark brown couch. We carted his belongings across the city in the back of my truck to his new home, the entrance of which was right next to the dumpster of Captain Sal’s, a Cajun seafood restaurant; in the hot air, the smell of crawfish was almost always seeping into Grant’s room.
I spent the last night before my trip there. I liked being in this room with him, it was liberating to spend time with him in a space other than my own tired apartment, which, with each passing day of summer, seemed to allow less light in. For the most part I remember this as a nice night, lying with him in his bed and messing with his roommate’s small kitten. This was also the only time I can remember being sober while we had sex, and I was concerned by how naked I felt with him this time, though I felt so intimate with him otherwise. I noticed the movement of his big belly and the sweat dripping from him as he knelt over me and I found that these things no longer held their appeal, and I even began to wish that I had turned the lights off or that it would end quickly. I felt embarrassed but went through the motions of it all and in the morning he drove me to the airport in my car, kissing me outside the terminal like we were never going to see each other again.
When I returned to New Orleans at the tail end of August, the air had changed; it was still hot but it was not quite as humid and I felt unusually clear-headed. I was happy to be back but I found that my house, especially my room, made me hopelessly claustrophobic and I invented reasons to bike around the city. Luckily, my lease would be up soon and I was moving in with friends who’d been out of town for the summer. I went back to bartending at the hot dog joint and once again fell into the tedium, but I no longer had the urge to pour liquor into my Styrofoam cup each morning as I set up the bar, an instinct that once felt as benign as drinking a cup of coffee each morning. I started looking for a new service industry job, somewhere without the drunken crowds, the loud pop music, and the hotdogs.
I saw Grant for the first time since my trip and I remember our embrace in the stairwell at work, he picked me up and I was surprised by how quickly my excitement dissipated. On the plane to Ireland I had imagined that the space between us would make me fonder of him; instead, time had passed without much thought of him, I was only reminded of how much I enjoyed being alone. I now looked into Grant’s dark eyes and, though I was still charmed by him, the attraction was no longer quite so visceral. His ceaseless negativity was growing tiresome and I wondered if he knew how much of a caricature he was becoming to me.
I started making excuses when he tried to see me. This was difficult, however, because Grant was not in a very good place when I returned to New Orleans. Our coworker who he’d moved in with had left the apartment without an explanation and without paying any of the bills or her share of the upcoming month’s rent. Grant’s electricity was turned off and he didn’t have the money to get it turned back on. He would come to the restaurant for hours on end when he wasn’t working to be in the air-conditioned space, a great relief from the stagnant air of his apartment. Grant would tromp around, going outside to smoke cigarettes, always slamming the door, returning inside to grumble to one of our coworkers about his situation. He knew that he would not be able to pay the full rent and was trying with little success to find a new roommate or a place to stay. I wanted to distance myself from him but also wished I could help somehow. I was scared of what the ramifications might be if I told him I no longer wanted to do whatever it was that we were doing. A guy I’d been seeing before the summer had returned from a long trip abroad and I slept with him one night and felt immensely guilty when I saw Grant at work the next day.
I tried to carry on with Grant in a congenial if not romantic manner, I tried to remember what it was I saw in him. I went to his house one night and he showed me this little, dirty footprint on his wall right by his bed that I must’ve left when we had sex the last night before my trip. He said he would look at it while I was gone and miss me. He touched me and I felt queasy. I didn’t want to have sex with him anymore, and I began to realize that my attraction to Grant was never sincerely sexual—perhaps I’d always been too drunk to recognize this. I was not in love with Grant, I was in love with the thrill of him and who I could become in his presence, like dating him was performance art or an anthropological project. I wasn’t sure if I had known this all along. A few days later I drove him home from work and explained with little eloquence that I didn’t want to see him anymore. “You put me on a pedestal,” I told him, though I don’t know why I said it, I’d always thought the opposite. “I like you up there,” he replied. He seemed frustrated but was more understanding than I thought he would be. “I love you, but you’re being an asshole right now,” he said with a smirk.
The next night at work he was awkward but kind to me. It was incredibly hot out and he spoke of how he would be unable to sleep in his sweltering apartment. When he got off of work he wandered out into the French Quarter and returned to tell me that he had been hanging out with some bums, he’d eaten bread with them to remind himself that he was homeless too. I couldn’t take it anymore and I told him he could stay at my place. He came to my house, reluctantly, and though there was talk of him sleeping on the couch, he ended up lying in my arms on my bed with the air-conditioning blasting. He told me that a few nights before he’d overdosed—the same night I’d slept with the other guy and, therefore, had been flighty in my communication with Grant—and had passed out alone on a stranger’s porch. I love you, but you’re being an asshole right now. I was being an asshole. That night I told him I loved him though I knew I didn’t mean it.
The other guy I was seeing asked me to go out with him the following night. I agreed because he wanted to go to a comedy show at a bar uptown, a yuppie place I thought, which seemed perfectly removed from the world of my summer. I chugged a beer in my apartment as I waited for him to pick me up. I shaved my head and put on red lipstick and tried not think of what Grant had told me. Later, as I sat with Paul and watched the bad comedians, I laughed and felt a strange sense of relief. Paul didn’t know how hot it had been this summer, how drunk I’d been, and neither would my other friends who were returning to New Orleans in the weeks to come.
And then, like a dream, Grant appeared in front of me, he walked out of a dark corner of the bar towards us, looking first to me and then to the boy I was with. Grant had been dragged to the comedy show by a coworker of ours, dragged he would make very clear. I saw Grant see Paul, a good-looking guy, tall and skinny with glasses; Paul was wearing a Hawaiian shirt but not because it was his uniform like it was ours, he’d never had a service job in his life and I knew Grant could sense this by simply looking at him. I introduced them to each other. A vindictive smile spread across Grant’s face. “Paul, this is Paul?” he said, and I immediately remembered that I had told him about Paul earlier in the summer when we had talked about our past relationships. “I’m Grant Green,” he said to Paul as if the words were epithets. After we shared a few useless sentences, Grant marched out of the bar and I half-heartedly chased after him, making some pathetic excuse as to my shitty behavior, trying to kiss Grant as he walked away from me though I knew I would ultimately go back inside the bar and spend the night with Paul. I thought I knew what Grant was thinking as he walked away from me that night, that this was where I belonged, that this was who I belonged with. I wrote in my journal the next morning: It is terrifying to realize how much of a disappointment you can be, to understand how much contradiction you’re capable of.
Grant no longer talked to me at work and would loudly clip his tongs against the grill while staring at me from across the restaurant. He made his Facebook status: “You’re a fucking liar.” He would flirt theatrically with female customers who sat at the bar. I couldn’t stand to be at work anymore and I gave my notice. I soon found a job as a barista and settled into a less sleepless schedule. In the weeks that followed, Grant posted a drawing of his on Facebook. It was a small, abstract scribble in purple marker with the inscription: I would love to have your blood on my hands. I didn’t know if the statement was directed at me but it reminded me of our relationship and, oddly, sounded sort of romantic. I sometimes felt like we were trying to rip each other apart, trying to feel the warm blood beneath the exterior, attempting to find authenticity in each other. I thought that if Grant loved me, as he said he did, I would be absolved of what made us different, I could become someone else.
Five or six months later, I started running into Grant because he was dating a friend of a friend. She was a punk named Chloe with an armful of stick-and-pokes and a yellow mullet, a funny girl who I liked quite a bit. I was still with Paul and was too content with him to entertain any jealousy I might’ve felt, and surprisingly Grant seemed eager to interact with me as if we were simply old coworkers who’d lost touch. We created a rapport when we’d see each other at bars; sometimes he would kiss me on the cheek. One night, standing close in some loud bar, I asked Grant how he was doing and he replied with typical irony, “Well, I’m not dead or in jail.” He smiled at me and, in this moment, I felt as if we shared a great secret. A part of me longed to fall into him once again, I wanted to know everything that had happened in his life since we’d been together. I felt like I was standing atop a very tall building with a strong wind blowing against me, I felt unsafe but, in this precariousness, a strange familiarity. Chloe came towards us then and he took her by the hand, kissing her sweetly on the lips. I saw him look into her eyes just as he had into mine. I saw the two of them laughing together in that dark bar. I understood at once that there was no secret between us.