By Megan Miles
They told me the gumbo in Louisiana was to die for, and I don’t think they realized how literal the “die” part would almost be. See, when you grow up in the middle of Kansas, you don’t realize shellfish allergies are a thing. We don’t eat shellfish. The closest thing we get to seafood is the catfish we fish out of our local ponds.
I don’t really remember what happened at that New Orleans Cajun food joint. One minute my friends and I were sitting in a room full of chatter and tantalizing smells, and the waitress had just lowered steaming bowls of gumbo in front of us. The next minute I was lying on the floor barely able to feel my face. I don’t think the layer of sweat was from the Louisiana humidity either. After that, it was all blurry faces. In my daze, I was more concerned about looking ridiculous in front of the pretty waitress than the fact I was being carted out on a gurney.
I sat, disappointed, in my hospital room. This definitely wasn’t the spring break trip my college pals and I had hoped for. We were supposed to live up the Cajun party scene. Enjoying the eats, seeing the sights, maybe meeting some Southern girls, but here I was hooked up to various machines and IV bags to keep me from going into anaphylactic shock again.
I let out a yawn as I flipped channels on the TV hanging from the ceiling. It looked like it belonged back in the nineties with its boxy design and standard definition, but at least it matched the rest of the hospital room decor. I regretted insisting my friends go live their spring break to the fullest even if I couldn’t.
I glanced toward the door, expecting the nurse had come to change my IV bag. When my gaze landed on the petite brown-haired girl, I startled upright.
“Um, come in.” I ran a hand over my hair in a lame attempt to tame it. “You’re from the gumbo place.”
She chewed on her lip as she inched closer to my bed. “Yeah, I was the waitress that served you the gumbo that landed you here. I feel really bad about what happened.”
I recognized the southern drawl that had first attracted me to her at the restaurant.
“It wasn’t your fault. Turns out I’m allergic to shellfish.” I glanced at the plastic bag full of to-go boxes in her hands.
“That’s what the paramedic said he suspected when they hauled you out.” She followed my gaze as if just now remembering she held the bag. “Oh, this is for y’all. Your friends paid for the food but rushed out without eating much. So I packed up fresh gumbo for them, and I included fried chicken for you. You know, so hopefully, you’ll see not all of our food is trying to kill you.”
“Thanks. You didn’t have to do that.”
A flattering pink tint rose into her cheeks. “All of us at the restaurant also wanted to make sure you were okay. We’ve never had a person have that kind of reaction to our food. We’ve seen plenty of people rush to the bathroom because the spice moved quicker than expected, but not pass out with a swollen face.”
“Definitely not my finest moment.” I chuckled.
When she giggled with me, the awkward tension dissipated from the room, and her shoulders relaxed.
“Well, they said I’m going to be fine, and I really appreciate the food.” I held my hand out to take the bag. “I’ll share it with my friends whenever I see them again.”
“I thought they’d be here with you.”
“Once they saw I was fine, I insisted they go out and enjoy their spring break. No sense in staying here. Wish I could go with them, but I guess my vacation will have to wait a night.”
“Is this your first time in New Orleans?”
I rubbed my neck. “Does it show? I never really got far outside of my hometown growing up. I was excited to come experience something different from small-town Kansas. Except my cruddy immune system interrupted that.”
“Did you say you get out of here tomorrow?”
“I have the day off tomorrow.” She shyly tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. “If you’d like, I could show you the real New Orleans sights that you’re missing. The usual spots the tourists flock to are fun, but there are great shops, restaurants, and other cool places tucked away in little corners that you’d never find if you didn’t have a native to show you. And I’ll make sure all the eats I show you don’t end you up back here.”
I raised my eyebrows. “You’d be willing to do that?”
“Sure. I’ve lived here my whole life, and I think it’d be fun to see it with someone who’s new. Kind of like seeing it through new eyes.”
“That sounds great. It’s a date then.” The words slipped out of my mouth before I could think them through.
Instead of shooting down my use of the word “date,” the pretty pink tint returned to her cheeks. “Yeah, a date. I suppose if we’re going to go around together, introductions are in order. My name’s Willow.” She stuck out her hand.
“I’m Jake.” I shook her hand. “I can’t wait for tomorrow.”
As she smiled and I smiled back, I realized maybe people were right about the gumbo being great after all.