South Carolina. He talked about it as though it were dipped in gold. Every good thing that had ever happened in his life happened to him there. He spoke of it with such fondness that, at the mere mention of the the state, I'd interrupt him. "Where everything is perfect," I'd tease in my most nasally voice, my nose wrinkled and the corners of my mouth turned down. I was jealous. Of a state.
When he spoke of South Carolina, or Hilton Head, he'd get a far away look in his eyes. His full lips would stretch into a smile as he told me story after story, laughing to himself before he even got to the punchline. It felt perverse, like verbal masturbation to a city, a state that he adored. The stories he told weren't really for me; They were for him. The served to help him recall the exact color of the ocean, the feel of the sand between his toes. The freedom in being accountable for a job and little else. He was reliving a fantasy in front of me, and my only role was the voyeur. I could see in his blue eyes how much he missed it, how desperately he wanted to go back, to feel the sticky heat on his skin, to look at the ocean every day. It was, perhaps, the only place he might consider "home."
What he never noticed was that I wanted to be what he considered home. He spoke of South Carolina with a longing I'd never heard him use in relation to me. He told me about his friends, their drunken escapades, and I listened, aware that he was always hoping to go back; Aware that he would leave me behind to go.
I was competing with a state, battling it out with her over who could make him happier. But I always knew, in the back of my mind, that he would never introduce us to one another and that she would ultimately win. The Tom he was in South Carolina didn't have me, clawing at his heels, begging to be noticed, appreciated, adored. South Carolina was far less demanding of him.
And even though I knew that it would never happen, I desperately wanted him to talk about me the way he talked about her. I wanted to be the place where everything was perfect. I wanted him to talk about the home that he promised would be "ours" someday the way he spoke of his former home state. I wanted him to think of the wooden staircase, the hardwood floors, the stone driveway with love, with reverence. I wanted that to be perfect. Not South Carolina.
On my drive to Florida, on my first vacation without him, I saw the Cafe Risque sign he'd told me about: The 24 hour diner boasting topless waitresses ("We bare! We bare!" the sign yells in big bold letters.) and sex toys. He'd told me about it a million times, how he knew he was getting closer to South Carolina when he saw that sign. And I saw the huge sombrero long before I saw the South of the Border building he'd told me about. "It's all kitsch," he'd told me. "But you almost have to stop. Just because that means you're there."
I wanted to take a long look at the state, to see what she could offer that I couldn't. I sat up in my seat, glued my eyes to the landscape, to see why he would miss her more than he would ever miss me. But my eyes felt heavy with memories, and closed despite my best efforts to keep them open. I slept through the whole state, missing its perfection entirely.