“Sittin’ on the dock of the bay,” Julian began to sing to herself as she drummed her fingers against the steering wheel, “watching the tides roll away.”
How much easier that would be, she thought, to roll away with the tides? If only. But healing wasn’t a passive process and Julian had made the steadfast decision to return to her childhood residence months ago. The urge to give in and run away was tempting. With a twist of the wheel, she could change lanes and leave Georgia. Maybe even head for the ‘Fisco Bay like Otis Redding mused in his song. She could feel the sand between her toes already…but that wouldn’t change anything. Sure, Julian would be happy, but for how long? Eventually, her inevitable thoughts of what-ifs would interrupt her joy, and Julian’s conscience would be consumed by her mother.
Ironic, chuckled Julian sourly as she turned on her blinker lights, even time and space can’t break her hold on me. But she knew that was a lie, at least partially. Julian had been away from home for four years–possibly four years too long–but she had grown a lot during that time. Her attempt to come back and confront her mother was evidence of that alone. Her past self probably thought she was crazy for returning when leaving had been so difficult, but things were different now.
Younger Julian was terrified of the world. Growing up in a small town, she didn’t have much experience navigating it, but she was sure of one thing, “the world hated weak-willed women.” Her mother told her that. She said it was for Julian’s benefit because she was weak-willed. It wasn’t a secret, rather it was common knowledge around the family farm that Julian wasn’t as strong as her mother and grandmother. She aspired to be like them. Those women were as tough as they came; nothing ever seemed to affect them. Even when Julian’s father had abruptly disappeared after a particularly bad shouting match between him and her mother, nothing had changed.
Julian vividly remembered the fight, though she hadn’t seen any of it. She had been upstairs in her room preparing for bed when it started, but she had heard everything. Hugging tight to her stuffed rabbit and whispering, “It’s okay,” into its floppy ears, little Julian listened to the clattering of dishes as they ruptured against the worn tiles of the kitchen floor. She imagined her mother was washing them before the fighting erupted. Maybe her father was at the kitchen table thumbing through the Sunday paper when the first dish broke. An accident caused by her mother’s soapy hands and the lack of counter space. But her father had a temper (he never hid it) and a single broken dish was surely enough to ignite it. In defense of herself, and maybe a bit out of fear though her mother would never admit it, she grabbed the nearest item to her – a butcher’s knife. And the fighting escalated from there.
Rubbing tirelessly at her eyes, little Julian with her floppy-eared rabbit in clutch slid beneath her covers and dozed off to a chorus of profanities being traded back and forth. Absent-mindedly, she wondered if there would be any dishes to eat breakfast on in the morning. Somehow, they always seemed to have an endless supply.
When Julian awoke that morning, her father was nowhere to be seen and the kitchen was spotless. It was almost as if he never lived there, but little Julian could see remnants of his former presence in the agitated reddening of her mother’s right cheek and the faint imprint of a clasped hand around her wrist. It wasn’t his style to leave without parting gifts.
As Julian’s grandmother traipsed down the stairs one at a time so as not to excite her ailing joints, she seemed to notice a missing chair at the kitchen table but didn’t make note of it or her mother’s bruises. Breakfast went on as normal, in silence, before everyone went off in search of chores. Living on a farm, there never seemed to be a lack of things to do. Maybe it was for the best; with so much work Julian wouldn’t have time to process her father’s disappearance or his abuse, and neither would her mother.
Stopping at the red light of a four-way intersection, Julian wondered what her grandmother thought of her father’s absence all those years ago. Maybe nothing much. Knowing her grandmother, she probably thought Julian’s mother was better off without him. Grandmother had raised Julian’s mother without grandfather, so why couldn’t she do the same.
And the same she did. Julian’s mother followed her grandmother’s footsteps to a “t”, including the emotional neglect, but Julian wasn’t always sure it was abuse. At least, as a kid, it felt necessary. Her mother and, by extension, her grandmother were just attempting to toughen Julian up.
Younger Julian, always the optimistic naive dolt, idolized the independence of her single mother and her matriarchal grandmother. They were never very affectionate, but Julian never expected them to be. Being distant and emotionally removed was just a show of strength amongst the women in their family. Head nods instead of hellos to acknowledge each other’s presence and a rapped tap of the shoulder for goodbyes were just the norm. Crying or complaining were considered weak and were punishable offenses. Julian understood this and with every fiber of her being she tried her best to be complacent, but she always failed.
Julian was never a graceful kid and was always harming herself in one way or another. Most times it was due to farm work, but today, during a rare moment of idle boredom, she had attempted to climb great-great grandmother’s weeping willow but had fallen after nearly reaching the top. Julian knew she should have just been a big girl and dealt with the consequences of her actions herself, but it hurt so badly. She just wanted her mother to tell her she was okay, regardless of it being tough or not.
“Mother, it hurts,” cried Julian clutching at her hip.
“And,” her mother taunted with a cocked eyebrow. She was seated at the kitchen table, appearing as if an apparition of Julian’s father, thumbing through a magazine.
“And, um, I,” Julian stuttered; she knew she was in trouble. She should have just shut-up and cried in her room; she always felt safer there. But hugging her stuffed floppy-eared rabbit wouldn’t help her today.
“Again, with the stuttering. No one wants to listen to a skipping record,” Julian’s mother shook her head with disappointment. Julian knew her mother thought she was a failure to their matrilineality; she was weak.
Finished with their conversation, Julian’s mother tossed the magazine aside and headed for the direction of her room. Nothing, or anyone, was of use to her in this room.
Panicked at her mother’s exit, Julian attempted to call after her, “but I–”
“But nothing,” Julian’s mother interjected, “This is your issue and your pain; it has nothing to do with me. Go find the first-aid kit, fix yourself up, and move on. That’s all the advice I got for you”.
Julian still had a bum hip from the incident that ached every so often during the winter or whenever it rained. She guessed the fall all those years ago had done something to the joint, and it must have healed wrong. Julian frequently thought about getting it checked out but always decided against it. I can tough it out, she rationalized. Some generational habits are just harder to break than others.
Rubbing at the aforementioned joint, Julian sank further into her seat realizing where she was. Anxiously nibbling at her lip, Julian sighed before unlocking her car and stepping out. Before her loomed the entrance to the family farm; it looked worse for wear. Shuffling forward, she reached for the gate and shook it. Locked, she clicked her tongue in disappointment. Stepping back, Julian searched the fence for an opening but found none. Even though the paint was weathered and chipped, someone must have kept up the wire. But she wondered who. It used to be Julian’s responsibility and her grandmother was too old. Maybe mother.
Thinking on it, Julian threw caution to the wind and charged the gate. If she couldn’t go through it, she would climb over it. Sticking her foot between the gaps in the wire, Julian gripped at the bars and pulled herself up. Right hand, left foot; left hand, right foot. Inch by inch, Julian ascended until finally, she reached the top. Sitting there for a moment, she took a breather to look around at the outstretch of land before her. The view reminded Julian of when she climbed her great-great grandmother’s willow tree all those years ago. Grimacing at the memory, Julian hoped she didn’t fall on her way down.
Feet touching the ground, Julian breathed a sigh of relief. She made it. But glancing up at the house before her, she realized scaling the gate might have been the easy part. Now, she had to face her mother.
She’ll be surprised to see me. Julian thought. She hasn’t seen me, heard from me since I left.
Julian remembers crying that day; she was terrified to leave. She had never left home before, let alone this town. Her mother never let her. She couldn’t understand why Julian would ever want to live anywhere else.
“Your grandmother is here,” she would say, “I’m here. What’s out there for you, your father?” Julian’s mother cackled to herself. “As if you even know where he is.” Smirking, she circled Julian as if herding her pray. Forcefully poking at Julian’s shoulder, her mother stepped towards her toe-to-toe, eye-to-eye. For a moment, she just stared at Julian letting the silence perforate the air. It felt tense.
Julian took in shallow breaths and shifted her eyes to the floor. She couldn’t look at her mother, not directly in her eyes. She hated when her mother got this way; it scared her. Why can’t she just leave me alone? Unsure of what to do, she attempted to step away when she saw her mother’s hand from the corner of her eye. She flinched.
Gripping her daughter’s face in one hand, Julian’s mother’s facial expression softened. She tilted her head to the side and brought her other hand up to stroke Julian’s hair.
“Baby,” whispered Julian’s mother in a voice Julian had never heard from her before. It was quite and soft; almost comforting oddly enough.
“You can’t leave,” she smiled, “You wouldn’t make it out there.” Her grip tightened on Julian’s face. Julian was in pain.
“You need me.” Julian’s mother leaned even closer until her mouth was beside Julian’s ear. And in a hushed tone, she told Julian, “You are weak.” Patting her cheek, Julian’s mother pulled away and headed for her room. Pausing, she called over her shoulder with a hint of intimidation in her voice, “See you at breakfast.”
Julian was trembling. Her mother wouldn’t see her in the morning; Julian couldn’t stay here. Tripping up the stairs, she rushed to her room as quietly as she could. She couldn’t let her mother or grandmother hear her. They would stop her. Cracking open her bedroom door, Julian slipped inside. Grabbing two duffle bags from her closet, she tossed in whatever she thought she might need for college. Julian wasn’t supposed to leave for college for another week, but she couldn’t be here any longer. She would rent a hotel room if she needed to. Okay with what she packed, Julian crept downstairs watching out for creaky flooring. Grabbing the gate key off of the door hook, she walked outside towards the border of the property. Unlocking the lock, Julian pushed open the gates and tossed the keys behind her. Hopefully, her mother found them sometime long after she had escaped.
It felt kind of odd standing in front of the place she had once fled. Strange, but kind of empowering. Here Julian stood not in fear, of her mother or anyone else, but of her own volition.
Rolling back her shoulders and straightening her spine, Julian took a deep breath and stepped forward. It’s time.Striding down the driveway, onto the stepstones, and up the stairs of the front porch, Julian hyped herself up. You got this.She did a little jog in place and shook out her hands. You’re older now. She grabbed the door knocker, You’ve grown emotionally, and banged it against the door. With three strong short raps, Julian dropped her hand and stepped back. I’ve got this.
No one came to the door.
Umm. Julian was addled. Should she knock again? No. If no one answered, she wouldn’t wait. She would let herself in. Looking under the rug, between the bench cushions, and under the garden gnome, she finally found the spare key in the basket of a hanging plant. Hands dirty, she unlocked the door and stepped inside her childhood home for what felt like the first time in forever.
A thin layer of dust covered everything and not a single light was on. The home appeared abandoned and Julian just might have believed it was, but beside the door was her mother’s boots covered in fresh mud. Wandering throughout the house, past the main stairs and into the kitchen, she noticed the silhouette of a person slouched over the kitchen table.
“Mother?” called Julian. The shadow jolted in its seat with shock. As it looked up towards Julian, a fading ray of sunlight illuminated its face. It was indeed her mother.
“I see you finally made it to breakfast,” her mother sarcastically snared, “but I’ve already cleared the table”. She waved her hand over it for emphasis.
“That’s alright,” Julian murmured as her eyes lingered on her mother’s aged face. She had so many more wrinkles and looked paler, almost frail. Julian pulled out a chair for herself and sat on the edge. “I didn’t feel like joining you until just now,” Julian jested, “I even left the gate closed this time.” She wondered if she could get a rise out of her mother; she didn’t recognize the docile woman in front of her.
“Good,” her mother gritted out and she pushed away from the table. With no looks towards Julian, as if she wasn’t even there, her mother turned for her room.
Clenching her teeth, Julian slammed her hands against the table. The slap resonated throughout the room and the wooden structure of the crumbling table shook from the unsuspecting force. “Turn back around,” Julian barked, “I am back for the first time in four years and we are going to talk!”
“I should care why?” her mother asked, not even turning to face her.
“Aren’t I reason enough?” Julian quirked her brow.
Her mother chuckled, “Try again.”
Rising from her seat with urgency and quick steps, Julian approached her mother. Gripping at her boney shoulders, Julian spun her mother around. “What about, because I said so.”
Eyeing her daughter’s firm grip on her shoulder, Julian’s mother rolled her eyes. “I see you got your father’s temper.”
“I like to think it’s a gift from both of you,” a curt smile appeared on Julian’s face, “it took a while to arrive but being away from you seemed to have worked magic.”
“Congratulations,” her mother mocked, “You’re strong now. Would you like a prize or something?” She looked around the kitchen at the peeling paint and broken tile, “It’s decrepit, but take whatever you want.”
Julian removed her hand and looked directly into her mother’s eyes, “I want an apology.”
Dumbfounded, Julian’s mother asked, “Why?”
Julian’s eyebrows crinkled together; she scrunched her nose. “I don’t know. Maybe because of my toxic childhood or the way you threatened me before I left? Emotional manipulation really does a number on a person”
Julian’s mother blew a raspberry. “I was molding you. You were weak.”
“I was never weak; I was a child exploring and acknowledging her emotion. If you wanted a robot you should have bought one. But I was human; I’m still human. And out there, beyond this house, those gates and this town are people who express shit like crying or happiness.” Julian pulled on her hair. “Why the fuck did I have to learn this from strangers? Why not you? Why not grandmother?”
Julian’s mother cracked. Stepping forward, she roughly pushed Julian who took a step back. “We were fucked up! Is that what you want me to say? Did you go to some fancy mind doctor in the city who told you I was your problem? What of it? What happened, happened.” Julian’s mother took another step forward and stood toe to toe with Julian. She smiled. “You aren’t the only one with issues. I’m sure that doctor of yours told you. Hell, city girl, you’ve seen the world. You should know better than anyone that you’re not the only wretched soul with problems. In fact,” she thought out loud as if struck by an epiphany, “you’re lucky you grew up with me and your grandmother.” She looked Julian up and down, “so grow up,” her eyes slid to the front door, “and move on”.
Julian’s mother finally stepped back and bowed with a grand sweep of her arm before returning to her room and out of Julian’s sight.
Frustrated, Julian punched the wall and screamed at the top of her lungs. “Why in the hell did I come here!” She rushed for the door and slammed it open. Snatching the keys off the door hook as she had done all those years ago, she sprinted down the driveway. I was foolish to think anything would change. She slammed open the gates and hopped into her truck. Nothing changes, no one changes; I didn’t even fucking change. Julian berated herself. Revving the engine, Otis Redding’s voice blared over the radio,
“Look like nothing’s gonna change
Everything still remains the same
I can’t do what ten people tell me to do
So I guess I’ll remain the same.”
Julian glared at it; she should have known better. Reversing the car, she took one last look at the house before tossing the gate keys out the window and against the gravel. Turning up the radio, she left in her wake the lyrics, “I left my home in Georgia / Headed for the ‘Frisco bay.”