American Fringe, by Valerie Frankel
Ah, spring. Season of rebirth. The flower and the berry. The bird and the bee. A time for grape hyacinth in window boxes, yellow daffodils facing the morning sun. As I watched from my kitchen window overlooking Garden Place, the most beautiful block in Brooklyn Heights, the finest of all New York City neighborhoods, pink cherry blossoms spiraled slowly to the sidewalk. Small children gathered flung them into the air, giggling as petals fell on their hair and jacket shoulders. Right at eye level, I spotted two squirrels humping really fast, as if on crack, on tree branch.
Ah, spring. Never had I felt so alive, so bursting with vital force. I was in love, in my prime, at the start of a new term at school and the beginning of the rest of my life. If that wasn’t enough, I was back on bread after a horrible week of Atkins. Never again.
“What’s on your shirt?” a voice asked, breaking into my happy thoughts. From her seat at the dining room table, Joya, my younger sister, was pointing at my chest.
Glancing down, I saw that a globule of jam had fallen off my toast and landed on my white t-shirt.
“It looks like a nipple,” said my sister.
The dollop had hit me on the crest of my left boob. Had I walked out of the house like this, I would have been stared and/or laughed at. I should’ve thanked Joya for the warning. I really should’ve. But the fact that she knew something about me that I didn’t already know myself really pissed me off.
“Shut up, Joya” I snapped. “Go take a Ritalin.”
Joya’s perfect smile fell off her face, and landed on the table.
“Dora!” yelled Mom, seated next to Joya. “Apologize immediately.”
“Fine. I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m sorry Joya takes Ritalin.”
Joya was officially diagnosed with ADHD last month. The big fear—that Ritalin would turn her into a catatonic zombie—hadn’t come to pass. Joya on drugs was practically the same as she was off drugs. Except now she could concentrate better at annoying me.
Dad lowered his newspaper. “Don’t tease your sister,” he said. “And she’s right. It does look like a nipple.”
The last thing I needed at seven thirty on a Monday morning was for each member of my family to say the word “nipple.”
“I’m out of here,” I announced. I went upstairs to my bedroom to change my shirt. And then I ran out of the apartment, down our brownstone’s three flights of stairs, and out onto the street. In the open air, I exhaled deeply. Finally, I was alone.
“Dora!” The voice came from above. I looked up to see my mother leaning out of the kitchen window, yelling down at me. “Don’t forget about after school! And have a nice day, honey!”
At the same moment, a few boys I recognized from school—seniors—happened by. In falsetto, one mimicked, “Have a nice day, honey!” and then he and his cronies knuckle thumped each other while snorting.
Argh, spring. The first day back to the Brownstone Collegiate Institute after the two-week break was shaping up to be a winner. I flipped open my cell and speed-dialed my best friends’ house.
“Eli,” I said when she answered. “Meet me at Grind in five minutes. I need frap, stat.” Grind, a café on Montague Street, was our usual spot.
“Let me ask Liza,” said Eli, cupping the mouthpiece of the landline to consul with her resident guest. Some mumbling in the background, then she came back on the line. “Can you come over here? Liza hasn’t finished eating.”
I recognized Eli’s clipped tone. She was irritated, but holding it in. Eli’s natural tendency was to vent. I cringed at the long-term effects of her keeping her feelings to herself. I pictured a bottle, the liquid inside bubbling, the cork on top wobbling, about to blow.
“Is there coffee?” I asked.
“Just get your ass over here,” said Eli, hanging up.
My ass and I slavishly complied. The Stomp’s Henry Street townhouse was only a couple of blocks away. Eli’s mom Anita was as much of a coffee junky as mine. She knew how to brew. I could practically smell the coffee from the street when I buzzed the door.
Eli welcomed me in. She looked immaculate in the way only Asian girls could. Her black hair was stick straight, her skin clear and limbs lean. Eli wore a peaceful pink short-sleeve pullover and a denim skirt. Her expression: impenetrable. Objectively, I understood how a lot of people at Brownstone found Eli tough to read. But I’d known her since we were toddlers. I could read her like a cereal box. Underneath her neat exterior, a sea of repressed anger roiled.
I said, “Not a single cloud in the sky! Have you ever seen that color blue before in your entire life?”
“Were you aware that my mother could make pancakes?” she asked.
“I was not,” I admitted. Anita Stomp was a high-power, ball-breaker lawyer at a firm in Manhattan. She considered cooking, and especially baking, a waste of time, “not how I measure my worth in the world,” as she put it. In seventeen years—my entire life—I’d never seen Anita come within twenty feet of a whisk.
Eli said, “Since Liza’s been living here, Mom’s transformed into an older, bitchier version of Rachel Ray. She stews. Roasts. Makes waffles. And cookies. Makes me sick.”
“Yes, cookies are nauseating,” I said, and followed Eli into the living room and through a swinging door into the kitchen.
Liza sat at the table in front of a huge stack of pancakes, syrup glistening down the sides with the perfect pat of butter on top. She smiled big when she saw me. Her blue eyes twinkled, long hair shined like gold, and the plump cheeks made irresistible dimples. I knew Eli was watching me, but I couldn’t help returning Liza’s smile. She was sunshine on a plate.
“Good morning, Adora,” said Anita crisply. Her chic power suit and medium heeled pumps were accessorized today with an apron and an oven mitt. It was like seeing the Pope in a bikini.
I blinked, and said, “Morning, Mrs. Stomp.”
“Perhaps you’d like the pancakes Eli refuses to eat,” she said.
“Don’t mind if I do,” I said.
Eli glared at me. I shrugged. Her mood wasn’t killing my appetite.
Liza kept apace with me as I shoved hot forkfuls into my mouth. “I’ve put on five pounds in the last three weeks,” said Liza, as a compliment to the chef. Three weeks was the amount of time Liza had been living at the Stomp’s. Her own parents, Stephanie and Ryan Greene, recently remarried, had just moved to South Hampton, Bermuda. They were going to take her with them, but Liza begged to stay in Brooklyn to finish the school year and be near her friends—in particular, her boyfriend Stanley. So the Stomps and the Greenes agreed to leave Liza here until June. When the decision had been made, Liza and Eli were ecstatic. Liza was thrilled to stay on home turf. Eli, an only child, adopted from China when she was two by the Stomps, had always wanted a sister, or the next best thing to having one. I rode their wave of enthusiasm about the plan, but I had my doubts. I had a (real) sister, after all. I knew how much fun it was to share everything, whether you liked it or not.
Liza said, “This OJ is incredible!”
Mrs. Stomp said, “Fresh squeezed.”
“Who are you?” Eli asked her mom. “The only thing you’ve fresh squeezed before were your clients.”
“That’s it,” blurted Anita, dropping the dirty griddle in the sink. She untied her apron and folded it into smaller and smaller squares while she said, “You’ve been alarmingly disrespectful to me lately and I won’t stand for it. Forget about Woodbury Common this weekend. You can stay home and clean out the basement instead.” Woodbury Common was a huge outlet shopping mall in Orange County, New York. Eli had been looking forward to some discount Abercrombie action. To Liza, Anita said, “You and I will still go and get some new things for your bedroom.” Then Anita clicked out the kitchen in her pumps, leaving the door swinging on its hinges.
I froze, my fork in midair. When Anita went into take-no-prisoners litigator mode, it scared the hell out of me. My mom’s style was love-you-won’t-judge-you. Liza’s mom, Stephanie, was an emotional wet Kleenex with a hair-trigger sob reflex. She would have run out of the room crying, which was just as hard to take.
Eli said succinctly, “Shit.”
Liza asked, “How bad is the basement?”
“I suppose the good friend thing would be to offer to help,” I said, not-so-secretly hoping Eli would refuse.
“You want me to refuse,” said Eli.
“I accept,” she said.
“If you make a list, I’ll buy whatever I can for you at the outlets,” said Liza to Eli. But Eli ignored her. Liza’s sunshine smile faded. The tension between them crackled.
“Nope,” I said. “Not a single cloud in the sky.”