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Paper Dolls

Paper Doll

The air inside the church was dense and clammy. Ceiling fans turned slowly, failing to relieve the sweltering heat. I sat there, like one of my childhood paper dolls, dressed in cutout, removable layers that concealed me; fate had lifted the little shoulder tabs and removed my pretty bride dress and replaced it with a black one for a mother in mourning. From behind the interchangeable, cutout layers, from beneath the frilly painted on underthings, I watched.

I was so absorbed by this cardboard sensation that I was unnerved when thick, fleshy arms straining against their stiff satin enveloped me. A whiny voice attached to the arms said, "Now, Barbara Ann, you're still young. You can have lots more babies. Maybe this is all for the best." When the suffocating arms were gone, I breathed again.

I looked around for Joey, my husband. He was standing over by the doorway with both hands buried deep in the pockets of his borrowed suit that wasn't even black, but dark blue. His hair was hanging down in his face, as always, hiding his dark, sensitive eyes and emphasizing his full mouth and square jaw. He was intently examining the floor in front of him. Reverend Boquard was speaking to him, nodding his head while he talked, and nervously smoothing down his mustache with the fingers of his left hand. 

Next to me my mother sniffed. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her crochet-edged handkerchief move up to her face, which was nearly covered by the gauzy veil she had attached to her hat. More arms, belonging mostly to people who hardly knew me, clasped me; more voices whispered kind words, or ignorant words, or vain promises about God's will. They smelled of White Shoulders or Old Spice, sometimes they smelled of roses that reminded me of the funeral home so I held my breath until they pulled away from my stiffness.

Finally, the droning organ music stopped and Joey slid in next to me on the bench. He reached out and took my hand in his two, which were rough and large and tanned against mine. I was dry-eyed, hollowed out. I felt empty like an egg when the insides are blown out through a little hole poked in one end. I knew I should be crying. Joey was. My mother was. So I just looked down at Joey's hands in my lap and wished I had my mother's veil on. 

At the gravesite I felt the heat of everyone's eyes on me, behind me, across from me, staring at my remoteness from this misery. Mostly they were my parents' friends from church and a few high school friends who had already heard about the baby dying. None of Joey's family was here. We sat surrounded by hot, muggy summer air. I could smell the freshly overturned earth and the cut flowers, so I looked instead at the graceful movements of the tops of the cottonwood trees edged the cemetery.

I couldn't trust myself to do the expected. I realized this when I didn't cry during the funeral service, even after all the nice things the preacher said about the baby and his soul being pure and sinless--he didn't mention my soul, or Joey's. I looked now at this tiny casket, covered with little blue carnations and baby white rosebuds, afraid I might laugh out loud, or scream at these people to stop watching me, or turn and run away from this solemn spectacle. But somehow I knew I wouldn't. 

Reverend Boquard's "Amen," startled me back to the present while others standing around us echoed soft "Amens." It felt as if everyone looked toward Joey and me, but Joey didn't appear to notice. There was an uncomfortable silence. Someone leaned over to Joey and whispered something and pointed toward the casket. Joey, looking embarrassed, squeezed my hand and pulled me toward the grave. He took the flower I hadn't realized I was holding from my other hand and laid it on top of the casket. 

"Sorry," I whispered to him when we had stepped away from our dead baby, now being lowered into his small hole in the earth. 

We had been married six months. I could imagine what whispered head-wagging comments were being muttered by the sympathetic or spoken aloud by the self-righteous. But I only cared what Joey was thinking. Did he believe this was a punishment from God for what we had done? Did he blame me that his son died before having a chance to live? Had he felt trapped, like my Aunt Grace had said he would, and now could be free of me since there was no more us? I bit my lower lip hard to keep it all from spilling out over the grave of my baby.

The classes we took did not cover any of this. The films showed sweaty, exhausted, smiling couples kissing each other and their wet, squalling newborns. The classes didn't prepare me for the shocked silence of my doctor's expression, or what I should do when the nurse, with tears shining in her eyes, would ask me to hold my silent, limp son. The classes didn't teach me that I was expected to place a rose on my baby's little casket, or that I would be required to return home to an empty crib and a dresser filled with yellow and green terry sleepers and stacks of neatly folded cloth diapers and a mobile that sang "Lullaby" when you wound it up. Worse than all this, the classes didn't cover how to talk to my husband about our dead son. 

People crowded into my parents' small house, dressed in their sedate church clothes; suit jackets were draped over chair backs, ties loosened or were absent and dresses were covered now by gingham aprons. Everyone was standing or sitting in little groups, talking in low voices as though someone was sleeping who they were afraid they might wake. The men, holding plates of food and bottles of beer, clustered in the living room and the dining room; the women were in the kitchen mostly, reheating, stirring and setting out dishes smelling of fried chicken, baked ham, potato salad, and apple pie. 

"Here Barbie, let me get you a nice plate of food. There is so much here. You just sit over here," said Mrs. Jepperds, mom's closest friend, steering me to the overstuffed chair that was my Dad's, trying to maneuver me down into it.

"I'm really not very hungry, Ma'am. I think I'll just go lie down for a while. If Joey comes in, tell him I'll be in my old room. He knows where it is."

"Sure.  I'll tell him. You go on along now."

It still looked the same. I had taken nearly everything with me except the furniture. I didn't take the bed. It was only a twin size. The dresser was low, designed for a little girl, white with blue flowers painted on the drawer handles. I knew the inside lower left-hand drawer was colored with purple crayon and that my hardened wads of Doublemint gum would still be stuck behind the headboard of the bed. A patchwork quilt covered the bed and I wondered where my blue and white eyelet bedspread had gone.

I lay face down on the bed, inhaling the smell that was home and mom--which was probably just Tide detergent and Downey fabric softener. The quilt was new but some of the squares were faded. They looked familiar and I recognized a square of red cotton dotted with tiny white hearts. It was once a favorite skirt of mine, a circular skirt that flared wide when I spun around. There were others too, a square of the blue and white eyelet from my old bedspread, a few patches of white with pink teddy bears holding hands, a square of pale blue velvet. I realized I was lying on my past, my own childhood. Little pieces of my life all stitched together. 

Mom must have made it after I moved out. At least she had pieces of my life to sew together, squares to touch, colorful patterns to remember the stages of a child's life by. I didn't have any faded fabrics, no old bedspreads to cut up, nothing.

When I woke up the room was dark, the muffled voices from the other end of the house were silent. I heard a noise, a soft grunting sound coming from near the darkened window. Light from the hallway slid under the door and I saw Joey leaning against the window's frame, his arms spread to either side, staring out into the night. I watched him, trying to see behind his paper doll layers without his being aware that I was spying. His tall, thin frame was slumped now with the emptiness he had struggled to conceal for the past three days. Occasionally his shoulders shuddered with little convulsions that betrayed the grief he felt he needed to hide from me.

Joey felt, and I envied him his grief.

"Why are you crying? This could make your life easier, couldn't it?"

He turned to me, slowly, and though I couldn't see his face clearly in the darkened room I knew his pause meant that my words had ripped into him, but I couldn't stop them. "How can you say that? You know that's not true."

"Wasn't it you who suggested getting an abortion in the first place?"

"That was when I wasn't sure what you wanted . . . it was just an option. We were talking options. That was before  .  .  . ."

"Before what? Before I trapped you into marrying me?"

"I never said that Barbara Ann. I never even thought it."

"But it's true, isn't it? You're off the hook now, Joey. You can start hanging around your high class friends again, playing the role you were born into. Now things will be the way your family wanted all along."

He walked toward me, reaching out for me in the dark, "It's not what I wanted. This doesn't change how I feel about you."

I jerked away from him, backing up against the headboard. With my arms clenched around my knees I folded up into a tight wad of quiet anger. "Sure it does. Don't you think I know what you gave up when you married me."

 He sat down at the end of the bed and put his head in his hands. He spoke quietly and the effort sounded painful. "I didn't give up anything I didn't want to, and anything I do, we can do together. All we did was put some things on hold for a little while."

"So, take it off hold. Let's just cut our losses and go our separate ways before we do any more damage."

Not looking up he clasped his knees with his hands and his voice sounded tight and barely controlled, "Listen to me, Barbara Ann. I wouldn't change anything that has happened if it meant losing you. Even the loss of our baby."

I felt the breath in my lungs leave me. He went on.

"I know I was a jerk when you first got pregnant, but I was just scared. It seemed like I was growing up too fast. I didn't handle the pressure from my parents very well. I know it was hard on you. But I never wanted anything that didn't include you. I've known that since I was a sophomore in high school." 

Words were hard for him but here they were, so many of them, spread out on the bed between us.

"What did your parents say?"

"Oh, you know. They're sorry for us."

"Yeah, sure they are. Is that why they wouldn't even come to the gravesite or here to my parents' house? Or was that beneath them . . .they blame me for this too, don't they?"

"I don't care who they blame. I don't care what they think, Barbie. It was no one's fault.  Sometimes it's just no one's fault."

I rubbed my fingers over the soft velvet square near my foot. I had worn this dress to the Senior Prom--Joey took me. I was so proud of it. I wanted to look sophisticated so his parents would approve, and mom spent two weeks working on it. I looked beautiful. But it didn't make any difference. I still came from the wrong everything.

"No one's fault," I mumbled.

"Yeah, sometimes things just happen. The doctor told us that. We're not being punished, and our baby sure wasn't punished for something we did. No matter what some old gossip says."

"What did we do, Joey?"

"We loved each other, that's all. God doesn't punish that."

The whole time he was talking he had moved closer until his chest was leaning against my knees. He reached up and pushed my hair out of my face with both hands and ran his fingers down my jaw and around to the back of my neck, cradling my head in his hands.

I closed my eyes and saw again my baby, tiny, perfect, and lifeless, wrapped in the warmed flannel blanket with little yellow ducks all over it. His cheek was smooth, still wet from the delivery. If I could make wishes into memories I would feel the weight of him in my arms, and I would kiss my son's forehead before giving him back to the nurse.    

Joey pulled me to his chest and I let him. I smelled his clean, starched smell. "It's not your fault he's gone. He just is. You loved him; that's the best anyone can do." With my ear pressed to his chest, his deep voice rumbled against the background of his heart's thudding rhythm. He held me there, tight, like it was something he needed as much for himself as for me. We sat, wrapped together, surrounded in silence. My mind groped, panicky, looking for deliverance from this nightmare, a way to flee, to wake up and sigh with relief. 

The tingling sensation started in my shoulders and spread down my chest and across my swollen breasts. I pushed away from Joey as my unneeded, useless milk found escape, like tears.  In our classes they called it a let-down reflex. I had forgotten. 

We stared down at the spreading wet circles dripping through my cotton dress and our laughter, raw and embarrassed, hung above us in the darkened room until, like my milk, my tears found release.

by B.L. Golden

Previously published in Potpourri, Magazine of the Literary Arts

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