July 26, 2020: “A Real Doll” by A.M. Homes

Another Sunday arrives, Story366!

Today’s another office day. Yesterday I noted how it was the first time in over three weeks I spent any time away from the house and my boys. I didn’t like it much—I felt like a stranger in a strange land—but today I return. Lots of work to do, plus lots of work to set up: Anything I need copied or scanned, I leave on my desk and the administrative assistant will pick it up, do the job, and return it to my desk. Any mail I need sent, same thing: Leave it on my desk and they’ll come get it. The main English office opens in a week, but we’ve been asked to stay out of there until after Labor Day, as it will be flooded with students and they don’t need faculty adding to the numbers. I have sworn to stay in my office, and perhaps the bathroom, and that’s it.

I also found out I can bring my office computer home, which completely changes the game. Last fall, I fried my Mac Powerbook by dumping a cup of liquid on it. Luckily, Karen had an old and barely functional Macbook, which weighs a hundred pounds and is slow as fuck, but I’ve adjusted, as it’s still a Mac and it was free. Whenever I go to my office, it’s like the future, that computer so fast, with so much memory, and lighter, despite its much larger screen. I am now going to have that machine at home, giving me the power to do anything here I could do there. Less time in the office makes everyone happy, so there we go.

Will any liquids be allowed remotely near this fancy office computer? Nope. In fact, we might practice COVID-19 protocol with this thing—we need to wear a mask and gloves, we need to santize our hands constantly, and we need to keep six feet away from it all times. I might not get any work done, but damn it, it’s going to stay safe.

Today I read from A.M. Homes‘ collection The Safety of Objects, originally published in 1990 but reissued in 2013 by Penguin. I remember reading some of Homes’ stories in that nineties version of Story magazine, but probably haven’t read anything since, even with another collection and several novels to her name. I was excited to get into this book, one I should have read decades ago—how often is a major motion picture made off a book of stories? Story366 rescues me once again.

The opening story, “Adults Alone,” introduces us to Paul and Elaine. In the opening scene, Elaine drops the kids off with her mother-in-law down in Miami so she and Paul can have ten days to themselves. The couple has recently moved to the fancy suburbs and is still adjusting to their gated community and expansive house. Paul wants to act like it’s spring break, smoking pot, playing video games, and constantly hounding Elaine for sex; Elaine just wants to unplug and chill, and not with Paul. After a couple of days of letting loose, the couple decides they’d like to try some crack—I thought this was a dream sequence until I remembered when this book was written—and their week takes a serious turn. Homes uses Elaine and Paul again in a novel, Music for Torching, so she must like this story, must have been fond of these parents behaving badly.

“Yours Truly” features Jody, who spends the entire story locked in a linen closet while her mom hosts a dieting club meeting for overweight women. Jody is smitten with Odessa, one of these women, and fantasizes about interactions of all kinds, and eventually, as well as standing up to the group and her parents. To note, most of the story is told in a will/would tense, meaning it’s all just speculation, and poor Jody is likely still in that linen closet, daydreaming about what she’d do if .

The final story in the collection is “A Real Doll,” what I’ll focus on today. I read this story and then I looked it up on the Google, discovering that it’s kind of infamous, as literary short stories go. If you’ve read this story, you know why. If you haven’t, well, here you go.

“A Real Doll” is about this teenage boy who starts playing with his little sister’s Barbie doll. He goes into her room when she’s not there and picks it up, says hi, and like nothing’s odd, Barbie talks back. It’s perhaps not magical realism as much as absurdism, and of course, people will make the comment and argument that everything Barbie says, every physical action she takes, is all in the boy’s head. But I don’t think you’re supposed to read this story with any of that in mind. Homes keeps everything moving quickly enough so you’re not thinking about any of that, at least not until you’re researching the story online and composing 1500-word blog posts about it.

Like most teenage boys home alone, our hero here looks for new ways to masturbate, to have sex without having another person present. This kid so happens to choose his sister’s Barbie. His first run-in with her is strange and violent, as if he doesn’t know what intimacy is (spoiler: he doesn’t), sticking Barbie in his mouth, biting down on her, much to Barbie’s dismay. She tells him just how much she dislikes this treatment, and, well, that’s their first date. Pretty ominous, but then again, it never had a chance and this kid isn’t exactly an experienced hearthrob.

As the story moves forward, Homes emboldens her protagonist more and more. Before you know it, Barbie’s clothes are off and the kid is touching her plastic parts, the stakes and rising until he’s fucking the doll, rubbing it up and down on his dick until he orgasms.

You’d think that since Barbie didn’t like being put in his mouth and bit down on, she wouldn’t like getting jerked off on, but no, this Barbie’s had a change of heart. She seems open to them taking their relationship to this level, even cooing when she sees his dick—(“I’ve never seen anything so big before!”) and squealing with pleasure during the more heated moments. Barbie’s into it, which leads to all kinds of possibilities for our narrator—a trip to the toy store is like sensory overload, rows and rows of Barbies, and you can imagine where his thoughts go.

Two different figures stand in the way of this couple’s happiness. One is Ken, who is always there, always a factor—much is made of his lack of genitalia. The other is Jennifer, the protagonist’s sister, who, remember, actually owns the dolls. Our hero has to hide his activities from her, has to keep separate from his new gal-pal while his sister plays with her toys. To his horror, sometimes she’s rougher with these toys than he is—I know, hard to believe—recalling vicious Sid from Toy Story (though remember, this book and this story are older than that, so Homes came up with all of it first). In any case, this guy never knows what he’s going to find when he sneaks into his sister’s room. Sometimes, it’s grotesque, sometimes, homoerotic, but trust me, he adapts.

One scene in this story makes it transcend what I’ve described so far. Jennifer has a fall outside, scraping her knee badly, while our guy is having a session in her room with Barbie. Jennifer comes inside, screaming and crying, and our guy has to quit what he’s doing and tend to his sister. I held my breath as this kid took off his sister’s torn tights, wondering what this horny little weirdo was going to do next. Homes gets as much as she can out of that moment—she knows what she’s doing—and happily, the kid turns out to be a pretty good brother in this instance (aside from the fact he was supposed to be watching her, keeping her from falling, not having sex with her toys).

I think I’ve gone as far into “A Real Doll” as I need to, to give an accurate picture of what this story is. It’s one of the more unusual stories I’ve read in a long time, and again, it’s over thirty years old. It’s also a fine way to end this collection, because at this point, I was wondering what Homes could have her characters do as a finale. I had to ask, didn’t I?

What an interesting way to spend an Sunday afternoon, with this thirty-year-old A.M. Homes collection that I probably should have read when it came out and should have been citing and assigning since I’ve been teaching. The Safety of Objects will stay with me for a long time, a collection that’s had a few different lives, and deservedly so. I can’t wait to see what else it has in store.