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Like all little girls, I had an obsession, an infatuation with Barbie dolls. I had dozens of Barbies all over my room. There were the Blondes, with matching pink dresses and plastic high heel shoes. Next were the Brunettes, dressed in purple florals with oversized sunglasses. I had a small (there were only seven dolls) collection of mermaid Barbies. They were covered in brightly colored scales and lacy fins. My favorite Barbies were the princesses.
There was princess Lucy, with blonde hair and bright blue eyes. She wore a hot pink full length ballroom gown that was speckled with tiny, silver gems. Her hair was soft and flowed down in curly waves. It could be bunched up at the top with a small pink and silver hair scrunchy the size of my small pinky.
Next was Princess Liza, a brunette with warm chocolate eyes. She wore a black cocktail dress with purple high heels. Her hair was short and layered with brown and black streaks. She had come with a toy Scottish Terrier named Hector.
Finally, there was Princess Tara, another brunette with very large brown eyes. She wore a baby blue taffeta dress with pale, blue slippers. Her hair was tied back in a large satin bow. Tara was the latest doll from the Princess Barbie collection. She came with a certificate of authenticity and a faux-silver hair brush. In December, the Princess Tara doll was on the top of every girl’s list.
My best friend at the time was Priya. We didn’t go to the same school, she was a year younger than me, but our parents were good friends. Priya would come over every Friday after school and we would play with my dolls for hours. We would dress them up in tiny dresses and shoes. I had a huge toy chest filled with tiny doll clothes. There were miniature scarves, sweaters, and pants. We would have fashion show competitions: giving ourselves fifteen minutes to dress up our dolls, walk them down a runway made of my brother’s Lego blocks, and judge each other’s designs. We’d have pretend tea parties, using my Easy-Bake Oven to bake tiny cakes and muffins that were served with Pepsi and Sprite.
Priya loved my Princess Tara doll. As soon as her father dropped her to my house, she’d run into my room and throw open the lid to my doll chest. Because I played with Tara so much, she was always on top. Priya would take her out carefully, making sure she didn’t wrinkle Tara’s dress more than it was. Priya would then take a small brush and admiringly comb the doll’s hair with strokes so small and soft you would think Tara was a real girl.
I never understood why Priya was so drawn to my Tara doll.
“Don’t you have a Tara doll at your house?” I asked.
“Yes, but…” her voice would trail off before she could finish her sentence.
It didn’t make any sense to me. I had never been to Priya’s house. Both of her parents worked eleven-hours a day, six days a week. From what I gathered, she had just as many dolls as I did.
We played endlessly, day upon day, week upon week, month upon month. As we became older we gradually put the dolls aside. Soon, I stopped receiving Barbie catalogues in the mail, having been replaced with Vogue and Elle magazines.
I still, however, kept my chest of dolls; granted they had seen better days.
My mermaid dolls were broken, their plastic fins chipped and tracked. Princess Lucy had lost clumps of hair after a particularly violent incident involving a paper shredder. Princess Liza, unfortunately, was indistinguishable under a thick coat of orange paint. I had dropped her into a can of paint while making a diorama of the solar system. Hector was missing his tail. I think my brother pulled it off.
My Princess Tara doll was in terrible condition. Her hair was tied in knots, half of it was missing after I tried to give her a haircut. A terrible makeover left her with sharpie streaks across her face. Her dress was torn and stained with orange juice
Towards the bottom of the trunk were broken doll limbs, victims of my younger brother’s infantile desire to rip things apart.
For Priya’s birthday, her parents threw her a large party at their home. I was excited. Up until then, Priya’s home had always been a mystery, since I had never been there.
The day before Priya’s party, my mom and I went to the American Girl Store in New York City to buy Priya’s birthday present. The American Girl Store is doll heaven. The giant store is equipped with a doll hair salon, dressing room, hospital, and café. It’s fantastic. We picked a doll named Samantha, who had a bright red velvet dress and matching bow in her brown hair. She came with a little travel coat which, in the words of our salesman, made her the perfect travel companion. The doll was lovely, and I remember having it wrapped in gold paper with a giant, purple bow on top.
Priya was ecstatic when I gave it to her. She carefully untied the giant bow, careful to wrap the ribbon around her arm in order not to lose it. She handled the wrapping paper with meticulous precision. First she cut all the tape. Then she removed the paper, slowly pulling off the paper, inch by inch exposing what was inside. She took out the box and held it up so she could see the doll inside through a clear plastic window. She put it on the table, and reached out, hands poised to break open the cardboard…
Her mother rushed up and quickly snatched the box from her.
“Don’t worry,” she called over her shoulder, “I’ll put it with the rest of your dolls.”
Curious, I glanced at Priya, but she looked away.
The party soon became boring. All the games and food were in the den, so we couldn’t go to Priya’s room to play.
My parents, wary of cavities and endless trips to the dentist, had a strict no soda policy in our home. This policy, thankfully, did not apply outside the home. So, I drank endless cups of sprite, perhaps seven or eight cans. Later, I had to go to the bathroom. Very Badly.
The only problem was, I didn’t know where the bathroom was and didn’t know whom to ask. Priya had gone off somewhere with a few of our friends. All the mothers were in the kitchen, fawning over some centerpiece Priya’s mother had crafted out of real fruit. The fathers were in the living room talking about (what else) business and politics.
Frankly, when you have to go, you have to go. So I got up and climbed up the staircase to the second floor. There was a short hallway with four doors. I figured that one of the doors had to lead to a bathroom.
The closest door was to my right. I grasped the handle and pushed. Then I pulled. The door didn’t budge, it was locked. The second door, however, opened easily. I dashed inside. I came out a few moments later, my hands smelling like antibacterial soap. I noticed a third door, with its door slightly ajar. The room was dark and smelled of vanilla. I couldn’t tell if the dark shape in front of me was a bed or a bathtub (I was hoping for the latter). I reached out to the left wall and flicked the switch.
Light from an overhead fixture flooded the room, sweeping over everything like a warm, golden glow. This was Priya’s room. I could tell because her name was embroidered into a pillow on the bed. What shocked me, though, were here walls. They were covered with shelves, from the floor all the way up to the ceiling. And on the shelves, like tiny birds in cages, were Priya’s dolls.
Her doll collection was just as big as mine, and judging from the accumulated dust, was just as old. Unlike my battered dolls, her dolls were new and untouched. They were lined up along the twelve shelves, like toy soldiers, still in their boxes. The packing seals weren’t even broken. On the fifth shelf, exactly at eye level, was Priya’s Princess Tara doll. She was in a pink box, her brown hair was shiny and smooth, her dress unwrinkled and her eyes sparkled, like small mirrors.
Had my dolls ever looked like that?
Priya’s dolls weren’t really dolls. They were more like specimens. Locked away in plastic tubes, observed on a weekly basis, you’d think they belonged in a laboratory. At thirteen years old, and having recently seen a Chuckie movie (it’s about an evil doll) Priya’s collection of dolls was terrifying. Their eyes stared at you, as if they could see right through you. Maybe it was the lighting, but the dolls’ eyes were very dark, almost smoldering, cursed even.
High atop the highest shelf was Samantha. Samantha would stay there forever, trapped in her box, doomed to an epoch of cold isolation and hard observation.
“Keep your room clean!” Parents always say.
“Don’t wear your good dress to school, it will be ruined!” Mothers admonish.
“Son, if you play with that toy that way, you’ll break it!” Fathers warn.
Adults seem to have a strange desire to preserve things. My father always coated puzzles with glue, so they would remain together, but in doing so destroying a perfectly good game. My mother always placed her best china on the highest shelf of our dining room’s china cabinet, where it lay, forgotten.
Priya’s mother forbid her from playing with any of her dolls. She believed dolls were for decoration, not play.
“I paid fifteen dollars for that doll!” Priya’s mother would exclaim, “I’m not going to let Priya- let Priya, devalue it!” Priya’s mother was right in a way. Today my Princess Tara doll is stuffed in the bottom of my closet, amidst old bags and shoes. She’s old and musty, her dress no longer shines and her hair is in patches. There is magic marker smeared on her cheeks and crayon on her neck. Priya’s mother would think she’s hideous. But Priya’s mother doesn’t know that a doll’s value comes, not from its beauty, but from its memories.