A Wish and a Hope and a Dream
by M. Darusha Wehm
You have always been a princess.
When you are six years old, your hat is a cardboard cone covered in glitter glue with a cellophane veil. Your dress began life as a pillowcase in the free box at the Goodwill. Your best friend Ines has a store-bought costume, her gown soft and sky blue like Princess Karima’s. You aren’t envious, though. You love your pillowcase dress and hat that makes you almost as tall as your mother.
Ines twirls around and around until she nearly falls over, clutching you to stay upright. “Ooh, I’ll never get used to riding a magic carpet.”
You giggle and say, “That’s why I ride in a carriage pulled by eight golden ponies.”
“Can I come to the ball with you, then?” Ines sinks to the ground, her skirt billowing around her like a cloud.
“Aren’t they adorable?” Ines’s father says, his eyes crinkling.
“Yeah,” your mother says, “off in their own little world.”
“Come on,” Mr. Solano says, “that’s one of the great things about being a kid. All that imagination, all those dreams.” He looks at you then his eyes dart back to your mother. “They can be anything they want at this age. Might as well let them enjoy it.”
“You’re right,” your mother says, handing him an old ice cream bucket. “Thanks for taking them. I can really use the rest.”
“It’s no trouble,” he says, then kneels down to where you and Ines are sitting, playing with the material of her dress. “Come on, my two little princesses, let’s go get some candy.”
You get up and your mother adjusts the sash on your dress. “Only two pieces on the way home,” she says. “You want it to last until Christmas, okay?”
You nod, excited about the prospect of even two pieces of candy. It’s been forever since you’ve had candy.
Your family has been eating spaghetti with ketchup for days. You love spaghetti and ketchup, not realizing that it’s just what’s left at the end of the Food Bank hamper. You also don’t know that your mother lost her job, which is why she is there when you get home from school and has had time to make your costume. You know your father is working double shifts, though. That’s why he isn’t there to see you in your pretty dress. Your mom goes to take a photo as you and Ines stand together, grinning at each other while she fumbles with her old phone.
“Come on,” Ines says, grabbing your hand. “We need to hurry if we’re going to get to the ball on time.”
When you are nine, both your parents are working. You get the official Princess app for your birthday and each day after school you and Ines lie on the Lady Dawn Pink™ comforter she’s had on her bed since you were little, looking at the latest photoshoots and reading about the princesses.
“Did you see that Cheyenne just got back from a trip to New Zealand,” you say, paging through the latest updates. “They wouldn’t let her bring Wolf into the country with her. Isn’t that awful? It’s not as if he’s some ordinary dog. He’s, like, partially part of her.”
“It’s like last year,” Ines says, “when that one country wouldn’t let Princess Karima travel on her flying carpet within their border.”
“I know, how dumb. What’s airspace security anyway?” you say, rolling your eyes. You both go back to the pictures.
“I can’t decide if Karima or Cheyenne is my favourite,” Ines says a few minutes later.
“Rhona,” you say, your fingers tracing the flowing curls of her beautiful red hair.
“Rhona?! But she doesn’t even look like you. She’s so… pale.”
You don’t look like any of them, with your skinny legs and bitten fingernails. You shrug.
“They’re all beautiful,” Ines says, her forehead wrinkling. “When I’m ten, mom says I can get my hair cut like Karima’s.” She holds up the ends of her long, black hair, effecting a makeshift bob. “She said no to the eyeliner, though.” Ines lets her hair fall back down. “How about you?”
You don’t know what to do with makeup. Your mother wears little, but one afternoon when both your parents were at work you spent an hour in the bathroom with her eyeshadow, blush and lipstick. The best you could do was make yourself look like a clown. You can tell that Ines would never look like a clown. But she’s pretty to begin with, everyone says so. You are clever. Or strong. Never pretty.
“My hair’s okay the way it is,” you say, running your fingers though the short cut. “I’d look dumb with long hair.”
Ines shrugs and the two of you look at pictures of her with with different haircuts until it’s time for you to go home.
At night, when you can’t sleep, you imagine you are Rhona, with a gown of green velvet, a mind sharp enough to trick a wizard, a face pretty enough to bewitch an entire kingdom and a long trail of flaming red hair.
When you are twelve, Ines gets weird. All she wants to talk about is romance. You think it’s because of Princess Mei Ling’s wedding last month.
“Don’t you think Cheyenne’s prince is better-looking than Mei Ling’s prince?” Ines asks. You don’t know what to say. You don’t care about the princes.
“I mean, I know he’s older,” she says, not waiting for you to answer, “but I think he looks distinguished. That silver hair at his temples makes him look, I dunno, classy, like one of those actors in a black and white movie.” She flicks through the images on her phone. She bought the Princes app with her first babysitting money and now you sit apart in her room, each looking at your own pictures on your own phones.
“Do you ever dream about your wedding? I think about it all the time. Mei Ling’s was so beautiful,” Ines says, not seeming to notice that you haven’t said a word, “I want gold leaf on my wedding cake. And a dress like hers, but with blue accents, not pink. And what did you think about her prince’s uniform? Guys look great in uniforms.” She stops talking and looks over at you. “Want to watch the video again on the big screen?”
The Solanos have a big tv in their living room, and you often go over to watch movies. You nod, even though you think the wedding was kind of boring. But all the Princesses were there and Rhona looked incredible in her formal gown. You watch it all again for the millionth time, impatiently sitting through the wedding part to get to the ball. When Mei Ling enters the main salon on a flying horse, you gasp with delight as if you’d never seen it before. When Rhona dances with her prince, time stops.
That night, you dream that instead of Rhona’s prince, it is you she dances with, your arm around her waist, her head on your shoulder. You twirl around the ballroom, your feet not quite touching the floor, her hair flying behind you both in a trail of auburn curls.
When you are seventeen, you work part-time in a bakery. Your alarm goes off at 5:30 in the morning, Rhona’s voice singing her theme song sweetly in your ear. It almost makes waking in the dark bearable. You spend two hours each morning decorating the elaborate fairy cakes that each cost more than you’ll be paid that week, then you go to school and try to stay awake in class.
Ines texts you in history:
> new p movie opens 2moro lets go!
You’ve been saving all your bakery money and summer job wages in a college fund. You know now that your parents can barely keep up with their debts and won’t be able to help, and you don’t have the grades for a scholarship. Your father has steady work in construction, but it was never enough when your mother couldn’t find work. Your mother went to college and she’s always told you that an education is the most important thing. “Wishing for something won’t make it so,” she says. “You have to put yourself out to get anywhere in this world.”
She says that it was her degree which got her the job she has now, assistant to a junior manager at a big firm downtown. “Who would you hire?” she asks you, “someone just out of high school or someone who’s been to college? You can’t just expect to get a good job without it anymore.” Sometimes you feel like you want to scream whenever you hear the word college.
But you know your mother is right. Your parents seem to work all the time–you can’t remember the last time the three of you did something together that wasn’t a hasty meal or a half hour in front of the second-hand, tiny tv. Between school and the bakery, it feels like you work all the time, too.
You text Ines back.
You get to the theater two hours early and still barely get in. The audience is mostly teens and college age women, a few boyfriends and just a smattering of guys there of their own accord. But there are hardly any little kids–this isn’t one of those origin story films. It’s a grown-up story about post-princess life, featuring Bianca–the first of the princesses, a stately matron now–and Lianne, who became a princess when you were a kid. The story begins as Lianne arrives at Bianca’s castle in her carriage, glorious and shining with her footmen bustling about. She enters the Great Hall to find a table groaning under a feast of delights.
Ines elbows you and whispers, “Those are the fairy cakes you make.”
It’s true, the bakery where you work specializes in replica royal sweets. Being around such beautiful things is the main appeal of the job. You nod and shush her.
Over the next ninety minutes, you are transported to a magic world that you can barely believe exists in the same universe as your own life. Glorious silken gowns transformed from ordinary box-store dresses. Flying chariots whisking the princesses to fabulous balls or feasts laden with luscious food no one eats. Lives of glamour and leisure. For a moment, you wonder if it is even real.
Then comes the moment you’ve all been waiting for. Everyone has been talking about the rumour that a new princess would be revealed in the film. Your breath catches in your throat when you see her for the first time. You know it’s her: she is too radiant, too perfect to be working in some grimy urban store. Bianca and Lianne have gotten lost on their way back to Lianne’s château, and walk into a small Korean grocery in some nameless city, looking for directions. The girl behind the counter must be about your age, but her days of worrying about grades and college are over. The princesses recognize her true nature immediately and take her away with them. No one objects. It is as if it were ordained in the stars.
They say that the movie story is based on her real life, that she really was discovered in some store just like that last year. Seo-yeon, an urban princess, elevated from the streets to a castle in the clouds. Your eyes fill with tears. You can’t count the number of times you’ve wished for that moment. To have what you’ve known all your life finally be reflected in someone else’s eyes. That you, too, are more than you appear to be.
If Seo-yeon could be plucked like a flower from her life of toil, surely it could happen to anyone? Even to you?
When you are twenty-two, you pull a crumpled bill from your pocket. It’s enough for a draft beer at the campus bar and you’ve earned one. You are thirty thousand dollars in debt, you can’t remember the last time you slept more than five hours in a night, but tomorrow you will walk onstage with hundreds of other people and walk off with a degree.
The bartender slides the beer toward you and takes your money, her dark eyes lingering on you for a moment. You’re not in the mood to talk, so you take your beer to a quiet table near the back. You sip and look around. There aren’t as many people in the place as there would be on a Friday night, but at three in the afternoon on the day before graduation, it’s crowded enough. You recognize the students’ uniform of thrift store coats, broken book bags and five-year-old phones.
You notice a guy from your post-structural economics class a couple of tables over; he gives you the eye-contact-and-nod then goes back to his animated conversation. He’s wearing a pale yellow t-shirt with a faded image of Princess Bonita printed on it. You know he’s wearing it ironically, but you had that exact shirt when you were a kid.
You remember working with whatshisname–Charlie, Carl, something like that–on a class project. You made this infographic that showed how many people out of a hundred ever got out of the economic class where they were born. It was a good chart. You got an A minus.
Your phone buzzes and you flip it over. Ines. You haven’t seen her since Christmas, when you were both home and her engagement news overshadowed the holiday. She found her prince.
> going home after grad lets get 2gether
^ ill be back this wkend
> wanna ask u about cakes!!!
You wonder how she and Mikhail can afford a fairy cake for their wedding. They are both going to be paying off their student loans as long as you are, and neither has a job lined up after graduation. Your mother told you that they think they will have to live with Ines’s parents after they get married.
“It’s no coincidence,” Carl or Charlie’s slurred voice interrupts your thoughts from across the bar. “We’re living in a new feudalism, ruled by unrealistic hopes to join an unattainable elite. Statistically, the rags to riches dream isn’t real, but we think if we just work hard enough, it’ll happen for us. We all think we’re kings in peasant’s clothes, but we’re just children playing make-believe. It’s time we decided to live in the real world.” Other voices rise to join his in belligerent agreement and you recognize arguments you’ve heard yourself make on other afternoons like this one.
Maybe Ines has it right–buy an expensive cake, have a fairytale wedding day. What’s another few thousand dollars? At least then you’d have something to remember, one moment when you were someone’s princess. But it’s so hard to let the dream go.
You don’t feel like a peasant, you never have. But you know if you keep pretending that one day you’ll meet your fairy godmother, she’ll wave her wand and suddenly everything will all be fine, that you’ll spend your life being a servant to a fantasy.
You finish your beer, thinking of those days when all it took for a magical transformation was a rolled up piece of cardboard and a pillowcase dress. You flick your finger over your phone, Rhona’s beautiful face filling the screen. Those blue eyes. That red hair. Can’t you live in your imagination with her just a little longer?
After all, you’ve always been a princess. Haven’t you?