1: a child’s toy, often resembling a baby or a young woman, with hair that can be brushed, and clothes that can be changed
2: a: a pejorative comment for a beautiful female, as in empty-headed
b: a term of endearment for a woman
Each morning I enjoy my first cup of coffee while reading the local paper. Page 12 is my first stop: Who’s That Doggie in the Window? The page features a new dog each day, rescued by the no-kill shelter on Johnstone Road. Their big eyes beg the reader, Will you take me in? I imagine the dogs in their new potential lives as gatekeepers, princesses, companions for the lonely and friendless. The cute ones always get homes first, even if the fat, sloppy, and slow dogs will walk through fire to save their owners. If it was up to me, I would rescue them all, but I don’t make the big decisions in my household. Not even the small.
After I say a silent prayer for the dogs, I search for stories of missing people tossed in rivers, people with faces that are no longer recognizable. I pretend I’m interested in the suffering of others, but I’m only looking for her, Sinaii. I crumple the pages in my hands, wrinkling the paper. I’m not supposed to do that. Today should be no different than any other morning, but when I see her beautiful face, age thirty-seven, I know. The photo’s grainy, a smudge mark on her chin, but rather than a distortion of her beauty, it makes her more real, less plastic. Only I know how real dolls can be.
I remember a billboard downtown with a sad child on it. “Play with Fire—And You’ll Get Burned,” it read. I thought it was a warning for the dolls. I have always found the games dolls play most certainly result in the possibility of obliteration, especially if the doll keeper is about to be caught. The paper kindly shows her likeness before the fire. No one wants to see a face with melted features, except me. At the very end of the article, the paper provides a photo of her tattoo: a blue flower on her ankle with the words “all mine.”
I have been waiting so long for this day, furiously checking the newspapers, that it was only a matter of time. The article says they included the photo of her tattoo because they don’t know her identity, name. My heart stops. All dolls die before they should—their porcelain skin always breaks. But still, I never imagined that Sinaii would be gone before I got to thank her, and it takes me a moment to realize that my finger is already googling the number of the local hospital. The doctor asks if I can come in today and collect her things. She’s been there a week, but I’ve been the only one to call.
I unclench my fingers and allow myself to remember a story that’s been impossible to forget. Each year when I was a little girl, my father took a great trip, across the ocean, to faraway lands. He called himself an anthropologist because he enjoyed learning about all the different peoples who inhabited these lands, especially the women. My father bought my mother a new doll each year—he said it was for their anniversary. Even though I never saw a stamp that said Mattel, my father convinced me that these dolls were even more valuable than the ones bought at the store in town.
My mother never played with them of course, but would sit there at night, hot tea turning cold, and stare at them hard. These dolls never made my mother particularly happy. No. My mother would take note of their red hair, the blondes, even the ones with blue hair, and compare her face in one of our many mirrors. My mom, whose name was Claudine, always rubbed her forehead, as if she could somehow erase the lines that were tattooed in place. All of the dolls had big eyes and lips that came together in a kiss. Waists that looked like they could snap. They didn’t live on a shelf or behind glass; rather, they lived on our land, in the dollhouse.
Lots of men came to visit these dolls. Each time a new visitor arrived, he brought a necklace made of gold or maybe a new dress. Then he paid my mother. She only liked cash. It was important that each doll had a name, easy to pronounce and different from the others.
Aside from being around so many dolls, I think my childhood was similar to many others’: chores, following my parents’ rules, and studying hard so I could leave behind Portland and move somewhere not so damp. Most mornings began with the sound of rain drumming against the windowpanes.
This particular morning promised to be different—there was sun. I wiggled my toes against the uneven floorboards. I wished for thick carpets like I saw in the magazines. My parents, however, preferred hearing each footstep around our creaky floors. I shuffled down the stairs, careful not to wake my father. When I reached the bottom of the stairs, I looked up and made eye contact with a tall man who had a skull tattoo on his neck. The man’s demented green eyes burned with anger as he shook a set of keys in my direction, like I was his prisoner.
“Skeleton key,” he said.
I froze in place. I was never to speak with strangers. Never to tell them about our doll collection. Suddenly I saw a flicker of movement—my father creeping from the hallway, with his fingers over his lips, signaling me to keep quiet.
“What the hell are you doing in my house?” screamed my father, while waving a fireplace poker in the direction of the intruder’s legs.
“One of your dolls gave me a rash, real bad.”
“My dolls are clean,” he said, hitting him so hard on his right knee that the man had no choice but to then crawl out the front door, since walking was now an impossibility.
Later in the day, I heard strange noises emanating from my parents’ guest bedroom, interspersed with long moans and a shout. Worried that someone had broken in, I walked down the hall, pausing a moment before opening the door. The doorknob felt hot to the touch, but I pushed it open before I changed my mind and screamed loud. My mother appeared behind me and shouted, “Matthew, time to put your doll away.”
“Get her out of here, for God’s sake,” my father replied.
The problem was that I had seen everything: the white sheets were stripped off the bed, pillows flung everywhere. This was the first time I saw Sinaii. Hair that was long enough to dust the floors and eyes that weirdly went up and out, so unlike my round ones. She was sitting on my dad’s lap. I thought she must have been naughty because she had lost her clothes. She pressed her chest against his and wiggled her hips. He slapped her butt again and again, the same way my mother did when she made our bread. That was the first time I felt something was wrong in our house. My mother said he was just playing—he swore he would find another game. But of course, he never kept his promises with the dolls. I knew then that the old adage, “only girls play with dolls,” isn’t true.
Later that afternoon he asked me to sit on the porch with him. Before he pored over his accounts, he liked to teach me about the different birds that landed on our birdfeeder. Cardinals were my favorite. Though as soon as he mentioned the words juvenile or wingspan, I zoned out, seized with inattention. Looking across our lawn I focused on the dollhouse. It was a smaller version of our house: white with black shutters. The similarities ended there because the white paint furled along the edges, and you couldn’t see inside the windows. An electric fence encircled the dollhouse and gave off a noisy hum.
Even though caffeine supposedly stunts one’s growth, my father let me sip from his espresso because we needed to have an adult conversation. He played with his Brillo beard and told me that everyone has a role in life, some big, some small: tester and student. Because he was the boss, his role was to make sure that everything worked in the house, even the dolls. So he was a tester. I wasn’t exactly sure what he meant, but I knew that more privileges were conferred on the testers. He looked at me and said, “Which one do you want to be someday?”
Getting the dolls ready for bed was my responsibility. It was a rather thankless job because they never wanted to go to sleep. They didn’t need the ordinary eight hours, rather eleven. If they didn’t get exactly eleven hours of sleep, then the next day we would find them in a state of terror: scratch marks across their cheeks, hair broken off from the constant yank on each other’s ponytails. Dolls fight with too much time on their hands—my parents reminded me every day.
That evening I leaned against the antique table that my father brought back from his most recent visit to Tajikistan. I pulled out all of the ingredients for the dolls’ nightly tea party. Then I added a pinch of sea buckthorn powder and one crushed-up blue flower. I’m still unsure of the name of that blue flower—I’ve never been able to find it again, even though it grew lush across our lawn, smothering our grass with the smell of rot. Lastly, a large slug of honey; otherwise, they complained about the strange taste of ashes. After they drank their tea, I put five crystals outside their door for the sweetest of dreams.
I noticed through the kitchen window that Sky was the only doll who left her cup unattended on the tea trolley. I was angry because if I had to grind each flower by hand, which resulted in blue fingertips, then she could do her part and go to sleep. The dollhouse had a small courtyard with a large oak tree in the middle, surrounded by a spiky metal gate that factored less as a deterrent for escape, as the electric fence did the trick. Rather, it prevented the dolls from hurting themselves.
When I was ten years old, I awoke to find one of the dolls out of place. Sky developed an intolerance for being inside the dollhouse, even if it was raining or below freezing weather. In between all of her entertaining fat, old men, her legs knocked out a rhythm on the tree trunk, her head thrown back, surrounded by her blue scarf. She said the scarf made her feel incognito, like the old-time movie stars.
The dolls complained how bored they were when they had no male guests, so my father built a crude swing with a plank and two ropes. Sky kicked her pale legs in the moonlight—dolls can’t go in the sun because it wrinkles their skin and kisses it blotchy.
“Push me a little higher—I don’t care if I break,” she said. I pushed her so high that her toes dusted the stars; she never turned around and said thank you, but kept pumping her legs to nowhere, her blue ponytail whipping in the wind. If anything happened to the dolls, I would be forever blamed—I didn’t care.
Many years later I was reading a fashion magazine. I opened the magazine to page twelve, and there was a photo of Sky, wearing nothing but a bra and thong. Her hair was no longer blue, but her engorged lips and cat eyes were the same. Below the advertisement it said her name was Laetitia. I smiled.
I sat by the open window, counting the leaves falling from the trees. I finished another series of butterflies. They fluttered across the pages, descending on one another, sometimes mirroring one another’s exact movements. Some of them I gave an unexpected twist: knife-like teeth. They were all drawn blue. Each Sunday my father took me to the local art store; he let me buy as many new paints, sketchbooks, and shading pencils as I liked. I had no friends since I was homeschooled; each time a new doll came to our house, I hoped we could be friends. I couldn’t ignore the sobbing from the dollhouse, even though it was across the lawn. Our dolls were only supposed to smile and laugh when one of the old men told a joke. There were only five dolls who lived in our house. Sometimes one of the men wanted a doll and forgot to bring her back. Other times a doll might run away—that made my father scream and curse. Then the dolls were locked in their rooms as punishment. No TV.
I looked out the window again, wondering if I would see the dolls arrive back home, but I realized that Lila, Jade, Aimee, and Sky were still at the doll hospital. That’s what Mom called it. Every Wednesday they were brought to a Russian lady who washed their hair and then dressed it up with curls and beads. She was never allowed to cut their hair. If their skin was dry, they had their faces massaged with green creams and masks. Finally, the Russian lady looked at their private parts and made sure they were clean and had no little hairs sprouting from their underwear. Dolls are supposed to be smooth. That morning I heard my mother tell Sinaii that she had to stay home. Sinaii was upset because after the doll hospital, all the dolls were given new dresses to wear for the week. Plus, Dad brought them chocolates with strawberries and tiny cups of coffee. I remember being jealous because I wasn’t allowed sweets. Those treats were just for the dolls. Watching their newly varnished nails flash in the sun and seeing their shellacked hair or tiny new braids was the best part of having a direct view of the dollhouse. For those two minutes, while they took delicate bird hops across the cracked pavers, I wished that I was a doll too.
An hour after the dolls came home, I heard a piercing cry from the dollhouse. Usually, I followed the rules, but I couldn’t block out the crying. I sprinted across the lawn, knowing that I could get caught any moment. It was so easy grabbing the extra key that my mother carelessly left in our umbrella stand. Each key threatened to blow my cover as it jingled and crashed in my pocket. I remember being shocked when I unlocked the door. Cheap furniture that sagged in the middle, which differed from how our house showcased matching bedroom sets and antique tables. Sinaii sat on the floor, blowing on her freshly painted toes—two purple welts were on her arm.
“You need to leave or you’ll get in trouble,” said Sinaii. I sat next to her on the floor, watching as she iced her bumps. I stared at the tattoo of a blue butterfly, with an inscription that said “all mine.” All of the dolls got a tattoo of a blue butterfly when they joined our household. Some of the dolls cried that they didn’t want one, but those were my father’s rules. I remember it felt like evening because the bars across the windows selfishly blocked out most of the winter sunshine. My father couldn’t bear the possibility of losing money, and his dolls were valuable. Occasionally, he reminded me of how lucky I was. He never had it half as good when he was a boy.
She stared at me with her strange eyes and fairy face and asked if she could brush my hair. I often forgot to brush my hair. My mom threatened to cut it off whenever she caught me twirling gold pieces of it around my fingers. Pulling and tugging on my scalp felt good. She lifted two fingers to her lips and said the word hush.
“Promise not to tell, but your mom takes her curling iron and burns us if we visit your dad.” She balanced on her toes with knife-sharp movements. I could feel her inability to stay rooted in place. I circled my arms around her neck, and we rocked back and forth. Then she made oil-slick noodles with hot red flakes and tinned crab; she showed me how to use chopsticks, but I kept dropping the noodles on the floor. For dessert she stuck her fingers down her throat and taught me how to get rid of the food because dolls can’t be fat. Not ever.
Sinaii painted my lips with her oily red crayon and proclaimed that someday I, too, would look like a doll, but a different type. The bathroom mirror showed us as red-lipped, grinning twins, although I now understand that we looked nothing alike. She taught me how to make turtles and frogs out of paper. Her child-sized fingers tucked and wove the paper into difficult shapes. Before I left her room, she hid the turtle in my pocket, somewhere my mother wouldn’t see. I promised I would keep it forever.
My mother was waiting for me, in my room, when I returned from the dollhouse. Her eyes narrowed; she knew. She sniffed me and muttered the word patchouli and then led me into “The Room of Mirrors.” Each afternoon my mother brought me to the worst room of the house. Mirrors everywhere, hundreds pinging back your reflection. She sat me down in front of the tallest mirror. I tensed my arm as she asked, “Alexa, what do you see?”
“I’m pretty like one of the dolls.”
Before I could duck she slapped me across the face—she asked me to tell her what I saw again.
“I see nothing special, Mommy.”
I pretended not to see my deep blue eyes, my pink heart-shaped mouth. She still made me call her Mommy, even though I was almost eleven years old. She leaned in close, and I could see her two halves. Her face looked two different ages. The first layer was the one she wanted everyone to see—it was brightly painted, pink splotches on her cheeks, blue eyes smeared with kohl. The layer below she tried to hide—her feather lines by her eyes, dehydrated skin from her constant smoking.
“Say it, Alexa.”
“I’m not going to be a doll, Mommy.”
She ran her fingers through my hair and flinched. My hair was getting too long, and she always threatened to cut it off. I knew that my mother worried that someday I, too, might transform into a doll, when I moved away. For now I was safe.
“Alexa, we need to get rid of these dolls. Soon. Please don’t tell Daddy—he’ll get mad.”
I made the cross-my-heart gesture, and she smiled so hard, I saw her cracked back tooth.
The next day I decided that I wanted to paint Sinaii. I could no longer endure painting another butterfly. Again, I found Sinaii on the floor of the dollhouse. Her legs were bent in an impossible contortion of muscle and bone. I wondered if she wasn’t used to chairs in her country. She wore a purple robe with her sash hanging low; she wasn’t wearing a bra.
She led me into her bedroom, which was the size of a closet. I watched as each of her footsteps practically hovered over the ground—I doubted her feet would even leave marks in the sand. The only furniture in her room was an unmade bed. I asked if I could paint her, but she said paintings lie; the memory doesn’t.
“I want to teach you how to walk like a girl. You must lift your head high and have a little smile on your face.”
She showed me how to move my arms so that I didn’t swing them back and forth like a monkey. When she laughed she sounded free, even though it showed her buck teeth.
“Okay, little monkey. You can practice on your own, and someday no one will stop watching you either.”
Before the sun rose again, I practiced my walk. No swinging my arms like a monkey. I got bored after a few minutes and decided to visit Sinaii. I was getting careless in my movements and visitations, but I needed to see her. I looked right and left, making sure my mother wasn’t wandering the hallway because of her insomnia. Instead, I put on my black hoodie and went barefoot, like I saw all great spies do in the movies. Face flushed and my ponytail bobbed under the few remaining stars.
I scratched at the door with my keys so I didn’t frighten the dolls, but Sinaii whispered that she wasn’t allowed to let me into their house, since I foolishly left one of my paintbrushes on the floor. I leaned my mouth against the large keyhole and asked her what her real name was, since my father had a renaming ceremony anytime he brought home a new doll. One time he let me rename a doll because I had a fever of 104 degrees—he thought then I might die. When I got better he changed the fever-burnt name from Unicorn to Sky. Sinaii didn’t want to tell me her real name, but I stretched the word please into something she couldn’t ignore, with a promise never to tell a soul.
“My name is Angbrin.”
I mouthed it three times so that I wouldn’t forget how to arrange the weird consonants and vowels. When I asked her if she missed home, she pushed her eye against the large keyhole, and I saw her eyelashes sparkle with tears. I felt my hair being pulled and realized that it could only be my mother. Her lips arranged into a grimace as she dragged me into the room of mirrors. Without any words, she pulled a pair of scissors off the shelf and roughly sawed off my hair. I tried to push her away, but she was stronger than her spindly arms suggested. She told me, “Now you look like a sick girl, not a doll.” There was so much hair, even more than I have today, that it took her awhile with the rusted-over scissors. I hardly recognized the girl before me, with clumped peach fuzz and scalp peeking through. I thought to myself: who is this strange creature?
An hour later, I beat my fists against the dollhouse’s door until my hands were raw. Sinaii took pity on me and opened the door a crack. When she saw how my mother destroyed my hair, she folded me into a hug and tickled her fingers across my scalp. “Now we can call you Fuzzy.”
If I knew that was the last time I would ever see Sinaii, I might have tried to help her leave. I know now that it’s not my fault—I was barely eleven years old. Instead I told her the obvious: my mother was a monster. I avoided bringing up my father because I thought maybe she liked him, since I saw them naked and kissing.
“Your turn. Tell me about yours,” I said.
She stuck her tongue out at me and said, “Oh, I never met my mother; I was hatched from an egg.”
We fell over laughing—I wanted to stay there forever.
“I’ll probably never have kids, but if I could choose any child for my own, it would be you. But I can’t since I’m just a doll. You’ll understand all that someday.”
I stared at her because there was nothing left to say. On my way out she told me that my mother warned her that if we spoke again, then next time she would burn her face.
Today’s my twenty-eighth birthday, but I still feel like a child. I reach under my bed and remove the five crystals. Without them I wouldn’t sleep. Most mornings after my husband, Andre, leaves for work, I arrange myself on the bath mat, in prayer position, in front of the toilet. Sticking my finger down my throat is as awful as it sounds—scratches from my golden ring, taste of acid never quite goes away. No matter, because dolls can’t be fat. My husband calls me Dolly. His doll.
When I think back to my time with Sinaii, I realize how prophetic her words were that “I would understand.” After reading about Sinaii’s death, I am both stuck and free. And so, I sit a little longer on our tiles, salvaged from a visit on our honeymoon from a French nunnery, and wait. Most evenings I blink my blue eyes once for yes, twice for no. Lashes painted long like a pony’s.
When I come out of the bathroom, he tells me to open my presents. I remember how happy my father was when the dolls would jump up and down when he gave them a silly gift. There are sixteen presents on the bed—all of them are for him really: lacy, silk thongs, five-inch heels, a dress in a color I hate. I don’t want any of them, but I tell him how much I love them.
Afterward I stand in front of the mirror. I can only see two of my ribs; I’m a fat pig. I will only drink prune tea for my birthday. Happy birthday to me. I’m told that I’m so lucky, blessed to have a husband who rescued me after my parents went to jail for six months. A police officer told me that one of the dolls, with an unpronounceable name, ran away from the dollhouse. She managed to walk twelve miles in the middle of the night to the police station. When they asked who else was held captive, she mentioned all of the other dolls. Before the officer left the room, she grasped his wrist hard. “And the kid, Alexa,” she said. “Please find her first.”
Until I was eighteen, I lived at the Child’s Village—a place for the unadoptable children. I was too old. At my reentry to adulthood party, when they released me, Andre (the biggest charitable giver) pressed his card into my hand. When we met, he told me that he was a collector; I just laughed as he brushed his thumb across my cheekbones and caressed my jaw. I shouldn’t talk about money, but he’s very rich. Salt-and-pepper hair, wingtip shoes, solid gold watch that ticks into eternity.
Andre only likes me in tight dresses, with belts that encircle my waist so that he can watch the way I walk. I remember to brush my hair one hundred times a day; otherwise, he gets mad if I have tangles. He said that I walk the way a lady should. I’m lucky. While drinking my tea, I open the desk drawer that has my old art supplies. I reach under my sketchbook and finger the paper turtle from so many years ago. I have never mentioned this turtle to anyone—everyone has their secrets, and this one is mine alone. I can’t believe that there are so few dolls left from my past—I learned that most dolls, from my Google stalking, now have real lives, not locked into a mini house. The biggest surprise was reading that one drives a school bus, which has to be better than living in a dollhouse.
The article about Sinaii leaves me feeling sad, unmoored. The paper turtle is almost translucent, but I can never give it away. I wouldn’t dare. Part of me knows what happened to Sinaii. The records are public, and yet I wasn’t shocked when I heard how my parents’ sentences were so short, as a result of their relationship with the governor. What did surprise me, however, was that Sinaii made the choice and became a doll again. Maybe none of us is ever truly free.
I remember one of my secret visits to the dollhouse—Sinaii was wearing a peach-colored slip, with gold buttons down the side. She rocked back and forth on her toes and told me that she had worked at the largest circus in her country, even though they paid her very little. A purebred white horse was her companion; she rode him while wearing a sequined purple leotard. Sometimes she even balanced along a tightrope without nets, cartwheeling through the night sky. Everyone clapped their hands together when she landed on her feet. A man promised her that she could become a star if she traveled with him to the United States. What he promised never came true. I appreciate how Sinaii protected me by withholding the identity of the man. My feet reflexively point and flex in time to the song I almost hear, fanciful music that probably scratched out on the circus’s old gramophone.
I set the table for lunch, remembering to arrange the flowers just so, turning the plates out so the yellow flowers all point down. Chicken broth for me and broiled steak and potatoes for him. In between bites of charred flesh, fork and knife scraping the plate, he tells me he doesn’t like my dress.
“Put on the purple dress I just bought you. I want to see more of your legs while I finish lunch.”
Usually I nod my head yes and do what he says, but today I just pour myself another glass of water. I see his reflection in my water glass, staring at every inch of me, his face reddening from the indignation of being ignored. It’s not worth it—I’ll do what he says. I return to the table, wearing the new dress, as he x-rays all of my parts.
“Now twirl for me. Isn’t that better, Dolly?”
I like to be noticed, but unseen. My husband thinks that I don’t leave Connecticut, but I do! The ivy-covered house, with too many windows, presses in on me from all angles. I never knew that a twenty-thousand-square-foot house could feel small. He probably thinks I have a windup voice box with twenty expressions: “Oh yes,” “I’m so turned on,” “No, honey, I understand,” and only a hollow vagina, instead of very real parts. I wake up from the whirring of the train’s wheels with a kink in my neck because my hair is so long. So heavy. Union Square station. “We’re going on a journey, little fellow,” I say as I reach inside my pocket, feeling the comfort of the turtle.
Walking along Seventeenth Street I’m always shocked by the busyness of everyone’s lives. My days usually involve minutes, yawning into hours. Often I’m surprised by strange marks on my face and then I remember: I dozed on the couch, head propped up on my diamond watch. I slip off my needle heels and put on sneakers. Here I can walk, not like a lady, not like a doll, but me. I hear Sinaii’s voice hissing in my ear, “Don’t walk like a little monkey.” Spinning.
The hospital’s worn vinyl seat causes my butt to sweat. I thumb through a two-year-old magazine about how to have a perfect home until the coroner calls my name. His pale face tells the story of never seeing the sun. He asks if I have ever ID’d a body before. I don’t answer. Why should I?
He leads me into a room with a steel bed and a sheet lumped over it. I know she’s underneath. He whisks off the sheet, but it can’t be her. Her strange eyes now sewn shut and her plump lips have melted into an X. My gaze scans down her body, and sure enough the blue flower tattoo, emblazoned with “all mine,” is still intact. It is a surprise that her hair was saved from the fire. Usually, it just singes, I’m told. The loveliness of her hair coils down to her navel. Thick. Heavy. Springy. Strangely, I feel the heaviness of my own hair—each strand pulling tight on my scalp. While charred and toasted, her toes point out in first position. I swallow all of the questions I’ll never get to ask her, and instead tell the doctor, “Yes, that’s her. That is Sinaii.” I want to tell the coroner her real name, Angbrin, but somehow I am unable to break my promise. I can’t stand the feel of my hair suffocating my neck.
I wish then that Sinaii had understood the rules of being a doll: look pretty, don’t ask questions, and never say the word no. If she had a clear grasp on hierarchical structures, then perhaps her pride might have been the only thing to melt, rather than resulting in her scorched body. There was one time that my mother asked Sinaii who was in charge of the dollhouse. Rather than demurring to my mother, Sinaii simply said,
“Your husband, not you.”
Thankfully, the doctor leaves me alone while he gathers up her things. I ask Sinaii how this could have happened. But of course, she doesn’t answer. She can’t. I have to be the one who breathes for both of us, the girl who remembered what her laugh sounded like. Funeral processions are for only the lucky and known. Andre would never let me go anyway; he wouldn’t understand. I wonder if she will be lonely with no smell of carnations or a fancy mourning dress. Tears fall on my cheeks, ruining my makeup. It seems like such an easy question, but does anyone care about the dolls that break and then get stuffed in the corner? Her fingers are the way only dead fingers can be—stiff, cold. The paper turtle is now nestled in the palm of her hand—I like to think that she will feel more comfortable with something that once made her smile. The word goodbye forms on my lips, but no sound is heard. I can feel the tremulous beating of my heart, the breath moving and circling through my limbs and chest. I don’t want to end up like her. Maybe it’s not too late for me after all? I tell her I am sorry that my father caused her so much pain. I now accept that my parents caused all of the confusion between real and unreal, beauty and destruction. In order to say goodbye to Sinaii, I need to remove their names and faces from my heart, mind.
I clutch Sinaii’s belongings: twenty dollars, two tubes of lipstick, and a wooden comb. How could this be all she had left in the world. I run down the street and tumble into a place called Snippety Snap. “Lady, you sure you want me to buzz it off? Seems a shame, dolly.” There are no women here. I feel his dry hands as he snaps the cape across my dress. The barber’s looking at me with concern, possibly hatred. How dare I intentionally make myself different, ugly. Maybe I’m insane; I don’t care. I will miss being beautiful, I think.
“Dolly, you dropped your ring,” said the barber.
“It’s not mine, it’s not mine,” I say, even though when my husband placed it on my finger, he mouthed the word “mine.” Pieces of my blonde hair flutter around, sticking to the back of my neck. Buzzing in my ear. I feel the wind on the back of my neck, blowing left to right as Sky’s swing gets closer and closer. I almost feel her heels scratching against my ears. “Go higher!” she says. The girl in the mirror isn’t a doll. She’s smiling at me with all of her teeth. I’m very lucky. I imagine the disgust Andre will feel when he sees me with my bald head and cheekbones jutting out from being underfed. In one ear my mother says, “Finally you understand, foolish girl.” In my other ear Sinaii screams, “What have you done?” I stick my fingers in my ears, cancelling out the admonishments and the praise.
It matters somewhere in the middle, where there is only the absence of sound, and then I relish the static. I repeat the sentence in my head: My name is not Dolly—it’s Alexa. Try to remember that now.