The students are coming back. The normally sleepy side street near the coffee house where I like to write is jammed with buses and orange traffic cones cordoning off parking spaces. I drive a few blocks, looking for a place to turn around, and pass a small but mighty band of protestors standing in the rain. They shout angrily about being displaced, wave signs decrying gentrification. The objects of their outrage – the teenagers to early twenty-somethings filing off the buses – barely notice. It’s orientation day.
Just yesterday, I talked to a friend in California and expressed my anxiety about returning to in-person classes for the first time in a year and half. On the one hand, I’m so ready. I didn’t move to southeast Georgia to spend my days cooped up in my apartment, staring at a computer screen. On the other hand, I’ve already completed two-thirds of my degree requirements online, in relative isolation. Zoom and Slack and FaceTime have become my new normal. It’s hard to imagine going back into that crowded Liberal Arts building on Bull Street, with hundreds of students buzzing through its busy hallways.
It’s particularly hard to square the sight of all those buses and all those kids spilling out onto the streets of downtown Savannah with the stories dominating the local news broadcasts. Covid infections and hospitalizations are at an all-time high, thanks to Georgia’s low vaccination rate and the more contagious Delta variant, which has been spreading like wildfire ever since K-12 schools reopened in early August. For the first time since the pandemic began, Savannah’s hospitals are full, and local doctors are publicly pleading with people to get vaccinated. Yet life goes on, indifferent. And the students are coming back.
Eighteen months in, it’s hard to imagine what “normal” will look like or how re-entry into something resembling real life will feel. Social media memories remind me of the way I used to live, of air travel and birthday parties and Broadway shows. It has been four years since I left Los Angeles to move to New York, yet both of those places now feel so distant from me it’s hard to believe I lived in either one of them. Even as I ache for the narrow cobblestone streets of the West Village and the gentle sweep of the Pacific seen from Palisades Park, it’s almost as though I’ve always been here, in this perpetual Southern summer shaded by Spanish Moss, the parade of similar days sliding into one another on repeat.
I may not feel time passing, but it is passing all the same. Pandemic or no, life simply won’t stay suspended forever. It marches ever onward, toward its inevitable endpoints: my thesis, the completion of the MFA program requirements, a terminal degree.
And then what? I don’t – and can’t – yet know. But for now, summer is ending. A new chapter is beginning. And the students are coming back.
It was early evening by the time I arrived at the building on Drayton Street. I gave my Lyft driver the gate code, he punched it in, and heavy iron doors swung open to let us inside. I’d only been there once before – on a Monday morning in December – and the place looked totally different in darkness. Long, ominous shadows stretched across the parking lot as we wound our way toward the back of the complex.
It wasn’t the type of place you could easily find if you didn’t know where to look. My apartment and its five neighboring units were classified as live-work spaces: airy, high-ceilinged, industrial lofts with unassuming eggshell façades and a stripe of steel blue across their midsections. Two of the units had storefronts facing Drayton Street (one belonged to an acupuncture therapist, the other a waxing studio), but their signage was understated, and didn’t reveal that just beyond the heavy iron gates there were actual people, living actual lives.
My landlord’s son – who lived next door and who was supposed to let me in – had stopped answering my texts. “I’m here!” I typed cheerfully as we drove through the gate, but he didn’t reply. I arrived to find his apartment eerily quiet, with all its lights off.
“You don’t have to wait,” I told the driver, as he unloaded my luggage into the parking lot. “I’m sure he’ll be back any minute.” “It’s no problem,” he said. “I want to make sure you get in OK.”
I knew he was just being polite, but his answer annoyed me. I was tired from the move, the long travel day, and the jumble of thoughts swimming around in my brain, and the last thing I wanted was to stand around awkwardly in a dark parking lot with some stranger. “Just go,” I thought, looking down at my phone again and silently pleading for the text that would rescue me. No text came, but suddenly, something else broke through the quiet evening: the sharp blare of a horn. The noise repeated again, and then again, growing louder and sharper with each subsequent blast. The driver looked at me, a question in his eyes. “Freight train!” I yelled, pointing to the tracks running just beyond the parking lot where we stood.
“That’s loud!” He yelled back, as the train chugged past us. “Does it come through here often?!?”
I shrugged. “Two or three times a day, I think. But the noise doesn’t last for very long.”
He raised a skeptical eyebrow but said nothing, probably because he didn’t feel like yelling. I looked down at my phone again: still no message. I sighed. “I appreciate you waiting with me,” I told him, “But really, you can go. I’ll be fine.”
“Well alright, if you’re sure,” he said, already walking toward his car. “Welcome to Savannah.”
I’ve been here for three weeks now. Three weeks in which time has simultaneously been speeding by and standing still. After I gained access to my apartment (my neighbor, as it turned out, had fallen asleep, which seems a miracle, given the train), I’d barely put sheets on the bed before I went to grad school orientation, picked up my ID badge, and bought a stack of textbooks at the campus bookstore. I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that I arrived in Savannah, and my life changed overnight. And ever since that first day, I’ve been on a treadmill, trying to keep up.
I’m sure there will come a time in the not-too-distant-future when I come up for air. When I get a Georgia driver’s license, and a car, and start exploring the southeastern coast and the world outside of graduate school. My sanity demands it. But for the moment, most of my time in Savannah is confined to Starland, the quirky midtown neighborhood where I live. Starland’s vibe is young and artsy, populated by enough hip eateries, cool watering holes, and fair-trade coffee houses that it feels like someone took Portland, Oregon, and plunked it down in the middle of the south.
If I have to be stuck without a car, there are worse places. I’m six blocks from Arnold Hall, SCAD’s writing building, where I have all of my classes. In Starland, I can walk to dinner, to coffee, to yoga class, to the local art store, and to a gas station/convenience mart that’s the closest thing I’ve found to a New York City bodega. I can go days without leaving this neighborhood, which, since most of my time is devoted to writing essays and reading large volumes of text, is pretty darn convenient. And though I haven’t seen all of Savannah, I feel pretty confident in saying that fate has already landed me in the most “Sarah” neighborhood in this city.
On the one hand, I wish I could have done the move differently. I wish it hadn’t been such a mad, crazy scramble to get out of New York and that I’d had more time to say goodbye to the people and places of that city. I wish I’d arrived in Savannah with a cushion of time to simply adjust, to do all the life stuff required to make a place feel like home, before entering into a rigorous graduate program that leaves little time for anything other than classes and homework.
But on the other hand, I think it’s probably best I didn’t have time to get “ready” for this, or to think about all the things I’d be giving up to become a full-time student. If I had, I would have found a million reasons not to do it.
There’s so much about life that’s hard right now. But there’s also something else: an unshakeable feeling that all I have is this moment. And in this moment, I’m where I’m supposed to be, and doing what I’m supposed to do.
And that, despite the train tracks running through my backyard, is a pretty good feeling.
I didn’t stay long on Tybee Island. It was hot and humid, and I was alone, and I didn’t want to risk leaving my belongings unattended on the beach while I went for a swim. But I had taken the half hour Lyft ride from downtown Savannah for the sole purpose of putting my feet into the Atlantic, and I wasn’t going to leave until I did it. So, I found a bench at the edge of the beach, took off my shoes and socks, placed them into my canvas tote bag, and walked down toward the water. My toes sunk into wet sand and warm ocean waves washed over my feet as I stared out at the sea. The Atlantic wasn’t my ocean, and yet, as I gazed across its vast expanse, I felt the same thing I always did when in the presence of its west coast cousin: peace.
I had only been to Savannah once before, in my early twenties, when I took a road trip there from Nashville with my college roommate Rachel. We spent two days wandering through old town squares, drinking mint juleps from plastic to-go cups, and joining the crush of revelers on River Street. Savannah was hot and dreamy and intoxicating, a place unlike any I’d ever been, and it left its mark on me. I vowed to come back, and soon.
But life got in the way, and somehow fourteen years went by. It wasn’t until I started writing a new play that Savannah returned to the forefront of my consciousness. After the play’s two characters meet and quickly fall in love, Savannah is the place their reckless romance draws them to. It’s a place that looms large in my female heroine’s imagination, a place haunted by ghosts both real and imagined, a place, where, as she describes it, “time doesn’t exist.” Over the course of the story, Savannah is the place both of these characters long for, but one they ultimately never return to.
A month before my second trip to Savannah, I sat in an exam room near Columbus Circle and reviewed the results of two ultrasounds with my doctor. The bad news was I would have to have surgery. But the good news was much better. My cyst was benign. After weeks of fearing the worst, my doctor sat across from me and offered a reassuring smile. “Take a deep breath,” she said. “You’re going to be fine.”
So, I scheduled my surgery, and immediately thereafter, I booked a trip to Savannah. For the last several months, I had been anxious and unhappy. Wanting to change my life but paralyzed to take the first step. And then: a health scare. And suddenly nothing else mattered until I heard those five words: “You’re going to be fine.”
I arrived in Savannah last Tuesday evening, by way of a fifteen-hour train ride from Penn Station. It might seem crazy to opt for such a long journey when I could have flown there in a few hours, but the truth was, I’d always had a thing for trains. Something about siting near the window, watching the landscapes whizz by with a journal in my hand and thoughts swirling through my brain had always seemed inherently romantic to me. And as the southbound Palmetto Line pressed on through New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina, I alternated been sleep and waking dreams. It was perfect.
I spent my first full day in Savannah wandering cobblestone streets and re-orienting myself to the city. I got lost but cared little, because there was nowhere I had to be and nothing I had to do. I covered nearly ten miles on foot, my skin glistening from the warm, humid air, my limbs feeling surprisingly light from the effort. By the time I sat down to dinner and watched the sunset settle over the Savannah River, I knew I’d made the right decision.
Savannah continued to cast its spell all during the course of my stay. I walked along the river and ate lemon custard ice cream. I browsed trendy boutiques on Broughton Street while jazz music wafted in from outdoors. I went to Bonaventure Cemetery and gaped at the gothic gravesites draped in Spanish moss. And on my second to last night there, as I joined a group of tourists on a ghost tour through the heart of Savannah, a sort of fantasy began unspooling in my head. Could I live here? Compared to New York City, the cost of living was surprisingly affordable. I was enthralled by the architecture, the wide boulevards shaded by live oak trees, the town’s quirky, offbeat charm and the slower, southern pace of life. For years, I’d been flirting with the idea of getting an MFA, and one of the most famous art schools in the country was right there, in Savannah. Without even really thinking about it, I pulled up the website for the College of Art and Design, looked up graduate degree programs, and sent in a request for information. What’s the harm in applying? I thought. If I get in, I can always decide not to go.
I went to Tybee Island on my last day there. Once my feet were in the water, it was difficult to tear myself away. I stood in the ocean for several minutes, enjoying the sensation of waves pooling around my ankles. But the hot southern sun was also beating down on my skin – pale skin that had seen little sun during the long New York winter – and I wanted to get off the island before that evening’s parade snarled the traffic. And then there was the matter of the next morning’s early train to New York. I reluctantly called a Lyft.
“Where are you from?” my driver asked, as I settled in for the ride back to town. I hesitated. Where was I from, anyway? These days, I wasn’t so sure. “Right now, I live in New York,” I told him. “In Harlem.”
“Ah,” he said, his already pleasant demeanor turning even more amiable. “My wife and I moved here from New York two years ago. We lived there for many years.”
“What brought you to Savannah?” I asked. His eyes met mine in the rearview mirror and he smiled, then stretched out his arm and pointed toward the window. “This,” he said, indicating clear, sunny, blue skies, and miles of lush vegetation stretching along the highway as far as the eye could see. “Can you blame me?”
“No,” I admitted. “To tell you the truth, I’ve sort of been thinking the same thing myself these last few days.”
By the time he dropped me off at my Airbnb, the Notes app on my phone was full of recommendations for my return visit, and my head was full of information about Savannah’s low cost of living, booming economy, and the community of former New Yorkers who’d relocated there. “Are you sure you don’t work for the Chamber of Commerce?” I joked. “I’m sure,” he laughed. “But if you’re serious about moving here, my wife is a real estate agent. You can friend her on Facebook.”
I have no idea if my infatuation with Savannah is just a passing flirtation, or if the seeds planted during my few days there will grow into something more serious. What I do know is that life is far too short to continue living the way I have been: held in the grips of fear and self-doubt. I don’t know if that means changing my location, but a change of some sort is definitely in order. And last week, on my trip to Savannah, I took what felt like an important first step in that direction.