I shouldn’t have said yes when Joanne called my house that morning. “We’re all making clothing for our Barbies - want to come over?” she asked. I bit my lower lip and hesitated. I have no Barbie; I shouldn’t go, I thought. My ten year old mind raced. “Um, sure. What time?”
I was hesitant about going because my only doll was a Tiny Tears baby doll; my parents couldn’t afford to get me anything new, much less a Barbie doll. “But everyone has one,” I had often told my mother. “Sometimes I feel stupid carrying Tiny.” In her stretched-too-many times maternity clothes, my mother paused as she changed my brother’s diaper. Her face looked tired to me. “We have too many children; we need the money for other things. Maybe for Christmas.” Christmas? I thought. That’s so far away. Quickly, I tried to imagine which situation would be more embarrassing: tell Joanne on the phone that there was no Barbie at my house, or show up with that big doll with its diaper and painted-on hair. “Ok, I’ll see you later,” I said. Hanging up the phone, I had a weird feeling in my stomach. I don’t even like Joanne, I thought. She’s so bossy and mean. I had witnessed her on the school playground teasing other girls until some of them cried. “She’s a rich brat,” my older brothers always said. My mom and Joanne’s mom were friendly at our church. I bet Joanne’s mom is making her invite me. Should I call her back and tell her I can’t go?
But a part of me wanted to go; Joanne was an only child, something each of my six siblings and I often dreamt of. I was sure she’d have lots of toys to play with, and I knew her mother would have snacks for us to eat. Both of these facts were somewhat irresistible to me. At my house we weren’t starving, but there wasn’t a lot of extra food to go around. The local parish provided us with our Thanksgiving and Christmas turkeys, and each week the school delivered their leftover milk and bread to us. There were no second helpings, and treats were rare. The thought of cookies, candy or soda was very tantalizing. And, I thought, I can finally get to see a Barbie up close. I had never even held one. I wonder what they feel like; can you move the arms and the legs? My toys were few… and usually shared. Last Christmas, a shiny xylophone sat under our tree for the six of us. We took turns passing it down the line, everyone plinking out a few notes. When my turn came, I decided I loved it and wanted it for myself. “Pass it to Timmy!” my father barked. “I want it!” I screamed back, throwing my body over the brightly colored strips of metal.
I’m going to Joanne’s, I decided.
Searching the house, I found my Tiny Tears baby doll upstairs in my bedroom, lying in the corner next to a trio of worn, barely stuffed animals. I picked my doll up and gazed at her with mixed emotions – I loved her but I still wished I had a Barbie. Tiny stared back at me with her big round eyes, arms stuck in her permanent “pick-me-up” position. She was barefoot, of course; big puffy rubber toes spread wide - no little high heels for this behemoth. Her flowered sundress was faded and missing its sash. Well, I guess you could use a new outfit, I thought.
I opened the garage door and placed Tiny in the wire basket that hung off the front of my brother’s old bike. In between his two jobs, my father had tried to make the bike more feminine for me; baseball cards gone from the wheel spokes, fresh white paint and a new pink seat were some of the changes. Pushing off with one foot, I began my ride down the eight long blocks to Joanne’s house. As I pedaled, the spring wind felt good on my face, my ponytail flying behind me. The pink streamers on my handlebars fluttered as I biked past houses that looked just like mine: small Dutch colonials tightly tucked next to each other, just a thin cement ribbon separating them. Lying in our beds at night, my siblings and I could hear our next door neighbor’s conversations. “What time should I set the clock for, Peg?” my neighbor would ask his wife each night. “Six, seven!” we’d all shout back. Each house had a brick front stoop facing a stamp-sized lawn, still bleached tan from winter. Scraggly shrubs hugged the foundation, some with gaping holes resulting from the previous winter’s wrath.
After cycling a while, I began to see and feel changes between the neighborhoods. It looks different on my bike than it does from our car, I thought. Everything seemed bigger and better. Children were out playing, riding scooters and bikes on the street. Fathers stood smiling at them as they watered their lawns. Everybody looks cleaner here, I decided. I started to feel uncomfortable. Do I look dirty? I wondered. Can people tell I don’t live here? Lawns and houses appeared stretched out; there were gardens with hyacinths and tulips blooming, framed by winding, paved driveways. Only eight blocks away, but a different world. Even the cars are nicer here. These people are all rich, I thought. I bet all the kids here have their own bedroom. I wonder what that’s like. I was cramped into a tiny room, sharing a double bed with my older sister. She was in the miserable position of being the oldest, and since my mother was pregnant and sick most of the time, it was my sister who usually shopped and made dinner for us. Many nights, lying in our little bed, she would confide in me. “Someday I’m going to marry a rich man and move away from here, and never have any kids.” “Can I come?” I always asked. Our scuffed maple dresser sat across from the bed, holding our clothing which consisted mostly of hand me downs from the neighbor’s children and my mother’s purchases from local rummage sales. Most of our clothing had labels with other kid’s names sewn into them. “Whose name is this?” I asked my mother the first time I saw one. “The girl who wore that shirt went to camp; ignore it,” she said. What’s camp? I wondered.
My five brothers shared another room, filled with bunk beds, a crib and single beds lining the wall. It was a wild, chaotic room, with wall to wall boys, and it always smelled like dirty socks. And now there’s another baby coming, I thought. Ugh; it’ll probably be a boy, I sighed. I wish we lived in one of these big houses.
Pedaling down the smooth blacktopped driveway, I turned the corner into Joanne’s landscaped backyard. Four girls sat on her white patio with its green striped awning, scalloped edges flapping in the warm breeze. I sat on my bike and watched them. Three of the girls were “Joanne followers;” I knew them from school. Gazing at her with adoration, their heads were primed to nod in agreement at anything Joanne suggested. Sitting at the picnic table, they held their slim-waisted, big-breasted Barbies while studying the fabric that Joanne’s mother had laid out. Panicked already, I wondered how I was going to ask for more fabric – there’d never be enough for my doll. I don’t care, I thought. I’m here. I took a deep breath, pushed out my kickstand, grabbed my doll and walked up the steps to the patio. I carried Tiny Tears by one of her arms, hiding her low, almost behind me. Joanne stood up as I approached. Her crisp gingham pedal pushers matched her ruffled top. I stared at her neatly braided hair, secured at the ends by matching gingham ribbons. “Hi,” I squeaked. Joanne looked at my doll. “Where’s your Barbie?” she accused. I saw the other three girls eye my doll, their confusion evident. I stood there motionless for a second. Then, without effort, I delivered my sooty lie. “I’m getting one for my birthday. And, it’s coming with a lot of clothes.” I smiled proudly, and that seemed to satisfy my hostess. “Well, okay, but I don’t know how you’re going to make clothes for that thing.” Joanne’s followers murmured in agreement. Again I smiled, but inside I felt the bite of her words. Maybe I shouldn’t have come. “Oh, it’s fine. I’ll just make something really big.” I quickly sat down, putting my doll on my lap, out of sight. Just as I predicted, Joanne’s mother appeared, carrying a tray of juice filled cups, surrounded by cookies. I quickly counted the snacks, and realized there was plenty for all of us. No sharing! I marveled. Cutting and stitching, we all started talking about school, TV and other third grade issues. I could feel my body start to relax a little. Joanne usually led the conversation, and occasionally would ridicule other girls at our school. “Her hair is so ugly! And, once I saw her wearing boy’s sneakers!” Her loyal legion laughed in response. Chewing my cookie, I kept my head down, hoping that they wouldn’t spot the name tag on the back of my worn top.
Every once in a while my eyes darted over to Joanne’s section of the table, where I would sneak a quick look at her Barbies. She had four of them, dressed in everything from gowns to bathing suits. How is that possible, I wondered? Yet there she sat with her blonde, pristine army. Lying on their backs, golden hair splayed out, they looked like frozen confections.
After a while, I couldn’t suppress my longing. During a pause in the conversation, I walked over to the far end of the table where Joanne was sitting. I smiled at her. “Can I hold one of your Barbies for a minute?” I could feel my heart inside my chest. The other girls stopped working and looked up, waiting. Then, Joanne of the big house and sparkling toys, smiled back at me.
“No. They’re mine. Get your own Barbie, instead of that big baby doll you have.” Joanne and the other girls laughed and turned back to their sewing. For a moment, I stood there, looking down. Move! I thought. I felt my neck and face grow very hot. Finally I spoke. “That’s ok,” I said. “I didn’t want to hold your stupid doll anyway.” I abruptly sat down, furiously cutting away at my fabric. For a moment it was quiet, the other girls staring first at me and then back at Joanne. But soon they moved on, giggling and talking as they worked.
After a few minutes, Joanne stood up to use the bathroom. “I’ll be right back!” she announced. As soon as I heard the back door shut, I leapt up like a cat. Walking over to her spot, I picked up her scissors and the first of her Barbie dolls. I pulled the head of the doll away from its body. Then, one by one I began cutting apart the wide rubber band that held each doll together. Cut, cut, I thought, slicing away. Hurry! The other girls sat there, speechless. Blinking away tears, I cut the last rubber band. After I positioned each head above the decapitated bodies, I hefted Tiny up and ran towards my bike. Jumping on, I pedaled as fast as I could down the driveway towards home. Bigger tears now blurring my vision, I tried to watch for the cracks and rises in the sidewalk.
From a half block away, I could see my mother standing in front of our little house, arms crossed, shaking her head, looking at me. Well, that didn’t take long, I thought. I pictured Joanne coming back from the bathroom, walking back out to the patio, screaming as she spotted the battlefield of beheaded Barbies, while her mother ran for the phone. I never thought about this part. Uh oh, I’m really going to get punished. When I reached the house, I pushed hard on the brake pedals and my bike stopped short. I stared at my mother. Her huge, swollen stomach hung below her weary face. “Why?” she asked. Still sitting on my bike, I tried to explain. “I just wanted to hold one. She has four of them. She wouldn’t let me hold one.” I expected my mother to start yelling, and then send me upstairs to my room. Instead, she looked at me with a mixture of anger and empathy, and then turned away.