You are eight and lying on your bed, feet buried underneath your pillows, body propped up by two knobby elbows. You toddle Horseback Riding Barbie and Shaving Ken across the white comforter, fixing their hair, making them talk. She has moveable limbs and long brown hair; he has soft brown hair and his beard can disappear and reappear. You always dress them in your favorite outfits – bright colors, usually, to set them against your blanket – but today, they’re naked. You lay her down, put him on top. Your eyes narrow to a squint as they stay there, still. You wonder, what now?
Earlier that week in school your friends found a picture book about Adam and Eve in the library. You opened to the first page and froze. The simply drawn figures weren’t wearing any clothes: simple pen lines traced the outline of her breasts (boobs?) and his – what is that?! What is that! Suddenly, a few boys in your class tore the book from your hands and started flipping wildly through the pages, laughing. They whispered about sex. You didn’t ask what it was, just stayed stuck in place, but you gathered bits of their conversation and put them in order.
This afternoon, you are putting Ken and Barbie to the test. First, they have to be naked. Then, the boy lies on top of the girl. Finally, a baby is born. But you’re missing a step. What happens next? You reach out, move Ken’s crooked arm to Barbie’s chest and then immediately retract your hand. They wait for their next move. Your mother enters.
“What are your Barbies doing?” she asks. Her voice is flat.
This is when you should learn to lie.
“Having sex,” you quietly reply.
You stare down at the bed, waiting for the yell, or worse, the stern-lipped reprimand. But she says nothing. She turns and leaves the room, and you hold your breath until you hear her walking down the stairs. Gently you knock Ken off of Barbie, and then toss them both onto the floor. You lie in silence for a few minutes, head down on the sheet, face hot. Later, you come down for dinner, still red, but no one says anything. The next day, nothing again.
But within the next few weeks, your parents sign you up for soccer, gymnastics, and piano lessons. They shuttle you around, and you try to be goalie, an expert at the bars, a master of the keys. They say it’s good to make friends and get outside, but you know better. You know there’s something real bad about sex and you throw all the Barbies in a box under your bed and try to forget about it. You ask nothing, say nothing.
At night, you can still sense them there, in the shadow of the mattress. Dozens of Barbies shut in a plastic box, each lying on top of the other, arms entwined, chests bare. You push them farther and farther away, past chapter books and forgotten socks. You push until your fingers are just brushing the edge of the box, mouth inhaling swarms of dust bunnies, and then you push again.