It was the slow dive before the swell. That week on the Isle of Palms. I recall Faulkner’s Wild Palms, a seldom read piece of his where two lovers wreck each other. I wrote a piece about how modernist art influenced the structure, the bleed of visual artists. It was on my mind that day. We drove in at the wet simmer of a tropical storm; we couldn’t even see the river when we crossed over the new bridge with its stark cables jutting up like fish bones rearranged. They looked fragile but I had to trust the engineers. The rain slapped the speed out of our cars; it took twice as long to get there as it should have.
The house was a disaster zone. It would make the HGTV people cringe. It smelled like mold so much downstairs that the whole family –Ben’s parents and his uncle, and Ben and I all had to sleep upstairs; we were thrown together in a place with grungy furniture and damp carpet. It’s no wonder the place was pet friendly. It was a dump and to make it worse, we were all broke for that trip. We’d spent everything we had just to get down there. We all needed a vacation so badly. The year before had been a rough one complete with the loss of a beloved pet, a mistake of a move, and a mistake of a PhD program.
There was no way the weather was going to stop us from going down there. We had about three sunny days in the middle of the trip, but we didn’t let the rain stop us. We meandered the cobblestone streets, carted our umbrella down to the sea, snickered to David Sedaris and trashy magazines, learned about the local wildlife at the aquarium, and visited a preserved plantation house where we pondered how they cleared the land in the 1700s. Ben’s mom and I sat in the library of a guest house built on the property some time later and listened to a lecture about the history of the property. The lady told us of the descendant of slaves that stayed on as a caretaker for most of his long life. It’s all I remember. The live oaks hugged the ground and spread out like opening hands. We took a picture of ourselves, the manicured lawn in the background, our damp faces pronounced. I wore a turtle sanctuary hat I’d gotten at the aquarium. Her curly hair fell below her shoulders. We expected something lavish but the home was unfurnished and the paint was fading and there was visible damage to woodwork. The preservation was a work in progress.
The last night we ate at a fish shack on Shem Creek. Shrimp boats lined the docks. The air smelled like char and sea. They played 80s hair metal and Bob Marley. I drank icy beer and shelled peanuts and felt peace for the first time in a year, watching his family talk, smiling and drinking. The conversation faded into the din of the place and I sighed. Less than two weeks later we would find out Ben’s mom had breast cancer. We would hold onto this moment through the coming years of her treatment.
We listened to Nine Inch Nails on the drive down. I forget which album. We bounced around in the jeep on a cool afternoon; the shadows had lengthened, the summer haze had finally dissipated. The hotel was nicer than we’d normally spring for; it was our first anniversary after all. It had historic reproduction furniture –a king sized sleigh bed, an armoire, and a view of a church built in the 18th century. We dropped our bags and headed to the beach. We’d never been to the islands outside of Charleston and it was a perfect day for a walk on the beach. We took our Nikon we got as a wedding present from Ben’s uncle. The land flattened and it was just us. The photographs are singles of us, sitting with our pant legs rolled up, standing with feet in the ocean, gazing off at the sunset with sunglasses on. Later that night, he dared me to go into the hallway naked. It was only a split second but I did it and laughed for an hour. We created a breeze, the trip was so quick.