*ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN VOLUME I, ISSUE I OF UNTUCKED*
by Elana K. Arnold
by Elana K. Arnold
My sister and I used to take the heads off Barbies.
Our grandmother bought them by the dozen at garage sales; their hair was sometimes matted, or sometimes the little girls who owned them before us had cut it all off. She’d buy them five for a dollar, and she’d get us bags full of Barbie clothes to dress them in. We’d play Barbie’s Day at the Mall, or Barbie Gets Married, or Barbie Gets a New Car. But the cars weren’t ever new, when my grandmother bought them. She’d pay a buck fifty for a scuffed pink Corvette and stash it in the closet to surprise us.
There wasn’t much to do in a house without a television, and without any other kids nearby; all the neighbors were retired, like our grandparents, and their grandkids only came over on holidays and school vacations. The kids would ask us why we lived with our grandparents, where our parents were. I wouldn’t say anything; sometimes my sister would punch them. Our grandmother would “shh” their tears away, give them a cookie, and send them back home.
So we were alone together a lot, just me, my sister, and our Barbies.
She named hers things like Trixie and Bubbles. Mine were Miranda and Jessica. I pretended that mine lived in places like Sweden and Denmark, even though I never thought to ask where those places were, even though my Barbies loved the sun and those places were cold.
Sometimes at night I heard my sister crying in the twin bed across from mine. I would roll over and pretend to sleep.
At dinner, our grandmother served our grandfather and us before she sat down. We all had to be halfway finished before she would start. He ate with his hands more often than with a fork and knife, talking to our grandmother then whole time.
My sister and I listened, and we pretended that we understood the German that they spoke. We mumbled gibberish and pretended it was a language only we understood. They would look at us occasionally, ask us if we wanted another piece of bread, and sometimes he would reach over and stroke the closest one’s hair with his hand, greasy from the chicken.
We played with our Barbies in the backyard, the concrete birdbath becoming their pool. They swam and sunbathed and laughed, their long legs flashing, their perfect tans intact even in the winter. Sometimes, I thought, they laughed at me for being so young and so flat chested.
There was only one Ken. Kens weren’t so easy to come by at garage sales. He was mine, a fact that my sister found to be patently unfair. She was older, so she should have the Ken. I didn’t argue. I just shook my head.
I flaunted Ken, and kept his name traditional. I made him and my Barbie kiss, I laid him down naked on top of her, his plastic bump irreversibly hard. I ran his fingers over her naked breasts, and I said in a deep Ken voice,
“Oh, Jessica, you’re so beautiful!”
Sooner or later my sister would get angry enough to grab one of my dolls—Ken or Jessica, she didn’t care—and rip off its head. I’d scream, and cry, and I’d claw her, sometimes until she bled, until she dropped the head and it rolled peaceably away.
I’d retrieve it, reassemble the body, and march away. “I don’t need you,” I’d say. “You’re just a fat loser.”
But by dinnertime I would be lonely, or she would be, and we’d play together again without either of us apologizing.
It was a summer day with nothing to do when my sister found a way around the Ken Situation.
We were playing Barbie Goes Camping, and we had our Barbie Recreational Vehicle ($3.50 with only the refrigerator missing) and two tents. My Barbie was dressed in cute khaki hiking shorts and a lime green tank top. Hers wore a flowery summer dress with high heels.
Ken was carrying the backpack. Since she didn’t have a Ken, my sister let Bubbles bring along her friend, Peaches.
Jessica and Ken marched off ahead, gabbing to each other about nothing in particular, just that season’s best parties and hottest fashions. Bubbles and Peaches trailed behind.
"Come on, guys!” Jessica yelled to the trailing girls. “We’re got to set up camp before dark!”
"Yeah,” said Ken, running his hand across his plastic hair. “And we’ve still got to gather firewood.”
“You guys go gather the wood,” said Bubbles. “Peaches and I will start dinner.”
“Okay,” said Ken. He and Jessica left to find wood, Ken’s arm protectively draped over Jessica’s shoulder.
Bubbles and Peaches started the barbecue, gathered some berries for a sauce to drip over the sirloin steak, and arranged the sleeping bags around the fire pit.
“I think I’ll take a quick dip in the stream,” said Peaches.
“Good idea! I’ll join you. The steaks should be fine now that they’re on the barbecue,” said Bubbles, and she followed Peaches to the pond.
Peaches slipped out of her sandals and pulled her t-shirt over her head. Then she slid off her tight shorts and jumped into the water.
“It feels great!” she called to Bubbles. “Jump in!”
Bubbles pulled off her cotton dress and slid off her high heels. She executed a perfect jackknife dive.
“Wow!” said Peaches. “That was great!”
“Thanks,” said Bubbles.
The two floated and relaxed, saying nothing. Then, Peaches bumped into Bubbles, startling her.
“Oh!” said Peaches. “Sorry.”
“That’s okay,” said Bubbles, reaching her hand across the short distance to touch Peaches’ hand. “I don’t mind.”
Peaches didn’t pull her hand away. Instead, she took a firm hold of Bubbles’ hand and brought it up to brush against her breast. “I don’t mind, either,” she said.
They stood in the stream, anxious and excited. They stepped closer to each other, then even closer. Finally, they were so close that the tips of their breasts brushed against one another’s.
And their lips met.
Just for a second; then they stepped apart and turned away. There was a moment of weighted stillness.
Bubbles said, “We’d better finish dinner.”
They dressed and returned to the campsite. The coals of the barbecue had almost exhausted, and the steaks were done. Jessica and Ken had started a roaring fire.
The four of them sat down to supper; the two of us peered from above into their campsite.
We played Barbies less after that. My sister turned thirteen that summer, and our grandparents thought it would be best if she started ninth grade at a private school. I joined her the following fall, and in our plain blue skirts and white polo shirts, we looked just like all the other girls.
We began to act like them; we fought less and flirted more. We slept over at friends’ houses and played Spin the Bottle at birthday and Halloween parties.
My sister gave me her dolls, and I put them in shoeboxes in the closet with mine.
When I go back to the house years later, after college when my grandparents are dead, long after my sister and I stopped sharing things, I find those boxes in the closet.
I go back alone. My sister is living in Northern California and can’t make it down for the weekend. She lives by herself, with two cats and four locks on her door in a bad part of Oakland. A week before, she sent me a postcard. On the front is a picture of the Golden Gate Bridge, with “Having a great time!” splashed in silver across the bottom. On the back, in the same round handwriting I remembered from junior high, she tells me about her job waiting tables at The Brick Hut and the failing health of her VW bus.
She bought that van with her own money when she was seventeen and just two months away from graduation. She saved for it for more than a year, and when she finally bought it she disappeared from the house almost entirely. By then, my grandparents seemed too tired to ask where she went at night, though I could have told them.
She and Bobby Stuart took that rickety old bus up in the hills where a new housing tract was being built, and they made out for hours up there, in the ghost town of framed houses, looking down on the city. I knew this because when she came home, glowing, her chin was red from rubbing against his stubble. I’d bury my head in my novel and pretend not to look at her while she undressed, her curves so different from my straight lines.
She’d fall asleep in the twin bed next to me and wouldn’t stir all night. I’d toss and turn, throwing my blankets off and then pulling them tight around me, rubbing my legs together and thinking of Bobby Stuart.
I am only back at the house for the estate sale. When I walk in, it seems for a moment that I smell my grandfather, the scent of his shaving crème mixed with the stale odor of his skin.
Inside the kitchen cupboards, I find the good china I rarely saw as a child. There is so much of it, all scavenged from yard sales by my grandmother over the years, blue Delft patterned bowls and tea cups, hand painted dinner sets of twelve made in occupied Germany.
My grandmother had always said that there was enough china for both of us to have someday; we could have big families because all the sets would serve twelve. I had wanted the ones from Germany, a place I figured I’d never go. They were blue and white, very simple, with pictures of country people doing their chores. They wouldd fit in a big ranch-style house with horses in the backyard and handmade quilts thrown on the beds. Thanksgiving dinner would look great on them: a huge brown turkey, heaps of green salad, mashed potatoes with melting butter, and soft rolls that steamed when they were torn apart.
My sister didn’t want any; she wasn’t going to have any kids, and she wasn’t going to get married, not for a long time, anyway. She was going to see the world, she said. She wanted to go to Europe. She wanted to make out with sexy Italian men in fancy cafes, sipping wine and dancing all night. It sounded great; I wanted to go, too, and was jealous that she’d thought of it first.
But in Oakland, she doesn’t dance much. She works all the time and spends her days off doing things that she doesn’t write to me about. I visited her once, not long after she moved away. Her apartment is tiny, but neat, with a futon instead of a bed and beanbags instead of chairs. In the cupboard all I found were paper plates.
Alone at my grandparents’ house, I close the cupboard without pricing the china.
I walk down the hall to our bedroom. The twin beds are still there, the same flowered bedspreads, faded now, and wilted. In the closet are my shoeboxes, undisturbed.
“Ken and Jessica,” the first box is labeled. I open it and find them, side by side in their wedding finery, Jessica stunning in her white and Ken dashing as ever in his three-piece suit. Their arms are at their sides.
“Bubbles and Peaches,” the other box reads. And inside, there they are, naked. Their arms are thrown around each other, Peaches’ hand gently cupping Bubbles’ breast. Their limbs are entwined, their hair is wild.
Photographs by Letitia Chai.