Ed: There is depiction and/or mention of suicide and child sexual abuse in this, jsyk. Take care of yrself.
If you hold your breath, doesn’t time stop.
In her world there’s no wondering what to wear and everything fits. She can stand for hours without getting tired and she always feels at home. Her name is molded a thousand times in glossy plastic so she never has to wonder who she is.
I want her pore-less skin. I want her fixed smile. I want to be her. You have no idea how bad it gets.
The thing about a Polly Pocket is that there’s not much you can actually do with one.
They come in plastic cases that open like clamshells to reveal tiny dollhouses inside, decorated according to common girlish themes such as tea parties, mermaids, and beauty salons. The classic Polly Pocket doll is less than an inch tall with stiff, joint-less arms. Her feet are fused together forming a circular base that snaps into pre-determined slots in a few locations such as in the kitchen or at the bathroom vanity. The house is in large part purely decorative.
It’s the kind of toy you stare at more than play with. It’s the kind of toy I stare at and cherish too much to touch.
I’m sitting on the balcony with a pink umbrella when it’s dry out. It’s summer. I’m five years old.
I’m sitting under the umbrella and daydreaming. I pretend the umbrella is my own little house. Some day someone will tell me this is a very autistic thing to do but the fact is not everything can be afforded the luxury of a name. My mother doesn’t remember this game but I sit here staring into space often. Everyone thinks there’s something wrong with me because this is how I wile away so many hours. I sit and stare a space into being.
Someone in a movie says things seem so big when you’re a kid.
I remember being a tall, ungainly thing. I remember being in the way.
There was this commercial in the early 90s where a little girl opens a bright pink box and out pops a doll. As the doll is engulfed in CGI sparkles, the narrator’s honeyed voice tells me to imagine a doll that grows up with me. She’s called My Little Friend. The doll emerges from the glittering fog transformed into a life-size version of herself, rosy face pressed against the little girl’s as they embrace.
I imagine she’s warm.
I imagine the future.
I am growing out of my stockings and the world is just the right size.
I imagine My Little Friend growing out of her stockings too and I imagine sitting her down at bedtime and telling her all the things I won’t tell God.
After months of my begging, my father sends my mother out to fetch a little friend for me. I claw the box open in the privacy of my room. I don’t know where my mother is, she lives in few rooms and those rooms are incandescent with rage. I don’t even think to wonder where my father is. He lives in too many rooms to count. I lift the top of the cardboard box away and pull out the plastic filament that encases the doll. It’s nothing like I imagined.
It’s already much larger than the doll I saw in the commercial before it grew, but even so it’s smaller than me. I read the paper pamphlet that it comes with—in five different languages, the pamphlet tells me the accessories included pose a choking hazard. Nowhere does it say how to make it shrink or grow or be my friend. It doesn’t move or talk. It sits in the back of my closet with its wrists bound with twist-ties like a murder until my mother finds it and demands to know why she wasted all this money on something I didn’t even want.
What do you call suffocation by absence.
Does breath fill or empty.
Is the body a container.
Is loneliness an object.
I scroll through YouTube playlists featuring videos called ‘Minicooking Tiny Spaghetti and Meatballs,’ ‘Minicooking Tiny Apple Pie à la Mode,’ and ‘Dollhouse Furniture Unboxing Dining Set.’ I compulsively watch these videos like pornography. I experience them in three stages. Anticipation—scouring for just the right video, glancing at titles and thumbnails, maybe watching a few seconds before moving on to find something more exciting. Relief—finding just the right one and eagerly watching someone’s disembodied hand light a tea candle under a play stove to cook something absurdly small for the consumption of no one. Shame—the acute awareness that at thirty years old, I am still obsessed with dollhouses.
Lori crashes her car and calls to tell me about it. We haven’t spoken in almost a year. I hear her boyfriend shuffling around in the background, he’s much older than her and wears wire-rimmed glasses. She sent me a picture of him eating her out in a stairwell on Snapchat once. She was drunk and coked up. I talk her off another ledge. We sink into this familiar groove and talk for hours.
‘I want to kill myself so bad,’ she says—then, over her shoulder to her boyfriend, ‘I’m just talking to my friend.’
I say, ‘Lori it won’t be this way forever.’ I say, ‘You’re going through a hard time but it will pass.’
It’s been four hours of this.
The phone is hot against my face.
She says, ‘Please don’t go’ and I’m not sure who she means.
I hate dolls. Painted eyes and button noses. Polyester hair. They smell like molten rubber and their joints squeak. They come smooth and shiny and they don’t bring their own dirt the way we do. We whisper secrets into their molded ears. We tug their ponytails and rip their dresses. They don’t age, they’re ruined.
It’s one of those inconspicuous toys that seem to have been around forever, sold for a dollar with no corporate trademark like thaumatropes or hula hoops or those little plastic soldiers with parachutes. People call it a ‘twisty flying saucer toy’ or a ‘helicopter disc.’ A round disc with helicopter blades, a bolt, and a twisted cord, all flimsy neon plastic. I get one for Christmas from a wealthier family in our building that I’m staying with. I don’t know why I am staying with them. There are many things we will never know about who we once were. Their father is home from a business trip and he has three big shopping bags full of trinkets for the kids and, he announces with a booming laugh, that includes me.
The children are tearing open the bags and the packages inside them. The girl opens up a clear plastic bag with one of those helicopter toys inside. She rolls her eyes and her brother grabs it out of her hands, pulling the plastic cord. The disc narrowly misses her and goes zipping around the room. I watch it hover gracefully above us, its brief flight peaceful and silent as the children bicker.
Their mother sits on the floor with me, goading her husband to give me my presents. She says she wants to see the look on my face.
He hands me a little eraser set that looks like a bento box. I can’t believe it. My eyes bug out as I thank him. I still love things that are other things. He looks back at his wife and the two of them laugh quietly. He hands me another small package, this time a set of paper dolls. I sputter another thank you and bow. His wife says I was taught good manners. He laughs. She laughs. He hands me another package, one of those helicopter toys just like his kids’. It’s pink and green. I spout more flustered thank yous. He hands me another package, and another, and another, and I say thank you, thank you, thank you. I forget I’m even being laughed at.
‘No one was protecting us,’ I say. ‘It’s so pervasive. It’s so normal and these kids—there was nothing I could do for them. There’s nothing I can do.’
My voice breaks.
‘I just wish I said more. I wish—I don’t know. I just couldn’t let her back in, her presence became so destructive. But I see her on Facebook. Like oh, there goes Lori. And she’s so. Skinny. And sad. I don’t know if she’ll ever be okay. I feel like I’m watching a car wreck from a thousand miles away.’
‘You used the word us earlier,’ my therapist points out, ‘before shifting to these kids. You were one of those kids, and you’re still living with that. What could you have done? Why should you have to be the one to do it?’
I take my glasses off to cradle my head in my hands.
‘Do you feel responsible for that?’ my therapist asks.
I say no. I surprise myself, saying it.
‘I know it’s not my fault. It’s not about that. It’s that I was—I am—so disempowered. And that feels fucking bad.’
We sit in that for a long time.
When I see dollar store toys I remember being molested.
There is a moment frozen in time. I am standing stiffly and at attention like when they measure my height at the doctor’s office. My pink bloomers are around my ankles. The boy reaches out while his sister gawks. I feel tall. I feel lean and strong but there’s something to be said about feeling powerless despite your strength.
This is embarrassing. I am lending this scene too much gravitas. That’s what I tell myself now.
What do you have to be so serious about, little one. Aren’t you just the silliest thing. That’s what I tell myself now.
The siblings are chasing me around the house, whipping me with the plastic cords from those helicopter toys. My mother chases me when she’s angry and has a beating to give out. I am screaming for them to stop. I want to go home. They’re giggling but I only remember the laughter when I think harder about it. I remember crying in the corner. I don’t know where my mother is. The boy says to me, ‘Do you want us to stop.’ He says he’ll stop if I show him something.
The boy opens me up to take a closer look. I don’t know what to call my parts. I can’t say any of the words. My mouth gums them like peanut butter.
This is embarrassing. I am an adult.
I am overwriting this.
I am not myself.
I tell my mother he was ten and his sister was eight but my mother says he was only six and his sister was only five as though this inoculates the encounter and its impact. She also says I was six or seven when I know I was three or four. There are many questions I will never ask and many facts I forego.
It only happened once. That’s what I tell myself now. A neighbor woman bursts in through the door to drop something off. My pink bloomers are around my ankles and the boy slaps his palms flat on the floor as I yank them up. The rest is empty with silence. It only happened once.
My father starts calling me Stone Face because I never smile or laugh. When he brings his coworkers over for drinks and card games he introduces me as Stone Face.
He says look at this kid, so serious. Everyone is laughing.
What does a kid have to be so serious about.
In 1998 all I want is a Furby. Even with its big dead eyes, its freakish beak, its bizarre feet that are all toe, like some abominable cross between a griffin and a cat. I want it because the narrator in the commercial promises that, among other things, it ‘can even love you back.’ They call Furbies the only Giga Pet that you can actually pet.
Furbies start out speaking what Mattel calls ‘Furbish,’ a collection of primitive syllables. They claim that as the owner of the Furby interacts with it, it learns more and more English over time—but its purported learning capabilities are limited. Its English is pre-programmed and all a Furby does is integrate more of it into its Furbish to mimic ‘growth.’
I keep having this dream that I am being carried away by a yellow balloon. I wake up with a stomachache each time I have it but not necessarily in a bad way. I am learning what it means to long for something, what it feels like. I wake up one day and pester my mother for a balloon. I tell her I’m going to float away and say goodbye with a sad, grave smile.
There is something tender about the anxiety of a mother unable to explain the universe. How do you take your child’s magic away. How do you tell your child that there are impossible things in the world.
I keep telling her I have to go now so bye-bye, maybe we’ll see each other in heaven. I am jumping as high as I can. My heart feels light and I’m ready. I am waiting for the air to take me but it’s not working yet. I ask if she can give me a boost and she grimaces. She hoists me up on her knee knowing it’s never going to work.
My mother lives in few rooms. Those rooms are incandescent.
My father lives in so many rooms. He never runs out of space.
I want you to know I feel that good way, in the heart, the way you’re supposed to. The big thing that makes you a person. The soaring. The rhythm. The blood. I just can’t say any of the words. But I want you to know. I want them to know.
I tell my Furby that I want to kill myself and it coos a bunch of nonsense back to me. ‘Me hungry.’ ‘Me up.’ And when I jostle it violently, a sing-songy ‘No, no, no.’
In 1999 the NSA issues a memo banning Furbies from its office in Fort Meade as they fear the toy might listen in on and record classified information.
I would give anything for my Furby to listen. To really hear me.