Adrift in Charleston

Tonight, I DJ’d with my friend Tom for a wedding at the West Monroe Convention Center. It was a beautiful wedding, and I truly wish the couple the best. I made some extra money, some new friends, saw some beautiful scenery, and got some writing done while I was there. Earlier, I had done yard work half the day, worked on my short story for the Booklocker Short Story Contest, and practiced with Tom and Mary. (We have a bunch of gigs coming up! Most of them will require me to wear a kilt, which I love doing) I finished my short story for the contest, and I decided to post it now. Let me know what you think of it, okay? These 24 hour writing contests are grueling, but even if I don’t win, I always end up with a good story. The topic was emailed to me noon Saturday. The topic was:

She could hear the buoy bell ringing in the distance but it
was too dark to see anything beyond the receding foamy
water. She shivered as the wind picked up, knowing a
late-season Nor’easter would hit in the next few hours,
and knowing this was her last chance. She raised her
arm and threw the glass bottle into the darkness…

Now, you’re probably asking yourself how you would turn this into a story. Let me tell you how I did it. I researched buoys and Nor’easters, brainstormed possible issues and conflicts and settings. I also made a list of what I thought the other entries would do so I could avoid writing anything similar. As I thought the topic was a little dark and suggested despair, I decided to make it an unrequited love story. I gambled on no one choosing Charleston (a city I know and love well) as a setting, and as I thought most other entries would focus on the storm, I decided to focus on the buoy. The word limit was 1,000 words; mine ended up 952 words. Of course, I will likely edit it and add some lines that of course have come to me since the initial writing. Anyway, here is the story I sent in.

Adrift in Charleston

A man who finds the love of his life and then loses her is like a sailor adrift alone in the sea.

Standing at the seawall along the Charleston Battery, I toasted Elizabeth with my Heineken and chugged down the last swallow. I heaved the bottle, as empty as myself, into the ocean. Like her, like us, the bottle vanished in the darkness in an instant. I suddenly felt old, rejected. I was 54, and I felt Elizabeth–my lover for a year, my best friend, my muse–had been my last chance–my last chance at finding the love of my life.

A late season Nor’easter had pounded the East Coast with rain and gale force winds and would soon hit Charleston. My flight out had been cancelled, and I was stuck alone in the city we should have traveled to together. Though only four in the afternoon, the dark clouds that always accompany a Nor’easter had blotted out the sun, and I could see nothing but the white foamy beards of waves crashing into the seawall.

The gusts of wind intensified. Soaked to the skin from the mist, I shivered. I listened to the wind, but like Elijah, I heard no still small voice in the wind that would tell me what to do. She and I had talked of Charleston, of coming here together. But our relationship had ended recently, not an angry, messy end–it had just ended. Not face to face, nor with a phone call, just with an email. She said I had treated her like a queen the past year, and that I had been chivalrous, even in this “separation.” I know I handled the break well on the outside, but inside I didn’t do so well. A part of me wants her to be happy in the choice she made–but only a part. I know there’s an ocean of women I could pursue, but I also know there’s only one Elizabeth and that I could never love another like I love her.

A seagull lit on the seawall near me.

“Do you gulls really peck out a man’s eyes when he’s lost at sea?” I said. Great, I thought. You’re standing in the rain talking to seagulls. Shades of Poe. The gull did a little dance, balancing herself on one leg, then the other, and like Poe’s Raven, gave me no real answer to my question.

I heard a buoy ringing and saw its light in the darkness moving toward me, up the Ashley River. The heaving sobs of the ocean caused the four iron clappers inside its bronze bell to chant a dirge that matched my own mood. The storm must have severed the buoy’s mooring, and like me, the buoy was destined to be carried by some unseen current to some unknown destination. My gull flew off and lit on the buoy as if searching for a resting place before the coming storm. After a moment, she lifted her wings and the wind carried her into the dark sky and the buoy and I were left alone again.

A year ago, I had fallen in love with Elizabeth at first sight. Adrift in my own life and without map or lighthouse or compass to guide me, the past year I had held on to her like a drowning sailor clutching a spar. She was the only thing that had kept me afloat–she was my life buoy. Both of us were English teachers, and we taught our students literature’s themes of love, loss, and longing. The hurricane we brewed in our year’s romance taught us more about those timeless topics, and our breakup tutored me about the ephemeral nature of love. I imagined her in Mobile, Alabama with her ex this weekend. Good weather there. She was having happy sunshine days, she said. I wondered what they might be doing. They might walk to the bay, but they wouldn’t see or think or know of this buoy I was seeing. She wouldn’t imagine a lonely sailor (English teacher) standing in a storm, lost in the sea of love, fighting for his life and sanity, fighting the ocean’s currents and undertow that threatened to drag him to the bottom.

I closed my eyes, imagining Elizabeth standing with me now. I could see her in my mind, with her long strawberry blonde hair, her emerald green eyes, her freckled face, and her hand upon my arm. And as always when around her, I suddenly found it hard to breathe. Waking from my reverie, and tired of the misting rain, I decided to return to the bar. I had left it earlier because of the songs coming from the juke box. Each song’s story and each attached memory breaking my heart and making me think of her. Elizabeth was the woman in all those songs, just like she was the muse for the 300 poems I had written her the past year. It’s not easy to let her go.

As I turned to leave the seawall, a flock of seagulls passed above my head and lit on a group of new buoys that had drifted into the bay. I heard gull cries mingle with the bells of the buoys, indifferent to the fact that currents and wind would soon separate them. Maybe the gulls will return to the same buoys someday. Maybe Elizabeth will return to me. “Who knows what the future holds?” she had said in her last email. I studied the bobbing buoys, the gulls on top of them and thought that neither gulls nor buoys would be together there long. The storm was coming, and the buoys would soon be adrift, alone–just like me.