I’m tired of crashing balls in borrowed gowns. I’m tired of prohibitive return policies. I can no longer forgive the atrocities in my story. Do you suggest I ignore the blood in my shoes? Can we look at this through a Marxist lens? I don’t know why the night must end on a single cold foot.
I don’t think this pumpkin is working. My dress is wrecked. My prince is gone. Transformation has ruined the mice. They spend their days researching spells and creating online profiles. PonyPride17. RestlessRider. I don’t know where they found the Ouija board, but I’ve told them you’re no ghost. Your alchemy resists duplication. None of us comprehend your rules, so arbitrary and persnickety, so clearly intended as obstructions. The mice refuse to believe that the best part of life is behind them. They hold out hope: if it happened once. If we could spin the circumstances just right, acquire credit, purchase the magic words that would conjure you again. If midnight was more metaphor than expiration date.
Are your terms negotiable? I’d take an ounce of self-respect over a footman any day. Or, if you want that I should flee the prince, surely there are better reasons to do so than a curfew. Let’s say, instead, that my regalia begins to grate. It’s so stiff, so cumbersome, so devoted to its own shape. Let’s say that all evening I’ve wished to shed my gown, snakelike, and consume it. Fashion me a suit of ash in its place; the slinkiest armor the kingdom has ever seen. This time, I’ll wear body paint and pasties, a strap-on beard, high-tops. Let’s face it: I’m as suited to the throne as the mice are to saddles. I’d rather slay another prince than marry one. Royalty is just a respectable form of servitude.
I’m tired of not being on television. I’m tired of talking to ex-princes who tactfully pause before asking about my past. Every ex-prince is expert at something: the one who only talked about fracking. The one who only talked about saltwater aquariums. “No one has breadth anymore,” I tell the mice. “All they care about is their own tiny kingdom.”
The mice are sensitive to my derogatory use of the word tiny.
“Maybe you’re bad at conversation,” they say.
“You’re not even supposed to be able to talk,” I say.
They remind me that logic has not distracted my story for two hundred years.
I’m tired of stepmother apologists with their unconventional points of view. I’m tired of romantic montages and tragic backstories. Give me a guy with a day job. Someone who’s strategic about the carpool lane. Anyone can go to charm school; give me the dropout who can hold his liquor. The one who will remind me that horses are glorified rodents.
I’m tired of needlework. Of inhibitions and censorship. I’m tired of not dropping F-bombs around children just to see their mothers wince. I’m tired of not doing shots out of glass slippers every night.
You realize, of course, that there are more interesting objects to make out of glass. A wig, a codpiece, a prosthetic heel. I think of them at odd times, my stepsisters. My sisters from another mother, my antagonists, my straw-man lady friends. Thrown in the mass grave of characters who exist solely to be punished. Have you ever felt like that? Have I gone too far? Consider what you’d do: some chick mutilates her own foot to fit the shoe you’re holding. Am I naive to think someone should’ve reached for a tourniquet? The moral of the story is that people can be cruel. The mice would like to know if people are ever anything but cruel. Not like horses, they say. Now there’s a superior species.
Can we all just admit that there are things we’d cut off body parts to get? Don’t tell me this was their punishment. Gift me with the courage to follow in their steps.
The mice persist in running around half-naked. They ate three of their own babies, but no telling if it was a crime of passion or opportunity. They gnaw inspirational messages into the pumpkins. I tell them they are too sentient to go around without pants. They reply it is a shame about my gown.
“I’m not wearing a gown,” I say.
“That’s what we mean,” they say. “You could put in a little effort.”
It’s too hard to comb my hair these days, let alone change my shirt. I survive off alimony and royalties. I’ve developed night sweats, which the mice insist is a side effect of depression and metacognition. My gynecologist says I’m pre-menopausal. I say I’m also pre-married and pre-pregnant and pre-dead. He says I have a perfect cervix, and I consider adding that to my online dating profile. But I don’t because the mice wrote my profile and will be pissed if I change it. They called me a social climber and a good catch.
For employment, they put service industry.
For religion, realist.
Looking for: human (preferred).
They gave my shoe and cup size in lieu of height and weight. They didn’t mention the condition of my house or any of my medications.
Screw the gown, lady, give me new skin. Ostrich feathers, whale blubber, a pelt cobbled from predators. Give me milky eyes and accessory organs. Retractable claws. Give me scutes and a second row of teeth. When the clock strikes, I’ll hatch. Grow to the size of my container. Sprout feet from vestigial feet.
Sorry. I fear my crassness has kept you away. I could blame the mice for procuring a thirty-dollar bottle of wine last night, but the truth is I’m not the girl I used to be. I’ve become critical, demanding. I’ve lost faith in humanity but can’t reconcile myself to being alone. I’ve unfriended the prince and most of the kingdom, and the only messages I get are from anonymous fans that are probably the mice.
This is all to say: I don’t need a gown. The pumpkins are ruined, but I’ll take any vehicle.
If it would be easier, I could throw the next ball. We could make it a bona fide Freak Show, display oddities instead of formal wear. What would you give me? I knew a woman who claimed she could orgasm at will, but I’d rather be taken by surprise, be programmed to climax to particular things that I wouldn’t know in advance. A woman eating hash browns, say. One-and-a-half line spacing. Broken finish lines. The word irregardless. The word kerfuffle. Air horns. Irony. Pumpkin spice. I’d encounter some right away; others I never would. But the possibility of enrapture would always be there, attainable only in discrete units.
The mice say I have too much time on my hands. I say I’m bored by anyone who’s not talking about mortal sin. I want us all to wear greed on the outside where everyone can see it.
This is the condition of remorse. I’m going to invite Orgasm Woman to my ball and put her under lights. Come one, come all.
This was much easier the first time.
The mice still want to believe that we’re the chosen ones. Even now, we speak from the vantage point of the lucky. Consider the girl that never escaped her stepmother’s house. She had a fairy godfather, real lecherous sort. When he found her crouching in the fireplace, sorting lentils from ash, he didn’t ask permission to take what she hadn’t offered. She had a child made of glass that she dressed in rubber. No precaution was too much. When the child cried, her tears shattered. And she needed to be kept very warm.
The glass girl obsessed over other people’s pain because she could feel none herself. She became expert at invoking it, her mother the easiest target. She’d ask about her mother’s childhood, then say, “At least you weren’t made of glass.” It was so easy.
Consider the doves that pecked out the stepsisters’ eyes. They didn’t need the provocation of rabies or habitat loss. We’re meant to accept their aggression as fair punishment for the wicked.
Consider the taste of the eyes. It’s not a meal that would sit well.
Consider the debilitating sense of entitlement you’d get from having your wishes granted and foes vanquished.
Consider that no one in the whole kingdom shared my shoe size. Can we just pause over that?
Consider the prince who contacted me after a week of no contact to tell me he wouldn’t be contacting me anymore. In the chronology of the relationship, his message was such an aberration that I couldn’t help responding.
I said: Send this text a week ago.
He said: This is why you’re single.
I said: I thought you said you weren’t contacting me anymore.
He said: That’s mature.
I said: Thanks, Prince Obvious.
No one’s paying me to be mature, and frankly, I don’t see the benefit. No one’s ever said, I love her maturity.
The glass girl knows that if she demands candy from the kids at lunch, they’ll give it to her because otherwise she’ll threaten to break herself and blame it on them. When she gets older, she’ll carry glass condoms in her purse; older still, she’ll store glass dentures in a glass of water by her bed. She’ll never get a piercing or a sunburn or a sore throat. To her dying day, she’ll insist on comfortable shoes.
I’m tired of not being the glass girl.
The mice have acquired some kind of horse skin. They know something I don’t about agency.
But I know something they don’t about dramatic irony.
Prince Pointless contacted me to ask if I wanted to try hanging out again. The mice are too preoccupied with their horse skin to care. It smells like a slaughterhouse, but they stay up stitching and buttonholing and oiling it all night.
I agreed to meet Prince Pointless for Happy Hour, then stood him up.
The ex-hubs sent the Grand Duke to check on me. He’s old school like that, refuses to upgrade to wireless or BluRay. He calls cell phones “mobiles” and uses a fax machine. But the Grand Duke and I always got along. He gives me the scoop on the string of princesses my ex- has moved through, predictably young and blonde, how he tired of them and has since taken to random hook-ups from craigslist ads the Duke prints out. It takes a while for the Duke to ask about the smell, and right after he does, like they’ve been granted permission, the mice come out in the horse skin. You can tell they’re trying to be convincing, pawing at the carpet and making these high-pitched whinnies, but the seams are showing and the body is lumpy and they’ve glued craft-store googly eyes to the empty sockets. You wouldn’t think it’d be possible to make a horse skin look creepier than it already does, but those eyes do the trick.
“Dude,” the Duke whispers. “That’s effed up.”
“And they wonder why I never bring anyone home,” I say.
The mice complete a slow circle of the living room, showing off their handiwork, then disappear into a back bedroom. We hear them arguing. The Duke turns to me.
“Look.” He puts a hand on my shoulder. “The Prince – he’s a wreck. And by the looks of it, you’re not doing so hot yourself. I’m going to tell you what I told him: everybody thinks happily ever after is a crock, but it’s not. It’s real. It’s possible. But you have to keep reinventing it, like everything else. You have to figure out different ways to perform it. Balls are ridiculous pageantry, I know, but they serve a purpose.”
“That’s what she said,” I say.
He ignores me. “They remind us that happiness is the interior realization of the external presentation. Not the other way around.”
“You should tell that to the mice,” I say. “They love inspirational speeches.”
“Dress for the ending you want,” he says. “Fake it ‘til you make it.”
“You’re saying I should wear the gown.”
“I’m saying,” the Duke says, “that the mice have the right idea. Poor execution, but the right idea.”
We hug. After he’s gone, I cry for a long time. I don’t know what to wear because I don’t know who I want to be.
I fill out a personal ad on craigslist. I call myself a reformed protagonist and describe, precisely, the kind of sex I know the prince likes. I wait for his call.
The first few years we were together, I never expressed a single demand of my own. My marriage felt so fragile, so whimsical: what the fairy godmother giveth, the fairy godmother could taketh away. Later, a therapist told me it wasn’t uncommon for trauma to follow in a fairy godmother’s wake. It wasn’t something anyone talked about, but the whole process of first receiving, then losing, your heart’s desires – all in the course of one night – was bound to fuck you up long-term. That wasn’t what the therapist said. The therapist said I needed to process and work through it. I needed to express to the prince my fears, my doubts, my desires. Cross-class relationships were challenging, the therapist said. The prince might never fully understand where I’d come from.
He’d never asked where I’d come from.
He didn’t know how I searched for my stepsisters, how I tracked them to this assisted living place where the trail went cold. How I’d planned, when I saw them, to ask if they’d let me record them. Start at the beginning, I’d have said. Tell me where you’re from.
I told the therapist I was tired. Just so tired. The therapist said it would only get worse, and I said it was my impression that therapists weren’t supposed to say things like that.
Eventually the prince and I stopped having sex. From what I gather, it’s not uncommon. The thing he wanted most was for me to own my desires. To wear my body like a piece of jewelry. Give him the gift of my appetite.
But I owned nothing outright. You, the mice, the kingdom were keeping tabs. The glass slipper glowed red as eyes in the night.
I wear a costume to the castle and ride the second iteration of the horse-skin horse. Our progress is painfully slow. I have lots of time to reconsider. I visualize possible scenarios: he recognizes me at once and sends me away; he recognizes me and is into it; he doesn’t recognize me but passes on the opportunity; he doesn’t recognize me and falls in love; and on and on, while the mice drag clip to its blessed clop. The doves, true to character, sing their bitchy rhymes. Roo coo kite, that horse ain’t right. Roo coo creak, the prince is gonna freak.
I’ve tried to take the Duke’s words to heart, so I opted for a leopard-print, halter-top catsuit. Thirty-five bucks and free shipping, plus another fifty for the jeweled mask. The shoes I already had.
Not those shoes.
I wonder if you, fairy godmother, will appear en route, wave your wand to turn the horse skin into a stretch limo and my love handles into perkier tits. But of course you don’t. It takes us three hours to get across town, but we make it to the castle on our own, our patched-together caravan of sweat and hope.
We’re routed to the back entrance, as if the paparazzi can be deterred that easily, and I tie up my exhausted horse. The mice pant and high five. The butler pretends not to recognize me. He shows me to the bedroom that used to be mine, and after all these years, I discover that little has changed. No matter what else the prince has done in here, the room reeks of sour virginity. The terror of that first night, the nauseating flashbacks, the glory of triumph quickly ceding to a tidal wave of guilt. My recurring nightmare was that my feet grew and grew.
The bedroom door opens, but instead of the prince, it’s the Grand Duke. He holds a shoebox under his arm, puts a finger to his lips. Kneels before me and opens the box.
I half-expect they won’t still fit. But they do.
And why? That’s what I want to know: why is the most dubious part of my wardrobe the one that remains? Why this reinforcement of the illusion? Isn’t it hard enough to stave off nihilism without the reminder that your youth was completely implausible? It couldn’t have happened that way. It must’ve been a fever dream, a side effect, a hallucination.
But no, the glass slippers say. It happened. It was real.
You were there. You were my family. And then you weren’t.
“It’s okay to be angry,” the Grand Duke says. “It’s okay to feel a lot of things.”
I put the slippers back in the box, which the Duke slides under the bed. He kisses my cheek and shuts the door behind him.
The next time the door opens, it’s the prince. “That creature outside,” he says. “Belongs to you?”
“My trusty steed,” I say. “Rides like a dream.”
“You look familiar.” He’s wearing red silk pajama pants and a gold chain. He’s trying to look cooler than he is, just like I’m trying to look sexier than I am. Somehow, it seems more real between us than it ever has before.
“People tell me that a lot,” I say. I grab one of the posters on the bed like a pole and begin to dance.
Kelly Magee is the author of Body Language (UNT Press 2006) and the collaborative collections With Animal (Black Lawrence Press 2015) and Your Sick (Jellyfish Highway Press 2016). Her writing has appeared in Gulf Coast, Crazyhorse, Kenyon Review, Indiana Review, Ninth Letter, and others. She teaches at Western Washington University and can be found at kellyelizabethmagee.com.