The Resilience of Rhonda
Rhonda hazily ambled through her Miami apartment like some beast foraging for a tasty morsel in a forest primeval. It had been a hell of a party but now all she wanted was a Dorito. Or an Oreo. Or even just a handful of peanuts – she was starving.
“Goddamnit Chuck!” she exclaimed as she saw him sleeping there, or, rather, passed out there, on her sofa with a mostly empty glass of red wine in his hand. Mostly empty because he had “fallen asleep” holding a full glass and managed to tilt it completely to its side. “Wake up, dumbass. Look what you did to my carpet.”
“Sorry babe, couldn’t help myself.”
“Well, I just thank god you’re not a smoker.”
Today is Sunday, April 2. Rhonda’s 10th Annual April Fool’s Day / Birthday Party had been one for the record books. There were people in her apartment last night that she didn’t recognize; some were still here. When she was the campus raconteur at Middle Alabama State University, she never expected to make it to her 30th birthday. She remembered a particularly fun weekend travelling to Pennsylvania with the rugby team. She hadn’t even known any of them before the trip, and hadn’t seen any of them since, but those guys knew how to party and she had learned her best from them.
Rhonda was a special kind of woman. She had been raised by her aunt in Miami after her mom died. She never knew her dad but had heard he was a merchant marine. She often made up stories as a kid about her father being off on some sea adventure, until some of the other kids started calling her Pippi Longstocking. The name stuck with some of the meaner kids, and with her best friend Debbie.
Rhonda’s aunt Vicky was a hippy in the truest sense of the word. Couldn’t go a full 24 hours without getting stoned, wore faded, bell-bottom jeans and a paisley kaftan nearly every day, and reeked of patchouli. She complained constantly about the “bourgeoisie”, and Republicans. She had a Master of Fine Arts degree from Florida State, but was about as useful as tits on a bull.
Vicky took care of Rhonda because there was no one else. Rhonda’s maternal grandparents were too old and of course she had no idea who her paternal grandparents even were. At 9 years old, she was clearly too young to live on her own, and Vicky was the closest thing to a grown-up she knew. And that’s being generous.
Aunt Vicky kept food on the table (mostly) and usually paid the rent almost on time. The power was only temporarily shut off a few times but all in all, they had what they needed. Except for compassion and warmth; Vicky was too immature to really take care of herself – let alone a pre-teen little girl. So Rhonda spent her time at home daydreaming and thinking up fanciful stories about her place in the world. She would maintain this pastime for the rest of her life. Sometimes it got her in trouble, other times it made her the life of the party.
When Rhonda graduated high school, she decided to go to college out of state. She figured she could go somewhere different and be anyone she wanted to be. So she chose a small college in rural Alabama called Middle Alabama State University, about 70 miles south of Birmingham in a town called Firefly Creek.
She was able to secure enough money through grants and loans to cover her tuition and books, but she had to find a job to pay for her living expenses. Because she was studying to be a physical therapist, she was able to get a job with recreation services as an on-call trainer for club teams, and she carried shifts at intramural events.
Due to her propensity for tall-tale-telling, Rhonda didn’t have many good friends. She never let anyone get really close, and most were put off by her stories anyway. She didn’t mind. She was so accustomed to living inside her own head, everything would be okay. It was a happy place, and they knew her there. As a nod to her best friend back home, Rhonda put a sign on her dorm room door that simply read “Villa Villekulla”.
After a couple of years of school, Rhonda decided to mix things up and throw herself a 20th birthday party. Her birthday falls on April 1st, so she thought it would be a good excuse for people to dress up, drink up, and hook up. So on Sunday, April 1st, 1990, Rhonda’s Annual April Fool’s Day / Birthday Party was born.
Her dorm was a large “U” shaped building with a sizable grass courtyard in the front, featuring a statue of Chief Tecumseh on horseback in the middle of a fountain and reflecting pool. The weather in Alabama in the springtime can be a real mixed-bag, but on this night, the stars were literally shining on Rhonda’s plans. In rural Alabama, light pollution is not an issue, and on the night of the party, there was not a cloud in sight, and the moon was in its first phase – the stars were so thick it looked as if someone had splatter-painted the sky.
The temperature was a comfy 70 degrees, with a light breeze. Warm enough to wear short sleeves but cool enough for jeans. And that’s how most of the 200 or so people who showed up were dressed. Some took the theme to heart and wore jester’s hats, but most were just happy to be outside on such a glorious night. This party set the tone for every one that followed.
Alcoholic beverages were not allowed on university property, so the students had creative ways of enjoying their adult beverages. One enterprising young man worked with an ad specialty company to design and sell cling labels for beverage cans that had “Popsi”, “Sprout”, and “Dr. Popper” branding on them. Amazingly, these labels fit perfectly around beer cans. Everyone was mostly well-behaved, so the campus cops didn’t bother with them.
In 1994, Rhonda moved the party to Miami, graduating with a degree in Physical therapy, and leaving MASU and everyone there behind. Her aunt was glad she was back home and gave her a new bong as a “welcome back” gift. She took a job waiting tables at a Ruth’s Chris until she could get her career going.
Funny enough, Rhonda didn’t have trouble making friends in Miami. It seemed there were a lot of lost souls there who really wanted to be someone else, somewhere else, so she found many kindred spirits. And she picked back up with Debbie, right where they had left off, 6 years earlier.
Debbie and Rhonda were thick as thieves. Debbie was a soft-spoken girl but very susceptible to suggestion – and Rhonda never shied away from making suggestions. Where Rhonda was plain looking with thick ankles and a broad backside, Debbie was a good looking girl with a petite frame, almond-shaped gray eyes, olive skin, and jet-black hair. Men found her attractive but she was always attracted to the wrong kind of man, so it never worked out. This suited Rhonda just fine – she thought of men as occasional playthings and didn’t want to lose her best friend over some flight of misplaced affection.
Owing to Rhonda’s views on men and Debbie’s susceptibility to suggestion, the two of them once gave a random young man a story for a lifetime. They had gone out on a Thursday night for drinks at Wet Willie’s. Sometime around midnight, the young man (they never did get his name) was chatting Debbie up when Rhonda had the great idea for a menage a trois. At first Debbie demurred but eventually capitulated – such was the power Rhonda had over her.
They went back to Rhonda’s place, had a few more drinks and a joint and then enjoyed each others’ company for another hour before crashing in a post-coital, alcohol and pot induced sedation. The young man woke to a start at 8:00 the next morning, realizing he would be late for work, and rushed out, never to be seen again.
By 1998, Rhonda had given up being a physical therapist. She had a hard time keeping a job, having bounced from Miami-Dade Medical, to HealthSouth, to Miami University, to a local chiropractor’s office, and back again, before realizing maybe a 9 to 5 wasn’t for her. She had been at Ruth’s Chris all the while and, working only part-time, was able to make more money than at her full-time day job. So she decided it was time for a change and went to Real Estate School.
She barely passed the exam to get her license but simply by sheer force of personality, was almost immediately successful. By her 30th birthday, Rhonda had become one of the top ten real estate agents in Dade County, and had been able to not only quit her job at Ruth’s Chris, but also afford a half million dollar condo with a view of the Atlantic.
It was early in 1999 that she met Chuck. Like most men, he had originally been interested in Debbie, but found her too much of a shrinking violet and was drawn to Rhonda’s larger-than-life elan. For all Rhonda’s remonstrations about relationships, she had fallen for Chuck. He was every bit her equal. He wasn’t impressed by things but lived for experiences. New food, new places, new drugs, new partners-in-crime. He saw past Rhonda’s facade to the scared little girl on the inside, missing her mommy, and longing to know her daddy.
Chuck was exactly what Rhonda needed – for his wanderlust and seeming instability, he became a rock in Rhonda’s life. He was unflappable and tended to take people as they come. He was almost painfully honest but with an unexpected sense of diplomacy. Because of Rhonda’s financial success, she was able to take care of his physical needs. Because of his nature, he took care of her psyche. Although they hadn’t made it official, by Christmas after they met, Chuck mostly lived in Rhonda’s condo.
Rhonda turned 30 on April 1st, 2000. What she expected was a great party. What she didn’t expect was what came the next day. Chuck helped her clean up after the party; after all, he had generated a great deal of the mess on his own. He wasn’t able to get the wine out of her flokati rug but he got all the strangers corralled and sent along their way and he took out all the trash and returned the kegs. Then he turned his car onto I-95 north, and never came back. Rhonda was alone again.
She didn’t handle it so well. Chuck sent her a letter a few weeks later apologizing and stressing how wonderful she is and that he is a nomad and just can’t stay in one place, but it didn’t make it hurt less. Rhonda went on a self-destructive bender. For the next three months, she ignored Debbie, drank every night, and slept around. She had done well enough in sales the previous year that although her work was suffering, it wasn’t getting her into too much financial trouble.
More than anything else, Rhonda was a survivor. She resurfaced from her deep morass and put the bad feelings behind her. But she decided it was time for another change. She sold her condo, bought a nice houseboat and moved to Rincon, Puerto Rico. She hung a sign outside her boat that read “Welcome to Villa Villekulla”.