You didn't think I would forget, did you?
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Looking up at the brick and aluminum siding of her childhood home, Ramona tried to remember a time when she didn’t think her parents were odd. She squared her shoulders and pushed open the screen door on the three-season porch. Russell was not in his customary chair, staring out at the street and commenting on every poor creature that crossed his field of vision. The front door was locked, but Ramona, eager for the evening to get started and thus over with as soon as possible, bent down and got the key from its hook in the mailbox. She unlocked the door and replaced the key in its hiding place.
“Hello?” She passed through the foyer and looked around the living room. She was always amazed at how normal everything looked. There was no hint that two completely insane people lived in the house.
“Ramona! What are you doing here?”
Let the games begin.
Ramona followed her mother’s voice to the kitchen where soiled pots and pans sat on every inch of available counter space. Steam rose from even more crockery on the stovetop. The smell of singed potatoes fragranced the air. “Hi Mom. It smells good.”
“You’re early. How’d you get in?”
“Mom, I know where the key is. In fact, I’m pretty sure that everyone in Cobia knows where the key is.”
“Well, you have to knock.” Eileen Simms did not look up from her crusade against the lumpy potatoes in a bowl.
“Since when?” Ramona tried to ignore the shreds of scorched brown she saw in the mashed tubers. Instead, she studied her mother and noted, as she always did, how physically different they really were. Eileen at sixty was the exact opposite of Ramona, a fact that was not lost on Ramona. Eileen’s features were slim, delicate, in keeping with her slender figure. While she wasn’t a tall woman, Eileen’s perfect posture and graceful bearing made her seem statuesque. This made the all-encompassing abuse she was foisting on the potatoes that much more disturbing. Someone so regal looking really shouldn’t be so enthusiastic about mashing scorched potatoes.
“Your father and I have a life now, since you kids moved out and you can’t just barge in the house. We might be having relations or something.”
“Mom!” Ramona put her hands over her ears. “EWWWWW!”
“Oh, what, you don’t think we’ve ever had sex? How do you think you got here? And we can’t talk about it? You’re an adult; we should be able to discuss these things.”
“I’d rather not think of my parents in that way, if you don’t mind.” Ramona nibbled a carrot slice.
“Don’t be such a prude. Since you moved out, your father and I have rediscovered each other. ”
Ramona made a face. “Mother, how on earth can you possibly be telling me these things and still be so focused on whipping the snot out of those potatoes? I’m never going to be able to eat them, thinking about this whole conversation.”
“Well you should eat more potatoes and less of whatever it is you do eat. Potatoes are so good for you. I don’t feel I’ve eaten in a day if I haven’t had some sort of potato. With all that junk food you eat, you’re going to give yourself diabetes. That’s how your Uncle Matthew caught it.”
“You make diabetes sound like a cold or something. You don’t just catch it. You have it. You get it.” Ramona took one last bite of the carrot.
“Well whatever. He has it, and look at him. Huge. Gigantic. Never said no to a meal a day in his life. I hear his triglycerides were four times what they should have been. And you’ve got his same genes.”
Cursed by the Simms genes. Ramona rolled her eyes and set the carrot down. “Okay Mom, is there anything I can do to help?”
Eileen picked up the mixing bowl, thick with pasty, unbuttered mashed potatoes. She heaved the bowl upside down and dumped the mass into a prettier dish. The glutinous mess made a sucking sound as it pulled away from the first vessel and a splat sound as it hit the other. “No, not really. You can go in and say hello to your father. He’s downstairs writing out the bills for the month.”
“Oh, yeah, I want to talk to him right now.”
“Don’t be smart. Go say hello to your father. And stand up straight. Tip your hips in.”
Let’s see, that takes care of my weight, my eating habits, and my posture. Three down. Only about a hundred other things to go. And of course, she hasn’t mentioned my marital status yet.
Ramona started down the creaky steps to the basement. When they bought the house twenty years earlier, Eileen decided to paint the basement. For reasons no one quite understood, she chose dark brown for the walls. Instead of putting up a ceiling, she left the floor beams exposed. Eileen was fond of explaining the choice to her friends, “For tax purposes. This isn’t a finished room unless it has a real ceiling.”
In keeping with the theme of not making the basement family room an actual finished room, Eileen carpeted the area with a lumpy olive green carpet she got from a friend who was actually finishing their basement. With the carpet came two chairs, both hearkening to a thankfully bygone era of interior decorating with their furry aqua green exteriors and broken springs. Completing the room was Russell Simms's desk, also a friend’s castoff. The desk, in its prime, had been a massive thing, gracing some executive’s polished office. That was forty years past, and the desk now was a scarred, battered piece of wood stuck in an unfinished basement room, and used by a man who would rather kick it than sit at it.
“Hi Dad.” Ramona leaned over her father’s shoulder and looked at the meticulous stacks of canceled checks and another neat pile of bills. “How’s it going?”
Russell sat back and rubbed his pale blue eyes. Four decades as a high school teacher, and Eileen’s husband, now showed in the way he slouched as he sat, and in the way his sandy blonde hair glittered with just a little more silver than Ramona remembered. While physically she saw herself in her father, it was the difference in their temperaments always struck Ramona. Russell didn’t care for the world of computers, and, in his estimation, the internet was just one more thing that took students’ interest away from the printed word. Above all else, Russell Simms craved peace and quiet, and a good meal. It was his lot to enjoy none of those things in a house of dramatic females and a school of marginally disrespectful students. “Just writing out the bills for the month.” He gave Ramona a warm smile, and the impish twinkle she remembered so clearly from her childhood returned.
“But Dad, you get paid next Friday. Why do you write out the bills now when you don‘t have any money in the account? I mean, don’t the bills just sit there until Friday anyway?”
“Yes, they do. But it’s always good to know where the money needs to go.” He wrote out a deposit slip.
“What’s that for?”
“When I get paid, then I’ll be ready with the slip.”
“Dad, that’s eight days away.”
“This way I’m ready.” Russell Simms always spoke in an easy, matter of fact tone, devoid of any irony or sarcasm. In his world, what was, was.
“Okay, then.” Ramona sank down into one of the greenish chairs. “So how’s the Pong going?” She looked at the old Atari set in the corner, attached to an equally ancient television set. The set, complete with several game cartridges, was long outdated when Eileen found them at a rummage sale and turned them over to Ramona’s little sister, Calla, as a Christmas present years earlier.
Ramona’s parents now played with the antiquated video games on hot summer nights when it was too humid to sit upstairs and watch baseball on television. “Pong” was a special favorite because it wasn’t too complicated for Eileen to follow.
“Your mother enjoys it. I’d rather watch the Brewers.”
Ramona tried this new avenue of conversation. She and her father had an easy relationship. They didn‘t talk much. It was easy. When they did converse, it was usually about the Brewers or the Packers, like some would talk about the weather. “Will they do well this year, do you think?”
“No, of course not. They’re the Brewers. But I’d still like to watch a game instead of sitting down here and staring at that blasted little ball going back and forth and back and forth.” Russell ripped another check from his checkbook and stuck it in an envelope. “But your mother enjoys it.”
The stairs creaked, announcing Eileen before she peaked around the door. “Dinner’s ready everyone. I’ve cooked so much, such a pity you didn’t bring anyone with you, Ramona.”
Ramona rolled her eyes to the dark brown, unfinished ceiling. “I’m not currently seeing anyone, Mom.” She looked back at Eileen, and wondered how two people who looked so completely different could possibly have been attracted to each other. Where Russell was tall, sturdy, Nordic, Eileen was slight, slender, and dark. Calla, Ramona thought with a twinge of jealously, got Mom’s figure and Dad’s height. I got the reverse. She smiled absently at her mother, who was still talking.
“Well, I’m not up on your social status, you know.”
“Ma, I’m pretty sure if I started dating, you’d smell it in the air.” Ramona hoisted herself out of the chair. “As it is, I’m still single.”
“You’ll find that right person, don’t worry, dear.” Eileen, not at all fazed by her daughter’s exasperation, smiled innocently. “What about that nice friend of yours, Neil? I like him.”
“So do I. You know full well we’re just friends.” Ramona put down the joystick, crossed the room to the door, and tried to pass by her mother.
“Well, dear, it’s not like you’re a young girl anymore. You should think about marrying a friend. I married my best friend, and look how we turned out.”
Ramona stopped on the steps, her hand gripping the railing; fingernails digging into the layers of old furniture polish. “Neil and I are friends. I’d rather leave it at that.”
“Well, I don’t know what you’re holding out for, dear. I mean, you’re over thirty now. And you know what they say about women your age finding a husband. You’ve got a better chance of being struck by lightning twice.” With an air of confidence, Eileen brushed past Ramona up the stairs and into the kitchen.
“Hmmm, then I’ll just have to develop enough sense to come in during storms.” Ramona followed her mother.
“Cynthia Ella Simms! You will not get sarcastic with me.”
Leaning against the doorframe, Ramona sighed at the use of her real first name. “Mom, I really wish you wouldn’t call me that.”
“I don’t know why. It’s a perfectly wonderful name. A pairing of my dear sisters’ names: Cynthia and Ella.”
“Yes, and Mom, I’m sure I’ve told you it’s not the name I’m going by anymore. I haven’t since seventh grade.”
“Well, your father and I worked long and hard on that name. I think it’s a shame you don’t use it.”
“I’m using the other middle name you gave me.”
“That.” Eileen gave her a dismissive wave. “Please. That we did just because your grandmother Simms insisted we name you after her. I personally never liked the name. I never understood why you demanded that everyone call you that. Cynthia Ella is such a lovely name.”
And really, really close to a certain fairy tale character’s name. Ramona closed her eyes and tried to shut out the taunting voices of her grade school playmates as Lana Evers, fifth grade bully, began the chant that haunted Ramona until she started using her middle name in junior high. Cynthiella with no fella. eats too much to make her mella... Ramona rolled her eyes at the memory.
“Anyway, do you remember Lana Evers?”
Ramona bit her lip. “Funny you should mention her, Mom. I was just thinking about her not too long ago.” And still hating her.
“Well, Lana’s divorced you know. Such a lovely wedding she had the first time. Anyway, she saved up her money from the settlement and went on a cruise and met a lovely man there.”
“And your point of this story is what, Mom?”
Eileen picked up a serving spoon and stuck it in the potatoes. “Well, I just think if you didn’t eat out so much and saved your money you could go on a cruise and meet someone nice.”
“Or I could marry a complete bastard, like Lana did, get divorced and blow my settlement money on a singles cruise where I hook up with some stranger for a short term physical relationship.”
Eileen sniffed disapprovingly, picked up the bowl, and headed for the dining room. “You don’t need to get smart with me. I only have the best intentions for you. All I want is for you to be as happy as I’ve been all these years.”
Ramona shook her head and followed her mother into the dining room. And now we’ve talked about money and marriage. We are almost done with her usual checklist. She’d better pace herself or we’ll run out of topics before the salad is gone.
“You need to get your head out of that computer, that’s what you need.” Eileen set the bowl of potatoes on the table. “How are you ever going to find a husband if you’re sitting alone in your apartment, staring at that internet?”
Ramona frowned. This was a new topic for her mother. Someone in Eileen’s garden club had to have talked about the internet. Eileen had all the technological savvy of a carrot. She sat down at the dining room table. “I have a lot of friends on the internet, Mother. We socialize like any other group. People meet and fall in love on the internet all the time. Maybe that’s what’s in store for me.”
“Oh, you can’t be serious.” Eileen set the bowl of pasty potatoes on the table. “Your third cousin Nancy married someone she met on the internet. You remember Nancy, don’t you, Ramona?”
Ramona rolled her eyes to the very back of her skull. “I can’t say that I do, Mom.”
“Well, you really should go to more family gatherings, you know. People think your father and I are childless.”
“It’s not like I’m your only child, you know.”
“I know, but Calla’s always so busy with the children and Tom, I don’t like to push.”
“Oh, so if I went out and got a husband and kids, I could get out of family gatherings?”
Eileen snapped a bowl of limp-looking cauliflower onto the table and stared at her eldest daughter. “There’s no need to be smart, Ramona.”
“You were saying something about Nancy?”
“Yes, well, Nancy married someone she met in the computer. Her mother puts such pressure on her.”
Smiling at the image of Nancy and her husband actually in a computer, Ramona picked at a bit of overdone chicken breast. “Mom, is there any chance in the world that you made gravy for dinner?”
“Gravy clogs your blood vessels. And don’t nibble before dinner. I just hope that if I ever get as pushy as my cousin Wendy is with Nancy, that you’ll tell me. I would never want to intrude as much as that.”
“Really?” Ramona arched an eyebrow at her mother before taking her customary seat at the dinner table.
“Of course. I don’t always agree with you girls, but I know my place. I try to be as quiet as I can.”
“I do! I mean, I can’t just let you girls go willy-nilly. Of course, I have to say something if I see you’re heading for something that’s going to hurt you. But I’ve kept so much back, you have no idea.”
“I do have no idea of what you’ve kept back, Mom, you’re right.”
“Well, Nancy married this man and they weren’t married four months when, do you know what he did to her?”
“Since I don’t know my third cousin Nancy, I have no idea what her computer husband did to her.”
“He left her for someone else he met on the internet. Left her right there with nothing. Said that they hadn’t really known each other. Wendy was just beside herself.”
Ramona stifled a sigh, and tried to look interested. “I’ll bet. That’s gotta be hard, getting left like that.”
“Oh, and the shame of it all. I mean, the wedding was a joke, everyone just knew this wouldn’t last long, and now poor Wendy can’t hold her head up because her daughter was left after only four months.”
“You’re right, Mom, Wendy is the victim in the story. I’m sorry, I was focusing on Nancy.” Ramona spooned some potatoes onto her plate and tuned her mother’s voice out with the ease of long practice.
“Personally, I’m all for the internet. I’ve always thought people who wouldn’t normally meet have a better chance if they have the internet. Like you and me, Beautiful Ramona.”
Ramona looks up from her plate and sees Jesse leaning against the buffet. He’s stunning in black jeans and a silky-looking white shirt. He grins at her, a smile that promises so much more. “Well, that’s what I’m saying. The internet has given me a lot more contact with people than my regular life would.”
Jesse tosses back his thick dark hair and looks over Eileen’s shoulders. “So this white meal dinner looks interesting. How about if we get out of here after this and get something real to eat, just you and me?”
“That sounds great.” She smiles at him and pokes at her chicken.
“You know, if you eat smaller portions, and take more servings, you won’t eat as much. Would you like milk or water to drink?”
Ramona blinked and held her fork mid-air. Her mother was staring at her and holding a pitcher of water and a half-gallon of skim milk. Ramona frowned. Able to ignore most of her mother’s advice about food, the milk or water question always stumped her. “Water?”
“Ramona, you really need to start thinking about calcium. At your age, your bones need that calcium, or you’ll catch osteoporosis.” Everything was a communicable disease in Eileen Simms’ world.
“Okay, then milk it is.” Ramona put the spoon back in the dish of potatoes and waited for the other part of the argument.
“Then again, I’ll bet you haven’t drunk enough water today. You need at least ninety ounces of water a day to keep the toxins moving through your body. That might be part of your weight problem, dear. Not enough water.”
“Okay, how about this: I’ll take a glass of water and a glass of milk and I’ll drink them both and then I’ll have to stop at the gas station on the way home to pee, but at least my toxins will be in balance with my brittle bones.”
Russell walked in at that moment, and made a face at Ramona. “Lost the milk versus water question?”
“Looks that way, Dad.”
Eileen threw a dark look at her daughter. “It also appears our daughter has quite a mouth on her tonight.”
“I also see we’re having the white meal.” Russell, the peacekeeper, spooned submissive cauliflower next to his pasty mound of mashed potatoes.
Spurred by the vision of Jesse at her parents’ table, Ramona continued taunting. “Not really, Dad. If you look carefully, you’ll see Mom’s added a bit of color. There’s a touch of brown on the veggies and potatoes.”
“Singed them again, did you dear?” Russell didn’t pause in his attack on the food to listen for his wife’s answer.
“Well, I have many things going on in my mind. Sometimes cooking gets away from me.”
“Sometimes?” Ramona grinned. “Only sometimes, Mom?”
“Ramona, why on earth did you park on the street?” Russell looked out the window as his jaw worked the dry chicken breast.
Crap, I forgot about parking there. Ramona pushed her cauliflower under the potatoes. “I don’t know.”
“You know if the plow trucks come through, they’ll just plow you in.”
Eileen finally sat down. “Just one of those nice things I never have to think about. Your father always takes care of parking the car. He just drops me off wherever we need to be and then he parks the car in the best possible spot.” Eileen gave an adoring smile to her husband. “I only wish something like that for you, dear.”
“Well, the good news is that I know how to park my own car. And isn’t the exercise good for me?” Ignoring the sour look her mother gave her, Ramona peered out the dining room window to the well-plowed street. “I think I’ll be okay, as long as I don’t stay too long.” She stirred in bits of leathery chicken with the mess on her plate.
“Ramona, don’t play with your food.”
“I guess I’m not very hungry tonight, Mom.”
“Well that doesn’t surprise me. I’ll bet you had a little something before you came over.”
Ramona reran her afternoon, trying to remember when she ate anything resembling food. “No, the last thing I had to eat was a candy bar Neil gave me when I got to work.”
“See, there you go. Candy in the morning.” Eileen chewed on chicken and stared at her. “You have to be more conscious of what you eat, dear. After thirty, your metabolism just stops running.” She put down her fork, another habit she picked up from reading health magazines. “You know, I just love that Neil. He’s such a gentleman.”
“Yes, I got that, Mom.” Ramona rolled her eyes. “Actually, he asked me to go to the Civic Symphony with him tonight.”
“Why on earth didn’t you accept his invitation?” Eileen nearly spat chicken on Ramona.
“First of all, I had plans with you. And I certainly didn’t want you to go to all this…work and have me bail on you. Second,” Ramona held up a forkful of scorched potatoes and cringed, “it’s Neil. It’s not like it was a date or anything. He had these tickets, figured since I like music I could go, but I couldn’t and he gave them to a guy at work. No biggie. We’ll do something another time.”
“I think you need to give him a serious look. I know he’s not all that good looking, but honey, you need to be practical. Plain girls like you shouldn’t aim too high. You’ll wind up with nothing.”
“Mother!” Ramona dropped her fork to her plate. “I cannot believe you said that.”
“Oh, please. Look at yourself, Ramona, dear. You’re over thirty, and you’re overweight. Now your father and I think you’re simply beautiful. But be reasonable, honey. That rock star you have a crush on is just not going to come into town and carry you off into the sunset. Things like that don’t work for girls like you.” Eileen gave Ramona a dominant stare and the rest of the meal passed in relative silence.
There was no dessert, of course, and Ramona, eager to get out of the stifling atmosphere, said something about snow, and made her early escape.
She drove home with the windows of her car wide open, in part because she relished the sharp January air clearing out her lungs, but mostly because the power windows shorted out and, once the windows were rolled down, she couldn’t roll them back up. Nearly frozen by the time she got home, Ramona hugged her battered wool coat around herself as she fumbled the cold keys.
“Leo!” Ramona sniffed the air for signs of Leo’s flatulence, and found none. “Leo, are you ready to go out?”
The dog was so happy to see her he nearly wagged off his stumpy, hairy tail. Ramona bent down to pat him on the head. “Well, it’s good to see someone is happy about having me around. Dinner was everything you thought it might be. I’m starved!” She let Leo out the back door and picked up the telephone. “Hey, Leo, you feel like double cheese and black olive?”
Leo barked disapproval from deep in the yard.
“Fine. Olives on my half. You can have pepperoni.”
The pizza arrived a half an hour later just as Ramona was settling down to spend some time on the computer. She nibbled at a cheesy slice while waiting for her computer to connect her to the outside universe. Her computer hummed as Ramona loaded a CD from her collection onto her new digital music player, a Christmas gift to herself, and one she was still trying to figure out, which is why it sat on her computer at home, rather than at work where Ramona knew Celia probably wouldn’t be able to see the ear buds. She sighed. But a day without Celia griping about my earphones…that’s just not a complete day!
Ramona tapped in her password without a conscious thought. Most of her life outside the internet had a dull film over it. But once in, once connected with the millions in space, Ramona Simms felt her pulse at last.
“Seventy-eight messages today. Not too bad.” Ramona clicked on the first post, a short missive from a woman in St. Louis. JanFox22 was a divorced woman named Janet, in her forties. Ramona didn’t particularly like JanFox22, but she read the posts anyway. Of anyone in the online fan group, JanFox22 found the best and most reliable information about Jesse.
In the next several minutes, Ramona scanned through the other posts. “Kerrie and Mary are going to be in the chat room tonight.” Ramona liked Mary, who seemed to be a bit younger than the rest of the women in the fan group and like Ramona herself, had never been married. Kerrie was a twice-divorced woman in her forties whose children didn’t like her too much, and her depressing comments to the group often annoyed Ramona. Eager to chat with Mary, however, Ramona clicked an address and then a password. “Hello? Is anyone in here?” she asked aloud. She waited a moment for a response, checking her watch. “Kerrie’s not even in there? It’s not nine o’clock. Oh, there she is. I can’t wait to tell her I got ‘Portraits in Blue.’ She’s going to be so jealous!”
Ramona lost track of time after that, clicking away at the keys, chatting with women whose names she didn’t really know, and whose faces she would never recognize. But these women were more real to her than anyone she saw on a daily basis, and she knew all their deepest, darkest secrets and desires. In this space age room protected by passwords and screen names, Ramona felt completely free to be herself.
Ramona yawned and stretched her arms over her head. “Well, Leo, according to Mary, Kimmie is going to have that affair after all. Mom would freak out if she knew of someone who was throwing away a perfectly good marriage like that.” Ramona grinned at the thought of Eileen’s reaction. “Oh, and Janet’s daughter had the baby. A little boy. She wants to name him Jesse. There’s a big surprise.” Ramona ruffled Leo’s ears absently. She looked up at the clock on the wall. “Is that really the time?” She double-checked her watch. “I can’t believe it’s almost two.” She clicked a farewell message to the few women left in the room and exited the internet.
Her knees wobbled a bit from staying still for so long at the computer. Ramona stretched one more time; her arms arcing back over her head, her torso forming a perfect C shape. “Time for bed, Leo. Do you need to go out?”
Leo made no move for the door, so Ramona headed for the bedroom. She stripped out of her dinner clothes and donned a pair of flannel pajama bottoms and a Jesse Alexander concert T-shirt. Snapping the last light out, Ramona closed her eyes and saw Jesse’s face as she drifted off to sleep.