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September 23, 2012
There was once a time when we didn’t say we were “Hanging out.” We were “Playing.” We didn’t need a midnight trip to Taco Bell for the food that would guarantee we’d be too sick to go to school the next day. We didn’t need to stop at Family Video for a bag of horror movies with clearly low budgets. We didn’t need to go shopping in order to blow that fifteen dollars we earned babysitting the child that locked herself in the bathroom (But that’s another memoir).

We could watch Scooby Doo, look at one another, and say, “I’ll be Daphne. You be Velma.” I was always Velma. I’d lie to myself and think, Yeah. I’d like to be Velma. She’s brainy, but no one ever wanted to be Velma, especially not the girl that thought she was entitled to be Daphne because she was the redhead of the group.

Mallory, my then best friend, would later decide that Scooby Doo wasn’t exciting enough. Daphne wasn’t nearly as pretty as Nicole, the lead singer of the Pussycat Dolls, and she couldn’t dance nearly as well. We stood in Mallory’s living room, MTV blaring as we tried to copy the complicated moves. If the reader feels so inclined as to have a mental picture, here it is: I was a strangely tall eight year old with straight-across bangs and skinned knees. I didn’t look like I was expected to dance to a Pussycat Dolls’ video. After my skills had been assessed, I was assigned the role of band manager. Not even backup singer; just band manager.

After all our friends had come over from around Mallory’s neighborhood, the spots of the band were filled, and sad as it was, Rusty the German Shepherd would be a real band member before I was. I was told my position as band manager was very important, and when I tried the argument of, “The Band Manager Can Decide to Be a Band Member,” I was put one rung lower so I didn’t get power hungry. I was put in charge of Sound Check, or rather, turning the CD on and making it louder as everyone lip synced.

We went through a Rihanna stage and then a Gwen Steffani stage, and I’m still thankful to this day that we stopped pretending to be celebrities before the Kardashians came into power— I know I would have ended up as the family poodle. I never knew whom the people I was pretending to be were, other than the fact that they sang songs about revenge on men and doing things they weren’t allowed to do in clubs. I didn’t even understand what half the things they sang meant— I came from being homeschooled.

It was easy being homeschooled. Recess was Who Can Throw the Stick Further, and Now You Toss the Rock into the Bucket. Mallory’s games were way above my small mind’s capacity, but I went along with it, because she was fun. In the dawn of our third grade year, Mallory decided she was too cool for Barbie Dolls. When those words came from her mouth, a piece of my soul died. Barbie Dolls were the water to my river. The lines to my paper. The notes to the CDs I played for the Pussycat Dolls’ nine year old cover band. I walked into the butter-yellow home with dark wooden floors, rubbing my hands together in a warm up stretch to turn dials on the stereo. I found Mallory sitting in the middle of the floor, creating a rubber band chain.

I asked her what she was doing, and she looked up at me through the swooped bangs she’d managed to perfect so early in life. “I’m making a chain for my Barbies.”

“What do you mean?” Oh, Innocent Me, with my princess waterproof Band-Aids and Tweety Bird overalls.

“I’ll show you,” she muttered absently, picking up the rope-like structure and carrying it to the barn in the backyard. I saw a container waiting there, a familiar one that held the Barbies and the Angelina Ballerina dolls she got from the American Girl magazines. I looked inside and picked up my favorite doll. Her name was Velma— because the name seemed to follow me everywhere. Mallory grabbed the doll from my hands and smiled at me like I was doing her a favor. “Thanks, Em.”

I watched her pull the doll’s head through one of the rubber band loops, and then another and another. She must have had a line of seventeen Barbies, all dangling helplessly and looking at me with their pink lipstick-ed smiles like, “Hi, I’m Barbie. Be my friend.”

Their smiles should have read something along the line of, “Hi, I’m Barbie. Save me now please.”

I didn’t like what I was seeing as Mallory took the chain and hooked it onto the back of the go-kart. The go-kart was dusty and bumblebee yellow, driving with an elegance like to that of a drunken camel. It almost threw us out so many times, and it never even crossed my mind as a child to question if part of the scary drive was due to that fact that a nine year old was driving. Who gave her that go-kart, anyway?

She told me to watch as she turned the key in the ignition and drove out to the field behind their house. I watched in horror as seventeen Barbies bounced behind her, one already losing a head as its arm stuck in the grass, body staying put as its head followed the vehicle. It really did feel so sinful to stand and watch as Mallory destroyed her Barbies. If I was a more dramatic kid, I would have taken a staggering run towards the go-kart, dropping to my knees in the middle of the field and slapping the frozen ground in pain, crying, “Why?” to the gods and anyone interested in hearing my tale of woe.
While I stayed upright, I know my mouth hung open in a horrified way, as if someone had bought me ice cream and slapped it from my hand before I took the first lick.

Bounce, bounce, bounce. Another head dislocated and the body flew away from the cart. It was a terrible thing, what she was doing. If the newspaper got wind of it, the headlines would read, “Plastic Bodied Massacre of the Century: Headed by evil little girl and the follower that just let it happen.” I would be the follower in those headlines. I did nothing as Barbie’s little sister Kelly fell to the ground. Spinner and Casey were included in the group of fallen Barbies, and later, Ken would lay at my feet as I surveyed the field for survivors. The evening sky around me was as peach as the Barbie leg I held, too much of an irony for me to handle. I remember crying a little, so aghast that my best friend was not only destroying the little bit of a childhood she’d let herself keep, but it was like she was telling me she was outgrowing me too. I still loved my Barbies. I was nine; what was the rush to be nineteen?

Six years later, I look back at that moment and wonder what kind of a warning signal it was. If she was nine and trying to recruit me to her Barbie slaying party, what would lay ahead? As it proved, in six years, parties would lay ahead. Sneaking out and asking me if I wanted to try the pineapple flavored alcohol in her brother’s room. Sitting in her father’s truck and hearing him tell her they were going to send her away to a boarding school, and knowing that I was going to lose the girl I thought was my best friend. Six years later, I decided to take a step back. To be Velma or a band manager was different when we were in the safety of her living room. Pretending to be someone other than me in public was too much.
Sometimes I missed just “Playing,” before it was “Hanging Out.” There was a bittersweetness about knowing things were different, but I’m glad now that I made myself turn away, because now I know I’m true to who I am. If I wanted to go into my basement, right now, and look in my old drawers, I’d find Barbie and a thousand of her friends. It was like life handed me a hot cup of coffee, black as the bottom of a lake but warm as sun, and told me to wake up. Pretending to be someone was just a way for me to hide in a friendship that was fun, even if it wasn’t good. I took the coffee, and I used it to move on to the friendships I have now. Plus, they let me be Daphne if I ask nice enough.

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