Emily Anderson Ula
Contest - 2nd Place
Emily Anderson Ula earned her MFA from The University of the South, Sewanee. She was the recipient of the 2016 School of Letters Rivendell Fellowship, and her debut short story was published in The Cincinnati Review in the fall of 2017. She lives in San Luis Obispo, California with her precocious daughter, Scarlett, and a one-eyed cat named Sushi.
This job is just temporary. Something to pay the bills until my acting career takes off. Any day now, the agency assures me, I’ll land my first commercial or a small role in a sitcom. In the meantime, my agent said, it doesn’t hurt to have a skill or trade to fall back on. But acting is the only thing I’ve ever pictured myself doing. She handed me a casting call for Disney Princesses. At the audition, they told me I was a natural. That I have a Kardashian thing going on and could pass for Princess Jasmine. They lined my eyes with kohl, applied false lashes and a jet-black wig and asked me to sing “A Whole New World.” “Definitely work on your posture,” the hiring manager told me. “And you’ll have to go up at least one cup size. I would suggest a water bra.”
Six months ago, when I first got the job, I sent a picture of myself in costume to my mom, and she assumed I got a part in a movie. She shows the picture to my aunts and cousins and the UPS man and the Haitian ladies she cleans with in Manhattan. “Always we knew she would be a star!” It’s better if she believes this. I don’t want her to worry about me.
Today, I’m standing outside Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique, waving at kids and their families. Little girls come running to hug me, anxious to tell me what they want to be when they grow up: a doctor, a ballerina, a real-life princess, just like you! I don’t know many people in Los Angeles, so it’s nice when kids are excited to see me, even if it’s not really me they’re seeing. Most of my job consists of posing for pictures and signing autographs. I’ve perfected the Jasmine signature: the large, loopy, whimsical J, the floating heart dotting the I. By far, the most important part of the job is smiling (they can’t sell the photos otherwise). When I’m in costume I forget about my father, dying from a mysterious illness back home. I stop worrying about my roommate, Jenna, who spends all day in the bathtub because she believes she’s cold-blooded, like an amphibian. According to the Jasmine character manual, I’m the headstrong, irreverent daughter of the sultan. I’m adventurous, spontaneous, unimpressed by the slew of pompous suitors who parade through the city on the backs of elephants.
A family lingers outside the boutique. The daughter, slightly chubby with red hair and glasses, seems reluctant. “Don’t you want a tiara, Bridget?” her mother asks.
The girl chews her nails. “I want to go on the Peter Pan ride.”
“I promise it will be wonderful!” I tell her, ushering them in. It’s my job to persuade them to spend a small fortune on the Castle Package, which includes Transformation by a fairy godmother (hairstyling, makeup, princess gown, jewelry) and photos with a real Disney Princess (me). Bridget moves through the shop doors skeptically. I introduce her to her fairy godmother, a thirty-two-year-old bartender from Venice Beach. Which princess do you want to be? The girl points shyly to me. The attending fairies take her to the dressing room and stuff her into a costume. Then they apply blush, lip gloss, pale blue eye shadow. They curl her hair. Bridget is starting to enjoy herself. Quick, snap the picture before the curl goes limp! Her freckled, moon-white belly protrudes over the waistband of her pants.
“You look wonderful!” I tell her (there are a small number of Disney-approved adjectives at our disposal). I put an arm around her and don my most enchanting smile. The picture is magically transmitted to a large monitor behind the counter. It’s forty-five dollars for a printed copy, the fairy godmother explains. The parents pay up, and the whole family leaves happy.
By the time my morning shift is over, I’m starving. I walk through Downtown Disney to the hotel, where I’ll order lunch. Face characters are forbidden to eat or drink inside the park, because it could spoil the illusion we’re trying to create. A friend who played Cinderella was fired for eating the crust of a grilled cheese sandwich left on a vacated table.
Inside the hotel elevator, a small girl tugs on her mother’s jacket and points. “It’s Princess Jasmine!” She admires the gold bangles on my wrist, my blue silk parachute pants.
When I reach room 726, I remove my two-pound wig, then stretch out on the bed to wait for Trevor. He’s a concierge at the hotel. For the past two weeks, he’s been using this room to relax during his break or to stay overnight after late shifts. They can’t rent it to guests because someone died here last month. I’m not exactly sure what happened, but there’s a light spattering of blood on the wall behind the bed. Before this room became available, we used to meet in the character dressing rooms or sometimes the handicapped bathroom on the fifth floor of the hotel. “Why can’t we go to your place?” I asked. He’s in the middle of a separation from his wife, he explained. A messy situation. Once I called his home phone, and a little girl answered. “Is Trevor there?”
“Daddy! It’s for you!” she yelled.
“You have a daughter?” I asked after Trevor’s lively concierge greeting. “She sounds nice.”
“How did you get this number?” he whispered.
“Everything is online now. Duh.”
“Please don’t call here anymore.” Sometimes, when I know Trevor is working, I call just to listen to his ex-wife’s voice on the answering machine. She sounds smart and professional and important. “She’s probably bossy in bed, right?” I asked Trevor once. He clenched his fists, as if fighting the urge to slap me.
I dial room service to order pancakes, fries, fresh fruit, a gin and tonic, and a beer for Trevor. Fortunately, I don’t have to worry about gaining weight, because I have a fast metabolism. Other princesses have been told to cut down. Yes, charge it to the room, I say, giving the fake name Trevor uses so as not to alert the general manager to our activities.
When the bellhop comes with the tray of food, she glares at me without speaking. They don’t like me being here. I’ve heard them whispering about me in the halls, but they can’t do anything about it, because Trevor is technically their boss.
I’ve nearly finished my drink by the time Trevor arrives. “Hey, princess.”
I hand him the beer. He takes a swig, then removes his suit jacket and pulls me out of the desk chair. We fall onto the soft, white bedspread, and he fingers the sheer sleeves and beaded trim of my blue bralette. I start to remove my gold, curl-toed Turkish slippers, but he stops me. “Leave them on.”
Afterwards, we lie quietly beneath the sheets, our legs tangled, light splashing through the curtain in thin, wavy strips. It’s nice, these few moments while I’m out of costume. I close my eyes, breathe in the spicy scent of his cologne, and pretend for a moment that we’re a normal couple. That we never have to leave this room. That I don’t have to return to my flea-ridden studio apartment in Boyle Heights. Soon we’ll be banished, because the renovations will be complete. The bloodstains will be removed, a fresh coat of paint applied, and there will be no trace of anything that happened here.
When my break is over, I make my way toward Adventureland, where I sing a duet with Aladdin every day at four-thirty. It takes nearly an hour to get there, because I’m frequently greeted by guests, and I’m required to stop and pick up any trash I see. This is one of the most important park rules. All employees, even face characters, must pick up trash. The challenge is to remain in character; to smile and swoop gracefully.
The drive back to Boyle Heights is long. My mother calls at her usual time, although it’s past midnight in New York. We have the same conversation almost every day, and it’s starting to feel like we’re reading from a script. What did you eat today? When will your movie come out? Have you met anyone special? I made the mistake of telling her about Trevor early on, before I knew he’s technically still married and isn’t looking for anything serious. I know better now than to share with her, because she doesn’t understand. I don’t want the kind of life she shares with my father. Even when I was young, I knew they didn’t love each other the way they were supposed to.
My dad has spent another night in the hospital. He’s lost more weight. When will you come home? she asks. Soon, I say. She tries to pass the phone to him, but I tell her my cell is dying. My dad and I don’t have much to talk about. As a kid, I tried every strategy imaginable to get his attention. I used to put on shows in our living room, belting the soundtrack to Mama Mia, dressing up in feather boas and expensive clothes given to my mother by the rich women for whom she cleaned house. But my dad was never impressed, and at some point I just stopped caring.
My roommate, Jenna, is in the bathtub reading Sartre’s Nausea for the third or fourth time. The bathroom door is propped open, and she waves to me from the tub. The pads of her fingers and pages of her books are permanently rippled from spending so much time in the water. All the rejection has eaten away at her. We met last year at a casting call, where we ran lines together in the waiting room. The girl who got the part was all boobs and eyelashes; she had a cagey, birdlike quality, like a starved, Russian refugee. After the audition, Jenna and I commiserated over beers, complaining in mock Russian accents about the pitfalls of an artist’s life. We were both low on cash, and I needed a roommate, so we made a pact, agreeing to tough it out in my studio while we waited for our big breaks. That was nearly eight months ago. Jenna has completely given up on acting now; she wants an administrative job, where she can wear all black and sit behind a desk, preferably in some forgotten corner of an office.
“How was the job fair?” I ask, popping a tray of frozen enchiladas in the microwave. Her interview clothes are still laid neatly across the futon. Not a good sign. I’ve been paying her half of the rent for the last four months, because she promised to get a job soon. Even with my income from Disney, we can barely make it. The complex manager has threatened to evict us if we don’t pay by the end of the week.
“I didn’t go,” she says. “Can’t see the point of being cold all day.”
“I can always get you a job at Disney.” But she knows I’m not serious. She wouldn’t last a day. “You could be Ariel.” She laughs as I set the tray of enchiladas on the rim of the bathtub.
On Thursday, Trevor is already in room 726 when I arrive. I like to get there first, so I can sit for a moment by myself, enjoy the solitude. It feels good to stop smiling for just a few minutes.
“I have a surprise for you,” he says, pulling me inside. I start to remove my wig. “Wait! Not yet.” When he disappears into the bathroom, I take a bottle of Malibu rum from the mini bar and mix it with some warm orange juice from yesterday’s lunch. Soon, Trevor emerges wearing a cape and bejeweled sultan hat.
“Where did you get that?”
“One of the shops in the park,” he says. “I’m Jafar. From Aladdin?”
“We don’t sell Jafar.”
“Okay, fine! I got it on Amazon.”
He presses me against the wall, pinning my wrist behind my back. “Have you been stealing from the market again? Where’s Aladdin to save you?”
“Probably fucking Prince Eric.”
“Shut up!” he yells, and I can’t tell if it’s part of the game, or if he’s really mad. He pulls me to the floor and covers my mouth, because I can’t stop laughing, even though it seems to make him angrier. From my restrained position, I only see the torn wallpaper and exposed wooden boards where the carpet has been ripped up, the renovations halfway complete. He groans loudly, and I feel the sinking weight of his whole body pressing me to the floor.
When he’s done, I dig through the pocket of his discarded jacket in search of cigarettes. “I need a favor,” he says. “Come to my daughter’s birthday. It’s this Friday.” I give him a puzzled look as I flick the lighter. “Hey, you can’t smoke in here.” He grabs the cigarette and stubs it out against a pad of stationery on the nightstand, so I take another from the pack. “At least open a window or something.”
“Why would you want me there?”
“It’s a princess party. Lizzy really wants one of the real princesses to come.”
“I don’t think so.”
“I can pay you.”
“Will your wife be there?” I ask.
“No. We’re having two separate parties this year. A hundred dollars?”
“Fine.” Trevor reaches across me for the pack of cigarettes and lights his own. “You’re a terrible influence,” he says, playfully pushing me off the bed. I land awkwardly on my elbow, the lit end of the cigarette burning the inside of my arm.
On Friday afternoon, the voice on my iPhone directs me through a labyrinth of suburban streets, where all the houses have the same beige, stucco fronts with green trim.
A little girl opens the door dressed in a pink, corseted Aurora gown. Her eyes are the same as Trevor’s. Pale green with flecks of brown. “Princess Jasmine!” she shrieks as several other little princesses materialize from the hallway.
“You made it,” Trevor says. He’s wearing jeans and a Grateful Dead t-shirt, which makes me realize I’ve never seen him in anything but a suit and tie.
“So what do you want me to do?”
“I don’t know, princess stuff. Sing a song or something.”
Lizzy takes me by the hand to show me her room, which is more like a small suite. On the far wall, there’s a mural of the Eifel tower and the Parisian skyline. The lyrics to a Lady Gaga song crawl across the screen of a large television, the bass booming from surrounding speakers as the girls perform some type of choreographed dance routine, passing around a karaoke microphone.
After watching them for a while, I stray into the hallway, examining the framed photographs of Lizzy on the wall, her life from birth to present. Behind me, someone coughs loudly. I whip around, noticing one of the girls dressed as Belle, her arms crossed over a gold, tiered ball gown. “You’re not the real Princess Jasmine,” she says.
“Oh? Why not?” I ask.
“Because the real Jasmine is prettier and skinnier. And she’s a cartoon.” We’re trained to evade these kinds of remarks by changing the subject or spontaneously bursting into song. But here I don’t have to obey the rules.
“Well, that’s not very nice to say,” I say, smiling. “You don’t look anything like Belle either. It must be the big ears.”
“You’re mean. I’m going to tell the other girls you’re a big, fat fake.” Belle storms back into Lizzy’s bedroom, so I meander down the hall toward a picture of Trevor, Lizzy, and his soon-to-be ex-wife, Darya—the psychiatrist. Trevor said sometimes he felt like one of her patients. Like there was something wrong with him she wanted to fix. They’ve tried a few times to patch things up, but the same thing always happens. Trevor becomes irritated, afraid she can read his mind, and she moves into the apartment above her office in Santa Ana. I pictured someone demure and frumpy, maybe a little overweight. But she’s actually quite pretty—pale skin, slanted green eyes and sleek, blond hair cropped at her jawline. I stare at her a while longer, searching for a glimpse of whatever made Trevor so unhappy. They look flawless, the three of them with their blond hair, fancy clothes, and perfect house. Just like a picture in a magazine. The kind of life I envied as a child.
"Come swimming, Jasmine!" Lizzy says. The girls have all changed into bikinis.
"I left my suit at the palace."
"Of course you did," Belle says snidely.
Before joining the girls and Trevor outside, I poke around the house a little, wondering into empty rooms, admiring the high ceilings and dark wood floors. Above the bed in the master suite is a large piece of art, which looks like two people painted their bodies and rolled around naked on the canvas. I try to imagine Trevor and his wife doing this.
Trevor’s wallet is on the dresser, and I can’t help noticing it’s stuffed with twenty-dollar bills. In the bottom drawer, I find some women’s scarves and a pair of suede gloves, like those worn by drivers in old movies. I try one of them on, but it’s so small I can barely move my fingers.
I used to think we were something real. I used to dream about moving in with Trevor, after we first met at a Disney anniversary party. He was charming—always smiling, perfect teeth, that swoop of sandy, blond hair. I imagined he would eventually introduce me to Lizzy, and she would grow to like me because I’m cooler and younger than her mom; I would let her drink beer when we were alone if she promised not to tell. But now, seeing this house, dirty dishes in the sink, drawers full of socks, it all seems tragically ordinary.
Outside, there are purple streamers and a bubble machine. A woman in a low-cut sundress sits next to Trevor at the patio table, sipping a glass of white wine. “This is Katie. Sarah’s mom,” he explains, offering me a seat, pointing to the girl previously dressed as Belle. Katie smiles, then quickly resumes a previous conversation. I watch the girls perform elaborate dives and back flips into the crisp, blue water. Meanwhile, Katie is laughing slightly too hard at Trevor’s jokes. I notice she’s not wearing a ring.
Suddenly, she looks at me, her reproachful expression similar to Sarah’s during our hallway encounter. “So you do this all the time?”
“Not really. I mean I’ve never done a birthday party.”
“How do you know Trevor?”
“It’s a small world at Disney,” I reply, but she doesn’t think I’m funny.
“It must be a tough job. I worked as a waitress in college, and I felt sort of like a prostitute. I bet there are a ton of creeper dads, right?” Katie is just as charming as her daughter.
“Sometimes.” Under the table, I hook my foot around Trevor’s ankle. His face reddens, and he rises abruptly to start the barbecue.
“God, there are so many pervs out there,” Katie says. I pretend to listen sympathetically to her story about being groped by an overweight trucker while evading Trevor’s wide-eyed looks of warning. I’m pleased with myself for making him uncomfortable.
“Watch me, Daddy!” Lizzy calls, bouncing on the diving board before plunging head-first into the water. When she surfaces, Trevor applauds and pretends to hold up a scorecard “Nine point eight!” For a moment, I’m jealous of Lizzy—of all these little girls.
Eventually, the girls emerge from the pool, devour their hamburgers, and move on to Dance-Dance Revolution. Sarah stomps on the mat in time with the music as the other girls shout the lyrics to a song about a sexual encounter with an alien lifeform. Katie looks at her watch. “Well, I should probably get going.” I can tell she’s hoping Trevor will encourage her to stay, but he only nods.
“Are you okay if I go now, hon?” she asks Sarah. Clearly stalling. Sarah doesn’t look away from the screen. Her feet move expertly across the mat in perfect rhythm. “I’m fine. Geez!”
“Did you remember to pack your bunny?”
Sarah blushes and stumbles, missing several steps in a row. The word FAIL appears on the screen, and an animated break-dancer laughs scornfully. “God, mom! Just go!”
She hugs Trevor before leaving. “Remember, I’m here if you ever need to talk to anyone.”
“Sure,” he answers, rolling his eyes over her shoulder.
“Lovely meeting you!” I call after her.
The girls seem to have forgotten about me. They’ve retired to Lizzy’s bedroom, so I’m sitting on the kitchen counter, watching Trevor do the dishes. “That was fun.” When he doesn’t respond, I add, “You’re very popular with the single moms. I get why you didn’t want your wife here.”
“I didn’t expect her to stay.”
I hop down from the counter and wrap my arms around his waist, grabbing hold of his belt buckle. “Not here,” he says.
“I don’t care.”
He pushes my hand away. “Maybe you should go.”
“Fine,” I say, heading for the door.
“Hey, wait.” He pulls the money from his pocket and winks at me. “Be good.”
My roommate is dressed for the first time in days, sitting on the futon, combing through her wet hair. Her mother is here, manically stuffing clothes and books into a duffel bag.
“What’s going on?”
“We’ve been evicted.” She hands me an official notice.
“Jenna’s coming home with me,” her mother says caustically, as if this entire situation is my fault.
“But I have the rest of the money. Look!” I say, waving the wad of cash from Trevor.
“It’s too late,” her mom says. “It doesn’t matter anyway. She’s just not thriving in this environment. Who would? Look at this place!” She unplugs the microwave and the stereo and sets them by the door.
“Maybe we can get a better place. With a kitchen and a bigger bathtub.”
“That’s highly unlikely,” her mother retorts. Jenna shrugs and waves a bashful goodbye as her mother places the duffel strap over her shoulder, a potted fern in her empty hands. Then she’s ushered out the door. “Come on, Jenna! We don’t want to hit traffic,” her mom calls, delicately cradling the microwave.
After they’re gone, the room looks bigger. It’s quiet, except for the echoing shouts from an angry, Hispanic couple upstairs. I fill the sink with hot water and submerge a tray of frozen macaroni and cheese, reading the fine print of the eviction notice while I wait for it to defrost. I have forty-eight hours to evacuate the premises. It only takes an hour to load most of my belongings into the car. Soon, the room is almost empty, and for the first time, I feel alone, noticing the rings of mildew in the tub, the silence ebbing like a pulse, which I can no longer ignore.
The next day, I call in sick, because my agent told me about an audition for a cat litter commercial. If I get the role, I won’t have to live in my car. I might even be able to quit my job at Disney, move closer to the city.
At the audition, they give me a crisp, button-down shirt and a pair of high-waisted, mom jeans. I’m told to sit on the floor and wait for the cat to crawl out of the litter box and into my lap. Then I’m supposed to lift it over my head and smile blissfully. After several run-throughs, the director says, “You don’t seem like a cat person.”
“Oh, I am,” I assure him.
“There’s no chemistry here. I don’t believe you have a bond with this animal.”
“Give me another chance, please.” But I don’t even make it past the first round of cuts.
I drive around for a while, gathering the courage to ask Trevor for money. When I pull up to the house, there’s an unfamiliar SUV in the driveway. Lizzy is sitting on the sidewalk, drawing on the cement with chalk. “Hi, Lizzy.”
“How do you know my name?” She must not recognize me without the costume and makeup. I don’t want to spoil the magic for her.
“I’m a friend of your dad’s.”
“Oh,” she says shyly, smearing the chalk with her shoe. “He’s not here.” A woman’s voice calls for Lizzy, carrying through an open window.
“Who’s that?” I ask.
“My mom. We’re moving back in.” Now I notice some cardboard boxes stacked near the front door. Her mother opens the front door and waves, as if she knows me. I resist the temptation to say hello, to make up a reason to be invited inside.
I speed through suburban streets, flying over speed bumps. Where are you? I text Trevor. Covering a shift. Meet me in 726.
On the seventh floor, I pass two maids, hovering around a cart in the hallway. “Wrong room!” one of them calls as I swipe my key. They don’t recognize me out of costume.
“I’m waiting for Trevor.”
“Oh, princesa!” She says something in Spanish, which makes the other maid laugh. “Can’t go in today. We need to clear the room before construction.” I ignore them and push through the door, locking the deadbolt behind me.
Stop harassing the maids, or I’ll have to spank you, Trevor texts me. It’s irritating he’s keeping up with the game now that he’s back with Darya. Maybe If I act heartbroken, he’ll feel bad enough to lend me some money. At least my talent for crying-on-cue might finally come to good use.
“No costume today?” He looks disappointed. I wait for him to tell me about Darya, but instead, he presses my hand against the front of his jeans.
“Knock it off,” I tell him. “I want to talk.”
“Why do you look so sad?”
“Because I got evicted. I’m homeless.”
“Is that what we’re playing today? I’ll be your landlord.” He disguises his voice, speaking gruffly with a terrible, Irish accent. “You can stay as long as you can make it up to me.”
“Don’t you have something you need to tell me?”
“Yes. You’ve been a very bad tenant, late on your rent every month.”
He sighs, reaches for his satchel and removes a checkbook. “How much do you need?”
“I don’t know. They took my security deposit.” He rips out the check and holds it out so I can see the amount. Two thousand dollars. It’s made out to cash, probably because he’s forgotten my last name. “Wow. That’s . . . too much.”
“Then I guess you owe me a favor,” he says. I close my eyes as he kisses me, so it seems less real. But something has changed. The game isn’t fun anymore, I realize, shuddering at the touch of his hands. At least this is the last time I’ll have to play.
“Good news,” he says. “The renovations have been pushed back a few more days. Same time tomorrow?”
Tonight is my last night in the apartment—empty except for my bedding and my costume, hanging in the closet, ready for tomorrow. To pass the time, I draw myself a bath and try reading one of the books Jenna left behind. But there’s no plot, so I fling it against the wall. Bang—the guy in the apartment next door throws something back, as if in response. I sink lower into the water, imagining the police storming in to remove me from the premises. Maybe they would arrest me, which doesn’t seem all that bad. I’d still protest though, just for the fun of it—so they’d have to throw me on the floor, put on the cuffs, and carry me out, naked.
I have three missed calls from my mom when I get out of the tub. It won’t be long now, she says in her voicemail. A few weeks, maybe a month. Come home, say goodbye to your father.
In the morning, there are streaks of mascara on the comforter. After I’ve showered and packed, I stand in front of the mirror, eager to leave myself behind for the day. I begin applying my sparkling rouge and cat-eye liner, attaching the false lashes. Already, I feel better. I think of Trevor, who will be waiting in room 726 for me this afternoon.
When I enter the park, there are tourists flocking through the gates, crowds gathering and dispersing like traffic. Little girls run to me as usual, asking for photos and autographs. I smile, as if to say Anything is possible, and for a moment, I almost believe it.