“Role Play” by Jody Rae

Down the street on Crane Creek Road lived the Herders, a nuclear family in a single-story avocado mid-century with a treehouse out front and a tiered, delicately landscaped backyard. Their tree-shaded house backed up to a large, barren lot with small piles of abandoned concrete slabs from a commercial demolition before our time. Dylan and I became friends in kindergarten, and he was the very first and the most severely ADHD kid I had ever met. Smart as a whip, funny as hell, and sweet as pie; these were all the things I loved about Dylan. His tiny bedroom was plastered with Guns & Roses posters, and he matter-of-factly pointed out that he needed to take extra precautions at night because he still wet the bed. Sure, he zeroed in on a few neighborhood girls to viciously pick on. And yes, every teacher in our school dreaded his name on their roster: our own homegrown Bart Simpson, cuss words and all. But he was never anything but kind to me.

Dylan’s sister Lana, a year younger, tagged along when we snuck through the back fence to scramble like crawdads in between and underneath the concrete and rebar piles, our “fort.” Anyone driving past on the busy Bogus Basin Road would have seen our gang of unsupervised five-and-six-year-olds popping in and out of the rubble, yet nary an adult ever called authorities nor crunched across the gravel to holler at us for risking our skulls and fingers. That pile of concrete somehow never collapsed until the bulldozers rolled in the next summer to pull our fort apart and eventually build an apartment complex in its place.

Without a fort to call our own anymore, a few of us used Dylan’s treehouse to reenact The Goonies, led by Dylan who memorized the plot and every character arc of the movie. “You’re Andy,” he told me, a role I dutifully accepted. I was just happy to be there rather than at home watching reruns of Kids! Incorporated on Nickelodeon. But after only a few dry-runs of our reenactment, Mrs. Herder slid her bedroom window open and shouted at us to be quiet, she was trying to sleep. Mrs. Herder was always trying to nap when we were playing over there, which none of us found the least bit strange because our own mothers spent as much time in bed as they possibly could. But now we had no secret hideout, no make-believe criminal lair.

Let’s go to my laboratory,” Dylan said. “We can play Beetlejuice or Little Shop of Horrors. Lana, you can’t come, this is only for seven-year-olds and up,” he told his little sister. We heard her whining to Mr. Herder outside of Dylan’s laboratory, which was just a small, unused greenhouse in the backyard where he kept dusty glass jars, lumps of dried clay, and disfigured action figures. Although Mrs. Herder was always in bed, Mr. Herder was always working in the yard, either rototilling the lawn or trimming the juniper hedges with giant pterodactyl-beaked clippers. It was oppressively hot inside the old greenhouse, even at dusk without direct sunlight. The dried clay on the workbench and shelves gave off a heady, cloistering scent that settled deep in my throat. I stumbled out of the laboratory for fresh air and came face to face with Lana.

“Want to play in my room?” Lana asked. “I have Barbies.” I followed her inside, into her bedroom which was substantially larger than Dylan’s, and it featured a giant pink Barbie Dream House under the windows. The Dream House seemed to emit its own light source even though it was made out of cheap molded plastic and didn’t even have a manually-operated elevator like my tiny She-Ra Crystal Castle. Still, The Princess of Power had nothing on Barbie’s second-story veranda, or multi-room mansion with the convertible parked out front.

“Here, you be this one,” Lana said, shoving a blonde Barbie towards me, while picking up an identical version. “Let’s pretend Ken is coming to pick her up on a date. He’s taking her to a nice dinner…She’s going to wear this dress.”

“Okay,” I said. “What should mine do while yours is out on a date?” I uncreatively imagined mine would probably stay home and watch The Cosby Show, and wait for other Barbie to come home. “Does your Barbie have a popcorn bowl among her kitchenware?” I asked.

“Oh. I don’t know what yours is going to do. How about we just share one Barbie, because I only have one Ken…So now he’s picking us up, hurry! We have to get ready! Oh no! He’s pulling up to the house, and Barbie is only wearing this flimsy kimono!”

“It’s fine. I’ll dress her.”

“There’s no time! Ken is getting out of the car. Let’s go out onto the deck and tell him to wait a little longer.” Lana tapped Barbie’s feet across the faux-tile of the upper deck and stood her against the railing. “Oh! Ken! You’re here already? I need more time to get dressed.” Here, Lana’s voice became breathy and sultry. She flicked Barbie’s torso expertly, so that her knock-off silk kimono flared open across her body and slipped from her shoulders. “Oh! Ken! I’m…I’m naaaaked!”

Without making time for Barbie to dress or even descend the staircase, Lana made Barbie leap from the balcony into Ken’s convertible, where they immediately started making out.

“Oh! Ken! Mwaaa! Mwaa-Mwaaa-Mwaaa!”

I was only seven, and although I didn’t know exactly what sex was yet, I knew from the movies and from HBO at my godparents’ house that it involved a lot of necking and nudity.

Earlier that summer, my cousin came to visit. She and I are the same age, only four days apart, but she has always maintained a haughty air of worldliness that I could never emulate.

“I know where babies come from. Do you?” My cousin asked one afternoon, while combing the hot pink mane of a My Little Pony as we lounged in a kiddie pool in my backyard. She had a real pool at her house, more of a cocktail pool than a lap pool, but I struggled to compete with status symbols. At least I could roll with the punches when it came to human reproduction.

“Of course I know where babies come from,” I said. “From the mom’s tummy. Duh.”

“No, but, I know how the baby gets there. Do you?” She asked. She correctly deduced from my lengthy pause and knitted brow that I did not know how the baby got in the mom’s tummy to begin with. Up until that point, I vaguely assumed the mom and dad both just decided to have a baby, so then they had a baby.

“What happens is,” my cousin said, “is the woman kneels down and the man pees on her back, and then the man kneels down and the woman pees on his back, and that’s how she becomes pregnant.” In all likelihood, my cousin saw a few diagrams or crudely rendered illustrations in a book somewhere, and drew her own conclusions. 

I was immediately skeptical of her explanation, but also curious. So I asked my mom later, “Is this true?” And my mom laughed. She actually scoffed.

“No, that’s not true!”

“Okay. Then where does the baby come from, then?”

“We’ll talk about it when you’re older,” Mom said. The subject never came up again. It was the 80s. Back then, parents expected their children to learn valuable life lessons through osmosis and by wandering unsupervised outdoors in the fresh air. For all I knew, sex was just two people rolling back and forth on a king size bed, forming a human chimichanga in white sheets with only their shoulders and elbows exposed while making out.

Regardless of my ignorance, sitting in Lana’s bedroom, I knew Barbie was moving a little fast here. Even the HBO movies at my godparents’ house made sure couples were at an afternoon pool party before a nameless guy tore a Barbie look-alike’s top off and playfully pushed her into the water.

“Wait.” I said. “Shouldn’t they go on their date first? They haven’t even eaten any dinner. And they’ll be late for the drive-in,” which was something I just made up on the spot.

“Oh, you’re right…Sorry, Ken,” Lana said, breathy again. “I’ll just go upstairs and get dressed…for a little while, anyway.”

Lana was only six, so I was confused about how she came to be so sophisticated, but I didn’t want to seem unsophisticated in matters of romance, so I stuck squarely to logistics for the rest of the evening while Lana kept making Barbie’s clothes fall off.

“Hold on. Why would they stay at the drive-in to kiss all night when she has an entire mansion all to herself?” I asked. “And where does Ken live?” For all we knew, Ken lived in his car at the beach and bar-hopped every single night, looking for another Barbie to let him come home with her and take a shower.

“Ok, I guess you’re right. Hey, Ken? Wanna come back to my house? I have an ENORMOUS bed…I mean, if you want to…you do? Oh, Ken, I love you!”

I wasn’t thrilled with the obvious trajectory this storyline was playing out, but I had to give it to Lana for sticking to her goal of bedding Barbie down with Ken as soon as possible. My Barbies at home pretended to dive into an above-ground pool filled with whip cream just for fun, or stumbled upon an undiscovered playground made entirely of self-replenishing candy, fertile as a rainforest. My most indulgent fantasies borrowed heavily from Double Dare and Willy Wonka.

“Ok, it’s your turn,” Lana said to me. “Make them do something naughty.”

“What, you mean like steal something? She already has everything!”

“No, no, not that. Make them do something dirty.”

I had just watched Dirty Dancing on VHS an ungodly number of times at home, so I thought I knew what she was getting at. Even I couldn’t deny the tingle of desire I felt every time Patrick Swayze appeared onscreen.

“Ok,” I said. “I think they should go out dancing, but then end up alone, and then Patrick Swayze, I mean Ken -”

“Ew! Patrick Swayze is an old man!” Lana yelled. “Pick someone younger than him.”

“Sure,” I said, then mouthing silently, how ‘bout your brother? “I’ll think of someone else…” I stalled.

“Oh, I love this song,” Lana pretended there was music playing. “Dance with me, Ken! Oh! Mmm. Mwaaa, mwaaa. Oh, mmmmmwaaa.”

They were at it again.

With Lana in charge, those two couldn’t keep their hands off each other.

“Now you say something,” Lana demanded, pressing Barbie’s curves into my palm.

“I carried a watermelon.”

“No! Make her say something sexy.”

“Oh, um, Ken…” I said, while simultaneously conjuring Patrick Swayze and young, unsuspecting Dylan in his laboratory. “Ken, why don’t we go upstairs and… I’ll show you my view of the beach.”

“That’s better,” Lana allowed. “And while they’re up there, oh, her skirt blows up in the wind. And she isn’t wearing any underwear!” Barbie never wore underwear, it turned out.

There was a knock at the door. Lana and I dropped Ken and Barbie from mid-air. Dylan stepped in and looked directly at me. “My mom says you can stay for dinner. What are you playing? Barbies? Is Lana making them have sex again?”

“Shut up, Dylan! Get out! Leave!” Lana yelled.

We took turns washing our hands in the bathroom before sitting at the dining table, which had miraculously transformed from a bare surface just an hour earlier to a fully-set array of place settings and steaming bowls of food. We left Barbie and Ken half undressed and unselfconscious on the balcony.

“Aw, we’re having green beans again? I hate that shit,” Dylan yelled when he joined us.

“Not at the table, Dylan, you know that,” his parents mumbled.

“Sorry. I hate this crap,” he said, quieter.

Normally I was a picky eater, but I’d worked up an appetite over the steamy scenes created in Barbie’s mansion, so I was pleased with the baked chicken and green beans cooling on trivets, glistening under the dim ceiling fan lights. I already knew I would return again and again in the coming weeks or months to rejoin Lana in her fantasy world of beautiful men and women who, free of all of life’s responsibilities, stiffly rolled over each other like a bundle of dry kindling in an endless series of imaginary backdrops. I fully expected to grow into a Barbie doll shape, as if all it takes to mold a particular form is sheer willpower rather than an intricate strand of DNA, a cosmetic surgeon, and possibly an eating disorder.

Mr. and Mrs. Herder piled each of our plates for us, and I eagerly forked a green bean. As I raised it to my mouth, Lana exclaimed, “What are you doing? We haven’t said grace yet!”

I let my fork clatter to my plate and I blushed. “Oh. Sorry…I forgot,” I said, as if we had ever said grace in my house even once.

The Herders bowed their heads and we held hands. Mr. Herder prayed in a deep baritone, “Our Father in Heaven, we pray you will bless this food before us. Give us all the blessings you see fit. And thank you for our guest tonight. Amen.”

“Amen,” we all said. I waited until everyone took a bite of food before I picked up my fork again, my appetite dwindling.

Several years later, when Dylan and I were in the fifth grade, he and the other boys were ushered out of the classroom, while us girls were ordered to push our chairs towards the center of the room where we sat in a cluster facing the front blackboard.

“Today we’re going to learn about how our bodies grow,” our teacher said, “so I’ve invited someone to come and tell us about how we become grownups.” By then, most of us already knew some of the basics, which we picked up through a children’s book, circulated almost black-market style among our classmates, which embarrassed us with its cartoonish illustrations of a man and a woman with matching figures and corresponding leg hair and pubic hair. We had also snuck a peek at some Playboys hidden under Teri’s stepdad’s weightlifting bench. A couple girls in our class had even started their first periods. 

But I thought it was interesting that even our teacher relegated the task of educating us on our growing bodies to a complete stranger, a middle-aged woman dressed like Elaine on Seinfeld, who wheeled the large television and VCR cart into our classroom and positioned it in front of our girl cluster.

When the stranger pressed play, a feat even our ill-suited fifth grade teacher could have done herself, we were treated to a lengthy video hosted by the actress from the film adaptation of Little Orphan Annie.

“Hello. You may recognize me as Annie, from the film adaptation of Little Orphan Annie…” she began. So, to be clear: my mom didn’t want to have this conversation. Our fifth grade teacher didn’t want to have this conversation. And the strange woman hired to have this conversation with us didn’t want to have this conversation, so instead she showed us a pre-approved video of Annie presenting the information that could be summed up in as little as five minutes, give or take, with follow up questions.

So that afternoon, while the boys learned about wet dreams in the room next door, us girls were taught how to apply a maxi pad to our underwear, the importance of marking a wall calendar with a big giant X every 28 days to track our cycle, and also how an egg gets fertilized into a baby.

That last part, about fertilization, felt less like the passionate chimichanga film reel I’d witnessed my whole life and more like a perfunctory invasion of personal space. I caught my best friend Becky’s eye across the room. We both crossed our arms and deadpanned, “Not for me, thanks.”

When Dylan and the other boys joined our classroom afterwards, none of them met our gaze or returned eye contact. They stared straight ahead with a collective focus they had never had before. Even Dylan, the boy so disruptive with ADHD every hour of the day, the boy our ill-suited fifth grade teacher was known to drag out of the classroom by his arm and deposit him on the hard tile floor in the hall, sat stunned and silent for the first time in our lives.

I wanted to jab him in the ribs. I wanted to hiss for his attention. What did the boys learn that the girls did not? And how would we exchange the information later? After all, Dylan and I had already shared information back in first grade. We were our first I’ll-Show-You-Mine-If-You-Show-Me-Yours, and Lana ratted us out so we each got a lecture about it. Surely, he would compare notes later, right? But he wouldn’t. When the bell rang, he zipped his backpack and made a tightlipped beeline for the door.

That same year, I went grocery shopping with my mom at the family-owned supermarket on Bogus Basin Road. It was after dark, and on the drive home we passed between the Turner and the Arrodondo family homes across the road from one another. Both families had boys my age at school, and that reminded me.

“Mom? What’s a dildo?”

My mom slammed on the brakes and for the first time I understood the term “laying rubber.” Bogus Basin Road is the main artery into the Boise Highlands, so I was surprised she slowed to a standstill, and then accelerated.

“Where did you hear that word?” She yelled.

“At…school?” I said, sensing some unseen boundary was breached. “I heard some of the other kids saying it, but I don’t know what it means.”

My mom was silent for a moment, her lips pursed, her gaze fixed ahead at a target she seemed to want to ram the car into. The dash lights glowed red on her face and hands, and I could almost feel heat radiating from her skin, like steam from a Tiny Tunes character in a fit of rage.

“You are not supposed to know that word,” she spat. But it was too late, wasn’t it? I had already heard the word.

“Okay. Well. So, what is it, then?” I asked. Mom huffed. Mom puffed.

“It’s a fake penis!” She finally said. And that was all. I didn’t feel safe with her at the wheel, at least not enough to ask the obvious follow up questions: Why and What For? I wouldn’t know the answer until seventh grade, when my cousin and her best friend found one in her mother’s walk-in closet and turned it on, while I watched from the edge of the jacuzzi bathtub, horrified.

Seventh grade was the year Friends debuted on NBC’s Must See TV lineup, and I studied that show like a religious text. Mainly, I just envied their prime seating at Central Perk and their shabby chic apartment decor. But one evening, while watching reruns at my dad’s house, the subject of sex came up on the show. This was inevitable, since each character had a wide array of romantic partners, in quick succession, and they spoke openly about their sexual encounters the way my friends spoke about other TV shows we watched.

My dad cleared his throat. “Your mom ever talk to you and your sister about… sex… and all that?”

By then, we were both streetwise to the topic. You’d have to be, growing up in the 90’s, the street being the only place anyone was willing to shoot straight with adolescent girls.

“Yup,” we lied, “she sure did.”

“Good,” Dad said. “Because I sure don’t want to be the one to have that conversation.”

Jody Rae’s creative nonfiction essays appear in The Avalon Literary Review, The Good Life Review, From Whispers to Roars, and Red Fez. Her short story, “Beautiful Mother” was a finalist in the Phoebe Journal 2021 Spring Fiction Contest. She was the first prize winner of the 2019 Winning Writers Wergle Flomp Humor Poetry Contest for her poem, “Failure to Triangulate”. She has pieces forthcoming in Sledgehammer Lit, RESURRECTION magazine, and Eastern Iowa Review. Her work can be found at http://www.criminysakesalive.com.