To understand how Jessica managed to wrap me around her little finger and convince me that we should travel to Italy, you first have to understand how much she loves Disney World. That began because she loves Disney movies, which begat an unfortunate fascination with Disney princesses (“Sweetie, I’ve just been asked to work on a book called Princess Recovery. Do you think we could like American Girl dolls for a little while?” “No.”)
And it is Disney princesses she loves, not Barbie dressed up like a princess or any other fakers: Disney princesses in crowns. Princess Jasmine in a crown, to be absolutely precise, but any of the others will do in a pinch, whether from the major arcana (Cinderella, Aurora, Tiana) or the minor (Pocahontas, Mulan).
She likes princes, too, but to a lesser extent. They seem to be accessories, sort of like a handbag or a pair of shoes; a thing a princess happens to come with. The princes usually get tucked on a shelf somewhere. It is the princesses who go on adventures (“I let the princesses out of the castle! And now they are free!”) and return safely home each day (“because the castle is very nice”). They share her messenger bag when she goes anywhere, and sleep on the other pillow.
In the fall of the year that Jessica turned twelve, a colleague invited me to participate in a writers’ conference that was taking place on a cruise, and told me to bring Jess along. Since Jess and I hadn’t had a vacation in several years, I agreed. And then it occurred to me that Disney World is not that far from the port, and I asked the travel agent how expensive it would be to add a few days there to the end of the trip.
And said travel agent happened to mention that you could actually have breakfast with the princesses, the real Disney princesses, including Jasmine, and I knew I would have to dig all the change out of the sofa in order to make this happen for Jessica. And so I did, and it was everything it was supposed to be: magical, and relaxing, and with princesses, and also crowns. In fact, it was such a spectacular hit that it became our default destination whenever we had some time and money.
It is easy: once you get on your plane and check your bags, you pretty much don’t have to do anything else. Someone picks you up from the airport and brings you to your hotel and delivers your bags. Busses and monorails and boats whisk you from your hotel to the theme parks. Someone else makes dinner and cleans the room. And you can have breakfast with the princesses in the castle, and have them sign an autograph book, and you can get your picture with them. And throughout the day you can also stand in line and meet the princesses who aren’t currently having breakfast in the castle.
So mostly when we go to Disney we meet princesses. This makes Jessica deliriously happy, and there is sometimes so little light in her life that I will do almost anything to see her smile like that. Spending my vacation days standing in line to meet princesses is fine with me. I don’t ask for my time off to be anything other than an opportunity to stop working for five minutes. And at Disney World, the cast members are well-trained in connecting with children like Jessica, and most people are good-natured when we stand in the line and Jessica asks them their names and where they are from and what is their favorite princess.
And then we made the terrible mistake of going to Disneyland for Jessica’s birthday. This is Walt’s park, and it came first, and of course we thought we should give it a try at least once. And it was a total, unmitigated disaster. [Rant deleted so that I won’t get any calls from Disney lawyers asking me to substantiate my claims.] So that was it. I threw our remaining tickets away and took Jessica to Catalina Island.
That December, Jessica asked if we could go somewhere for Christmas.
“Where would you like to go?” I ask. I am always willing to leave Kansas in the middle of winter. “Not Disney. I love Disney but not another Disney trip right now.”
“I was not going to say Disney!” she claims. “I want to go to New York.”
“New York?” I say. “But it will be winter in New York. Can’t we go somewhere warm?”
“Will it be warm in Italy?”
“Italy?” I have never mentioned Italy as a destination to her, I have never been overseas with her (if you don’t count that time in Nassau), I have no idea where this came from. I look at her, perplexed. “Italy?”
“I would like to go to Italy,” she says, and she looks up at me with the big brown eyes (not the big brown eyes!) and I think of what she has been through, and I think of all the years she may not have, and what is the point of waiting on Italy until I’m seventy, and crankier than I already am, and she is gone? I’ll have a great time then, won’t I?
“Italy,” I say, trying it out. What about Paris, or London, or Shanghai? Why Italy? And why now? And how much does Italy even cost? “Let me look at the budget. I don’t know. That’s a big trip.”
“But you have a job,” she says. Normally she hates the job because I spend so much time at it. “You have a job so we can keep this roof over our heads and pay for the gasoline in the car and the groceries on the table.” I wince at the litany I have repeated to her a time or two in response to her complaints. “And you have a job so we can do the things we want to do. And this is a thing we want to do.”
“Well. You want to do it.”
“Mom. You want to do it, too. You really do.” She means if I would just let myself want something.
“Maybe.” I am thinking of the Spanish Steps. I have never seen the Spanish Steps though I have always wanted to. I don’t know why. I read about them in a story once, and they seemed exotic and romantic to me. And it stuck in my head as a thing I wish I could do, but never had a reason to. I think of how often I only do things if I have a reason, a good one.
“We will get a book,” she says, because she knows the art of persuading me. “We will do that first.”
“All right,” I say. What’s the harm in a book?
“And then you will know.”
“What will I know?”
“That we are going to Italy.”
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