We used to play with Barbies. Our dogs chewed their hands to stumps and we added insult to injury with homemade haircuts and magic marker makeovers until we lost all their shoes and finally admitted that we didn’t much care whether Barbie left with the Rockers for a three-continent tour or married Ken after all, settling down to patiently prune her miniature roses.
Then it was sports. Do you remember the way it happened so gradually we almost didn’t see the kneepads and catcher’s mitts and tennis rackets and swim goggles building up in our closets like the stuff was having babies in there, multiplying every time we went in to grab another thrift store t-shirt for practice? We had knobby knees and the same amount of hair on our legs as our brothers and our coaches made us run endless laps around the softball field until we collapsed to the outfield of daisy chains and daydreams, knowing we were never going to make it in sports, not with the way the world was, because even though we’d thought we wanted to be the first female baseball players, to start our own league, when it happened with basketball we saw how no one watched. Not even us. We never even watched one game.
By then we were in Amnesty International photocopying form letters to free political prisoners whose names we could not pronounce. Aung San Suu Kyi jailed for peaceful protest in Myanmar. Yeni Damayanti arrested in Jakarta for “insulting the president.” Vasiliya Inayatova of Uzbekistan, a poet and engineer active in the Birlik Opposition. We loved the boys who pounded fists on doodled-on desks in musty corner classrooms where our meetings stretched deep into the humid gloom of many an October night. We kissed them in their hand-me-down clunkers and spoke of rebellion until we mentioned the homecoming dance, and then their eyes shrunk to suspicious little triangles as they demanded we name the Ethiopian town where Elfinish Kano was beaten after her last demonstration. When we could not come up with Addis Ababa, they said they thought they knew us—they thought we were committed to the cause.
Senior year we discovered marijuana and peppermint patty shots and making out with college guys and knew the world was a canvas we painted just by being alive. At the university we got serious about sex and art, and sex as art, but printmaking bored us and our nude studies were derivative, our teachers said, never bothering to say of what. In drama it was Barbies again, but we were the dolls in bad wigs and stage makeup weeping through The Cherry Orchard and professors kept us after the cast party to direct us in the fine art of the blow job. We were adults, we told ourselves. We were in control and they were sad old men who didn’t know any better.
After graduation, we took admin positions to save for the big move to New York. We didn’t want dream houses in the suburbs, or leases to pink Cadillacs, personal ice cream parlors or plastic pools that leaked through duct tape and rubber cement, but after our weddings it was a buyer’s market. Everyone said we needed equity. It made sense to echo the lives our mothers had led, but with better shoes, and organic food, and natural deodorant to ward away the cancer.
But now we walk through our Better Homes and Gardens with the nagging suspicion there was something we forgot to do. We thrill to the sound of the mail carrier’s truck in case it arrives today, the map showing the way to the turnoff less taken. Some of us had wanted to run for office and lead a mission to Mars and out-iPad Steve Jobs and write a book that shifted the world on its axis. Who has time to dwell, though, what with soccer practice and ballet and playdates where the Barbies are thinner with bigger heads and longer hair but smile the same pink-rimmed smiles?
Our daughters love them: Barbie and Skipper and Midge, and poor, neutered Ken. They love to invent for them smooth plastic lives filled with pool parties and road trips, marriages and remarriages without even pausing to divorce. We’ve got their houses now. We’ve got the luxury cars and high heels, each pair a matched set. There’s nothing wrong with our lives, except we keep catching ourselves this way, hands pruning in the sink with the dishes, a dog barking far away, staring out at our velvet lawns, wondering if it’s too late, really too late, to become at least one of the marvelous things we used to dream of becoming.
Katie Cortese holds an MFA from Arizona State University and a PhD from Florida State. Her work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Narrative Magazine, Gulf Coast, Carve Magazine, Sport Literate, and elsewhere. She teaches in the creative writing program at Texas Tech University, where she also serves as the fiction editor for Iron Horse Literary Review. Visit her at www.katiecortese.com.