Jersey Tomatoes are the Best (7 page)

BOOK: Jersey Tomatoes are the Best

“Don’t go there, girlfriend,” I say threateningly. “We’re still admiring.” She puts the fork down and sighs. I return to my toes, then lower myself to my heels.

“All summer?” Henry asks. I nod, and she makes this little pouty face.

“Hey, I need something to do while you’re in Florida! Otherwise I’ll get stuck hanging out with Paige and Company. Eating bags of Skittles and getting mani-pedis at the mall.” Henry snorts. She has this great, unladylike habit of snorting when she laughs. Another reason I love her.

“First of all, you don’t eat Skittles,” she says. “Second, your toes are too ruined for pedis; third, I know your families are friends but you
have to spend time with that witch; and fourth, I am
not going to Florida. You should’ve heard my father last night.…”

The sound of the kitchen door opening interrupts us.

are you doing?”

The return of Rhonda. Perfect.

“Oh, possibly the only thing Henry Lloyd
do,” I say
breezily. I
step over to my mother,
en pointe
, arms over my head, and plant a kiss on her cheek.

shoes, please. Especially on a tile floor,” she says. “That’s a good way to injure yourself.” I return to earth, arms at my sides. “I have a few grocery bags in the car, if you girls don’t mind.”

As Henry and I start for the kitchen door, Rhonda can’t resist asking.

“Eva, did anyone call? Have you heard from Madame?”

“No,” I reply, walking fast.

“Madame?” Henry repeats. “What, are you taking French lessons now?”

I shoulder past Henry, out to the car and the groceries, muttering, “She’s making me crazy,” but before we escape the phone rings. Rhonda practically leaps in its direction, and even though I wish—god, how I wish—that I didn’t care, my stomach lurches and this morning’s Pink Decadence threatens to become Pink Reappearance.

Over the sound of our feet crunching along the driveway gravel, I hear, “Helloooo?”

Chapter Seven

’m off the dogs the following Saturday. Given I just won states, I think I should get a whole month off dogs, but Dad laughs at this suggestion, like I’ve made a good joke.

Anyway, dog reprieve means Mom and I are free to attend Eva’s dance recital. This is something she does twice a year, a fairly low-key event put on by the Sonia Fleisch Ballet School, where she takes lessons. Mrs. Fleisch’s student recitals include everyone from Eva, the future prima ballerina, to chubby, pink-leotard-clad six-year-olds demonstrating first position for wildly applauding parents.

These recitals are low-key, as opposed to the high-key, superstress stuff Eva usually does, like dancing as one of the kid angels in the New York City Ballet’s
last year. I haven’t seen Eva dance in ages, a fact I mention to Mom as we settle into our aluminum chairs and open our paper programs.

“You know, you’re right,” she muses. “I can’t remember the last thing we saw her in.”

My mind scrolls back through the long list of Eva’s
appearances. Two winters ago, she was Clara in
The Nutcracker
, for a children’s repertory company in Bergenfield. And for the New Jersey Youth Ballet in Hillsborough. And for our high school. She signed on for three Claras during the month of December, a scheduling nightmare that required the Bergenfield folks to double-cast the role for two shows. But they did it. Anything to snag Eva. She’s a hot property in the kid ballet world.

“We saw one of the Claras,” I tell Mom.

“Yes!” she exclaims. “At your school. How could I forget?”

“How could you forget the Nutcracker Prince?” I smile slyly. Mom gives me a playful slap on the knee.

“Be nice,” she says, but she’s grinning. Boy dancers are in short supply at my high school, and the guy they dredged up to play the Nutcracker Prince was not … good. Eva, however, never said one bad thing about him. When I brought it up, she cut me short.

“I think he did a very convincing job slaying the Mouse King,” she said. Eva is probably the nicest person in the world.

Which makes you wonder: where the hell did she get a mother like Rhonda?

That question crosses my mind almost every time I see Rhonda. Like now. As Mom and I quietly look over our programs, she lands in the empty seat next to us, a highlighted burst of tousled hyperactivity. Preoccupied, abrupt and ever-stressed. People who know her expect this behavior. First timers to Rhonda World think she’s unbelievably rude.

She throws her arms around Mom’s shoulders and gives her a quick peck on the cheek.

“You are so sweet for coming! I saw you across the room and had to say hello. I haven’t seen you in ages!”

“How are you, Rhonda?” Mom smiles.

“Oh … it’s crazed. But good. Things are good. I guess Henry’s told you: Eva’s been accepted to study at the New York School of Dance. We
found out this week. We’d been wondering
is the holdup? But they came through, and with a nice scholarship. So it’s great. Really. This will be her last performance with Sonia. You’re here for her swan song!”

The lights begin to dim, and Rhonda jumps up.

“There’s a little reception after the recital. We’ll catch up then!”

Rhonda darts across the room, then settles into a chair next to Eva’s dad, who looks as if he was about to nod off. I really like her dad. The guy is so calm you wonder if he’s got a pulse. Wonder how he and Rhonda ever hooked up …

The curtains part, revealing a line of six little girls in tutus and tights. From the audience comes a long, low parental “oooooh,” flashbulbs, and the blue glow of video cameras from every corner of the room. The program promises Eva at the very end, so Mom and I have to politely clap through a lot of tutus.

Eva got her call from New York a couple of days after I played the state tournament. Apparently the big “Madame” herself called the Smiths to offer Eva a spot at the school, and Rhonda practically had an aneurysm, she was that excited. Eva called me late that night, after Rhonda dialed everyone in the greater metropolitan area with the news.

“Are you sitting?” Eva said when I picked up the phone. “I got accepted to the New York School of Dance.”

“Shut up!” I exclaimed. “Eva … congratulations!”

“I’m still pinching myself. I can’t believe it.”

“Well, I can. Maybe now you’ll finally start believing everyone who tells you how incredible you are. How’s Rhonda taking the news?”

“Let’s just say she may spontaneously combust.”

I laughed. “
I gotta see!”

“No, you don’t,” Eva replied. “This much parental enthusiasm is way scary.”

Eva went on to give me the details. She’d start this summer, five days a week, going into the city for a sort of ballet “camp.” Really intense, full days of dance. Then, toward the end of August, a few of the very best girls would be invited to stay on for the full-year program. They’d take classes at the High School of Performing Arts in the morning, then head over to the School of Ballet in the afternoons. After that, she told me, they could begin auditioning for spots in professional ballet companies.

“But I am getting
ahead of myself,” she exclaimed. “The chances of getting invited to the full-year program are one in a million.”

“Oh, so there are a million other dancers going to your summer camp?” I told her. “Eva, it’s a good thing you’re so much better at ballet than you are at math.”

As the tutu torture draws to a close, I elbow Mom, who has her eyes closed. Eva is next. As the young dancers leave the
stage, the curtains open. I see my friend on the floor, one leg extended, arms draped gracefully over her head and hands brushing her toes. The music begins and instantly I recognize it. The grand finale to
Swan Lake
. Rhonda wasn’t kidding.

Years ago, for one of Eva’s birthdays, her parents took us to Lincoln Center to see a performance of
Swan Lake
. It was my first professional ballet, and probably the third time that Eva had seen this one. But it was her favorite, and she had begged her parents to bring me along. She wanted me to see the snowflake lights.

New York’s Lincoln Center is built to impress. Tier upon tier of crushed-velvet seats, gold boxes ascending the walls, an enormous orchestra pit containing a full contingent of black-clad musicians. And giant crystal lights, suspended from the three-story ceiling by long cables. They’re round, with crystal-studded arms sticking out at different lengths. When a performance begins, the house dims, the immense stage curtains part and the great lights float upward, like snowflakes blown to heaven. Eva was determined that I would see them.

I thought they were cheesy. Fake. Plastic. Had to be, no way those were real crystals. I couldn’t believe Eva thought they looked like snowflakes, and as I watched them rise on their cables I turned to her, a sarcastic comment at the ready. But the look on her face cut me short.

She was smiling, her eyes brimming with tears, gazing at the lights as though she beheld an angelic vision. She believed, she completely believed, the magic. The lights, the music, the
whole crushed-velvet gilded thing. She reached out one hand and grasped mine.

“Isn’t it just like I told you?” she breathed.

Every once in a while I get lucky, and something happens to prevent me from making a complete jerk out of myself. Eva’s hand, on my wrist, was one of those lucky things. I swallowed, took a deep breath and smiled back at her. Somehow, I kept my mouth shut and managed not to wreck her birthday.

As the music from the CD player throbs, Eva rises in one smooth motion as if lifted by invisible strings. She does not dance like a swan. She is not “like” anything. She
the swan. Despite the tinny accompaniment and the audience full of squirming children, Eva convinces us that she is the most beautiful creature in the world, that she is dying, and that we are sadder than we have ever been before. Even musically challenged me appreciates that I’m seeing something special up there on the stage, and for a moment I forget that this is my best friend, Jersey Girl Eva, who came to my tennis match looking like Lawrence of Arabia.

We stand, clapping madly, when she’s done.

“Was she amazing, or what?” I shout into Mom’s ear as the applause goes on and on. Mom nods but her lips form a thin, tight line.

“What?” I ask. Mrs. Fleisch returns to the stage and announces that everyone is welcome to gather for some light refreshment. Families begin filing toward the exit doors. Mom still doesn’t answer.

“What?” I repeat. “Didn’t you think that was awesome?”

“It was incredible,” she replies.

“So why the look?” We’re moving slowly with the jostling, chatty crowd. When Mom does speak, she leans close to me.

“Is Eva dieting, do you know?” she asks quietly.

I sigh impatiently. It’s bad enough Dad is always going on about Eva’s eating habits, but now Mom? I mean, when is Eva
dieting? She’s been drinking Diet Coke and counting calories for as long as I can remember.

“Mom, she’s a dancer. Her whole life is a diet.”

“She’s an athlete,” Mom corrects. “She works her body as hard as you do, and she needs to feed it.”

“Fine, point taken. So why are you bringing this up right now?” I ask.

“She’s too thin, Henry,” Mom replies.

“Oh, give me a break! She’s always been thin.”

“Not like this,” Mom insists. “Not so thin that you can count her vertebrae and see her ribs through her back.”

“Your problem is that you think anyone who isn’t built like Venus or Serena is undernourished,” I joke. “You’re beginning to sound like Dad.” Mom smiles ruefully.

“Your father is not always wrong,” she says.

As we move with the crowd toward the reception room, my mind scrolls back to the last meal I saw Eva eat. We’d all gone to Ruby Tuesday following the state tournament. As we stood on line at the salad bar, I noticed she was shivering.

“Are you cold?” I asked her.

“Freezing,” she replied. “Is this a restaurant or a walk-in refrigerator?” I slipped off my Windbreaker and put it over her shoulders. I was still burning up from playing six-plus hours of tennis in the sun.

As we moved down the line, I shoveled mesclun mix and chopped carrots onto my plate. A heap of garbanzo beans, shredded cheddar, tomatoes. They had potato salad, which I adore. I noticed Eva primly arranging a little fan of colorful vegetables on her plate. One beet slice. Two cucumbers. A strip of green pepper, two cherry tomatoes. Lettuce sprinkled in the middle.

“This is a gross salad bar,” she muttered to me. “The macaroni salad looks like worms squirming in shiny glue. The potato salad is like chunks of plaster of Paris.”

“Yum,” I said to her as I slapped a big scoop of it onto my plate. But she didn’t smile. She turned to head back to our table.

“Is that all you’re going to take?” I couldn’t help asking. She shrugged, then plucked two packets of saltines from the basket.

“Oh yeah,
we’re pigging out,” I said, laughing.

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