Conked In by Susan Warring
published in Volume 10, Issue 3 on December 31st, 2003When did I first notice that my wife had become a doll? That's easy. I leaned across her to put my glasses into the cubbyhole, and as I pressed against her breast it conked in. With a loud, hollow noise.
I knew immediately what it meant -- it had that familiar sound, that I knew from Cindy's dolls, stuff even a man can't help but get to know all about when he has a daughter. So one part of me was going 'Oh, she conked in -- I'll have to take her head off, and stick a teaspoon down her neck to push it out again', while another part was in shock and disbelief, thinking 'This is my wife, a flesh and blood human being, she shouldn't conk in like a doll'.
We had just arrived at a party, and before I could think much more about it, there was Dean tapping at the window and grinning, beer in hand.
'Hi Gareth, hi Tessa, how are you doing, come in, let's get you a drink! Julian and Monique are already here.'
Well, what could I do but get out, go around to Tessa's side and open the door for a woman who had just turned into a doll, and who wouldn't be going anywhere on her own two feet just now. Not till things - changed. But, to my surprise, as I stood there waiting for Dean's grin to slide off his face as he realized what was going on, she swung her legs out like they do in TV ads and stood up, her hair, particularly glossy tonight, swinging around in an arc from the high ponytail she'd tied it into.
She smiled at Dean -- I was watching, it was her normal smile -- and then looked at me in mute appeal. For some reason I knew exactly what she wanted. It was a relief in a way, to be so sure of what to do. I reached under her t-shirt at the back and pulled the plastic ring attached to a long cord, that I didn't know was there, and yet did.
She said warmly to Dean 'Hi, lovely to see you, it's been too long!'.
'That's for sure' he said, as he leaned down to kiss her.
She took my arm for protection, to label herself mine, as she always did, sending a gentle smiling message to Dean, the kind no one could take offense at, and he smiled harder and ushered us inside.
The evening went smoothly. It was odd how normal it was. I just had to pull that ring down whenever she smiled helplessly at me, but it was such a natural gesture for her, and I had my arm around her waist most of the time anyway, so it was easy to shift it under her top and pull discreetly. No one noticed.
I must be honest, on the way home I was too darn scared to say anything to her.
In case she answered.
And in case she didn't.
It seemed -- somehow -- embarrassing to have spent a whole evening playing a game like that -- so silly, somehow shameful. It was like how Kerry and I could never quite meet one another's eyes, not a single time in all the parties and holidays and meals we'd shared with her and Dean, since the night we had too many whiskies in the jacuzzi and started kissing and would have -- well, who knows, had Monique not walked in when she did.
So we sat in silence the whole way home, Tessa's face with its permanent (how permanent?) surprised facelift look from the too-tight ponytail on the top of her gleaming head.
She got out unassisted when we got home, and by the time I had put the dog outside and locked up, she was already asleep, wearing her rosebud shorty pyjamas. It was my chance to peek -- the shorts bit had ridden up, I saw when I got under the duvet. I could have run my fingers over her hip, or turned on the bathroom light, to feel or see the joint where her leg fitted onto her body -- but it was still like the Kerry thing. In that, while I was not at fault, I somehow irrationally felt ashamed, and I was determined that no one should ever know.
And no one ever did.
Cindy and Jason carried on as usual, sleepwalking through the house, saying nothing, focusing on an invisible TV screen two inches from their eyes, or on a landscape ten feet away, and somehow you never got into the field of their focus. One ring pull got us through an entire family dinner. And when Tessa and I were alone, we didn't talk. She smiled, cooked, cleaned, all the usual things, and often a trick of shadow or light would put some expression temporarily into her eyes -- a shift of mood, of thought, a suggestion of depth would flicker and my heart would pound briefly (in hope? In fear? In horror-movie dread?) before subsiding.
After a few weeks, though, I was quite antsy. When you're used to a regular, healthy, mutually fulfilling sex life, it's not surprising. One night, I awoke from an erotic dream and without thinking, put my hand under her nighty. The shock of cool plastic matched the shock of finding that she was ... anatomically normal. But because of all the erotic dreams I'd been having, it didn't feel that weird to roll over and start stroking her, and it was only next morning that I felt like, for the first time in my life, I'd overstepped the boundaries of what was normal, gone where no decent man would go. It was the difference between watching a porn video and actually doing those things, the difference between a harmless bit of kissing in a jacuzzi and -- well.
I felt odd. Wrong. All day. But nothing actually happened as a result. Nothing changed. I don't know what I expected might. She didn't act differently. So, a few days later, when that odd feeling had faded away, and primed once again by an erotic dream, I did it again.
Look, don't get me wrong. It was not the same. I mean, I like to cuddle, and get cuddled back. Talk a bit. Reconnect. And there was none of that. And I would ponder the strangeness of it -- that she was pure Barbie everywhere but there, whereas as dads who have to twist Barbie's detached leg back into the hole in her torso know, the real doll has, at most, a faint score line there. If that.
There were times, too, when she felt more normal. Times when she hadn't been in the sun, yet felt warmer, more substantial. Times, with the children, that I thought I saw something move behind her eyes that wasn't just a shadow. I don't know -- when you've lived with someone for more than fifteen years you do just get these impressions sometimes, and you can't pin them down.
But it was tough keeping the secret from the whole world. Because you know that if they saw it too, your fears that you were living somehow in a horror movie would be confirmed. And if they didn't see it, your fears that you were mad, would be confirmed. And you couldn't decide which was worse -- certainly neither was better.
The strain started to mount, and I started to question all sorts of things. Started pressing my own shoulders to see if they'd conk. Started looking closely at women for the first time -- not in that way -- looking at them in odd places. Trying to see if they had that weak translucent look to their ankles. Trying to see if what looked like the mark of a bra strap was actually that joint at the shoulder. Whether that careful hairstyle was covering rows and rows of hair sewn into a pink plastic scalp. Looking for that funny scratchy bit on the very tip of their toes.
Which led me to start wondering, given her ... anatomical correctness, when did this happen? Was it during the course of that drive to the party? Or before? Or had it been ebbing and flowing, coming and going, for weeks, even months? Years? Happening by degrees? Trying to remember, when had we last spoken more than a ring pull?
People started to notice.
Not her. Me.
The strain was showing. The looks I gave to women's knees as they sat down, looking for that bendable joint. Watching them smoke, wondering if they could separate their fingers, devising ways to find out. I started looking at men too. Kids. Babies. I once surreptitiously lifted a fluffy hat to look at those tendrils of damp infant hair. Looking for sewn rows. Patterns.
The pressure got unbearable and I needed to talk about it. Unlike in the movies, I had no illusions that my friends would take me seriously. Tessa's excessive passivity was leading Dean to ever more daringly furtive liberties he thought I didn't see, but that drove away any chance of my sharing my story with him. And Julian -- Julian was absorbed in his job in direct and increasing proportion to the size of his wife's shopping bills. In one way or another, I thought, everyone was in the same boat. But that didn't mean I could expect any of them to see it, that I knew. And I just couldn't freak the kids out -- there was enough weird stuff emanating from their own heads that I didn't feel I could add another thing.
So I broke the silence of months (since I'd been counting, at any rate) and I spoke to her. Pulled the ring first, of course, just for comfort. Just in case.
What did I say? Well, what could I say?
'Tessa, I notice you're -- made of plastic -- your arms -- sometimes fall out of their sockets, you can't talk on your own ...'
'Is there a problem?' she replied sweetly, a little concern in her voice. Her brows appeared to furrow a little but I can't be sure. I'd made us a special dinner, candles and all that. She must have known there was something I wanted to raise -- after all, it wasn't her birthday or our anniversary or anything else that would explain it, and the candle's flicker made her more lifelike than in daylight. Really, quite lifelike.
'A problem?' I said, floundering. I mean, what do you say to someone to whom it appears that the fact that they have turned into a plastic doll is not a problem? Suddenly it seemed almost churlish -- undermining -- to say so. I felt the moment begin to slip away -- that mutual unspoken agreement not to broach an awkward, insoluble problem, crept over like a fuzzy blanket. I struggled between the desire to snatch that hard fought for moment, haul it back to the table, turn on the bright overhead lights, and say 'Yes! I didn't marry a doll, I don't want a doll, I want a real flesh and blood woman!'.
But the other side of me, the scared side, the shamed side, thought No. That's too scary. That's an ultimatum. That's like saying 'I don't love you as you are, you must change'. What if she can't change? What if she was -- somehow -- always a doll? Or has been in metamorphosis all the time I've known her? You're meant to take people as they are, not try to change them -- if that's who she really is, I can't tell her to change! What if she said:
'I'm sorry about that, I have tried so hard, I wish I could be the woman you really want, I wish I could make you happy'.
And then left me. Alone. Feeling all I'm feeling now, plus that sick feeling when you kick a dog, on top of it all.
Slowly the two confused impulses, all jumbled up inside me, began to recede, leaving me calmer.
I took the wineglass gently out of her stiff hand.
Topped it up.
Slotted it carefully between her thumb and fingers.
Made sure it didn't tip.
My movements were deliberate, gentle, sure. After all, I was used to it by now.
And I knew that if you weren't really careful to get the right point of balance, the wineglass would swivel over in a flashing arc and the wine would all be spilled.