None of us recognized Oesha when she entered the sitting room that evening. It was a weird feeling, seeing a lovely young woman in stylish clothes and high heels stride into the room as though she owned it, being caught by surprise by her presence and beauty, then with gaping jaws and goggling eyes, realizing that the gorgeous stranger was my sister.
How long we would have been mystified is unknown, as the beauty looked at us all with concern and said, "Hello? Are any of you home?"
Marca nearly knocked her off her feet flying to her to hug her. They screeched and laughed at each other, re-establishing their twin rapport. Grandmother Claire appeared in the archway then, completely recognizable and comforting in her fierce gaze. She kissed me on both cheeks as I hugged her, bending to do so. "My dear boy," she whispered, her eyes looking teary.
"You got legs," I said to my sister as I greeted her. In her heels, she still wasn't as tall as I was.
"And makeup. Mom's going to shit bricks when she sees you," her twin added.
"No, she won't," Oesha replied. "When did she ever notice what we were wearing?"
"She out-sourced that to me," Aunt Andersol said, hugging Oesha in turn. "And I think you look fabulous."
If we had been surprised by Oesha's appearance, we were stunned by Kelsa the next day, when she returned with Michel and a handful of distant cousins and their friends. While we remembered the frizzy-haired, bouncing, cackling school-girl of early December, hauling her backpack along to the airport, dressed in pink sweats, the person who walked in the door was quiet, reserved, and like Oesha, dressed fabulously in heels and an obviously tailored dress -- and her rusty, frizzy hair was contained in tiny braids from her forehead to her shoulder blades. Freed from the huge halo of fuzz, her head looked as sleek as a snake. She, too, had plied makeup, darkening her eyelashes, muting her freckles slightly.
"Is my sister not beautiful?" asked Michel, as ostentatiously the buffoon as ever. "She has exchanged her own head for that of a model she met in London, who was in need of brain cells so as to qualify for higher education." Kelsa ignored him, even when he went on, "Fortunately, my twin, like many dinosaurs, has a demi-brain at the other end of her spine, and so will not suffer the notoriety of being unable to complete high school."
Only a week and a few days had passed since my siblings had left our home and come to Europe. If such changes were possible in that short a time, what was going to happen over the next six months or more before they would return home again?
To tell the truth, Marca and I suddenly felt like -- well, perhaps as though we had arrived from our log cabin in the backwoods of the logging country in northern California. The athletic clothing Marca favored looked as out of place as a clown suit by comparison to Oesha's cotton eyelet dress and matching knit shawl when the cousins arrived; and I was all too aware that my sweater had a few pulls in it, and that my trousers had a Target-brand logo under the belt. I thanked God I'd worn a belt.
We were a couple of hicks, Marca and I, and we didn't even know it. Oesha, Kelsa, and the cousins all looked as sharp as knife blades (and Michel, too, though he tends to be a bit more eccentric in his dress) while we looked like wooden spoons. Maybe all they all did was shop and do makeovers since they got here?
There were so many new 'cousins' to meet and chat with today that we Five never even got a chance to hole up and clue each other in. And of course, it was Christmas Eve, so there was a lot of merriment and preparation for a party after Mass that night. The agenda was church, and then a whopping table of good eats and drinks and live music until people got tired and went to bed.
Mom and Uncle Bodie never did show up that night, or even on Christmas Day. We called them to find out if they were all right, and they were -- Mom had just hooked up with some old digging buddies from her world-trotting days and wanted to spend time with them.
I remember when we were little, me asking Oesha if Mama would be home for Thanksgiving.
"Maybe. She said she would, so she will."
And then she didn't.
"Oesha, will Mama be home for Easter?"
"Daddy said she has to help the Easter Bunny take stuff around the world."
"Daddy, will Mama be home for Oesha and Marca's birthday?"
"She said she'd try, Owen, but she's managing a dig in Syria right now, and if she leaves, she might not be able to go back to finish it."
When Dad died, Mom was back home for good, it seemed. Dad had been the one to make sure the estate was taken care of, and then it was Mom who had to take over, so she had to be home.
Is it going to change again? Now that Aunt Sully and John are there to keep an eye on things, is she going to take off again?
Two days after Christmas, Mother and Uncle Bodie breezed in the front door of the villa, bags of Christmas gifts in hand and ruddy with happiness. Mother was so obviously radiant with joy that we were unable to be angry with her, at least when we were with her.
But it was still blatantly set before Marca and me that our mother had allotted all of two days to drop by and say "Hello," and frankly, there was not much more than that. She was not interested in our schooling, not any of us Five, our activities, or our opinions. She hungrily observed our faces, held us close in loving embraces, but beyond the physical fact that we were her children, she seemed completely detached from our lives. Where Kelsa and Michel had gone, and with whom -- she never even asked. Where Oesha had gone with Grandmother was also below her notice. I almost expected her to express surprise that Aunt Sully, John, Marca, and I were temporarily in residence. I could not help thinking that I could have spent the so-called Winter Break riding with Aunt Sully and advancing my chances of winning Rachel's affections.
"Aren't you guys ready to come home?" I asked the other four of my siblings the day before I was scheduled to go back to California.
"NO!" shouted Michel and Oesha in unison. Kelsa just shook her head, rattling the beads on the ends of her elaborate braids.
"Owen, there is not a single high school football player anywhere we go. Do you understand the import of this to one as undersized as I? I do not get shoved, or threatened. No one questions my sexual orientation if I talk about painting or sketching. Pretty young women smile at me when I attempt to speak their foreign languages. What would I miss? Your witty repartee, yes, of course, you are my sensei for insults and wicked language! And besides, we are in communication daily by computer, so if you wished to insult me or speak vilely, you could do so instantaneously. And just so you know, Rachel and I are in contact every morning -- I fully intend to entrance her and win her from you in time."
"I don't want to go back," said Oesha. "Here, I'm a person, back there, I'm a kid. I don't know how to describe the difference ... it's like when you're in a school, you're a subspecies. You're supposed to do kid things, like go to pep rallies and join clubs. Even the school choir was a drama stage instead of being where you used your voice to make music. Everyone expected you to buy into the latest popular movie or wear the faddest clothes. I don't have to do that here. Grandmother took me to some really wonderful designer shops. God, the clothes feel and fit like heaven. We have classes we have to attend, but the other students are focused on learning, like we are, not on who is friends with whom."
"And you?" I asked Kelsa.
"Come on, Owen, don't you remember the teasing I got because of my frizzy hair? I felt like a joke all the time, and all I could do was play the clown to keep from crying. Yeah, I like it better here, too. I feel ... pretty, and I like that. I like no one laughing at me."
The exclusive meeting that cold morning in December was a revelation to me: I had had no idea that my siblings were so unhappy in our existence at the estate. Their misery in California had been unknown to me, either because I was insensitive, or because they hadn't had anything to compare it to.
The strangest thing about that Christmas break in Italy was that Marca and I were of one mind -- we wanted to get back to California. Neither of us cared about clothing or style; neither of us felt overly persecuted at school (I knew I deserved every bit of persecution I received, and Marca's ferocity prevented her from receiving any); and what I wanted from life was right there under my feet at our home. Marca's aim was to get into a college with a good soccer team and go on to world fame as the most vicious, talented player ever.
After we waved goodbye to family at the airport, and left them behind the barriers as we walked towards our gate, Marca and I looked at each other with a deeper understanding than we ever had had. She shook her head in disgust. "Same here," I said. "Do you think they've been taken over by space aliens?"
She threw her head back in a peal of laughter. "That's what we'll tell our classmates, okay?"