It happens like this:
I am three years old, stringy blonde hair, clothes probably stained from a slushy, a pretzel, ketchup–all the Sandusky Mall food court goodies. Round little cheeks and sticky fingers, untied shoestrings and a whine that could compete with a tornado warning siren.
My mother is in a store somewhere, and my father is manning his seat on a bench out in the middle of the concourse. In an odd turn of events, I wait with him instead of going into the store with my mother. Perhaps she is buying a birthday gift, or a Christmas gift. Perhaps I am being obnoxious. Which I can only assume is the case.
From here, I will not pretend to know the details that led to the touch. Maybe my father gets tired of my sticky grubby hands looking for entertainment in tossing fountain pennies, the bench, the bags of things we bought. Maybe I cry out of boredom.
And then I see it. I am already pointing at the mannequin three benches down, her porcelain skin, her legs crossed, one hand nonchalantly caressing her own cheek. The other hand is perched on the knee of her crossed legs.
“What’s a mannequin doing in the middle of the mall, Daddy?” I ask. I am three, and I watch Today’s Special, a television show about a mannequin named Jeffrey that comes to life when the doors lock and the lights go out.
My father asks, “Where?” When he sees her, he laughs. “I don’t know. Go see.”
I do the thing where I take a step–one single step–and look to my father for his read on the situation. Is this dangerous?
I walk right up to her, stand there, stare at her. She is perfect. Not one hair out of place, her clothes pinned perfectly around her figure. There are no stains or holes–just perfection. I think about all the possibilities this mannequin has if she is like Jeffrey, if she can wander the entire mall instead of being locked into one store. My hand twitches to touch her, so I twirl the front of my shirt around my fingers.
I look at my father and shrug back to him. I know he knows I am thinking of Jeffrey. He knows my curiosity is peaked. I’ve never touched a mannequin.
He sees my hand go out, pull back, and I look to him for approval. “You can touch her,” he says.
I’m thrilled. My whole life has been, “Don’t touch that.” I reach out for the hand that sits on her knee, and I expect the cool, hard, smooth porcelain. But it is not porcelain.
The skin moves. It is warm. There are bones in her hand. Three bones that I press my fingertip over while her skin bunches into a wrinkle. I stare at the hand, watch the way the skin moves when I push it, and then I look up. She is looking at me.