Charleston

Part I

I have a row to myself on this rickety 747, a seat just behind the wing.

Wings. Funny, I forget I have feathers sometimes until someone asks about my tattoos. I thought about getting full wings done, but I like having the choice to hide my ink even in the summer. I wouldn’t sacrifice that.

My ears are full of running music, my body is frozen because it hates air conditioned spaces. I see goosebumps on other nearby arms and it reassures me that I am, in fact, not crazy.

 

MuteMath just came on – now if feels like last summer. “Anymore, I don’t know who to blame anymore, I don’t know what to say anymore…” The driving beats and swirled piano sound like driving home early in the morning, fast and alive, free. The beauty of knowing three perfect truths:

The sun is strong.

Everyone else is still asleep.

I am in motion.

The next song is “Dakota” by Stereophonics. Suddenly I’m cold again, remembering winter in Massachusetts, running myself thin. Every sound is a vision so clear that I can almost feel my skin changing temperature, changing color.

Then “Lifeboats,” by Snow Patrol. It’s Johnny, it’s long days training clients at the gym, stealing naps in my car. No one knowing I’m a painter in hiding. A writer who scribbles poetry over a tub of protein powder, who knows a handful of things about turpentine and oil. I remember living off of peanut butter and adrenaline. I remember wondering if I would ever make it from Amy at 6 A.M. until Michelle finished her last rep at 10:30 P.M.

When I heard about the tornado in Springfield, all I could think about was how driving on that exact stretch of I-91 made me feel alive no matter how tired I was. The speed. The motion. Knowing that for twenty minutes, it was nothing but tail lights and pavement.

Speed doesn’t feel as thrilling on the flesh when the windows, smaller than my head, are sealed shut.
 
 

Part II: Manners of Speaking

I woke up exhausted. One brief Skype date had my mind churning – he seemed so close, just on the far side of the bed. He was on the other side of glass and plastic. I could have asked him to brush the floppy faux-hawk from my eyes. I could have blown that eyelash from his cheek.

I’m not sure why that didn’t bother me more.

The window was open; the bells from an unseen tower called out every 30 minutes or so. They’re loud here, like the bells at Saint Andrew’s when Jeremy and I spent summers with our grandparents. They make the city feel more chaste than it really is – not like the kind of city whose fraternity brothers attempt to break my toes and boundaries in the dark. Not like the kind of city whose best stories are kept by rickshaw drivers and bellhops, by baristas and buskers.

This is a city where men in seersucker suits discuss politics and make arrangements. It’s a city where women are ladies and y’all do well to remember it.

Though idyllic, Charleston has many faces, each with many layers. Some have more than others. I keep my eyes open and my footsteps leading away from the pack, hoping to find the familiar in the new. Starbucks makes it too easy.

I have no desire to speak in English, and would much prefer French.

 

Part III: Soft Place to Fall

 
I sip the foam off of my cafe misto and watch the people trail along King Street, which is busy even on a hot Monday afternoon. The strong sun and stronger heat endure even on the rare occasion when one belligerent cloud crosses the sky. I don’t know what rain looks like in Charleston and can only assume it will happen eventually.

 

A mother and her two grown children are sitting nearby, speaking Polish and drinking frappuccinos that drip sticky chocolate onto the mahogany table. The son has sharp features and wiry limbs like my brother. Cue Connecticut nostalgia.

I’ve been listening to a song from the Robert Redford film, “The Horse Whisperer.” It makes me think of the type of life my great-uncle Arnold leads. The type my brother leads. Lessons my father outlined between the generations.

I remember my dad packing Jeremy and I into his little GMC S-10 pickup, cherry red with a red interior and sheepskin seat covers. I loved to pluck the wool out of these and roll the fibers into fuzzy toothpicks with my fingers. I tried to imagine how long it would take to make enough thread for fabric, for clothing, for one of the horse’s serape blankets.

We’d pull into Uncle Arnold’s long driveway and head to the barn, bringing in Ellie and Satin, saddling them up. I remember the fine, greasy grit that stayed on my fingertips after petting Ellie, the sweet smell of it like crackling grass and leather.

I remember being so short that Uncle Arnold’s bandy denim legs seemed enormous. His silver belt buckle could have housed a small turtle and its scrolled designs, I thought, were the most beautiful thing in the world after Ellie.

He wore shirts with western-style pockets and pearled snap buttons. He scared the living shit out of me, but I liked him. When he spoke to me, I stayed quiet and listened. Once in a while, it seemed safe to smile up at him in blinded awe. In my eyes, Uncle Arnold was a real, live cowboy. I didn’t know anything about stereotypes other than the fact that there were two types of people in the world – ones who rode English saddles and ones (infinitely cooler) who rode Western.

There was always music in the picture.

Loud, joyful, country music in the basement when dad was building something fantastic. Soft music in Uncle Arnold’s barn, old-time acoustic cowboy ballads to soothe the horses. Music in my dad’s truck. “A Soft Place to Fall” was eventually in that memory playlist, and now it makes me miss dust and denim and hard-handed men, being seen and not heard, but feeling loved all the same. Being a young’un.

Most of all, having a soft place to fall. My memories feel much more honest than my office. I love them both, but it’s important to remember who I am under all of the clips, the photos, the paintings, the piano recitals, the shit I won’t list because it makes me sound pompous.

At the end of the day, I don’t want to be anything but the dust-covered girl in Frye boots who smells like sweet grass and fresh air. That’s all.

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