We were never going to leave. That was the promise we made to each other while we sipped homemade rum cocktails that made us wince and locked fingers in an uncomfortable embrace that was meant to signal some sort of unspoken seal of importance for the moment. The day was still hot and we were drunk. We both watched as a heron pecked around in the marsh across the sound and tried to not talk over each other.
The marshes had always been the one image—the one place—that Leah and I both clung to. For her, they were the memories of her grandparent’s home in Murrell’s Inlet, South Carolina, and the damp, salt-filled scents of a buried horizon. For me, they were vacations in cheap motels and the drive over the tidewater bridges of coastal Georgia, where I would watch old men haul rusted-out crabbing cages on their backs in the reddened light of the late-afternoon sun. For both of us, they were our childhood wrapped up into one single nostalgia-filled image.
We continued to watch that heron until it gave up on the fish and flapped its way out over the marshes that separated Daufuskie Island from the rest of the world. Ice now rattled in our plastic cups as I arched my toes down beneath the hot, loose sand and buried them into the coldness of wet dirt left behind by the early morning tide. Leah raised her wrist and held her ring out in the sun, and we drunkenly made plans for how we could forge a life for ourselves on this forgotten little island on the southern tip of South Carolina.
Our conversation slipped into the steadied silence of a waning tide that still slapped against the seawall. An abandoned rope disappeared into the muddied banks on the far end of the bend. And we just sat there, bleary-eyed, and watched as the water collapsed over it and in-and-out of the reeds.
I had taken a job teaching middle school, and Leah was set to start law school in a month. And yet at that moment, with our watered-down cups of rum, we both wondered if that life was the one that we wanted, or if was just the one that we’d worked for. Law school had never been a life-long dream for Leah, but it was the goal that she’d set out for herself, and we both wanted to live off of the dream of that law school afforded.
We had told ourselves that it didn’t really matter. Law school was only three years. I would teach and she’d go to class. We’d have the freedom to live the life we wanted to live after she finished, but as the lapping sound of water drummed against that seawall beneath us, the carefully articulated plans of the past felt like fleeting and unstable things.
That afternoon, we walked the dirt streets of the island. Wandering past the exterior walls of old plantations, Leah traced her fingers up-and-down the decaying brickwork before having to give way to wisteria that had the same intention. We interrupted a game of chase played by a group of children, and they all stopped and turned towards us as we walked past them.
An old oysterman, who’d agreed to give us a proper tour of the island, was waiting for us near the ferry station. There were sprigs of white in the old man’s beard and hair and a deep-set pair of crow’s feet that ran past his temples. His whitened hair stood in stark contrast to his almost pitch-black skin that had no doubt been darkened by years spent in the sun. His smile betrayed a youthful exuberance that didn’t match his hardened features.
Leah greeted him with an outstretched hand, “Thanks for doing this. We can’t wait to see the rest of the island.”
The oysterman shook hands with both of us, and in a steadied voice replied, “Happy to do it, ma’am. Been living on the island all my life. Always glad to share it.”
He took us off in his appropriated golf cart that still had the scratched remains of a Daufuskie Island Plantation Golf Club sticker along its side. For the rest of the afternoon we rode up-and-down the weather-beaten roads while he told us about the decline in the oyster business after the industries started to pop up along the Savannah River and soured the oysters. He took us to his favorite bed, situated out in the muck. “It’s a damned shame,” he said. “We had us some sweet ones over here.” We looked out over the marsh and tried to envision what it may have been like.
He rode us past all of the old houses buried deep within the island. Gullah was about the only thing spoken back there. The homes that lined the moss-covered woods told the story of the island. Most properties had at least two homes built alongside one another. Their ages varied, and while there didn’t appear to have been any logic behind their placement on the property, they sat in a way that said they belonged there. Windows were lined with haint blue paint. Porches were screened off and lived on. The giant oaks destroyed several of the patched and sagging roofs, but, with the ladder-back chairs scattered about their roots and the clotheslines attached to their far-reaching limbs, the oaks were as much a part of the property as the homes were.
One woman opened her home to tourists to show off her handmade pottery. Everything was made from the clay on the island and set up on cloth-covered tables placed in a manner that dictated the flow and enjoyment of her work. She sat in her rocker by the door as we browsed the contents of the room that at one time had entertained family members. There was a desk tucked off near a corner of the room that stood apart from everything else. It was filled with images of her family situated alongside a worn prayer card with a picture of a solemn-faced, blue-eyed Jesus and a lamb. It was unstaged and intimate. I tried not to notice it.
She got up from her chair and wrapped the plate that we had chosen and began to tell us about how to wash a plate that wasn’t meant for a dishwasher. I told her that I was getting ready to marry Leah, and when we moved into our first house we were going to set the plate up on our mantle. She smiled and sat back down.
I could tell that this was somehow upsetting to her, but the oysterman told me not to worry about it. “She’s always trying to get folks to eat off of her things,” he said.
The last stop was the Union Baptist Church. It’s white-clapboard exterior shone in the lingering early-evening heat, and the caked pathways led us past the dirt lawn to the foot of the church steps. Generations of people had walked this pathway and stood off in the lawn to talk about God and covered-dish luncheons. This was the heart of the island. The dirt had been pressed hard into the earth. When we made it inside, the church was surprisingly cool. The grooved floors beneath us gave way to my steps as I walked between the rows of pews and looked up to the empty rows of a balcony that had been built for slaves. The church was silent. And for the first time, I wondered if I could ever really belong here.
That was over a decade ago. There were no jobs to speak of on the island, but they had plans for a new little community of cottages near the waterway. They reminded us that it was just a thirty-minute ferry ride to Hilton Head, and that sounded a lot more peaceful than the thirty-minute commute into Atlanta traffic that I had been making. We wanted to stay on the island. To live in cottages obscured by overhanging moss-covered canopies. To get lost in a lifestyle that never really existed.
And yet that Sunday all those years ago, we placed our luggage on the ferry and waited as the other tourists made their way onboard. We set off into the waterway as the unheard sounds of gospel singing rang through the far-off dirt roads and sagging oaks of the island.
We’d been married five years when we decided to go south. We’d heard the stories about Key West. It was the place where people went and disappeared. Hemingway loved it. At the time that sounded like enough of a reason. Leah and I drove all night, and by the next afternoon we were coasting along the bridges that led through the keys while palms raced in-and-out of view. Despite the July heat, we kept our windows rolled down.
Leah read through the food section of the guidebook before deciding on a roadside bar called Calypso’s Seafood Grill. It was said to have great conch fritters and she-crab soup. The Coors Light was cold and we sat out on the porch and just listened to the cars thump across the bridge.
It was the first time since our honeymoon that we had taken a trip for the sole purpose of spending time together, and it was the first time in our marriage where we felt like we needed to. Leah had been growing increasingly dissatisfied with her job, and as we drove through the night, we talked about whether or not we could actually pack up all of our stuff and leave our life behind.
She never saw herself working for a law firm that specialized in litigation, but somehow that was where she ended up. And for the last few years, her days had been spent in a perpetual argument. The daily routine of trying to manage client expectation and fight off older attorneys, who assumed they could treat her like one of their secretaries, had worn on her. She rarely complained, but I saw it in her when she pulled into the driveway each night, long after everyone else had already eaten dinner. She’d smile when she walked in the door, and ask about my day and my classes, but I knew all she really wanted to do was to flop down onto the couch and lose herself in that night’s latest installment of reality television.
I’d begun my dream of going back to school and working towards becoming a professional writer, and she was paying the price for it. We both knew that we couldn’t leave our life behind until I finished school, and that meant that she couldn’t leave the firm.
But for one week, we allowed ourselves to pretend that none of that mattered. Without any responsibility, or any real sense of having anywhere to be, we spent our days wondering the side streets of Key West, drinking rum drinks in dive bars, and talking about what we would do if we just never went back. The conversations took us back to the days spent on Daufuskie when our life together had hardly begun, and it seemed like any future life was still possible. The trip was good for us. It had been too long since we allowed ourselves get day drunk and not have to worry about a damn thing.
We caught glimpses of what a life left behind could look like. There were the bartenders. The tour guides. The street performers. The store clerks. The storeowners. And then, if you listened close enough, you could catch on to which local bar patrons had packed up their shit and made a go of it. Some of them were artists, but there were also the others: the ones who had normal jobs hidden off in the remote corners of this little island.
We sat in a bar on the local side of Duval Street and listened to a bar-mate tell Leah why she needed to live there. For the next hour he went on about his friend who’d helped him out of more than one run-in with the law.
“He’s this attorney, you see. He used to be this big corporate hotshot up in Charlotte, but he left all that. The money. Everything. Left it to hang up his shingle over there on Truman Avenue.” He lifted his now empty glass in that general direction. “Now he just spent his days drinking over at the Green Parrot, handling DUIs, real estate deals for other wanna be hotshots, and keeping my slouching ass out of jail.”
He stopped to look back at Leah and make sure she was still following along. She held up her glass in a sign of friendship, and he clinked her glass and nodded, “You should come down here too.” Then looking around the bar to the other locals, “We get in a lot of trouble. Just you look at us. There’s plenty of work to be had around here.” We all laughed and pretended like the reality didn’t look a little different.
When we woke up without the slurred thoughts of the previous night, we knew that too many other people in the Keys already had our idea. There wasn’t enough room for us. Not really. But this didn’t stop us from continually envisioning what a new life could look like.
After that trip it became a game we played every time we traveled. We’d walk the streets of Montreal and picture ourselves living in a studio apartment off of a side street in the Latin Quarter. Or we’d envision ourselves setting up a small bookstore in a redeveloping area of New Orleans. Days spent selling books and prepping the store for readings from local authors didn’t seem like a bad way to struggle for a living. We’d wonder what life would look like Oxford, Mississippi. I could freelance for magazines and spend my afternoons sipping bourbon and writing on the balcony of City Grocery, while Leah worked in the law school admissions office at Ole Miss. It was a nice way to let the hours pass by as we drove under overpasses and loblolly pines trees. The trips back home were always longer. But this made them bearable. It made them integral.
We wanted to go back to Daufuskie for our seventh anniversary. Leah’s job was more difficult to deal with than it’d ever been in the past. Each day had become a burden to start. She’d been looking for another job, but there weren’t many out there. I’d mentioned the island, and she said that it’d be a good reminder of those early days together.
But when I started to plan the trip, I discovered that the resort was between owners. It had been shut down until the new management figured out what they were going to do with it. I thought about going anyway, but the cottages had never been built, and the only houses for rent outside of the resort were large beachfront properties that were expensive, and we’d have to contend with spending our vacation on an island that didn’t have a grocery store or any of the other amenities that we’d grown to expect. The reality had lost its romanticism. So instead, we decided on Hilton Head.
Before we settled on our life in Columbia, Leah had once applied to work at a law firm on Hilton Head, and we spent the weekend driving around the back roads of the island, trying to find places we could afford to live on a beginning associate’s salary. After a few hours of wandering and grabbing real estate brochures, we stumbled upon a trailer park that backed up to the beach. The ramshackle trailers were buried in this picturesque landscape of ancient oak trees and layers of largely undisturbed dunes. Laundry blew on a stretch of clotheslines. A woman in her late sixties watched us while she watered her plants. And for a brief second, we saw what this island must have looked like before it was developed.
Leah didn’t get the job, and we never ventured back out to that remote corner of the island. But we did leave the confines of the resort community during our vacation and allowed our wanderlust to take over, as we ventured in-and-out of neighborhoods and played our game of pretend.
On the way home, we decided on a series of side roads. Her life in the firm was too far removed from the one we imagined for ourselves to keep acting like the fantasy for something else was enough. She needed more from our life. We both needed more. And as we drove alongside the massive oaks and took in the salt-filled air of interspersed marshlands, we had a prolonged conversation about places and jobs that were a real possibility. Savannah or Wilmington. Georgia or North Carolina. Both cities ran alongside rivers that carried their own unique mystic. The streets of the cities tore through our thoughts. We could both picture ourselves making it work. It would be a world outside of the law — and that was fine.
That thing that we both clung to was the image of marshes. Those myriads of reeds and channels, all buried beneath the heavy air that appears both stagnant and windswept. I pictured an elderly man carrying a crabbing cage along a roadside pathway — legs still stained with black streaks of mud — walking with the dead-tired purpose that only comes with absolute contentment. We both decided that we could do it. When I finished school, we could pack it all up. We could move and leave everything behind. We could have that life that had somehow eluded us.
Two days later, Leah came home from work early. Her face was sullen, streaked with redness, and she buried herself in my arms. The firm had decided to let her go. The thing that we thought we wanted was now a reality, and yet we were clueless about what our new life would look like.
The waters in the marsh still lapped against the reeds as the receding tide pulled on the undercurrents. A sheen of wetness still shimmered on the stiff blades of grass that peered through shadows cast off beneath the morning sunlight. But as I stood in our living room with Leah sobbing in my arms, I could no longer imagine our place within them.