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Rapunzel Revisited


Jim Fedder had arranged with his ex-wife to take his two pre-teen daughters to Disneyworld. He’d gotten over the hump of anger and remorse that the two-year-old divorce had caused him, but based on the comments overheard on his daughters’ weekend visits, their mother hadn’t. A hoarder of pain, she was probably trying to turn the girls against him, and a long weekend in Florida would provide opportunity to counteract her propaganda. Moreover, he felt virtuous spending his self-allocated bonus—he ran his own air conditioning business—on his kids. Wearing a Mets baseball cap and determined to smile, he knocked on his ex’s door.

             The girls, aged nine and twelve, climbed into the back seat of Jim’s Honda armed with snacks and the homework their mother had admonished them to complete. She stood in the doorway, frowning, as Jim loaded their backpacks into the trunk. He had argued that missing a few days of school wouldn’t hurt, and September was the least crowded month (and the cheapest, but he hadn’t said that), and she’d reluctantly agreed. The girls babbled happily with each other all the way to the airport. After a short, uneventful flight during which they wore headphones and poked their tablets, Jim picked up a rental car and they headed to the park. They stopped on the way for burgers, which the girls ate without incident.

             Jim drove into the enormous lot at their destination and parked the car in a corner slot. They boarded a tram, already full of passengers in vacation gear, to get to the monorail that would take them to the park entrance. He had downloaded the Disney app and reserved entry at the Magic Kingdom in advance. That was as much pre-planning as he would countenance; he did not wish to spend his few hours with the girls on his phone looking for Lightning Lanes and being pitched stuff to buy. He had nothing against technology, quite the opposite. He had studied engineering in college and could code but had somehow wound up in sales. It turned out he was good at understanding customers’ technical needs and arranging efficient ways to meet them. At forty-five, having doubled his company’s revenue over the course of a decade, he considered himself a success. Except in marriage. 

             Once before, when the youngest was four, the family had headed to Disneyworld for a week’s vacation. When the little one screamed in terror as Goofy tried to hug her, they had cut the trip short, promising to return when the girls were old enough to appreciate it. Despite their best intentions, the timing had never seemed right, what with school and gymnastics and so on. In the last few years of the marriage, the bad vibes between Jim and his then-wife had obviated travel. Jim felt a sliver of guilt that it had taken so long to fulfill a promise, but here he was, with his princesses, without their impossible mother, ready for adventure.

             He hurried the girls past the retail shops on Main Street USA and grabbed their hands as the three of them walked through the castle leading into the Magic Kingdom. Olivia, age twelve, compliant by nature, returned his grip, while nine-year-old Emma squirmed but left her hand in his. Jim thought the pastel-colored castle was incredibly tacky, but both girls surveyed it with wide eyes and smiles.

             Olivia was a head taller, twenty pounds heavier, and three years older than her sister. But little spitfire Emma dominated, pulling them left and right to check out the attractions and corresponding crowds. Outside the Princess Fairytale Hall, Emma dashed over to the Stand-by queue for Princesses Tiana and Rapunzel, and Olivia nodded indulgently. The three of them lined up behind a mom and daughter dressed in the same floral-print blouses, the kid eating a chocolate-covered frozen banana on a stick, the mother holding a tissue at the ready. Jim asked if the girls also wanted frozen bananas in honor of their much-adored Frozen. They rolled their eyes.

             “We’re not babies, Dad,” Emma said, leaning away from him. Olivia forgave his cluelessness with a smile.

             Olivia was your typical oldest child, attuned to the adult world. She had an accommodating manner that masked an analytical mind. When she asked a question, she listened attentively and then proceeded to deconstruct what she heard with implacable logic. Jim had lost arguments to her about the efficiency of subways and the benefits of drinking milk, among other topics. He’d told her she had a future in management, to which she’d replied, “Is that what you do? Yeah, if I wanted to” unaware of the implied put-down. She made friends at school with other girls who didn’t care about clothes or boys. She was good in math.

             Emma, on the other hand, couldn’t give two hoots about the adult world. Her teachers  described her as charming, talented, and totally unpredictable. She would complete some projects in exquisite detail and ignore others, saying she forgot the assignment despite the teacher’s repeated warnings. It seemed she really did forget; the only things that lived in her head for more than five minutes were the products of her own imagination. Her parents worried that she’d wind up a poor starving artist of some kind. They could accept that outcome, they’d decided in repeated, fraught, late-night discussions in bed, if she stayed off booze and drugs. Emma, who refused to drink milk, ate her Cheerios dry.

             The odors of bacon frying at a nearby restaurant and sunscreen from the queue permeated the warm, moist air. The people in the Lightning Lane plus a bunch of people from the front of the Stand-by queue were admitted to the Castle Courtyard. Jim and the girls advanced a few yards, then settled down to wait another fifteen minutes or however long it would take to get into the Princess’s throne room. Emma sat on her butt on the pavement, folding her legs underneath her. She was wearing pink leggings, an old black T-shirt with holes, and Crocs, her usual costume. She clutched her backpack, striped in yellow and black like a bee, to her chest.

             “I think you should get up,” Olivia said. “It looks clean, but it’s not. There’s bacteria from all over the country.”

             Emma rose reluctantly. “Why do you get to tell me what to do?”

             “Because I’m right. And someone has to protect you.” Olivia looked askance at her father. She wore denim shorts without holes and Ecco sandals like her mother’s. Her backpack was a solid blue.

             Jim said, “No fighting in line.” Then, trying to distract them, “What’s the story with Princess Tiana?”

             Emma looked at her sister and said, “She’s okay, but we really want to see Rapunzel. We like her hair.”

             Olivia added, “Yeah, but mostly we like her spirit. She sticks up for herself.”

             “Whaddaya mean?” Jim said. “She’s a prisoner in a tower until the handsome prince rescues her.”

             Olivia shook her head. “You didn’t see Tangled? Or Ever After? Or the series on TV?”

             Emma piped up, “She’s the one who rescues him. That’s why we like her.” She gave her father a toothy smile.

             Jim whipped out his phone. Evidently the Rapunzel he knew dated from a nineteenth century Grimm Brothers fairy tale based on a seventeenth century Italian one. Disney’s version debuted in 2010. He made a mental note to watch one of the Tangled movies when he got home despite the press of work. Alimony, which he was most willing to pay, took a big bite out of his lifestyle, and he needed to expand the business. There was plenty of opportunity with climate change happening. It embarrassed him slightly to exploit the calamity to end all calamities, but people needed to cool off, and he knew how to engineer it.

             The girls took drinks from their water bottles, yellow and blue to match their backpacks, and began to tussle to make the other spill. Jim thought it wouldn’t hurt them to get wet as the day heated, but he worried about their dousing other people. He told them to stop shoving. “Who remembers the first time we came to Disneyworld?” he asked to mollify them.

             “I do,” Olivia said. She stopped needling her sister.

             “I do, too,” Emma said.

             Olivia frowned and returned her water bottle to her pack. “No, you don’t. You’re just saying that.”

              Emma said, “I do too! We had chocolate chip pancakes for breakfast. Mom sang in the car.”

             Olivia’s eyebrows shot up her round, pink forehead. “Yeah, but what about the park? You don’t remember the park.”

             “Yes, I do.” Emma turned away from her sister and stood with her back to them, every ounce of her sulking.

             Jim took Emma’s water bottle from her hand, screwed it closed and placed it in her pack. She didn’t turn around. “That’s pretty amazing, Emmie. Do you want me to sing to you on the way home?”

             Olivia said, “Of course not. You don’t sound good.” She put her arm around her sister’s shoulder. Emma did not shake it off.

             Jim let Olivia take over the reconciliation. Their mother would have decried his laissez-faire attitude, but he thought Olivia would do a better job than he. He’d been out of touch with the girls lately and felt, surprisingly, a tad shy with them. Besides, his info was two centuries out of date. Olivia took her phone out of her pack and showed something to Emma, who replied eagerly. Harmony restored.

             Jim’s mind flew back to Marcy’s singing in the car to keep the girls entertained. She would sing songs from the kids’ TV shows and then segue to her own favorites, songs from the era of their courtship. She had a lovely voice, and he realized he missed hearing it. Another loss, amid so many. He’d never understood why Marcy had withdrawn from him when her troubles began. He would have done anything to help if she’d let him. She couldn’t articulate her issues in a way that made sense to him. When he’d asked if she had another guy, she screamed “no” and threw up her hands. He believed her, and the girls had never mentioned a new “uncle.” But he continued to wonder why she had dumped him after thirteen secure and peaceful years. When had it all gone wrong?

             The kid in front of them finished eating the frozen banana and dropped the stick on the ground. The woman picked it up, put it in her pants pocket, and then withdrew a tissue from the same pocket. She spat on the tissue and wiped the chocolate from the kid’s face. Jim thought of how disgusted Marcy would have been at a spit wash with a contaminated tissue. Would she have said something to the woman? He shrugged and turned his attention to the girls. Olivia still had her arm around Emma’s shoulder and was whispering in her ear. Something was off, though: he didn’t see their backpacks, bought specifically for this trip to meet Disney standards.

             “Girls, where are your packs?” They didn’t like to be addressed in the plural, but he feared a thief.

             Olivia looked at him, puzzled. “What packs?”

             Emma took Olivia’s hand. “Livvy has a pack. Mom said I will get one when I go to middle school.” She looked so much smaller than her big sister.

             “Cut the kidding. Did you see anyone hanging around you?”

             Olivia looked up at him, “Daddy, what’s the matter?” Her eyebrows came together on her little forehead.

             He had to crick his head down an extra notch to address her. “Your blue pack, Emma’s bee stripes. Are you hiding them?”

             Olivia frowned. “My pack is red. It’s at home. You know I’m only allowed to take it to school.”

             “Stop playing games. I want to know where those packs are.”

             Emma began to whimper and clung to her sister’s arm. “You’re scaring me, Daddy.”

             Jim vaguely remembered that Olivia had had a red pack the last time he lived at home. That was two years ago.

             Olivia’s hair was braided, he noticed, in the style she favored in fourth grade before she quit gymnastics. He could swear she’d had a ponytail since the airplane. Emma’s small face scrunched into a knot, and she began to howl. The woman in front of them turned around at the sound.

             It was Marcy, bending to the shrieking child.

             Marcy looked up at him. “She’s too young for this place. We need to go home.”

             “How did you get here?” Jim said, dumbfounded.

             She hoisted little Emma on her hip and pursed her lips. “Let’s check out and start driving. I don’t care about the money.”

             “How did you know where to find us?”

             Jim noticed she’d highlighted her hair again, the way she used to before she became morose. As he watched, the toddler in her arms shrank into a baby.

             Marcy grew thinner, prettier, and he sensed the old vitality in his arms and shoulders, as if the last half dozen years had dissolved. He felt his grown-up confidence slipping away with the years.

             In a panic, he closed his eyes and willed the backwards action to stop. He tried to wrench himself out of the dream.

             Something poked him in the ribs. “Are you listening? Jesus, Jim. Pay attention,” Marcy said.

             He opened his eyes. Marcy’s hair was brown again, and Emma, now a toddler, stood on her own two, sneakered feet, burying her face in her mother’s legs. The day had grown warmer and smelled faintly of smog as well as hamburgers grilling. Olivia’s hair hung loose in the straight-down style she had adopted when she entered middle school. He shuddered as understanding dawned: time moved like a sound wave, surging forward and backward as it traveled through space, but at a rate we humans didn’t normally perceive. Somehow he’d been caught in the backward thrust and had just passed through the zero point where the direction changed, so time was now flowing forward. Wow. Excited, he wanted to tell Marcy about this fantastic insight. His words came out in a rush, but she didn’t heed him. She never heeded him! She glowered, her face radiating pique.   

             “This line is a waste of time. I told you to make reservations,” she said, shaking her head.

             She turned her back to him and began to gather the snacks the kids had scattered on the ground, stuffing them into her canvas tote bag. He wanted to help clean up, but he couldn’t seem to move. A fierce desire to pull her toward him and hold her tight welled up. His arms ached for the contours of her beautiful body, and he called her name. She turned around.

             It was the woman in the floral-print blouse.

             The woman, short and chubby unlike Marcy, held a dirty tissue in one hand and grasped her kid’s shoulder with the other. She shook her head and said, “None of your business.”  

             Jim stumbled backwards, apologizing although he had no idea what he’d said or done to disturb her. His heel bumped into something: Olivia, seated on the pavement next to her sister.  Olivia had placed some paper down to act as a barrier between their butts and the country’s collective bacteria. Their blue and yellow-striped backpacks lay open beside them on the pavement. He was—they were—in the present.

             Jim scrutinized the girls’ faces as another thought reared in his head. If time were to barrel ahead from now, how far would it go? All the way to his death? Past him? How terrible to see gray hair on his children’s heads! His chest constricted. He watched as Emma shared a peanut butter chocolate bar with her sister. Normal nine-year-old behavior. No change in Olivia’s appearance either. He waited a couple of beats. Time did not accelerate. Had the vision, or whatever it was, relaxed its grip?

             Cheers sounded up ahead. As the Lightning Lane folks moved forward along with a bunch of Stand-bys, the girls rose and gathered their belongings. Olivia folded up the paper on which they’d sat and handed it to her dad, who tucked the wad into a pocket. The costumed host controlling the Stand-by queue, an elf or some such, admitted the woman and child in floral-print blouses to the inner sanctum and then raised his arm to stop the line. He said Jim and the girls would be first next time. Yeah, if time behaved normally, Jim thought. He held his breath.

             “Why were you talking to yourself?” Olivia asked as the Stand-by people settled into their continued vigil.

             He had to respond because he knew Olivia wouldn’t let go. “That woman on line in front of us reminded me of your mother. I was wondering if your mom might come to Disneyworld with us sometime.”

             “She wouldn’t come. She didn’t even want us to come, but we convinced her.” Olivia flicked her wrist to indicate how easily she had manipulated her mom.

             “Would you like it better if she came?” Jim said.

             Emma slipped her hand into her father’s. “It’s okay if you miss Mommy. We do, too. But we’ll have fun.”

             Jim squeezed her warm hand, grateful for her kindness. She let go and sidled up to her sister.

             Olivia stared at him with pursed lips. “We wouldn’t mind if you got back together. But don’t do it for our sake. We’re fine.”

             Emma tugged at Olivia’s arm and asked to go back to the game. Olivia asked Jim for the sitting paper and spread it on the pavement so the girls could roost. They busied themselves with their electronics.

             Behind them, some people stepped out of line and hustled in the direction of the Castle. People were streaming across the plaza, heading toward noise in the distance. Jim surmised the marching band performance that signaled the daily Parade of Characters had begun. The girls didn’t lift their heads. He was glad; he didn’t want to pretend to enjoy a parade with his brain in such a spin. As he stood watching his princesses, he realized that if time were a wave, the implications would be impossibly hard to untangle. He hadn’t cracked a math book since college. He wondered if anyone else had come across the concept, like Newton and Leibniz inventing calculus simultaneously. He wondered if he had gone bonkers even thinking up such stuff. 

             The Elf host told the girls to stand up because it would soon be their turn to enter. They rose and shouldered their packs. Olivia turned to her dad.

             “Please remember to take photos of me and Emmie with Rapunzel. You can skip Tiana if you want.”

             “You bet. A-okay. Everything is A-okay,” Jim said. It had to be.



They pulled into Marcy’s driveway just after ten PM. Marcy, in a baggy sweatsuit, stood backlit in the doorway watching without a smile. Sunburned and dirty, the girls gave her sticky hugs. They had spent the morning, their last few hours in Florida, in the Hollywood Studios section of the Disney campus because Jim wanted to ride the roller coaster. Emma turned out to be too short for the big ride, so they’d climbed aboard the Millennium Falcon flight simulator instead. Both girls initially resisted but wound up loving the lurching journey through “space.” They would have taken another turn if the line hadn’t been too long.

             On the drive home from the airport, Jim had mentally catalogued all the money he’d spent to show his daughters he was a good guy. The girls hadn’t revealed any secrets about their mother’s activities or her opinions about him, so his Return On Investment wasn’t terribly high, but he wanted his ex to recognize his largess. Marcy ignored him, telling the girls to go get ready for bed because they had school tomorrow.

           Olivia said, Thanks, Dad. We had fun,” and headed upstairs to brush her teeth. Emma hurried after her, stopping on the landing to blow her dad a kiss. The girls disappeared from sight, off to share their private, sisterly thoughts.

            Jim handed over the blue and yellow-striped backpacks. Marcy said, “Is there anything I need to know about the trip?” She pushed the packs aside and leaned against the open door, obviously signaling “don’t come in.”

             “Our girls are great.”


             Jim shook his head. The desire to impress her had left him. She did not resemble the Marcy he had seen, or dreamed, the day before. That Marcy had soft edges even when complaining. This Marcy, frazzled and beginning to gray at the temples, was hard as ice. He’d never be able to figure out when it had gone wrong between them. He couldn’t even do it in fantasy. He said goodnight and loped to his car. She shut the door and turned off the outside light.