Our first summer as princesses, we are ravaged by the heat. Already, even before the perspiration slithers from our glitter-slathered pores, so little of us is us, beneath the tulle and the spandex, the polyester and rayon, the baubles and the brightly colored faux hair, the galaktoboureko layering of unbreathable fabrics. We’re touched up once an hour or so, our waterproof mascara slick with sweat, our lipstick creased from all that smiling. Our gloves are aired, waved around in front of one of the dust-thick industrial fans, and then slid back up our arms, over the elbows. Our tiaras are doctored for scuffs and set upright atop all that hair, lobster red and banana yellow, as hair might appear in a child’s drawing.
We are, as anyone will tell you, living the dream.
The air is thick with the scent of sunscreen. Cherry lip gloss. The powdery nothing-smell of unscented deodorant. There’s a break room beside the locker room, where kings can be seen eating tacos. Fairies swear at their boyfriends on cell phones. Villains study for the GED, legs crossed, beside their elaborate headpieces. The room is thunderous with the whir of ventilation, blowing so much dead air up and over and back where it came from, again and again.
The bus ride each morning is arguably the funniest part, as though one could get to paradise on a bus. How far it drops us from the entrance is the second funniest part. You getting that tattoo removed on account of the off-the-shoulder gown, and because the special makeup that conceals tattoos turned out to not only be radically expensive but also to dissipate almost instantly beneath the heat of a Florida sun and the smudges of a hundred hugs an hour is the third funniest part.
The bus ride home is the least funny part. Surrounded by people who look so tired from doing whatever they’ve done all day, I realize I’ve missed it, whatever it is. People flex their necks, rub their forearms. They’ve carried things, moved things. I hurt, too––I’ve been waving like a maniac, dodging blisters, bending at the waist––but I haven’t shifted anything. On these rides home, I realize that I’ve been away from the world as it moved forward, and in the time I was away, it learned something. That now it knows something I don’t.
Both of us having gotten in was quite the coup (you remember), especially after Jenna told us how hard it would be. The quizzes, she said (you remember), and the smiling––Christ, the smiling, she said. You’ll never survive. But then again, Jenna was always a drama queen.
After Jenna told us what had worked for her, getting-in-wise, we applied together. We proofed one another’s applications, sealed them, kissed the envelopes and dropped them in the mailbox together.
Our first day was the same day, and we were ecstatic. We were stunned by all the steps it took to get here––the bus to the park, then the bus within the park, the golf cart and the on-foot tour, the literal steps. We were assigned lockers and regarded them like shrines.
When I see myself in my dress for the first time, I am shocked. It’s something I’ll always remember in the present tense, like an early birthday party or a car crash. It’s a trick of the mirror, has to be, but I cannot believe how flat I look. I look exactly like her, this other, made-up person. I’ll never get over this, not ever, how little I look like myself. How much I look like someone else has drawn me.
Halfway into our first day, knee-deep in paperwork and handwritten notes, buzzed off the heat and the fact of it all, we meet Nathan.
Nathan is a legend. Nathan, of recognizable last-name pedigree, is chiseled jaw and thick hair come to life. He is smile where you can’t see the lines between the teeth. He is cheekbones. He is shapely brows above the piercing blue eyes of a Siberian husky. He is skin of an angel who fucked a deer. He is god.
We’re getting oriented (you remember)––hands crossed, legs crossed, seated in folding chairs, so technically chair legs crossed as well––when Nathan arrives. There is shuffling in seats. There are murmurs. Only Tanesha, lithe limbs not crossed so much as coiled, laughs, but she is not, at this point, the most celebrated of princesses, so her reaction is perceived as a slight. The rest of us are in love.
“Welcome to the park,” says Nathan. In retrospect, it feels like a game hunter addressing prey. Nonetheless, we are elated to be prey. We’ve been chosen, as confirmed by our deep packets of W-2s, NDAs, and the just-now-distributed sexual harassment paperwork.
“You’re icons,” Nathan says. “Of grace. Of beauty.”
No sound is made. You could hear a pin drop. A zipper unzip.
“Every little girl wants to be you.”
Just beside me, you catch your breath.
“You’re what makes us exceptional. You’re the heartbeat. The blood flow.”
There’s a hierarchy to the theme park, and it’s basically comparable to the kingdoms it’s designed to emulate. But the princesses here are a rotating channel of well-behaved worker bees, interchangeable and eager. The queen bee, really, is the prince.
The proverbial prince has fewer lines, granted.
But it’s his kingdom.
At the center of the park there is an octopus. It’s called the Octowhirl, and it delivers, essentially, exactly what the name suggests. It is constructed with eight tentacular arms, and at the end of each is a bucket that seats as many as six to eight people. These buckets spin and whirl, dip and rise with the motion of the central machine, which is crafted, naturally, to resemble an octopus.
Rides like these have always been your favorite––since middle school, even, I remember this––not only on account of the spinning but the double spinning, the meta-spinning, the spin within the spin.
I don’t care much for rides like these; I’m too prone to motion sickness. My father (I learned years after the fact) would smash up a generic dimenhydrenate into my juice box on any car trip longer than ten minutes. But it wouldn’t be fair to say that I hate the Octowhirl. The first few seconds are bliss: the catching of breath, the sudden, radical lightness and lift in the stomach. Like the first drink of a night that can’t be remembered by the end.
By some minor miracle, the Fourth of July falls on a Tuesday, and we’re both off. Kendra, who thinks she’s hot shit after a semester at UCF, has persuaded her brother to rent a pontoon boat, so we head over to Cocoa Beach. We drive with the windows down, and I realize I haven’t felt the air on my scalp like this in weeks.
When we arrive, Kendra makes fun of us for how much sunscreen we’re wearing––it coats our skin like see-through nail-polish, not quite invisible––and you explain that a sunburn is basically a death sentence in our profession. Kendra gets a kick out of this: our profession.
“It is,” you say.
“I’ll bet,” says Kendra.
You double-down, although it’s clear that you’re just cranky because it’s hot and we couldn’t find parking: “I’m not kidding. A girl got fired for a sunburn two weeks ago.”
Kendra nods a grave, lazy nod.
“Alright, fuck off,” you say, “like you don’t do shit for your job. Like you didn’t ditch your fucking nose ring and start saying ‘Yes, sir’ every five seconds to sell fucking fake-ass jewelry at the fucking mall.”
At this, Kendra laughs like a monster. She finds this hilarious, for some reason, and you laugh too. We all laugh. Kendra’s brother, across the boat, laughs, although that seems to be about something else. It doesn’t matter; it’s a beautiful day and we’re all laughing, we’re all young and alive and American and it’s the Fourth of July.
You reach into the plastic Publix bag we’ve brought and pull out the bottle of rum we got on the way over. Kendra’s brother seems wary, but his two friends seem impressed, and he’s not about to be the guy who comes between a good time and the underage girls who have almost certainly been described as “Kendra’s hot friends.”
Plastic cups are produced. Shots are poured.
We sit on the back and dangle our legs in the water. We’re wearing bikinis, but it’s only after two shots and a round of coaxing that I take off my clothes. I want to hide, to slip into the water, but all I can think of is how toxic the water must be. Of people pissing into the mouths of oysters, and other people eating the oysters, and some of those people dying of Vibrio vulnificus, which we’ve heard about on the news, and of their families at the funerals saying what a tragedy it is, as though someone couldn’t have just not shat in the Atlantic.
She was never my favorite, the one I most resemble. But princesses are princesses. At $13.75 an hour, we are all equals.
Part of the job is watching the movie, over and over. Her life––this other life I’m leading––only lasts 90 minutes (more if you count the sequels and holiday specials), but it gets lived and relived in tiny, sporadic increments over 40 hours a week, week after week.
If you’re not familiar with the story, here’s how it goes:
The protagonist grows up in a broken home. Widower father. Her mother died when she was young; her father is adoring and proud, frequently wrong, a wildcard. Oppressively protective. Occasionally endearing. Out of touch.
Her mother, being absent, is perfection.
Our girl grows up believing that she’s destined for something greater. She daydreams. Sings. Divulges her fantasies of a better life to the family pet.
One day, some low-grade crisis flares up and she leaves. She’s drawn forth as though by a string tethered to her gut, tugging her along by a pain that feels like purpose.
She couldn’t have known what she was signing on for. We can’t blame her for this.
She’s in over her head. But don’t worry: she’ll emerge triumphant, vanquish her enemies, and transition, with great pomp and an extremely shiny dress, into adulthood.
Above all, she’ll be defined by this journey. She’ll find her feet. She’ll move up in the world.
She’ll become sovereign.
There’s a magic to having your name on the door.
This is what I’m thinking at the signing outside the planetarium, in part because Nathan’s name is on the door—or rather Nathan’s father’s, or Nathan’s father’s father’s name, all the same name, of course, ancient royalty by American standards. I’m signing all these posters and trinkets and novelty booklets with a name that isn’t mine. Either way, it’s hot as fuck and I’ve been smiling for six hours straight and the way the humidity lands it’s like the liquid is crawling out of your skin only to realize its error and sneak back in, bloating and leaking.
Nathan approaches so casually that it almost seems to be accidental. He has an expression I’ve only seen on TV before this moment, as though he, too, is surprised to be this successful. This handsome.
“Hey, stranger,” he says, and I realize, as he stands before me, that the crowd has parted for him. That the masses collectively understand that he does not belong in lines.
“Hello,” I say. Hey, of course, is forbidden when in costume, like gum or knowing who the Ramones are.
“What are you doing after this?”
“Ruling benevolently over a peaceful kingdom.”
He smirks. Rakes his fingers through a patch of thick, dark hair. Nearby, a little girl wearing a dress that matches mine hides behind her mother, watching intently, probably wondering which prince he is.
Because Nathan oversees personnel, and because his name is all over everything, he can go where he pleases. We princesses, on the other hand, have schedules that would make a chief of staff blush. Of course it’s all waving and signing and dancing and hugging and the occasional parade, so when you say it out loud it sounds like we’ve done nothing all day.
“And after that?” he asks.
“Dinner, I guess.”
“Come with me,” he says. “After your… reign has ended. I’ll pick you up by the waterfall.”
Then he’s off, trailed by the gazes of mothers and older sisters and a couple of openly gay princes, curiosity and lust following him like a royal train.
The remainder of the shift slogs past, mockingly slow, until the minute hand hits the twelve and I’m no longer a princess.
My stomach twists with the thrill of it. In the locker room, I sit in front of a vanity mirror. I wipe off some of the makeup, but not all, not wanting to erase whatever has prompted Nathan to invite me to dinner, in case this is part of it. I add touches of bronzer, of colors that aren’t better or worse, only different, hues that look less like they belong in a drawing.
The air outside is thick with mosquitoes, crackling with cicadas, cool but heavy with salt and the sickly sweet scent of palm trees. Nathan is already parked, leaning against a spectacular, steel-grey car, a little crown on the fender, just outside the private employee entrance alongside the waterfall. I had not known cars were allowed back here. Of course, there’s no reason I would have.
Nathan opens the passenger door. Makes a theatrical, sweeping arm gesture. “Milady,” he says.
I smile and approach, mimicking every girl I’ve ever seen in a movie where the romantic interest picks her up in a luxury car. Nathan grins and places a soft kiss on my cheek.
He adopts a jaunty tilt of the head. “Ready?” he says.
“Ready,” I say.
In this moment, even as I get into a car more expensive than 40 years of rent in my apartment, I feel something like a laugh fumbling against my ribcage, something like what Tanesha was suggesting at the coffee cart right after the orientation session, that the word “brilliant” is nonsense, that all of this is nonsense, that it will never hold up over time.
The steak place is basically a steak place, except that it’s also the top floor of a ziggurat. We’re in another section of the park, or more accurately another park within the family of parks, but at this height, in a plaster simulation of ancient Babylon, it feels like someplace else entirely. If you can get past the lack of regional specificity and the vaguely racist uniforms of the waitstaff, it’s quite stunning.
We are treated like royalty. Wine is brought and poured. No IDs are checked. Aside from a delectable little prickle, a sudden lift and lightness in the stomach, nothing feels the least bit salacious about the presentation and pouring of the wine, the swirling and sipping, the smiling and consuming. That’s the truth of it: if something is expensive enough, well-lit enough, established enough, and you’re surrounded by people who are doing the same thing, it’s almost impossible to think of it as a crime.
The evening––Nathan––is magic. The conversation is lilting, gymnastic. We laugh, fingers barely touching. At one point, he brushes the corner of my mouth with his thumb, visibly endeared, to rescue me from a crumb. There are candles, real ones, not the electric votives you see so often at restaurants closer to the ground.
I retreat to the restroom just once, to confirm the artful placement of lines and smears, a collection of optical tricks still in the spirit of a drawing, but one that’s more my design than someone else’s.
I return to the table, flexing my face and mouth against the new edits, and there is dessert. There are after-dinner drinks. There is prolonged eye contact.
As we exit the building, I stumble slightly on my heels, an aftershock of the amaro, a word I’ve only just learned, and probably also the crème brȗlée, a term of which I’ve only just now learned the complex spelling, and Nathan catches me by the waist. He sets me upright. Looks into my eyes. His lips brush mine, apparently on impulse. He extracts himself, blushing, fishes for the valet ticket in his breast pocket. He stops, apparently struck by an idea. “Come here,” he says, “I’d like to show you something.”
Pressed against the base of the ziggurat, he guides me through a narrow service walkway. Hand-in-hand, we make our way through the dark. A minor adventure.
Behind the faux temple there’s a lapse in architecture, an open space about three yards across. Local plants crawl the walls, a subtropic ivy of sorts, a small patch of wilderness amid a bastion of commercial intention.
“Marvelous, isn’t it?” he says.
Left unattended, a series of thin, leafy branches has curled and pressed along the stones, then jutted toward the sky in a kind of slipshod canopy. It is, in fact, marvelous.
Here, in the moonlight, his thick dark hair a bit tousled, shirt unbuttoned just enough to reveal the curve of his tanned, muscular chest, he looks like the cover of a romance novel. Like everything we’ve always been taught to love.
He lifts me by the waist and seats me on one of the lower stone tiers of the ziggurat. He steps forward, a palm flat on each of my legs, and insinuates his body between my knees.
“I want you,” he says, and because I’m a little drunk and this is all a bit much, I laugh. No shit, I think. I’m an icon of beauty and grace.
He drags a finger along the crest of my cheekbone, the curve of my neck, my collarbone. His touch is alive with a fuzzy kind of delight. Pressed against my mouth, his skin smells like cedar, sandalwood, some impossible nowhere place that can be bought but not visited.
He bites the lobe of my ear, breath laced with spearmint and amaro, and whispers, “Do you consent?” I laugh, because this is a sentence I’ve never heard someone say before, and he repeats it, his tongue in my ear now, “Do you consent?” dancingly, almost as though it’s a joke between us, a silly formality, a thing we’ve said before sex for decades, a private joke.
“Of course,” I hear myself say, and then, as if by magic, my underwear is around my knees, his hands are everywhere, and this is what I wanted, of course, but it is fast and I’m am not so much a part of it as attached to it, along for the ride, alternatingly heightened and sickened, in the moment and eager for it to be over.
I’ve had sex before, of course, but it’s always been between equals. I’ve never wondered how I was doing. Why I was invited.
He seems like a man who knows everything. He knows things about me that I didn’t know, how to create sensations like a trick, to make me feel things, although feel is a funny word, how it can be part of you and not another part.
He says my name when he comes, and it’s like part of my name will always be the way he’s said it. When it’s said aloud, there will always be a sliver of it in the sound of his voice. Like Adam naming the animals.
The thing I have always admired about octopi is their gift for disguise. Some octopi change color, enabling them to hide from their enemies. Others change color to match the environment so they can lie in wait for their prey. Between this and the squirming, the writhing, the wriggling through apertures no larger than your thumb, they are remarkable, slippery creatures in just about every respect.
I saw a story on the news about this octopus that escaped from its tank in a lab. It made it through the sewer system somehow, and got washed out of one of those drains beneath a curb during a flood. It swirled around for a few minutes, free as anything, before being hit by a car. According to the news, the driver had no idea what had happened until later, when he found suckers in the grooves of his tires.
We come to the park, one day, on one of our days off. Our families love the discounts. My father, an obese haze of bugspray, your shitty stepmom, a cavalcade of separate and shared children, all sticky somehow, all whining, all picking at their paper wristbands.
We board the Octowhirl, and you and I sit beside each other. Emma, one of your stepmom’s kids, sits beside us, eating an ice cream cone like it’s the last thing she’ll ever do.
Once we’re airborne, at the crest of the first whirl, I say, “I slept with Nathan.”
“Slept with?” you say. “Fucked, you mean.”
I look at Emma, but she’s in her own world. “Yeah, fucked,” I say.
The ride is picking up steam now, a swirl of activity spanning multiple planes. It’s spectacular, the lightness in the belly.
If peripheral vision is to be trusted, you’re eyeing me hard, with an expression both surprised and unfazed. “Behind the waterfall?”
“By the ziggurat.”
Our plastic cart dips and swivels, plummets and spins. Children are screaming, everywhere. Where do children learn to scream like this?
“No shit,” you say. “You too.”
“No shit,” I say, clutching the bar.
The ride ends. A glassy-eyed, polo-clad attendant unlatches the bar. He doesn’t recognize us as princesses, since we’re in regular clothes. As we disembark, Emma goes running in the direction of nowhere. To the surprise of no one, I bend at the waist and vomit.
One day, in the break room, I’m wearing a kind of poncho, a clear plastic sheath designed to protect my gown from pasta sauce. An older member of the staff—one of the doughy paternal widower kings—explains the allure of the Porsche 911. It is a casual car, he explains, one that you can as easily wear a t-shirt or a suit in. It’s the sort of car you can drive every day. “It’s not a Ferrari,” he’s saying, “People don’t stare at you constantly on the road.”
“But the 911,” I suggest, “it’s named for an emergency.”
He stares at me like I’m crazy. As though I’m the Ferrari.
“You don’t understand,” he says.
“No,” I say.
On the bus ride home, I am unrecognizable. I’m matted hair and naked face, L.E.I. jeans and Old Navy tee. You’re somewhere else, on another bus, maybe in a car. Good for you.
In my lap is a tin-foil-wrapped meal, a well-meaning stab at waste-not-want-not, pilfered from the buffet.
We’ll be back next summer. It’ll be interesting. People do not age identically. Bodies form and fall apart in different ways. Give one cigarettes and another dairy or whatever and they age very differently. I’ve seen the studies. I’ve seen it happen.
When we’re old, our smile lines will give us away. We’ll have prematurely aged around the corners of our mouths and our eyes. How kindly we’ll look.
If we’re still friends then, and we’re walking down the street or sitting someplace together, we’ll look like all those queens in storybooks, regal and serene. People will see those ghosts of all those smiles and think: what a happy life they must have had.
Photo courtesy of Jennifer Donley; view more of her work on Flickr.