Years ago, there was a doctor who lived in our town, a wealthy widower. The only family he had left was a beautiful daughter, blond as beer, named Cleis. He had a bad heart and was worried that he’d die and leave his little girl all alone, so he married his housekeeper, a respectable widow who had two daughters named Lotta and Regan, and who seemed very fond of Cleis.
I knew that scheming bitch didn’t love Cleis. Far from it. She hated the poor girl and was just faking it. But I didn’t say anything. After all, who’d listen to me? Not long after the wedding, the doctor died and left his house and the three girls in his wife’s care.
After the funeral, she dropped her loving mother act. She hired an unscrupulous shyster who made a tangled web of the will, stripping the sweet little orphan of her inheritance. Not satisfied with that, the former housekeeper bundled Cleis off to the dingy little room behind the kitchen, took away all her toys and frilly dresses, gave her rags to wear, and put her to work cooking, sweeping the floors, scrubbing the pots and pans, washing, ironing, and all the rest of it, from morning till night, day after day. Overwhelmed, the little girl opened her mouth just once to protest all that abuse, but her stepmother shut her up with a slap.
She loathed Cleis for being so beautiful. Even after she’d settled her daughters in the blonde’s pretty bedroom and given them nice clothes and every other privilege, she’d grow enraged every time she compared them to Cleis. Lotta, the oldest, was just a plain-faced fatso, dull-eyed and slow-witted. She was spoiled and shrill, and was always picking on Cleis. Now Regan, she was really ugly: short, scrawny, and humpbacked, with beady eyes like an owl. She was taciturn and never spoke a word to her stepsister, or to anyone else for that matter. Few people had ever heard her speak.
If you didn’t know any better, you might think that Cleis became resigned to her misfortune, but she never did. By the age of fifteen, she was a whiz at household chores. She was so good, she took in the washing and ironing for other ladies in town behind her stepmother’s back. Without neglecting her chores at home, of course. Unlike the former housekeeper, those ladies paid her for her work. Not a lot, but at least she got paid. The dear little orphan slowly saved up some money. Her unshakable plan was to buy a one-way train ticket out of there and never come back.
She had a secret dream: To be an actress in soap operas. At seventeen, with a face like an angel, long legs, and a spectacular bust, she was what you’d call a blonde bombshell, a real Marilyn.1 Any TV channel would’ve hired her to play the “ingénue,” the meek heroine in a soap like the telenovela Magdalena, who cried nonstop during the first 499 episodes and only triumphed in the 500th and final episode. But Cleis couldn’t imagine anything more boring and stupid. She’d had enough misery in her own life. She longed to play the “villainess,” an evil woman who gets her kicks committing all sorts of dastardly deeds during the first 499 episodes, and finally gets what’s coming to her in the 500th episode. On account of Cleis’s look, however, the soaps would never cast her in that role.
I knew all about Cleis’s secret dream. (Don’t ask me how, I just knew.) I hoped she’d make it come true someday despite all the obstacles in her life.
A couple of miles out of town, near a hillside, was a mansion where, years ago, a multimillionaire once lived. He’d fly in on his helicopter from time to time and spend the weekend. He was super elitist and didn’t fraternize with the locals or employ them, either. Even his servants were from out of town. So we were really surprised when, in the fall of 19—, right before Cleis’s eighteenth birthday, he put a notice in the local newspaper announcing the big party he was going to throw in his mansion. Single girls from all over the region were invited and—here’s the most amazing part—he was going to choose one of them to be his future wife.
I’d seen a picture of him in Forbes magazine2 being interviewed about some kind of business deal he was negotiating with a Saudi sheikh. He was in his thirties, tanned and smiling, very charismatic. However, I got the feeling that that deal hadn’t gone so well. Guys who are interviewed in Forbes don’t marry small-town girls. But I didn’t say anything. What was the point? All the single girls in town were aflutter over the announcement. They ran around like crazy, getting ready for the party, doing everything they could to win the prize.
The former housekeeper tricked Cleis: locked her in her little room so she couldn’t attend the rich guy’s soiree. She was sure her lovely stepdaughter would steal that wonderful prospective husband from her daughters. Steal him from Lotta, that is. Because, to be honest, Regan was never in the running, on account of her hump.
At first Cleis gave no thought to attending the party. She dreamed about being an actress, not trolling for a millionaire husband. Besides she didn’t have a gown suitable for the occasion. But her stepmother’s vile deed infuriated her so much that she decided to sabotage the evil woman’s plan. She escaped out a window, blew her nest egg on a dress (it wasn’t Oscar de la Renta,3 but at least it was new), stole a pair of Lotta’s shoes (they wore the same size) and hitchhiked to the mansion.
As for me, I had no illusions about my chances of seducing the tycoon. But when I thought about the truffles, caviar, and other delicacies I was sure they’d serve at the party, I set off toward the hill on my bike.
The mansion was huge and super opulent, like a prince’s palace. Marble, cedar, designer furniture, halogen lamps, modern art, and waiters bustling back and forth. Hundreds of girls were there, not just from our town but from all the towns in the area.
No one bothered to formally announce us, one by one. There was an air of “anything goes,” probably because our moms hadn’t been invited. Of course we girls took advantage of the situation and behaved badly. Take me for example. I lost count of how many glasses of Dom Perignon I chugged.4 I was already stinking drunk when Cleis made her entrance, her hair flowing, looking more beautiful than ever.
On account of the champagne, my memories of that orgy are very fragmented. Lotta’s jaw dropping at her sister’s dazzling appearance. Prince Charming in the distance, looking just like his picture in Forbes. The DJ blasting Nirvana, the most popular band at the time.5 The millionaire dancing with Cleis in the middle of the dark room, a mirror ball radiating little colored lights in a psychedelic wave. Laughter, cigarettes, drinks. The blonde and the prince, locked in deep kisses in front of everyone. Someone under the table, snorting that Bolivian dust.6 The filthy rich guy and the sweet little orphan entangled like an octopus, disappearing up the stairs. Lotta getting hysterical and throwing a fit when she saw them slip away (thanks to Kurt Cobain, no one heard her screams).7 And me, zigzagging out the door, clutching the bottle of champagne I’d swiped. My head’s spinning but I’m happy. I stumble and almost fall in the pool. Me, in the garden with my bottle, hiding behind some bushes, who the hell knows why.
Suddenly the host and Cleis reappear. They don’t see me. The sweet orphan is fleeing, with the tycoon in hot pursuit. Her dress is ripped from top to bottom. He’s wearing pants and a tie, but no shirt. Panic is written all over her face. His is twisted and maniacal. Good God! Am I hallucinating? He catches up to her and grabs her by the arm. She turns and knees him in the crotch. The guy howls, turns her loose, and collapses on the ground.
“You motherfucker!” Cleis yells.
And escapes as fast as she can, leaving a shoe behind.
The next day, we read another notice in the local newspaper. The magnate would marry the girl who had a shoe that matched the one he’d found in the garden behind his mansion. He and a servant scoured the region, shoe in hand, in pursuit of the lucky girl.
The single girls got excited all over again. Lotta most of all. But not Cleis. She was so terrified, she asked her stepmother for some cash so she could buy a train ticket right away and disappear off the radar.
“That guy’s looking for me,” she said, nervous and jumpy. “And he's not the gentleman he pretends to be. No way! He’s a demented sicko! I’m begging you to help me!”
The stepmother didn’t give a damn what the millionaire had done to her stepdaughter. She was sure the girl had brought it on herself. But she went ahead and gave her the money for a one-way ticket. With that horrible little orphan out of the way, the rich guy might notice Lotta.
Cleis left town that very afternoon. In silence I saw her off at the station. I remember she smiled at me but looked a little surprised.
You-know-who’s shoe fit half the region. Lotta won that contest only because she had the other shoe. On her mother’s advice, she also dyed her hair blonde. The magnate gave her a perplexed look. She wasn’t what he remembered. Nevertheless, he proposed. The former housekeeper was jubilant. She thought she’d pulled a fast one. I knew she hadn’t. But I didn’t say anything, as usual.
In the end, there was no wedding. A week after the couple announced their engagement, Lotta’s body was found floating in the mansion’s pool. She was beaten up and had ligature marks on her wrists and ankles.
Thanks to his army of lawyers, the millionaire evaded prosecution. Didn’t do him any good though. A year later, he lost control of the helicopter he was flying and crashed into the hill.
The former housekeeper would’ve really enjoyed that spectacle—the explosion, the fire, and all the rest. But she never heard about it. After Lotta’s death she went insane, had to be locked up in an asylum. She’s still there to this day.
And Cleis? Well, I never saw her again. But I hear her on the radio all the time. Her deep, whiskey voice is perfect for the kind of villainess she plays on soap operas. She’s a big success and I’ll bet she earns a fortune playing all kinds of harpies. Sometimes I think she’s impersonating her stepmother. Ha! Ha!
As for me, Regan, I’m still here in our town, observing life with my owl eyes.
- Marilyn Monroe (1926–62). Hollywood sex symbol. (Some feminists think that admiring her ample beauty is “politically incorrect.” That stereotype may seem glamorous but it’s discriminatory, oppressive, frivolous, sexist, and who-knows-what-else. Poor Marilyn. So misunderstood. ELP)
- Forbes. A business magazine, known for its lists of the richest people in the world. Several years ago, it listed Fidel Castro as the seventh richest man on the planet. The Cuban leader flew into a rage. I remember seeing him on TV, indignantly swearing he didn’t possess “a single dollar.” (I suspect he was really offended that he wasn’t #1. ELP)
- Oscar de la Renta. Fashion designer from the Dominican Republic. One of the most celebrated designers in the second half of the twentieth century. (His versatile concept of elegance moves to the rhythm of the times. My only evening dress was designed by him. It’s not an exclusive, far from it. I don’t have the money for that. And even if I did . . . . ELP)
- Dom Perignon. A high-end champagne bottled by Moet et Chandon. (Very pretty golden color with tiny bubbles, and a delicious flavor that caresses you inside. But don’t drink too much. It gives you a wicked hangover. ELP)
- Nirvana. North American alternative grunge band, very popular in the 1990s. (Nirvana’s sound doesn’t appeal to me, but I can really get into Kurt Cobain’s lyrics, just like I can relate to Jim Morrison and The Doors’ lyrics. ELP)
- Bolivian powder: Cocaine. (The first people who read this story were two Colombians and they loved that part. But I ask myself what the president of Bolivia, Evo Morales, would think about the nationality of the powder. ELP)
- Kurt Donald Cobain (1967–94). Composer, guitarist, lead singer of Nirvana. (A cult figure on a par with Janis Joplin or Jimi Hendrix. According to his will, he committed suicide because he was really bored. He didn’t use those exact words, but that was basically the idea. ELP)
“Cinderella's Secret Dream” © Ena Lucia Portela. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2016 by Pamela Carmell. All rights reserved.