I could tell there was an anxiety in the air, as Mom and Dad packed everything they could into two cars. Earlier, Mom had looked at Harrison and me and said, “When we come back the house might be gone.” I didn’t care. I was three, too young for abstractions. We made it to Columbia, SC, two hours inland, on the day of the storm. There’s still a hazy memory of a windy evening, but we all slept through the storm, even though Hurricane Hugo’s gusts in Columbia surpassed 100mph.
Charleston had been slammed with much stronger winds, and it was impossible to go home. The Ben Sawyer bridge, then the only way to get to the Isle of Palms, was sticking straight out of the water. The reports said Sullivan’s Island and Isle of Palms had been “destroyed.” It all must have been very difficult for Mom and Dad. It would be two weeks before we could return, but all I remember is spending time on a farm somewhere, getting to sit on a horse, learning it was called “bareback,” and a girl named Heather getting mad at me for petting her hamster too hard.
Though there was a large tree in the master bedroom, and the whole first floor was covered in mud, our house was still standing. We were lucky. Three doors down, there was nothing left but garage doors, clothes, and concrete. There was something beautiful in the destruction, and I enjoyed playing in the piles of trees on the side of the road, enjoyed seeing the novelty of boats and houses in the middle of the island streets.
Charleston rebounded after Hugo, and Mayor Riley did a great job repairing the city, and through the 90’s Charleston became more and more developed. When the 2000’s rolled around, and the restaurants hit, gentrification came rapidly, and the city turned into a different place—the tourist destination its known for today. When I moved back to Charleston in 2012 after just three years away, I could barely believe the change.
Still, the vibe of the people remained in Charleston, despite its rapid growth. People have always been friendly in town, very hospitable, with only a hint of bullshit. The hat shop gig I’d scored when I’d returned had been just what I needed. The gray clouds that had sunk into me in Hungary immediately lifted. Maybe adults could be happy. Maybe it wasn’t normal to think about the futility of existence every day.
In the hat shop my job was to be social, to meet interesting people, and to show people hats that they would or wouldn’t buy. Almost immediately I had friends, knew what was going on in town, and looked forward to every morning. I had met Anna one day after an unusually frustrating shift. It was happy hour in the shop, and I was planning on rushing home instead of drinking a few when she walked in. I turned to Stephen, my boss, and said, “Man, I can’t go home. I have to talk to that girl.”
“You’d be stupid not to.”
So I grabbed a whiskey and started talking to Anna. She was in my space, so it wasn’t hard to be confident. We got along, and she drank from my cup without hesitating, a good sign, so I got her number. My heart still raced when I asked. Her green eyes. Her red hair.
We started seeing each other, hanging out at dives, watching movies in her cozy house. It was a fun time, but I wasn’t ready to settle down. I took her for granted. My mind was a pendulum, and I swung between thinking she was gorgeous to being turned off by her quirks. Eventually, we split on a sunny day in Marion Square. It was so amicable that we grabbed a drink together afterwards. I had nothing but kind words for Anna.
Two years later after too many flings and two failed relationships, I had begun to wonder if I had let a good one go. I was back in Charleston after two years of grad school. I was eating at a restaurant where Anna and I had had once had a pleasant brunch, and I felt nostalgic for her. Afterwards, I headed to an Emmylou Harris concert where, by lucky coincidence, I saw a glimpse of Anna after the show. I knew it was her. She had that same cool walk, that same thick hair. Unfortunately there was a sea of slow-moving white hair between us, and I knew running toward her would look like a desperate move. Plus, my heart was pounding.
I sent her a Facebook message saying I saw her, and she messaged back, saying she had a thought she might see me there. It was pleasant but brief, and I assumed I had my closure until I got a text from an unknown number a few weeks later.
“Is this still Ned’s number?”
“Yeah, who is this?”
“Anna Porter. Would you like to hang out this week?”
“Yeah, I’m back at the hat shop, but I get off around 8:30. You wanna grab a drink then?” She was down.
We had a new register at the shop, and it was the first time in two years I was closing alone, so it took a longer than usual. I let her in while I closed. I noticed her same quirky mannerisms, but they were endearing this time. I rushed the closing process, excited about hanging out with Anna, but still only got out by 8:45. I took her to the Mellow Mushroom where we had our first date. She called me out on it. She was right to.
We sat out on the deck in the muggy heat and caught up. I was surprised about how much she remembered about us, and I remembered just as much. I was open with her—maybe too open—and briefly told her about the last year. Mom’s surprise cancer and the half dozen surprise deaths. The Year of Job. She had just moved back from Maine where she had lived with her boyfriend of two years. The one she had dated before me. The one she dumped me for.
“So was he the one who got away?”
“The one who got away for a reason.” They had just broken up the week before.
We had a couple beers and kept talking. I couldn’t quite read her. Was there something still here? Or was this a friendly catch up? Something about her seemed hesitant. After all, she had just gotten out of a relationship. I was deep in thought when she noticed the helicopters. “What are they doing?”
I looked up. “Someone probably fell into the harbor. We see these helicopters every day on Folly.”
“Then why are they looking down the streets?” she asked. I didn’t think about it.
The waitress came out five minutes later. “Something’s happening downtown, and the police told us to lock the doors. I think y’all should come inside.” We did. Google pulled up a shooting at a church. Facebook said nine people were dead, but who trusts Facebook? I was too in my head about Anna for it to click.
We stayed for another round, but we were getting drunk. The waitress unlocked the door and then locked us out on King Street, warning us to be safe. Anna offered to let me stay in her same cozy house off of Rutledge. I was too drunk to drive all the way back to Folly Beach. Anna had always been nice.
We got to her place and listened to music. I can’t remember when we started kissing, but we did, and I felt good. We made it back to her bed. Later, our heads on pillows, I had a feeling that lying next to Anna was right. Was this what a normal relationship felt like?
I woke up way too early the way I always do next to an unfamiliar girl. Two years is a long time. My parents had called to make sure I was alive. Stephen, my boss, had texted me to make sure I was ok. “Someone shot the church where we park. Just making sure you’re alive.”
As Anna drove me to my car, we learned some of the news. At around 9:00pm, around the time I should’ve been getting to the lot if I hadn’t rushed closing, someone had shot members of the historic Emanuel AME Church. Cops and news vans were everywhere the next morning. There was a man on the sidewalk weeping. Anna dropped me off as close as she could to my car, and I somberly half-joked a thanks-for-saving-my-life before saying bye. It was unlikely I would’ve been involved but not impossible. My car was still sitting in the parking lot behind the church, alone, and I had to ask a cop to let me out of the barricaded street. It finally hit me when I drove home. Listening to the radio, I found out it was a horrific racist crime. A redneck with a bowl cut, identified later as Dylann Roof out of Lexington, South Carolina, had shot up the historic Emanuel AME Church trying to start a race war.
I fell into a daze, anxious, and upset. I had never imagined a shooting would come here, especially one with such a primitive hatred. Nine good people dead. The poor families. The horror. Didn’t people stop killing over racial prejudice? Wasn’t America done with this? Charleston hadn’t had a disaster since Hurricane Hugo, twenty-six years before. But Hugo was nothing compared to this. These scars weren’t going to heal. There was no excitement in this.
Charleston did come together in a noble way, and I’ll always be proud of my city, though I expected no less. There were marches, culminating in tens of thousands holding hands on the Arthur Ravenel Bridge. Many businesses donated between ten and twenty percent of their profits that week to the families of the victims. The hotel looking over Marion Square put up a gigantic banner for the church. There were no riots. Though I pride myself as stoic, I got teary on and off for the next few days and stared in wonder when I’d see people laughing, acting normal.
I took Anna out once more a few days after the shooting on the night before the first march. Things were awkward this time, she wasn’t ready for this, and at night back at her house, she offhandedly said a subtly cruel thing, the way girls know how. Later, she offered me the guest bedroom, another insult, but necessary after all I had to drink.
“You’re such a good hostess,” I said as she made up the bed.
“That’s not fair. Don’t be mean.”
She gave me a long hug goodbye the next morning, and after a weird day at work, my first back after the shooting, I went to the march, dressed in all black on the hot summer afternoon. The oppressive sun was unforgiving—I was pouring sweat—but I still hadn’t broken out of my daze. After a few minutes I spotted Anna, and she gave me some flowers to give to the church members. Anna had always been nice. Once the march started, though, we walked at our own somber paces, losing each other in the crowd.