David Williams

Year of Graduation: 
2007
David in front of a home destroyed by hurricane Katrina.

"I was changing quickly; the world was changing even faster."

Life after Hurricane Katrina

I’m back in New England again, but this time, so is the storm. Driving over the Sagamore Bridge I’m bracketed by MassDOT traffic signs: TROPICAL STORM WARNING. On cue, the props director in heaven issues forth a white and solid wall of water, arriving on a sheet of wind that pushes my little Japanese car toward the side of the road. A moment later two black birds avoid my windshield by a foot. Stop here, the birds augur, but I demur, and blindly, stupidly, once again, trust the engineers of the U.S. government. Highways are different from levees, I tell myself. America’s always been better at moving on than holding back. I shift my butt back in the seat, lean my chest toward the wheel and, opening my eyes wide, follow the pavement right on in to Provincetown — which, depending on your mood or the way you turn your face, is either the end of the road, or the start of it.

I’d left Michael Maruca’s house in Somerville that morning, where we’d shared an early breakfast, a bowl of toasted oats his wife had made, over yogurt, with thick coffee. We sat quietly in the cool gray morning and watched the little birds play on the stump of a tree in his unkept yard. Mike and I were never meant to be friends, but the flood mixed things up, and we both found ourselves part of Exeter’s class of 2007. It’s confusing when wonderful things sprout from terrible seeds, but when it comes to Mike, thank God for Katrina. Mike is my lifetime good pal and how could it have been any different?

 

I pulled into Herring Cove a few hours later. Working the door against the storm I climb out of the car and into the sand, and stare awhile into the white ocean. The wind is Provincetown cold but the drops falling as stinging wet rags from the tropical system are all Louisiana fat and warm, and I feel comforted. These are the last breaths of Jose, which had dawdled, lonely and angry, around the Atlantic for most of September. I see the surf take a bite of the beach and think of the fragile nature of the Cape, the fragile nature of home, and what wisdom there is in the moments things change.

I remember when I first heard about it. Change. It was Friday night in late August 2005, at Amelia’s birthday party.

“You hear about the storm?”

“What storm?”

“Down Florida now. Turned toward us.”

“School Monday?”

“Maybe not.”

By the next afternoon change was on the horizon and moving due north at 9 miles per hour. I ate pizza with my parents under graying skies and slowly falling pressure, a feeling that’s always caused my head to spin and my heart to open. I find it thrilling. The decision was made over Caesar salad and a Coke: Mom and I would leave in the morning. Dad would stay. Someone had to watch the house.

I brought one pair of underwear and my French books. No one really thought we’d be gone more than a couple days. The storm always turned.

We stopped at the first open room in the South, in Selma. The TV screens in the lobby looped a solid red spinning disc of doom, and for the first time, I was frightened of things. Distracting myself in the great American tradition, I ate at midnight, in the little Waffle House on U.S. 80. The sweaty server skittered nervously about the empty place and kept apologizing for forgetting my place setting, forgetting my coffee.

“It’s my first day,” she said. “I’m so sorry.”

“It’s OK,” was all I said, when all I wanted was to cry for her, my father, my city, my self.

A day later, news out of New Orleans was sensational and unverifiable: Every house under 20 feet of water. Gun battles in quiet neighborhoods. Fellow citizens floating.

Dad wasn’t dead after all. He had picked his way to the river — the highest point in the city — with a car and a chainsaw. A week later I found him shaken in a field in South Carolina, and like someone back from the war, he didn’t want to talk about it.

The city closed. Friends were matriculating to Houston, Dallas, Chicago, rural Tennessee. I wanted none of that. Seeking a little romance in the middle of a tragedy, I Googled (was that already a verb, then?) “best boarding schools in America.”

 

 

In the aftermath of Katrina, David Williams '07 felt like a stranger in his own land. 

A week later I was in Texas for the first time in my life, meeting then-Admissions Director Michael Gary in the lobby of a Houston hotel. He was gracious, concerned. Friends, family — are they safe? His brow furrowed at my answers. We spoke easily. He showed me a map of campus and I asked him all sorts of questions about it. How long does it take to walk from this building to these fields here? Are there hills? He called the next day and told me I was needed in New England as soon as possible.

Standing beside four other freaked-out boys from the Gulf Coast at my first assembly that fall, we received a standing ovation. It was humiliating. I am an actor now, as I was then. Attention, applause, confirmation — these were and remain things I desperately wanted — but something had gone horribly wrong. It was fine enough that the play was absurd, but it remained irredeemably tragic. I hadn’t agreed to audition, I hadn’t signed a contract, yet here I was, playing the part of Stranger in his Own Land, setting: America, 2005. I was supposed to be numbly bumming along, a shy, cute junior with his brother’s old car. The flood forced me into sharpness, and as happens to animals in emergency situations, all my senses got inflamed, time slowed down and everything burned sharp in my brain.

But with no home to run away to, and knowing it unlikely the deans would give me leave to run away and scream, I dove into the role with aplomb. Asked to pose for a cover story for The Exonian, I was all too quick to assent. I keep that cover half-buried in an old chest in New Orleans with the rest of those things we carry around, too scared to cut them loose from our lives but just as terrified to look at them head-on. Viewing it now makes me cringe: Look there at my smile. See me midstride coming down the front steps of the Academy Building, as if I’m fully adjusted one week in, and with hardly enough time to stop for the photographer as I bound to my next class — my only worry in the world is who I might ask to that week’s Evening Prayer.

In point of fact, that smile masked an interior landscape that would make even Dalí recoil: a terra incognita of terrible storms and violent changes, tsunami dreams and lost companions, with nowhere safe to rest, not even my own heart. I was 17 and exhausted, horny and confused, in shock, cut off from everything familiar, and spirited away to a friendly, unwarm place where everyone had the same number of toes and eyes but acted slightly funny. Everything, at every level, was in motion. I was changing quickly; the world was changing even faster. Making sense of it was like trying to describe a landslide from 11 different hillsides using 13 different sets of eyeballs. There was no control in this experiment, only chaos. I was scared of myself.

Everything, at every level, was in motion. I was changing quickly; the world was changing even faster. ... There was no control in this experiment, only chaos. I was scared of myself."
David Williams

The school and town did their best to pull me down to earth. That first month was a blur of utmost kindnesses: pencils, underwear and condolences rained down steadily and softly. The little sports shop in town donated shoes and socks so I could play squash — which, I explained to my friends when I could reach them, was, in this weird land I found myself in, a sport, not simply a vegetable. I never really came close to crying in that numb season, but it probably would have felt good. I wonder if we can only know a thing by its absence. It’s the moments of joy that cut through and cast light upon my horror like a sunbeam. Like a mid-November late afternoon in New Hampshire, when the world is all clouds and endless dimness, and suddenly the sidewalk is blasted gold, and your chest rises toward the sky just a little, and poems seeded deep rush forth, hoping to get their roots in before the clouds come back.

Or the thrill of holding hands with a girl from West Virginia, whom I fancied so well; lying back on the icy crunch of the playing fields, thinking of nothing but her and the stars so constant above us; and she, finally, leaning over for a kiss. Things unsaid on a bench on Swasey Parkway. Forgetting curfew to help a teacher I didn’t know dig his car out of the snow.

Or Mrs. Morris, having me over for dinner; the rollicking conversation with her brilliant children. How fairly she treated me, and firmly, never favoring me, getting on me about cleaning my room, conspiring with Mr. Chisholm to pull my grade out of the Biology gutter. I knew from her eyes I could not hide my sadness from her. I resented her for this, and I trusted her.

These moments help me honor the truth of my depression back then.

I think of the friendship of my comrades at Ewald, sweet to me with a wisdom beyond their adolescence. They were a wild band of boys suddenly handed a helpless infant, and they did so well to keep me alive. Handball in the basement at midnight, seeking me out at the dining hall, throwing the ball my way at intramural football (I caught it, we won, Go Saints), asking me for help with homework. In a season when the people of a nation and a town and a school turned their humbled hands toward fellow citizens who needed them, it was the little house at Ewald that held me closest, and I love them for it, and that, at least, will never change.

The Academy offered us full tuition through graduation, but I was dying. I needed to be home to heal, if “healing” is possible when nearly everything about a body has been shifted, violently. Going home wasn’t easy. There were houses on top of boats, houses in the middle of streets, and everywhere, everywhere the smell of mold. Everyone lived in new places, strange neighborhoods, if they were back at all. The air was dank and the mood delirious. We coped as New Orleanians best know how: with alcohol and song. No one knew what to do. It felt enough to simply be, and be back.

Going home wasn't easy. There were houses on top of boats, houses in the middle of streets, and everywhere, everywhere, the smell of mold."
David Wiliams

My relationship with the Academy is a queer and marginal one. If life is a walk down a wild, lovely, populated street, the Academy is a dapper fellow I traded an intriguing glance with, once, whose gaze sticks with me, who still inspires poems. I wasn’t born to go there. It was a job of negligent engineering by arrogant men in the city I loved that put me there. Change surges.

And yet, some things stay the same, even a decade later: I still haven’t finished that book, I haven’t stopped my nail-biting, I can’t stop saying excuse me to an empty room after I sneeze, and I’m still too intimately familiar with feelings of self-loathing. On considering such a list, one realizes maybe change, discomfiting as it is, is the appropriate and preferred way of things. Some things that should change, don’t. America still hasn’t figured out how to take care of itself, and neither have I.

I’ve been in Provincetown a week now and finally the sun has hit my face and heart. However, Houston, the town that received so many of us so well a decade ago, lies hurt and shocked, grinding back to life after Harvey on a steady diet of black mold and cheap burritos. Puerto Rico is out of medicine and running out of hope, as the rest of us back on the mainland try to decide if they really are Americans, and what we owe them. Spoiler alert: everything.

After a last skinny-dip in the quickly cooling autumn Atlantic surf, I climb a dune and lie facing the sun, accepting a summer’s last whisper. Sometime later I pull on sandy shorts and start the long walk to Race Point and my car. It is time to go home to New Orleans, where I’ve got a café and theater to open before summer makes it back again. I roll through the Provincelands and hang left at the highway. U.S. 6 runs from here to Long Beach, longest road in the country, and part of me thinks you fool, make a dash for the golden land, where you’ll never need your shirt, but I’m much more comfortable in a hurricane situation than an earthquake one; besides, I have business in New Orleans, and I need to go back. I always need to go back.