Problems cannot be solved
at the same level of awareness
that created them.
I am sitting in a cold parking garage, in my Fiat waiting for her to warm. I am on my way home from the university where I teach writing, certain of my techniques in the classroom, from where I have just asked my students to describe in writing a reproduction of my old Barbie doll next to a reproduction of my old Midge. Such difference in their looks: Barbie’s face severe with sharp features, thoughtful, even somber, her hair taut in a soft yellow ponytail. Midge has freckles, almost cherubic cheeks, auburn hair in a flip. Subtract Midge’s freckles and she might look more like Barbie, but she is younger, kinder maybe, more open. Barbie’s eyes look beyond me. She is cool. She is professional. She is a woman to be reckoned with. She is not the slim victim. She is self-determined. Not so Midge who looks ready and eager to submit, to be the best friend, not the “someone”. Embedded in us in contemporary times—what beauty means to power. If Barbie and Midge were each sitting in a high school cafeteria today and I walked in as a girl new to the environment, I would never sit next to Barbie.
But forget all that. How much these figures matter to me or to my psyche now that I know so clearly that the toy, the play is the training for adult life. Forget what I know because I remember what I felt when my first Barbie came to me in a large cardboard box from Macy’s New York.
My mother then worked nine to five, a professional woman and in lieu of lunch one day she went to Macy’s and bought me so much of Barbie and her needs—her professional clothing mostly: straight gray skirts, sweaters, sleeveless blouses, and her play dresses that were more frilly, that did not seem to fit her features as well, and her entertaining lounge wear. It did not strike me at the time, but my mother bought me Barbie and every outfit that my mother herself might have worn. This was before Midge was crafted. It was just Barbie. Oh, and Ken, but I didn’t get him right away. He was not one of my mother’s first choices. I got Barbie.
My mother told me of her largess days before the large box arrived, delivered by a man in brown clothes. Filled with longing, I waited every minute of the five days for it to arrive. The box, when it appeared, was half my size. I was nine. I dug through it to the bottom, pulling out my bounty. It was filled with a large gift set: Barbie and her clothes and more boxes of clothes, each in another box that explained through images a life imagined. I can still smell the plastic of her body, feel the quality in her clothing, and the coolness of her skin. I loved all she was.
When I got my first Midge, I was a year or two older. We were staying in a house in Monticello, New York where my parents rented for a summer an old house on a street just behind Main. For the first time in a long time my mother was one of those “stay-at-homers” that I longed for and instead of an apartment, we were in a house, a real house, though it was filled with old furniture that didn’t belong to us and we never used the downstairs. Too dark. Too dirty.
I loved Midge’s look. It was, in ways I did not understand then, comforting. Midge came in a rectangular box, so perfectly fitted to her that it could have been a coffin. She wore Barbie’s clothes for months.
Back then I didn’t think at all of the unlikely possibility of their friendship. How one would surely hang with a different crowd, just because. But I do now.
We worry that the matter of Barbie is only in the unrealistic crafting of her body. But what of her loves? Her friendships? Why don’t we worry for her soul?
I put my Fiat in reverse to back out of the space in the parking garage, my Fiat, small enough for one, small enough that no one can expect me to share the space. I back out of the space to head home to the cul-de-sac where my large life fits even if I do not.
As the Fiat moves, I notice there is a white minivan in the next space, a minivan like the one I traded in for the Fiat, a minivan, with a bumper sticker with the image of Barbie, not the one I had as a child, but one more contemporary, with a larger forehead and a big toothy smile, covered in pink lipstick.
For a brief moment, my impulse is to laugh at the irony. Instead, I remember how much like Barbie I still want to be.
Caren was a friend before she moved into our small neighborhood. It may seem like a small thing, but when she and I first met, about two years prior to her move, I assumed her name was spelled with a K, the more reliable Karen spelling. In that way we see a person and attach a name and the name and body take on meaning for us, my first meeting with her was an ever so slight misread.
We first met when my younger son and her eldest daughter were classmates in second grade, though once when they were in first grade I walked past their house in our old neighborhood (the feeder neighborhood for where we now live in a more upscale aspirational place) and her Breck and Luck saw me and filled the air with the crisp girly pipings of “Are you Jackson’s mother? Oh, G-d, it’s Jackson’s mother.” I’m not, nor was I ever, at home with the PTA environs of the suburbs. I can feign it for a while, but there is something in me that always wants to probe. To ask for deeper meanings than the suburbs require, so, at times, I am socially awkward. The cleanliness and order of the beautiful elementary school where both of my boys spent their early years, was crafted of a veneer way too thin. But Jackson, the younger son, from early on was a star.
So Caren and I when we first met were not “room parents” but we were both of us, in one evening, in the brightly lit classroom of this second grade, seated only two desks apart. There for open house, the cleanliness and order of all of the art and words were testament to how “well-educated” our children were becoming. Caren and I seemed to be looking at the folders our children produced during daylight hours with the same bemused skepticism. I caught her as she flipped just a few seconds too quickly through Breck’s (short for Breckenridge) folder. She had a warm face, golden brown eyes, almost angular cheeks, dirty-blonde hair that was clearly attended, but crafted to look like she hadn’t touched it. She smiled when she saw I caught her. A conspiratorial gesture that I would not forget. She asked, “Are you Jackson’s mom?” in a way that suggested Jackson’s elevated status in Breck’s world. And that was it. That moment. I was hers.
My father put together my Barbie Dream House. It was a toy made almost exclusively of perforated cardboard, endless pieces that needed to be punched out, the instructions studied carefully as the structure of Barbie’s world took shape through my father’s hand. First the house itself, a one-room studio with a closet for her clothes and a bookshelf with books in varied colors and a make-up vanity, the walls of which folded in for easy storage after play. The floor was printed as if tiled with spaces marked out as throw rugs so that Barbie would know where to put her bed, her sofa, her stereo, her records. And then, of course, after the structure, each of the pieces that comprised Barbie’s interior world, each chair, each item of furniture had too to be folded into existence out of printed cardboard. When it was complete I wanted it, to bring Barbie to her world, to have her hang her clothes in the closet, sit on her sofa, lounge on her bed, her bed where she slept alone, where her immediate future was hers to decide.
But it was late. Past dark. And my father completely enraged by the idea of a toy being crafted of paper that he (the father) had to bring to life left him declaring that I go to bed and play in the morning. My mother tried to advocate for my desires. She knew what it meant to want. But he was louder, stronger. “Wait until morning,” he said.
I couldn’t. I only waited until they went to bed and snuck into the foyer where he left it.
No matter what we say about Barbie and her negative impact on the minds of girls, I noted this well—
Barbie lived alone. Ken’s framed portrait was a part of the setting. But Barbie’s space was for her.
When we moved from our old neighborhood within walking distance of the one where we live now (the largest house on the cul-de-sac) we had Caren and Lance to dinner. Actually, we shared many dinners. My husband Robert and I would go to hers (of course, always with Jackson) and they would come to ours. Lance and Rob got along. As if that was relevant. It wasn’t. It never occurred to me to think about that. Rob is a writer and a professor of creative writing. Lance is a delivery guy, an occasional hunter, a bright man with deep political convictions (some we share). Caren worked for a tech firm, though I could not say I ever knew what she did there. We downplayed our differences. What matter was it? Caren had, as did I, really good taste. Though our homes were not crafted of the same mind (she preferred dark wood and MacKenzie Childs and I more urbane, lighter woods) we were comfortable meeting in the middle. She brought beautiful appetizers, clothed in tasteful hostess gifts—a bowl of green glass filled with lovely chicken dip or at Christmas a dish adorned with ornaments (to be of use later). I was less skilled at this, so I brought wine. Wine and good, solid cheeses, arranged on platters with just the right color and, of course, with fruit provided for the eye. And the longer I knew Caren the more artful she became, and the less I was able to compete.
On one of our first dinners in my new house, we all marveled at the layout: the open foyer, the open floor plan, the open backyard without fences. Each of us in this small section of the community could see the children flit from backyard to backyard without borders. Caren and Lance were hoping to move here someday. But houses in the cul-de-sac were scarce then, and sold very quickly after appearing on the market. After wandering through all the rooms that night, we began our indulging. The children, Jackson and Breck with Luck (who was two years younger) began their play upstairs. Every once in a while, Luck would come down with “reports”: Jack and Breck were not letting her have any of the toys, Jack and Breck kicked her out of the room and they were whispering, Jack and Breck were talking too much and ignoring her. Finally they all came down and put on a show for us, wearing my scarves and high heels (yes, they went through my closet and every other closet looking for props).
We, the grown-ups, cooed, admired how cute they all were, drank and ate and laughed.
We shared stories of bad neighbors in the old ‘hood: My next door neighbor Caroline who listened to all of my cordless phone conversations on her baby minder or, I suspected, their scanner. Her husband who I not so kindly called “Huntin’ Camp Jason” once swore at me because my daughter came home too late in a car that needed a muffler and, by the way, an inspection sticker! Caroline stalked me, wanted to be friends but hated that I taught at a university. For her, it was out there. And Jason scared me. Everything about him scared me: his thick hands, his fierce square face with the ringing blue eyes, his longish blonde hair. And, too, his confidence in confiding in me that he taught his tiny Yorkshire Terrier to bark at children of color paralyzed me. I shared this story in particular with Caren and Lance. Though I didn’t tell them of my fear, only my disgust—only my judgment. I didn’t share that once, angry at our distance after the late night phone call, HC Jason told another neighbor that if I were in trouble, lying in a road somewhere, he “wouldn’t pick up that skinny bitch!” I hated knowing that reference to my body. They had a son, Danny, whom we all agreed was a brat. He swore like a sailor we would say and I never trusted him with Jackson. They were a year apart in age but in the same grade. Those tendencies could wear off, could taint.
Caren and Lance had their own snoopy neighbor stories, neighbors who breeched the natural borders and, we decided, that is the mark of neighborhoods where class threatens our sense of self. It was fun sharing our stories. It was the only way we marked our status as “better” by leaving behind those awful behaviors of neighbors who did not deserve our proximity.
Eventually they left for the evening. The light on my front porch illuminating us all in our slightly, very slightly drunken state, drunk more on the dance of friendship than on the wine, we said our goodbyes, as the beautiful girls, Breck and Luck and, yes, Caren all followed Lance’s directions to the driveway and into the car.
Jackson and Rob and I waved from the porch and as the car pulled back out of the driveway, Caren called, “Beautiful house! I love you all!”
When we closed the door behind them, I noticed Jackson’s face. It was somber, serious.
“Did you have a good time?” I asked.
He waited just a second before answering, “Mom,” he began before that long, deep explanation of his evening. “Mom,” he paused gathering his will or courage, I couldn’t tell. “Breck is deeply in love with me…Mom, she’s been in love with me for a very long time.”
These are things my Barbie had at the time when I felt most rich with her: two full patent leather cases of clothing, mostly elegant dresses (Solo in the Spotlight, Enchanted Evening, Golden Splendor) and some date dresses that were more simple, more demure (one came with a tray and little glasses for beverages, another with a basket of flowers). She had a telephone, loads of shoes, a shoulder bag and many envelope bags, a house, fully furnished, a record player and some records (all of the love songs of the fifties and sixties), a car, outfits to play tennis and go skiing, and, of course, outfits that would take her to work. She was not a nurse or a stewardess (though I did wish for that outfit as I loved flight bags). She had a best friend, Midge. But she didn’t really have Ken. Then eventually she did. But his clothes were ugly. His hair was made of some fuzz that felt like Brillo. He was never very important to the scripts, not for me, not for any of my friends. He was the ticket to the prom. He was the emasculated plastic form, the doll, under-imagined by Mattel, under-utilized in the female imagination.
There was one brutal dinner where we all played the Scrabble game Rob and I bought Caren and Lance for Christmas—endlessly hunting for the right tiles, the words appearing on the board mostly of the three to five letter variety, left the board tightly packed into a small corner, no room for extension. We ate and played in the kitchen, just off the family room. Not the dining room. I thought when Caren opened the gift, there was some hesitation. The paper still attached to the box, she paused a second. Then, “thank you…really, thank you.”
I insisted we play after the children opened their gifts.
Of course, I had to buy Barbie dolls for Breck and Luck. Once I bought a big box of Barbie clothes for the daughters of another friend, but felt stupid when she asked why I bought clothes.
“You know,” she told me, “buying the clothes without the doll is a waste; the cost of the clothes is as much as a fully dressed doll, so I just toss the extra dolls.”
As we moved our tiles onto the cramped board, I waited for an opening for my letters that never came.
That night, we ended early. Lance’s yawning, signaled the end.
Long before Caren found the house of her dreams in the cul-de-sac, my friend Miss did, a corner house, the former model home that Miss and I discovered because we noticed the couple who owned it were painting the trim. Joe Centra, one of my favorite neighbors because he was always full of some kind of cheer, told me that the clearest way to determine that an owner is getting ready to sell is the painting of trim. Miss was driving me home from a trip to the local nursery where we bought our spring plants. Her minivan was filled with our kids when we saw the couple on ladders.
Miss left me in the car and approached. She took more than a few seconds, her back to the car, and then came back with her face on fire. She leaned in, grabbed my arm, “they’re selling!” Within two days, no sign on the lawn, Miss and her husband, Smitty were moving to the cul-de-sac with their car load of kids. She would be my neighbor. First a friend. Then a neighbor. And this distinction would linger.
Miss and I came from the same area downstate, our in-laws were friends back home and, thus, we had a different set of requirements as friends. Miss did not care at all about the aesthetic codes of the neighborhood. She was too busy. She simply wanted the house to function. Like me, she wasn’t particularly enamored with the upstate version of suburban life, all of the gossip and judgment in “have a nice day” and concerns for the children. Like me, she liked to drink her wine. But unlike me, she didn’t really care that our city ways marked us as different, not then at least. Unlike me, she ate what she wanted, didn’t monitor every morsel for how much it would increase her girth. She was free of that. And sometimes it showed.
When Caren finally did find that house of her dreams, it was at the end of the cul-de-sac where her yard backed up to Miss’s and Smitty’s. There was only one house between them on the corner and in the days before fences it meant three backyards at that end in a shared space. And how cool it was that Miss had a daughter the same age as Breck? Miss’s daughter Mary was born three months before Jackson. Miss and I often went to our OB appointments together. We thought of Mary and Jackson as forever pals. Born and attached at the hip, almost literally. And how cool was it that within a very short time, Miss and Caren became good friends because Breck and Mary in their giddy and deadly serious roles of the early adolescent did, too?
When the house I live in was first built I was a renter from the old neighborhood, and I saw it for the first time on a walk. It sat slightly elevated from the road on a curve. A center hall Colonial with six bedrooms and columns flanking the corners of the front porch, it seemed endlessly large. Each of the eleven front windows had the same white mini blinds. They were all closed and drew me to wonder about its contents. I imagined the life I could live here, one much more settled than the ones we lived in the rented three bedroom split just several hundred yards away as the crow flies. But the crow is not the person and so, for me, this house was a life away.
My whole life was, at that time, a vast shopping trip. My mother and father were never settled enough to buy us a home, so, unlike our cousins who made the suburban launch, my family stayed in the Bronx, renting and renting until finally my parents’ divorce forced us into a scenario even worse—living as squatter children with my mother’s parents—in a three room apartment that barely housed well enough my grandparents and my Aunt Nadine. All of my toys were lost in the move—no room for Barbie in Grandma Molly’s apartment. No room for me, really. But this is a long ago scar. Dismissed.
Robert and I and the boys and my daughter who was born when I was only seventeen, lived in a rented house, a three-level split and I lived in wonder about how others afforded mortgages, lawn mowers, and each and all of the accoutrements of the homeowner. It never occurred to me that they bought less of the world’s trinkets. Until one day, it did. One day I just stopped shopping. This is why:
We found our basement flooded one morning after a horrid storm blacked out power to our area for days—straight line winds, almost a hurricane, the area was decimated. The insurance company sent a group of capable men to clean out all that was ruined. Stuff piled on the streets waiting for trash pickup to resume, left me with a clear enough view of all that I had brought as I bought: on the curbside, wet and covered in dirt and old, ripped papers, a gold sofa, many stuffed toys that the boys hadn’t cared for in a long time, clothes, oh the clothes, and that one thing, that one thing that made all the rest so visible—a carton of first edition copies of Buffalo Soldiers, the novel Robert published only five years prior. We left them sitting on the floor of our basement near all of the things we had no energy to discard.
I began, only after that, to clean everything unnecessary: first closets, then cabinets, then credit cards. We ate less. Spent less. We saved money.
And we bought our new home, one that was too large for us, but it was, at the time, the only one on the market. And though I changed almost every facet of the interior, every facet that left it on the market so long, longer than any other house at the time because of the kunzite-colored carpet throughout every room except the kitchen and bathrooms, the 50s styled countertops in the kitchen and bathrooms, the lack of a fireplace, the plastic mini-blinds, the brass light fixtures and, most importantly, the black and gray marble that was the kitchen and master bath floor, it was the one house that I really did not want. Not at my first interior glance, at least. The asking price was way too high. And, of course, that meant I could have it.
The only thing that occasionally bothered me, because we were still in close proximity to the old house, crazy Caroline (the stalker) would walk past the house every day. Once Jim Centra told me she was peering in the windows when we were away.
Miss’s husband Smitty is a tall, dark and (in a New York City kind of way) good-looking, lumbering guy. I would have found him attractive were he not like a brother to me, the familiarity that erases sexuality. The guy I counted on, even if he’s more than a bit clueless about the intricacies of suburban relationships. I called Miss one night shortly after Caren and the one who lived between Caren and Miss moved to the cul de sac. The one who moved between was named Martha.
“Hey,” Smitty answered in that deep, which-way-did-they-go-boys voice.
“No, she’s having wine with the new neighbors, Caren and that woman Martha, I think is her name. Not sure.“
Do I admit now that I was tweaked? That I was feeling deliberately left out? Or is that so very obvious that no one, no one would ever need to say it? Except Smitty. And, too, Robert and, too, Lance.
One night in that short in-between, after Caren moved near but not yet Martha, Miss had an early December Christmas cocktail party where many of our neighbors were in attendance: The Centras, the Morgans, the, the, the: each a couple, each well-suited, part of the wardrobe of our lives. And somehow, in that way almost perceptible each seemed more performed, or aware that this party, this one, was a performance—of beauty and of power.
On the day of the party I thought about Miss, how she would be cooking and prepping, and thinking of the sating of all of our culinary desires and so I picked up the phone and called Caren.
“Hey, you,” she answered on the first ring.
How much trivia did we share before I asked the question that provoked my call? I don’t remember. Was there hesitation? I don’t remember.
“Want to go to Target to buy something for Miss? Something to hold a dip? A platter?”
“Ooh, I would love to but I can’t. I’m not dressed. Breck may need a ride to a friend’s…I’m sorry.”
When I walked into Target, I got that feeling, from the lights, from the goods, from the music, from the utterly clean smell of a store in early December that says, we too are clean—the world is right. I pushed a cart to the kitchen wares and as I turned into an aisle, I bumped into the cart of another shopper. Caren turned to face me, all brightness and good cheer,
“Hi,” she said, as if I hadn’t just spoken to her, as if she hadn’t just told me she could not possibly be where she was now standing. As if.
So we greeted one another in the aisle and each of us pretended we did not just speak, moments before, on the phone, though that which we elided was visible in Caren’s darting eyes.
We were in the process of sharing whatever empty talk we had when another of my neighbors appeared in the same aisle. Sarah Morgan. She looked at Caren, then smiled at me, asked about the boys, looked back at Caren and said, “I have to ask you something if you have a minute?”
Caren answered. That was both my cue and my excuse to leave. I pushed my cart forward and turned out of aisle as their heads drew closer to one another.
I arrived early to help Miss prepare. Because the tower of plates I brought, filled with cheeses and red peppers and beautiful olives was a part of the drama of earlier in the day, I couldn’t share the story with Miss, much as I wanted to and much as I, too, preferred to keep it in, to tease its possible meanings (might there be only one?). I was in the kitchen, plopping raw shrimp onto a platter, careful to arrange so that it pleased the eye before palate. The doorbell rang and Miss went to get it.
Caren had her back to me as she entered, her hair glistening, something in her hand. She handed it to Miss. As she turned I saw her smile fade, just momentarily, as she saw I was there before her. But she recovered. Put her lit smile back on and came to hug me, her fruity perfume a part of her. The gift she brought for Miss was the same bottle of wine I had given her. She had added a golden ribbon.
Later, Miss’s house filled with all of our neighbors, when we were all bathed in the warmth of candlelight, the mingling scents of perfumes and colognes and hair products, and the aromas of good, rich foods and, oh so key to a good time, the camaraderie that fills the minds and spirits after alcohol, that feeling that makes one love everyone, particularly their neighbors, more so their friends, I found myself in a conversation about something humorous with Joe Centra, a man of great warmth and greater salesmanship (his trade) who does, indeed, know how to flirt and Lance and Caren, though Lance seemed more interested in his glass of bourbon, than in contributions to the repartee. It was Caren’s turn to hold the floor and whatever she was saying must have been funny because we all laughed and I was provoked by her story to add an anecdote of my own. I was mid-sentence when Caren interrupted, threw her head back laughing and, speaking only to Joe Centra, changed the subject entirely.
Joe wasn’t quite as disconnected from the nuances of speech as Robert and Lance and Smitty, so he came to me, put his arm around my waist to keep me engaged, and laughed with Caren. I smiled at him and wiggled, finally, free.
About a week later, Martha moved in. Her house was situated between Miss and Caren. Her backyard fell literally between the two. Caren and I went on our almost customary walk, through our new cul-de-sac, and circling through the neighborhood from where we emerged—the land of tract homes built around concentric circles of disappointment.
It was a sunny morning. In her sunglasses, a triangle of light kept her tentacled to the sun.
Before we made the turn to the old neighborhood, she pondered our new world. “It’s so nice here. I love living close to you and Miss.”
“It is nice.”
“What do you think of Martha?” she asked as if it were a real question and not a test.
“I don’t know her well enough. I’m not sure I’m comfortable with what I do know.”
Within a month of her move to the cul-de-sac, Martha and Caren began their daily walks. Each and every day. I am not an early riser so it really was a surprise when I saw them from my bedroom window where I made it up to 3.7 on the treadmill. I saw them, their blonde heads bobbing toward and away from one another as they spoke, as if they were unaware they were passing by my house. Their “every day” ritual was invisible to me at first, but others told me:
My next door neighbor, Gerta: “Wow, Caren and Martha really love that walk.”
And Angie Centra: “I saw Caren the other day. I thought it was you with her, but then I realized your hair is brown.”
And Miss: “I walk out of my door to the meet the bus with the girls and they’re all talk, talk, talk, but when they see me, they stop. And Mary is so hurt; Breck never calls her anymore.”
Miss was home one afternoon when her doorbell rang. To bring warmth into the house, Miss got a dog, and then to hold the dog a fence. A large white, vinyl fence that Smitty was going to install himself when he came to the conclusion that he did not know how. So they hired a guy. A guy who knew how to install large white fences. To keep dogs in.
For a minute, as she opened the door, Miss almost didn’t recognize my new neighbor, Gabby—she moved in right across the street from me, told me first thing she was a “prayerful person” and I knew to be a bit careful. She, too, knew Martha.
Miss told me the story as we sat on her back deck, sipping wine as we took in the back of the houses of Caren and Martha, the encroachers.
“I opened the door and there was Gabby,” Miss offered as she choked back a giggle and some of her wine.
“She told me, ‘I love your plastic fence!’” and as she tells me this, Miss chokes a bit on her wine and grabs my arm.
We laughed so hard, Miss and I. Conspiritorially forever, against conspiracy. We sat there until the sun set bright red and orange as it fell behind Martha’s immaculate house. My last thought before I left that night: they can see everything that happens here.
In her junior year of high school rumors circulated through the community about Miss’s daughter Mary. Ugly rumors only within the context of this community understanding—men can chase women, women should be chaste or pretend to succumb to pleasure only when it is coupled with love. So I won’t repeat the rumors that circulated because I understand and love Mary, her beautiful dark hair and olive skin, her sweet nature, her shyness. I was like Mary in my adolescent life. I indulged my pleasures; and I hurt no one. Neither did Mary. I heard the whispers from those who cared about her, who knew I was close to Miss who really should know. And Miss told me, in that way that mothers who are concerned tell of their children’s indiscretions. There were postings on Facebook, of videos and name-calling, of the boys in the school of a particular social station stomping on an effigy of Mary. There was pain. Great pain. At great cost. And one of Mary’s greatest sins: one of the objects of her desire was the son of Caroline and Huntin’ Camp Jason—Danny—whom, we heard, had been discovered hiding in Mary’s closet.
It was a cold day in late March, snow still a fortress that separated the house from the street. I was cleaning the fridge, my hands in rubber gloves, my hair in a careless ponytail when the doorbell rang. I threw a wet rag into the sink and peeled the gloves. I saw the delivery truck over the mount of dirty snow.
Lance was at the door. He had a box in hand. “For you,” he said.
“Thank you.” I didn’t think to ask why him; this wasn’t his route.
“Hey, I miss you guys,” he said. All good?”
“Yeah, just busy…how’s Caren? I’ve been meaning to call.”
JCrew. My sweater. I opened the box. Ran up the stairs to try it on. I love JCrew. Need clothes or not, JCrew reminds us what class is all about, and how often we need to refresh.
When I went back down to finish the fridge, to wipe away all the stickiness from the week before, I noticed the empty box and picked it up. There was some writing by the address. In pencil Lance wrote: I miss you guys so much. What happened?
It was only about two years after Caren and Breck and Luck and Lance moved to our cul-de-sac and about a year since we’d done the dinner thing that I went to see Jackson play football at the lush stadium on the grounds of our high school. Dark had descended but the area was alight with celebrants. We would play our archrivals and everyone seemed to be in colors, the divisionary colors of the team represented. Me, too. Rob, too.
I needed a Diet Coke. So I got on the long line. Behind a group of girls, none that I recognized by family, but certainly recognized by brand—long straight hair, some very blonde, some very dark, all of them giddy with the night and the game and the secrets they shared, hands to mouths as they whispered loud enough for all to hear—Mary, Miss’s Mary, my Mary, our Mary—named by them, described by them: the little slut, the trash, was under the stands with him, and he didn’t care about her, would report back to them after, after, after.
Weeks later, a video was posted online. Smitty brought it to Rob. It hurt him to share it. But someone else had to know. We had to know.
But I already knew. Because I was Mary once a long time before.
Years pass so quickly in beautiful communities such as ours, as the kids grow and those of us who were once the young couples become the staples. Our houses are always kept bright and, mostly, clean. And there are still block parties and high school graduations, and we all attend, swear we will see one another more often, once things are just not so busy, once we are not so occupied with our obsessions.
And Caren and I always plan to get together. Because so much time has passed and, truth is, I miss her.
But for one thing: whenever I am with her in our neighborhood, whomever it is we run into when we are together—whomever—after the encounter, they are always closed off to me. Caren, in her quiet way, is always the last stop on a friendship. The trait gene.
Long after I had stopped thinking that Caren and I could ever be intimate again, long after I had determined that my only real friends in the cul-de-sac were Miss and Smitty, long after that, we had the Centras, Angie and Joe, to dinner. The children (Jack and their oldest son who was Jack’s friend) were already in college, away from home. The Centras brought a beautiful platter of cheeses and we sat around my kitchen island almost giddy with wine. Angie and Joe made a striking couple, polished just enough, Ronnie’s hair soft and dark framed her face, Joe’s olive skin fresh, their colognes mingled in the air, a part of them in the air, the perfect aroma of monogamy. For a moment, we stopped giggling and began the sharing stories of the boys, of the kids in the neighborhood and how they grew. I just wanted to know: of people so reasonable, how could they have remained friends with Caren and Lance and not Miss and Smitty? How? How could they not have protected, in the way a community wraps adult arms around children, how could they not have also protected Mary?
I cannot remember the question I asked that produced the answer, the one I already knew so well, but needed to hear again: Angie, her voice a whisper as if others could hear through my kitchen walls, through the spaces of the yards and fences that marked our homes:
“Mary was out of control. She was with Danny. That Danny—Jason and what’s her name? Caroline? Their son. Under Mary’s bed. Under her bed when Miss found her.”
Sometimes at night, when I can’t sleep, when I play back the scripts of life in this community, the pains I caused or allowed to occur, the disappointments I will have until I die because of the simplest of choices I made during the course of my life here, sometimes at night when I think, I don’t belong here in this big, beautiful, fully imagined house through a mind or minds not my own, in this small suburb of central New York, on these nights when I think instead of where I do belong, when I think of where I began, alone (though I never lived that way) in a small space, built for one in a large city…sometimes on nights like these I wonder which of us is the trait gene. Which one of us is most associated with this manicured world? Which one so key to its function? Caren? Miss? Martha?
It could so be me.
And on nights like this I am convinced it is. But the thing that I will never understand is that every day I woke up in this house, or in the smaller one before or in the apartments I occupied over time that I wanted only to be happy, that I wanted only to be fulfilled, to fit in, and not on one single day did it ever occur to me that I could be that one who caused anyone else pain.
It is a sunny day at the end of brutal winter. I am preparing the three guest rooms for my female friends who will come to visit. Robert will clear out for the event. I love these gatherings. We all do. No men. There are five of us. We used to do dinner once a year. Then we made it twice—at least twice.
I draw open the closet of the armoire in the guest room that used to be the bedroom of my oldest son James. This is where I keep the sheets, three hundred thread count in colors coordinated to match each room. And, too, this is where I keep the Barbies I purchased to remind me of my old one. So many of them housed there. Each a reproduction of the doll of my childhood.
To secure our dinner, I move through Wegmans, a glorious store where produce is arranged by intriguing color and texture. Every piece selected for its beauty. There is no damage here.
I am touching peppers, feeling for the firmest. I bump into a man next to me before I recognize the thick hands, the square face, the chance meeting that I always knew would one day occur. It’s Jason. Huntin’ Camp Jason.
For a moment we both freeze and I see in the light of his eyes that he is, as am I, wary. I am surprised by my feeling of warmth toward him. We make small talk, as if we always did.
“How’s Danny?” I ask.
“He’s great. He’s a father. I’m a grandpa. I have a granddaughter.”
But then his gaze shifts. It is more direct. He needs to tell me: “We can’t see her. Her mother won’t let her visit.”
I recognize his grief. He is suddenly vulnerable. And I am suddenly so sorry for him. It’s instinct pure and from a part of me that I feel so rarely. I put my arms around him and pull him tight to my body. “I’m so sorry, Jason.” He puts his arms around me. I don’t want him to let go, so I push back.
And for longer, much longer than I deserve, I feel human.
In the parking lot as I walk back to my car, the stark whiteness of the winter sunlight temporarily blinds me. I think back to the bumper sticker on the minivan in the car parked next to mine in the university garage and the irony of the image of contemporary Barbie’s wide, smiling face in contrast to my old one. The Barbies (plural, so plural) that I keep housed in the guest room armoire: Original Barbie in her striped bathing suit and her austere look. Solo in the Spotlight—Barbie as singer in a tight, sparkling black dress with a microphone in hand, Enchanted Evening—a pink satin gown with a white fur shawl for those evenings out with Ken, though he is only an implication. Each of them I keep in their original packaging—a reminder of lives I once wanted. I had one Barbie when I was ten and lots of clothes for her and goods. Now the bodies of the dolls come dressed, each body a supplicant to her clothes. For each outfit a new soul. And the words on the bumper sticker writ so large on the white minivan explain—Barbie Wants to Be Me.
Donna Marsh is a writer of creative nonfiction and she teaches writing and rhetoric at Syracuse University. Her husband is a fiction writer. Her life partner is a Yorkie Bichon. Tired of critiques of what Barbie has done to the contemporary imagination of women’s bodies, she is much more intrigued by what she reveals about the soul.