My uncle texts a photograph of girl-size me holding hands
with Life-Size Barbie. Caption: cue horror music.
Girl-size me wears pink, ruffled pajamas, high-collared,
and a matching pink scrunchie. Barbie’s dress
is glitter tulle with a silver sequined V. I remember
Life-Size Barbie as tiny, her neck the same circumference
as her bicep. Next to girl-size me, I see the resemblance
to life, our matching heights, though Life-Size Barbie
is skinnier. It’s boring to remember how small I was
the first time I saw myself as fat. There’s a story
of a party where a drunk friend of my dad’s passed out
in the playroom and said, in the morning, I thought Stephanie
was staring at me all night, but woke to find it was only
Life-Size Barbie propped up on the toy chest..
In the 2000 movie Life-Size, Tyra Banks plays a doll
who comes to life and I forgot until just now,
when I googled it, that the girl was trying to resurrect
her dead mom, got this living doll instead. Some mix-up
with a hairbrush. I didn’t remember anything
about this movie as tragic, but the subtext
of my uncle sending me this photo is my dead dad.
I text back three screaming face emoji and then remember
she wasn’t “Life-Size” Barbie but “My Size,”
which makes certain aspects more disturbing and others
slightly less. I remember her as hard, an unforgiving
plastic, unlike Bedtime Barbie, who I loved,
with her soft body and rubbery hands, eyes
you could wipe awake with cold water.
I’ve grown weary of the dead-parent
plot device. As though a person, especially a girl,
needs tragedy to set a story in motion,
or to cause a believable identity crisis. And grief
is not that obvious, mostly. There is a way to read
the photo so I’m a girl-bride in pink to match
my Barbie wife. The doll’s name in Life Size
is Eve but it seems unlikely, following the logic,
that she has sex parts. I remember, more vividly
than this picture, My Size Barbie’s perfect,
nipple-less breasts, and the seams that ran up
her slender thighs. It’s obvious, in the photograph,
that I’m happy, but it’s hard to understand,
now, exactly why. At the end
of the movie, Eve recites the magic words
that will make her a doll again. She’s tired
of being human. She never asked for all this.
Whether it’s coming back. My mother
I made a ghost of. My friend
who gives me inky drawings
of monstrous women.
I think of myself as slow
to anger but want to drive
my fist through something hard.
How the struggle for agency
can make a girl starve herself
with calm precision. My love calls the body
an ecosystem. But the water
is poison. It’s not a moral dilemma,
but a threat. Somehow,
I feel better and then worse.
My cat licks mustard
from my plate which turns out
to be poisonous to him.
I forget to give him fresh water
before leaving the house.
I know it’s hard for me to accept
a loving hand. I know
this has to do with my mother
and how a girl can live in mortal fear
of mirrors. You want to believe
it will get better, so when it does,
however briefly, you slip into
a gentle forgetting. Earlier
I learned that two depressive episodes
mean a 70% chance of relapse.
How damage can become
permanent, or re-inflicting,
a damage that means promise
of future damage. The gap
between a woman and her body
becomes an ocean. Or no.
I don’t know. I don’t want to speak
from some imagined neutrality.
Dislike how “neutral” folds open
a new binary while pretending
to step outside one. How each word
is loaded. Not as in a gun,
but a freight train, or a vein
of minerals. My sibling gives me
a necklace of hematite spears
that shine like an oil slick.
I try to remember all the life
that came before me, including
the tentacled and scaled. I sew
a patch over my mouth.
I wear my denim jacket
and feel, for a moment,
like my old self. I remember
how naming can be a form of violence
and worry a way to glance
away from the wreckage. To occupy
any land, even the muddy
marsh I was born on, a settler
imagining of how to live.
The beginning of the work
is hard to locate in all the rubble.
And so beginning is possible
from any position. The first
thin light. Sun through a yellow
curtain floods the room like the set
of a movie. In grief group we discuss
the eyeglasses of the dead and how
we desire to wear them.
A woman says that, for those
who grieve, some veil is thinner.
I would like the death equivalent
of my puffy winter coat.
To know how all this energy
can translate. What to learn
from becoming a stone.
Stephanie Cawley is a poet in Philadelphia. She is the author of My Heart But Not My Heart, winner of the Slope Book Prize chosen by Solmaz Sharif, and the chapbook A Wilderness from Gazing Grain Press. Her poems and other writing appear in DIAGRAM, The Fanzine, TYPO, The Boston Review, and West Branch, among other places. Her next book Animal Mineral will be out from YesYes Books in 2022. Find her online at stephaniecawley.com