It was strangely bright the afternoon we set out for Santa Barbara. Blinding almost. I sat in my blue grey Honda Civic, seething beneath the white sun.
“I can’t believe I forgot my sunglasses,” I said to my sister. “It’s brighter than nuclear warfare out here.”
“Sorry dear,” Katrina screeched, leafing through a packet of papers she had printed from the internet.
I sighed intentionally and rolled down my window, letting in the hot air. The daylight had been grating on me for several hours, but it wasn’t until the word nuclear came out of my mouth that a distinct anxious feeling crept up my throat. I stared through the dirty windshield at the highway ahead and understood then this vacation would be endless.
The road was smooth and dark like a whale’s back. It glistened from afar then grew dull as we drove over it. The California coastline on the left side of Highway 1 seemed to go on forever. The waves were soft and even, forming a repetitive sound that coincided with us driving over the sparkly pavement.
I knew that while other family trips were annoying, this one would be exhausting for different reasons. I had agreed, on rather dubious terms (a handsome bribe), to take my younger sister to visit the Hearst Castle.
My parents worried that my eighteen-year-old sister spent too much time playing violent computer games and researching historical landmarks. She had an unnatural obsession with California missions. Her fixation on the Santa Barbara Mission in particular, befuddled everyone, including our Francophone mother who had an almost puritanical disdain for sightseeing.
“You should take your camera, but don’t feel pressure to take pictures of things just because you feel that you should,” she said to me as we left. “I’ll call you tonight, maybe. And remember to give your sister her medication!”
“Have fun in Tunisia,” I said dryly, leaving the front door wide open.
“I really need a break from her, I know you understand,” she started to say but I had already reached the car.
“Bye?” She yelled, waving to my back.
It was about four o’clock and traffic had slowed down a bit. The air was humid and my hair had started to form tight curls underneath my neck. I reached in my purse and took out a pack of cigarettes, then lit one and watched it dangle grotesquely from the window like a rotting limb. Smoking during the daytime always made me feel guilty.
“Why do you smoke, Anna? You’re gonna die! Don’t you know you’re gonna die if you smoke?” She said, coughing intentionally. “So many people die from smoking every day!”
Katrina had waged war with my subconscious and won. Everything she said sounded like it was coming from inside my own head and I had to pause for a few seconds before saying, “People die when they don’t smoke, too.”
“Well of course!” she responded enthusiastically. “We are all going to die one day. Everybody knows that.”
I glanced at the papers Katrina was holding in her lap, a stack of maybe fifteen or twenty unstapled pages. I guessed that they were directions. “What’s that?”
“This? Um,” she looked down and collated her papers. “This is the history of the California Missions.”
“What?” I asked, baffled by her fixation. “Why do you like missions so much?”
She stared at the road in front of her for a few moments, and then suddenly screamed, “I don’t know!”
I changed the radio station to something loud, refusing to have a conversation with someone who graveled like the Cookie Monster. I squinted my eyes toward the horizon, my senses abraded by the harsh sunlight and Katrina’s voice. She said everything as though she were being murdered.
I remembered the pills my mom had given me to give to Katrina. She had a Zoloft prescription and a Xanax one as well. If I took a few it would be easy to get her prescription refilled but I didn’t know if they would do anything for me. “How much longer do we have to go?” I asked.
“One hundred eighty nine miles until the Old Santa Barbara Mission!” She answered excitedly.
I examined the digital clock on the dashboard, peering to read the tiny numbers.
“Um, I don’t think we’re going to have time to see the mission today,” I said as calmly as I could. “It’ll be too late by the time we get there. We’ll go tomorrow.”
“Oooooh,” She looked down at the car floor, at the array of half-smoked cigarettes. “We’re gonna take a tour of the mission tomorrow. That’ s too bad.”
“I’m sorry, Katrina. It’s getting late. They have a pool, though. You can go swimming.”
“You said we were gonna take a tour of the mission today.”
I turned down the radio. “I know, but the tours are gonna be over by the time we get there. There’s too much traffic.”
“Oh, there’s too much traffic.”
Katrina sat still, processing what she had just heard.
“Oh, we can’t go to the mission today because it got too late,” she repeated to herself.
I pressed my lips together, fearing she would dwell on this for the rest of the car ride.
She read the papers she was holding over and over to herself, moving her lips as she spoke, whispering nervously.
“But why can’t we go to the Mission?” She asked again.
“Because it’s closed!” I screamed finally.
Katrina exhaled demonically. Her features were dark without makeup. She had an olive complexion and long eyelashes. Her eyebrows were thick and bushy, and she had a boyish haircut, although she was beautiful underneath her acne. People always said she looked “exotic” but I never saw it until now.
She looked at the doll she was cradling in her right arm and spoke to her breathily, “We can take a tour of the Mission tomorrow, Fiona. I’m sorry. Tonight we can go swimming in the pool! Yeah!”
I watched her listen to the doll. She held the plastic being to her face for a few seconds then cried out, “Don’t be afraid, Fiona. You’re a good swimmer. No going in the deep end!”
Fiona was Katrina’s newborn, but she hadn’t favored her as much as she had her other daughter, Marissa, who had met a tragic end a few months before.
THE DEAD DOLL
Marissa was a medium sized doll with tangled blond hair. Katrina’s first born. She carried her around for four years and sewed new outfits for her nearly every week. She drew magenta eyelashes on her face with a sharpie and cut off her bangs, leaving spiky blond remnants above her forehead. On each of my birthdays she would give out two cards, one from her and the other signed “Love Marissa.” Never was the doll’s humanity to be questioned, she was, in the presence of Katrina, her mortal daughter. Whenever anyone mistook Marissa for a doll, she’d grow irate and assert, “She’s not a doll, she’s a midget!”
One Saturday afternoon Katrina entered the living room carrying a naked decapitated doll. “Oh no!” She lamented. “Marissa’s dead.”
My mom and I paused skeptically for a few uncertain seconds.
“How did she die?” I said bravely.
She contemplated the question then stuttered, “Marissa had to have surgery. She had to have the body repaired because the paint was peeling. She tried to have the body repaired but it didn’t work on her and so she died.“
“She will be missed,” mom told her before going back to her painting, hoping to abandon the subject.
Katrina stood there anxiously, rocking her tall body back and forth. Suddenly, she burst into tears.
“My daughter’s dead!” she bawled, lingering on the word dead for a while.
“Sweetie, you have other children,” mom consoled her. “It’s okay.”
She let out a long sob, continuing to say “but Marissa was too young” several times before leaving the room.
“At least she won’t carry around that damn doll anymore,” mom whispered to me. Katrina’s hearing was sensitive.
“Except she has a whole closet full of other dolls.” I reminded her.
Katrina burst into the room again. She had stopped crying and she had a bizarre, scheming look to her.
“I think I should have a funeral for Marissa,” she said.
Margot pondered the idea for a moment, then told her it was okay.
“You have to plan it all yourself. I’m not going to help you organize a funeral for a-“ she stopped herself. “I’m not going to plan Marissa’s funeral. This is your thing.”
Katrina seemed to be uplifted at the prospect of having some sort of task. For the next week or so, it was all she talked about. She sent out Facebook invites to all her internet friends, including the dolls whose profiles she had created.
Im so sad that marissa’s gone. Im gonna miss my sissy, Fiona wrote on the wall for the “Funeral for Marissa” event page. Don’t worry she is an angel princess now, Katrina commented back.
She spent her nights building a baby coffin in the garage from planks of wood gathered from our family’s nightly drives along the beach. The result was a somewhat misshapen corroded box about two feet long.
The funeral was held the next Thursday. Katrina had arranged the backyard, setting out chairs in a semicircle on the concrete. My mom and I walked into the backyard carrying notecards in our hands. We sat down in the first row of chairs across from the corpse. A small wooden box lay atop a bedside table Katrina had seized from the master bedroom. Marissa had a lot of friends for a five year old.
The front row was for family. Two seats were full of Katrina’s other (adopted) children, the dolls that remained in her life. Ginger a black Raggedy Ann doll, sat on her lap. David and Yolanda (newborns from Syria) sat beside her. Other multiracial dolls shared the seat next to mine, piled on top of each other. Behind them, Katrina’s best friend Gracie and her aunt also named Gracie.
“Thank God she’s dead!” Aunt Gracie yelled at my mother, laughing. “I hope she buries all of them!”
“Well I think it’s nice that she has these dolls. And I remember seeing this one a lot,” our 70-year old neighbor Jeanette chimed in. “She wants friends.”
My mom turned around and faced the coffin. She looked down at her index card (a speech Katrina had prepared for her) then stood next to the doll coffin and spoke as earnestly as she could:
Marissa was my granddaughter. She was very kind and I miss her. I think we all miss her because she said nice things to us and she was very pretty. Thank you.
I sat within a few feet of her, staring solemnly at the coffin as Katrina clumsily informed the six guests that refreshments were to be served in the kitchen, and a slideshow of Marissa’s life was to be played. I looked at my bony, childlike hands at the program Katrina had given all of us. A square picture of Marissa sat atop a description of her life:
~Marissa was born on February 26, 2005 in Redondo Beach, CA at home and diagnosed with primordial dwarfism at birth. She got a pink eye when she was 2 because the nanny kept putting makeup on her. Always remember her as you think of her thoughts. She was a wonderful 1st grader. Marissa liked meditation music, design and even other things. Marissa used to like Disney Princesses since she was 2 and stopped at 3. She got marks and scars since the age of 2. She was good at nails. She used to have playmates. She used to have so much fun. She wasn't selfish and was very kind to others. She's been eating orange fruits and vegetables since 3.5 years old. She was short for her size. She was a good shopper. She was gonna go to a day care center but she couldn't. She slept a lot. She's a very smart girl and liked to read and write. She writes "thank you" and stuff like that. Marissa was going to have the body repaired but it didn't work on her. And she was very helpful and she thinks of others. We wish that someone could do lots of things like Marissa. ~
I sat still, gazing at the coffin and wondering what she was going to do with it. My eyes veered around and noticed others staring at it, too. We watched in unison as Katrina picked up the coffin and dropped it callously into a hole she had dug beside the flowerbed underneath the house.
“Bye Marissa!” she screamed manically before packing dirt over her grave.
The twelve of us filed uncomfortably into the kitchen to eat. The counter was full of all Marissa’s favorite foods: coleslaw, fruit salad and lemon cake.
Katrina fuddled with the DVD player in the living room. “Oh no! It’s not working!”
My dad rushed toward the entertainment system, swiftly pushing a button to ameliorate things. A picture of Marissa appeared on the television screen. There was a slideshow with about five pictures of her, accompanied by meditation music. It played in a loop and became annoying quickly. After watching for a polite amount of time, people dispersed.
“Marissa led a happy life,” Katrina assured herself before returning to her room. “She was a nice midget.”
Katrina and I drove into the parking lot of the Villa Rosa Inn at dusk. We walked past the kidney-shaped pool, now steaming in the balmy air.
“Are you going to go swimming with me?” Katrina asked.
We progressed through the red tiled entryway towards the concierge desk, where a sleepy red haired girl greeted us.
“Do you have reservations?” she asked.
“Yes.” I stood up straight, trying to seem grown up. “Under Gunarsson.”
“Okay,” the attendant looked at her computer. “You requested two queens?”
“No,” I corrected her. “We’d like one double bed and one cot.”
The hotel concierge and I locked eyes, and for a moment, I wish mine had been blue. Her stare was so naïve, guileless. She could have been thinking about killing me but I’d never know.
She glanced at Katrina, who clenched her doll with a goofy smile, then back at me. “Why do you want a cot?”
I leaned forward as to not let Katrina hear. “My sister is autistic and only likes to sleep on cots when we stay at hotels,” I said softly. “She’ll flip out if we don’t get a room with a cot.”
“Oh. Um, I’m sorry. The only rooms we have available are like, the ones with two queen beds. They used to have cots, like in the thirties or forties when couples weren’t married but they wanted to make it seem like-”
“Okay. Hold on.” I turned my head towards Katrina and said in an authoritative voice, “They don’t have cot beds. Can you sleep on a queen bed?”
She exhaled through her teeth. “No.”
“Well, what do you wanna do?”
“Sleep on the floor.”
“On the floor?”
“Sleep on a sleeping bag in the closet.”
“You have a sleeping bag?”
She pointed to her large aquamarine duffel bag.
I paused incredulously then turned to the attendant. “Okay, we’ll take the room,” I said through a restrained smile.
“Yank you dear!” said Katrina.
I turned around and looked back at Katrina, who stood behind me with gaping eyes.
“Yank you dear. Sorry.”
“What?” she asked, emphasizing the "a" sound. I knew what she wanted me to say.
“Um, you’re yelcome,” I said as quickly and quietly as I could.
She smiled cartoonishly and nodded her head in satisfaction.
“Did you just say ‘you’re yelcome?’” the attendant looked up from her computer.
I paused self-consciously for a few seconds, thinking of how to explain myself. “Yeah, I said that,” I responded matter-of-factly.
“Oh.” The girl squinted at Katrina again then typed something into her computer and handed me two cards.
We drifted toward the elevator, Katrina dragging her feet along the carpet and grunting as she continued to shift her cumbersome duffel bag from shoulder to shoulder.
“Oh but they don’t have a cot bed. That’s too bad! They don’t use the cot beds anymore because the people have sex now. Yeah, because of sex. I’ll sleep on the floor. Yeah on the floor!”
A dark haired man next to the elevator eyed us, listening to Katrina ’s words as though they were prophetic. He had a thick, bristly beard. I wonder what he does for a living, I thought.
The elevator let out a soft beep as it opened, and the stranger motioned for us to go ahead.
Katrina leaned against the wall of the elevator, with her doll, Fiona and duffel bag beside her. The other passenger stared at the doll then looked at me.
“Oh but I don’t think I can sleep on the bed!” Katrina said grittily to herself. “I’ll sleep in the closet.”
He looked at her, startled and concerned.
I smiled apologetically. “Where are you from?”
“San Ramon,” he said emphatically.
“Oh,” I said weakly, unable to think of a response. We waited in tired silence until the elevator stopped. He got off on the second floor and struggled to wheel his suitcase off the floor for what seemed like an hour. I hastily pressed the “door close” button.
When we got off at the third floor, the hall was empty but I could hear two women chatting in a room across from ours. I slid the card into the door slot of room #303.
The room was small and had a strange, musty smell. I studied the floral bedspread beneath a neutral watercolor painting. I need a drink, I thought, staring at the gray, stained carpet.
I scanned the room and noticed a basket of booze sitting atop the shrunken refrigerator. Choices of several types of rum, Jack Daniels and raspberry vodka made me wonder how long it had been since they’d changed the drink selection. I poured the contents of the two miniature Jack Daniels bottles into three plastic cups, then opened the fridge to try to find some kind of mediator. My eyes settled on a tall can of Arizona Iced Tea and several water bottles. I hated Arizona Iced Tea because it tasted like seawater but I opened the can anyway. I poured the iced tea into the three quarter-filled cups of whiskey, taking care to divide the contents of the liquid evenly. Afterward, I wandered to the bathroom.
Katrina emerged wearing floral blue board shorts and a dingy grey t-shirt without a bra. She carried a towel and four dolls in her arms. “Bye, Anna. We’re going swimming.”
I stood in front of the bathroom mirror for a few minutes, observing the effects of four hours of driving on my porous, alabaster face. My tangled black hair maybe looked sloppy, or gave people the impression that I just had sex, but that wasn’t the problem here. It was my features; they were drifting away from each other, or rearranging themselves, as they had been for the last few months. I wasn’t sure if I liked it, my face was maturing in a way that showed dissatisfaction, restlessness.
I returned to the main room and finished the first homemade cocktail. Katrina had left the television tuned to the local weather station. I searched for the remote for a few minutes before changing the station to COPS. I dragged my suitcase across the carpet and emptied my clothes out, stuffing them into the top drawer underneath the television.
I sat on the edge of the bed, wondering what to do tonight. My sister was okay to be left alone but I didn’t want to leave without saying anything to her and I couldn’t go to sleep just yet in this dismal motel room. It wasn’t that much better outside, though. There were college students who got drunk in the streets and tropical themed bars with middle-aged men but not much in between.
I hope I don’t run into Jordan, I thought as I turned to the TV guide channel and waited through the 90-second review until I could see the E! lineup. I finished the third cocktail, still saline through my tipsy palette.
I threw on a torn leather jacket and headed outside. The air was crisp and I felt refreshed for a few minutes until I entered the liquor store, where a homeless person was yelling at the cashier as I picked out something to eat.
I stared at the different beers through the glass door before choosing the cheapest one. Four people stood in line, two young men wearing matching UCSB sweatshirts, a decrepit looking man counting change, and a tall man in a business suit.
“Hi,” I tapped the last one on the shoulder. He turned around and smiled carnivorously.
I said nothing at first, studying his expression. Suddenly I blurted out without thinking, “What are you doing here?”
I thought for a second. “Um, what brings you to this establishment at this time of night?”
He laughed theatrically. “I guess the same thing that brings everyone else here. Alcohol.”
“Is there anything interesting happening tonight?”
He looked at my thin frame. “How old are you?”
“Twenty one. How old are you?”
He turned around and the cashier rang him up.
“Thirty four.” He studied my forehead as though he was trying to read my mind.
“Next?” the cashier asked. I smiled at the man in the business suit and stepped forward. He stood at the side of the register for a few seconds, and then walked away.
“Can I see your ID?” the cashier asked.
“Yeah,” I said, handing him a passport.
“You look like you’re sixteen.”
“Yeah, well that’s me.” I forced a smile at him as he scanned a box of Cheez-its and a tall can of Pabst.
“Would you like a bag?”
“Yeah, I don’t want to get arrested.”
“No, ma’am. You don’t.” He gave me the change and wrapped a plastic bag around the beer. “Have a nice night.”
As I approached the motel I heard someone screaming but I couldn’t make out what they were saying. As I got closer I realized it was my sister and she was yelling at her dolls.
She sat on the edge of the azure tinted jacuzzi with her feet submerged in the hot water. Her four dolls sat upright beside her, each wearing hand crafted bathing suits that were kind of just sewn tubes of old bathing suit material secured by shoestring.
“You are not allowed in the jacuzzi because you are too young Yolanda. That’s what the sign says, 16 and over.” She pushed the redhead into the bubbling water headfirst.
“Yolanda!” she shrieked, startling a hairy man and his pale wife across from her. “I told you, no swimming in the jacuzzi!” She lifted the floating doll out and dried her hair with the towel gently.
The hirsute man watched her dry Yolanda’s hair. “What are you doing?”
She turned away from him, muttering things to herself.
The couple exchanged glances. “How old are you sweetie?” The woman asked.
“No!” Katrina screamed. “I am not talking to you!”
Their eyes met again. Katrina turned to Yolanda, continuing to pat her head with the towel. “Mom says ‘don’t talk to strangers.’ Okay? Don’t talk to strangers Yolanda!” She paused for a moment. “Where’s Anna? Oh Anna’s drunk again!”
Grunting loudly, she scooped up her dolls and marched to the pool gate, where I was standing.
“Oh hi dear,” she said before walking past me.
I followed her to the elevator. Her clothes sloshed as she walked barefoot through the hall, dribbling water along the gray, tightly woven carpet.
The motel room was empty and I had left the TV on, tuned to UPN. Empty alcohol containers were scattered across the table. “Anna?” she yelled melodically.
“That was there before,” I said quickly and without conviction.
“Oh that was there before?”
She laid her dolls underneath the covers of the queen bed next to the window. She dressed each doll in a different color. Fiona was in white, Daniel was in blue and Ginger was in pink.
SHE'S LIKE A RAINBOW
For two years Katrina went through each month wearing only one color. The outfits were monochromatic down to her underwear and socks, although occasionally in October (orange), exceptions were made.
The colors coincided with the holidays that befell each month, or if there were none, the closest season. January was white, which was unfortunate considering that she was a messy eater. February was pink, March green and April yellow.
By May she had begun to repeat colors, wearing pink again at the insistence of mom’s unwillingness to buy all new clothes every four weeks. She recycled February's pink clothes and in June moved on to purple, July to red.
August was difficult because it had no defining qualities one could express in a color. She settled on wearing black all month, a poor choice for the California heat. My parents watched her seethe in onyx colored cut-off jeans and black t-shirts, praying the discomfort would make her change her mind about this wardrobe manifesto of hers, but there was no giving up.
Onward through September she wore brown, then orange, then brown again, then in December she wore blue.
"I think next year you should rearrange the colors. Brown clothes are ugly and too hard to find," her mother told her.
"But I don't know," the eleven year old responded. "I can't think about it right now."
After she grew tired of transitioning between colors every month, she became consumed with the color blue. Every item she owned had to be blue, and every shade was acceptable. From the sky to the sea to the jade colored semiprecious stones, she fulfilled the aural prophecy and sought to lead a balanced life. She found anything that was blue to be calming and beneficial to her well-being. Her linens and bed sheets were an electric blue Hawaiian print, enveloping her in a floral arrangement of inner peace.
If something weren’t a shade of blue, she wouldn’t wear it on her body. All of her underwear was blue, and she requested “blue thongs” for Christmas. Someone gave them to her and she opened them in front of everyone, gasping as though they were diamonds.
On Halloween in 2009 she dressed up as a superhero of her own creation. She wore blue cat ears, a sequined sapphire belt, a tail, and sea-blue leggings. She dyed her hair and painted her face a deep, bright blue like an Avatar and drew whiskers on herself.
“What are you supposed to be?” mom asked.
“I am the super blue woman!”
The commercials ended and Blind Date came on the screen at a low volume. I sat on the bed and stared at the TV, disappointed. Thought bubbles appeared next to human faces, but I couldn’t read them before they disappeared, and it frustrated me. I could, on some level, perceive the relationship that was portrayed, however I couldn’t relate to the laugh track. I opened my beer and took a gulp.
I think I might need to start wearing reading glasses, I thought wearily.
I finished half a beer before passing out in my jeans and ballet flats.
“Anna!” Katrina cried. “We’re supposed to go to the Mission to-day!”
I looked up at the cracked stucco ceiling with blurred vision. My head felt abnormally compressed. “Ugh. What time is it?”
“Get up Anna!”
I opened my eyes again, gradually. “Um, give me twenty minutes.”
“Yay!” Katrina looked at her dolls. “We are going to see the Mission today!”
I moved slovenly to the bathroom. I locked the door behind me and turned on the vent, creating a turbulent sound.
I looked in the mirror, scrubbing my hands. I took a plastic cup from the counter and filled it with sink water. I drank it, slowly settling into the morning.
I walked out to the main room and pulled out a comfortable sundress. After, I took off my shirt and tossed the striped dress over my head and slid my jeans off. I sat on the bed for a moment and stared at a blank television screen.
“Katrina, we have to go to the gift shop first so I can buy some sunglasses.”