Let’s Make a Doll
Updated: May 16
“Why write,” Chekhov once wondered in a conversation with a fellow author, “about a man getting into a submarine and going to the North Pole to reconcile himself with the world, while his beloved at that moment throws herself with a hysterical shriek from the belfry? All this is untrue and does not happen in reality. One must write about simple things: how Peter Semionovich married Maria Ivanova.”
So what follows is mostly true, except perhaps the ending. It’s negotiable.
The point is, I have brushed up against the supernatural, the inexplicable, the extrasensory, twice in my life.
By some kind of preternatural, Rod Serlingesque coincidence, both times were at high school graduation reunions. It is an interesting side note, at least to me, that in my whole life, I have attended two high school grad reunions.
The first one was the 10th anniversary of my wife’s graduating class; other than her and a couple of her friends I’d just met, I knew no one and no one knew me. One of her friends was Kathy Black. In the old days on the Prairies, she would have been known as “a big girl” or “handsome” or “big-boned.”
We weren’t renowned for our subtlety.
I don’t want to brag and, really, I can take absolutely zero credit for this, but 10 years out of high school my then girlfriend was smoking hot and the absolute belle of the ball.
If they remembered her at all, former classmates might have recalled Rekha as the pudgy, conservatively dressed, intensely shy girl from India who appeared in their midst sometime in their early teens.
No one at their school had ever seen anything like the lunches her mom packed: samosas and pakoras and exotic delicacies like that. In the cafeteria, she automatically gravitated toward the geek table. As did Kathy, which is how they became friends.
By her late twenties, Rekha was slim, poised, smartly dressed in a school-colour yellow and purple party frock I had just bought her and, as the fellows liked to say in less woke times, drop-dead gorgeous. A knockout. A ten. Va va voom.
Nobody says va va voom any more.
Probably a good thing.
The first time I met Rekha she literally knocked my socks off, like in a cartoon. I’d keep pulling them back up and they’d keep rolling back down. (Examined them carefully later and there was nothing discernibly wrong with the elastics. I wouldn’t be surprised if the randy little buggers are still in my sock drawer.)
We were introduced at a party I had to be dragged to by a friend who was going to Beijing the next day. In those days, we still called it Peking. To the dismay of the Chinese Communist Party back when it was still communist, Rekha and I bonded while playing Stock Ticker, a board game every bit as exciting as the name implies.
There weren’t many interesting things to do on the Prairies in 1984. I don’t know about Peking, but my friend did manage to get hit by a bus there while riding a bike.
A few nights later, proving that there was at least one interesting thing you could do on the Prairies in 1984, Rekha and I made out madly over a Trivial Pursuit board in my swinging bachelor pad. I still have plastic pie pieces lodged in my back to prove it.
(That part is definitely made up. But in case you happen to be playing at Trivial Pursuit right now, try to remember that Gabriel García Márquez is the Latinx author known as “the father of magical realism” and Salvador Dalí is the famous artist who designed the logo for Chupa Chups lollipops. It could come in handy.)
So … anyway.
Back at the high school reunion, I could see the distinguished alumni trying to figure out: a) the identity (the quiet Indian girl? No. Really?) of this goddess (another disgraceful word disgraceful men used to use to describe beautiful women), b) why the goddess was slumming with a beanpole, prematurely balding goober like me as her date, and c) the identity of the beanpole, prematurely balding goober.
There were several beanpole, prematurely balding goobers at the get-together, as there are at all 10-year high school reunions, some of whom had surely attended the school but were nonetheless about as anonymous and uncomfortable as I was feeling.
As Kurt Vonnegut described them at various times in various books, they were the guys who whacked off and made model airplanes. He knew what he was talking about.
Kurt Vonnegut had quite a way with words.
So it comes.
One of the men staring at our table was also quite tall, but unmistakably dark and handsome. Even though he had what we used to call quite a dishy wife himself, I couldn’t help noticing that he couldn’t help noticing Rekha.
I couldn’t even grow sideburns. He had a Tom Selleck-worthy moustache.
Kathy whispered to me at the dinner that Rekha and pretty much every other girl in her class (certainly the entire lunchroom table of geek females) had harboured passionate crushes on this Carl guy, who was now running one of his father’s car dealerships.
Then it happened. The premonition, I mean. My first brush with the paranormal.
Carl, having served as the school’s senior ring on the student council back in the day, had been dragooned into serving as the emcee for the raffle award that was kind of the highlight of the whole wingding shindig.
Unless, that is, you counted the sock hop, which was retro even then. This time we didn’t have to dance a foot apart as teachers and parent volunteers hawk-eyed us from the sidelines, holding their rulers without a heart.
Perhaps I mentioned that there wasn’t a lot shaking on the Prairies back in 1984. That included the dance floor.
Before Carl made the announcement, I was shuddering in the absolute certainty that I was about to win the coveted first prize, which turned out to be a forgettable dinner for four at some crappy hotel at the south end of town.
Now, normally I would be happy to win a prize. I still buy the occasional lottery ticket. Take a chance on winning a stuffed panda at the county fair. That sort of thing.
But aside from the fact that a forgettable dinner for four at a crappy hotel is nothing to write home about, I really, really, absolutely positively did not want to win this thing.
A lifelong pathological fear of public speaking did nothing for my humble career, in which I’d had the potential to rise all the way up to middle management if only I’d had the fortitude to speak out at staff meetings.
What a nincompoop. What a maroon. What a poltroon.
At least at work, I knew everybody. I was a stranger to this crowd of 200 or so. I was a beanpole, prematurely balding goober in the company of a woman way out of my league.
And above all, I really, really, absolutely positively did not need a dinner for four at a crappy hotel in the south end of town. So naturally, given that God — say what you will about Him — has such a well-honed sense of humour, it would be the only prize I will ever win in my life.
To make that claim, one has to discount the participation badges I amassed each June at school track and field meets in the 1960s. I once almost earned a second star for my cap at Cubs but was disqualified because I couldn’t skip backwards 20 times.
Close but no cigar.
So … anyway. Upon entering the school auditorium I had been handed ticket No. 42, which you Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy aficionados will recognize as the answer to the “Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything.”
I should have guessed I was in trouble even then. (It strikes me that naming any kind of policy, let alone one at the fraught U.S.-Mexico border, Title 42 was just asking for grief. But I digress.)
Carl spun the brass raffle cage, pulled out a slip of paper (or for you Americans in the audience, a hanging chad), drew a deep breath and proclaimed in a deep baritone: “And the winner is … 42.”
No response. People started looking around for the joyful winner to jump up and down as if Oprah were handing out cars. As if Monty Hall were in the house and someone’s whole world lay waiting behind door No. 3.
Big beads of sweat ran down my sides. My hands shook. I studied my mashed potatoes and hoped that if I stayed as still and small and unobtrusive as Carol Merrill, another number would be called and that would be the end of it.
No Fowler, no harm.
Rekha had No. 41, Kathy 43. I was sitting between them. They jumped up and down. Kathy actually squealed. The men in the audience seemed gratified, mostly by Rekha’s jumping up and down in her party dress.
As in a dream, as under a green sea, I found myself treading knock-kneed toward the microphone at a lonely podium where, after several eons of awkward silence, I heard myself quaver: “It all started in a little 5,000-watt radio station in Fresno, California. A 65-dollar paycheque and a crazy dream …”
If you’re older than 60 and went to public school, you might recognize that as Ted Baxter’s oft-told humble origins story from The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
This is true: I gave the same speech when I retired from my last job a couple of years ago.
No one laughed either time.
“Close but no cigar,” Carl said quietly as he handed me the complimentary meal tickets.
Rekha and I dined with her parents the next night at a crummy hotel in the south end of town. The chicken was overdone. The veal was veal. The parents were gracious.
They were also puzzled as to why she was hanging out with a beanpole, prematurely balding goober, but that was then. Now she wonders the same thing.
We have flash forwarded four decades, as have you all.
This time we’re attending the 50th anniversary of my high school graduation. Time flies when you’re having fun.
Now I’m a completely bald goober. Not so much of a beanpole. She’s still gorgeous and still the belle of the ball. The few former classmates who recognize me can’t believe she stuck it out with me. It’s a mystery to me, too.
This time I have home field advantage, so to speak, so after checking out my old locker and the places where the cool kids used to neck and pet and smoke (which I knew only by reputation; no one talks about petting any more either; petting is as quaint and anachronistic as milkmen or wondering where the yellow went when you brush your teeth with Pepsodent), I have more time to look around and notice things.
For example: The reunion organizing committee comprises precisely the same people who organized hokey school spirit events and pulled together the yearbook and still have their freshman beanies and their school flags and their precious memories of a time in their lives that made virtually no impression on the rest of us.
All I ever wanted to do in high school was to make the girls laugh and go home. It was kind of like that at work for 40-odd years, too, now that I think of it.
The table of divorced guys and “confirmed bachelors” comprises the same compulsive masturbators and model airplane makers who drove around aimlessly on graduation night because they had no dates.
Same as it ever was. Same as it ever was. Same as it ever was. Same as it ever was.
Free bonus observation everyone makes: Fifty years of water flowing underground takes a terrible toll.
The former star fullback is carting around an oxygen tank. I hear of some deaths that are news to me. Pretty much all of our teachers have gone to heaven. A lot of the prettiest girls are pretty much unrecognizable.
The ones who held up the best, so far as I can tell, used to sit at the geek table in the cafeteria. They also seem the happiest.
Our parents were right. Smoking is bad for you. The geeks never thought hell’s the hippest way to go. They were right, too.
But on with my second plummet into the unexplained.
Narrator: You're travelling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind. A journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That’s the signpost up ahead — your next stop, the Twilight Zone!
Do not adjust your set.
We hadn’t heard anything about Carl since the first reunion (at a different school, remember) except that his dishy wife had divorced him after his arrest at some point for fraud. Rekha and her friends were distressed.
I was secretly gratified by the arrest. Slightly worried by the divorce.
The big revelation at the 50th gala soirée was that Carl was now Carla … wait, what? … AND WAS EXPECTED TO ATTEND THIS BIG DO, THIS JAMBOREE, THIS SOCIAL FUNCTION OF THE CENTURY, AS THE DATE OF ONE OF THE GUYS I USED TO PLAY SHINNY WITH AT OUTDOOR RINKS LATE INTO THE NIGHT!!!
Somewhere, moldering in a basement in another part of town, there is a lonely, unopened model airplane box and a desiccated tube of fast-drying adhesive.
No flies on shinny guys.
I wasn’t as shocked by this as Rekha, and certainly less surprised than his grown children and former wife must have been, but I did feel strangely moved by the anguish Carl must have suffered and courage Carla had shown in transitioning.
And that’s when the Venn diagram of my life mysteriously intersected with the Outer Limits of Occult once again. My Spidey sense started tingling the instant I spotted a face I recognized from the early Eighties across the room.
Carla, resplendent in a Winners gown, male Adam’s apple and sensible shoes! A vision of — not loveliness, exactly, but certainly presentability — prompting me — in a rush of feeling that trumped my usual sense of reserve and cowardice — to cross the floor toward her as I had all those years ago.
My heart was beating hard as I told Carla who I was (you probably don’t remember me, but … ) and lavished sincere praise upon her for daring to show the world the woman she must have always been deep inside.
Gender identity assigned at birth, begone! To employ an even cruder Vonnegutian turn of phrase, go take a flying fuck at a rolling doughnut! Gender identity assigned at birth, go take a flying fuck at the moooooooooon!
Words cannot describe how metaphysically transcendent, mysteriously mystic and spectrally celestial I felt when the object of my fulsome tribute and adulation — which had been delivered in a much louder and flamboyantly public fashion than my usual sotto voce mumbles — reddened and responded:
“I’m Kathy. That’s her over there.”
Across the room, my beautiful wife was chatting amiably with a tall exotic flower, as we might have said in 1984, a tall exotic flower elegantly dressed in a perfectly fitting yellow and purple party frock. It was a high school, high school confidential.
Va va voom.
I couldn’t have been more surprised if a submariner reconciling herself to the world had surfaced in the middle of the gymnasium. I’d been run over by a giant rolling doughnut. I was spinning in a raffle cage.
Up periscope. Anchors aweigh!
And it suddenly occurred to me that for thousands of people across the world, maybe millions, the answer to the “Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything,” was never 42.
Their whole world had been waiting behind Door No. 3: Clothes but no cigar.