(illustration by Eliza Gauger)
Ramona’s earliest memory is of the jellyfish. It was her eighth birthday and her father had driven their family down to Atlantic City in his pearl-white Buick. He was a stout little man with stubby fingers and hair the color of coal. He sold orthopedic supplies out of an office he had converted from the garage of their Flatbush home. Ramona’s mother was a sickly woman who chain-smoked Pall Malls and regardless of the season, was rarely seen in public without the ratty fox stole that had once belonged to her mother. The three and a half hour drive to the Tropicana had been miserable due to beach traffic and her father’s insistence that they would save on gas if they didn’t run the air conditioning.
Once they reached the hotel, her parents deposited Ramona and her two-year old sister, Larissa, on the beach and hurried to the casino. They didn’t seem to notice that the beach was closed. It was a humid June afternoon and there was not even the slightest breeze in the air. Red warning flags hung lifelessly from their poles as the lifeguards sat bored and motionless in their towers, their tanned skin damp with perspiration. The hot sand scorched her feet as Ramona led her sister down to the water—she thought the ground would be cooler there. It was then that she saw the massive bloom of jellyfish and understood why the beach had been closed. There were hundreds of them floating in the ocean, their pink flesh billowing in the tide as they slowly crept to shore. A wave crashed on the beach, stranding several of the jellyfish on the sand—their thread-like tentacles baking in the sun as they slowly suffocated.
Ramona wanted to help but was afraid to touch them. She was relieved to see another wave strike the beach, the retreating tide dragging a few of the jellyfish back out to sea. She wondered whether it was God that decided which ones would be left behind or if it was simply chance. She wondered whether jellyfish had families. Ramona watched them for hours, as her sister built cities in the sand and her mother wandered the slot machines with her oxygen tank and a gin and tonic. The two sisters caught nasty sunburns that day, their skin had turned beet red by the time mother came to collect them from the beach. They spent the evening in the hotel room, shaking with fever as their mother fed them salt-water taffy and ginger ale.
For her tenth birthday, Ramona’s father showed her his penis. She woke up that night to find him sitting in a chair at the foot of her bed. The room was dark but the embers from his cigarette cast just enough light to make out the contours of his chubby frame beneath a tattered, flannel robe.
He said nothing. Instead, he parted the folds of his robe, revealing his erection. He leaned back in his chair and blew smoke rings at her as he wrapped his stubby little fingers around his dick and began to masturbate. She rolled over on her side, turning her back to him. She shut her eyes, pretending to be asleep. Still, she could hear him—his labored breathing and the clumsy sound of pawing flesh.
Ramona’s father repeated this ritual for several nights, each evening moving his chair a little closer to her bedside. Eventually, he began to touch her, gently at first but before long so roughly, she could no longer pretend to be asleep. Eventually, he made her touch him. Ramona can’t remember when he started fucking her. But she would never forget the weight of his body on top of her and the slightly pungent taste of his sweat. Ramona’s mother never seemed to notice that her bedroom always smelled of cigarettes.
By the time Ramona was twelve, he was raping her twice a day. No longer content to visit her in her room at night, Ramona’s father would call her into his office every afternoon when she returned from school. It was a cold, damp space that was filled with orthopedic supplies. He rarely said a word when she entered. Rather, he would just bend her over a box of artificial hips, and fuck her from behind. He always placed his hand over her mouth, to insure Ramona’s mother—who was now bed-ridden with emphysema—would not hear them. His hands always smelled of whatever he had eaten for lunch that day and Ramona found the scents overwhelming. She invented a game in which she would close her eyes and try to recreate the shapes of the porcelain bones that surrounded her. She found it distracted her from the smells of tuna fish salad and hard-boiled eggs.
At age thirteen, Ramona began to grow. Indeed, she grew to be unusually tall for her age, with broad shoulders and wide hips. This was frustrating to Ramona’s father because he found he could no longer wrap his stubby fingers around her waist when raping her. It was then that he decided to install the handles. The operation took place late at night, on the workbench in his garage. He had fashioned two porcelain handles, which after sedating her with a combination of Seconal and Bailey’s Irish Cream, he attached to her hips using long, stainless steel screws. She awoke several hours later in great pain. Her father had returned her to her bed, tying her arms to the bedposts so she could not reach her newly installed accessories. Ramona was surprised to find him there beside her, asleep in his chair.
Over the next several weeks, Ramona’s father tended to her every need. She remembers this time period as a happy one, mostly because he had stopped raping her. And although she was restrained, she was rarely bored. Her father had bought her a small color television, which he placed at the foot of her bed. By day, she watched soap operas while he fed her soup. At night he read her Nancy Drew mystery stories. He had never read to her before. Ramona’s father cleaned her wounds religiously, taking great care to insure that they healed quickly and with only minimal scarring. One night, having taken a bottle of her mother’s nail polish, he painted a single red rose on each of Ramona’s porcelain handles. Ramona’s wounds were fully healed by the end of the summer, so her father began raping her once again. Her handles were the perfect size for his chubby little fingers, enabling him a firm grip on her hips when he fucked her.
On Labor Day weekend, Ramona learned that she would not be returning to school that year. Her father had decided that she would be home-schooled but she never opened another textbook again. Instead, he took her on the road with him. They visited hospitals across upstate New York, the backseat of their car filled with artificial knees and prosthetic limbs. At night they stayed in motor inns, where the sheets irritated her skin and smelled vaguely of fast food and semen. Late at night, Ramona would lay in bed with her father asleep beside her—always with a fat little hand gripping one of her hips. The walls were so thin she could hear couples fucking in the neighboring rooms. She wondered what the women looked like and what they were doing that made them cry out so happily and sometimes, even laugh. She wondered if any of them had handles too.
Ramona’s father raped her across Schenectady, Rochester, and Buffalo. Sometimes he let her drive the old, white Buick. About twice a month, they would return home for a day or two. Her father would get his suits pressed and Ramona would play with her sister on the rusty swing set in the backyard. Sometimes, if her mother was feeling up to it, Ramona would sit with her in her bedroom and play gin rummy. Her mother rarely left her room at all anymore.
When Ramona was fourteen, she got her first period. A few days later, her father abandoned her outside of Niagara Falls. It happened so easily. He pulled into a gas station and sent Ramona in to buy him cigarettes. When she came out of the store, he was gone. Ramona was left with nothing but thirteen dollars and a pack of Winstons. She sat on the curb for several hours, until a trucker offered her a ride. He tried to rape her in Scranton, Pennsylvania but threw her out of the cab once he saw her porcelain handles. Over the next several months, Ramona learned that most men did not enjoy her enhancements. She traveled across the country, trading rides and meals for blowjobs. At least then, she didn’t have to take off her clothes.
Ramona was sixteen when she met Magic Mike at a Waffle House in West Virginia. He worked at a body-piercing studio in Morgantown. His arms were covered in tattoos and he wore a silver ring in his nose. Ramona thought he was the most beautiful boy she had ever seen. Magic Mike took her on his motorcycle to a nearby lake, where they fed crusts of bread to the ducks. He told her funny stories that made her laugh so hard she snorted and when he kissed her, it was as soft and sweet as a baby’s kiss. Ramona loved him instantly.
Later that night, when he undressed her and saw the porcelain handles, he was not repulsed but fascinated. And when she explained their origin and how she came to be in West Virginia, he did not pity her. He just smiled and took off his clothes, leaving Ramona breathless. She was surprised to find that virtually his entire body was covered in tattoos, an endless landscape of shipwrecks, skeletons, and pin-up girls. They did not have sex that night. Rather, they spent the evening surveying his flesh, Ramona trailing a finger along every line of ink, drinking in the color and warmth of his skin as he narrated the story of each tattoo. They were inseparable after that, Ramona and Magic Mike. And while they occasionally argued, they stayed mostly in love.
It was Mike who suggested they cut off the porcelain handles. It had never occurred to Ramona that they could be removed. Although bone tissue had long since grown over the screws at the point where they joined her hips, Magic Mike suggested they saw off the head of the screws at the surface of the skin, where something that was more to Ramona’s liking could be attached. He spent the next several days sketching different designs for Ramona’s approval. He was partial to garnet studs.
It was Ramona who first thought of the thorns. Forged in surgical steel and molded in the shape of a rose thorn, each implant would be attached to the screw stems that protruded from Ramona’s hips. Mike quickly located a foundry to cast the thorns. The procedure was relatively painless and created the illusion that two metal thorns had sprouted from Ramona’s hips. When the operation was over, Ramona placed the porcelain handles in an old cigar box that Mike kept coins in. Although they made sex a little awkward, the thorns excited Magic Mike. He liked to imagine he was fucking an alien, like that monster from the Predator movies. Ramona had never been happier. She was glad to be rid of the handles and the thorns made her feel beautiful and dangerous.
It wasn’t long before Ramona wanted more. So Magic Mike redesigned the thorns as transdermal implants. Before long, Ramona was covered in thorns. A row of them trailed down her spine, while others adorned her forearms and thighs. Ramona grew lovelier with each new thorn. Her eyes turned a brighter shade of blue and her skin as smooth and white as the porcelain handles that had once scarred her.
By the time she was seventeen, Ramona had become something of a local celebrity and began modeling for alternative magazines and pin-up calendars. Magic Mike was her tireless promoter, constantly updating her Facebook page and booking her on modeling gigs. At eighteen, she landed the cover of Bizarre magazine and they moved to Los Angeles. Ramona loved that the sun was always shining there and how the beaches stretched on for miles.
Later that year, Ramona and Magic Mike traveled to Brooklyn for the annual Mermaid Parade. He had booked Ramona for an appearance at the Coney Island Circus Sideshow. Ramona felt very much at home with the snake charmers, sword-swallowers, and bearded ladies. She performed an exotic dance in which she emerged from a small wooden box, like a rose bush sprouting up from the soil. The audience, comprised mostly of punks and hipsters, adored her.
She had barely recognized Larissa, standing in the crowd. She no longer had the face of an eight year-old but of a prepubescent girl. Larissa had long gangly arms and an awkward face that was marred with acne. Their eyes met in a flash of recognition and shared anguish that was instantly familiar to Ramona. They went for a hot dog after the show. Ramona’s mom had died two years earlier, finally succumbing to emphysema. Ramona didn’t have to ask whether her father was raping Larissa.
Later that evening, Ramona quietly entered the Flatbush house, surprised to find that her key still worked. She tiptoed up the stairs and into Larissa’s room, only to find her alone and sleeping soundly. She moved down the hall to what had once been her mother’s bedroom. Her father had covered all the furniture with sheets, except for the oxygen tank, which stood in the corner of the room—the only evidence that Ramona’s mother had ever existed.
She slowly crept down the stairs and into her father’s office. Ramona found him at his desk, half-asleep and surrounded with empty beer cans and orthopedic supplies. He was wearing his familiar flannel robe and his hair, now long and unkempt, had turned grey. His eyes grew wide when he saw her, as if she were an apparition.
“Have you come back to me?”
Ramona nodded as she began to undress. Her father flashed a greasy smile as he opened his tattered robe and began to touch himself. But as Ramona slipped out of her dress, revealing her suit of thorns, his expression changed to one of horror.
“What have you done with my handles?” he asked.
Ramona picked up a titanium femur from his desk and smashed it over his head. Later, when he regained consciousness, he found she had strapped him to his workbench. She stood over him, grinning, the two porcelain handles in her palm.
“I’ve saved these for you,” she said.
Ramona attached the rose-covered handles to her father’s head, using a power drill and stainless steel screws. She muffled his screams with the folds of his bathrobe but he only lasted a few minutes before blacking out.
“You’ve grown so fat,” she muttered to herself. “How will I ever carry you?”
Looking around, Ramona quickly found a solution. His head came off easily with a surgical saw.
In June of her eighteenth year, Ramona drove down to Atlantic City in her father’s pearl-white Buick, his head resting on the passenger seat beside her. It was nearly 5 am by the time she reached the Tropicana. The boardwalk was deserted this time of night. There was no one to notice her as she walked out to the beach, carrying her father’s head, her long fingers gripped around a rose-covered handle. She was surprised how heavy it was. When she reached the water’s edge, Ramona tossed her father’s head into the ocean. It bobbed in the tide for a few minutes, his long grey hair expanding like tentacles in the water. Ramona watched the head as it was slowly pulled out to sea. She sat on the beach as the sun came up, wondering if she would see any jellyfish.
*This story was inspired by an illustration by Eliza Gauger and some tough-ass kids I’ve met along the way.
© gibson grand
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