I'm a small-town girl dreaming of the big-city lights

Should I get married and give up my dreams, or break my engagement, leave this two-bit town and try to live the life I want?

Published April 6, 2007 11:17AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I'm a 25-year-old engaged woman. In the wider world of educated, urban professionals, 25 may be a dewy infant, but in my small world it's the last of a girl's best years -- the dreary dawn of middle age.

My world is a rural Southern town of 4,000, just over an hour from a city of 70,000 where we must drive to buy new clothes, see a movie or eat at a non-fast-food restaurant. Rusting trailers sag next to vinyl-sided McMansions. Abandoned factories squat in all quarters of town. Unemployment, squalor and casual racism are rampant. The faces of meth can be seen at the Super Wal-Mart, which is the center of community life. On the plus side, the scenery is gorgeous.

I'm a "Yankee," and have felt alienated and out of place ever since my parents transplanted me here from the Midwest at age 12. I dream of moving to someplace more alive and diverse, someplace with museums, parks, job opportunities, good schools and activities for my hypothetical children, and people who think and talk somewhat like myself. My fiancé, on the other hand, is the underachieving black sheep of a locally prominent family with deep roots in the area. He loves this place and doesn't want to leave it.

He's 32. We own two tiny mill houses across the street from each other (I bought mine to be close to him). I work as a secretary, making $26,000 a year. I'm also working on my bachelor's degree online, and am just about halfway there. He's a public servant who works 10- to 12-hour days and is on call 24/7; for this, he is compensated about $30,000 a year, but he has a seemingly masochistic love of his job. At my behest, he's studying online for an associate's degree and plans to start his bachelor's after that, but I am unsure how serious he is about ever taking another job.

He is the man to whom I gave my virginity at age 23, and the only man who has ever told me I'm beautiful. (I'm thin and curvy, but my face and overall demeanor are more like that of a Botticelli Madonna than a Playboy Bunny.) Even if we magically reached a compromise on where to live, though, we would still have problems. I'm an extremely verbal person; for every 1,000 words I say to him, he says maybe 10 to me, and this makes me feel desolately lonely. I'm a closet liberal; he's a steadfast conservative. I yearn for children; he is ambivalent about having them. At the rate we're going, by the time we both finish our college degrees, I will be nearing the end of my childbearing years, and he is vehemently opposed to adoption. Also, while I am fit and healthy and will probably live to be at least 90, he has multiple health problems (severe allergies, bone and joint issues, obesity, high blood pressure) and will be lucky to make it to 70. The prospect -- distant though it may be -- of 20-plus years as an old, childless widow in this dismal town depresses and terrifies me.

The wedding is set for September. I can't just run away -- I have no money, no degree, a dog, two cats, a mortgage and too many books to fit in my car. The way I see it, I have three options:

1. Marry my fiancé and be content with love -- which, after all, some people never find. Continue to placate my longings for beauty and travel through books and the Internet. If children come to us through sheer chance, raise them to be as much like my husband as possible, so that hopefully they will never know the pain I know. If they don't come, placate those longings through spoiling my nieces and nephews, volunteering in the church nursery and -- as my faculties decay -- forcing my cats into onesies.

2. Break my engagement. Stick around to finish my degree and save enough money for a new start elsewhere -- meanwhile enduring the evil eye from my fiancé's family in Wal-Mart, and questioning my decision every time I wave to him sadly from across the street. Make the big move to the city of my choice, and try to beat out all the other eligible women for a sane, healthy man who likes to read and talk and explore, wants to go to London and Florence and the Galapagos Islands with me, and wants to give his children the best start in life. And who, for some reason, wants a woman with a crazy hybrid Southern/Midwestern accent who's constantly goggling at the big world like an overstimulated toddler.

3. Marry my fiancé, but try to change our fate. Push him on to higher education and try to persuade him to get a better paying and/or less demanding job. Show him pictures and read to him about places he has never wasted a thought on, trying to awaken his mind to the wonders that exist more than an hour's drive away. Frog-march him to the doctor to get treatment for his health issues, forbid him fast food, force him to run with me. Start flushing my birth-control pills when I turn 35, then drag him kicking and screaming to a city where we can push a stroller through museums and he can visit his beloved hometown alone once or twice a year.

Cary, I've been reading your column too long to expect a simple 1, 2 or 3 answer from you, but I hope you can tell me which is the closest to being best for me, and the man I love.

(Don't Wanna Be a) Small-Town Girl

Dear Don't Wanna Be a Small-Town Girl,

Wow, this is hard. But I pick Option No. 2. How could I not? It's the only one that makes sense. Break off the engagement.

And, since you have been reading this column for a long time, I hope you have also noticed that on rare, rare occasions, I can do the surprising thing, and answer a question with a simple 1, 2 or 3 answer. This is it! Surprise!

Oh -- one thing. The reason I can give this answer is that you've laid the situation out so beautifully, like the start of a novel. You made it easy for me.

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