Melissa Sibley is a recent graduate from the University of North Carolina Asheville, with a Bachelor of Arts in Literature and Creative Writing. She has published several nonfiction essays in the university's literary magazine, Headwaters, and was selected in 2015 for the university’s Comfort Scholarship Award. Her nonfiction piece, “Don’t Drink the Liquor in Lizard Lick” was selected as the winner for the Wilma Dykeman Award in nonfiction in 2014, and has since gone on to be presented in undergraduate research conferences and published in the online journal for COPLAC, the Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges. Her favorite activity in the world is cruising down the Blue Ridge Parkway in her furiously red Kia, windows rolled down, a full tank of gas and nowhere to be.
The Rules of Running the Roads
I once saw Jesus at a rest stop somewhere outside of Marion, North Carolina.
The rest stop bustled with people, young parents and children on vacation, little girls dragging stuffed animals to restrooms and old couples strolling by the fountain while a fat security guard sipped a Coke and kept a lazy watch. I sat on a stiff wooden bench for what felt like hours, watching the people walk by, lost in their own happy little lives. There was no room for anger or confusion here. My blood-red hair shone in the sun and drew attention like a child misbehaving in church.
It was the tail-end of summer, 2014, after my sophomore year of college. I was headed back to school, which for me meant a six hour road trip along the backbone of my state. A long drive to make all alone, so I usually talked to myself throughout the trip, thought through possible stories I could write, the latest conversations I’d had, what I would say to my mother if she started asking me questions I wasn’t ready to answer yet.
If I was in a good mood, I imagined that God Himself tuned in to my rambling road thoughts, and I fancied my inner monologue to be something like a prayer.
Finally, after a quick stretch break I threw a quarter in the burbling fountain and tossed the empty container of my “Road Food”—an 8 ounce bottle of Nesquik strawberry milk. I made two wishes on my one quarter cause I figured by now that God owed me one.
A minute later, I pulled out of the long diagonal slot in my small SUV, rolled my windows back up and mentally prepared myself for another hour or so of driving. My attention was so focused on getting back on the highway that I didn’t notice the giant truck come lumbering up the wrong exit ramp until I was staring it right in the headlights. In a split second, I said a prayer for real—God get me through this—and swerved right as hard as I dared. The truck roared by on my left side and scraped the Fire Engine Red paint from my front bumper. My hands shook in the driver’s seat as I pulled my vehicle to a hurried stop. The other driver slowed his car as well, a massive green pickup truck that looked like it had aspirations of becoming a Hummer when it grew up. The blocky mirrors on the truck stuck out so far they looked like landing gear.
From what I could tell the occupants were a father and son pair, both looking frantic and gesturing wildly as they spoke to each other in the front seat.
I jumped from my car, unharmed, though somehow I felt the impact in every sinew and ligament in my left side. The giant truck shivered. Its driver’s side door flew open with a creak and a slam. The son got out but the father did not.
The driver lurched over to me while I knelt by my bumper, examining the long, violent scratches on my car. The rest stop seemed quiet now; the birds had stopped singing.
The closer he got, the more I realized that the man looked exactly like Jesus.
My mother has a unique saying for everything, from words that make sense but leave a terrible taste in your mouth like “slickum,” in reference to condiments on a sandwich, to words that must be entirely of her own invention, like “vomick” in place of the word “vomit.” If my mother is particularly angry at me, she will most likely invoke my favorite expression, “running the roads.”
She always uses this in reference to me and my tendency to drive around town “with no good reason at all.” “You’d save a lot more money if you quit running the roads at all hours of the night!” she’d scream at me on the phone while I sat in my dorm room, cowering. “Why do you do it, why are you driving so much? What’s wrong with you?”
I think what she was really asking me was what do you have to be running from all the time?
Earlier that summer, I told God to mind his own business when I started the disastrous period of my life that I refer to as “that time I tried to internet date.”
I felt desperate at the time, loose around the edges. It felt wrong to be banished to the depths of such an inane practice, but I saw no other choice; there were no gay-friendly areas within three or four hours of my small hometown. I could imagine what my mother might say in an alternate universe where we could talk about such things—If there’s nowhere for it to be done, then God doesn’t want you to do it.
For my whole life, God has told me what He does and doesn’t want me to do. At least, His people have told me the rules. At nineteen, it finally occurred to me that maybe it was people that had been putting words in God’s mouth, not the other way around. Maybe all those years of vacation Bible school, Sunday church lessons, Wednesday night youth groups, and Friday morning chapel services had simply made me desensitized.
A few months before my meeting with rest stop Jesus I’d finally started admitting to myself my less-than-Godly feelings for the same sex. I had been a Good Christian girl up till then, never stepped out of line or spoke out of turn. I remember being sixteen years old and describing myself as “submissive” to my high school principal, being proud about it, like it was a good thing, because God told us to be humble and obedient, especially the girls.
The first Internet Girl I met in real life scared the shit out of me. Her name was Mona, and I only knew a few things about her—she had a massive pile of long dark hair that hung past her hips, multiple piercings, and a mother that didn’t care about her at all. And she was attracted to girls, like me.
I drove half an hour to a Dunkin’ Donuts in Havelock, NC, to meet her. My hands shook during the whole drive. I told my mother that I was going to hang out with one of the girls I knew from work. There was no way I could go without lying to her about it, which made my already anxious mind creep into overdrive. Multiple times I thought about turning around and going home, but I felt in my bones that doing so would only postpone this day, not eliminate it.
I met Mona for coffee. This particular Dunkin’ Donuts was situated right beside the airport, so as I parked I could hear airplanes take off and land, the sound so loud it appeared to echo off every building and car on the crappy strip mall. Mona ordered a fancy frozen latte. I got a regular black coffee. I never went to Dunkin’ Donuts; I had no idea what you were supposed to order there.
“I’m so glad you could come,” she said. Mona held her giant coffee in one hand, wearing jeans and a t-shirt, looking for all the world like she belonged there. I wore my best black lace romper, too much makeup, my hair freshly dyed and curled around my face. I was clearly overdressed.
Until that summer I had kept my hair blond, never wore makeup, and assembled outfits out of goofy mismatched sweaters and shorts over colorful tights. I always thought they went together well even though friends and teachers liked to make jokes about them. This summer I fashioned a version of myself that looked polished but cold. I appeared put together, yes, but one tug at the right place at the right time would’ve pulled me right apart.
I said, “Me too,” to Mona, but I didn’t really mean it. I felt squirrely, hunted, watched, like I was on some terrible reality show. Why did I come here again? Mona was very open to talking about her sexuality; she seemed relaxed about it in a way that I couldn’t imagine. She wore a rainbow button on her t-shirt; I couldn’t even say the word “lesbian” out loud without visible pain and discomfort.
For her part Mona tried to lighten the mood—she made jokes about coming out to her friends, talked about all the different girls she’d dated, and insisted that if I stuck around, I would “love the things she could do with her tongue ring.” All the while I sat silent with caged eyes, excused myself to go to the bathroom three times, and constantly surveyed the store as if my mother were going to come rampaging through the doors at any moment.
Gay. The idea was an abomination in my church, and a joke in my household, if it was ever mentioned at all. Some of my earliest memories of the concept of “gay” are images of my mother, cleaning the house while listening to Clay Aiken on the stereo, talking about how “what a shame” it was that he turned out to be a “queer,” how disgusting, how sad. My mother, sitting on the green couch in our living room in the near-dark, watching Ellen Degeneres dance around tables, saying “she’s a queer, you know.”
I didn’t know, had no idea what that really meant, just that gay was bad, dirty, something to keep secret.
And I did keep it secret, even from myself, until finally in college my world expanded past my dark living room and my private Christian school and I realized the feelings I pushed down would follow me around. For more than a year, and that summer in particular, I could not reconcile the meek girl I was with the questioning, volatile, confused person who was seeping out of my skin. Nothing made me feel better. Crying only dried my eyes out, getting angry only left me with ripped sweaters I could never mend, and no matter how many times I cut and dyed and re-dyed my hair, I never left the salon with the feeling that I’d gotten what I came there for.
I did not beg God for forgiveness because I was not sure yet if this was something that I wanted to be forgiven for.
“Are you okay?” Mona asked. “You look like you’re being stalked.”
I felt like I was being stalked. “Does it get any better?” I asked. It was so vague, but I thought she might understand what I meant.
It was quiet for a moment. For some reason there was a gaggle of people in Dunkin’ Donuts right then, about 2 o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon, and they’d all chosen this moment to hush their conversations and look to their cell phones. It was so quiet I could hear the sound of coffee and ice making its way from Mona’s cup to her mouth as she took a pull from her drink. Her piercings winked at me in the glint from the sun shining in through the window.
“I don’t know if it gets better,” she said, toying with the piercing in her eyebrow. “But it does get easier.”
I didn’t exactly feel uplifted, but I did feel a little more relaxed after that. I mentioned my overly religious mother, my workaholic tendencies, my obsession with obtaining the perfect shade of red hair. Mona seemed amused by all of it. For a little while I felt calm, in control, like maybe I could do this, this whole gay thing.
“I should probably get going,” I said, even though I had blocked out precisely six hours for this particular outing and I was only midway through hour number 2. I was ready to leave, ready to get moving again.
As I was getting up to leave it hit me once more what was at stake—what my mother would do if she had any clue what I had really been doing, the way she would call me “queer” like she had Clay Aiken and Ellen, the fights we would have, the quiet sham of a life that would be impossible for me to continue. I thought of God and wondered if He would still listen to my rambled road prayers if he knew who I really was. I sobbed. In the middle of Dunkin’ Donuts, in front of this Internet Girl I’d never met before, I sobbed and ruined all that makeup I had so painstakingly applied just hours before.
Mona was infinitely too nice about being cried on by a stranger. She patted my back and went to the bathroom to get me paper towels. I sat there mopping my eyes in Dunkin’ Donuts, wishing I’d worn considerably less eyeliner. No one was even looking at me. I wasn’t sure what strange new world I had entered, where someone like me, a girl who kept her emotions locked up tighter than the devil’s choker, could end up crying in front of a strange lesbian with mammoth hair and a tongue piercing.
Regardless, after my eyes were dry I crawled up into the lap of my car and ran the roads for another hour at least. I wasn’t ready to slow down and let my feelings catch up with me, and the road wasn’t ready to give me up just yet.
Back at the rest stop, Jesus was getting closer.
Rest Stop Jesus had a long, scraggly beard, watery brown eyes, and he looked truly, unfathomably sad. He had some weird lined tattoo on the sides of his neck, something long and angular that reminded me of the gills on a shark. He tried to speak to me, but his words came out in a sloppy, broken English.
“So sorry,” he said with his hands waving in the air. “Did not see you!”
“You were going to the wrong way!” I looked at Jesus hard in the face. “You could’ve killed someone.”
Jesus looked appropriately guilty. He reached into his pocket and pulled out something square, shiny, and teal. It took me a minute to figure out it was his wallet. He was rooting around in the different compartments when I backed up and shook my head.
“Forget about it,” I said and shooed him away.
I didn’t want money or retribution from Jesus anyway.
He for one looked extremely relieved. “Thank you, thank you!” he said, and the wallet disappeared. Instead he fished out a piece of paper from his shirt pocket. It was a pamphlet: “Your Real Reward Waits in Heaven.” The image on the cover depicted a thoughtful looking blonde heterosexual couple, their faces turned up towards the sky, the background littered with grey clouds and peppered with white doves. I must have seen hundreds of flyers like this throughout my life, but this one looked especially washed out—the colors were faded, the paper felt worn, even the text looked blurry, as if it had been printed on a machine that was running out of ink.
I took the paper and for a second pretended to be grateful. I had a smile on my face and Jesus had started to walk away but I couldn’t let Him.
I was so tired of pretending.
“I’m gay!” I yelled at his retreating back. “I’m gay!” Jesus looked back at me like I was crazy. For all I knew, he didn’t even know what the word meant. I said it one more time, louder, like maybe that would help him understand. “I’m gay!” Jesus leaped into his massive truck and high-tailed it out of there, taking the correct exit ramp at least. That’s it, I thought. I’m gay. Where is the reward for me?
For months I’d been wondering where Jesus went, if He was even listening to me anymore, and now I would have to figure out what to do with the possibility that Jesus was too busy traipsing around rest stops off I-40 to give a damn about me.