I often forget I ever went to Alabama. I fell asleep in Chatanooga, Tennessee, and woke up to palm trees and high-rise apartment blocks half a day later. Themed bars with broken neon lights and cheap wire fences called out to Florida, ten minutes down the highway, and the whole placed seethed with a white-trash nostalgia that up until that point I had believed only existed on TV.
Welcome, my host chuckled, to the Redneck Riviera.
Redneck, sure. I couldn’t even call the place a town; it felt like several highway rest stops had been folded in on one another, littered with a couple of souvenir mega-stores and dropped on the unsuspecting coastline tucked away at the very bottom of Alabama. But Riviera? It transpired that behind some of the biggest buildings I have ever seen – tall, wide, and adorned with thousands of identical balconies – was an enormous golden beach and an endless horizon. The buildings acted as a frontline, the only thing stopping fast-food chains and strip malls absorbing the tranquil beauty of the shoreline and the infinite ocean.
It was in this strange nowhere-place, so quintessentially American and yet bafflingly foreign to me, that I spent my first thanksgiving, on the 27th floor of one of the enormous, identical buildings. I was amazed to see how much food could be crammed into one apartment – and in one person’s mouth for that matter (mine). I learned that there are people in America who consider a bowl of candy corn an appropriate starter, that it is mandatory to make three times as much food as necessary and attempt to eat it all anyway, and that pumpkin pie is cold. This last realisation both disturbed and disappointed me and I chose to stick with chocolate chip cookies and the remains of my multi-coloured entrée.
I stuffed myself on thanksgiving but ate very little the rest of the time. I felt too awkward to ask my hosts for food or to help myself to their snacks, so I subsided on copious amounts of coffee and avoided leaving my bed as much as possible. I was staying with the family of a friend, family which she herself barely knew and who expected very little of our company. So in our beds, we remained. They believed we were doing work, as we had stressed just how rapidly finals were approaching and just how many essays we had to complete for the following week. To no one’s surprise, least of all our own, our work remained untouched for the majority of the trip. We found the place unsettling and fidgeted restlessly in our yellow-wallpapered rooms wondering if we were going crazy. ‘It’s like The Yellow Wallpaper,’ we decided. ‘Something about this room is driving us nuts.’ It occurs to me now that any room would probably drive you nuts if you didn’t leave it for three days expect to walk the ten feet to the coffee machine, but when you are 27 floors from the nearest exit, leaving does not necessarily feel like an appealing option.
One night, overcome with cabin fever and probably overdosing on caffeine, I had finally had enough of the yellow room to motivate myself to leave it. I announced that I was taking my work to the balcony, and disappeared behind the huge living room curtains into the night. The essay lay forgotten, as ever, on the table behind me as I breathed in huge gulps of fresh air and leant forward into the empty sky.
My mind had gone stagnant in the yellow room, but as I stared out to sea, my thoughts began to shake free, tumbling out one after the other after the other. I wanted to go home, home-home, England-home, Queen’s English and hot tea and rude strangers home. I wanted to float out across the horizon, to tread the invisible line between surging coal-dark sea and soaring coal-dark sky. I wanted to throw my laptop over the balcony and forget about such thing as finals and classes and the futility of writing an essay on a topic I didn’t believe in or even understand. I tried to imagine America. I tried to grasp the idea that I was in America, tried to picture the 4,000 miles which stretched between me and almost everyone I had ever known until four months ago. I pictured my mind drifting outside of me and floating up into the sky, watching me recede to a dot on the balcony, watching the building recede to a dot, watching the whole of Alabama, America, Earth, recede to nothing but a dot in the impossible vastness of the universe and time. With a sudden slip, I fell. Like Alice down the rabbit hole, back into myself. Standing on the Balcony. Staring out to sea. In America and unsure what that meant, if it meant anything at all.
Written by Isabella Millington