I first met Cinderella at a party exactly like this one, a number of seasons ago. The invitation had been slipped under my door in a red envelope with a note penned over the seal: Your secret is safe, it read, punctuated by a chipper little smiley face.
It was a big affair with catered waiter proffered trays of elaborately cut crudite and an anything you can think of bar. I stationed myself in a corner, between a potted palm and a cluster of visibly up and coming guests. Somebody’s girlfriend, somebody’s cousin, somebody’s ex. I’d just gotten a comfortable hold on my whiskey sour when the hostess bubbled over with Cinderella in tow, and introduced us. Not as he seems, Dear, she said to Cinderella, then turned to me and winked. Unattached, she mouthed, her face right up in my face so that Cinderella couldn’t see. Then, wiggling the lacquered tips of her fingers toward a guest recently arrived, our hostess left us.
And there I was, looking like a walking glitch on the guest list. Rumple, slouch. That secret alter ego identity nondescript nice guy routine. A practiced persona held over from my days in the Superhero racket. Which I quit. Bye bye Captain Implosion. I was a generalist, making the world safe through destruction, exploding the dangerous inward. Upon itself. Bad guys, speeding bullets, plummeting safes: Zap — Pow. Let’s just say I couldn’t take the fallout. Weary of ducking, I walked in favor of full time obscurity in my cubicle at the DMV. Hello to the 40 hour week of petty bureaucracy.
So that was me.
But Cinderella. Wow. She was a real star. All shine and mystique.
The crush was instantaneous.
She was wearing a blue halter dress and silver lamé heels. She had a cluster of multi-colored spring crocus in her thick honey hair, and in her hand, a cranberry colored drink decorated with a yellow twist. Delicately fishing, Cinderella hooked an ice cube, drew it out of the glass, and tossed it in the air. She tipped her head back jaw ajar, adjusted with her shoulders, and caught it neatly in her mouth.
Heads turned in the cluster beside us. Cinderella didn’t notice.
She cracked. Demurely, she let the fractured ice cube slip back into the glass. Then, she held her drink up as if to propose a toast.
“Ask me anything,” she said.
I broke out into a cold sweat. Could she? Ever? Longing with a question mark stabbed on the end. Hope cut jagged and raw by the saw of clumsy desire. Impossible; impossible to frame.
I produced a hankie and mopped my brow.
All I could never ask. All I might never know.
But there are, always, the fallbacks. Where do you live, what do you do?
In response to the usual questions, Cinderella told me she was renting a glass house on the West Side and working on her marksmanship—perfecting it—by throwing stones.
I worried for her safety.
Cinderella laughed and gestured with her drink. She spilled a small amount, wetting a well tailored sleeve in the cluster beside us. Up and coming eyebrows raised. Somebody’s girlfriend made a whispered assumption; somebody’s cousin presumed it true; somebody’s ex nodded knowingly.
Cinderella didn’t care. She inclined toward me confidentially.
“Don’t worry, You. It’s shatterproof,” she said.
I made a note there and then to re-read her story, to check for the presence of foreshadowing.
Several months after that first encounter, I was returning after a day’s work to my apartment. Four walls, a square of floor. The window with its graying shade drawn shut against the unseemly view of a narrow air shaft, brick wall broken by a window that gives into the lives of two fat, ruined women. Their voices pierce glass in shrill tones of antipathy for one another, blame for all, and complaint of swollen feet. I was loath, that evening, to return to my dreary little box. I was taking the long way through the warm twilight, wondering: Should I make something more of my claim to humanity? Throw myself into a renovation project, improve my posture, spruce up the old act.
Get a girl. Give glamour another whirl?
That’s when I spotted her.
Cinderella was wearing a strapless white taffeta dress and those same silver lamé heels. She had a delicate rhinestone tiara perched atop the intricate coif of her up-done hair and a transparent chiffon scarf in her hand. Poised to step off the curb, she froze when I called her name, then wheeled around, the skirt of her dress swirling out.
“You again,” she said. Then, rising up on silver lamé tippy toes, arms held gracefully out at her sides, she executed three perfect traveling pirouettes that landed her on the pavement less than an arm’s length before me. Cinderella studied me thoughtfully. “Tell me anything,” she said.
A declaration rose from my gut through my heart and into my mouth; it shifted lightly on the tip of my tongue, tickled, sent threads of itch back down toward my throat.
Cinderella glimmered in the blue gray dusk, out already, a precocious star waiting to be wished upon.
My lips opened.
The declaration would find its home!
But actually, no. Tender and totally unrealistic, my poor unfortunate declaration was stricken by the acid of self consciousness, broken down, dissolved. I swallowed. Down the hatch.
All that I cannot say. All that passes into the sink.
But there are always, always the fallbacks. Fine weather we’re having, followed by the usual questions.
Cinderella reported that the glass house had gone up for sale. She’d put in a bid, which was accepted, and she was meeting mortgage payments by performing an act in which she walked barefoot on broken glass.
Cinderella let loose with a giggle like the sound of ice tinkling in a glass.
“Don’t worry, You. I’m a professional.”
“I practice on eggshells,” she told me, “Or the bits and pieces of any old fragile thing.”
Cinderella turned from me. She stepped away, off the curb and into the street. She fluttered her scarf above her head, and a North bound taxi with out-of-issue plates swept up to a stop in front of her. The rear passenger door swung open. Cinderella looked back at me, and gestured with a tilt of her head. “Come on, You. Spot me for a dress rehearsal,” she said.
It was not Cinderella that was the one in danger of falling, not she in need of a safety net…
On the front step of her house of glass, Cinderella paused, reached up behind her tiara, removed a hair pin, slid it neatly into the keyhole, and unlocked the door.
She lead me through the foyer and to the entrance of a sunken living room.
“Break something, will you,” Cinderella said, “I’ll be back in a sec.”
She descended the steps and crossed the room. Her heels clicked lightly over the glass floor. She moved through a see through door in the far wall, then turned a right angle into a corridor. Through the layers of glass, I watched as she trailed her fingers along the wall. Then, she passed into an invisible place; some sheltered space unexposed by transparency. A trick in the floor plan, perhaps.
The room was completely bare. I scanned the sheet glass walls, looked up at the seamless glass ceiling, looked down at the spotless glass floor. A riddle? A test? A code I was meant to crack?
I pondered the problem, nervous for her return. Anxious to provide her with something upon which to practice her art.
And then, in the still of that room, in some convolution of a preemptive strike, I took my old ready stance. The pressure began to build. That blue white power began to lash through me, molecules bonding, synapses compressing, concentration honing inward, inward to a target I’d never tried. Then the close in, the box off, the freeze. A final jolt of blue white focus and Zap — Pow —
I reeled back.
Comeback performance complete, and there it was, in a heap of shards on the floor: My imploded heart, the splintered ruin of it, chambers collapsed, beat blown to bits, ready to be walked upon.
“That was spectacular. And very resourceful,” Cinderella said, addressing me from the far side of the room where she was leaning against the door jamb. She’d changed into a pair of cut-off jeans and a white tee shirt with a silver C decaled on the chest. Her hair was loose and she had a pair of fuzzy purple bedroom slippers on her feet. “But you know what,” Cinderella continued, “false alarm. I’m sort of not in the mood, and to tell you the truth it’s a pretty stupid act. Not nearly as professional as yours. But the finale’s not bad,” she said, “We could just skip to that.”
Whatever you want, is what I told her.
Cinderella gave me a dazzling smile.
“Wish anything,” she said.
I shut my eyes. Envisioned it: A whole true night. A whole, true night with her.
The room went staticy silver. I lost equilibrium, surrendered all balance in favor of weightless suspension within the bubble of a blown glass world. Sweet gusting heat, the exhale of an exquisite myth gone real.
By dawn, the glass house was gone. Cinderella, too. Vanished.
I reappeared alone, on the unfamiliar corner of two unfamiliar streets. A dense smoke clung to my clothes. I was hot all over and dizzy; sick.
The yawning emptiness in my chest.
Of all the chances to take.
A fool humored with a one night stand. A fool in the aftermath of a foolish wish.
All I could think of to think was fuck her and fuck this.
And my fractured self sustained a new split.
Tonight, the hostess greeted me with a kiss aimed at the air near my left ear and a rush of italics. “Welcome back, Darling,” she said, “rumor rumor I hear you’ve been ever so busy breaking hearts.”
She’s right, in a gossipy kind of way. I am back in the game these days. A rogue force for breakdown, crack up, collapse within. State of the art demolition. I don’t stick around to take the credit. Ditto the blame. Isn’t every one always on the verge anyway?
I scan the room, looking for my mark.
The up and coming cluster, pinch cocktail napkins around glasses, pick crudite from silver trays. Somebody’s girlfriend turns on the charm. Somebody’s cousin embellishes. Somebody’s ex bores even the potted palm.
And Cinderella looks like hell.
She’s in a dark wrinkled trench coat and scoffed brown boots. Her hair is a dirty blond straggle, her hands disappear into the depths of her pockets.
I’ve got her cornered now. Ready stance for heartless revenge. But at close range I can see it’s no use. Something has beaten me to the punch. She is claimed by change. She’s a wreck. A ruin.
She has closed her eyes for longer than is normal in a crowded room.
But wait. Cinderella begins to whisper:
The glass house melted as the result of a wild conflagration — it was arson — arson, she is sure: Her ex husband, a prince with an aquiline nose, a shoe fetish, and an empty dance card crept into the house that night while we slept. He found his way to the attic, and lit a match to the feathery, iridescent stores of hope she kept laid away in a trunk with out of season outfits. The place went up quick as a stepmother’s ire to rise. So much for the durability of avant-garde construction. She waked in a choke, wished me to safety, and barely got out with her life, much less her wardrobe or her nascent future. She knows the prince holds a grudge from the split up — a nasty all out fight during which he accused her of transparency and claimed he could read her like an insipid children’s book, every line right down to her destiny. She countered with a revision of the story. He threatened to sue for the rights to her dance steps, her footgear, her beauty, her eventuality. Obviously absurd, and he knew it, knew that he would never win in a court of law, so he took what he could steal via low ball bottom feeding connivance, and paid a footman double holiday overtime to impersonate a high-end cobbler running a special on crack proof souls. Duped, she brought the glass slippers in, returned in a week with her ticket, and was given a pair of well heeled counterfeits. As if. As if perfect fit can be faked. But she took no action, let it pass, let it go, moved on, wore silver lamé and never complained. Yet the prince is bitter still, jealous and deranged—deranged, she is sure, sitting at home in that stupid penthouse castle compulsively windexing those slippers when he’s not out setting vengeful fires.
And now, there’s no house and no hope and nothing decent to wear.
Cinderella has declared bankruptcy. She’s subleasing a mouse hole on the South Side down near the tracks, collecting bottles for redemption and barely scraping by.
She reaches up to her throat and buttons the top button of her coat.
“There’s a wedge of cheese in my pocket,” she tells me, “I’m going to take it home.”
Evan Harris lives in East Hampton.