I returned to my childhood home in Manhattan after I left college in the middle of my senior year. My parents advised me only to say that I was taking time off. Nobody asked me any questions, because we only know civilized people.
The pink bedroom I grew up in became wild terrain once I’d moved back. The carpet and velvet curtains and purple duvet tried to strangle me when I let my guard down, even for a moment. The picture window facing out over Park Avenue would turn its terrible flat face towards mine and follow me like Mona Lisa eyes. My parents lived on the top floor of our penthouse, and they didn’t see what I saw. They couldn’t feel the aliveness of things.
I began to notice things about the Upper East Side that I hadn’t noticed, growing up. For example: all adult men here wore loafers without socks. I couldn’t look down anymore without seeing leather against Achilles tendons, squeaking sweatily through Dean and Deluca or vodka-flushed at one of the bars on Second Avenue, pressed against a high school girl with a fake ID pretending to like jazz. Every hand wrapped around your knee or pushing down on the back of your head was attached to an arm that, through daedalean knots of muscle and bone, led ultimately to a bare reddish foot, housed unprotected. Had it always been like this? My college roommate, Rory, would say that decay creeps in through the feet. Her father was an unkind podiatrist. A man without socks, she would say, is a man eager for death.
I had been back for a week after leaving college when my parents insisted I accompany them to a cocktail party at the home of one of my father’s business partners. My father worked in finance, doing something I didn’t understand enough to explain, though it had been explained to me repeatedly. It’s time for you to come back to earth, my mother said. It’s time to put on a good face and greet people. I snorted a line of Adderall off of a book about Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, that I had stolen from my college library. I had been working on a paper about her when I left school. I brought the book home in hopes of finishing the paper, someday. I put on a white dress and a pair of my mother’s shoes. I got into a taxi with my parents.
In the taxi, I looked at my father’s feet. Gold-buckled loafers, no socks. I wondered if my father was eager for death. Mary Stuart’s father, James V, King of Scots, was on his deathbed—ill and delirious— at the time of her birth. Historians debate that the cause of King James’ illness was either the stress of humiliation following his military failure at the Battle of Solway Moss, or bacterial fever from contaminated drinking water. Either way, he held on until his only heir was born, hoping to look upon the new face of a future King. When his wife gave birth to a baby girl, James V lost his remaining will to live and slipped into the great unknown six days later.
The party was exactly like all the other parties my parents had ever taken me to. Everyone dressed the same, talking loudly, exchanging stories about things nobody had asked about. I followed my parents around, saying hello to people, repeating my lines about taking time off. Yes, I plan to go back eventually. Thank you so much, it’s old, actually. It is a nice season for eyelet. I turned twenty-one in October. I did miss the city. I’m glad to be back. There’s no place like home, honestly. There’s no place like home, really.
I politely refused champagne while my mother watched. But she only watched me for a little while before she and my father drank more and devoted themselves to the party, became one with the widening tide of rising voices and delicate gestures and forgot about me.
There was a long table filled with food in the back of the dining room. Nobody ate at those parties. The table’s centerpiece was a big metal tower of jumbo shrimp, fat and pink, and oysters on ice. I leaned down and listened— it was hard to hear but the shrimp were screaming. I swallowed an oyster. I held the shell to my ear and didn’t hear the ocean. I put the shell in the pocket of my dress.
The hosts of this party had a big Jacuzzi tub in their bathroom. I filled it up about three inches with hot water. I took off my shoes, sat on the edge of the tub, and put my feet in. If I couldn’t drink anymore, I had to do something.
Rory and I used to go to house parties thrown by people we didn’t know. We would gather up all the liquor we could find and lock ourselves in the bathroom and talk about how ugly all the men there were. Sometimes, when the tub didn’t look too dirty, we’d take off our clothes and get in. People would pound on the door and if we stayed quiet, they’d just go away. Once I left Rory alone in the bathtub to find more alcohol. I climbed out, shoved my soaking self back into my clothes, and walked dripping and barefoot through the house collecting bottles. When I returned to the bathroom, there was a man in the bathtub with Rory. He was on top of her, and her head was knocking into the side of the tub, again and again. Brain damage, I worried. Brain bleed. But then it was over and he got out, pulled on his shorts and walked past me like I wasn’t even there. Rory slid down into the water so only her eyes remained above the surface, and looked at me like one of those mean cartoon crocodiles. Later that night, Rory drove us back to our dorm in her polished black Jetta, hands shaky and loose on the steering wheel.
I thought that was you the whole time, she said to me. I didn’t know you’d left. I didn’t know what you were doing.
She closed her eyes when she drove onto campus, kept them closed all the way down the curved road to the parking lot and even as she pulled into the spot that everybody knew was her spot only.
How do you do that, I asked.
Muscle memory, she said.
The Jacuzzi tub had a small jar of purple bath salts on the edge. I screwed open the top and sprinkled some in. It was lavender, which I don’t like. The smell reminds me of something I can’t remember. I thought about what Mary’s bathtub would have been like at French Court, where she was sent to live at five years old, already engaged to the four-year-old Dauphin Francis. I can’t imagine her naked, without her piles of dresses and coats and crowns. She loved to embroider with thick, colored thread. I imagine her submerged in fragrant water up to her neck, her gown ballooned around her, warm, covered. She knew how to protect herself.
The bathroom door opened and a man I had met before, one of the younger associates from my father’s office, walked in. I remembered that his name was Mr. Elroy. He looked at me, standing in the bathtub, holding the hem of my skirt at my knees. His face was red and he wobbled a bit, leaning against the sink. Mr. Elroy asked me what I was doing. I told him my feet were sore, that I was just soaking them quickly. Wordlessly, he rolled up the bottoms of his pant legs and sat on the edge of the tub across from me. He slipped off his shoes. He wore no socks.
This feels good, he said, this was a good idea.
He leaned down and dipped his hand in the water. He flicked the excess drops off his fingertips and then ran his fingers through his hair. He asked me if I was enjoying the party. I asked if he was.
You first, he said.
I said that I preferred the bathtub.
He laughed, and said he agreed.
We sat there for a little while, which was nice. Mr. Elroy smelled like vodka and chives. I guessed he must have been around thirty-five. He was extremely handsome—lean and thick-haired—but his face wore a sort of resigned and flaccid sadness, like a fish washed in by a stormy tide and left stranded on the shore. He asked me what my interests were, and I told him I liked history. That I like old stories. He asked me to tell him an old story. I told him that Mary Stuart and the Dauphin Francis were officially wed when she was sixteen and he fifteen. Mary was unusually tall—almost six feet—and very beautiful. Francis was short with a terrible stutter and two undescended testicles. They were married for only a year before Francis developed an ear infection, which, left untreated, caused a large abscess to grow in his brain and kill him.
Mr. Elroy laughed. That’s a funny story, he said.
I didn’t mean it to be funny, but I laughed too.
Speaking of princesses, he said, can I ask you something? This is such a coincidence, he said.
Mary was a queen, I thought.
Mr. Elroy told me that his daughter was turning six the next day, that his wife was throwing her a big party on the rooftop garden of their building.
Do you want to come, Mr. Elroy asked, and dress like a princess, you know, for the kids?
I thought about it for a moment. Mr. Elroy took a little vial of cocaine from his inside blazer pocket and tapped some on the back of his hand. He leaned across the tub, took my hand, and poured some out for me. I told him I would do it. I would be the princess. He snorted the coke and licked his hand. I’m such a good father, he said. I didn’t think I would be, but I am.
I bought a princess outfit from a costume shop. The dress was long and sickeningly pink, too tight on top and too long on the bottom. The crown was gold-painted plastic with blue and red jewel chunks. You could see the dried glue dollops holding it all together.
At the Dauphin Francis’ funeral, Mary wore all white. The white gown and veil must have made her red hair seem almost shocking, or maybe even gut-churning, like blood in milk. Years later, at the age of forty-four, Mary would be found guilty of treason against Queen Elizabeth I, her first cousin once removed. Before she lay her head on the chopping block, Mary was blindfolded with a white veil.
Mr. Elroy and his wife and his daughter lived in a newly renovated building on Fifth Avenue, across from the Metropolitan Museum. It was the kind of building— all sleek and glass— that everybody in the neighborhood said was a shame. An eyesore next to all these classic Beaux Arts styles, everyone said, nothing old is good enough anymore.
I took the elevator up to the roof garden, and it took a while. I looked at myself in the mirrored walls. I took the crown off, smoothed down my hair, and put it back on. I touched my fingers to my temples and tried to feel still where I was, tried to forget that I was boxed in and moving.
Thank you so much for coming, Mrs. Elroy said. She embraced me forcefully. She had a young, flushed face and the palest hands I’d ever seen.
I’m so lucky that my husband ran into you, she said. The original princess I hired cancelled two days ago. I’ve been in turmoil since. You saved my life.
The rooftop garden was encircled by a circumference of tall trestles embroidered with climbing ivy. They were too high to look over and see down onto the street. It was early evening—late for a children’s party but in time for cocktail hour— and the sky was starting to darken.
On one side of the roof, there was a group of bored-looking children eating cubed filet mignon brought to them on silver trays by old caterers. On the other side, their parents stood talking around a small open bar. Mr. Elroy was leaning against a trestle holding a glass of scotch. When he saw me, he raised his glass and nodded my way.
Mrs. Elroy brought me over to the children. She introduced me to her daughter, Ella, a little girl with a pug nose and large red bow tied into her hair.
Look what I brought you, my little birthday girl, Mrs. Elroy said to her daughter. Your princess is finally here.
The other children looked at Ella and Ella looked at me. I told her happy birthday. Ella looked at her mother and held her arm out. There was a small pink lump above her elbow.
Mother, Ella said, a mosquito bit me.
Mrs. Elroy bent down and kissed the lump. That’s because you’re sweet meat, she said. You’re my sweet girl. Then she left to join the other parents by the bar and left me alone with the children.
Do you know any songs, Princess? Ella asked me. Sing us a song, she said.
There was only one I could think of, and it was a nursery rhyme instead of a song, but I put it to a tune:
Mary, Mary, quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells, and cockle shells,
And pretty maids all in a row.
The children were quiet, but seemed interested. Their little faces were pleasant. They looked at me like I deserved attention.
I liked that song, Ella said. I asked them if they wanted to know what the song was really about, and they did.
I explained to them that the Mary in the song was a real person, who was once the Queen of Scotland. I told them that the garden was meant to be the lands that she ruled over. The silver bells were cathedral bells, because she was Catholic, and cockle shells meant that her husband had cheated on her many times. The pretty maids, I told them, were all in a row because Mary’s four ladies-in-waiting were also all named Mary.
The children loved that last part.
You’re all named Ella now, Ella said. You’re all Ella and I’m Queen Ella.
She pointed to each of her friends and said, say your name is Ella. Each of them said it, one after the other.
How wonderful, I said, The Royal Ellas. The children laughed.
Princess, Ella said to me, tell us more about Mary. Where does she live?
I said that she had lived all over Europe, but she had been dead for a very long time.
How did she die?
She got her head cut off.
That’s not true.
It is, I promise.
Your head can’t come off, Ella said. That’s just impossible. But then she really thought about it.
Rory and I had lived on the top floor of our dorm building. Our college was exclusive and expensive, but you couldn’t tell by the dorms. To get up to where we were, you had to climb four flights of ugly white-painted concrete stairs. One Friday afternoon—and I remember it was a Friday because I had just gotten back to our room after my Medieval History class—Rory and I sat on out carpet and shared a bottle of vodka. We were getting ready to go to a party off campus later that night, someone’s house I can’t remember now. Rory seemed to vibrate, as she always did, but that night she seemed excessively in-flight, as if she was being lifted off the ground. She peeled off her socks to show me her new pedicure. Her toenails were short and red.
They look nice, I said.
The pedicurist, she said, didn’t scrub hard enough. I told her to put her back into it, but feel, there’s still some roughness.
I touched the pads of her feet and then felt around her heels. They were the softest things I’d ever felt, almost more liquid than skin.
You’re right, Rory, I said, she really should have scrubbed harder.
Rory took a long gulp of vodka and then handed me the bottle. She watched me to make sure our sips were equal.
Soon it will be graduation, she said. And then after that it’ll be something else.
I’m scared you’ll leave me, she said.
I heard someone open a door across the hall, and then close it. And then open it and close it again.
Promise you won’t leave me.
Don’t be scared, I said.
Rory took another long sip of vodka, stood up slowly, unevenly, and walked out the door. I didn’t follow her.
I’ve decided, Ella said, that I want you to cut off my head.
But you haven’t done anything wrong, I said. It’s your birthday.
I’m a queen, Ella said, you have to do what I want.
Okay, I said, but we’ll need a chopping block. And an ax.
The children were giddy, and started hunting around their side of the roof for beheading equipment. They came back with one of the cardboard boxes that the caterers had used to bring in the alcohol, and a white plastic knife from one of their dinner plates. The parents were now just barely visible across the wide roof, as it had gotten darker. I put the box down and had Ella kneel in front of it. I took out her hair bow and tied it over her eyes. She leaned forward and laid her forehead on the box. She was smiling. I asked if she was ready.
When Rory didn’t come back to the room a little while later, I went to look for her. I remember swaying down the hallway to the bathroom, looking under the stalls and in the showers. Everything tipped and skewed and then snapped back into place in alternating patterns. I knocked on our friends’ doors, but she wasn’t with any of them. Every door was exactly the same, repeating, from behind each one came the same tinny plucks of the same music. At the end of the hallway I opened the door to the stairwell. I stepped onto the landing and looked over the banister. At the bottom of the stairs was Rory, face down, bare feet tangled up above her. Her head seemed to be split, right down the middle, and what spilled out of it stained the white concrete so badly that I heard they had to keep re-painting the spot, over and over.
At the end of Ella’s party, Mrs. Elway embraced me again. Thank you so much, Princess, she said, Ella and the children had a marvelous time.
Mother, Ella said, my head is gone.
Mrs. Elway smiled and stroked her daughter’s hair. Well, she said, it seems to have grown back.
The other mothers at the party wanted to hire me for their own children’s birthdays. Could you do this again? They all asked. I said I could do it again.
I see this happen all the time, tragically, the doctor said. People drink too much and they fall.
They wouldn’t let me ride in the ambulance with Rory, so I had to drive to the hospital in her Jetta. I was still drunk.
She didn’t suffer, the doctor said. She was gone the moment she hit her head.
I kept thinking about her head, the way it seemed to have been waiting to open, the way her skull hadn’t fought, even the slightest bit, to hold its composure.
When Mary was executed, the first cut of the ax missed her neck and hit the back of her head. The second cut hit her neck, but didn’t slice all the way through. A stubborn strip of flesh held her together until the executioner sawed through it.
The doctor placed his hand on the top of my head. Be careful with this, he said. There’s really not so much holding it all together.
The next day, I packed up and left school. I knew that at some point I’d have to go back and finish, either this school or a different one, but it didn’t matter. I already knew it would never feel over.
When I got home from Ella’s party, I took my princess dress off and folded it, put it on a shelf in my closet. I got into bed naked, but I kept the crown on. I tied pieces of my hair to it so it wouldn’t roll away while I slept. I closed my eyes but couldn’t fall asleep. I thought of my Mary biography, and considered doing a little reading. But I decided against it—no story ever really ends, everything tumbles together and repeats and repeats, and there’s nothing to do the next day but do old things over.