A thousand midday suns threaded delicate beams of light through the thick canopy of oak above. The leaves themselves seemed to sigh together perhaps to emulate the coming and going of a gentle tide. Heavy, ancient branches groaning and knocking as their leaves caught the gentle breeze, unfelt but no less present to those walking below. For all the noise made by the live oaks which populated Lafayette Square, the characteristic sound here was that of the fountain in its center. A steady and gentle rush of water falling from two bowls into a round pool surrounded by a low brick wall, the fountain seemed as timeless, as unrushed as the Spanish Moss swaying from the branches above.
My mind was elsewhere. Far from the beauty of the square and farther still from the peace the space evokes to so many visitors and locals alike. I would depart Savannah for Afghanistan again that day, a goodbye I've grown more numb to rather than accepting of. Yet, as I paced over the undulating brick sidewalks which passed the fountain, my mind flashed to another time, another night, years before.
Suddenly, I stood at the north end of the fountain, the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist to my back and in the still amber twilight of the square ahead, there she stood. She was pacing and turning playfully around the fountain wall. Her features as veiled by darkness then as they are by time now. The streetlights behind her silhouetting her shoulders here, an outstretched arm there, every elegant motion defined as I approached. My arrival wouldn’t interrupt her dance, she had been waiting for me after all.
But then the daylight reached my eyes again, eyes which saw what lay ahead and not what lay behind. Nothing atop the fountain wall but a few scattered leaves. My pace quickened to match my thoughts, now facing a surge of memory and the weighty thought that this space held so many of them for me. This one square bore memories of new love, of heartache, of playfulness and friendship, of beauty and repose, of uncertainty and anxiety. And yet I had almost walked by without a nod to any of it.
I had fallen in love with Savannah in thatsquare. I had fallen in love, in Savannah, in that square. Maybe the city is a little bit bewitched, all the tour companies would surely have you believe it. The number of weddings and local photographers who make their livings off them might share the sentiment. Was I a hopeless romantic before I made my home here or did the city seep into me somehow?
In Madison Square, I met a former love, her as nervous as I as we agreed to start anew together. We hadn't sat on the bench more than five minutes before a photography student asked to take our photo, commenting on how lovely we looked together. I had barely regained my breathe after running half a dozen blocks to meet her after waiting in the wrong square, despite the fact that I'd chosen where to meet.
In Orleans Square, the low stone benches held us both as we stretched our legs out and commented on the noise of the night around us. A lifetime later, I sat at an opposite bench and put pen to paper in memory of the same girl, both of us long since moved on from each other and her, from the city we met. The memory a ghost in front of me, outstretched on the same bench in its own eternal twilight.
At the entrance to Colonial Park Cemetery, I sat next to a woman dressed for the 18th century, dressed so for a ghost tour she was to lead. Though I'd arrived, the group she was to host had canceled. And so we sat at the head of so many graves, myself speaking to someone who no doubt resembled a wanderer from one of them. She would nearly be the death of me, but then, how could I have known?
I passed McDonough's, the neighborhood pub where I once spotted a stranger, obviously uncomfortable with her company, and struck up conversation. Her blue eyes softened, beaming, defiant of the low lit bar. She was on holiday from the UK with only a day in Savannah, her time nearly spent. With no regard to the late hour, we walked down Bull Street, up Barnard, waving my hands with aplomb while recalling the stories of Casimir Pulaski, James Oglethorpe and introducing the ghosts of Wright Square and the 1790 Hotel. We strolled until the sun rose and once it had, we took my motorcycle across the bridge to catch a view of the city from Hutchinson Island.
A red dress and long, dark hair amid the lasers and artificial smoke; I swear she moved in slow motion. Caught in a downpour with only a canopy of leaves to shield us. A kiss in the rain. Sunrises at Tybee Island. Bioluminescent plankton aglow to match the stars. Countless late night walks, the city ours, sharing a laugh as some stranger stumbled through a scene so clearly meant for two. In my memory, glasses clink together, smiles widen, laughter echoes, though I can't say whose it is. The sun shines through my bedroom window and catches the gold in her hair, leaves shuffle in the autumn wind and summers heat melts away as the motorcycle throttle edges higher. For all the noise of the motor and wind, I can hear my thoughts as clear as ever.
If this is what every young man is faced with as he says farewell to his salad days, then why did no one warn me?
Geographically and socially, Savannah is just the right size that these memories slosh among one another in a suffocating fashion. As sweet as the memories are, the bitterness of time passed opportunity missed near corrupts the place for me. Could I ever share a bench or midnight stroll with someone new without being reminded of those who came before? The magic of the city added to the magic of these past encounters, and in so doing may have diluted them both. I think on the past and can't help but fear that no new romance could top the stories whose epilogue I now ponder.
Today, the song Savannah sings is more glum than sweet. Still, it remains a masterpiece of sirens song and I long for the place just the same. Under those same branches and beneath the same sighing leaves, someone sits smiling tonight. My own ghosts among them.