They say a city never sleeps, this is a lie. Charleston, South Carolina sleeps. It hibernates in the winters when all the tourists go home, leaving Rainbow Row without its sidewalk artists and King Street free of hippies and pan-handlers. It did seem strange the ‘bucket man’ wasn’t there walking around with his squeegee pole and five gallon bucket trying to smear greasy water on unsuspecting restaurant windows for tips, or the ‘incense man’ with sticks of burning from behind both ears, stinking the air with the scent of burned hair and cloves. His head scarred from close calls. He’d wave foil wrapped packs at you and yell ‘two dollars!’ But that day, the streets were empty, except me in my orange bubble hat and black velvet cape, and Mr. Smith in his pants too long for his short legs, his ankles bundled with a doughnut of denim and a camo shirt.
It was early in our courtship, when you do things you don’t do later in relationships, like have fun, or act spontaneous. That day I donned my safety orange 1960’s dome hat, presumably bubble shaped to accommodate bee hive hairdos, and my 1970’s olive green driving gloves with industrial sized brass zipper. To complete the outfit I wore my velvet cape with atomic-age starburst pin, this I felt summed up my personality, random and loud.
“Pull me in the box, pull me in the box!” I was nineteen, but felt the need to reclaim some joy that I felt had been robbed from my childhood, forced to be raised by parents who refused to pull me in cardboard down city streets.
Mr. Smith paused and looked at me. He thought for a long moment, his square jaw softening slightly when I folded into a box and rocked it back and forth like a tiny boat, refusing to move until I was dragged. He knew there was no out other than to do what the screaming florescent lunatic wanted, so he relented. To him I was a distraction, a nineteen year old, hopelessly optimistic with unrealistic dreams, who had not been broken by the world, and he, a thirty-two year-old, recently divorced and living in a dark apartment filled with empty beer bottles and left handed guitars. “How does this work?” He asked, as if the box were some complicated electronic.
“Pull it!” I rocked.
He grabbed the edge and pulled. I slid a few inches and clapped squealing with delight. “Faster!” I screamed. He looked back, a gleam in his eye, and took off. The box lasted as far as the corner before breaking up like a space shuttle coming back to earth. The sides split, the front all but ripped off and the bottom against the street was in danger of ripping through and turning my antique cape into threads.
“Are you happy now?” He asked, holding in his hand what was left of the front, a strip of disrespected cardboard, ripped apart by vandals.
I was always happy, but this was before I was medicated. I said I was, only because there were no more boxes, so I’d settle for skipping. He threw the box in the street and I paused for a second and looked at it. “Fuck ‘em.” He said, answering the unasked ‘isn’t that littering’ question. This was the reason I loved him. I’d always felt like the rules of the world didn’t apply to me, and I’d take every opportunity to cheat, sneak and steal my way out of them. Nobody else I’d ever met shrugged at “No Trespassing” signs or “Shoes Required.” Once on a date to Wal-Mart (yes, Wal-Mart is an acceptable date destination in the south) we wandered the toy isle making the Barbie Jeeps make inappropriate sexual sounds by pressing the buttons haphazardly, ‘oh oh ya, yes, that is wonderful, oh ooh yes!’ He was barefoot and an employee approached us. “Sir, you need to have shoes on.”
Mr. Smith set his jaw, his eyes narrowed. “I’m Buddhist and you’re asking me to put on shoes? Are you insulting my religion?” Mr. Smith had no religion other than deer hunting, but the idea that he could invent such a story on short notice and use it to frighten authority figures made me swoon.
The boy with the oversized vest and temporary name tag dropped his eyes and slunk off. We were followed the rest of our time there, when I mentioned this Mr. Smith turned to one pretending to straighten a hula-hoop and said, “Fuck ‘em.”
I grabbed his hand and skipped beside him like an overenthusiastic Chihuahua using his arm as a leash, and he plodded like a hippo with no particular destination. I pointed at shop windows, “I want that, and that and that, and one time I got a skirt just like that from the thrift store and I painted a hot pink poodle on it, but then I wanted a real poodle, a white one so I could dye it hot pink to match it, but my mom wouldn’t let me, and I was walking down the street and this woman yelled out of her car window and offered to buy my skirt, but I said no, and then I thought I might be a clothing designer, oh, and an artist and a singer. Do you think that I might get discovered like that, like just be singing on the side of the road in my poodle skirt, and some music executive might sign me right there? Do you think I should have sold that lady my skirt, maybe she was like Calvin Klein’s daughter or something? Ann? Is that it? Maybe I should just,” enough about me, let’s talk about me was my motto. Undiagnosed bi-polar on a diet of the four food groups: Nougat, Skittles (fruit flavors count as fruit), Gummie Worms (bugs are protein) and cereal, I was wound up tighter than the girdle of a Baptist minister’s wife at an all-you-can-eat pancake breakfast. I was still talking when he abruptly stopped, yanking my arm leash to a halt.
There were two women standing in on the sidewalk, one was shifting her eyes from me to her friend, the other was talking directly to Mr. Smith’s crotch. “It’s good to see you again!” she said to the spot on his jeans where his penis would be had he been naked.
“You too.” He said in a comfortable drone that said he’d known her awhile. “How’s Andrea and Sidi.”
“Fine.” She said to his dick.
She did not acknowledge me, nor did she introduce her friend, she just stared at Mr. Smith’s anatomy like it might do something at any moment.
They looked like nice women, classy, with the typical ‘I’m from here’ garb that separated true Carolina born residents from yanks and visitors, you had the ubiquitous palm tree jewelry, at least one article of clothing with a Magnolia on it, and I was quite sure their Volvo or BMW had the white oval sticker with the SC in bold black letters in the middle, and another palm tree sticker just to be sure. They did not look like perverts that hid in public restrooms and took pictures of people in compromising positions, but this woman could not look away. It wasn’t that exciting I wanted to tell her, but kept my mouth shut.
Her companion and I smiled shyly at each other, moving our gazes from the sidewalk, (there were three pieces of gum within seven inches of each other), to each other’s shoes. She had on some nice kicks, probably cost more than every article of clothing I owned, I had knee high patent plastic lace-up go-go boots that I got for fifty cents at a yard sale.
The crotch watcher and Mr. Smith finished their pleasantries and the silent companion shrugged a goodbye and they left without a backwards glance.
“She’s gay.” He said before they were out of earshot. “That was her girlfriend.”
“Why did she stare at ‘it’?”
He shrugged. “Dunno.”
I hated her now, this lesbian dick ogler. Was she so unfamiliar with the male anatomy that she expected it to perform tricks? It doesn’t I wanted to yell after her-they all look the same! But instead I felt like a popped balloon.
It wasn’t hard to pop what was constantly filled with air. What goes up, must be deflated rapidly and be sent back to earth in a zigzag pattern of destruction, so I stopped talking. To most people this would probably be a relief, but to anyone who loved me, well, this was probably a relief as well, but also a signal something was terribly wrong.
“Is it because I’m ugly?”
“Is what because,” he paused, “you are not ugly. What are you talking about?”
“She wouldn’t look at me.”
He shifted uncomfortably, “She’s a lesbian.” As if that was an answer.
And there it was, the dam had broken. New relationships are fun, because you get to be the person you want. You show the other person who you wish you were, you get to hide your faults and insecurities, and so do they. If they don’t go out of their way to be awesome in the beginning, run. Run fast, and in the other direction because you’re looking at a life of AstroTurf in the trailer park.
So here I was in my orange bubble hat and avocado driving gloves, crushed by a stranger. My new self balled up and tossed in the street like a discarded box. I was not strong, I was not perpetually happy, I was broken, and terrified and I needed someone to tell me I was okay instead of looking inside myself to do that. Looking inside might mean you have to look at scary things, you might have to sweep the floors or take out the laundry or toss that Katy Lee sweater you’ve kept around for too long. You have to take out the trash, but it you don’t and you give someone else the permission to go inside, hand them the shovel and tell them to help you clean it up, all that will happen is that you will give away your power and eventually you find out that they couldn’t clean up for you. They might toss stuff in the corners, or hide it in closets, but one day like a character in a cartoon, you will pull open the door and find yourself buried in crap that you hid there. You will also find yourself living with a person who has complete control over you.
The rest of the day was quiet, I spent the rest of it looking at all the trash inside my head and wondering what was wrong with me, instead of wondering what the hell was wrong with the crotch watcher.
I look back on that day now and laugh, wishing I still wore a size zero dress or could pull off an orange bubble hat but it’s all L’esprit de l’escalier - the wit of the staircase, the best comebacks come to mind after you’ve crossed the door and are standing outside on the stairs.
Now, more than a decade later, I wish I time machine. I’d tell that beautiful girl in an orange bubble hat to run. Run from that man, laugh at that woman, and don’t let anyone steal your power. We are all beautiful just the way we are, right now, don’t give anyone else your joy, it’s yours and no one can take it. And, if you have to, write all the snarky comebacks on a 3×5 card and keep it in your pocket and use them before you cross the threshold and reach the staircase.