We got into New Orleans as it was getting dark, with no idea where to sleep. As Zara drove, I rummaged through her bag and found the card from the Holiday Inn we’d stayed at the night before and called their national helpline, aware that the battery on my phone was seconds away from torpidity and getting lower and lower.

I frantically navigated my way through the help menu options, stabbing at the buttons and praying that the battery would find a last ounce of charge.

At this point in time, I may or may not have been visualising Schwarzenegger in the final scenes of Terminator 2.

I was seven months old when I attended my first Mardi Gras parade. It was cold by New Orleans standards, so I was bundled up like a teeny tiny Michelin Man. From what I can tell from the photos, I couldn’t bend my arms, much less catch beads. I’m sure my grandmother took care of that for me anyway.

Mardi Gras nuts run in my family. My grandfather and great grandfather both rode in multiple parades each year. My grandmother’s house was right on the parade route, and her porch was THE place to be. She’d cook tons of delicious food throughout the Carnival season. She dove for beads and dabloons like a woman half her age and kept an ice chest of cold beer at her side to trade for the most prized throws.

I definitely got the Mardi Gras genes. At the height of my participation in Mardi Gras, I was in four parades and made nine costumes, including one for the dog. I bought my house in 2001 partly because of its proximity to a particularly choice portion of the parade route. When I decided to leave New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, I set the closing date for the sale of my house after Mardi Gras so I wouldn’t have to find another place to stay.

I’ve been a NOLA expat for nearly four years now, and I’ve only been back for Mardi Gras once, the first year. I met other expat friends down there, and we had a ball. I did all my usual things, but it was different.

Since then, I’ve had really good reasons not to go back. In 2008, I had just started a new job. Finances were tight as I was still paying for the adoption of my daughter who would be coming home later that year. I teared up a bit in my cube that day. Last year, I was a new mom and not ready to take on the Mardi Gras crowds with my baby. We went home for St. Patrick’s Day instead. As I boarded the plane to return to North Carolina, I swore that I would be back for Mardi Gras this year.

The economy has caused me to tighten my belt quite a bit, but in all honesty, I could have afforded to go home this year if I really wanted to be there. Fact is, it just didn’t seem that important. As the time grew near and I knew I wasn’t going to be there, I waited for the homesickness to rear its ugly head but all I felt was, meh…

Mardi Gras is a magical time, but it’s more magical when you live there. Waking up in your own bed, wading through the glitter and feathers covering your house to find your costume, and making your way past neighbors who are dressed as butterflies, giant crawfish, or demon George Bushes is what makes that magic. Once you’ve had that experience and you go back as a tourist, it just doesn’t measure up to the memories of having Mardi Gras happen in the middle of your regular life. 

I don’t feel sad that we aren’t down on Frenchman Street this afternoon. I grieve that my daughter will never know what it’s like to run into her teacher dressed as a cancan dancer in the French Quarter. And beyond Mardi Gras, she’ll never be playing in the back yard on a regular Saturday afternoon in the spring, hear a brass band leading a Second Line parade in the distance, and run through the house to the front door to join the folks dancing behind the musicians. She won’t go around the corner to a neighbor’s house to get a lucky bean or delicious Italian cookie from their food-covered St. Joseph’s Day altar. Even though those things are really wonderful, New Orleans lacks many of the other things our multiracial family needs. Despite all the magic of the City, I’m not willing risk my daughter’s future on a place as fragile as New Orleans.

So it’s two o’clock in the afternoon on Mardi Gras, and I’m in a coffee shop nowhere near New Orleans working and writing an essay. I’m okay with that.

You have just left work for the night, backpack slung over your shoulder as you make your way back to the car. It is 4:30 a.m. and still dark, the early spring air already laced with the coming summer’s humidity, and as you walk a fresh patina of sweat fills the void between your T-shirt and your back. Although the nightclub you work at is closer to the Canal St. side of the French Quarter, you habitually park on the far side off of Esplanade Ave., congratulating yourself on once again outfoxing not only the overpriced parking lots but the draconian New Orleans meter maids.

Four nights a week you make the half-mile or so trek each way down Decatur St. You find the stroll allows your mind time to unwind from the stress of work, and if it needs assistance, well, there are plenty of good bars along the way. The boisterous tourist crowds have largely vanished by this hour, and the few individuals you encounter are service industry employees like yourself, off the clock and looking for a little fun. You’ve got an early afternoon meeting with one of your professors, though, and a few blocks past Jackson Square you turn onto a darker cross-street, hoping for a short cut.

As you come round the corner a knife dances out of the dark, headed for your face.

At this point in your life you’ve been studying martial arts for just over a decade, and it is this and only this that prevents the knife from embedding itself in your cheek. Out of reflex you sidestep and the blade stabs the air where you just were. Only as it passes do you recognize it for what it is: a mid-sized hunting knife, single-edged.

Because of the darkness and the adrenaline invading your system like the Visigoths entering Rome, you get only an impression of your attacker out of the corner of your eye. The image is one of a scarecrow, dark-skinned, dirty clothes barely clinging to his scrawny tweaker frame.

He withdraws the knife and strikes again, this time slashing the edge outwards in an arc. In the movies this is always accompanied by a whistling sound effect, but in real life it is quieter than a whisper. You dodge again, backwards this time, nearly stumbling at the edge of the curb.

You spent some time on Maui when you were sixteen, learning Filipino knife-fighting techniques from an older Hawai’ian gentleman, methods to intercept and disarm, to cut your attacker’s throat or slash the femoral artery with his own weapon, but those blades were only hard rubber, the instructor only simulating fatal strikes and cuts. This is a total stranger trying to knife you to death on a dark street, unprovoked. His strikes are clumsy, but what he lacks in training he makes up for in aggression.

If he really knew how to fight, you’d be dead already.

You have a knife of your own, a two-inch lockback with a serrated edge folded away in the front pocket of your jeans. If you could get it out it would even the odds significantly. If only there was time, and you weren’t at this point operating entirely on adrenaline and muscle memory.

He lunges in and stabs again, this time aiming for your torso, and this is when your body slips into the defense. You get the footwork right, stepping off to his outside, raising your right arm to block the blow and entrap his knife hand even as your left comes around to strike the humerus.

This is not a fantasy fight, or a video game, or the carefully choreographed ballet of an action film; this is spontaneous, brutal violence in the real world, and nothing goes perfectly. Your block is textbook, but as you lock his wrist up you feel something slip against the meat of your forearm and a trail of warmth sliding towards your elbow.

His wrist feels almost like a chicken bone in your grip.

Your aim is a bit off on the counterstrike as well. Meaning to hit the pressure point just above the elbow, you bring your left arm down in a hammer strike dead on the center of the bone, and there is a sickening crack, more felt than heard, as it shatters. Your grip on his wrist must be stronger than it seems, because at the moment of impact it breaks as well. You hear, but do not see, the knife clattering to the pavement.

Your attacker screams, a cry of pain almost childlike in intensity. It’s loud enough to be heard for blocks. Clutching his ruined arm, he bolts away in the general direction of Bourbon St., deeper into the Quarter.

The entire encounter has taken maybe a handful of seconds.

You stand on the street corner, watching the space where he vanished, forcing yourself to take slow, measured breaths. Your chest feels as though a young Ginger Baker is using your heart for a drum solo, and you need it to stop, it has to stop, it’s actually starting to hurt.

Your hands, to your mild surprise, aren’t shaking.

While bending down to retrieve the bag you don’t remember dropping, you retch up the minimal contents of your stomach in a nasty green sluice. It is only now you realize you are bleeding, crimson drops mingling with the other bodily fluids at your feet. The cut on your arm appears shallow, but there is a slick of blood running from your elbow to your fingertips.

Fumbling with your cell phone to call the police, you notice it has been less than five minutes since you last checked the time. You rush through your report to the dispatcher, your mouth trying to move as fast as your heart. She tells you to wait, a unit will be coming as soon as one is available. When she asks if you need medical attention you tell her no.

While waiting for the police to arrive you step into the bar on the opposite corner, a place you frequent enough to be on a first name basis with most of the staff. The bartender gives you a beer without being asked. When you try to give him some money he tells you to go fuck yourself, then hands you a clean bar towel with ice for your wound. You drink the beer so fast you hardly taste  it. After two more your heart finally begins to slow down.

It takes the cops half an hour to arrive. They are both overweight and ruddy-faced, and behave as though it’s an inconvenience to be dealing with you. One takes your statement while the other collects the knife in a plastic evidence bag. When you describe your attacker the one with the bag snorts. “Fucking junkies,” he says. They have you sign your statement, tell you that they’ll keep an eye on the hospitals in case someone with a broken arm comes in, that they’ll contact you if there are any further developments. You never hear of any.

You make it back to your car without further incident, sticking to the well-lit streets. On the drive home you realize you have just survived your third–and most violent–mugging since moving to New Orleans. You wonder what that means.

In your apartment you sit in the shower until the hot water runs out. The retreating adrenaline has left your body feeling sacked and pillaged. You clean and dress your wound with the first aid kit you keep under the sink. The cut is shallow, and you close it with adhesive butterflies and a large bandage. It will heal into a thin but noticeable scar.

Your hands will remember the echo of human bone snapping like a twig between them for years to come.