The Fable of Us

By: Nicole Williams

I couldn’t breathe.

That happened every time I passed by the Charleston city limits sign. I’d spent eighteen years in Charleston—born, raised, and hazed there—but had never really learned how to breathe there.

Maybe it had more to do with the exhaling part of the breathing process. I’d spent my first eighteen years of life inhaling and holding my breath: waiting, enduring, biding . . .

And then I’d gotten out.

Santa Barbara might have been a part of the same country, but it might as well have been halfway across the world, complete with an entirely different culture and lifestyle. Moving there had been like finding my promised land without knowing there was one to find.

I’d spent four years in college and the last few working. My family wanted to know when I would be coming “home,” a question they’d been pummeling me with since the day after my graduation. Three years later, and I still hadn’t worked up the nerve to tell them I was home.

Down here, Southerners seemed incapable of comprehending home being anywhere else. Especially when a person came from the kind of family I did, with the kind of history and status mine did, in the suffocating heat that was only outdone by the humidity.

Why my sister had decided to get married in the summer was beyond me, though I guessed it had something to do with making me as miserable as possible.

Oh God. My sister. The wedding. Family. Old friends. My mother’s nitpicking and cloying perfume. My father’s elbow-rubbing and cigar smoke. That house I never seemed to belong in. That city that stifled the life right out of me. That entire part of the world that seemed to eject me from it as quickly as I ejected myself.

Shit. I couldn’t do this. Not after everything.

I knew the taxi driver had the air conditioning full bore. Not because I could feel its cool rush breaking across my skin, but because I’d asked him to crank it up before we’d pulled away from the airport loading zone. I’d thought it would help.

I should have known better.

Rolling down the window a couple of cranks didn’t help either. In fact, it only made my suffocation worse. The heavy air oozed into the backseat, reeking of the same familiar scents I’d tried to erase from my memory. The Charleston air encased me, seeming to cling to my skin and fall into my lungs like a couple of cinder blocks.

I’d taken my first inhale in Charleston, and I’d be holding my breath until I passed that city limits sign in a week. I wouldn’t be able to breathe again until I’d escaped this place, and I’d spend the next three years, or preferably decades, dodging invites home for holidays or vacations.

The blocks of concrete in my lungs weren’t sitting well. I’d gone years without feeling them, and my body was fighting instead of accepting them. That had happened the last time I’d flown back here too, when it had been two years since my last visit.

When the taxi shot by another familiar sign, this one with its fresh yearly coat of paint outlining the words The Abbott Family Welcomes You to Charleston, Their home for ten generations and growing, I knew I needed to pull over and give myself a few more minutes to adjust before stumbling up the front steps of that house and succumbing to the whims and wills of my mom and sisters.

I couldn’t pass through those double doors like this or else, like sharks sensing prey in distress, they’d see me as an easy target. Or an easier target.

“Excuse me,” I said to the driver, my voice sounding strange to my ears. Probably because I’d been holding my breath for a few minutes now. “Would you mind pulling over? Sir.” I barely remembered my Southern manners and tacked on the address.

Just because I knew this wasn’t where I belonged and avoided Charleston like my very existence depended on it didn’t mean I found it evil in all ways. From an objective point of view, Charleston, and the South as a whole, had plenty going for it . . . for people whose name wasn’t Clara Abbott.

“We’re only a few miles from the address you gave me, ma’am.” The driver had a thicker accent than the locals, more New Orleans than Charleston.

“Exactly. Please pull over.”

If the driver didn’t detect the plea in my voice, he saw it on my face when he glanced at me in the rearview mirror. “No problem, ma’am. There’s a little place right up here I can pull into if you’d like to get out and catch your breath.”

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