Esther watched Tennis Boy amble across the hotel lobby, racket slung across his back, and decided on the spot he’d be her first boyfriend. He wasn’t noticeably handsome, but he was noticeably normal, and to Esther’s twelve-year-old eyes, that was everything.
The mirrors on the wall created four of him, no, six, each more polished than the last. Esther’s own family needed no multiplying, boisterous and too many already; they monopolized the desk as they checked in for their reunion in Puerto Rico, her uncle passing out room keys like prizes.
Given that Tennis Boy would be gallivanting past at regular intervals, he was an obvious choice. He would fall for Esther’s wholesome looks, a contrast to the gussied-up falseness of his friends back home. He and she would dive beneath the same surging wave. Impressed by her courage when she rose in the surf’s wake, he’d compliment her. Then as the sun sent light skittering across the turquoise waters, he’d kiss her. She would soon be transported by a momentous passion, leaving behind her squabbling clan, the impending double doom of braces and bat mitzvah, the fact that her best friend Lin had a date to the winter formal, and the terror that underlay it all: a sense that each day since seventh grade began had colluded with the day before it to shove Esther into a shackled crouch, to render her one day less free.
Unfortunately for Esther’s plans, the hotel’s private beach was lake-like: no waves. Even worse, the air above it was what the girls at school called “bad hair day humid.” Though she’d ignored her cousins’ request to build a sand fort so she might recline beneath the umbrella and alternate reading a Star Trek novelization with conjuring Tennis Boy’s lips brushing hers, her curls still bloated.
Her cousins gave her a new nickname, after the expanding animals on TV infomercials, those hideously mushrooming balls of greenery. “You know what Estie looks like? A Chia pet!”
They sat at dinner at the resort’s mediocre Italian restaurant, all in polo shirts. She’d already slathered in gobs of her brother’s gel, so much that her scalp itched. But “LA Style 100 Extra Hold” had failed.
“Ch-ch-chia pet!” Her brother’s shoulders churned up and down with mirth, like engine parts. The adults gulped their amusement back, their throats constricting. Esther’s mother, whose hair was cut close to her skull, ran a hand through the girl’s massy locks, but was halted by thick, gel-caked snarls.
“Like me,” she said softly.
“Like your whole family!” Her aunts, not Jewish, denied involvement in the travesty. “Esther honey, don’t butter the bread. You’re not getting taller.”
“Well, she’s certainly sprouting,” said her uncle, and everyone tittered because Esther was a noticeable B-cup, which was something for a twelve-year-old, not that it sent the boys running in her direction yet, she had heard her father telling her aunt on the tarmac this morning, adding: Thank God.
Esther who had been attempting to be a good sport at dinner, wondered suddenly what kept the boys from running. Did she want them to run? She squeezed a spongy curl, felt it rebound, and fantasized about impaling her family with a butter knife, then stabbing herself in the heart.
Tennis Boy and his family emerged from a corner table. Esther thrust her shoulders back and offered him a bold natural gaze, which he neither noticed nor returned. Yet he beckoned her into a better daydream; her T-shirt morphed into an evening dress, her hair softened and spread like wings and together they danced until dawn to Caribbean drums. She buttered her bread and floated away.
Esther’s best friend Lin had met a boy on vacation in Mexico and gotten to second base, a relief because what else did you even need before high school? Esther could achieve this too, she knew, if she applied herself, sat still, laughed at the right times and didn’t say anything dumb about Star Trek.
The next morning Esther swam with her cousins at a more distant beach with waves, though she knew the salty water would not help her hair situation. She joined them building a new fort soon smashed and flattened by the surf.
“You’re way more fun today,” she was told. She snorted and splashed; somehow she had the idea that while she bobbed, Tennis Boy might be gazing at them, wondering who these people were, these people who acted so carefree.
Through the window of the cab home, she noticed a Walgreen’s. A hair iron waited in those aisles; the girls at school, if in her predicament, would buy it. Surely Esther’s mom would never approve the idea: “What a waste,” she’d say. “We’re in a beautiful place and you want to go to a drugstore?” Yet the iron floated before Esther’s eyes, a sacred object.
Later, Esther’s brother and cousins embarked on video game tournament. Esther sat alone, picturing Tennis Boy coming to visit her on her block at home, a red rose in his hands, and Lin’s jaw dropping at the idea that a boy like that would go for Esther. In the vision, her hair was straight. Ironed straight.
She opened her eyes to the sunlight and there stood the real thing, with his racket, talking to her cousins at the entrance to the arcade. His shirt was off; his shorts slung below his waist revealed a trapezoid of fine-cut muscles. Esther draped a towel around herself, covering his indecency by proxy, and sauntered towards them, hearing phrases like “high score” and “next level.”
“Hey Estie,” the youngest cousin called.
“Hey, Chia Pet! Ch-ch-chia!” the cousin added as Esther struggled to formulate a socially acceptable way of saying hi back.
“Chia?” Tennis Boy said. He looked right at her and laughed like it was the best joke he’d ever heard. He quaked with it as her brother had, each peal a knife entering between her ribs and perforating her heart.
They began to talk about a tennis tournament but Esther couldn’t pretend to care: she fled into the bathroom to weep pitifully into her resort-issue towel. What a loser she saw in the mirror there, too preoccupied with the rooms of her mind to tackle the halo of frizz that crowned them. She craved a friend, a girl to hand her tissues or coo. Instead, the shrieks of children on the waterslide battered her ears.
A thumping drumbeat began in her chest and spread down to her stomach. She had to act. Esther dashed upstairs to the room she shared with her brother, shivering from the hotel’s air conditioning. Ignoring the wet stains spreading over her T-shirt from her thick hair, she pulled on the handle of the adjoining room and saw her mother asleep, her head framed by a pure white pillow.
Esther had never lied or stolen a thing. And her mother was so peaceful, so tired, as if the family’s teasing, the tugging, had caused her to retreat just as it forced Esther to venture out.
Esther pushed back her pity: the moment demanded something harder. She grimaced, reached into her mom’s purse and pulled out a wad of cash. Before she could reconsider her descent into petty thievery, she exited: out through the lobby with the slot machines blinking and bleeping and the sad old people throwing their money away, as her family described it.
She stood still on the sultry street. On their tour of the Fort the first day here, they had learned about how horribly the Europeans, then the Americans, had treated the island. Oppression, poverty, just like the creepy Borg on Star Trek, traveling to different planets, assimilating people into slavery. Her family was like the Borg too sometimes: her father had gripped her shoulder on the way back and said, “Stay close to the Hilton, Estie.” She had said, “I ride the bus into Boston all the time.”
“Hey you. Hey Chia!” She looked up and saw Tennis Boy, lounging in front of the hotel with a drink in his hand. “Tennis later? Your cousins are coming. Ask them for deets. What’s your name again?”