There Was Nothing Worth Saving

I was supposed to spend the night at Julia’s house. Julia wasn’t going to be there — she was going to a cousin’s birthday party with her sisters. I was going to hang out with her mom. It may sound weird to you, but it really wasn’t. Julia’s mom was a single mother and I was one of her only friends. Even as an 11-year old I could see how frazzled and broken she was. She was always overwhelmed, always a little sad. She seemed very lost. They had moved over from Guam just the year before but Julia’s mom seemed like she’d moved from a different planet.

Their apartment had already been reclaimed by the children, the way that a sea reclaims a shipwreck. Toys were strewn everywhere, the walls were covered in crayon drawings. It wasn’t uncommon to arrive at their apartment to see groceries still in the bag on the counter, the youngest daughter sitting on the dirty kitchen floor eating raw bacon out of the package, and their mom lying in bed, unable to figure out where to even start.

I would mop the floor, cook the bacon, put the groceries away. This wasn’t because I was a neat freak — my room was unspeakably dirty — it was because I was Julia’s mom’s friend. She was hurt like me, and I could help her.

If you ask my family, they’ll tell you that I was born a grownup. Forever serious, lost in thought, dependable, shockingly boring. I was the kid who put herself to bed promptly at 8pm every night. I didn’t understand other kids, I wasn’t really one of them. I had other friends my age, but they often tired of my almost geriatric nature and aversion to fun. But for adults in need of a quiet space, I made a great friend.

So when Julia’s mom asked if I could sleep over, I quickly said yes. She didn’t like to be alone, she said. She would get a frozen pizza and we could watch movies. It really sounded like a great time.

I came by Julia’s apartment later that afternoon and plans had changed. Julia had decided that the birthday party she was going to attend was for babies so she wasn’t going to go.

“I can spend the night at your house,” she announced.

I was disappointed, but I knew that according to kid rules, you can’t say no. Even I knew that it would be weird to say, “No, I’m going to hang out with your mom instead.” So I broke the news to Julia’s mom.

“It’s okay,” she said, visibly disappointed, “We’ll hang out another time.”

Julia came over and we wrote short stories and ate dry packets of Top Ramen. We talked about boys we liked (she was pretty and boy crazy and had far more options than me, so she did most of the talking). It was a sleepover like every other sleepover we’d had the past year.

It was early, really early, when Julia’s little sister knocked on our door.

“You need to come now, something’s happened to mom,” she said.

We rushed to her apartment at the bottom of our complex. Julia’s mom was sitting on the stoop outside of her door. She was smoking a cigarette but her hand was shaking so hard she could barely get the cigarette to her lips. Something was wrong with her lip. It was swollen and cut.

Julia’s mom didn’t look at us, “Someone came into the house last night,” she said, “don’t go in there.”

As she said this a gust of wind blew her hair back and a flap of skin raised off of her scalp, revealing a giant gash. She was covered in a white powder that I couldn’t make out. Under the powder I could see blood. Her clothes were torn.

Two police officers showed up and we backed away. One stood over her and asked her questions while he scribbled in his notebook. She answered him without looking up once.

“I need another cigarette,” she announced and looked up for the first time. She seemed like she might die if she didn’t get one right away.

“I’ll get them,” I offered and sprinted in the apartment.

I got just inside the door when the other cop said, “You can’t be in here.”

There was white powder everywhere. I saw ceramic pieces on the floor and realized what it was — flour. Her flour canisters that she kept by the table were broken. There was a splatter of blood on the wall. Everything was broken. I grabbed the pack of cigarettes off of the fireplace mantle that I’d seen Julia’s mom place them on so many times before and ran out.

I handed the pack to her and she grabbed them with a shaky hand. She didn’t look at me.

“Can you take them to your house until their aunt comes to get them?” Julia’s mom asked. It took me a second to realize she was talking to me, and the “them” she was talking about was her daughters. I nodded, even though she couldn’t see me.

I walked Julia and her sisters to my house and we quietly waited for her aunt to arrive.

“Someone must have known she was alone,” Julia said, out of the blue.

My fault, I thought, I could have done something.

It would take another year for me to realize as I watched another friend’s mom being beat within an inch of her life right in front of me that I couldn’t have done something. I wasn’t a fighter. But on that day, I knew this had happened because I wasn’t there.

Julia’s aunt came and picked them up. It was a few days before I had heard from them again. The next time I came over, the apartment had been cleaned by neighbors, but I still didn’t want to go in.

“Robyn had to go in to get diapers,” Julia told me, “There was blood everywhere, she started screaming and we had to go get her. He hit her in the head with those things that mom kept the flower in.” I remembered seeing the ceramic shards on the floor.

“It was like the time that dad hit her in the head with the iron and she had to go to the hospital.”

I nodded and remembered that was why they had moved here from Guam in the first place.

“Everyone knows who did it,” she said, “they laugh about it. They say they know and they’ll never tell. Mom knows too. But she won’t tell. I hate all of them.”

It had been a member of our community — a neighbor, we all knew that much. The boys all laughed and gossiped about it. The girls knew that this wasn’t something to be laughed about and stayed silent. Julia stopped hanging out with the other kids in the complex. She felt betrayed by this place. One of us had hurt her mom.

Within a few weeks they moved in with one of Julia’s mom’s friends. He was in love with her, and she knew he was safe. I went over there a few times. Julia’s mom didn’t talk to me like she used to. She wasn’t mad at me, she just didn’t talk to anybody anymore.

They didn’t live within walking distance anymore, so we started to drift apart. Within six months I heard from Julia that the man they had moved in with died from a sudden heart attack. Her mom wasn’t doing well. I didn’t hear from them much after that.

I don’t know how they are doing today. I can’t even remember Julia’s mom’s name but I still think of her all the time. I saw Julia at a wedding about a decade ago. She was still beautiful. She had changed her name and mutual friends said that she didn’t want anybody to know who her mom was.

She gave me a weak smile, “Hi, how are you?” she asked.

I said I was good and gave her a brief update on my family. I asked how she was.

“Good,” she said in a clipped voice, “My sisters are doing good too. Robyn’s in college. Mom….”she trailed off…”you know…she’s crazy now. We don’t talk.”

She just sort of backed away and that was the end of it. Julia wasn’t happy to see me and I understood why. There was nothing worth saving from that time.

When I think about what happened I’m 11 again. None of it makes any more sense to me now at 34 than it did in that moment. Looking at Julia’s mom on that stoop, I knew she’d been destroyed. I knew that whatever had happened that night was the final straw. I couldn’t feel anything but resignation because nothing was more obvious to me at that moment than the fact that I was a child and I couldn’t fix this. There are some women that the world wants to destroy.

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