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Once Upon a Dream
I spy on them. They’re clustered in the driveway, sipping lattes and chais from Starbucks and Coffee Bean while smoking or talking into cells or thumbing at BlackBerrys or chatting with each other—most likely about me. I straighten up a bit to get a better look and open the blind an inch wider. A straggly looking guy on his cell phone locks eyes with me. I blink, and suddenly they’re furiously snapping away at my eyeball peering through a tiny slit in the blind. This appears to be the most exciting event they’ve ever witnessed. I slide my finger off the Venetians and dive to the floor as if I’m dodging bullets instead of cameras. My heart pounds.
"Alice! Alice," I hear them yelling. "Alice! Give us something. Come out, come out. You can’t stay in there forever."
Maybe I’ll prove them wrong.
It’s Day Three and the paparazzi are still staked outside the brand-new rambling ranch home my husband Alex and I had built.
"I’m starving to death," Gabby, my five-year-old daughter, yells from the living room.
I have never been much of a bulk shopper, even though it’s a religion out here. Be fully stocked so you’re prepared when the Big One hits, they say. Everyone swears by Costco or Sam’s. You can buy a whole cow for half the price of one supermarket steak, they giddily tell me. So because I’m not a believer, Gabby and I are stuck inside with hardly any food, except for some pasta, cereal, American cheese, strawberries growing fuzzy beards, and three liver-spotted bananas.
"How about some cereal?"
She answers without turning her head away from Rugrats.
"I hate cereal."
"You can even have some Froot Loops. I know you love them." My voice sounds like a crazy falsetto. Until just now I didn’t even know my voice could sound so fake. It frightens me. Hollywood living, I suppose.
Gabby turns toward me and rolls her eyes like some bored teenager. "That’s before you made me eat it like one hundred and twenty-six times, du-u-uh."
She’s speaking like Angelica Pickles, the snotty oldest Rugrat. During the last three days, Gabby has been sitting glassy-eyed in front of the oversized flat-screen with surround sound that Alex couldn’t live without.
Before the day that changed our lives, I had forbidden Froot Loops and had limited Gabby to two hours of television a week. By Day One-and-a-Half I had surrendered the clicker.
So while Gabby learned how to perfect her Valley Girl lilt, I curled on my bed and cried.
I click off the TV. "Draw. Play with your dolls. Do something."
"I wanna go outside and catch butterflies."
"You can’t go outside today."
"I wanna play outside. I haven’t been outside in one hundred and thirty thousand years. I wanna go outside. NOW. Why can’t I go outside?"
How do you explain any of this to a five-year-old? She’s too old to fool yet too young to know the truth. A year to go before the age of reason, the experts say. She still believes in Santa but doesn’t quite buy the chimney part. And she already has strong doubts about the Easter Bunny.
Instead of waiting for some inadequate response, Gabby plows ahead.
"Play with me, Mommy."
I open my mouth but no sound comes out.
"I know what you’re going to say. You never want to play with me. I want to play princess. Then we can talk my Barbies and make Easy Bake cookies. I’ll find my Polly Pockets beadmaker and we can make neck-a-laces and brace-a-lets. Then we can make teacups and saucers with my pottery wheel."
That’s all, I think. Time management is not my five-year-old’s forte. "Well, maybe in a little while."
Gabby puts her hands on her hips and scowls at me. "Maybe. Maybe. Maybe. You know what maybe means? No! You are no fun. Daddy’s fun. When’s Daddy coming home? I want Daddy. Get me my daddy. Now!"
I bite my tongue.
"Daddy is just taking a little vacation, but he’ll be back very soon." The crazy falsetto invades my vocal chords again. "He loves you very, very much."
Gabby slams her head on the back of the couch.
"Du-uuh, you said that like fifteen hundred and eighty times already and I’m actually sick of it. I want to go outside."
"How about a lollipop?"
The phone shrills. I hand Gabby a grape Tootsie Pop and wait for the answering machine. Lately every time the phone rings it’s a reporter calling for an exclusive. This time it’s Hilda, the Teutonic owner of the board and care where my mom lives. She speaks in her clipped officious German accent.
"Your mussa iss out of diapers. As part of ze agreement you signed, you, not ze board and care, are required to provide diapers for your mussa. Vee are not in ze diaper business. Please come over and remedy zis situation ASAP."
I haven’t visited mom since Alex left. I haven’t gone to work or taken a shower. I haven’t eaten. I haven’t fed my daughter anything today except for the purple Tootsie Pop.
I look over at Gabby. Her narrow back is facing me. She’s clicked the TV back on and is immersed in the animated world of stupids, duhs, and whatevers. Angelica’s probably about to go on The Pill. Gabby’s thick, shoulder-length, honey-colored hair is a tangle of knots and grease. Her Cinderella dress is stained with spaghetti sauce and milk. Two miles away, Mom is festering in feces.
I’ve got to get it together. One person’s needs depend on me. Another person needs Depends.
I click off the TV again. "You’re taking a shower with Mommy," I say.
"Tartar sauce! I hate showers."
Somehow we manage. I find coconut and lavender swirl soap.
"Look, this is special secret princess soap."
She perks up. "Will this turn me into a princess?"
"It might. It’s the soap all the princesses use."
She thinks about this. "Actually, how does Ariel take a shower if she lives under water? You’re making this up."
We stay in the shower for nearly a half hour. I keep my head under the hot water and feel the stress oozing out of me while Gabby soaps up every inch of her body until she is covered in a layer of foam and resembles a snow tot. We get out and dress. Miraculously, Gabby doesn’t protest when I tell her the Cinderella gown is too filthy to wear. I manage to shove my contacts into bloodshot eyes. I comb out Gabby’s hair.
"What are we gonna do?"
"We’re visiting Grandma." Again, I sound as chipper as possible.
"Oh no. I hate that place. It always smells like poo-poo and pee-pee. I want to do something fun. Let’s go to Disneyland. Please! Please!"
"Just not today, okay? Soon."
Gabby balls her hands into fists and punches the air. "Soon means never, never, never. We never do anything fun. I want a new mommy."
I look out the front door window. There are about ten of them, talking, laughing, flirting. Their cameras dangle from their necks like an afterthought. This has become a party. They figure I’m holed up here for good, so why not make the best of it? There are six empty Domino’s pizza boxes on the sidewalk. Next they’ll bring a keg, a boom box, and a limbo stick. My misery is a cause for celebration. A day out of the office, soaking up some rays, enjoying another perfect early September Los Angeles day. Temperatures in the low eighties with absolutely no chance of precipitation. Ever.
I’m sure the neighbors are enraged. I’ve only lived in this house Alex and I built from scratch for a few months now. I don’t know the neighbors yet. The association is probably convening right now to discuss this latest problem. That woman with the paparazzi staked out in front of her house. No welcome wagon for me.
Welcome wagons? Whatever happened to them? When I was a kid, my parents moved us out of our Bronx apartment to a colonial house in Larchmont, New York. All the neighbors stopped by to meet us with pies, casseroles, and wine. It was mandatory that your neighbors become your best friends, for better or worse. When Alex and I moved here, the neighbor next door grunted a hello. No cookies. No cake. No wine. Everyone says Los Angelinos are so much friendlier than New Yorkers. It’s not true. They’re only friendly if they think you can help them move up the Hollywood food chain.
I must get out. I look in the mirror in the hall by the front door. Sunlight pours in, denying me any illusion. They say some women one day look in the mirror and think, What’s my mother doing here? But how could she be here when she’s wallowing in her own excrement at Hilda’s House of Horrors? When did I start to age? Just the other day I was twenty-eight and now I’m thirty-eight. My skin has lost its softness. My hair looks flat and dull. I haven’t slept for days and it shows. There are dark circles and puffiness under my eyes. A few years ago I could pull all-nighters and sparkle the next day. Now I just look like, well, my mother.
I can’t go out like this—not with them waiting for me. I think of a strategy. I remember that I parked the car in the driveway. When Alex was here, the cars were always parked in the garage. He was meticulous about it. "I don’t want olives from the tree dinging the hoods," he said. But I’m lazy. I left the glinting white Volkswagen Passat outside for three days and now I must be punished. Instead of sneaking into the garage from the house, Gabby and I will have to walk out the front door and make a run to the car. I’ll have to wear big sunglasses and a baseball cap.
I can’t do it.
I scan my head for someone to call to pick up a box of Depends Super Absorbent Protective Underwear. But I know no one in the Valley. The meager friends I have made since we moved to L.A. three years ago all live on the other side of The Hill in places like Santa Monica, Brentwood, and Laurel Canyon. We lived in Laurel Canyon, too, before trekking to the Valley for the schools, space, and domestic bliss.
I take a deep breath and search my bedroom closet for a baseball cap when I hear commotion outside. A murmur of excited voices. Maybe Alex is back? Begging for forgiveness? I rush to the window as my heart skitters.
The paparazzi have multiplied and are scuttling along the lawn, cameras in front of their faces, hands pressing buttons and massaging lenses into focus, mouths pinched in concentration. I scan the lawn for their subject. Whoever it is must be obscured by the portico. Is it Alex? Maybe he parked up the street and tried to sneak back? Maybe he took a cab? Most likely it’s Claire, a coworker of mine. Claire’s been threatening to check up on me. She’s one of those people who’ll stop by with a casserole and act all concerned. But the truth is, she’s real big on schadenfreude. She’ll run back to the office to tell everyone how horrible I look, how devastated I am, what a mess the house is.
"Gabby. Come here. Gabby? Gabby!"
I check the living room. SpongeBob—Gabby’s favorite cartoon—is on, but she’s not there.
I hear muffled applause and whistles. That’s when it hits me. I run to the front door. It’s slightly ajar. I open it wider. There’s Gabby on the front steps wearing a tiara, a pink boa, and her filthy Cinderella dress. She’s singing "Once Upon a Dream," a song from Sleeping Beauty, or is it Cinderella? Photographers click away and videotape.
Without thinking, I pull open the door.
"It’s Alice! Alice! Over here!"
Gabby’s voice gets louder as she trills. " ‘I know you, I walked with you once upon a dream. Oh-oh, I know you!’ "
"Gabby! In! The! House!"
She waves her magic wand through the air.
"Gabby. Right now!"
She turns toward me, her mouth open wide. Then she turns back, jumps down the steps, and races across the lawn, closer to the paparazzi. Her voice gets louder and louder. She twirls and leaps like a drunken ballerina.
" ‘You’ll love me at once, the way you did once upon a dree-eaaam!’ "
She dramatically swirls her wand through the air and bows. She waits for the photographers to applaud, but they don’t. They’re too busy snapping away at me as I grab Gabby. She kicks and flails.
"Stop it right now," I say.
"No! You ruin everything. I’m performing."
I can feel them right behind me, clicking away. My face is on fire. My chest burns. Could I be having a heart attack?
"Get in the car right now."
"Okay, Gabrielle." I speak through clenched teeth. "No ice cream for the rest of your life. Ever! And no more cartoons. Ever! I mean it."
She rolls her eyes at me. "I don’t care."
Gabby wriggles away from me. She darts across the lawn. I chase after her.
Clickclickclickclickclickclickclickclick . . .
I am giving them so much. An insane mother. No sunglasses. No baseball cap. Eyes swollen from crying. Gray streaks. A little leftover paunch from the pregnancy gone bad. An unruly, undisciplined brat. What will happen next?
No wonder he dumped her. What a shrew! What a brat!
Clickclickclick . . . The shutters capture every millisecond. I keep my head down as I leap at Gabby. I grab hold of her Cinderella gown. Gabby keeps running, and the gown rips. Gabby is propelled right into the leg of a photographer who has been snapping away. She crashes into his knee and falls to the ground, her gown now a miniskirt as I hold part of it in my hand.
The paparazzo lets the camera dangle at his chest. He bends down and sticks out his hand to Gabby. "Are you okay?"
She stares blankly ahead. "You okay," the photographer says again, waving a hand in front of Gabby’s face.
"Who are you supposed to be," she asks him.
She grabs his hand and he hoists her up. The pack of wild cameramen closes in on us, pushing each other to take this photo of me holding half a Cinderella gown. I can see the headline: THE BALL’S OVER.
"Let go of her," I growl. My voice again sounds foreign to me. It’s so ferocious, so nearly primitive, that Gabby understands she’s in the presence of the enemy, a vicious predator. I am her protector. She drops her hand and hides behind my leg, squeezing it tightly. Dragging her along, I limp towards the car.
Clickclickclick . . .
"Here’s your crown, Gabby," the photographer says.
I pull it out of his hand. "Leave her alone."
"Alice, I’m sorry. It’s just—"
I turn around, whipping Gabby along with me.
"You’re sorry? You’re sorry? How dare you tell me you’re sorry! If you’re so sorry, don’t publish those photos. If you’re so sorry, destroy the pictures you just took."
I turn towards the car.
"Really. I’m not such a bad guy. I’m just trying to make a living."
I stop in my tracks and turn toward him. I am no longer in my body.
"I love that one," I say, my voice hoarse as I let out a raspy laugh. "Love it. There’s millions and millions of ways to make a living. You chose this. No one forced you. And you know what? I know exactly what you’re going to do. There will be a picture of me, looking disheveled and frenzied and just horrible. Right? You’ll run some caption. ‘The Woman Scorned.’ And next to it will be a picture of her, wearing a Versace gown at the Oscars. She’ll look exceptionally elegant. I’ll look especially frazzled and frumpy. And Gabby will look like a brat having a temper tantrum. Then the entire world will think, well, who can blame him? I’d leave her and that kid, too. And that’s the end of it. The story’s over for everyone but me."
Excerpted from Pieces of Happily Ever After by Irene Zutell.
Copyright © 2009 by Irene Zutell.
Published in September 2009 by St. Martin’s Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.