When her sister arrived, Sarah ducked back to the kitchen and turned on the faucet and the fan over the stove. “Amy’s brought a baby doll to dinner,” she murmured to her mother.
“Amy did what?” Cheryl reached to shut off the fan, but Sarah shook her head and leaned in closer.
“Do you know if she’s still seeing the counselor I recommended? Did he end up prescribing her anything?”
“Sarah, give me a chance to say hello.” Cheryl wiped her hands on a dish towel and made her way to the front door, gripping the railings installed around the ground floor of the house. She had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis 12 years ago, but the disease had made only gradual progress until Sarah and Amy’s father died. Before, bad flare-ups happened years apart. In the first year following his death, she’d had three. Sarah had moved in to do what she could and, four years later, had never found a good time to move back out again. Amy had left the state.
For the time being, a cane or walker, household modifications like the railings, and round-the-clock caregiving were putting off the inevitable, but Sarah knew there was only so long that even the most diligent measures could work. Too much of her paycheck from the hospital went to pay the caretaker who stayed at the house during Sarah’s shifts. Some mornings, Sarah woke up still in her scrubs. But her parents had moved into the house a year after their wedding, almost to the day. Amy had been born there in the midst of a blizzard six months later. There were days when Sarah wondered if she should have sold the house already, but then the next day would go a little easier or she’d see her mother sun herself in a garden chair by a flowerbed planted before Sarah was born, and she’d put it off again.
Amy was wearing dirty yoga pants and a red sweater that made her complexion ruddy. There were more gray hairs coiling around her temples than Sarah remembered from the last time she had seen her. Amy had dropped her purse and a padded teal tote bag in the hallway and was trying to drape her coat onto a hanger one-handed. The other arm cradled a bundle in a yellow blanket. She leaned into her mother’s hug with one shoulder, angling the arm with the bundle away. The coat flopped against Cheryl’s back.
“Can you help me with this? I just got her to sleep.”
“Of course,” Cheryl said, taking the coat. “May I see?”
Amy smiled and turned down the blanket. “Meet Genevieve.”
Babysoft® dolls, according to the advertisement in the back pages of TV Guide, are handcrafted with love. Each one is unique. There are boys and girls, different skin tones and eye colors, bald Babysofts® and ones with hair (100% natural). Your Babysoft® weighs between 5.5 and 7.5 pounds, with skin made from specially treated vinyl to feel as soft and smooth as a real newborn’s. Babysoft® comes either awake or sleeping, and the arms and legs are movable to allow dressing, undressing, and a variety of lifelike newborn poses.
“Oh, how darling,” Cheryl said. “Look at that little face.”
“Do you want to hold her?”
Cheryl nestled the doll against her chest and straightened in surprise. “She’s warm.”
“That’s the thermal conduits,” Amy said. “She picks up body heat. The blanket’s specially designed to help her keep the warmth in.”
“Is that so?” Cheryl said, and handed the doll back. “She’s beautiful, sweetheart. Very lifelike. There are drinks in the kitchen if you’d like anything.”
Amy followed her mother and sister back to the kitchen and sank onto a barstool. “Cranberry juice would be perfect, if you have any. And an aspirin. It’s been a long day.” She noticed a cookie tin on the counter. “Ooh, did you bake?”
Cheryl smiled and shifted her cane to the other hand to open the fridge with her stronger arm. “It’s just the Tollhouse recipe.”
Amy popped the lid off and helped herself. “Heaven.”
Sarah took one, too, and bit. The cookie had spread too much in the oven, so the chocolate chips tasted burnt. “Do you need help with the juice, Mom?”
Cheryl waved Sarah away. “I’ll pour it over the sink. It’s not too heavy. Go sit!”
Sarah perched on the edge of the stool next to Amy, half her weight still on one foot on the ground, ready to get up if necessary. “You said it’s asleep,” she said. “What do you mean?”
Amy touched the back of the doll’s head. “I’ve been reading What to Expect in the First 12 Months as a reference, to get a better idea of how feeding and sleeping schedules work for a newborn. I’m doing the four-hour schedule, so she eats at four, eight, and 12. I keep an eye on the time and try to manage around her needs. We missed naptime earlier, so I thought it would be good for her to sleep a little bit now.”
“Oh. Gotcha. Well, all right,” Sarah said. “And you got it from the TV Guide?”
Amy beamed. “I was checking to see if Extreme Makeover was coming in with new episodes, and I saw her little face and had to have her.”
“I remember looking through the those ads when we were kids. We used to think they were hysterical. NASCAR plates and kitten figurines and weird dollar coins they’d try to charge you 20 dollars for.”
“I know,” Amy laughed. “All that junk! But that’s how I found Genevieve, and that’s all that matters. You wouldn’t believe the rush of love you feel when you see your baby for the first time, Sarah. It’s unreal. Do you want to hold her?”
“Maybe later,” Sarah said. “I’m glad you could make it out. We haven’t seen you in ages. Things have been crazy at the hospital. I’ve been looking forward to a chance to catch my breath.”
“I know exactly what you mean,” Amy said. “Things are wild at work with the holidays coming up. Lots of crafters making DIY Christmas gifts this year. I’m doing a 12-hour shift on Black Friday.”
“How does it work leaving the baby at home all day?” Cheryl asked. “Do you hire a sitter?”
“I take her to work with me, actually. Two of the managers don’t care if I keep Genevieve in her little carrier behind the register with me, and when Deborah is around, I put her in the back room for a little while with a baby monitor and check in on her from time to time. I take her into the bathroom for privacy if she needs anything, anyway.”
The timer over the oven buzzed.
“That’s the chicken,” Sarah said. “Amy, would you take the salad to the table?”
Amy rolled her eyes. “Yes, mom.”
“Why are you asking her about a babysitter?” Sarah said when Amy was out of the room.
“Just making conversation.”
“I’m not sure encouraging this is a good idea.”
Amy poked her head back into the kitchen. “Are you coming?”
“Of course,” Cheryl said. “We’re on our way.”
During grace, Sarah opened her eyes to watch her mother and sister. Cheryl leaned both her elbows on the table and gripped Sarah and Amy’s hands. Baking must have taken her hours, resting between stages when standing too long in one place made her fatigued. She looked to Sarah like she was propping herself up on her daughters. Amy rested only her fingertips in Sarah’s palm. Her other arm bent away from Cheryl in order to steady the doll’s head against her bicep, and she had one knee raised above the table to support its bottom. The doll squatted on her thigh, staring at Sarah.
“So tell me about my new granddaughter,” Cheryl said. “How long have you had her?”
“Three weeks on Tuesday,” Amy said.
“And you…feed her? Play with her?”
Amy nodded. “I feed her, dress her, make sure she’s not too hot or cold, change her. The same things you do with any baby.”
“What happens if you forget?” Sarah said. “Is there a chip in it to record whether you’re doing a good job?”
“No, Genevieve’s not a robot,” Amy said. “She picks up body heat, so she feels warm, and she’s designed to look and feel lifelike, but that’s it as far as technology. I’m the one responsible to make sure I’m taking care of her. Four is a nasty hour to be awake in the morning, but you’ve got to do it if you want to be a mom.”
Sarah choked on a mouthful of water. Her mother half-leaned to pound her on the back, couldn’t reach, and smacked Sarah’s arm rhythmically instead.
“Are you all right?” Amy asked when the coughing subsided.
“Great,” Sarah said. She tugged at a string of tendon in her chicken with her fork until it snapped. “Mom and I ran into an old friend of mine from college at the movies last week.”
“Yeah, he just moved to the area. He’s opening his own chiropractic clinic in the shopping center by the Kohl’s.”
“Sounds nice,” Amy said, disinterested. “Maybe you’ll see each other around.”
“I hope so. We talked about getting together for coffee next week and catching up. We were close for a while, but we lost touch.”
“He wasn’t wearing a ring when we saw him, you know,” Cheryl said, tapping the back of her left hand with one finger.
Sarah laughed and rolled her eyes. “I think we’re getting ahead of ourselves.”
“Don’t worry, I haven’t called the church yet.”
The clock in the kitchen chimed the half hour.
Amy put a finger in the back of the doll’s diaper. “Whoops,” she said. “Someone’s overdue on a diaper change. Excuse me, I’ll be right back.”
“I’m sorry, did I not pay attention to you for five minutes, Amy?” Sarah said. “We can talk about you some more. Are you still seeing Dr. Allen? What does he think of the fact that you’re carrying a doll around? I don’t know, maybe it’s a new therapy technique I’m not familiar with. Please, I’m dying to hear more about it.”
Amy flushed. “You know, on the way over I was just thinking how nice it would be to get through one dinner with Mom without you being a bitch.”
Cheryl lifted her cup. “I’d like some tea, Sarah. Would you mind helping me make it?”
Sarah let out a breath. “Of course. Excuse us.”
When they were in the kitchen, Cheryl took Sarah’s arms. “Why are you letting yourself get so worked up?”
“How can you not? Mom, she’s carrying around a baby doll. She’s taking it to work with her. She’s losing it all over again.”
“I don’t think it’s anything so serious. She’s probably not going to get to have children of her own. I don’t think she dates or has a lot of close friends in Pennsylvania. It must be lonely coming home every night to an empty place. Think about those women who bring their little dog everywhere.”
“This isn’t a dog.”
Cheryl pulled a strand of hair off Sarah’s sweater. “She might not be ready for a dog. She can’t handle a lot of different responsibilities the way that you do.”
“Apparently she can, if she’s getting up at four every morning.” Sarah rubbed her forehead. “Sorry, I don’t mean to snap at you. I just wish she would act her age sometimes.”
“I know,” Cheryl said. “Now give me a hug and a kiss and promise to be nice to your sister.”
Sarah kissed her mother on the cheek. “I’ll do my best.”
Amy gave Sarah a sullen look when she came back downstairs, but the rest of the meal passed without another outburst. Cheryl caught Amy up on the lives of parishioners who had known the girls since grade school. Sarah withdrew into the caregiver role, the one to clear the dishes and get paper towels when her mother knocked over her tea.
After dinner, Sarah helped Cheryl back to her room so she could take her meds and a catnap before dessert. When she returned, Amy was sitting cross-legged on the living room floor, changing the doll’s outfit. She hadn’t noticed Sarah yet. She took a bottle of oil out of the diaper bag, pressed a few drops between her palms to warm it, then smoothed it over the doll’s chest and arms. When she got to the hands, she hooked her fingers around them and made the arms wave, reaching out for her. She bent over and touched her nose to the doll’s. Sarah sat down beside her.
Amy looked up and froze, a guilty expression on her face. Then she looked down again, pulled a small sock onto the doll’s foot and smoothed the cloth over the heel.
“I’m sorry about what I said earlier,” Sarah said.
“Mom already calls me, you know. I’ve already got her fishing to see if I’m slipping. Sometimes I think she wants things to get bad again for me so she’ll have someone to commiserate with.”
“Nobody wants that.”
“I’m doing fine handling everything on my own.”
“Sure,” Sarah said. “Look, I don’t want to fight with you. Mom looks forward to these dinners too much.”
“Great, so let’s not fight.”
Sarah pressed her lips together. The moment was wrong, but she doubted she would get a better chance. “Listen, I wanted to talk to you about something. I’d like you to check your calendar and spend a few days here soon, maybe a long weekend.”
“I already said I don’t need you to keep an eye on me.”
“It’s not that. I was hoping I could get out on my own for a little vacation.”
Amy looked quizzically at her. “Where are you going?”
“I don’t know, a bed and breakfast somewhere. I saw a deal online for one in West Virginia. I’ve got until tomorrow night to buy it.”
“I just want to spend a few days sleeping in and eating pancakes. There’s a horseback riding place nearby. I’m not sure they’d even be open, but it might be fun. Besides, I thought maybe you’d like to see a bit more of Mom.”
Amy spoke into Genevieve’s face. “I spend a lot of time here. Anytime I’m not scheduled for work.”
“Not for the last six weeks. And I’m here every day.”
“Yeah, because you volunteered to live here. Don’t play martyr with me, it isn’t fair.”
“I’m not playing martyr—” Sarah stopped herself. “It would only be for a few days. I just need a break.”
Amy held the doll against her shoulder and patted its back. “I’ll think about it.”
Sarah shifted. “So. How are things at the house?”
“Pretty good. A little noisy sometimes. The Williams have people over a lot.”
“Do you ever think about getting a real apartment? I can’t imagine living in someone else’s basement.”
“Not unless I start working 70 hours a week. It’s not so bad. They’re good people. You’ve seen my space, it’s basically an apartment. It doesn’t feel like a basement. Most of the time I don’t even know anyone else is there.”
“Yeah, it is.” Amy took out a pair of knitting needles and began to make her way down a row of stitches, scraping the needles on the purls. “Mom’s looking pretty fit.”
“She won’t use the walker when you’re over. I don’t know what she’s trying to hide. She knows that you know she has one.”
“What’s the big deal? She’s doing really well. She bakes, she’s getting around the house fine, she told me last week on the phone she wants to plant a garden next year. Between the movies and church outings and all the rest, she’s got more of a social life than I do.” Amy said it lightly, but the sentence hung in the air.
“I do what I can. Being at home means a lot to her,” Sarah said. She moved to the couch and scanned the headlines of the previous day’s paper. For a while, the knitting needles scraped and the paper rustled. Sarah folded the section.
“She’s probably awake.”
“I can get her.”
“No, I’ll do it,” Sarah said. “She’s a little unsteady when she first wakes up.”
The blanket and discarded clothes were still lying on the floor in front of the couch when Sarah came back with Cheryl.
“Where’s Amy?” Cheryl said.
“In the kitchen.” Amy came in with the tin of cookies in one hand and the doll hoisted over one shoulder. “I don’t know what you put in these things, but they’re addictive. I could eat the whole box.” She sat on one end of the couch, tucked a pillow under her thigh, and shifted the baby into position.
Even though Amy had brought the baby bag with her, Sarah knew that Amy was not going to pull out a specially designed Babysoft® bottle to “feed” the baby. She knew even before Amy lifted her sweater that her sister had been wearing a nursing bra all night, knew that Amy would—perhaps unconsciously, perhaps not—let her bare breast dangle for a moment before she mashed the vinyl face of the doll against her nipple and flicked the yellow thermal blanket over her shoulder in a belated show of modesty.
Amy readjusted her weight, making the leather couch cushion squeak. She pulled a throw pillow from behind her back and tossed it on the floor, then leaned back into the sofa, jiggling the baby rhythmically against her breast. A soft, pale strip of her stomach was visible where the blanket didn’t reach.
“Do you need a shawl, sweetie?” Cheryl said finally. “I have one in my room.”
“Are you seriously still playing this game with her?” Sarah said.
“It’s not that important—”
“Yes. It is. Amy, put your fucking toy away.”
Amy’s arms tightened around the doll. “Don’t call her that. You don’t understand—”
“Don’t even start. You left me to do everything, and you drop off the face of the earth for a month at a time and then show up and compliment some cookies, and you think that’s enough? When are you going to show any meaningful interest in anyone besides yourself? I am here every day, do you understand that? Every single day. I don’t get to go out, and I don’t have time to make-believe some special world where I can have what I want, and you’re either too stupid to understand that or you don’t care. Jesus, all you do is sit at home breastfeeding a piece of plastic, and you want to make me the bad guy?” Sarah’s hands were shaking. “You need to grow up.” She reached out and grabbed at the doll. Amy, startled, caught one foot by the ankle. There was a pop as the joint pulled free.
Genevieve was heavier than Sarah had expected, a six-pound sack, sagging toward the bottom and lolling in the head. She almost dropped the doll. Maybe the thermal conducts were what made it feel warm in her hands, maybe just the sweaty heat of having been wedged against Amy’s armpit. The skin didn’t feel anything like a baby’s. It was slick, giving. It felt like it was melting into a sticky vinyl mass. The head nodded toward the leg dangling from the socket.
“Oh, Sarah.” Cheryl touched the disjointed leg gingerly.
Amy had begun to cry in that silent, red-faced way of hers. She had tugged her sweater back down and crossed her arms around her ribs, cradling herself. “You didn’t have to do that.”
Sarah could feel her mother’s eyes on her. The first thought, exasperated, was, And all either one of them is going to remember is the moment I screwed up. Then the guilt crept in, for both the doll and the thought. She was the one in the right, she knew she was, and that knowledge wasn’t going to be enough. Neither was a long weekend, or a date, or a horseback ride, even assuming she could get any of it. And Amy probably was going to keep nursing the doll, at home or in the stall of the employee bathroom during a 10-minute break, and that wasn’t ever going to be enough for her, either. The anger was still there, but it was useless. It wouldn’t change anything. The weight in her hands felt pitifully small.
Sarah shifted her arm under the doll’s bottom and let its head drop onto her shoulder. “I didn’t mean to break it. Her,” she said, the pronoun awkward in her mouth. “Let me see if I can fix the leg. It’s probably not as bad as it looks.”
Cheryl sat next to Amy and rubbed her back. “Don’t cry, now. Oh, sweetheart…”
Sarah put the doll on her lap. Genevieve was perfectly made, she had to admit. The makers had even designed an imperfection: a rosy “birthmark” on its knee. She considered it for a moment, then put one hand on its stomach to steady it and popped the leg back into place. Neither Cheryl nor Amy looked up at her. Sarah hadn’t expected them to. Amy was leaning into her mother’s shoulder and Cheryl was stroking her hair. Cheryl’s chin rested on top of Amy’s head. It occurred to Sarah then that she couldn’t remember the last time her mother had looked taller than either of them.
“Doll Baby” is excerpted from Jessica’s brilliant debut collection, Room Full of Strangers.