Elizabeth slipped her fingers through the tarnished, brass door handle and squeezed it, pulling the hard, tongue-like latch back toward her until she heard the lock unclick.
It was rare for stores to install these pitcher-type door handles anymore. The new ones all had knobs you turned or opened automatically.
The handle, and the thick, square, glass pane in the wooden door made her think of her childhood when she had to exert some strength to pull back the latch to get into Mrs. Griffith’s candy store to buy long, salt-covered pretzels. She’d suck all the salt off first, and then eat them.
It felt quite right, even reasonable that this doll shop should have such a door, she thought as she pushed it open without much effort and stepped inside.
There were dolls everywhere. No matter which way she turned, there were dolls, dolls, and more dolls. She glanced around looking for the clerk, needing to see another human being. The sight of so many dolls was overwhelming. No sign of the clerk.
“Hello,” she called out.
A man appeared through a red, velvet curtain doorway behind a counter. He had to be the owner, for he looked exactly like she imagined Pinocchio’s father Geppetto would appear: elderly, white hair and mustache, gold horn-rimmed glasses, smiling eyes, a kind face. A puppet maker, a doll maker-wasn’t it all the same? Both had complete and total power over their creations.
“Can I help you?” Geppetto asked cheerfully, sounding like Jimmy Stewart speaking comfortably with his great white invisible rabbit Harvey standing beside him.
Elizabeth had already visited Toys ‘R’ Us but none of the dolls appealed to her. While driving through the depressed downtown section of the city, the facade of a doll-filled window caught her attention. So, she decided to check it out. “Not just yet, thanks,” she replied, her eyes darting around the place not pausing long enough to actually land anywhere. “My seven-year-old niece wants a doll for Christmas. I need to look around first, but wanted to be sure help is available when and if I need it.”
“Fine. Fine. Feel free to take your time,” he rhymed a twinkle in his eye. “Just call out if you need me.” Disappearing behind the heavy drape, he left her alone with the dolls. She hardly knew where to begin.
Earlier in the week, she had quizzed a few of her friends about the kinds of dolls they had as children, and which ones were their favorites. Iris favored action-oriented dolls, ones that had movable parts. Lucy liked dolls for what they could do, or what she imagined they could do. If Lucy believed she wanted a doll whose hand she could hold and take for a walk, she would pester her mother for a doll like that, whether she knew such a doll actually existed. Rosalind’s favorite was Chatty Cathy, who she saw as a replica of her flesh and blood cousin. Elizabeth wondered how Rosalind felt about her cousin. How did she treat Chatty Cathy? Did her relationship with the doll have any impact on her relationship with her cousin, and vice versa? Did Rosalind realize the two were separate?
The perception of a doll as a real person was one of the things that frightened Elizabeth about them as a child. They were little people-like her. She had preferred to play with toys that bore no resemblance whatsoever to human beings: tea sets, teddy, Easy-Bake Ovens, and her favorites-the hand-held and tabletop Viewmaster slide projectors that brought cartoon characters right into her bedroom.
Suddenly, she was back way back in time with little neighbor boy with whom she used to play. He was about six years old. Curly hair was abundant on his head, and he had light brown skin. One day while playing on the back stairs that ran from the bottom to the top of her house, she had him follow her up to the wide step on the curve not far from the final stairs leading to the roof. She pulled down his pants, pulled down hers, and somehow knew at age seven what part went into the holes in her young body. Elizabeth also knew that what they were doing was a secret. A few years later when she was ten or eleven, she did these things regularly with another little boy every chance she could. It happened in rooms at both their homes, on steps, even in the rectory at the Catholic school until they got caught. There were screams and a spanking after it.
She was babysitting one day and had to change the infant’s diaper. It was during her awkward, insecure teens. Although she couldn’t remember the baby’s identity, she recalled thoughts softly speaking in her mind as she loosened the huge pins on either side of the smelly thing, slipped the diaper off, and began wiping the area clean with a wet wipe. “How easy it would be to just take my finger and slip it in a little bit. No one would know.” She shook her head to shake off the bad thought, sprinkled Johnson’s baby powder in the diaper, and finished the changing, the baby smiling and cooing happy to be fresh and clean.
Elizabeth shuddered and threw a quick glance around the shop. There were small dolls, big dolls, dolls that walked, talked, wet, and cried. They were black, white, Asian, Native American, porcelain, plastic, and cloth. She saw Raggedy Ann, Wonder Woman, Pocahontas, Marilyn Monroe, Aunt Jemima, and the queen of them all – Barbie.
Barbie. When she was younger, how she hated Barbie with her ruby red lips, red fingernails, and blond hair. Plastically perfect Barbie, the emblem of adolescent femininity to which she was supposed to aspire. When her mom gave her Barbie for Christmas, she had difficulty embracing the doll like all the other girls did.
Such a rage built up in her that she had to turn away from Barbie and try to focus on something else, but no matter which way she turned, there were only more dolls, some more flagrantly stereotypically female than others.
One was scantily clothed in red: lipstick, a bra, lace panties, a garter belt, and stockings-some might say she looked like a slut.
Elizabeth had learned that women who were sluts had no self respect, and deserved none from anyone. They were to be used by men; abused; even forcibly screwed because they dressed the part. They were feminine, but somehow possessed no qualities except sexuality. The main attraction was their vagina, cunt, that distasteful cat word-whatever men liked to call that hole in the body they screwed. Screwed like those plastic life-sized dolls that men blow up, and screw when they don’t have a flesh-and-blood woman.
Elizabeth felt a twinge in her vagina. Was it pleasure or pain? Whatever it was, she didn’t fell comfortable about it, and didn’t want to think about that pain, that pleasure, that pain, that pleasure from the past.
Aunt Jemima’s face threw a smile out to her, and she grabbed for it desperately, as a drowning woman would for a life preserver.
Elizabeth had been taught that Jemima was a good woman: warm, soft, nurturing, and loving. Jemima took good care of her family: kept a clean house, nursed her children devotedly when they were sick, and cooked fantastic meals.
The oldest human bone relics were found in Africa, so as far as people know today, from a scientific basis, humanity was birthed by a black mama. Elizabeth’s ancestors were African, Native American, English, and Welsh.
The black mama-all giving, all loving, a slave to the needs of others. Was she happy? Did anyone care to find out? Jemima kept on showing her white teeth from ear to ear and flipping her flap jacks. Elizabeth put the doll back on the shelf.
She picked up Xena, the doll with whom she most identified in the shop. Yes. Xena, the Warrior Princess, the Amazon.
Elizabeth had decided not to pretend she was happy, but often found herself acting it anyway. Even actors have to stop playing a role eventually. People expected her to fit into molds based on a myriad of arbitrary birth factors, and to her horror, she recognized herself living up to them, feeling like a phony. “Am I who they say I am?’ She slightly spoke the rhetorical question.
Voices she wanted to forget like the faces belonging to them ordered her to decide: Are you a black, lesbian, feminist, woman? A lesbian, black, woman, feminist? Or a Woman, feminist, black, lesbian? Decide! Inquiring minds want to know!
The dolls joined in a menacing chorus chanting, “Pick me! Pick me!”
Elizabeth saw stars that precede losing consciousness. She needed breathing room, to be among trees, and lakes, and birds, and bees; in a natural world where diversity and simplicity lived in relative harmony, balance, and did not justify their identities or lives to anyone.
She headed for the door, taking quick but unsure steps. Although she deliberately didn’t look back at the dolls, she could feel them staring. Putting her hand through the handle, she pulled the tongued latch back toward her until she felt the lock unclick, and stepped outside into the open air.
A large, gray bushy tailed squirrel was sorting through some items that obviously had fallen out of the brown paper bag beside them. It quickly put a chunk of some morsel in its mouth, scurried away to the nearest tree, and halted to a dead stop at the trunk. The creature looked back directly at Elizabeth, took a few fast quick bites, and scampered up the tree into bushy foliage of fresh, green leaves blowing in the light wind.