Elizabeth Pesant: Step and Do Not Step (memoir)

Southern Legitimacy Statement:
I grew up in a small town in South Carolina among the rivers and pines and sandy dirt roads. My mother, a French Huguenot from Charleston, SC, taught me that we have the ocean in our blood and pluff mud in our souls. The water with which I was baptized came, in equal parts, from the Jordan River and from the marsh on Pawley’s Island. I studied at Sewanee, the University of the South as an undergrad and as a graduate student at the University of South Carolina. I now live in Asheville, NC, where the mountains have shown me a different type of Southern than the one I am accustomed to, but one that is rich and messy and tenacious nonetheless.

Step and Do Not Step

I finally decided to get out of bed around two in the afternoon. I had woken up an hour earlier but had hidden under the sheets, trying desperately to fall back into those strange daytime dreams that took me somewhere else. It was quiet in the house, and the air seemed still. The floor creaked as I went down the hall, then downstairs to the kitchen. I had arrived home at dawn that morning, having driven, against Dad’s pleading, through the night. I had stayed on campus longer than any of my friends, pushing a final paper to the very last deadline to turn in work for the semester. I think I had a weird exchange with the young classics professor as I dropped my off my paper. The history building was unlocked, as always, but I hadn’t expected him to be in his office. He seemed mildly surprised to see me too, and uncharacteristically chatty. I leaned against the door frame and made small talk for a few minutes. He made a stupid joke. I laughed. Was there a look and pause there? Or just a pause? Who knows. I was running on mostly Adderall at this point so everything had a surreal sheen to it.  I blushed, wished him a happy break and walked slowly back out into the night.  Back in my dorm room, having done nothing but procrastinate and crank out a mediocre (at best) paper on Heraclitus for the past 24 hours, I packed for break by stuffing heaps of clothes from the closet floor into a bag. I grabbed my roommate’s half-empty box of cheez-its for the road before locking up.

 

 Campus was quiet and mostly dark, and after I drove out through the limestone gates I entertained myself for at least 30 minutes by imagining different conversations and charming banter I might have had with Dr. Owens while I was in his office. I imagined him reading my paper. I could have done better, but I think he’ll like it. He asked us to choose an ancient philosopher and apply their theory to some aspect of modern life or our personal experiences. Fluff. I think he was just as ready to wrap up class for the semester as the rest of us were. I chose Heraclitus and his metaphysics because I learned from an upperclassmen that Dr. Owens had written about him in his own doctoral dissertation.  Plus it was fairly easy to unfold the laws of constant change onto modern life. Ups and downs, pain and joy, it’s all the same- unified by the certainty of constant motion of the elements and the inevitability of change. We both step and do not step in the same rivers. We are and are not. You can step in a river, even in the exact same spot, more than once. But the water is always flowing so it can never be the same. Maybe not an “A” paper but he would like it well enough. I wished I had come up with a more clever title. For the remaining hours of the drive I passed the time by counting down to when I could have my next cigarette. I would let myself have eight, one for each hour. I don’t smoke, but the occasional cold air from the open window and the little nicotine burst, accompanied by the perfect song, provided some much-needed punctuation to the drive. I ended up smoking eleven.

Dad was around somewhere, his keys were in the bowl by the door. I had heard him upstairs earlier when he cracked the door to my room and peered in; he must have woken up and seen my car in the driveway. Downstairs in the kitchen, I searched through the fridge and pantry for something to eat. There was dust on the countertops and mail stacked in piles all over the kitchen table like a little paper city.  There was no good food in the pantry, so I ate an orange and took a sleeve of saltines outside to snack on while I walked around the property. The entire place was both familiar and strange to me. This was my grandfather’s estate, and his father’s before him. As a child I spent countless weekends and summer days here, but this is the first time that when I’ve come “home,” it’s been here. Our old house in town, where I grew up, was empty. Had it been sold already or was it just under contract? Dad said he thought people were doing some painting inside but if I called first maybe I could go visit one more time. I didn’t want to. That was my home, I knew every corner by heart, and every square inch of air in that house contained layers and layers of memories. I couldn’t call some real estate agent to ask permission to see it.  If I couldn’t go there and lean on the kitchen counter while my mom cooked, curl up on the sofa, or crawl out of my bedroom window onto the roof to lie back against the grainy shingles and look at the stars, I didn’t want to go at all. Would they paint my parents’ bedroom? I thought of the pale blue-green of those walls and how at night, with the glow from the little lights on machines and the rhythmic hum of the IV pump, you sort of felt like you were underwater. The saltine cracker I was eating stuck to the roof of my mouth and suddenly I felt like I would never be able to swallow it. I twisted the top of the waxy plastic sleeve and left the rest of them on the back porch on my way out. 

I walked down the brick path, behind the crooked old magnolia tree, towards the pool. I don’t know what I was expecting but was still a little surprised. There was dirt, mounded over the rectangular shape of what had been a pool, with the metal slide standing like a tall, gleaming headstone marking a giant grave. I wandered into the wood-shingled pool house and dressing rooms, the floor now covered with dirt and dry leaves. I turned a faucet with a squeak, but nothing came out. There was an old bathing suit hanging from one of the pegs. I touched it- stiff and light- I half expected it to evaporate into a puff of dust. 

Next on my tour of broken things was the tennis court, halfway between the house and the cotton fields. This time I knew what I would find there; it had not been maintained since my granddad had died. Grass was growing up through the cracks. The net was still there, but was rotting and sagged so far it was mostly just crumpled across the court. I peeked in the tennis shed, its door ajar and hanging a little crooked on its hinges. The tennis ball machine was still in there but I was sure it had long since stopped working. I could see sky though the roof. From there I looked back at the house- it really was a pretty place. Looking at it from that distance, it was easy to imagine it as it once was. It’s only when you get close that you notice the little circles of moss growing on the roof, or go inside that you smell the musty air, see the peeling, yellowing wallpaper, and can’t ignore the fact that this is a house that no one has lived in for years. 

A whole week came and went, and I kept my same basic sleep schedule as the first day. Occasionally I caught up with friends from high school, but mostly just wandered through the house feeling like a ghost. I would stay up after dad went to bed and kill time. It was acceptable to start drinking any time after 5. It was acceptable to smoke weed any time after my dad went to bed, especially if I was painting in the room my uncle had set up as a studio when he was my age. I was being artistic. I don’t smoke cigarettes, except for sometimes when I’m drunk or bored. If I turned the bathroom fan on and blew the smoke out of the open window while standing on the closed toilet seat, I didn’t even have to go outside.  I stayed up late and slept all day. It used to drive dad crazy when I slept in, but now he seemed to ignore it. I’m not even sure what he was doing all day, but he kind of seemed like a ghost sometimes too. 

Two of my friends from high school were living in an apartment together near downtown. Not far from my old neighborhood. The first time I drove there I almost turned up my road before I remembered. From then on I would take Lucas Street to get to their place instead of going down Chicory Road. This way was better; I would pass the gas station that never checks IDs so I could bring some beer when I came over. Smith and Josh didn’t go away to college- one of them was taking classes at community college and the other working at his dad’s store. When I went over there we would stay up all night talking. Mostly about our tiny, ultra-conservative, Christian high school, and how glad we were to be out of that place. About all the inconsistencies in our teachers’ world view and the stupidity of their righteous façade. Sometimes I felt bad for the guys for being stuck in the same small town, hanging out with the same people. I liked it, though, being part of that world for a little while, imagining what it might be like if I had an apartment in town and went out to the bars and hung out with people I’d known my whole life. It made the ground underneath me stop falling away for a moment.

I had only been off at college for one semester, but I had learned a lot. I learned about ancient Greek philosophy and American history as I’ve never heard it and how to read poetry. I learned that when cute boys refilled my red plastic cup with beer and got to the part where they ask about my family, that when I say my mom died how? Cancer…when? five months ago, things got quiet and weird and somehow no one felt flirty anymore.  I learned the face people make when they hear what they weren’t expecting and try to convey the appropriate amount of sympathy and sadness. Sometimes, later, they would try to gently prod me to talk about my mom, their solemn eyes said, go ahead, I’m the kind of guy you can talk to about this stuff. Usually I changed the subject. They didn’t hold the cards, I held the cards. But sometimes I would though, just enough, not for me but for them. To show them someone who was vulnerable and who needed them. I learned about the social contract and the Leviathan. I learned that by withholding just enough of myself people would to project what they wanted onto me. And they liked what they had created. I learned that I like cocaine. A lot. I learned about the waves of feminism. I learned that god was dead. I learned that when I was just the right kind of drunk I felt invincible. 

Christmas morning came. I woke up around mid-morning and went downstairs to the small Christmas tree in the living room that only two days before I had insisted we find and cut down. It was so small, my dad and I had no trouble dragging it back up to the house. It was a white pine, not a plump Frasier fir like you get on from the tree lots, so the long needles drooped down under the weight of the lights and the few ornaments I hung. There were the same wrapped gifts under the tree that my aunt and uncle had dropped off earlier that week, along with the sweater I bought in town for my dad. I found my dad outside, working on a fence to keep deer out of the garden. He came inside, we opened the gifts, and then I went right back to drifting around the house, a museum of all the people who had ever lived there. I poked around the attic and looked through boxes upon boxes of old photos. 

Christmas is a holiday, and on holidays it is acceptable to start drinking after lunch. I didn’t eat lunch, but if I had I would have been finished with it by two, which is when I mixed my first drink. The light coming in through the windows moved all the way across the floor, across the piles of family photos I found in a file box in the attic. I heard my dad leave to go down the street to have Christmas dinner with some relatives I never see and hardly know. I wasn’t dressed yet. I would meet him there later. The squares of window-light reached all the way to the wall on the other side of the room before fading away all together. I switched to wine. At some point I must have crawled into bed; I passed the invincible stage and had arrived at just numb. 

The phone rang. I never answered the house phone; it was never for me. It rang and rang. A few minutes of quiet and it rang again. I pulled myself down the hall to the study to answer. It was my dad. Where was I? Dinner was supposed to be at eight and everyone had been sitting at the table, waiting for me for half an hour. I would not be going to dinner, I told him, please go on without me. I went back to bed. I woke up some hours later when he came into my room and turned on the light. There were empty bottles on the floor. He picked one up- are you drunk? What were you thinking? What is wrong with you? Do you know how many people you inconvenienced tonight? Do you realized how rude that was? He stared at me with anger and disbelief. I’ve never been more disappointed in you.  

I broke. The tears just started running down my face, and all the sadness I felt so proud of myself for conquering came bubbling up to the top. “I miss Mom,” I croaked, and started to try to say how sad I felt this Christmas. I couldn’t put the words together, everything I was trying to say just dissolved into sobs and frantic gasps. He turned and walked out of the bedroom and down the stairs. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so sad and angry at the same time. I had to get out of this house. I had to go home. I grabbed my sleeping bag from my closet and my keys, ran out to my car, and drove into the night.  My eyes were blurry and my head swam but I’ve never needed to get anywhere so badly. Somehow I made it, past my old high school, by the park, down Chickory Road, through my neighborhood and to my home. I still had my keys. The driveway was dark. I walked up to the back door like I’ve done so many times before, and let myself in. I blinked in the dark and at first thought that it was my mind, filling the void in this familiar place with shapes of furniture because emptiness didn’t make sense. But my eyes adjusted, and the shapes remained. Someone had moved in. There were things. Photos. A Christmas tree. I shined my cell phone screen across the darkness as I backed up, locked the door, and left. This was not my home anymore. The things I needed to experience again were gone forever; changed in a way that can’t be undone. You can’t step in the same river twice.