I answered the phone on the third ring. "Hello?" I wasn't in the mood for small talk.
"Ramona?" It was my mother.
"Yes, Farryn?" I replied coolly.
"I heard about your grandmother. Pancreatic cancer?"
Her voice faltered. "I'm so sorry."
While I seriously doubted that, I was in no mood to argue. Tuesday's visit with Dr. Edwards had proven to be less than encouraging. He estimated that Grandmother had maybe six months left at least, if she was lucky. They had caught her cancer during its last stages, common for the type she had. She would be in a lot of pain and would need someone to care for her. The kind doctor recommended putting her in a hospice.
I couldn't imagine my loving grandmother confined to a room where she just waited to die. She deserved better, but unfortunately, I was still in high school. The only other option we had, was hiring someone to come live in our home. It wasn't ideal, but it sure beat the alternative.
There were experimental diets that had been reported to extend the life expectancy of pancreatic cancer patients but my grandmother would have none of that. How could she stay so calm, so accepting? It wasn't happening to me, yet as always, I would have to live with the consequences. Hadn't our family been through enough? What would happen to me once she was gone?
'Look," I said, my tone acerbic, "I don't know how many times I have to tell you this but quit trying to be a part of our lives." Without waiting for her to protest, I continued on heartlessly. "You walked out on us. So do what you do best, and leave us alone."
* * * * * * *
"Where are we?"
Grandmother smiled. She had taken me out of school for the day for an "important talk". Standing on an old wooden bridge, smelling the wildflowers and listening to the birds chirp, I felt completely at peace. It's hard to believe that so much was going on inside me as long as I was surrounded by nature in all its aesthetic glory.
"This bridge was...special to your grandfather and I. I suppose you could say that it was a big part of our love story. I never got to take your father here and I wanted to share it with you before..." A shadow crossed over her face but quickly vanished. "Well, this bridge has played an important role in our family's history and I hope it becomes as special to you as it has to me."
"Thank you, Grandmother," I murmured, feeling like this outing was one of the last we would share together. I tried to be strong for her sake. "We'll have to get the old fishing poles out of storage and make a day of it sometime."
She laughed, patting me on the shoulder. "Oh Ramona, I haven't been fishing in years!"
I looked at her closely. "Are you feeling alright?"
"Oh, it's nothing, darling, really. Just a little winded from the walk."
"Okay, but let's sit down anyway." Concerned, I took her by the hand and led her to a park bench where we could rest in the cool shade and find relief from the midday rays.
"So, Homecoming is tomorrow. Are you excited?" Grandmother turned to me with a mischievous sparkle in her eye.
I took a deep breath. "I feel like I should be. I've been dating Andrew for awhile now and it's our senior year. I'm lucky to have met someone who treats me so well."
She nodded. "Yes, Andrew is a very nice young man. Your father had a crush on his mother, Penelope for the longest time. The Satterfields are good people."
"Grandmother," I said slowly, "what was it like, being with Grandfather?"
"More than anything I could have ever hoped for. He was my rock, my soul mate, my sweetheart. We argued just like any other couple, but he was my best friend and made everything worth it."
I furrowed my brow. "Did you feel a connection with him right away and just know that you guys were meant for each other?"
Grandmother paused to think. "Yes, I think I did. It's like I was searching for something and didn't know what and then he happened and everything finally made sense."
"Oh," I said dejectedly. "I don't think I've ever felt that way."
"Ramona, not every relationship is the same. Whether it's with Andrew or someone else, I know that you'll find someone one day who loves you as much as I do and a million times more. You are such a sweet girl and I am so proud of the woman you're becoming."
"Am I sweet? All I seem to care about is how I look or my silly little high school relationship. Being in this support group has really opened my eyes about the way other people have grown up. Even after everything with my dad, I still feel grateful for what I have. I feel like my problems are so small in the grand scheme of things."
"It's not about what lot you're cast, it's about what you do with the tools you are given," she replied "You have this enormous capacity for love, a genuine empathy for others and most importantly, the means to make a difference. I know you will do great things."
Maybe it was the magic of the Gardens, but her words seemed to reassure me after all and suddenly, an idea came to me. "I guess I know what I need to do then."
"What is that dear?" she inquired. "What are you going to do?"
"Make a difference."
* * * * * * *
"You want us to do what?" asked Joelle the next day in school. I had blurted out my plan in one giant breath and the two of them were staring at me, completely confused.
I laughed. "I want you both to come to my house tonight around six. Andrew and his football buddies have rented a limousine. We're having dinner at the Bistro and then heading to the dance. I think it's going to be a lot of fun and I'd love for you guys to join us."
After a couple of more minutes of convincing the most I could get was a skeptical "maybe" from Melissa and a noncommittal "we'll see" from Joelle.
It wasn't quite the reaction I was hoping for, but it was a start.
* * * * * * *
Bettina had come over that afternoon so we could get ready together. My room was filled with half a department store's worth of cosmetics and beauty products. If I was going to have to endure an evening of heels and hair extensions, it had better be worth it.
"Is tonight the night?" she asked me with an impish grin.
"Betsy," I chided, "you know that Andrew and I are waiting for the right moment to do that."
"You guys have been dating for a year now," she reminded me.
"I know," I sighed, irritated. "But it has to be special." I was one of the only girls in our circle of friends who was still a virgin and the subject never failed to make me blush hotly.
"Okay," she conceded. "So maybe not tonight." My cousin had apparently made quite the name for herself at Smugglesworth Prep, living up to the Horowitz name. She had a different guy every week.
Betsy giggled. "Prom then?"
I could only groan in response.
* * * * * * *
We both heard the doorbell ring, my grandmother greeting Andrew and inviting him inside. After a quick last-minute look in the mirror, Bettina and I headed downstairs.
Andrew whistled appreciatively. "Wow Ram, you look amazing."
Grandmother fussed over the three of us, demanding that we get some pictures. Andrew and I stood beside each other, his hands on my hips. "So, is tonight the night?" he whispered.
I could only stare in bewilderment. "What?"
"Aww don't be like that. I love you, Ramona," he pulled me close, his voice thick with emotion, "and I'm willing to wait until you're ready."
I allowed him to kiss me passionately, my mind being pulled in a million directions. I loved this boy, right? So what was stopping me?
We were interrupted by Joelle and Melissa's arrival. They had taken obvious pains in their appearance tonight and it showed.
"You made it!" I cried. "I'm so happy you decided to come!"
"What are you taking about, Ramona?" Andrew asked me quietly. "What are those girls doing here?"
"I thought your friends still needed dates," I breathed to him, "so I invited Joelle and Melissa."
"Why didn't you invite Blair or Caroline then? Why them?" he gestured to the girls.
"They're my friends, Andrew!" I hissed. At this point, it was useless to whisper. There was an awkward silence in the room and everyone knew what we were arguing about. I was embarrassed for both of our sakes.
"They go to your support group. That doesn't make them friends. They're not like us," said Andrew matter-of-factly.
I glared at him. "Not like us?" I repeated. We were oblivious to the other people in the room, wrapped up in our own world.
"Yeah," he shrugged. "I don't want to show up at the dance with a fat chick and ole' Witch Nose over there. Do you honestly think Troy and Chad will be happy that we brought them two busted chicks? C'mon, Ram, this is our Senior Year. We're supposed to have fun tonight, not do some community service project."
"These girls have more in common with me than you will ever have. They're human, they have hearts." I frowned. "They have feelings."
"I never said they didn't," he objected. "But that doesn't mean I want to hang out with them."
I laughed bitterly. "You don't want to hang out with anyone who is unlike you. Newsflash, this world is ugly. And just because you're handsome on the outside, doesn't mean you can't be disgusting on the inside. You're so wrapped up in yourself that I couldn't even tell you that my grandmother just got diagnosed with cancer. She's got months left to live."
"Ramona," he sputtered. "I had no idea. I'm so sorry."
I shook my head. "There's a lot you don't know. Funny, how I had to go to a support group filled with strangers to find someone who would even listen to me. Funny how a group of people who are nothing like me turned out to understand me better than you'll ever attempt to, who know more about me, than you'll ever ask."
"I'm sorry," he put his hands up, as if afraid that my words would again rain down upon him in a verbal torrential downpour.
I stared at him sadly, realizing for the first time, that while our backgrounds were the same, Andrew couldn't be any more different than myself. And I pitied him. The kids in my group had been made too hard, too young. It wasn't his fault. It didn't make him a bad person for never having had anything bad happen to him. But I couldn't be with him anymore.
By that time, the spell had evaporated and we were once again aware of the others in the room. Joelle and Melissa had already snuck out and I dreaded facing them on Monday. Grandmother had gone to bed, her heart surely hurting for the both of us.
After seeing Bettina and Andrew take off in the limo with the rest of our friends, I started walking, not knowing where I was headed.
* * * * * * *
"Fancy meeting you here," a familiar voice rang out in the quiet stillness of the evening. Tucker Whitney smiled down at me.
"What are you doing, stalking me?" I asked, but not rudely.
"Don't I wish! No, I'm around the neighborhood. I had a few errands to attend to." Tuck sat down, his steady gaze making me suddenly uncomfortable. "What about you, Bright Eyes? What are you doing tonight?"
I rolled my eyes. As if he didn't know. "Oh you know, just hanging out at the library. Nothing special."
Tuck snickered. "Well, you look like shit."
Despite myself, I cracked up too. I knew he was joking. His eyes, perpetually burning sapphires were sparkling and a grin was dancing across his lips.
When he spoke again, his voice was gentle. "So, you wanna talk about it?"
The entire story came out and I was able to finish without shedding a tear. Tuck listened the entire time, nodding and inserting a comment where appropriate.
I stood up. "I don't want to be in that world anymore." I ripped out my hair extensions and shook my mane loose, finally free from the glamorous restrictions. In a sense, I had also been stripped of the confines of my shallow existence. I felt like tonight, I could be anyone.
He got up to stand in front of me. "Then don't."
I stared at him, suddenly overwhelmed by the evening's events. "Now what do I do, Tuck?" I asked him helpelessly.
"Dance with me," he breathed.
So that was how Tucker Whitney, the mysterious Pertha Hills boy with sapphire eyes and I, Ramona Bergdorf, the Little Girl Lost who were at first seemingly worlds apart, came to find ourselves dancing outside of the public library, to no music, on the night of the Homecoming Dance.
"It's like I was searching for something and didn't know what and then he happened and everything finally made sense."