There’s a blueprint for creating a dress for your little sister’s Barbie. First, you’ll need toilet paper. Any ply will do, though two ply’s the best because it’s the sturdiest. Second, scotch tape. The medium that’ll hold your creation together. Third are the scissors, for shaping, snipping, and fine tuning your work. Crayola markers, glitter, or stickers are useful, but optional, depending on what sort of design you prefer and your ability to get your hands on these items.
For a miniskirt, three squares of toilet paper are more than enough. Fold them in half, encircle the waist then tape it shut in the back. A single square, rolled tight like a joint and taped to her chest, gives Barbie a swanky tube top to match. Maxi skirts and gowns should begin at her bust, then wind tightly down the length of her body. Tape fixed below and around her slick, plastic bosom will pinch in her waist and flare out her backside. A snip with the scissors along the side of her leg, a dusting of glitter, and Barbie’s transformed into the true fashion icon you know she should be.
“You’ll want to make sure you’ve got lots of toilet paper to work with, in case you mess up and have to start again,” I announce. My sister, Cindy, would watch me, unflinching. A wandering pinball of perpetual energy, bouncing and dinging everywhere that she went, this was the one activity that made her hold still. I’d point at a tear I made in the paper, which was easily fixed with a small piece of tape. “And tape is your friend. You can use it to fix any screw-ups you make.”
A dress could be worn only once, since taking off one to put on another destroyed the one being removed. Cindy would finger the worn, tattered pieces. “I wish we could save these,” she’d sigh. Within her four-year-old mind each glue-clotted dress was an artwork, a triumph, a classic to be worn time and again. “I wish we could too,” I’d say. “But it doesn’t matter. We can make as many of these dresses we want.”
In no time the Barbie’s real clothes disappeared. Cindy’s Barbie lazed around naked, a small plastic nudist lying next to our sofa. “Dress time!” she’d say, waving the doll in my face. In her eyes I’d transformed into her fairy God-brother. Though I lacked a wand, wings, or book full of spells, what I could wield with the tissue was magic enough.
“Dress time!” she’d say, and I’d begin my designing, my hands moving slowly so Cindy could catch what I was doing. The folding just so, the correct length of tape, the careful braiding of something so silly, so delicate.
“Dress time!” she told me one day, her doll hanging stiff in her hand by its hair. She’d caught me walking home from the bus, eager for me design a new dress. Her smile began somewhere in her belly, rising up through her body, consuming every part of her voice.
My feet were dragging through the dirt on the road, kicking up dust as my shoes crunched the ground. She was looking right at me, but I pretended she wasn’t. I looked at her hands, her feet, anywhere but her eyes. “No, Cindy, no. No more dress time.”
She blinked for a moment, but her smile kept its shape. “No” isn’t a word she heard much from me, at least when it came to this particular game. More than once I’d been the one to come up to her and announce it was “dress time.” She shrugged my “no” off as if it were dust on her fingers. “Will! It’s dress time! Let’s make a dress!”
Even on tip toes she was barely half of my height. She still fit snug in the folds of my arms, her hands wedged between her chest and my own. “Cindy, I said no.”
The words shattered against the front of her mind, the shards raising a look of pain that crept from her eyes into mine. “Why?”
Because I’d noticed a boy named Toby in school. A boy I’d noticed plenty of times before. When Toby looked in my direction, I felt pleasantly nervous, and though he never spoke to me directly, never treated me at all like a friend, there was something about him I liked just the same. Part of it was his brilliant blue eyes. Part of its how he laughed at a joke, the way that he sounded when struck with the giggles. None of this seemed unusual to me until I started to listen to the other boys in my class. Until I listened to how they talked about girls. About the ones they liked and the ones that were pretty. About the physical things that made boys notice girls in a way that went beyond being friends. All I wanted with the girls was to be friends. All the physical stuff, the things that drew the boys to their orbit, was lost or somehow invisible to me. When it came to the physical, I only saw it in boys. In the cut of their hair or the color of their eyes or the way they looked when they sat at their desks. Boys could like girls and the girls could like boys, but I seemed to have the pairing all wrong. I’d always assumed these feelings would clarify. That the magnetic poles of my interest would shift, and my feelings would settle correctly in place. These thoughts were racing the track of my mind when Toby happened to walk by my desk, just hours before my sister came to greet me. Toby smelled like clean clothes and his amazing blue eyes were glowing against the tan of his skin. “I like you,” I thought, and the words hit my mind in a cold, sudden shock.
“I like you, Toby. I like you…I like you…”
But it wasn’t the like that meant friendship or pals. It was a “like” that meant a lot more than “like.” The confusion, the strangeness, became all at once clear, and I knew why I never really noticed the girls.
My sister was waiting for me speak up, to answer the question she’d asked. “Because dressing dolls is a girl thing, Cindy, and that’s not a thing a boy wants to do.” She lowered the doll in her hand by an inch before raising it as if baiting a fish.
“Boys should like boy things and girls should like girl things. Don’t ask me to make dresses for you ever again.”
Boys could like girls and the girls could like boys, but I seemed to have the pairing all wrong. I’d always assumed these feelings would clarify. That the magnetic poles of my interest would shift, and my feelings would settle correctly in place.
I stormed past my sister before she could say something else, before I was forced to say something else. I couldn’t stand the sound of my voice. Couldn’t stand the sound and weight of my lie. Bits of sparkled toilet paper on the floor. Bottles of glue, half empty from use, remnants of tape in worn, tacky clumps. Proof of the person I was all around me to see, to acknowledge, and repel from. Proof of the person I’d once been to my sister. Days would transform into weeks and then months, and still she’d ask me to pick up some scissors or fold toilet paper. Just a quick dress, a little something for Barbie.
“No,” I’d reply. “No, Cindy. No.”
The fuel of her hope, though powerful, was finite, and mercifully, one day, her stores were exhausted. She couldn’t compete against my betrayal, though I still saw the spark of hope in her eyes every time I rushed past her when she played with her dolls. Maybe, the spark suggested. Maybe…maybe he’ll make a dress for me this time. But I knew that I wouldn’t. I knew that I couldn’t. Instead, I’d have to invent a brand-new sort of blueprint. One that I’d use to dress up myself. I’d cut and paste a persona invented, to appear as anything other than the boy that I was. Like the garments of tissue I once made with such care, this appearance would be tragically fragile and prone to destruction, in need of replacing time and again.