The brown townhouse is smaller than I remember. It sits back further from the road than the other townhouses attached to it, flinching into the shadows. Emerald shrubs under the bay windows have replaced the patchy grass and overgrown weeds of my childhood. The walkway to the front door stretches so much longer than I recall.
Since my mercurial mother moved us to the East coast when I was fourteen, I’ve dreamed about returning to the city I love, to my hometown. To this house, where everything fell apart. I need to see where the abuse started. How it has survived along with me. To see what I look like from the inside.
Eleven years later, here I am. My first solo trip, from Ontario to British Columbia, combined thesis research with a visit to Calgary. I’ve missed this city dearly, in spite of Mom’s rages that drove me to covet the content of her medicine cabinet. At fifteen, I imagined downing all three rows of bottles on the white wooden shelves. It was Mom’s prescription medication for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome—which made her sleep upwards of twenty hours a day while I took care of my baby sister—and related ailments. That would definitely kill me.
That’s what I wanted—to escape. I’d already told Social Services how, shortly after my sister was born when I was ten and Mom got sick, she got violent. One night when my sister was six months old, Mom came home from the bars to find the sitter hadn’t fed the baby, and she took it out on me. “You’re her sister!” she bellowed as I curled up into a ball on the floor while she kicked me repeatedly in the stomach. After that, her explosions seemed to come every few days, but my fear was persistent.
The social workers were supposed to ask Mom to stop hurting me, but when I came home from school, I found my mother dabbing at her running mascara and and blowing her nose. She turned a teary smile to me, saying, “Why didn’t you just talk to me?” The brunette patted Mom’s arm. “Instead of bothering these nice people.” The social workers beamed.
I dropped my eyes. Of course they believed Mom. Adults believe adults.
“We can see you really love each other,” the brunette said as Mom pulled me tight to her side. I went limp, shoulders slumped.
“Oh yes, we really do,” Mom said. “We’re the best of friends.” They smiled again, not really looking at me. The heavy brown door closed with a thud.
“Don’t you ever pull a stunt like that again,” Mom growled, voice low and serious, head dipping. I could almost see the smoke pooling around her ears. “I’ll make you pay for that one.” She glared at me. “I need a nap now. Wake me up in an hour.” She thumped up the stairs, and I nodded, quiet.
Soon it became clear the medicine cabinet, not the social workers, held the solution I sought. After months of fantasizing, I rattled the cabinet door to discover Mom had begun to lock it. How did she know?
Before I had much time to think of other solutions, my aunt called and asked me that brave question: Are you thinking about hurting yourself? I said yes. No, she said. You come stay with me. We’ll figure something out. We did, and I moved in with my dad the next year.
Hand trembling in front of the familiar brown door, I knock. The forty-something, squat brunette who opens the door nods at my request and lets me in. As I tour the old rooms and hallways, the clean, bright space surprises me. “Sorry for the mess and the boxes,” she says, her eyes pinched. “My partner and I just moved in. We’re still unpacking.”
I nod, my chin-length dirty-blonde hair swishing as I survey the living room. Though a couch now inhabits the corner rather than the Victorian-white daybed my mother favored, the space still feels like “mine.” Silent tears gush as they did over a decade ago. Always silent. It was safer that way.
I reach the top of the stairs. Like I’m thirteen again, I see Mom and myself struggling. She shook me as I tried to wrench away, afraid she might push, or I might jump. Another step, and I’m at my old bedroom door. My heart races recalling how I held it closed with all my strength while Mom shoved from the other side. When the knob slipped and the door burst open, she ran straight for my precious books. Holding one high and then another, she tore them in half along the spine. I crumpled at her feet and cried. “Mom, please stop!”
My hands clasp my elbows, and I begin to shake.
“This house is filled with love now,” the woman says, her eyes kind.
“Really?” I look at her, tears slowing. A soft glow lights her face as she smiles.
Through the rows of neatly stacked boxes lining my old bedroom, I can imagine the couple unpacking their life together. Fresh paint erases my faded childhood wallpaper. Something shifts inside of me.
“It’s so different than what I remember.”
Soon I leave, wandering to the playground beyond my childhood window, the path sloping toward a sandbox, slide, and monkey bars. I find the safety of shadows, and grief wets my shirt until, finally, I am empty.
When I depart two days later, I can’t stop crying. I’m surprised Calgary still feels like home, good and bad. Unlike the now-familiar hills of Eastern Canada, flatland blurs through the bus window, an etch-a-sketch of green and brown, releasing the phantasm of my past, the spectre that hooks me into re-playing scenes of torment and humiliation. I return to school with a post-funeral calm. And a lightness born of hope.
If my house can heal, so can I.
Yolande House, originally from Fredericton, N.B., Canada, taught English in South Korea for six years and now resides in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Her writing has been featured or is forthcoming in art exhibits and literary magazines such as PRISM international and Panorama: The Journal of Intelligent Travel. Currently, she’s working on a childhood memoir.