April 27, 2010

A Room of One's Own (Redux)

Perhaps this bears repeating: the Barbie Dream House was not my dream present. But after forgiving Santa for not bringing Color Magic Barbie instead, and after all the Slot As had been inserted into their Slot Bs, I came around. Mostly because--although I couldn't have articulated this as a child--Barbie had independence and autonomy and a place of her own.

It would take me nearly twenty more years to achieve independence and autonomy and a place of my own. And even then my dad tried to tell me I couldn't afford to move out. Turns out he was right, but I was determined and/or stubborn and rented a small, cheap efficiency.

That little apartment held all the worldly goods I couldn't live without (or leave at mom and dad's)--bed, desk, dresser, TV, stereo, bookcase, couch--and not much else. A partition--fabricated from 2x4s and a single sheet of PVC by the previous tenant, and left intact at my request--bifurcated the apartment's one room and created a sleeping alcove just large enough for my childhood twin bed and a third-hand dresser. The kitchen, surprisingly roomy, sported full-size appliances and a fair amount of counter space, but no window over the sink. I promptly stuck up a poster my best friend had given me for my sixteenth birthday--a rainbow arching over Victoria Falls, as seen through a window. Curtains and a hanging pot of aloe vera (verra good for burns) completed the illusion that the apartment contained more than one window.

Barbie had fake windows, too. Come to think of it, the whole place was a lot like Barbie's Dream House.

Barbie had a painted-on accordion-doored closet. A separate closet rod, on which all her clothes had to be smushed, hung above a storage compartment for shoes and purses and other small items. The bottom of my own accordion-doored closet held everything from shoes and purses to dirty clothes and clean cat litter.

Barbie had an elegant (if dated) TV/Hi Fi combo, on which she could listen to Perry Como and The Lettermen. I had an old portable black-and-white which I mostly didn’t watch (it was too much trouble to pull it out from under the chair), and favored Barry Manilow and Neil Diamond.

Barbie had a maize toilet-paper-roll-shaped lamp (my least favorite of all her accoutrements), too short to be a floor lamp, too tall to sit attractively on the coffee table. I had a tarnished, faux-brass table lamp with a frayed cord and a cylindrical shade (which did not evoke a toilet paper roll, despite its shape), also left by the previous tenant--fortuitously, as I had somehow failed to notice that the main room had no ceiling lights. (What kind of place doesn’t have ceiling lights?) That cast-off provided my sole illumination for some time. (I still have it.)

Barbie had two sets of books (my favorite of all her accoutrements) that fit snugly on the shelves in her living room. I had an unpainted, soft pine bookcase, its top sheathed in clear contact paper, wishful-thinking protection from the claws of the three cats (two still kittens) who landed on and launched themselves from it on their way to and from the top of the partition. Sometimes, at night, they launched themselves onto the bed rather than the bookcase. Normally a deep sleeper, I learned to recognize the ripply rumble of the PVC that meant one or more of them was working up the nerve to jump down onto the bed and, by default, onto me. Sometimes I did not wake until they landed, and then the results startled all of us.

Barbie had a portrait of Ken (looking even more goofy in black-and-white than he did in color) on her coffee table. I covered the front of my refrigerator with comic-strip clues to my psyche--Bloom County, The Far Side, Calvin and Hobbes, Doonesbury--hoping that male friends would suddenly recognize my beauty and wit and want to be more than friends. It didn't work, but one did give me a ceiling-high cat tree, which we somehow found room for.

Barbie's couch more closely resembled the one I would buy two apartments later than the metal-and-black-leather-ish behemoth one of my father's chimney sweep customers had sold him for $25. Old-fashioned, allegedly a sleeper, the seat slid grudgingly forward and the back folded down to create an uneven and uncomfortable bed. Not good for all-night sleeping, but in its upright and locked position, surprisingly good for naps.

Moving me in, my father kept saying, This is not all going to fit in here, Barbara, and I kept saying, Yes, it will. I have a plan.

The Assembly Instructions for the Barbie Dream House claim that “The BARBIE DREAM HOUSE can teach your daughter to be neat and orderly. In addition to storing the garments and accessories on the rack and in the drawer, the furniture can be stored in the space between the front of the wardrobe and the folded sides as shown.” I don't know about neat and orderly, but years of playing with the Barbie Dream House had certainly taught me to cram a lot into a little. For the first week or so, the place looked just like the dream house at the end of playtime, the furniture and boxes stacked together like a wooden cube puzzle. The cats could travel the whole living area without once touching the (not shag) orange carpet that was, if not the exact shade of one of Barbie’s throw rugs, a darn close match.

I had little space and no money, but no matter: this "one" finally had a room of her own.

Unfortunately, despite Virginia Woolf's eloquent treatise, there would be no writing of fiction in that room, no writing of any kind; that dream had been cast aside long before. It would be another fifteen years before I went looking for it.

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