Leah Garner’s piece, “Finding Cinderella,” demonstrates a unique understanding of identity and perception. She also explores how we see ourselves and how other people see us. The romantic aura of Disneyland meets the unseemly reality of the park in a thought provoking read.
About Leah Garner
is a student who discovered her spark for creative writing while studying environmental science. She is in her final semester at Washington State and will graduate with dual degrees in both areas as well as a minor in French. With the spare time she has, Leah enjoys playing the trombone with university ensembles.
“I’m Cinderella. I’m Cinderella.” I mumbled repeatedly as I drove my green ’93 Camry down the 5 to Anaheim. It had hand-cranked windows for AC — which acted more as a heater at 5 mph—but Disney only paid enough for rent and the occasional trip to Ralphs Grocery. I pushed rewind on the Beach Boys tape that was left from the car’s previous owner. It hummed through what seemed like millions of songs in reverse. Click! It was the same sound I listened for every time I rewound our “Cinderella” VHS tape, only to push play again.
As a kid, I dressed as Cinderella for five years. The blue sparkling gown overflowed like a waterfall from my waist, white gloves clung at my elbows, and the miniature tiara was wedged into my blonde bun. I always wanted the mice with beanie hats to help clean my room as Mom yelled, “Cinderella!” up the stairway. But it was always just me, talking to the specks on the floor as I swept the various Disney plush toys to the sides of the room. A humidifier sat behind the door, sputtering out vaporized air as I sang “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo.” I left the windows open so sparrows could come in and tie blue ribbons in my hair, but Mom always closed it, explaining it wasn’t good for my health.
“Fuck! Get off your phone!” A Bimmer swerved in front of me, interrupting my memory. Brake lights glaring through my windshield. I flipped off the driver with the same hand that writes “Cinderella” autographs for hours at a time.
I took the exit for Disney Way and Katella Avenue and followed the Bimmer into Disneyland’s “Tigger” parking lot for cast members. Even the janitors who swept the grounds were considered cast members in Disney’s employee handbook. Disney rules were posted backstage along the walls and in bathrooms. One hung next to the water fountain, with the image of Timon and Pumba sunbathing, proclaiming, “Don’t wait too late to hydrate!”
I followed the Bimmer, taking the next spot over. It was Roger, my bodyguard. He stood next to me at work as I greeted children. He made sure they didn’t mob me.
“I could’ve rear-ended your shiny silver ass!” I said, and tapped his rear fender. He kept his car meticulously cleaned.
Roger closed his door and walked over to me. He raised his bushy left eyebrow in disapproval as if my fingerprints were bird poop on his car.
He was already wearing his costume of khakis and a white button-down shirt. But he sported flip-flops, holding his brown loafers in hand. Thick mud brown hair seeded his head. It was coiffed to the right, hiding the all-too-noticeable wart on his temple.
“But you didn’t,” he said as he took a white handkerchief from his pant pocket and wiped the fingerprints. The cloth was embroidered with blue stitching and monogramed in cursive lettering, “RHG.” Instantly I reached into my own shorts pocket, feeling the same white handkerchief, only with my monogram, “CLG.”
I stared at his initials as he wiped. “Where did you get that?”
Roger ran his fingers through his hair and swiftly stuffed the handkerchief back in his pocket. His blue eyes looked like white caps on the ocean causing an upwelling of thoughts in his mind.
“From you,” he said and allowed a smile to crust across his face as though he was pretending to like his food.
“We bought them for each other.”
Roger turned and walked across the parking lot, denying me a chance to respond.
I followed a few feet behind him, my hand still resting on my own handkerchief. I was close enough to hear as he mumbled and sighed at the end of his breath.
I went to my locker, Number 11, and twisted the dial until the door sprung free. Black Converse hung from shoelaces on the coat hook. I must have borrowed them. Converse have always looked like clown shoes to me. My Crater Lake water bottle sat in the left corner, isolated and dusty. It had a gulp of water left. The carabiner placed next to it was broken at its joint. My favorite Goofy sweatshirt was rolled into a ball. I tried to put it on, but my ponytail got caught at the head. I tugged down, forcing it, but it was too small. The arms no longer sagged down as I remembered.
Under the sweatshirt was the autograph book I practiced writing “Cinderella” in until each page was filled. Now I wrote the signature in perfect cursive. I picked it up and looked at how the excess of swirls and filigree filled an entire page of the overpriced autograph books Disney sells. Before I started this job, the signature had had to be approved by Pamela and it had to look like every other “Cinderella” signature in Disneyland. I filled seven of those books until I learned to “glide” my pencil over the paper. Of course then I learned with a pen and a marker. You never knew what the kids would give you. Last week I had to use red lipstick because it was all the mom had.
As I started to close the book, an envelope released from its pages. It was torn open, but the paper inside was folded neatly in three. I unfolded the piece of lined paper and read:
To My Cinderella,
I followed you every day in my car as we drove off to work, wishing we could spend more time together. But that day has come! Now I will know everything about your day and will never have to leave your side. We will eat peanut butter and banana sandwiches for lunch (since I know they are your favorite). I’m so happy to spend more time with you.
I stared at the creased paper and hoped the words would settle in my mind. But they didn’t. They continued to run across the screen of my conscience as if it were a teleprompter.
I started to perspire in my sweatshirt and had just forced it off when Pam walked up behind me. She managed each Cinderella, making certain we were cast in full fairy godmother effect rather than the real-life frumpy version we all arrived as.
“Hey Cinderella, welcome back. You and Roger are going out in ASAP. So chop-chop honey,” her voice rasped as she left a puff of cigarette smoke where she had been standing.
“Welcome back?” I’ve always felt invisible. It’s the gown that gets all the glory around here. Who cares about the extra underwear that’s molded to my skin with sweat or about the bobby pins that pinch my scalp, keeping the wig on? Why was it so much easier to be Cinderella, myself, when I was less than five feet tall?
“Whoa honey. You’ve got a mouth on ya now. Just hurry up will ya?”
I stared at the smoking butt between her chipped fingernails, “Now?”
She took another sip of her cigarette, disregarding any rule about smoking backstage. The handbook covered it in six magical pages. It was mostly due to the amount of fireworks scattered around and, of course, the drought, but the grass was still green and the fountains still gushed at the Happiest Place on Earth.
I met Roger at our so-called carriage outside the “Small World” doors. It was actually a glorified golf cart with Mickey Mouse heads on the tarp top, which verified it was Disney property. Roger was already in the driver’s seat as I slid hesitantly into the back. The sparkling tulle overlapping my skirts clung to everything. It overflowed and reached for the outsides of the unenclosed cart just as my fake bun hit the ceiling. Roger accelerated and drove behind “It’s a Small World.” The back of it looked like cardboard that had gotten wet too many times with silver rods holding it together. I could just make out the song that Mom and I knew by heart.
He didn’t make conversation as we continued slowly. He passed with caution as the Seven Dwarves filed past the cart and got ready to meet and greet in Fantasyland.
“Roger, I just came across a letter from you in my locker,” I said, questioning my own words.
I couldn’t see his expression as he continued to drive but he ran his fingers through his hair. “Oh? I don’t remember.” His voice was finite as if he wished I wouldn’t say any more.
“It was from when we first started working together?” I paused. “When did we meet exactly? I just … I can’t remember.”
He took in a breath and I watched as his shoulders hunched. “Yeah. Well. It would be great if you would for once,” he said with angst.
Roger pulled into the gas station in between the railroad station and Main Street. The gas station looked like Flo’s, except only the top half was decorated. A neon “V8” sign slowly swirled around next to an arrow “Route 66” sign that pointed to Sleeping Beauty’s Castle. The part that we saw, though, was a Chevron gas station, mini-mart and all. Roger stepped out and swiped his pre-paid card. I watched him through the side mirror and he watched me.
We arrived at the Main Street gates and dropped the cart off like it was an unneeded stroller. Roger took my arm, but I dropped it and turned to face him. My mind had been brewing in the cart as we drove and I couldn’t help but link everything from the morning that had happened.
“Will you just tell me what you and I are all about? Because I’m obviously missing something.”
Pam popped out from the dressing room behind us and blustered over. She started waving her hands saying, “Shoo! Shoo!” which drove Roger’s arm back through mine as we strolled through the gates onto Main Street.
Kids saw us immediately. Some jumped to follow me, their sandals slapped the pavement while others just waved their slimy hands and flung food and snot around them. I smiled in return. It was the best I could do as I failed to wave back.
We stood at the opening gates to the park. I ignored the fact that my voice was hoarse from speaking in a melodic high pitch and that my cheeks burned from smiling.
“Well hello! I’m Cinderella. What’s your name?”
The little girl looked at me with ogling eyes but didn’t say anything.
I leaned down on my knees and said, “Your dress is beautiful! We match!”
The girl pounced on me with sticky hands. We hugged as the dad took a photo. She ran back to her mom, who handed her a Mickey Mouse head-shaped ice cream bar.
I stood up and wished I could go wash my hands of the sticky residue left on my iconic blue gown. Or just to go take it off, since it felt like I was wearing twice my weight. On top of all that, I wore real glass slippers. With tights that make my heel slip out. I’d told them I’d step out of one someday, break my foot, and sue their magical asses. My dyed wig rubbed against my scalp, irritating the spot that I had found scabs on the other day. I glance at Roger on my right as I scratch at the wig. He was already staring, his eyes watching my wig.
Roger stepped in front of me and said, “Good Princes and Princesses, please excuse Cinderella for she must tend to her animals at the castle.” He took my white gloved hand and escorted me past the line of children to backstage.
We stood at the refreshment table. “Shit. I’m sorry Roger. Did my wig move? It is so itchy today.”
His eyes turned again, but this time there were no white caps, he drowned in them. “Uh no … you just uh, looked thirsty is all,” Roger leaned over grabbed a fresh water bottle off the table and handed it to me. “You’ve seen the signs. Don’t wait to hydrate!”
“Yeah thanks,” I said, lifting the water bottle towards him in a celebratory cheers.
He stayed next to me and fiddled his fingers through knots in his hair. “Did you take your pills this morning?”
I froze mid-gulp, and water ran down my chin and onto the gown. I glared at him with hardening eyes. “What pills?”
Roger lowered his hands into his pockets and garbled his words. “I know that look so I’m going to go, that way.” He pointed to the men’s restroom.
I sat down at the table and gathered myself. My handkerchief was stuffed into my bra and I could feel it against my chest as I breathed.
I parked on the side of my rented three bedroom house, next to the palm tree whose dead fronds fell and dented the top of my car last winter. The house had a Spanish façade with a tiled roof. I lived with an Ariel and Kimi, our landlord. Our yard, if you could call it that, was gravel. Not the smooth tumbled gravel but the “I just found these rocks in a hole over there” type of gravel. I walked to the door and felt the rocks go through the thin soles of my flip-flops, creating impressions in the rubber. My keys dangled and scraped the already worn green paint below the keyhole. The door creaked upon opening as I watched for Prancer, Kimi’s tuxedo cat. Prancer was the epitome of the so-called fat cat, with black and white fur to match a cow’s spots, white mitten paws, and two small dots accentuating her velveteen nose.
I slid my flip-flops off to the left of the door and saw Kimi out of the corner of my eye in the green bowl chair with Prancer, who overflowed in her lap. She wore scrubs. Today they were green and scattered with baby frogs sticking their tongues out to catch hearts. Her blonde hair was just long enough to cover her face and red Keds covered her mismatching purple and orange ankle socks. She was reading OK!, the magazine that had caused her new scheme to get fit.
“Did you know the newest fad is to eat only liquefied food?” Kimi said, not even glancing away from the text. She believed everything she read.
I stood by my shoes while nodding in disbelief, replying, “Yeah I saw Angelina Jolie in a tabloid promoting it.”
Kimi lifted Prancer and nuzzled him, saying, “I am going to look like Angelina and you will look like her cat!”
Prancer squirmed away, as if she knew her milk would turn into green juice for a few weeks. Kimi fed Prancer at each meal — bacon, lettuce, macaroni and cheese, whatever happened to be on the table. But that was usually all Prancer could stand of Kimi. She preferred me. She always tried to break into my room by kneading the bottom of the door and was successful most evenings. I often woke up with her sprawled on my stomach, her eyes intently staring at me.
Prancer waddled over and leaned against my leg. “I have my rent early if you’d like it, Kimi?”
She still didn’t look up from her magazine. “Oh, yeah, just set it on the counter.”
I walked down the hall and fumbled through my purse. It had been payday yesterday. I removed my check from the Disney stamped envelope. It was made out to Claire L. Gingham.
“Actually Kimi, I picked up the wrong check so I will have to get it to you tomorrow.” I yelled into the other room.
I swiped a look at the mail, laying on the counter when I saw another Disney envelope addressed to Kimi from Roger Gingham.
I did a double take. “I picked up Roger’s wife’s check?” I muttered to myself. I reached for the envelope just as Prancer jumped on the counter.
I held it in my hand. “Kimi? What’s in this envelope from Roger?”
She didn’t answer.
How did Kimi even know Roger? My mind searched for any moment but all I could remember was my trip to Crater Lake.
“Kimi?” I said again.
She shuffled her feet across the carpet and into the kitchen. Kimi picked Prancer up off the counter and dropped him on the floor — another reason she liked me better. Kimi eyed the envelope in my hand and I took out the contents. It was a check from Roger in the same amount as my rent.
“Kimi what is going on?” I held the check out in front of me, as if she hadn’t already opened it.
She stared at it. “It’s just some money this guy owed me.”
“But it’s from Roger. I work with him.”
“Oh yeah?” She asked, uninterested.
“Yeah. So how do you know him?” It came out more curtly than I had planned but I continued and waved the check in her direction. After everything that had happened today, he was beginning to scare me.
She kept her eyes low, watching Prancer try to jump back on the counter. “He’s just a guy that I worked with when I was still an RN.”
I lowered my eyes and felt my cheeks get hot as if I were standing in line at Disneyland. “Well why is he sending you money?” I steamed.
Kimi looked at me with eyes as sad as the day she realized Prancer had never purred for her. But she picked up Prancer again, comforted, even if Prancer wasn’t.
“Roger is just paying off some bills that he owes for hospital visits.”
“Why isn’t he paying the hospital?”
“It is a long term nurse position, so the money goes directly to me,” she said, as if she had rehearsed the line for years.
“I guess I’m just confused … Why didn’t you say anything? I mean shit, I work with Roger every day!”
“Yeah well, there’s confidentiality involved.”
Kimi left it at that, leaving the room with the same shuffle as before. I went upstairs and took Roger’s check with me.
I woke to the buzzing of my iPhone and instantly popped in the three Tylenol I had left on the windowsill. I kicked back the water in my “I Love NY” shot glass and gulped. My room was originally the office Kimi had used as an art studio. She left splattered walls of orange and green that had given me headaches since I came back from summer vacation, which had created my ritual of Tylenol. My door was cracked and Prancer stared at me from the floor next to my bed.
“Really cat! How long have you been there?” I asked, wishing Prancer could answer every question I had about Kimi and Roger. After all, she was home all day to watch.
Downstairs, I grabbed a pack of cherry Pop-Tarts, already dressed in the same clothes as yesterday.
Kimi was at the table already in clean scrubs for the day. “You’ll get Full, Fat, and Fired if you keep up with those Pop-Tarts.”
Sometimes I grab another pack just to agitate her, but really it’s just for my lunch. It was what she said every day, the three F’s for failure in her mind, so I continued to open the cellophane package, popping one in the toaster.
“You can’t be Cinderella if you gain more weight.”
The toaster popped and I poured a glass of whole milk, choosing to ignore her ridicule.
“Disney can only take your Cinderella dress out so much until they get rid of you.” Kimi said, glaring at my plate.
I cut the square into four. “I’ve already gained weight, or haven’t you noticed?”
“That’s the pills.” Kimi said, satisfied.
My mind went to Roger. “What pills? I just took Tylenol,” I said trying to hide my panic.
She mumbled, stuttering as she leaned her head into her hands. “Birth control?”
“I don’t take that shit. I’m a virgin. I’m fucking Cinderella.”
I made it to the opening gates and entered, along with all of the families that got their $100.00 tickets scanned. I used to go with Mom and we would enter the gate with the longest line. She always said those were the people who loved Disney the most, the ones who waited longest. Inside by the Mickey Mouse head made of flowers, I pulled out my phone and called her.
“Mom? Hello?” I could hear her rustle as she put the phone against her ear.
“Cinderella?” she said as if uncertain of my identity.
“Hi Mom. I’m sitting by the front gate at our spot and thought I would call.”
She wavered in response, “How are you? I know it has only been a week since you’ve been back but … how are you?”
“Well, Crater Lake was fun, but everyone has been really odd since I got back. Roger, that guy I work with, he’s been super creeping me out.”
The other end was silent.
She sniffed and sputtered, “Sorry honey, I’ve got to go.”
Her phone beeped before I could say goodbye.
I continued to sit, watching as Mom and I would. I spotted a girl with the full Cinderella dress and pink sneakers peaking out underneath. Her blonde hair was slicked back into a bun with glitter gel that made my wig seem like a scam. She stood holding her mom’s hand underneath the right tunnel leading to Main Street. I knew I’d see her again today waiting to meet me in a line of mini-mes.
In hair and makeup, I couldn’t help but wish I could blend in. You’d think two hours of brushing and sweeping and blending my face would make me normal. My blonde hair was put in a net and transformed to sunnier blonde hair, my blue eyes accentuated with livelier blue contacts, while my cheeks puffed from my supposed “pills” and extra blush that swept across my cheekbones. Once I stepped out of backstage, I went back to my locker, taking the second Pop-Tart bag. I hoped to fill my stomach for another two hours with it. It was not Princess-like to have your stomach growl — another Disney handbook rule.
I saw Pam’s curls around the corner and tried to hide my food wrapper.
“Cinderella don’t eat Pop-Tarts. Cinderella be a princess with a very tight waist and needs to stay like it. If you go over the 120-pound rule, I can’t help ya Cindy.”
I couldn’t help but reply, “I thought that was what the damn corsets were for?” Luckily Pam’s radio went off, calling her to save Cindy 11 from a wig failure, the smell of cigarettes snaking behind her.
The deceptive gates that hid us from Disneyland visitors were covered in reminders to be in character and always put on a smile. Roger stood next to the crack in the left side, seeming to watch everyone he could through it.
“Everywhere that isn’t a tourist trap here is a slum,” I told Roger as I peeked over his shoulder through the crack in the gate, which was in view of the castle. “Where do you live?” I blurted nervously.
He peered over his shoulder giving me the side-eye look, “I live a few blocks down from you. It’s the green one with rocks instead of grass for a yard.”
I took a step back, trying to visualize his house, even though I knew instantly which was his. My face turned questioning with widening eyes and raised eyebrows, realizing how close he was to Kimi. To me.
“We should carpool sometime.” It was the only thing I could blurt out fast enough to keep from raising his suspicions.
He replied snootily, “Well, Cinderella does not carpool. Especially not with townsfolk like me.” Roger turned back to look out the gate again, his facial expression looking numb.
“Yes you’re right. I am Cinderella.” And I live in the slums, apparently with a stalker a few doors down.
We went into the crowd together, down Main Street USA, pretending to be happy. Watching as actual happy people, tourists in big sun hats, came up to us for my picture.
I started my mantra again in my mind: “I am Cinderella, I am Cinderella, I am Cinderella.”
After my shift, Roger and I walked to our cars parked right next to each other.
I started unlocking my door when I saw the Disney envelope resting on my passenger seat, “Oh! Roger, I seem to have picked up your wife’s check,” I said handing it out to him.
Roger slowly raised his head up from his door and looked over the top of his car at me. He smiled and his eyes cleared for the first time since I’d been back.