Playthings

[fiction]

We’re given the dolls when we’re young. We tear off their arms and legs and heads, reattach them with glue and hair ties with a little fire for welding. Matches and know-how are our closest friends. If the dolls don’t match us, we make them. Dye their hair with magic markers, dot freckles on cheeks and noses, trim skirts and shirts from old blankets, curtains. We mold them in our image. This is the closest we get to God.

Some of our dolls really pee. Some drink milk and close their eyes. Some have crutches, wigs, frowns. We make them mimic our bruises. Go through our routines. We envy each other’s, trade them on playdates, enamored with each small difference. We write stories about their adventures. Some go to space. Others stay stuck on a stage and act in plays. The dream homes are dioramas of what we wish our bedrooms looked like. Welcome mats become carpet. Postage stamps pass for paintings. The door can be closed all day.

Then, we go to school and we realize we’ve been doing it all wrong. Our ruler-marked palms cuddle the dolls. We weep apologies, speak confessions. We beg to be re-educated.

We’re taught to mother them. Comb their hair. Fasten their pre-made velcro outfits to their plastic torsos. When they cry, we pretend to wipe their tears. We stop trimming their bangs, take off the bandages, recolor their makeup. Make them pretty again.

The dolls’ mouths stay shut in painted smiles. In the mirror, we practice this stillness. The rubber bands that gave them punk ponytails wrap around our fingers to bind them together. We don’t own heels but we tiptoe, teeter, ‘til our feet take the right shape. We keep our eyes open as long as we can. We’re complimented, desired. Envied. Traded. Mothered. Kept clean and locked in a dream house. We’re given dolls for our daughters, instructed to teach them the lesson we learned: don’t make her more like you. Make you more like her.

We say this part in a whisper. Pass craft scissors and tins of glitter beneath the dinner table. Hide smiles at the sight of a miniature mohawk, a scar running from hairline to chin. We watch the dolls become our daughters, watch our daughters become themselves. When we’re alone we spread our fingers. Let our heels touch the ground. Close our eyes. We slouch and open our mouths to speak. Sometimes whispers escape.

Soon our daughters will go to school. The dolls—disheveled, deconstructed, destroyed—will be remade. The girls will follow. Until then, we go to the living room, the play room, the basement. We kneel at the dream house and pick up their dolls. Cradle them. Kiss them. Move them around and begin a new story. In this one, we never fix them. In this one, we understand that they were never broken.

Bailey Bujnosek is a writer from Southern California. Her essays, articles, and interviews can be found in Teen Vogue, The Adroit Journal, Girls’ Life, and elsewhere. Her fiction is forthcoming in VIDA Review.