I never really knew you until I came to the College of Charleston in 2004, from my private Christian boarding school in Columbia. I was a day student there, a scholarship kid who lived in the Bible College trailer park just down the road with her missionary-bound-turned-tragically-divorced-parents.
Once they split, my mother said college was “all on me,” and my father, incarcerated for stalking my mother, left an earlier night. When I rescued my brother’s throat from his hands, locked us kids in my room, my mother calling the police, who arrived only to let my father leave sans cuffs, stay at Hampton Inn. I would never see him again after my high school graduation. Even then, it was from the stage, in a crowd, and too close.
You caught me after all this, a firefighter’s life net. The Honors College gifting me a full ride, opening the damp doors to Berry Dorm, welcoming me to neon painted walls, and hospital-like floors. I slept, safely. Your sidewalks were more uneven back then, or perhaps I was drunker on them, but the gas lights at the Cistern flickered happily on walks home from Bull Street Gourmet, where they sold 2 for $10 wine specials and hardly checked ID’s. You were lush with flora I’d never seen, gingko trees, magnolias abound, the air, wet with fruit. I imagined you as a land where dinosaurs once slid into the sea, tropical and Triassic.
You gave me places to hide in public, watch how people lived outside of my church-centric childhood fishbowl. How Ron and Nancy bickered at the counter of their coffee shop, Clara’s, while serving me the best tuna sandwich with dill havarti and a perfectly gooey snickerdoodle. And it was okay, funny even. You gave me a family at the Jewish Studies Center, where they didn’t care that I wasn’t Jewish, well-dressed, or straight, introduced me to the idea of no afterlife or heaven besides golden crispy latkes with a dash of applesauce and sour cream.
Nights at Banana Joe’s, 40-something year old men danced up on college girls without introduction, tired of talking, prowling on their scent like an animal, our primal instincts. You were not holy, Charleston, despite your nickname. Yet it was more pure than anything else, those days. You were dirtier, smaller, with the rotten buildings above Calhoun overshadowing the new ones in the most beautiful, haunted way. And I fell for you. Fell from a 3rd story roof on Reid Street, to the second story. Fell out of touch with my homophobic family, fell into friendships, fell hard for lovers, fell short of expectations. Fell out of the cracks.
Much later, I felt darker sides of you. Like Mother Emanuel, a church I passed on my night bike rides home from the frame shop where I work part-time. The glow of its street level basement, doors open, always thinking to myself, “I bet that church is nothing like what I’ve known.” And it wasn’t. It was forgiveness, it was love, and we both felt it pour over our heads. We’ve mourned strangers together, and mentors, struck manatees, the fallen live oaks, our freedoms.
I used to believe that when I grew up I’d be “comfortable”with a stable career, and my morals in order. But here I am, 31 and a part-time artist, part-time everything else, with doubt like marbles crammed in my mouth. What is my purpose? I’m older, but not better. Have we both become more twisted with age? Like my pigeon-toes, just turning in worse. A dozen years with you, and now I feel less safe. As an woman, as an artist, as a married lesbian holding hands with my wife, while men yell in our faces “Faggots!” in front of Basil, and police laugh along. Walking in front of Post & Courier getting cat calls from a suburban of shaved heads, remaining silent only to have cigarette cartons and beer cans thrown at us.
It’s true, I haven’t always been kind to you, Charleston. That night after Call-A-Cabs at Wet Willy’s, when I overturned all the trash cans on upper Market Street, clawing up light poles, angry. I curse you every time it floods, when there’s no parking on my Westside street where I’ve lived for 9 years because of Wednesday night service at Salem Baptist across the street. My father, his mother, and even me from ages 7-12 attended Salem Congregational in Connecticut, his hometown. What coincidence? Or synchronicity? I haven’t decided. But I know we were meant to be, Charleston.
And now, we’re ending. You nurtured me, caught me a cradle that the rest of the world wants at any price. Who am I to tug at the past? Keep bringing up how it used to be, back when Upper Deck was open, when we played midnight capture-the-flag at White Point Gardens, lay in the middle of Radcliffe Street playing mandolin till sunrise. For these bursts of memory, electric life, I will always love you. You are the mother to my art, my writing, my life after.
The older I get, the less room in my mind, no space for grimy, heavy files. Only the ones that radiate, absorbing sun like my black hair, pluff mud wafting in each nostril, the sound of wind rushing through the marsh grass. This will be yours.