I tried to unstick my body from itself, playing a game that no part of me could touch any other part.
In my room, I had a whole queen bed to myself. When my Mom shut the door at night, I stretched out my whole body in that bed. When I craned my toes for the bottom, my head was still a foot from the top. I tried to unstick my body from itself, playing a game that no part of me could touch any other part. I tried to resist the comfort of curling my hands into my chest, or crossing my legs over one another to lay on my side. I challenged myself to lay spread eagle, on my back, as I fell asleep. That was the grown up way to sleep. Not like my little brother, who ran his thumb against his eyelashes while he faded. I tried to make myself big in the bed, to deserve the privacy and the space. I imagined a game show in which I was a contestant. Cameras were trained on me from the light fixture above the bed that monitored me all night. If my body touched any part of myself, I would lose the chance to win one hundred thousand dollars. Some other little girl in her bed with better discipline would win, and the montage of her joyful tears and ecstatic family pissed me off. I would be better. The game show had a lot of challenges like this. One was to see how few clicks a person could use to accomplish a computer task.The way to win was to use keyboard shortcuts for everything, and I had a wikipedia search for Natalie Wood down to just three clicks of the mouse from computer start up. The game show I practiced for most regularly was a contest to see who could pee the cleanest. There were cameras in the players’ toilet bowls, and they filmed me in my bathroom. Knowing my butt and vagina were being broadcast on TV made me want to win even more. I shimmied out of my cotton underwear and felt the thrill of a thousand eyes on my naked butt, on my secret freckle birthmark on the right cheek. To win, you had to cut off your pee stream so perfectly that nothing dripped, and you didn’t splash the sides of the bowl. If you pooped you were automatically disqualified. I practiced this by trying to cut off my peeing in the middle, but I was never able to avoid a few drips. I concluded that my vagina just wasn’t strong enough. The humiliation from the studio audience on the game show was brutal, but I still tried for the hundred thousand every time I went to the bathroom. The contests for my game show changed all the time, but I never let anyone else play. My real life playmates were my neighbors: Nathan, Zander, and Avery.
Avery lived in a little white house five up the hill from mine. Our street, Barden Avenue, was so steep because it was right on the fault line. My Mom explained to me that this meant if there was ever an earthquake in Salt Lake City, our whole street would fall into hot lava. I told Avery about this troubling news once and she said my Mom was making it up. She was a year ahead of me in school, hers was the private school where she had to wear a plaid skirt. Mine was the local elementary where nobody noticed what I wore. To get to Avery’s house, I had to walk up the hill of our sycamore lined street. Her house sat on such a steep incline that if you launched a skateboard down her driveway it would careen all the way down the hill and onto 11th East, the busy street where the city bus took me to school. Nathan and Zander lived right next door to her. They both had white blonde hair and little wisps of eyebrows, but where Nathan was broad, Zander was skinny. Nathan’s head was shaped like a pumpkin, Zander’s more closely resembled a lemon. Nathan was in Avery’s grade, and Zander was one year below me. To reach their two homes, I had to walk up the hill by myself, passing right in front of the looming windows of each bungalow. I took on another game show challenge: taking exactly one step in each sidewalk square, which turned my stride into something between speed walking and skipping. Sometimes when I was engulfed, concentrating on my feet, I’d get the feeling someone was right behind me, about to tap me on the shoulder. But when I looked up, I found nothing. Still, I felt that every person I passed, every dog walker and lawn mower, was watching me. When I was eight a neighbor I didn’t know called my Mom. “Hi Mary, I’m not sure if you knew, but Isabelle and Avery are playing on the roof.” My Mom thundered up the stairs with the landline phone still against her ear. She threw open the window and told us: “You get inside. Right. Now.” Avery threw me a nasty look and said: “You said you were allowed to be on the roof.” I thought I was allowed, but only because I’d purposefully never asked.
Avery and I competed for Nathan’s affections, and used Zander as the villain in all of our make believe games. Especially when we played diner waitresses. He was the mean boss who made us work until midnight, forcing us to pour coke after coke until one had “the perfect bubbles”. Nathan was the boyfriend who came to pick one of us up after work at the diner, we traded off. I felt superior to all of them. Even if I did wish Nathan would like me, only me, never look at Avery in that way, it seemed to me obvious that given the choice, he would pick me. It didn’t really matter to me that I had no interest in Nathan. Avery had braces and she was way taller than him, I was cute and small and wore my hair in french braids. I was Anne Hathaway and Avery was her friend Lily. We were friends, but only one of us was royalty. I wasn’t afraid of her at all. I wasn’t afraid of anybody except my Mom and the doctor. But that all ended when Avery started to be able to read my mind.
The first time she broke into my brain, we were rifling through a plastic storage container filled with hand me down toys. That summer I was ten and she had just turned twelve. I had one really rich friend who gave me everything she didn’t want anymore, or the things she hadn’t even bothered to open. Mostly we were sifting through stuffed animals and friendship bracelet kits, when I noticed two unopened plastic boxes. The classic pink alerted me right away. Two Barbies still in their boxes. One was Beach Barbie. She had on a neon bikini and held a parasol, the other was a flight attendant. Avery watched me weigh the boxes in my hands. I knew we were too old for Barbies. I knew she hated them. Her room was decorated with Invader Zim and Avril Lavigne posters. I remembered vividly that there was a headless barbie in her bathroom, fashioned into a toothbrush holder. Her Mom was so weird like that. I had just decided to tell her I was going to give them to my little cousin, when she reached out an invisible tentacle and stabbed into my brain. It felt like someone had pulled out a chunk of my hair above my temple. She smiled hugely and I saw goldfish stuck in her teeth.
She stared at me from the corner of one eye. Her eyes were pale blue, washed out against her fair skin. Sort of ugly, I thought. To read my mind, she only needed one eye trained on me, the other one could swivel around, or blink, even go to sleep. It was so easy for her. Until that moment, I had fooled Avery into thinking I was done with the dolls, that I, like her, had thrown mine away, cut off their hair, mutilated them into bathroom accessories. But really, I loved Barbies, I loved to make zip lines for them from the top of my closet to the window sill. I had miniature glass animals that the dolls kept as pets. They had fleshed out lives in my head, dramas and funerals and inside jokes. My Barbies were active participants in the game show, sometimes they even came to the bathroom with me to judge the clean break of my pee. The thought of her knowing about my Barbies was absolutely intolerable. But she was already in there, inside my head, and my superiority started to melt. I watched her open up the secrets in my head like trash bin lids. I tried to hide the worst, the most shameful– but her one fixed eye was already digging. It felt like she grew six inch fingernails and was scraping out the muck behind my forehead, so that it caked inside her nails and she could scratch it out with a toothpick, or her teeth. Against my will I started to remember, playing back for her like the projector at school…
Alone in my room, I was untying my red haired Barbie -Roxy- from her zipline harness made of floss. I freed her from the string and took off the leather jacket she was wearing. Underneath was an orange button down shirt, close fitting against her. I stared at Avery in horror as we both watched the memory of me, rubbing my thumbs over Roxy’s plastic boobs, pulling up her shirt, so I could draw on nipples with sharpie. I tried to close my eyes, to turn away, to stand up, before Avery got to the last memory, but I was glued to the floor by her one watery eye. I felt my lower lip start to shake as we watched together the worst of it all… She saw me take off Roxy’s camo cargo pants, fold them carefully, bring her to my mouth, and lick the space where her legs stuck into her hips. As soon as she saw it, Avery retreated out of my head. I felt like I’d fallen off the monkey bars; back flat against the wood chips, staring at the sky, waiting in terror to see if I’d ever breathe again. She reached for one of the pink boxes in my hands. I let her take it and tried to push away the lump in my throat. I wasn’t so afraid of crying as I was of her using my tears as a way to sic her eye on me again, to pull my hair at the temple and puncture my thoughts once more. When I looked up at her, she seemed embarrassed, but she was smiling. I couldn’t bear it. I blurted out: “Let’s kill them.”
“Them.” I shook the plastic box hard.
“You don’t still play with them?”
She let out one short mean laugh. We agreed, they had to die. I quickly learned Avery was endlessly creative when it came to murder. She suggested drowning them first, then burning their hair and faces off. Then, “No, no! Let’s run them over in the car.” she grinned, showing me her teeth. I noticed the goldfish paste between her two front teeth again, and the smell of it on her tongue made me queasy.
“Pam would let you?”
Avery’s Mom had short spiky white hair that was black underneath, like Cruella De Vill. She always wore black capri pants and some kind of black and white geometric blouse that came to her knees. Only her jewelry was colorful, and often it was made of old toys or trinkets. My favorite were her neon green rubber duck earrings. She was so sweet, overly nice to me whenever we made a pit stop in her kitchen before hurrying into the basement. The cups in her house were these squat, chunky orange plastic things that gave their contents a golden hue. Once, reaching for my glass of apple juice, I accidentally took a whole mouthful of Pam’s white wine, which I immediately spit out right on the kitchen floor. After that, when I watched her sip from those cups, I wondered what was wrong with her taste buds that she could drink– and always seemed to be drinking– something so awful. When I slept over, she would carry down trays of food: goldfish, swedish fish, grilled cheese on wonder bread, apple juice, peanut M&M’s. If Avery ran out of goldfish in her sparkly plastic bowl, she needed only to yell “MOM” and Pam came rushing down, clinging to the banister like she thought she might fly off the staircase. She drove a white minivan that was always easy to find in parking lots, because she had a row of plastic squeaky dolphins and sharks, like rubber chickens, lining the dashboard. She said her style was from the 60’s, even though to me it looked like she just put plastic toys in every nook of the house. I guessed that if Avery asked Pam to run over my brand new Barbies, Pam would do it. I pictured Flight Attendant Barbie’s head as it bulged out under Pam’s tire and couldn’t handle the thought. I tried to think of a more humane death:
“I wish we could just explode them or something.” Avery eyed me appraisingly.
“Explode them? Like, blow them up?”
“Yeah.” It seemed unlikely that Avery or I had anything that could blow them up, and I thought maybe I could delay the execution until she found some kind of explosive, maybe she would forget about it by then.
“We have leftover fireworks in the garage.” My stomach twisted. Of course she did. She ripped the doll from her perfect packaging, and started for the door. I gingerly untwisted my doll from her box, too, and followed Avery out. I didn’t even think to tell my Mom we were leaving, I followed her because I had to. On the sidewalk I watched her strut in front of me. All at once it seemed she was much older than me, taller, curvier. Her jean shorts were cut just below the back pockets, uneven with dangling fringe. She did it herself. Her flip flops smacked hard against the cement, and she swung flight attendant Barbie mercilessly in her right hand. I kept my eyes on her, terrified she’d turn that one eye onto me again. For a second I thought I saw it pop out from the back of her head, parting her blonde hair to blink at me. Would the neighbors be able to see it if she broke into my mind again? What Avery had seen in me made me ugly, and made her beautiful. She took it from me, and she was sexy. With Flight Attendant Barbie in her hand, she looked like a model, and all I wanted was to take my Beach Barbie, who was not yet so far gone, and run home. Save us both. Avery could have Nathan forever. But I followed her, tucking my doll into a tight hug in the middle of my chest. Beach Barbie was so pretty. Her hair was tucked in a single french braid ending at her middle back, and soft pink sunglasses were attached to her ears. An overwhelming responsibility for her well being hit me as I met her sunglass-gaze: unlike me, she had never done anything wrong. I thought of when Avery and I tried to save the dying sparrow in her backyard, shoving its beak into a tupperware filled with water and honey and seeds. I knew it was dying, I knew we were catching diseases by touching it. When the bird was clearly dead, Avery just dropped it over her back fence and went inside. I didn’t even know if she washed her hands. That bird rotted and maybe a cat ate it and got sick and died too. Couldn’t Barbie be saved? But Avery wasn’t Avery anymore, and I was something less than a human girl. I could never save anyone.
I sat on the little square of manicured grass in her backyard and waited for her to find the fireworks in the garage. Aside from that patch of green, her backyard was all the same smooth grey concrete, from the sidewalk all the way to the garage. I petted Barbie’s hair and wondered if I could explain to her why she had to die. Maybe it was better not to know. I thought about whether or not my grandpa knew he was going to die the day he died, or if my dead brother Harry had any idea. He was always going to die, from the second he was born. He was always going to die because his muscles didn’t work. My Mom said that she would’ve killed me if my muscles didn’t work, but she didn’t because the doctor said I was all normal. I decided that if my Mom was going to kill me, I wouldn’t want to know. So I wouldn’t tell Barbie anything. Avery emerged from the garage with a glum look on her face.
“I can’t find anything except Pop-Its.”
“What the hell are we supposed to do with those?” I swore at her so she would remember I knew how to.
“You’re the one who said we should explode them!”
My mind was racing, frantic, trying to find a way to convince Avery to let the Barbies escape with their lives. And then, she turned that greyish eye to the side, toward my forehead, and I felt that same stab again. It was like a huge wind had pushed me off a roof. This time, I burst into tears. Avery watched me cry from the outside and from the inside, in rapid succession we watched my memories rush by unbidden; when I locked my little brother Quinn in the bathroom for time-out, he was only three, and I sat in front of the door for 30 minutes while he begged me to let him out. His tear stained face, his hiccuping full body sobs, the way my Mom scooped him into her arms and he cried even harder. When I wouldn’t stop picking at my pet lizard’s molting skin, even when it made her bleed. When I licked the kitchen floor after I mopped, because my Mom wouldn’t believe that I’d done it, the way the cleaner tasted off the cool tile and the way she laughed hysterically at the sight of me licking on all fours. Avery watched everything unfold and I just pulled Beach Barbie close and cried.
Then, she said softly: “Maybe you should keep them.” She took her eye off of me. At those words, I felt a swell of energy and anger take over my arms. If her invasion into my brain was painful, her pity was torture. I wanted to lunge at her and push my fingers into her ugly eyes and squish her brain. I wanted to pull out handfuls of her yellow hair until she was bald. I got up and ripped Flight Attendant Barbie from her hands. We were standing close, face to face, and I was reminded again how much taller, older, she was. I felt her breath against my face, and I stared at her thin nose instead of her eyes. For a long moment I saw myself turning around with both dolls tucked safely in my arms, and leaving. Letting the neighbors watch me as I rushed them home to safety, to meet their new family and receive new names, games, duties. I saw how Beach Barbie would become good friends, coworkers, roommates maybe, with Roxy, and they would both keep my confidence forever. I saw myself laughing in Avery’s face and never coming back to her house, maybe only once to tell Pam about how Avery had shown me her brother’s box of cigarettes and naked ladies he kept in his closet. I saw myself hiding lit fireworks under Avery’s pillow, watching her hair and eyebrows burn off. But while that moment lingered, Avery just watched, her pale eyes roving all over me, looking kind of hopeful. What did she expect me to do? If I kept them she would tell everyone, Nathan and Zander and their families, everyone I knew, they would all know what I did with my Barbies. I said the words at the same time that I raised the dolls high above my head.
I threw them onto the concrete and tried to stomp on their heads. It did nothing, and in anguish I reached down and pulled at the hair and limbs. They deserved a quick death. They could never understand why I was hurting them, why I who loved them desperately was now using all my might to pop their shoulders out of their sockets. Beach Barbie’s glasses came off and her bright blue eyes looked so innocent to me. She stared at me pleadingly and I screamed so I wouldn’t cry. I cracked her parasol in two with one hand. I tried to tear her french braid out of her carefully sewn scalp. Flight Attendant Barbie was lying mute at my feet while I killed, and Avery bent down to scoop her up. For a moment I wondered if she would tell me to stop, if she would hide the doll behind her back so I wouldn’t destroy her. But no, she put Flight Attendant Barbie’s head between her teeth, her braces covered teeth, and clamped down. She closed her eyes with the effort and slowly ripped her head from her body. It came out with a loud pop. I waited for her to continue the frenzy, but she didn’t. With Barbie’s head still in her mouth, she started to laugh. I stared. Her eyes were screwed shut and she was shaking from laughter “That hurt so bad…” she moaned through the giggles. She opened her mouth and spit out her head onto the cement. It rolled away from us toward the back fence. She rubbed her jaw and laughed harder, and for some reason it made me feel tender toward her.
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I don’t think I broke anything.” She rubbed her finger along the brackets of her braces.
“Oh that’s good.”
She sighed and the laughter subsided. We looked at each other.
“Come on.” she said, and retrieved the flight attendant’s head. I picked up the broken bones of Beach Barbie. She led me to the fence, and without a glance, she tossed the doll, first body, then head, up over the top and into the alley. I wordlessly handed her what was left of my doll. She threw her, too. I heard the soft crumple of her body hitting the leaves on the other side.I wondered if they fell next to the rotten bird. When I turned, Avery was halfway up the back steps to her house.
“Are you hungry?” she asked me without looking.
“Yeah.” I followed her in.