From American Short Fiction, online fiction, published April 1st, 2014
Review by Emily Collins
For the narrator in Sarah Gerkensmeyer’s short story “Ramona” published on American Short Fiction’s website, the longing for an old friend proves not to be the sentimental and familiar account one would expect. Like many coming of age tales, “Ramona” is told primarily through flashback, focused on a pivotal moment that alters a child’s perception of the world. And the story does this, beginning innocuously enough with the narrator remembering a time she spent the night with one of her closest friends. Then the memory takes a dark and unexpected turn as the narrator’s friend Ramona reveals she can flip her heart onto the outside of her chest letting it lie there like “a wild bird afraid to fly away but so eager to do it,” making “Ramona” an unusual story that faithfully explores the subtle, complex nature of early friendships.
The narrator has a secret to share with us. As a child, she’s the only one who knows about Ramona’s “heart thing” and spends her time waiting for something, anything to happen. In the summer after sixth grade the girls’ ties are strong among the realms of popsicles and oblivious boys. They are isolated from the other girls their age, preferring to travel as a misunderstood duet rather than join the glittering, neon colored pack that revels in spandex and training bras. They soon become too old for sleepovers and begin calling them “overnights”, as if she and Ramona can float over the darkness of the night and search for any meaningful and possible source of light. This seems probable considering how full of new discoveries everything seems when they are together. Take these lines:
“She turned on the little lamp next to her bed, and her heart was there again, beating and wet against the delicate V of her unbuttoned nightgown. The openings and valves and the whole mess of it sucked at the air like an angry, stranded fish.”
This discovery is grounded in the profound curiosity it stirs in the narrator. There is also an element of gratitude. When Ramona reveals her heart, the narrator does not shout or run away from the exposed organ. All she can do is nod and say “Okay.” Not only does Ramona’s heart help the girls connect in a strange and powerful way, it also creates competition. The narrator’s heart cannot flip onto the outside of her chest. Her chambers remain hidden. Her blood pumps unobtrusively and according to the narrator, this is totally unfair. So, out of envy she lies to keep up with Ramona by telling stories about shoplifting candy or kicking her classmates on the way to lunch. These lies, however, cannot compete with Ramona’s secret and the narrator’s envy follows her well into adulthood.
Whenever Ramona reveals her chest, Edvard Munch’s painting “Puberty” ultimately comes to mind. One might visualize Ramona on the bed, baring all for us to see with an expression anxious not for the life to come but for the one she must continue to live. The narrator must have been unsatisfied with this life too. She cultivates a better one for Ramona, imagining her fantasies and dreaming her dreams. She creates different scenarios involving Ramona and her heart, transforming this image of her best friend not into a loving painting but into a mocking caricature. She wonders what would happen if Ramona ever went jogging with her heart out in the open or revealed it to a hopeful boy in his basement. The narrator knows she must have been alone in these fantasies for she says, “Ramona never confessed to any daydreams like that, but I knew she had them. I had them for her.”
Near the end of the story, the narrator remembers a time when Ramona asked her to flip her stomach inside out, as if this was a skill she’d been hiding all along. When she explains to Ramona that she cannot, Ramona reveals her heart once more and the narrator watches silently as the heart sucks away at the space between them. This moment is crucial for the narrator because it is a precursor to the loneliness she will feel as an adult. She will continue to live her life trying to prove the existence of things that have either never formed or never will:
“But really, it was just that thing with her heart. That’s all. And I’m jealous. I still do it—lie here in bed and try to push things outside of myself. I’m jealous of any woman who has ever given birth. Think of it—something being forced out like that, gravity or fate or whatever it is pulling away at you like a stubborn, certain thing.”
Despite her jealousy, the narrator cannot dismiss her strange time spent with Ramona because she misses her. Or she misses it: the past, its pulses. She misses it with a kind of inexplicable longing that’s selfish and starved. She feels it when she takes out the laundry or falls asleep beside her husband. It won’t go away. She thinks about the Ramona only her adult mind can remember: a young girl prone to depression and eating disorders. This revelation beckons us to question if Ramona’s heart ever ventured outside of its rib cage. Perhaps it was all a hallucination resulting from some form of PTSD, or a bold metaphor on the effects of anorexia in eleven year old girls. These events are real because the narrator needs them to be.
If there is a secret twist to the story, it has little to do with the validity of Ramona’s exposed heart. The twist is what never gets turned inside out. It’s all the things we have to live with, those sordid heaps of words we’ve left unsaid. Goodbyes, though always ambiguous, are rarely proper. They exist solely for reflection: that empty canvas allowing us to repaint what may or may not have happened in our own image. Early friendships are the perfect subject for this task. Childhood friends have a way of seeing things in us, the negative and the unexplained, before they eventually vanish. It’s the absence of such friends, the gradual loss that feels so sudden, that becomes indelible.
Unnamed narrators always embody a certain mysteriousness but the narrator in “Ramona” is honest in her uncertainties. Her tragedy is never telling Ramona how much she loved her, envied her for her secret. These hidden feelings are what made the girls’ lives not a matter of living but one of enduring, allowing their secrets to isolate themselves from the outside world and ultimately from each other. “Who knows where she is now?” the narrator asks of Ramona. It’s a question we’ve asked ourselves many times regarding those who’ve vanished from our lives. The pang of this loss is what the narrator accurately describes as a simple kind of longing, one that if we cannot identify with now then will hopefully one day begin to understand.
Emily Collins is a recent college graduate who has thrown herself into the kind, welcoming arms of the working world. When she isn’t reading or writing, she earns her keep by making sandwiches for San Marcos locals and flustered tourists. Sometimes she thinks about grad school but eventually directs her attention back to the sky where the clouds always take on a much more stable and promising shape.