Authors: Michael Barakiva
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When I started this book
I didn’t realize
I was writing it for you
To my family
For providing endless love, support, and,
“One belongs to New York instantly. One belongs to it as much in five minutes as in five years.”
“If you can make a good bargain with an Armenian, you can make a good bargain with the devil.”
—Ancient Persian saying
“I got the outfit for the party.”
—Rufus Wainwright, “Rashida”
Alek stared at the menu suspiciously. He smelled marinara sauce and a trap.
“Welcome to Trattoria dell’Arte. My name is Lizzy. Can I start you off with something to drink?” The waitress was young, maybe a college student already home for the summer, with a kind, round face framed by bangs that curled up at the bottom. Alek pitied her. She had no idea what she was in for.
“What bottled water do you have?” Alek’s mother asked, while his father and brother inspected the menu like enemy drones searching for their opponents’ weak spots. Even though both of his parents were born in this country, Alek’s mom spoke with the slight accent she inherited from the Little Armenia neighborhood in Los Angeles where she grew up. Most of the time the accent just hovered in the background of her speech, elongating her vowels and giving her an untraceable European mystique. But when she needed to, like now, she turned it on the way a spider might weave an especially enticing web to lure its prey in for the kill.
“Bottled water, coming right up!” Lizzy responded cheerfully, misunderstanding.
“No, we’d like to know the
of the bottled water,” Alek’s father specified.
“Oh,” Lizzy said, as if he might be kidding.
“You see, many bottled waters actually have levels of contaminants equal to or even higher than tap.” Alek’s mom informed poor Lizzy of this information as if doing her a favor.
Alek looked at his older brother, Nik, but he continued ignoring Alek. Alek turned back to Lizzy pityingly, futilely trying to telepathically prepare her for the ordeal about to transpire.
“We have Evian,” Lizzy offered.
“Evian’s good,” his father agreed.
Lizzy relaxed. “So, Evian to start?”
“Do you keep any at room temperature?” Alek’s mother asked.
“Excuse me?” Lizzy asked nervously. Alek suspected the full horror of the situation was slowly dawning on her.
Alek’s mom seized the opportunity to educate. “Digesting chilled water actually taxes the body,” she lectured, “because the body has to bring anything it ingests up to its own temperature before it reaches the stomach. That’s why we prefer room temperature water.”
“It’s easier on the system,” Nik added, as if this was something everyone should know.
“I can ask,” Lizzy offered weakly, succumbing to the three-person tag team.
“That would be great,” Alek’s mother continued. “And if not, would you ask someone in the kitchen to warm it to room temperature?”
Lizzy laughed, as if Alek’s mother was making a joke. But Alek knew she wasn’t.
“Not more than sixty-eight degrees, please. Seventy at most,” she instructed. “I don’t want it to be
, because then we’d have to put ice in it, and that would just be adding contaminants, which would defeat the whole point. I’m sure you understand.” Alek suspected Lizzy was wondering what heinous crime she had committed in a previous life to get stuck with this table. “Unless, of course, you have ice made from bottled water.”
“No,” Lizzy said slowly, as if she were talking to a dangerous criminal. “I think all of our ice is from tap.”
“So let’s see if we can find some Evian at room temperature,” Alek’s mother concluded. Lizzy scuttled off.
Alek thought it should be illegal for Armenians to go to restaurants. Or that at least they should come with a warning like cigarettes: “Waiting on Armenians Might Be Hazardous to Your Health.” The problem was that Armenians prided themselves on being such good cooks that they resented paying money for something they felt they could do better.
“I wish they had zatar here.” Nik pitched his voice just loud enough that the staff could hear him complain about the absence of the Middle Eastern spice mixture.
“We can make some when we get home,” his mother said. Alek wondered if non-Armenian families spent their time at restaurants planning backup meals when the institutions they were patronizing inevitably disappointed them.
“So, Alek, your mother and I have to talk to you about something,” his father began.
“I know,” Alek responded. “And I know it must be bad since I’ve been begging you to bring me here for months.” He dunked a piece of bread into olive oil.
“You know, they might just be doing something nice,” Nik said. Alek could hear the implied
Not like you deserve it
trailing off his brother’s words.
“Well, spit it out and let’s get it over with,” Alek said.
“You’re going to summer school!” his mother announced, as if he’d just won a prize.
“I’m what?” Alek abandoned the glistening piece of bread on his plate.
“They said you’re going to
,” Nik repeated from across the table.
“It’s not that I couldn’t hear them, dimwit. It’s just that I didn’t believe it,” Alek snapped.
“Aleksander, please lower your voice,” his father admonished him, absentmindedly running his hands over the salt-and-pepper beard he’d grown this year. “We’re in public.”
If Alek had been in a better mood, he might’ve made a joke about Armenians’ deluded belief that, like royalty, paparazzi tracked their every action. But he wasn’t. “Why’m I going to summer school? It’s not like I failed or anything.” Alek’s mind began racing, trying to figure out what miracle he could perform in the last week of school that might alter this terrible fate.
“Honey, Ms. Schmidt said she’d be willing to make an exception for you,” Alek’s mom explained. “She said that if you retook English and math and earned high enough grades, you could stay on Honor Track next year.”
“You spoke to Ms. Schmidt behind my back? This is a total conspiracy.”
“Aleksander, you are fourteen years old. We are your parents. When we speak to your guidance counselor, it’s for your own good,” his father scolded him.
“Well, maybe I can still get my grades up—”
Alek’s mother cut him off. “Ms. Schmidt told us that even if you got the highest scores possible, it still wouldn’t keep you on Honor Track.”
“Well, who cares about that?” Alek fought back. “I’ll just take Standard next year. It’s not like that would be the end of the world.”
“You know, Alek,” his father started, “South Windsor has one of the best public school systems in New Jersey. Your great-grandparents fled Turkey during the genocide of the Armenian people almost one hundred years ago and ended up in this country with nothing. They gave up their land, their belongings, and their history to come to a country where they could be safe and where their children would grow up without persecution and receive the best education in the world.”
Alek knew that when his dad starting speaking “Old World,” things were bad.
“Their sacrifice means you have a responsibility to do the best you can,” his father concluded.
“But what about tennis camp?” Alek cried out.
His parents spotted Lizzy returning with a bottle of Evian and stopped talking immediately.
God forbid an outsider be privy to the secrets of the Family Khederian
, Alek thought.
“I have good news—we keep some Evian at room temperature in storage,” Lizzy said, naïvely opening the bottle.
“I wish you had mentioned that they were plastic bottles,” Alek’s mother lamented semi-apologetically before Lizzy could pour.
“What?” Lizzy asked.
“We don’t drink from plastic,” Alek’s mother explained, as if the words coming out of her mouth made perfect sense. “First of all, polyvinyl chloride distributes pollutants that are suspected to disrupt the hormonal balance. Secondly, bisphenol A has been linked to obesity and abnormal chromosomes. And you don’t even want to know what the plastic does to the water if it’s been left out in the sun!” Alek truly marveled at his mother’s ability to say insane things reasonably. “We’ll just have some green tea,” Alek’s mom concluded.
“Can I tell you about the specials?” Lizzy asked, taking a step back in preparation for the anticipated assault.
“Actually, can we ask a few questions first?” Alek’s dad countered.
“Sure,” Lizzy responded wearily. Alek’s parents wound up for the interrogation.
“What farm do you get your mozzarella from?”
“Which of the vegetables are locally sourced?”
“Are the tomatoes organic?”
“Are the pickles boiled before they’re brined?”
“Are the peas fresh or frozen?”
“Is the rack of lamb domestic or international?”
Lizzy consulted the notes she’d frantically taken on her little pad. “Um, let me see. The mozzarella is generic, I think some of the squash and cucumbers are local, and I don’t know about the tomatoes. What else did you ask? Something about pickles?”
Lizzy did her best as the tag-team barrage continued, but by the time it ended, her spirit had been broken. Nik’s not-so-subtle sneers every time she failed to answer a question didn’t help.
“Do you know what you’d like to eat?” she asked meekly, holding her notepad like a shield. “Or do you need a little more time?”
“I think we’re still deciding,” Alek’s father said.
Alek swore he heard the formerly kind Lizzy muttering obscenities under her breath as she left. “At least with tea, they’ll have to boil the water, so we know it’s safe,” his mother confided to the table. “Now, what were we saying?”
“I was asking how I can go to summer school when tennis camp starts in two weeks. Remember tennis camp? That thing you
I could do because you wouldn’t let me try out for the team this year?”
“We didn’t let you try out because we thought that time would be better spent on improving your grades. I’m afraid tennis camp is going to have to wait as well,” his father informed him.
“But what about the deposit? You know they’re not going to give that back,” Alek pointed out.
“We know, Alek,” his mother responded. “But it’s a loss we’re willing to bear. Academics come first in our house.”
“This sucks,” Alek hissed.
“Don’t use that word,” his father said reflexively. Alek remembered the first time he heard one of his friends curse in front of his parents—a real curse, not
. That would never fly in his home.
“Well, if you find the work too challenging, I’d be happy to help you with it.” Nik smirked.
Alek kicked his brother under the table.
“Alek, stop that!” his mom reprimanded him. “People will talk!” She looked around to see if anyone had witnessed the inexcusable faux pas.