The only time I ever stole, it was for Barbie. My family went, one Sunday afternoon, to visit our friends, the Beebees. They had moved from within Detroit’s city limits to a new, safer, antiseptic neighborhood in one of the suburbs, where all the houses looked alike and were set back the same exact distance from the clean cement streets where there were curbs but no sidewalks. The Beebees had one daughter, Debbie, a few years older than me. Debbie had long, dark brown hair, a blue bike that would one day be handed down to me (my first two-wheeler), and an extensive wardrobe for her Barbies. On the day of the theft, Debbie was really past the age when she found dolls amusing, but my family was there all afternoon and she wasn’t allowed to go anywhere else. Playing Barbies with me at least passed the time.
My eye went immediately to a doll clothed in a long, sleeveless dress a slightly darker pink than the inside of the big shell that my sister had told me you could hear the ocean in. The dress was plain, with no decoration beyond a small brown bow at the waist and a slightly flaring skirt that hit Barbie just above her trim ankles. My disappointment was deep, as deep as if I had witnessed the death of everything holy, when Debbie chose that doll to play with, plucking her casually from the pile of doll paraphernalia on her bedroom floor. Then, without even looking at the doll, Debbie unsnapped the halter strap and, in one careless motion, swept the dress from the doll’s body.
I scooped it up, almost before it could touch the ground. My trembling hands pressed the gorgeous confection to my heart. The pink material was soft beneath my fingers, soft and less slick than mass-manufactured Barbie clothes. It was also more elegant than many Barbie creations, although elegant was not a word I would have known to use then. With no sequins, spangles, or feathers, this was a dress I could imagine a real person wearing.
This was a dress I could imagine wearing.
I chose a doll at random – blonde, brunette, who can say? – and slowly, carefully, reverently, slid the rustly, whispery fabric over Barbie’s legs, hips, and chest, lifted her hair aside, and tenderly snapped the halter around her slender neck. She stood shyly before me, face raised hopefully, as if to say, How do I look?
Debbie looked up from dressing her doll in a mod orange and pink mini dress. "Oh, that," she said of the dress from heaven, "somebody made that for me. It doesn’t have any matching shoes." She jammed a white go-go boot on her Barbie’s foot.
"Never mind," I told the doll I held, "you look beautiful." I twitched the flare of the skirt into place and pawed through the collected shoes: sneakers, fluffy slippers, fragile heels in every shade not found in nature. I tried and discarded many shades of pink: rose, light pink, bright pink, neon pink, and a pink that matched the carnelian crayon in Crayola 64 box. None were worthy of the dress. I finally settled on a white pair of high heels, which at least didn’t clash, and as I slipped one over Barbie’s toes and nestled it onto her ankle, I suddenly thought of the prince placing the glass slipper on Lesley Ann Warren’s foot, transforming the lonely, mistreated but oh-so-worthy Cinderella into the Princess who would one day be Queen.
That glass slipper, symbol of a man’s approval, revealed Cinderella’s beauty and creativity to the world. Then everyone could see, at last, how truly special she was, and they not only wanted to be her, smiling radiantly from beneath her crown and upswept hair, they wished they’d been nicer to her when they had the chance.
I swept the Barbie through the wide, sweeping turns of a waltz, quietly humming:
Ten minutes ago, I saw you,
I looked up when you came through the door
My head started reeling, you gave me the feeling
The room had no ceiling or floor.*
It was me that Stuart Damon as the Prince sang to, me who had captured his heart by giving a thirsty traveler a drink of cool water from my family’s well, even through I had been told not to talk to strangers.
When Mrs. Beebee called us to dinner, I relinquished the dream slowly, setting Barbie down only to pick her back up and smooth the skirt once more. While the grownups talked about the Tigers’ chances at the World Series or asked Debbie what her favorite school subject was, I was still with the dress. The sound of silverware on dishes faded into the murmurs of a ballroom filled with beautifully dressed subjects who watched, enchanted, as I danced in the arms of the prince who smiled into my blushing eyes and sang:
Do I love you because you’re beautiful
Or are you beautiful because I love you?*
Did it matter?
I asked to be excused, and detoured by Debbie’s room on my way to the bathroom. In the light filtering into the room from the hall, I found the Barbie and the dress lying on top of a paper bag full of Barbie stuff.. The dress stared sadly ceiling-ward, lost and lonely and abandoned.
"Barbara, what’s taking you so long?" Mom’s voice, coming from the dining room. My stomach jumped. I tiptoed to the bathroom, eased the door shut, and flushed the toilet. I ran my fingers through a stream of cold water and then wiped the wetness against a fluffy white towel with a big gold "B" on it. As I slid back into my chair, Mom asked whether I’d washed my hands. I crossed my fingers and said yes.
I made many trips to the bathroom that night. Each time I looked at the dress I wanted it more. I knew that if it belonged to me, my own prince would find me beautiful and life would be a haze of happily ever after. And hadn’t Debbie said she didn’t even want the dress? I convinced myself she had. That she wouldn’t even notice it was gone. She certainly wouldn’t miss it.
Finally, certain my life would be empty without that pink dress, I decided to take it. I pulled gently on the straps of the halter. Froze as the snap separated with a tiny pop! Slid the dress, rustling, whispering, down over Barbie’s bosom, hips, legs. Jumped as I heard footsteps, a voice. "Who wants ice cream?" Mrs. Beebee, crossing from the living room, where everyone was watching Lassie, to the kitchen. I slid the pink dress down inside the paper bag and scurried back to my place on the living room floor.
Mom leaned from the couch to touch my forehead. "Are you feeling all right?" Your cheeks are all red."
My stomach all jumpy, I said I was fine. I thought about the dress, how close it was to being mine. I knew it was wrong to take it, but I couldn’t bear the thought of never seeing it again. I was sure that Debbie would never miss it, while I, I would love and cherish it forever. I couldn’t live without it, and stealing seemed the only way. Once more I excused myself and tiptoed down the now-familiar hall. I crept into Debbie’s room one careful footstep at a time, transferring all my weight to one foot before lifting the other from the floor. The bag crinkled as I slid my hand inside. I stopped, held my breath. Listened for voices and footsteps. I brought my hand out of the bag slowly, slowly, as if somehow, should someone suddenly appear, the very slowness of my actions would somehow deem me innocent. Just as slowly, I slid the dress into the pocket of my shorts.
The doll I had played with lay naked on the top of the bag. I needed to disguise her: one look at her and my crime would be found out. I rummaged through the remaining clothing and found another dress with which to conceal Barbie’s nakedness. Laid her back on top of the bag in the same position: face, chest, and open hands pointing skyward. Now if Debbie looked at the doll I had played with, she would see only this new, bland-by-comparison-with-glory dress. The pink perfection now in my pocket wouldn’t even cross her mind. But if it did, if she asked herself, "Wasn’t Barbara playing with the Barbie in the pink dress?" why, all she’d have to do is look and then she’d think, "Why, no, that Barbie wasn’t wearing the pink dress after all." Then I thought that maybe I shouldn’t leave any evidence of the Barbie I had played with at all, and buried her under several other dolls. Much better. Now there was no way Debbie would never notice.
The pink dress was almost mine. I took it from my pocket before it could get creased, unzipped my shorts, and placed it against my stomach, inside my panties. I zipped everything up and tiptoed out of Debbie’s room. The place had no allure for me now. I was ready to go home.
A few days later, Mom asked if I knew anything about a Barbie dress that Debbie Beebee was missing. I’m sure I prevaricated, never one to immediately blurt either confession or contrition upon imminent exposure of a crime. As much as I wanted that pink dress, I wanted even more not to get caught doing something wrong. I mumbled that Debbie had told me I could have it, but it was clear to a seasoned lie detector like my mom that I had, in fact, stolen the dress. When she called Mrs. Beebee to assure her that I would return it, Mrs. Beebee graciously suggested that I keep it. She said Debbie was getting too old for Barbies anyway.
To my surprise, Mom agreed. She knew, before I did, that each time I saw it I would be reminded of my theft. She also gave me the disappointment speech and the I don’t know whether I can trust you anymore speech, but their sting was negligible. Far worse was the loss of magic. The pink dress was no longer perfection personified but just a homemade Barbie dress. There was no waltzing, no singing of "Do I love you because you’re beautiful," no prince riding into my life on a snow white steed.
I didn’t stop watching for him, though. I knew he would come, someday. I just needed the right dress, the right shoes, the right hair, and he would love me because I was beautiful.
* Words and music © Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein.