portion of the artwork for Jessica Hollander's story

Staring Contests
Jessica Hollander

She sits on the brown carpet looking at me, two naked Barbie dolls in front of her, but she isn’t playing with them. I peek at her over the top of my paperback—and she raises her eyebrows and lets out a gasp. Her cheeks turn pink, but she doesn’t look away.

“Let’s go to the school,” I tell her. “You like the swings?”

She nods, watches me stand, yawn, fix my ponytail, and then I stop with my hands in the air, my mouth still open, and it’s my turn to stare. This is the game, a game I won’t lose to a four-year-old named Lindy. Minutes go by. A bird caws outside. A car door closes, a woman talking, mad about yellowed grass. My arms start aching. Lindy keeps her eyes on me, keeps me frozen as she gathers up her Barbie dolls. There’s sand at the school, a big box of hard brown sand. The Barbies are going nude-beaching.

Michael’s at the apartment when I get there, the room yellow and smoky from hamburger grease.

“Five minutes too late!” he yells, meaning he’s already started so I’ll have to cook dinner for myself.

“I told you not to bring that crap here anymore.” I throw my book on the futon, my purse, my jacket, my shirt, shoes, pants, bra, underwear.

“But you’ve got the good pan!” He kisses the air as I walk by.

“You’re using the good pan? I bought that special for my veggie meals.”

“I’m done. It’s yours.”

“You’ve got it all tainted.”

In the bedroom, my robe’s where I left it, slung over the seat of my chair. I pull it on, the knobby cotton soft and sweetly pungent with a couple weeks’ sweat.

“I can’t even use it anymore,” I say, back in the kitchen, watching the sleek black pan sizzle in the sink.

Michael’s on the couch lifting his burger, ketchup plopping to the plate. “It’s just a job. You’re taking it too seriously.”

“What’s wrong with taking it seriously?” I ask, dropping to the couch beside him.

He hums in pleasure as he chews, some made-up song. “Nobody serious has ever been happy. It’s two ends of a continuum.” He takes another bite and starts humming again.

Lindy on the playground is like Lindy at home: her world’s a sphere with a four-foot diameter. She sits her Barbies on the ledge of the sandbox, their feet touching the sand but not breaking the surface. She leans back on her heels, watching them, leaning forward to adjust a bare, shiny limb this way or that, oblivious to the smack of the basketball, the girls dancing by the fence, the kid screaming obscenities on the swing: the reason we didn’t go over there in the first place.

The woman knitting sighs beside me. “His cat,” she tells me, tearing those long silver needles through the yarn so furiously it’s hard to believe she’s pulling something together. “I told him not to let it out. But his cousin Roger has an outdoor cat.”

I nod in sympathy. Lindy has the dolls facing each other in the sandbox.

“I said if he’s going to scream he’s got to do it outside.”

One Barbie reaches over and touches the hand of the other.

“She’s just in,” Michael says into his cell phone the moment I open the door. He walks from the kitchen, jams the bony contraption into the crease of my shoulder. Kisses the air above my temple.

“Michael tells me you’re watching your boss’s kid every day.”

I kick the door shut and glare at his back by the stove. I smell peppered meat. He’s using the good pan. “Just an hour or two after work,” I tell my mom. “Her husband’s in the hospital. I’m getting paid for it.”

“I thought you’re getting paid to design brochures and recipe cards. God bless those furry animals! Save them! Oh won’t you save them? And those little red peppers you draw just so.”

I struggle out of my jacket, my shirt. The pants are tougher. I throw the phone down to unhook my bra and take off my underwear. “Ah,” I sigh, picking up the phone. “What’d you say?”

“I said what about this kid? You’re a professional babysitter now?”

“A little sympathy.” I head toward the bedroom, where my robe has somehow ended up in a crumpled pile on the floor. “God damn it!”

“Julia! Remember your anger scale.”

“What do you need?” I ask, shaking out the robe, flapping it, snapping it against the chair, not looking for an event like last time, a spider on my leg.

“Dad’s fixing the water heater again. This time every year, you remember.”

“It’s a good way to wake up.”

“You know I don’t need any help waking up. You should hear him, clinking and clunking around all day. It’s giving me a headache.”

“Did you want to come here?”

She clears her throat.“What’re we having for dinner? Little red peppers?” She pauses. “You need to keep your cell phone on.”

“Just a short ride,” I say, buckling her in, wondering if she’s allowed up front, should she be in a car seat. But the sky’s a murky gray and it’s too late to worry. She looks small sitting there, a naked Barbie on each thigh. She adjusts the seatbelt so they’re covered, too, the rough nylon over their breasts.

“We’re going to see daddy,” she tells them.

“That’s right,” I confirm to the Barbies. “It’s bright in the hospital. You should’ve brought sunglasses.”

“They don’t have any sunglasses,” Lindy says.

The nurse tells us where to go and the door’s open a crack, the room dark inside. We hear the soft rush of voices. Lindy tells her Barbies to be very quiet as I push the door a few more inches and see my boss, Sheila, by the bed, her sharp red suit maroon and gruesome in the dark. She whispers to her husband, her husband whispers back.

“We’ve been cleaning out the basement. The board games in the icebox, half-filled with puzzle pieces. I found your marionette, the one from Switzerland.”

“Freddy. He came with a whole bag of sausages.”

“His legs are rotting.”

“Sheila. They were rotting to begin with.”

The door opens and there’s my dad, wearing a thick woolly beard and a red stocking cap with white around the edges. “Trick or treat!” he says, balancing a bowl of candy against his big round stomach.

“Damn.” I look at him. “I think you’re confused.”

He picks out a Snickers and peels it open with just one hand.

“We don’t usually get kids in the building.” I kick off my shoes and toss down my purse and jacket, but that’s all I can do with my dad standing there. Michael and my mom are on the couch watching a sitcom, laughing.

“Good,” he says. “I can’t eat what you cook anyway.”

“Why are you here?”

“Broke the water heater.” He fishes in the bowl. “They’re fixing it later this week so we’ll have to crash on your couch a few days.”

“Great. Wonderful.” I head toward the bedroom and close the door, lie on the bed in the dark.

“What was the girl for Halloween?” Michael asks, in the doorway with a plate of spaghetti and big red meatballs.

“Sleepy, Sneezy, Painful, and Doc. And Hungry. All at once.”

He picks my robe off the floor and drapes it over my reclining body. “Aren’t you going to change?”

I sigh and turn toward him, curl up in a ball. He sits on the bed and offers me his fork. “It’s Halloween,” I say. “I guess I have to be someone other than me.”

“Julia!” my father yells, and then comes through the door with a grocery bag. “Look what I found in the closet.” He turns the bag over and all my old shoes clunk to the floor.

“They’re leather, Dad.”

My mom follows him in and turns on the light, looks at the shoes.

“So what, they’re leather,” Dad says.

“I can’t wear leather to work. I can’t consume any animal products.”

Mom asks, “What size are you?”

Outside on the street, leaves are falling, great spread-open hands on my face, my arms, and then gone to join their crumpled, crippled brothers on the ground. Across the street, there’s a man walking his dog, a great white husky who doesn’t notice me. I wait awhile. The man doesn’t notice me either.

I buy the Barbies some fuzzy blue hats.

“It’s getting cold,” I tell Lindy. She agrees and takes the hats. I help her put them on.

“What’s wrong with your dad?” I ask.

She lays her Barbies on the carpet next to each other, their bare arms touching. She looks at me. She fixes her eyes into a stare. “His stomach is fat. It’s full of animals.”

Staring isn’t a complicated matter, just a glazing of the eyes, a blurring of your focus so it’s not in focus at all.

“He sneaked them. When Mom wasn’t home.”

“What kind of animals?” I ask, my eyes gently throbbing.

“Hams. Bologneys. Sausages.”

I hear the laughter coming up the stairwell, walking down the hall; it stops outside the door.

“You want to get that?” Michael asks, sitting on the couch between my parents; they’re watching a documentary on flying, all in their pajamas.

I wash my hands and go for the door, smelling like baked eggplant but still in my suit, the only one of us appropriate for greeting.

“Surprise!” Two adult voices and one little squeak: my older sister and her husband and their three-year-old boy.

“Wow!” I say, smiling, but they’re looking over my shoulder.

“We thought we’d find you here!” she says to my mom, who’s walking toward them in her white flannel pajamas.

“Grandma!” The boy jumps up and down. Everyone moves into the entryway.

“Why’s your coat wet?” my dad asks my sister.

“It’s snowing.”

We go to the window and cram our faces into the frame, see the fine white shards flying, flickering beneath the lamps.

“You’re just in time,” I say. “The eggplant’s almost ready.”

Sheila’s waiting in my office; she’s closed all the blinds; her skin’s nearly blue.

“I want you to work on some new designs. Make winter squash seem interesting. Exotic. Is that possible?”

“Sure. I’m picturing a snowy land. Everyone outside, bright, shiny, and smoking pipes. Balancing huge chunks of squash on their forks.”

She stares at the floor. “I’m sorry. It’s been a lot lately. With Lindy.”

“It’s all right,” I tell her. “You’re paying me.”

We go to the school in gloves and scarves and hats; the days are getting shorter, it’s 5:30 and nearly dark. The Barbies are freezing, I hear their teeth chattering, but they say the hats help. They help a lot.

Two girls are in the sandbox when we get there, playing a handclapping game, their bare red hands slapping sharply against each other, nearly sparking in the cold. But I suppose they’re keeping warm enough from the contact.

The point is they’re not even enjoying the sand. Lindy stands a couple feet in front of me, watching them, Barbies in hand. I watch them, too, but the girls don’t notice us. We stay that way for awhile before I ask if she wants to go home.

“What’s wrong with him anyway?” Michael asks when we’re alone in my bed. My parents have gone; I’m back in my robe.

“Some stomach thing.”

Michael sighs, his breath warm, smelling of meat.

“It could go on forever.” I turn away from him and look out the window, the bare branches scarcely visible against the night. I get out of bed and wrench the window open, stand there a moment shivering, then strip the covers from the bed. Michael, purple and naked, watches me, pulls his knees to his chin.

I throw off my robe. I crash around the room, make it exotic.

Lindy twists the Barbies together: heads on shoulders, arms around hips, thighs touching, shins and ankles twined around each other. Their eyes twinkle ecstatically.

She tells me, “They’re in love. But something’s happened.” She won’t tell me what; she shakes her head. “I’m sorry,” she says, pulling on her coat, and I pull mine on, too. The whole time we don’t look at each other. We go to the school and take off their hats, sit with our backs toward the kids and their basketball. With effort, we break the surface of the brown, frozen sand, dig deep with our thick-gloved fingers, much deeper it seems than the frame would allow. There’s movement behind us, the ball punched into pavement and wood, the ringing of metal. We bury the Barbies in the sand. We leave the hats for someone else.

Eight years ago in my women’s studies class we studied Mulvey’s “Male Gaze.” Mulvey’s theory is that “gazing” is essentially a masculine activity, and when women gaze at other women or at men, they are enacting masculinity. They are searching for power.

The narrator in “Staring Contests” has very little agency. She is barely recognized by those in her life, even though she strips naked when entering her apartment, even though she provides nourishment and shelter for her family, even though she offers advice and assistance and is making a lifestyle shift she believes in.

Too often in our society—in mainstream advertisements, movies, politics, and relationships—women are watched. They are appreciated, they are judged, they are objects. This story explores what might happen when people stop looking. And what potential for power might lie in two women staring at each other instead.

Return to Archive

FRiGG: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry | Issue 29 | Summer 2010