Coachella Review: Barbie and Gandhi Sitting in a Tree
BY: TAMRA PLOTNICK
Risa Margolis and I are sitting cross-legged on my hot pink shag wall-to-wall carpet. The vinyl Barbie case is open and propped against my closet door. Barbie and her cohort are scattered about in various stages of nakedness: tangerine negligee pulled up to her generous (yet generic) bust, gold lamé cocktail dress tangled in Malibu’s suntanned legs, adorned with one white plastic go-go boot, and Ultrasuede hot shorts pulled over Ken’s rubbery hair cap—he stares at the ceiling, his plastic jock exposed. I don’t have much love or apparel for Ken.
Risa Margolis and I are secretly playing Barbies due to our block’s unspoken edict against playing with dolls. The teens we look up to happen to be tomboys, and the tomboy ethics permeate most of our games. Kids on the block tend to play army, crab apple war, spy, freedom, relay races, kickball, shipwreck, or they just sit around and gesticulate from our permanent seats in Kim Shetsky’s mimosa tree. From the tree, we might tease anyone who shows signs of romance by filling in their names and singing:
Manny and Barbie sitting in a tree
First comes Love,
Second comes marriage,
Next comes Barbie with a baby carriage
We considered this taunt the ultimate insult.
Risa Margolis and I, however, have also invented a game called “The Dainty Lady” and nicknamed “Ma” in which I play the role of an independently wealthy single mother; Risa Margolis portrays my bratty child; Kim Shetsky (a freckled tomboy of our age and my best friend, whose twin house is attached to mine)—when she’s around—acts as our chauffeur who makes mud pies for my brat. If prematurely boy-crazy Mindy Sokoloff drops in, she becomes my miniskirt sporting, rebellious teenager. But mainly, it’s Risa Margolis’ and my version of playing house, and we know it could easily be mocked by the tomboys, even though we have raucous fun playing it. Anyway, today, no one else is around, and Risa Margolis and I are trafficking shamelessly in the contraband of Barbies.
There is about to be a date. We are searching madly for at least Ken’s original outfit—nowhere to be found. Maybe Barbie and Ken will be going out, but Risa Margolis thinks it’s got to be a honeymoon. And she wants to create a wedding, which seems old-fashioned to me. On TV, neither Mary Tyler Moore nor “That Girl” get married, so why Barbie? Besides, for all of our Barbie episodes, the main event consists of changing the clothes and styling the hair. Anyway, weddings strike me as incredibly stale. It is the early 70s, and Laugh In’s psychedelic go-go scene wallpapers my imagination of desirable adult settings.
Risa Margolis’ obsession with matrimony reminds me of her mother, Arlene, who recently rallied a huge group of kids in the neighborhood to stage a wedding between her youngest son and Mindy Sokoloff’s five-year-old sister. Arlene actually dressed up dozens of kids as bride, groom, flower girl, bridesmaids, best man, relatives, guests—she even made one a rabbi to conduct the ceremony. Kim Shetsky and I boycotted the whole thing for being lame.
Nevertheless, we might have actually liked participating if Kim Shetsky and I weren’t embroiled in one of our regular fights with Risa Margolis and Mindy Sokoloff. On the block, we are four girls around the same age who can be found playing together on most days—unless we are mad at each other. We do tend to have monthly fights, but they are never physical. They revolve around the stupidest things. Mindy Sokoloff, when she isn’t busy highlighting her hair with Sun-in, does enjoy contradicting me. She and I have argued over whether or not suede is leather. Another time, she insisted our neighboring country to the south should be pronounced “Me-EEE-ko” while I said it was really “Me-HEE-ko.” Then, Risa Margolis, always eager for a conflict, jumps on the bandwagon of being mad at me—or at Kim Shetsky. The freakiest part of these regular spats is that Arlene, Risa Margolis’ mom, loves to throw herself into the fray and finagle three of us to gang up on the girl left out, which inevitably means Kim Shetsky or me. Once, Arlene even gathered a trio in her basement and cooked up a plan: we should sew a felt dunce cap and plunk it on the head of anyone who plays with Kim Shetsky. Another time—Kim Shetsky reports to me—Risa Margolis’ mom called me a little puppet who will tap dance to anyone’s order. Although I am no troublemaker, I know Arlene’s assessment of my character is false; still, her brand sears some hidden fold of my self-image.
Risa Margolis, on the other hand, has a rep on the block for being brazen. If you cross her, she’ll curse and threaten to get her big brother Brent, a gorilla of a boy five years older, to beat you up. Once, my brother, a skinny kid people associate with Alfalfa from The Little Rascals, got into a squabble with Risa, and there was a tense moment in which Brent planned to pummel him. I even feared it would somehow come down to a confrontation between my dad and Risa’s, a burly guy who always appears silent beneath a cloud of undershirts and cigarette smoke. I can’t recall how that altercation evaporated, but I do remember my mother mentioning that the Margolises are Italian Jews (as opposed to the rest of us, descendants of Eastern European Jewry) and that they had moved up to the Northeast from South Philly, near the Italian market. This—we are made to understand—accounts for her family’s bullying ways.
Even so, I never tell my mother about Risa Margolis’ mom’s endeavors, nor do I mention that any time I eat over at the Margolis’ house, Arlene launches into an endless routine about how I (cue whine) “eat like a bird.” She literally repeats, “Look at her! She’s so skinny. She eats like a bird” like fifty times as her teased-hair cronies cackle and stab out cigarettes around the Formica kitchen table. I can always feel her animosity wrapped up inside the supposed good nature of the taunt. It makes me wonder if Arlene actually hates me. If she believes that my family has been gifted our house, a misconception about us by other families on the block, my mother has explained.
Although the reasons are foggy, I definitely have the clear sense that something is askew about a parent delving into children’s affairs, as Arlene does. In contrast, my mother is way too busy to bother with this kid stuff. She re-matriculated into college when I turned three after having dropped out pregnant with my brother five years earlier. She is constantly at her Temple University classes in North Philly.
My parents aren’t hippies, but my mom does sport suede miniskirts and hot pants, her hair hanging long and straight. She has surely been influenced by attending an urban university in the early ‘70s. Although we don’t engage in dinner table discussions about the Vietnam War, Civil Rights, or Feminism, she somehow has infused me with liberal views. In fact, I often fall asleep to a vision of myself, arms outstretched in the midst of a battlefield, convincing the warring sides of a peaceful solution with the mere vision of my petite figure. I am no marionette in that theater of war.
A miniature battlefield is shaping up between Risa Margolis and me in our Barbie game. Risa is trying to dress Barbie’s kid sister Skipper in a cocktail dress, but the smaller proportioned doll easily trips over the long hem. I am dead set against the wedding and think we should create a rock and roll dance competition. Risa insists that a wedding is classier. Then, I suggest a go-go wedding. That’s when Risa Margolis picks up the Barbie like a club and bonks me on the corner of my face so hard that it feels like my left eyebrow is on fire.
None of my friends have ever hit me before.
I am stunned and silent. Suddenly, I turn around, squat, place my hands on the carpet, then my head between them. There is no thought in my mind as I put my weight on my skull. Slowly, I lever my legs up past pike to a headstand. (All of us girls on the block are on the elementary school gymnastics team, so the headstand, itself, is no great feat.) I am upside down and silent. I fold my legs into a full lotus and stay in the headstand, a new trick. My action is automatic. I cannot say where this reaction came from. I can only feel the burn of my brow from where Risa clonked me with Barbie.
If Risa talks, I do not hear it.
Inside my upside-down head, I am hiding beneath a giant blanket, a blanket so warm and soft and fuzzy that when I peek out, there is nothing but a storm of betrayal. I duck back under. All the while I am on my head, my legs pretzeled into a knot as if levitating inverted from the ceiling.
My mind rewinds to how Risa has, more than once, taunted me, calling me “fat lips,” which I always ignore, secretly pitying her pencil-thin mouth. I am considering erasing Risa from my life, starting with the lips. I think about her mother and how wrong her behaviors seem, yet there is something mesmerizing about her antics—about all the Margolises. Their twin house sits at the top of our block as if the whole family is poised to slide down the hill like a runaway roller coaster car.
My family lives in the center of the block. My parents bought into the development while it still sat atop dirt lots, right after my dad graduated college. The Margolises moved in a few years later. Her dad works as a butcher. Her mom stays home. Maybe our families are too different. Maybe Risa Margolis and I are not meant to be friends. I think about what to say to Risa but cannot figure out how to explain that hitting is primitive, how it won’t solve our differences, how her smack won’t convince me that a wedding is the way to go, nor will it make me dive into a wrestling match with her, which would be idiotic on a number of levels, not least of which Risa’s girth relative to my delicate body.
Though I’ve never heard of yoga, I am doing it. I stay silent and on my head for a long time. Barbie’s dresses and plastic accessories are scattered on the rug around my head and hands. Risa Margolis sits frozen in front of me. I remain steady and silent in the headstand, legs folded.
Eventually, Risa leaves.
When this occurs, I am pretty sure I have not yet heard of Mahatma Gandhi and the concept of passive resistance. Perhaps I have seen footage of Dr. King-inspired civil disobedience on TV, but I know for sure that my parents have never brought me to a real demonstration. Yet, my action that day while disagreeing over the fate of Barbie had the effect of a nonviolent protest. After my headstand, Risa Margolis never hit me again. There was once a wrestling match (and a cream puff fight) between Mindy Sokoloff and me, but generally, the four of us girls remained friends till I moved to the suburbs at eleven.
Still when I think back, I wonder if my reaction that day represents a nascent statement on the power of nonviolence. On the other hand, perhaps the headstand was the perfect parry, given my relative lack of physical power. My move, after all, astonished and paralyzed my mightier rival, Risa Margolis. Maybe if a swift punch were available to me, I would have gone there.
Then again, unwittingly launching into an advanced yoga asana at eight foreshadowed my study of yoga a decade later in college and my subsequent yoga teacher certification at thirty. I learned that yogic philosophy prizes ahimsa, which forbids harm to all creatures. Drawing from this tradition, the great guru of nonviolent protest, Mahatma Gandhi, said, “I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the evil it does is permanent.”
As a grown up, I utterly believe his words, yet I wonder how I presaged that wisdom as a kid by responding to a whack with a spontaneous headstand. It’s not like I meditated on it while sitting in Kim Shetsky’s mimosa tree.
Tamra Plotnick’s poetry and prose have been published in several journals and anthologies, including: Atlanta Review; Serving House Journal; Lowsoft Chronicle; Lurch; The Waiting Room Reader, Vol II: Words to Keep You Company, edited by Rachel Hadas; and Global City Review: International Edition. She lives in Brooklyn and teaches public high school in Chelsea.