The Dead Doll
by Sola Saar
I was back in Los Angeles at my mother’s house and very pregnant with my first child.
My younger sister Katrina already had twenty-six children.
She seated several baby dolls at the dining table, then placed tiny sauce bowls and teacups in front of each of them. Katrina put Marissa, a doll she’d been carrying around everywhere for seven years, in a high chair on my right. With her tangled black curls and exaggerated eye makeup drawn on with a thick black Sharpie, Marissa looked like a deranged version of me, a junkie child beauty pageant star whose blank stare evoked more than her manufacturers had originally intended. She taunted me with her permanently raised arms.
My sister began this tribe of dolls when she first discovered medical reality television at fifteen. While she liked shows focused on obesity or various deformities, “The Birthing Channel” was her favorite. It was a channel entirely devoted to playing live births, 24 hours a day. Her addiction to this channel vexed my artist mother, but to me it seemed reasonable for someone whose autism diagnosis allowed her to create a world entirely of her own obsessions. It was one I sometimes envied. The gruesome videos only bothered me when she watched them in the living room.
After school, she’d sit on the couch dunking cookies into her milk, transfixed by the endless loop of women giving birth. The shows were very theatric. Operatic music played as sweaty women wept through their contractions, cat hissing sounded as they lashed out at the nurses, and triumphant trombones blared when they finally pushed out lumps of unformed reddish flesh. I always wanted to look away when walking by, discomfited by people not only abandoning their privacy, but turning it into melodrama, but Katrina liked to dwell in their intimacy. She’d pause the television at the exact moment when the baby disconnected from its mother and run back to her room, leaving us with a still of the parturition.
One night I heard loud groaning noises coming from her room and, feeling concerned, opened the door to check on her. When I entered she was sitting in bed with a doll under her shirt, legs spread, crying murderously as I asked her what she was doing. She held up a bald beige doll with one hand on its head and the other on its bottom and said, “This is my son, Xavier.” She lay back, sweating from her performance, and cradled the thing in a towel.
The next morning, Xavier was at the breakfast table sitting next to Katrina. When asked about the “doll,” she frowned and told the family, “Xavier is not a doll. He just has alopecia and severe growth failure,” as though if he weren’t tiny and bald, we might mistake him for human.
Over the next eight years, she had fifteen more doll-children from the same process and adopted eleven others from around the world. She said she was inspired by a television special on Angelina Jolie.
I had recently gotten a job teaching English at a high school far, far away.
I was home this week because my mother wanted to throw me a baby shower. I told her I’d only been to one baby shower and it had made me anxious. She told me I probably wasn’t eating enough meat.
I stared at my empty bowl and scraped the morsels of oatmeal from the dolls’ tiny saucers. I could only hold down bland food in the morning. My sister had left the dishes for me to wash and retreated back to her room. She’d taken all her dolls except Marissa, who remained in the high chair with oatmeal on her face.
I walked over to her, feeling a need to stroke her matted hair, touch her soft eyelashes. Squeezing her head, I remembered my sister would strap her into a car seat, on top of a heap of her other dolls, and leave them there in the hot sun. I pulled Marissa up by her hair to hold her and her head popped off. I looked down at her body, still stuck in the high chair. Frantically, I tried to screw Marissa’s head back on, believing I could easily reattach it, but it was too loose, and would not affix. I peered down the hollow trunk of her body. Some part had been lost, and her head would only stay on if I sat her in a certain position and leaned it against the back of the chair. I let her rest there and hoped my sister would figure out how to snap it back into place.
“Vera, I need to talk to you,” my mother said, suddenly appearing behind me.
I flinched. “I was just cleaning,” I said, turning around. She stood there in a slinky nightgown with her hair tied up in a silk scarf.
“What are you wearing tomorrow? I know you’ve given up a little since you’ve been pregnant, but no sweatpants at the shower.” I looked down at my black-and-white sweatpants, which had food stains on them.
“I have a dress,” I said.
“Don’t wear black.”
“It’s yellow,” I said. “What are you doing today?”
“I have to take your sister to therapy,” she groaned. “In the valley. Did you ask your husband for a recommendation that’s a little closer?”
“I forgot to,” I said. “He’ll be here Saturday. Why don’t you ask him then?”
She unraveled her scarf and let out her frizzed ringlets. My mother was half- black and half-German, although with her olive skin and green eyes she was usually mistaken for being Latina or sometimes Jewish. I had inherited her hair and my father’s Icelandic complexion, one shade above albino.
“Another thing you might want to think about is that when I got pregnant with you, I was petite, like you. So I had a horrible labor that lasted nine hours.”
“And I did an entirely natural birth. No drugs,” she added, almost bragging. “I wouldn’t recommend it though, for a first born. I didn’t suffer for your sister, even with her giant head!”
“What?” I asked.
“There are ways of making birth less painful now,” she said. “Prenatal massages, acupuncture, transcendental meditation. I feel like you haven’t done any research. Are you prepared for this child?”
“I stayed up all night watching live births moms posted on the Internet.”
“Wonderful! So now you kind of know what to expect. But it’s going to be so much more excruciating than you could imagine.”
Suddenly Katrina burst into the room carrying a naked decapitated doll.
“Oh no!” she lamented. “My daughter’s dead!”
“What?” I asked.
“Marissa’s dead!” she moaned.
My mom and I paused skeptically for a few uncertain seconds.
“How’d she die?” I asked.
Katrina looked around apprehensively, and then stuttered, “Marissa had to have surgery. She had to have the body repaired because her neck broke. She tried to have the body repaired but it didn’t work on her and so she died.”
“She will be missed,” my mother told her, still primping her hair. “We have to go soon, Katrina. Start getting ready.”
My sister stood there waiting for a reaction, her tall body rocking back and forth. Suddenly, she broke into tears.
“My daughter’s dead!” she bawled.
“Sweetie, you have other children,” my mom consoled her. “It’s okay.”
She let out a long sob, and said, “but Marissa was too young to die” before leaving the room.
“At least she won’t carry around that damn doll anymore,” mom whispered to me.
“Except she has a whole closet full of other dolls,” I reminded her. “Anyway, weren’t we talking about my baby?”
“Right. I have some ideas for shower games I wanted to talk to you about,” she said.
Katrina burst into the room again, no longer crying.
“I think we should have a funeral!” she said, her eyes widened like a cartoon’s.
My mother took a while to respond. She sometimes indulged my sister’s eccentric requests, reluctantly supporting her for a few minutes before disappearing into a bottle of red wine.
“It sounds like a lot of work,” she said finally. “I don’t have the time. Why don’t you write a nice poem? Vera will help you.”
“But she’s my daughter,” Katrina pleaded.
“I don’t want to,” my mother said.
“Because I’m not throwing a funeral for that doll!”
“She’s not a doll, she’s a midget. Did you make a mistake?”
“But she’s a human midget. Did you make a mistake?”
“Sorry. Midget. But I think they like to be called little people.”
“But I think we need to have funerals for humans. So we can move on!”
“Fine! Have the Goddamn funeral!” she said, growing impatient. “But this is your thing. I’m not helping you organize this fucking—” she stopped herself. “I already have Vera’s funeral—I mean baby shower.”
“Let’s have the funeral Saturday!” Katrina said.
“Right after Vera’s baby shower is convenient.”
“Yippee!” my sister said with a firm nod. Still sniveling, darted off to her bedroom.
“Are you really going to go through with this?” I asked.
“I’m going to see what the therapist tells us. But I think it’s a good sign she wants to kill off that creepy doll!”
“I broke it.”
“I broke the doll when I was cleaning. It was an accident. It just snapped off. I didn’t think it would kill her.”
My mother gasped and closed the door. My sister had sensitive hearing.
“What did you think, she was just going to go on living without her head like a chicken?” she whispered.
“I don’t know. I thought she’d get another one.”
“It doesn’t work like that. You know how long she’s had this one.”
“I thought you said it was good she was moving on.”
“Well now that I know you killed her, she’s not really moving on.”
“Let’s just not say anything about that.”
“Fine. We’ll take this secret to the grave— no pun intended.”
I rolled my eyes and waddled off to my childhood bedroom.
That day I took my mom’s advice and booked a prenatal spa day at a salon downtown. They had a “Pregnant Gal” special that included an 80-minute massage, acupuncture session, and pedicure.
The spa had a custom-formed massage table for a round belly. I tottered over in my towel, which barely covered my backside, and jumped on my tiptoes to hoist myself onto the high table. I opened the door and called for help. A masseuse appeared, toned and groomed, and asked if everything was okay.
“Yeah I’m fine. Can you help me onto the table?” I asked.
She shut the door and took out a stepping stool. She held out her arm and helped me roll onto the table. My towel slipped off in the process.
“I’m sorry,” I said, covering myself with my hands.
“It happens all the time,” she said, smiling at my naked penguin body.
She extracted fresh towels from the cabinet and laid them over my body, mummifying me from my shoulders to my calves. Then she left the room. I remained frozen on my side, afraid the towel might fall off again. I still had not gotten used to my body— this teetering, temporary body with a stomach so heavy and unbalanced that even the fitted pregnancy table made me feel as though I might topple over.
As I lay staring at a single flaming candle, my neck planted in the moldable pillow, this woman’s hard knuckles fingering my back, I felt my baby girl being to kick. She seemed to like this woman kneading my back much more than I did, because she kicked with more vigor than she had in weeks. Perhaps it was fun, like a rollercoaster, having someone squish the bubble around you, but I felt nauseated by her touch. My baby and I would probably disagree on many things.
“Not so hard, please.” I said to the masseuse. The baby stopped kicking.
She took some warm, pungent oil and smeared it over my neck and back. She told me to turn over and started making tiny circles on my abdomen in a way that was pleasant but alien.
“How many months along are you?” she asked.
“Seven months,” I said with a plastered smile. “It’s my first child.”
“Boy or girl?”
“It’s a girl!” she beamed. “Aren’t you so excited?”
“Yeah!” I replied, trying out an intonation that was higher pitched than usual. “We are thrilled! We are going to name her Maria.”
She grinned at me, still circling her fingers on my stomach. This baby was already making strangers so happy. I thought pregnancy would have made me happier, given me a sense of instant social validation that would glide me through the day like a fine-tuned compliment, or at least glowing skin. I thought when I satisfied all the important life markers— husband, child, occupation—all by the age of 25, I would have a life that was mine, that didn’t require the constant explanation my own family did. But pretending I was as fulfilled by these things as people expected me to be was exhausting. None of these things were for me, the real, true, inner me, they were just feeding some idealized version of me that persisted despite her dysfunctional family.
“What does your husband do?” she asked.
“He’s a psychiatrist,” I said.
“Oh! A doctor!” she gasped.
“I guess psychiatrists are technically doctors,” I said. “I mean most of them are drug dealers really. He’s not like that, but his cohort is full of the absolute worst people.”
She furrowed her brows and began pounding her fists on my arms. Perhaps it wasn’t the time for my opinions on the pharmaceutical industry. I looked at my arms; they had grown so plump in the last few months. My whole body had swelled like a mosquito bite. I wondered if I’d ever get my 23-inch waist back, or if after giving birth my stomach would deflate like a hot air balloon and I’d just be left with a sack of skin I’d have to lift up to wash.
“You live around here?” she asked.
“No I live in New York. I’m here for my baby shower.”
“How fun! We just threw one for my daughter’s best friend. My daughter’s a little older than you. Hasn’t found anyone yet, though. It’s hard.”
“Yeah, it’s hard.”
“All of her friends are married. I think she’s too picky.”
“Hmm, well, it’s good to be picky,” I said. “What does she do?”
“She works as an aid to special needs children. She really likes it.”
“Oh, cool. I was going to teach special needs—my younger sister has autism— but I got a job at a private school and took that instead.”
“That must be hard on your parents,” she said, massaging the area underneath my breasts.
“It’s just my mom. My dad lives in Colorado.”
“And her doll just died.”
“She had a doll she carried around all the time, like a child. It died.”
“Oh no! How did it die?”
“Complications from surgery.”
“It’s okay. We’re having a funeral for it the same day of my shower.”
“Really?” she laughed. “A funeral for a doll?”
“That’s cute,” she said.
“I just wish it weren’t the same day.”
“Yeah but you’re lucky— you have a husband and a baby on the way and she will never have those things. She’ll never have anything real.” She stopped massaging me.
“Her dolls are just as real to her,” I said.
“Exactly,” she said, patting my belly as though it were a small dog.
“Do you want to take a shower before your pedicure?” she asked.
My teenage cousins were playing “Bobbing for Nipples,” a game that substituted baby bottle nipples for apples. Dunking their heads, they bit the baby bottle nipples then released them onto the floor like carnivorous animals tearing through flesh. They were getting the living room all wet.
My husband brought me a large piece of gluten-free cake and started rubbing my back. “I’m so sorry,” he said. I saw he’d poured himself a glass of Rosé.
“I thought you were going to stop drinking out of pregnancy solidarity,” I said.
“I can’t today.”
“This cake tastes like printer paper,” I said, coveting his plate of ribs and fried chicken.
“Want to go next?” my cousins pleaded.
My husband shook his head and watched Katrina seize a bedside table from my mothers’ room and head to the backyard.
“I wish I hadn’t let my mother plan my shower,” I said as she walked over.
My mother told everyone to gather round and announced we were going to play some ‘funny games.’ My aunts came in from the kitchen. My grandmother, who spent family gatherings cleaning up as the party went along, lay back on the armchair opposite me. My mother-in-law sat next to my husband, eyeing his quickly dwindling glass of wine. At once everyone surrounded me, the big fat pregnant lady too delicate to stand up.
My mother had a sly smirk bubbling as she looked at us. “We’re all going to share our most embarrassing story about the parents-to-be! I’ll go first. When Vera was 11 years old, she peed her pants in the school library because she needed to know the ending of some book. Haha! What was the book, Vera?”
“I don’t remember,” I said. “But I wet the bed last week because pregnancy has made me incontinent. There’s my embarrassing story!”
My aunts looked at me as if they weren’t sure I was joking.
“Any more stories?” I prodded. Everyone refused eye contact with me.
“Alright mom, what’s the next game?”
“Well I was going to suggest ‘Guess the Mother’s Measurements,’ but it doesn’t seem as though you’re in the mood to be measured.”
“No, thank you.”
“Okay, how about ‘Pin the diaper on the belly?’”
“Why do all these games involve everyone touching me?”
My husband interrupted her. “Hey, I’ve got an idea. Since you guys are an artistic family, why doesn’t everyone do a sketch of what they think our child would look like? Vera and I will do one as well. I can’t promise mine will be very good but…”
“Mine either,” my cousin, now carrying a bundle of baby bottle nipples, said.
My mother tore out several pages from a sketchbook and passed them around, then went to her room to fetch some pencils.
“Do you have a surface to put under the paper?” my Aunt Jefflyn asked. My cousin handed her a large hardcover book.
For ten minutes everyone was silent. It had been years since I’d drawn anything, but my skills had not left me. My husband showed me his drawing of an asymmetrical being with a mass of curls on its head.”
“That doesn’t even look human,” I said. “It looks like Marissa.”
Katrina emerged from the hallway with an office chair she’d stolen from my mother’s studio. She slid it violently across the hardwood floor.
“Funeral’s starting! Time for Marissa’s funeral!” She lifted the chair above her head and descended to the backyard.
My mother waited until she was out of sight and with a lowered voice said, “It is important for her to ‘bury’ this doll obsession she’s had forever.” She used air quotes. “You can stay if you want, but no pressure.”
“What about my gifts?” I asked, motioning to the pile of unopened presents.
“Actually, I’ve got to get going,” my aunt Sharon said. “I have to pick up Robby from detention.”
Katrina was back in the kitchen collecting chairs for her funeral to bring into the backyard. My other relatives began making excuses to leave, but a couple of my mother’s friends stayed, I think, out of loyalty to her. Katrina emerged from the garage with a misshapen wooden box she’d apparently carpentered last night. It was Marissa’s coffin.
Six humans stayed for the service. Most of the seats were filled with Katrina’s other “adopted children.” Ginger, a Black Raggedy Ann doll, sat on Katrina’s lap. Beside her were David and Yolanda (infant refugees from Syria), and a heap of dolls in the seat next to mine. I sat in the only seat I could fit in, a reclining lawn chair that had a cup holder.
“Full throttle funeral experience,” I uttered, nearly prostrate in the lawn chair. My mother looked down at the notecard with a speech Katrina had prepared. Next to her was Katrina’s best friend Gracie, a girl from her class, and the girl’s aunt, also named Gracie.
“Thank God Marissa is dead!” Aunt Gracie bellowed, laughing. “I hope she buries all of them! Let’s get rid of all these imaginaries!”
“Well I think it’s nice she has these dolls. I remember seeing this one a lot when I babysat her. She just wants company,” our 70-year old neighbor added.
My mother stood up to make her speech. She let out an unapologetic sigh and said, with palpable sarcasm, “Marissa was my granddaughter. She was very kind and I miss her. I think we all miss her because she said nice things to us. Thank you.”
I stared at the coffin as Katrina informed the six guests that refreshments were to be served in the kitchen, a slideshow of Marissa’s life to be played. I studied the pamphlet Katrina had created. A square picture of Marissa accompanied her eulogy:
~ Marissa was born on October 26 in Pasadena, CA and diagnosed with primordial dwarfism at birth. She got pink eye when she was 2 because the nanny kept putting makeup on her. She wore gothic makeup, black clothing, and red lipstick. She was a wonderful 1st grader. She likes meditation music, art, and even other things. She wanted to be a writer but she decided to be a teacher to help humans in real life. But she is not in the special needs class. She liked to read and write. She writes “thank u” notes and stuff like that. She was good at painting nails. She used to have playmates. She used to have so much fun. She was a good shopper. Marissa was found suspiciously decapitated in the kitchen on June 17. She was supposed to have the body repaired but it didn’t work on her and so she died. But she was very helpful and she thinks of others. We wish that someone could do lots of things like Marissa. ~
I wondered what she was going to do with the coffin, assuming that actually burying the doll in our backyard would be too much, even for her. I looked around and noticed others staring at the doll coffin, too.
Katrina duct taped a lid over the coffin, shook it to be sure it was securely sealed, and then began digging a hole in the abandoned flowerbed with her bare hands. It was astounding how quickly she plowed through the soil.
“Bye Marissa!” she said, laughing as she packed dirt over her grave.
We moved to the living room and the remaining guests began gathering their belongings.
“It’s not over,” Katrina said, fiddling with the DVD player in the living room. Marissa’s face flashed on the screen, beginning a slideshow of unflattering images of her accompanied by oceanic sounds. After watching for a polite amount of time, I started collecting the dirty paper plates strewn around and all the guests vacated.
“Marissa led a happy life,” Katrina assured herself before returning to her room without warning. “She was a nice midget.”
It was thundering that night as I sifted through my baby shower gifts. My husband and I were in my old bedroom on a mattress still fitted with leopard print sheets. He was gradually polishing off the rest of the wine as I made a spreadsheet of everyone’s gifts on my laptop. Someone gave me a breast pump as a gift and my husband pulled it out and held it up in the air like a beer bong.
“You know, this would go faster if you recorded the gifts and names as I went through them,” I said, reading a bib that said Blame my parents. I winced. “What is wrong with my cousin?”
“Usually, you have your girlfriends do that,” he said, squinting. “But you didn’t even invite your friends from high school.”
“I did invite them,” I said. “They didn’t come.”
“What happened to the pretty one we got drinks with?” This was probably the only one he remembered.
“She lives in Ireland. She has for three years.”
“What about Lucy? The lawyer?”
“I told you what happened with her ex’s weird obsession with me.”
“Oh,” he looked around.
“So did anyone get us that crib I put on our registry? I did a lot of research. It’s the safest out of the nicer looking cribs.”
“No, but my mom gave us five hundred dollars.”
“I think it cost more than that,” he said. He squinted as he took another swig from the bottle.
It was easier for me to stop drinking when I learned I was pregnant, because I no longer felt alone in my body. But it was harder for my husband, who would always feel alone in this house.
I unwrapped another square package and pulled out a neon light-up bouncy seat. It screamed animal noises at me. I scrambled to find the off button but there was none.
“This is from Uncle Bob and Olivia,” I told my husband. He wearily typed in the gifts. I crumpled the wrapping paper and deposited it in the trash bag.
The next package felt fragile but heavy and I only had to pry open one corner of the box to see what was inside.
“This dish set, from my Aunt Jefflyn, and these pot holders also,” I told him. “Hello?”
I looked over at him, peacefully asleep with his mouth agape. He had the wine bottle in one hand and the laptop in the other.
I took the computer from him and set it on my stomach, a convenient table, and typed in the information myself.
Katrina’s gift stood out from the pile because of its bright blue wrapping paper, crumpled around an amorphous object. I never knew what to expect from her gifts. One birthday, I got a single paper clip, tucked inside a set of boxes stacked inside each other like Russian Dolls. Another year, a gift card to Staples that had no money on it.
Inside the manila envelope attached to the horridly wrapped gift were twenty-six cards: one from her and the others signed from each of her dolls’ names. It was all in her frenetic handwriting. I threw the envelope across the room and squatted down to grab the present.
I tried to rip the paper open, but my sister had spun packing tape all around the bundle, and so I had to unravel the tape before the paper finally burst open, exploding a bunch of cloth diapers, a hat she’d knitted, and a handwritten note.
Congratulations on your fetus! It’s too bad Maria and Marissa won’t be cousins anymore because Marissa is with Jesus now but she will have plenty of cousins anyway from around the world to play with including Grana, Prana, Daniel, Ginger, and so many others. They can go on picnics or stuff like that. But I think you will visit now more because we both have babies. I have so many babies. But maybe yours will be a midget and look like Marissa- RIP. Please don’t be selfish like dad. There is so much to do here including museums, parks, restaurants, salsa dancing, and even yoga classes.
Katrina and others
I imagined us all on a picnic blanket, displayed at a public park: Maria and I, Katrina and her clown-faced dolls, my mom and her wine, surrounded by strangers with suspicious glances, other families and units. At the thought of this scene I didn’t feel trapped or ashamed or even abnormal. I felt my baby girl pedaling on my stomach, pleasant, like a back scratch.
Sola Saar was born in southern California and lives in New York. Her nonfiction work has been featured in The Huffington Post, Flaunt, Bullett, Hyperallergic, Whitewall Magazine, Salon, and ArtSlant. An excerpt from her novel was featured in Ishmael Reed’s Konch magazine. She graduated from UC Berkeley and is getting her MFA in Fiction at Columbia University.