So far, this school year, I’d had three boyfriends, started a student revolution, lost and regained my two best friends. I thought the rest of my junior year would run smoothly in comparison to its bumpy beginning. Turned out (and this shouldn’t have surprised me, given my track record), I was wrong.
From where I stood now, at the kitchen window of my apartment, the second semester looked fresh and clean, a snowy white slate. January always felt like a brand spanking new start. And I was just over the edge of seventeen; my birthday was a few weeks ago. Should everything proceed according to plan, I would lose it (“it” being exactly what one would assume) this year. Part of my age-of-consent agenda was to boldly go where I had never gone before.
A Monday morning blanket of the fluffy white stuff covered the sidewalks. Little piles of snow perched precariously in tree branches. Through the window, I watched fat flakes fall and stick. I sipped my coffee, enjoyed the silence, felt poetic and melancholic, imagined myself a portrait of peace and contemplation. The moment passed when my parents flounced downstairs in their matching his-and-her chenille bathrobes. They were holding hands, sneaking secret smiles, which were about as subtle as a flashing neon beer sign.
Joya, my younger sister, beamed at them and said, “Good morning!” She happily munched her toast and jam. Her eyes shone with pure, unadulterated love for our parents. Joya was in eighth grade, old enough to know what Mom and Dad’s disgusting lovey-dovey signals meant. But Joya didn’t pick up other people’s signals. She tuned in to a magical frequency of her own—one that only she, her boyfriend Ben, dolphins, unicorns, and zombies could hear.
Mom kissed Joya on the top of her precious pixie-ish head. “It is a beautiful day, isn’t it?” asked Mom, her voice way too sing-songy for 7:30 a.m.
She dared to flounce in my direction, actually came at me with outstretched arms. “Don’t even thing about it,” I warned.
“Eggs?” asked my dad. “Waffles? Is there anyone in this room who wants bacon?”
“I do!” said Joya.
“I do!” said Mom, eyes twinkling. “I’m absolutely starving this morning.”
Dad smiled (slyly, nauseatingly) and said, “Me, too. Famished.”
Joya asked, “Dora, are you okay?”
“I’ve got to go,” I said.
As per our custom, Eli and Liza (my two best friends) were meeting me before the start of the second semester at Grind, a cafe on Montague Street. Our aim: to regroup and plot the upcoming season at the Brownstone Collegiate Institute, our private school in Brooklyn Heights, New York. I put on my coat, hat, scarf, gloves and backpack, and trudged out the door before (1) Joya could ask to tag along, (2) Mom offered me unwanted advice, (3) Dad forced pork product on me.
“My parents have reached a point of frightening transparency,” I announced to Eli and Liza at Grind while sipping my pumpkin spice latte. “They’re writing a new book, His-and-Hers Romance, taking their own advice way too literally.”
Eli and Liza nodded sympathetically. We were smug in our own romances these days. All of us had boyfriends at the same time (a pivotal first). And we were riding the crest of a friendship wave, too. Incredible to think that two months ago, I was a friendless, boyfriendless, pathetic loser, hanging my head in shame and regret. Now I had the rich, textured, slamming social life of a girl in a shampoo commercial.
Turned on a frigging dime—life. That was what I was afraid of.
“I don’t like to see Mom and Dad—or anyone—too happy,” I said. “Makes you worry.”
“Makes you worry,” said Eli Stomp, dabbing her red lips with a napkin. Only she, with her tidy black sweater set, pin straight Chinese hair and unblemished porcelain skin, could make quaffing coffee seem dainty.
“I get what Dora means,” said Liza Greene, a strand of blond hair dipping accidentally into her cup as she drank lustily from it. “You don’t want to tempt fate.” Despite her carefree urban hippie style, Liza was the most anxious and superstitious of our threesome.
“Eventually, something bad is bound to happen,” said Eli pragmatically. “But then you just deal with it.”
“Sometimes a situation is beyond your control,” said Liza.
I assumed she was referring to her mother Stephanie’s imminent wedding to Gary “The Whitest Man on Earth” Glitch. Since I’d listened to Liza moan about the dreaded upcoming nuptials every day for hours at a stretch (time I could have spent playing Snood or probing my beloved Noel Kepner’s dental work with my tongue), I steered the conversation in another direction.
“Ms. Barbaloo needs hip replacement,” I informed the table. “She’s taking a medical tourism vacation to Thailand to have surgery and convalesce. Should be months before she comes back to Brownstone.” I spoke of an older-than-bedrock blue-haired, notoriously strict upper school English teacher.
“My dad said hip replacement is an absolutely gruesome surgery,” said Eli, a doctor’s daughter. “They have to use a circular saw and cut through the bones of Ms. Barbaloo’s pelvis.”
“Nice sound effects,” said Liza of Eli’s violent whirring.
“Can you not use ‘Ms. Barbaloo’ and ‘pelvis’ in the same sentence ever again?” I asked. “The substitute English professor arrives today from some WASPy prep school in New England. She is, allegedly, a Shakespearean scholar.”
“I think Ms. Barbaloo might have met Shakespeare in her youth,” said Eli.
“Love Stories In English Literature,” said Liza, who was in the class with me, as well as her boyfriend Stanley Nable, and mine, Noel Kepner. She added, “New teacher. Sexy stories. Should be a decent class.”
I was counting on it. The rest of my course load veered from deadly to fatal. Ideally, English class would be the romantic antidote to my otherwise necromantic schedule. The love theme would play nicely into my personal schedule, too. English was the only hour (besides lunch) I would spend at Brownstone with Noel this term. As for out of school, I pictured us reading the required passages to each other on the bed in my room, lava lamp light flickering across our faces, open books on our laps. Leaning close to kiss, the volumes would slide off, hitting the floor with twin thuds.
“Too freaking hot!” said Eli suddenly. “Why do they crack the radiators in here? I can feel the moisture being sucked out of my pores.” She gathered her stuff. “I told Eric I’d meet him before class at The Brief office.” Her boyfriend, Eric Brainard, was editor of the student-published broadsheet.
I checked my watch. How time flew when consuming ridiculous amounts of coffee and cookies.
The three of us walked the four blocks to Brownstone. The snow had tapered off and was now only dandruff-like flakes. The sidewalks on Montague Street had been salted. We passed Tandoori Palace, Soulvaki Hut, Sushi Den, Pagoda House, Caffe Amoure and Burger Heaven. One could circle the globe cuisine-wise on one block in Brooklyn Heights. Or, if you wanted to say home, the world delivered.
“I hate winter,” I said as we walked. And I did. I was super sensitive to cold. Always had been. But, if I thought I’d been chilly on the walk to school, my blood froze solid when we got there. On the steps leading up to Brownstone’s arched front doorway, Noel Kepner, my dear heart, had his arm around the shoulder of Sondra Fortune, my sworn enemy (or lifelong friend—our relationship was a massive gray area). He was laughing at something she said. Sondra and Noel used to go out, and not a million years ago.
My mood-indicator hazel eyes changed color, from placid gray to roiling, boiling green—the color of jealousy that was nearly impossible to see through. But Noel saw me. He waved in his eager, earnest way. His smile was genuine, big, loveable and it defused my jealous rage somewhat. But not enough. As far as Sondra went . . . then again, Sondra never went as far as I wanted her to. I’d like to see her relocate to the moon.
At my side, Eli say, “Steady, Dora.”
I ascended the steps, my jaw locked. Noel pulled me into a hug and kissed me—on the forehead. Cute. When he let me go, Sondra was gone. So were Eli and Liza.
He said, “You smell like pumpkin.”
I said, “Noel, as my boyfriend, I’d like you to do one small thing for me—not to prove your love, but to acknowledge a flaw in my character, a charming flaw, a loveable quirk.”
“What’s that?” he asked, smiling.
“Don’t touch other girls.” Especially that one.
“Sondra is my friend, Dora,” he said. “I’ve known her since we were seven.”
“You’ve known me since we were five,” I said. “You’ve had sex with her so she’ll always be more than a friend.” I didn’t bother reminding him that we had yet to permanently change the status of our friendship. Noel knew only too well that that we hadn’t crossed that Rubicon. In a way, our doing it would be like buying off the sales rack: There would be no return once the purchase was made. You were stuck, in more ways than one.
I loved Noel. I trusted him. I felt we were drawing ever closer. To “it.” But when I saw him touch Sondra Fortune—even on the padded shoulder of her down jacket—it was like I didn’t know him, didn’t trust him, wanted nothing to do with him.
“Come on,” he said, throwing an arm around my shoulder, which was where it should be surgically attached. He steered me inside the building and down the long corridor toward the upper school annex.
“How many times do I have to tell you,” he said as we walked. “I’ve never cheated on a girlfriend in my life.”
“You’ve never stayed with a girlfriend long enough to cheat on her,” I said.
First period on Monday, Wednesday and Friday was Love Stories. I’d get to start the day with Noel, three mornings a week. As we approached the classroom door, he maneuvered me into a nook under one of Brownstone’s hallway archways (the building was rife with gothic touches; it was built a 150 years ago as a cloister for aspiring nuns). He pressed his body against me and kissed me. Instantly, from only the wee bit of contact, my breathing and pulse quickened.
“Jealousy is a charming quirk,” I said, my anger melting.
“You don’t have to worry,” he said. “I’d never cheat on you. If Angelina Jolie walked down this hallway naked and begged me to have sex with her, I wouldn’t do it.”
“Not in front of all these people,” I said. “What if she appeared like a mist in your room, and held a gun to your head.”
“In that case, I’d do it,” he said. “But I wouldn’t enjoy it.”
“You’d be thinking of me the whole time,” I said.
“Then I would enjoy it.”
The bell rang.
Together (languid sigh), in the midst of our own Love Story, we walked into class. Liza and Stanley were seated in back. We snagged desks by them. I put my backpack on the floor and took out my laptop. I’d only just pushed the start button when Angelina Jolie walked into the classroom.
Not the real Angelina Jolie. A dead ringer for her. Except this woman was blond, with bigger boobs. And younger, too. In her mid-twenties at most. She picked up the cursor pen and wrote her name on the digital whiteboard.
“Matilda Rossi,” she spoke as she wrote, her voice the sound equivalent of hot chocolate—and not the just-add-boiling-water mix. Her tone was dark, smooth, rich, as if a thousand cocoa beans had liquefied and poured forth from her puffy-lipped mouth.
“Love and passion,” she said. “The magic and danger they bring. That’s what I’m here to teach. I’m going to take you places. New, mysterious, secret places. And you’re going to like it.”
I looked at Noel. His jaw, completely unhinged, had dropped to the floor. Stanley Nable’s tongue had suddenly grown ten-inches and was hanging low enough to wet his shirt. A quick check confirmed that every boy in the class was equally smitten. And every girl, including Liza, was staring at Mathilda Rossi like a goddess, a Venus to emulate, or at least get makeup tips from.
But not me. I wasn’t wondering what brand of moisturizer she used, or cleaning my desk with drool.
I was praying. Low and soft. “Dear God,” I thought. “Please let sweet, dear Ms. Barbaloo to have a speedy recovery.”
I had no objection, in theory, to Mathilda Rossi impressive physical presence. Any woman had the inalienable right to flaunt her yellow hair and big boobs if she wanted to. I respected that choice. I wouldn’t condemn a sister female who opted to strut around like a sorority slut.
However, theory was one thing. Raw, reactive emotion was another. I hated Mathilda Rossi on sight because she was beautiful. I wasn’t proud of it, but I was grimly accepting of my own limitations as a human being.
Ms. Rossi said, “We’ll begin by reading Romeo and Juliet. Has any one read it before?”
A few hands went up, including Noel’s. Sorry to report, Noel was a hand raiser. A sharer. A carer. He couldn’t wait to offer an opinion or win the gold star for class participation. A few months ago, when we were at odds, I was eye-twitchingly annoyed by his incessant chatter. And now that I loved him? I still hated it.
“Good, good,” said the blond teacher, nodding at the raised palms. “Romeo and Juliet, as you probably know, is a play. To experience the story the way Shakespeare had originally intended, we’re going to read it in aloud. I’ve been told Brownstone is packed with acting talent. Has anyone here performed in school plays?”
Again, Noel’s hand reached for the ceiling. I groaned, couldn’t suppress it. The sound drew Ms. Rossi’s attention to the back of the room. Right to Noel’s straining outstretched arm.
“The dark haired young man in the back,” said Ms. Rossi. “Yes, you. Would you please stand up. Thanks. My, oh my, you sure are tall!”
Noel said, “You sure are pretty.”
No, he didn’t say that. But he was thinking it! I could read his mind easily from one desk away.
Ms. Rossi said, “What is your acting experience?”
Noel answered, “I was Gandalf in The Hobbit last year.”
“Yes, you would make anyone else on stage look short,” said Ms. Rossi gratuitously. “You’ll be perfect as Romeo.”
Noel smiled, blushed (!), practically curtsied.
“And I,” said Ms. Rossi, smiling at Noel, “will play Juliet.”
Every boy in the class wooed, hooted or whistled. Stanley, seating next to Liza, reached across two desks to give Noel a knuckle thump.
My heart dropped to my gut. It would have fallen farther, but I was sitting down.
“Yes? In the back? You, with the orange sweater?” said Ms. Rossi.
The eyes of the room turned toward me. I had no clue why I was the sudden focus of attention. And then I realized: I’d raised my arm and was waving it frantically in the air.
Lowering it, grinning sheepishly, I said, “Sorry, my arm slipped.”
“It was an accidental hand raise.”
“What is your name?”
I groaned (inwardly this time) and said, “Dora Benet.”
“If you have something to say to the class, Ms. Benet, you should have the confidence and conviction to do it,” said Ms. Rossi.
Liza shot me her wide blue eyed “What you, worry?” grin.
I said, “I think it’d be a better idea, for the education of the entire class—we’re here to learn!—if the part of Juliet were read by a student.”
“Are you volunteering yourself?” Ms. Rossi asked.
“I guess, yes, I am.”
Ms. Rossi said, “Aren’t you the little go-getter.”
A titter rippled across the rows. Only one way to deflect ridicule. I laugh along, giggling with gusto, sounding like a frightened pony.
Ms. Rossi smiled at the class. On her cheeks, dimples appeared. They were so deep, you could plant tomatoes in them. “I’ve found, Ms. Benet, that if students play both of the romantic leads in this play, the rest of the class tends to project too much into the reading. It’s a distraction from the language.”
I could see her point. “That’s ridiculous!” I blurted.
Ms. Rossi’s eyes blazed, burning a hole in my forehead (all the better to pour knowledge into my brain?). “Ms. Benet, I’d like you to read the part of Juliet’s fat, homely, elderly widowed Nurse. She’s the comic relief. That seems to fit you.”
“Fit” was an apt word. I was one breath away from throwing one. Then Ms. Rossi said, “Now. Which one of you handsome boys would like to play Mercutio?”
“Don’t worry, Dora. You were fine,” said Liza at Chez Brownstone, the school’s cafeteria, catering to the organic, whole grain and raw juicing needs of the student body.
Eli asked, “What did she do?”
Noel, Stanley and Eric, our boyfriends, were seated a comfortable distance away at the end of our long table, their heads together, lascivious grins on their faces.
“I’ve got a breakthrough diet idea,” I said, pushing away my vegetarian hummus wrap sandwich. “The ‘My Boyfriend’s A Leering Idiot’ Diet. Makes any self-respecting girl too nauseated to eat.”
“So you don’t want that?” asked Liza, who struggled to keep her curves from becoming rolls.
I glanced at Noel, his hands cupping the air suggestively. He could be miming the shape of Ms. Rossi’s hips, or a basketball. “Take it,” I said, pushing the sandwich at Liza.
Eli said, “Eric is planning a big story of this Matilda Rossi person. He has an appointment to photograph her for The Brief. Considering your strong reaction to her, I should probably tag along.”
“Keep an eye on him?” Liza asked.
“Eric? Please. Like he’d do anything,” said Eli. “I’d just like to take a look at her for myself.”
Eli was born in Communist China, abandoned on a hilltop by her teenage mother, discovered by a farmer and left at an orphanage until she was two years old. She was adopted and brought to America by her parents Anita and Bertram Stomp, then in their mid-forties, now as old as my grandparents. Before Eli lost her first tooth, she had already seen enough misery for a lifetime. She was easily annoyed. She had a bit of a temper. But Eli did not ruffle (with one exception, which was my fault, so it won’t be recounted here). The possibility that Eric Brainard might swoon over Matilda Rossi was not nearly enough to upset her.
“You’re so strong,” I observed. “I’m so weak.”
“You are truly pathetic,” agreed Eli. “It’s not like a teacher is a serious threat.”
“But the idea Noel would find anyone else attractive,” I whined. “He should have eyes only for me.”
“His dick is only for you,” said Eli. “What do you need his eyes for?”
“I don’t want his dick!” I said, way too loudly.
That made Noel, Stanley and Eric look over at us.
“You know you do,” said Liza while chewing.
“Jealousy is the most useless emotion,” said Eli. “That, or guilt.”
“My two biggest hits,” I groused. “Is Eric writing a profile of Rossi to go with the picture?”
“I assume,” said Eli.
“I wonder if she has a dark past.”
“You suspect she’s like one of those insane teachers who seduces her adolescent students and then cries about her addiction to Zoloft on A Current Affair?” asked Eli.
I shrugged. “Ever notice how all of those perv teachers are blond? Ms. Rossi is blond. Ergo, Ms. Ross is a perv.”
Liza, also of the yellow-haired persuasion said, “I liked it better when all blonds were stupid.”
Stanley Noble slid down the bench toward us. “Ready to go?” he asked. Eric and Noel followed scoot.
Liza said, “Guess what. Dora thinks that—oofff!” My elbow in her ribs prevented the slip. Liza had a big mouth. She couldn’t help it. She was born without guile.
Stanley asked, “Your house after school?”
Liza’s sunshiny demeanor clouded over. She said, “Gary will be there.”
“Oh,” said Stanley. “My house?”
She said, “I have to look at bridesmaid dresses.”
“Anything but pink,” said Eli. “Or purple, or baby blue. Or sea foam green.”
Liza would be her Mom’s maiden of honor. Eli and I were to be bridesmaids. I’d never been in a wedding before. And what a wretched way to begin. No one understood why, exactly, Stephanie Greene wanted to marry Gary Glitch. He was the opposite of her first husband, Liza’s dad Ryan, who up and moved to Bermuda four years ago to run snorkel boat tours. I could see that Gary was technically “handsome” in a men’s razor commercial kind of way (no style at all). He made money on Wall Street. But any good qualities were erased by his major bad one.
“Has Gary moved in?” I asked.
Liza was rendered mute by the thought. Finally, Stanley said, “Seems like he’s always there.”
Eric Brainard, who wasn’t as well informed about the tension in Liza’s home as the rest of us, said, “I’m sensing a strong dislike. What’s wrong with the guy?”
Noel answered for Stanley. “Liza’s future stepfather objects to her having a Negro boyfriend.”
“Oh,” said Eric.
“Don’t say ‘stepfather,’” said Liza.