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If you think it's hard keeping track of all the Steps in my life, try being me.
The Steps are the bazillion stepbrothers, stepsisters, and half siblings my parents keep laying on me. Follow this.
First, there are Angelina and Jack, my parents. I've called my parents by their first names for as long as I can remember. Maybe if they were normal parents who stayed together (or even bothered to get married), or maybe if they had regular day jobs, I would call them Mom and Dad, but that would be, like, so Brady Bunch, and we are so not Brady. Besides, Angelina and Jack were the ones who taught me to call them by their first names. Angelina said Mom was "too uptight a word" for her to hear, and Jack said being called Dad made him feel like an "old coot."
Angelina's an actress and Jack was a comedian. They met when they were both waiters at a hip restaurant in Manhattan. They were "young, dumb, 'n' in love," according to Bubbe, my grandma. They moved in together and had me. I'm Annabel Whoopi Schubert and I'm twelve years old, but I'm "going on thirteen with a vengeance," as Bubbe says.
After Angelina and Jack finished being "young, dumb, 'n' in love," they became yelling and fighting adult folks. After a couple really bad years being miserable all the time, they split up when I was nine.
Then Jack met Penny and moved to Australia to be with her. Penny has a daughter, Lucy, who is the same age as me, and a son, Angus, who's in kindergarten. They call it "kindie" in Australia. Jack thinks it's clever that those people in Australia are always cutting off words and adding ie to them, like noodies for noodles and brekkie for breakfast. I don't think it's clever. I think it's lazy. My baby half sister, Beatrice, who is the daughter of Jack and Penny and also the half sister of Lucy and Angus, will end up talking like that one day. Imagine that, my own blood sister, and she's going to speak with an Australian accent and cut off her words and end them in ie. Please.
Back to Angelina, my mom, who got way too into her role as PTA treasurer and started dating the president of the PTA, Harvey Weideman. Harvey is the divorced father of Wheaties, only the dorkiest kid in the whole seventh grade. I don't even remember Wheaties' real name. That's what we call him at our school, the Progress School on the Upper West Side. Wheaties is short and scrawny and goes around singing folk songs. He's the last boy you'd ever see on a cereal box. Now Angelina's pregnant, and she and Harvey are getting married, so I'm going to have another half sibling and another step. I wonder if I will be the first girl in the world with a stepbrother called Wheaties.
The other step is Lucy and Angus's former stepbrother, Ben. He's not my step technically, so I think it's okay that I kissed him once.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let me take you back to Christmas break.
It all started because Lucy stole my dad.
Copyright © 2003 by Rachel Cohn
I didn't want to go to Sydney, Australia. I wanted to spend Christmas break in Manhattan with my best friend Justine. We had planned to go ice-skating at Rockefeller Center every day and shopping at the after-Christmas sale at Bloomingdale's. We were going to make prank phone calls to Wheaties and his geek friends and try on makeup at Sephora and then go scream with the TRL crowd at MTV in Times Square.
Then Justine bailed. Her parents decided to go skiing for the holidays. Wheaties stopped answering his phone. Angelina decided she was "so over" Jack moving to Australia and it was time for me to go see my dad. Angelina was going to some luau paradise in Hawaii with Wheaties' dad. Even Bubbe bailed on me. She went to Florida.
I had been so excited about hanging with Justine over the vacay that I hadn't considered going to see Jack or my new half sister, Beatrice. I didn't especially care about meeting the Steps for the first time. I wanted to stay home in New York City, the greatest city in all the world.
Well, I guess I really did want to see Jack, and I kinda wanted to see Beatrice because I wondered if my actual blood sister looked like me, but I totally, absolutely, completely did not want to go all the way to the Steps' turf in Australia. But I was stuck.
That whole plane ride to Australia I couldn't even watch the movies. I was too busy remembering what Lucy had done.
Jack was still living with us when I was nine, but he and Angelina fought all the time. One night Jack didn't come home at all after a late-night comedy gig. Angelina thought I was sleeping and didn't know, but I was awake and I heard her crying into the phone all night. When he finally came home early in the morning, I could hear him telling her over and over, nothing happened. Whatever didn't happen, Jack and Angelina were never right again. He moved out a month later. Soon after that Angelina and I moved into Bubbe's massive apartment, which overlooks Central Park on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
It was kind of cool for a while. Even though he lived in Brooklyn, I actually saw more of Jack once he and Angelina split. Probably because he and Angelina weren't always tired from constant fighting. He met me every day after school, and sometimes we'd go in-line skating in Central Park and other times we'd hang out at a coffee shop, talking and reading until dinnertime, and he coached my soccer team, and every Saturday we went to a movie together.
Then one Saturday he told me about this woman who had changed his life. Her name was Penny, and he'd met her when she was visiting from Australia. He loved her. He wanted to start a new life with her. He told me Penny had this ultimate, fantastic incredi-daughter named Lucy, who was just like me, and he knew I would love Lucy to death. He was moving to Australia to be with Penny and Lucy and Penny's son, Angus.
That's when things got bad.
Maybe he said he was moving to Australia to marry Penny, but part of me suspected he was moving to Australia to be with Lucy, too. Like she was a better daughter than me. Why else would a dad move ten thousand miles away to be with a new family?
The day Jack told me about his new family, he said, "Do I have your blessing?" I nodded and said yes because he's such a nice dad with the cutest face you ever saw and he looked so happy, but I crossed my fingers behind his back when I hugged him and really I was thinking no. Really I was thinking, Lucy can borrow you until I figure out how to win you back.
Things were really hard after Jack left. I cried alone in my room almost every night when Bubbe and Angelina thought I was sleeping. In my dreams I saw Jack wearing a Crocodile Dundee hat, holding the Steps' hands, with a koala bear hanging from his shoulders, and the Steps singing, "He's ours now, he's ours now, na-na-na-na-na." Not even the fact that Jack called me every week and sent letters and little presents from Australia could fill the huge black hole in my heart created by his leaving. Eventually I got used to missing him and I stopped crying alone at night, but I refused to talk to the Steps on the phone, and when Jack came to visit me a year later, before Beatrice was born, I pretended not to be interested when he tried to tell me about Sydney, Australia, and about Penny and the Steps.
But now I was stuck going to Australia for Christmas break. Bubbe and Angelina wanted me to go. Jack had sent me E-mail every day for weeks before my trip, telling me what clothes to pack and describing all the things he wanted us to do together, with the Steps.
While the plane taking me to meet the Steps floated over gray clouds and endless ocean for what seemed like forever, I stared at the pictures of Lucy and Angus and plotted the ways I was going to aggravate them so much that they would become such terrible children that Jack would return home to New York City with me, where he belonged. It was true, what Jack had said -- Lucy did look a little like me. She had light blond hair, only mine was longer and curlier and she had bangs and I didn't, and she had blue eyes and rosy cheeks and braces. Her braces were multicolored, which made her mouth look like a lollipop, I thought. I'm a traditionalist (that's what Bubbe says about me, because I like to watch old movies with her and look at all her old clothes from the '50s), so my braces are solid silver. I think multicolored lollipop-looking braces are too flashy, and I should know. One day I'm going to be a famous fashion designer.
Just looking at her pictures, I knew that Lucy was a fashion no-no. Angus, I could see from his pictures, was also hopeless. He had a mop of wild, curly blond hair and thick glasses, and -- get this -- in his picture he was wearing neon-colored striped pants with a paisley-print T-shirt that had a picture of a fish on it! I knew my first order of business when I got to Australia would be to speak with Penny about properly dressing Angus. I know what happens on the playground to kids who dress badly, because I have been torturing Wheaties about his fashion sense since nursery school.
I admit, all the time on the plane that I was thinking of ways to torture Lucy and Angus -- like Plan A, accidentally spitting my bubble gum into their hair and then trying to take it out but really getting it gooed thick and impossible throughout their head, or Plan B, teaching them to make Jack's favorite "Famous New York-Style Spaghetti" with a whole cup of salt and a whole jar of olives (Jack's most hated food) -- I was also worried. Jack had been living with Penny, Lucy, and Angus for two years. Beatrice, our new baby half sister, was almost a year old. Jack had been back to America to visit me in the two years since he'd moved to Australia, but I had still never met them, and I knew that in those two years they would have developed a secret family language only they could understand.
Bubbe, Angelina, and I have our own special understandings, how we know one another's feelings and thoughts without having to say them. Like how Bubbe knows when I did bad on a math test by the way I hug her when she meets me after school and how she'll make me turn the television off later in the evening and go over fractions and equations while we bake cookies, or how Angelina knows when I have been crying secretly in my room from missing Jack and she'll cancel an audition to take me to a half-price Broadway show or to a baseball game, like Jack used to do before Penny, Lucy, and Angus took him away. Or how I know when Angelina is bummed because she didn't get an acting part and I will make her a cappuccino, turn on the stereo, and put on what I call the sad-lady music -- all these really cool ladies from like a million years ago with names like Dinah, Billie, and Etta, who sing about love and loss and what a difference a day makes.
Then there's my Bubbe. I can tell she is thinking about my dead grandpa when it's raining and she goes and sits on her plush chair and stares out the windows looking onto Central Park for hours and hours. When I see her like that, sometimes I'll curl up on her lap and nestle my head on her shoulder, and she'll tell me stories about my dead grandpa, about how they met when they were both campaigning in the 1950s for some guy called Adlai Stevenson (Adlai!) who wanted to be president, about their first date riding a boat on the Hudson River, circling Manhattan, and how they drove to Maryland a week later to get married and never looked back. "Grandpa sure wanted to see you grow into a young lady," she'll say. Bubbe likes to hear the sad-lady music too.
Two years had passed without me there to crack the secret family code that would have developed among Jack, Penny, Lucy, Angus, and Beatrice. I wondered if Lucy had figured out that on cold nights Jack loved to drink real hot chocolate not made from a mix, or that when he performed a bad set and the audience never laughed, that afterward, to cheer up, he liked to eat peanut M&Ms and watch Nick at Nite shows like The Odd Couple and Bewitched, but never ever I Love Lucy.
How I was going to figure out their secret family language and still manage to steal Jack back, I really, truly did not know. That's right, I, Annabel Whoopi Schubert, middle-namesake of Whoopi Goldberg, seventh-grade class president at the Progress School on the Upper West Side, future fashion designer whose clothes will one day be featured in every important fashion mag in the whole wide world, did not know how to win my dad back.
Copyright © 2003 by Rachel Cohn