This story is by Jasmine C Griffin and was part of our 2019 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
OF FAIRYTALE THINGS
By Jasmine Griffin
When Calliope Hayes was a child between the ages of two and thirteen her mother read her a fairytale each night before bed. The book Mildred Augustine-Hayes read from was a thick Grimm Brothers collection with an ornate blue cover. The pages that the book held were trimmed in gold. To Calliope the book looked as if it had been unearthed from some far away kingdom just like the settings of the stories that adorned its pages.
Calliope didn’t look like the princesses in the illustrations. She didn’t have the shinning blonde hair of Sleeping Beauty. Her skin wasn’t the ivory color of snow like Snow White. Calliope’s skin was as black as night, her hair brown, curly, long and coarse. Her lips weren’t as red as blood but as pink as the Bubbilicious bubblegum that she and her cousin Andrea used to buy by the handful at the corner store down the street from Calliope’s childhood home.
Still Calliope believed she was a princess. Believed she could live happily ever after even outside of a castle. Her mother always told her, “You ain’t got to look like the princesses in this book to be one.” Calliope had long ago decided to live her life out as if she were in one of those fairytales. She would grow up and meet her prince charming and live happily ever after. She rejected anything outside of the idea of a mythic and legendary love, even the things that made her who she was. That was what led Calliope to her current predicament.
Presently, Calliope was in the dressing room of Evergreen Baptist Church getting ready to marry a man that on paper was the equivalent to Prince Charming. James St. Germaine was from an affluent family. He was sweet and dashing and kind. He was handsome in that classic kind of way, like Billy Dee Williams in Lady Sings the Blues. All bespoke suits and dimpled grins. He had a good job at an ad agency, held doors open for any female walking by, and answered his mother with a, “Yes, ma’am” and “No ma’am.” He spoke to Calliope as if she hung the moon, “There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for you, my love,” whispered into her ear on nights when she asked even the smallest of favors. But marrying James brought Calliope no joy.
In fact, as she looked at the white painted walls of the room, she was in she felt as if they were closing in on her slowly but surely. They felt sterile and wrong. Too perfect. Without blemish. Not real.
Even as her bridesmaids chattered, her cousin Andrea among them, Calliope heard nothing but white noise. Not the chirping of birds that led Snow White to her prince. She heard static and felt numb. The only sensation she had was the sense of smell. When she breathed in, she smelled the gardenias from the bouquet she gripped in her white gloved hands. Sickly sweet and so potent she thought that she might suffocate. She shouldn’t have chosen them, but when they had gone to the florist what seemed like so long ago now, she couldn’t help herself.
Gardenias were Roz Pope’s favorite flower. Roz who was no prince charming, who was no prince at all. Roz whose laughter sounded like birds singing and who’s grin could any dashing knight. Roz who Calliope had played hopscotch with on the school playground as a little girl and sung with in the church choir before Roz said a big “fuck you” to Evergreen Baptist Church and it’s whole congregation by falling in love with another girl. A girl she never named when her momma asked but a girl that Calliope knew well. Or at least she thought she had, before Roz.
Gardenias were the flower that grew in Roz’s momma’s garden where Roz and Calliope had shared their first kiss at the age of sixteen. Just the soft and supple touch of lips to lips. Calliope had been shaking the entire time, trembling even when Roz ran her fingertips down her arm to calm her. “It’s okay,” Roz had told her afterwards. But it wasn’t. Not when the moment had upended everything Calliope knew. Not when the touch of Roz’s lips was the only thing that Calliope had ever felt that was comparable to the fabled “true love’s kiss”.
She had known herself before Roz. Before the scent of gardenias, sweet and heady, like the smell of Roz’s body wash. Roz’d lathered and smoothed the same body wash across Calliope’s skin the first time they had showered together five years after their first kiss. Calliope remembered being fascinated with the differences in their skin tones, Roz’s a light sable brown, Calliope’s rich and dark like the earth.
Calliope shouldn’t have chosen gardenias.
Being in this all white room with these cackling and clucking women like hens in an oddly sterile barnyard, or maybe a laboratory being prepped for experimentation, out of place but two dumb to notice the peril around them. Calliope was the only one that noticed. She noticed the floral aroma heavy and consuming. Noticed the walls that were inching closer and closer to her and making the hairs on her arms stand on end and sweat pull beneath her armpits.
She supposed that this was what Snow White must have felt as she waited in her glass coffin for her prince to come and kiss her. No. Snow White had been asleep and unaware. Unaware of the prison she was in. Blissfully ignorant in her dreamlike state. Calliope wouldn’t find her salvation at the altar even if Prince Charming awaited her, not when “true love’s kiss” didn’t.
Snow White probably knew her prince about as well as Calliope knew James. Even after two years of dating he was a familiar as a stranger. He painted a pretty picture, but it was all very surface. Looked good from the outside, gold trimmed, but on the inside James was as flat as the paper pages in Calliope’s book of tales. He was a nice enough guy. But Calliope was no Snow White and she couldn’t build a life around a pretty picture.
Snow White’s coffin wasn’t as constricting as this room. This room with it’s white walls closing in. The bouquet in Calliope’s hand could’ve easily been the flowers adorning the coffin’s lid. She could hear Roz’s voice in her head. “You know they cut all of the dark shit out of those fairy tales you love so much. Needed to make them palatable. When you dig deeper though, its all just fucked up. It isn’t something you aspire to.”
Roz had been right of course. Calliope had once looked up different variations of tales and they were darker and grimmer than the little girl she had been had ever realized. In one such variation, before Snow White had been given the poison apple by her evil stepmother, she’d been given a corset. When Snow White put the corset on it squeezed and squeezed and squeezed until all the air was drained for Snow White’s lungs. Calliope had traded that corset for the bodice of her wedding dress. Traded Snow White’s dreamless sleep for visions of Roz. Her lips. Her molten brown eyes. Her laughter. Calliope couldn’t breathe.
Roz could have been her happily ever after if not for the constraints Calliope placed on herself. On her life. On her dreams. On what perfect was supposed to be. All of it based on a book of tales that had been dissected and whitewashed and rewritten again and again until all that was left were their Disney renditions in which “true love” could only exist between a princess with skin as white as gardenia petals and princes that they hardly knew. It was an image. One not based on reality and yet…yet it was easier than facing the truth. Especially when the truth meant alienating her overly religious mother. Especially when the truth meant that life would be harder and she would be judged not just by the color of her skin or her gender but on top of those things, by who she chose to love. This had been the easy route. Or so she had thought.
This room told her different. The clock hanging on the white wall that ticked and ticked and ticked, counting down to when she would sign her life over to another. The one she had chosen and yet not the one she had chosen at all.
The door opened and still Calliope felt claustrophobic. Her mother poked her head inside. “Are you ready, sweetheart?”
Deciding which end her fairytale would come to, Calliope let the bouquet fall from her hands. Breathing in, the scent of gardenia stinging her nose, she opened her mouth to answer.