This is the part of the story that’s hard to tell. I want to tell the whole story, the true story, or at least as complete of a story as I can fit into a few posts, so I can’t limit the narrative to the glorious moments of this life we chose and ignore the moments less-glorious. So, while I have great love for the Carolinas in general and my islands in particular now, and hesitate to say anything less than complimentary, the truth is, our passage to get to this point was not entirely smooth. And thus we enter the intermittent rough waters portion of the tale.
As soon as we got to the condo, we started looking for a place to rent that would be more to our liking. This was challenging because we were staying in a rental without internet access, like most in 2004, and dragging a newborn and a toddler to a coffee shop for hours of research seemed a task more daunting than finding a cure for stupid. At first, we attempted to stay on the same island, and as a courtesy, our realtor who was going to help us eventually buy a place took us to a rental that would have been wonderful were it not for the mold covering most the walls, given we wanted to have moved in yesterday. The other place she directed us toward I wrote about in When I Am an Old Woman, a mostly lovely place that was nevertheless impractical for our situation.
We regrouped and decided to extend our search to hit several islands to the north and south of our original target. I sent out mass emails inquiring about long-term rentals to owners on VRBO, a by-owner vacation rental site, and we took day trips to several of the islands to scope things out.
In the end, we found one side of an oceanfront duplex almost an hour away from where we had started, on one of the more isolated islands. The island itself was beautiful, the rental rate was reasonable, and its remoteness appealed to our sense of adventure and our quest to find something outside of ordinary.
And find it, we did. Every night around dinnertime, I would sit out on the edge of the deck stairs leading to the beach and wait for LCB to finish his work. About half the time, I’d see dolphins, sometimes a couple of them, sometimes 10 or more, traveling parallel to the coast, their smooth-skinned backs breaking the water’s surface, time and again. As often as not, I’d stand up, look up and down the shore and realize I was the only person out there for as far as I could see. I’d rarely been that far away from it all, and certainly never on a beach before, so there was a dream-like quality to the experience in the beginning. And by the time November hit, we reveled in the days when the temperatures still hit 80 and in the fact that the ocean, while colder, was still very swimmable by our Lake Michigan standards.
However, we had two factors to contend with early on. The first involved the fact that the new island we had chosen was in the South, a region of the country entirely foreign to us.
The most unsettling aspect of being on an island in the South, something I now find hysterical, was the people that would approach us to love all over our baby and our toddler. The first few times it happened, honestly it scared me a little, so wary was I of their sudden, unsolicited comradery. It’s not that I was entirely unaccustomed to the friendliness of others, as Chicago is reasonably friendly for a big city; I just wasn’t accustomed to being accosted by it. So, I’d hold my infant with a vice grip, scanning the area for potential makeshift weaponry, ready to imitate every martial arts move I’d ever seen on those mindless movies LCB occasionally felt led to watch during our
quality time together. Invariably, these people would say a bunch of sweet things to my sons and often to us, and hold the baby’s fingers or pat his head or even give either of our boys a hug (these were complete strangers, mind you), share a story or seven and move on, leaving me speechless and LCB behind me, wordlessly standing down.
At first, I enjoyed the neighborliness and hospitality of the new people I met, reveling in the whole “changes in latitude, changes in attitude” thing. But then, somewhere along the way, I grew suspicious. People were, quite honestly, a little too nice. I began to suspect this was designed to mask how Yankee-crazy they all correctly thought we were. LCB looked at me funny when I told him my theory.
“I’m widely read in the genre of Southern literature,” I explained, as if he hadn’t noticed my face planted in all those books for the last decade, and as if my expertise in Southern culture was then indisputable. “Southerners excel at being warm, amiable and welcoming, but that doesn’t mean they still don’t think we’re crazy.” As an example, I brought up a situation that was currently causing me some angst, as I couldn’t figure out the culturally-acceptable thing to do. The local church we were attending had plenty of kids in their children’s church program, but no babies in their nursery, so I was keeping ours in the service with me for as long as possible, not wanting to cause extra work over just my one child. “Take the comment we’ve often heard about how well-behaved our baby is in church,” I continued. “What if it’s the kind, culturally-appropriate way of suggesting we put our baby in the nursery already? You know Mr. So-and-So?” I asked, referring to a quiet, dignified, near-patriarch of the town who attended the church. “I think he gave me a disapproving look masked in a smile last week. I can’t be sure, but I think it was friendly mixed with disapproval.” LCB didn’t say much to my carefully-crafted argument centered around no evidence at all. In these situations, he’s usually rendered mute, oddly enough.
The second factor we had to deal with was the fact that we were now living in a small, small town. When we told our realtor where we’d found a place, for instance, she looked a little surprised. “You’ve noticed you’re really out in the boondocks there, haven’t you?” she asked, and explained that she and her husband had decided against someday retiring on a nearby, equally remote island they owned property on, citing, “We’re just never going to be that old and that slow.” The island had one restaurant and one grocery store in the most technical sense: the restaurant did serve food and the grocery store did have a tiny handful of food products for sale. Both were very occasionally open. A small number of businesses were available on the causeway leading to the island; anything these couldn’t offer meant calling in the family, hitching up the buggy and preparing for a drive into “town” quite some miles away.
Y’all, we had just come from the western suburbs of Chicago, where the only question was which of the mall monstrosities to go to when you needed a new pair of jeans so you knew which 200+ set of stores you’d have at your disposal. Restaurants had set hours, and lots of them to boot. And a mere 20-minute drive (barring traffic) brought us to the downtown of the third largest city in the country, a drive we made often.
Yet now here we were, in the land of “Go to Dave’s place down off of the intersection of Highway 42 and Seashore Drive. He’s a great accountant, and he’ll do your bush hogging for you, too, if you need it.” And here I was, the ignorant city girl, who 1.) didn’t know one could have more than one non-related specialty simultaneously, because the thought had never occurred to me, and 2). didn’t know what bush hogging even was, so it was hard to surmise whether a bush hogging accountant would be a useful business contact or not.
LCB’s adjustments were on a different front. Anyone who knows LCB knows he’s high-octane, and 90% of his living is done in high speed. So it was with great merriment that I watched him, those first few weeks, adjusting to the slower pace of a small, small town, having lived for so many years now in the great shadow of a big, always-moving city. For the life of him, for instance, he could not understand why the screen door he took in to the local hardware store took two months to make. “In Chicago, worst case, I’d have to wait until the next day for it,” he went around mumbling, both to himself and to anyone else in the Northern Hemisphere who’d listen.
The great merriment diminished, however, when I realized I was ill-equipped to handle the change of pace as well. There were several small frustrating incidents that led up to what I’ll call “The Pediatrician Incident.” Due to a death in our new pediatrician’s extended family and to the fact that she wasn’t part of a large practice with other doctors who could fill in for her (like the one I was accustomed to in Chicago), I ended up having to reschedule and wait longer than anticipated for a check-up for my baby son.
On the day of the rescheduled appointment then, I mapquested directions which took me to a decidedly unmedical-looking trailer. I pulled over, called the office, sat on hold for 5 minutes, and then waited while the receptionist took what felt like 7 years to give correct directions. She finished, but then said, “Oh wait, it will take you at least 10 minutes to get here, which will make you 15 minutes late, which means as per our policy, you’ll have to reschedule again.” I swallowed hard, sat for another 10 minutes rescheduling yet again and then drove the route so I’d be certain for next time. Without speeding but with efficiency I guess, it took me just under 5 minutes to get there. I came home, got my son out of the car, and climbed the steps to our front door. Mid-climb, my frustrations over adapting to small-town life overwhelmed me, and the dam burst, in the form of a half-sob, half-yell. What I said was not completely horrible. But it wasn’t good either. Let’s put it this way: It will not be repeated. I have small people.
Then I opened the door, saw LCB sitting at the kitchen table, and said, “I think I want to go home.”