Saturday, November 8, 2014
Rainbows and Kittens and Unicorns
I woke up the other morning thinking, awwww, I miss that story. This originally appeared in PLGRM Magazine last year, a journal I learned about through a friend from my work in the writing center back in my Princeton Theological Seminary days. It's not a perfect story, but I'm posting it here because I missed it, and wanted to spend some time with it:
Rainbows and Kittens and Unicorns
She wrote stories about rainbows and kittens and unicorns. They were what she loved, so that’s what she wrote about. Rainbows and kittens and unicorns made sense; rainbows would appear after it had rained, or sometimes inside a waterfall, like the one she saw when they all went to Hawaii with Grandma and Grandpa Murry, when they all acted extra nice to Grandpa because everyone else knew he wouldn’t be there the next Christmas. Her kitten liked to play until she didn’t, and then she let you know with claw and tooth. Unicorns weren’t real, but it’d be so great if they were. She’d take her kitten and find a unicorn beside a waterfall and they’d ride off into a magical forest, and they’d find Grandpa Murry in the forest and never again would anyone be sad.
She got the lines so straight, even without lined paper she could write in a nearly perfect row. At the bottom of the page she drew a scene from the story and made sure the page number was in the bottom corner. Her stories were perfect. She hid them behind the collection of The Borrowers that her mother thought she’d read.
The problem was real life wasn’t like rainbows. There were only special moments, and they were so special they almost never happened. There was Christmas to look forward to, but that was still months away. It was only the end of September and all of the third grade was in front of her. She’d be excited if she were going to a real school, like her friend Ingrid. But she was homeschooled. She was going to be allowed to go to real school next year, but second and third grade was a long, seamless stretch of reading on her own or fighting with her mother over her lessons.
Math was especially bad. Her mother kept telling her over and over how good she’d been at math when she was Ramona’s age. It drove Ramona crazy. Made her flub her numbers, lose track of where she was on the page. How was anyone supposed to learn something when someone kept rubbing it in that they were better than you? Ramona was better at jump rope than Ingrid, way better, but she didn’t let on because Ingrid might stop playing with her, and right now she only got to see Ingrid on Tuesday evenings, when Ramona’s mother went to her yoga class. She called it her “Me Time.” Ramona hated yoga. It was stupid. You fold and bend and stretch and are so quiet. Everything was already too quiet around the house.
It was taking forever to grow up; each quiet year took so long. Her mother kept telling her “She should be glad she was a kid since she got to play and make believe things with her dolls.” But her mother didn’t understand how awful it was to always have to wait for permission to do things, or be told when she was supposed to go to bed, even if she wasn’t tired and the sun was still up. It stunk to always need to do things when her mom needed them to be done, forever running errands, when she had to tag along because she wasn’t old enough to stay alone and they couldn’t afford a babysitter. Her mother worked from home, closing the door to her bedroom and typing, typing, typing all day long, coming out every hour to check to see if Ramona was doing her pages in each workbook: science, history, social studies. Pages and pages of black and white newsprint with little illustrations and tear-out sheets of exercises.
Ramona’s father had left when she was too young to remember it happening and if she ever asked about him, her mother started yelling about “that man who absorbed everything into himself,” and then was heard crying from inside her room later.
Ramona had two dolls: Cassandra and Rosabella, both gifts from her Grandpa Murry. They were sturdy plastic and could almost stand on their own if you balanced them just right. Cassandra had blond hair with some waves in it and Rosabella had brown hair like Ramona’s. Except it wasn’t like Ramona’s because it never grew back after she chopped it off to just below her plastic ear. Instead of lying flat and cute like the bob Ingrid had, it stuck straight out. Rosabella also had marker on her face for makeup, and Ramona had been sent to Time Out for each of those projects. But she could see past all that and thought Rosabella was just as beautiful as Cassandra. She made them sit beside her while she did her lessons since it didn’t seem fair that they’d get to play without her. “Sit still girls,” she told them. “It’s time for learning.”
One day, Ramona’s mother told her she was going out to work on the garden. Their garden was four feet by two feet: everyone in the apartment complex got the same amount of space in the shared backyard, and Ramona liked to measure it with her wooden ruler, making sure their neighbors’ tomatoes or geraniums weren’t climbing into their spot.
Ramona’s job was weeding but her mother said she wasn’t very good at it since she didn’t get them up by the roots. But Ramona thought it was better to just yank the tops off, because then she’d have something to do again in just a couple days. Usually her mother made her go outside with her but today it was like she’d forgotten Ramona was there and left her to stay in the apartment by herself. Suddenly the apartment was a different kind of quiet.
She imagined herself the boss of it, but that was only interesting for a minute. Then she imagined herself as a lost puppy, all alone in an abandoned alley, then rescued by Cassandra and Rosabella. Then she imagined herself a great dancer and performed a beautiful ballet for her audience of dolls and dining room chairs. When she ran her foot into the coffee table she collapsed into a heap of pain, but remembering she was alone she let herself say a whispered, “damn,” knowing she wouldn’t be caught. Then she sang a lilting song she made up along the way, a song of rainbows and kittens and unicorns. As she grew comfortable with her own voice she began to sing louder. And louder. And louder. Spinning in the middle of the living room with eyes closed and her arms outstretched she sang to the world her song of love and hope and chances.
“Ramona!” her mother yelled an interruption. “Stop screaming, they can hear you all the way across the complex!”
But Ramona didn’t stop. The more she sang, the more she needed to sing. She spun and spun and when her mother grabbed her arm to stop her Ramona slapped her away.
“The rainbows love us and kittens carry our hearts. Unicorns are real and will sweep us up into the clouds with them. We don’t have to worry and we don’t have to worry and we don’t—”
Slap. Her mother’s hand crashed into her face. “What are you doing?” her mother yelled. “Why are you hurting me like this? Stop it, stop it now!”
“Get out,” Ramona screamed. “Get out get out get out,” and she slammed herself into her bedroom. “Get out get out get out,” she kept yelling from behind her door. Why couldn’t her mother just go away? Wasn’t it enough that she got to say everything about what happened already?
She could hear her mother crying on the other side of the door. Stuffing her hands in her ears, Ramona buried her head in her pillow. She needed to cry too, but couldn’t. She could only kick the bed she laid on until she was exhausted, which scared her kitten into hiding in the closet. All the good things in life felt as impossibly far away as Grandpa Murry. A numb, tired feeling took over, and behind it, hunger. They hadn’t had dinner yet. There was no more crying from the other side of the door. It would be forever and forever until she’d be an adult and able to leave, able to sing as loud as she needed to whenever she felt like it. Tomorrow she’d write a new story, an apology to her kitten. In the meantime, she needed dinner.