I know I should have gotten a certified princess. Instead I went with a generic company, the same one that gets guys to dress up as hot dogs and dance with signs for carpet liquidation sales. On the website, rows of famous characters stood under the wrong names to dodge copyright suits: a blonde woman named Ice Queen, an off-brand Goofy named Friendly Dog, a woman in a pink gown called The Sleepy Lady. Catherine picked a fake Little Mermaid named Deep Sea Beauty. The woman in the picture sat demurely on a bench wearing a glossy red wig and, thankfully, a fluffy green gown instead of a seashell bra. She was deep in thought, holding a conch shell.
This woman is not her. This princess stumbles out of a white kidnap van forty minutes late and digs into a slice of cake while the van peels off, narrowly missing the Howards’ cat. I imagine Daffy Duck and a deadbeat fairy godmother bouncing around in the back.
This princess wears a ratty red wig and a slick green gown of cheap prom dress material. She wipes frosting off her mouth along with half her lipstick and drops the Happy Birthday napkin on the patio.
“Oops,” she says, not picking it up. “So where’s the kid?”
I point out Catherine at the edge of the group, talking to Rebecca. Even in a circle, even at her own party, she stands at the edge. Deep Sea Beauty joins the girls and demands their attention with a clap and a twirl.
“Okay girls, I don’t want to lie to you but I’m gonna. That’s what this is all about.”
She starts twisting a balloon animal, then takes a break and reaches into her dress pocket like she’s going for a cigarette. She pulls out a blue crown and pops it onto Catherine’s head, then hands her the lopsided shark. “That’s your favorite animal, right?” she says, “Lucky guess.” Catherine shakes her head no, frowning. “I’m a real princess, really,” the fake princess says, “but I can’t tell you what kind. You gotta figure that out for yourselves, okay?” She looks up to see me watching.
“Don’t you know any other tricks?” Rebecca whines.
“Could we get makeovers?” says Agnes. Catherine’s face falls.
I don’t wonder why the girls avoid Catherine, why they dislike her—she was born tender and odd. She will make a thoughtful, brilliant thirty year old, I can tell, but the third graders are having none of it. This party could help. This party could fix things.
I step in. “Maybe it’s time for a game?” I say. Beauty looks pissed. “I’m not trying to tell you how to be a princess, of course.” I try again. “But maybe a magic trick? Or something educational?”
There’s a light bulb then. “I’ve got a trick I could show them,” she says.
She turns, her full green skirt swooshing out around her feet. “Okay girls, Catherine’s mom had a really fun idea! Let’s play a game.” She gets them in a circle on the lawn. I’m wondering about stains on that shiny big skirt, since it’s definitely a rental from the agency, but she just plops down, fabric falling neatly around her legs. The girls settle in around her, fixing their dresses and shorts, mimicking the fake princess. Beauty reaches into her pockets, pulling out one, then two tiny gloves, light blue, for Catherine. When Catherine takes them, her forehead unfurrows.
The princess pulls out another pair, pale green, and hands those off too. I guess her pockets go way deep because she’s got twelve pairs of tiny gloves in there, and soon every little girl has pastel-colored hands that she’s holding out away from herself, admiring her little fingers like she’s just gotten a manicure. Deep Sea Beauty puts on her own gloves, a rich blue, clashing with her dress, then leans to the Japanese maple and pulls off twelve little red leaves. The girls hold hands around the circle with a leaf in each lap.
“Okay, girls, close your eyes. I’m going to teach you how to be princesses.”
Catherine looks happy between Beauty and Rebecca. Maybe I could take her to the mall next weekend, have a little shopping spree. She could bring Rebecca. We could all get pedicures if we went to the cheap place.
Beauty begins: “Princesshood is really about, like, friendship. You’re holding hands, because, uh, hands connect you to the true magic, which is being friends, and believing in yourself. And the magic has been with you all along. Um, you just need to follow your dreams. So, like, you can open your eyes now.”
Then Beauty leans down to each girl in turn, working around the circle, whispering some princess secret. Catherine is rapt, eyes huge.
Now each girl holds up her leaf, really looking at it. Perhaps leaves are magic too, like handholding and friendship and believing.
A moment of perfect silence passes.
Now Samantha’s leaf floats above the palm of her violet-gloved hand. Her hand is stretched flat like she’s feeding a horse, and the leaf hovers over it, a few inches up, hanging on the air. Soon each girl is levitating her own leaf, pushing it through loops and spinning it in the air like a yo-yo. They’re laughing and smiling and showing off their special tricks. It’s got to be the gloves. And maybe the leaves—could she have done something to them? Could they be magnetic somehow? I’ll ask about it before she goes home. I’ll add a few dollars to her tip. For now, I watch as Catherine smiles and laughs with her new friends.
Deep Sea Beauty leans down and takes Catherine’s gloved hand in her own, guiding her to the center of the circle. Without instruction, the girls put their leaves down and scooch in, making a tight circle around Catherine, who sits too. While Beauty leans over them, the girls reach their hands out and place them palm up on the lawn around Catherine. They slide their fingers under her knees and her little shoes and close their eyes.
Now Catherine hovers over the grass. First by an inch, then half a foot, then several feet. Beauty holds a hand out to her, and she takes it, giggling. She places a foot daintily on Jen’s head and presses off, bouncing out in a lazy astronaut’s float towards the ornamental pear tree. She lands softly on a branch and holds the trunk for a moment before pushing off backwards, gently, doing a slow backflip before landing with a thump on the roof above the patio where I’m sitting.
“Look, Mom!” she shouts, “I’m the birthday princess!”
Deep Sea Beauty offers her gloved hand to Samantha, who takes it and stomps down, sending herself floating up into the oak tree. Agnes takes Beauty’s hand and bounces off towards the Howards’ house. Soon each girl is floating in a different direction, taking long, weightless bounds around the neighborhood.
This can’t be safe. But Deep Sea Beauty, god bless her, has finally hit her stride. This is an experience no name-brand princess would provide, and I picture Agnes calling her mom in Buenos Aires to rave about the party, Mrs. Johnson setting down her mojito in shock. Everyone will invite Catherine for play dates. She’ll stop crying after Girl Scout meetings. I snap a picture for Facebook. I sit and open a 7 Up.
“My princesses!” Deep Sea Beauty shouts, clapping twice. Instantly, every girl watches her from a roof or fence or tree. “Shall we go to the ball?” They all smile and nod.
“Come along,” she says. “We can’t, you know, be late!” When she claps again, she floats up like a balloon. The girls push off their perches and drift towards her, grabbing hands at rooftop height. I don’t know whether to take a picture of call the police. There are eight girls in a line now, now ten.
“Girls, come down right now!” I shout, but none of them descend. I pull my phone out of my pocket, but I can’t look away from the floating girls for long enough to dial 911. Where the hell is Catherine? Was she still wearing her pink sweater, or did she get too hot and take it off? The little princesses surround their princess leader as they drift off to the West. Catherine could be the second girl from the right, but it could be Jen. Already it’s getting hard to make out their features.
“Hey!” I shout. “Hey!”
Beauty doesn’t even turn her head. Agnes does, shouting back, “Thank you for having me, Mrs. Catherine!” Her voice loses power as she gains altitude. “This was the best party ever!”
“Fuck!” I say. “God fucking Christ dammit!”
“Mom?” Catherine says.
She’s crouched on the edge of the roof, watching me.
“Can I go, Mom?” she says. Her friends are drifting past the middle school, getting smaller and higher in the sky.
I imagine a tiny Catherine disappearing into the sunset.
“Please,” I say. I reach out my hand. “Please come down, Catherine. I need you down here.”
For a moment, she waits. She looks like she is about to leave.
Then she nods slowly, and takes my hand.
Once we touch, the magic is gone. She grabs the rain gutter to keep from tumbling. I stand on a chair and hold her armpits, lifting her down onto my shoulder like a baby. I step down from chair to patio, unsteady. For a moment, her weight presses down on me, my legs bent, straining.
For a moment, her body is arched, taut, stretching up towards the sky.
Wesley O. Cohen is a writer and editor from Northern California. Her work has been featured by Joyland Magazine, Entropy, Jellyfish Review, and some other places. She was a 2017 Writing By Writers Newberry fellow. She currently serves as prose editor of Foglifter Journal, and runs the Queer Syllabus in coordination with The Rumpus. Her work lives at wesleyocohen.com.