The Icing on the Cake
CHAPTER 1 Liza
Thirteen. Thir-teen. 13. Even the word sounds unlucky. I’m not a big believer in superstitions, but my thirteenth birthday is still two months away and so far everything about it is bad news.
I used to love birthdays. As soon as one birthday party was over, I’d be on the phone with Frankie planning the next. My birthday’s in March, so you never know what the weather will be like, and we usually have my parties indoors. But last year,
when I turned twelve, I had an ice-skating party in Prospect Park and it was perfect—still cold enough so the rink didn’t get all slushy, but plenty of sun and hot chocolate to warm us up. Earlier that winter my grandmother came to visit from Georgia and taught me to knit, and I made ten ear-warmer headbands all by myself for party favors. They weren’t perfect—if you looked close enough you could see a lot of places where I dropped a stitch, and I had to start some of them over a few times—but my mom helped me finish them off so that the seams looked totally professional.
This year I wanted to do something small, but really special—just Frankie, Lillian, and me. We’ve been dying to go to Bubble Kingdom, this giant spa with fifteen hot tubs all at different temperatures, and a whole floor of special saunas with names like Crystal Muscle Relax and Soothing Color Treatment. There’s even a cold sauna with ice and snow on the walls, according to Lillian’s sister, Katie, who went
to Bubble Kingdom with her track team. And on the roof, there’s an outdoor pool that’s always warm—even in the winter—with jets in the water that push you along while you’re floating, like the current in a river.
It looks like Bubble Kingdom’s going to have to wait till another birthday, though, since my unlucky thirteenth has been hijacked by my other grandmother, Nana Silver. I know that sounds weird—how can someone else take over my birthday?—but if you knew Nana Silver, you’d understand. It all started over winter break, when my little brother, Cole, and I went to California to visit our dad, where he lives now since the divorce. Cole’s only two and a half, so Nana “volunteered” to fly with us from JFK to LAX—even though my dad promised me on our last trip that the next time we visited I could babysit Cole on the plane myself (and earn thirty bucks in the process).
I love my Nana, but spending time with her can be sort of . . . well . . . exhausting. Nothing is ever
exactly the way she wants it, and she’s not shy about letting anyone—or everyone—know it. First, she gave the flight attendant a lecture about putting too much ice in her Diet Coke, and then another one for not asking if Cole and I were allergic to peanuts before offering them to us (even though we’re not). She didn’t like the route the taxi driver took to my dad’s house, so she only tipped him two dollars (Dad knows her well enough to have had his wallet with him when he came out to meet us, and he slipped the driver some more cash when Nana wasn’t looking).
There’s a pool at my dad’s apartment complex—how cool is that? Not cool enough for Nana Silver, apparently. One day she complained to the lifeguard that there was too much chlorine in the water, and the next day she told him she saw algae growing near the ladder and she wouldn’t be surprised if all the children who’d been swimming got sick. Dad’s pretty much used to her by now, and Cole’s too little to be embarrassed by anything, but when Nana starts
complaining about things in public, I wish I could just melt into my seat or sink to the bottom of the pool.
Acting bossy to people just trying to do their jobs wasn’t how Nana sabotaged my birthday plans, though. Instead, she activated her superpower: the ability to lay on an impenetrable guilt trip. Even my dad, who knows all of her tricks, is powerless in the face of Nana’s giver-of-guilt abilities. But he put up an impressive fight for three and a half days. Usually, Nana tries to make her only son feel bad about getting divorced and moving thousands of miles away from all of us (especially from Cole, who was just one when Dad took his job in LA). Not this time. On this trip, she surprised us all with a brand-new reason to make my dad feel guilty—me.
“Liza must be so disappointed,” Nana said to Dad at dinner on our first night in LA. I was putting ketchup on my hamburger and froze midsqueeze.
My dad looked at me curiously, but I had no idea what Nana was talking about. So I just shrugged.
“About what?” he asked.
Nana threw up her hands as if the answer was completely obvious. “Turning thirteen without a bat mitzvah, of course. You’re depriving her of her heritage—not to mention a fabulous party.” I nearly choked on my burger.
A bat mitzvah is a big event for Jewish girls when they turn thirteen (boys have bar mitzvahs). You practice for it for at least a year, and then you get up in front of the entire synagogue, your whole family, your friends, your parents’ friends, your grand-parents’ friends—you get the idea—and recite a lot of stuff in Hebrew. When it’s over, you’ve officially become “an adult”—or at least that’s what it meant, like, a thousand years ago. Most families throw a big party afterward—my cousin Phoebe had a DJ and a photo booth at hers. But unlike Nana Silver, most people don’t decide to do this only three months before their kid turns thirteen.
“She’s only half Jewish, Mom.” Dad sighed. “Jackie
and I made a decision a long time ago not to raise the kids one religion or the other. You know that. We give them a little bit of both, and they can choose for themselves when they get older—or not.”
Nana is a champion eye-roller. “That was all fine and good when she was little, Adam, but now that she’s coming up on thirteen, it just seems like such a shame.” (Actually, it was never fine and good with Nana—but that’s another story.)
“It’s okay, Nana,” I jumped in, feeling bad for my dad. “Really. I don’t want a bat mitzvah—I don’t even go to Hebrew school.”
“You don’t need to remind me of that,” Nana said, shaking her head as if not sending me to Hebrew school was like shipping me off to join a gang.
“Besides,” I added, “I don’t even want a big party. Frankie and Lillian and I have been planning a totally amazing spa day for months.”
Nana waved me off like I hadn’t even been talking. “You don’t even know what you’d be missing,” she
said. Then she turned back to my dad and pointed at him with a frosty-pink fingernail. “But she will in a few years, Adam, and she’ll resent you for it.”
Nana went on like this for three days, nagging my dad about this “neglect” or that “lost opportunity” every chance she got. On our fourth day in LA, we spent the morning doing a movie-studio tour. It was supposed to be just Dad and me, so we could spend some QT together and catch up. But Cole was acting cranky about staying at the apartment with Nana (can you blame him?), so the two of them ended up tagging along. After a stunt show and a tour of the 3-D animation lab, we stopped at the studio café for lunch. My little brother loved seeing all of his favorite cartoon characters come to life at the animation lab and spent a solid hour acting totally hyper—which meant he was passed out in his stroller before his chicken tenders even arrived. With Cole asleep, Nana was able to focus her full attention on bugging Dad about my “not mitzvah.”
“Look at her,” Nana said as I sipped my iced tea. She was talking to Dad but smiling at me in this very Nana Silver-ish way that told me she was about to lay on the guilt. “Such a lovely young lady—so grown up.” I could feel myself starting to blush and was relieved when she turned to my dad. “Yet for some reason her father doesn’t think she’s worth celebrating.”
Dad let the roll he’d started buttering drop onto the table. “That’s a ridiculous accusation, Mom, even for you,” he said. “Of course I think Liza’s worth celebrating—I celebrate everything about her.” If your blush can blush, mine did right then. “We’re just not going to be celebrating at the bat mitzvah she is not going to have.”
“I understand that,” Nana said. “Even if I don’t like it. Still, she’s coming of age, Adam. She’ll only turn thirteen once. Is it so wrong for me to want to recognize this milestone in my only granddaughter’s journey to womanhood?” Oh my God, I had to grip
the seat of my chair with both hands to keep myself from totally bolting.
“So what do you want me to do, Mom?” Dad ran his hands through his hair the way he does when he’s really frustrated. “Throw Liza a Sweet Thirteen? You heard her—she and her friends already have birthday plans in the works.”
“At this really fun place called Bubble Kingdom, Nana,” I chimed in, giving her my best perfect-granddaughter smile. “We’re all super excited—it’s exactly what I want.”
Nana raised her eyebrows. “Bubble Kingdom? I’ve heard of that place. It’s for people who like to take baths in public with complete strangers.”
I couldn’t help myself—I laughed out loud. “It’s a spa, Nana. And the department of health gave it the highest rating. Lillian checked.”
“For your thirteenth birthday, you should be treated like the princess of your own kingdom—not soaking in other people’s bathwater and sauna sweat.”
“I think that’s enough, Mom,” my dad said.
Thankfully, the waitress arrived with our food. We were all silent for a few minutes while she served our meal and refilled water glasses.
“All right,” Dad said, rubbing his hands together. “How about we table this conversation and eat our lunch in peace?”
Nana pushed her plate away. “I don’t seem to have much of an appetite anymore.”
“Suit yourself,” Dad said, digging in to his turkey club.
I picked at my pasta salad, but I wasn’t very hungry anymore either. We sat there like that for what seemed like forever—Dad chomping on his sandwich, Nana scowling, and me looking from one to the other and wishing I could trade places with Cole—until finally, I couldn’t take it anymore.
“Bubble Kingdom can wait,” I said. “I’ll only turn thirteen once.” I turned to my grandmother. “I’m not going to have a bat mitzvah, Nana, but I
guess a bigger party could be kind of . . . um . . . fun.”
I caught my dad’s eye as Nana threw her arms around me. He looked surprised, but there was also something in his eyes that said, Welcome to the club. I guess Nana was right about me “coming of age”—I’m not too little for her guilt trips anymore.
The minute we got into the car to head back to my dad’s place, I texted Frankie and Lillian.
U won’t believe what happened, I typed. HELP!