Emily Ansara Baines
HOW TO UNDERSTAND WHAT HAPPENED
The bedroom door closes behind him with a crisp click. It is the sound of bone snapping in two. His footsteps echo down the hall. For a recent assignment, your teacher had you draw a map of your home. Now you imagine him walking through the map, his footsteps black blemishes on the bright Crayola shades. He turns left into the kitchen. You think of it as your mother's office. She is there now. You listen to the amiable murmurs of their chat. Usually you find your mother's voice comforting. A sniff of the air suggests she's making chicken marsala, your favorite. Tonight you will barely touch it.
He jokes with your mother about your massive Barbie collection. He says he has never seen a kid with so many toys. This was the reason for his visit to your room. Usually he stays in the garage, where he has been building an addition for "a steal." You thought stealing was bad, and said so, and your parents laughed and that look blossomed on their faces, the one that meant you'll understand when you're older.
You feel older.
Your mother corrects him: only some of the toys are Barbies; most of your collection is made up of porcelain dolls. Some of them, the ones your mother won't let you touch, the ones that live on the highest shelf, are antiques. They are worth "real money." If you touch them, you will be in big trouble.
Your mother asks him to name his favorite doll. He pauses. You hold your breath. Maybe he will tell her what happened. Then you won't have to. He says, "the brunette one" and your mother teases his lack of specificity. She is an English teacher, after all. He clears his throat and says he's got to get going to beat traffic. Your mother wishes him good luck.
The front door closes. In the map you drew, the front door had a frowny face. When your teacher asked why, you explained that you were sad when people left your home.
A human, you now realize, can be a toy—bent and manipulated at will.
You pull the head off your favorite Barbie with barely a flick of your wrist. You bury the decapitated body in your sock drawer. Cupping the head in your hand, you cover Barbie's eyes with your thumb. You make a game of it, now you see me, now you don't.
The Barbie head falls to the floor. It rolls under your unmade bed and comes to a standstill, eyes staring out.
You wash yourself in the shower and do not ask for help. You're a big kid now; you just did a big kid thing. Before, when you showered with your mother you found the air too hot and too humid. You couldn't breathe and you would whine and slap your mother's leg until she turned down the heat. But now the shower is not hot enough. Your skin tingles but still doesn't feel right. Only when the steam sets off the smoke alarm do you finally feel relaxed, the siren screaming all that you have swallowed back.
Your mother comes running into the bathroom, holding a wooden spoon covered in red sauce. She doesn't have time for your shenanigans; dinner is still not ready and it is almost six. Then your mother sees your peeling skin and her face scrunches up real tight.
When you step out of the shower the hairs on your arm stick out straight and you shiver. Your mother wraps you in a towel and asks what's the matter. You stare at the ground as the tomato sauce drips like blood on the tile. The words are wrong and fuzzy in your mouth. You invent code names for the parts of the body. Your vagina is Vee. Your chest is Bee-Bee. The shower is still running, but now your mother is, too.
Your mother puts you to bed. She does not know what else to do. On your bedside table is a plate of sugar cookies and a glass of milk, as if you are being rewarded. From the other room your little brother whines that it's not fair, and your mother tells him to hush.
The police don't know how to look at you. To make it easier, you don't look at them.
Your mother buys you three new dolls. They are nicer than your other ones, even nicer than the dolls you are not allowed to touch. They wear silk dresses and come with little matching hand muffs that remind you of polar bears. Perched at the edge of your bed, your mother explains in the same soft voice she uses to tell you bedtime stories that the dolls were hand painted by a man in France. "Look at this one's curls," she says, wrapping a blond strand around her finger. "It's human hair." You are horrified. What happened to the girl who owned the hair? Your mother shrugs, still staring at the doll dreamily. "You will have to be careful with them. They are not meant to be touched." She glances at you. "But you can handle it, right?" Her eyes are glassy and spilling; water drips down her cheek and onto the doll's. She doesn't bother to wipe it away.
You don't reply. As your mother lavishes attention on these new recruits, you feel bad for the other dolls. She places the red-haired one in your lap and urges you to play. The Barbie head still rests under your bed. After your mother leaves, you stuff the three dolls deep into your closet, behind the Trolls and an unopened game of Battleship.
Your father comes home early from his business trip. He forgets your souvenir. He never forgets your souvenir. When you point this out, your father blinks rapidly and calls for your mother.
You wake up and hear your parents arguing about what to do.
Your parents call you into your father's study. Your father works for NASA and loves the Star Wars films. There are framed Star Wars posters on the walls. While your mother is partial to The Empire Strikes Back, your father enjoys the ewoks in Return of the Jedi. He calls them "adorable." In the past, when he tucked you in to bed he would call you his little ewok and ruffle your hair. You realize that now your father isn't the only member of the family wishing he were in a galaxy far, far away.
They sit on either side of you on the leather sofa. Your father stares at your knee. There's a small bruise there and you both wonder how you got it. Your mother takes your hand. Her voice trembles as she tells you that you shouldn't tell anyone, not even your best friends, What Happened. It's best to act like nothing happened. Your friends won't understand. You ask if you can tell Grandma and your mother shakes her head. Your grandmother is very old and the news would make her sick. Your mother cries. Both your parents say it's for the best. Both apologize.
The lawyer delivers the good news: You do not have to go to court! He will act as your proxy once your parents sign some papers. Of course your parents will sign the papers. No eight-year-old should be put through something as traumatic as a day in court.
You are asked to videotape a statement. It won't take long, the lawyer promises. If you're lucky, you'll be back at school in time for the Thanksgiving Parade. You're one of only four pilgrims in your second grade class. Everyone else wanted to be the wild Indians.
Your brother hides in his bedroom playing video games. Mortal Kombat is his favorite, followed by Street Fighter II, though Turtles in Time will do in a pinch. You knock and ask if you can play. He'd never have agreed in the past, but he knows you went through Something Terrible and that he should be kind. You play poorly, and though your brother can beat all the kids in the grade above him, he lets you win. This feels worse than losing.
Show me on the doll where he touched you.
Your mother finds the Barbie's headless body in your sock drawer. You are once again called into your father's office. This time you remain standing as your parents suggest you see a head doctor "to help with your emotions." You don't feel very emotional and you say so. Your parents confess that they worry you feel bad because of What Happened, even though it's Not Your Fault. The head doctor gives you crayons and a large piece of construction paper. You draw kittens and houses with triangle roofs. You are certain you say nothing of interest.
Your mother moves into the guest bedroom.
The lawyer asks you to describe What Happened. He gently reminds you not to look at the camera. The camera, studies have shown, frightens children. You will be more comfortable and therefore honest if you speak directly to him. Then he prompts you with words that still make you blush. Afterwards your mother offers to stop for ice cream but you want to get back in time for the parade. Your teacher smiles real big when you walk into the classroom. For the first time you notice one of her front teeth is crooked and you wonder if she will need braces. You raise your hand and she immediately calls your name. When you ask if you can be an Indian after all, she blinks her big watery eyes and tells you to "go nuts."
Years pass. You continue to go nuts.
In middle school you are mostly an excellent student. There is only one subject that troubles you. At a parent-teacher conference, your Science teacher tells your parents that you do not concentrate during Sex Ed. The next day your teacher offers you a large smile that does not reach her eyes. You are confused by her friendliness until you aren't. You blush and look away and ask if you can go to the restroom. Your grades improve through no action of your own.
At sleepovers you try to watch soft-core porn with your curious friends but you always look away. Sex is everywhere. No one can shut up about bodies and the things they do. In the cafeteria at lunch your friends compare sports bras, planning secret trips to the lingerie section at Macy's. You remain flat chested. You tag along for the experience, but buy nothing. The boys in your class stop and watch your friends run the mile in gym. The girls collapse at the end, holding their chests, complaining dramatically about "bouncing" and "lack of support." The boys snicker and nudge one another. You are grateful that no one watches you. But you envy your friends' curiosity towards sex. On the phone they read aloud the romance novels their mothers hide under the mattress and giggle. You interrupt and ask if anyone wants to go see the latest Robin Williams film. It'd be nice to really laugh, you say. Your friends find your prudishness cute and make jokes about your innocence.
Your friends' extracurricular commitments grow in tandem with their bust size. Soon they are all on Cheer Squad, and while they encourage one another to try-out, no one suggests you join them. This does not offend you; you are famous for your ungainliness, for your unease within your own body. At school dances you are a wallflower. Some of the Goth kids take you in, mistaking your discomfort for moodiness.
Your father starts to take more business trips. He no longer brings home souvenirs. Sometimes, he forgets to call at all.
Your new psychiatrist has glued a sign on the ceiling that suggests in Comic Sans font that you "Always look up." You find the sign didactic and unnecessary; you're obviously looking up if you can read it. When you point this out your psychiatrist frowns and scribbles something in her notebook. She asks if you like any boys and you laugh. She sips her tea. There's an electric kettle filled with hot water to your left and you wonder if any of her patients have thrown it at her. Frankly you're impressed that she doesn't need to interrupt your appointment with a bathroom break. This is your third appointment together and her seventh cup of tea. At the end of your session, she hands you a prescription you never fill.
When you are sixteen a bookstore employee ten years older than you compliments your excellent taste in Spanish literature. You go on a coffee date where you discuss magical realism. You impress him with your ability to quote Gabriel Garcia Marquez. All your friends have boyfriends and are on the Pill. Your own mother has suggested you try to "reach out" to the opposite sex. "You're so pretty," your mother tells you, "I'd hate to see all that beauty go to waste." You bite your lip to keep from saying something nasty. "I don't want her to be lonely," you overhear her worrying on the phone late one night. You do not see your loneliness as a problem, but you would like to fit in. At least this boy is well read. After he buys you a second caramel Frappuccino, you let him drive you to his place. You feel extremely calm, maybe even at peace. You are a shell just swept up in the tide, going with the flow. When he undresses you he murmurs sweet things to 'get you in the mood.' You tell him not to bother. While you don't mind doing this, you fear you'll never be in the mood. He nods and says he understands. He doesn't, and this annoys you. But you remain quiet and dry. He spits into his palm and rubs saliva on himself. As he lurches above you, you stare up at the water stain the shape of Florida growing on his stucco ceiling. Always look up. He grunts with release and you pat his back. When he drops you off at your parents' house, he thanks you.
On the back of your brother's bedroom door is a large poster that suggests you "Fake it 'til you make it." One night when your brother is at a concert, you steal the poster and put it up in your own bedroom. Your brother never asks for it back. Lately he has taken to knocking on your door after school and asking if you are feeling alright. You smile and lie. In bed, you stare at the poster and wonder how long you have to continue to fake it. How will you know when you've made it?
In high school, heartbreak fills the afternoons more than homework. You listen as your friends whine about boys who never call back or girls who are too critical. Your hand is constantly being squeezed. Your friends tell you that they don't know what they'd do without you. You smile back reassuringly.
One day, not long after your family upgrades neighborhoods, the doorbell rings a classical melody that sounds luxurious and strange. Your brother is at band practice and your parents aren't home yet, so it is up to you to let in the oven repairman. When you open the big oak doors you stifle your scream. He does not recognize you but you recognize him. You try to control your breathing as you welcome him into your new home. You squeeze your hands to stop them from shaking as you offer him a glass of water, which he declines. When he begins unscrewing the oven door, you run upstairs to your bathroom and throw up. Then you lock yourself in your bedroom and try to call your mother. Her cell is off. You sit on the floor behind your bed and wait for her to return from the grocery store.
While waiting, you write out a detailed description of the oven repairman on the inside of your history textbook. Brown eyes. Olive skin. Black wavy hair. Or were his eyes more hazel than brown? You can't remember. Your heart seizes and you can't seem to catch your breath. You wonder if you are having a heart attack, a panic attack, or both. You search your bedroom for weapons in case he tries to force his way inside. Holding a pair of scissors to your chest, you wonder if you can climb safely down the drainpipe. You curse your lack of dexterity.
With relief you listen to the groan of the garage door opening. Your mother opens the backdoor and shouts your name. You wait as she makes her way to the kitchen, complaining about the weight of the groceries and her deadbeat children. You wait for the screams, the shouts, the reproach. You are ready to dial 911.
It occurs to you—too late—that you should have called your father. He is away on yet another business trip. You've stopped asking where he's going, and even your mother seems unaware of when he'll return. Only your brother still asks.
Instead of recrimination, you hear laughter. Your mother says thank you and asks how much she owes. She signs here and here. The front door creaks closed. You run downstairs to the kitchen where your mother arranges boxes of sugar free cereal. When she looks up and sees your face, she drops the Cheerios and once again wraps you in an all-enveloping hug before telling you that you are crazy.
Now you see him everywhere. He is the barista with the pencil moustache and he is the grocery cashier with the sailor tattoo and he is the man parking the white Jetta next to yours. He is the telemarketer with the Southern accent and the fat cable repairman and the curly-haired genius at the Apple store. He is the friendly waiter. He is every man in your dreams.
You start to take more showers.
In college you develop a dependence on laxatives. When you eat, which is rare, you first swallow a whole sleeve of the tiny blue pills. No longer do you emit complete turds, but rather loose confetti, evidence of your earlier meals: orange strands of carrots, pieces of lettuce, tiny pebbles of quinoa. A new therapist tells you that it is common for girls with a history of sexual abuse to try and take control of their body through an eating disorder. You hate her for diminishing your experience with a simple prognosis. When you faint at your summer job soliciting alumni donations, you move home. You thought you were too tired to be embarrassed until your father walks in on you masturbating late one night.
Somehow, you graduate. What you lack in weight you make up for in honors. Your parents co-sign the lease for your new apartment, just a half-mile away from home. "So we can make sure you're taking care of yourself," your mother says. She offers you a tight smile. The two of you try to build a bookcase, then give up and pay a neighborhood boy thirty bucks to do it for you. While your mother puts away dishes in your new cabinets, the boy and you exchange numbers. He will come over later that night, and one more time after that.
A week passes without you leaving your apartment. Your brother flies in to town and lets himself in using the key your parents promised to use only in case of emergencies. Even from your bedroom, you can feel the ground shake with his steps as he calls your name. Fee Fi Fo Fum, you think, then giggle, then cry. He ignores your pleas to "leave you alone" and pushes open the door. You gasp and sit up. He has gained an exorbitant amount of weight. You hate yourself for noticing this, and yet you cannot help but wonder if his weight gain is directly correlated to your weight loss. Not everything, you remind yourself as he brings you a glass of ice water, is about you.
At your brother's insistence, you finally agree to substitute the laxatives with a light dose of anxiety medication. Upon hearing the news, your mother starts to cry while the family therapist calls you brave. Your brother checks his work texts. Your father misses the appointment but sends his love via email.
Over time, you start to return phone calls. Everyone speaks to you in the same soft voice, as if talking too loudly will cause you to shatter. Maybe they are right. Slowly you start to eat again. You even remember how to write. Eventually, you obtain—and keep—a job.
Eight more years pass. You dye your hair blue, then orange, then black. You move across the country, and then you move back.
Thanks to Facebook, you reconnect with your middle-school friends. They worry you are lonely and set you up on a blind date. The date wears khakis, a crisp maroon shirt, and a watch that costs more than your rent. The restaurant is fancy and French and you are underdressed. He orders expensive champagne and the waiter glances at you. You listen politely as your date—Ted? Ned? Fred? —drones on about his job as an investment analyst. Only when you pour yourself a second glass of champagne does he finally ask you about yourself. To make things more interesting, you lie. You usually invent entirely new professions for yourself on dates. You have been a grad student, a nurse, a seeing eye dog trainer. This time you are a flight attendant for a private jet company. You regale him with tales of all the celebrities you have flown with. He asks if you know if they invest. This is not a joke, you realize too late. When he does joke you do not laugh. You feel bad, but not bad enough to fake it.
He walks you to your door. You let him kiss you and touch the side of your breasts through the thin jersey of your dress before gently pushing him away. The word is thick on your tongue; you cannot remember the last time you said no.
Once you are inside your apartment you check your two voicemails. The first is from your matchmaking friend wondering how the date went. Her husband thought the two of you would get along "splendidly." You wonder what you did to piss him off. The second is your brother wondering how you're feeling. The answer to both questions is not great.
A glance in the hallway mirror reminds you that you are going prematurely gray. You pluck out the offending strand and wrap it around your index finger, pulling it tight until the finger is red and throbbing. When you remove the hair, you watch as the white crisscross imprint on your skin fades. It takes longer than you'd think.
A dog barks in the night, waking you. You are tempted to open your window and shout until its barks turn to yips. There have been several coyote sightings in the neighborhood. You open the front door to find a man holding his puppy close to his chest. He glances up at the light, squinting at your silhouette. You can see the dog is hurt. You ask if they want to come inside. The man pauses, then nods.
The dog is fine, after all. He just stepped on a nail. You refrain from making a Jesus joke. The two of you tend the puppy's wounds in silence. Some of the dog's blood gets on your sweats but you say you don't mind. The man reaches into the pocket of his jeans and pulls out an old-fashioned handkerchief. He motions towards your cheek, says there is a speck of blood there, too. His Superman curl bends becomingly with his smile as he tenderly wipes your dimple.
The dog sleeps on your sofa. The man sleeps in your bed. As he conducts his business, claiming between thrusts that he has never done this before, you consider telling him all the times you have. You wonder how many men it will take to wipe out that first man. You wonder where he is: if he's still in jail, if he's still fixing ovens, if he's still serving coffee. You close your eyes. When you wake, the man and puppy are gone. On your bedside table is a note: Thanks, with a crudely drawn smiley face.
While changing your sheets, your bare feet knock something unexpected, something that rolls. You reach under the bed and pull out the Barbie head. Unlike you, she has not aged. Like you, she cannot look away. You cup her head in your hand and squeeze. Now you see me, now you don't.
Emily Ansara Baines is the author of The Unofficial Downton Abbey Cookbook and The Unofficial Hunger Games Cookbook. Her short stories have been published by Narrative and Bird's Thumb, and her essays and articles have appeared on various sites including Jezebel,The Huffington Post, The Independent, The Bold Italic, XOJane, and Hello Giggles, where she is a contributing writer. Emily holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Otis College of Art and Design, and she lives in Los Angeles with her husband and an invisible cat named Rufus. Her favorite word is murmur.