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.


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