Ghosts of Charleston

First month in Charleston; first oyster roast on Sullivan's Island.

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?

Social on East Bay. A must-eat in Chucktown.

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.

Jenny and Matt (my bro), being serious. A moment caught in time ...

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?

Rejoicing in the present.

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.

2 thoughts on “Ghosts of Charleston

  1. hi sara,

    at nineteen i set out to live my own adventure in London, England. I just got out of school, and i was able to do nothing.
    And as it was, London became the epitome of all my failures and successes.
    I got there knowing nothing, not knowing if i could relate to other people cause i always felt so out of place. Through mistakes and worries i have learnt a lot, laughed a lot, cried a lot and i still do whenever i go there. As it is for you, i too take ghosts rides through the city: this was where i met an australian girl who really was mad as an hatter, there was when i took a stroll with pink floyd in my ears, and the rain falling on me (and i never felt better) and there was when my mum told me a friend from school died….and life never went back to be the same again.
    i just came back from one of my recurrent ghost tours, but now time gone by doesn’t seem to help me heal. I came back in tears. i surely came back wiser, but with a sense of loss from which i never recovered….i never reallly came back. London and its past still haunt me and fascinates me. But the thought of cutting ties with my past and just enjoy a wonderful city is like forgetting the best part of me, the one that just went hand in hand with life and learnt a lot cause of it.
    Maybe mistakes, yours and mine are just necessary, even when they promise to carry such an emotional burden with them. But still i think my balance is a positive one….Don’t you?
    love from italy

    • I would never trade my Charleston mistakes–not for anything. My mistakes made me who I am now.

      Thank you for sharing your own ghost tour of London with me. I’m very excited to feel Charleston again–smell its smells, taste its food, see its people. I can’t separate the city from my memories of it, but I agree with you: it’s a good thing. I’m the wiser and the happier for what happened back in SC. I’m looking forward to my trip very much, especially since I now understand why I carry a certain unease about it. I’ve accepted that, so I hope to be able to move past it somewhat.

      Thanks for getting in touch! Love back to you … in another country that carries many strange memories for me … My uncle who passed away took me to Italy over a summer years ago, so it will always remind me of him!

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