To truly appreciate this story, you might want to read The Adventures of Miss Vulpe first, though Magic Lessons for Margo was written so that it can stand on its own.
Please enjoy the first chapter of this new novel!
Margo – Present Day
My sister dunks her churro into her hot chocolate. I behold her like a miracle. My sister is showing me all her favorite places in Madrid. Ever since my breakdown in the kitchen on Christmas Eve, after I’d flown across the world to see her and found myself in the company of a stranger who didn’t want me, my sister has been all kindness. It’s like she’s watching out for me, like she wants to make it up to me for all the years we didn’t like each other growing up, and then the years we’ve been apart.
I look at her and I’m afraid something might happen. That she might crack. Or disappear. Like a unicorn or any other creature of magic.
I have a lot of irrational fears having grown up the way I did, but my fears about Ana are not unfounded. During the years I lost track of her, when she went to one boarding school after another then ended up in our childhood home in Bucharest – the one place I would never revisit – something happened to my little sister that I know nothing about. Something bad. Something that changed her. See, I know all about the process of anger fading into waves of sorrow. It’s a part of grief. It’s natural. Even good. It softens you, and in a way, it shows you that life has not broken you, that you’ve not become mean or bitter, that your heart can go on as a human heart with all its frailties, not as a rock. But for me this was something that happened gradually. I slowly, meticulously, went through the stages of grief. It took long enough where, had I kept a diary of the process, it would have been endless and boring. Whole notebooks stacked by my bed in a pile ready to collapse like the leaning tower of Pisa.
My sister, on the other hand, seems to have made a sudden turn from a rebellious teenager to this, the girl who insisted I sleep in her giant bed next to her and her big dog, who braided my hair and kinked it, who gave me some of her best clothes and makeup, and who hugs me at night. I don’t know what happened to her, but something did. Something drastic. Daddy won’t tell me, and I’ve learned to be indulgent with his many silences. Daddy is haunted by his own ghosts.
My sister and I, we have a lot to talk about, but we don’t reminisce about the past. Do you remember that time our mother wore sunglasses in the house and nobody would tell us why? Do you remember how she and our grandmother used to scream at each other? Do you remember the creepy husband? And how about their double funeral? No, these are not things for us to talk about during our pajama parties with the big black dog called Captain. Nor can I ask, “How’d you stop hating Daddy and suddenly agree to live with him and to behave after you kept making his life hell and getting kicked out of boarding schools?”
It wouldn’t be a fair question anyway. It would sound judgmental and I don’t want to judge. You don’t stop hating people overnight, even the people you hate unfairly. I should know that. I used to hate my sister. I used to hate her with that cruelty that children develop when they’re denied love and a safe home. I used to hate her because the mother who failed to be my mother seemed to love her and not me. It took me years of therapy to figure out that our mother loved neither of us, not the way children need to be loved. I used to also hate my sister on account of Daddy, but I didn’t figure that out until later. When I was growing up, all I wanted was for Daddy to come and take me away. I dreamt of it at night, wished for it on a star, asked it of Santa Claus, the tooth fairy, and the Easter bunny, too. I even prayed for it to the little angel our grandmother taught us to pray to. Sometimes, Daddy would come to see me. He’d take me out to lunch, to the park, to bookstores, pastry shops, and the botanical garden. Once he even took me on a trip to the mountains. He’d bring me gifts and he’d tell me stories. But he got sad when I asked him to take me away. Later I realized he needed me to be his link to my mother, who’d kicked him out of her life. That made me angry at him, though Daddy is the one person in all of this where my anger never completely drowned out my love.
When I turned eighteen, Daddy told me the whole awful truth about the way my mother died, and on the same occasion he told me that Ana was his daughter too. By then our mother had been dead four years, and I’d spent four years in boarding school and therapy, four years in which I occasionally asked about my sister but never saw her. Daddy told me that things with her had always been more complicated. It was then that I realized how powerful a thing the subconscious of a child can be. My childhood jealousy of my sister had been more complex than I’d ever realized. On some level, as a child, I must have felt it, that I had to share both of them with her, the unfit mother, and the father I loved.
Of course, by the time I was eighteen I was already plagued with regret. I was no longer angry. I was sad. And a great chunk of my sadness seemed tied by an invisible thread to that other child of my childhood, the other little girl sharing the loneliness and misery and secrets of the way we grew up, the girl I hadn’t known how to love when I was little. What I regretted most was never realizing that she suffered the same way I did, perhaps more. She was younger. Maybe she saw less. Maybe she understood less. Who knows? Our grandmother protected us from seeing our mother at her worst, from understanding what was truly wrong with her. She did not, however, protect us from her volatile nature, from her absences disguised as illnesses, from the overall sense that she carried her own black cloud above her pretty head and that at any moment it could erupt into a deadly storm.
Our grandmother wasn’t warm or loving. I grew up fearing her. But she did the right thing in her own way. She didn’t let us see the whole ugliness of our ugly childhoods. And when our mother died together with her second husband, who was a royal creep, when they were buried together, and we stood there looking at them dazed, like they were something out of a horror movie, it was our grandmother who told us the lie we’d both spend years wondering about. She told us that our mother and her husband had killed themselves.
Of all the things that went on in that house of secrets we grew up in, what Ana remembers must be less than what I do – and I don’t remember many clues that could have tipped me off to the truth, just an overall sense that things were warped and sinister. Did knowing less haunt my sister even more? And how did she do it? How did she get Daddy to tell her the whole truth about our mother before she turned eighteen? Because my sister knows. Before she told me she’d rather we don’t discuss the past, she made it clear she knew the real reason our mother died.
My sister has a secret. My sister has done something. Something powerful enough to jolt her from anger to sadness, something powerful enough to shock Daddy into telling her the whole awful story. Something strong enough to bring the two of them together.
In this family we don’t talk. But we do take care of our nails. My sister and I stay up late each night. She removes my rainbow acrylic nails, which she probably considers tacky, one by one, tenderly, trying not to hurt my fingers or my feelings. She soaks my hands in a soothing warm oil bath. A ritual I know has little scientific backing, but which smells divine and is carried out with love, so I enjoy it. She applies a thin coat of nourishing varnish to my nails, then declares herself satisfied and says it’s all I need.
Through this all, we never talk about our childhood. We talk about what we’ll do the next day. Madrid is our favorite topic of conversation, and Madrid is fascinating. We talk about school too. We talk about books. Movies. There are so many movies my sister hasn’t seen, and so many good books I haven’t read. We share these things with each other. We share our musical tastes and she shares tips on fashion and makeup.
My sister has really good taste and Daddy is as generous with her allowance as he is with mine – and unlike me, she takes advantage of this with gusto. My sister loves her dog and tends to rebel against the poor housekeeper’s helpful suggestions. My sister likes late nights and Spanish hot chocolate, and she only has one friend at school. My sister calls our Daddy Rogers instead of Daddy, taunts the housekeeper by running around the apartment barefoot, writes a blog about the city, and hopes to one day write novels that empower women. She hates arugula, loves the color beige, thinks bras are stupid because they’re uncomfortable, and secretly prays to the Virgin Mary on occasion. But what do I really know about her?
My sister keeps a man’s watch in the drawer of her nightstand. It’s a Rolex, a real one, worth God knows how much money. Where did she get that? Why can’t I ask? That’s not something Daddy would buy for her, and I don’t think she stole it. Our mother stole things. It embarrassed me and it made me angry. Our mother did not need to steal; she did it for kicks. My sister, though, she says that stealing is bad karma, and my instincts tell me she means it. So, who gave her a men’s Rolex watch?
We don’t talk about love. Or desire, curiosity, whatever you wish to call it. I’m embarrassed to talk about these things, and so is she. Despite all the therapy we’ve had, we’re not normal girls of our respective ages. A normal twenty-year-old would date. So would a normal sixteen-year-old, I guess. My therapist and I talk about why it’s hard for me to trust people. I would assume it’s hard for my sister too. Maybe harder?
“What are you thinking of?” Ana asks as we sit together outside the café. It’s winter in Madrid, but when the sun is shining it’s nice to drink scalding hot coffee al fresco. “Or rather, who are you thinking of?”
I can feel myself blush. She smiles and plays with my hair, the hair she insists I should stop torturing into submission with my straightening iron, the hair she prefers braiding so that it relaxes into its original soft curls. If only it could be so easy for me to relax.
“Which one of them are you checking out?” she asks. Two people are sitting at a nearby table. A man and a woman. I quickly avert my gaze.
“Or are you thinking of the red dress you’re too shy to try on?”
I smile, grateful for the change of topic. I’m happy to return to safer ground. The red dress is outrageous. It’s short and too red and probably too expensive. It beckoned to my sister from the window of a shop that seems to me to be addressed to an older demographic – one much more comfortable with seduction than either of us should be. Not California college girls, for sure, nerdy ones at that, but my sister insists I try it on. I find that prospect intimidating. But not as intimidating as talking about desire.
“We can’t go in there,” I say. “They’ll kick us out.”
“Of course, we can go in there, silly. And that dress… You need to wear that tonight. Let’s get Rogers to take us somewhere fancy!”
This is a side of hers I like, but which I’m a bit intimidated by. My sister is not yet twenty-one, not even eighteen, she’s a little shy of her seventeenth birthday, but she guzzles bubbly like nobody’s business and Daddy lets her. He buys her lavish meals in restaurants that stay open late. In fact, the restaurants here won’t even seat us until after my normal bedtime in California. She likes to dress up and act like she’s older than her sixteen years. She knows what to order too, knows how to flirt with the waiters, and knows, above all, how to get maximum enjoyment out of watching the other diners. Sometimes, while we eat, she entertains Daddy and me by telling us stories she makes up about the people at the other tables. She has imagination. Me, I’m different. If I have the same gift, I don’t know it. I don’t want to know it. I like precision, numbers, science. Things that won’t fail you. Things that are not open to interpretation. Things that only encourage the mind to wander on safe and highly predictable paths.
“We should have a picture, too. Of the three of us,” she says. This is one of her obsessions. Family pictures. Me, her, and Daddy. Sometimes I wonder what happened to all the pictures from before. But then again, I don’t want to know. They’re probably all still in the house we grew up in. And that house is not something I ever want to think about.
“We have about a million pictures by now,” I point out.
“Not with you in the red dress. This will be the one to have framed. I’ll wear black, you wear red. We’ll seat Rogers in the middle. He’ll love it.”
I smile. They have a strange relationship, those two. But any inkling of affection from my sister to Daddy fills my heart with joy.
So, after we finish our breakfast, during which I do my best not to glance over at the couple at the other table, we do enter the store I deemed too fancy and too grown-up for us. Again, my little sister knows just how to do this. She knows how to talk to the shop attendants. In Spanish, no less. Before I know it, I’m standing behind a velvet curtain, in front of a floor to ceiling mirror, the red dress hanging on a hook on the wall. I strip carefully down to my bra and panties. I try not to look at myself. I know there’s nothing wrong with my body, except I’m probably too pale. But being naked, or even this close to naked, in a store, in the center of Madrid, with my sister waiting anxiously outside embarrasses me. I grab the red dress off its hanger and slip it over my head. Its hemline falls lower than I feared. It actually covers me well enough and the color warms my features. I smile. Then I realize I can’t zip myself up, and there’s no easy way out of that predicament.
“Can I see yet?” my sister asks.
“I’m almost… I can’t get the zipper.”
She pulls the curtain open. I brace myself because for a moment I expect our mother’s scent to invade the tiny space. But it’s just my sister, and her perfume, while probably too musky and sensual for a girl her age, tickles my nostrils like a breath of fresh air.
“I’ll help you, silly.”
I don’t object. I wish I could be as free as she is. My sister owns her body. She can be skittish, like a cat, but she’s comfortable in her own skin in ways that I’m not. She pulls the zipper up and I try to focus on the image reflected in the mirror. Someone who used to be me but is now wearing a red dress, next to my beautiful sister in her dark jeans and beige cashmere sweater.
“Wow,” she says. “I hope you can see what I see.”
I nod. She raises her eyebrows, as if waiting for more of a reaction. Despite myself, my face erupts into a big smile.
“Say you love it.”
“I love it.”
“I’ll pay for it,” she says. “It’ll be the Christmas gift I never got you.”
And though our money comes from the same source, I smile and decide to accept the gesture.
After shopping we go to the park. It’s a warm day, sunny and clear, but we still get cold. My sister talks about the soup we’ll have for lunch, thick chicken soup, yellow and rich, the kind of soup that would cure you if you were sick. The food here has a very stick-to-your-bones quality to it and I find it to be a source of comfort. I’m no longer used to winter. And this coming together with the other little girl of my childhood, it’s stirring up enough feelings for me to want to eat all the warm soup and thick garbanzo stews Madrid has to offer.
Lunch is a late-afternoon affair, satiating and lazy. Lunch is something you wait for, almost starving, and yet it’s my favorite moment of our days here. Or maybe my favorite are the naps my sister insists we take after these three-course late-afternoon lunches, naps when I sometimes drift off into a dream world that is no longer as sad and scary as it was a mere two weeks ago, before I came here and reconnected with her. Sometimes she dozes off and I lie next to her and look at her face, soft with sleep, and more childish than during waking hours. I look at her and try to read her secrets in her features, but that never works.
Magic Lessons for Margo will be available on Amazon and select brick and mortar stores in Houston and Galveston in December 2023.