They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results is similar in Hell. Hell is repetition. That is why the souls who remain in Hell the longest are insane. They are subjected to constant repetition.
I open my eyes to bright sunlight and a warm, feminine body next to mine. She is in a white linen shift and has her caramel-colored leg draped possessively across my thighs. Her head rests on my left arm, which is asleep, but I dare not move it. I don’t want to wake her just yet.
I know where I am. This is my Hell room or loop or whatever fancy title you deem necessary to give it. I failed in collecting, and I was dragged back here to this time, to this day. It was the day when it all went wrong. It will begin in a moment. My body will act out this day while I get to watch like a passenger inside my own head.
I look around at the thin white gossamer curtains hanging off the four posts on the bed. We lay under a white goose-down comforter and rest our heads on white pillows. I breathe her in, my Bridget, my one true love’s scent, and she begins to stir. I feel a smile grow on my face.
“Please, don’t move your arm,” I say.
My arm moves, and she opens her green eyes. I feel my heart stop as it did the moment I laid eyes on her at the Quadroon Ball. I pull her in close, and she kisses me tenderly. It is magical. She tries to pull away, but I hold her, just wanting to feel the warmth of her skin on mine.
“Don’t let go of her. Get up and lock the door,” I beg.
The door flies open, and there stands the product of our union. She is a petite six-year-old, her dark hair done up in double braids. She is wearing a purple nightgown and holding her stuffed bunny. Our little girl has inherited my blue eyes, her mother’s crooked smile, and sometimes her haughty attitude, but I would not have her any other way. My Christine runs to us, leaps, and lands on the bed between her mother and myself.
We break out in gales of laughter as I begin to tickle my treasure. The three of us hold each other in an embrace of love and warmth.
“Keep holding them. Don’t let go, please,” I plead to the memory me, but as always, he doesn’t listen.
This memory I am forced to relive continues to play out. Bridget kisses me and breaks away first, leaving me to hold Christine. She goes to the vanity and puts her curly hair up, then slips on the silken bathrobe I gave her. Christine smiles up at me, showing off her little teeth.
“Don’t let her go, John,” I tell myself.
Then Bridget says, “I am gonna make us some breakfast before you go into the city for work, Doctor Lafayette.” She smiles and plops down on the bed next to us. “Pancakes, bacon, eggs, and coffee.”
“Juice!” Christine chimes in.
“That’s right, young lady, we got fresh oranges that we are going to squeeze for juice. Now you are coming down to help while your father gets dressed,” Bridget says.
“Awww, but I want to stay with Daddy,” Christine whines.
“Keep her, keep her here, don’t let her go!” I beg.
I open my mouth to indulge her wants, but Bridget fixes me with a glance, suggesting that it would be unwise to spoil her at this moment. My mouth shuts, and I want to scream, shout, and fall to my knees, begging them to stay in the room with me. The ghosts living in this memory continue their shadow play, as does the body that contains the knowledge of the day and what is to come.
“Go with your mother, my love. I will be down shortly,” the ghost John says.
As they leave, Christine gives me a backward glance, and I wink. She giggles, and they are gone from my sight. I rise from the bed and begin to dress. I move forward in my mind where I have been relegated as a passenger, trying to seize control, but I am held bound in mental chains.
I sit at the table, a coffee in one hand and reading a brand new paper known as the Time-Picayune. I happen to like it and hope it sticks around. I hear the lard and butter sizzle on the cast iron griddle top as my girls cook breakfast. The food is divine, and we eat without much in the way of conversation. It is considered rude to converse while partaking.
After we are done, Christine clears the table at the behest of her mother. Then my little love comes and sits on my lap. I run my fingers through her hair. It is straight, which is a blessing. I admire the fairness of her skin, and she smiles at me. My love is always smiling. In two more years, she will head off to a boarding school in France, and then I will send her up North to Chicago to my brother Paul. There she will pass for a white woman, not acknowledging her mulatto heritage. She will marry herself a well-to-do northern white man and start a family. Those are my hopes for her.
I am aware you don’t understand, but you are not looking at your time. You are looking at mine. This is not your memory but mine. I took my Placage as a bonafide marriage and this little girl, plus the one Bridget is currently carrying in her womb, are all I ever wanted in life. If anyone knew, we would all be lynched and our homes burned to the ground. I want them to live. I want them to survive. These were harsh times I lived and died in, and they would not be there to see my undoing and ending.
The shadow play begins anew as Bridget pours me a second cup of coffee. I feel the smile on my face as she sits next to me, a cup of coffee in one hand and her other hand over mine. I take and squeeze it.
“Are you worried about those boys from Atlanta? With their proposal of an actual marriage?” she asks.
“What, those boys? I sent them packing with their tails between their legs. Never, you worry about those boys. Why I wager, they are halfway back to their precious Georgia by now,” I say.
“It is just they seemed so angry, and you were so callous and abrupt with them, John,” she says.
“It is wounded pride is all. They will live,” I say.
“Pride goeth before the fall,” she says and gets up gracefully.
She stands by the stove with her nose in the air and her back to me. It is time for me to leave, and I go to her, wrapping my arms around her waist and pulling her into me.
Please, John, don’t leave! Tell her you will stay home today! Send Jerome into town and have him hang a note on the office door! Tell people the doctor is out today, and they will have to reschedule! I beg from my passenger seat.
But I don’t say those things, and the shadow play continues. I kiss her shoulder, and the action is met with a small smile.
“I can send Maddie and Keith from the big house to help clean up,” I say.
“Nonsense, Doctor Lafayette, I will keep my own house, thank you very much,” she says haughtily.
“Soon, you won’t be keeping nothing. Soon you will be ready to pop and lying on your back in a bed,” I say.
A wicked smile forms on her face as she takes one of my hands and places it on her breast. Her green eyes sparkle, and her voice is breathy as she whispers against my ear, “Well, then you better take all you can get until I pop, Master Lafayette.”
“It will be my pleasure,” I assure her as my body breaks out in gooseflesh.
We kiss. It will be the last time. I want to keep kissing her and hold her at that moment forever, but my body moves to Christine. I squeeze and kiss her as she giggles. I will myself to stay, but my body lets her go and heads to the door. I open the door to step out of the house.
“John, listen to me. Will you for once listen to me? Turn around, go in, take them somewhere in the carriage, anywhere, just don’t leave them here, please. Look back, just look back,” I cry.
I do not look back at the house I built for her. I enter the carriage, and Jerome drives off to the city, to my office, where I will spend the day handing out laudanum, heroin, morphine, and cocaine to my patients until closing time.
I exit my office and am waiting for Jerome to bring the carriage around when a familiar voice catches on my ears. I turn to see Delphine LaLaurie smiling at me. I doff my hat to her, and she curtsies. I don’t want to have this conversation. I want to get home before it’s too late.
“Don’t talk to her, John! Shut up, John! Get in the carriage and go!” I scold myself.
“John, as I live and breathe,” Delphine says.
“In the flesh, and what can I do for you, Delphine, my dear friend?” I ask, taking both her hands into mine.
I put on my best well-cultured smile, and she reciprocates, except the smile never reaches her eyes. Instinct tells me she is dangerous, but custom and circumstance of being in the same class as another demands the exchange of pleasantries despite all else.
“I am absolutely tickled that you are letting Nicholas rent a room in your offices to start his practice, let alone that you will be working with him,” Delphine says.
“Your husband is a brilliant physician. I look forward to working with him,” I say.
“And our future endeavors,” she adds.
“Oh, indeed,” I agree.
“I heard what you did to those Atlanta boys. I wish I was there to see it, but oh well. You must come by some night for one of my galas, and you can bring that side nudge mulatto of yours as long as she knows her place,” she says.
The desire to slap this woman for the last comment is palpable, but custom and upbringing prevent me from following such actions. She has said her piece, and with a kiss on each of my cheeks, she takes her leave of me.
I enter the carriage, and we head for home. I am pleading for it to go faster, begging it to move swifter, but it never does. It is as if we are rolling through molasses. I want to cry, but my tears will come later, so will my screams.
I look out the window as we approach my land and see smoke on the horizon. Without prompting, Jerome urges the horses into a full gallop. We get close, and I leap out, roll, and begin to run. There are the remains of a fiery cross on the lawn in front of Bridget’s house. My mind is in full panic as I run, watching this continue to play out.
“No, no, no, no, please, God, no!” my body yells, and I join in as he hits the porch to see the cross burned into the door. I grab the knob and turn, and…
I hang suspended, looking down on my corner. My time in Hell is done for now, and I am spared the worst images of that day. I will not allow myself to fail again.