Charlotte seemed so massive before the wall went up. I’m from one of a multitude of indistinguishable mini cities between North Carolina’s mountains and coast, Goldsboro. It tops out at around 40,000 people, three Starbucks’, and one Walmart. There’s nothing to do but loiter in bookstore parking lots until the police ask you to leave, and dream. In the eighth grade we learned about our state’s history, where the phrase Tar Heel came from, how we were the last state to secede from the Union before the Civil War, how Charlotte’s our largest city, and why they call it the Hornet’s Nest. I listened to the story of how when Lord Cornwallis in 1780 planned to stay in Charlotte for a few days while preparing to attack the Continental Army, the locals chased him out with their farming tools armed as weapons. He wrote back to the crown. “Charlotte is a hornet’s nest of rebellion.”
It’s all been wars and rumors of wars. That’s it. I was drawn to it though. I’d never visited, but I’d passed by it several times on family vacations on our way to Knoxville. It was a glittering little city that arched out of the flatness of central North Carolina like a raised eyebrow.
When I moved to Charlotte for college, I was overwhelmed by the size. Back in Goldsboro, if you drove twenty minutes in any direction, you’d be in a different city. Charlotte seemed to go on and on, stretching and unfolding endlessly. One of my favorite things to do was to drive up and down I-277 and stare at the skyscrapers. If you head east long enough, past the car dealerships toward Indian Trail, you can see the entire skyline at once. I loved pulling over into a parking lot, sitting on the hood of my car with the engine still running and the stereo blasting Joni Mitchell or Simon and Garfunkel, and marveling at how strange it was to see Charlotte all at once.
I met a girl here. I met a lot of girls here, but only one I went to war with, the one who helped me build the wall. Her name was Lydia*. I first spoke to her at a backyard barbecue in the hipster neighborhood of Plaza Midwood at the end of the summer after I graduated college. She had a tattoo of the solar system on her collarbone and she was ranting about how Pluto wasn’t a planet anymore.
“Do you see this?” she said, brushing her hair behind her shoulder and poking the image of Pluto, closest to her heart. “There are nine planets. Nine. Not eight. My tattoo has spoken.”
We dated for ten tumultuous months of bottomless breakfast mimosas at dive brunch bars, picnics in Freedom Park, and homemade vegan dinners with locally grown vegetables. She was the Manic Pixie Dream Girl™ all the movies said I was supposed to fall in love with, and I did fall for her like the Brooding Asshole™ I am, utterly confused and ecstatic that she would find anything of interest in me. But a relationship can’t run on the fumes of literary tropes forever, and we burnt out as brilliantly as we first exploded into each other’s lives.
When Lydia and I broke up, we divided the city into two halves. She would take Plaza Midwood, the little bohemian neighborhood with all the best bars and boutique clothing stores, NoDa, the other little bohemian neighborhood with the famous French bakery and the indie theater, and all of Uptown, because I hate parking there anyway. I would take the wealthy South Charlotte neighborhoods and all their toxic subdivisions, plus the business casual Midtown and South End, crawling with young professionals and infected with khakis. Everything North of I-277 was hers, and anything below it was mine. No one was to cross the border.
This was all unspoken, but clearly understood. I doubt those buzzing locals bothered to speak to Lord Cornwallis before they grabbed their axes and pitchforks and earned themselves a nickname. Sometimes, words can only get in the way, and attempts at clarity can only complicate. The Great Wall of Charlotte could be seen from space. There was no need to mention it.
I figured things would be easier this way. A city that once appeared so huge to me as a child had just been sliced into two parts, but I didn’t feel as if I was missing anything. She was taking possession of the young parts of the city, the places people go to live when they don’t know what to do with their lives. These were the neighborhoods where people had masters degrees in philosophy and art history that cost them $30,000 and worked as hostesses in pizza restaurants for $7.50 an hour. Quick math says they’d have to work 40 hours a week for nearly two years straight to pay off their student loans assuming, as the banks do, that they don’t eat. Everyone’s vegetarian and has a mustache and is working on an artistic project on the side. Nobody smokes “because it’s bad for you,” but everyone carries around a thermos filled with vodka mixed with ice water and kisses their dog on the mouth. And all the dogs are named after obscure comic book characters. Lydia had a friend whose dog’s name was Squirrel Girl. Dogs hate squirrels.
Shedding these parts of the city was easy for me. I’m not young enough to feel that young anymore. I got my fill of it with Lydia. She was aimlessly young, excessively. There was always some new trend that she would fall head over heels for.
“I was the first girl in my school to have an iPhone,” she would often remind me. “Before that, I had a pink Razr, and all my friends thought it was so cool. My best friend literally cried the day I gave it up.”
There was a night when we were still together that she sent me to that best friend’s house to retrieve a package from her mailbox. She refused to tell me what was in the package, and I felt nervous to drive around with it. I was worried it was drugs or drug paraphernalia, or something else she could get away with having because she was pretty and white, but I’m a black boy with dark, dark skin, and the rules are different for me. Turns out it was a Diva Cup, the latest craze in menstrual management.
She had a Boston Terrier named Pond after a Doctor Who character I hadn’t gotten far enough into the series to have met yet, and a lifesize cardboard cutout of David Tennant in her living room. All her furniture was handpainted and she had active accounts on Netflix, Hulu Plus, and HBO Go, all streamed from her Apple TV. She worked as a nanny, then at Starbucks, and her parents offered her a deal every Thanksgiving and Christmas: pick a major, any major at all, and we’ll pay for it, just please go back to school.
I don’t know what’s cool and what’s not anymore. There was a time when I had the energy and desire to keep up with that sort of thing, when I obsessively curated RSS feeds of all the popular periodicals to stay on top of the trending topics. I wanted to be the first to know everything, to be that friend who keeps their Facebook news feed fresh with links to think pieces about Beyonce albums, the one who not only has a print subscription to the New Yorker, but actually reads all the essays. I used to go to political rallies where I distributed socialist newsletters to the Occupy Charlotte campers. Now, I go to Chili’s and order the cheapest margarita on the menu with a sugar rim and ask the waiter to make sure he doesn’t forget my extra honey mustard sauce for the chicken fingers. Somewhere along the line, making smart financial choices and growing into an irreplaceable staff member at work became more important to me than changing the world.
“You’re 23,” Lydia said to me during one of the increasingly frequent fights we had in the last month or so before we split the city and built the wall. “Why don’t you start acting like it?”
She was young enough for the both of us, overflowing with idealism outpacing what was pragmatic. She was the kind of girl aging Gen Xers write awful articles about, flooded with Millennial zeal, and for a time I loved drinking it in — but eventually you get sick of swallowing seawater. Youth became, for me, like a dish that I’d eaten so much of, I could no longer stand even the smell of it. I was happy to give up the territory I did, content to stay on the high property tax side of Charlotte where I didn’t have to pretend I cared about being a twentysomething. So, we built the wall, her side tattooed with graffiti, mine well kempt and clean shaven.
About ten months after the wall was built, I met a friend for drinks at a bar on Montford. That’s when I learned of the invasion.
“I saw Lydia today,” she said. “She was at the Target in Midtown.”
“That’s my Target,” I said. “She has a Target. Why can’t she go to her own Target?”
My friend rolled her eyes. “You can’t own a Target.”
“But what does my Target have that hers doesn’t?” I asked. “Whatever it is, I don’t care. It’s mine and she can’t have it. She’ll just have to buy it online.”
My brother told me that he’d seen Lydia at a Harris Teeter in Southend, and I could’ve sworn I saw her jeep pulling out of a shopping center just a few miles away from my apartment. More and more, it began to seem as if there were cracks in the wall and she was leaking through, oozing closer and closer. That was a confrontation I didn’t want to have. I had already realized that the kind of love I had for her would take years to sleep away, years to forget. I explained this to my brother.
“I have to go a long time without seeing her, without thinking about her, or else I’ll just be stunted and I’ll never get over her,” I said.
“That’s dumb,” he told me. “If you spend your whole life avoiding every place she might be, then you’re not over her. Look at how much you care where she shops, what parts of the city she goes to. Think about all the places you don’t go for fear of running into her. How much of your life have you given up to give her the space to live hers?”
He was right. If she was an addiction, then I had attempted prohibition, and now she was smuggling herself back in, traveling confidently across the border like a cartel. I was spending a lot of time and energy on something that could never work.
“Next time you think you see her, you should say hello,” he said. “Ask her how life is going. Make some small talk. You need some good old fashioned exposure therapy, man, like those people who are afraid of spiders so their therapists have them stick their hand in a bucket of defanged tarantulas.”
“I’d rather deal with the tarantulas,” I said.
I decided to take his advice, but a week later I grew bored of waiting for the confrontation and decided to stage a counter strike. My friend Josh invited me to go to a bar with him called Whiskey Warehouse in Plaza Midwood, Lydia’s known stomping grounds. It wasn’t as if I was going there specifically in hopes of bumping into her. I was just meeting a friend for drinks. That’s what I told myself.
I hadn’t seen Josh very much in the year since the wall went up. He lived on her side, and although the two didn’t know each other to the best of my knowledge, they had a similar way about them. Josh was just starting a career in which he was making enough money to shop on my side of town, and I enjoyed hosting him on rare occasions. I guess that should’ve been my first sign that the wall was permeable, that it was possible for the hipsters and the salaried employees to cross back and forth.
Still, driving to that bar was like being in a military humvee. I felt noticeably out of place the moment I crossed over I-277 into Uptown, then through NoDa to Plaza Midwood. I was in enemy territory. The Old Navy button up shirts I was used to seeing in South Charlotte were replaced by tank tops and V-necks worn by dudes with wild beards and self-harm scars. There were more bikes than SUVs. By the time I arrived at the bar, I’d seen at least ten COEXIST bumper stickers. But I hadn’t seen Lydia.
“What have you been up to lately?” Josh asked me from across the booth. I barely heard him. I was too busy looking around the bar, out the windows and onto the street, wondering when Lydia was going to pop up.
“Just working mostly,” I said. “I’m thinking about going to grad school and getting my masters in something.”
“Something like what?” he asked.
“I don’t know. English? Maybe political science. I’m applying to UNC Charlotte.”
“That’s a long drive out to the university, dude,” he said. He scratched at his scraggly beard and took a sip of his beer, the locally brewed Jam Session, the kind of stuff they don’t have at Chili’s.
“I like long drives,” I said. “Gives me time to listen to music.”
“I wouldn’t have guessed with how much you stick to South Charlotte,” he said. He meant it as a joke, I’m sure, but I didn’t laugh.
My phone buzzed in my pocket with a text from my brother.
“Yo, I’m at Chipotle and Lydia is here. Just letting you know.”
I came up with some phony excuse to end the night with Josh and got in my car. I was shaking with an emotion, but I couldn’t quite tell which one. I was angry that she was at my Chipotle, embarrassed that I had driven through the hipster neighborhoods, where people were obsessed with authenticity, in hopes of bumping into her, all while she was at a bad Mexican grill chain within walking distance of my apartment, but most of all I was frustrated with myself for driving across town for the second time that night, how much control she was still able to exercise over me without saying a single word.
But it really wasn’t the driving, was it? I liked the driving. I enjoyed the freedom of no longer being trapped on my side of the wall, once again running the rubber of my tires like fingertips around the curves of my city, and seeing the skyscrapers, Bank of America Stadium, the Wachovia building, rise like goosebumps on her skin. There’s nothing in the world like the Charlotte skyline. I was shaking because Charlotte excited me, because I couldn’t believe I’d fenced myself in from her, divided her wholeness.
I came again to cross I-277, to breach the wall, but decided instead to turn onto the ramp and headed east, out of the city, desperate to get far enough away that I could see all of her at once. It was in the parking lot of a car wash that I found what I was looking for. The music coming from my speakers, “I Am A Rock” by Simon and Garfunkel, saying:
I have my books and my poetry to protect me
I am shielded in my armor
Hiding in my room, safe within my womb.
I touch no one and no one touches me
I am a rock
I am an island
And I sat on the hood of my car, and challenged Charlotte to a staring contest.
Somewhere within her, Lydia was sitting at a Chipotle, boiling over with youthfulness as I aged older and older. We didn’t “accidentally” bump into each other that night. I was too busy rediscovering my obsession with the Queen City. I am still waiting for that confrontation. I wonder if there’s a new love in her life too, or if she, like me, found comfort in an old one.