“Cindy Ella,” my stepmother said, “when I come home tonight, I want this house spotless. I’m having friends over.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said.
My stepmother likes a clean house but she doesn’t like to clean it herself. She doesn’t like to waste money on maids. Instead, she asks me to clean it. I don’t mind. I like a clean and neat house, probably more than she does.
She can sound bossy. Actually, she is bossy. It’s in her nature. I don’t blame her for it. It’s probably the way she was raised. Or maybe she was just born bossy.
“Do our rooms too,” her daughters said.
They’re as bossy as their mother. You learn from your parents I guess.
My mother and father have both passed away.
“You’re lucky I let you live here,” my stepmother says, usually after asking me to do something.
I don’t mind working hard to earn my keep. My girlfriends Tiffany and Candace say that I’m a workaholic. Why even think of hiring a maid? I’m here and I’m ready.
I also work for my godfather in his shoe-repair shop after school. I’m in my senior year.
One of my stepsisters is a senior, the other is a junior. They’ll be going on to community college when they graduate. My stepmother won’t help with my tuition, so I have to save as much as I can. I work and then I go home and clean, and then I do my homework. Sometimes I don’t get to bed until really late. That’s ok. I like keeping busy.
My stepmother says she won’t ‘turn me out’ when I go off to college, as long as I keep cleaning and pay her some room-and-board. I’ll have to keep working when I’m in college to do that.
My godfather is not bossy. I work hard in his shop, but not because he pushes me. Because I like him.
I was refurbishing a worn pair of Allen-Edmonds oxford lace-ups on Monday when he spoke up.
“Are you going?” he said, out of the blue. His name is Mike. Mike Fairy.
“Are you going to that dance I’ve been hearing about? At your school.”
“No way,” I said. “I have nothing to wear.”
“Mary can fix you up.”
Mary is my godmother.
“I couldn’t afford anything from her shop, Mike. You know that.”
“Come on, girl,” Mike said. “You know what I mean.”
I shook my head. I don’t like handouts, even from my godparents.
The next day, Mrs. Fairy stopped by the shop.
“How’s my favorite godchild?” she said.
“I’m fine,” I said, stepping back from the shop’s old Landis McKay.
“Cindy Ella, I want you to come by my shop when you’re done here,” Mrs. Fairy said. “I won’t take no for an answer.”
“Mrs. Fairy… Mary… I don’t…”
“I’ve heard about that dance,” she said with a smile. “I won’t take no.”
When she had gone, Mr. Fairy put his arm around my shoulders and gave me a quick hug.
“My friend Mr. Washington is going to send a limo for you on the night of the dance,” he said.
“Oh, no!” I said. “Really, Mike, this is too much.”
“All he asks is that you leave the dance at the time you both agree upon in advance. Can you promise me that?”
“I do promise! I’m so grateful. I’ll be standing there waiting for him.”
When I went to my godmother’s dress shop later, she let me choose from a collection of the finest dresses I had ever seen. The one I picked was a dream come true, in silk.
“On the night of the dance, come over here early,” she said. “I’ll have someone ready to do your makeup. We’ll keep the dress here. We don’t want your stepmother spotting it. She’d take it from you and give it to one of those trolls she calls her daughters. The witch.”
“She’s not so bad,” I said. I had to laugh, though.
My friends Tiffany and Candace were surprised but delighted that I was coming to the dance. It’s all we talked about that week. I was a little mysterious about my arrangements with my godparents. I try to keep my situation at home with my stepmother as quiet as possible.
Mike presented me with a pair of Badgley Mixchke Randalls five days before the dance, fitted out with the special orthotics I use. I have unusually high arches. The shoes were a deep blue with a flower on the toe.
“Practice with these all week,” he said. “They aren’t for amateurs.”
“My lord,” I said. “Look at those heels.”
“They’re high, but you’ll get the trick of it. The shoes are broken in, so they won’t be stiff.”
I tried them on. I have narrow feet, which was good, because the Randalls were a narrow shoe.
On the night of the dance, I worked in the shop and then walked over to my godmother’s shop. She had a woman waiting to do my hair. Then I dressed and another woman did my face. The limo was waiting.
At school, I stepped out of the limo and took a moment to get my balance in the heels. I walked alone into the gym. The lights were turned down and a slow dance was playing. Couples danced with the teacher chaperones watching to ensure that hands did not wander. I looked around for my friends. The girls who had come alone were clustered here and there in groups along the sides of the dance floor.
I spotted Tiffany and Candace and joined them. There were flattering remarks about how beautiful I looked, how different, how grown-up. I was blushing in the dark and begged them to stop.
“I’ll shut up,” Candace said, “but I can’t get over it. You look like a princess. You’re the most beautiful girl here.”
I shushed her again and kept my eyes down. Kids were looking at me and I was embarrassed to death.
Once Tiffany and Candace calmed down and pretended to get over my makeover, we all had the second shock of the night. Into the gym came the dreamiest hunk any of us had ever seen. You could tell at a glance he was athletic, smart, rich, and Nobel Peace Prize material. School-dance royalty. I thought of him as a prince.
He was obviously a student at the university. High school was behind him. He looked around, as if searching for someone. Kept looking.
I saw him shrug. He turned in our direction and started toward the refreshments in the corner behind us.
As this prince strolled along, he ran his eyes over the crowd. When he got to the three of us, his eyes met mine and time stopped long enough for me to go wobbly on my heels. Then he was past.
“Did you see that?” Tiffany said.
“Get a room,” Candace said to me.
When he passed on his way back with a cup of punch in his hand, I studied the DJ.
“He did it again, Miss Modesty,” Tiffany said.
We watched him move through the crowd. Great shoulders. He moved in a casual way that somehow opened a path in front of him. Students smiled at him when he passed.
“He’ll be back,” Candace said. “Pray that somebody doesn’t beat him to you.”
“Stop it,” I said. “I’m just glad to be here.”
He did come back and before I knew it, we were on the dance floor. For a moment, I worried about the kids around us watching me dance in those heels. I felt kind of rusty and the music was fast. The prince was so casual and such a good dancer, so friendly, and held my eyes so well with his, that I quickly forgot about everything but the two of us and how we were moving together. It all made sense.
When the music slowed, he took me in his arms.
“I’m Ethan,” he said.
“Cindy Ella,” I said.
He had a quizzical look on his face.
“There is something about you, Cindy Ella. You stand out like a beacon in this crowd.”
“Not me,” I said. “You.”
He shook his head, wondering. Then he shrugged and we danced quietly. We fit together so well, I was wondering too. Could he possibly be as special as he seemed?
The evening passed in a blink. He had been supposed to meet a girl there but she hadn’t showed up. He didn’t know anyone there. Except me, now.
He told me about the university and I talked about making shoes. The way he listened, it seemed like making shoes was the most interesting subject in the world for him. The most interesting thing in the world for me at that moment was him.
When I finally checked the time, I had two minutes to get outside.
“Can you excuse me, Ethan?” I said.
I walked away from him, into the crowd. When I got to the door of the gym, I tried to run in the heels. At the steps down to the street, I pulled one off and as I did so, the other fell off. I ran down the steps with one shoe in my hand. The limo was waiting at the curb with its motor running, driver holding open the passenger door in back. I jumped in and we sped away.
It was so wonderful and then over in a heartbeat. I was too excited to think straight. I don’t know if I was happy or heartbroken, alone in the car.
At the store on Monday after school, Mike was waiting for me to come in.
“I had a visitor today,” he said.
I nodded, inviting him to go on.
“A fellow named Ethan. He’s a university student. He had your shoe in his hand.”
“How do I know it was yours?” Mike said. “Not too many Badgley Mixchke Randalls at a high-school dance, not with your orthotic in it.”
“What did he want?”
“He wanted to know who belonged to the shoe. He’s going around to every place in town that fits and sells orthotics.”
“What did you tell him?” I said.
“I didn’t know what to tell him, so I told him I’d check around and that he could come back tomorrow. What’s up?”
“I lost the shoe at the dance. I was running to the limo.”
“I spent the night dancing with him. I never told him my last name, I guess. I left too fast to give him my number.”
“Sounds like you want to see him again.”
“That’s putting it mildly,” I said.
“He may call me back,” Mike said.
Ethan is all I had been thinking about. Kicking myself for the way the evening ended.
An hour later, the doorbell rang. My stepmother and her daughters were out. I answered the door. Ethan stood there, flowers in hand.
“You ran off and left me,” he said, “but I had to come.”
“I made a mess of it,” I said. “Until I left, the evening seemed like a fairy tale. Too perfect to be true.”
“And they lived happily ever after,” he said.