Author’s Note: Special thanks to Katie Taylor for her assistance!
This is what I thought my life would look like when I moved back home to the rural South as a 37-year-old single woman.
I’d rent a small house in the woods with land for the dog while I settled into my job as the most perfect professor ever. A few months later, I’d purchase a 2-story farmhouse built in the 1800s with a double wrap-around porch and original hardwoods and clapboard ceilings close to the quaint little downtown area so that the dog (Luna) and I could walk to the restaurants and shops and make friends with all of the business owners.
We’d sit outside the local café that is owned by the husband and wife team who fell in love in high school and made their entire lives in this small town. They’d introduce Luna and me to other locals: the quirky old man who wears overall shorts and a straw hat everywhere he goes, even in winter; the woman who owns the pastry shop down the way and makes “the best chocolate pecan pie in the South”; the adorably handsome, new-to-town property owner across the tracks who is starting up an event space with artist studios and a carpentry workshop and builds furniture on the side, who also has a dog that Luna actually gets along with every time they walk by the café in the morning.
I’d sit in front of the café, grading well-written essays by students completely enthralled in theatre because they are inspired by my honest, relatable, electrifying teaching ability and decide to switch their majors just to have the opportunity to work with me and get to know me better as a mentor and friend. I’d slowly, over the course of the year, fall in love with the carpenter/dog owner from across the tracks, each of our morning encounters making my face hurt from smiling and laughing, until the moment I realize I count on those morning encounters more than the coffee from the café to get me going for the day.
I’d ask my carpenter friend to come to the house and fix the old rickety rocking chairs on the porch. I’d offer up a beer and conversation, and we’d sit in the newly repaired rocking chairs on the wrap-around front porch talking about life and love and dogs and working with our hands. My carpenter friend would drink one beer and politely gather their things to leave, and as they were carrying their toolbag down the front stairs, they would turn around over their right shoulder and look at me and say, “You know, I sure would like to show you something.”
I’d grab my jacket and hop into their truck and we’d drive to the carpentry workshop across the tracks, and they’d walk me into the back corner of the shop and have me close my eyes. I’d stand there with a smile on my face and hands over my eyes, a little nervous but excited, and a few moments later, the muslin cover would be pulled off of a beautifully carved piece of timber, revealing an image of the two of us wrapped around one another in an embrace and a kiss.
I’d look over to my carpenter friend, and a crooked smile would appear on their face as they stood up off their stool and crossed the room to me, putting one hand around the small of my back and taking my cheek in the other, and with a deep look into my eyes they would say, “I knew I loved you the first day I met you outside the cafe.” And then we’d have our first passionate kiss, followed by a lifetime of love and carpentry and grading papers and laughter and dogs and the perfect life in a small town in the South.
This is what my life actually looks like in the rural South as a 37-year-old single woman.
I have been renting a two bedroom, mediocrely built wooden house with little-to-no insulation in a pecan grove owned by one of the most conservative politicians in the state. Here, I am often interacting with a toothless man on a lawnmower who constantly calls me ‘sugarpie’ and asks me if I’m going to make him dinner tonight.
For the first six months that I was here, the only people I had any meaningful interaction with were my parents, who live across the state line 3 hours away. I love my parents quite a lot and treasure the time I get to spend with them, but having them act as my only social outlet is not as conducive to maintaining mental health as you might imagine.
I spend a lot of time sitting next to the window in the $30 chair I purchased from the local Habitat for Humanity, planning classes for hours on end and feeling woefully underprepared most of the time. Grading is like pulling teeth from my own mouth with pliers, as the papers generally consist of horribly incorrect grammar and sentence structure that would make my 5th grade English teacher cringe. On top of that, the students often seem to have a complete misunderstanding of the actual question being asked, leading me to believe I am a total failure as a professor.
Luna and I go on walks around the pecan grove, saying hello to the dog in the 10×10 foot cage a few houses over who very clearly wants to eat Luna’s face off. This dog’s owner is often sitting on a 5-gallon bucket shooting a crossbow at his front door, so, for fear he might actually turn around, we avoid saying hello to him, too.
Occasionally, I visit with another professor in their office, but those visits are few and far between because, as it turns out, each of us is so over committed that we can’t even find time to remember to shower every day, much less actually connect with other human beings in the building. I do cook more often than I did previously, but mainly because being a practicing vegan in Alabama proves more difficult than being bowlegged and trying to hem a hog in a ditch.
The only visitors I have had at the house are the repair people who show up when something breaks; generally, the owner’s son, who happens to be a plumber and an electrician and a window installer and has his own logging company, and, as I learned one afternoon, chases armadillos around the yard with an axe.
Sometimes, I will get a wild hair up my ass and decide I need to go into town; perhaps my café carpenter will materialize. Usually this ends with me spending twenty minutes in a dirty bar with a crappy band until I decide to go across the tracks to the local brew house and sit alone, nursing a beer I could do without and watching a sports game that I don’t care about just so that I can feel like I’m “out.”
Recently, a new neighbor moved in across the way, and in the course of his first two days here, it became evident that his particular type of “being neighborly” was more than I was willing to entertain; it was really when he drunkenly tried to get me to hold his gun that I realized he was not my cup of tea.
I am grateful for all of it
Some days I wake up next to my favorite 65-pound black lab and rub her belly for a few minutes and then joyfully climb out of bed because I know the day awaits and something spectacular might happen.
I come across a student’s paper that is actually creative and well-written and critical of the art they have witnessed, and I am reminded that maybe I am reaching just a few of them and that I can make a difference in the world and that perhaps I am a good professor after all.
I stop at the Publix on the way into work and share a moment of flirty eyes with the good-looking person getting into their truck across the parking lot. It’s enough to remind me that I’m not the version I see when I think of the worst parts of me, but rather, I’m the version that is made up of all the best parts of me.
My landlord stops by in the afternoon with his granddaughter, asking me if I can “hold her right quick” while he looks at the plumbing problem I’ve got, and I get a good fifteen minutes cooing with a baby – an activity that fills my heart to the brim with joy and hope.
I have dinner with a co-worker at one of the many Mexican restaurants in town where I am reminded by our conversation that we are all just human beings – not our titles or our jobs – and that the measure of my worth is not based on whether I can quote Shakespeare or not.
I sit on my porch in the evening with a beer in hand and the dog at my feet. Bonnie Raitt or Ella Fitzgerald or Lionel Richie play from the living room and I sing at the top of my lungs, pretending I’m the superstar I know I’ve got somewhere inside me.
Is it what I expected? No, but you’d better believe I keep a few extra beers in the house at all times; you know, just in case that carpenter shows up.