“Posture, Gina,” my stepmother quietly admonishes me under her breath. I immediately straighten my spine and make sure I haven’t put my elbows on the table. That would be an absolute faux pas at such a lavish affair.
I hate these things. I should be used to false smiles, fake laughs and the overall pretentiousness of these gatherings. After all, my father is the Governor of California. As a little girl, I watched him schmooze his way up the political ladder with my stepmother at his elbow.
I get along with my stepmother just fine although she has an uncanny way of making me feel completely inadequate. I don’t think she does it on purpose. I just don’t meet her high expectations.
Madeline Santos is a petite blonde that has perfectly coiffed hair, with her makeup, nails and clothes always immaculate. In comparison, I’m like a gangly baby giraffe. I tower over her at 5’10 to her 5’3 and I’m anything but graceful, even though she’s tried to drill the perfect etiquette and posture into me since the age of nine. You’d think I was still that trainable nine-year-old girl instead of a twenty-four-year-old woman with the way she treats me.
My mother, Hillary, the former Mrs. Joseph Santos left me and my father when I was six years old. Her family had never approved of her relationship with a man born of El Salvadoran immigrants, no matter how educated he later be- came. I guess I wasn’t good enough either because she left me behind without a second glance. The only things she ever gave me were her blue eyes, which she could have kept because they draw too much attention in contrast to my almost black hair and olive complexion, attributes of my father.
Three years after my mother left, my father met another blue-blooded American woman and married her. Madeline Mitchell saw something in my father that my mother didn’t, and she pushed him on the road to success. Of course, she had a little help from her daddy, well-known oil tycoon, Dwight Mitchell.
The amazing thing is that I get along with Madeline’s father better than anyone else in the family. He’s a salt-of-the- earth kind of man. He hails from Texas, where he owned a cattle ranch before accidentally finding oil on his land and striking it rich. Apparently, Madeline’s mother, Abigail Mitchell, met him shortly after he made his millions, and the rest is history.
“How’s your food there, little darlin’?” Grandpa D asks me. I’ve called him Grandpa D since I was a little girl.
It was Christmas day, and I was riding my new bike when I fell off and badly skinned my knee. My father told me to walk it off, and Madeline told me to stop crying like a baby, but Dwight Mitchell made a show of kissing it all better, cleaning the scrape, and putting a bandage on my knee. From that day on he was Grandpa D. My stepmother has always been Madeline, and her mother Mrs. Mitchell, to me.
“The food is pretty good,” I reply, pushing it around on the plate.
“You know, the beef I used to produce was much more tender and juicier than this piece of meat they’re passing off as prime rib, right here,” he comments in his thick Texan accent, spearing the meat with his fork.
“Dwight,” his wife admonishes.
“Shhh, Daddy. You’re embarrassing us,” Madeline hisses. Grandpa D just shakes his head, chewing thoughtfully on the beef.
“You know what Princess? I sometimes wonder if I didn’t make a few wrong choices along the way,” he says, eyeing his perfect blonde wife and daughter meaningfully. “If not for you, it would all be a total bust,” he says, winking at me conspiratorially and putting his arm behind my chair. I lean in a little towards his fatherly embrace.
“Sit up straight Regina,” Madeline says again. I sigh inwardly, sitting up straight while Grandpa D sighs out loud and rolls his eyes. I look around the room at all the flawlessly dressed men and women sitting at tables covered with immaculate white linens, and decorated with hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of freshly cut flowers and Wedgewood China.
I think Madeline expects me to find a love match out of one of the sons of my father’s upper-crust friends. She keeps introducing me to every eligible first-born male. I don’t know what it is about people from old money. It’s like they’re still stuck in the 1800’s where only the eldest male child inherited the wealth. Marriage amongst the wealthy is practically arranged to ensure the best matches. They just don’t have to give dowries anymore. I wonder how many goats I’d be worth.
I don’t belong in the upper echelon of society. I may have been raised among them at an early enough age, but I’ve never truly fit in. I just want to get back to my bakery ‘Sweet Something’s by Gina,’ and do what I enjoy most, baking. Well, that and hanging with my two best friends, Evelynn Woods and Megan Kane.
Evelynn and Megan make me feel like I belong, even though the three of us are like night and day when it comes to our personalities.
I met Evelynn −I call her Evie − and ftegan my freshman year at a UC Davis after orientation. I had gotten lost trying to find my way to the campus library when I saw a fiery redhead. It was her shoes that caught my attention. They were hard to miss – hot pink stilettos paired with jeans that accentuated her pear-shaped figure. She was standing by a petite girl with caramel skin, big doe-like eyes and a kind smile. I approached them and asked if they knew where the library was, and they happily walked me to it.
After that we were inseparable. We still are, except to events like this one. Megan would definitely cause a scene with her abrasive personality. I have no idea how she makes it as a school teacher. Evie could probably hang with the aristo- crats, except she doesn’t like the insincerity of the people. She’s a single mother trying to make it on her own. She doesn’t have time for the ‘dumb stuff,’ as she would say.
“Gina, there you are, Princess. I’d like you to meet a colleague of mine, Thurston Winthrop III, and his handsome son,” my father says, raising a dark meaningful brow at me. “Chadwick Winthrop. I’d like you to meet my beautiful daughter, Regina Santos.”
I discreetly wipe my sweating palms on my linen napkin in my lap before setting it on the table and standing to shake their hands. Thurston is, at least, two inches shorter than me with liver spots and steel gray hair in a bad comb-over. His son Chadwick is an average looking guy with dull brown hair and even duller brown eyes. Chad and I would probably be eye to eye if I kicked off my heels. As it is right now, I’m looking down at him.
Thurston grasps my hand with palms sweatier than mine previously were. It takes everything in me not to wipe the moisture off on my designer dress after the brief contact. The lecherous look on his face as he scrutinizes me from head to toe makes me squeamish. Chadwick’s handshake is limp, and his hands are softer than Madeline’s after a paraffin wax. “Nice to meet you, Mr. Winthrop, and you too Chad,” I greet them. I can hear Madeline gasp quietly in disapproval
beside me. Great. What did I do now?
“It’s Chadwick,” Chad corrects me, disdainfully. Madeline gives a side look as if to say I should have known better. I really should have. I’ve dealt with these pompous peacocks long enough to know how to speak to them. I guess I just hope to meet a real person among them someday.
“She is a beautiful girl, Joseph,” Thurston says, slapping my father on the back as if to congratulate him. “She sure is a tall one, though. Too bad she’s not dainty and fair-skinned like her mother,” he comments gesturing towards Madeline. “Oh no, I’m not her mother,” Madeline quickly chimes in. “I’m her stepmother and I’m almost young enough to
be her older sister,” she adds the last part for good measure. God forbid anyone mistakes her for being older than her thirty-nine years.
“That’s right. fty Gina takes after my side of the family, except for those stunning baby blues of hers. But, what she lacks in femininity and grace, she more than compensates for with kindness and intelligence,” my father responds cheer- fully.
Was that meant to be a compliment? I may not be the most graceful woman, but I thought I was, at least, feminine. I’m not so sure about the intelligence part either. After all, I showed up to this function so that I could be insulted and belittled, which seems to be the norm with my family.
I feel the acid turning in my stomach. I start to chew on the inside of my lip in nervousness and look down in dis- traction at Chadwick’s shiny dress shoes. I need to get away from all of these eyes judging me and measuring my worth. I can never seem to fit the bill.
“I’m sorry, but I need to powder my nose. If you’ll excuse me,” I say, heading towards the ladies room without waiting to be properly excused by the gentlemen. I can hear Madeline making a remark and everyone laughing as I walk away, but I don’t care. I need to get away from them as quickly as possible.
The ladies room is blessedly empty when I reach it. I go to the sink to wet some paper towels and blot my face. The damp towels are cool and refreshing against my flushed cheeks. I gently blot my forehead and under my eyes, making sure I’m careful not to smudge my makeup.
I look into the mirror and see my dark fringe-cut bangs that get longer on the sides and gently frame my face. The thick, wavy length of my hair has been pinned up into a perfect side chignon. I’m wearing the deep red, wine-colored lipstick that I favor, and the rest of my makeup is flawless due to the makeup artist Madeline hired for the event. My olive complexion is looking even more bronzed because of my time spent in the summer sun.
I’m thin, but I wouldn’t say masculine like my father insinuated. I’m not as soft and feminine as Madeline or her mother Abigail, but I have some curves. My breasts are almost a C-cup and I have a very slim waist, but my hips do flare out somewhat further than my waistline. I sigh.
Why am I attempting to validate myself as a woman in the bathroom of this posh hotel? Why do I let them get to me like this? I take a deep breath and smooth my hands over my $4000 white satin, crepe gown − compliments of my father. I can do this. It’s only a few more hours. In times like this, I wish I had Megan’s panache and Evelynn’s fortitude.
I pull my cell phone out of my beaded cocktail purse. It’s a Saturday evening. I’m sure Evelynn’s at home with her daughter. I could use a little pick me up.
“Hi Gina,” Evie greets me, and I smile immediately just hearing her voice. “What are you doing? I thought you were at some lavish dinner party for your father tonight?”
“I am,” I remark despondently.
“Cheer up, Princess, that’s no way to behave at a party,” Evie teases me in her best British accent. “What’s wrong? Is the Princess not having any fun at the ball?” I hear Megan asking in the background. “Is Megan there with you?” I question Evie.
“Yeah, she dragged her butt over here to watch Pretty, Pretty Princesses with me and McKinley and help me drown my sorrows in a gallon of Rocky Road,” she confesses. “Sounds like you could use a spoon and join us,” she adds.
“Ask her what she’s wearing,” I hear Megan whisper. “Better yet, have her do FaceTime so I can see!” Megan exclaims. “I’m sure you heard her loudmouth. So, how about it?” Evie asks. I look down at my phone and push the button to
activate FaceTime and they immediately accept.
“Where in the world are you? A bathroom?” is the first thing that pops out of Megan’s mouth when our images pop up on the screen. “If you’re in the bathroom go stand in front of the mirror so I can see more of your outfit,” she demands.
I take a few steps back from the sink counter and push the button on the phone to flip the camera view. Now they can see from my head to my lower thigh, below that is blocked by the sink.
“Wow! You look absolutely gorgeous, Regina,” Evelynn gushes.
“Yep, a damn Princess just like I always said,” Megan remarks with a smile. “Why are you in the bathroom talking to us when you should be busy fighting the men off of you with a stick? You know we’re living vicariously through you, right? You have to live it up so you can come back here and give us peasants all the juicy details, Princess.”
“You know you’re more than welcome to join me anytime,” I remind them as I turn the camera view from the mirror and back to my face. “As a matter a fact, I would absolutely love for one or both of you guys to keep me company. These affairs aren’t as glamorous and exciting as you think they are,” I inform them.
“Sorry dear, I don’t do snobby and pretentious. How would the socially elite like to rub elbows with a lowly middle school teacher and daughter of a stripper? They’d kick me out on my ass.” Megan comments derisively. Sadly, she’s exactly right.
“If it’s not too late when you’re done there, come join us for some real food and companionship,” Evie offers. “Yeah! Pizza and ice cream!” McKinley, Evie’s five-year-old daughter shouts. I can see her bright gray eyes and light
brown skin pop up in front of the screen. I love that little girl. She’s beautiful and sweet. She calls me and Megan ‘Auntie’ and it just melts my heart.
“You know what? I think I will,” I say after a moment.
“Great! We’ll see you then. And Gina,” Evie pauses. “Remember you are exceptional and beautiful inside and out.
Always, always, always remember that and hold it close. Love ya.” Then she blows me a kiss and quickly ends the call.
I feel a tear slip down my cheek. Evie knew exactly why I was calling. She’s met my family before and she knew I needed moral support right now, even though I never said it.
Well, now that I’ve got my fix, I’m ready to go back out there and face my demons.
I MADE IT THROUGH THE rest of my father’s dinner party last night and then headed straight to Evelynn’s place. We ate pizza and ice cream and drank wine and talked until the wee hours of the morning. Megan and I crashed in Evie’s spare bedroom and that’s why I’m waking up with a slender freckled arm thrown across my waist, and the sounds of soft snoring at my back. I throw Megan’s arm off of me, startling her awake.
“Hey! What’s the big idea?” she grumbles.
“Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for snuggling, but you’re just not my type,” I tease her. She tosses her long red hair out of the way and squints her green eyes at me.
“Keep telling yourself that, Princess. I’m everyone’s type,” she chuckles and buries her head back in the pillows as I get up out of the bed. I’m wearing a pair of Evie’s yoga pants and a t-shirt, which look like capris and a midriff t-shirt on me. I make my way to the hallway bathroom to brush my teeth with one of the new spare toothbrushes that Evie keeps on hand for times like these.
McKinley walks into the bathroom as I’m brushing my teeth. She walks right on over to the toilet, pulls down her pajama pants, sits down and proceeds to pee.
“Good morning, Auntie Gina,” she says around a yawn.
“Gotta love kids, they have no shame at all. When they gotta go, they gotta go,” Evie comments from the doorway.
She’s holding out a washcloth and a hair brush for me so I can wash my face and do my hair.
“McKinley and I are going to church with Granny Mabel this morning if you want to join us,” Evelynn extends the invitation. “Megan is opting out, she says she doesn’t want the church to burn down as soon as she steps over the thresh- old,” she comments laughing.
“Maybe next time, I don’t exactly have the appropriate clothes,” I tell her. Megan walks up to the bathroom door behind Evie.
“I’m sure they wouldn’t mind if you showed up looking like Bruce Banner after he turns into the Hulk,” Megan laughs, pointing at Evelynn’s doll-sized looking clothes on me. I look down at myself and we all start laughing. I do look pretty ridiculous.
“Hey, it was either this or sleeping in the nude, and with the way you like to snuggle in your sleep, that definitely would have ended in disaster,” I remind her.
“Touché,” Megan says in response.
I brush my teeth and comb the tangles out of my hair while Megan waits for her turn at the sink. I love the time I spend with my best girlfriends. It’s times like these that remind me of our college days.
“Are you feeding us, or sending us home with empty bellies?” Megan calls out to Evie who has left the bathroom and made her way into the living room.
“You’re more than welcome to some Frosted Flakes,” she shouts back.
“I could have that crap at home. I expect better when I come over here, Evelynn,” she complains.
“Mi casa es Su casa. Feel free to whip us all up some breakfast, Megan. There are eggs and some sausage in the fridge,” Evie responds. I chuckle around the toothbrush in my mouth. We all know that Megan is not domestically inclined.
“You heifers must have a death wish,” she remarks with her hands on her ample hips. “Death by your hands, or by your cooking?” I ask, teasingly.
“Keep it up, missy. You’re not special just because you bake fancy pies and shit,” she says in a mock threat. I laugh and stick my tongue out at her as I brush past her on my way out of the bathroom. Megan just huffs and walks into the restroom, closing the door behind her.
“Well, I’m going to head home and hope no one I know sees me along the way,” I say to Evelynn as I retrieve my for- mal dress and heels from her coat closet. “Come here, little munchkin, and give your Auntie Gina goodbye smooches,” I say to McKinley.
She immediately jumps up from the breakfast table and throws her little arms around my neck, planting wet kisses on my cheek. I sweep her up in my arms, hugging her, and then I give her a quick tickle. She giggles and squirms until I put her down.
This is my real family.
“Bailing on us so soon?” Megan asks as she walks into the living room fully dressed in tight jeans, a hot pink fitted t-shirt, and bare feet.
“Yep, I’m going to go home and put on clothes that actually fit. I’ll just relax for the rest of the day. I might try to come up with some new recipes that I can try in the bakery when we open up again in the morning. We’re still going to meet at Shay’s Bar and Grill on Friday, right?” I ask confirming our date for a girl’s night out.
“Definitely,” Evie says.
“Damn straight,” Megan chimes in.
“Oh, and don’t forget the workout class at the gym right after work Friday too,” I remind them. They both sigh in disgust. “Come on guys. You promised,” I whine.
“Fine,” Evie concedes.
“I’m not making any promises,” Megan remarks. I just smile because I know that Evie will drag her along when she comes.