Joyland

The South |

Tilly the Brokenhearted

by Victoria Campbell

edited by Michelle Lyn King

Tilly and I order endless takeout. Chinese and Thai and pepperoni pizza. We eat with our fingers and blunted wooden sticks. Forks are too much effort for girls like us. We queue up movies that make us cry, Steel Magnolias, Cold Mountain, My Girl. We quote lines back and forth until the characters’ quips become our own. It’s easier this way, to hide behind a black-clad Sally Field as she loses it in a cemetery, or an aproned Nicole Kidman as she loses it in a snowy field, or any Hollywood woman, really, as she loses it somewhere scenic, somewhere needled with the five pointed leaves of green ivy, the sweeping white of a snow-choked pasture silhouetting her perfect figure. If we stop watching, it’s pretty clear Tilly or I will lose it, and it won’t be in some pastoral scene, it will be in this bed, the week-old sheets perfumed with a thousand soy sauce packets, pebbled with the dry husks of pork fried rice.

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When I got the phone call from Tilly, I was sitting on the couch that I lost, floral sheets tumbling in the dryer that I lost, sipping wine from a glass that I lost, sheltered under the A-frame roof of the house that I lost. From Tilly’s tone, I could tell this was going to be a hold-onto-your-hats conversation, a this-one-is-gonna-leave-a-mark. Tilly’s boyfriend of two moths had ditched her, returned her first editions and Bob Dylan records. She sobbed while I sipped, and, before my glass was empty, she guilted a visit out of me. I should’ve told her then that Nick and I were through, that he was crashing with a friend on Middle Road until I could find a place of my own. I didn’t, though, because saying it would have made it real, and making it real would have made it mine. Instead, I you-deserve-better-ed and fuck-that-guy-ed and let Tilly take center stage as she always had. Then I bonneted on my savior hat, headed straight for Florida.

#

Saint Augustine has rebranded as the oldest city in the States, but show me what early settlers settled on a Gone With The Wind themed bar called Scarlett O’Hara’s, a hot sauce store whimsically titled the Pepper Palace. I would like to get my hands on that history book. Tilly cast off from the island six months ago in search of a place without seasons, a forever spring break. Winter on the island is wind that starts gusting in October and doesn’t stop until May. Trees bend, phone lines snap, shingles weather. We continue. Tilly ran from winter on Martha’s Vineyard, traded her snow boots for flip-flops, parkas for sundresses. She asked me to come with her, but I demurred. After all, winter on the island is all I’ve ever known.

#

As Tilly cruises the television channels for our next tearjerker, I investigate the brightly colored pamphlets I scooped from the airport information desk and start to build an itinerary. One offers a voyage upon the Mighty Black Raven, promising the most exciting interactive pirate show this side of the moon, another shills a riveting trolley tour of the city’s most scenic sights. I show Tilly the literature for The Trolley of the Damned, a nighttime ghost tour, and she laughs, but we both know we don’t need tickets to ride that train.

#

Tilly plays the TV bereaved, oversized black shades, a Ferragamo headscarf. It is ninety degrees outside the contained cool of the air-conditioned studio, but I know better than to argue. This is Tilly The Cool Girl, Tilly The Thunder Stealer, Tilly The Brokenhearted. With cobblestoned streets under my feet, I wince as the Saint Augustine sun sears black orbs into my pupils. Sweat halos my hairline. Tilly locks her front door and we swarm with the doughy day trippers wandering the narrow alley of Saint George Street. With the tourist pamphlets wedged into my purse, we are setting out to plant Tilly’s flag in this swampy ground, to make this historic hellhole hers.

#

This is not my first rodeo with Tilly The Brokenhearted. We have rehearsed these moves countless times, our first waltz box-stepped in middle school when I comforted her after Mark Edwards shattered her still developing heart. Together, we shredded his yearbook photo she had tacked in her locker, exed out his heart-ringed name in a graffitied bathroom stall. These days, broken hearts are harder to suture, but I’ve always been around to pick up the pieces.

#

According to our tour guide, every step you take in this city means a foot in someone else’s grave. Tilly and I pay eight dollars to be led on a walking tour with a group of family reunioners sporting t-shirts that advertise their lifelong membership to the Jones clan. Our guide serves up story after story of hauntings: the little girl gone blue from the plague who hangs around the city’s coquinaed gates waiting for her mother. The forlorn lover who forever weeps over the flaking tombstone of his would-be bride. The pirate who paces the sea wall eyeballing the horizon for the sails of his lost ship. If you believe the stories, these ghosts are looking for something in this city, but I can’t help but wonder if maybe they’re just trying to set the record straight, to say, hey, you’ve got it all wrong. It’s not my mother I’m looking for, but my brother; or I wasn’t sad when she kicked the bucket—she had been stepping out on me, anyway; or when that ship sank I was glad—turns out it wasn’t a pirate’s life for me, after all.

#

Here’s the thing about gossip on the island: the mill is always churning and everyone is fair game. Did you hear about Liz and Brian? They’re back together. The drunk girl who gunned her Camry over the jetty and into the Menemsha Basin? She was last seen downing tequila at the Ritz. I know my name is making the rounds in the all-island game of telephone. I know that my conveniently timed departure is good gossip. I know that my absence is making tongues wag fervently. I don’t know how it will feel to return.

#

Once during our island wild youth, and because we had seen it in some movie, Tilly and I halved the whorled flesh of our pointer fingers with a blunt fishing knife until blood welled then pressed tips together, laughing as we promised forever friendship. When Tilly tells this story, it ends here, our fingers sealed. But I remember the after, the moment when I tongued the tangy blood, imagined I would never feel closer to another living thing.

#

At the Lady de la Leche Shrine, Spanish Moss beards every oak, and the paths that meander past gravestones are shaded by the leaves of palmettos. We wander, stop every so often to read a bronzed plaque detailing the lives of the nuns who lived on these grounds. Back on the island, we have our own stories to tell, but we don’t hand them over to every eager tourist who comes knocking. Imagine the plaque telling the story of the two brothers who no longer speak due to a land dispute, the town drunk who backed over his kid in the driveway, the police officer who executed a wild turkey for exhibiting menacing behavior. Tourists don’t want those stories, they want the ghosts, the glamour, the glistening orbs. As Tilly reads about the last abbess who reigned supreme over these grounds, I imagine the plaque that would stand in front of Nick and my place: Love Don’t Live Here No More.

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On the bricked patio of the Tini Martin Bar, Tilly and I sip extra dirties, spear olives crammed with blue cheese. The yellow sun arrows off the surface of the Saint John’s River, the smell of the water sweet and cloying. Tilly is talking about the city, about how she really feels she can make a home for herself here. I nod, dreg my martini. Stay forever, she says. I’m so happy I could fry. The Florida sun obliges.

#

All things considered, I think I’m keeping it together pretty well. Our two martini lunch doesn’t loosen my tongue enough to let the whole story come cartwheeling out. When Tilly offhandedly asks me about island life, I give her the basics: bare birches, frost-stitched ground, Mr. Taylor’s third DUI in as many weeks. I don’t tell her that I fucked up, that I spent a night in a bed that wasn’t my own and that there was no coming back from it. It was only my first strike but I was out all the same.

#

On Saint Augustine Beach, the sand is white and finely grained, the shore unmarred by the ochre boulders that pockmark the island’s coast. Tilly and I walk in the wake of the cresting waves, the warm water spackling our ankles and calves. The tide turns, left-behind water pooling and reshaping the shore. On this beach, it is easy to forget about the island, to think that maybe back there was nothing more than a story I told myself to keep the Florida heat at bay, that my unforgiveable night never really happened. The receding tide drags our footprints out to sea, the ocean easily mopping up any clues of our existence.

#

Our last stop of the day is at the Fountain of Youth. I’m hoping for shade, spring water running cool and sweet, a single swallow erasing my crows feet, salving my winter-dried skin, but I’m old enough to know that anything heralded on a billboard is probably too good to be true. The attraction buses in tourists from South Florida, from Georgia, from South Carolina. I want to roll my eyes at these silly Southern pilgrims but we are here, too. Tilly and I queue with the other tourists, stand in line for fifteen minutes until we finally gain entry to the small shack with a stone-ringed well. A park worker in conquistador garb strokes his pointed beard, doles out paper Dixie cups. Tilly and I here’s to us and tip back our heads. The water is blood-warm and sulfur-infused, coating my tongue with the taste of egg. If this is youth, I don’t want any part of it. Outside in the blinding sun, Tilly vogues and smiles, asks me if she looks any younger. Yes, I want to tell her, but it would be another lie. If we’re being honest, I wasn’t really hoping for baby skin or a set of milk teeth. I wanted a rewind, a return to island childhood summers whittled away with Tilly, a time when our biggest concerns focused on whose house we would sleepover at, on which boy would ask us to Friday’s all-island dance. I wanted a clean slate, a wiping of mistakes and choices made in adulthood. I wanted to return to that moment with Tilly, our bloodied fingers sealed under the star-sick sky, the sound of the bell buoy in the harbor clanging to the pace of our rabbit hearts.

#

Back in Tilly’s apartment, we shake out her sheets, toss them in the stacked washer. We open a bottle of champagne, the cork popcorning off the ceiling. We drink to youth, to each other, to summer on the island. I pack my carry on, fold sundresses that will remain closeted until May. Buoyed by the bubbles of champagne, Tilly is no longer the brokenhearted but the triumphant. She is excited about this city, about the opportunity to tell her own story, about the chance to embellish and omit. With her fact-checkers floating in the middle of the frozen Atlantic, her history is hers to craft and of that I am jealous. But I am not Tilly—I cannot trade in the island for a different address. I cannot bill myself a new origin story, a new girl to be reborn in a sharper version of the original mold. I can only hope that this me is enough, that the letters of my name I’ve fingertipped in the island’s sand since birth have not been erased in a turning tide.

#

In 4E, I watch out the oval window of the plane as palm trees become matchsticks, become blades of grass, become the blue of cruising altitude. My flight to Boston is easy and I’ve splurged on a connector to the island. In the nine person cabin of the Cape Air flight, the twin engines shudder to life and then we are climbing, the buildings of Boston scraping the metallic March sky. Bean Town becomes a snow globe city and then we are in a white fog, the propellers pummeling the air. With my cell phone off and a watchless wrist, it is impossible to tell how much time has passed. Those minutes, so many hours. We descend suddenly, my stomach still floating at cruising altitude and then the ocean appears, the greens and teals more Caribbean than Atlantic. Beneath the clear water, I can see the wrecked hull of a one-time ship, the wood of a would-be home, the invisible remnants of forgotten lives repurposed for a minnow’s amusement park. Wheels coast lightly over slicked tarmac. Seagulls catwalk the runway. An air traffic controller opens the door, welcomes us to the island, the smell of the wet grass and ocean-thickened air nearly driving me to kiss the salty tarmac. In this moment, I know that no matter what is said about me in living rooms or in neon lit bars, this will not become the island that I lost.

Image Credit: Xander Robin