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.

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