“Hey. Stop. Let me see it,” Erin said. My Emma was ruined. My aunt and uncle, who were supposed to be watching the house while we were on vacation for a week, let their crummy little boys play with our stuff, and our playroom had been completely trashed. Pillows on the couch had been ripped, the TV remote was missing its volume button, my sister’s stuffed animals were stuffed into my craft shelves, crayon had been used on the chalkboard, and both of our dolls were now naked. Violated. They treated her hair like some cheap Barbie styling head and ruined it. What was once soft brown hair with short curls at the ends was now tangled and matted. I sat on the carpet, trying to hide myself in the back corner furthest from the door, pulling the teacup-sized hairbrush angrily through the knots and nests in her hair, wishing for it to go back to the way it was. I was trying not to cry. I mean, my parents were just as angry about the state of the room as my sister and I were, but compared to the things that were actually broken, what kind of spoiled girl cries over a doll? But with every pull, I just became angrier and angrier.
Erin stood over me. “Let me see it.” She bent down to take a look, and took Emma out of my hands. Usually I would have yelled at her, but she was so calm that it surprised me. She took the brush from my hand and sat down next to me. And the two of us were huddled in the corner, hiding behind the sofa. “Emma’s hair isn’t like your hair,” she said, putting her arm around my waist and talking in a whisper. “It won’t grow back if you pull it out. You have to start at the ends, like this, and then work your way up.”
We spent the next hour slowly getting the hair back into a manageable state. It still didn’t look like it once did, but after some trial and error we made two pigtails, and she helped me steal ribbon from Mom’s sewing room to tie pink bows onto the ends of them.
I don’t remember when we got the dolls. But I remember that they looked like us. Curled brunette hair and blue eyes. Porcelain skin with cheeks that were painted with tan freckles. Mine had a blue dress, and I named her Emma. My sister’s doll had a green dress, which she had given the much more regal name of Katherine.
She always liked that name–she would occasionally pretend that her own name was Katherine, and we all just called her Erin as a nickname. Erin was not such a regal name to her.
But we were two sets of identical twins, the four of us. Quadruplets that would play pretend together.
I know Grandma Cooper must have bought them for us, because who else would have? The grandparents on either side were the only ones who would have been strong enough to defy my parents. And Grandma Cooper was intent on making sure Erin and I would grow into proper Catholic ladies–she was the only reason my sister and I had to go to Sunday school and read books about etiquette before bed. Visiting Grandma Cooper was the only time when my mom carefully orchestrated our outfits with conservative and well-kept items that a grandmother could approve of. Grandma Cooper, for her and Grandpa’s fiftieth wedding anniversary, bought all of her granddaughters matching outfits to wear for the celebration. My sister and my many cousins and I ranged in ages from ten to sixteen. And we were all wearing pink floral dresses with floppy pink hats and white stockings. And we all have the pictures to prove it. We had a large photoshoot for the family reunion in a small green garden. Vines covered white fences that the men leaned up against. While us girls sat on the white benches in front, ankles crossed. “I have never seen you girls look so beautiful,” she had said to me and my sister that day. Erin rolled her eyes at that and was promptly chastised by both our grandmother and Mom.
And so, my sister and I had our dolls against the grievances of Mom and Dad who were intent on only giving gifts that would help us discover and harvest our talents. The Christmas when my sister first claimed that she wanted to be a veterinarian, her gift from Santa was a pretend doctor’s kit and some stuffed animals to practice on. The next year she got a magnifying glass and tweezers set with books on insects, and the year after that, a microscope.
It had occurred to me even as a child that I seemed very set on what I wanted to do. I was an artist who would paint and write and create. But in my sister’s case, her talents and interests always changed. My parents hated this.
I told my sister one day, “Emma is going to be a piano player when she grows up.” I remember I sat in our playroom in front of the chalkboard and taught Emma about Middle C and tricks to remember the notes. I would show her flash cards, and we would count beats together. My sister brought out Katherine and sat her in front of Emma. Katherine thought for a long moment, then said in my sister’s high-pitched voice, “When I grow up, I’m going to do whatever I want.”
One Christmas, my mom’s parents, who often could not compete with my dad’s parents when it came to gifts, made my sister and I a miniature bed with a grand canopy for our dolls to sleep in. He put together all the wood to make the frame, and she sewed all the bedding and the drapes. Perfectly toy sized. We turned the corner that morning and saw it sat by the fireplace, silhouetted by the orange light, and as we got closer we could make out the blue and purple ornamental fabrics, lined with white lace. Grandpa Red was in his chair in the corner, smiling and then nodding. Inviting us over. We sat down next to it on the wooden floor, just looking at the miniature bed and getting warm by the fire; we both took a good while that Christmas to sit in awe before even considering going to wake up the rest of the family or make any other disturbing noise. We were young, but we both knew how to fully appreciate the beauty in intricate and delicate things. And it was far too quiet for insanity that morning.
Erin and I had learned to appreciate the quiet at a fairly young age. The house always had something distracting going on inside or out. If the TV wasn’t on, music was playing. The dog was barking. Dad was talking loudly on the phone to one of his many brothers and sisters. Mom was sizzling onions on the stove for dinner. The boy next door was playing his drums, and the neighborhood cat was screaming on the back porch for someone to give him a paper plate of tuna or a slice of ham. We relished together in moments when we could just sit and think. Laying on the carpet where the sun shone in from the window. I’ve found recently that I can never seem to find a good place to lie down and do nothing anymore. Sometimes I miss that, and I wonder if Erin ever feels the same way.
In tenth grade, after a few failed science courses and some new friends, my sister decided that she no longer wanted to go into science. She wanted to do theater. It was the only thing that made her happy. She was good at acting. Theater was what she was going to study in college.
My parents had already accepted my interests in art and writing and music many years before and had no trouble when I told them that I wanted to study English in college. But a change this drastic two years before applications were due was met with a strong no from them. No way. Maybe a theater minor, but not a major.
The thing is that my parents had this mentality about growing up. My dad, the eldest and most mature of all his siblings, had to grow up doing what was expected of him. Getting a doctorate, having a well-paying job, getting married, and having kids were the four things on his checklist.
My mom, growing up in mobile homes and in a family where being pretty was the only use for a woman and having one or two kids by sixteen was normal, had to focus on making the most amount of money the cheapest way possible. Which meant an associate degree in accounting and getting stuck with a job she hated for the rest of her life.
They would never let us forget how lucky we were to have parents that would give us the ability to follow our passions. This meant that whatever we wanted to do, we had better be the best at it. And, to them, Erin couldn’t be the best at something that she had only done for two years. It can’t be her passion. It can’t be her.
Erin eventually ended up in the business college, though she has threatened more than once to drop everything and move to New York or Los Angeles. “To just live.”
I, on the other hand, kept taking piano lessons for twelve years. Because I didn’t hate it, and Mom and Dad kept paying for it. Once, my mom told me that she was changing my thirty-minute lessons to one-hour-long ones. That cost twice as much. “You know why?” she asked, grabbing me by the chin. “Because you’re worth it.”
By the time Erin and I turned eighteen, we still had both dolls and the doll bed. The lace that lined their dresses was turning gray from collected dust. Sometimes when Erin wasn’t home, I would go to their corner in her room just to look at them, making sure that their eyelids still opened and closed, or that the ribbons hadn’t unraveled and fallen from their hair. Mom had suggested that we put them into storage to save for our own kids in the future.
“You still have these?” Mom asked. We were organizing our things to move houses again. And in this moment as she began to pick up the dolls and blow the dust off them, my sister and I shared a look that we had shared many times before. One of our very few twin powers.
My sister and I, who had admitted to one another at some point that neither of us wanted children, tried our best to argue against locking them into the storage unit, but we had very little claims to stand on. No, of course we didn’t play with them anymore. No, we were much too busy these days. They were only toys. But they were pretty. And fun to look at. Mom chalked it up to childhood reminiscence and eventually let it go.
At one time, I thought that the reason I kept holding onto Emma and the doll bed was because of how beautiful they were. They were some of the first things that I owned that I thought were truly beautiful in a way only knick-knacks and trinkets can be beautiful. But I think they remind me more of memories, both good and bad. I can look at this doll and I see my hair braided into two pigtails with bows on the ends, I see myself playing at a piano recital, I see myself wearing an ugly pink dress. An argument with my sister where neither of us want to share. An argument with my mother about not finishing my homework. And quiet moments where I put Emma in the bed, underneath the purple blankets, and just lay on the dirty carpet of playroom, looking at the ceiling and listening to the sounds echoing from the rest of the house. Trying to ignore having to be something; trying to simply be.
Nora Cooper is a senior at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. She is studying creative writing as well as communications and Spanish. She has published other works in UTC’s literary magazine, the Sequoya Review.