High school senior Ashley St. Helens
has suddenly found herself living a fairy tale life....
Which is not as much fun as it sounds.
Until... the other shoe drops.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

A Beautiful Unicorn

I quickly folded the smooth parts of the girdle over the scorched parts, and opened the laundry room door just as Sylvia reached the bottom of the stairs. “Oh,” I said, feigning surprise. “I was just going to bring you this.” She was dressed up to go out, wearing a very low-cut Chanel blouse, in a pattern that reminded me of the time I threw up French fries and a chocolate milkshake on my dad’s plaid flannel shirt when I was six.

“Thank you, dear,” she purred, handing me her shiny Prada bag to hold, and then as she pulled the girdle on under her skirt, she started chatting about Debra and Donna’s prom dresses and plans. “Clifton and Dudley are picking them up tomorrow for dinner, but I told them not to eat too much since they want to look their best and not have, you know, a pooch (here, she patted her stomach) when the Prom Queen announcement comes. One of them will win; I just know it; they come from a long line of prom queens, you know! (Here, she got wistful for a moment.) We’re going to be at the mall all day getting mani-pedis and waxing—Debra wants a Brazillian, but I don’t know; maybe she's too young. You know, it will just make the hair grow in stronger and darker.... Anyway, I’ll be gone, too, since I have to chaperone tomorrow night and you know, I just want to really enjoy this day with them; it only comes once, and it really was the most wonderful day of my life.” She straightened up, smoothed her skirt, and reached for the bag. A manila envelope was sticking out if it; she pushed it down furtively as she turned her back and rustled up the stairs.

I had learned, a long time ago, how to not drive myself crazy by wanting things. The first Christmas after my dad had married Sylvia, we had met after school one day for our weekly date at the soda fountain, something we’d been doing since before I could remember. My dad had been distracted with work, and anxious about the family, and since the "steps" had moved in, this was practically the only time we ever had alone together.

“Are you doing okay, honey, in school, grades good and everything?” (Now that I’m a parent, I knew what’s behind a question like that; when grades aren’t good, or worse, when they plunge, you know something else is on your kids' mind. Maybe I knew it then, since I knew my dad really, really didn’t ever want to hear any bad news…. And that made it hard to talk, sometimes.)

“Of course, daddy,” I said. “I’m doing fine.” My grades and chores were actually the only two things at that time I felt I actually could keep under control. He didn't want to hear about my weight, my skin, my (non-existent) love life, my big feet, my worries about what was happening to our family, or how much I was still missing mom. I sucked at my milkshake as I walked him back to his office, hoping he wouldn’t comment on the fact I was wearing flip-flops with socks in the winter weather. “How are you doing?”

“I don’t know what to get the new girls for Christmas,” he answered. “They’re so different from you. Any ideas?”

“Let’s look in here,” I said, leaning my back against the door of Avalon Gifts and pushing it open. “I’m sure we’ll find something.” There were tons of things in there Debra and Donna would have loved. I pointed to a fancy princess telephone, a t-shirt that said “Princess” on it, and a calendar of puppies.

“For a teenager?” My dad was mystified.

“We’re not all grown up yet,” I smiled.

I found myself lingering over the collectibles cabinet. A six-inch glass Pegasus caught my eye. The horse had a strong, straight, noble nose with delicate nostrils, a thick, graceful, arched neck and luscious, curvy legs and belly. Her wings stretched forwards as if to gather speed, nearly touching at the tips. Her forelegs were bent as if she was jumping, and her muscled hindquarters were gathered as if she were about to explode free of the glass base.

“Like that?” I felt my father behind me. He kissed the back of my head.

“I love it,” I said, smelling his Bay cologne.

On Christmas day, there were three identical boxes with the Avalon logo on the wrapping paper. All three of us opened them together. To my alarm, Debra and Donna both got Pegasus figurines. That’s so not them, I thought, poking the tissue paper in my own box, determined to be happy with my beautiful winged horse, even though I sort of had to share. But what poked out of the crinkly packaging was not a pair of wings, double drops of solid liquid, but a single twisted horn. It was a beautiful unicorn, with a prancing pose, but three out of four feet were on the ground. My prepared response did not come out right. I said thank you, but tears burned in my eyes and an ache burned in my stomach, a sudden, fierce feeling of missing my mom. I excused myself with a half a smile, feeling that rushing sound in my ears. Behind me I heard Sylvia say, under her breath, “Ungrateful.”

My dad followed me, though, and explained through the bathroom door.

“We wanted to get you all matching gifts, but there were only two Pegasusses—Pegasi—left. To me, you’re unique, like no other girl…so I chose the unicorn for you, instead.”

“Thanks dad, I love it,” I said, opening the door for the hug he offered. But what I really loved was him, and that he thought of me that way. And also maybe (he made a joke) as a pure virgin worthy of a unicorn's trust... (unlike the others, I guess?) Anyway, within two weeks there was only one Pegasus. Somehow or other, one of them got thrown and smashed during a sisterly argument.

The next year, after my dad died, the same thing happened at Christmas; three boxes from the same store—this time, Grimm’s. Except this time, Debra and Donna got leather jackets; mine was vinyl. I didn’t make a scene, I just smiled, listened to the rushing noise in my ears, and thanked Sylvia for thinking of me.

I cried that night, realizing I would probably never get what I really wanted, ever again. I strengthened myself, thinking of all the people in the world who would never get what they wanted. I wondered how they coped—people who were poor, people who were at war, people who were in natural disasters or other sucky situations, and realized I actually did have some control. If I didn’t want anything... then whatever I got would be a nice surprise. This newfound Stoic philosophy got me through the next birthday and Christmas with grace and even happiness. As an added bonus, my unbridled enthusiasm kept the three of them slightly on edge. I was “in love with” Donna’s old hoop earrings, “thrilled with” a book that Debra gave to me because she “didn’t ‘get’ it” (and it turned out to be really good); I was “wild about” an acid-yellow sweater, hand-knit by Sylvia’s cousin, with one sleeve longer than the other. (The other two, by the way, got hot pink and apple green sweaters that both fitted and flattered.)

So as Sylvia prattled on about prom night, I realized I was empathizing with her poignant feelings about prom, but in my own way.

When would I ever get a chance to go to my senior prom again? Maybe I did want to go. Maybe I wanted, so incredibly desperately, for my life to be normal, just for one night. But maybe it would be better if I could just not want to go, since if Sylvia got the slightest clue that I did, she’d surely find a way for me to be in Timbuktu, or at least in Castleton that night, twenty miles away. So I smiled widely, listened well, tried to ignore the rushing in my ears, and didn’t say a thing.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

A Capital 'L'

From: FTR <info@fairytalereality.com>

Now, I know what you’re thinking: No foot in the kingdom could fit in Cinderella’s tiny glass slipper. I know in the legend the thing that truly sets Cinderella apart, in the end, from all the other women, was the fact that her feet were so dainty and unique. Like her, I am different because of my feet, but in the opposite way. The only thing dainty about my feet is the nail on my baby toe.

My feet started growing a few months before Dad and Sylvia got married. She had ordered satin shoes for Debra, Donna and I, dyed to match our bridesmaids dresses, but the morning of the wedding, they no longer fit. The Girls convinced me to wear them anyway. I toughed it out on the ride to the church and the walk up the aisle, but the pain of standing through the ceremony was so blinding I passed out. Which caused waaay too much attention to be focused on me, and embarrassed all of us but my dad, who was cool about it. I completed the ceremony barefoot, but couldn’t go into the restaurant for the reception. No shirt, no shoes, no service. Dad gave me some money to go to the drug store and buy some flip flops.

Over the next few months, those really busy months of The Girls moving in and Sylvia redecorating, my feet kept growing. I burned out on shoe shopping because it brought up such self-loathing. Years later, I would adopt the habit of wearing my pants too long, with really high heels, so my footprint would appear smaller, but at that time I gave up wearing shoes, period, and started wearing flip-flops exclusively. My feet were flat, calloused, and always exposed. Debra took pity on me and gave me some of her old nail polish. By sixteen I was a size thirteen. Standing sideways, I looked like a capital ‘L.’ Kids at school called me Bigfoot, behind my back of course, but I heard them. Sylvia kindly called a plastic surgeon to see if I could have a foot reduction. (Not without having my toes removed.) Later on, in college, Nevada and Linda would say no girl in town could fill my shoes, but I would always tell them they were wrong; any girl in town could fill them. With hot water. And bathe in them.

A few months after my dad died, I noticed some of his clothes in the Goodwill box, which typically sat by the door until it overflowed or until I loaded it in Sylvia’s SUV and borrowed the keys to make a run. Underneath the suits and pinstriped shirts, which still smelled like him and made me want to cry, and next to the mohair sweater, which I kept, were a few pairs of shoes: some scuffed black wingtips and a pair of white tennis shoes, never worn. I was hauling the box out when I thought to check the size. Men’s eleven. I tried the tennies on and they fit.

So when I told Harry I had nothing but my dad’s old sneakers to wear, he was stunned. Partly, I’m sure, the way all people are when they see my smile, and get to know me, and then one day glance down at my structural support system. And partly, he told me later, because he was thinking about when he and my dad went out to get running shoes together, vowing to start being healthier. And then they never ran in them.

Just at that moment, Sylvia started calling down the stairs again. I was sure she knew I was on the phone. I heard the creak of the stairs; she was coming down. Just at that moment, I smelled the smell of scorched polyester; I had left the iron sitting in place when I went to the closet to find the dress. I said “oh heck,” and a quick good-bye to Harry, and hoped for the best. Before he hung up, he said three magic words that changed something inside me. It had been years since I had heard them.

He said, “I love you.”


From: FTR <info@fairytalereality.com>

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Vintage Silk Taffeta

From: FTR <info@fairytalereality.com>

I finally confessed to Harry my darkest thoughts from my darkest hours, when I’d go to bed exhausted, fingering the frayed satin hem of the grass-green wool blanket that had gone with my family on every camping trip I could remember; it still had that old-tent smell, which I loved. I’d imagine them when I was gone, eating cold, dry cereal out of dirty dishes for breakfast in their wrinkled, stained, cashmere track suits. I’d imagine Donna saying she missed me, then Sylvia would start blaming me for how dirty things had gotten.

“What! A! Bitch!” Harry said. I didn’t know if he was talking about Sylvia, or me for thinking that, or the incredibly cathartic rant. Either way, we both started laughing hysterically. I had to wipe my face. My eyes were leaking all over the place. (But for the record, I am still a nice lady who doesn’t like to hear that word used about women.)

Sylvia must have figured out I was talking on the phone. I could hear alarm in her voice when she called down the stairway, “What are you doing down there? I need my girdle by five!”

“Speaking of bitches...” Harry kept laughing.

“Yes, Sylvia,” I called politely, resting my hand lightly over the receiver. Then I whispered to Harry. “Ironing a girdle! How pathetic is that?”

“Oh, right! You’re in the laundry room!”

“Yes, didn’t I mention that?”

“Absolute perfection.” And then a long silence.

I remember a strange fleeting sensation of gripping desperation in the silence. Was Sylvia coming? If I had to hang up the phone right now, I could lose this connection, which I now knew I had to keep. My soul needed a friend to survive. “Harry!” I whispered, my voice louder than I intended.

“I’m still here, honey. Not going anywhere, no way. And I know you don’t have much time. So go slide open that closet where the water heater lives, and look way up on that shelf above it and tell me what you see.”

I had worked in that room every afternoon for four years, now. I must have cleaned it, reorganized it, five or ten times. But I had never looked inside that big box on the top shelf. It was old, from a fancy, old-fashioned department store, with big loopy letters on it, “Grimm's,” and tied with a faded red ribbon. I blew a little dust off the top. “An old box,” I said.

“Oh! Thank heavens it’s still there!”

“What is this?” I had to hunch up my shoulder to hold the phone on my ear while I eagerly untied the bow. Inside, under some tissue paper, was vintage silk taffeta with a beautiful pattern: dark purple and blue flowers outlined in black against a background of glossy green leaves. The inside of each flower was bedazzled by a few tiny glass rhinestones in three colors: green, yellow, and black. I lifted the gown by the wide, angled, velvet straps, and a voluminous skirt blossomed into life as it came free of the box. “Oh, my God,” I breathed. I suddenly realized what I as holding: my mother’s prom dress! “I’ve seen this in a photo, Harry!” I couldn’t believe Sylvia had somehow missed it.

“And now you’ve got a gown,” he said. I opened my mouth to say thank you and no, I don’t think so, but instead sputtered and stuttered instead like one of those antique cars starting up. He didn’t notice. I could hear him, on the other end, getting all gushy on me. “Prom night... here you come!”

“But Harry,” I protested, “I can’t go, honest.” He couldn’t possibly understand.

“Please don’t tell me you have too much work to do.”

“Well, obviously I do, but…”

“After that epic bitch session?”

“Doesn’t change the fact of finals,” I said, “and it doesn’t change the fact that….” How could I say this? I struggled for a moment, then finally got my real reason from my brain to my mouth, “I can’t go. I don’t have shoes.”

“Oh, that can’t be too hard,” he said. But Harry had never seen my feet. How could I explain? I had to try.

“Yes, it could be that hard,” I insisted. “You missed my big growth spurt between fifteen and sixteen.”


“It took place entirely below the ankles.”


Sunday, September 9, 2012

Bitch is a Verb

“Girlfriend, NO. Get INTO it! You’ve got a right to your feelings.” I leaned my head against the fogged-up window, focusing on the cold spot on my forehead, and struggled with this idea. No one had ever said that to me before. Inside, my well-folded stacks of emotions were suddenly feeling like piles of dirty laundry.

“Ashley, give it a try. It doesn’t have to be a big deal. Take two minutes, by the clock. Just get it out, don’t keep it inside! Go ahead and bitch your heart out.”

I laughed out loud. “Harry! I’m not that kind of girl!” Harry laughed, too.

“You know what I mean.”

“I just hate that word. It’s so demeaning towards women. Even little kids use it these days. Even guys use it with each other. It makes me uncomfortable.” There was a pause on the other end of the line.

“Ashley, darling, you’re thinking of it as a noun. I’m thinking of it as a verb. Bitch is a verb. To bitch is to complain. That’s all.”

“No one likes a complainer. I should know. I live with three of them.” I gasped as soon as I realized I’d let my first little bit of bitching out.

Harry, of course, was delighted. “There you go!” I laughed at myself.

“I know it’s hard for you,” he said.

“It is.”

“Your mother taught you not to speak ill of anyone.”

“She did.”

“Your mother, god rest her soul, was a bit of a doormat.” I gasped: stunned, hurt. How could he say that?

“She was! She was the sweetest thing in the world, but your dad was the boss of her!” I had to stop and think about this. I was getting a little irritated with Harry. There was a rushing sound in my ears.

“Harry, I thought you were her friend.”

“I was the only one she could vent to!” Now I understood. “So try it, darling. Nothing bad will happen.”

Still thinking about mom, I doubted Harry on this one. I could imagine a lot of bad things happening. Should someone pick up the phone, I would never hear the end of it. Still, I knew I had a lot in common with mom. And if my mother trusted Harry…

“Two minutes, that’s all it takes.”

I took a deep breath and did my best. I always try to do my best.

“I always try to do my best. It’s not like I don’t want to help. I do, I really do. But sometimes it seems like nothing’s good enough for them.” Instead of more words, a sob came out next.

“Okay, honey,” said Harry. “Deep breath. Let it all out.” I focused on his voice and followed his directions. I started with the Spanx. Immediately I felt a little better, then started speaking randomly, intellectually, articulately, feeling more like myself.

“It’s like this: Sylvia’s expectations are pretty low—she doesn’t think I can do anything, even though I do a lot—but her standards are ridiculously high. Nothing less than perfect even comes close to being okay. She can always find some picayune detail that minimizes the hard work I’ve done. And The Girls either argue with her, blow her off, or take up her issues. Once Donna even told on me when I was using the wrong mop on the kitchen floor—like she’d ever picked one up, herself.”

“Huh!” Harry was indignant.

“And once—you won’t believe this—Debra even made me take care of her Nintendog, this adorable computer program that’s supposed to teach you responsibility. Of course, with real responsibilities, I couldn’t bother to pick it up every half hour, and the puppy with the big eyes starved to death, or destroyed some furniture, or left a pool of virtual pee, or whatever. She told Sylvia on me and of course Sylvia came down on me for having broken my commitment. What a hypocrite. She never does what she says she’s going to do, at least not if it’s something for me.”

Harry was a great listener. He just kept asking for more. I told him what slobs they were, how I was constantly picking up after them, how they were always losing things and asking me where they were. As I talked, the cold fear in my stomach turned to warmth, and the easier it was to say more. The words tumbled out now, dare I say it, with enthusiasm. I enumerated my chores in great detail and with time frames: laundry, cleaning, cooking. I gave half a dozen more examples of how incapable the three of them were of change, even with simple things like toilet-paper, lightbulbs, and kitty litter. I felt absolutely purified by the words rushing out of my mouth, and scrubbed my memories harder, emptying out every corner of frustration I could find. The half-eaten candy bars. The sticky floors. The gum wrappers “hidden” in couch cushions. The hair in every drain. The lost keys, lipsticks, stockings, jewelry, and homework. The effing (effing, I like that word; I think of it as a short version of “effectively emphasizing”…) styrofoam cups with lipstick stains. Effing everywhere. And on top of the work they made for me: the snide comments. (More on that later.)

“Lord,” Harry said, truly sympathetic, when he could find a break in my stream of words. “How do you keep going, Ashley?”

I took a deep breath and thought about that question; the answer came to me readily, since I cultivated a very careful focus on the future. I was just a year away from turning eighteen, and had sent in several college and university applications, though I kind of had my heart set on Castleton, where my parents went, and had met. “I have dreams,” I said, somewhat dramatically, “but I’m not just a dreamer; I’m determined.” I was. I stayed up late to finish every assignment and get extra credit, and if I’d been able to spend a little more time at school, I could probably have been Valedictorian. Harry asked if Sylvia noticed or cared, and I got a chance to snort again. “She bought a cake once when Debra managed to get an ‘A .’ Donna was so jealous. Oh, and by the way, it was an ‘A-minus.’”

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Harry Godmother

I picked up the phone and said hello really quietly, assuming it would be some giggly friend of The Girls, but was surprised to hear a somewhat familiar-sounding voice on the other end: deep, rich, and male.

“Oh, my God,” the voice said. “Is this my Ashley Ellen?” The call was for me.

“This is Ashley,” I said cautiously. No one had called me by my full name since—well, since Dad died. “Who’s calling?”

“It’s me, Harry.”


“Your Uncle Harry. You know, Harry, your Godfather.”

Now, a bell was ringing. One of those gigantic church bells, like the Liberty Bell, like a gong going off in my head. I called him uncle, but he wasn’t really my uncle. He was my mom and dad’s best friend, when I was a little girl. I hadn’t realized, at the time, that he was also my godfather. I just remembered him as part of the scenery. I started stuttering like an idiot.

“Harry...um…Godfather...I—I remember you...I wondered what happened to you...I haven’t seen you since my mom....” Suddenly, I was flooded with memories. Playing “Alley-Oop” with him when I was little, being tossed through the air upside down. Walking holding hands between him and my dad, shouting “ONETWOFREESWING!” Sitting with him at my mother’s funeral. Being mad at my dad when he didn’t invite Harry to his and Sylvia’s wedding. Missing him, barely glimpsing him at my dad’s funeral. I said, “What happened to you?”

“You poor doll,” Harry said, his voice sounding like he was remembering, too. “Well, a couple of things happened to me. One: your stepmom kind of took a dislike to me. I think because of two: well, let’s just say you could call me Harry Godmother as well.”

“Ummm,” I said as he laughed heartily. “Okay,” I mean, what are you supposed to say to something like that, when you’re seventeen and talking to a grownup (who’s practically a stranger now) and raised to be polite? But Harry did all the talking, fortunately. He started telling me about my mom, and how great she was, and how my voice sounded just like hers. It felt so good to be able to talk with someone about something that felt normal! I had never really even been allowed to even mention my mom in this house. It will just upset your father, Sylvia had insisted at first; then it became simply another rule to follow.   “Harry…,” I just had to ask, “Why haven’t you called me before?”

“Honey, I call maybe once a month,” he said, “and I have been for years. They keep saying they’ll give you the message. I thought it was you not wanting to talk to me.” This news stunned me. I had no idea. How many other friends were out there, trying to connect with me? I pulled a pair of skinny jeans out of the dryer. Their name: Guess?

Just then, the line clicked and I heard an extra-breathy version of Debra’s voice. “Is it for me?”

I clipped my voice to sound like Donna’s, hoping like heck she’d buy it, so I could continue my conversation. “No.”

“Well, I’m expecting a call,” Debra said, knowing it was me, and dropping her sexy voice and changing to her big-sister show-off voice. “From my prom date.” She clicked off.

“Prom date?” Harry said. “Oh, please. Are you going?”

I couldn’t help but snort. Not that I hadn’t thought about going, but for God’s sake, what would I wear? It’s not like Sylvia would ever take me shopping. I was thinking about sewing two or three of Debra and Donna’s old gowns from the Goodwill box together, but when would I find the time for that? Harry listened while I said all this stuff. Of course, I said it like I don’t care. Totally a defense mechanism. Then he asked me how I got on with The Girls. I held back a snort, this time, and then took a breath, and rather than going into the scene with the underwear, just told him there was a little sibling rivalry. But now it was his turn to snort.

“OH, you are TOO KIND!”

“Well, I try to be understanding,” I said, a little defensively; I really wanted to make a good impression on him. The truth is, I always try to make a good impression on everyone. I had never, ever, told anyone, at that time, what really went on at home or how I felt about my stepfamily. On the outside, it looked like we all got along just fine. So I said, very philosophically, “They both have some serious self-esteem issues, and tend to work them out on me.” But Harry would have none of it.

“You can’t be serious. Are you defending them?”

“What do you mean?” I asked. I knew what he meant.

“I mean, they are awful to you. I know that. I hear what goes on when I call. Sometimes they put the phone down and walk away, and I’m hanging there, helpless to do anything while they pick at you. Doesn’t that get to you?”

I was not comfortable with the way this conversation was going. I would have much prefered to talk about my mom. “Well, I try and stay above it,” I explained. Turns out, that’s not the kind of person Harry is.