I have to use Uber's GPS locator because I don't really know where I am.
So many New Orleans neighborhoods look exactly like this one. Potholes shotgun-blasted across gravelly streets, lined with shotgun homes painted in dull pastels. The app says I'm in Riverbend, just a few blocks from South Carrollton. I request a ride and settle onto a porch, finally becoming aware of my appearance. My camera shows me what I look like; the beginning of a daylong recovery. Uber says my driver's name is Claudia and she drives a Hyundai Santa Fe.
Here she is now.
"Hey there, good morning," Claudia says cheerfully as I heave my body into the backseat. "Hi," I say. "I feel like shit. Please don't look at me." She laughs. "Rough night?" she asks my reflection in the rearview. "Rough life," I say. "I got hammered in the Quarter and went home with some guy.”
Outside, the endless ribbon of houses cuts away and we're on Carrollton.
Outside, the endless ribbon of houses cuts away and we're on Carrollton.
In age, Claudia hovers someone between my mom and my grandma. She has all the trappings of a young mother from her top bun to her stylish warm-up jacket, but the lines around her mouth and eyes give her away. "Was he cute?" she asks. “Didn’t get a good look,” I say, squinting into the sunlight.
Gay men have an inborn talent to disarm women. This can be used selfishly to gain the favor of a bitchy female hostess or a busy female flight attendant. But most of the time, it just helps break the threat barrier. I am gay and I am not going to hurt you. Let’s grab brunch.
“Well I’m seeing a really cute guy myself,” says Claudia. I wave my hand in the air next to her head. “Show me pics!” I say, gesturing for her phone. “Oh,” she says. “He’s not on Facebook.” She smiles at me in the mirror. “Good for him,” I say. “How’d you meet?” I drop my hand into my lap and stare out the window. Up here on I-10, the New Orleans skyline is so close I can almost touch it. I’ve rounded the Superdome on this same stretch of overpass for 28 years, but I still take a moment to marvel at it when I swoop past. People often say the Superdome looks like a spaceship, but to me, it looks like a megachurch. I think the Saints would appreciate that sentiment.
“We work together,” she says. “When I’m not driving Uber, I work in the Philanthropy Department at a big hospital in town. Matthew’s our IT guy. That’s his name, by the way. Matthew.” She lights up when she says his name. I can hear her grinning from ear to ear. “Girl, good for you!” I say with exaggerated gay inflections. She’s opening up because she likes me and she feels comfortable, and suddenly I want to know more about her.
There’s a branded Ochsner Hospital badge hanging from her visor that reads, “Claudia” and no last name. I pull out my phone and go straight for the Ochsner website and search the name “Claudia.” Her employee bio appears with the same headshot from her badge. With her last name in-hand, I head to Facebook and search “Claudia Caulder.” There she is. I stare down at her profile picture and then I glance up and catch her looking back at me in the mirror. She winks and I smile. I pull my phone to my chest for extra measure, even though there’s absolutely no way she can see what I’m looking at: Claudia Caulder’s Facebook account, emblazoned with a photograph of her family.
In the picture, everyone is wearing shades of blue and standing on a beach in (what I’m guessing is) Destin or Santa Rosa or somewhere in the Florida panhandle. Backlit by the setting sun, Claudia stares lovingly at her husband while two ginger-haired girls cheese it up for the camera. They look exactly like their dad. I press the home button and Facebook shrinks away.
Even though I smoked all night and my tongue is dried out like a welcome mat, the craving for a cigarette makes my mouth water. Then I hear myself ask, “Do you have any kids?” She looks back at me, and this time, she isn’t smiling. “Yes,” she said, flatly. “Two girls.” I nod. “Have they met the new guy yet?” I grapple with my boldness and wonder why I’m fucking with this woman. But in my carefree hungover state, I can’t help myself. “No,” she says, throwing her response away through the hollow tunnel between us.
We glide in silence through the Lower Garden District and I think about last night. I lied to Claudia when I told her I didn’t get a good look at the guy. His name was Cody and he was incredibly handsome. We’re in the same kickball league and after ogling him for an entire season, I built up the courage to ask him out and he said yes. Last night, when he kissed me, I wanted him to like it — my head buzzing with hyper awareness of my own body. This morning, when he walked me to the door, I took a picture of him from behind and sent it to a few friends. I feel bad about doing that but not bad enough to delete it. Then I send it to a few more people.
We pull into the horseshoe of my apartment complex and Claudia turns down the music. “I lied to you earlier,” I say, suddenly. “I actually like the guy I slept with last night. I hope he texts me. He’s really cute and he’s very sweet.” Claudia turns and looks me directly in the eyes. The lines around her mouth and eyes soften and she looks instantly looks 10 years younger. “I’m having an affair with the IT guy,” she says. “And every day I feel like I’m losing the woman I was.” I look back at her and bite my bottom lip as a gesture of sympathy. “The woman I am,” she corrects herself. “There’s nothing sexy about this,” she continues. “I walk around the office scared shitless that one of my co-workers knows. And every afternoon, on my drive home, I have to remember to delete his text thread. Sometimes we have dinner at the Applebee’s in Algiers because it’s 45 minutes away from my house.” She blinks hard to suppress the tears, but it doesn’t work. “And I fucking hate Applebee’s!”
I look down and realize I’m holding her hand. On the corner, at a coffee shop, a man opens the door for his female companion and I decide that he’s a gentleman and that they should get married if they haven’t already. I want to ask Claudia what she’s going to do about this, but I don’t. Instead, I tell her that I’ve never been married and I’m not going to pretend to know what that’s like. “It’s really hard to keep a secret, especially from the people you love,” I say. Then I don’t say anything at all. We sit together in wordless solitude while New Orleans wakes up around us.
I yank my shirtsleeve over my hand and wipe away Claudia’s runny mascara. “I hope that boy calls you, sweetheart,” she says, turning around and running her fingers over her face in the mirror. “If you ever feel like doing this again,” I say. “You know where I live.” She laughs and winks at me in the mirror while I open the door and step outside.
The fall weather is unseasonably warm, even for New Orleans. I decide that as soon as I get inside, I’m taking the longest shower of my life and tossing this entire outfit in the washer. “I hope you have a great day,” I say, actually meaning it. “Take care, sweetheart,” she says. Then, Claudia closes the door and pulls away, out of the horseshoe and onto Annunciation and out of sight.
Anyway, Uber, this was one of the most emotionally draining rides I’ve ever experienced. I’m not looking for anything, but I just thought you should know that one of your drivers is going through a tough time. Obviously, I rated her five stars, but frankly, she was a lot to deal with. As an advertising professional, I don’t want consumers believing that Uber aligns itself with adulterers who discuss their infidelities with passengers. Please keep an eye on Claudia for the sake of the brand.