Every morning was the same. I would wake up, take a shower, get dressed and make my bed. Then I would eat a bowl of cereal and head to school, where my boyfriend would be waiting for me.
His name was Andrew Satterfield and his family was well-respected in the community. Both of us were attending Par Excellence. He was on the varsity team as our starring quarterback and hoping to get a scholarship. I was a Berdorf and if my name wasn't enough, my cousins were Horowitzes. Enough said in Hidden Springs. My family tree's prestige carried enough weight in the town that doors were opened before I even chose to step through them.
We were the cute couple in high school. You know, the one that kissed every morning before homeroom and by each other's lockers. We'd hold court at our usual table in the cafeteria at lunchtime, flanked by his football goons and my giggling girlfriends. We were going to have the perfect Senior Year and were favored to win Prom King and Queen. To the casual outsider, my life was perfect.
Okay, so maybe Andrew was a little boring and being a jock, seemed to be confirm every stereotype I had ever heard about athletes. But he sent me good-night texts, walked me to class and took me out to dinner and the movies. A few girls had admitted that they would have killed to have such an attentive boyfriend and how they hated being single. We could go to college together, get married, live in a nice house with a white picket fence, raise a nice family and have a nice life. Even at seventeen, I could see how our lives would play out perfectly like a movie. And even if our conversations were less than stimulating, he still was someone, and better than dealing with everyone else.
Teachers would fawn over my test scores and perfect attendance. Parents would encourage their students to be more like me. Girls wanted to be my friends. Guys wanted to date me. And as much as I "loved" being me, Ramona Bergdorf, Par Excellence's sweetheart, I knew that most of the adoration wasn't about how pretty I was, how well I treated others or even about being smart. Hidden Springs was a small town and even as prestigious as both of my grandparents had been or how talented an artist my father had been, the truth is, that didn't matter. None of it did. They felt sorry for me, because of all the events that led to my grandfather getting killed in a car accident, my mother cheating and leaving, and finally, my father shooting himself in the head. I could feel them watching me all the time, waiting for me to snap. Everyone seemed to be anticipating the moment where I would break down and they wanted to be there when it happened. I felt bad for disappointing them.
* * * * * * *
On the weekends she came home from Smugglesworth Prep, my cousin Bettina would stay over. She was my best friend, even if she was a bit snobby, but I felt like she was the only other person who could empathize with what I had gone through. Of course, we never talked about it, but it was there and I appreciated her for what it was worth.
As per custom, we would watch a chick flick, have a pillow fight and then pass out. I'd always give her my bed and would instead choose a sleeping bag on the floor. She asked me the first time why I didn't sleep in my parents' bedroom. After his death, my grandmother had hired a crew of cleaners to come in and fix it up. They had scrubbed the floors and mopped the blood up but there was still a tiny nick in the wall from where the shell had gotten lodged there. Is it weird that I kept that shell, the one that had gone through my father's head, killing him? But I never told Bettina this. She wasn't the one that found him. Still, long after she had drifted off into a deep slumber, I would lie there in the dark, remembering.
I was seventeen and as a child, I had already witnessed a man's death. I had seen my own father's brains splattered all over the wooden floors, his head a pile of blood and mush, his body growing cold and stiff as we waited for the ambulance to take his corpse away to the morgue. I had been the one to tell my grandmother about the suicide and was the one who had made the 9-1-1 call as she sat on his bed, not moving, aside from the shaking of her shoulders, as she sobbed for the son she never completely could get through to. I knew that I would never, could never, be just seventeen, my childhood gone in a moment, my future already tarnished.
* * * * * * *
"So, what did you think?" We had gone to see the latest drama that had just come out a couple of days ago. We had been let out of school early and Andrew had suggesting catching a flick before heading home to my place, where we did homework every afternoon.
"It was alright, I guess, maybe a little morbid," he chuckled like he always did when he didn't know the answer, which was often.
"Morbid? It was a satire on how society gives young women distorted views of their bodies, making them think that they have to be a size two and blond to be beautiful."
He chuckled again. Why did he always have to laugh when he felt awkward? It was an aggravating habit. "God, Ram, it's just a movie. Do you want to go get something to eat?"
"Andrew, it's a problem that happens in real life! Eating disorders are happening to nine-year-olds who are convinced that they are fat because they don't look like Kate Moss."
"But sweetheart," he said tenderly, "you're beautiful and never have to worry about something like that. Besides, don't you think they exaggerated it just a bit? I mean, a tenth grader killing herself because a boy called her Thunder Thighs? No wonder it's a satire. Suicide is so stupid. I mean, talk about an exaggeration."
"What?" I whispered.
Andrew realized his mistake and immediately started spewing apologies and excuses, knowing how close his comment had hit to home. "I mean...not everyone who kills themselves is stupid...your father...he was a good guy...there probably are good reasons...just I don't think being overweight...maybe young girls..."
"I understand how you feel, Andrew. About my father, my family, even about me. It's okay. I get it. Maybe to everyone else, suicide is some taboo topic, but ignorance only perpetuates more ignorance. Everyone thinks that the only people who kill themselves are crazy. Psycho, right? That one thing happens and they go off the deep end, but it's so much more," I shook my head, tears in my eyes. "You might be ignorant, but I think you're lucky. You're lucky you will never understand." I started to leave without him. "See you in school tomorrow?"
"Ramona, wait, let me explain," he called out, but I didn't stop and he didn't pursue me. I didn't know if I would have a boyfriend in the morning, and at the moment, I didn't care.
When I got home, I started my nightly ritual early. I went up to my room and cried until I had no more tears to cry.
* * * * * * *
The next morning, a bright and beautiful Saturday, I woke up feeling a little better and ready to apologize to Andrew. I was up and dressed by seven and coming downstairs, I heard my grandmother shouting in the kitchen. "Stupid dishwasher! You're not even two years old and falling apart!" There were some sniffles and then, "oh God, I wish my Nate was here. He would know what to do."
This is why I had never enrolled at Smugglesworth Prep to attend school with Bettina. My grandmother who was at least eighty years old, needed me too much for me to just leave her here to deal with the large house's upkeep and maintenance. We needed each other.
"Grandmother," I said gently, taking her by the arms, "why don't you go get cleaned up? I'll call the repairman and we'll get it fixed by this afternoon."
She sniffed. "When your grandfather was alive, we never had to call a repairman. My Nate always took care of everything. And now he's gone and I don't know what to do. I've been so lost since he died. And then your father...I don't think I can do it, anymore, Ramona. It just hurts too much."
"I know Grandmother, I know. But you still have me. I'll take care of everything. Go wash your face and I'll make us some tea, okay?"
Grandmother nodded, her cheeks still damp with tears. "Okay, darling, I will do that. I don't know what I would do without you."
The repairman would be there in an hour, which gave me some time to do damage control. When Grandmother returned, our tea was ready for her in two white, steaming cups. We sat at the table and sipped our hot drinks slowly.
"Ramona, I've been thinking. I know it's been a long time since it happened and you seem to be doing well, but maybe it would be a good idea to you know, talk to someone."
"I'm fine Grandmother. Really!" I tried to smile at her convincingly.
She gazed at me with wise, tired eyes. "I've heard you at night crying. I come upstairs and I hear you."
So my secret was out. "Yes," I admitted, "you're right. I feel like everyone treats me like kid gloves, just waiting for my fall. You're the one who shares this pain with me and you've got Grandfather, Olivia AND father to mourn as well as raising me. I can't burden you any further. So I think about him at night and cry. That's how I've learned how to deal with it. I don't think talking to a stranger would help anything."
"I want you to be as happy and healthy as possible. Holding it in is only going to drive you crazy, darling. Believe me, I know. I've been researching support groups lately on the Internet. There's one in town for teenagers who have experienced trauma. They meet in the old Baptist church over by the garage. Would you agree to at least give it a chance for one night? If you don't like it, we can get you a therapist, but I really think it would be good for you, to have a chance to talk to others."
I thought about my tear-filled nights, my superficial cousin, my insensitive boyfriend and about what it meant to be Ramona Bergdorf. I thought about the strain of staying home instead of going away, in lieu of leaving Hidden Springs and all of its bad memories behind. I thought about my Grandmother, who I took care of, who I was responsible for and who loved me more than anything. And lastly, I thought about the empty bedroom, the one that bleach had purged clean of death. Unfortunately, there was no bleach for the brain. People who experienced tragedy could not simply be cleansed of the memories. We had to live with it forever and now I had a chance to meet people like myself, who might understand me and teach me how to live as a full person.
"Okay Grandmother, I'll do it," I told her, putting my hand on hers.
"Ramona, dear, when the repairman comes, will you let him in?" she asked, standing up slowly. "I'm not feeling very well."
"Of course, are you okay?" I asked, getting up to help her.
She waved me away. "Oh, just a cold, I'm sure. Sit back down and finish your tea. I'll be fine."
Grandmother walked to her room, also very slowly and shut the door. There she napped for the rest of the day.