Four years ago, I was comfortably lying in bed when my eight-year-old sister, Dulce, burst through my door and pounced on me.
“Get off my bed!” I screamed, dodging her sticky hands and dirty feet, protecting my plush, white comforter.
Growing up in a small apartment, you’d think I would spend a lot of time with my younger sister. But I had a lock on my door that I frequently used in order to avoid her. I was an angsty middle schooler who only wanted to go out with friends instead of spend time with family. My relationship with my sister, however, would soon change.
When my mom started working more often when I was 14 — she has a couple different jobs — she asked me to start helping her take care of Dulce. My older sister, Krista-Belle, used to take care of Dulce until she got more involved with work. At first, I dreaded my new responsibility. When I first started looking after her, I didn’t take any of my responsibilities seriously. When it came time to feed her, I mostly gave her microwaved meals from Trader Joe’s. When I needed to help her read, I chose the shortest book I could find. I didn’t try to connect with her on a deeper level because I thought our age difference wouldn’t allow it. After all, she was in elementary school and enjoyed playing with her toys while I enjoyed going out with friends.
Another reason I couldn’t connect with her was because she lived with my mom, and I lived with both my mom and dad, so I didn’t get to see her that often. At the beginning of my junior year, though, I moved into my mom’s apartment full time. The more I paid attention to Dulce at home, the more I realized my mom was overwhelmed by work and needed help. So, I decided to become a better older sister and take care of Dulce as much as I could. I noticed that she ate Eggo waffles every day for breakfast and ate a lot of junk food throughout the rest of the day as well, so I decided to make sure she ate enough fruits and vegetables. I also noticed how quickly and ineffectively she would brush her teeth, so I started brushing my teeth with her while listening to a two-minute song, hoping to teach her how long she should brush for. I knew my hard work paid off when she wrote in a school assignment, “Angelina is smart, helpful and makes sure I’m healthy.”
In middle school I had felt angsty, but now I started to feel more mature and happy with myself because of the fact that I had an important role to fulfill in my home life. I had more respect for myself, my mom and moms all around the world. I didn’t want Dulce to think of me as a parent, though. I wanted to be seen as a friend, so I made sure to dedicate lots of my time to playing with her. I wanted Dulce to eat fruits and vegetables, and I wanted to have fun with her, too.
She wanted to start a cat club to learn more about cats, her favorite animal. Every Thursday, we put on cat ears and researched different types of cats and presented our facts to her stuffed animals. I took her to Crumbs and Whiskers, a cafe on Melrose that’s teeming with adoptable kittens. I will always remember her laughter and excitement that day, because it definitely made up for the years we spent not being close. We also went to ice cream shops, theme parks and everywhere the city of LA offered us.
By the end of 2019, our relationship was stronger than ever. I was feeling good about myself, not just at home, but in other aspects of my life. I felt confident about school, about my friendships and about my mental health.
Then, suddenly, a deadly pandemic made its way into our lives.
When I saw on the news that we would have to start quarantining, I looked at Dulce and thought, What on earth am I going to do with you? Suddenly, the city of Los Angeles no longer existed, and we were trapped inside the confines of our two-bedroom apartment. No more ice cream shops, only the abandoned Thrifty’s carton inside our freezer. No more theme parks and cafes, only endless days spent sitting on our beds.
As quarantine took hold, I began to notice Dulce’s complexion starting to fade. I worried that she wasn’t seeing her friends. I worried that she wasn’t developing conversational skills.
Interestingly enough, however, Dulce actually enjoyed quarantine. She liked playing board games, spending more time with her pet and playing with me and Krista-Belle. I, on the other hand, started going absolutely crazy. I began losing my mind as soon as school started because I had to navigate Dulce’s remote learning on top of my own.
As the weeks passed, we developed a morning routine that helped the flow of things, and I started to go to school alongside her at the kitchen table in case she needed help with anything. I can’t say it’s easy to balance loads of homework and the natural worries about everything happening in the world with having to teach a child how to navigate online school.
Summer started, and I continued to lose my mind, even though school was over. I had to think of something fun to do, so in July I devised a plan to transform our dining room into an Italian restaurant, and I asked Krista-Belle to help. I hoped to satisfy Dulce’s dream of traveling to Europe and living out her princess fantasies. For myself, I hoped to provide myself a little sanity and have a little fun.
Step one: invitations. Although fancy restaurants don’t normally invite you to eat there, I thought they were an essential part of mimicking the Italian upper class. My sisters and I designed our own invitations using jewels, sparkly markers and stickers. Dulce already began smiling as soon as she started coloring the invitations with her sparkly pens. I was amazed that even something as simple as coloring together could make my little sister happy. After “receiving” these invitations, Krista and I felt relief from quarantine and excited to put on makeup for the first time in weeks.
Step two: the menu. Based on what we had in our kitchen, we decided to have pizza, salad and Trader Joe’s mac and cheese as our entrees. For appetizers, we planned to have bruschetta, garlic bread and cheese bread along with a vinegar and oil dip. We also decided to include fresh fruit, and, luckily, we happened to have peaches, which seemed to me to be an Italian staple after watching “Call Me By Your Name.” For drinks, we decided to serve water, tea, coffee and Trader Joe’s sparkling black tea with peach juice. Lastly, we planned to serve Trader Joe’s chocolate lava cakes for dessert. My mom found a menu template online and not only customized it to our cuisine but added a crossword puzzle in Italian on the back (with an English translation). I’d gotten used to my mom looking stressed, and I hoped this would be a break for her as well. Finally, my mom would get to sit back, relax and sip some wine.
Step three: decor. Ah, where do I begin? I simply went above and beyond with our dining room transformation. There may have been some inaccuracy, considering that I have never actually been to Italy, but I tried my best. First, I displayed a scene from “Call Me By Your Name” on the TV to really get the geographical feel of Northern Italy. Next, I played “The Perfect Italian Dinner” playlist on Spotify, which I still listen to every once in a while in hopes of learning Italian. (My English teacher tells me to read “Eat, Pray, Love”). Then, I ravaged through all of our cupboards to find tablecloths and fancy plates to replicate a fancy table setting. I also picked some flowers, washed them and placed them in a vintage floral vase to use as our centerpiece. I added candles, plants and a Renaissance-style painting to a small white side table next to our dining table. Krista decided to look up a YouTube tutorial on making origami out of napkins, and she perfected the craft in a matter of minutes. Gazing at the table, Dulce was in awe of the swan-shaped napkins, making me feel relieved that our hard work and preparation was paying off. The last thing we needed to do was make a sign for our restaurant. We named it “Angelini’s Ristorante,” and made a sign using cardboard, markers and amateur calligraphy.
Step four: outfits. We took this as an opportunity to wear the European outfits we had bought in the summer of 2018 when we assumed we were traveling to Europe (before my father decided to change his mind about going). I wore a long, ruffled white skirt, a white lace corset and small green and brown heels. Krista wore a white halter top with orange and blue embroidered flowers and a denim skirt with light pink sandals. Dulce wore a long, white dress with pink, yellow and blue flowers and orange butterflies, along with a pair of gold sparkly heels. My mother wore a flowy white dress with dark blue flowers. The dinner could have easily been mistaken for a floral-themed party.
Finally, everything was ready, and the Italian dinner began. We clinked “wine” glasses, shared anecdotes and laughed over a cup of tea after it was all over. My mom, my older sister and I took turns playing the waitress since Dulce was the special guest of the night. After we finished eating, Dulce handed me her Metrocard to pay for the dinner, pretending it was a debit card.
I took the card, looked down at my sister’s smile, saw my mom sipping her glass of wine and realized that we’d forgotten our worries, even if just for one night. As uncontrollable as the world is right now, the Italian dinner made me realize that I needed to focus on controlling what I can. The dinner was ours — no restrictions, no fears, no distractions — just four girls having a good time.