My Ultimate Sister Disaster
By Jane Mendle
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2010 Jane Mendle
All rights reserved.
It's not like I'm complaining. Really. Because I guess my life could be a whole lot worse than it really is. So all I'm going to say is this: If I were to wander into an old dusty junk shop somewhere in Greenwich Village and uncover a beat-up brass lamp stuffed in a corner that the owner would sell to me with a knowing twinkle in his eye, and later I were somehow to run my hand across the surface of the lamp and this magical genie appeared in a poof of smoke ...
Well, I couldn't wish for anything.
Not because I don't have wishes. I mean, obviously there are tons and tons of things that I want. It's just that there is absolutely no way I could ask this genie-who-would-never-exist-anyway for the stuff that I want. Because if he really were a genie and my wishes were to come true, it would be a major problem. Because there's no way that I could get the things that I want without unleashing a flood of other problems so monumental that it might actually cause the earth to whirl on its axis.
You probably think I'm exaggerating. You probably think I'm one of those teenagers who's suffering from terrible self-esteem even though I'm tall and gorgeous and have Pantene-commercial hair and make straight A's and am about to be elected homecoming queen and teachers say I'm the most sensitive student they've ever had.
That's really not the case. Here's why.
Wish number 1: I would like to run blissfully into the sunset with River McGee or, at the very least, for the boy to notice my existence. I have been in high school for exactly thirty-nine days now, and it would not be an exaggeration to say that I have been obsessed with River McGee for thirty-eight of them. The boy is as organically perfect as his name: cinnamon-colored hair, clove-colored eyes, a journalistic mind as piercingly quick as the actual current in an actual river.
I get to see a lot of River McGee because he is the editor of our school newspaper, the Suffragette Flyer, and I am a staff peon. Given that I spend so much time with River, you'd think it wouldn't be such a production for those darkly rich eyes toalight on me. But remember the teen that I'm not? The tall, gorgeous one with the Pantene-commercial hair? That's River's girlfriend, Brianna Bronstein. And the one time that I actually attempted to sit at the long, scarred table with the other newspaper staffers, she rolled her eyes dramatically beneath her well-mascara-ed lashes and sighed.
"Ferny?" she asked coolly.
"Franny," I corrected her.
"Uh-huh," she continued. "That's actually my seat you're sitting in. I'm sure you didn't mean to intrude." She waited with her little button nose wrinkled in phony puzzlement as I gathered my stuff together and slunk off to the only chair left available, which happened to be in the very dark back corner of the room, where no one — River included — would ever notice me unless I did something radically attention-provoking and un-Frannyish, like tap-dancing in a negligee. Under her breath, Brianna muttered, "First-years." (Note: The term is first-years, and never freshmen, at the Elizabeth Cady Stanton School. Please.)
At any rate, let's think about this for a second. Brianna Bronstein shot daggers at me because I accidentally sat in her chair. Can you imagine what the girl might do if I actually deserved her wrath? Like, say, by having her boyfriend gaze at me with that same tenderness he typically reserves for her?
I would seriously fear for my life. So, yeah. Wish number 1 evaporates in a puff of smoke for the simple reason that I would rather not have to deal with reattaching my brain stem to my spinal cord.
Wish number 2 at this point should be self-evident. I mean, I'm named Franny. When was the last time you met someone named Franny? Never. Why? Because people named Franny are not fourteen-year-old, not-quite-five-foot semi-pygmies who can't reach their locker dials. Most people named Franny are either 1) tired waitresses at hardscrabble truck-stop diners with nicotine stains on their fingers; or 2) plump, plummy middle-aged British academics who teach Latin and live in tiny thatched cottages with cats named Abelard and Heloise; or 3) elderly, salt-of-the-earth types who had to go to work as secretaries to support their families after their husbands died in World War II.
When I was younger, I assumed my name was Frances and that I could choose another abbreviation. So I thought it would be kind of cool to go by France. You know, Bastille Day, champagne, the Riviera, brie ... But it turns out that my name is not even Frances. It's just Franny. That's it. Finito. So is it any surprise that I've ended up being, well, kind of a dork? It's practically a self-fulfilling prophecy when you name an innocent newborn Franny. The only thing worse than the name Franny is — well, I shouldn't even have to say it.
At any rate, suppose I were to tell my genie that I wanted to be named something else. That should be OK, because the name Franny is my burden and no one else I know has to go through life with this name. But every time I mention not liking my name, my dad looks very, very sad, and I know he is thinking about my mom, who is a cultural anthropologist doing fieldwork in Kenya right now. Then he says, "Your mother and I named you after one of the most iconic female heroines of all literature." Then I get all guilty because I have reminded him that my mother is so busy studying the coming-of-age rituals of complete strangers that she is missing the coming-of-age of her own children.
So, yeah, genie, forget wish number 2. I'll deal with Franny. Although I do think that maybe if I had just one pair of dark-wash Miss Sixty jeans it would negate some of the Franny-ness of my life. But when I showed them online to Dad, he said, "One-hundred and ninety-nine dollars?" And then he said my tuition was catapulting him into a "stratosphere of anxiety." As if I asked to be incarcerated in that place.
Wish number 3: At this point, you probably assume that I wish my mother would come home and we could live all like a happy family again. Not exactly. That's so after-school special. I mean, of course I'd rather she be here, but I know that this is what she needs to do to finish the book that she's writing. So, fine. I totally get that.
So wish number 3 is simply that the genetic goods were distributed a little more evenly between my sister and me. Because in addition to the better name, my sister, Zooey, also managed to hit the Ford family DNA jackpot.
Here's the deal with my family and our weirdo names. My dad met my mom at this party in college. My mom was artsy and beret-wearing, and my dad was faux-Eurotrash sophisticated and she told him her favorite book was Franny and Zooey. He had never read it but pretended he had. Except then she wanted to talk about the book and he couldn't, really, so she knew he was lying. After the party, he got the book and loved it and wanted to talk to my mom about it, except by that point she thought he was a real fake.
At any rate, they still ended up getting together and married and all that mushy stuff, and then they had my sister, Zooey. Then, nineteen months later, they had me. In case you don't know about Franny and Zooey, which is by J. D. Salinger, the same guy who wrote The Catcher in the Rye, the whole point of the book is that franny has a nervous breakdown! Why would anyone name anything, even a fruit fly, after her? That's bad, bad juju.
Whenever my mom tells the story, she sort of giggles and says they'd always wanted to name their first baby Zooey (boy or girl; in the book, Zooey's a boy), which meant that naming me Franny was "obvious."
I happen to disagree. There's a kid in my school named Mickey, but his sister is Sarah, not Minnie. And how many times have you met a Jack without a sister Jill? Or Ben, no Jerry? Adam without Eve? It happens in other families all the time.
So Zooey got the better name. A lot of the time it seems like she also got everything else better: a full five feet, six inches of height, perfectly springy ringlets, teeth that never needed braces, and skin that never, ever breaks out. This, in and of itself, has made for a lifetime of totally sucky comparisons.
But that's not all. The Zooeyest thing about Zooey is that she's a dancer. Like a really good ballerina, which means forget the E. C. Stanton School because she goes to a special school at Lincoln Center, just for dancers. They have actually made movies about kids at this school. And it's not that I'm jealous or that I want to be a ballet dancer (which I so don't. You should see Zooey's feet. They are so bruised they look like turkey jerky). It's more that I wish I had that one thing that made me special the way ballet does for Zooey. There is nothing like an entire auditorium full of people applauding your sister's existence to make you feel sort of pointless.
So, yeah, if I could, I'd make wish number 3 for Zooey not to be so perfectly perfect in every way. But to wish for Zooey not to be Zooey would just be wrong. I don't think I could even say it aloud. That's got to be worse juju than naming a child Franny. So, salaam, genie. Take your lamp and your wishes to someone else. Someone who might be able to put them to good use.
My mom is a wonderful person, but none of her good points have ever been household-related. Like, when she was living at home, she could never manage to fold a fitted sheet, no matter how hard she tried, so she got into the habit of just wadding the sheets into big balls and stuffing them in the linen closet. If you opened the door, you could pretty much guarantee a big avalanche of wadded-up sheets would plonk onto your head. My best friend Rhia's mom isn't very good at that stuff either, but they are so outrageously rich that they have a whole staff of people who, among other things — like making sure Rhia has fresh nori rolls in her red lacquer lunchbox — fold their fitted sheets into these compact, perfect squares that stack as neatly on top of each other as Legos. I used to be jealous of the incredible organization of Rhia's house, but now that my mom's been away, I kind of find myself wishing there were still sheet bundles in our linen closet.
Anyway, the point is that my mom so totally stinks at stuff like laundry that it seems like she couldn't possibly be doing it all that often. But since she's been away, I've had to wonder if we were totally unenlightened Beaver Cleaver types, making her do all the housework and not even realizing it. Because when Mom is around, our apartment, though kind of messy, is still hygienic. But now that she has left, it's morphed into a total sty. There are dust bunnies the size of actual bunnies floating across the floor.
All of which means that on the night of my very first high school party, I was burrowing through a large mountain of dirty laundry like some kind of crazed fashion groundhog. I was fairly certain Brianna Bronstein had never found herself in such a situation. Presumably, she had a fairy godmother on call for such emergencies.
"What are you doing?" Rhia asked, watching me from the bed. She was attempting to apply a set of fake eyelashes for some reason.
"I've got to find something for the newspaper party tonight." I sniffed my (well, OK, my dad's) vintage Led Zeppelin T-shirt, which I had worn last weekend. It was a bit ripe for a repeat performance. "It's at River's apartment."
Rhia propped herself up on her elbows. "And this is practically your only chance for River to see you out of your uniform," she said earnestly. She had managed to get one eyelash attached, and it blinked crookedly at me in a very sad-clown kind of way.
"Um, yeah," I said. "I want something kind of unusual but not too unusual, you know." To prove my point, I dangled a purple velvet tunic covered in mirrors, which had been a gift from my aunt Sonia. "You don't happen to know how to do laundry, do you?"
"You don't?" she asked.
"You seriously know how to do laundry?" Ecstatically, I filled my arms with as much dirty clothing as I could manage and stumbled to the laundry room, trailing shirts and underwear behind me like Gretel and her bread crumbs.
"OK, this" — Rhia gestured at me — "is a total problem."
"I know." I winced. "I just haven't figured everything out yet."
"Well, laundry is not that hard, Franny," Rhia said, dumping soap in and showing me how to work the dials. "But seriously, how are your dad and Zooey getting clean clothes? Like, someone has to be taking care of this stuff, right?"
I shrugged. Rhia's questions fell squarely on the list of Things I Avoid Talking About, which also included my lack of human growth hormone and the possibility that my mother, whom I had not heard from in five whole days, had contracted Rift Valley fever and was dead in a veldt somewhere with ostriches scavenging her extremely long and Chia Pet–esque hair for their nests.
"Wanna order pizza?" I changed the subject.
As I was dialing, the front door opened.
"Hi, sports fan," a voice called out.
Rhia stared at me. "Is that your dad?" she whispered.
I checked my watch. It was six fifteen. I absolutely could not remember the last time my dad had gotten home this early. Usually, I have the apartment to myself until eight or so, when Zooey gets in. Dad used to get home around eight also, and we'd all have a late dinner together, but lately he's been meandering in more like ten or ten thirty.
"Hi," I called back, raising my eyebrows at Rhia in surprise.
Dad swung into the kitchen, tossing his leather man-purse and a copy of Men's Vogue onto a chair.
"Hello, Rhia," he said formally.
"Hi, Mr. Ford." She giggled. I realized, suddenly, that my dad probably had no idea that Rhia had been coming over every afternoon for the past month. That's one nice silver lining to everyone being so busy: I get the apartment all to myself. We can be as loud as we want or play whatever music we want and there's no one to say anything. It's actually kind of great.
"We were ordering pizza," I said. "Do you want some?"
"Oh, I thought we'd all go out for dinner later." Dad opened the cupboard and pulled down a bottle of Scotch.
"OK," I said slowly, hanging the phone up. Behind my dad's back, I could see Rhia making exaggerated shrugging gestures. "I have this party to go to," I added.
"Yeah. It's for the newspaper staff."
Dad set down his glass. "Oh, Franny, not tonight."
"Why not?" Since when did my dad care what I did on Friday night?
"Honey, Zooey has a recital tonight. Didn't you get my messages?"
"No," I said uncertainly. I was so not going to give up River-the-Fabulous McGee's party to be held captive in a dusty velvet chair watching a bunch of Scrawnatinas.
"When was the last time you were online?" Dad asked, exasperated. "It's been on my Facebook all week."
Sigh. why do i have the father who refuses to admit social networking sites are not part of his generation? I'm sorry, but I supposedly live in the same apartment with my dad and Zooey; I am not going to use the Internet to talk to them. Especially not until my dad gets out of the My Chemical Romance and We Luv Hair Gel groups.
And, really, while we're on the topic, why is this my family? Why can't I live in some nice, normal town in Iowa with an insurance-salesman dad and an English-teacher mom and a sister whose big claim to fame is that she raises prize pigs for 4-H? Really?
"Rhia, why don't you come to the recital with us? I made reservations for us at a new tapas place in the Village," Dad broke in placatingly. "It's going to be reviewed in Time Out next week."
"Dad, I am not going to the recital," I interrupted. "I told you. I have plans tonight."
"Honey, this is important. It's important to me and it's important to Zooey."
"My plans are important, too!" My voice came out kind of squeaky. (Continues...)
Excerpted from My Ultimate Sister Disaster by Jane Mendle. Copyright © 2010 Jane Mendle. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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