ISSUE 6 · SPRING 2011
The Legs Come Off Easily
EMILY J. LAWRENCE
The girl with the small pupils doesn’t use the handicap stall. Despite the width of her wheelchair. Despite the cacophonous metal racket it makes against the ghost green tiles of the bathroom wall. She rolls backwards into the stall shoved farthest against the wall, under the broken bulb—the one she calls the Shoebox.
There, during lunch every day, she gobbles her bento then snaps the arms, legs, and heads off Barbie dolls, brought from home, in her school bag.
Barbie dolls have four main points of connection with the body: the left arm, left leg, right arm, right leg, and head. Each has a variation of the ball and socket joint. Very easy to pop out, Hitomi says.
. . .
The girl with the small pupils keeps a bottle of alcohol, a gift from Tabe-sensei, and a fuzzy cloth in her desk. They’re for removing derogatory names from the desk’s smooth face. Slut. Slut, slut, slut. The class receives a terse lecture and a pop exam as punishment.
Keike is exempt because she stood up for Hitomi even though the class wrote the names on the desk for her sake. The class rumor is that Keike’s American ex-boyfriend, Keith-kun, was seen with Hitomi outside a love hotel a year ago. This was before Hitomi was in her wheelchair. (Why she’s in a wheelchair nobody knows.)
Keike doesn’t fight the rumor because she was the one who saw them. His arm around Hitomi’s waist, hair damp, presumably from a shower. He buttoned his jacket, walked down the alley, rode the train, met his luggage at the airport, and boarded his plane for New York. Keike, however, was stuck there. He moved on. Hitomi moved on. She walked down the alley to Dolly Girls Hostess Club and rode the elevator to the top floor, her apartment, and fell asleep. But Keike stood there under the red wire-light, shaped like a woman, whose foot turned into a heart, who lay naked on the English letters: Rabuho.
No, she doesn’t deny the rumor is true. When she stands up for Hitomi, she tells the class, “Please, there’s no reason to call her names.”
. . .
Keike is nicknamed after Cake, the newest doll from Pink Lucky. Cake has wide, pupil-less pink eyes, pink hair, and a teacup smile. Keith-kun is the one who nicknamed her, a year and a half ago.
Walking down the street in Akihabara, Keike pauses and pulls Keith over to a display window. Cake is featured in several dioramas, dressed like a housewife, cooking, a pop idol with angel wings, a nurse carrying a giant syringe, and Keike’s favorite: in a high school uniform, hands on her knees, looking back at them with a curious laugh.
“Kireii! I hope my high school uniform will be that cute!” Keike says, gazing down at her drab middle school sailor fuku.
Keith is already in high school. He considers the doll in the window and says, “Cute. Like you, babe.”
He swings her around by her waist. “Yes way. You’re super cute!”
She giggles and from that day on Keith tells everyone in school to call her “Keike” after the doll. Suddenly, everyone says how cute she is. She gains more friends. But one day while using the restroom, Keike sees a dismembered Cake doll lying by her foot.
. . .
The girl with the small pupils takes apart a new Barbie doll every day. Some are originals from 1959 or 1961. The designs are different, but its deconstruction is essentially the same. The head always comes off first. “Because that’s what I want gone the most,” Hitomi says. “That disgusting ‘cute’ face.”
Her own disproportioned face crumples in hate.
Keike approaches her one day, smiling with effort. Turn the other cheek. Just because she’s hateful doesn’t mean I should be . . . She asks Hitomi, “Are these Barbie dolls from a collection?”
“Doesn’t she mind? They look valuable.”
“She’s dead. It doesn’t matter what she wants,” Hitomi replies, flattening a rubber head beneath her thumb. She likes to feel the soft rubber collapse under the pressure. “They might as well disappear with her. And when they’re all gone, I’ll go, too.”
. . .
The girl with the small pupils writes confusing notes on her writing pad. I’m the white whale that bit off my legs. She pens them heavily, pressing down, almost breaking the pen to splinters. Life is sterile, sterile plastic.
From the corner of her eye, Keike reads the lines. Life is plastic. Life snaps in two. I’ll snap myself in two. A name is being called over and over. The eraser of a pencil pokes her shoulder. Keike jumps. “Sensei’s calling your name,” her neighbor murmurs.
“Present!” Keike lifts her hand.
Tabe-sensei glares at her, “Have you forgotten your own name?”
. . .
Cake has a companion, a shorter and chubbier doll named Shoko. Her eyes are solid black, leaking like yolk from a thick black line. They look apathetic and pouty. Shoko is more Japanese in appearance than Cake.
Most fans don’t know, but both dolls were released on the same day: March 31, 2008. Their first week of sales, 10,500 Cake dolls were sold in Akihabara alone. A couple thousand were sold to anime fans in America. 20 Shoko dolls were sold in the same week. None were sold in America.
. . .
The girl with the small pupils doesn’t dress for swimming class. She sits in her wheelchair by the chain link fence, carving words into her notepad as if with a razor. Students who do not participate in swimming must do exercises by the pool to earn credit. Hitomi does not, but she still earns credit. The gym teacher doesn’t argue because Hitomi’s in a wheelchair, and instead, blows the whistle at the other girls.
The girls gossip about the rude things Hitomi has said to them. She said it looks like I trim my bangs with a boxcutter. She said my front teeth are too big. What’d you say back to her? That it was a hundred years too early for some ugly girl like her to tell me that!
Keike stares at Hitomi’s hunched figure. She can hear the other girls from her lifeguard chair. (Because she belongs to the swim team, she takes the role of lifeguard for her class.) When swim class is over, the girls head for the showers. Keike decides to walk over to Hitomi and try one more time to be friends. “Do you not like the water?”
Hitomi doesn’t look up. “I can’t move my legs, dumbass.”
Keike turns to go but Hitomi says her name. She’s looking at Keike now and Keike notices her big, lumpy nose and huge chestnut eyes with the tiny, olive pit pupils. A thought wells in Keike’s ears slowly like seeping oil: she’s not good-looking enough to be a whore. She shakes the thought from her ear, along with pool water, apologizing to Jesus.
“Does this help?” Hitomi raises her skirt up, not caring if anyone sees.
Keike winces at the sight of Hitomi’s legs; the skin is lifeless and rubbery like dried-out cheese. Her legs are perfect L shapes. Hitomi holds her knee with one hand and the back of her calve with the other. Grinning, she pops the knee and the lower half of her right leg snaps up two, three times and is perfectly horizontal. Hitomi leaves it that way and looks at Keike. It is effortlessly stuck in the air.
“My waist is the same way. Pretty much, I’m only alive from the breasts up. And I still have my arms to go, too. I’m unsnapping myself,” she says, but Keike doesn’t understand. “I’m disassembling myself,” she tries again. “Like this.”
Keike watches Hitomi take one of her mother’s American Barbie dolls and wrench its leg from the small joint socket.
Keike’s mouth fills with spit, anticipating nausea, while Hitomi explains: “I always start with the head on the dolls, but the process on my actual body started with my feet. You see, the legs come off most easily.”
. . .
The girl with the small pupils doesn’t talk to Keike again for more than a week. Her head is bowed over her notepad as Tabe-sensei passes back the latest exam, the sound of the sheets like scissors whispering.
Sensei walks past Keike; she does not receive her graded exam. In the teachers’ office after school, Tabe-sensei explains very curtly that she did not receive a test from Keike. There was, however, an extra test turned in that was not graded. “It was not from any student in my class.”
Tabe-sensei shows her the completed test, devoid of any red ink except a circle around the name printed at the top. KEIKE.
“I guess I accidentally wrote that instead of my real name.” Keike apologizes, but Tabe-sensei refuses to grade the exam. As she steps out of the teachers’ office, Keike’s foot feels rigid and numb. Removing her slipper and sock, she sees her foot turned stiff as a melon rind. It is frozen in a tip-toe position, all the toes melded together, and the heel jointless. Like a doll.
. . .
The girl with the small pupils has big, round eyes. Tohya Colorado, Hitomi’s mother, was named after the state from which her father had come. He was a soldier Hitomi’s grandmother met at the club during WWII. Hitomi’s own father, an American filmmaker, as she was told with a dewy eye, moved back to L.A. the day after she was conceived. He was only in Japan on business for the weekend and had had some side business with her mother. He didn’t even say “good-bye”—or “good morning” for that matter—but on his pillow he left a Barbie doll, which his daughter in the states had packed so he wouldn‘t forget her.
After L.A.-san, as he was called, returned to America, Colorado began collecting Barbie dolls—the same Barbie dolls Hitomi was breaking. Hitomi used to watch from the doorway as her mother held them like a lover’s hand and brushed their plastic hair, straightening their stiff dresses, tightening the rubber shoes’ grip on their poised ballerina feet. Hitomi was never allowed to play with them.
Colorado died of an unmentioned disease, at the center of a halo of the other hostesses from Dolly Girls. As she did, Hitomi rubbed the fabric of her mother’s hospital gown between her fingers, thinking how similar it was to a Barbie doll dress.
. . .
The girl with the small pupils is wheeled to the handicap elevator by the class representative, a boy with glasses. Her left arm is now in a cast; her right arm keeps her notebook against her stomach like a belt. Keike limps up behind the class rep. “Isshiki-kun, I’ll take her up for you.”
Isshiki bows in thanks and joins a group of his friends going up the stairs. Keike pushes the wheelchair into the elevator and the doors close on Hitomi’s smile. After pressing the button, Keike worriedly leans over Hitomi’s shoulder. “My foot—!” She exclaims but the parade of words trips and crashes on her tongue when she realizes how crazy their horns and flutes sound.
Hitomi grins, her eyebrows making her forehead wide and shiny. “Something wrong with your foot?”
“Why am I letting myself go fake or why are you becoming fake? No, I assume you’re asking about yourself. Naturally.” Hitomi’s words slap Keike’s hanging cheeks. “Though, the answer to that question is not as interesting.”
She raises herself up as far as she can, pushing her right elbow against the arm rail. Her pasty face is so near Keike, both can feel the heat spin between their noses.
“I’d like to know why you’re so surprised. The answer’s not so difficult that your Loveberry and Pichi Lemon clothes or your Usa-chan hair clip or your Hello Kitty face can’t answer it. Idiot! He names you after a doll and you wonder why you’re turning into one? Here’s the answer: when the world looks at you they see one image. Cake. The real question is, were you ever real at all?”
The elevator dings and the doors open.
. . .
The girl with the small pupils is nearly finished. Now her chest is tight and unfeeling, her arms set akimbo, and her neck solid and unmoving. The supply of Barbie dolls has run out, except one, a Shoko doll. On her bedroom floor is a pile of legs, arms, torsos, and heads. All sorted. Occasionally a head will topple from the stack and cause trouble for her wheelchair.
Saeko, an old friend of her mother’s, wheels her around before and after school. Saeko doesn’t work much now that she’s older and not many customers go for the “mature woman” anymore. “I’m out of style, it seems,” Saeko says with a smile.
Hitomi tries to thank Saeko, but her chin is stiffening and can hardly move when she talks. Her fingers are permanently curled and can’t hold anything. She can’t turn to look behind her, either. No matter what bug or raindrop pricks her, she doesn’t feel a thing.
All that’s left—she smiles at the thought—is her head and she will be completely dead.
. . .
Keike sits on the bench by the pool after swim club is over. She attended even though she can’t swim, not wanting anyone to see her foot. She told the coach that she broke her toe. The cast she wears she constructed herself. She slips it on in the alley by the school. At home, she wears long socks. Her mother and aunt would be frantic if they saw her nerveless foot.
As the club manager, the coach has left her the key to lock up. “Your head’s been somewhere else today,” Coach remarks. Keike says to herself, “I think it’s been somewhere else much longer than that.”
In her hands is her navy blue school swimsuit, its synthetic fibers glistening under the bright lights surrounding the pool. She wrinkles it with her thumbs, gazing at the name written in permanent marker across the white square on the front. KEIKE.
When had she done that? She can’t remember. It must have been at the beginning of high school, when she’d gotten the suit. This isn’t right, she tells herself. What’s my name? What’s my real name? Oh, God, I’ve forgotten!
. . .
“Don’t breathe like that; you’ll get lightheaded.” The girl with the small pupils is suddenly there with her. “Why get so upset, Cake?” Hitomi asks with a smile. “That American boyfriend of yours—what’s his name?—he likes cute little toys.”
Keike’s face freezes, her pores snap shut.
“Although . . . when you wouldn’t let him play with you, he decided that looks didn’t matter that much. Even an ugly girl like me can be played with. Though, I guess it hurt poor little Keike’s feelings, huh?”
Keike’s squeezed heart shoots down her arm and becomes a closed fist. By the time she stands, she’s tried to stop herself, but isn’t fast enough. Her open palm smacks Hitomi’s face. Hitomi screams petulantly. The echo dances on the pool’s water. Her wheelchair rolls slightly backwards, on the ledge of the pool.
Keike stares. She almost apologizes but realizes something. Taking a step forward, she slaps Hitomi again, much lighter, but Hitomi still screams. “Like a toddler.” Keike muses. “You talk about killing yourself, but you make such a fuss over a little pain? Killing yourself—yeah right, you pouting brat! You just want to become numb. That’s all.”
Hitomi begins to spew obscenities, but Keike doesn’t wait to listen to any more. Her mind is clear, as if seeing through a magnifying glass from the right distance. “So Keith dumped me. I admit I liked the attention. I liked being cute.” Keike takes a gulp. “But—but I’m not a doll to be made or played with by anyone. This is me”—she takes her swim suit and bag—“so don’t tell me who I am.”
She strides past Hitomi, avoiding the clumsy shuffle of the wheelchair as Hitomi bucks, trying to move. But, Hitomi doesn’t make more than a primitive start before her utterance is engulfed in a tumultuous splash—
The wheelchair hits the bottom of the pool, a lost city of Atlantis, and Hitomi is lost to the great white mouth of cement and its chlorine-treated saliva.
. . .
Keike runs to dive in after her, remembering Hitomi’s frozen, akimbo limbs—she won’t be able to swim!—but a hand grips her collarbone and jerks her back. She spins around—no one is there but an unseen hint—like a ripple in the air—that someone had just been standing there.
Whirling back to the site of Hitomi’s fall she sees Hitomi’s downy-white arms and legs—no longer hard and bent like plastic but flowing like silk or the frilly wings of a goldfish. She is like an angel trapped under-water.
. . .
The girl with the small pupils is drowning. Fueled to save herself, Hitomi upsets the water of the pool. Slowly, her skin begins to soften. She can feel how cold she is. Her lumpy nose resurfaces—then her coughing mouth—then they sink again.
Keike jumps in with all the prowess of her swimmer’s experience. But her windmill hands can’t find the drowning girl’s body.
She risks the chlorine, opening her eyes to the milky, smeared world of the water. She does not see Hitomi’s shimmering white body or her rolling school uniform. What she sees are two standing legs.
. . .
Keike looks up at the figure. Hitomi hangs limp in its arms, as listless and drowned as hair in the bathtub. Her lips are the color of fish, glossed heavily with water, not breathing. The figure gazes down on her with a graceful, swanlike neck.
Keike watches its expression.
At once the figure appears as a Japanese woman with a face very much like her own. The resemblance is remarkable. The woman’s short hair is like hers, as is her heart-shaped face and smooth cheek . . . A small mole breaks away from her bottom lip. The woman looks like her but with a touch of experience and maturity and the body to match. She has a saddened and loving face like a mother who doesn’t know what to do with her daughter.
The expression does not change but the next second, Keike sees the figure is not a woman, nor Japanese, but a foreign man, whom she’d never seen but knows in her heart.
Then Keike realizes that the figure is not there at all and Hitomi is actually in her own arms and she looks down at the girl’s pouting face.
. . .
The girl with small pupils opens her eyes. She is lying on a towel, coughing. Keike, who has just resuscitated her, rises, eclipsing the bright lights surrounding the pool. Hitomi looks in her face and sees familiar features.
Keike shakes her head. “Iie. Watashi wa Kyona desu.”
. . .
The girl with the small pupils and Kyona walk into class the next day. Hitomi is without her wheelchair but bears a spiteful look. Kyona is smiling but not in any way like a doll.
Emily J. Lawrence is a young college graduate, eating tears and rejection letters as she waits for a "real job." She spends her time creating sentences nobody has ever muttered, metaphors never thought of, and characters who take over. Her work is forthcoming in Luna Station Quarterly, Relief: A Journal of Christian Expression, Glossolalia, Lit Magazine, and TRACHODON. She is an assistant editor at Literary Laundry. Please visit her at her blog, Buys Paper, Writes on Napkins.