by L. A. Bowen
L. A. Bowen (b. 1986, Buffalo) is a writer and artist, among other things. In addition to creating works of fiction and creative non-fiction, she designs children's books and plays in the band Parade Chic. Bowen attended the University of Central Lancashire in Preston, England where she studied Drawing & Photography from ‘05-’06, and the State University of New York at Buffalo, where she graduated with a BFA in Fine Art & Photography in 2008. Her YA verse novel, One Too Many Lies, was released in December 2018.
Jessica Mae has very clammy hands. They aren’t wet from perspiration, but because, even at the age of 8, she always has her fingers in her mouth.
In the hallway at school, walking to and from the cafeteria or gym class, I avoid Jessica Mae... She always wants to hold my hand. I find it too embarrassing.
Holding hands is for babies and girly-girls. And, I am told, Europeans.
But I am not a baby and I am definitely not a girly-girl.
And, even at the age of 8, I am a germophobe.
But if I happen to find myself walking in line next to Jessica Mae, and if she asks to hold my hand (because she always does) I will say, “Okay.” And I will do it, albeit unenthusiastically. Being mortified is just a lot easier than saying no.
Jessica Mae wants to be my friend and I should be grateful for this because I don’t have many, but I am afraid of her.
She wears pink bedazzled t-shirts and jeans with floral embellishments or butterfly appliques. Her ears are pierced with little silver hoops. Her blonde hair is always sprouting out of the top of her head in at least two pigtails, accompanied by half a dozen barrettes that don’t seem to serve any function. And sometimes it is obvious that she has even allowed her mother to use a curling iron on her hair-do.
Every day Jessica Mae sits next to me on the school bus. I try to avoid her by pressing myself up against a window, but she finds me every time and takes my hand in hers without a word. Her free hand is always shoved half way in her mouth.
My bus stop is the very last on the route and Jessica Mae’s is the second last stop. It is a long ride.
One day, on the bus, Jessica Mae hands me a small damp envelope containing an invitation to her birthday party. When I get home I can’t wait to tell Mom the bad news.
She thinks it’s wonderful.
We go to We 'R' Toys to pick out a present for Jessica Mae.
I’ve decided, or Maybe it’s Mom’s suggestion, to get her a Barbie doll. We know she likes those.
I have acquired a few Barbies of my own over the years, though I am not a devoted fan. These are mostly gifts from my aunt. There is a Skipper doll from Santa, which I may have requested myself. Perhaps I had a fever that day.
These Barbies are tall and slim, with long blonde hair down to their asses. And they have boobs. Even Skipper has small breasts, which I pretend are not there.
I can’t imagine that I will ever have the body of a grown woman, or feel comfortable in heels or a mini skirt. Nobody in my family has blonde hair or legs as long as a Barbie, but I hardly notice that.
All I know is that Barbies are girly-girls. They wear purple and yellow clothing that exposes their midriff. They do not have an outie belly button like me, or nipples, or even freckles on their skin. They have permanent make-up on their faces and some of them have permanent earrings stuck in their ears.
One birthday Mom takes me to pick out a gift for myself at We 'R' Toys, and to my own surprise, instead of picking out a Ninja Turtle or Legos, I choose a Ken doll with basketball accessories.
My little brother, Robby, wants one too. It’s not unusual for Mom to let us get a gift on each other’s birthdays, so we go home with two identical basketball-toting Ken dolls.
But today I need to find the perfect gift for Jessica Mae. At We 'R' Toys there is a whole Barbie aisle, containing rows and rows of narrow pink boxes with cellophane windows. I peer into every one, thoughtfully examining the clothing and accessories that come with each doll.
I’ve seen the commercials for a new line of Barbies that have their very own miniature pet—a dog, a cat, a rabbit. I immediately gravitate towards one Barbie in particular because she has a pet dog, the kind of pet I wish I could have, and because I like the color of her outfit, green and blue. She just looks cool.
But Mom flinches when she sees my selection, she wants me to pick out a different one.
“If you want that Barbie you can put it on your Christmas list... Hey, why don't we get this other one for Jessica?” she suggests, casually picking up the next Barbie in the row—the one with the cat.
“But I want to get her this one! It has a dog!”
Mom is squirming a little.
“Honey, I don’t know… I don’t know Jessica’s parents that well. They might just prefer this one...”
I’m baffled, “Who doesn’t like dogs?” I pry.
“Honey, it’s just that… Jessica’s parents... they might want Jessica to have a doll that looks like... Jessica.”
I examine the outfit. It is true that I have never seen Jessica Mae wear clothes that are not pink.
“But this is the best one,” I argue.
It’s so obvious.
Mom is whispering now, “Honey, this Barbie is... black.”
My eyes flit over the plastic polymer, vinyl, and PVC that comprise the body of this small imaginary human. I finally see what I hadn’t noticed before, that this Barbie’s skin is much darker than mine—a shade of brown.
Mom emphasizes that it doesn’t matter to her. She says she just doesn’t want me to feel embarrassed if Jessica Mae doesn’t like her gift.
This is bullshit.
I leave We 'R' Toys sorely disappointed with our selection—the pink-and-purple-clad cat-loving Barbie doll.
That weekend, at Jessica Mae’s birthday party, I pay special attention to all of the gifts she opens. There are several Barbies to add to her collection.
And they all have the same shade of bright green, scaly skin—just like Jessica Mae.
None of them come with a little pet dog.