• Girabella

    Maeve Barry

    Spring 2024

    When my school friends play, they pretend to be mothers. I pretend to be God. Or I put a blanket over my head and imagine I birthed His son. I carry plastic babies by their arms like they’re skinned kittens. I never once think about parenting. I think about angels rejoicing. My image emblazoned on hundreds of thousands of gold pendants. Dangled on little girls’ necks, thickly fingered on hairy men’s rosaries. The girls at school do not understand this. I don’t know if Girabella does. She hasn’t really said. She lets me act like God when we play; she has no ideas or opinions about my stories. She just sits there until I say what comes next.

    I love Girabella because she lets me do what I want with her hair and her face. She wasn’t at all angry when I took my scissors to her hair. My mother was angry about the gold clumps that I sheared, which haven’t grown back. Girabella understands that the choppy haircut was not a result of my lacking ability but my strong sense of what is in fashion.

    She just lies there on her side with her new hair on the couch, like the lady in the picture of a painting that hangs above our piano. A harem painting, my dad told me, of a dead-eyed lady. Pale, also on her side, on a red and orange velvety sofa. That’s not what the painting’s about, my mother said, and she is the one who chose and then hung it. She said she and my father like the picture of the painting for different reasons. Really they just say the same reason differently.

    Girabella is a perfect friend because we are the same height. We don’t waste time standing back-to-back and debating half inches. But she is lighter, so I can lift her. People watch from the sand while I swing Girabella’s legs through the brown water. They watch and they think I am generous. Such a good friend, who is willing to forgo attention. All I want is attention.

    Why can’t you try acting like Girabella, my mother said one night at dinner. Girabella was quietly sitting at the table. Blankly staring and not eating until she was reminded. I’d been pretty loud—loud like the whole rest of the harem painting, apart from the dead-looking lady—singing a song I’d tried to teach Girabella. She couldn’t master the harmonies, so I sang all the parts, sliding my voice up and down through vocal registers and ending up very loud. I cried when neither my parents nor Girabella clapped at the end. I cried and then, like we always do this summer, me and my mom fought about American Girl dolls. I want one so badly. How can I learn to be God if I don’t hold any sway over the girls of His chosen country? My mother says they are too expensive and that I should learn to be grateful.

    Some parents of the kids in my class wanted to arm school security. The school said no, so the parents started a GoFundMe. They made all the money and then some off the internet. I’m not allowed to use the internet without adult supervision. I told my stupidest babysitter that I needed the internet for a school project, which she believed, which is insane, as I am in the first grade. I told her I needed to set up a GoFundMe for the animals. She didn’t even ask me what kind. I had planned to say bears. I had her register an account then said I couldn’t write with her looking. I set up the page to raise money to buy Kirsten—the Swedish doll, who looks the most like me, who is a Christian. I looked over my work. I seemed to be privileged and motivationally lacking. I added that I was an orphan who also had kid cancer.

    As a punishment, the only friend I’m allowed to see this summer is Girabella. Today we are going to the beach. Me, Girabella, and my mother. We are meeting my mother’s friend Kathy there. My mother didn’t want Girabella to come. If you bring Girabella, I’ll have to keep an eye on you both, she had said. I’ll keep an eye on Girabella, I said and winked to show her the sort of eye control of which I was capable. Then I stretched my eye open. I wobbled the ball so the white part looked like it was shaking. My mother closed her eyes and said, Okay, Jesus Christ, stop it. My mother gets nauseous if I even point at my eyeballs. She plugs up her ears if I say the word “pupil.”

    Once, Girabella let me line her glassy eyes with my mother’s makeup. I wanted to help her look more alive. My hand slipped and I poked the black liner right into her eyeball. It left a black mark on the white of her eye like the harem woman’s dark, puffy freckle. I screamed. Girabella stayed silent and pale. When my mother came in, she was calm. She peered deep into Girabella’s eyes without flinching. Stoic even in injury, Girabella’s eyes never shook, never lost their shiny glaze. My mother could look at them. I never hated Girabella more than I did at that moment.

    I let Girabella wear my second-favorite swimsuit. The yellow one with the dancing bears. The suit doesn’t even have a skirt. Mine does. It’s teal, and the skirt sticks out when I twirl. This is my best outfit. I wore it over leggings to school every day for three months, straight into the winter. The dancing bear suit should fit Girabella, but the right strap keeps slipping down off her shoulder. I keep pushing it up. My mother keeps her sunglasses down for the whole drive to the beach and keeps them down once we get there. So does Girabella; our glasses are matching. I push mine up my head then lower them and then lift them again. This is the whole point of sunglasses.

    The beach is empty, but Kathy had set her lawn chair up right next to the lifeguard. His suit is the same color red as the pimples dotting his spine. One is bleeding, another oozing. Kathy keeps standing up like she’s stretching and leaning over to get things right in front of him. The things she picks up are invisible.

    Then Kathy and my mother lean back on their towels. They balance on their elbows, like the woman in the harem, except they’re wearing shapewear. They stretch their necks out like ostriches and keep their backs straight as boards. I’m such a cow, my mother keeps saying. If she’s so worried about looking cow-like, why would she wear a black bathing suit? Kathy reaches over to tap my mother’s stomach. She looks behind her to see if the lifeguard’s looking. He’s talking to some blond girl and leaning against his tall chair’s back so the girl can’t see he’s bleeding. My mother sucks in her gut. I try doing the same, but there’s not much to work with. My stomach presses in then back out like a lung. I reach over to Girabella’s stomach and there’s a thump thump thump sound where I tap her.

    I wish I was as light as Girabella, Kathy says with a sad face. She is looking at the blond girl with the lifeguard. Kathy drinks from her thermos. She takes another out of her cooler and gives it to my mother. Can me and Girabella have some, I say. This is a grown-up drink, honey, Kathy says and then laughs so loudly like this is so funny. Kathy sounds like a horse who is demented. The lifeguard looks over, then he looks away.

    Me and Girabella walk to the water. I cup it in my hands and lift it to my mouth to pretend like I’m drinking. Mmm, grown-up drink, I say. I offer the hand-cup to Girabella and watch it dribble over her pink face. I drizzle sand over our shoulders, into Girabella’s mouth. She keeps her lips slightly parted. This is why everyone likes her. Like the lady at the harem with her mouth partway open. You can put what you want in it and she’ll look happy. I pour sand on my tongue. It feels gritty, dry, like the tongue of my aunt’s ugly dog. I try keeping my face casual like a picture of a painting. I look at Girabella and she is smiling.

    Only up to your belly buttons, my mother yells. I roll my eyes so Girabella sees that I’m brave. I stomp my foot so the lifeguard sees, too. He isn’t looking. Water splashes onto my stomach. Girabella just looks at my mother politely. We’re the only ones in the water; we take turns floating with our faces down, holding our breath, pretending to be dead. I practice holding my breath all the time. Girabella’s even better. I watch her float on her belly until I stop counting. She looks like a log. The back of her hair is still dry, sticking out of the water in a gold tuft, short where I cut it. I imagine that the tuft is her halo. If Girabella were dead, people would think I was so brave. My parents would buy me an American Girl doll.

    Let’s not play corpses anymore, I tell Girabella, because she beat me and held her breath longer. Water slides down her nose and off her eyelashes. It flings from her face when I swing her by the armpits.

    The beach fills with a rainbow of umbrellas and coolers and chairs. People glob thick sunscreen in white circles on each other’s shoulder blades so for a second they’re angels. Girabella and me hold hands and zigzag back to the towels. My fingers are pruny from the lake water. Girabella’s are smooth. My mother and Kathy have drunk their thermoses. They spilled their second thermoses on their thighs and the juice dries there in a sticky layer. They’re curled on their towels with their mouths open. Black wiry hair crawls out from behind Kathy’s bottoms.

    Maeve Barry is a writer in New York. You can find more of her stories at maeve-barry.com

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