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Redlight

Tuesday, July 18, 2017





The following is an excerpt from a long nonfiction essay titled "Redlight." "Redlight" chronicles my indecision between making a life in my small hometown after college, or moving somewhere different. These sections appear in a different order within the entire essay, but I feel like they work in this order also. Feel free to leave a comment if you would like to read the rest of the essay. I hope you enjoy.
"Inadequate” is defined as not sufficient; inept or unsuitable. For many people this can revolve around food, money, love, but for me, it revolves around my own self-doubt...it circles above my head and presses down upon me until I feel every bone in my spine crack.

I’m not sure when I decided I was inadequate. I feel as if it happened one day as I sipped my coffee on the couch, stroking my dog. My eyes became wide and I had the thought that I was unsuccessful—even worthless. And since that moment, I haven’t been able to let that thought go. So now I helplessly continue to listen, hands pressed over my ears, forced to hear the never ending cracking noise.

But I shouldn’t feel this way.

I’m educated. Some tell me I’m beautiful. I’m good at my part-time job. Some tell me my writing is okay. I saved a dog from being euthanized. Some tell me I’m a good friend. I can do my makeup well. Some tell me I’m funny. I’m a good girlfriend. Some tell me they are proud of me.

Yet, I can only see the negatives.

I haven’t gotten married. I haven’t birthed a child. I haven’t worked a full time job. I haven’t established my own home. I haven’t done anything that satisfies small town—Pembroke—goals.

***

There are, of course, three colors on the only redlight in Pembroke—red, yellow, and green. I’ve come to believe that each color stands for life stages in our town.

Red stands for—“Stay still; you’re too young even think about leavin.’” “Stay in school!” “Keep your mouth away from the weed and meth or you’ll amount to nothin’ but white trash.” “Are you going to Southern, or going to work after you graduate high school?”

Yellow means—“Oh! You found yourself a boy? How long have y’all been dating?” “Come back home and settle down.” “Hearing any wedding bells yet?” “When’s the wedding?”

Green:—“Congrats on the marriage. Here’s a Crockpot.” “I’ll see yall in church Sunday.” “I hope you enjoy the house you put behind your mama and daddy’s.” “Honey, your biological clock is a ticking!” “When are you going to have some babies?”

But there is no color on the light in between red and yellow to allow the growth of a girl who wants to pursue an education and leave town. Residents don’t know how to take your decision to do that. Suddenly, you are too above them unless you decide to stay at home and commute to college.

What happens to the girls who decide to investigate the unknown color? They must run at night and never come back. But if they return, they become failures to themselves and other little girls who thought they could leave, too.

Then they must proceed to yellow.

***
Mr. Bell, the high school Ag teacher, stares at me with hard eyes and his cheeks are showing bright red. I can tell that he is about to lecture me, or relay some great life advice. He has always had a way with words, which may explain how he had mentored so many students over the years including Melanie, Dahlia, and me.

“You have to leave Shelby. You need to go to Georgia College. You need to get out of Pembroke and see the world for a change.”

I look down at my toes and lick my lips. His voice commands my attention back to his face.

“You are too smart to stay here. Now I love your sister and Joey, but I tried to tell her that too. Melanie could have gone to ABAC, or anywhere she wanted to go. But she didn’t listen to me. You need to listen to me.”

I swallow hard. I’m at a loss for words and my anxiety is taking over.

“Leave. Go. Be someone else for a change. But do not stay here.”

I leave the lecture with a newfound sense of purpose. Finally, someone approves of my desire to go to a college that is two and a half hours away. Someone has finally told me that it is okay to escape.

But I have failed you Mr. Bell; I’m coming back home.
***
I have been stuck in traffic at the redlight many times. By traffic, I mean long lines of cars, going in the same direction, frozen until the light changes. Nothing like the traffic a city girl might imagine.

As we sit at the redlight, citizens frozen in time, waiting for it to change color, I think for a moment about how we’re all pointed towards escape. In the next moment, we could all rev our engines and drive in a long line to a new promise land.

I could be the modern-day female Moses who leads her people away from the slavery of small town life. Slavery that is self-enforced rather than by pharaohs, but still causes people to never leave the borders created by family ties and duty. The only problem with this image is that Moses dies when he sees the Promised Land. I would die when I completed my task.
A part of my soul may even die if I complete the exodus on my own.

But when the light finally changes, no one is following me. They are turning to go to the grocery store, Dairy Queen, or Bedingfields. I am joining them by running my errands, never pushing my car any further because I don’t know where it leads. And while I am driving, I can only think about how nauseous and heartbroken I would feel leaving my family behind me.

I continue to follow the townspeople who are leading me further into Egypt.

***
I had been quiet for the majority of the day and Shawn had commented on it multiple times. But my mind had been too preoccupied with thinking about my future to reply to conversations I wasn’t paying attention to. So when I laid in Shawn’s bed and it felt like the bed was crumbling underneath me along with the life I created, I started to cry.
“Why are you so upset,” Shawn asked. He was shocked that I had started crying with no precedent.
“I just don’t know what to do,” I replied, sniffling.

“What do you mean?”

“You want to be a pilot and that’s always been your dream. But we both know that airline pilots don’t live in Pembroke. They live in Atlanta or somewhere else.”

“We can have two houses, or we can move there later,” Shawn said. He had moved next to me in the bed and was holding my hand.

“We both know that’s not going to happen. I just hate being out of the loop with my family.”

I had been struggling the past year to figure out what I wanted to do after college. My senior year was rapidly coming up and I couldn’t handle the unknown that I would have to endure afterwards. When I graduated high school, I knew what I was going to do. I had my own goals. I was ready to run from my small town—to leave it in the dust and never look back. However, the longer I was away from my family, the more Pembroke seemed to call me back. The longer I was away the more Pembroke called me to become a prodigal daughter.

“But you hate Pembroke. You love Peachtree City. It has stores to shop at and parks. There’s always something to do,” said Shawn.

“Yeah but I don’t want to be the distant aunt when Melanie and Dahlia have kids. I don’t always want to be away from my family. I didn’t leave them. I left the town,” I said. My crying became ridiculously hysterical and I started to get a headache.

“It’s okay Shelby. You don’t have to figure it all out right now. Just take a deep breath.”
Shawn took over exaggerated deep breaths that made me laugh and helped me calm down a little. Then I buried my wet face in his chest, inhaling his scent until I drifted off to sleep and pushed my problems to another day.

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