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How to Ruin My Teenage Life


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In conversion class, Rabbi Glassman told me that every word in the Torah is meant to be there for a reason.

No wasted words. It makes me think about all the wasted words I've used in my life.

***

My name is Amy Nelson-Barak. My mom is a Nelson and my dad is a Barak. And no, they were never married. Being an illegitimate kid used to freak me out, but I guess this past summer when my Israeli dad took me to his homeland I got over it.

Mom got married a few months ago to Marc "with a c. " He's okay, I guess, if you like the über-conservative type. They moved to the 'burbs after the wedding, as if marriage somehow warrants moving to a place where you have to drive a car to get to the nearest Starbucks.

I'm living with my father in Chicago. I call him Aba, which means Dad in Hebrew. He owns this cool condo in a building in Chicago on the fortieth floor. He was pretty non-existent in my life up until a few months ago. To make a long story short, this past summer my dad and I got to know each other and worked out our issues. He's learning how to be a dad to a teenage girl (me) and I'm learning how to deal with an overprotective father. I've decided to live with him until I graduate high school so I don't have to change schools. The best part about his place is it's situated directly next to a coffee shop called Perk Me Up! It's like a Starbucks, only it has better coffee.

Okay, so I don't exactly drink coffee. I just turned seventeen in December and haven't gotten that acquired taste thing goin' on. But that's not the point. I'm a city girl. And a coffee shop steps away from your front door equals city.

I'm sitting at Perk Me Up! right now, doing algebra homework on this frosty January day. Winter break ended a week ago, but I'm still struggling to get into the swing of things at school. I could go upstairs and study in a quiet place, but since my dad is coming home late tonight I'm vegging out here. Besides, the owner of Perk Me Up!, Maria, is super cool. She always piles the whipped cream on my hot chocolate extra high.

Did you know whipped cream has little or no carbs? It's true. You could spray a whole can of whipped cream into your mouth all in one sitting and still have less carbs in your system than one nutritious apple. Nothing compares with extra whipped cream, unless it's a spicy tuna roll from my fave sushi restaurant, Hanabi. Okay, so I admit sushi rolls surrounded by rice aren't exactly lacking in the carb intake department. Sushi rolls are my obsession and addiction, so I give them a wide berth when it comes to counting sushi as high in carb content.

"Your dad working late again?" Maria asks as she wipes off the table next to mine.

I close my algebra book. "Yep. I swear, it's as if the world will collapse if he misses one day."

"He's a dedicated man," Maria says, a newspaper in her hand from someone who left it on a table. "It's admirable."

"I guess."

New customers walk in the door. Maria heads to the register, leaving the newspaper on my table. I notice it's open to the personals. Men seeking women. Women seeking men.

Man, how desperate are people? I mean, who would actually need to go out and advertise for a date?

"What are you doing?" a familiar voice says.

I look up at my best friend, Jessica. She's got dark hair and dark eyes, just like her parents. And her brother and sister. And her cousins. They all look like dark-haired, dark-eyed clones of each other. I swear there's not one recessive gene in her entire Jewish family tree.

"Me? I'm not doing anything." I say, then shove the paper in my backpack.

"Amy," Jess says. "I saw you reading the personals."

"Okay, you caught me." I show her the paper. "Get a load of these ads, Jess. They're so...personal." I feel like I'm peeping tomming into these people's lives.

Jess leans in and we both read:

Big-Hearted Taurus

SWF, 38, 5'10", lazy but likes music, dancing, casinos, dining out. Seeking SWM, 30-42, who likes lazy women for LTR.

"She can't be serious," I say.

Jess snickers. "Who'd want a lazy gambler?" We lean our heads together and read more:

Professional Model

Sexy SWF, 28, 54", 110 lbs., blonde hair, blue eyes, enjoys trying new things and having fun. Seeking SWM, 25-65, for LTR.

Seriously, I'm confused. "Can you please tell me what an LTR is?"

"Long-term relationship."

Oh. I guess I don't have the personals lingo down pat. "Why would a skinny blonde model want a sixty-five-year-old?" I could understand the lazy chick, but the model?

I call Maria over to our table.

"Need more whipped cream, honey?"

"No, thanks," I say. "Why would a model advertise for an LTR in the paper?"

"Huh?"

Jess shakes her head. "Long-term relationship." She holds out the paper to Maria.

"Don't knock it," Maria says. "I know plenty of people who've met their soul mate online or in the personals section."

Jess takes a sip of my hot chocolate. "Amy can't understand. Avi is the perfect guy, right?"

I smile at the mention of my non-boyfriend, who is serving in the Israeli army. We can't really be boyfriend and girlfriend with him a billion miles away. And he's not perfect. A perfect boyfriend wouldn't be living in another country. "What about Mitch?" I ask Jess. "Last week you told me God made him just for you."

She makes a yuck face. "Don't even mention his name around me."

This doesn't sound promising. "All right, what's up?"

Jess sighs. "Well, he hasn't called in two days and the Valentine's Dance is right around the corner. You'd think if he was going to ask me he'd have done it already. My mom wants to go dress shopping but I don't even have a date." She's about to cry. "And I checked my smile in the mirror this morning and realized my face is crooked."

"It is not."

"Is too. See," she says, smiling like she's in pain. "The right side of my mouth droops down."

"Let's go to the dog park," I say, heading off a huge rampage about how bad Mitch is and how crooked her face is. Does she really think God can make everyone totally symmetrical... I mean, give the Big Guy upstairs a break. Besides, Jess has been a hypochondriac and hypercritical of herself ever since third grade when she thought she had lice but it was just bad hair spray flaking. She just needs to chill and redirect her energy into positive thoughts. "I need to walk Mutt."

Mutt's my dog. And yes, he's a mutt. Avi gave Mutt to me before I left Israel. No purebred anything in his blood. He used to be a little fur ball, but in the past two months he's tripled in size.

Back at our condo I fetch my dog and the poop bags. Jess and her one-one-hundredth-of-an-inch crooked face is waiting for me when I walk back outside.

"Oh my God, he's even bigger than when I last saw him," she says, each breath causing puffs of steam in the winter cold.

"I know. If he grows any more I'll have to buy a king-size bed just to fit the both of us," I say, bundling my North Face jacket around me. Visitors here wonder why we Chicagoans brave the cold weather when we could be wearing shorts right now if we lived in Arizona. I'll admit Chicago winters suck if you hate cold weather. I love the cold, I love Chicago, and I love the change in seasons. I need to live in a place where in autumn the leaves actually fall off the trees.

Jessica bites her bottom lip. "You don't think Mitch'll be at the dog park with Zeus, do you?"

Yes. "No. Jess, why don't you just ask him to the dance?"

"So I can be the loser chick of the entire school?"

A bit of an exaggeration, dont'cha think? But I don't disagree with her. Sometimes you challenge Jess, and other times you don't. This would be one of those other times.

Besides, Mitch probably hasn't even thought about the Valentine's Day dance. It's January and the dance isn't until the middle of next month. Guys are a different breed, I tell you. I glance at Jessica, who has this pathetic, sad look on her face.

We're walking down the street with my white, furry monstrosity practically pulling my arm out of my socket. Mutt gets über-excited just going out for a walk. But when he realizes we're going to the dog park, watch out. He's a total spaz about the dog park.

"Can't you send him to doggy boot camp or something?" Jess says as she tries to catch up with us.

"He just came to this country five months ago," I argue. "And he had to be quarantined. I refuse to put him in another stressful situation, the poor guy will need therapy."

Jess shakes her head. "He's a dog, Amy. You spoil him way too much."

I do not.

Okay, I do.

But Mutt is my companion. He protects me. He makes me laugh. He's everything to me.

We arrive at the dog park and Mutt can't contain himself. As soon as I close the gate and unlatch the leash from his collar, he romps toward his dog buddies to play.

Mr. Obermeyer, the grumpy old man from the fourteenth floor of our building, sneers at me. "Keep that dog of yours away from Princess."

Princess is Mr. Obermeyer's champion poodle. He hates Mutt. That's just fine because I hate poodles named Princess.

"Don't worry, Mr. Obermeyer," I say. Why the old man even hangs out at the park is beyond me. He doesn't talk to anyone, except to balk and tell people to keep their dogs away from his pampered pooch.

"Look, there's Mitch!" Jess whispers, then hides behind me.

I look over at the other end of the park and see Mitch. "Let's go talk to him."

"No! Amy, you knew he was gonna be here. Admit it."

It gets to be a problem when people call you out on your passive-aggressive behavior.

"Jess, he's your boyfriend." Okay, Mitch used to be my boyfriend, but that's another story. I'm not into him at all. Besides, I'm content with my non-boyfriend. Well, sort of. I hate the "non" part of it. I wish Avi didn't have me promise not to make any formal commitment to him and vice versa.

Jess peeks over my shoulder. "Don't you see who he's with?"

I crane my neck. A flurry of red hair attached to a long-legged girl comes into view. Roxanne Jeffries.

I hate Roxanne Jeffries almost as much as I hate dogs named Princess.

She's smiling at Mitch. The ho. "Jess, get your ass over there," I order, then move out of the way.

"He's smiling at her! Roxanne doesn't have crooked features, just a crooked personality. Do you think he asked her to the Valentine's Dance?"

"No," I say. "He's your boyfriend. What's making you all insecure? You've got gorgeous straight hair I'd die for, perfect features, and perky boobs. Now go over there and claim your man."

There's no way we can stay undetected. Mutt is the biggest, fluffiest, friendliest dog in the place. In fact, everyone in the neighborhood knows Mutt. And everyone in the neighborhood knows Mutt is my dog. Mitch, who thinks he's too cool to wear a jacket in twenty-five-degree weather, has already spotted my beast and waves to me.

"He sees me," I tell Jess.

"Shit," Jess mutters into my back.

Okay, I've had enough. "He can't ask you if you don't talk to him." I start walking over to Mitch, assuming Jess will follow. "Hi," I say to Mitch and Roxanne. Only now I look back and realize Jess hasn't followed.