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Six months ago
“The fuck is this, Melissa?” Ben held up Lissy’s favorite doll by the hair. Lissy’s stomach grew legs and ran away, and the rest of her wanted to follow. How had he found her toys? She couldn’t explain herself to him. No rational adult would understand her.
“Please don’t do this,” Lissy begged. Her whole world was crashing down around her.
“Don’t do this? How can I not ‘do this’ Melissa? I caught my twenty-nine-year-old girlfriend playing with Barbie dolls. You’re some kind of weirdo!” His voice... it was the same voice that said, “I love you,” to her every night for the past few weeks. She couldn’t handle him looking at her with so much disdain. It was soul-destroying.
Lissy sobbed. “I’m sorry! I’ll make them go away! You’ll never see them again, just please stop holding her by the hair!” A part of her was worried that he might be hurting the doll even as the rest of her was fully aware that was nonsense.
“She’s not real, Melissa. She’s a plastic fucking doll. Fucksake, you need help!” He thrust the doll in Lissy’s face. “This shit... this enables those fucktards who harm kids. I’m calling the men in white coats to take you away.”
Lissy shook as her survival instincts took over. A deathly calm washed away all her fear and shame for the time being. When she spoke again, it was with her adult voice—the one she used to destroy opponents in her job as an accountant.
“I already checked. This isn’t a psychiatric disorder. Get your things, get the fuck out of my apartment, and if you breathe a word of this to anyone, I’ll slap you with a restraining order, because bringing this up to other people is harassment. Won’t look so good on your application to be a cop, will it?”
He stared at her, as though he were seeing her for the first time. She thought the feeling was mutual. In the short time they’d been lovers, she had never expected him to have such a hateful streak lurking beneath his chilled-out exterior.
“You know what? It’s over, Melissa.” He said it after the fact. As if she might even slightly contemplate having anything to do with him after this shit had gone down. He dropped the doll on the floor and Lissy flinched as one of the plastic arms fell off. She could fix it. Had been putting those dolls back together again for years. It was still mean of him to treat her toy like that.
“Good. You were a lousy boyfriend. You have thirty minutes to go get your shoes and any other things you left here then I’m calling the cops.” She watched him like a hawk as he went around her apartment collecting his belongings. He pawed through her things on the pretense of looking for more of his own items. She was certain he only wanted to find more evidence of her age play.
Finally, he was leaving. She followed him down the stairs to be sure.
“I don’t know how you can look at yourself in the mirror, Melissa. I always thought you were a bit childish, but this... it’s something fucking else.”
His words were like a slap in the face.
“I thought you loved me.” Her anger was suddenly joined by hot tears, and the fact he’d made her cry added to her fury.
“Love you? How can anyone love someone like you? You play with kids’ toys!” He wrenched open the main door and stepped out.
“Get bent, asswipe. And never call me again!” she screamed as he got into a cab. She was torn between her adult side being furiously defensive and her… other side being utterly devastated. Once he was moving away from the curb, she slammed the door to her building and dragged herself up the stairs to her apartment. She closed her own door more quietly, suddenly conscious of bothering her neighbors. Then she leaned against the door and slid down to the floor, where her strength ebbed away. She put her head in her hands and sobbed until her knees ached and her body shivered from sitting in only her nightdress on the cold floor.
Her thoughts were a typhoon. He was a dick. She was a freak. He was being reasonable. Why couldn’t she be normal? What was wrong with her? He was a poopy-head. She needed to get a grip. Would he call her parents? What would they think if they found out about her fascination with stuff intended for children? They were a different generation... would they ever understand?
She reminded herself she’d only been dating Ben for a couple of months, and he hadn’t met her parents. There was no way he could tell them anything. She’d fallen hard, but he wasn’t very deeply embedded in her life, yet. In the space of less than an hour, she’d gone from loving him to never wanting to see him again. But she still loved him. She couldn’t stop crying. This relationship had been idiot proof and she’d still ruined it.
She tried to breathe. Would she ever be able to keep her toys a secret for long enough for any relationship to go right? She wished she could just adult all the time like normal people.
The Present Day
Lissy threw her purse on the seat next to the telephone table, dimly noticing that a fancy envelope—probably a wedding invitation—waited to be opened. She kicked off her black pumps while she ran upstairs as fast as possible. She wanted all the time she could get before Dan came home. Passing her bedroom, she went to the closet in the spare room, where she’d stashed them.
She opened the doors and immediately her heart lifted. In a shoebox at the back of reams of junk, her Barbie dolls waited for her to play with them.
When he had found out, almost a couple weeks ago, she’d expected him to ask her to move right back out again, given that they’d only rented the place together for three months. Memories of that last night with her ex-boyfriend had overwhelmed her and she’d panicked.
Instead, Dan had taken more than a passing interest in her peculiarities, as she called them, but it still felt weird to play when he was in the house. She was twenty-nine, after all, and how many twenty-nine-year-olds still wanted to de-stress like this? Wasn’t she supposed to sit in the tub with a glass of wine and an empty head? Or go to a spa and sit in a muddy tub with a glass of water and an empty head? Or hit the gym and do cardio on a running machine watching music videos with no thoughts other than whether she’d beat her personal best? Weren’t those the ways grown-ups were allowed to play? She actually went to the gym pretty regularly, but she’d avoided bath time since she moved in with him, because she was ashamed that she couldn’t bath without her four bath ducks.
She got out the hairbrush for her dolls and gently brushed their hair over her leg, then decided what dresses they were going to wear to the office. Annie, the blonde doll, settled on a spangly silver evening dress—when you had a dress that nice, why not wear it every day? And Paige, the brown-haired doll, wore her favorite wedding dress from her tenth wedding. Lissy found it relaxing to design and sew the dresses for the dolls, although every time she’d tried to scale her sewing up to fit herself, something always seemed to go wrong, usually with the sleeves. When she’d moved in with Dan, she’d got rid of most of the outfits she’d made for her Barbie dolls, along with some other stuff she thought of as incriminating evidence that she wasn’t quite normal.
As the two overdressed dolls arrived at their veterinary office which existed between four legs of a chair, Lissy heard the front door close. She threw her dolls back in their shoebox, crammed the lid back on and left them behind Dan’s snowboarding boots and tennis racket.
“Bye bye!” she whispered, waving to the dolls by closing her hand and opening it again. Getting up to leave the room, she tried to think grown-up thoughts. Work, interest free loans, meetings for the homeowners’ association… those were all things grown-ups thought about, right? As she went down the stairs to greet him, she tried to feel like an adult.
“Hey hun. Good day at work?” She stopped half-way down the stairs.
“No, it was brutal. They’re making efficiency layoffs in a different department. I don’t really want to talk about it.” He shrugged his coat off and she watched him hang it up on the pegs by the door, then her gaze went to her discarded pumps and she tried to sneak them back onto her feet before he noticed.
“Why didn’t you leave them on the shoe rack?” He didn’t turn around. How did he always know these things? Lissy picked up her other shoe and came down the stairs with one foot in a pump, the other in just her hose, then removed it again and put the pair of shoes in their rightful place, on the rack beneath the coats.
“I just got distracted, Dan.” She colored red and looked at the terracotta and cream stone floor.
“Playing with your dolls again?” He turned to look at her, but she couldn’t meet his gaze.
“Yeah.” Why did he have to go and pay attention? She tried to remind herself that grown-ups didn’t think things like that, but she couldn’t think of what they did instead. Sometimes, trying to figure out what she was supposed to do in any given situation was like trying to play the opposite game: Whatever she thought she should do, she should probably actually do the opposite. She sighed.
“Want a drink?” She started heading towards the kitchen as she said it, all the better to avoid a long conversation about something she wasn’t ready to share.
“Sure, we got any beer?”
“Prob’ly.” She tried not to show her annoyance that, the harder she tried to be a grown-up, the more little she seemed to end up being. She decided she didn’t want to draw attention to it by correcting herself, so she just kept going through the kitchen door and breathed a sigh of relief once she was alone again.
It was worse now than when he hadn’t known anything about it. Now, she felt like she was constantly watching herself for anything she said or did that might be seen as littleness, as she thought of it. She had expected him to get angry or tell her to choose between him and her dolls, but he hadn’t. The day he’d found out, nearly two weeks ago, she’d not heard him come home.
When the front door had slammed shut, she’d startled and dropped her dolls in front of the closet, closed the spare room’s door behind her, and flurried downstairs to get dinner started. He’d occupied himself while she’d cooked, which she preferred since it gave her time to put her thoughts in order.
She remembered calling him down for dinner, then returning to the kitchen to get the roast out of the oven. She put it on the table and decided a bottle of wine would be a nice addition, so she’d gone back, taken off the oven mitts, and pulled two wine glasses out of the cupboard. Walking back into the dining room, she saw him sat in his chair, her dolls where his knife and fork had been. She froze, squeezed the glasses so hard that she snapped the stem of one of them, then turned and fled for the kitchen.
Wrapping the broken glass in newspaper, she’d noticed her hand was very slightly grazed. As she ran the tap to clean it out, she started to cry. She’d been so sure he would break up with her, so scared that he’d push her away, but instead he’d just pretended it was the most normal thing in the world. He hadn’t addressed it at all, really.
“These yours?” He’d said when she finally worked up the nerve to go back into the dining room.
“Um… yeah.” She had colored red and tried not to cry again as she acknowledged the evidence that she’d been playing with dolls that afternoon.
“Well, at least I know the local seven-year-olds aren’t breaking in. You play with the dolls?” He’d sounded curious.
“I guess.” She looked at Annie’s uneven haircut. It had seemed like a good idea at the time. “They’re not exactly ornaments.”
“You better put them away then. I found them on the floor.”
“I know, I’m sorry, I’ll get rid of them.” Maybe if she got to the box with all the other stuff before he saw it, he would never find out that this was just the tip of the iceberg.
“It’s too weird, right?” She had suspected as much.
“Have I missed something here?” He shook his head and pointed at her usual seat at the table. “Sit. And explain. Properly.”
She couldn’t resist when he spoke in his sternest voice, so she hopped up onto her seat and stared at her plate. There was still a distinct feeling like she was in trouble over this, and she couldn’t shake it. But why wasn’t he shouting or throwing her out of his house? She was so uncertain about how to explain herself, that it took her an entire minute before she finally put some words together.
“It helps me relax.” She spooned some peas onto her plate.
“Okay. I get that. What aren’t you telling me?”
She stared only at the peas. He knew there was more. Had he seen the other stuff? Why hadn’t she hidden it better? Why did she even have any of it? How could she have a relationship with him when there was this whole side of her that had to stay hidden? It wasn’t exactly like she was a straightforward BDSM adventurer who wanted to play adult games with her man. This was different. So much difference. And she didn’t know how he could possibly accept her, if he knew about it all. On top of that, she couldn’t tell him that this was the reason her last boyfriend had abandoned her.
“I’m sorry, I can’t. I don’t know what to say... I’m sorry.” She spooned far more peas than she wanted to eat in a month, then replaced the spoon in the bowl.
“You gonna leave any of those for me?” He was smiling as he said it, and Lissy couldn’t quite guess how he felt about this new development, but that was the end of the conversation, and he hadn’t picked it back up again.
In the present, she went to the fridge and got him a beer. They had a pretty normal relationship, aside from him finding out about her dolls. There was the occasional kinkiness in the bedroom, but everything else was as plain as a New York cheesecake. It was probably best, Lissy knew. After all, those relationships she’d read about, the alpha males who had to haul their naughty women over their knees for a good spanking, they didn’t really exist in real life, did they? She took him his beer and wondered what it would have been like, if he’d pulled her over his knee and spanked her until she’d told him everything, about the dolls, the bath ducks, the socks that were stowed in the back of her sock drawer, the really long ones that she never actually wore any more in case he noticed.
He noticed everything. And they’d only been going out a few months, she wanted him to get to know her before he found out she was… odd. Some people had an inner child that they connected with; Lissy had an outer adult that she hid behind. She kept thinking that if she just acted like a normal person for long enough, it would stick, and she would be able to stop hiding her true self. She wished she could get as excited over stone and mushroom-colored pencil skirts as she did about multicolored scrunchies and new coloring books. Wished she could be an adult.
For weeks, she would avoid the kids’ clothing section at Wal-Mart, and stay away from Toys-R-Us online, but then life got so boring... so empty... so gray that she would inadvertently find herself looking at hair-slides covered in bunnies or multicolor glittery bead necklaces with pictures of Sophia the First on them. And a little something would make its way into her shopping cart.
She put the beer down for him and he grabbed her wrist as she turned to go.
“Hey, babe, how’s about you sit on my knee and give me a kiss?” She wished he would say. Instead, he just said, “You never told me about your day. How was it?”
“Pretty quiet, y’know, the usual. Move some numbers around, phone some clients, move more numbers around. People being bitchy around the water cooler. We don’t tend to get much drama until the start of April.”
“Want me to cook for a change?” He ran a finger along her forearm, and she smiled.
“I got it. I’m doing Greek lamb.” It was the easiest thing ever – slow roast the lamb, boil the new potatoes and green veg, toss in some olive oil and oregano, maybe a bit of thyme if she had it. It was her favorite sort of meal — tasty, healthful but uncomplicated.
“Sounds great. Hey, I’m seeing an old college friend this evening. It’s been about eight years so we’re due a catch-up. Wanna come with?”
“Thanks, but I need to go grocery shopping.” She couldn’t quite put her finger on it, but she wasn’t in the mood to meet people this evening. She skipped off to the kitchen and got started on dinner.
At the supermarket, Lissy tried her best to avoid the kids’ stuff. She was an accountant. She drove a car. She had sex with her boyfriend. Regularly. Adulting was something she knew how to do, but it often felt like method acting, especially since Dan had found her dolls. It had made her more cautious, in case there was anything else she did that would tip people off that she was a crazy person.
The Kings of Wal-Mart didn’t seem to be on her side, today, though. Entire aisles seemed to have moved, and Lissy found herself wandering around the store in search of things.
Suddenly, without realizing it, she was standing in the middle of the children’s toy aisle. She frowned and turned to leave, but then her eye caught a new Barbie horse that she liked the look of. After glancing furtively up and down the aisle, and assuring herself that she was the only one here, she crouched down and picked up the box. The horse was beautiful. It was the same one she’d seen on the TV in commercials between Ever After High and The Magic School Bus. She knew it came with a special tail that got longer, and a special, removable magic marker pen to change the color of its mane to aqua or cerise. She also knew that it was twelve inches long and that there would be no room at all in her little box of toys and other things.
Holding the box in her hands, her heart tingled. She wanted it so bad. What would she do with it? How could she keep it out of view? It wasn’t just Dan she had to worry about; what if her parents came to visit? It was so hard. She wasn’t even sure how to get rid of the packaging.
All they needed was a cat to knock over the trash cans and the entire street would know she had bought a horse aimed at seven-year-olds. Then she would have to move to Alaska and start a new life as a donkey farmer. Or something. And everything would be fine until her belongings got shipped to Alaska and someone saw her toys, and started asking questions like, “How old is your daughter?” and then Lissy would have to either explain or shut down the conversation.
And then everyone in Alaska would think she was weird, too.
With a deep sigh of longing, she replaced the horse on the shelf, feeling as though her heart might break as tears prickled at the back of her eyes. She’d worked hard through school and college, so she could be an adult and buy as many toys as she wanted and play when she wasn’t working... and instead there were all these insane social rules that meant she would be ridiculed and rejected by everyone if she filled her life with all the things that made her happy.
Lissy wandered around some more, and eventually found the toiletries aisle. They were almost out of shower gel. Her hand twitched as she saw some Cookie Monster body wash which looked so much fun. There was no way she could take that home. Dan would never use it, and visitors might see it.
Setting her jaw, she looked away. But the other shower gels were all boring and flowery things, with grown up names like magnolia and citrus. Why have something in a plain bottle when there was a bottle shaped and colored just like Cookie Monster and it was right there in front of her?
She decided it wouldn’t harm to find out what Cookie Monster shower gel smelled like. Picking it up, she unfastened the lid and inhaled the scent. It was a neutral sort of bath time kinda scent which wasn’t immediately childish but at the same time wasn’t boring and flowery. She could imagine herself and Dan going to work smelling like Cookie Monster. Although, at that point, her adult side interrupted to point out the marketing team at Sesame Street had missed an opportunity by not making Cookie Monster shower gel that smelled like cookie dough.
The bottle made its way into the trolley and she completely forgot about her worries that Dan might find it weird because at that moment she saw something even more awesome. There was matching Elmo bubble bath. Without thinking, Elmo was seized and carefully placed side-by-side with Cookie Monster, then Lissy headed off in her continued search for the fresh cookies.
When she got home, she felt much less confident about the choice of body wash. She stared at Cookie Monster for ages. But there was no way she could change him for something grown up; the moment her fingers had touched the bottle, she had been locked into a trajectory that only ended here, with a blue Sesame Street character instead of a plain old bottle of magnolia shower gel. It would have been mean to take him out of the trolley once he was in.
She worried, sometimes, about all the unsold toys at the store. Whenever there was a sale of leftover stuffies after Valentine’s or Easter, she couldn’t look because it was too sad to think of what might happen to the unsold ones after they were removed from the shelf. And leaving Cookie Monster on the shelf would mean he might not get sold, either. And she wanted him. So, there was no way she could have left him there. Not really.
She sighed. It was hopeless. She was never going to be able to get out of her own head for long enough to be a real grown up twenty-four seven. It was too hard. All the best stuff was aimed at kids. She might as well pack her things and let Dan go find a girl who liked fancy adult stuff like wine.
She put Cookie Monster in the shower, placed Elmo in the bathroom cabinet, and went downstairs to watch Fairly OddParents until Dan got home. The moment she heard his tires on the driveway, she could switch to The Bachelor.