When we were little, our dad would sit one of us on his lap as he drove to The Boys supermarket in Highland Park. He’d leave us in the car with the motor running while he ran in to pick up a six-pack or two and pork rinds for himself, and a bag of Ruffles chips, and a bottle of Mexican Coke for me and my sisters to share on the drive back to Boyle Heights.
As soon as we were tall enough to reach the peddles, around eleven for me and Claudia, and closer to thirteen for Maritza, he taught us to drive stick shift. He’d borrow Mrs. Gonzalez’s battered VW Beetle which, by then, was mostly primer and duct tape. It was also the car he’d learned how to drive in the decades before.
We could parallel park in three smooth steps in just about any spot without having to use our mirrors—a party trick that only backfired once during a Fourth of July barbecue when one of our jerk cousins set off a cherry bomb just as Maritza began her initial reverse. Our dad may have not gotten his boys, but he never treated us like we couldn’t handle a car due to a lack of a penis. This is why, when we got our permits and then licenses, one right after another and each of us passing our tests on the first try, it wasn’t a rite of passage like it was for our cousins and friends. It just was.
By the time Maritza got her learner’s permit, our dad had given us the Malibu to share. For himself, he bought a used two-door Ford Crown Victoria that had been custom painted a luminous pearl-gray shade I’ve never seen since, but still dream about.
Our mom thought the Malibu gave us too much freedom—a dangerous thing for girls to have, much less enjoy. She and our dad fought about it. For once, he didn’t give in and we got to keep the car. What she got to do was insist we always keep white and yellow striped towels over the seats. I thought it was to protect the pleather upholstery, but after I walked in on her inspecting those towels with a magnifying glass, I realized she was looking for other kinds of dirt.
The older we got and the more ourselves we each became, the less she seemed to want us around. But she also didn’t want us to go anywhere. My sisters and I each dealt with this constant push and pull in our own ways. Maritza became our mom’s shadow, Claudia excelled at being very smart, and I caused the kind of trouble no one wanted around the house.
When things got especially tense, our dad went with what he knew—cars and driving. He’d put our mom to bed with a cold cloth over her eyes and then order the three us into the Malibu—if one of us was in trouble, we all were. He left it up to whoever was the cause of our mom’s migraine to pick a destination, after calculating how far we could go on what was in the gas tank.
We’d always stop for ice cream and, as we ate, he’d tell us it was hard for our mom to, basically, be our mom, as if this explained anything. When we asked why, he’d tell us that’s all we had to know. Our dad rarely yelled, never threatened to kick us out or lock us in our rooms and he never, not once, raised a hand to us. He expected his daughters to behave, and when we didn’t, he called me, Claudia and Maritza on it in his own way, and as best as he could manage without making our mom anymore upset than she always seemed to be. As far as he was concerned, we were supposed to be tough, but obedient, two traits directly in conflict with each other even if he never saw it that way.
Our mom thought he should punish us, not buy us ice cream, which is why we never told her about it. What she wanted was for him to use his belt on us, then once we were too old for that, to take away the car keys, nail the windows shut, and install a deadbolt on the outside of the bedroom door.
In her mind, we were bad, and even when we weren’t, it was just a matter of time until we were. This was especially true for me.
Margo Candela was born and raised in Los Angeles and began her writing career when she joined Glendale Community College’s student newspaper. She transferred to San Francisco State University as a journalism major, and upon graduation began writing for websites and magazines before writing her first two novels, Underneath It All and Life Over Easy. She returned to Los Angeles to raise her son and wrote More Than This and Good-bye to All That. The Neapolitan Sisters is her fifth novel and her first after a decade-long hiatus from writing. She now lives in San Francisco.