Top three people I’d give anything to spend my summer with: Boris, the boyfriend I never see Lily, light of my social life, fire of my lunch hour Dad
Top three people I’d give anything not to spend my summer with: Mom Mom’s boyfriend, Maurice Mom and Maurice together
I used to look forward to the last day of school, back when summer was all about improving my backstroke and kicking back with my cat, Simon. But not this year. As the final days of tenth grade ticked by, I watched with growing envy as my friends pranced around in flip-flops and oversize sunglasses. I would’ve gladly taken summer school, or even one of those military-academy- cum-fat-camps advertised in the back of the New York Times Magazine, over the nightmare that awaited me.
Apart from DNA, my mother and I have very little in common. I’m five-eleven and growing; she’s well below the national average for women’s height and, therefore, has never suffered the humiliation of being called “sir” by inattentive clerks and waiters. Self-consciousness and bewilderment, my specialties, are completely foreign concepts to her. Once, when I asked her if she ever feels insecure or depressed, she chuckled and said she believes in positive thinking. Mom is a psychology professor, and an expert on denial.
Though usually too wrapped up in thinking positively about her own life to notice any developments in mine, she will occasionally descend from her cloud of self-absorption to hurt my feelings — inadvertently, of course. I often remind myself that, deep down, she loves me a lot; she just has a quirky way of expressing it. I let it slide when, after watching me fumble through a duet from Anything Goes at my eighth- grade talent show, she mentioned a position paper she’d read on female adolescents’ voice changes. When she scrutinized the beautiful gold heels I was wearing to the ninth-grade winter dance and declared that I needed “three extra inches like a hole in the head,” I brushed it off. But when, late last spring, she kicked my saintly father out of the house to shack up with Maurice, the roly-poly physics professor she claimed to be her “existential companion,” my patience ran out. If she could live without Dad, then she’d have to live without me too.
But in exchange for letting me hightail it to New York to spend this past school year with poor Dad, Mom extracted a promise in return: that I’d spend the summer with her in Houston. Or so I’d naively assumed. As it turned out, Mom had landed a summer fellowship at the Teichen Institute and expected me to tag along while she conducted spatial-memory experiments on rhesus monkeys.
The Teichen Institute, I should point out, is located in Berlin, a huge European metropolis where I’d know exactly two people: Mom and the aforementioned puffball physicist who’d replaced Dad.
With the school year drawing to a close, I began to dread the experience, and moped around the house accordingly. In the weeks before school let out, Quinn, Dad’s delightful darkroom assistant and an honorary member of our family, kept trying to cheer me up by describing Berlin as decadent and fabulous — a city where nobody works or gets up before noon. Quinn was unable to be serious about anything for longer than five seconds, and was a world-class expert at pulling Dad or me out of a funk. One night in late May, he even lured me to the couch and removed a red Netflix envelope from his messenger bag, announcing, “If you don’t love Germany after this masterpiece, I’m taking you to Bellevue for a mental health checkup!”
And so I was subjected to Satan’s Brew, an unbelievably pretentious German movie about a deranged anarchist poet named Walter who’s obsessed with a prostitute. Later in the film, Walter becomes convinced he’s the reincarnation of a gay nineteenth-century poet and loses interest in the streetwalker. It was a preposterous movie that solidified my suspicion of all things German, but I couldn’t tell that to Quinn, who was gasping from start to finish. “This was fun,” I said gamely after the movie was over. “Maybe you should come visit this summer. You can show me all the other German things that deserve a chance.”
“You’ll be fine without me,” Quinn promised, inserting the DVD back in its envelope. “I think your dad would decompose if we both left him.”
On the last day of school, my friends and I cut second period to hang out in Cadman Plaza Park, but the huge rectangle of dirt in downtown Brooklyn that served as Baldwin’s soccer/ baseball/Frisbee/Brazilian dance field had been cordoned off foor grass planting, so we sat on a bench in the shade. While the girls entertained themselves deciphering the senseless profanities carved into the bench (my favorite: “eat my burrito”), I was anxious — even more so after I looked at my watch and realized that in exactly twenty-four hours I’d be on a plane. A loud sigh sailed out of my mouth.
“Cheer up,” Pia said. “It’s only a few months. We’ll be here when you get back.”
“I know, I know,” I said. “It’s just . . . there are so many things I’d rather do with my summer than study German.”
“Like what, study Russian?” Lily ventured, an unsubtle reference to Boris Potasnik, my so- called sort-of-not-quite boyfriend.
Her joke only increased my gloominess, for Boris, too, had become a sore subject in recent weeks. In private, he played the part of boyfriend well, laughing at my jokes, complimenting my hideous freckles, and stashing Belgian chocolate bars inside my laptop case. It was how he behaved in public that troubled me. Whenever we hung out with other people, Boris didn’t just ignore me, but made a grand show of doing so. He’d avert his eyes and address everyone else in the room except yours truly, even if I was saying something supremely interesting, which, quite often, I was.
The problem was that Boris and I shared more than a love for smoked salmon and fancy chocolate. We also shared a close friend, Sam Geckman, and Sam and I had a highly complicated relationship, mostly thanks to a few brief and regrettable hookup sessions during the fall semester. Claiming that Sam had a crush on me, Boris thought it inappropriate to “flaunt” our relationship and insisted we “maintain a low profile” as a couple. “Just keep it cool,” he told me whenever I vented my growing frustration. But Boris was Russian, and his idea of cool was as cold as caviar on ice.
“It’s stupid to be depressed,” Jess told me. “It’s the last day of school, which means no more Zora Blanchard, no more Bugle melodramas, no more loopy assignments from Yuri Knutz. Three whole months of liberation are just an hour away! Next summer, we’re going to have to fill out college applications and visit campuses, so this is really it for us — the last free ride.”
Jess grinned, so moved by her own motivational speech that she suggested we go around in a circle and name the one thing we were most looking forward to that summer. I rolled my eyes, though I did love Jess for her optimism. While less financially blessed than her friends — she lived with her mother in a shabby walkup apartment in Park Slope and never had more than ten dollars in her piggy bank — she had us all beat for good humor.
“Fab. Me first,” Pia said, flicking back her chestnut-colored hair. “I can’t wait to learn how to drive a motorboat. I’m getting a license this summer.” She was headed to Lake Como, in