It’s ironic that on June 6th, for my 29th birthday, I received two albums: Sara Bareilles (Kaleidoscope) and Punch Brothers (Antifogmatic). It’s ironic, because listening to earlier albums by these artists got me through Charleston, South Carolina, alive. And now, for the first time since I left, I’m going back next week.
Charleston, South Carolina, is admittedly the most beautiful place on earth. I fell in love with it immediately, as soon as I moved there—literally within four hours. I always loved and will always love the city itself. Phoenix took a while to grow on me. There was smog and traffic, and from our house, it took an hour to get anywhere good. I used to cry over my lost memories of Charleston; now, I can’t imagine living anywhere but Phoenix. Now, Phoenix is my home.
For the first time since leaving Charleston in February of 2010, Jake and I are going back Monday morning. I should feel nothing but excitement, and yet, I’m uneasy. Charleston feels haunted to me now—memories, hazy, as if in a dream. Did I really live there? I can barely believe the things that happened to me there; did they really happen at all?
I have evidence that I lived there. I have wonderful friends who plan to meet me on East Bay at Social Wine Bar on Tuesday. I have the Frommer’s Charleston Travel Guide with a bunch of hand-written notes inside, based on my personal opinions. I have Jake, and if I never lived in Charleston, where did I meet Jake?
Like a soldier returned from battle, maybe I’ve blocked a lot of it out. I’ve hidden my memories of Charleston behind a mental filter to avoid looking them head-on.
I don’t hesitate to admit, the year and eight months I spent in Charleston were the most important years of my life. I had my first career job, and I learned I never want a “career job” again. I had my first serious heartbreak and then, I met my future husband. I realized I was capable of moving to a city I’d never seen and building a group of friends I was lucky to have. I realized I was brave.
Yet, like the carriage tours that so popularly circle Market Street, down to the Battery, and back, I feel as though I could walk down the streets of Charleston and give a tour of my own …
“King Street was where Sara celebrated her twenty-sixth birthday but jokingly told everyone she was turning twenty-one. On East Bay, outside this bar, she sobbed when she realized her uncle was dead and her family would never be the same again. Next to Shem Creek, she decided she would quit her job before depression ruined her life …”
Maybe it’s less an historical tour of my life and more a ghost tour—ghosts of ex-boyfriends, failed opportunities, and a version of myself I no longer mourn.
Who was I in Charleston? That girl was mad as a hatter. She dated the wrong people, went out every night, and drove drunk. She didn’t sleep much, and she was unhappy, unhappy, despite all her denials and cheerful veneers. She loved the city (how could she not?), but she did not love herself.
In Phoenix—with Jake’s help—at the wise old age of twenty-nine, I have figured it out. No, I’m not happy all the time. I still like to go out and party it up, but it doesn’t feel desperate anymore. I’m not desperate. I’m not empty, trying to fill my life with bad men, beach parties, and a job that almost tore me apart. I’m different now, so does that mean Charleston will feel different, too?
Not long before I left Charleston, I did a photo shoot on Sullivan’s Island. I wore minimal costuming, no makeup, and had to battle a bunch of balloons, knee-deep in surf while avoiding jellyfish. The photographer said the balloons represented a woman letting go of her dreams. I look sad in most of the photos from that shoot, except for one. In one of them, I appear to be rejoicing. I think I realized it wasn’t about letting go of dreams. It was about letting go of the past.
I still struggle with letting go of my ghosts. It’s not easy, and I am often haunted. Maybe that’s why I’m uneasy about going back to Charleston. I’m afraid the ghosts will be waiting at my old haunts. When I walk into Pearlz for oysters, will I catch a glimpse of the woman I once was? Or will it be okay, because now, Jake is here, and he has a way of exorcising my demons?
I’m leaving you now for two weeks. Don’t worry about me too much. I will have ocean water between my toes soon, and salty, warm waves have a way of keeping ghosts at bay.