A Paradise Where I Don’t Belong

A Paradise Where I Don’t Belong November 4, 2021

We went to Robinson to buy Rosie new clothes.

That’s not a luxury we can afford very often, but we were given a generous gift card from a lovely reader. It felt surreal to be going shopping, with money as tight as it’s been lately. It’s been touch and go since we came back from Columbus and last month was worst of all. We have a stack of utility bills and a looming shutoff notice, but we also had thirty dollars and a short grocery list, gift card that could only be spent on new clothes.

I wonder if it will ever seem ordinary to get in a car and drive where I want to go.

I have been driving for eight months, and it’s still a novelty that thrills me whenever I put on my seatbelt and turn the key. I am still afraid that someone will take it away.

We drove toward Pittsburgh on that weird, magical, liminal stretch of the highway that is nothing but farmland and beautiful trees until, abruptly, we were in Robinson. Robinson Township is a place that always makes Michael or me hum that song about “paved paradise, put up a parking lot.” It’s not really a town or a city, just an enormous stretch of retail stores and chain restaurants that goes on forever in a sea of blacktop. When you live in Steubenville, Robinson is the closest Costco, the closest Sam’s Club, the closest Target, the closest Old Navy, the closest great big mall with an atrium in the middle and a glass elevator. Going from Steubenville to Robinson is like getting in a time machine in 1979 and coming out in the present day.

Robinson is also nearly impossible to drive in. I’ve been there at least six times since I’ve had the car, but I’ve never once been able to find my way to where I meant to go without getting lost at least twice. The very first time, I went completely out of my way and ended up in Coraopolis nearly out of gas. Now I keep the GPS on my phone turned on at all times, and it’s still not enough.

I wonder if it will ever seem normal to keep a GPS on and listen to the robot’s voice direct me through a great big populated area. Every time I go to Robinson, I feel like I’m pretending to be someone I’m not. I’m not a normal person who goes to Robinson and buys things. I’m a strange person who lives in a rotten old rental in a bad part of LaBelle and writes about poverty and social justice.

We found the clothing store I had a gift card to, with much less trouble than I expected.

Rosie made a bee line for the jeans section. Jeans are what she wears. I insist on the cleanest, darkest pair for church, along with a top that isn’t too raggedy, but that’s all I insist on anymore. I tell her stories about when I was a little girl and made to wear skirts and jumpers to daily Mass: how I wore shorts or jeans under them and stripped off the hated garments in the parking lot afterward, how I rebelled against wearing feminine clothes and having my hair curled, how my mother called me “Beelzebub” and “the bull moose.”

I never told her that my mother said I could never be anybody’s mom because I wasn’t “sane enough to know if the house is burning down.” I wasn’t supposed to get married or have children. I was the ugly one, the crazy clumsy one, the one who did everything wrong. I was expected to grow up to be a lonely tormented genius who lived in an apartment by myself, writing poetry. Instead I am a lonely tormented woman of average intellect, who lives with my husband and daughter in Northern Appalachia, writing prose about poverty and social justice.

It took several tries to get her proper jeans size. Rosie fell in love with a jean jacket, which we threw in the cart. There were next to no shirts she liked in the “girl” section, but the “boy” section had six dollar t-shirts with dinosaurs and sharks.

The whole time I stood in the checkout line, I expected something terrible to happen. Surely the gift cards would turn out to be fakes. Surely a policeman would appear and take me into custody for pretending to be something I wasn’t. I’m not a normal mother who takes her daughter to Robinson to buy new clothes. I am a failure and a disappointment, I’m not sane enough to know the house is burning down, and I live in Steubenville.

We paid for our clothes without incident.

I stopped to get a few groceries for dinner at Target on the way home. Going to Target is a treat, because it’s so far away. They carry some brands our local grocery doesn’t have for about the same price.

It was walking to the grocery section of Target that I was struck with something akin to vertigo.

It’s not possible that I should be here, in a paved paradise, in 2021, buying groceries to pack into my car and go home with my daughter. This is somebody else’s life, not mine. I’m not supposed to be here.

And as I was struck with vertigo, I was also struck with something next door to homesickness– homesickness for a home that doesn’t really exist. Because I am very shallow and I want this to be normal, for me. I want to be an ordinary person who doesn’t live in northern Appalachia and doesn’t feel that going shopping in Robinson is a novelty. I want to be a person who starts the car and doesn’t marvel at what a treat it is. I want to think shopping is ordinary. I want to have nothing uncomfortable or tragic to write about.  I don’t want to remember the hard times that I remember. I don’t want to know the difficult things that I know. I want to live in a paved paradise and not think about what’s going on somewhere else.

But that’s not who I am.

And that will never be who I am. Not even if I somehow got wealthy and moved to a nice big city.

I can’t forget this terrible place, and all the things that I know.

We went home, down that weird liminal highway that takes you back in time forty years, to the terrible rental in a bad part of LaBelle.

And it was night.



Image via Pixabay 

Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.
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