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. I have no Barbie; I shouldn’t go, I thought. My eight-year-old mind raced. “Um, sure. What time?”
I was hesitant about going because my only doll was a Tiny Tears baby doll; my parent’s couldn’t afford to get me anything new, much less a Barbie.
“But everyone has one,” I had told my mother. “Sometimes I feel stupid carrying Tiny.”
My mother, dressed in her stretched-too-many times maternity pants and top, paused while changing my little brother’s diaper and looked at me. Her voice always sounded like she just woke up.
“We have too many children; we need the money for other things. Maybe for Christmas, okay?”
Christmas? That’s so far away. Quickly, I tried to imagine which situation would be more embarrassing: tell Joanne on the phone there was no Barbie at my house, or show up with big diapered doll with its painted-on hair.
I hung up the phone and had a weird feeling in my stomach. I don’t even like Joanne. She’s so bossy and mean. I had often 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. And, as the fourth child of six, that situation was something each of my 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. 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. There were no second helpings, and treats were rare. The thought of having cookies, candy or soda was very tantalizing. And, 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, a gift 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, throwing my body over the brightly colored strips of metal.
I’m going to Joanne’s.
Searching the house, I found my Tiny Tears doll upstairs in my bedroom, lying in the corner next to a trio of worn, barely stuffed animals. Picking my doll up, I 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, her arms stuck in a permanent “pick-me-up” position. She was barefoot, 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 she could use a new dress.
I opened our garage door and placed Tiny in the wire basket hanging off the front of my brother’s old bicycle. My father, in between his two jobs, had tried to make the two-wheeler more feminine for me. Gone were the baseball cards from the wheel spokes; a fresh coat of white paint covered the chips and scratches. 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 blond ponytail flying behind me. With the streamers on my handlebars fluttering, I cycled past houses that looked just like mine: small Dutch colonials tightly tucked next to each other, a thin ribbon of cement separating them. Each house had a brick front stoop facing a stamp-sized lawn, some still bleached tan from the cold. Scraggly shrubs hugged most foundations, some with gaping holes, wounds from the previous winter’s wrath.
Cycling, I began to see and feel changes between the neighborhoods. It was my first time alone in this new area. It looks different on my bike than it does from our car. Everything was bigger and nicer. Children were outside playing, riding scooters and bikes in the street. Fathers stood smiling as they watered their lawns. Everybody looks cleaner here. I felt sad and uncomfortable. Can people tell I don’t live here? Lawns and houses appeared stretched out; flower-filled gardens were 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 bet the kids here have their own bedrooms. Cramped into a tiny room, I shared a double bed with my older sister. My four brothers shared another room, bunk beds, a crib and a single bed lining the wall. And now there’s another baby coming. Where will we put it? I wish we lived in one of these big houses.
I pedaled down the smooth blacktopped driveway, and turned the corner into Joanne’s landscaped backyard. Four girls sat at a picnic table on her white patio, scalloped edges of the striped awning flapping in the breeze. I sat on my bike, watching. Three of the girls were “Joanne followers;” I knew them from school. Gazing at her with adoration, their heads primed to nod in agreement at anything she said. Each of them held their slim-waisted, big-breasted Barbie, while studying the fabric 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 Tiny.
Taking a deep breath, I 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 saw me and stood up. Her crisp gingham pedal pushers matched her ruffled top. I stared at her neatly braided hair, secured at the ends by plaid ribbons.
“Hi,” I said. Joanne said nothing and kept her eyes on Tiny.
“Where’s your Barbie?” The other three girls eyed my doll, their confusion evident. I stood there and hesitated. Then, without effort, I delivered my sooty lie.
“I’m getting one for my birthday. And, it’s coming with a lot of outfits.” I smiled proudly, and it seemed to satisfy my hostess.
“Okay, but I don’t know how you’re going to make clothes for that thing.” Joanne’s followers murmured in agreement.
“It’s okay,” I said. “I can do it.” I quickly sat down and hid Tiny on my lap. Cutting and stitching, we talked about school, TV and other third grade issues. I felt my body start to relax a little. Joanne usually led the conversation, occasionally ridiculing other girls at our school.
“Her hair is so ugly! And once she was wearing boy’s sneakers!” Her loyal legion laughed in response. Listening, I kept my head down, hoping they wouldn’t spot the nametag sewn into my rummage sale top, or see the square of cardboard covering the hole in my shoe.
Shorty after I arrived, just as 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. I marveled. No sharing!
Every once in a while my eyes darted over to Joanne’s section of the table where I took a quick look at her Barbies. She had four of them, adorned in everything from sparkly gowns to striped bathing suits. Four Barbies? How is that possible? Yet there they were, a blonde army, golden hair splayed out looking like frozen confections.
After a while, I couldn’t stop myself. During a pause in the conversation, I walked over to the head of the table where Joanne was sitting. Standing there, I took a breath as Joanne looked up at me.
“Can I hold one of your Barbies for a minute?” My heart beat against my shirt. The other girls stopped working and also looked up, watching and waiting. It was quiet for a moment, the only sound coming from the flapping awning. Then, Joanne of the big house and sparkling toys, smiled at me.
“No. You can’t. They’re mine. Get your own Barbie, instead of that big baby doll you have.” Pointing at Tiny, she laughed, the others following her lead. For a moment I stayed in the same spot, looking down. My neck and face grew very hot. Finally, I looked at her.
“That’s ok,” I said. “I didn’t want to hold your stupid doll anyway.” I walked back to my seat and abruptly sat down, furiously cutting away at my fabric. For a moment it was quiet again, the other girl’s heads swinging between me and Joanne. But soon they moved on, whispering to each other as they finished making their petite dresses. I ignored them as I tried to sew.
Soon, Joanne stood up to use the bathroom.
“I’ll be right back!” she announced. When I saw the screen door shut, I leapt up and walked over to Joanne’s spot, picked up her scissors and one of her Barbie dolls. Grasping the head of the doll, I pulled it away from its body, and cut apart the wide rubber band holding the doll together. After I finished the first one, I did the same to the other three. Cut, cut, I thought, slicing away. Hurry! The other girls sat there speechless as I cut the last rubber band, while blinking away tears. The dolls looked bizarre, all arms and legs with nothing on top. I then positioned each head above its decapitated body, hefted Tiny up, and ran towards my bike. Jumping on, I pedaled fast down the driveway and towards home. Bigger tears blurred my vision as 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 pictured Joanne coming back from the bathroom and screaming when she spotted the battlefield of Barbies, her mother running for the phone. I never thought about this part. I’m really going to get punished.
I pushed hard on the brake pedals and stopped short in front of the house. I sat on my bike and gazed at my mother, her huge, swollen stomach hanging below her weary face.
“Why?” she asked.
“I just wanted to hold one. She has four of them.”
I waited for her to start yelling, followed by sending me upstairs to my room. Instead, she looked at me with a sad face, turned around and walked inside.