She is five and true love is as simple as the kiss that wakes Sleeping Beauty from her enchanted slumber. 'And they all lived happily after' makes her sigh dreamily. Prince Charming is a gallant cavalier mounted on his prancing white steed, rescuer of fair damsels. She's not cynical enough yet to question just why all the fair damsels always seem to be in distress – and all the ugly ones perfectly able to take care of themselves. She buys Barbies in princess costumes and wishes Ken had a knight-in-shining-armour outfit. She dreams about the day her knight, tall, tow-headed and manly, will come to rescue her – she's not sure from what exactly – and then they'll ride off into the sunset with the blessings of a forest full of cute, furry little animals.
He's the school's champion athlete and she's the nerd no one notices. It can happen… can't it? Sure, in Mills & Boons romances, her friend tells her. That doesn't stop her from slinking around his locker, memorizing his timetable so she'll always know what classes he'll have. He drops his bag one day and she picks it up. "Thanks," he says, before slinging his arm about his gorgeous, waifish blond girlfriend (cookie-cutter, there are millions of girls as gorgeous and waifish and air-brained as her, she thinks jealously, wondering what he sees in that pathetic excuse for a human being). Thanks, he says, and that's the only word he'll ever say to her but for weeks, she's in ecstasy over it.
She writes clichéd poems about his eyes, his lips, his smile… poems that she'll read, sitting cross-legged on the floor, years later, wondering how she could ever be so stupid and naïve and childish.
"No money, no honey!" her T-shirt screams as she slinks into the nightclub. It's low-cut and she's curvy and men always seem to think with their dicks. The good-looking guys are always taken, their pretty girlfriends hanging off their arms, shooting He's-my-property looks at every girl in sight. But there are always old men, rich men, more than a little tipsy. "You remind me of a pretty girl I once loved," they groan. Sweat shines on their bald heads and the bar lights don't exactly do a number on them but…
Hey, they're rich.
"He's sweet, caring, isn't afraid to express his emotions, has cash, fairly cute…" she rattles them off one by one and dutifully, her friend ticks them off on her list. "Hey, I think we've got everything."
"Uh-uh," her friend retorts. "What about tendency-to-develop-a-beer-gut-in-later-life? Or can't-drag-away-from-TV-once-the-sports-channel-is-on? And oh most importantly, what about interesting?"
Her mind wanders back to her college days, when she never gave guys like him – neat brown hair, crisp linen shirt, ready smile, mediocre jokes – a second thought. Then it was the rocker with the emotive voice, who'd strum his guitar by moonlight under some girl's window, with those soulful eyes that seemed to well, pierce her soul… He was probably a drug addict on a deluded quest for nirvana, supporting himself through alms by now. And the brown-haired, male equivalent of Plain Jane, who screamed normal (but with a regular salary) was her idol.
She's thirty-five and already she's started shopping for her lingerie from Macy's – boxers-not-briefs-thank-you-very-much –, instead of ordering it from racy Victoria's secret catalogues. She's stopped envisioning a wedding in the woods, under the arch of oaks, with only a pastor and the love of her life to mark the occurrence of the ceremony. "Interesting bites," she shrugs and tells her friends, already fantasizing about the big wedding reception they'll throw and the conventional white dress and veil she'll wear. "Normal is fine."
"A woman's sex drive peaks at the age of forty-five," the magazine says and she knows it's true. He's content to nod over a cold beer while watching the sports channel, before tumbling into bed but she… She shuffles in the pile of old clothes for the raunchy little lacy black lingerie set she'd bought years ago but even that doesn't tempt him. "I'm tired," he grunts. Beer-gutted, uncultured, savage ape-man. She broods in the coffee-shop, eyes lingering on a dark-haired, dashing twenty-something until even he notices her. She smiles at him and tentatively he smiles back. Over frothy cappuccinos, they exchange chit-chat.
"Do you have a girlfriend?" she asks baldly, relishing her ability to ask such a question.
"No," he shrugs.
"Oh," she says. "Want a drive back?"
"Sure," he says.
He's a virgin. "Thanks," he mumbles, as she hunts for her shoes. His room is the typical college dorm – pornos tucked under the pillows, empty beer bottles and boxes of unfinished pizza stuffed under the bed. She wrinkles her nose as she puts on her bra.
"Don't say that," she says, looking at the mirror and tidying her hair. "Don't ever say that to a woman. Goodbye."
"How was her day?" he grunts, back at home, still glued to the sports channel.
And the lie comes as easily as the truth might have. "Average," she says serenely, kissing his cheek. "Yours?"
She wants the cliché and the romance – more than just the regulation twenty long-stemmed red roses in silver paper and the traditional chinaware gifts, appropriate for a twentieth wedding anniversary. Pretty little suburban home set in a prim green lawn. Pretty car, pretty children riding their bikes on the straight, clean, pretty streets. When she looks out of the window that's all she sees. The very conventionality of it is depressing. Almost surreal in it's picturesqueness.
But then at night, after she's put the roses in the cut-glass vase, he switches the channel on TV. There's a lovely romcom on, something he'd once told her he could never abide watching. She snuggles up next to him – not too close, the children are upstairs doing their homework – and for two hours they laugh and cry together. There's no limpid crescent moon hanging in the night sky that night. Ugly lampposts and not stars light up the darkness, but in its own way, it's romantic.
She puts the dishes in the dishwasher while he cleans the counters, with a little smile on her face.