At 9:05 a.m. in Story Land, a 16-year-old boy dressed as the Mad Hatter started up the Alice in Wonderland teacup ride. He watched the cups clank and churn around. If a child accidentally stepped into one of the holes where the teacup attached to the ride’s base, the kid’s leg could get ripped off.
At 9:10 a.m., a girl wearing a striped shirt and a red bandana took the pirate boat out for its first cruise of the morning. She turned the rudder and twisted the boat past piles of fiberglass treasure, fake pirates, and a skeleton in a cage named Chuck. As the boat moved forward though the stagnant water, the pirate girl turned it a little too strongly and had to immediately correct course to avoid driving the boat into the cue-line area. Parents held their children a little tighter when they discovered that the boat wasn’t on a track, and that its teenage driver could conceivably crash it.
At 9:15 a.m., the poncho-clad 15-year-old at the Los Bravos Silver Mine attraction punched the fire alarm as part of her morning safety inspection. The emergency system wailed to life. But instead of running through the mine like she was supposed to, past the tilted Wacky Shack and the animatronic miners, past the spinning “silver sifter” and the quick-sand pit, she carved her initials into the inner wall of the building. Then she shut the alarm off.
And at 9:20 a.m., I stood in a tiara, white gloves, and a royal-blue ball gown that kept falling off my shoulders. The dress was designed for someone with a much larger chest, and my boss thought she could fix the problem by pinning my bra to the dress. But instead my bra started slipping off, too, letting the lacy front of the bodice dip low to show that, yes, this beautiful fairy-tale princess had no cleavage. At 14 years old, with a heaping dose of shyness, Story Land put me to work as the beautiful capstone of their park, the one princess who presided over all 35 acres of family fun. They made me Cinderella.
Story Land’s motto? The land where fantasy lives.
To add to my beauty, I was also missing a tooth. As I rubbed my white-gloved fingers together nervously, I stuck my tongue into the spot where I had an old baby tooth pulled a few months earlier. The adult tooth hadn’t descended yet, and if I smiled too wide, people could see the gap in the back of my mouth.
It was my second day working at Story Land, the family-owned amusement park near my house in Northern New Hampshire. Only open in the summertime, Story Land did brisk business catering to locals and tourists alike. Originally based on fairy tales and Mother Goose rhymes, the park featured attractions like the Three Bears’ House and the Old Woman in the Shoe, but also expanded to include things like Oceans of Fun — an area with a turtle-based tilt-a-whirl — and Dr. Geysers’ Remarkable Raft Ride — a turn-of-the-century-themed soaker for scorching summer days.
On my first day of work at the park, I wore the standard uniform of the Drama Department, a purple polo shirt and knee-length, navy-blue shorts, and I spent the day cleaning bathrooms. For eight full hours I walked around the park with a broom and butler, sweeping up bits of discarded toilet paper and removing soaked-heavy bags of dirty diapers from the nursing rooms. It was like a crash course for Cinderella’s early years.
But my prince had come, so to speak, on my second day of work, gave me some fine new clothes, and left me alone in my new home: a dingy castle. If Disney’s castle was considered by most to be Cinderella’s real home, then Story Land’s castle was the rustic summer-cabin version. The castle was small — an open floor plan not any bigger than a normal-sized classroom. The ballroom was only denoted as different from the main space by a 10 foot by 10 foot parquet floor, and it was lined with mirrors to make the area seem bigger. The throne at the front of the room was draped with plush red curtains, but the chair itself was uncomfortable to sit on. In the main area, the carpet was stained from fallen ice cream and sno-cones. All of the flowers were fake.
Looking into one of the mirrors, I moved my tiara slightly to the right, then back to its original position. Waiting for my first guests to arrive at the castle, I was fidgety. I was a nervous girl, and I had just barely become a princess an hour earlier. All of the good manners, fine clothes, and polite things I was supposed to say were new to me. I was terrified of disappointing children, or moreover, of being downgraded back to bathroom cleaner. I imagine it’s wasn’t too different from the way the real Cinderella would have felt after marrying her Prince, afraid that he might decide it was a mistake to marry a commoner and throw her out.
Outside I heard the low rumbling sound of the pumpkin coach: a loud, smelly, diesel-fueled vehicle pulled by two fake horses. It brought guests up the hill to the castle. I smoothed my skirt and forced myself not to run out back and hide in the New Hampshire woods. Instead, I exited the front door of the castle, lifted one gloved hand high into the air, smiled, and waved with my whole arm like a beauty queen.
From inside the coach, a little boy spotted me, and his eyes went big. He waved back and smiled. When I met him at the door of the coach and offered him my hand, he took it. I exhaled. When I looked him in the eyes, he blushed.
At 9:30 a.m. in Story Land, I was surprised to discover that, yeah, I was feeling like a princess.
I had been looking forward to the Story Land job for months. Even before I applied, when my friends asked me about my plans for the summer, I smiled and told them I was going to be Cinderella. There were a couple of reasons why I wanted the job. The first was the acting: even though I was shy, and I was terrified of strangers, I also loved performing. Cinderella seemed like a perfect way to hone my acting chops.
The second reason was that, like so many girls, I loved the idea of being a princess. Sure, I wasn’t typical princess material — I still made monthly pilgrimages to the comic book store for the newest X-Men titles. But I liked feeling attractive, and for a girl who had never been to a prom before, being paid minimum wage to stand around and look pretty was great. Moreover, I was enamored by how Cinderella’s prince had saved her. Sure, I wasn’t stuck in a life of forced labor, but I still wanted so badly for a boy of my own to come along and rescue me from the boredom and loneliness of New Hampshire.
Both as a summer job and as a life goal, I thought Cinderella had it made. That’s why, when I started working at Story Land, I went on the lookout for a prince. Prior to that summer I had had two boyfriends: one who talked to himself while walking down the hallway at school, and one who I met on the Internet. Not surprisingly, neither lasted. For me, one of the most exciting things about working at Story Land was that the park’s central location pulled in employees from five different school districts, allowing for prime perusal of fresh meat.
I found my hunk of meat on the Story Land bus. The bus was a rickety, powder-blue former school bus that picked up employees who were too young to drive and dropped them at the park. This is where I first noticed him, on a day when there were so many people riding the bus that I was forced to sit on my cooler in the aisle. I looked up from the book I was trying to read, saw him, and immediately noticed two important qualities: one, that he was cute, and two, that he wasn’t cute enough to be unattainable. He had brown, bowl-cut hair, a nice face, and glasses. His name, I overheard, was Nathan.
Nathan worked in Park Services, the scarlet-shirted department with the worst jobs: parking lot attendants, animal pen cleaners, and men’s bathroom attendants. Story Land employees changed jobs within their department almost every day, but for Park Services, it didn’t make much difference. It might actually be the most literal example I’ve seen of the phrase, “Same crap, different day.”
For me and my budding crush, however, changing jobs every day made a lot of difference. I didn’t see Nathan when I was Cinderella, but on my days as a tour guide at the Los Bravos Silver Mine, he’d walk by on trash runs. I would peek out from the entrance to the mine and watch him push the big, wheeled container of garbage bags through the park. One slow day after he passed, I used a pen to scratch our initials into the Silver Mine wall. Despite his working with trash juice, clogged toilets, and animal waste, I thought he was dreamy.
By mid-June, the buoyancy that comes with being attracted to someone was carrying me through my days. But that buoyancy couldn’t make everything better. For example, it didn’t provide arch support.
After a few weeks on the job, the Cinderella gig started to tarnish. The problem was footwear. My feet hurt. I didn’t have to wear glass slippers, thankfully, but the communal sandals Story Land’s wardrobe department provided for Cinderella were thin and flat. So I gave in and bought my own Cinderella footwear with a plush layer of padding. It didn’t help much. When guests were absent from the castle, I attempted to ease my pain by standing on one foot, then standing on the other. Even though there was a throne in the castle, I almost never sat. Story Land had a policy of constant standing, as exemplified by my first lesson in what would become a long line of human-resources-style catch phrases in my life: “If you have time to lean, you have time to clean.”
That’s why I was standing on one foot when a tour group came in. They were a large family, all fair and blond. The children’s cheeks were kissed with freckles. They looked like they belonged on a sunny 1970’s album cover for some family folk band.
I put my foot down and took a deep breath. With slow grace, I led two of the children on a tour of the tiny castle. We stood on the parquet floor, and I said, “This room we’re standing in is the ballroom. Does anyone know who I met for the first time in this ballroom?”
“Prince Charming?” asked a little waif with a sno-cone-stain on her t-shirt.
“That’s right, Prince Charming!” I replied. “After the ball, he found me, and asked me to marry him!” I clasped my gloved hands together, recapturing Cinderella’s excitement about her domestic bliss. “We’ve been living here happily ever since.”
As I said that we were living happily, my throat started to tickle, as if my body was trying to tell me not to lie. See, Prince Charming and Cinderella weren’t exactly living all that happily. Rather, the Prince didn’t spend any time at the castle. Ever. But I ignored the tickle, gave a dainty throat-clearing “mmm-hmm” and pressed on. “Now, have any of you seen Prince Charming yet today?”
The kids shook their heads. I pushed my smile so wide that my cheeks hurt. “Well, after I’m done showing you my castle, you should walk to the bottom of the hill and take a ride on my boat, the Story Land Queen. The captain will take you to a magical place called Butterfly Island, where you might just get a chance to see Prince Charming! And if…”
Right then, my throat clammed up. It was dry. I coughed, more forcefully. My body was trying to get me to stop talking. It wasn’t as if Prince Charming was leaving his wife alone all day so he could go to work. No, the guy was just hanging out having a great time on Butterfly Island all by himself.
I coughed again. The only water Cinderella was allowed to have at her castle was in a gallon-sized red cooler, the same standard-issue cooler given to all Story Land employees from the safari driver to the ball-pit watchperson. And the only way to drink from the cooler was by tipping it up in the air and gulping directly from the container.
I didn’t go to finishing school, but I don’t think drinking from a cooler like a construction worker is in the realm of good etiquette. If I wanted to keep up the fantasy of an elegant princess, I had to finish the tour. I coughed again, swallowed, and pressed on: “…my apologies. If you do see him, could you say…” cough, cough “…hi to him for me? I get so lonely up here by myself.”
The kids nodded eagerly. They didn’t think there was anything weird about Prince Charming leaving me by myself so he could go amongst the butterflies. Then again, at the time, I didn’t find anything strange about that either. I was a doting young wife, a princess, with a job to do and appearances to keep up. As the kids nodded at me, I took the moment to try and swallow some saliva.
“Now…” cough, cough “…would anybody like to see my fairy godmother’s magic wand?”
“Yeah!” said the little waif.
As I led them across the room to the glowing wand, a bit of dust caught in my throat. A coughing fit erupted from my chest. I tried to stand in front of the wand, which was mounted in a pink box, but I started coughing so hard that it pushed tears out of my eyes.
“This is the wand…” I squeaked out before coughing again, as if a princess who was crying and could barely talk was more attractive and believable than one who had delicately excused herself when her throat first felt sore, took a drink of water, and came back to work. I coughed more, doubling over with the force. My stomach muscles hurt. I felt like I was gagging, and everyone was staring at me. Not just the kids, but the parents also looked at me blankly, not offering any help. Then again, I’m not sure if I’d know what to do if I saw a 14-year-old amusement park princess go into convulsions, either.
Wrapping one arm around my stomach, I raised the other to give the “one minute” sign, then tore off, hacking, across the room to the lace-curtained supply closet. I grabbed the jug from the floor, flipped out the drinking straw, and positioned it above my face so that the water fell mostly into my mouth but also on my cheeks, my chest, my dress. I drank like I had been left in the wilderness without supplies for 40 days. Wasn’t Prince Charming supposed to be there to support me, to help me when I had problems like this, to save me from the staring freckled family?
When I finished drinking, I lowered the jug with the slow, deliberate joy of an Herbal Essences model, savoring the pure passion of the moment. I put it back in the closet, closed the doors, and rejoined the family, who had the sort of blank stares customary with seeing a stranger cry.
“I’m sorry,” I told them. My throat still hurt a little, but I continued my speech. I was embarrassed for breaking the fantasy, and angry that the Prince wasn’t there to save me. Right then, I didn’t want to keep up appearances and I didn’t want to be friendly. Most of all, I wanted the family out of my castle. So I finished the tour, and they left.
And instead of missing Prince Charming, I savored a moment of being absolutely, wonderfully alone.
That didn’t mean, however, that I wanted to be alone in real life.
My prime Nathan-watching day of the week was when I was working at the Loopy Laboratory. The lab was a noisy hell-house of compressed air machines that were used to shoot thousands of foam balls. In my capacity as a lab attendant, I was supposed to make sure that the children didn’t trip on the balls, land akimbo on the floor, and become paralyzed.
It was a lot easier to ignore the children and talk to my redheaded friend Michelle. She was stationed outside of the lab, making sure that parents didn’t bring their strollers in. We talked through the mesh wall that kept the foam balls in. But in the middle of our conversation, Nathan walked by. My eyes wandered. I started thinking about Teen Magazine “Snag Your Man” tips. Michelle raised her eyebrows.
“I think he’s cute,” I admitted.
She grinned at me. I could feel the deep pit of a crush in my stomach, and I blushed. Michelle was a few years older than I was and telling her that I wanted to curl up close to Nathan was a little embarrassing.
But when Nathan walked by again, Michelle served as my fairy godmother and called him over. The three of us chatted with Michelle providing a much-needed buffer. I was stuttering, nervous. Nathan told a vaguely funny joke. I laughed. I was smitten.
“Are you going to the Commons on the Fourth of July?” he asked. The Commons was where everyone from a five-town radius went for the Fourth, to attend the dinky traveling carnival and watch the fireworks. I nodded. “Then I’ll see you there,” he said.
That’s how I found myself a few days later, roaming the small town carnival with Nathan like it was my version of Cinderella’s ball. We talked. We laughed. We let cotton candy melt on our tongues. By the time the fireworks were booming in the air, he had his arm around me, and I could do nothing but grin.
While my life was getting better, though, Cinderella’s was getting worse. In mid-July, the humidity started to stick in New Hampshire, hanging low and thick and making my ball gown feel less like a costume and more like a punishment. Prince Charming apparently didn’t want his wife to be seen in anything more comfortable, like a casual linen gown, and the cheap bastard made sure the castle didn’t have air conditioning.
Not only was I sweating, but my stomach was empty. It was the sort of grumbling empty where I imagined the emptiness creating a vacuum, bringing the sides of my stomach in so that they touched. Trying to distract myself, I spoke individually to the massive crowd of children who were hanging out in the castle after the most recent tour.
A little girl in a red shirt commanded my attention. “Cinderella,” she said very matter-of-factly, “You look different from yesterday.”
The young skeptics who visited the park two days in a row were the worst. I smiled at the little girl, buying time. Who was Cinderella yesterday? Steena? Hillary? Oh, no. It was that girl with long, curly brown hair and wire-framed glasses who proved even more than me that Story Land didn’t care what Cinderella looked like as long as she fit the dress.
I touched my short brown hair and said to the little girl, “I got a haircut. And I got contacts. I decided it was time for a makeover.” Presumably Cinderella needed the makeover because Prince Charming’s continued absence from the castle had left her feeling unattractive.
The child changed tacks. She pointed to the ugly black-velvet painting of Cinderella that Story Land chose to hang on the wall. In it, the princess reached for an apple, her hair long and blond.
“Why is your hair different there?” she asked.
I pushed my smile wider. “I’ve changed it since then.” Maybe I thought that the Prince would prefer a brunette to a blonde.
Feeling something on my skirt, I looked to my right to discover that a diaper-wearing little boy had lifted up my dress, which was kept full by a hoop skirt, to see why it was so wide. The kid had his head in there and was looking up at my lady parts. “Whoa!” I said, stepping back. Prince Charming certainly never did that.
Finally, my lunch relief arrived. She was dressed in a housekeeper’s outfit, a brown peasant shirt, brown skirt, and sneakers. I told her I was off to lunch with Prince Charming (a lie, as he dined by himself on Butterfly Island), and I dashed out the door.
Lifting up my skirt, I walked fast. My shoes dug into my feet, but I had to keep moving at a good clip. One of Story Land’s employee policies was that an employee’s half-hour lunch included the time it took to walk to and from her attraction. For Cinderella, that meant walking to lunch was like walking though a mine field of tourists. I had to make split-second decisions on when to bob and when to weave in order to avoid families that wanted a quick moment with the fairy-tale princess.
But I misstepped. I made eye contact. And the woman I met eyes with, a mother in khaki shorts, called: “Cinderella!”
I stopped. I had to.
“Hello!” I said, giving special attention to the shy 4-year-old girl grabbing at her mother’s legs. The girl didn’t even want to talk to me. “I’m off to a picnic lunch with Prince Charming right now. But I’d love it if you would come visit me when I’m back at the castle later!”
I started to move. The mother asked for a picture. I had to say yes.
One of the wonderful things about being a princess is supposed to be that everyone loves you and everyone wants to talk to you. But the thing people forget is that being popular doesn’t mean you have friends. As the beautiful face of the kingdom, Cinderella spoke to hundreds of people a day without having a real conversation with a single one of them.
While I stood for the picture, I thought about how jealous I was of the housekeeper. She only had to spend a half hour at the castle, and then she got to go back to cleaning bathrooms, just like I did on my first day. It wasn’t a glamorous job, sure. But people didn’t talk to her constantly, and she got to wear glorious, comfortable sneakers. At that moment, hungry and sweating, my feet stinging, I would have gladly gone back to unclogging toilets.
The mother clicked the photo, and I dashed off to my lie of a picnic lunch. In the employee cafeteria I squeezed my hoop skirt under one of the picnic-style tables and ate the egg salad sandwich my mother packed for me. My feet stung, and when I looked down, I saw that they were bleeding from where the straps rubbed my skin raw.
Right then, I knew what I should have suspected from the first moment I saw the stains on the floor of the castle: being Cinderella sucked big.
And as it turned out, having a prince wasn’t great either.
After work one day, Nathan and I walked down the street in Gorham, the small town that sat between the town where I lived and the town where he lived. It was dusk, and the sky was a beautiful purple, the air warm. We had been together in some capacity for two weeks, a time period when we went mini-golfing with our friends, hung out at people’s houses, and shared a seat on the Story Land bus.
I was feeling bored.
I was scared to admit that to myself, though. Being fourteen in a small town where everyone knows everyone can feel the same as being ancient. I was afraid that I would never meet anyone I liked again. But I also had to admit that at that point I wasn’t hanging out with Nathan because I liked him. I was hanging out with him because he liked me. I had to wonder — is that why Cinderella agreed to marry Prince Charming? Not because she was smitten with him as a man, but she was just so excited that someone wanted her, the ash-covered servant?
As we walked past the hardware store on Main Street, Nathan sang, “Sheepy sheepy sheepy.” I was only half listening. “That’s my song I wrote,” he said. “Sheepy sheepy sheepy.”
I thought about how much I didn’t like the song. I thought about how much I hated it when he referred to his junk as his “peepee.” Or really, when he referred to it at all. That was when I decided to end it. I didn’t want to be saved right then. Really, all I wanted was to go home and watch The X-Files.
By the end of the summer, in my last days as Cinderella, I was tired. I was gross. The Cinderella dress reeked of BO from too many hot days and too few washings. There were jewels missing from the tiara. They popped out when one of the other Cinderellas threw the crown to the ground, tired and frustrated with keeping up appearances.
Little by little, Cinderella was coming undone.
One of the pieces that fell apart very easily, I discovered, was Cinderella’s hoop skirt. The plastic loops that kept the dress full and wide had sharp little edges, and after too much movement, they poked through the thin cotton keeping them in place. Thus on one particular day at the end of the summer I found myself with a foot-long plastic tail sticking out from the back of my skirt. It dragged on the ground when I lead sweaty-palmed children up to the castle, making a noise like a little muffler on the pavement – kssssssssssssst.
But still I smiled, and I was gracious, and I welcomed the guests into my castle. In the ballroom I gathered the children and parents around, and I said, “But then, Prince Charming found me, and he asked me to marry him!” I summoned my best look of vapid joy and devotion. The little girls and boys pressed in close. I stepped back to bring them farther into the ballroom, and I immediately realized my mistake.
I stepped on the plastic tail.
My body weight was already moving backwards, but the hoop skirt was stuck in place where I was standing on it. So Cinderella, the height of princessly poise, the queen of quiet grace, fell backwards like a chopped tree and landed butt-first on the ground.
While I was on the ground, the hoop skirt did its job: it held my skirt wide and open so everyone could see that Cinderella was wearing white cotton underwear with pink and orange hearts. I lay there for a moment, stunned.
This is what Cinderella had come to: stuck on the ground in a marriage that wasn’t great, her husband not around to help her get up. So she spent her days with a fake smile, pretending that everything was all right, when actually, the strained relationship of her marriage, her dirty laundry, was out there for everyone to see.
I put my palms flat on the ballroom floor and pushed myself up. “I’m sorry, everyone,” I said. I plastered a fake smile on my face and continued to lie about the perfect relationship between Cinderella and her Prince. • 12 May 2008