Today I’m Cinderella. My dress still smells under the armpits from the July day in Los Feliz when I had to do a party for ten children in 98 degree weather. The nylon is sticking to the backs of my thighs and I roll down the window to try and get a breeze while I adjust the wig over my hair. It’s always easier when I’m Belle. I don’t have to tuck all my hair under as carefully. Belle and I are both brunettes, but Cinderella is pure golden blonde.
In the rearview mirror, where I check my reflection, I can see that my false eyelashes are coming unglued on my right eye. I try to reattach them with shaking fingers. I’m very, very hungover. I check my phone again to see if there are any messages or missed calls that I somehow magically missed in the last hour. Nothing. I feel a wave of dread that tomorrow is not happening.
I get out of the car, flouncing the skirt, and try to ignore the stares of two young guys across the street. They’re sitting on a low wall watching me as if I’m a television program. When it’s clear I’m not going to give them eye contact, one yells, ‘Great dress!’
I smile gamely. ‘Thanks! I’m on the way to a ball.’
‘You look like my wet dream from when I was eleven!’ shouts his friend.
In spite of the content, his voice is warm and friendly. He smiles from under a baseball cap. He has a bright red beard and tattoos up and down his arms.
‘Thank God you grew up!’ I call.
I lock my car and make my way up Poinsettia to the address.
The mother is pretty. She looks about my age with long wavy hair and a French accent. She’s wearing yoga pants and flip-flops and a couple of layered tank tops. Over these she has long gold necklaces, down to her sternum, with different pendants on them.
‘Come in,’ she whispers. ‘They are just now settling down. Clémence, come here. You have another guest.’
The mother turns to me and winks. She has the kind of sun on her face that children get, a burn over the nose and a scattering of freckles.
Clémence appears. She is a tiny child with her mother’s coloring and long thick eyelashes. She’s wearing a pink tulle skirt over another dress. It gives her the look of a senile woman who has forgotten she already dressed that day. Her eyes widen when she sees me. She is struck dumb.
‘Well, hello,’ I say. ‘You must be Clémence. I’m Cinderella!’
I’m using my Cinderella voice, an octave higher and full-throated, a voice I honed listening to the 1950’s Disney cartoon.
She looks down at my clear plastic shoes.
‘I like your shoes,’ she whispers.
She is almost trembling.
‘I like your shoes,’ I trill.
‘Clémence,’ says her mother. ‘Why don’t you take Cinderella into the party.’
Clémence hesitates and then reaches for me. Her hand is tiny and soft in mine. I like Clémence. She leads me to a sunlit room, full of glass and overstuffed white cushions and modern art. Seated on the floor in the middle of the room are about ten other children. They range in ages from about a year-and-a-half to four years old. One woman in the room, perched on a long sofa, is breastfeeding her baby. I never look at the mothers if I can help it. It breaks the spell. But I can feel their eyes on me, as curious as their children, only without the wonder.
‘Why, hello, everyone. I’m Cinderella. Would you all mind if I joined your party?’
The children look thunderstruck, but one girl shouts, ‘Sit here, Cinderella!’
I turn to Clémence. ‘Where would you like me to sit, Clémence?’
She has not let go of my hand. She indicates that we should sit right there, where we are standing, and so we do.
As soon as I’m on the floor, a shaft of sunlight hard in my eyes, the questions begin from the older girl, the four year old who ordered me to sit by her. She says she met me at Disneyland. That I had my picture taken with her. This is the sweaty part of the job, when I am sure some child is going to stand and point and declare me an imposter. It’s happened before.
‘Yes, I remember,’ I say.
She eyes me suspiciously. But the birthday girl, still holding my hand, is watching me with a love-drunk look.
The older girl peppers me with questions, about the Prince, the Ball, my stepsisters. I sense she is doing this more to show off her knowledge of the story than to trip me up. She has messy dark hair and a feral quality and rests her chin on her hands in a cross-legged position.
There are four boys, I notice. They seem as in awe of me as the girls.
I read them a story about a pug who won’t share his toys, and then about a bird who cannot find its mother. I know the bird book by heart. On page five, when it wanders behind a rock, just missing its mother, it always stuns me with loss. I don’t have a copy of the book anymore, and for a split second I have the insane idea of trying to smuggle this one out.
Clémence’s mother provides the books and then she and the other mothers retreat to the kitchen. One of them has left her glass of white wine behind. It sparkles in the sun from the sliding glass window. I can smell it from where I’m sitting.
It’s normal not to be offered anything to eat or drink when you are a princess. I know I will be given cake, but beyond that, I’m rarely offered even water. It’s as if they assume, as a fictional character, that I don’t have any basic needs. Once I was desperate to use the bathroom. I remember beads of sweat forming on my forehead. A child was sitting on my lap, asking me about the mice, and all I could think was how to remove the child as tactfully as possible. Finally, the children were distracted by something on an iPad and I managed to get away. When I returned, the birthday girl was being consoled, her face purple with distress, because Cinderella had disappeared. Her parents glared at me.
‘Where were you?’ the girl had sobbed.
I knew to make something up. To say I had used magic fairy dust to go check on my mice friends, or that the Prince had sent me a secret message, but I felt a sudden angry rebellion surge up in me. I clasped my hands and leaned forward and said in my Cinderella voice, ‘Why, I was in the bathroom.’
Fortunately, this made her smile. But after that I always made sure to use the bathroom right before a party, even if it meant making a spectacle of myself at a gas station and getting the dress dirty on public toilet floors.
Today, when I’m finished with the bird story and the bird has found its mother, an air of hushed excitement fills the room. Clémence’s mother enters, her face illuminated with the burning candles on a white frosted cake.
I am no longer the center of attention. I sit in a daze, my dress billowing out around me, and think of my phone in my glove compartment. I don’t wear a watch, no Disney princess does, so I try to read the watch of one of the mothers. She catches me looking and gives me a sympathetic smile. She reaches for a paper plate with a sliver of white cake on it.
The four-year-old jumps up from her chair and grabs the plate.
‘Marion!’ says the woman.
‘I want to give Cinderella her cake,’ explains Marion.
The mother relents. ‘Fine.’
Marion presents me with the cake. I take a careful bite and smile at her, lifting my eyebrows.
‘It’s delicious,’ I say.
There’s a crashing sound. One of the children has knocked over a pitcher of pink lemonade. It doesn’t break but the lemonade pours over the table. All the mothers jump at once, pulling children back from the table as if it’s on fire.
Marion hardly notices. She’s still staring at me. She climbs up in my lap so that I have to set my paper plate aside. I feel no need to contribute to the frenzied effort to dry the table and so let Marion lean her head against my shoulder. She scrunches her nose.
‘I like you better than the other Cinderella.’
‘The other Cinderella?’
‘Why?’ I ask, a little too hopefully.
‘There’s only one me,’ I say.
Clémence has come around to stand with us. She offers Marion a strawberry from the cake but Marion shakes her head and pushes it away.
‘This isn’t the real Cinderella,’ says Marion.
Clémence’s eyes grow round.
‘It is,’ she whispers.
‘No,’ says Marion. ‘Were you the one who invited her?’
Clémence thinks for a moment, then shakes her head.
I always experience a great sense of relief when I leave a party. It’s more a feeling of completing an exam than finishing a performance. I have to concentrate throughout the day, not say or do anything out of character, and there is a lot of remembering details, characters and spells. I can’t get Belle or Snow White mixed in. Once, as Belle, I mentioned a witch, a lapse that probably affected me more than the children, as they are at an age when they are happy with embellishments. But being hired as a character means remaining true to that character, if only so that I don’t get a bad review on Yelp.
Now as I walk to my car, the sun is still high in the sky. It must be close to three o’clock. The street is empty except for a woman wheeling her recycling bin down to the curb. She does a double take when she sees me and then smiles and walks back up her driveway.
Inside the car, the first thing I do is take off the wig. I usually wait until I’ve driven away to do this, but all the children were gathered in front of a sleek plasma television when I left, watching Finding Nemo.
My scalp itches from the wig. I scratch it with a combination of fury and pleasure and then reach for my phone in the glove compartment. No calls. He likes to do this to me, keep me on edge. I know by now that if I call him, it will have no benefit at all.
‘Stop hounding me,’ he has been known to text after only a single effort to reach him.
I put the phone in my purse and start the car. I have a second job today, for a party that starts at seven. I have just enough time to drive home, take a shower and drive back. The address of the party is fairly near to where I am now, and I have Belle’s outfit in the trunk. It’s a shame that I have to drive almost an hour and a half round trip, but I have sweat so much. I turn the air conditioning on full blast and begin the commute.
The sun is in my eyes the whole way back. At stoplights, I pull close to the car in front of me so that its shadow shields me from the brightness. At last, I pull up to the drive that I share with Melanie. Half of our day is coordinating our cars in and out of the short drive. Sometimes she gets me up as early as six a.m. because I’m blocking her.
She’s not home now. I let myself out of the car, my body aching from the commute, and go to take out the doll and Belle’s costume from the trunk. I put the doll carefully in the backseat and then carry the costume inside. It’s still in its dry-cleaning plastic. If I’m quick enough, I’ll have time to drop my Cinderella gown off at the cleaners. It’s summertime, high season for me, with birthday parties being thrown even in the middle of the week. The dresses have to be clean and ready to go at all times. Something I failed to do for Clémence.
I’m thinking of the expression on her face when Marion accused her of inviting an imposter. There’s a Marion at every party. Today I was tired and didn’t handle it well. I felt as cowed under her accusations as the birthday girl.
I think of this the whole time I’m showering, stealing a little of Melanie’s high-end shampoo. I’ve left my phone on the edge of the sink, something I always do, each time worrying the condensation will damage it. As if I could afford a new phone right now. But I would hate to miss the call.
After my shower, I water the dying peace lily in the kitchen window. The woman at Home Depot promised me it was hard to kill. I can’t remember if she said it was impossible to overwater or underwater it, but either way I’ve overdone it.
I help myself to a Bud Light and settle in the living room to watch twenty minutes of a movie from the 90s where two people in love keep missing each other. The actress has long silky hair and great comic timing and I wonder what’s become of her. I calculate her age. She’d be perhaps 45 now. I wonder if she married someone with money and is home watching this movie right now, too. Maybe in a house in the Hollywood Hills or Hancock Park like the one I just came from.
Or perhaps she returned home to a small town in the Midwest, blooming like a corpse flower only to disappear again. I fall asleep and then wake with a start. The TV is blaring an insurance ad. The sun is lower in the sky and I fumble for my phone in the bathrobe pocket. It’s 5.47.
I jump up and run to the bedroom, peeling off my robe and grabbing the costume. I pull it over my head, the cheap material scratchy on my face, and grab my wig. I’m almost out the door when I remember my phone. I hurry back inside for it, banging my hip against the corner of the sofa. A moment later, the neighbor’s cat watches me as I struggle to lock the front door.
When I’m almost fifteen minutes from home, the phone giving me directions to the party on its GPS, I realize with horror that I have put on the wrong outfit. The soiled Cinderella dress and not the Belle costume. Even worse, I’ve forgotten the long white gloves, without which I may as well just be dressed for a prom.
I want to cry. I picture Belle’s lemon yellow skirts pristine under the plastic, lying across my bed. I have two choices. Be late for the party or arrive in the wrong costume, with an essential part of it missing. The traffic is building up behind me and I see it coming thick on the opposite side of the 405. I experience an almost unbearable moment of frustration: with myself, with my job, with my life.
I grab the phone and dial his number.
‘It’s almost 6.15 and I have still not heard from you about tomorrow,’ I say, my voice trembling with indignation. ‘It’s not only thoughtless and cruel, it’s . . .’ I struggle to think what else it is. ‘You’re an asshole,’ I finish, and hang up.
I feel exhilaration, a dizzying sense of power. I called him an asshole! But this triumph is followed quickly by regret. Tears of self-pity well up in my eyes. Quickly, before they can start, I reach for my makeup bag. The traffic is almost bumper-to-bumper so that I am able to negotiate everything but the false eyelashes as I drive. I put on thick pale foundation while I idle behind a navy sedan, and blue eye shadow and mascara while sitting behind a Wonder Bread truck. Finally, I apply the bright cherry-red lipstick near the Hollywood Bowl, where traffic is almost at a standstill for a country and western star.
It’s while I’m applying rouge that I see the squad car in the lane next to me. The officer in the passenger side is looking directly at me. He’s scowling, his face like thunder. It’s not a phone, I think. This isn’t illegal.
He seems to reach the same conclusion. He turns to face front again.
At last I’m in the Hollywood Hills off Outpost on Castilian Drive. It’s almost sunset now, the light gauzy and golden, the sky a soft pink. The GPS tells me I have reached my destination. I think of the actress from the movie earlier, and how I imagined her in a big gleaming midcentury house up here. But this home is Spanish-style and looks on the small side.
At the entrance to the drive, a valet raises his arm. I’ve never had to deal with a valet before. Does a Disney princess use valet service? I decide she does not and drive past him to park further up the hill.
‘Can I get you something?’
A woman in a maid’s outfit is smiling at me. Beyond her, people mill about in an ornate living room with a soaring ceiling. The front of the building disguised how large the rest of the house is. Most of the house is perched down the side of the hill, where you can’t see it from the entrance.
I turn back to the woman. She is tiny, with dyed black hair coiled at the base of her neck.
‘A glass of water, please.’
She smiles. ‘Cinderella is my granddaughter’s favorite.’
She says ‘Cinderella’ with a roll of the ‘r’ that makes the Disney princess sound like a Spanish monarch.
She reaches up with a cocktail napkin and dabs at my cheek with it. The gesture is oddly soothing.
‘You have streaky,’ she says, her eyes full of maternal concern.
‘Thank you,’ I say.
A man comes up. ‘Analisa, could you bring out some more of those chicken and bacon satays?’
She nods and disappears. The man stands in front of me as if I’m a delivery he’s not sure he ordered.
‘I’m so sorry . . .’ I begin.
‘What for?’ he suddenly smiles. He’s smoothly handsome with a faded tan and five o’clock shadow. He wears a crisp white button down shirt and a leather necklace.
‘I wore the wrong costume.’
‘Hey,’ he says. ‘This isn’t my gig. You probably need to talk to Sandra.’
He turns and points to a knot of people near an enormous fireplace, a fireplace so big an eight-year-old child could stand in it.
‘Where are the children?’ I ask.
He gives me a perplexed laugh. ‘Are you for real?’
A blonde woman breaks from the group. She waves grandly as if we’re in an airport and I might miss her.
‘You’re here!’ she announces. She frowns when she reaches me. ‘I asked them to send Belle.’
‘I think there’s been a mix-up,’ I say.
She shrugs. ‘Well, Sleeping Beauty will have to do.’
‘What the hell is this?’ asks the handsome man.
‘Sshh,’ she says. ‘It’s for Gary. For his birthday.’
‘Oh,’ he laughs. ‘Nice.’
She turns back to me. ‘Did you want a drink?’
‘I asked for some water,’ I say.
‘Hey,’ whispers the handsome guy. ‘Why did you invite her?’
For a confused moment, I think he’s referring to me. That he’s drunk and didn’t understand Sandra the first time.
‘She and I have mutual friends,’ she says. ‘I’m sorry, but you’ll just have to tough it out.’
He shrugs. ‘If she throws a fit, don’t blame me.’
Sandra rolls her eyes. ‘She’s not going to throw a fit. But I do think the transparent top is for you. Be nice, anyway.’
They seem to have forgotten me.
‘Where should I go?’ I ask. ‘Are the children in a separate room?’
They both turn to me with blank expressions.
Finally Sandra says, ‘Darling, there are no children. It’s Gary’s fortieth.’
Analisa appears at her elbow with my water in one hand and a silver tray of hors d’oeuvres in the other.
‘Analisa,’ breathes the handsome man, grabbing a skewer of chicken satay. An expensive stainless steel watch glints on his left wrist. ‘I swear, you’re going to make me fall in love with you.’
I feel fine about the costume mistake now. I was under the impression this was a children’s party. I’m sure I was led to believe that. I will look at the email when I get a moment. At any rate, I feel in the right now. Or if not in the right, then at least not in the wrong.
And in fact Gary is so drunk when I’m finally presented to him that I’m sure I could be dressed as Big Bird or Mao Tse-tung and he wouldn’t know the difference. He’s sitting outside by a navy tiled pool with a girl wearing a string bikini under a long diaphanous top. I wonder if this is the woman who might throw a fit. She looks far too beautiful and young to be in a position to suffer heartbreak. She is so beautiful, in fact, even for this city, that I stare a beat too long. She stretches her neck and holds up her hair. It seems a reflexive gesture, as if she is required to show all her angles to strangers like me.
‘I loved Cinderella,’ she says wistfully to no one in particular.
Gary is sweating and the drink in his hand is sweating. Everything about Gary looks wet and overheated and uncomfortable. His fleshy face is an apoplectic dark purple. He’s an old forty. Except for his eyes, which have a round soft boyishness to them, with long dark lashes, making it seem as if he’s a child trapped inside a meaty overserved adult. He wears white linen trousers that are already stained with something, maybe the hors d’oeuvres Analisa is serving.
His big baby eyes are unfocused, but they zero in on me now when the beautiful girl says the character I’m playing.
‘Ah, Cinderella,’ he says. He reaches for my hand. His hand is slick with perspiration. He gazes at me as if I am as beautiful as the girl next to him, as if my mask of thick foundation and blue eye shadow has tricked him.
‘God, chokers are so sexy,’ he says. ‘I love your choker.’ He turns to the girl. ‘Why don’t you ever wear a choker?’
She sighs and stands up. She wanders to the pool with an air of injury and sits on the ledge, resting her bare feet on the top step. The evening light has almost faded, but there is still a shock of pink at the horizon. While Gary is holding my hand, I stare out at the magnificent view, a Los Angeles I rarely see, with the lights below us twinkling in the dusk.
‘I think I saw a coyote!’ yells someone from across the pool. ‘Just passing the grill. Swear to God.’
‘Come sit down by me, Cinderella,’ says Gary softly. ‘It’s my birthday.’
I turn and twist my skirts and settle on the low chaise longue next to him.
‘I thought this was going to be a children’s party,’ I say.
‘Oh, it’s a children’s party, all right.’
He lifts his cocktail to my mouth. I avert my head, but he holds the glass to my lips, as if I’m a doll he’s pretending to care for. I hold the glass steady with my fingers and take a long grateful sip. It’s a gin drink, a cocktail I don’t remember ever tasting. Like the view, it has an exceptional quality, as if I’m drinking something rare and fleeting.
‘Thirsty,’ he smiles.
I hate the lascivious way he says this, with the mustache of perspiration glinting on his upper lip, but I take the glass from him and say, ‘Thanks.’
He lets me have it without a fight.
The handsome man was right. The woman creates a scene. She is not the girl in the diaphanous shift with her feet in the pool, but another woman with long red hair and fine features and a perfectly sculpted body. She is wearing a black bra under her burgundy see-through blouse. I’m not close enough to gauge her age at first. I only see her stamping a stiletto boot heel and hissing at the handsome man. They’re across the pool. People are carrying on talking, pretending not to notice.
Then she breaks into noisy tears and throws something at him. By the way it bounces off his face, I realize it was only a balled up cocktail napkin. We are all rapt.
When she turns and storms off, the handsome man throws up his hands and then laughs to himself, shaking his head.
‘Women are always doing that to him,’ Gary tells me. ‘He has that effect on them.’ He shakes the ice in his glass with a mournful expression. ‘Not me.’
I realize the beautiful girl is suddenly gone from her perch on the pool’s edge. I look around for her, but the only thing lighting up the party out here is the phosphorescent blue of the water.
‘Do you do coke, Cinderella?’ asks Gary.
For a split second, it sounds like an accusation. I smooth the folds of my skirt.
‘What?’ I say.
‘How do you like my gift?’ Sandra is standing over us, her teeth gleaming in the dark.
‘What gift?’ he smiles.
She points at me. ‘Your Disney princess. You told me you wanted to date the actress in Beauty and the Beast. Remember? When you lived in New York.’
He jerks his thumb at me. ‘This is . . . .’
‘Oh, I know, I know. Whatever. Happy Birthday, Gary!’
She leans down and kisses the top of his head.
‘Have you had anything to eat, sweetie?’ she asks me.
I realize in fact that I have eaten nothing since that sliver of white cake at the afternoon party. Suddenly, I long to be back there, with Marion on my lap and Clémence staring at me with worshipful eyes.
I stand up. ‘Maybe I will grab a bite.’ I weave a little, dizzy from the second gin drink Gary got for me.
‘We’ve still got lots of shrimp and chicken, and if you’re vegan we have vegan hot dogs.’
‘Thank you,’ I say.
I make my way inside the party. I’m trying to get through the small crowd and outside to my car to check my phone when a man grabs me around the waist. He pulls me into a slow dance, even though a rowdy jazz number is playing. He holds me so close that I can smell something under his aftershave, something unpleasant that I can’t place. I am a little drunk from the two cocktails on an empty stomach, so I allow the dance to continue.
A woman says, ‘Look!’
We turn just as she snaps our picture with her iPhone.
‘Hilarious!’ she laughs.
The man twirls me and then grips me again. I have a brief glimpse of Analisa looking on from the doorway, her mouth in a tight line.
When the music stops, the man says, ‘Let’s get a drink.’ He strokes my yellow wig as if it’s my real hair.
Hours pass and I’m in a brightly lit bedroom with four men and the scorned redhead who is holding a small mirror with delicate lines of cocaine arranged across it. She is talking and talking about the handsome man. How he took her to Necker Island, how he only takes women he’s serious about to Necker Island.
‘You’ll get over him,’ says a voice from behind me. It’s the man I was dancing with earlier.
‘Necker Island is his thing,’ says another man. He’s thin and elegant, wearing a white turtleneck and leaning against a mirrored art deco dresser. He seems part of the décor of the room, with its white shag rug and its white leather headboard. Along the dresser are dozens of tiny perfume bottles.
‘Give that to me.’
It’s Gary, reaching for the mirror in the redhead’s hands.
‘One second,’ she says. She tilts her head down.
‘I’ll be right back,’ I say.
I stand up and go out to the living room. People are sitting along the sofas in twos and threes, some of them slumped deep in the cushions. They’re all talking languidly to one another, and I have the strangest sensation they’re all discussing the same thing, but separately and at different parts of the narrative.
I am so worried someone is going to try and stop me before I reach the door, but no one does. Outside, the valet is gone. I walk in the cool thin air up to my car, breathing in the smell of sage and pine. I feel oddly calm, as if I know what will be waiting for me on my phone, just as I felt I knew what everyone was talking about in the living room.
I unlock the door and pull out my phone from the glove compartment. There are two missed calls from Melanie, and at last the voicemail I was waiting for. I press play and hold the phone so tightly against my ear it hurts.
‘You’re lucky I’m calling you back at all after that message you left me,’ he says. ‘But the fact is I’m not an asshole, and a good thing for you. Okay. So here’s the plan. You can see her for an hour and a half tomorrow. From one to two-thirty. Meet us at Chuck E. Cheese in Carson. Just stay there and eat with her. I can get my car detailed nearby. Don’t be late. Oh, and she said you promised to get her an OMG Doll. Is that what it’s called? Anyway, I hope you got it. She’s pretty excited about it. And also you might want to bring an apology for me.’
I listen to the message twice, and then reach into the backseat where I have the LOL Doll stashed in a plastic bag. I touch it as if for luck.
I should go home immediately, but I’ve been drinking. I can’t get an Uber, either, because, aside from the cost, I’ll need my car tomorrow. If I arrive to meet them in a taxi it will look bad.
I get out of the car now, lock the door and walk back towards the house. A few guests are leaving.
Inside the house, the people on the sofa have not moved. I wander back to the brightly lit bedroom. Now it’s only Gary, the man I was dancing with, and the redhead. The man in the turtleneck and another man have left.
The redhead is lying back across the bed, her blouse lifted above her navel. My dancing partner is stroking her hair where it spreads like a mermaid’s across the silver satin bed cover.
‘Ariel,’ I say.
Gary laughs. ‘Yeah, Ariel. I was thinking the same thing. Do you ever dress up as her? Hey, where’s your wig? You look kind of crazy without it.’
I sit next to him on the bed. ‘Gary,’ I say. ‘Can you drive me home later?’
‘But in my car?’
He doesn’t blink. ‘Sure.’
‘That would mean so much.’
I lean against him, exhausted but happy.
‘I’m going to see my daughter tomorrow,’ I tell him.
‘No joke,’ he says. ‘Does the Prince know about her?’
‘Ha,’ I say.
‘You know, Cinderella, I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but if you are going to find your Prince Charming, you’re going to need to wash that dress. I didn’t want to say anything earlier, but you smell a little, sweetheart.’
He takes my hand and squeezes it with affection. It’s still slick with sweat, after all these hours.
‘I’m not surprised,’ I say. ‘It’s been midnight forever.’
Image © Carlos