Sunday, June 16, 2013

Savannah Travelogue, Part 4: Before Sunrise


At several minutes before 6 a.m. I’m suddenly awake. It’s our last day in Savannah; a taxi's coming at 7:30 to port us off to the train station, so my boyfriend has set an alarm somewhere, probably his iPhone, for 7. It occurs to me that I could get in a sunrise walk alone. I silently spring up, hustle to the bathroom, pop in my contacts, brush my teeth using a quiet trinkle of water that won’t unduly disrupt my boyfriend in this precious pre-alarm hour.

I re-enter the main part of the hotel room, the bedroom part, my eyes maladjusted to the darkness, and feel around my open suitcase for today's clothes. I slip on a dress, slide on my sandals, strap on my purse. As my pupils widen, I can see my boyfriend leaning up on one elbow, sleepy and befuddled. I lean over the bed and touch his warm arm. “I’m going for a walk. I’ll be back before it’s time to get up.” I say this as if I’m some mysterious dream creature known for pre-dawn wanderings who will evaporate with the alarm’s pertinacious bleating.

It’s Sunday morning and I seem to have downtown Savannah all to myself. This is a town of arty college students and tourists, a cultured, cocktail-quaffing anomaly here in the churchgoing South. Everyone is sleeping off their hangovers. I head for the river, one traffic crossing away. Already the sky is those sherbet colors – mostly gradations of blue, with a smidge of pinky peach at the bottom where the sun will soon be, plus a smattering of periwinkle clouds for panache.

I see another lonely soul out, a man sitting on a bench and looking resolute. I wonder if watching today’s sunrise is somehow symbolic for him, if he's having one of those “Today is the first day of the rest of my life” moments. There are a couple of other guys farther down, college-age or so, but they’re dressed in preppy pastel clothing, and I don’t naturally tend to assign any poignancy or pathos to folks in preppy pastel clothing, so they almost didn't register to me. Would-be characters thus garbed must occupy some writerly blind spot of mine.

I sit on a dented stone rectangle and look at the sunrise on the water. I take a couple of photos. I try to get myself in some of them, but my face is bloated and bleary from getting up so early (and from drinking two "Georgia Peach Teas" with vodka at a rooftop bar the night before, prior to scoping out the historic and closed-for-the-night Pirates' House with my boyfriend, my plastic cup of booze in my hand and totally legal), and my ocean-washed hair, which had felt so poetically mermaid-like the night before, in the photos just looks coarse and matte.

After checking the time on my cell phone, I realize that I have enough time to walk to the one Starbucks we’ve seen downtown. I remember the way there by landmarks: Exit the hotel, look down the street both ways, then walk in the direction that doesn’t end up at the river. Pass that quaint old-timey theater with the flashbulb/Hollywood-diva-vanity-mirror-style lights around its retro sign, the Lucas, the one having the “speakeasy cabaret” on the night we arrived in town. Turn right at the utilitarian and jarringly un-historic Subway franchise. Pass that one toy store with the witty display of 1980s playthings eating one another, G.I. Joes mounting a ninja attack on a dollhouse. Voilà, the familiar evergreen awnings of Starbucks.

This morning it appears to be mobbed outside by a gang of joggers. This strikes me as odd; these people all look health-conscious, with their tanned and toned legs, in their neon-hued real-runners’ sneakers. Most people I know who look like that would scrinch up their noses at the thought of tanking up on sugar and chemical syrups. I’m worried the place isn’t open yet, then I’m annoyed that I’ll be in line behind this cluster of robust, vital, low-body-fat folks. But then I see that the joggers have merely chosen to meet at this particular street corner in order to embark on a group jog, so it’s all good.

I go inside and order my usual. I sit on the same mushroom-gray velvet chair that I’ve sat in, with my boyfriend in the mushroom-gray velvet chair beside it, both of the previous days we’ve been in town. There’s only one other person in there, a bedraggled-looking fellow with scraggly long blond hair and a bushy brown beard and glasses, a wired air about him, as if he’s been pulling an all-nighter and everything is a little surreal to him right now. A female voice floating down from the speakers in the ceiling plaintively croons: “You don’t know me…” Ah, humanity. What a plaintive, bedraggled lot we are.

--As I type this right now, sitting at a table to myself in the club car of the Amtrak train headed home, we’re stopped smack in the middle of the town of Kingstree, SC, and the club car is hogging up the middle of an intersection. There are cars stopped on all sides of us – a paint-patched red pick-up truck but also normal cars like you’d see at home, newer SUVs and anonymous silver sedans. They can see me sitting here typing on my laptop. I don’t have much more to say about that except that it’s sort of weird.--

I walk back to the hotel, to the room at the Holiday Inn Express that contains my warm, sleeping boyfriend.

I think about yesterday at Tybee Island, where we went to the beach, about a half-hour cab ride out of town. For substantial chunks of the evening I had been in an agitated state, one of my least favorite versions of myself, annoyed that the 5 p.m. shuttle to the beach – the last one of the day – never showed up to fetch us at the visitors’ center as we’d been told it would by a deceptively cheery visitors’-center employee who was probably just shepherding us out of his sanctum so he could go home for the day. After that I'd paced and sighed when the cab that we finally called took more than half an hour to reach us, our last full day of vacation dwindling away as we rotted on a bench watching tour trolleys roll in.

Once we got to the beach, I morphed into some fucking spoiled princess upon discovering that the only public restroom near the beach was a building of royal-blue-painted cinderblock, squalid and with an utter dearth of toilet paper. (What was I expecting, a uniformed attendant who would spray me with Chanel No. 5 upon my egress from some marble, interior-decorated stall?)

I tried to get a grip in time for the next minor nuisance: our realization that, in order to buy my boyfriend some swim trunks (he’d left his at the hotel), we’d have to walk all the way to the other end of the island, opposite from the northern end with the historic lighthouse (I’d randomly and ill-advisedly chosen that end as the terminal destination for the taxi driver), down to the clump of hotels and rentals and seafood joints and beach-kitsch shops.

I did get a grip, and some perspective, for the most part. Our walk along the water’s edge to the south end of the island was a good time, and lovely in the gleam of the setting sun. There in the Low Country the beach is awesomely flat, in that way like the landscape out West that I love more than anywhere in the world. There’s a lack of ruggedness in the Low Country topography, though, a gentle, smoothed-over absence of rawness.

But it was beautiful, walking with my boyfriend in the melon-colored light, past sand castles and rainbow kites and even a wedding starting up just as we stepped onto the beach – bridesmaids in turquoise lined up on a walkway of weathered wooden planks, guests waiting next to fluttering aqua streamers. I got a snapshot of the bride and her father, poised, their formal clothes rippling in the sea breeze, waiting for her retinue to finish assembling at the wedding site, the island’s iconic lighthouse in the background.

After I finished taking photos and returned my camera to my purse, my boyfriend took my hand and said, “Would you like to have a beach wedding?” The question looks blunt typed out like that, but he asks a lot of hypothetical questions – he says his favorite tense is the “counterfactual” – so I take things like that to mean something more along the lines of, “Do you, in general, think beach weddings are nice?” OK, part of that is my choosing to take things like that in an abstract sense.

I said something like, “Heh. This one sure is pretty. They had a nice evening for it.” Some bland, non-committal (uh, literally) thing like that. … I’m going to end this paragraph here, because I started typing something that would have broken my promise to keep certain topics safely ensconced in a cloak of privacy, off-limits as far as this blog is concerned. So for now all I’m going to say is that I often pretend not to want things that I do actually want, because I’m worried about wanting them too much and not getting them, or worried that I somehow don’t deserve them and therefore it’s ludicrous and even a little embarrassing or unseemly for me to want them.

We went into a store called the Funky Fish, where my boyfriend tried on a pair of swim trunks and I browsed the pirates-and-Confederate-flags merchandise and blown-glass “art objects” that just coincidentally bear an uncanny resemblance to bongs. We swam in the ocean, where my boyfriend tried out newly invented and amusing faux-diving and splashing tricks and I tried in vain to float for a sustained length of time on the unpredictable waves.

I thought up some quasi-Zen mantra about how “If you want to float, you have to go deeper into the ocean, past where the waves are breaking,” something about how in order to achieve peace you have to have the courage to make it out past the chaotic bits, but I never did attain the same level of transcendent bliss that I always have in just plain old man-made, chemically sanitized swimming pools. Most of the time in the ocean I just curled up in a leapfrog position and paddled around aimlessly.

There’s another moment that I can almost tell you about, from later that night, when my boyfriend and I were waiting for our nice taxi driver (a woman from Wisconsin named Andi, whose house burned down but who's planting an impressive-sounding vegetable garden and "starting over"), to pick us up and take us back to Savannah. My boyfriend was sitting in one of two aqua-painted deck chairs in front of Social, the happenin’ spot on the island, a hip, homey wooden joint strung with so many twinkling white lights it looked like a firefly prom.

I had gotten up from my aqua-painted deck chair next to his and wandered up to where the sidewalk edges the road, ostensibly so I’d better be able to see Andi when her yellow cab finally made it to the street we were on.

On the next block was a seafood restaurant and live-music spot where two guys, one with a guitar and mic and one with what I think was a banjo (it sounded like a banjo but didn’t look like one), were performing country-tinged music, good slow-dance songs. I leaned my head and body against the fence next to Social, a tall white wooden-board fence that someone had painted a blue whale onto. I could see the slow-dance place, and hear it, just around the corner, but at the same time I could also hear jaunty music – kind of like those “R. Crumb and His Cheap-Suit Serenaders” songs on the “American Splendor” soundtrack – and laughter coming from Social, just behind where my boyfriend sat playing Civilization on his iPhone.

I stood at this poignant corner, where melancholy is one block down from jovial, and stared across the street at this tree, a magnolia I think, but exotic to me as a baobab in that moment, dramatically silhouetted against the black velvet sky. It looked so solid, and as I stared at it, it seemed weird to me that it didn’t lose its mystical exoticism under my scrutiny. I just looked and looked at that damn tree, so unlike anything in my everyday life. And then it did lose its exoticism, or I broke away, one or the other, and I flopped down next to my boyfriend and sulked in my passive-aggressive manner about how the cab was late.

I’d like to think that travel makes me a better person, that the exhilaration pumps new life into my lungs, that it clears my eyes and my head. I'd like to think that it makes me a more delightful partner to be in a relationship with, stimulated and flushed from novelty and bursting with joie de vivre. But me in Savannah is still just me, and me on an island beach with otherworldly trees on it is still just me. It’s like that scene in “Wayne’s World” after Wayne and Garth sell out and they get the technology to be magically whisked, via a TV-screen-like backdrop, to Texas, Hawaii, and Delaware. The scenery changes but it’s still just them, with their headbanger hair and flannel shirts and Chucks. 

Back by the river, I looked out at the sunrise, hoping to feel something transformative, something profound. But what I felt was the need to get back to the hotel in time to catch the cab so we could take the train back home. What I felt was a rubber band snapping me back into the everyday.

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