Notes on a Stepmother

by Addie Schweiss 

When I told Cinderella she couldn’t go to the ball, I prepared for the worst. I get a lot of “you’re not my real mom.” I get “if Dad were still alive…”

The big one: “You’re evil.”

She’s right, I suppose, about being evil. At some point tacit agreements are made among parents, teachers, and (may God bless and keep them) people who don’t have children but still make eye contact to let you know whether you’re doing a good job as a parent. At some point, people said it was good to give children tablets so they could be computer programmers; and then we decided just as quickly that children should not be computer programmers after all, and tablets were awful. I’m also supposed to hand-wash (rather than machine-wash) our dishes, thereby exposing Cinderella to the “right” level of allergens, akin to what she’d experience on a farm or, I suppose, if she had close personal friendships with wild animals.

Most of all, parents should never say no; we should give our kids the chance to fail. A woman at a PTA meeting once told me she “tries to ‘Yes-And’ her life with her daughter” and yesterday I punched the steering wheel just thinking about it.

I’ve got my reasons for saying no to the ball. Philosophically, I think it’s insane the entire kingdom is having a party for our prince to find a bride. It’s misogynistic. Also, we cannot afford a dress. These are things I say through the door; she shouts back about me keeping her “locked away forever.” Mind you, she was the person who slammed the offending door not ten minutes ago.

The door stayed shut the whole time I cooked supper. I did not call out to Cinderella for dinner, but instead left the reheated gnocchi and peas outside her bedroom door, rapped gently, and walked downstairs. I heard the plate clinking a gentle windchime melody when she set it in the kitchen sink. I gave her space. Her bedroom door closed again, and when you want to say sorry to someone you love, the staircase and the closed door feel like some impossible tower.

I fold laundry; find a shirt she’s outgrown. I will never throw it away. Soft cotton still smells like sunscreen no matter what; still smells like gum and trying softball and hating it; smells like the soundtrack to Les Misérables the first time we went out for dinner after Dad was gone and we rolled the windows down and the tears whipped away as we drove. I hold the shirt under my chin, and I think about the words locked away forever because with a child sometimes you wish it were possible.

The night of the ball we go out for dinner, and I let her drive. I order a double-double and she gets hers off the secret menu; we leave with our food and find a picnic table, the sun going down but the air still warm. We’ve had a good week, but a quiet one. She goes silent and picks at her fries, the desire to talk about the ball like the desire to blink or breathe, like a magic spell that pulls me. I want to hear it: I want to hear her say she’s angry, even if she refuses to say why. I want her to cry it out so I can collect rubies in a dried up riverbed in her heart and show them to her and kiss each one. I love you and I’m sorry I’ve done such a bad job of telling you why I’m saying no, and I don’t care if you hate me as long as you’d say the words out loud to me; and I am so embarrassed I’m all you have left.

She shuffles her fries; I ask whether they’ve gone cold but don’t even get an answer to that. So if you’re asking whether she snuck out and went to the ball after she came home, you’ll get the same silence I got as a reply.


I parked my Volvo between a couple of oilslick-colored sedans; men in suits looked in my direction from the drivers’ seats but otherwise I just listened to podcasts and waited.

At midnight those oilslick cars roared to life and retrieved their countesses and fairy queens; still I waited for Cinderella outside the gates and twisted the steering wheel with a fist because princes don’t get called evil. Even if they tell a girl they just met “I love you” or call a girl “enchanting” when the words cost him nothing and cost her everything, they don’t call princes evil then.

Princes don’t get called evil when it’s after three in the morning and she won’t answer; or when she finally does call and the line is silent and this time I don’t want her to say anything at all. When I drive to meet her near the castle, she’s standing at the corner when I find her, shoeless, puffy eyelids and shaking hands. I would have cut my heart from my chest to give it to her right then if I could.

The sky is still dark; roads lit with charged vapor streetlights that sting my eyes, the deep violet of the sky holding the last star of the night and I make a wish, because when she chokes out the words to tell me what happened, I only wish I could shut my ears. Cinderella cries loud and long like an ambulance.


I wait outside the castle now on days when I can, when the flag is up and the royals are in town. I park in the same spot even, and so far no one has noticed me. I think of the person I was before that night, before I wished upon that star. When I think of what I am now, I punch the steering wheel so hard I feel something break.

Addie Schweiss is an attorney who lives in Northern California whose work has been previously published in Midwestern Gothic and Shotgun Honey.
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