The Princess of Wands

Art: The Lady of Shalott by John William Waterhouse

“Yeah, you probably shouldn’t have done that,” Paul says. We are in the dim kitchen of the Grant Park house drinking coffee, waiting for Will to be released.

“No, you definitely shouldn’t have done it. Sam and I talked for a while last night when she came back for her car. She was pretty upset. You can’t mix two worlds. Not those two. Those two worlds should never come together.”

He is right. Letting Will meet Sam was like introducing Charles Manson to Anne of Green Gables.

But Will liked to be included, and if I didn’t do it, it would be just him and me. When Laurel and her boyfriend drove all the way from NC to visit, Will made such an ass of himself they never came back. Same when we drove to see Leslie and Markus in Florida. 

Samantha was my date for the prom. It was funny that I became friends with Samantha. Since there were three months left in my high school career, and I had already irreversibly screwed up everything, I was trying to lie low and be good. 

Paul was just a little guy then, a year beneath us, and followed us about. Samantha, or Sam, was the uncontested finest artist in the entire school. She was stunning enough to land the part of Cherry in “The Outsiders” because of her dark red hair, but people didn’t see it because she showed up in jeans and sloppy shirts with the sleeves rolled up. Most days she forgot to brush her hair.

We were tasked with doing the senior mural that would hang in the hallway by the cafeteria for people to walk by and ignore. I believe I was assigned these special projects only by association. Our final project involved stretching a canvas and completing an oil painting to be compiled on slides and presented to the class. Sam complained to the art teacher about all the distractions of the underclassmen, and she was given a supply closet to paint in. She insisted that I be allowed to paint with her. So we spent the remainder of the year inhaling paint thinner fumes and giggling and painting. The other students popped in the closet to visit.

“Lynn and Shelby and me are going together,” she said. “You should come with us.”

“I don’t know. I haven’t decided yet.”

“It’s senior prom. We’re going to get all dressed up. You should go.”

Leslie calls from the old neighborhood to see how things are going. I tell her about the prom dilemma.

“Oh, yeah. Ramon said he was going to ask you, but you’re gone.”

I hadn’t had a conversation with Ramon since he arrived at the old school on exchange from Colombia and I was instructed to show him around. The fact that someone was planning to ask makes me feel a hundred times worse.

There are these two brothers, Tim and Tom, a couple of Latino guys. Tim is an underclassman in our art class, quiet and sweet, but he won’t be going and the thought of asking someone does not occur to me. Tom sits in front of me in Current Issues class. Tom is way more Rico Suave. I wait for him to ask. One day he turns around in his seat, smiles, and asks the blond girl beside me to the prom.

I paint and try to forget about the whole thing until Sam threatens to drag me out of the house to go dress shopping. Both of our paintings switched personalities midway. She was doing an Adam and Eve scenario, that she would pose for as she painted, chew on her brush, giggle as the turpentine fumes took over. Mine was called “The Friday Night People”, based on an image I had in my head of one of the nights I ran away, ended up in a bar at the beach with all these fake- looking people laughing and drinking around me.

Samantha is driving the three of us to prom. Senior prom is being held at Six Flags over Georgia in a clubhouse, with the only interesting part being that the park is opening some of the rides up for us. We bring a change of clothes. Samantha picks me up. She is in a floor-length, form-fitting electric blue gown, red hair curled in ringlets down her back. It is amusing to see everyone stare  when we walk in to the clubhouse. 

The music is predictably terrible booty-shake. Sam drags me out for one song. Tom shows up even later than us, dressed to the nines in a tuxedo, alone.

“Where’s your date?” I ask.

“She stood me up.”

I should take some small pleasure in this misery, but it’s kind of sad that he got all dressed up like that.

“We’re going to change after a few more songs and ride rides, if you want to tag along.”

“Ok.”

Regular clothes are way more comfortable. We assemble to ride the Freefall — Sam, Lynn, Shelby, Tom, me.

“Hey, I’ve got this if you guys want some.” He opens his palm to reveal a rolled joint. Sam does not smoke, obviously, and Shelby won’t even get on a ride.

“I’m down,” Lynn says.

“Me, too.” We slip off behind the shrubbery, then head over to the Freefall. Somehow I end up sharing the two-seater with Tom. We rumble up, up, up, can’t stop laughing. We pause at the cusp. He looks over with teary eyes.

“What the hell was I thinking?” he says, just before we drop 130 feet to the ground.

The big reveal at the end of the year is the whole class sits down to watch the slides. Samantha’s comes up. They “ooh” and “aah”. It is amazing, bright, colorful — a garden scene of wacky creatures of her own creation having a tea party.

Mine slides in. The thing was, the oil paint wasn’t quite doing the trick, even with a mix of linseed oil. I started chopping up magazines, pasting sharp fragments of background all around the Friday Night People bar scene. Silence.

“It’s good, really. Those colors,” someone says finally. It might have been Paul.

“Yah. It’s good,” a girl I don’t know says. “But, were you abused or something?”

After graduation, Sam attends a private college in Lagrange. We meet up sometimes. She comes over to go dancing before leaving to study costume design at NYU. I’ve been in and out of school, work, houses. She comes to the Grant Park house where I live with Will and Paul. Too much fire altogether in that household.

Paul is not really the explosive type, not yet. He and I argue like brother and sister, though, over the dumbest things. Is that song in French or Russian? Is that object black or white? That kind of thing. He does not argue with Will. Nobody does. Will is everybody’s hero, the fearless leader, sacred clown. The boys go out at night while I’m at work or sitting home worried. I don’t know where they go. I don’t really want to know.

The house is decorated with furniture Will says he found on the side of the road. But it’s too nice, too clean — the long retro couch, the solid wood headboard with built-in candelabra — so I don’t really know where it came from. When he drinks enough to where it’s not funny anymore, the tiniest thing will set him off, which sets me off, and it becomes a chain reaction that no one is there to douse. We can really tear a place apart. Usually he’ll pass out and I’ll go to sleep before Paul comes home from work and wades through the destruction.

Sam and I sit on the front porch and talk about life while the sun sets over the projects. This ghetto life.

“I made a new friend, she’s a mod, you would like her. And… I think I might be ready to go on a date.”

The sunset touches the stray red hairs and hits her blameless face. This is what my life would look like if anyone had seen a future for me, if I wasn’t such a dumbass. At some point, the grass stopped looking greener anywhere else.

Will opens the screen and takes a swig of his Budweiser.

“You two lovely ladies almost ready?”

I can’t say I’ve ever had a great time at The Masquerade, but it is the only club in town with a decent mix, new wave night, foam parties, etc. I’m certainly not going to take her to any of the places Will and I go.

She and I dance together in the swirling purple light while Will sips a beer at the bar. He has been quiet. Too quiet.

We don’t stay long. But when we walk to his S-10 pickup, there is a parking ticket. He snatches it out of the wiper and flings it to the wind. 

“You girls ride up front. I’ll ride in back and get some air.”

It’s better that way. Will always makes me drive, then yells in my ear about my driving, which makes it worse. We make it to the nighttime glow of Little Five Points at the corner of Euclid and Moreland.

“Um,” Sam says. I glance in her sideview mirror. He is skateboarding the truck with one leg when we take off from the light. Then he knocks on the cab window. I crack it.

“Pull over and let me in,” he says. “Cops behind us. A Red Dog unit. They can’t pull you over in an unmarked car.” Frickin Will.

I take a right on a side street and pull in an abandoned parking lot with lumpy asphalt and weeds coming through the cracks. He gets in and squishes Sam into me. What happens next can only be described as an accident.

A gold sedan swerves in front of us in the deserted lot. Four seven-foot-tall black dudes in skullcaps and dark clothes jump out and approach the truck.

“Go! Go! Go!” Will yells as Sam shrinks into the seat. It’s hard to think with these unidentified behemoths getting closer and Will yelling go, go, go. I meant to throw the stiff shifter in reverse, but it ended up in first. I hit the gas and lurch forward. I have never seen such large men dive off in all directions at once. I slam the shifter in reverse and spin around, head south on Moreland. We are just a few blocks from home. We make it as far as the CDC sign before crazy red and blue lights fill all the mirrors. One cruiser swings dead in front, four others are on the other sides.

A lady cop yanks the driver door open.

“Get out of the car!” she yells. “Hands on your head!”

She pats me down. Grabs my bag and dumps it out in the bed of the S-10. Stuff rolls everywhere — tubes of lipstick, poetry napkins, coins, other stuff I forgot was in there. They toss everything out of the truck. They seem to get more and more mad when they don’t find anything. They interrogate the three of us separately for a while. Sam is quiet, no paler than usual, and seems to be in shock. An officer informs me they will take her back to her car. Will and I they throw in the back of a cruiser. He is in handcuffs and ankle shackles like a medieval prisoner. My hands are free, at least, but it is stifling in the back of the car. The door handle is, obviously, locked. Now I know why people start banging their heads on cop car windows. We sit there for a long time. An officer gets in front and turns the car and ac on. This cop has the radio on. The song is “Back to life, back to re-al-ity…”.

One of the original massive guys tells the babysitter cop to roll down the back window. He tosses the keyring full of keys at Will. The truck is being towed away.

“Both felonies, no bond,” he yells.

“Hey!” Will says. “Hey, you!” He indicates in not so nice words he has to use the restroom. I wish Will would shut the fuck up. That mouth is going to get him killed one day.

They eventually decide to drive me home and take him in. It makes no sense, but I’m sure he gave them an earful at the outset.

I don’t hear from Sam for a long while. Paul says she is couch-hopping in Brooklyn apartments, attending NYU. Through the grapevine I get that she makes quite a name for herself in the theater and TV world. She holds a bridal shower at her parents’ house for another friend, who was valedictorian and is now a symphony cellist. I am invited, at four months pregnant. We play a game where she tapes the name of a famous couple to everybody’s back and people can only give you hints who it is. Gomez and Morticia are taped to my back. Sam and the bride decide to go out for drinks and dancing after the party and invite me. I decline. I am invited to the wedding, too, which is a miracle.

I don’t see Sam after the wedding until I call and let her know I’ll be in Brooklyn for a week. She wants to meet up. Emil and I ride the train to Union Square and watch a huge guy in tights try to lead an aerobics class with a boombox. Sam picks an Ethiopian place a block away, where we lounge on vibrant sofas and Emil tries to make me eat chicken. Then she takes us to a two-story bookstore on the square. We browse. Emil recommends The Master and Margarita to me, so I buy it and never finish it. My sensibilities are pretty dry, but I never quite catch on to that Russian perspective, I guess. It seems like I’m always missing something.

“I like this one,” Sam whispers.

“Me, too.”

We decide to meet up again for a drink while I’m in town. She floats and flits off to her station and we head towards Broadway. Unspoken forgiveness is a beautiful thing. It’s a perfect evening, even if it’s as fleeting as the sunset over Manhattan.

The Strength Card

Art: The Enchanted Tarot

“I swear to God, if I pull that fucking Strength card…,” she says, and picks eleven from the spread. Sara asked me to read for her.  “From the deck I like,” she said. That means The Enchanted Tarot, a Victorian theme with positive outcomes. Sara always pulls Strength, the blond angelic sylph taming the lion with her gentle touch.

The boys walked out to the dock together to look at the bay. They are still small, but big enough to watch out for each other.

“Hold hands,” Sara called as they went out. It is dark outside now. Spiderman continues in their absence; Peter Parker learns that with great power comes great responsibility. He misses Mary Jane’s performance.

“I’ve figured it out,” Sara says. “Scott’s Spiderman.”

This was a sudden visit. She called, said she was heading down from Atlanta, see you in five hours. Sara runs when something serious is going on. It is summer on the Gulf. I make margaritas on the rocks in blue plastic fluted glasses with salted rims, sit on the front porch in front of the pink apartment. A canary tweets from a white cage. It is not my bird. It belongs to a woman who stayed with me for a month with her daughter before she flew to the UK to be with a guy. I have a feeling she’ll be back.

“It makes no sense,” Sara says. “We got that purple dream house together. He said he wanted it. Do you know how expensive it is for a house like that, in Cabbagetown? Then says he’s not sure he wants all this. After he bonded with Blake. Just takes off. He came back last week. Said ‘I missed the way you look in those pink panties’. Said he still needed to do some soul searching. I said ‘You fucked a blond. That’s not soul searching’.”

She gets woozy, breaks two of the blue glasses. “Where’s Will anyway?”

“He’s in jail. He broke in again.”

“What about the restraining order?”

I shrug.

In the late afternoon we take the boys out, across Cinco Bayou Bridge, check out the ink parlor, drive to the beach. I take pictures of the boys holding hands by the water, Levi a shaggy blond, Blake’s long dark hair. I take pictures of Sara drifting.

Sara came rolling into the ATL in a banana boat of a 1970’s faded yellow Camaro when I was waiting tables at the French Quarter. She was down from New Jersey looking for a job. It was the most bizarre mix of people you could hope to come across, kind of like the tarot deck, the filthiest kitchen, the most delicious Cajun food. Sara was everything that I was not. She was blond, mildly curvy, and funny in a loud way. She already had her writing degree from Oglethorpe. She was good with money and reality.

When she pulled up and asked if we were hiring, I knew this was Johnny’s new girl.

Johnny and I had been making eyes at each other over the industrial hot plate for years. There was nothing I could do about it. I was with Will. I figured if I waited long enough, I could tally up Johnny’s faults until I didn’t want him anymore. It almost worked. He was emotional, but in a self-centered kind of way. When he went around back to smoke with the boys on breaks, he came back too stoned to understand what you were saying, laughing, shocking blue eyes red around the edges. He listened to too much reggae and ska, bitched about his ex in Jacksonville, who had custody of their two girls. He was an ok painter. Every time a new girl showed up, he got a crush on her. He was desperate and needy, despite his looks.

Which, to be honest, were pretty good. Light brown hair pulled back in a braid and hidden under that knitted cap, a goatee that was getting a little out of control. He had five piercings in each ear, pierced nipples; he was pierced everywhere, if he was to be believed.

He was far too shy to be forward with me, until I came back from a year in Reno. It must’ve been Friday. We were closing down the night shift. It was summer, because I was wearing a gauzy blue dress that was way too short, heeled sandals. I was wiping down the bread drawer when he came in the side door. He had to have smoked, to be so bold — he came up behind me and just barely grazed the dress with his fingers.

“What is this?” he said in my ear. “You and your little dress.”

When I got in my car for the night and backed up, he ran out and slapped the sill of my open window. “You ever decide to leave Will, you let me know.”

After that he makes me a mixed playlist that could mean something and could mean nothing, that I listen to in the car.

Nobody knows the truth of Will and me, and I won’t tell. It would be a betrayal. And then, in winter, there was Sara.

“When I saw him, I thought, holy shit, he’s a god,” Sara says. She is bartending that day, wiping down the bar. I sip an icy beer. We are allowed one beer or wine after lunch shift. The French Quarter is the only place that has these refreshing Louisiana beers flavored like lemon or apple that taste clean and not shitty. The bar area reeks of stale, spilled beer.

“Yah. I’ve liked him for a long time, but I have Will.” I don’t know why I am confessing to a blond stranger something I’ve never said aloud.

Her face falls. “Oh.”

Then, she flips her hand.

“He gave me this.” It is a tiger’s eye ring, the kind that is supposed to bring power.

Valentine’s Day rolls around, guaranteed to be the coldest, shittiest day of the year. One of the customers brings in a box of truffles for us girls, a surprising act of kindness that makes the chocolate taste like heaven.

After we bus our tables, Sara follows me out to clean the tables on the patio. The patio is very close to Peachtree Street; the sidewalk runs right through it. When I was in Reno, Johnny sent an article with his letter where a car veered into the front window and took out part of the patio.

“I want to talk to you,” she says. We sit.

“So…if there’s anything going on with you and him, tell me now.”

It feels like something is about to be set in motion. I can’t put my finger on it. He chooses this moment to come outside and invade us.

“Hey, can one of you give me a lift home today? I’d take the train, but my daughters are supposed to call soon.”

Sara and I look at each other.

“You go ahead. I have to head home soon.” What have I been doing all this time? What right do I have, to anything?

“You girls want to pop in next door for a drink first?” he says. “Carl and me are buying, for Valentine’s Day.”

Carl is the fry cook. Sometimes our boss hires people off the street. Maybe all of us are off the street. Carl looks like he just got out of prison — he’s short, built, drinks glasses of beer through his shift. Sara and I are the only ones who tolerate his moods.

I have never been in the hole-in-the-wall next door. It is dark, like a cave, and cold because the door is always open. It reminds me of a smarmy bar in Reno. I drink my drink on the stool that is splitting so the foam comes out and question why I would rather watch this scene unfold than go to my own home. Going home fills me with dread. Usually there is school after work until nine or ten, but not today.

Flirting happens, back and forth between them. Carl teases the giggling couple.

“Why don’t you two just go home and get it on?” Carl says.

“I have to go. Really. Bye guys. Have fun.” I did, and I’m sure they did.

I have not gotten anything for Valentine’s Day. I have no clue anymore what kind of thing would please someone like Will, but I’m sure he expects something.  There is nothing in the stores, certainly nothing I can afford. I grab a single red rose that is left over from the buying frenzy. I tell myself I have to thank him. He has been my hardest teacher.

I walk in the door, take off my coat. He confronts me in the hall.

“Where have you been?”

“Worked a little late.”

He is practically in my face.

“On Valentine’s Day?”

I offer the pathetic flower. He snatches the stem. “That’s fucking original.”

I feel the velvet slap of petals on my face, taste the hothouse perfume. I can’t say I blame him.

I don’t see much of Sara outside of work. She spends a lot of time at the loft. Another waitress lives there. Cynthia takes photography at Georgia State. Josiah, the plump farm boy waiter from Iowa lives there, the adorable rosy-cheeked prep cook from Lithuania, and Johnny. The rooms are tiny cells with no windows. The loft is in the old slaughterhouse, and has an authentic meat lift elevator that goes to the top floors and roof. Cynthia had me over to shoot photos with Johnny and Carl, and once to do a film project. Now Sara stays over and Johnny bakes blueberry muffins in the morning.

Sara comes to my place and we split a bottle of wine because you can’t know someone until you’ve split a bottle of wine. Will retreats into the basement apartment, which I am thankful for, but it surprises me. Will never misses a chance to humiliate. It is her power. She must intimidate him.

“Johnny didn’t want me to come,” she says, three glasses down. “He said to be careful. Because Will has guns and because he thinks you’re bi.”

“What? Why? I didn’t go out with him and now I’m gay?”

She waves her hand, takes a pull on the wine.

“I said to him ‘I have one friend in Atlanta. I don’t care if Will has guns or if she’s bi.’ Besides, I’ve indulged.”

She continues “It’s tedious. I just don’t know about this. He talks about that girl he was seeing. He talks about his ex. He talks about you. I feel like I could be anybody.”

“Yah.”

Maybe Spring came. It would have been humid. We are standing on the patio at the French Quarter while the bike couriers grab onto bumpers and spin by. The male prostitutes in the gas station parking lot next door call out to each other. I never pictured Sara crying, but she is.

“I’m so sorry. I didn’t have anyone else to ask. He doesn’t have a car and the driver has to sit there the whole time. You can’t leave. I’m sorry. I don’t know what happened. We were safe. He told me to ask you.”

“Don’t be sorry.”

“I can’t. I just can’t, you know? He doesn’t want me to, but it’s ridiculous. He’s already supporting two.”

“I’ll request off that day.”

She hugs me, clings. I put my arms around her, pat her back, feel fake. The fog of the surreal drops, like I am just a compassionate figure in a movie. I feel nothing, from head to toe. Maybe another car will veer off the street and take me out.

They take her in with her plastic bag of goods after we fill out forms. I have three or four hours to sit with Johnny while he mopes. About eight other people are in the waiting room, crappy-looking people, but they don’t raise hell. All sound is muted here. The carpet is sterile blue. I expected screaming, signs waving out front. There was nothing, just an unmarked brick building, perfectly square.

“She says she wants to leave. I’m afraid she’s going to leave,” he says, tone muted by the crush of silence.

“Says she’s going to the desert to teach on the reservation or something. I asked her to stay.”

“She might not go.”

“I hope not.”

Three hours of this. My false compassion. His intensity. The silence. Why’d you have to be so goddamn fertile anyway? She’s going to leave.

They are holding her arm when she comes out. She’s pale, a little green. She trips and we run to grab her. She can only mumble. We put her in the back seat and drive her to her apartment. He goes in, comes back.

“She’s not talking. I said I would get more stuff at the store. And soup or something?”

We have to stop at French Quarter for our paychecks. He is miserable.

“They’re going to think it’s funny,” I say. “All of us taking off today, you and me showing up together. Especially when she can’t work next week. Put on a regular face. For Sara. She doesn’t want them to know. ”

Back at the apartment, he grabs the bag of soup and other stuff.

“I have to go to class. You staying with her tonight?”

“Yes,” he says. He stares at my face. I blink away.

“Look, thank you. I don’t know what we would do… .”

His goatee scrapes when he kisses my cheek.

“Ok.”

He gets out and goes inside.

You only get what you want when you don’t want it anymore.

When they close down the place to build a parking lot, everyone kind of scatters. It’s how those things go. I dream of formaldehyde. She calls every couple months from the reservation. I get knocked up first, before her.

“This time for keeps,” she says. The man is a border jumper. They camped in the desert. There was a storm that split the sky, a Navaho prophecy, all very poetic. She moves to New Jersey. We describe the progress of things — her writing, my interrupted school, our huge asses. She goes back to Atlanta, doesn’t run into Johnny. I hung out with him a bit, rode around and watched serial killer movies, until I got pregnant. I finish school. Move away. Come back through on my way to New York. I always thought she had her shit together. She is getting a tattoo. I’ve been invited to band practice. Our sons are in preschool. Nobody knows what they are doing. She shows me around her loft at the Cotton Mill. The raw beams. Her bohemian bed in the living room. She brags on it all day.

“Maybe I’ll move to LA,” she says. She shows me a video of the purple dream house, her abandoned life with the new guy, the voice behind the camera.

“Now my son and I live in a factory.”

This was after her impromptu visit to the Gulf. I had one tiny bedroom with half a wall, a bunk bed for grownups that Will put together, bigger on top, our son’s bed below. Sara and Blake sleep on the bottom. Her dark son curls his fingers through her light hair. The sun slots in through the blinds. She looks so damn pretty, like some portrait of Madonna and child. I pick some of the yellow wildflowers outside the apartment, check them for bugs, leave them beside her face so she can see them when she wakes.