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First Comes Love

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Pantheon, 1996
Random House Audio, 1996
Vintage, 1997

A New York Times Notable Book; Winner of the Austin Writers League Violet Crown Award; In development for motion picture release.

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Marion Winik, First Comes Love

How it begins...

When you drive into New Orleans on I-10 early in the morning, it takes a while to realize you have actually arrived. The city rises slowly from the swamps, wrapped in an old gray bathrobe of a morning sky, her suburbs sprawling around like grown children too lazy to leave home. Unlike cities which spring frantically into action at dawn, New Orleans seems to be waiting for breakfast in bed, her morning rush hour drenched in languor.

I had been in the car for thirty-two hours, driving for the last eight. Speeding down the deserted interstate, feeling the truckstop caffeine catch hold in my blood, seeing only the cone of light boring through the blackness ahead of me, my miasma of gloom had begun to lift. Now, the sky was light and downtown lay ahead. The scents of car exhaust and bayou and doughnuts floated in on the chilly air like the ghostly fingers in a cartoon that beckon the muddled hero to adventure.

I followed Shelley's botanically detailed directions into town, off the highway and up Saint Charles Avenue, a wide boulevard lined by antebellum mansions with wrought iron gates, divided by the grassy track of the old-fashioned street car. I was supposed to turn left at a house with a big magnolia tree. Sandye, I said, nudging her. Wake up, honey. You gotta help me.

When Sandye, my best friend since elementary school and currently one of my roommates in New York, had suggested we drive down and visit our friends Shelley and Pete in New Orleans over Mardi Gras, I was unenthusiastic. I was in a serious year-long tailspin after a disastrous love affair and had become nearly addicted to heroin and misery in the process. At twenty-four, I had decided my life was over, my prospects non-existent. Leaving town would be pointless even if it were chemically feasible.

Sandye, however, was on a rescue mission and refused to take no for an answer. She had been down to Shelley and Pete's earlier that year and regaled me with descriptions of their funny little apartment in the Garden District, of Pete's gumbos and red beans and crawfish, of their friend Tony, the gorgeous gay ice skater, who would give us free drinks at the bar he worked at in the French Quarter. It sounds like fun, I finally said to appease her, I mean, hypothetically speaking.

The plan gathered momentum without me, however, and soon my sister Nancy and her boyfriend Steven, with whom we shared a pathetic fifth floor walk-up in the no-man's-land between the West Village and Chelsea, were planning to fly down and join us. In the process of working on me, Sandye had managed to sign up one of my classmates from the MFA writing program at Brooklyn College, a woman I worked with at Stanley H. Kaplan Educational Center and a guy we met one night at a bar. On the appointed day, they all showed up and shoved me into the car.

I was not much of an asset the first three-quarters of the trip, having done a big farewell shot of dope before I left the house. Once it wore off, too much drugs, too little sleep and dragging myself to work and to school every day caught up with me and I was comatose through many large central and southern states. Finally, around Birmingham, I woke up in the crowded back seat.

Let me drive for a while, I said, sliding forward so that the sleeping bodies on either side of me collapsed together.

All yours, said Sandye, ready for a nap herself.

She came instantly back to life when I woke her on Saint Charles and, after using the rearview mirror to re-apply her Frankly Fuschia lipstick and refasten the many plastic barrettes in her black curly hair, she and my writing program friend successfully identified not only a magnolia but a Japanese plum, a crape myrtle, and an azalea bush, leading us ultimately to our destination, a run-down Victorian mansion which had been converted to apartments, at the corner of Second and Chestnut. It was not yet 7 AM on Tuesday, February 8, 1983 when we did our clowns-from-a-Volkswagen routine in front of the house. The door was answered by a tall, slender young man with honey-colored hair, clear brown eyes and a long, arrestingly handsome face. Tony! Sandye cried, throwing her arms around him.

Welcome back, Miss Thing, he said, smiling over her head at the rest of us. I wished I had taken a shower in recent memory.

Excerpted from First Comes Love, Marion Winik (Vintage Books, 1997). Reprinted with permission of the author.

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