When I was almost six, my family moved to a new neighborhood, and I made friends with a girl on our block whom I’ll call Laura. She and I were very different. For one thing, she was born into that early 80s suburban royalty. Not rich, but she had a pool and a kickass swingset, not to mention a “Return of the Jedi” tower in her yard. She had her own pink room, a dog, and a cat. Her clothes were cool and she was naturally skinny, so they all looked good on her. And she was pretty in a way that she didn’t need to really worry about looking a mess at any given point in the day. I was fresh out of an apartment building in a struggling neighborhood, and was a weird little girl who always felt awkward.
I desperately wanted Laura to love me and think I was worth having around, but always secretly feared that the fact that I was a year younger than her, combined with my general shortcomings, would eventually lead her to seek greener pastures in more appropriate friends.
One reason I knew our friendship had a timer on it was that our biggest bond was Barbies. She had so many, and we created a whole world with epic drama going on. There were only like, two boy dolls, and one had an awkward fuzzy head that looked vaguely moldy, so we didn’t really like to utilize him too often. And we weren’t progressive enough to just make all the chicks lesbians, but we were sociopathic enough to create a back story that involved all the parents of the Barbies dying in a freak tragedy, so all the Barbies were left in charge of their siblings, who were the random smaller dolls we came across, like those miniature people that were around for awhile (not Polly Pocket), and this one mermaid bath toy, and our Annie dolls. So basically almost all the teenagers looked exactly the same (assuming we hadn’t gotten ambitious with the scissors and hair dye), and all the kids were so different and not even all completely human.
Each family had a spot in our respective rooms, depending on whose house we were playing in that day. And our Barbies’ et al. lives were intense. There were cool kids and the losers, and the cool kids would bully the losers and it got very Lord of the Flies. The older dolls had affairs. Laura’s mom watched “The Young and the Restless,” and we started getting ideas from that. Some days when it rained, we’d take some of the dolls out to the pool and see if they could survive terrible storms and perilous situations.
The possibilities were endless, and it was a world that only the two of us shared. Laura’s friend Stacy mocked her for engaging in such stupid activities. Stacy was Laura’s age, and we did not like each other. I thought she was mean; she thought I was a gigantic loser, but I think mainly we were both just jealous of each other’s friendship with Laura. Who knows how things would have been if we’d looked for common ground instead of feeling threatened by each other?
In many ways, Laura was a lot like Kelly Kapowski, sometimes wishing A.C. and Zack could just get along, sometimes seeming enjoying them compete for her affections. It wasn’t for a date to the prom, but it was a battle of the BFFs, and there could only be one true B, or BFF would mean Better Friend Forever.
And again, why it was so important to be that one and only, I don’t know. I think maybe because I feared that if Laura stopped prizing me quite so highly, it would only be a matter of time. Playing dolls was one thing when you were six, and another when you were nine, and still trying to get your 10-year-old friend to play.
At the time, I thought Laura was just being mean, and it was all Stacy’s fault. She’d get one of her friends to help “block” me on our street, like they wouldn’t hit me, but they’d surround me so I couldn’t move, and they’d try to get Laura to join in. As we got older, she did more and more.
Still, I wanted to be her friend. One day, I made the mistake of bringing up a new doll I’d gotten in front of Stacy. I “casually” mentioned to Laura that it had been awhile since we engaged our characters in our own nerdy RPG.
Laura turned to me and looked at me very seriously and exasperatedly. She said, “Judith, when are you going to get it through your head that I don’t want to play with fucking Barbie dolls any more!”
The thing is, I knew it was coming. I’d known since we’d created our little world, that this was coming. No one wants to stay a child forever. It was unfair of me to try and make her.
But I felt like I do in my dreams when I get shot. This thud, then the searing pain. I’m sure I turned bright red because my skin felt like it was burning, but that was also my eyes as I desperately felt so ashamed for crying. Just another example of why she didn’t want to be friends with such a huge baby. I vaguely remember seeing Laura look a bit regretful, and Stacy looking thrilled before I turned around and ran home.
Laura and I weren’t friends after that. It wasn’t like a big blowout drama; I just accepted that things were over, and made some other friends from school. We didn’t play Barbies, but we danced around to “Like a Virgin” and loved Jack Wagner. And we still played — just now instead of dolls, it was Yahtzee, Life, Monopoly. I wasn’t too mature to laugh when my friends would call Virginia Avenue “Vagina Avenue,” but I also felt relief to find out that not all forms of fun and games were considered babyish.
In December 1987, three years after BarbieGate, I will say that I was actually holding my own in the cool department. I had a growth spurt to slim me out, and had not yet developed the boobs that were to be the source of my future eating disorders, and I was learning to enjoy dressing weird on purpose. Not to mention the fact that I’d made some incredible, lifelong friends at my new school.
But my cool improvements meant nothing, as not since that day that Laura broke my heart had I fallen apart so completely on that block, because my brother Robb went missing. He was nowhere to be found, and the scooter he’d gotten for Christmas was eerily parked right in front of the house. The cops came. The entire neighborhood did a search. He ended up being just fine, had just decided to go to his new friend’s house that none of us even knew existed. We laugh about it now, but oh my God were we terrified that day.
Laura came out that day too. And we stood there, silently acknowledged that it had been awhile, and we both seemed to be doing okay in life, and she hugged me fiercely. She was crying too. And for that one moment, we were the friends we used to be.
I was incredibly hurt that Laura didn’t want to play fucking Barbie dolls anymore. But she actually did me a favor. She wasn’t just a BFF, she was like an older sister, and she basically kicked me out of the nest and gave me no choice but to go grow up and stop clinging onto something that had run its course.
I think it’s hard, at least I know it’s incredibly hard for me, to not let all the past breakups in all their forms feel like just hurt. But I do believe that if I let them teach me but not destroy me, that not everyone will leave. I just have to stop pushing them away. And remember that for every lost Barbie in my life, there’s been a noisy and kickass game of Yahtzee! just around the bend. And that is awesome.