Ashley was the prettiest girl in my first grade class. She had shiny, chestnut blonde hair - a shade bestowed upon her directly by the divine, without the bother of foils or bleach or hair lightening kits bought with a coupon at CVS.
Her hair was always bound with care: curled, tied with a ribbon, or swept back by a headband that matched her sweater or socks.
She was loved by someone very much, her mother or grandmother, who woke up extra early to gently brush her hair and steam the wrinkles out of skirts. I imagined they made her toast just the way she liked it, with cinnamon and butter and a scrambled egg.
Most often, she wore dresses - gingham pinafores and sleeveless jumpers with ruffles on the sleeves, a turtleneck underneath when it was cold.
Ashley was happy and light, her spirit like a cup filled to the brim.
I read Laura Ingalls Wilder and Mary Downing Hahn and lost myself in stories that took me somewhere else. I wore stirrup pants and baggy T-shirts tied at the waist and blue and pink neon scrunchie socks above my dirt-stained Keds. I chewed my nails and skinned my knees. I was was wound up like a spool of thread, prone to sudden laughing and crying and time-outs for not staying in my seat.
There’s a photo of me at 3, wearing a dress with lace on the sleeves and tiny roses on soft green fabric, my hair long and pinned back with barrettes, my hands crossed on my lap at the JCPenney photo studio. That was before my mother, tired of tangles and tears and being late to work where should stood behind a teller window counting bills and rolled coins and cashing checks and putting tootsie rolls in plastic tubs and asking “Is there anything else we can do for your today?”, took me to Supercuts for something more manageable. My hair never strayed below my chin after that.
At recess one day, I announced we should play a game I had just made up called Princess. Only one of us could be the princess and everyone else would be the servants. The unspoken rule was that no one invents a game called princess to not be the princess.
“I’ll be the princess,” Ashley said.
Envy and bitterness filled my small body as if my tongue had touched the tip of a battery.
“Of course you want to be princess,” I said. “You think you can have everything you want because you wear those stupid dresses every day.”
Ashley looked at me as if I’d thrown cold water in her face.
“I don’t want to wear dresses,” she said, tears spilling onto her cheeks. “This is what my mom makes me wear. I don’t like it.”
My chest clenched like a sharp-edged McDonald’s fry swallowed whole.
This girl, with her perfect hair and un-scuffed patent leather shoes, who stood crying on a patch of dirt smoothed by running feet, was more like me than I had ever imagined.
Ashley was the princess that day, and I, her loyal maid.
Years later, when my face was covered in angry red bumps, I woke up and squinted at my fuzzy reflection in the mirror that sat propped above a dresser above my bed. For a brief moment, my skin looked completely clear. I’ll be beautiful one day, I thought. I’ll be someone else. Someone who wakes up extra early to make toast just the way I like it, with cinnamon and butter and a scrambled egg.
Natalie Higdon is a screenwriter, fiction writer, and award-winning playwright living in Memphis, Tenn.