The teacup shatters almost before it hits the floor, if you can believe that. I laugh, covering my mouth, but it’s too late. My grandmother stands up, pushing her seat away from the table. Her dress falls, draping behind her in long, pooling layers of creme colored fabric. I’ve always admired her cheekbones, but now they’re jutting more than ever. She’s mad, of course she’s mad. Who wouldn’t be mad, after what I just said?
Across the table, my brother’s eye twitches. He’s trying not to laugh too. My little sister kicks my shin. I take a deep breath, and stand up, holding my hands out to stop my grandmother from leaving the dining room. “Please, don’t leave. I’m sorry.” She scoffs. “I am!” I reach for her arm, pale and strong under the shimmering blue of her sleeves, “I am sorry. I won’t say it again.” Her eyes narrow and my lips slide sideways as another chuckle, hot and abrasive, chokes its way up my throat. “I promise!”
“It’s fine.” She smooths her skirt down. “You said it. It’s done. I’m going to my room.” She yanks away from me and sweeps down the hallway, her head lifted high as usual. But I know I hurt her feelings, and I feel awful. All this woman has done for us- for me and my siblings- is invite us to visit her. For years, my mother insisted that she didn’t want to see us, that her own mother- our grandmother- didn’t want any reminders of her daughter’s marriage. Which, obviously, would be her three marvelous grandchildren. I think I proved her right. My grandmother has always had something negative to find about my dad, whether it’s the schlumpy way he dresses, his delightful gas station job, or the drowsy house he bought to share with my mother, the same house he raised us in. I feel awful because after almost nineteen years of no contact, our grandmother finally wanted to try again. And I ruined it. Maybe.
“I can’t believe you said that.”
I smack my forehead with the palm of my hand. “I know. It was stupid.” I sigh. “Really stupid, actually.”
My brother laughs again and says, “I thought it was great.”
“She could say ‘doo-doo’ and you’d think it was great, Martin,” my sister adds, “I think you need to apologize.”
I throw up my hands, “Mara, sweet sister of mine, if you didn’t notice, that’s what I was trying to do! And it didn’t work! She swept off back to her bedroom like some kinda ice queen!”
Mara stares at me. Martin says, “You probably shouldn’t call her an ice queen, if the vibe you’re looking for is apologetic.”
“That’s true.” I sit back down at the table and pick up a forlorn piece of chicken. “What should I do, though? Wait till morning and hope she forgot the whole incident?”
“No, that’s dumb.”
I nod, “Yeah, but it’s the only thing I can think of.” I sink down and slip out of the chair, onto the floor, where the teacup is still shattered. The tea it held has sloshed out, puddling in dark circles on the carpet. At least, I think, the carpet isn’t white. In that case, my grandmother might have already kicked us out. Part of me wonders if I was secretly trying to test her, to see if she’d ask us to leave on the first night here. She didn’t though. She just walked back to her bedroom to do who knows what. Maybe cry. Gosh, what kind of monster makes their estranged grandmother cry on the first night of their Hallmark level reunion? Me, that’s who. I scoop the broken teacup into my hand. “Who knew tea was such a big deal to her? I thought it was just, like, to add another level of poshness.”
Mara, from her seat at the table because she has not yet descended to my level, says, “You didn’t even see her tea cabinet.”
“She has a tea cabinet?”
Martin nods emphatically. It must be an awesome tea cabinet. “Man, if I’d have known that before I-”
“It’s too late.”
Thank you, Captain Obvious Mara. I get off the floor and dump the pieces of irreparable porcelain in the nearest trash can. There are about five thousand windows in this house. Is it even a house, after it’s gone past three stories, has at least five courtyards, and has a staff of, like, twenty seven people? An honest to avocado and guacamole goodness came to pick us up from the airport. It was crazy. The whole situation- the invitation, the first class tickets to LA, the dinner- is all crazy. My grandmother showed us the itinerary for the next week. It was full of normal-ish grandmother x grandchildren things to do, which was funny because she seemed like the last person on earth who would want to embrace her role as one of the founding matriarchs in our family.
“I don’t think it’s too late.” I look at Martin. “Do you think it’s too late?”
At fourteen, Martin should be at the stage where he ignores me, his totally lame and unhinged older sister, but for some reason, we get along pretty well, definitely better than Mara- sixteen- and I get along. As the middlest child, I think she gets flustered easily. Not that I blame her. She’s stuck in multiple shadows, including, in some weird, convoluted way, my own. And then, of course, there’s my oldest brother, Javar, but he’s… who knows where Javar is, to be honest. He’s been out of the picture for almost as long as my grandmother has. Good thing we have trusty old Martin. He beams at me and shakes his head, his black curls creating a bouncy frame for his face. “I don’t think it’s too late! We just need a really good plan.”
I slap my hands down on the table beside my plate. The leftover chicken jiggles. “Exactly, my dear boy. We just need a really good plan. Something that will let her know we love her as much as she needs us to. Which, depending on why she finally invited us here, might be a lot. Do you think she’s lonely?”
“The woman lives with almost thirty other people. I doubt it.”
“You can live in a world of seven billion people and still be isolated, Mara. Don’t be rude. She’s our grandmother! Our,” I pause, “We need a different name for her.”
“She told us to call her Hannamarie,” Martin says.
“I know, I know. But that’s so formal.”
“Well,” Mara intercedes, “Our relationship with her thus far has been anything but personal. She didn’t even meet us at the airport.”
“Hannamarie it is.” I start to gather plates from off the table, the weight of them in my arms throwing me into waitress reflexes. Just as I start towards the massive kitchen, though, a butler named Torres steps beside me, barring me from taking the dishes to the sink.
“You can’t do that.”
“Why not?” As soon as I say it, I feel like it’s not an appropriate way to interact with a butler, especially this one. He’s young, couldn’t be over three years older than me, and studies me now with dark eyes, like he can’t believe what he’s seeing. “I’m sorry, but I really can take them, I don’t mind.”
“It’s not your job,” he says, and starts taking the plates from me and putting them back on the table. “The kitchen staff always handles dishes. You’re a guest.” He sets down a bowl. “So please, for the good of everyone, start acting like one.”
“Thank you, Torres.”
He narrows his eyes and I worry I’ve offended him again, but then he breaks into a half-smile. I feel the sudden urge to slide my pinky nail through the space between his front teeth. Not wanting to seem like an even worse freak than I’ve already made myself out to be, I shove my hand in my pocket and return the grin.
“Don’t call me Torres, it makes me feel old. And I’m not.” He adds quickly, “Not that old, I mean. I’m almost twenty two. And you’re twenty.”
“Yeah,” I draw out the response, “How did you know that?”
“Your grandmother. Hannamarie, I mean, she told us all about you guys. Your name is cool, by the way.” He’s kinda chatty, for a butler, and that sounds weird, but I always imagined butlers to be old and silent except when they were doling out, like, sage advice. Torres isn’t even wearing a suit. He looks nice, professional wouldn’t be a stretch, but it’s not the expected butler attire, which definitely threw me off when he introduced himself. “Matilde. It reminds me of Matilda, but also Madeline.” I stare at him. “What? I read books, too.”
He must have seen my suitcases spill when I was walking up the stairs to my room earlier today. All my books- all fifty six books I dragged with me for this week long trip- dropped all over the place. “Yeah, well, no one really calls me Matilde.”
“We call her Matty,” Martin informs him, so I don’t have to. My siblings have been oddly quiet the whole time I’ve been talking to Torres. “But if you don’t want us to call you Torres,” he asks, “What should we call you?”
Torres pivots towards the table. “You, Martin, can call me Torres. Your sister can call me whenever she’d like.” He turns back towards me and laughs when he sees what I’m sure are my wide eyes. “Because I’m the butler, Matilde. And therefore,” he does a very butler-like bow, “I’m always at your service.” Before I can interject or add a witty remark of my own, Torres glides back into the depths of the house.
The minute he’s gone, Martin, in true little brother fashion, starts to make ridiculous kissy faces at me. Mara just shakes her head, like she’s reminding me I’m here to visit Hannamarie, not to flirt with the alarmingly attractive staff.
“Um,” I start to sit back down at the table, “So back to the plan-”
Mara leans to the side as a maid picks up a stack of dishes, “Right. The plan. I was thinking, while you were, ahem, busy elsewhere, and I found this.” She holds out her phone to me. I take it from her and look at the screen. “It’s a tea tour around the city.”
“Of Los Angeles?”
Mara sighs. She has a lot to sigh about. Mostly things regarding me. “No, bozo, I thought we’d fly out to London for the week.” Sarcasm. I’ve taught her well. “Yes, of LA. It’s surprisingly well known for its tea scene. I’m gonna map it all out today, and tomorrow we’ll wake up early and surprise Hannamarie with an itinerary of our own.”
“Oh, my sweet sister, when did you get so smart?”
She smiles, “When I realized you were the funny one.”
Martin pipes up, “And what am I?”
“The pretty one, of course.”
Mara points at me, “See? Just like I said. You’re funny.”
Martin tilts his head. “So I’m not pretty?”
My sister and I both turn to our little brother. “Martin,” I tell him, “You’re beautiful.”
“Don’t doubt it for a second,” Mara says, and we both sandwich him in a squeezy, over affectionate hug.
“I can’t breathe!”
I release him. “Alright, well, I love you guys, but I’m going to sleep now.”
Mara holds up a hand, “You can’t! Not yet. We have to plan.”
“Wake me up at four am if you want to. I literally cannot keep my eyes open any longer.” I jab my finger under my left eyelid. “It’s physically impossible.”
Frowning, Mara relents. I give her head a nice pat and start up the first flight of stairs. My room is on the third floor, across the hall from Mara, and Martin is staying on the second floor. I don’t know why Hannamarie insisted on separating us like that, but I’m sure she had her weird old lady reasons. Much too complicated for my youthful brain to process, however, so I didn’t spend too much time thinking about it.
It’s been a long day, and all I want to do is jump into this gigantic bed and sleep until next spring, but as I pull the comforter over my face, all I can think about is how heartbroken Hannamarie looked when I said that thing at dinner. I didn’t mean it badly, but, well, that’s the issue with being such a natural comedian. I don’t always stop to think about what I’m saying or how it will affect who I’m saying it about, or to. After taking one sip of the tea my grandmother had set out for me, I spit it out into my napkin and, without missing a beat, said, “Man, no wonder my mom didn’t want contact with you. She always said you forced stuff down her throat, and if it was anything as repulsively strong as this tea, I can see why we haven’t been around you much!” In retrospect, it was bad, I’ll admit. I could have so many other things. Tea is a good starting point for jokes. I could have made her laugh, but no. Matilde of No Manners strikes once again. If only Matilde of No Manners can fix this mistake, maybe then she will become, I don’t know, Matilde the Marvelous. That has a nice ring to it.
Mara, true to her word, wakes me up at four am. For the next three hours, we plan, making maps of the city and outlining what should be the perfect day, the exact thing we need to win over our grandmother. When the sunlight starts to filter in through the drawing room’s soft curtains, Torres appears with a tray of- you guessed it- tea and assorted bread atrocities. He’s wearing a black bathrobe and ugly slippers. His socks are decorated with apples. It’s very apparent he woke up and rolled out of bed to bring us breakfast without brushing his hair or his teeth. Not that Mara and I are looking that refreshed either, though. I’m pretty sure sleeping on a bed made of literal clouds and fairy dust makes people 56 percent more likely to drool all over themselves, because when I woke up this morning, there were levels of spittle in my hair that would make any infant insanely jealous.
Mara doesn’t look up from our map. “Good morning, Torres,” I say.
“Please, Matilde. Call me Teo.”
“Short for Teodoro?”
He shakes his head, “Good guess, but no.” He puts the tray down. “Mateo.”
“Ah, cool. Well, tell me, Teo, what are you up to today?”
He lifts an eyebrow, “It’s only six am. What are you plotting?”
“How well do you know the city? I may need a tour guide.”
Mara holds up a finger, “We may need a tour guide. We’re doing a tea tour of LA. Because Matty ruined dinner last night.”
“Really? How?” Teo sits down next to me on the drawing room floor. He starts to look over the maps. “This looks super cool.”
“Thank you,” Mara says automatically. And it does look super cool. She’s an excellent artist and works at a level of organization that would impress Marie Kondo. “Can you help us, then?”
“I should be able to. Let me ask Mils if he’s willing to trade with me for the day.” To my puzzled face, he explains, “That’s the driver. You met him?”
“Yeah, we met him. He’s nice.”
Teo shrugs, “Sure. Well, I’ll ask him. What time are you guys leaving?”
“Eight is the EDT.”
“Got it.” Teo gets up, takes the tray, and leaves.
“Well, that’s one perk of flirting with the help,” Mara says, drawing another tea shop.
“That’s rude, Mars. He’s cool! Who knows,” I nudge her, “Maybe we can find some nice gardener for you to hang out with. You like flowers, don’t you?”
She rolls her eyes, “Maybe when I was nine, sure.”
At about seven thirty, Mara tells me to go get Hannamarie and drag her back to the drawing room for the big reveal. On my way to her room, though, I shake awake Martin and tell him the plan is almost certainly a go. He smiles through sleepy eyes and says he’ll be downstairs in a minute. Thank goodness, once again, for such a docile encounter. If it was Mara I had to wake up, chances are I’d be doing a tea tour with double black eyes.
“Hannamarie?” I knock on her door. “Are you awake?” She seems like the kind of woman to wake up before sunrise and write dramatic poetry while the muses are still visiting.
“Yes, I am. Why? Have you come to further damage my ego?”
Ah, maybe that’s where my family gets their sharp tongues. “No, um, we actually wanted to get a jump start on the day. We have something planned. I think you’ll love it.”
Hannamarie sighs deeply. “Are you in the drawing room?”
“Yeah, we are. I told Mara I’d bring you back with me.” I pause before adding, “Dead or alive, but preferably alive because the trip would be such a bummer with a corpse in the car.” Surprisingly, Hannamarie laughs at that one. “So you’re coming? Come on, this is an outstretched hand. An olive branch. Take it.”
“Fine.” I hear shuffling, a click, and then the door unlocks. “Let’s go.”