Fringe Benefits, by Valerie Frankel
Rising. The word had such grandiose implications. I loved the sound of it, the taste of it on my tongue. As of five minute ago, I was, officially, a Rising Senior. A person on the ascent. I closed my eyes and pictured myself rising off the ground, lifting like a balloon over the Brownstone Collegiate Institute, looking down at my school, smiling with nostalgic beauty as a melancholic tear slid off my pink cheek. I watched the salty globule descend and come to a splat on the threshold, only a moment before the doors burst open and scores of frenetic kids ran out onto the street for summer break.
Soon, I would cross that threshold, and get Out of Here for the next thirteen weeks. Grinning with relief, I—I being me, Adora Benet—slammed my locker good and closed.
“Another year over,” I said to my two best friends, Eli Stomp and Liza Greene. They were waiting for me, their backs against the row of lockers. All told, junior year had been a toughie, but I’d survived with my social and academic standing (such as it was) intact.
“Maybe we should sing the open number to High School Musical 2,” said Liza, whose shining blue eyes, silken blond hair and eager expression make her the human equivalent of melted butter in a glass bowl.
“One note, and I will kill you,” said Eli.
“Empty threat,” I said. “You’d maim and dismember, sure. But you draw the line at murder.”
“In this case, I’d be justified,” said Eli. She looked like a China doll, as always, in a red tank and denim mini, her stick straight black hair streaming down her back. She was midnight to Liza’s high noon. I’d say Eli was yin to Liza’s yang, but she might interpret that as racially loaded.
Liza asked, “What’s our first stop as free citizens? Grind?”
Grind was our joint, a café on Montague Street that served cakes, cookies, and all manner of caffeinated beverage. Eli’s boyfriend Charlie was a barista there. I was completely in favor of this relationship. Charlie was a devoted boyfriend, for one thing. He made Eli as happy as I’d ever seen her—and I’d seen a lot of her, having lived on consecutive floors of the same brownstone building, along with Liza, since Eli’s parents brought her to Brooklyn from China when she was two. Our families had all moved up and out of that building since, but we three were still thisclose. Perhaps the greatest thing about Eli and Charlie’s love: He got us free fraps, lats and lemon cakes at Grind, which had upped my caffeine consumption to teeth chattering levels.
Eli said, “Warning. Charlie’s not working, so we’ll have to pay.”
Liza and I gasped, and clutched each other for support.
“You used to pay for coffee every day,” said Eli.
“But I’ve grown accustomed to a certain standard of living,” I said. “I’m not sure I can go back.”
“You might have to. Charlie’s going to quit Grind,” said Eli.
Reeling backwards, I blurted, “Don’t say it like that! You have to deliver the bad news gently. Ease into it. First say, ‘Charlie’s cutting back on his hours.’ Let me get used to that, and then lower the boom.”
Liza said, “Can we just go? I’m starving.”
We went. The walk took only a few minutes, but it felt like forever. My backpack was twice its usual size, stuffed with the detritus of a year, including a pair of beloved yoga pants that had been wedged into the dark, dank corner of my locker. When I couldn’t find them anywhere at home, I’d accused Mom of throwing them away. We’d had a big fight about it. Oops.
It was a relief to drop the bundle on the floor when we finally got to Grind. My shoulders were not strong like bull. They were weak like meerkat. Maybe I should put “build muscle mass” on my summer To Do list. Beef up, pump iron. Go jogging with Dad.
Riiiight. I might as well “learn Farsi”, too, while I was at it.
Once we’d secured our drinks—Liza also got a ham and cheese croissant—we three best pals, practically from birth, sat down to bask in our collective joy and freedom. Nothing but fun in the city to come for the next three months. I’d fled Brooklyn Heights nearly every June since I was little Dora, either for camp in Vermont, or to travel with the rents. Last year, I went on a teen tour of the American west and saw many rock formations.
But this year, I was staying put. Eli, Liza and I hadn’t yet spent a summer together. It would be our season, finally. Brooklyn Heights was practically deserted in July and August. We’d own the nabe, roam the city, get great tables at otherwise impossible restaurants, go to free concerts at the band shell in Prospect Park, land jobs at the Smith Street boutiques where we’d get huge discounts and blow their salaries on clothes and shoes. Heaven.
That glittery vision wasn’t the kind of summer Mom wanted for me, not by a long shot. Gloria Benet (aka, mater), was twisting the thumb screws, telling me to get gainful employment, a “character building job that would look good on college applications.” Gloria’s fantasy job for me was to volunteer with the Green Project, a coalition of urban farmers with the aim of building subsistence organic vegetable gardens on the rooftops of brownstone Brooklyn. It’d be gritty work. Hauling dirt up countless flights of stairs, sowing seeds, rotating crops under the hot sun, tending mulch on burning tar rooftops. In other words, my version of hell. Anyone’s version of hell.
“I have an announcement to make,” said Eli, thankfully bringing my mind back to the air conditioned comfort at Grind.
“You’re pregnant,” I joked.
“I’m leaving for the summer,” said Eli. “In a few days.”
“I applied for a spot in the Salzburg Youth Orchestra months ago,” said Eli. “It’s an eight-week program. High school musicians from around the world come to play in Mozart’s hometown. I never thought I had a remote chance of getting an invitation. And then, last week, I got the call.” Seeing my expression, Eli added, “I know we talked about spending the summer together in Brooklyn. But I have to do this. I want to do it. I’m really excited.”
You couldn’t tell from her tone. A stranger who didn’t know Eli would think she was just reporting the weather. But I could see through her blank expression, and pick up the faint spark in Eli’s dark eyes, the slight upturn of her lips. Eli was a prodigy, a New York City high school piano competition champ, many years running. Playing in an international orchestra was a dream come true for her.
Liza gushed, “That’s amazing! I’m so happy for you!”
I said, “Of course, I’m happy for you, too.” And I was.
“Sad for yourself, though,” said Eli.
“Your joy is my misery,” I said. “Isn’t that kind of sweet, in a twisted way?’
“Whenever I’m homesick,” said Eli, “I’ll think of how miserable you are, and I’ll feel warm and gooey inside.”
Except for the facts that Eli never felt warm and gooey—maybe with Charlie—and that she’d never been homesick, I appreciated the sentiment. I’d miss her, bad. But I still had Liza.
Liza took a big bite out of her croissant. Her mouth was partially full when she said, “Mumble, mumble.”
I had to laugh. “You know, that sort of sounded like you said you were leaving town in a few days, too. Heh.”
“I’m sorry, Dora,” said Liza, and then she and Eli glanced at each other.
“Wait a minute. You guys knew about each other leaving?” I asked.
“We live together!” said Liza, as if I needed reminding. When Liza’s recently remarried parents moved to Bermuda six months ago, they’d let Liza stay in Brooklyn, living at Eli’s house, to finish the school year.
“Where are you going?” I asked Liza.
“To Bermuda,” said Liza.
“I know that,” I said. The plan had always been for Liza to go to her parents’ beach house for the month of August. She was supposed to stay in Brooklyn for the rest of June, and all of July.
“Change of plans,” said Liza. “Now that Mom’s taken over the administrative work for Dad’s snorkeling tours business, they’re booking more trips and they need me to help. And, frankly, I want to go. I haven’t seen my parents in months. And you know how gorgeous it is, right there on the beach. I can’t wait to get down there!”
I nodded grimly. I was a gorgeous spot, where Ryan and Stephanie Greene lived in South Hampton. I’d been down there myself this past winter, and hadn’t wanted to leave. Honestly, who wouldn’t want to go to Bermuda to snorkel all day long?
Come to think of it, “Can I go to Bermuda with you?” I asked.
“I’d love that!” sang Liza. “It’s a pretty small house, though. And we’ll be working pretty hard. And my brother will be there for a few weeks, too . . .”
“Say no more,” I grunted. I could deal with how small the Greene’s house was. But I couldn’t be in close quarters with Matt Greene, Liza’s brother. I’d had a botched fling with him. It ended badly, and I wasn’t in a hurry to see him again.
“Well, this sucks for me,” I said. In less time than it took to drink a cup of joe, my vision of the best summer ever had turned into a vast, yawning expanse of lonely months in a ghost town.
Eli and Liza looked at each other again, this time, with concern. “We really are sorry, Dora,” said Liza. “It just worked out this way.”
“We would have told you sooner,” Eli said. “But the change of plans happened pretty fast.”
“I’m thrilled for you both,” I said. “Really, you’ve got Summer of Dreams lined up, and I’m jealous as hell. I’ll miss you to the point of nausea. Seriously, I’m vomit every morning, thinking of you. But don’t worry about me,” I said. “I’ve still got Noel.”
Although, to be completely honest, Noel, my boyfriend of nine months, had been a bit of a downer lately. His parents were splitting up, and the townhouse he’d lived in since birth was on the market. Potential buyers walked through nearly every day. I’d been a model girlfriend, listening to him (and, let me just say, Noel was a talker’s talker), comforting him. I was happy to do it, just as he’d gladly stood by me during a few crises this year at school. But Noel’s steady diet of doom and gloom had been wearing. I’d been counting on Eli and Liza to be my fun buddies this summer.
I’d have to recalibrate my expectations. “This could be good, actually,” I said. “With you guys off having the time of your lives, I can devote the full force of my energy on Noel. I’ll take our relationship to the next level. New heights of emotional connectedness. If you can’t have a great summer with your boyfriend, that’s pathetic.”
CHIRP. My cell. Checking the caller ID, I said, “Speaking of the handsome devil.”
“Where are you?” asked Noel in my ear. He sounded testy.
“One guess,” I said.
“Good,” he replied. “I’m walking in.”
And there he was, his lanky frame coming through the door. The sight of him still filled my heart with yummy goodness. He was a sight to behold, a tall, slim, mink-haired, blue-eyed wonder. The most incredible part? He was in love with me. Never ceased to amaze and befuddle practically everyone who knew us, how such a person, a Ruling Classer, could be attracted, body and soul, to a lowly Fringe Dweller such as myself. He was my superior—in the social hierarchy at Brownstone, in class ranking, definitely in the looks department. I could think of zero areas where I was his better. And, yet, he loved me. I’d struggled mightily with jealousy during the course of their relationship. If a Ruling Class girl walked within five feet of him, my blood would run green. I realized with relief that all of my competition—Ruling Class Barbies like my sworn enemy, Sondra Fortune—would be gone, gone, gone, all summer long. I’d have Noel to myself.
Yeah, the idea of the major bonding opp was growing on me rapidly. I’d redouble my efforts to snap him out of his low-grade depression. We’d have adventures and fun—ridiculous amounts of sex. We’d be a dynamic duo. Even though Eli and Liza would be far, far away, Noel and I could wind up having the greatest adventure of the summer right here, in Brooklyn.
I watch, grinning, as Noel made a beeline for our table. He nodded curtly at Liza and Eli. Then he said, “Can we talk?”
“Pull up a chair,” I said.
“Alone,” he insisted, a weary look on his otherwise dreamy face.
More problems with his parents, I assumed. I lifted my five-hundred-pound back pack and said adios to Liza and Eli.
Noel said, “I’ll take that,” and lifted the bundle off my shoulders in one clean, effortless jerk. He shouldered the backpack like a sack of feathers, and my heart clenched.
I adored him. I couldn’t live without him. And I would show him all summer long.