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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 brand 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 warm, 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 summer school," 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 promised 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 damn or suck. 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.
"God, Mom, don't you understand, nobody is looking at us. Nobody cares what we do. I can stand on top of this table and throw bread at him and they wouldn't care." To demonstrate his point, Alek picked up the piece of now-soggy bread, drenched in oil and balsamic vinegar, and aimed it across the table at Nik.
"Aleksander, that's enough," his father scolded him. "Now put that bread down, sit at this table like an adult, which is how you're always asking to be treated, and enjoy the meal we're paying for."
The meal Mom's paying for, Alek thought to himself. But he knew better than to say that out loud. Ever since his dad got laid off from his architectural firm last year and his mom had to return to work full-time, Alek's dad had been especially sensitive to the money issue.
"Well, thanks, guys," Alek said, the saccharin pouring off his voice. "Let's see—you think I'm an idiot, you tell me one week before school ends that I'm going to have to spend the rest of my summer in the den of despair that is my high school, I can't go to tennis camp even though you promised I could—is there anything else you want to lay on me?"
"Well," Alek's mom said, fidgeting with her napkin.
"Oh my God, are you kidding me? What else can there possibly be?"
His mom looked at his dad for help, but he was scrutinizing the menu as if it were the Ark of the Covenant.
"You don't have to be in the top five percent of your class like I am to figure it out," Nik observed. "If you're doing summer school, you're not going to be able to go on the family vacation."
"Now, Andranik, we'll handle this," his father said, finally looking up. Nik, who'd sprouted another four inches his junior year, had the decency to shut up for once. "You see, Alek, when we committed to going to Niagara Falls with the other families from church this summer, we bought into a group deal. If we pulled out now, we'd jeopardize everyone else's vacation."
"Not to mention that I had to ask special permission to get those days off from camp," Nik added.
"You're telling me that you're choosing the people from church over your own son for our family vacation?" Alek asked incredulously. "And I'm sure the fact that Nik's girlfriend is one of those people is a total coincidence, right? I mean, I'm used to you choosing Nik over me, but choosing Nanar over your own flesh and blood? That's a new all-time low."
"She has nothing to do with it," Nik interjected.
"Alek, Nanar's family is just one of the many families we'd be letting down if we backed out now," his mother explained.
Nik flipped through the menu, the disdain with which he turned the pages making it clear he wasn't impressed. "Besides, all of us from Armenian Youth are planning on researching our heritage projects in the Toronto Archives."
"Not to mention losing all of our money," his father concluded.
"I still don't understand why we didn't just take a normal family vacation by ourselves," Alek asked petulantly.
"Well, if that's what you want to do next year, that's what we'll do. Your father and I decided that because you can't go this year, you'll get to choose where we go next summer."
"If I don't have to go back to summer school, you mean," Alek rifled back. "Because who knows? Maybe I'll get another"—he gasped for dramatic effect—"God forbid—another C, and they'll threaten to kick me off Honor Track again, and I'll have to sacrifice another summer of my life to the cruelest institution in the history of mankind."
"Be reasonable…" his father began, but stopped when he saw Lizzy walking back slowly, balancing a pot of hot water and four mugs with tea bags in them.
Alek's mother smiled at the waitress when she reached the table. Lizzy took it as a good sign, but Alek knew better. "Do you have any loose tea?" his mother asked.
"Loose tea?" Lizzy asked meekly.
"It's just that some studies show that the paper in tea bags—"
"Oh my God!" Alek exploded. "Why are you torturing this poor girl? She's not even related to you! And nobody gets cancer from drinking tea in bags. Do you hear me? NO ONE. And no one gets cancer from drinking Evian in plastic bottles!" The way the other customers in the restaurant were looking at Alek told him he was probably using his outside voice, but he didn't care. "This is supposed to be my meal? My consolation prize for being betrayed by my parents to a summer of hell? Then we're going to do it my way." He looked at Lizzy, whose befuddlement was quickly morphing into gratitude. "The tea is great, thank you." Alek slammed the menu shut. "I'll have the pasta carbonara. They'll split the grilled steak. And that jerk with his mouth gaping open like a fish in the corner will have the lasagna. And make sure the meat is well-done, okay?"
Lizzy nodded yes, furiously scribbling into her little pad.
"Now quickly, go before they have a chance to say anything!"
Lizzy didn't need any further encouragement. She sprinted away, her apron strings flopping behind her.
The moment Lizzy was out of earshot, Alek's mom leaned in. "I do hope they cook the meat all the way through," she confided. "Otherwise I'll simply have to send it back."
Text copyright © 2014 by Michael Barakiva