I was able to catch a streetcar at the other end of St. Charles Street, but even so the sun was low on the horizon by the time I returned to Bourbon Street. Crowds had begun to gather in preparation for the evening parades, packing the French Quarter with bodies in various stages of intoxication. More than one person shoved a half-drunk mug into my hand with a slurred, “Let the good times roll!” as I made my way down the street.
The 4/4 was even more busy than when I left, the dance floor full. Eula and the band, except for Cozy, were on stage, and as I came through the front door they were tearing into a version of “Why Don’t You Do Right” that was barely audible above the talk and laughter.
I didn’t see Noel anywhere, and so went to the back office, thinking he and Cozy must be working on the books for the club; but the door was locked and no one answered my knock. I went back to the dance floor and saw that Rene and Angelique dancing close and laughing together; when Angelique saw me she waved me over, and hugged me when I joined them.
“Malcolm, cher,” she said, “what a lovely day it’s been. We had a lovely breakfast and a lovely lunch, and Cozy is just lovely. I’ve met such lovely people because of you.”
“How many cocktails have you had, Mrs. Gaspard?” I said, and Rene laughed as Angelique rested her head on his shoulder.
“Perhaps one too many, her. We’ll switch to water. How did your afternoon go? Noel said an old friend of yours was in town.”
I put my arms around them both, leaning on Rene to keep my balance. “It went about the same as I expected. My friend showed me a house he thought I’d like, but the price was too high. Have you seen Noel lately?”
“Cozy,” said Angelique. “He’s with lovely Cozy.”
“I didn’t know you were looking for a house,” said Rene.
“I’m not,” I said. I patted them both on their backs. “Enjoy dancing. I’m going to sit for a bit.” Angelique kissed my cheek, and I left the dance floor to find an empty chair.
Three songs later, there was still no sign of Noel or Cozy. The band took a break and I was joined by Eula, Fess, and Remy. “Hello, handsome,” Eula said as she kissed my cheek, and we squeezed around the little table. “We weren’t sure we’d see you again today.”
“I couldn’t stay away from the best party in the city,” I said, and they all laughed, looking pleased. “Do you know where Noel is? I haven’t seen him since I got back.”
“Him and Cozy have been upstairs for a while,” said Fess. “Got a lot to talk about, seems to be.”
“I’m sure they wouldn’t mind if you went up too,” Eula said to me, and I tapped my fingers on my cane, torn. I wanted to see Noel — he and I had a lot to talk about too — but I hated to interrupt if they were working on club business, or even if they weren’t. On the other hand, I wanted to share my revelation with Noel as soon as possible, and it had already been far too long.
“You know, I think I will,” I said, and rose. “See you folks later.”
Down the passage and past the manager’s office, then, and up the stairs to the second level and Cozy’s apartment. The door was closed, so I took the stairs to the roof.
It occurred to me as I climbed that I had no idea how close Noel and Cozy’s friendship really was. I’d never told Noel about mine and Rene’s past fling because it didn’t seem worth mentioning, not with Rene moving on with a new wife; Noel had no reason to tell me if he and Cozy had a similar past. I didn’t want to be jealous if they did, but I did climb the stairs a little faster.
Sure enough, Noel and Cozy were on the roof, sitting close in two folding chairs near the roof’s edge, both with tall but empty glasses of beer in their hands like they’d forgotten to refill their drinks. Their heads were bent close, too, but as I grew closer I could hear them talking, despite the noise from below.
Cozy was saying gently, “I think it all comes down to what’s worth fighting for. If he’s worth fighting for, then fight for him, even if this Davenport fellow has everything you say he does. All the money in the world won’t make up for the real thing.”
“And if it’s not the real thing?” Noel said, and my heard ached for the pain in his voice.
“Then let it go, my man. Let it go.” He looked up then and saw me, and nudged Noel. Noel looked up at him, and when Cozy nodded Noel turned and saw me too.
“Uh,” I said. “Hi.”
Noel breathed, “Hi.”
Cozy looked from me to Noel and back, and said, “I’ll leave you two to talk,” as he rose from the chair. Noel turned back to the street and made to take another swig of his drink before he realized it was empty, and put the glass down on the ground.
I murmured, “Thanks, Cozy,” as he went past me, and he patted my arm. I made my way across the roof to Noel’s side, and eased myself into the empty chair. Below us, anticipation rose from the crowd like a wave as the first float appeared at the end of the street.
I said, “Great view up here.”
“It is.” He paused. “I didn’t think you’d come back.”
“We went farther afield than I thought we would. He had chosen a house for me in the Garden District.” I added, “We never did get around to lunch. I left before we could.”
He nodded, his gaze on the street. “Malcolm,” he said, “I know we haven’t made each other any promises. I know I haven’t any right to be jealous. I — I’m trying not to be jealous.”
“I know,” I said. “I also know I don’t need to behave like someone with a sweetheart. But I do, anyway.”
Quiet, so hopeful it made my heart ache, “Meaning what?”
“Nothing happened between Oliver and me,” I said, and Noel finally looked at me. “I told him I didn’t want the house or anything else he could give me, and then I left.”
“He didn’t want to sleep with you?”
“No, he did,” I said, “but I didn’t want to sleep with him. And he offered to support me while I work on my art, but I don’t want that, either. I’m not an artist. I’m a cartoonist, at best, but I’m even that. I’m a teacher. I don’t want to be anything else.”
Noel nodded again, slowly, looked at his feet. “He could give you everything you want.”
“He really couldn’t,” I said. “All I want is you.”
Noel gazed at me for a moment, then sniffed hard and looked away. “Well. How ’bout that.”
When he didn’t continue, I said, “I know you’re not in a hurry to give your heart away. I understand that. But I’d like to make you a promise or two. We could start small.”
He smiled, just a tiny bit. “What sort of promise?”
I said seriously, “I promise not to do anything I can’t tell you about.”