Though she had never been into dolls, in most ways, Charlotte Sometimes could pass for an ordinary girl of six. She did not like them–not baby dolls, not princess dolls, not even the politically incorrect Barbie, or her dowdy friend, Skipper–not the dolls that ate and peed, sat and cried, smiled and cooed. It wasn’t political–dolls just weren’t her thing. And though she did think of herself, even then, as a very small forty-year-old, it would be decades before it would occur to her to pathologize her disinterest in dolls and other things pink and girly. For now, she busied herself by arranging the stuffed animals she had always preferred into an elaborate arrangement on her pale yellow bed, a furry contrast to the canary flower print of a wallpaper she did not choose, inventing different games to play that didn’t reflect on anything essential about her, at least so far as she knew.
It would be said that she was an agreeable child, and this is unsurprising, since she sought to do what was expected of her whenever possible. Though she could not yet articulate the thought, she believed that, perhaps, always doing things exactly right would be what led to her ultimate salvation. And so, when Charlotte Sometimes was presented with the rare occasion of a play date at the home of one of her contemporaries, she would agreeably (as ever) play with the dolls that she didn’t understand, dressing them in their outfits, acting out their elaborate imagined courtship scenarios, always agreeably taking on the less coveted of roles, until it was time for her to go home. And though the dolls would not have been her own choice, she learned to adapt, and so was able to make just enough friends to appear to be a normal little girl, if not the social butterfly of her class, then at least a friend of one of her friends.
Though she had forged a mission statement for herself to be agreeable, there were still those times when Charlotte Sometimes felt compelled to assert herself, to let her true thoughts out into the light, however dangerous it might be. Not, perhaps, on the topic of the dolls–because what harm could come from her indulging people by agreeing to play with them? Nor did she feel obligated to discuss the other trappings of girlhood that confused her, the pink, princessy, sparkly things that all of her friends seemed to love but which left her cold–because even if she was missing something, she reasoned that she was also good at pretending, and at convincing the others that she was just like them: she could see that people saw what they wanted to see. Nevertheless, there were times when something would come up that compelled her to say something–directly–which exposed the thoughts and feelings she sensed were not so plainly agreeable.
There was once a boy who had liked her, and in fourth grade, after they had grown up away from each other (as kids often do), he walked around the soccer field at lunch–a little figure in the distance followed by several other little figures, wearing his pathos like a badge of honor, claiming that he was going to kill himself. He told everyone (except Charlotte, the supposed object of his misery) of his intent. He would do himself in at the age of 9, and this prompted a parade of little children to approach Charlotte Sometimes, begging her to save a young boy’s life simply by agreeing to return his affection. It was a small act, they thought, and what decision was there to be made? And the drama of it all was too much for Charlotte Sometimes: she had not yet seen much of the world, but knew enough of storylines to know that the fourth grader never actually kills himself after these kinds of stunts. She knew he was doing it for attention, and she resented him for it, for involving her in his childish game. And she told these silly children so. “He’s not going to kill himself,” she said, callously. “He’s just saying that,” put out by the fact that she even had to point this out in the first place, but understanding that if she did not do it, nobody would.
But then the children looked at her with confusion and horror. And after they had recovered from the sting of her cruelty, they told her to “be nice.” They said, “You think you are so smart, Charlotte Sometimes, but you should really just be nice.”
And it confused her, because why were they clouding the issue? What did any of this have to do with her being nice or not being nice? Did they not see that she was trying to help them–to assuage the needless fears the boy had placed in them, all for the gratification of his own vanity? Because what Charlotte Sometimes had said was the truth: it was never her intention to be mean. She only exposed herself because it had been necessary, and in the absence of adults, felt it was her duty. Truthfully, she would have rather been agreeable, if it had been possible.
As the years went by, the admonishment to “be nice” would serve as an informal Chorus common to all of the performances of her life. When she was in middle school, and found one of her friends to have betrayed her trust, she would say so, and they would command her to “be nice!” even whilst laughing at her satirical remarks on the girl’s loyalty. Because even if she had always sought to be agreeable, once she had been crossed–once she had seen the true character of a person and found it lacking–she could be cruel. And she knew it, so she used it responsibly, to the extent that her age and experience allowed. Still, the incidents piled up–in the school elections (Be nice!), after winning a debate (Be nice!), after writing a column in the university paper (Be nice!), every four years when there was an election (Be nice!), whenever there was a controversy afoot and an opinion to be expressed (Be nice!).
It became the one constant in a lifetime of small changes, and at some point she would decide that perhaps she had missed something along the way, to still always be met with this reaction. But it was no matter, because it was too late now: whatever it was that could allow her to “be nice” out of habit, as a matter of course, must have been misplaced back in the days of the dolls, transmitted through sparkly tiaras and glittering wands, or hidden in the pages of the fairy tales that she had only ever seen through. And though she would continue to pretend into middle age, there were darker days on which she yearned to go back and give the dolls another shot, because she could not help but believe that their way would have been so much easier.