We are back on the street, our bellies full, our minds temporarily satiated; although we are lost in our own worlds, ensnared in a web of our own thoughts. We walk silently, me, myself, and the beautiful young woman who refuses to leave our side. I am glad for her company, if only because she matches us. Broken and battered, her viewing lens similar to ours. I cannot say how uncomfortable and unwelcome it is to be constantly surrounded by a presence who makes me feel more lonely, more cold, than if I were by myself. A dark cave would be warmer than someone who is just too far away. Ah! What am I saying now? I am getting lost.
It is easy to get lost, in words and thoughts that swirl around, waiting to ensnare me on an infuriating piece of string that I spend too much time trying to unravel when in the end I just throw it away, the knot entangling my feet and catching a ride in between my shoelaces. At least, that is how one particular thought is, and the thought comes as we pass a crying child being reprimanded by an aggrieved mother. “I can’t take you anywhere.” The words strike a chord, and the familiar song echoes, echoes, echoes. It hurts. It hurts. I put my hands to my ears, shutting the words, shutting the music, shutting the world, out.
Come here, little monster The devil smiles with Pride Don't you dare run and hide Come see, little monster What you have done. Broken glass from Shattered windows Black fumes from Burning towers Each touch a masterful Stroke Bringing forests and lakes All the beauty Down In a terrible Wrath With no singular path Oh, little monster How wretched you are Come here, little monster The devils eye twinkles with Greed Don't you run from me with such speed Come here, little monster You belong to me Flowing tears The little monster cries Broken eyes Broken heart The little monster falls apart Their hands were meant to keep The glass from shattering The towers from burning The beauty from falling Down Oh, little monster How wretched you are Even though you are trying To be anything but A little monster
But I remember. I remember it well, and perhaps its a story I shouldn’t tell. It could be too dark, too sad; it could make them shift uncomfortably, awkwardly. Yet it should get out, shouldn’t it? If it doesn’t it will wrap itself around my throat, strangling me so I cannot breathe. I want to breathe. I want to tell the stories. Why did I bring myself here?
The mother and the child go, leaving my sight. I remember. I remember it well. The holidays became difficult once my own mother decided to go, as I’m sure it is for all split families, or for those who do not have a family. I have to divide my time equally, and for one side my time is never good enough. There is always something I’m doing wrong, so it becomes an unpleasant chore, making traveling unpleasant when it shouldn’t be. Not all places have treasure and gold, and like parts of New York can be tainted and soiled, burned black and left with nothing but ash.
Charleston wasn’t like that. It wasn’t a place that was too painful to reckon with, yet it wasn’t a place I was entirely comfortable in, a place I could freely be myself. It didn’t match my style or taste, but I could handle it, find something in the charm that was compelling enough for me. And again, this wasn’t a trip for me- it was a trip to see someone whose relationship I’ll admit has steadily improved over the years, which was a relief because we needed each other to contend with the pressures of a split family, especially the pressures of a woman who tended to be destructive of our mental health. We needed each other’s protection.
Even though Charleston was a southern bell kind of place, I was happy for those who made it their home and who enjoyed the historic aspects, the hipster cafe’s and restaurants in quaint little corners, and the expensive houses with the stunning views of an area predominant in the shrimping business. I was happy for those who I got to spend time with, and inch by inch we got to know each other a little bit more.
“But?” the young woman asks. I flinch. I didn’t realize I was telling her- telling them- another piece of my story, a piece I thought they might not want to know about. Perhaps they were tiring, perhaps I was talking too much. Whatever it was, I had started to retract, withdraw inward like a turtle escaping into its shell. The daylight exposed too much, and the photos of myself became visible for judgement. Of course, my lips move seamlessly, and I can see its the same with my younger self. We talk to ourselves, something that most people believe is odd or unusual when in reality in helps us organize our thoughts, unclog emotions that get stuck and we need words to work them out. I guess I had been talking, and much to my surprise she had been writing.
“But what?” I say cautiously.
“There is usually a but. A puzzlement or discontentment of sorts.”
“What makes you think there is anything of the sort?”
“Because when I talk about family, if I talk about family- a family who used to love me but no longer cares where I am or who I am with- there is usually a level of discontentment, which I can already see.”
I laugh. She is right. I think back to beautiful Charleston, and for the most part I was content, but there were some moments where there was something missing. Perhaps that is the reason my memory comes in spurts, mangled together in a haphazard collage of good and bad, which in turn create gaps of indifference.
“Well, let me tell you about my favorite parts in a place that, unlike most people I am surrounded by, isn’t a place I need to live in or constantly go to over and over again.”
I don’t know exactly what had happened, but it ended up just being me and her, the two of us making the hour drive all the way out to Edisto Island, towards a place nicknamed Boneyard Beach. It was a Boneyard, and the long walk through the grassy swamp land emphasized it. I could only imagine what it would be like at dark, the wide open sky looking down on bleached trees fallen from erosion and other weathering. I was instantly mesmerized, and my imagination flung itself out the door, picking up every little thing and turning it into a dream.
“Quite literally, I picked up every little thing. There were shells everywhere, and my hands drifted to them, seeking comfort in the smooth surfaces, the bumps and grooves, the sharp edges of those that were broken.”
“I do that, too!” the beautiful woman squealed. ” And I don’t even realize it.”
“Same,” my younger self added, not wanting to be left out, possibly even ignored by a version of them. What cruel irony would that be, I think belatedly, for the self-loathing to go so deep that even your future version of yourself would hate you? But I am getting too far ahead of self-deprecating, falling prey to a common mood. ” I pick things up because they feel good, they feel right, and I keep them, afraid to let go and lose something good, something I might not find again. It’s soothing, but people think I’m just collecting random objects.”
I nod, understanding myself because I am the only one who can. So many scattered shells laid on a beach that in hindsight may be trampled by too many feet. After all, how much can one really enjoy a place when it is enjoyed by so many others? Yet the Boneyard was a fabulous place, and we broke the rules by taking what we shouldn’t. Perhaps I took the shell because I needed it, or perhaps it was done out of spite; I would have something perfect that the Narcissitic Orator would not have, something that was mine and she could not take.
I can’t remember where we went from there except for the long drive back. At some point we had stopped at a stand, a small food market on a stretch of road surrounded by tall grass and willowy, knotted oak trees. I can’t remember the name of it- hell, I can’t remember the name of most of the places we ate at; perhaps my indifference to the yuppie and hipster places made it not worth remembering or perhaps it’s not the name that is important but the way it makes me feel. For instance, I can remember the close confines of a coffee shop trapping me against the wooden tables stacked on top of one another. I can remember the orange glow of a mostly eco-friendly, vegetarian restaurant out on the corner where a warm breeze melted my hair and the taste of cauliflower wings relaxed my body. I can remember the sound of live music singing a lullaby as we sit at a long table in a garden-like area, the flowers and trees giving a pleasant aura. I can remember what it all looks like, but not the names. Perhaps, too, if I give away the name, I give away a secret, leading the birds to the French fries, overcrowding in places that didn’t need to be overcrowded.
The drive was nice, the music blaring gently over sensitive ears prone to getting overwhelmed( most people do not understand, and I take it upon myself to try to remember headphones so any sudden noise doesn’t make it seem like my head is going to explode). I look around Charleston, the city everyone seems to know so much about: there was the local college, prestigious with its giant lawn a show-stopper of copious hanging trees and historical landmarks; there were the beaches spread across several islands dedicated to the modest and affordable and the indulgent and ostentatious; there was a giant park down by the waterfront and navigable streets with some cobblestone paths weaving through affordable homes and questionable subdivisions. It had everything that anyone could possibly want, with modest weather to boot.
Everything one could want, but I couldn’t help but wonder if it had everything one could need. Funny- the more I travel, the more I wonder which places are safe for someone like me to stay. As we meandered around the park, the city made sure to leave behind a historical trail, including a giant confederate soldier statue. I flinched, unsure of the message it was trying to say. We welcome all who are like-minded and color in between the lines. Anyone who falls outside, be warned. Perhaps I was reading too much into it, but I had a terrible itch, and I recall asking if I would be safe in Charleston, or would I have to pick out a mask and where it around, smiling where I should smiling, acting how everyone should be acting, being someone entirely different than who I was? I walked away from the statue, frowning, yet I still wanted to read more, to learn anything that I could, to decipher whether or not places replicated like this in other parts of the world were places for me.
I didn’t linger too long on that because Charleston’s beauty is quite the distraction. It also hosts Folley Beach, a town that I knew I would like because the beach is where my heart lies. I adore the shacks and cottages in the more down to earth sections, the surf shops with an assorted collection of stickers and shirts, boards and gear and some local artwork. I think it’s become a habit now that I try to pick something up in each new place I go, whether its big like a backpack or small like a bracelet, so I can remember at least one good thing even if the trip goes horribly, horribly wrong. Charleston wasn’t a bad trip, but I did need to be reminded of its charm, of the good things it holds when the rest of it may make me feel out of place.
“Yes, I had the shell. The shell was perfect because no matter where I am, the beach makes me happy. The sand and the water. Two things that don’t need me to change because they themselves do not change, not in a way that isn’t typically who they are( that, I believe, is climate change). Or if they do, it is usually of their own will, shifting back and forth in patterns that make sense until someone does it for them. The moon, the tides, the current- all are supposed to make them shift, all belong to the sand and the sea. The hurricanes and monsoons- those are a result of anger, an anger building from resentment of being forced to change. At least, that’s my working theory.”
“It’s a good working theory. Or perhaps its a dumb one,” my youthful companions says derisively.
“I’m going to choose to ignore that. And careful, your self loathing is showing,” I reply cheekily.
I took a shirt from the surf shop, the only type of shop I genuinely enjoy going into besides a bookshop. The shirt made me feel like myself, and I still wear it any chance I get. We found parking on a side street, stopping along the way before we made it up on the large stretch of land with two piers under construction. I was surprised by how large it was; people were bike riding across the sand with kite surfers in the background. It was a picturesque kind of day; idyllic and charming and displaying once again that its possible to do almost anything in and around Charleston. The constant use of golf carts throughout the streets, however, was a constant reminder that this wasn’t me, this wasn’t where I was supposed to be. It was just another postcard for me to collect, to add to the bucket list of travels or to the checklist of places I could say I’ve been. Yet I was happy for those who it was for, for those who to them this was their home, their place they were supposed to be.
Mirror, mirror Shines against the wall And the skinny kid stands So meek yet tall Where do I go? The kid asks the silver glass Mirror, mirror What can you show? A valley so deep, so wide The other children laugh As they collide Their bodies made the same Small and sleek Limber and quick Too fast to keep up You will fall, fall For the lion to take you And drag you And leave you Where they won't find you Or a cave so tall, so flat The other children sit Their backs against a wall Grey and blue and chipping Away through cracks Too small to climb through Except for you The only one amongst them All You will leave, leave Too curious to stay The darkness more inviting Than those who stay silent As stones And those who won't follow you Mirror, mirror The glass slides down the wall And the skinny kid gasps Begging it not to break Until it shows One place a skinny kid Can be Where the heart is full Instead of empty Warm instead of Cold Found instead of Lost Mirror, mirror Stay on the wall Show me a place Where if I fall If I run There will always be hands Waiting to hold me.
It wasn’t a crazy eventful trip the both times I went and visited. Of course, I was busy with one of two things: surviving turbulence or blending in. The only two times I was at ease with myself was up on Folley Beach, although each time we went the weather was blowing a gust storm, making it difficult to stay longer than five minutes. The second time, however, it was warmer despite the cruel breeze slapping our faces, and I lost myself in dreams while the conversation drifted to things I didn’t want to be apart of.
“Yeah, yeah I know. I should be an active listening, but there are some things too painful to listen too.”
“Like when the person you love calls you an ungrateful bitch because you forgot to clean up the mud room?” the young woman we picked up on a journeys finally blurted a truth about herself. There was a story, there is always a story of some kind- big or small, subtle or blatant- and it should be worth listening to if the words are strung together. But she says no more, and I do not push, which may be considered self-centered, but I continue at a slower pace, waiting for her to interject.
“Yes. That is terrible hard. As well as stories about good times in an community you used to be a part of, but it grew toxic. Having to hear about a life you’ve left behind isn’t helpful in the slightest.”
“No,” she agrees with a sad smile. ” It isn’t.” I know she is thinking about whoever it is she left. I want to reach out a hand, and I know I’m much better at it then my other self, but I can’t do it. It would be too strange.
The other time was when I borrowed a bike and cruised along the streets, sometimes following another as I took my luggage to sleep at a quieter place with less snoring, less baby cries, but usually just by myself. I tried to follow the incredibly vague directions- “Just go north”, “Which way is north from here?”, ” Uh, wait, I think if you go right, then right again, then left, then down a single lane somewhere that way”, “If I hit the ocean I’ve gone too far?” “Yes, you’ve gone too far. It’s somewhere in the middle.” “The middle of what?” “Call me if you find it. Just make sure you follow the street names to get back. Or, just call me.”- but of course I free rolled, wandering through sheer instinct and curiosity. After weaving this way and that, staying closer to the right away from the crowded downtown area and marking the end of the university, I did find what I was looking for. Even better, I did not get lost on the way back.
“Perhaps in order to find something, sometimes you need to get lost. Or at least not be purposely looking for it.”
“Quite the philosopher, aren’t you?” I jibe at myself, who I knew wasn’t incredibly well-versed in jokes yet and would get better, but it would still prove to be difficult. Some things cannot change no matter how much people will it too.
I don’t know how many laps I did around that pond, passing dog walkers and joggers and the occasional roller skater- still can’t believe that had made a comeback- but I felt like a child again, an unscathed child who lived in bliss without and troubles or fears or mental tribulations and struggles. Just simple innocence in counting the clouds as they float by or feeling the warm breath of the wind tickle my cheeks. Of course, I daydreamed new stories and ideas, getting excited when I figured out a concept to add and feeling confident that it could be good. Not yet did I deceive myself nor have discouragement wash over me. In that moment I was serenely happy, and I realized whenever I bike around I find that serenity. It should be so obvious as I’ve been riding for years, yet I never really thought about it, so natural it was, and when I did, the realization hit me like a brick.
“If you like something and it gives you a good feeling, don’t ever stop doing it. In fact, keep doing it; when you find yourself falling apart, go do that thing that gives you that special feeling, that calm or serenity. Of course, it’s not magic and won’t fix everything- additional support in the form of medication or therapy are definitely recommended depending on the severity of your internal house collapsing- but it can help you remember at least a bit, remember what you have and are capable of having again. It can help you get out of a tiny, boxed in room and away from the buzzing voices taking you this way and that.” The door opens, and two fairly large people enter, wearing impatient expressions revealing they are used to getting their way and in a timely manner. “We want that booth,” the curmudgeonly old man points towards us. “They are done. Why can’t we have that one?”
“I think its time to go,” my younger self begins to leave.
“I think the hell not,” my confident stance is not one they are accustomed to having, and they will struggle to figure it out, receiving some push back. For in Charleston, during a nice lunch at a laid back kind of place with a woodsy, if not artsy, patio seating I would once again be accused of being a manipulator even though I did not know all. All because I made a slight confrontation over something I was not happy about. Is that manipulation? It still befuddles me to this day, and perhaps I should scratch this part out. How much space is left on the postcard anyway?
That part of the story I still find it hard to dig my claws into. The relationships I had or have- if I unbury them too much or too quickly, what will that do? I still have nightmares sometimes of ugly things- ugly places and ugly people with a common theme: Why are you leaving? Why can’t I find you? Why am I lost and alone? I still wake up sweating for no reason, and flinching at the harshest of noises. The thing I gathered in Charleston was I could bury the ugly just by looking at the pretty and forget what lies underneath.
Almost every inch is pretty, as long as people know which lanes to stay in. I stayed at a place on the edge when I couldn’t stay in the middle, an edge which didn’t pretend to hide the ugly boiling underneath. Most places have an area like this, and perhaps this area may someday go through gentrification or perhaps it would stay, a murky puddle for others to walk around.
During a trip through the shopping district, there was of course a market. I say of course because once again I pick up a piece of artwork, an image of Rainbow Row, which is exactly as the name describes- a row of houses each a different color of the rainbow that line the street of historic downtown Charleston. It was quite the sight, something that could make every walker stop and pause for a moment and quite literally look at the bright side. The houses were cute, and I couldn’t help but wonder what went on inside or even outside. Did they, too, have a lemon tree growing out back? Did they too share their garbage cans with friendly neighbors who sometimes spent their afternoons on their porch smoking on aging rocking swings? Did they too have short and big squabbles with family members who made it difficult to hang onto their sanity? Or, with my embellishment and exaggeration running rampant, did they have a secret gambling ring going on behind those pink doors? The thing about Charleston was their were a lot of people to watch, meaning their were a lot of opportunities to create outlandish stories about the lives they lead. There was the lady with the mink coat who we passed as we tried to cram ourselves into a tight little bar before settling into a hotel restaurant. I liked to think that perhaps she was recently divorced or widowed and was looking to spend her deadbeat husbands money as quick as possible while searching for a younger man to pick up on. Things like those kept me entertained as I had to go into crowded places, sometimes with people I didn’t know that well.
I’ll admit I didn’t pay as much attention as I should have, and perhaps that was due to a lack of interest in visiting a southern city. I went through the motions, going where I was supposed to be going, trying things I was supposed to be trying- some of it good, some of it met with indifference, and being happy when I was supposed to be happy. For the most part, I was, with the exception of those small moments where my mind was being lashed and whipped by unkind words. I discovered to my surprise I love cauliflower wings, I discovered some low-key, chill neighborhoods not terribly expensive- some with a story, such as the former orphanage turned school turned house and the former bridge that used to connect one side of the island to the other but became disconnected either due to wanting to stop too many travelers or a storm destroyed it or some other forgotten reason- and I discovered there is always a beach of sorts to run and hide and blend in, with a local meat market selling delicious sandwiches and ice cream and all the things one could possibly need.
“It was and idyllic and genteel sort of place, but I’m afraid it may be one where I needed to carefully walk the line. If I was different in any way, I’m not sure how that would fare. Yes, its a bit ostentatious and glamorous, with golf carts all over the place and so many cars sporting the University of North Carolina and University of Virginia flags indicating its a place for well to do yuppies and young, affluent dreamers, but I remind myself not to be a reverse snob. Its not my cup of tea, but it is for others, and sometimes it is nice to see how that side likes to live.”
“Because you don’t get the full picture if you don’t. And who knows, maybe there are different types of struggles going on behind well polished front doors that are not actually so well polished. And maybe its nice to wonder what you’d be like if you where living that kin of life in a nice, pretty city. How would things be different? Would things be better? Who would be in your life instead? What would you be doing everyday? Getting coffee and sitting outside enjoying the nice day? Seeking shelter after a storm warning alerts you to incoming gales that could rip apart the roof? Would you have a nice job, a nice boyfriend? So many things to imagine…”
“And then so many things to lament on and wish for, making you blind to what’s already in front of you, and instead of following it, you spend too much time pushing aside bushes and plants and rocks and twigs that don’t need to be pushed aside.”
“Exactly,” I wink at myself, seeing them pick up on the message. ” So perhaps, after all this time, this is a waste a time. Perhaps I shouldn’t have yanked you out of time and influenced your head with all these stories. But it is too late to go back. You’ll have to decide whether or not you will go to all these places. I can tell you, though, it is worth it, even if it doesn’t seem like it at the time.”
I can advertise this or that, draw attention to businesses that have plenty of business or don’t need anymore, or advise on which heavily crowded districts and markets to avoid or which to immense into the experience. I think its better not knowing and stumbling on my own or with others beautiful parks where ducks go aggressively at it, trying to drown one another, restaurants that I didn’t think were worth it but were tucked on beautiful corners draped by those wispy trees that move like ghosts, telling a story about a rich and vivid history too sordid to tell or too superficial to get to the heart of it. It’s better to just learn, even if everybody else already knows because its not everybody else’s journey.
A strange night The ground covered In blue and red Green and purple A bottle of ink Spilled between the cracks And the writer groaned As their dreams float In blue and red Green and purple A swirl of colors In this strange night A strange night Where the birds and cats Are covered in Yellow and orange Pink and brown A bottle of ink Spilled on listless ears And wings That now seem to Sing and fly The writer's dreams Now their own And they paint the earth The trees, the flowers The shutters of plain houses In blue and red Purple and green Yellow and orange A swirl of colors Dancing beautifully In this strange night
My lips move softly as I sing the last words of a song that I made up, spurred on by a long lost challenge that sparked life in a dying mind, a mind constantly inflicted by waves of pain. There were moments, small and few but nonetheless nagging, where I wondered if someone like me could ever be loved, especially as a monster that I’ve once convinced myself that I am. The longer I am with my younger self, the more I am effused with twisted thoughts and beliefs I could have sworn were locked in a chest and stored in a forgotten basement. I think on Charleston and the painted picture we all took part of, the colors hiding the grey, the cracks, the damage at the edge. I think on Charleston and wonder if it is me that skews the picture, and if I could just fix me, then I wouldn’t have to blend and would fit nicely, normally, and enjoy the lifestyle I should be enjoying. I think on Charleston and remember there is nothing to fix, only pictures and places to look at and wonder if they are worth keeping to grow from or need to be put back because there is nothing there worth keeping. I think on Charleston and remember how far each of us as a family as come, some in good ways and some in bad ways, and the changes- again some good, some bad- made along the way.
Sometimes visiting places are part of the journey that leads to an unexpected destination.
I smile wryly at my companions. For a moment, a split second that interfered as much as a hurricane interferes, I thought about leaving them, stranding them in the middle of this café, this shop, this shack, whatever it is we stumbled into as a distraction, and withdrawing back into isolation, a part of my damaged self, a bad habit, I thought I have long since shrugged off. Some things come back and tempt me to revert, and its is so easy to slide into something that was so comfortable for so long even though it made me miserable. Misery loves company, and company loves misery if its the only thing it has known for so long.
No, I will not leave them. This was my idea, anyway. Hopefully, they will not see this part of the postcard because one will be furious and the other sad, two opposite reactions to the exact same thing: pain. I shift in my seat and ask: “So, anyone want to find a really good bookstore? The more obscure the better, and no cheating with technology!”
“That’s not fair! I’m not even from this time of the century!”
“What is your definition of ‘find’?” the beautiful woman with the broken smile grins. ” Because I saw an empty lot full of debris, and I bet we could ‘find’ something there.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” my younger self is flabbergasted, then slowly grabs the gist of the game. ” Oh hell yes, lets go!”
I pay the bill, with the young woman graciously leaving a tip, and we float out the door, each of us humming our own song, some of which were borrowed from a part of our lives. Mine came from Charleston.