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The Road Unpaved


Last night I dreamed of roads. Not only roads, though, I also dreamed of cars. There were fast ones, foreign ones, even the rusted out truck in the backyard that had somehow come back to life, and it was perhaps the most exciting thing that I had dreamed in months. We don’t have many roads here. Or cars. Or happiness, really. If my life here were a breakfast cereal, I’m afraid it would probably be Raisin Bran. It’s plain and tasteless, admittedly good for the digestion but, really, what can be said for a cereal that’s only plus is a handful of raisins? All breakfast metaphors aside, when I woke up this morning, I knew that it was time to leave.

Slipping from my bed, I parted the cheerful white curtains and peered out the window over a sea of cotton and forgotten dreams. It was such a cliché to be running from a small-town lifestyle that my body actually rejected it with a wave of unexpected nausea. Or maybe that was just the pregnancy. Being both a cliché and a statistic would probably be way more fun if I could have a show on MTV, although my boyfriend wouldn’t exactly be considered “good television.”

“Good morning,” Jordan slipped his arm around my waist and kissed me on the top of my head like a little girl. It wasn’t unusual for him to come over on Saturday mornings to help my father make breakfast. He used to do it just for boyfriend points with my parents, but he soon developed a strange passion for making pancakes, pursuing different recipes to find the best kind or, as he called it, “the one.” Last week he used a winning combination of chocolate syrup and cinnamon in the batter, and topped them with raspberries and powdered sugar sprinkled like a delicate snow. Though we all raved, Jordan was left unsatisfied by his creation, and his fervent search for perfection continued. “You should come eat breakfast now,” he said, giving my waist a squeeze. He let his hand linger slightly over my stomach in an awkwardly intimate pregnancy hug, as though trying to cup the cheek of his unborn son. “I made crepes this morning,” he added, “French pancakes. There are plenty waiting for you in the kitchen.”

He was always urging me to eat for two, always asking how I was feeling, never inconsiderate, never neglectful, and never wrong. Jordan was perfect in every way but geography, as it was doubtful that he would ever leave Arkansas, let alone desire to.

“I’ll be there in a little bit” I said, smiling into the sea-blue eyes that threatened to drown me, “Make sure Daddy doesn’t eat my pancakes, alright?” Jordan flashed an impish grin and flew out the door to protect my meal with the air of a conquering warrior headed to battle. As his tall frame disappeared from view I dropped to my knees with the gracelessness apparent at even just two months of pregnancy and tugged my duffel bag from beneath my bed, leaving a shiny road in the film of dust that had gathered there. Pulling baggy clothes from my drawers, I packed for the unexpected, unpacked out of fear, and repacked in determination.

I had run away once before in a fit of eight-year-old rage. My mama had yelled at me for something and I had grabbed my jacket and run out the back door, sprinting down rows of cotton, the sharp edges of the bolls cutting into my legs like the teeth of a steel trap ready to spring. The September sun beat down on my head, and the wind whipped my long hair into the snarls befitting the little convict I was at that moment. I ran to the edge of our property, slipped under the chicken wire into the field of grain corn growing alongside. I sprinted between the tall stalks until I my already faulty sense of direction failed, so anxious was I not to be found, and I wandered for hours until the neighbors hunted me down. It had been a terrible thing, being lost in that corn, and even more so knowing that I had never truly escaped it.

I zipped my duffel bag with more force than necessary, the pull-handle coming off in my angry grasp. My duffle sat apologetically on the bed, sealed like my fate and pregnant with maternity shirts and regret. I threw the bag back under the bed in frustration and headed heavily down the hall, each step thundering out my rage.

“Your pancakes are at the table,” Jordan was a golden retriever puppy with his head cocked to one side, sunny and expectant and adorably obnoxious all at the same time. He was the one that would miss me most when I left, and the only one I felt obligated to say goodbye to. It would be hard to tell him.

“I wanted waffles,” I said flatly. My words struck hurt into his eyes, which was soon followed by an air of maddening understanding.

“Cravings, huh?” He nodded sagely and turned back to fridge, “What do you feel in the mood for this morning, Sophie?”

“Tallahassee.” He stilled; his hand tensed around a bottle of orange juice. “I want to leave.”

“What’s in Tallahassee?” He asked this casually but still stood staring into the depths of the fridge as if the Floridian city I was looking for was hidden there somewhere behind the eggs. I watched the tension move like a snake from his fist and settle around his shoulders.

“My cousin lives there. I’d stay with her until the baby was born.” The words drew the poison from my mood and I sat down at the table, envisioning the freedom of anywhere but here.

“That’s selfish.” He turned to face me, eyes blazing, but expression composed. He was never one to soften his words when he was angry, and his honesty chilled me like a bitter October morning. I cowered from the truth.

“It’s time, Jordan,” I pleaded shamelessly, “If I don’t leave now I never will. I can’t go anywhere once the baby’s born, babies change everything, in case you haven’t noticed,” I gestured to my stomach, once flat, now quite the opposite.

“Grow up,” Jordan snarled, a golden retriever turned rabid, “We’re both making sacrifices, but it’s not about us anymore. You can’t do this by yourself, Sophie. Think about the baby.”

“Whoever said I wanted it?” The truth flew from my lips like a predatory bird, bringing the hurt and shock back to Jordan’s eyes. There was nothing I wanted more than to be free. Another wave of nausea rose around me at the realization and I ran from his gaze.

I fled to my room and threw myself heavily onto the bed, pulling the cotton blankets over me so that I was hidden from view. I stayed there until it occurred to me that I was laying in the fetal position, the irony of which would once have made me laugh, but now made me slip again from my bed and pull the overstuffed duffel from under the bed. The road was calling.

Pushing through the back door, I stepped between rows of cotton onto the small path leading to the edge of the property. I would walk to the neighboring house and call a cab to take me down the deliciously paved road to the airport. My savings and the sympathy awarded the prematurely pregnant would help me from there. In a few hours, Arkansas would be just a memory.

I halted unreasonably in the middle of the field and lifted my face to receive the golden sunlight that poured over the countryside like melted butter; the cicadas buzzed in the trees like rattlesnakes. Nothing had changed here but me. It was beautiful and terrible at the same time, and at that moment I allowed myself a second of indecision.

All at once I felt the first stirrings of a life that had until then been separate from mine. It was the tiny pressure of a butterfly landing, the softest touch within my stomach that stopped me cold. My baby kicked like a punctuation mark, deciding what I could not. I turned from the road, and began walking.

© 2017 Elyse Maupin-Thomas

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