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...