Julia has been grounded for going into Olga’s room—Amá took away her phone and has forbidden her from closing her bedroom door. Julia has protested, saying she needs privacy, but Amá only scoffs at the concept of privacy. Amá has also installed a lock on Olga’s bedroom door—a lock to which Julia, despite looking everywhere, cannot find the key. Julia has taken to daydreaming nonstop about living a life away from her parents in Paris or New York, but is always snapped back to her reality—which feels to her like a “living death.” Julia hates her mother entirely lately, and wonders if something is wrong with her for feeling such intense feelings.
Julia is indignant about being punished so severely for the simple act of going into Olga’s room. She is full of anger towards her mother and longs to escape—she wants to get out from under her mother’s thumb, away from the poverty that defines their lives, and escape the perfect image of Olga which lives on in Amá’s mind, making it impossible for Julia to ever do anything right. The locked room is another indication of the way that Amá tries to protect her idea of what is right by maternal force, and her continued focus on Olga at the expense of Julia.
As the school year begins, the only class Julia really enjoys or succeeds in is English, which is taught by the “dorky” but kind Mr. Ingman. Mr. Ingman encourages the students to think about how they express themselves through language—and understand that language can be a tool that can help them empower themselves and get ahead in life.
Words are important to Julia, a voracious reader who loves to argue. Finding herself in Mr. Ingman’s class gives her hope that at least some part of her year will be educational and joyful, and allow her to escape even if for just a little while.
Lately, Julia never knows whether Amá will, on any given day, be in a good mood or a bad one. One Saturday morning, Amá shouts for Julia to wake up early and help out in the kitchen, where Amá is making tortillas. Julia begrudgingly begins helping, but struggles to form the dough into circles and even burns a couple on the stove. Eventually Amá kicks Julia out of the kitchen, telling her she can’t be a real woman if she can’t make a tortilla.
Julia loves food—but resents being asked to make it. She sees preparing food as a part of femininity she doesn’t want to participate in—a duty meant to trap her rather than a skill meant to allow her to fend for herself and be even more independent. This complex relationship to food mirrors her complex relationship to her own past and community, which is something that helps define her but which she primarily sees as a something she wants and needs to escape.
On the day her grounding is lifted, Julia decides to go downtown to The Continental after school to look for some answers about Olga’s connection to it. Julia dresses flamboyantly and feistily for the day in fishnets and Chuck Taylors. Instead of focusing on the lecture, she drifts off in math class, writing poems in the leather journal Olga gave her the previous Christmas. When her math teacher calls on her to answer a question, Julia admits she hasn’t been paying attention. Her teacher commands her to come up to the board and solve the problem. Feeling trapped and embarrassed, Julia picks up her backpack and leaves class—and then heads off-campus altogether and catches a bus into Chicago.
Julia can’t stop getting in trouble—she’s too restless and snarky for her own good. The same day her last punishment ends, she puts herself in danger of earning a new one by talking back in class and then ditching school. Julia feels too good for everything around her, and doesn’t know how to cope with the feelings of entrapment she has deep inside of her. She escapes; she never engages.
Julia is hungry and stops at a diner. She only has eight dollars in her pocket, and though she’s ravenous, resigns herself to a coffee and a danish. When the waitress asks Julia why she’s not in school, she vents about math class—and her sister’s death. When it’s time for Julia to pay the check, the waitress tells her it’s already been taken care of by a fellow patron who overheard their conversation.
Julia’s hunger crops up at moments where she’s feeling particularly fired-up, frustrated, or restless. After the confrontation with her math teacher, she’s all three. The other patron paying her bill shows how others can recognize Julia’s legitimate pain—but at this point those others are strangers, which only highlights the way her own loved ones fail to see it.
Julia heads to The Continental, where she shows the front desk associate a picture of Olga and asks whether the staff has ever seen her in the hotel before. The concierge says that hotel staff aren’t allowed to give out any information about guests, and though Julia begs them to tell her, no one will offer her anything. When Julia asks if the hotel is connected to the Skyline—the hotel where Olga’s friend Angie works—the associate reveals that they’re owned by the same parent conglomerate.
Julia wants to find out the truth about her sister—but this encounter at the hotel is just the first of many dead ends she’ll run into. How deep and how far she wants to go will be tested in the weeks and months to come as more and more people resist giving her information about her sister.
Julia leaves the hotel, but before going home, decides to stop at the art museum to see her favorite painting—Judith Slaying Holofernes. This is her fourth time this year visiting the painting, and Julia loves that every time she’s come to see it, she’s noticed something new about it. Julia wishes she could stay in the museum forever, and looks forward to the day when she can run around Paris looking at art and eating cheese until she bursts.
Looking at her favorite painting enlivens Julia in a moment of sorrow and reconnects her to her dreams. In spite of her rebelliousness and anger, Julia is a sensitive soul, and she dreams of the freedom to run at her desires without being impeded by forces beyond her control.
As Julia rides home on the crowded train, she delights in looking at all the different people and train performers. She gives money to a homeless woman, and feels so happy to be out in the real world that she doesn’t even care that she’ll probably be in big trouble with Amá when she gets back home.
Julia wants to get out of Chicago—badly—but at the same time has a genuine love for her city and the slice of life it offers her. Giving money to the homeless woman also shows Julia’s empathy—she has so little, but she feels for people who have even less.