New Year's Day was magical.
I woke up groggy after a New Year's Eve of champagne and making fake newscasts to send to my friends, which had absolutely nothing to do with the aforementioned champagne. Before I could remind myself which time zone, city and house I had woken up in, I remembered the most important part of the morning: Sweet Baby.
My friend Dakota had birthed Sweet Baby Earth-side the day before, and I was getting to meet him in the hospital before I left. At the time, I didn't know he was a he or that he was Helios. Dakota and her husband Jac kept Sweet Baby's sex and name a secret until they could tell his siblings. He was the only thing on my mind.
I started my day with breakfast from Southern Grounds & Co., a delightful coffee shop and café nestled in Historic San Marco. Parking is a nightmare, and I missed my turn into the parking lot several times, but it's always worth the confusion.
I'm also not convinced it's their fault; I have the directional sense of a concussed goldfish.
I quickly grabbed breakfast tacos and coffee for Jac and a mango smoothie and gingerbread latte for myself before heading downtown to get thoroughly lost for the second time that day.
All in favor of hospitals clearly marking the wings, raise your hand.
*raises both hands and a leg*
Dakota shared her birth story with me and I couldn't tear my eyes off Helios. He is an objectively beautiful newborn.
After pulling myself away from my newest baby friend, I drove to Murray Hill, another historic neighborhood in Jacksonville that does, in fact, have a Bill Murray mural gracing its entrance.
I pulled up to my friend Devin's home. Her screen door was open, and a soft folk lullaby poured out. A fluffy cat meowed up at me from a sun puddle. Walking into her home feels like being wrapped up in a hug from your safest, coziest neighbor. Her absolutely divine toddler greeted me at the door and eagerly showed me her baby bird toys, books and baby dolls.
I dropped off some thrifted clothes in her size and sat on the couch while V, the fluffy cat, purred next to me, and Devin read aloud to her daughter.
When I think about the kind of mother I want to be, I often think of Dakota and Devin. They balance fierceness and warmth with generosity and tenderness.
After many goodbyes to Devin and her daughter, I made it back to my car, where I drove a short distance to Vagabond Coffee Co. for my second caffeine fix of the day. I ordered the two spiciest chai lattes I've ever had and chatted with the barista.
"I really fuck with your necklace," they said, motioning to the crystal mushroom looped around my neck.
"Thanks, it was a Hanukkah gift from my husband. I really fuck with your purple hair."
"Thanks, it was a gift from me to me," they said while mixing spices. "It's great that your husband fucks with your interests."
"Yeah! He fucks will all sorts of things," I said, only realizing after he nodded in approval and whispered nice that I set that one up.
To be fair, I just meant that he has diverse interests.
I thanked them and left, double-fisting my lattes and spilling scolding droplets every few feet. After setting the drinks in my car, I took my camera out and snapped some pictures of the neighborhood: a historic theatre undergoing construction, a bright mural in primary colors, and a Skoll bottle on a bench, presumably from New Year's Eve, or just someone's Saturday night.
I headed back to my car and punched my friend Katarina's address into my phone. I might be the last person who doesn't call her Kat, but it sounds like I'm talking to myself when I do, so I've held on to her full Catholic name.
Katarina's driveway is so impossibly steep I wonder if my car's low profile will be able to tackle it.
"You can do it, Sisyphus," I whisper to the old red van converted to accommodate my husband, Jeremy's, wheelchair.
Sisyphus could, in fact, do it, but not without grinding against the cement and producing the most awful crunching noise - the kind a vacuum cleaner makes when it swallows up something it definitely should not have.
I skipped to Katarina's door and left a latte on her porch. After knocking on her door, I pulled a patio chair into her lawn and waited for my recovered-from-COVID-but-still-being-cautious friend to answer the door.
She came out in a possum shirt and celestial shorts. Her curls twisted up on top of her head, ready to talk shit and ignore all rules of social decorum. If you know Katarina, you know that a more perfect representation of her does not exist. She's my morbid muse, and I adore her.
After 45 minutes of oversharing, we begrudgingly said goodbye, and I eased my car back down her driveway. I put in the address for the Hotel Monteleone and joined onto I-10, holding my breath for all six lanes of merging.
As I left Jacksonville's city limits, I skimmed through crackling radio stations before settling on an alt-rock station that played Kings of Leon's "Sex on Fire" twice in the first hour and Panic at the Disco's "Don't Let the Light Go Out" on the half hour. I sang along each time.
Getting out of Florida is the longest part of the drive to New Orleans. I've made the trip a half-dozen times before, but this is the first time I'd done it solo. Every few hours, I tossed my phone on speaker and updated Jeremy on where I was and what I'd seen. From the second I left for the airport on December 30, I was counting down until I would see him again - literally, I have a countdown app.
By the time I made it to Alabama, I was ready for a break. I pulled off into a Taco Bell, one of the few places I can always get a vegetarian meal, and ordered my usual bean burrito. I didn't eat much of it, but I walked a few laps around the parking lot.
The teenager who made my burrito came outside yelling, "I will not get on the ball; I don't even want to be here."
I love Gen Z.
I cycled through radio stations for the next few hours before throwing on my Ingrid Michaelson playlist. Her soft songs were more lullaby than hype music, and my voice was already raspy from scream-singing show tunes the day before. I needed something engaging that wouldn't tempt me to fuck around and find out with laryngitis.
"What's the loudest album you listen to? I need something that will keep me awake, and Ingrid Michaelson is not doing it tonight," I texted my best friend, Josh, who listens to what I (lovingly) call "angsty boi punk."
Instead of recommending music, he told me to try The Last Podcast on the Left's Jonestown series. I had only heard snippets of the podcast before. It was a hilarious mix of true crime meets serial killer meets bro culture. I'm not sure how the hosts managed to incorporate so many dick jokes into a single episode, but over the course of the hour-and-a-half-long episode, there were at least five - which is five more than I expected from a Jonestown episode, but five less than I expected from the hosts. A happy medium.
I balanced the phone on my shoulder so I could hear over the sound of the wind shooting through my cracked window.
I listened to the series for the rest of the drive...until I saw her.
She was gorgeous, with soft rounded features, thick black hair, and a magnetizing ability to fully engage in what she was doing. She simply existed in that moment, beautiful and uninterested (aloof?) in the cars zooming past her.
Against my better judgment, I pulled over. I tossed on my hazard lights and walked up to her. After making sure she saw me, she gave me a nod that I took as permission to come closer. I reached into my back pocket for my phone. I wanted to remember her, but in my trance, I had left it in the car.
I sat crisscrossed on the grass and watched her as she strolled toward me, wondering how the universe had possibly conspired to bring us both here, on a grassy median in who-knows-where Mississippi. I might have even started humming Echosmith's "Bright."
I think the universe is on my side // Heaven and Earth have finally aligned
For the first time this trip, I was so grateful Jeremy wasn't with me. I could never have done this with him here. She took a couple more steps toward me, and without thinking, I reached out and touched her.
She softly oinked back, and her tail drifted from side to side.
Did you know pigs wagged their tails? I did not.
We sat together a few more minutes before she turned and strolled back to grazing, and I trudged back to my car, restarted my podcast and kept driving until I hit New Orleans.
Navigating the Central Business District late at night - on New Year's Night - was no small task. The day before, my family had called, each with a request.
Jeremy: Don't put yourself in a situation where you'll have a panic attack. It's really loud and crowded.
Jer has a long-standing hatred of Louisiana after a few weird drive-throughs over the years. When I press him on what exactly he doesn't like, he responds every time with, "Bad vibes. And the swamp-to-grass ratio is too damn high."
My dad, also named Jeremy, but who I call Papa: Don't go out alone at night. Check-in and stay at the hotel.
My mother: Do not fuck around with magic you cannot handle.
My family doesn't make requests like that of me often, so I was happy to oblige.
Honestly, after waiting a solid ten minutes for someone to stop throwing up in a crosswalk while other partiers simply sidestepped her, I was happy to tuck myself into bed and call it a night.
The Hotel Monteleone was a bucket list hotel for me. It was the clear winner when I asked for recommendations on where to stay across Twitter and Facebook.
I valeted my shitty van and watched with amusement as the valet somehow managed to make the 8-point turn to slide the bemouth between a Tesla and a Lexus look elegant.
The hotel was opulent.
Christmas lights twinkled, reflecting on the marble floors. It took all my energy to give my full attention to the kind human who checked me in. After getting my key card, I traipsed through the lobby dragging my luggage behind me and just looked. It had been a long time since I had been in a fancy hotel. For most of my adult life, I've worked in education and journalism, neither of which typically pay fancy hotel money.
The Carousel Bar and Lounge's last call was just before I arrived, but the bar manager was kind enough to let me poke my head in. Admiring the iconic bar that so many of my literary heroes had written about - or fallen asleep in a drunken stupor in - still buzzed with a low vibration of the night.
Seeing it almost empty, being scrubbed down and polished for the next day, felt weirdly intimate. Like I didn't know if it wanted to be seen like that. The carousel was no longer turning, napkins were strewn across the floor, and not a single guest was left to swoon to the jazz. I let my eyes sweep across the length of the bar a few times, then left it to be preened in privacy.
When I finally made it up to my room, I was exhausted but nowhere near being able to sleep. Instead, I did a video tour of the room for the 26 people who consistently watch my long-winded Instagram stories and took an inordinate amount of selfies.
Every detail of the room was planned and executed to perfection. After impressing myself by correctly identifying the artist whose work hung above my bed, I moved on to translating a map labeled in French.
This venture was less successful.
I am not a hard person to impress. So many things bring me joy, and I decided a few years ago that I wouldn't self-censor. Unmasking as an autistic person is a lifelong process, but allowing myself to revel in my autistic joy is nonnegotiable.
I walked circles around the room, letting my fingertips drag on every surface, imagining who had been here before me and who would come after. For about twenty minutes, I daydreamed about boozy authors, sultry jazz singers, and anyone else I could imagine staying in the room. When the circles (and exhaustion) left me dizzy, I ran a hot shower and scrubbed the day off.
By the time I crawled into bed, it was about 2 AM, and I needed to be up at 7:30. I fell asleep, phone in hand before I could even decide which ASMRtist I was going to let whisper a guided meditation to me.
A lot has changed for me in the last two years. I've finally learned how to manage a myriad of physical and mental chronic illnesses well enough to travel again.
Lest I lead you to believe I live in a world of hotel lobbies with dripping crystal chandeliers without a care in the world, I'll tell you this: I took anxiety PRNs to help me adjust to a new environment, I called Jeremy frequently to help keep me calm, I spent most the day (of every day) reframing thoughts that my OCD seems to think are essential to my functioning. I dealt with tachycardia and joint pain while I drove. I cried when I missed an exit.
But one of my resolutions this year is to do it anyway. Anxiety? Do it anyway. Racing thoughts? Do it anyway. Scared of being cringy or caring too much? Do it anyway.
So with that, I'll leave you with a little photo dump of selfies I took in my hotel room because I felt cute and sexy and like it would be fun to document the rare times I feel at home in my body.