by Mackenzie Rud
A single chain-link fence snaked along the property line of San Pablo Elementary. I hardly even noticed it until I had to pass by it every day of 5th grade on my bike ride to school. For some reason, it has always captured my attention. I was so used to seeing fences rusted to hell and back, as if they were mere days from falling apart, but this fence looked so pristine. The clean metal glinted so nicely where the sun kissed it. The gleam was always reminiscent of my mom’s reflective hair clips (silver woven between strands of dark brown until it looped into a half-bun). Thick sheets of laminated poster-board were scattered along the surface, tied in between the chains with thick rope and flimsy zip ties. Each poster was its own planet and had been spaced accordingly to mirror a shrunken down version of the planets’ true distance from one another. All were emblazoned with pictures and facts, but I was always drawn back to the distance. It really forced my kid-brain to consider how vast the universe was.
The fence is still standing but it has been deteriorating for a while. It had welcomed every threat imaginable, like moths drawn to a flame. Looking back, the signs were always there. There had always been hints of rust lurking around the chains, waiting for the moment to strike with a parasitic, vice-like grip. The signs were always sun-bleached, any remaining color ready to fade at a moment’s notice. The flowers were always riddled with persistent, invasive weeds. With perspective, your understanding shifts. Facades can crack and crumble, revealing the undesirable underneath; a lesson I hadn’t learned until recently when things fell apart with my mom.
It is a tradition, a constant when nothing else is, to pass the fence. Despite not going to the schools in the surrounding area anymore, I still see the resilient chain-link every day, as my bus stop is just beyond the elementary school’s borders. The fence is so familiar, nostalgic, even. I can’t help but draw comparisons between it and my personal relationships.
There was never a middle ground when I rode my bike past the fence. I felt obligated to either speed past it as fast as I could or go at a snail’s pace. Going fast caused everything to blur together wonderfully. The fence would look all silver, loops of metal indistinguishable from the rest. The flowers planted alongside the bottom would become one big patch of color that followed me as I sped towards the crosswalk. It always felt like something straight out of a cartoon, bright and animated, but going slow allowed me to appreciate the signs. I could take the time to absorb it all.
Those were the two polar opposites I faced, either a pause or a rush. To keep the promise of the comparison, this was always how it was with my mom, yet not nearly as positive as the bike rides. Most times, she would unashamedly ignore both me and the tension looming over us. Days and nights would go by with few words passing between us. It was the suffocating type of silence, as if one wrong word would end it all. Occasionally, she would pretend to listen, but it was always clear she wasn’t invested. Her eyes would glaze over, and she would mumble unrelated comments. The latter half, the adrenaline rush, was always a whirlwind of emotions. Her erratic behavior, ever unpredictable, was paired with screaming matches and pointless arguments centered around myself or her ex-husband (my dad, who had escaped her ensnarement years ago). Her deep-seated indignation gave way to a passionate fury as the hours dragged on. She would scream her throat raw until her motive was lost, and everything felt blurred and muddled, until she would inevitably fall back on her constant: Heineken.
"Oddly enough, the moment I can pinpoint as the beginning of the end of our relationship involves that dilapidated school fence."
Just as it took a while for me to pick up on the fence’s declining state, it would take years for me to realize the ongoing situation with my mom. I was unable to recognize the abnormality of a house being somewhere to tread lightly upon, rather than a home. It became something I was subconsciously aware of yet chose to ignore in favor of avoiding the fallout. I did so until everything was too much to handle. I couldn’t shove my feelings or anxieties down and pretend they didn’t exist. San Pablo didn’t bite the bullet and start repairs until last year either. They waited until the fence had unapologetically gaping holes. Oddly enough, the moment I can pinpoint as the beginning of the end of our relationship involves that dilapidated school fence.
It was the summer between middle school and high school, and I was hesitantly awaiting my acceptance letter to a high school I had auditioned for. As soon as I got it, things exploded between my parents. My dad wanted my mom to sign a notarized agreement saying that she would not move away from my bus stop. He wanted me to be able to ride my bike to the pick-up spot. My mom was always late for everything, and seeing how the school was an hour away, missing the bus would be a problem. I have always been under the impression that she believes time waits for her.
She received an emailed draft of the papers and had a meltdown. She was convinced there was some secret trick, or something hidden within the subtext. I had read them myself and knew that to be untrue, and I told her such. It was an off-handed remark, really; I had not thought before I said it, but it became the catalyst. She yelled until her voice was hoarse, only to start right back up again. With wild gestures, she told me it was all a big conspiracy. My dad was supposedly creating a masterful ploy to steal custody from her. I couldn't even begin to explain how wrong that was. The papers were so simply written. They stated the only way my dad would get full custody was if she moved me to Orange Park. That request was understandable, as she had moved me there the previous year even though I went to school at the beaches.
My mind was reeling at this point. Everything was dull and distant. It felt like I was submerged under water. I told her I was done, that I was leaving, and stumbled towards the shoe rack. She yelled after me with a favorite phrase of hers. I was “misremembering it all”. I don’t know what there was to “misremember” about it as the terms were written down. I had my hand clenched around the doorknob when she made one final attempt to keep me trapped. It was a sob story I had heard endlessly before: my dad was brainwashing me. Every inconvenience, every time she lost her temper, every perceived slight against her was my dad’s fault. In her mind, her shortcomings as a parent were because he divorced her. The speeches were always filled with half-baked lies, but it still stung to hear her talk so poorly of my dad after all he had done to shield me from her mess. He had spent years cleaning up her mistakes so I could cling to that belief of a loving, picture-perfect family. The impact of the door slamming behind me made the window tremble.
I felt numb as I mindlessly walked. I hadn’t noticed it before, but tears had been steadily falling down my cheeks. I wound up at San Pablo with my nostalgic memories of elementary school dragged to the forefront of my mind. Not my best years, but hey, I was begging for any distractions. My hands shook as I called my dad. I have no memory of what I told him—repression is a hell of a thing—but the little comfort our talk offered was nice. I wanted nothing more than for him to pick me up and take me home, but I knew that would only lead to a kidnapping claim, courtesy of my mom, whose house had never been my home. After ending the call, I didn’t turn back. I put my hand up on the fence as I walked and let my fingers dip in and out of the gaps. The metal wavered in such a satisfying way. I returned to the house after an hour to my mom with a glass of wine shaking in her twitching hands. She apologized with a sickly, honey-laced tone, but as soon as the bottle was drained, she pounded on my bedroom door and returned to the verbal barrage.
Weeks later I returned to San Pablo, aching for the familiarity of the fence, but my heart dropped. That was when I finally realized the poor state it was in. My naïve perspective, my rose-colored glasses, shattered. My favorite planet poster, Venus, swung in the wind and made an awful raucous as it hit the metal links. The onslaught of disappointment was crushing. It felt as if the decay had happened overnight.
My mom’s steady decline had spiraled as well. She always had a balancing act between her narcissism and her addictions, but it began to teeter. It would take getting Baker-Acted for meth usage and suicidal tendencies, being held in a facility for weeks, a second eviction looming over her head (without anywhere to go), and me outright saying I did not feel safe for her to sign away her custody.
She still claims she did nothing wrong and expects me to come running back. She claims my dad is ruining our relationship, but she has texted me three times in the three months following her giving up custody. It has been very weird living at my dad’s house permanently. It’s liberating and wonderful, but it’s hard to believe I’m free from the suffocating tension I lived with for so long. I feel like I’m still waiting for the other shoe to drop, or for some unforeseen consequence to rear its head, but I am slowly getting back into the swing of things. With the opportunity to step back, reflect, and to fully take off those warped rose-colored glasses, my perspective has been broadened, and both her and the fence’s facades have cracked.