Updated: Nov 30, 2020
A girl is turning six. A girl is turning seven. A girl is turning eight, and so on. What do you get a girl growing up in the nineties? Each year adults would ask me the same questions.
So sweetheart, what would you like for your birthday this year?
Have any special requests for presents this year?
Sheepishly, feigning modesty, I would hint at train sets, fishing nets, request action figures with subtle finesse. I don’t know, something like this would be nice, I would hurriedly say, politely, casting my eyes downward after stating my humble expectations.
Why did they bother asking me? Because instead I’d be sitting down in front of a melting ice cream log cake or demolished cookie cake, unwrapping Barbie after Barbie after Barbie. Fun Barbie, Ballerina Barbie, Swimsuit Barbie, Princess Barbie, Workout Barbie. Barbie with her rush of blonde hair, plastic blue eyes, that unchanging, placid smile that I feverishly wanted to duct tape over. Disgust and anger would rage up my throat as I let the crinkled wrapping paper fall to the floor. My fingers digging into the edges of the box, leaving moon creases.
Every year was the same. I hated Barbie. Wasn’t it obvious from the disgruntled, downturned curve of my mouth? The refusal to smile for mom’s future photo albums reserved for birthdays and holidays? Begrudgingly, I would mumble a curt thank you or feign surprise. That usually placated the adults. Then, furtively, I would set Barbie unopened off to the side face down, letting jealousy curl its claws around me as I watched my male cousins open up dart guns and monster trucks.
What was I supposed to do with so many Barbies? My stash, which I kept in the basement, continued augmenting. Unloved, untouched, collecting dust. It was such a waste, they had to be good for something, I figured. That was when I came up with the idea, after much pacing around in front of the wall of Barbies I had stacked.
From upstairs I dragged my little sister down into the depths of the cool basement for recruitment.
“What are we doing down here?” she asks, her eyes wide and afraid. She does not like the basement, there are many dark nooks and lifeless smells. It is not a friendly space.
“We’re going to build an army. I need your Barbies to join us,” I say confidently.
“Why?” she asks, not yet trusting me.
I stare at her intensely and say, “The used car salesman.”
It was the only thing I needed to say, she immediately understood. She scurried up the stairs to her room. Under my command, we rounded up all the Barbies. I finally unboxed mine as my sister brought her’s from upstairs in large cardboard boxes. Meticulously, we lined the dolls up in even rows on the basement floor. Then, because I am bad with numbers, I had my sister count our troops. We had amassed three hundred and twelve Barbies, each identical minus their respective outfits and professions. I then had my sister strip the Barbies naked.
“Can’t have any individuality here,” I say sternly, my twig arms twisted over my child’s chest, “Everyone has to be the same.”
“What exactly will the Barbies be doing?” my sister asks hesitantly, delicately pulling roller skater Barbie’s clothes off.
“We’re going to send them on a mission,” I answer cooly, “to attack the used car salesman.”
The used car salesman moved in with us three years ago, when I was eight. Three years too long, I was desperate to get rid of him. He was a parasite, a fat gluttonous tick, swooping in at the right moment to take advantage of mother’s widowed state. When mom was home (which was rare since she worked constantly) he pretended to be the fun step-dad, the stern but fair male figure in charge of us women (is what he referred to us as).
When mom was out of the house he transformed into a lazy mean turd, addicted to television and screaming at us for not lifting the toilet seat up for him or folding his outstretched jockstraps. Someone had to do something about his loathing presence. Mom was too blinded by love or cowered into submission, I wasn’t sure which anymore. My sister was too small and our cat could only scratch him so many times so, everything was up to me, as usual.
“Okay, listen up,” I projected my high voice, scanning the blonde army in front of me, making sure all Barbies were at attention. “The thing is, the used car salesman is beefy. He can kill you with the flick of his wrist or pop off your head without thinking twice. He’s powerful, but he’s also an unintelligent hothead who doesn’t think things through. This is what we’re up against.”
The Barbies stared up at me with their too-wide eyes, unblinking. My sister cleared her throat timidly and I turned my head towards her.
“Uhm, how will we train the troops? What sort of powers and weapons can we give them?”
I shrugged casually, “I assumed we would set up some obstacles, have them run drills,” I paused to pull my mouth to the side, “I don’t know, as for special powers, we only need our imagination, right?”
The inside of my mouth was perpetually dry since becoming a commander of an army, calling out drills, keeping them in formation constantly. One day during training I told my sister to take over for me as I’d be back with the waters in a flash.
Upstairs, the used car salesman was in the kitchen, gaping mindlessly like a catfish at the television installed under the cupboards. I quickly glared at his lumpy shape slumped in the chair and stuck out my tongue. His face was the worst, twisted and puckered like an asshole. Did mom know she was kissing an asshole?
Calmly, pretending as if he were not there, I reached into the cupboard and took down two tall glasses. Next, I yanked open the fridge door and with both hands carefully brought out the water filter jug and set it on the counter. I never understood the used car salesman’s interest in the most mundane of tasks my sister and I performed, but whatever we were doing he stopped to surveil us.
Flicking my eyes quickly in his direction, I noticed that he was observing me from across the counter. I bit down on my teeth and pretended not to be bothered. I lifted the heavy jug and poured one glass of water, staring hard at the lip of the jug, pretending to be in deep concentration, as if pouring water were a dire task.
“You’re pourin’ it too fast,” the used car salesman snaps at me.
I roll my eyes, do not say anything. I pour the next glass.
“Hey, I said you’re pourin’ the water too damn fast,” the used car salesman sits up straighter in the chair.
“There isn’t a wrong or right way to pour water,” I hiss.
“You talkin’ back to me?” the used car salesman spoke in his aggressive tone.
“No,” I say, sarcasm rolling off my tongue.
The used car salesman grunts, sucks in air through one hairy nostril. “There is a right way to pour water in this house, and I say next time you pour it slower, is that understood?”
If the Barbies were ready I would have them ambush him right then and there, but we were not ready. I let my anger spread out into my hands, down my legs, dispersing it so it wasn’t clumped up in the center of my chest. I nod curtly and leave the kitchen with my head lowered.
Every day after school my sister and I descend into the basement and resume training the Barbies. Mom assumes that we are playing nicely and never questions our sudden interest in spending our waking hours downstairs in the cool damp. The used car salesman couldn't care less, as long as we did not disturb the sacred football games he left us alone.
We had the Barbies army crawl, scale walls, line up on the blades of the ceiling fan, which we would then turn on. The task was for them to be catapulted from the fan and land effortlessly on the target. We taught the Barbies to attack eyes, to stab tongues, to jab the inside of ears, to bend back fingers, bite skin, to yank out eyelashes.
Our intention was not to kill the enemy but to inflict pain, to instill fear. We wanted him to leave, not necessarily die, though I knew killing him would make the world a better place. He needed to be shown that this was not his house, never was his house, this leech invader, greedy freeloader. From the first month of his moving in, he claimed that it was his inherent right to rule over our household. He was the alpha male and no one was to question this new hierarchical arrangement.
No one is above me, I’m the man of the house.
Little girls don’t know nothin’ about keepin’ order in a house.
You need a man to make the decisions and rules, I control everything under this roof.
In my head, I replayed the things the used car salesman told us, as it ignited the urgency I needed to feel in order to continue training my dolls. The Barbies were highly disciplined. They took orders and performed flawlessly. After one grueling exercise, I rounded up the troops and apologized for earlier, as I had stowed them away and looked upon them with disdain. I had been terribly mistaken to think that trucks and train sets were better than Barbies.
After, my sister and I separated the Barbies into teams. Snipers, ninjas, fighters, skydivers, and foot soldiers. The few Ken dolls we had amassed were used as practice targets in exercises for decapitation, stabbing, and ripping off limbs.
My sister and I frequently discussed the progress of the Barbies. Pleased, we eventually agreed on a date and time for the attack. We chose the early hours of next Friday, as we were aware that the used car salesman fell asleep on the couch in front of the tv on Fridays when mom was working her night shift at the hospital.
As the date drew nearer, slight pinches of doubt ebbed inside me. In front of the Barbies and my sister, I had to be assured, unwavering. But when alone I was nervous and unsure of what we were about to do.
I had never plotted anything so outrightly hostile, it was the extreme opposite of my nice girl facade I had cultivated over the years, molded myself to fit into. Nice girls were polite, civilized, quiet, meek. We wear dresses and play quietly in the sandbox or on the swing set. We never fuss or get in trouble because that is not what is expected of us. What would mom think of her daughters, once she realized that we had commanded an army of Barbies to attack her boyfriend?
The me on the inside, the one that was dark and volatile and violent was unseen by anyone on the outside. Sometimes, the thing inside my mind frightened me, whatever it was I knew it to be malignant, spiteful, and angry. I was swollen with it. Sometimes the anger bloomed in me, like vengeful weeds. I did not know what to do with it except swallow it down, deeper and deeper into the cavernous depths of my mind and stomach, hoping it would stay hidden there.
But never had I abhorred someone so profoundly as the used car salesman. Our very own tyrannical oaf, usurping my father’s home. If we lost the battle, if somehow we could not carry out our mission and make him leave, I would find a way to kill him with the culmination of my rage. I had time to plot, I was only eleven. I had lots of time.
For the occasion, my sister and I dressed in black. We tiptoed down into the basement where the Barbies were dutifully awaiting us. I gave a motivational speech, taking on the steady, authoritative tone of voice my soccer coaches so often used before a big game. I reminded them of all the hard hours we put in training for this moment. This was their time to shine, not mine, I emphasized.
When my speech was concluded we marched them up the basement steps. I poked my head out from behind the doorframe first. The used car salesman was in position, sprawled out on the couch, aglow in blue tv light. The room smelled damp with his farts and sour from his cologne. The television filled the room with its stupid, rehearsed voices. I wrinkled my nose at the sight of him, this ugly, barrel-chested, witch nosed man. One of his meaty hands was stuffed inside his shorts, no doubt clutching his wrinkly penis.
“Get into position,” I whispered sharply to the Barbies behind me.
I gave the signal and on command, the Barbies stealthily crawled into the family room, a uniformed swarm. They broke off into their teams, one group slunk up to the bottom of the couch then crawled up its sides, hovering in position. The other group creepy crawled up the walls and across the ceiling, delicately lowering themselves onto the blades of the ceiling fan. The rest of the soldiers surrounded the couch, locked knees, and with narrow eyes, waited for my order.
I glanced off to the side next to my sister, whose face was slathered in apprehension and excitement. I waited until our eyes met and then I nodded once. She nodded back. Biting on my lower lip, I craned my neck and roved over the scene before us, making sure the Barbies were in position. They were.
“Okay,” I said under my breath, “it's time.”
I breathed in heavily through my nose, letting the air sit trapped in my lungs, holding it there until I felt a discomforting pressure in my chest.
Am is a Midwestern American living in Warsaw, Poland. After finishing her studies at the Cooper Union, she received a Polish Fulbright Research Grant for film and writing. She spends most of her time writing short stories while ideas for full-length books stew in her brain.