It’s time I tell you about South Carolina. About the beginning, at least.
The first thing I remember noting about the South in October was how green it was. Trees everywhere. Everywhere. Sometimes it felt beautiful and sometimes it felt claustrophobic. I wanted to hop in the back of the van and drive to the ocean, but that was almost two hours away now. No longer could we decide on a whim to spend a day at the beach and be there, our toes burrowing into the sand, twenty minutes later. The closest thing we had was Lake Murray. Uncle F’s house was on the lake, in a quiet neighborhood with gigantic lawns and two-car garages. I’d get up in the morning and walk down the hill to the water, stand on the dock and watch the sunrise burn off the fog floating above the water. I felt like I was on a different planet.
It was cold in South Carolina, at the end of October. A few days after we moved it was Halloween. I decorated C and J’s faces with Aunt L’s makeup and helped them dress up. Then we walked around the neighborhood and trick-or-treated, our breath making little clouds in front of our mouths. I didn’t dress up that year. I felt sad deep in my heart, a sadness I now know was homesickness, but at the time I just couldn’t find the energy for dressing up. As it turned out, I never dressed up for Halloween again.
Eventually the weather turned even colder, and Uncle F and Aunt L brought me to a place called Burlington Coat Factory and bought me a real, heavy coat. I insisted on one at least two sizes bigger than I actually needed, for growing of course. That coat was so huge on me, I don’t think I’d fill it out now. But I was prepared for the growing I was sure I was going to do. Always, always prepared.
During the day Uncle F and Aunt A went to work and we hunted for a house. Mom and I scanned the classified ads in the newspaper and then the five of us climbed into an old, tiny Mercedes that Uncle F let us borrow. C, J and I sat on cream leather seats in the back, seat-belted in for the first time in our lives. I remember that we argued over being too close to one another. We couldn’t spread out, lie down on the floor and slide around when the car turned a corner. The car, the trees…everything constricted us from the beginning, in ways we weren’t prepared for.
The street signs in Columbia confused us. For a while we got lost, went round and round in neighborhoods we didn’t understand. Finally we realized that the street names were different on either side of the road. To the left would be one road and to the right another. That was just one of the many things we didn’t know about this new place we’d moved to. Other things we didn’t know:
That the barbecue was fluorescent yellow. They called it mustard barbecue and put down five plates of it at the first meal we ever ate in the South. Maurice’s BBQ, it was called. The five of us stared at the plates until finally J asked, “Why’s it that color?” Until then I thought barbecue was a dual-meaning word: cook on a grill outside and bathe some meat in something red and sweet. Not in Columbia it wasn’t.
We also didn’t know that there were no sidewalks, or when there were, they were only on one side of the road. J and I wondered from the back seat of the car one day, “Where does everyone ride their bikes?”
Or why all the businesses were in buildings that looked like houses instead of buildings that looked like, well, buildings. This bothered me for ages and ages for some reason.
Eventually though, we found a house. A Ranch, they called it, which meant it didn’t have stairs and was all on one level. White-painted brick with the biggest front and back yards we’d ever seen. You could have fit at least two San Diego houses on it, we guessed. Inside, the oven was in the wall—and green—and the stove was electric. In California, everyone had their water delivered each week in big plastic jugs, but here they just drank out of the tap, so there wasn’t a water container in the kitchen anymore. The living room walls had wood paneling, and while the house had sat empty some kids had broken in and carved a crude cartoon of a man smoking a joint into the wood. There were four bedrooms, which made us feel like kings. You took one bedroom for your studio. J, C and I all wanted our own rooms for the first times (before that we were constantly swapping who shared with whom), so I got a room and J got a room. My room was bigger, but there was a small hole in the hardwood floor that went straight to the outside. We turned the dining room into a bedroom for C by blocking it off from the family room (which Mom used as her studio) with Mom’s matt board bins. Of course you could still see over the top of the bins, but we used our imaginations.
I never did understand how C slept with her room like that. The door led right into the kitchen, where you and Mom spent all your time. Even across the house and down the hall, your arguments woke me. But somehow C always slept right through.
I want to tell you that we were happy in Columbia, Dad, but I don’t know that we ever were. The first day Mom drove me to school to enroll me at my new high school, we stepped out of Uncle F’s borrowed Mercedes just as the buses were pulling away. Mom and I paused as they passed and just as the last one curled away from us, a boy opened the window and called out at the top of his lungs, “CUNTS!”
Mom and I froze.
“Well,” Mom said after a beat.
We’ll never know if the boy was directing his commentary to us or someone else (or, I suppose, it could have been a cry to the general universe at large). Either way, this came to represent the entirety of my experience at my new high school. The guidance counselors chaffed at Mom’s request for me to use the same last name I’d had at my last high school—your last name—even though it wasn’t my legal name. Mom put on her usual sales pitch, but it failed. From hence forth, I was no longer Ashley C. I was Ashley W.
There were other problems, too, like what to do with my history credit. South Carolina taught all their freshman South Carolina history their first year of high school, while I had been taking World History in California. That wasn’t taught in SC until sophomore year. Then there was math. What to do about my math class, which they weren’t sure translated to a class they had. After much deliberation, it was decided that I would be a year ahead in history and a year behind in math. Just like that, Ashley C was gone.
We tried to settle in, Dad. You painted every day, Mom took the borrowed Mercedes to work in the morning and returned at night. C, J and I rode the bus to and from school for the first times in our lives. At school, I tried to remember to write my name as Ashley W instead of Ashley C, and the more I wrote it the more I wondered about it. On the weekends we went to Uncle F’s house and went out on the lake in his boat, which wasn’t the same as the ocean but was nice all the same. We tried for a while, Dad. But then, the threads came apart.
Looking back on it, I don’t think it was one thing. I think it was many things, many, many things, all pulling us apart at once. I’ll start with myself.
I don’t think any of us were prepared for how lonely it would be, away from everything we knew. Or maybe it was just you and me and Mom. I don’t remember C and J having such trouble adapting like the three of us did.
C’s adorable smile and bubbly, outgoing personality helped her gather friends like clouds, opening her arms to the sky and hugging them to her chest. And J’s natural humor buoyed him into the popular of the popular in no time at all. But me. I didn’t know what to do with myself. At school the kids asked me why I wasn’t tall or tan or anything like the girls they thought California produced. Why the heck was my chest so flat? Had I had a nose job? What celebrities had I met? Why did I say “guys” no matter the gender of the group? Did I know I was a Yankee even though I was from California? Everyone not from the South was a Yankee I was told, fiercely, when I debated this fact with someone in my English class. Suddenly I had taken on an entire persona I hadn’t been prepared for.
I took to spending my lunches in the library, where I wasn’t technically allowed to eat, so I hid my sandwich in my lap and tore off bites when the librarian wasn’t watching me out of the corner of her eye. I sped through my Biology textbook that way, reading far ahead of the class and circling back to the chapters the class was studying just to remind myself of the material before the test. I set the curve that year. Some kids even argued in front of the teacher about which one of them should have the right to be my lab partner. Everyone thought it was because I was good at Bio, when really it was because I was too shy to talk to anyone and holed myself up in the library rather than risk saying “barbecue” when everyone was talking about grilling burgers.
At home, Mom and I started arguing over everything. Little things, big things. I didn’t know how to find the words, and the bravery, to tell you how lonely I was. Instead I balled it all inside and let it come out in little gasps, little teenage bursts that caught Mom by surprise. You responded by doubling your strictness on me, thinking all I needed was to be reminded of my place to stop my sudden rebellion. You mandated that I would be the one to get C and J up in the mornings and get them ready for school. I’d help C get dressed and make sure J showered. I made their breakfasts and lunches and then cleaned up the kitchen from the previous night’s cooking and drinking. When all of this was done and C and J were ready, I’d wake you up and you’d dress and drive them to the elementary school.
You and Mom fought constantly over the rules you put on me. But you were adamant that I was older, and therefore, I needed the responsibility. C and J were younger. That was that. It was entirely fair that J and C should have no rules, no curfews or chores, because of their age. It was hard not to feel like I was in the wrong when I complained about it, because you really and truly saw it this way. You were not being unfair, as Mom argued you were over and over again. By giving me the responsibilities, you were being fair, because of my age. How could we not see that? you said.
And yet, whenever I walked away, I heard Mom whisper to you, in the dark of the kitchen. Whisper that maybe it was because I wasn’t yours. Maybe you gave me all of these chores and nothing to your two other children because I was that dirty word we never spoke. The word we pretended didn’t exist, except when I wrote my new name. I was a stepchild. And not even a real stepchild, because you had never formally adopted me. I was the fatherless child.
Over time, I found my own way to cope with the stress of our new life. With the silence at school and the screaming fights you and Mom had each night (often over me and your strictness toward me) as you drained bottle after bottle into your glasses. Because every morning, as I stood in front of the metal sink, brimming with a kitchen’s worth of dishes, I found relief in a bottle too. My reward to myself after finishing all those dishes and rinsing the suds clean was in every one of the wine bottles and beer cans you and Mom had left half-empty on the counter. As C and J ate their breakfasts at the counter behind me, I tipped each bottle up into the air and let the remaining alcohol glug out the top, straight down the drain. One after another after another after another. Every single morning.
I can still feel it today, the relief that welled within me as I watched the red wine swirl down into the dark of the drain. I knew you would be furious. I knew Mom would be furious. And I didn’t care.
This went on for a while. Some mornings there were fewer bottles than others. Some mornings there was very little to pour out, just a little sediment in the bottom of the bottle, a little foam from the beer cans. But other mornings it was bottle after bottle, some only a glass or two removed from being full. It didn’t matter. Unless you or Mom had remembered to put the cork back in them, down they went. Down, down, down, filling me up, up, up with every one.
It was Mom who finally exploded about it. Her job hadn’t lasted long, and we’d been doing art shows again, renting a van on the weekends and driving to places like Savannah, Georgia, and St. Simon’s Island. Our relationship had slowly deteriorated, swirled down the drain with our dual unhappiness. I didn’t know how to tell her how lonely and homesick I was, and she didn’t know how to interpret her daughter’s growing inwardness. Somewhere along the way Mom had discovered gin and tonics and menopause, and the two of us broke like a piece of fragile fine china on a concrete floor. The morning she burst into the kitchen, the tail of her robe flying like a cape behind her, was surprising not only for the way she entered—like a tornado about to upend the place—but because after our move Mom started sleeping in every day to recover from the late nights you and her always had. We never saw her until we got home from school. So the morning she burst into the kitchen, already shouting as the door swung open, caught every one of us by true surprise.
We had it out that morning, Dad. You, me, Mom. The three of us just screamed and screamed. And yet, all of that screaming happened, and I don’t think any of us understood each other any more than we had before.
The alcohol was the first straw, Dad, but the night I babysat for Uncle F is what broke us.
It was late in the school year when it happened. Uncle F and Aunt L are both violinists and were playing in the orchestra for The Nutcracker, I believe. It was a school night, and I had a test the next day. I stayed at their house and watched my two little cousins, and at some point, midnight, twelve-thirty-ish, Uncle F dropped me off at home. He apologized for keeping me out so late, and paid me, and that’s when you came storming out of the house through the open garage door.
For some reason I remember the stars. It was so clear that night, so clear and the sky so black. Black as ink overturned out of a bottle, spotted with flecks of stars. I’d never seen you move that way—so, so fast—storming out of the house and straight into Uncle F’s face. I had my books in my hands and my backpack on my shoulder, and I tried to get between you two and tell you that it was okay, that I was okay, but still you screamed at him—
“How dare you bring my daughter home at this hour! How dare you—”
You were upset over me. For me. About me. But not at me. I remember shoving myself between you and Uncle F, shocked by your ferocity to the point that I couldn’t find my breath, and yet also a tiny bit touched. You’d called me your daughter. You were concerned for me. It was sweet. And then you threatened to break Uncle F’s legs.
It wasn’t a threat you meant. Anyone who knew you also knew that this was a catchphrase of sorts, a joke from your childhood growing up in an Italian family with members of the mob. This was old Italian slang bubbling up in you. And I knew you didn’t mean it, but I worried Uncle F wouldn’t understand.
Somewhere in there the neighbors had woken. Lights turned on as you and Uncle F stood nose to nose and shouted at one another. I tried to worm my way between you again, and you said, “Move, Ash,” and you swiped your arm and then I blinked and I was on the ground.
The grit from the driveway stuck to my palms, like bits of coarse-ground cornmeal almost. I looked up at you and wondered if you really would hit Uncle F. Wondered what had happened to make me hit the ground like I had. Had I tripped? Had you pushed me? I remember your arm, and your words, and the slurring of your voice from the alcohol on your breath, and then just the ground, without any in between.
You and Uncle F never fought, physically at least. Uncle F drove away, and so began years and years of utter silence between our families. Uncle F took the borrowed Mercedes back, and we started walking everywhere we needed to go. We emptied our backpacks whenever we went to the grocery store, so that we could fill them up with food for the walk home. We didn’t go back to Uncle F’s lake or take the two-hour drive to the beach. We constricted ourselves to that white brick house and yard. We didn’t need those trees or a tiny car with seat belts to do that. We did it to ourselves.
One day, a furniture catalog for Ethan Allen showed up in the mailbox. It had been delivered to the wrong house, but I took it inside straight to my room. I’d never seen anything like it. I sat on my bed and flipped slowly through the glossy pages one by one. Is this really what people’s houses looked like inside? All these carefully arranged pieces of furniture? Rooms with paneling minus the joint-smoking carvings in the walls? Hardwoods without holes? Couches that weren’t picked up from a pile someone had discarded next to their mailbox, their histories unknown? Mom loved converting other people’s trash into her treasure, but all I ever saw was our poverty. I never could get over it.
The back cover was a single photograph of a chair. Just a chair, nothing more. A purple, plush armchair with smooth, rounded edges and tufted back. I fell in love in an instant. I’d never seen such a gorgeous creation in my entire life. Somehow I convinced myself that a chair like that would mean that life was okay. That we were normal and our house was normal and everything that happened within our walls was normal. Because to have a chair like that in your house, you’d have to be normal. You’d have to be something that looked entirely different than what we were.
I still have that catalog, tucked away somewhere in a box in the attic. I don’t look at it, but I know it’s there. In a way, that’s just like this time in our lives. We don’t talk about it, but it’s there all the same. The day after your fight with Uncle F, you and Mom called me into the kitchen and you told me that you hadn’t pushed me that night. I must have fallen. You would never push me, you said. You loved me.
I listened to you talk, with Mom hovering so close by, and I thought about what had happened that night under that impenetrably dark sky. I don’t know, still to this day, whether you pushed me that night or not. And honestly, Dad, you were so drunk that I don’t know if you would have known either. But I know that you meant what you said the next day. You loved me, and you would never, knowingly, hurt me.
I have spent an immeasurable amount of time since that day trying to remember what exactly happened in the moment that I went from standing between you to lying on the ground. I want to remember it, like I remember everything else about that night. But I can’t. Whatever happened is gone, buried somewhere deep and inaccessible. I have wondered what it would change if I remembered the event in its entirety. Now the question is null and void, because you don’t remember this event at all. It’s been washed clean by the stroke, and with it, I’ve been given a permission of sorts to make the night whatever I need it to be, for myself.
So this is what I’ve decided, Dad.
I have decided that this was a dark night. It was a night in which things happened that I don’t fully understand. A night in which we changed the course of our lives in Columbia. It was a night in which you hurt me in the same breath that you admitted truths you otherwise wouldn’t speak. And in doing so, you gave me something to cling to.
When I think about these years now, Dad, I want so badly to reach my hands down into this clay we call our lives and pluck out all the bits of brokenness that stab and scratch us. I want to mold us into something with smooth, rounded edges. Something with soft colors and a voice that has no cause for screaming. Something that loves without need for forgiveness. Something that looks entirely different than what we are.
But this isn’t possible. I know this now. You must love all the roughness, all the tears and wrinkles and abnormalities, the muddled history that you don’t understand or even know, because this is what makes us who we are. And even though I knew that then, Dad, I didn’t want to hear it. I wanted to stare at the gentle curve of that purple chair, let slip the confusion in my mind over nights and mornings I didn’t understand, and dream.