Fiction: The Rest Stop

J.E. Sumerau

A light skinned young woman with deep brown eyes matching shoulder length auburn hair pulled off at a rest stop. She was halfway to her destination, but she wasn’t sure if she wanted to reach it. She was halfway to Amy’s address, but she wasn’t sure if Amy would find her attractive in person. It seemed like a good idea when she left home, but it wasn’t what she had planned. Her life had always been so planned, she thought, but maybe that was the problem in the first place. There were so many rules, so many expectations, so much she thought she could or could not, should or should not do, but was any of that real? She could turn around. She had a life back there. There was a routine back there. There were plans. There were goals. It was comfortable. It was familiar. She pulled off the highway to think it through.

She thought about staying in the car, a small orange Taurus she’d had since undergrad, but part of this whole idea was getting out of old comforts.

Four days ago, her friend Allie was on the faded couch that took up most of the space in her too small apartment, saying, “I just woke up and felt lost one day.” Turning to look at her standing beside the small covered window by the front door, Allie continued, “Look Lilith, I’m not saying anything about anyone else, but I don’t know, I just don’t know what I want, and I feel like I need to find out.”

Now Allie was driving across the country. That’s what she dreamed of.

That’s not what I dream, thought Lilith from the worn-out seat of the Taurus. She got out of the car.

Alone at a rest stop, she thought, walking around alone, what am I doing? It was so dark here. She was used to the lights and sounds of her city. She was used to a lot of things, but not sure if they were good for her. She was used to them at least. She soaked in the quiet. She stared into the night sky and shook her hair. She smiled at the picnic tables. There were eight of them on the right. She remembered a younger her reading at such places. She could smell the old books. She felt freer then. Life seemed more open, more scary, more uncertain and beautiful. “More free,” she whispered to herself, and walked to the tables. 

She could see Allie, blonde hair blowing in the wind. The old Mazda rolling down some highway in Mississippi or Louisiana today. Lilith smiled. Allie has always been her rock. There is beauty in Allie’s newfound freedom. It speaks inside me, she thought, but what is it saying? It reminds me of my own dreams. Lilith kept walking toward the tables. Allie, her dreams, and her adventure, that’s it, she thinks. It’s why she took this drive. It’s why she responded to Amy’s message in the first place. It’s why she is at a rest stop arguing with herself. She smiles again, hoping Allie loves the ride.

Lilith sits on the top of one of the tables. The table is made of stone. It is under a canopy. It tickles the backs of her calves, just a little bit. A soft breeze caresses her legs, sweeping in and out of the spaces of her light red skirt. She wonders if Amy’s hand would feel similar. She shakes her head. She looks up at the highway.

I could go home, she thinks, but I could keep going. She stares at the highway. How should I decide what to do, she wonders, what am I doing? I only know what I learned about Amy in our online chats. Am I crazy? I want to meet her. I’ve always wondered what it would be like, but should I? Can I?

She stares out into the highway again. She thinks of calling it off and going home. She thinks of meeting her new online friend and seeing what it would be like with her. She stares into the sky.

She considers going home. But, she thinks, I don’t want to feel lost any more. I want Allie’s newfound bravery. I want my dreams. I want an adventure or maybe a hundred of them, something just for me. I could keep going.  But it’s different and uncertain and that’s uncomfortable. Maybe it would become comfortable or maybe it would be a mistake.

But can I be alive without taking some risks, without making mistakes, she wonders. I don’t know! How am I supposed to know?

Fewer and fewer cars pass on the highway. It is kind of peaceful at night, she thinks, checking her phone. It feels chilly, but the right kind of chilly, just enough space between warm and cold to feel it, but not too much in either direction to become uncomfortable. She wonders if Allie has made it to New Orleans yet after leaving Mobile this morning. Maybe she found another adventure along the way, she thinks, pulling up a photo of Amy. I could just stay here, she thinks, but then I really am stuck. Shadows pass in the air around the other tables. She watches them. She wonders if they feel free, lost, or maybe both. She imagines Allie dancing in the French Quarter. Lilith hops off the table, but just for a second. She sits back down and looks out at the parking lot. She wonders if she looks as lonely as her Taurus does.

For a moment, she thinks she sees someone else at the table nearest her own. She realizes it is just in her head. It is younger her. Younger her is laughing. Younger her has no plans. Younger her doesn’t care that others believe she should be a boy. Younger her has four books, one of them will be terrible, but she doesn’t know which one yet. Younger her will figure out after devouring all of them, after taking the risk and the time to see what hides between their covers. Younger her, with the forced short hair and the name of a boy forced upon her at birth, craves adventures, the unknown. Younger her had to learn to hide; she remembers.

Did I hide for too long, she wonders, trying not to remember the beatings or the tears.

“I want to be brave,” she tells the empty rest stop. Younger her was so brave, she recalls. She wonders what changed. Younger her wanted to try everything, she remembers, so what happened? Younger her wanted to taste adventure and dream big, she smiles at the thought, where did that go? Almost as if on cue, the younger her she sees in her mind, on another bench a few feet away, laughs again, and takes a too big sip of apple juice that stains her shirt. She doesn’t care. It was a mistake. They happen. Younger her is fearless, she thinks, I miss her.

She looks back at the photo of Amy on her phone.

“It could be fun,” she remembers typing, “To just get together and see what happens.”

She remembers the way her fingers shook with each letter. It was like the body of younger her shaking with each laugh. She remembers the long held breath waiting for a reply. How could a couple minutes take so long, she wondered staring at the keyboard?

The reply came back, “That would be fun, but only if you’re sure it would be good for you.”

Lilith remembers the way the shaking turned to a warm feeling inside. She remembers the keyboard somehow felt like a hug from a good friend. She stares out at the highway. She looks at the photo again. She gets up off the table.

Brushing the dirt that probably doesn’t exist off her favorite red skirt, she looks at her trusty, comfortable Taurus, and feels like she is looking at the rest of her life.

“I don’t know what to do,” she whispers to the sky, walking toward her car.

She was never great at, or maybe just comfortable with, making decisions. When she was younger her, she just followed her feelings, but at some point, she learned that was not best according to someone or something that was hard to place or pinpoint.

“What should I do,” she whispers to the empty rest stop parking lot as she approaches her car.

The wind brushes her face and pulls her hair close to her neck. She sees an image of Allie laughing in a new bar with new people.

“You should do what you want,” she hears younger her say in her head.

It seems so long since she heard that voice. She looks around her as if younger her will just appear again at any moment, walking on by with skinned knees, uncontrollable giggles, and a stained shirt. She closes her eyes. She listens as hard as she can to the quiet of the rest stop, to the long lost voice buried for so long somewhere inside her. Something about the voice feels more real, more honest.

“More free,” she whispers as another gust of wind dances with her hair.

She shivers only slightly, tries even harder to hear herself, and after six seconds that feel like they take far longer than a clock would understand, she opens her eyes again. She takes a deep breath. She walks the last steps to her car.

As she exits the rest stop, Lilith stares at the next exit, less than a mile. It is the one to use if she wants to go home to her too small apartment. She stares with all she has and listens to her heart for the first time in what seems like far too long.

She smiles as she passes the exit sign, picking up speed and adding distance between herself and her safe, comfortable, life. She doesn’t know if she will feel lost in the morning, but somehow she knows that it is long past time to figure out the answer for herself.

Exegesis

The Rest Stop explores the social space between continuity and change through the eyes of a transgender woman attempting to decide whether or not to meet up with a potential romantic interest she met online.

To this end, I draw on my experiences as both a non-binary trans woman navigating contemporary social life, and a novelist and scholar who has written about patterns of sexual, gendered, medical, violent, and religious continuity and change in society throughout the past decade. In much of my research, for example, I utilize qualitative and quantitative methods to examine how individuals and groups make sense of and respond to both the fluidity and stability of varied social norms, assumptions, and beliefs over time (see, for example, America through Transgender Eyes). Likewise, my creative writing explores the ways lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people in the U.S. create families, relationships, communities, and lives over time and in relation to specific regional, cultural, and political norms (see, for example, Via Chicago). I thus wrote The Rest Stop as an illustrative microcosm, or individualized case study, of the ongoing processes of continuity and change playing out throughout the social world in a wide variety of times, settings, and situations.

As such, The Rest Stop focuses on the inner negotiation of order, meaning, and desire any given person may experience – or groups of people may experience individually and collectively – as they navigate continuity and change in their own lives. In so doing, the story utilizes the setting of a rest stop along a highway to illustrate the social, cognitive, and other spaces in between actions that facilitate continuity and/or change within our own lives as well as the broader social world. As in the story, social life is littered with spaces wherein people, individually and collectively, decide to maintain existing norms, routines, and assumptions or seek to leave these patterns behind in pursuit of something different.

J.E. Sumerau (Ph.D., 2012) is an Associate Professor and the Director of Applied Sociology at the University of Tampa. She is the author of 5 novels and 2 novellas focused on LGBT experience in the U.S. as well as 4 books and over 75 peer reviewed articles and book chapters examining continuity and change in sexualities, gender, health, religion, and violence in society. For more information, please visit www.jsumerau.com or follow her on Twitter @JSumerau.

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