Inside the Dollhouse

by Amanda Gaines

I didn’t want help. After all, I’d put together the matching yellow couches I’d ordered online in less than two hours, both of which managed to not only stay upright, but hold my weight. The apartment I’d moved into was open and wide. I’d hauled in all the clothes, books, shelves, and dishware that I’d amassed over twenty-two years of life by myself. It was just starting to look like a home. I hung my old artwork along the walls. I strung Christmas lights strategically along the ceiling. I organized my books by author and cornered them with thrift store memorabilia. A silver miniature watering can. The Maneki-Neko my best friend had gifted me. A handmade flask I bought when studying abroad in Romania.

I didn’t want help. My mother thought otherwise. From the end of a telephone two hundred miles away, convincing her to stay away proved difficult. And besides, she said she was planning on visiting soon anyway. I, her oldest, had been out of the house for seven years. My sister would be leaving that summer for her first semester of college. The youngest had only two left before she did the same. The house I grew up in, the one I watched her and my father build from the ground up, was growing emptier every day. She missed me.

June was oddly cool when my mother arrived, tote in tow. She brandished bags of groceries she’d bought for me back in Sod, West Virginia. She brought underwear and charging cables I’d left behind the last time I’d gone home. She wielded her credit card. I was nervous about her visit. We’d slowly grown past the frequent fighting we engaged in while I was still living at home. But we were both headstrong and quick to anger. We guarded our opinions like children, fearlessly and irrationally. Time apart allowed us some literal and metaphorical breathing room. Without her scrutiny, I was free to make my own choices. Without me, she exhausted her energies elsewhere. But still, typical mother-daughter activities hinge on conversation. Eating out, shopping, crafting—all were impossible to endure without having to actually listen to what the other had to say. We did not often like what each other had to say.

I helped carry her things in, careful to keep my cats inside. She looked around my new apartment. The living room floor was scuffed and spotted with random streaks of paint and protruding nail heads. My bedroom was cheaply carpeted. The kitchen was little better, the tile a dirty yellow and orange pattern that looked like it belonged in the sixties. This was going to be the place where I spent the next few years in graduate school, writing. This would be the place I produced my thesis, a hopeful collection of essays. I wasn’t sold on the Park apartment’s interiors. I was sold on how much space there was—on the knowledge that I had the option of doing what I wanted with it.

“Paint the walls, strip the floors,” the landlord told me. “Whatever you think is best.”

I looked at my mother. “It’s ugly,” I told her. “I know.”

She raised her brow.

“Yes, it is.”

She checked her phone for messages. I shifted awkwardly in the kitchen. My cats looked up at me expectantly. They were still adjusting from the move and were nervous. They did not know what to do with this other person in their space.

“It’ll be fine,” she said, grabbing my hand. “You’ve got your mom here now.”

How to Break the News to Your Mother that You’ve Killed Yet Another Plant:

  1. Research has proven that pathologically, labor leads to value.
  2. When humans complete a task, studies show they feel competent and confident.
  3. Seeing a task or creation finished justifies the time and effort spent to complete said task or creation.
    1. The first time you see a tomato sprouting in your front door planter, you rush to touch it.
    2. Weeks later, you’ll wake up hungover to check on that one tomato and find that you’d knocked the planter down in a stupor.
    3. You rope the broken vine back together with twine and place a stick in the dirt for the dead plant to lean against.
    4. You almost think the tomato will survive, that vines will reattach themselves the way your knees heal after you scrape them, the way you got over your mother calling you a whore before you’d ever had sex.
  4. Humans, however, also have a fundamental need for effectance.
  5. Effectance, according to psychologists, is the ability to successfully achieve a desired outcome in one’s environment.
    1. The tomato plant doesn’t heal itself.
    2. The skin on your knees regrows but leaves purple scars.
    3. When your hymen is finally broken, the blood you produce is not enough.
  6. One way that humans gain effectance is through influencing or controlling objects and possessions.
    1. Like building a table.
    2. Or cooking an elaborate dinner.
    3. Even writing a poem.
      1. Really, anything.
  7. Basically, research shows a consistent rise in valuation for things people put together or produce themselves.
  8. This, according to a Harvard study, is called the IKEA effect.

My favorite part was always the porch. White columns and a plastic fence ran the length of the pink deck. The roof was bright blue. Inside, a little living room sat to the left. A fully furnished kitchen to the right. The second floor was fitted with bedroom sets. A tiny toilet and sink were hidden in the corner of the third. It was perfect.

My Fisher-Price Loving Family Dollhouse came premade with a family for me to arrange throughout. There was a young brown-haired man with his pretty wife and two blonde daughters. One girl sported a jumpsuit, the other, a onesie. All the women wore pink. I quickly replaced their hard, plastic bodies with the soft ones of my stuffed animals, moving them around their respective rooms.

At the time, my mother read Mouse Soup to me regularly before bed. In it, Mouse is kidnapped by Weasel hoping to use Mouse for soup. Mouse stops Weasel just before being thrown in for seasoning, saying that without including good stories, the soup will not taste as good as it could. Mouse tells him four stories, each of which includes a necessary ingredient. In the end, Weasel goes out looking for them, during which the once-captured Mouse escapes. Weasel is stung by bees, haphazardly gathers mud, struggles with two heavy stones, chases crickets, and is pricked by thorns, only to return and realize that Mouse has left. Safe and finally home, Mouse sits in bed and finishes his book, not unlike me, tucked beneath my own covers.

I often reenacted these adventures with my Beanie Babies in that Fisher-Price dollhouse. Lepy, my first and favorite possession, was given the role of Mouse even though she was a leopard. I would send my lesser stuffies out on their fool’s errands, looking for the perfect ingredients to make their stew. Lepy would watch from afar. I was the maestro and she the baton. She knew like I knew. Because she was my first, Lepy was immune to the trials my other stuffed animals endured. This play always ended the same way. Lepy would get away unscathed, locking the others out of her dollhouse while they searched for unattainable things. The house was hers because she was mine.

How to Buy Love on a Budget (Results May Vary):

  1. There is a basic and fundamental relationship between the completion of tasks and valuation of the products of that labor.
    1. A person makes a thing.
    2. The person loves a thing.
    3. A thing is a person’s.
  2. When that person successfully makes said thing for someone else, this thing becomes infused with a deeper kind of meaning and value.
  3. The thing becomes a question the maker won’t ask themselves.
  4. An example:
      1. A daughter writes a poem for her mother.
        1. The poem is nostalgic.
        2. The poem talks about shared history through sycamore trees and soft hands and so much blue.
        3. The poem is a nice poem.
    1. The daughter gives the framed poem to her mother for Mother’s Day.
    2. The poem never gets hung
    3. The daughter asks if her mother likes what she’s made her.
    4. The mother says Always.
    5. The empty walls tell another story.

She wanted the best. So long as it wouldn’t cost a fortune. My mother had become an avid proponent of refurbishing over the last few years. She bought new fabric to reupholster an unused chair and repurposed logs from our old house to make a desk. She installed tiles into a room in our basement that had been unused for fifteen years. What was once old could become new in her hands, each project like a baby she eagerly attended to. She approached the renovations of my Park apartment with the same zeal.

If I was being honest with myself, nothing would have gotten done without her. But I knew: once she fixed enough things around my apartment, I would owe her something. I had learned over years of borrowed money, unexpected gifts, and gas miles that Mom needed her efforts to be praised, and attempts at thanking her rarely appeased her expectations. A dinner without compliments could warrant the silent treatment. Folded laundry without thanks could lead to a screaming match. She desperately wanted to be seen as good. Without acknowledgement, what was the point? But making sure my mother felt valued took a lot of work. I resented the practice of doing nice things for people and expecting something in return. So I told her from the beginning I could take care of it. And I could have. I wanted my house to look nice. But I wanted it to be mine.

“Is this yours?” she asked from the balcony. She motioned toward a twin set of doors that had been screwed out of their places and set on the porch. They were burnt orange, like a sunset after a storm.

“No,” I responded. “But they are now.”

She sized them up. “Get the measuring tape.”

After a few moments of calculation, she deemed them too large to get through the passage of my back door. To her, this was a good thing.

“They need to be shaved down anyway.”

I paused in the doorway. “Do I have to help with this?” I asked her.

She looked up at me, disappointed, and shook her head. I sighed and returned to my job of sweeping and mopping. The floor needed to be buffed smooth before we could start painting. It was filthy, and before long I was drenched in sweat. I looked at my progress. The small patch of sleek wood glowed amid the parts left untouched. I hadn’t planned on it being this much work. It would be worth it, my mother promised. I wondered, lifting my shirt to wipe my forehead, worth what?

How to Boast without Bragging:

  1. In the beginning, dollhouses had two jobs.
    1. To show off wealth and social status.
    2. To teach young women how to maintain a home.
  2. The first European dollhouses were made in the sixteenth century by the English and dubbed “baby houses,” “baby” being the English version of “doll.”
    1. You’ve been called doll, baby, baby doll, dollface, baby face, babycakes, doll heart, but you don’t mind, not really, because the names make you feel small—small like a newly hatched bird, small like a thing people are afraid to touch.
  3. These cabinet display “baby houses” were also created to show an ideal version of the owner’s house and were meticulously built by hand.
    1. Like cutting tiny paper leaves to make a miniature fern that would act as a stand-in for the real one you forgot to water for three weeks.
  4. They were, in no circumstances, made for children.
    1. So much so that children were banned from coming near baby houses.
    2. Not to keep the children safe from swallowing one of the miniatures within them.
    3. But to keep the houses safe from the children. One pair of tiny, curious hands was enough to destroy everything.
    4. All that hard work.

V looked over my shoulder as I struggled to glue a small strip of fabric onto a tiny cardboard drum.

“It’s supposed to be an end table,” I said.

The yellow wicker bench and a robin’s-egg blue drawer I’d spent over an hour piecing together stood proudly to the left of my cluttered workspace. I’d bought the miniature dollhouse kit only a few days prior. When it came in, I ecstatically tore the plastic from the box, eager to start working. I assumed a large portion of crafting this tiny greenhouse would come in the form of putting together colorful plywood. I did not plan on cutting out each piece of furniture on thin, numbered, paper outlines I was then expected to origami into something resembling a flowerpot. I did not plan on so much unsuccessful gluing. I thought it would be easier.

But I needed something. Since school let out for the summer, I hadn’t done much beyond work a waitressing job and watch bad television I’d already seen before. I was stuck between moments of anxiety-laced moments of activity and the urge to get beneath my comforter and stay there until a coroner declared me dead. I needed a project that required little thought and a lot of time. I wanted to start something I could finish. I wasn’t ready to approach the daunting task of crafting new essays. I figured, at the very least, I could do this.

V nodded. “Nice.” He continued into my kitchen, his backpack and a case of beer under his arm.

Only after a few weeks of seeing each other, V felt comfortable going through my pantry to prepare us dinner. I hadn’t planned on liking him. I was in the last year of my graduate program and preparing for PhD applications. I didn’t have time, I told myself, for a boyfriend. But V was still here, dicing mushrooms and onions to sauté and serve over rice. He quickly took off his shirt, his wiry cyclist’s frame wet with sweat. My old AC barely assuaged the heat my stove was giving off. V’s thick brows furrowed with attention. I liked him here, in my space. He looked like he belonged there. I got up from where I’d been sitting to watch him cook. I’d made a habit of leaning over the counter and quietly observing him, which he was still getting used to.

“What are you looking at?” he asked suspiciously.

“You,” I replied. I lowered my voice. “You look so serious behind the counter.”

“I’m trying to pay attention,” he responded.

I pouted. “You’re no fun.”

He didn’t even bother looking up. “If being no fun means doing this right, then I’m okay with that.”

We were playing house. My friends and family thought I’d ended it with V weeks prior. V had earned a reputation for himself in our college town. He was known for seeking out multiple women at once, not knowing where to draw the line, some light anger problems. Coworkers and friends told me story after story. With each one, I grew increasingly incensed. I vented about him to virtually anyone who would listen. My friends didn’t like him. My family didn’t like him. I was not supposed to like him.

But I’d approached V differently from the start, largely because I thought I was out of his league. I had nothing to lose and wasn’t afraid of him not liking me. Things I would divulge after months in a relationship I immediately laid on the table. Secrets became plain facts. Here were things to be aware of before moving forward. My life was a cluttered house. I offered V a glimpse. Maneuvering the mess, I promised, would be difficult. He sat down on the couch with me and listened.

So I started coming up with excuses for leaving gatherings early. I left rooms to take his calls. I snuck off to meet him at my place. I wanted to bring him out with me. But justifying our reconciliation would take an explanation that I knew only I would accept. There were many red flags and I was choosing to ignore them. And besides, I was happy to indulge in our little world. He regularly cooked. I maintained a winning streak in Uno and Yahtzee. We drank lots of beer. We shared music and fumbled for each other like teenagers. He quickly started leaving things behind: sunglasses, candy, work clothes. Each time I found one of his things, I grinned. I knew what he was doing. He was buying himself insurance. He was laying a claim.
I headed to the bathroom, the sweet smell of onions thick in the still air. Still shirtless, V reached out and grabbed me. He pulled me in, his sweat dampening my shirt. He kissed my nose.

“Hi, pretty,” I said.

“Hi, baby,” he replied. His eyes widened and he broke into a smile, a line of crooked teeth just visible.

“You better watch those mushrooms,” I told him.

V groaned and returned to the counter. I closed the bathroom door behind me, feeling a familiar sense of comfort in knowing he would be right where I left him when I returned. Like a childhood stuffed animal, or my mother’s gentle fingertips tracing my eyes shut.

How to Get on the Baby Train:

  1. At its root form, the term “baby” is infantilizing.
    1. A baby is an object, a thing.
    2. The term “baby” conjures a staple image unlike a personalized name would.
  2. Studies show that young children love hearing baby talk and terms of endearment.
    1. Especially from mothers.
  3. Concurrent studies say that couples engage in baby talk with one another because it reminds them of memories they share with their first love.
    1. Their mother.
  4. Similar research claims when adults use terms of endearment, it grants them freedom from the normal constraints of everyday life.
    1. Others say terms of endearment tap into humans’ innate desire to play.
    2. Some say calling significant others “baby” helps couples create a “private world.”
  5. Still, others protest.
    1. Babies, they argue, are the ultimate possession.
    2. When someone is your baby, they’re yours.

We finished laying the groundwork for my house before the sun went down. I admired the finished product, taking dozens of photos I planned on putting online for my friends to see. My mother picked up slivers of press-on linoleum and plastic wrap while I made us dinner. Mom, despite my initial protests, had done most of the work. I gave up in the kitchen quickly. I tried and failed to cut the thick pieces of fake tile with precision—my lines swerving left and right rather than straight for corners. Mom had taken her time, carefully plotting out each square, even saving several unused slips in case I needed to replace a stray tile. She’d done a good job. I was grateful and wanted to prove it. A home-cooked meal seemed like a good place to start.

I followed the directions to the stir-fry recipe I’d found online to a T. I watched the breaded tofu skins curl up and brown along the edges like they were supposed to. I’d let the wood ear mushrooms marinate for hours beforehand. I plugged in the lights lining my foyer and watched with glee as they lit up the room. A dining table Mom had made earlier sat in the corner, handmade placemats she’d sewn decorating it. We sat in silence watching cars go over the bridge through my large windows. Moments after trying my dish, my heart sank. The sauté I’d made was invariably bad. I searched my mother’s face for signs of disapproval.

“Is it okay?” I asked. “Do you like it?”

She nodded, her voice slightly strained. “Yeah, I like it. Why?”

I swallowed hard. “It’s not right,” I told her. “We can go out for something better, something you’ll actually enjoy.” I scrambled. “I’ll take care of it. You’ve done enough.”

“Honey,” she said, “it’s fine.”

I sat up eagerly. The night wasn’t over yet. I still had time.

“Let’s go get a movie and ice cream,” I said. “It’ll be fun. We can curl up and watch it in my newly pretty living room.” I took our half-eaten plates to the sink before grabbing my keys. “I’ll drive.”

I bought us two pints of ice cream and a movie. Movies, I figured, required little of their audience. We could be close without having to say a word. I prayed silently on the drive back that she would like it.

Once home, I offered my mother her pint and a spoon. The rusty door Mom had found outside and turned into a coffee table was now the centerpiece of my living room. The floors were now a light gray, bringing out the accent colors in my new rug. The couch I’d built held my mother, a red woven blanket draped over her. The strung lights emanated a soft glow. The house really was beautiful. I thought, admiring from behind the counter, it was perfect.

It didn’t take long to realize that my mother was not enjoying the film I’d chosen for us. She stiffened in her seat and pursed her lips. She started closing her eyes at intervals. Each time I asked her if she wanted to go to sleep or put on something else, she told me she’d be fine. I scooched in closer to her, hoping to emulate the many nights I’d burrowed against her in bed while she read me a book. When she didn’t open her arms to me, I placed my head in her lap like I would when I was young and sick or having a hard time falling asleep. She barely touched me, clasping her hands on her thigh. She’d been trying to mother me all day despite my resistance. Now that I was ready to play daughter, she’d all but left the room. I tried, I thought, in my own way. I tried to show her I loved her. The scene in my living room could have been mistaken for an ad in a catalog, if only we didn’t look like a pair of plastic dolls, posed by someone who had long forgotten how it feels to be a child.

My mother left early the next morning, kissing my forehead before quietly slipping out. I woke up to an empty house that surprised me in its newness. I got up to see if she was still on the couch, short hair in gray tufts like a baby bird from sleep. She wasn’t. I returned to my bed and slid beneath the covers. I cried quietly there for a long time, letting hot tears spill down my face freely. She’d just wanted a nice trip, to bond with me. I’d wanted that too, hadn’t I? Instead, I left her to work like a paid hand in my house while I bristled at the smallest conversations. She’d gone through hundreds of dollars and hours spent on her knees. Moments of unconditional love came few and far between from her when I was growing up. Now that we rarely saw each other, each visit felt like an apology. I had been long starved for that kind of affection. But a starving body isn’t a light switch. It can’t suddenly accept large amounts of what it’s been trained to live without. But a mother’s love feels like one of those things that comes with the burden of having a body to begin with. A mother’s love isn’t calcium. It’s a set of ribs. What happens to the heart without it?

How to be Born Ready:

  1. Wait.
  2. At week thirty-seven in your mother’s pregnancy, don’t move unexpectedly.
  3. Breeching is not ideal.
  4. When the doctor tries an external cephalic version, don’t work against him.
  5. An epidural is ideal.
  6. Budge.
  7. You wanted to come out feet first, sprinting.
    1. Let this be your first lesson: control is arbitrary.
  8. The scar from your C-section will stretch across your mother’s stomach like a pale thread, the bridge of soft tissue a reminder that as soon as you were born, there was only before and after.
    1. Watch her body grow and age as yours does.
    2. The place where they cut her open to pull you out doesn’t fade.
    3. That scar, that pale thread, is evidence.
      1. You were wanted, and so made.
      2. You took effort.
      3. You were hers before you ever were your own.

My hands shake as I cut along the outline of a metallic sheet. The edges for what should resemble a shovel set to put outside my miniature greenhouse are sharp and uneven. I curse my lack of coordination and put the scissors down. It’d been over a month since I bought my dollhouse kit online. I still had three more sheets of decorations to complete. My instinct to jump the gun and set up the foundation and walls of the greenhouse was pointless; the furniture and plants within it had to be finished first and glued to the floor before anything else could go up. It was like moving into a house in reverse. What went inside had to exist before the parts that held them in could happen.

I have a black thumb. Over the years, I’ve tried growing herbs, tomatoes, flowers, houseplants. Each one died within a few weeks. I watered too much or not enough. I didn’t give one enough sunlight while another withered in the heat. The only living things I managed to keep alive were two aloe plants that required very little from me, and even they looked like they could do with some help. But I love the idea of a home drenched in vines and leaves. My mother’s house has flowers and cacti in each of the windows, spider plants snaking across each of our indoor beams. Grapes spread across our terrace while a garden blooms out back. I envy the way my mother can make things grow. Still, I refuse to opt for their plastic counterparts. Instead, I cyclically kill each green thing I carry hopefully over my threshold. The greenhouse kit and paper plants I piece together may take years to finish, I think, but I can’t kill them. They were never alive to begin with. The ferns and philodendrons I make out of tissue paper had no room to disappoint me. Their very makeup is under my control. If they ended up looking like shit, I had nobody to blame but myself. And even if they did, I would still have made them.

I rest my elbows against my coffee table. The legs wobble under my weight. It isn’t a seamless design, this creation. My mother was still learning how to build it when she made it for me. In another room, another table put together is visible through the window. In my bathroom, a large white shelf she hammered together holds various lotions and scrubs. Throw pillows and quilts she sewed sit on both couches, my bed. It is impossible to walk through my house without seeing a piece of her. She is everywhere.

How to Be in Two Places at Once:

  1. Flip through the instruction manual of your DIY greenhouse.
  2. You have everything you need.
    1. She tries and tries and tries again until doctors tell her, Good news.
  3. You just need to want it badly enough.
    1. She waits nine months, swollen and patient for you.
  4. Arrange tissue paper in tiny silver boxes: unnamed flowers.
    1. She doesn’t build a crib. She wants to keep you close. After all, who will ever be closer?
  5. Tear decorative paper outside the margin, a mistake in restlessness.
    1. She counts backward from ten. She only feels the incision they make along her pelvis after.
  6. Carefully, lay glue along a metal wire, looping it in a pretty knot.
    1. Your first instinct is the same as hers. She cries quietly in relief that it’s over. You, at nothing in particular.
  7. It should look like the picture from the instructions.
    1. You look like an entire future; an empty house your mother can’t wait to build things for.
  8. Note: the glue will dry before the wire can take hold. The bow always snaps—warped copper like a fresh scar threading the edge of an empty womb.

Amanda Gaines is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction in West Virginia University’s creative writing program. She is the nonfiction editor of Into the Void. She is also the
 editor-in-chief of Cheat River Review. Her poetry, nonfiction, and fiction
 are published or awaiting publication in The Oyez Review, Up the Staircase
 Quarterly, Gravel, Typehouse, The Meadow, Yemassee, Rogue Agent, and Into
 the Void.