Saturday, April 5, 2014

Ronnie and Rosey - Dreaming of Drama

When I was in high school, I would go to the town library as often as I could. I didn't have a license, but I had an awesome ten-speed bike, and I could make it to town in 30 minutes. It was mostly uphill on the way home, which was nearly always complicated by my checking out twenty or thirty books every visit. I piled them carefully in brown paper grocery bags and bungeed them onto the back of my bike. Sometimes they would start to twist and I'd have to stop, get off my bike, and rearrange them before they fell off. Many times this would happen right in the middle of the steepest hill.

The library itself was great, and their computerized system had one flaw: they didn't keep track of paperback books, only the hardbacks. After a few times, I noticed that the librarians would only scan a sheet of bar codes for the paperbacks I was checking out, and if I forgot and kept one past its due date, I never had a late fine. After a while, I started taking advantage of this, and keeping the books that really spoke to me, that felt like a part of my soul on paper.

In retrospect, perhaps they were trying to encourage younger readers, or maybe they felt that any cost in paperback books was worth getting people to come to the library. In any case, I owe a lot to that library. I still have a few of their books, and I have read them dozens and dozens of times. When I was younger, I read constantly to mentally escape my narcissistic mother and enabling father. As I got older, I started reading them to see how I could actually get away from my family, and to understand what it was I was running from.

Ronnie and Rosey by Judie Angell was one of those books. I would pick it up and escape into an alternate reality where things could be fixed, where there was a fight and everything was better, where somebody might actually like my sense of humor. Where someone was looking out for me and trying to help.

The book starts with Ronnie, a girl who has just moved and started school at a new junior high. She's nervous and lost, and the first couple of chapters set her up in a loving family. Mom and Dad are happy adults who dote on their girl, and she quickly makes friends with classmates and her gym teacher, Ms. Fisk. She has a hilarious sense of humor, and instead of being intimidated, her friend Evelyn and possible boyfriend Robert (Rosey, per the title) love her sense of humor. Evelyn convinces Ronnie to join her in a skit at the talent show.

I always loved to sing, and my aunts and uncles often told me that when I was three, I had memorized a recording of the Three Bears, and I would recite it to them verbatim. In sixth grade, my mom got a small role in a local production of The Music Man, and I would go to rehearsals with her and do my homework in the seats of the auditorium. My mom convinced the director to at least put me in the chorus, and I loved it. I still have every word of that musical memorized, even the opening sequence with the salesmen on the train. From that moment, it was two musicals or plays a year, every year for six years. I belonged there, and even though I never felt pretty or played a starring role (unless I was an old maiden aunt), I loved feeling competent, and being dependable.

There's a piece of me backstage in that auditorium, somewhere in a dressing room. So when I read about Ronnie's skit with Evelyn, I loved it. I knew those beginner's jitters and I loved watching her learn about opening night. They do a second performance and there's a party afterwards. That's when the world comes crashing in. Ronnie's mom and dad are hit by a drunk driver and her dad dies instantly.

I couldn't relate to her amazing life, with two parents who loved and supported her. Comparatively speaking, I was living under the staircase, trying to survive on books and candy. But I could relate to her devastation and heartache. Her mother reacts horribly, and starts latching on to Ronnie as her only source of emotional support. Ronnie knows instinctively that something is wrong with what's going on, but she can't break away. And this is what I know most about: moms gone wrong. Ronnie's mom turned into my mom. She went from supportive and loving to critical and crazy. Anything Ronnie wants to do outside the house, without her mom, is not okay. Any outside involvement whatsoever is a sign of betrayal and must be punished. In my life, if I did anything unseemly or unattractive, I got no end of shit for it. If I didn't, I was basically ignored. If I got perfect grades, that's just expected. If I got an A minus, then I got yelled at for not trying hard enough.

Ronnie starts living this life of constant vigilance and her mom brings down all the rules in the world to constrain her, to keep her in the house so she won't have to be alone. Ronnie starts sneaking around and lying, which she never had to do before, just to feel free in her own skin. Her relationship with Rosey becomes even closer. He's her refuge in this crazy upside-down life she's living. Her mom gets worse and worse. Ronnie's stress causes some problems with her schoolwork and later with her getting migraine headaches.

The mere idea of someone caring for me as much as Rosey does for Ronnie was such a narcotic when I was younger. I would daydream about riding the school bus (a mine field of teasing and nightmares most days) and having a boy sit down next to me and talk with me the whole way to school. In my daydreams, usually the emergency exit seat would morph into some kind of James Bond-mobile, which would separate from the rest of the bus so we could be alone and just talk together. I dreamt of being valued and loved. Ronnie's hilarious and sweet relationship with Rosey was an ideal to me, and as they become more and more star-crossed, the romance factor deepens. But her migraines get worse.

My migraines started when I was young, probably in middle school. If I said anything about having a headache to my parents, I'd be blamed for "reading too much" or "being too sensitive", or my dad would tell me to just suck it up and deal. The one time I mentioned my headaches to a doctor when I was still living at The Institution (a.k.a. my family's home), he told me to take an aspirin, his tone implying that I was being ridiculous. It took me years to get a diagnosis for migraines, which is what I had been dealing with on my own for ten years. But like any pain that wasn't spurting blood or a dangling limb, my parents ignored any signs of illness and bulldozed me into thinking it was my fault.

Ronnie gets a migraine at school one day, and the nurse asks her if she has gotten one before. Ronnie doesn't know how to answer the question. If she says yes, then the nurse might tell her mother. If she says no, then this might be an emergency and the nurse might panic. Ronnie is trying so hard to fly under the radar that a simple question from an authority figure throws her into a panic over what the "right" answer is.

My mom used her facial expression to show disapproval every single minute of every single day. If someone asked you a question, and you were answering it "wrong", you got The Look. If you said something that didn't reflect happily on the family, you got The Look. After years of indoctrination, it was difficult for me to even realize that my family was seriously unhealthy, because I wasn't able to even think about it without picturing The Look. I could relate heavily to Ronnie's indecision about what to tell the nurse. If you are constantly evaluating which truth to tell, you're already in trouble.

One fateful night, Ronnie sneaks out of her room to spend the evening with Rosey, having pizza and feeling normal for once. They come across Ms. Fisk and her boyfriend (also a teacher) and enjoy the meal. As they approach Ronnie's house, it's clear that her mother has caught her out, and Ronnie loses it. She runs back to the pizza place and into Ms. Fisk's arms. Ms. Fisk takes her to her apartment where Ronnie refuses to go home, then hides in the bathroom which Ms. Fisk calls her mom to say where she is. They sit down to talk, and Ms. Fisk is kind, understanding, and amazing.

Ms. Fisk is the polar opposite of my junior high school gym teacher, who pulled me out of line at the end of gym class one day to tell me that some teachers had complained about my body odor. I went pretty blank in utter shame during that conversation, so I don't remember all of what she said. I do remember her eyelids fluttering with contempt, and I could tell that she did not want to be talking to me about this. I could see that she didn't feel I was a person, just a stupid kid who should know better. I have no idea how I could have known better, because no one had ever talked to me about any of this. I dug money out of my tootsie roll piggy bank to buy deodorant, secretly, at the corner store. When that ran out, I used my parents' adult version, and was probably the only girl in school using Mitchum extra strength. Like shaving my legs and other awesome things, I had to learn it all the hard way.

Ronnie talks most of the night, telling Ms. Fisk the whole story, and in the morning, her mom comes over to pick her up and is her old self again. They talk about everything and start fresh.

Oh, how I wanted a climactic moment in my life, just like the moment Ronnie runs away, a moment that would Change Everything. A moment when I could tell the truth about my life, and let the world explode around me as I remained standing like a superhero in the chaos and rubble. Oh How I Wanted That. I also wanted someone, anyone, who would watch over me, who would care about my feelings and take care of me afterwards. I wanted someone who would help me.

I tried confronting my mom a few times, wanting to create that moment for myself. Once, in college, I told her that I always believed she hated me. I said it out loud, in the family kitchen, in daylight, terrified. I can still see the gears moving in her head, figuring out what to say that would placate me in the moment, so that she wouldn't have to look at her own behaviors, or deal with her actual feelings. "What can I say so that she is convinced? I need to maintain this image of a good mother, and a good family. What will work on her?" She said all the right things in the moment, as she has for decades when confronted with the results of her abuse. Her behavior did not change. She never thought it should; she only wanted to keep things together, to keep them from falling apart. But keeping things from falling apart doesn't make them strong.

For the summer vacation, Ronnie goes to visit a family friend in California. Her mom uses that time to get back to herself and get ready for another part of her life. They start fresh, they come together, they rebuild something that was broken. I wanted that to happen in my life.

In the end, Judie Angell wraps it all very neatly in a bow, with a callback to the very first day of school. Ronnie and Rosey are truly themselves, enjoying each other's company and surviving everything life has thrown at them. I wanted that feeling, that relationship, that sense of belonging very badly, and for a time, I could get it by reading this book.