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“Let’s Play Barbie” by Courtenay Schembri Gray

Poets are damned… but see with the eyes of angels.

— Allen Ginsberg

I look down and see a smiling cut, layered like an onion; a red streak. I don’t know how it got there, but it stings. Dunkin’ doesn’t have any lids, so I carefully balance the coffee in my hands, making sure I don’t soil the books at the store with whipped cream and sugar. I use Saunders and Wallace like a yo-yo—up-down, up-down.

The man beside me coughs into the crux of his arm, a habit we have all become accustomed to. The lone man in the waste land of letters, deciding between T.S. Eliot and Sylvia Plath. I don’t think he’s ready for female pain. He won’t chew on it. Empty of an iron stomach, he fritters away, down the stairs, and out into the breeze.

My sunglasses are a bee-stung amber with black Pollock dots. They all know. I know they know. It’s in their hands, and their twitching fingers. They all see I’m faking it. Every step I take is followed by counting. One. Two. Three. Put one foot in front of the other. That’s it, just like that.

We’re all pretenders here; sheets of mirage, skin tight. It’s not a persona, just an enhanced version of ourselves to get us through the day. Two men in black suits smoke Marlboros outside the Rolex store, and a woman in Louboutins walks by, leaving a cloud of Chanel No5 in her wake. I, with my long coat, move through the galleys and passageways with those unidentifiable cuts. Ten years ago, I imagined chatting to older men in wine bars, wearing luxury perfume and solid gold. I’d scratch at their back with my Miu Miu manicure—talking timeshares.

A couple opposite me is showing an offensive amount of PDA. Aside from making me feel nauseous, I just want someone to give me a head massage. He would have, but he is dead. It took me twenty-three years to finally find a man who loved me, and I lost him the same year we found each other. Now, every time I see affectionate couples, I am permanently reminded of what was once in our grasp. I stave off puking and grab my Pumpkin Spice Latte from the dirtied marble. No sweetener is needed, for once in my life.

I’m a stickler for honesty, but some days, you just want to play Barbie. Back in high school, I was deep in sad Tumblr core; listening to Lana Del Rey on my iPod Classic. Lana is still on every playlist on my iPhone. I must’ve played Born to Die on a loop thousands of times. If my life was to be narrated through one song, that would be it. She follows me everywhere. On the outside, it would appear that I was trying to be a coquette with red eyes, but in reality, I am genuinely sad. Not only am I grieving, but I float around in some ironic sense of angelic anarchy that I don’t know who I am anymore.

Mental illness is like colonoscopy prep; in order to consume, it must have a fruity flavour. Those of us who know, know this is true. I picked up a copy of a Rachel Cusk novel, and it was nothing but the ramblings of a ‘90s Kate Moss archetype. Some of you might call this unfair, and feel free to tell me so, but if there is one thing I hate in Literature, it’s the mad-woman-in-the-attic who lives in Camden stereotype who can eat all she wants because she always stays thin. I do not doubt that the prose itself is sublime, but I baulk at this consecration of the Effy Stonems of the world.

Standing in line for fresh donuts, I check my phone for significance. Reading a Substack about “being in your fleabag era”, the guy on the street sings Don’t Worry Be Happy by Bobby McFerrin. I take the brown paper bag, but the stuffing comes undone—white flies of sugar dropping on my coat. How dark must it be to notice the pinholes? I contemplate getting another coffee; caffeine is my lover, my sin, and my soul. Then I’ll go to bed. Then I’ll rest my head on the peachy silk. I’ll fall asleep to girl in red, and the maggot will replenish, sloughing off my skin like a snake with amethyst scales.

Courtenay Schembri Gray is a Northern writer of the weird, the eerie, and the macabre. She is the author of The Maple Moon newsletter on Substack:

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