As a young girl, my greatest chagrin was knowing that I could never grow up to be one of the daring knights or brave kings from those fantastical stories I loved. But I’ve long grown past that.
Fairy tales are pointless for a young woman with hopes and dreams, because there is nothing to be gained from obsessing over happily-ever-after. Reveling after a stroke of good fortune is just setting oneself up for failure in the future; as such, I strove to struggle all the way to the grave. Why would I want to be a self-righteous prince who walks in at the last second to deliver a deus ex basium when I can take center stage and shine gloriously from beginning to end?
After years of hard work, I finally forced the spotlight onto me.
Or so I thought.
Career women usually find partners with the same salary or more. It is simply a matter of statistics; this is normal, and it was certainly what I expected when I thought about love.
But then again, there was nothing quite normal about me and him.
He quit school to “discover himself” and ended up carving out a stable but difficult lifestyle for himself, writing articles and short stories from home. It was in the midst of this period of exploration that he drifted to me, and in the heat of the moment I too began scanning the horizon for signs of land. As he and I got closer, fell in love, then settled into marriage (all in the span of mere months), my working life had somehow stopped being about improving my resume and earning those performance awards and instead about fighting every day to earn a stable living for our new family. He continued to work from home, although at some point his earnings dwindled into nothingness. Something about him taking a break to work on a novel.
After particularly busy days, a voice in the back of my head told me that I might have been the only one still searching for that mystical shore. Sometimes, I wonder if he has already given up on reaching that magical land he yearned for. If he is satisfied in staying where he is, on a rickety ship cast out at sea.
“With you, every voyage is but a whimsical excursion.”
I already knew that what he would say if I ever brought any of this up. I hated myself for loving the way he could sweep me off my feet with just a few words.
Long eyelashes, accentuated by the way he squinted while deep in thought.
Strong hands, juxtaposed with the colorful pens he used to jot notes.
Thick arms and wide shoulders, contrasted with the serenity of his work.
He was beautiful, despite his messy hair. He was charming, even when he told bad jokes. He was strong, although he knew how much I loved it when he relied on me and showed me his soft side.
He loved me. I, a plain woman who long extinguished the intrepid maiden that resided in her heart. He, who seemed much better suited to wear a flowing cape while riding on a white horse, let me into his life and held me close.
I now regret the ugliness of my envy back then. Like a child throwing a tantrum during playtime when someone else gets to be the hero, I silently rued my fate of having to stand next to the prince I always wanted to be.
“Sir… should your wife stay with you to hear the results?”
This can’t be good.
“I am so sorry to say that… that…”
Why are you tearing up? Why can’t you just say he’s fine?
“…you have around one year to live.”
“Should I give you some time alone with your wife?”
“That’s probably best, yes.”
Please leave… before I lose control…
“He’s gone. Let’s talk.”
We shared nary a single word as I cried in his arms while he stroked my hair.
“It will be fine. It will be fine.”
My favorite fairy tale was Cinderella. I adored the thought a the prince can be so hopelessly in love with a mere servant girl that he can tell at first glance that the slipper will fit.
But the one that always haunted me was Beauty and the Beast. Where the prince is trapped in a monster’s form and forced to live in a sullied state. In the end, he dies pitifully, but is saved by the kiss of the one person who truly loved him.
This disturbed me. That such a strong, proud, worldly prince is saved by a merchant’s daughter is a challenge to the prayer I always made that I will one day become an indomitable prince who saves the day.
When this came to mind, I comforted myself by reading some Snow White. The prince comes, kisses the helpless princess, and saves the day. Just what I needed to restore my faith in my childhood wish.
“How is the bedding?”
“Not as good as what we have at home.”
“How about I bring ours over, then?”
“No need. I’ll be out of here in no time.”
You’re only making it worse for me. Please.
“…How was your session today?”
“Better than usual. Not getting as dizzy as before.”
“That’s a good thing.”
“Although, I wish the shape of my head was more attractive.”
“You’re quite sexy when bald.”
“It’s too bad we can’t get too heated with the nurse coming in and out, eh?”
“I’m on my period.”
“Makes it so much better.”
Don’t make me laugh… I might start crying if I’m not careful.
A chilly breeze blew into the room. I strode across the room and closed the window. I looked outside and silently cursed the ugliness of the lonely roads illumined by streetlights.
“You should get some rest.”
“Same as you. You’re the one with work, right?”
I tugged on the curtains and noticed that the railing was loose. I made a mental note to tell the front desk when I leave.
He abruptly sat up and gave me a serious look.
“I’ve been thinking that I have a lot of time, but all at once. I’m going to finish writing that novel.”
Please don’t push yourself.
What is love, I wonder? Is it wishing that he can reach the shores of the island of dreams? That he can finally step on dry land and leave the waters behind?
Or is it hoping that he abandons his journey to stay by your side and keep drifting out at sea?
I met him for the first time at the subway station, during a one hour delay after work hours.
I had planned to go home and watch my favorite shows after a hard day filing paperwork, but my mood soured as agitation built up in the crowd around me. A woman loudly complained to a staff member who was trying to settle the commotion; a man argued with his wife on the phone about his whereabouts; a baby wailed as his mother cooed softly.
I skimmed a magazine I stole from the office lounge while tapping my feet impatiently. I had developed a habit of sitting around for way longer than I should, and standing in one place for so long without my phone out was a true test of character for me on a long day like this one. But I had promised myself this: to not use my phone during the day, until I get home.
My eyes scanned the glossy pages and fell upon beautiful prose. Realizing I had flipped to the middle of a short story, I turned the pages back to the start of the selection and read the title:
“…Seekers of the Unreached?”
“A fantasy story.”
Startled by a voice next to me, I looked over and flashed a hostile scowl at the stranger who spoke to me out of the blue. However, seeing his warm smile, I cleared my throat and forced a polite grin while speaking in an overly cheery tone.
“Have you read it?”
“Yeah, I guess you could say that.”
“Is it any good?”
“It’s hard for me to judge.”
Not knowing how to continue the conversation, I looked back down and immersed myself in the piece I held in my hands. It was a simple story about a boy who strove to become the first explorer to chart a newly discovered world before realizing that he did not even dare to look inward into his own heart. I wonder if back then it had occurred to me that I had not read any fiction writing since finishing high school; if I had to guess, I would say that back then, I was too enthralled by the raw imagery and honest dialogue between the characters to even begin to compare it to the required readings I did for English class.
Maybe, in some ways, it read much like a parable of my own life. Although set in a magical place with dragons and orcs, it had none of the dreamy quality of the other fantasy stories I have read. Rather, it was quite lucidly a tale about a boy who trapped himself in a world without fairies.
I felt a swell in my chest when I finished the story. I looked over at the man standing next to me. He had been glancing over expectantly, and his face lit up when I acknowledged him with a small nod of my head.
“…That was exquisite.”
The wheels of the subway train screeched as it pulled to a halt. The man stepped forward to enter the car while I stood still on the platform, dumbfounded. We stood there right in the doorway while people walked around us in and out giving us pointed glares.
“Do you have a phone?”
I nodded scrambled to pull out my phone, but the door-closing tune played right as I fished it out of my pocket. I looked at him with frantic eyes, and he returned a confident smirk.
As the train left the station, I turned around and sat down on a now-vacant bench, wondering why I did not board the subway.
Rolling my eyes, I pulled out my phone and searched up the short story author’s name.
Just tell him it’s brilliant.
“I hate it.”
I braced myself for him to finally get angry for once. For him to, in his weakness, show me his despair and fish for my approval and affection.
But my sickening gambit was answered with an honest laugh.
“I guess I tried.”
It almost looked as if all of the vitality in his body left all at once. His body, just skin and bones with tubes and needles attached everywhere, was shriveling away. His hair grew back after he had stopped his treatment, but in place of his thick dark locks was a mess of wispy, thin strands.
I mourned the fall of the prince into this pitiable form.
I gripped the manuscript in my hands and resisted the urge to fling this garbage pile across the room. The culmination of our joint voyage is a disjointed novella with heavy prose, numbered days to spend with each other, and a lifetime’s worth of averted firsts.
“…I wanted to be a father.”
He broke the silence with a sobering thought. We never reached our happy ever after. The prince and princess were supposed to ride off to his castle, have children, raise them into good people, see them live their own lives, embrace their lifetime of accolades and memories, then peacefully pass away in each other’s arms as the whole kingdom mourns and celebrates the end of a remarkable era.
“…I wouldn’t have made a good mother anyway.”
“I wanted a daughter with your eyes.”
“I like yours better, though.”
“And your mouth.”
“But my lips chap easily.”
“And your nose.”
“Would she have the same face as me?”
“Of course. All the boys would be all over her.”
“Then what does she even inherit from you?”
“My wicked sense of humor.”
“Perfect for scaring off her suitors.”
We shared a hearty laugh over our usual banter, but the energy in our quips quickly died down again as the atmosphere of the room weighed on us. The nurse had not come in this entire time, and yet there were noticeable shuffling and commotion near our door. It was as if the staff on this floor were just preparing for the end. Replacing the bed, changing the sheets, sanitizing the room, removing the name card on the door, then welcoming the next patient. All business as usual; one customer leaves, and another one enters.
The curtain railing above the window creaked and wobbled as I pulled the drapes close. Leaving his room, I whisper a soft g’night as I stepped out and closed the door behind me. The door shut with a sound as dead as that of a falling lid of a sarcophagus, and I continued through the dim hallways and out the front doors into the chilly night.
At some point, I stopped bothering to ask the front desk to do something about the curtain.
I arrived home, threw the wrinkled manuscript on the nightstand, and stared at the ceiling of our bedroom until morning came.
“Do you believe in fairy tales?”
On our second date, he asked this peculiar question out of the blue. Not knowing how to answer in a way that keeps my cards close to my chest, I shrugged and look around the restaurant.
“I don’t know. Fairies don’t even exist, right?”
“Hmm… I wonder.”
I had a bad habit of never taking my dates seriously. My routine of meeting a new guy, going for coffee, and then blocking their number had dulled me to any sort of guilt in flinging those clingy men aside.
For some reason, this one time, I felt like it was worth it to invite him out again just to hear the way he hums and haws at the straightforward things I say.
“Don’t tell me you still believe in that fantasy nonsense?”
“If it were truly nonsense, we couldn’t be having a coherent conversation about it, right?”
“Is that even how logic works?”
The meal that day was lobster for me, and a Hamburg steak for him. I had told him to order whatever he wanted since I received my bonus for the month, but he didn’t even hesitate in picking the cheapest option on the menu. Honestly, I felt a little stupid ordering such an expensive dish just to impress someone on the third time we’ve met. I didn’t even like seafood.
I picked at a claw I tore off while he diligently cut his steak into tiny pieces and ate each one with barely-concealed glee.
“So. What was that question all about?”
He looked up and winked at me.
“Just trying to see if you were also a hopeless romantic.”
“Sorry to disappoint.”
“But didn’t you want to read more of my writing? All I ever publish are those sappy, verbose word salads.”
“People always said I have good taste in entrées.”
“But not so much in main courses, I presume.”
I looked down at my barely-eaten meal and chuckled sheepishly.
“I think I have some buyer’s remorse.”
“Want some of mine?”
He held out his fork and dangled a thick piece of beef patty right in my face.
“I mean, it’s mine anyway. Since I’m paying.”
“Yeah, yeah, princess.”
I deftly pulled the meat off of his fork with my teeth and chewed the juicy steak vigorously. He looked at my brash eating style and laughed loudly.
“Looks like you’re quite a handful.”
Strangely agitated by his playful jabs, I gave an exaggerated pout.
“Just my luck,” I whined in a dramatic tone, “getting stuck with a beast who offered an innocent maiden an indirect kiss!”
“Maybe if you give me a direct one, my curse will break.”
A merry evening of meandering conversation passed by pleasantly. When the waiter came with the bill, I stopped him and asked to get another order of Hamburg steak.
“Help me eat this lobster while I finally eat a real dinner.”
“But it’s already cold now.”
“Beggars can’t be choosers.”
“Yeah, yeah, princess.”
Don’t get too ahead of yourself, buddy.
Watching him eat the leftovers of that expensive dish, I must have relished the thought of a man like him falling head over heels for me.
I’m so ready to watch you crawl over and become a slave to my whim.
And yet, after but a few days of no texts, I called him to invite him out again. I told him I wanted to talk about the new story he had posted that morning.
“Sure,” he said on the phone with a smile in his tone. “How about I pay for a movie?”
In all of those movies that he and I watched together, the death scenes are always so dramatic and tense. Secrets are revealed, true feelings are expressed, love is realized.
But at his deathbed, he only lay silently as his vital charts dwindled and dwindled. At some point, the doctor put down his clipboard, shook his head, and excused himself. Only I sat in that room as he slipped away.
I always thought that we would tearfully exchange affirmations of love when this day came. But he lay silent, barely even breathing. His eyes, though closed, jittered in his sockets as if he were dreaming.
Maybe he is dreaming. Of that shoreline we wanted to find together.
I felt not sorrow, but rather panic. For some reason, even though the doctor warned me this day would come and that I would have to brace for it, I could not accept that he was leaving me behind. That he would betray me by going where I could no longer reach him.
His heartbeats slowed down dramatically. The time was coming. I could feel it.
My thoughts raced as the seconds ticked by. And yet, I did nothing except stare at him.
Do you believe in fairy tales?
“…True love’s kiss!”
Overcome by renewed false hopes, I leaped out of my seat and right next to where he lay. I lifted him up roughly, almost getting tangled with the tubes still attached to his near-transparent skin. His vital signs picked up slightly as he moaned from the sudden displacement.
Then, brushing back my hair, I closed my eyes and gave him a passionate kiss.
A summer breeze blew through the meadow where I held him and locked my lips with his. Birds sang in a chorus as the warm afternoon sun cast radiant light on the picturesque scene. As the wind died down, I opened my eyes to look into those of the one I held in my arms—
And realized that it was he—him—who was holding me in his arms.
Jolted back to desolate reality, I felt his hand gently resting on my cheek. I pulled back and looked into his face as he said his last words with an apologetic smile.
Right to the end, I could not be the prince. I cried my first tears of that night as the curtain finally detached from the wall and fell to the ground with a deafening clang.