Dear Diary, Once upon a time, circa four months ago, I was your regular run-of-the-mill fifteen-year-old smarty-pants. My MO was simple enough: Keep to the back row. Stick to the basic nice-enough, cute-enough, and good-enough-at-school routine, and leave it at that. It sounds pretty straightforward, I know, but in high school, blending in takes as much effort as standing out—more, really, when you’re roughly the height of a palm tree.
In Houston I had managed to fit in with the best of them. If you took all the ninth-grade girls at my old prep school and arranged them in a line from the prepubescent white cotton undershirts to the outrageously overpriced all-lace demi-cups, I would have fallen safely in the middle, one of those basic nylon underwire jobs sold in discounted three-packs. I was 100 percent, no-holds- barred normal.
But if achieving that normalcy took fifteen years of hard work, going the reverse direction was far simpler. To become the world’s biggest jerk, I needed only a few months, a notebook, and a few evil thoughts.
But wait—I’m getting ahead of myself, as I always do when I open this stupid notebook. Better, I think, to begin at the beginning, with that smoggy afternoon in August when the postcard arrived . . .
Family Trees Need Watering, Too
I was hunched over the dining room table, struggling with the final project for this creative writing course I was taking at the University of Houston. (And no, btw, I’m not some sort of freakazoid fifteen-year-old genius. I’d wanted to spend the summer at Camp Longawanga with my best friend, Rachel, but my all-controlling psychobabbling mother insisted that I stay home and focus on “personal enrichment” instead.) So the assignment—to describe my home in two pages—didn’t seem like a big deal at first, but I soon realized it was impossible in my present circumstances. You see, I was about to leave the house where I’d lived for the past six years and move into an apartment in Manhattan that I’d seen only on a digital photo, and a poorly lighted one at that. Which one counted as my real home, and how could I decide in two measly pages?
I soon gave up on the assignment. Instead of working, I slumped on the couch and watched a rerun of a reality show set in Salt Lake City, which chronicled what happens when a bunch of good-looking twenty-year-olds from all over America are dumped into a palatial apartment together. The superuptight New York roommate was flipping out because somebody had moved his jean jacket from the main coat rack to his personal closet, and he was yelling at the Detroit-born marine biologist. I enjoyed the New Yorker’s hysteria and even semi-sympathized with the jean jacket crisis. I totally detest when people move my things around without telling me.
Also, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a soft spot for New Yorkers. Especially my dad, who was working hard to become one again after a six-year absence. He claimed that being a big-city slicker was like riding a bicycle— once you learned, you never lost the hang of it—but I sort of doubted that he had blossomed into an alluring man about town without my guidance. To tell the truth, I couldn’t even picture what Dad would look like as an alluring man about town. Would he be wearing a leather jacket? Speaking with a slight foreign accent? Riding a trendy Japanese scooter? I drew a total blank. My notions of cool were skewed after spending the last six years in Houston, where cotton-candy pink is always the new black.
Six years. I no longer knew anything about New York. Apart from taking cabs everywhere, what did New Yorkers even do? The memories I cherished, like ogling oversize toys at F.A.O. Schwarz or tapping on the fish tanks at the Coney Island aquarium, hadn’t exactly prepared me for life in the city.
Taking such an enormous plunge was scary, to say the least, but I had no choice. Dad was all alone up there, and I needed to take care of him. Though on paper he was a fully developed adult, the man was understandably scarred by Mom’s leaving him for Maurice, who was quite possibly the most disgusting man on the planet.
Saying that my mom “left” my dad is mostly a metaphor, because she never actually went anywhere. That would have been way too normal. What she did was dump her devoted life partner of twenty years, completely out of the blue, describing her bombshell as an “honest life choice.” Then, before my poor helpless dad had figured out that his life was over, she announced that she liked the house more, so perhaps he should leave it. My sweet daddy, he never even admitted that he had decided to move back to New York to get far away from Mom, to lick his wounds in private—instead he just kept talking about all the “professional connections” he wanted to rekindle. It’s beyond lucky that his mother left him a few rental properties along the Jersey shore when she died two summers ago—just enough to guarantee a comfortable income before he hit the big time as an art photographer.
Since returning to New York, my father had called me at least once a day, sometimes two or even five times. He put on a front during our conversations, pretending that he was having the time of his life up there, but I didn’t buy his mellow single-guy act for a second. If he was having such a swell time, why was he calling me at eleven o’clock on Saturday night?
Nope, without my mom, Dad was definitely falling apart. He needed protection, a shield from the world’s brutalities. He needed somebody to say “good morning” to him, to ask about his day, to eat his (occasionally lumpy) pancakes.
I was the perfect candidate—a daddy’s girl to the core. Much to the annoyance of my more discipline-oriented mom and my idiocy-oriented sister, I could do no wrong in my dad’s eyes, and vice versa. The two of us looked alike, freckled and gangly. We also had the exact same sense of humor, always a plus.
But, in all honesty, it wasn’t just our two-person mutual admiration society that was driving me to Dad’s apartment. It was my mom. Over the past few months, she had gone bitchorama on me. She had always been the rule enforcer in the household, but her shit-kicking multiplied by forty after splitting up with Dad. She seemed dead set on proving how different the two of them were, as if to convince us all—me, Dad, my sister, Ariel—that the break was inevitable. She was constantly imposing some new curfew or objecting to how much of her (yeah, right) hard-earned money I wasted on bronzing powders or how sloppily I dressed in my gorgeous thrift-store ensembles.
In short, the whole disciplinarian routine was starting to wear on my nerves. But I still had seriously mixed feelings about living in Houston. One the one hand, I loved my life there: my school, my friends, my cat, the amazing eternal-summer weather. On the other, I had just turned fifteen that May and I was ready for some serious freedom. There seemed no better place to break out than downtown Manhattan, with only my out-of-it, omnitrusting father to supervise.
I had just switched off the TV, resolving to tackle my stupid writing assignment, when I heard a rustling sound across the room. I looked up to see my cat, Simon, standing by the door, gazing at me with an incredibly serious expression. His orange ears pointed straight up as if he sensed something important in the air. Right then, lo and behold, a bunch of envelopes poked through our mail slot. They cascaded down in slow motion and plopped on the doormat like no bunch of letters has ever plopped before. I know I have a melodramatic side—at least according to my mom—but I swear this plop signified Something Big. Simon meowed twice. He was a deeply intuitive animal.
I’d received a lot of mail all summer long, mostly from Rachel, who was at sailing camp and secretly dating a sixteen-year-old counselor-in-training named Trevor—or, as Rachel reverentially called him, “my CIT hottie.” The more obsessed Rachel became with Trevor, the more letters she wrote me about him. You’d assume the opposite, but Rachel was so devoted a correspondent that she once wrote me an entire eight-pager about entering the dining room to see “my CIT hottie” sitting on a bench and taking the pickles out of a cheese and turkey sandwich. We used to laugh at what we called “Life’s Very Entertaining Moments,” but now she was becoming very unentertaining.
But right—back to the part about this being a fateful day. True to Simon’s premonitions, there it was, stuck between the gas bill and two letters from Rachel: a postcard. Or I should say, the postcard. My very first piece of mail from the Baldwin School.
The shiny side of the postcard had a drawing of the Brooklyn Bridge, a close- up crowded with multiethnic foot traffic (my favorite was the dreadlocked man climbing up one of the bridge’s cables). A cartoon sun hung in the sky, and the bridge sported wraparound sunglasses. On the back, next to the sticker with my name and address, was the greeting:
Dear Incoming Sophomores, We at the Baldwin School hope your summer is full of exciting discoveries and blissful adventures. Take note that our Welcome Home Meeting will take place in room U-3 on Friday, September 7, at 11:30 a.m. We look forward to seeing you there.
Until then, Zora, high school headmaster, and the rest of the Baldwin family P.S. Keep up all that summer reading!
All the words were typewritten with the exception of “Zora,” which was scrawled in insanely curly handwriting and took up more space than my address. Zora? I couldn’t even begin to imagine a Houston teacher— especially a headmaster—signing a postcard with “Zora,” or even being named “Zora,” for that matter. Texas was all “Yes, sir” and “No, ma’am” and standing up when elders entered the room—who was Zora? Definitely bizarre. I knew Baldwin was supposed to be the most offbeat school in New York, but there was a difference between offbeat and plain old weird.
And then my eyes fixed on another line on the postcard and my brain emptied of everything but that one date: September 7. September 7 was in exactly a month. Only a month to go before orientation—I couldn’t believe it.
Squaring my shoulders, I walked toward my mother’s study, where I planned to figure out my life. To get inside the room, I had to hop over the stacks of overdue library books—no easy task, considering that I’m five-eleven, taller and way less graceful than most professional basketball players. (OK, not exactly, but that’s how I always felt at school dances, so I might as well have been.) The Sigmund Freud calendar I gave my mother for her birthday sat in the bottom corner of the desk, still cracked open to February. Coffee rings were splattered all over the page. The only thing she’d written down was in the box for February 5—“Take Simon to vet. Shots!”—with the words “February 6” underneath. That’s my mother for you: too absent-minded to put the appointment on the right day. Too absent-minded to notice that her whole family was falling apart, or that her new boyfriend, Maurice, is the biggest loser in human history. But that’s another story.
My mother is a psychology professor at Rice University, a hyperorganized woman who gets everything done on time, but you’d never know it by her study. It’s a total pit, with dried-up pens scattered on the shelves and stray rubber bands littering every surface. Month-old Post-it notes reminding her to go to faculty dinners cling to the telephone receiver.
I stared at my mother’s catastrophic desk and tried to get a grip. Sometimes, to stop my mind from racing, I write things down. With that goal, I ripped a piece of paper from my mother’s old notepad and began to scribble:
Very Important Countdown
30–20 Days to Go
1. Pack, shop—new wardrobe (autumny wool sweaters, tights, new flats etc).
2. Rent Woody Allen movies.
3. Send Sam a letter. Other old friends?
4. Eat lots of last-minute enchiladas!
5. Chill. Remember: stress is mega-bad for complexion.
20–10 Days to Go……… 1. Lose baby fat!!!
2. Start eating two vegetables a week.
3. Or two spinach enchiladas.
4. Swim three times a week.
5. No more pecan pie. (At least not r la mode.) 10–BLAST OFF… 1. Find new hairstyle.
2. Read book about New York. Edith Wharton? J. D. Salinger? Look for something more up to date.
3. Eat last enchiladas. Twice. (A day.) 4. Learn to eat sushi without wanting to vomit.
The next month flew by, what with my enchilada-pounding expeditions, my abdomen-toning exercises, and my extensive online investigations of life in New York. I crossed most items off my to-do list with little difficulty, saving my raw-fish initiation for my going-away dinner with Rachel. I’m sure my tanned, love-warmed friend would have preferred Rosa’s, the cheesy Mexican joint we both adored, but since I was the one whose life was going topsy- turvy, I was the one who got to choose.
In a recent letter, Sam—my childhood best friend before my parents moved to Texas—had gone on about New Yorkers’ passion for raw fish. Ever since, I’d imagined people sitting around fish tanks, scooping up wriggling guppies with their nets. I doubted sushi would ever become my thing because a) it looked nastola and slimy and b) the portion sizes were way too puny.
I took Rachel to the place that my older sister, Ariel, who just graduated from high school, recommended because none of the foreign waiters seemed to realize that in America it’s illegal to serve sake to fifteen-year-olds. When Tomiko (at least that’s what the nameplate said) came to take our order, for some reason I couldn’t stop thinking about my old pet goldfish Titan. He used to lodge himself in the crook of the plastic mermaid’s elbow and get stuck in there.
In the end, I chicened out and ordered vegetable rolls. They were decent but familiar, and I cleaned my plate (or rather my weird rectangular serving tray). Conversation with Rachel was a less comfortable experience. Since returning from camp, she had been too upset about her long-distance relationship with Trevor to acknowledge that the two of us were about to face a similar challenge. She was, in fact, so absorbed in her romantic anguish that she mentioned our pending 1,500-mile separation only once: “I’m so depressed about Trevor, I can’t believe you’re abandoning me, too!” On the bright side, Rachel’s obliviousness made saying goodbye a lot less awkward. After dinner, her mom picked us up and dropped me at home as usual, and the whole night seemed far too typical for weepy goodbyes.
The next morning, before I left, I had just one last item to tick off my list. Even scarier than eating raw fish was “letting go” (one of my mom’s fave terms) of the hairstyle I’d had since the fourth grade: halfway down my back, with thick bangs covering my forehead. But, after Sam’s most recent letter, I knew I needed a new look. “How could I not recognize you?” he had written. “You’ll be the only girl at Baldwin with hair down to her butt.” I went to the Beautique to pay my trusty hairdresser Jean-Pascale an au revoir visit. “Eye ave been waiting for yew all week!” he exclaimed. “Today is eet. Yew, Mademoiselle Mimi, are my muse. Any eye-dee-uhs?” I nodded. After wasting a whole week scouring old Seventeens for guidance, I had torn out only two pictures, a shoulder-length shag and a chin-length flippy thing. I showed Jean-Pascale his options. “Which one?” I asked, praying he’d pick the longer, safer one.
I should’ve known better. As indicated by the spiky blond hair on his own head, which he rehighlighted practically every week, Jean-Pascale had a flair for the dramatic. “Eye inseest. Lez make today a very important day.” He crumpled both pictures and tossed them into a pile of my predecessor’s wispy blue-gray hairs on the floor.
“Attends, ma chérie, attends,” Jean-Pascale rasped into my ear en route to the shampoo station. I froze when he whispered into the shampoo girl’s ear, then sighed in relief when I realized he was only giving instructions for an extended head massage.
When at last he seated me to cut my hair, Jean-Pascale swiveled my chair around to prevent me from looking in the mirror. “Trust moi,” he assured me.
It took like ten hours. All the other ladies in the salon watched from under their bubble-topped hair dryers as footlong hanks of my hair dropped to the ground. I felt like a circus freak.
“Voilr,” Jean-Pascale said finally, and spun me around. “Magnifique.” I gasped. My hair fell around my face in dark chunks, exposing cheekbones I’d never known existed. It was amazing, really and truly magnifique. I looked, to tell the truth, exactly like an oversize Winona Ryder. I was, dare I say it, almost beautiful.
“You look exactement comme, euuhh, euhh, comment elle s’appelle?” Jean- Pascale was both genius hairdresser and mind-reader: “Weenonah. Rydaair, c’est ca? Incroyable.” “Vrai,” I croaked out. Magnifique, incroyable, and then some. Maybe it’s uncool to base your mental state on your hair, but when Jean-Pascale and I locked eyes under the salon’s halogen lights, I knew that tenth grade in New York would work out just fine.