|by Leanna Ellis|
Once upon a time implies a fairy tale is about to unfold, something lush and grand and mythical, something with ahappy ending. But the brothers Grimm had a twisted sense of humor and, as it turns out, “once upon a time” is actually literarygobbledygook for “impending doom.”
They weren’t called Grimm for nothing.
In tale after tale, “once upon a time” invariably precedes certain disaster. Just ask Snow White, Cinderella, or Sleeping Beauty. They’ll back me up on this. Those innocuous few words
are the harbinger of cursing fairies, parental fatalities, and death marches into dark forests for the near perfect princesses. Not that I consider myself a fairy princess by any stretch of the warped imagination, or even remotely close to perfect, but like those fair,aforementioned ladies, my own story begins with “once upon a time.”
If I’d only been given a five-minute warning.
Doom comes to call for me on a warm autumn day, when the grass is still green and a slight breeze ruffles the yet-to-turnbrown leaves. No letter from the IRS arrives. No mammogram shows an area of concern. God doesn’t send a lightning bolt to strike my house. The announcement comes in the form of Darth Vader’s theme song amplified in the confines of my Volvo. The ominous tune marches out of my cell phone with determination and self-importance, the perfect reflection of the one calling, and prickles the hairs at the base of my neck.
“Don’t answer that, Mom.”
I glance past my teenage daughter to the backseat where my purse sits. “It could be important.”
The clock on the dash glows eerily in the darkness. Who calls at 5:45 in the morning? But we both know that answer without stating the obvious. Isabel picked the Darth Vader ringtone herself. For her grandmother.
Of course, most fairy tales have the evil stepmother. My nemesis is my ex-mother-in-law.
I hesitate as the dirge repeats once more, working its way to the base of my spine and giving me a solid nudge. But my daughter’s grim look holds me back. “I’ll check my voice mail later and call her back then.” Already I dread dialing the number. Though the woman is only five foot two and petite as a cherry tomato, she could just as well be wearing a dark mask and cape of black macabre.
Isabel slumps back into the front passenger seat. At seventeen she seems content to be dependent on me forever as she hasn’t shown one iota of interest in obtaining her driver’s license. Kids today are different than when I was a teen bursting with the need to stretch my wings and fall out of the nest. At least her reluctance saves me the cost of insurance.
“What do you think she wants?” Izzie closes her eyes and tilts her head back against the headrest.
“Probably about her house finally selling.” I click the blinker light and make a right turn at the corner of our street, which winds through our neighborhood, where all the houses remain dark as everyone with sense is still snoozing. Or at least hitting their snooze button. “My advice worked, didn’t it? She’s probably calling to thank me.”
“Yeah, right.” Izzie’s voice sounds groggy still. “Can’t she wait till the sun wakes up?”
“You know Marla.”
We long ago gave up the notion of Izzie calling her father’s mother any of the usual terms of endearment—grandmother, Nana, or granny. “No, thank you,” Marla said curtly, her bow-like mouth scrunched into a firm line. “I am not about to be called that at my age! Isabel can call me by my first name.”
Who was I to argue? I was barely nineteen, just a silly girl who’d jumped into a situation I was never prepared to handle.
“Yeah.” Izzie’s tone is flat and unbending. “I do.”
“Did your dad call last night?” I manage to keep my voice level and not let it spike like a crazed, bitter ex-wife, but my hands automatically clench the steering wheel. Your dad is my newly acquired way of referring to my ex since I’ve had to drop “honey” and “husband” and all other usual references while I avoid using the words I’ve told Isabel are unacceptable. Even though the papers were signed a year and a half ago, dissolving our marriage like a grass stain under attack from Shout, my teeth still clench when I say his name. I glance over at my daughter who hasn’t yet responded. She’s staring out the side window, her head bobbing, long white cords trailing down her chest to the iPod in her hand.
She gives me a surly look. It often surprises me how a near perfect face—smooth complexion, startling blue eyes, and naturally pouty lips—can turn into a visage reminiscent of Medusa.
Did I mention she looks like her grandmother, the one who won’t be called such? Except Isabel’s at least a head taller. My grandfather’s words (at which I rolled my eyes when I was the same too-smart-for-my-own-good age of seventeen) come back to me. Pretty is as pretty does, Kaye. It’s one of those sayings easily dismissed when you’re the pretty monster, but a truth worth clinging to wholeheartedly when you’ve hit midlife and clear skin and cellulite-free thighs are a distant memory.
Delusions start simply—where I convince myself I look good in a pair of new jeans until a friend takes a picture and captures my backside. It’s usually an accident, this picture. I’m not the primary focus, just bending over, mostly out of frame, when it’s snapped. But I innately recognize the jeans when I’m tagged on Facebook or it’s stuck in some computerized photo album for all eternity. That’s when I see my own bulges in pixilated Technicolor. It’s the same horrifying feeling of self-conscious exposure Dorian Gray experienced when he recognized his own unsightliness in his portrait.
So, why, today, do I buy into this tiny pretense—which is not based on anything but Disney reality—when I self-talk and promise myself everything is all right? Maybe it’s simply a wellspring of hope erupting from a crater of despair. What if it isn’t going to be all right? What if I’m only seeing things from the angle of my choosing, not with the eye of a dispassionate camera? What if it’s about to get a lot worse?
If I’d accepted that bit of gray reality a few years ago, then maybe the dark truth wouldn’t have hit me so hard when my world fell apart. The truth didn’t set me free at all. It shattered my rose-colored glasses and gouged my eyes out.
Still, I continue to stumble foolishly forward, hands out, feeling my way in the dark, like the vision-challenged person refusing to admit she can’t see a blasted thing. Yet, I cling to that lie as if it’s a magical cane and believe. All is well. All is well. All is well.
My latest ill-fated belief is that I can do it all—bring home the proverbial bacon (turkey bacon, that is), fry it up in the pan (or microwave), and never ever let him forget he’s a man . . . Well, that absurd fantasy comes to a screeching halt and should be the big tip-off that I’m not being truthful to myself.
Because the reality is that some other woman made him (my ex) feel more like a man (less like a husband). Or that’s my interpretation. The woman I ultimately blame isn’t Barbie (his mistress, now turned “legitimate” girlfriend). Still my perception is a bit off the norm for why my soufflé of a marriage collapsed, but I try not to dwell on the past and keep stirring up that same blinding optimism.