"I don't know that I want to be written about anymore," my boyfriend said.
Jake let out a long breath. He stood in the new bedroom doorway we had busted out when rebuilding our Mid-City camelback after the flood. Buster draped himself across the floor like a rug of a basset hound, panting. It was hot with no rain. Not New Orleans hot. Street buckling hot. 104 degrees in City Park, ducks hiding hot. The week had been weird — a bartender had lassoed an alligator in Bayou St. John with a dog leash. Then someone found an old man bobbing in the water. Across the street from our mechanic, he floated. Last year, in the same spot, on a walk we found a lost swamp bird with a broken wing.
I had just read a review of Plenty Enough Suck to Go Around aloud to Jake, a reluctant character in my memoir of three bizarre years rebuilding our flooded life in New Orleans.
"Wagner's hipster sense of humor keeps the operatics to a minimum, especially in her unflinching look at how post-traumatic stress disorder took its toll on boyfriend Jake," I read. "Hipster sense of humor? Them's fighting words. Right?"
Jake had shrugged. "Maybe."
"And why shouldn't there be operatics?" I pressed. "Not that there were any, but still. If New Orleans isn't entitled to a few operatics after all that, what is?"
"Yeah, well. At least it's not Cheryl's PTSD. It's Jake's PTSD," Jake pointed out.
"Yeah, that sucks," I agreed.
Jake and many laidback Nola others had graciously agreed to use their real names in my book. When the fateful day came, I gave out "Hello I'm Page Number ____" nametags for my book party in New Orleans. An artist friend joked that it was like a support group meeting for victims of my character appropriations. I felt bad if Jake's (or anyone's) generosity was now biting him in the ass. I get that this is the land of Glamour Shots and Facebook Hot or Not. Who likes to be accurately described?
"I didn't say your PTSD. She said your PTSD. I talked about both and all of our maybe PTSDs," I said.
Jake's a private person. He's the kind of guy you could know for years and get a vague positive feeling from but know few specifics about. But when the mood strikes, he might suddenly tell a stranger a very Meatballs story about summer camps and divorce and 1980s Florida. After reading the book, a lot of people in New Orleans were suddenly feeling free and easy with both of us.
A man from Old Metairie emailed to tell me about the worms in his garden after reading about the worms in my garden in The New York Times Magazine. A barista girl Uptown emailed to say her cat had puked on the copy of Plenty Enough Suck to Go Around I had signed at a bookstore for her boyfriend. Would I, for a free iced coffee, stop by her cafe to sign another one? Crazily, actually, I would. And did. But how did this stranger girl know that? Oh yeah, the book!
But while I'm racking up urban Farmer's Almanac updates and free iced coffee, Jake's getting a creepy feeling. People look at Jake now and think out loud. Last week Jake went to see a band and a guy there opined, "That whole book was like a love letter to Jake." His wife agreed. "Hey," the guy continued. "What's Cheryl's Amazon number?"
Not up on my sales numbers, Jake shook off the queasy public love letter notion and sat down next to the guitarist's wife and introduced himself.
"I was just reading about you," she said. "My dog recently died, so when I read about your dog I said to myself, that dog better not die!"
Earlier this month, a guy Jake has barely known for years suddenly smiled at him warmly over coffee. "I can't get over how well I feel I know you now," the guy said. Another day Jake told a coworker about his grandfather in Georgia. She cut him off mid-sentence. "Oh, you mean Pop?"
Perfect strangers knowing his business was one thing Jake had agreed to for the cause of an accurate and local account of post-flood life. But people he would have to bump into over beer in New Orleans for the rest of his life? That he hadn't considered.
For the record, I don't love my own characterization in the book. At various points, I was 100 times more bitchy or awesome than I was able to fully portray. One day Jake and I played Who-Sucks-Worse-in-Plenty-Enough-Suck-to-Go-Around. The grand tally was not pretty. Jake and gun. Cheryl and gun. Cheryl being a baby. Jake being a hothead. Cheryl yelling at strangers. Jake telling Cheryl to quit it. Mom telling everyone to calm down, this too shall pass. Oh well.