The girl from another world is waiting for me in Allan Gardens.
I see her with her hair loose and dirty, her smudged cheekbones, her archaic clothes which hang too wide on a body too thin. She sees me back in my uniform and my makeup and the miasma of marinara sauce that hangs over me after a night working in the kitchen. "Are you a princess?" she whispers. "Are you dispossessed? I need a quest so I can get home."
Night is falling, humid and heavy and full of a thunderstorm's promise. One of the homeless guys cackles from a park bench, yells out something about tits loud enough to sway the rosebushes and I'm not sure if he means her or me. We both stiffen when we hear it.
I take her home.
For the first few nights, she sleeps on the couch. She leaves dishes on the counter: I have to explain how the plumbing works. The girl from another world does not understand electricity, although she picks up the idea quicker than that of air conditioning, flush toilets, television. She putters around the apartment while I work; she is always waiting when I get home, hands fluttering about some new discovery.
The fourth night, she crawls into bed with me and I do not push her away. She smells like Douglas Fir and autumn leaves: the smell of something alive, vibrant, dying.
She snuggles up next to me. "Let me destroy your dark lords," she says. "Let me restore your kingdom. Let me avenge your sorrows and then I can go home."
Her breath is warm on my shoulder. Her eyelashes draw wakeful lines against my skin. Sometimes I think if I pretend I haven't heard, she'll just go to sleep. If I block my nose against the cool smell of autumn, maybe she will not be there in the morning. Me, I smell sour: sweat and tomatoes, and house wine dumped down the sink at night's end from cloudy cheap glasses draped with discount-store lipstick. I don't know what she sees in me.
The girl from another world is quiet, and unobtrusive, and sweet. Even though my hours are down, my tips are down, I make sure she eats well and let her wear my clothes when she wanders the city in the afternoons. I buy her ice cream, and she smiles, and I realize I like it when she smiles.
In the second week, I ask her about where she came from.
"It's a dull place," she says, and waves a hand dismissively. "There's no magic there." She turns and looks at my microwave, my secondhand VCR that spits out the tapes half-chewed if you're lucky, the flickering TV I rescued from a garage sale out in the 'burbs, and her eyes are forest pools of wonder.
I make her sleep on the couch that night. I'm afraid that if she stays close by, cool skin touching mine, I might start hitting her and never stop.
The next day she follows me to work.
I don't realize until I see her face peering through the window, as I serve another plate of cheap canned ravioli to another wannabe-gourmet with an attitude: the world's treating him harsh, and he's going to take it out on me or there'll be no tip on the cheque. I look up and out the second time he changes his mind and there she is, peering into the dirty fishbowl of the restaurant, eyes wide and shocked. Here I am, her princess, labouring with the servants, my hands stained with grease and shaking with frustration.
I want to go to her, to explain it all. I want not to have to explain it all: she's the girl from another world, and she's not supposed to understand the shit flowing through the gutters of this one. She's above it all. People sacrifice themselves for her, not the other way around. People work their hands to the bone scrubbing dishes and wielding swords for her sake. She is meant to sit with kings.
My customer glares at me, shifts in his chair, and I know there will be no tip anyway and there was never going to be one.
I bow my head and take the plate back into the kitchen. The line cook grumbles something rude at me in Farsi. The salad cook laughs. I want to throw the plate into his damn face.
When I get back out, smiling professionally, gliding across cracked floor tile with a server's learned grace, she's gone. All that's left are the marks of her nose and fingers on the window: eleven clean specks of light on the grime and smog of a summer night in the city.
I dread going home that night, even though I dread staying at work. I beg the other waitress, a tired-eyed college student who's halfway to getting stuck in the life, to let me close for her. I tell her I need the money. It's true, but it's not all: she sees it in my eyes and goes home at ten, while I stay until eleven wiping down tables restlessly as nobody comes in.
I walk the long way home, but I'm tired, and I have a double the next day, and eventually I have to walk in the door and take off my shoes.
She's sitting on the couch, her hands very still in her lap, but she doesn't look up when I open the door. She heard my key in the lock: she's too still for it to be anything else but a calculated pose, what she wants me to see.
"Hi," I say to her, and put down my bag at the door.
"I need a quest so I can get home," she says, her eyes rimmed with red. There is a pile of damp Kleenex in the wastebasket under my desk. She's used every inch: to her Kleenex is a rare and precious gift that one would not dare to squander. "You're a princess. You're not meant to be used like this. Surely there is something I can do for you."
"Take me with you," I say, and shed the top of my uniform with its garlic grease stain. My leg is bruised from bumping into tables. My ego is bruised from putting up with the salad cook and his leers. "I'm dispossessed, and I'm never getting it back. Let me go home with you."
Her eyes light up, and she touches my cheek softly. "You can always get your kingdom back. It's never too late for justice."
I laugh. I sit down and start laughing, and I can't stop even though it's choking me raw and straining the muscles I use to smile when I really want to scream. "There's no kingdom," I sputter between thick, shaking breaths. "There was never a kingdom. Just me, and this. Just this."
The light in her eyes fades. Her hand drops to her side. "Then how am I supposed to get home?" she asks, and her voice makes my heart shudder, but it's long past breaking.
"I don't know," I tell her, peel off my socks, go into my bedroom and shut the door.
I ran away from home once, when I was seventeen. I packed my backpack full of clothes instead of books, picking only my favourite mass-produced shirts and pairs of underwear as if each one were a guidepost or portent. I left for school that day and went to my boyfriend's house instead, and swore I'd never go back. I would live on the wind, finding fortune where I could. I would live free. I would live real life.
It didn't last. He didn't last. I scraped enough together waiting tables to get a basement to call my own, then a slightly better one, then a ground-floor bachelor apartment with bubbled glass windows that never kept out the fruit flies in the summer. Every new possession I accumulated was hoarded, my spoils of war, Exhibit X that I was right and they were wrong and I was making it in life.
I have an apartment in the city with a futon and a television. I have a kitchen with a tap that leaks, and pipes that sing in the night, and novels whose pages are turning yellow and falling out which I have no time to read. I have saved nothing, and I have preserved nothing, and when I sleep, I no longer dream.
I'm thirty years old, and alone, and some nights it makes me very tired.
The backpack is still in my closet, the straps frayed. I sew them back on when they fall off. I replaced the zippers, and my clumsy stitching zigzags roughly all over the place but they've stayed on. Every time I move I pack it first, with the best things, my favourite and most important things, and I take the last steps on moving day—the keys to the landlord, my name off the mailbox—with it on my back, because this time it may well be better. This time it might work out.
It was a great adventure. I was setting off into a whole new world.
I send her home, at the end of it all.
I give her food that won't spoil, and a big two-litre bottle of water, and a few subway tickets folded into a map of the city, all of it stuffed into a bundle of T-shirts in my old falling-apart backpack. I send her out to make her fortune with its bandaged straps firm on her shoulders. She doesn't thank me, but that's okay. She has nothing to thank me for. I don't know her way home.
I don't know what I wanted from the girl from another world. Maybe she could have done something for me: a better job, a better place, love or reconciliation or even an afternoon eating ice cream in the sun with some company. She wasn't meant for me to find, I don't think; somewhere in Allan Gardens, walking two minutes late that day, was a princess dispossessed of her kingdom, a princess with a quest just waiting for a champion. She missed the bus, or was caught in traffic. She stopped for ice cream on the way home.
The apartment is quiet without her. It smells like sweat, and like cement, and like years of accumulated nothing at all.
The next night on my walk home I linger in Allan Gardens, ignoring the drunk passed out on the park bench and listening to the birds fighting in the trees instead. I can barely smell the flowers for all the gasoline fumes in the air, but I'm sure they're there. They have to be. It's my nose that's the problem, not them.
And I see her in a business suit that's fraying at the edges, one button obviously sewn on too tight and a little too far to the left, her eyes tired behind rickety glasses and her hair drooping in its clips. She sees me in my uniform and my ragged, dirty hair and my five-year-old work shoes, standing in the middle of the path she's taking wherever she's going. The path that leads to her kingdom, somehow, in the way you always least expect to find it again.
"I need a quest," I say to her, and look up into her big, frightened eyes. "All I want to do is go home."
She takes my hand, because that's what princesses do, and I follow her out of the gardens into the gathering night.