We made it all the way to I-70 before the snow got really bad. I wanted Ollie to pull off at an exit until it died down a little, but he wouldn't hear of it.
The car can make it. I'm a good driver, and the car is on new tires. It'll be fine.
He sounds so reassuring. He's always sounded like this, ever since I met him three and a quarter years ago. Even when he isn't trying to reassure me, his voice sounds so peaceable that all my problems just kind of melt away. I guess that's what love does.
If you think you can make it, that's fine. Go for it.
He's so oblivious. For a while, I thought he knew. I thought he felt the same. I thought that we were going to graduate and run away together, to somewhere warm and pretty all year round, somewhere that wasn't Southeast Ohio. I thought he loved me too. His phone rings.
I tune him out as best I can. I don't want to hear him with her. It's my fault, I suppose. I escaped without him, went to England for a few months. Came home expecting him to welcome me with open arms. He did, but only after he untangled himself from her for a minute. He brought her to the airport. He brought his girlfriend to the airport to meet me.
I just reread Poe's story about the House of Usher last night for part of my independent study. I now have the urge to rename my best friend Roderick, because when I came back to America he had changed for the worse, too. He still has the incoherence in his personality that Poe refers to.
That was Lacy Jo.
Shouldn't she be working?
They might be closing up early. No customers.
I wonder why?
We both smile, but mine quickly fades. We used to be loathe to smile on our way home. Home meant a weekend surrounded by hicks and stoners. Home meant a weekend separated from real society. Home meant a weekend without each other.
Then we smiled on the way to Canton. We were free from the two days of torture, at long last. Together again.
Now he smiles on the way home, and fakes one on the way back. For him, home is Lacy Jo. Happiness. Love. I have no love for home.
We graduate in three months.
Yeah. Thirteen weeks and a day.
Feels like you threw your bowl of noodles on me yesterday.
I know. It does feel like yesterday. The roads are getting worse, so I stop talking. The conversation is going nowhere, anyhow. Ollie is too preoccupied with the snow and the roads and Lacy Jo.
That name is the embodiment of everything I hate about New Lexington. She isn't even from New Lexington, but the hatred remains. Both seem so pretentious; one name isn't enough for either of them. My hometown can't just be called Lexington, it has to be New Lexington. She can't just be called Lacy, it has to be Lacy Jo. I don't know her last name, even. She introduced herself as Lacy Jo. Her Facebook is labeled Lacy Jo. If she had enough of a brain to get accepted to college, her diploma would read Lacy Jo.
My diploma will read Rose Wood. What were my parents thinking, naming me after a plant with the last name Wood? My mother must have thought it clever. I suppose it is that, if you aren't named Rose Wood. I don't want to turn into my mother.
We crest a hill, and the snow begins to slow. Or Ollie begins to slow. There are flashing lights just after the next exit. The second wreck we've seen today. This one looks bad.
Guess we have to exit now. We can go the back way.
Or we could wait until it's been cleared up.
I don't want to wait.
He doesn't want to wait. Of course he doesn't want to wait. He wants to get home to McConnelsville. He wants to sit in front of his dad's wood burner and cuddle with Lacy Jo. He wants to get rid of me.
Yeah, me neither.
I want to wait. I want to wait so much I can taste it, but I allow him to turn off and take 60 to Zanesville. Talking to Ollie on the trips down and thinking about our conversations are the only things that keep me sane at home any more. It's never as bad over summer and Christmas. Some of my old friends are still around then, the ones who haven't skipped out. Lucky bastards.
But now even the ones who are still around for breaks are living in dorms as far away from New Lexington as possible. Like me in Canton. Grungy, crime-ridden Canton. It seems like paradise compared to where we're heading now.
Now that we're on the back road, it's impossible to ignore where we're heading, where we are. I-70 is such a generic looking road that it becomes easy to pretend we're somewhere else. So not true now. The despair and ugliness seeps into my soul like the blackness of a mourning household.
So far we've passed two houses with Christmas lights. Were this not the end of January and had we gone by more than three total houses since getting on 60, this might not be so bad. One of them even looked clean. The other one looked like it was built in the middle of a landfill. Or a junkyard.
Why don't people clean up their trash?
Why should they? It's their property.
Right, I forgot. Lacy Jo's dad has a collection of junkers surrounding their trailer. I shouldn't have mentioned it. Ollie's car is going to end up there one day soon. I'll be surprised to see it last through graduation. The muffler roars especially loud, apparently reading my mind.
You've gotten more judgmental lately. Does Ohio not live up to British standards?
God save the queen.
We both smile again. I'm mostly just relieved I managed to cover my slip up with humor. I think he thinks I was just joking.
The snow has picked up again, and we almost pass Bobbi's without me seeing its sign. My grandparents used to take me to eat there before they moved to Florida. It closed down a week before they left. I used to blame my grandparent's move on Bobbi's. This was all before I figured out how bad life around here is. It was miraculous that a country place like that could stay open for so long in Southeastern Ohio. Besides, my grandfather moved back when my grandmother died, so there was no harm done. Not really.
I look down at my hands. They're encased in woolen mittens, but the skin is soft underneath. Not calloused like Bobbi's hands looked when she served me fried chicken tenders. She lived a hard life. Most people around here had calloused hands. Most of them lived hard lives.
I don't want calloused hands.
Sorry, just thinking out loud.
I think your hands are fine without callouses.
I'm going to be an uncle.
You're an only child.
Amber is having a kid. Lacy Jo says that Krissy might be, too.
But Krissy isn't even dating anyone.
And neither is Amber, Lucky just moved to Arkansas.
That's a lot of babies in a small trailer. But how does that make you the uncle?
I'm with the aunt.
But you aren't married to the aunt. Are you planning on marrying the aunt?
He doesn't answer, but his silence speaks for him. I want to take the steering wheel from him and drive us straight back to Canton. I want to dismantle his car. I want to hack his Facebook account and change his relationship status to single and publicly break up with Lacy Jo in his status update. I want to save him from this hell in Ohio and make him leave. I want to take his new lover and lock her in a metaphorical crypt. Out of sight, out of mind. Unfortunately, Poe proves in House of Usher that this isn't necessarily the case.
He deserves better than McConnelsville. Someone like Ollie, with a knife-sharp mind and cherubic features, belongs in a place with promise. He has promise. I have promise. I'm a little more average than he is, my hair ebony instead of gold and my skin freckled instead of clear, but my mind is just as sharp. I deserve better than New Lexington. I can admit to that. I have a sharp mind. I have my mother's mind.
God, I don't want to turn into my mother.
Where did that come from?
She's so stuck.
She need a tow truck?
Stuck in New Lexington.
Why doesn't she leave?
She's almost fifty five.
She's plenty old enough, then.
But there's her job. And my father. And her father. My aunt. All her friends.
And she still feels stuck? Sounds nice to me. Friends, family, work.
There was a time where he would have understood why my mother was stuck. But he had Lacy Jo now, just like my mother had my father. She had been blinded once, too. Blinded by love, or what she thought was love. They're still married, but only for convenience. She stopped loving him when she realized that Canton was the biggest place she would ever live because of him.
We've somehow driven through most of Guernsey and Muskingum counties without wrecking. Only someone who knew Southeast Ohio would be able to tell we had entered the corporation limit of Zanesville. The barns throw most people off. If we kept going long enough on 60, we would come to the actual city. It's pretty nice. Has a lot of restaurants, more than New Lexington anyway. There's a mall, and a movie theater. And two Wal-Marts. That's two more than the combined amount in my county and Ollie's.
Even Zanesville, though, is rundown. When they aren't covered in snow, most of the houses are still gray with age, maybe white or the occasional yellow if they've been repainted recently. There are better neighborhoods, but even their houses are beginning to look exhausted.
We don't make it to the restaurants and the better neighborhoods. There's a sign pointing to New Lexington, mostly obscured with snow today, but Ollie knows where to go. His car protests at the turn but manages to keep going.
You never answered.
You're doing that a lot recently. Sleeping alright?
Of course I am.
You just look tired. Exhausted.
That's because I'm being dragged home, which is tiring and exhausting.
You know I can't hear you when you mumble.
I'm fine. Just busy is all.
Are you sure all your independent study isn't affecting you?
Poe isn't too scary, is he?
I've been a fan of Poe since the seventh grade. His work doesn't scare me that much.
The only thing that scares me is the idea that my best friend is going to get stuck here, no matter what I do to save him.
A platoon of squads blares past us in the opposite direction, heading for Zanesville. Their sirens seem to be calling me to join them. They could take me away from here, if I asked politely and had a few broken bones. We turn onto 93 by the mine and continue on our way, but we're promptly stopped by the cleanup crew from our third accident.
Guess we have to wait this time.
Did you cause the wreck or something?
No, but if you didn't have to detour through New Lexington this wouldn't be in your way.
I probably would have gone through your town anyhow.
The roads aren't any better.
But there aren't as many cliffs. I don't want to junk this car prematurely.
The crew waves us through the one free lane, and we carry on our way. The houses are even worse now, but at least the trees aren't as naked as they usually are this time of year. That's what it looks like, anyway, behind the intensifying snowstorm. Ollie's phone rings again. We're about to come to a big curve, so he hands it to me to answer.
Oliver's phone. Hi, Lacy Jo. I know I'm not Ollie. He's driving, and the roads are bad.
I can talk now. Sorry, honey. What? Oh. You're sure.
He looks so sad all of a sudden. I want to reassure him for a change, but he's still talking. I don't think I have it in me to reassure him about Lacy Jo anyhow.
Okay, then, I guess I'll see you tomorrow. You too.
She made it home safely, but her road is really bad.
So is she coming to stay at your house, then?
She doesn't want to drive it again and she doesn't want me to, either.
Yeah, but it means we only have a day and a half to hang out.
You can always come down again next weekend or something.
Just shut up, Rose.
I apparently failed at the reassuring thing. Now he really is mad at me. It isn't like I even did anything. He's been doing this a lot, recently. It's the only time when he doesn't sound reassuring, when he's mad at me. Not really at me. At Lacy Jo. But Lacy Jo can do no wrong, so all of it falls on my shoulders.
She takes him for granted. His whole community does. They think he's going to graduate and then come home and work at his dad's store until his dad retires and suddenly he'll own his dad's store. And Lacy Jo is going to make the perfect wife for him and they'll have lots of cherub-faced babies and live happily ever after. That's what McConnelsville thinks.
I know better. Even if Ollie does start working for his dad and even if he does marry Lacy Jo, someday he'll realize that they held him back from achieving greatness. He'll grow bitter. Maybe he'll realize it in time to escape. Maybe he won't.
My mother did not. She graduated and came home and started working at my grandfather's school. She married my father, the perfect husband, and spent ten years blissfully ignoring the fact that she was living among hillbillies and idiots. Then I came along. She watched me grow up, and she became more bitter.
I want you to go away when you're grown up, Rose.
Why? I like it here. Don't you like me?
Of course I do. That's why I said that. You'll understand when you're older.
My mother is a principal now. And I understand why she gets jealous when I talk about my trip to England.
We turn onto 345. I want to be amused at the sign advertising rental properties in New Lexington, but the idea that some innocent person might be lured into the abyss of an electric blue lease house without even visiting the village slightly nauseates me. Instead, I focus my attention on Ollie. His jaw is still grinding. He's furious.
Don't apologize. You didn't do anything.
He looks at me, and his eyes are a little brighter than normal. I ignore it, because the last thing he needs is to feel weak.
She's with Tiffin again. She didn't have to say it, I can tell.
This guy who graduated with us. Lives in Athens now.
He graduated with-
What did you mean earlier?
She used to date him, and he still visits every so often.
Have you told her it bothers you?
What does she see in him? You're a girl.
Why would she want to be with an imbecilic tool like him?
I look out the window. We're in Saltillo now. The houses here actually make New Lexington look classy. I suppose I could be worse off.
Why would someone want to be with an imbecilic tool? Or a crazy slag? I want to know the answer to that too, because then I might know how to break them up. It doesn't matter though. Not really.
I don't know. Some people are strange like that.
He doesn't answer me. I don't blame him; I think he knows by now what I think of his slag.
He wants to be a psychologist. He wants to help people. Make them feel better. Make their emotional pain go away. That's probably why he's so reassuring. I just think it would be easier on me if his psychology classes would teach him how to tell what I'm thinking.
No one in McConnelsville cares about psychology. He's the Carter boy, so he'll take over the store, get married, have a family.
No one in New Lexington cares about publishing. I'm the Wood girl, so I'll get married, have a few kids, maybe and probably not in that order.
In New York City, he could have a private practice. I could work as an editor. We could get married, have a few kids, most definitely in that order.
We slip going up the last hill. In younger days I would have grabbed Ollie's arm or leg for comfort. Now I grab the edge of my seat and close my eyes. My panic proves unnecessary when the car makes it over the hill safely.
When we start our descent into the pits of New Lexington, the clouds suddenly break apart ahead of us. It's still snowing, but the sun shines through the gaping hole and illuminates the water tower. The reflection nearly blinds me. It seems Mother Nature is speaking to me.
Welcome home, Rose.
I don't want to be welcomed to New Lexington. Mother Nature apparently realizes this, as she leaves as suddenly as she appeared. An almost insufferable gloom floods through me at the sight of the shambled skyline of the town. This was once a beautiful industrial city. Now it's a dilapidated village. The sun's rays had not improved it in the least.
If I squint hard enough, I can see my house underneath the water tower. I feel like I'm looking at the House of Usher. A rancid smell fills the car as we drive into town, not the smell of death found in Usher's house, but the smell of despair. Of hopelessness. Of abandoned coal mines. A phone rings. It's mine this time.
Hello? Hi. Yes, we're nearly there. The roads were pretty bad.
But we made it alright. I don't know. Are you staying for dinner?
Yes. Alright. We'll be there shortly.
What are we having?
Probably pizza again.
Yum. Better than the school's.
We stop at the red light by my old school's driveway. A new billboard has been placed at the bottom of the hill, naming McDonalds as the newest sponsor of New Lexington High School sports. Did the name change from the Panthers to the Hamburglars? I snort out loud, and Ollie gives me a strange look. I ignore him.
The field the advertisement now stands in was once inhabited by a horse and a pony. They were the best of friends, and for years I would watch them as I made my way up to school. The horse died first, some kind of heart disease according to the owner's grandkids. The pony died the next week, presumably of heartsickness over the loss of its friend.
I want to die when I think about Ollie staying here, marrying that cheating girlfriend of his. He doesn't belong in this area without me anymore than that pony belonged in that field without the horse. New Lexington, McConnelsville, Zanesville, Saltillo…they're all the same thing in the end. The people here will never accomplish anything. They'll get mired down in petty trivialities and foolish mishaps.
There's the usual collection of stoners in Kroger's parking lot. I went to high school with the lot of them. They're nice, mostly, they just enjoy getting high. I don't know what's worse, that growing marijuana will provide them with income for the rest of their lives or that no one around here seems to care. Or that I do care.
My mother wants me to get out of here. She told me. I understand now. She doesn't want me to be a stoner whose life ambition is to outsell their next door neighbor or a hick who is working with her forty closest friends to break the record for most unmarried pregnancies in a community per year, percentage wise.
I don't want to be those, either. But I don't want to be the horse who escapes this hell if it means leaving my pony friend behind. I don't want to become my mother.
I need to tell you something.