“I am hot. My heat could melt the belly of an airplane. I am only slightly less on fire than the surface of the sun.”
Such were (hopeful, idealistic) things one had to say into the mirror when dressing for the first day of school. Not that I believed them, of course. But I said them anyway.
It was the primary morning of junior year, eleventh grade, and my twelfth first-day at the Brownstone Collegiate Institute in Brooklyn Heights, New York City. My initial first-day, at age four, had been no less fraught with anxiety. I needed parental assistance then to pull a shirt over my head, and I eagerly listened to Mom and Dad’s advice: “You only get one chance to make good impression! Start the year the way you want to finish it!”
For a while now, I’d been able to dress myself—although I did struggle with knot adjustment on my wrap half-sweater. I continued to hear the echoes of ancient advice, as if I were still four years old in Velcro-strap sneakers and snap pants. But I wasn’t. I was sixteen, almost seventeen in camouflage cargo pants, a white tank top showing a discrete inch of belly, one of Dad’s silk ties for a belt, kitten-heeled plastic flip-flops and the above mentioned pale yellow sweater. My hair was trapped in a painstakingly haphazard ponytail, clipped in the back with a single gold barrette.
“I am hot. I crackle like bacon in a pan,” I told myself.
Truthfully, I was tepid. My hair was my best feature—thick, chestnut, straight, trademark bangs. Eyes: hazel, alternately greenish, bluish and grayish depending on what was wearing (today, greenish). I’d often thought of my eyes as mood indicators. When I was sad, they were blue; happy, green; angry, gray. I’d given up searching for signs of my emotional state of mind in my eyes, though. It seemed like the occupation of poets, middle-schoolers and self-help gurus.
Where I was “decent,” my friend Eli (short for Elizabeth) Stomp fell on the exotic end of the attractiveness spectrum, with jet-black hair, mysterious dark brown eyes, red lips. Her ghostly pallor and rail-thin body give her a certain (granted, Chinese) Vampiral air—the possible explanation why boys seem to reel back in fear of her, rather than assuming a rightful, worshipful posture in her presence. My other best friend Liza (short for Elizabeth) Greene was classically cute, a California blond in Brooklyn where she’d been born and raised. Liza’s rounded edges, her pleasant cushion have, thus far, prevented her from hypnotizing every boy in school with her glass-blue eyes, but it was only matter of time before she gained (1) a couple of inches and (2) the devotion of the entire male species.
Boys had not yet discovered me, either. But, as I took one last glance in the mirror, I felt (viscerally, intuitively) that this would be my year. That I’d finally get the attention and admiration I’d been waiting for, dreaming of, fantasizing about. I didn’t need a fan club. Just one boy would be fine. My lips turned upward, thinking of him, and suddenly, I did feel hot, as steaming and explosive as all the kettles in England.
I went downstairs to the first floor in my family’s duplex apartment in an 1861 townhouse on a tree-lined street. Those trees you might’ve heard about growing in Brooklyn? They were all on my block, Garden Place—an optimistic name for a city stretch of asphalt, concrete and bricks, along with the abundant sidewalk foliage. That said, as city streets went, ours was as suburban as one could find in New York. The kids on the block played on the street, Moms yelling out the window to call them in for dinner. The older residents sat on their stoops for hours, greeting passers-by. No litter, no honking. Glorious (almost competitive) flowerboxes added splashes of color, even in September.
Our building was at the head of the block. Our apartment on the top two floors of our building. My parents—Gloria and Ed Benet—and my 13-year old sister Joya were in the eat-in-kitchen downstairs, already busy with breakfast. My mother sipped from the mug of coffee that might as well have fused with the flesh of her hand. She was wearing a bathrobe, blue with yellow embroidered cats. Dad was wearing his, yellow with blue embroidered dogs. They had his-and-her everything. Their lives—professional and personal—are matchy-matchy. Mom and Dad looked up from the Times (in unison), showing off toothy his-and-her smiles.
Mom said, “You look so pretty!”
Dad, rising, asked, “What can I get you for breakfast? Eggs? Pancakes?”
Mom followed with, “Big day. It’s only natural to have some anxiety about junior year. If you want to talk about anything—anything at all—I’m available. Sex, drugs, peer pressure, SATs, social ambition. Any topic is open for discussion. Your father and I will reserve judgment. We’ll just listen.”
Dad added, “But only if you want to talk. We wouldn’t think of intruding on your privacy. So. Food? Whatever you want. I’ll make it fresh. Just name your pleasure.”
All this before I’d said a single word.
Why couldn’t I have normal parents with normal jobs? I thought, looking at them study at me as if I were a 110-pound lab rat, their teen (and team) project.
I said, “I’m meeting Eli and Liza at Grind.”
We’d had a ritual since second grade, holding a first-day-of-school meeting to map the upcoming greatest-year-of-our-lives-thus-far. We used to gather in one of our apartments (before The Great Dispersal, our three families lived in apartments on consecutive floors of a townhouse on Hicks Street, just around the corner from where I lived now). Since seventh grade, when we’d been permitted to roam the streets without a parent or babysitter, we started meeting at Grind, our favorite café on Montague Street.
Joya asked, “Can I come, Dora? I won’t talk. I’ll be invisible. You won’t even know I’m there. I’ll blend into the wall. I’ll be human wallpaper.”
My kid sister was, on the attractiveness spectrum, ethereal. She had an airy-fairy light around her, soft and glowing, mink brown hair, saucer of chocolate eyes, dusting of tawny freckles across the bridge of her button nose, sky high cheekbones, a heart-shaped face. She had the large-head and lithe body of a dancer on the verge of explosive growth. Joya caught attention lazily, effortlessly, like a butterfly in a net, without seeming to be aware of her automatic appeal. She acted oblivious to stares, oblivious to everyone and everything, except her best (and only) friend Ben, and her precious art projects, the comic books she wrote and illustrated since she was six. Even if Joya wanted to be human wallpaper, she was, perhaps unintentionally, a centerpiece at any table. She’d asked me every year if she could come along to the first-day meeting at Grind. And every year, I refused.
I said, “Tell you want, Joya, This year, if you want, you can stand outside the café, and watch us through the window.”
“Adora!” snapped Mom.
“Why are you so mean to her?” asks Dad.
Mom and Dad often predicted that, when we’re 25 and 28, Joya and I would be best buds. That remained to be seen. At 13 and 16, I could barely stand her. She was the happy humming machine I wanted to turn off. Only a few days ago, I’d accidentally (on purpose) spilled OJ on one of her drawings—and she forgave me instantly, which made me furious. Joya was pathologically forgiving, helpful and sweet. Mom and Day always said she filled their hearts with joy. Which filled my mouth with vomit.
According to an article I read in Time magazine, every person was born with a set point of happiness. Life events—ecstatic and/or tragic—could move the needle to the right or left, but eventually, one would revert back to her set point. Joya’s needle was pinned to the right of the dial. She was born happy.
My born disposition? I liked to think of myself as cynically optimistic.
To Mom and Dad, I said, “I want to be alone with my friends! Is that so hard to understand? Can’t I say or do anything without the guilt trip, or emotional harassment, or your looking at me like I’ve just grown a second head?”
The three members of my family absorbed my outburst.
Then Dad said, “Is that my tie?”
Mom asked, “Do you need money?”