When I was seven, my grandmother told me the story of “The 12 Dancing Princesses.” These princesses snuck out of their castle every night and escaped to an underground palace, where they danced for hours and hours with handsome princes, before returning home with holes in their shoes—much to their father’s dismay. “Of course,” my grandmother said, “a king can’t have his daughters prancing off to who knows where, and so he sent for the men of the kingdom to follow them.”
“Why didn’t he just follow them himself?” I asked.
“Because kings like to have other people do things for them,” my grandmother said, which seemed like a sensible answer. “Or maybe he had to work. Keeping 12 girls in new shoes isn’t cheap.”
“Why didn’t they just dance barefoot?”
“Because they’re princesses! And a princess does everything with a bit of glamour, darling.”
My grandmother knew a lot about glamour: when she was 24, she was in a magazine ad for Crème Rose soap, the soap that smells of flowers for hours. A yellowed copy hung in Grandpa Graham’s study for years and years, lasting longer than both the brand and Grandpa Graham.
In the ad, she is wearing a royal-blue robe, her blonde hair curled and pinned, her lips embellished with a splash of a watercolor red. Her skin is practically translucent, and she is dipping her toe into a tub filled with rose petals and cream; her face is turned to the camera with an “oh, my!” expression. The words “Crème Rose” are written in script above her head, and the tagline is scrawled across the tile of the bathroom floor.
Eight years later, when my grandmother passed away, I took the framed copy down from the wall and pressed it to my nose. It didn’t smell like flowers. It smelled old and slightly damp.
You should know how it ends: the princesses are caught, because nobody can have fun in a fairy tale. A soldier, helped by a witch, is able to outsmart them, avoiding their sleeping potion and following them underground with the help of an invisibility cloak. All of those nights of dancing, of walking in woods filled with gold and diamond leaves, of riding in swan boats across a dark and dreamy river to meet with their beaus, were ruined by an intruder who turned the ritual into a scandal, who turned the leaves into evidence, who “won” by exposing their secret to the king and was rewarded with the hand of the eldest, and the kingdom itself.
It is a dreadful ending, though my grandmother always added the requisite “happily ever after.” But how could a princess be happy after she’s been given away as a prize? How could the other 11 sisters go on, knowing that their dancing days were over? And what of the princes, lined up along the banks of the river, watching the water for a fleet that would never arrive, the gold buttons of their royal uniforms shining hopelessly against the darkness?
“Good morning sunshine,” Coco says, pulling my pillow from beneath my head. “Time to get up!”
“How did you get in here?” The alarm clock next to my bed reads 11:30 AM, but it feels like it’s three in the morning. I am beyond tired. The act of falling asleep and the state of being at rest are two very different things, I guess.
“I texted you like 30 times, and your mom got so sick of hearing your phone go off that she finally just texted back and told me to come over and get your lazy ass out of bed.”
“My mother would never use the word ass. She’s still trying to make me say ‘crud’ instead of ‘crap.’”
“A losing battle,” Coco replies in a terrible British accent, hugging my stolen pillow and striking a dramatic pose. “One cannot remove crap from life! For life itself is crap, is it not?” She collapses into a pile of fake sobs.
“Get up and get dressed,” she says, throwing my pillow at my face. “We’ve got some sorting to do.”
The Good as New Thrift Shoppe has been in Coco’s family for more than 40 years—or, as she puts it, “my grandfather bought and named it when it was considered classy to add an extra pe.” She spends the majority of her free time in the store, arranging clothes, adding color-coded tags to sale items, and working the register. Saturdays are sorting days, and for the last three years, I’ve spent them beside her, digging through donation bags and trying to salvage things to sell. Today about 60 bags surround us, and we’ve already gone through five. Out of those five, we found roughly 30 things that were “store-worthy.”
“People are disgusting,” Coco says, pulling a stained white T-shirt out of a garbage bag. The stain covers most of the shirt, which also has holes along the shoulder seams and a giant rip down the side. “This is a thrift store, not the friggin’ dump.”
We made a deal years ago that we’d each claim one item if we fell in love with it, as long as we donated the money it would have made to charity. Coco calls dibs on a faded yellow T-shirt with the words “Ho-Zone Lair: The Hottest Club on Earth, Tampa, FL” scrawled across it in hot pink, and I pick a purple velvet clutch with a rhinestone clasp and tiny flowers embroidered in gold along the front.
We dig for hours, pulling out several pairs of jeans, blazers, and still-crisp oxford shirts. The sweaters always have the same smell before they’re cleaned: earthy, the molecules of someone else’s life embedded deep within the musty fabric. It is my job to inspect the shoes, flipping each one over to make sure that the soles haven’t been worn through. We get a lot of satin pumps, the kind you wear only once, to a wedding or event of some kind. These are my favorites. I run my finger over every scuff and dream of the ladies who made these marks before giving their dancing shoes away.
Later that night, I toss the purple clutch on my bed and fall in beside it, staring at my grandmother’s soap ad on the wall. I had taken it down for six months last year, when I was dating Noah, because it was impossible to make out without feeling weird about my grandmother’s “oh, my!” expression as she watched us from above. When we broke up, I returned her to her rightful place.
I tried to find Crème Rose soap on the internet once, but the only thing I could find were advertisements, including my grandmother’s, selling for a few dollars here and there. Some seller had it listed as a “RETRO SOAP PINUP,” which would have made her laugh. The soap itself was gone, impossible to track down.
“Got a bag today,” I say to her picture, holding up the purple clutch. I don’t know why I still talk to her this way. It has been two years. “Velvet and diamonds. Very Elizabeth Taylor.” I don’t tell her that the clasp is actually rhinestones. It doesn’t matter. I get to tell the stories now.
The clutch is in what Coco would describe as “GCC,” or “glass-case condition,” the kind of piece that is fancy enough to be displayed below the register, alongside estate jewels and important baseball cards. It barely looks like it’s been used, though it’s certainly old. I felt bad even claiming it, but I promised Coco that I’d donate 25 dollars to her favorite charity, Beds for Buds, which donates dog beds to rescue shelters, and she agreed to let me have it.
Curious about what the lining might be like, I unlatch the clasp and peek inside. The lining is black silk, and a cream-colored tag that says “Dorothea Designs” in gold thread is stitched into the fabric. A gold zipper sits just below the tag, and I carefully pull it open. Inside is a perfectly preserved piece of Lowry’s Lavender gum, the kind my mother used to buy for my grandparents at the penny-candy store we’d visit on vacation. “Can’t find this stuff anywhere,” she’d say.
We haven’t been to the penny-candy store in years. And I have an overwhelming urge to chew this stupid piece of gum. And I’ve never liked lavender gum; it tastes like shampoo. And who knows how old this piece is? What if it’s toxic? But the wrapper is falling to the floor, and the stick is headed toward my mouth, and my grandmother hovers above me and says nothing, except her eternal oh my, oh my, oh my.
“Shut up, stupid,” says the one in the yellow taffeta gown. “If Father hears you, you’ll ruin this for everyone.”
“But I don’t know where I am,” I say, staring down at the purple shoes that have suddenly appeared on my feet. Eleven girls in extravagant gowns frown at me in unison.
“Stop drinking the wine,” Yellow Taffeta hisses. “That’s for the dopes.”
“Is he out?” asks a pretty brunette in blue silk.
“Yeah, he’s out,” says Yellow Taffeta. “Now come on, they’re waiting for us.”
I am sitting in a boat shaped like a swan. It is made of sea glass, smooth and steady, and the boy who is rowing it for me is dressed like a cartoon prince. He is 18, maybe 19, and he smells like a wood-burning fireplace. His hair is slightly red, and his eyes are yellowish-green. They look haunted by a lack of sleep, a slight darkness falling below his lids. He is beautiful.
“You’re late today,” he says, smiling. Above us are trees that glisten in the moonlight, their berries made of rubies, and emeralds crawling up the trunks like decadent moss.
“I wasn’t expecting to be here,” I say, and it’s all I can come up with. He laughs, as if this is a joke I’ve made before, and pulls the boat to shore. He takes my hand and we head toward the palace gates, and for the next eight hours, all we do is dance. Everything is both strange and familiar; the music is something I’ve heard but can’t place, twinkling and repeating as we move along. I don’t know the dances, but my body does, effortlessly waltzing as if on autopilot.
The room is draped in red velvet and gold; it looks like the inside of a fancy chocolate box. Around hour seven, I can feel the floor through my shoes. The boy alternates his gaze between my face and the floor. I can’t tell if he’s shy or if he’s watching my shoes fall apart below us, if he even notices that the soles of my feet have started to touch the ground. We are all sweating, but the only thing I can smell is flowers.
“You’ll have to go soon,” the boy says softly.
I want to ask him his name, I want to ask him if he knows mine, I want to ask him anything, but the words won’t come out. My mouth doesn’t move—it remains half-open, my squeaking drowned out by fear and the endless, twinkling waltz playing in the background. He looks back up at me and then over my shoulder, at a small, blinking light that has floated into the room. “Time’s up,” he says, before bowing and disappearing from sight.
“We have to go,” says Yellow Taffeta, rounding up the rest of the girls.
“Promise you’ll be back,” one of the princes says.
“We always come back,” Blue Silk says, and as we push off, paddling our boats down the river alone, I desperately want to believe her.
“You’re an idiot,” Coco says, standing above my hospital bed. “I love you forever, but if you died, I would have brought you back to life and killed you for being so dumb.”
It turns out that eating a piece of gum that has been stored in a clutch, which has been stored in mothballs for 25 years, is a bad idea.
“I think she needs to rest,” my mother says, gently guiding Coco from the room.
“I love you,” Coco says quietly as she leaves. “Feel better.”
“I love you,” I say.
“Oh, Agatha,” my mother says. “Always an adventure with you.”
“I guess I just missed the gum.”
“I miss the gum, too. But I can buy you new gum.”
“And a new pair of shoes, for cripe’s sake.” She lifts my sneakers from beside the hospital bed and points out the holes in the soles. “Why didn’t you tell me you needed new ones?”
A deliveryman enters the room, carrying a bouquet. “Is there an Agatha Graham here?”
“Well lucky you. Somebody sent you roses.”
Sorting Saturday arrivals again, and I am well enough to attend. “Don’t eat anything,” Coco laughs.
We sift and sort, saving some things and dumping others. The prizes go on the hangers, waiting to be loved, to be new again. Someone will start their story again from the very beginning. ♦