When your grandmother died, your parents told you she had wanted her grandchildren to visit her house and take home whatever items they wanted to remember her by. You were fourteen years old. Your choice was between quilts, vintage dresses that were coming back into style, fancy saucers and cups with ivy leaves that curled all around. You chose a doll, one with porcelain skin and eyelids that closed when you moved her head, a mouth painted pale pink. She wore a nightgown and her feet were so small, her toenails barely visible half-circles.
When I moved in with you, you showed me the doll and explained her history. She had stayed in your parents’ house for several years after you’d moved out, but your parents said she was making guests uncomfortable. Then they put her in the attic, and that bothered you for some reason, though you knew it was irrational. “Can we put her out here?” you asked me.
“Of course,” I said.
“I know everyone thinks she’s creepy,” you said. You touched her nightgown, white and now stained yellow and darker yellow in spots, in the same tentative and careful way you had touched my dress the first time we had had sex.
I took her from your arms and I held her for myself. Her weight made me uneasy; she was almost as heavy as a real infant.
“My brother always said he thought she was possessed,” you said.
“What, like by a demon?” I asked. “Like in the movies?”
“He said he heard her laugh. Like this really deep sound, like how a man would laugh.”
“Your brother is stupid,” I said with the kind of conviction that came from meeting him last Christmas, his conventionally attractive and silent girlfriend, his political conspiracy theories, his particular type of cruelty towards you that your parents either didn’t notice or didn’t care enough about to stop.
“Emily, right?” I asked you, trying to get a response. “That’s a stupid thing for him to have told you.” You shrugged. You weren’t really listening to me. You were far away like you were sometimes. I set the doll on our nightstand. I imagined her watching us sleep, and I didn’t feel great about it, but I thought surely it would be possible to ignore her or forget about her.
You made up stories about the doll. It was kind of funny at first. During a particularly bad thunder storm, our power went out and in the dark we searched our closets for a flashlight, and you said maybe the doll had cursed us, maybe she had turned out the lights. You gave her a name, Cornelia Ann. I came home from work one day crying because one of my clients had complained about me to my boss and I was worried I was going to get fired, and you said maybe Cornelia Ann made that happen. I said, “You know, you’re making it really hard for me to like Cornelia Ann.” “Maybe Cornelia Ann is making it hard to like Cornelia Ann!” you said, laughing and hugging me the way I loved most, your whole body leaning into me.
On the Internet you found groups of people obsessed with haunted dolls—they wanted them, they searched for them on eBay; once purchased they monitored them carefully for signs of demonic possession. You told me about the haunted dolls’ histories you read on the forums—the ghost of a sexually abused girl who sought revenge on all men; the ghost of a child who had been murdered by her crazy mother and needed to find a loving parent again. You wanted to figure out Cornelia Ann’s haunted past. You came up with some ideas. Maybe she had been gay, but because of the times, she hadn’t known, or hadn’t been able to tell anyone, and she was jealous of us. Or maybe she had been an old maid, and she hated happy couples. What did I think? You kept asking me if I had any theories of my own.
I didn’t. Instead I had theories, which I kept to myself, about why you were doing this: your dad was going through some kind of mid-life crisis, drinking too much and being shitty to your mom. You kept calling your mom, sometimes multiple times a day, to see how she was doing, even though every conversation with her upset you for hours afterwards. You worked on editing projects from home and you didn’t have many friends; I reasoned that you probably needed some kind of distraction.
The doll stayed on the nightstand. She wasn’t easy to ignore, after all, and I wanted to move her but I knew you would notice. You were gone one night, out with an old friend from college who was in town, attending one of those paint nights at a bar. I was reading in bed and I looked at the doll and I pretended, for a moment, that she moved, that she blinked. I put a pillow over her for a while. Then I took the pillow off and left the room and watched TV in the living room instead, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that she was waiting for me to return.
When you got home, you showed me your painting; you had followed all of the instructions exactly—everyone was supposed to paint a grassy field, a sunset, a cottage on the far right of the horizon—but you had added, at the end of the night, two faces in the window of the cottage. They were just shadows, blobs with black eyes, and I might not have even noticed if you hadn’t pointed them out. “Are they trapped in there or something?” I asked, slightly horrified.
“It was meant to be you and me,” you said, embarrassed, “But it came out looking disturbing instead. See how that one has long eyelashes, like you do?”
I couldn’t really see the eyelashes, but I lied and said I did.
When I kissed you later when we were in bed, you kissed me back with a sound in the back of your throat like you were starving.
One morning you noticed small scratches on the back of my neck. “Are you okay?” you asked. “Did I do that to you?”
“No,” I said. “I must have done it to myself in my sleep. I need to cut my fingernails. They’re too long.” You still seemed worried about me. Like you didn’t believe that I had done it to myself. I said, “Look, this has happened before, sometimes I do it in my sleep when I’m stressed out.” I added, “Maybe Cornelia Ann did it.” We both laughed, you with relief, me with affection, and it felt like before, the before from several months earlier, when we hadn’t yet moved in together, when the relationship was still relatively new, when there was a lot we didn’t know about each other but thought we knew, and we weren’t scared at all.
Finally I moved Cornelia Ann. I put her in the closet. For one, you hadn’t mentioned her in a while. Also, you seemed happier: you were getting more freelance editing projects; your college friend moved close by, so you saw her more often; you went weeks without calling your mom. And besides, work was getting busier for me and I needed to be able to sleep well, and when I tossed and turned I blamed Cornelia Ann. That first night that she was gone, I slept like a baby.
A week later, though, she was back on our nightstand. I was changing out of my work clothes and I asked you why you moved her back and you said you thought I moved her back. “This isn’t funny anymore,” I said, taking my bra off but keeping my shirt on because I didn’t like being naked in front of the doll. “Will you quit with this shit?”
“But I didn’t move her,” you said.
I was too annoyed to fight back. I didn’t sleep well that night: I woke up several times with a start, my heart pounding. There was a bad smell in the room, like something rotten. I told myself I was imagining it. I had seen too many movies about haunted houses. I pulled more blankets over me and you, but I still felt cold. There was this feeling in the pit of my stomach, heavy, my body knowing something that was true when the rest of me didn’t. I entertained the thought that maybe there really was something bad about Cornelia Ann, maybe some kind of lost, desperate energy, and it was going to mess things up between you and me; I drifted in and out of sleep, and for the rest of the night I couldn’t convince myself otherwise.
For Christmas we flew out to Pennsylvania to stay with your parents in their house in the suburbs. Your dad was mostly over his mid-life crisis, but you still hated visiting them and so did I. This time, when it got to be too much for me—when your brother hit your arm because you said you were still voting Democrat and I knew it was going to leave a bruise; when your father took me aside and whispered, “Her mother are I are so grateful for you, we’re relieved she’s found someone who finally knows how to handle her, we call you the Emily-whisperer”—I tried to walk around the neighborhood to get rid of my anxiety. In Pennsylvania it was so cold, the sidewalks were covered in ice, and if I walked more than half a mile, the houses stopped and everything became much more spread-out, a few houses surrounded by farmland. I looked at the fields and the cows were standing still, breathing out clouds of air from their nostrils. Their eyes were so big and expectant. When one of them looked at me, I couldn’t really look back, because I was thinking about the last cheeseburger I’d eaten earlier.
One evening after dinner, everyone had had too much wine. We all sat in the living room, you and me sitting on one of the couches together, not touching for a while, until you brought your legs up to rest on the couch, your feet gently pressing against my thigh. Your brother was alone during this visit, and no one knew what had happened to the last girlfriend, but it seemed like he had even more he thought he needed to prove. He was talking about how he had been such a smart, rational child. He never even believed in the Tooth Fairy. When he found quarters under his pillow, he knew it had been from your parents. “Not Emily, though,” he said, mostly to me. “She believed in the Tooth Fairy still even when she was, like, really old. Like a teenager.”
Your mom said, “She wrote the Tooth Fairy letters. When I finally told her that she wasn’t real, she didn’t stop, she kept writing her letters.” She added, with a kind of bewildered look on her face, “She wrote her letters even after all her baby teeth had already fallen out.”
“That’s not true,” you said, though no one, including you and me, believed you.
When your parents opened the third bottle of wine, I said I needed to get some work done; I went upstairs to your old bedroom where we were sleeping, to review some reports I had printed out before we had left, to highlight in yellow marker what mattered, to scratch out what I wanted to ignore. You teased me for needing to print out shit. You called me a luddite, but you also thought it was cute. I couldn’t find the reports, though. I emptied my purse, emptied my suitcase, searched under the bed, in the bed. I even looked in the waste basket, thinking maybe I had accidentally tossed it.
You appeared in the room and said, “Can you not find your reports?”
“No,” I said, turning my suitcase upside down and shaking it.
“Maybe Cornelia Ann took them.”
“What?” I asked. I dropped the suitcase and turned to look at you. Your face gave you away: you were amused and embarrassed, like a little kid playing a mean trick she didn’t fully understand. “Did you—” I unzipped your suitcase. There she was, her eyes closed, and in her arms she was holding my folder full of my reports. “What is wrong with you?” I asked. “Why would you bring her? Why would you do any of this?”
“I wasn’t going to take her out or anything,” you said. “She took your reports because she didn’t want you working so hard. She didn’t want you so stressed out.”
“Emily, I have a deadline to meet which isn’t even half of what’s so fucking weird about this—”
“I knew you’d get mad.”
“Did you want me to get mad at you?”
“No…” you said.
“Then what the fuck are you doing?”
“Didn’t you hear what Mom said downstairs?” you asked. Your voice was flat. “I don’t know how to stop.”
There was a feeling in me like choking. I kicked the suitcase with Cornelia Ann still in it.
“Don’t do that,” you said. You bent down and started to take Cornelia Ann out of the suitcase. “Fuck you, you know she was around before I ever met you,” you said, beginning to cry, “And she’ll be around after you leave me, too.”
I couldn’t bear the sight of you on your knees, trying to rescue this doll or comfort it or whatever you imagined you were doing. I put on my jacket and went outside for another walk in the snow. When I got to the farms, I stared at the cows and I watched as one tried to push the snow away with her snout, searching for grass to eat. It was starting to get dark. I needed to go back, but I didn’t want to. “Stop,” I shouted at the cow. “There’s no grass anywhere!”
When I told you I loved you for the first time, you told me, as a warning, “I’m too much, everyone tells me I’m too much.” I looked into your eyes that were gray and changed depending on the light, and I said that I didn’t know how that could be true. But standing in the cold I wondered if maybe someday your terror or desire, whatever it was, would eclipse me, and I would disappear.
You got rid of Cornelia Ann. It was months after our fight during Christmas. Things had become more subdued between us since then. Comfortable or resigned, I don’t think either of us knew. You were cooking dinner, cutting up potatoes to fry, and I went into the bedroom to get some Tylenol from my purse because I had a headache. The doll was gone. I sat back down at the kitchen table and I stared at the knobs of your spine visible in your neck and your upper back. You dropped the potatoes in the pan and they made a sizzling sound, and then a smell like oil and onions filled the kitchen. “Is Cornelia Ann hiding somewhere?” I asked warily, swallowing my Tylenol.
You turned around. “I took her to that Goodwill near us,” you said. “She needed a new home.”
“She’s not that important.”
“That’s funny,” I said, not exactly kindly. “She seemed really important to you.”
“You don’t—” Your voice got higher, but you paused, returned to the potatoes, and when you started talking again, your voice was back to normal. “Those Internet forums I used to read, they were all about how if you ever wanted to figure out your haunted doll’s past, you had to pay really close attention to her. Like, all the time. And I couldn’t do that, you know?”
“There are other things I need to pay attention to.”
While we ate, I understood how hard you were trying, and I wanted to try that hard, too. I even came up with a new theory about Cornelia Ann’s haunted past: maybe she had been loved perfectly. Maybe in her past life she had had a friend or a spouse or a parent who had been really wonderful, who had doted on her and catered to her every whim and it had been nice for a while but then, after years of that, she wanted a little more independence. So she was excited to hit the road and travel the world—via the Goodwill down the street. You liked that theory a lot. You said it was better than any you had thought of.
Before we fell asleep that night, we had sex. You dressed up in this new lingerie you had bought, I didn’t know when, black and lacy, the kind of thing you knew I liked.
Later, when you were about to come, your whole body started shaking, grinding against me harder and harder, your legs squeezing around my hand. I held you down and I told you to stay still.
“I can’t,” you said. “I can’t help it.”
“I’m going to keep holding you down, okay?” I said. You nodded. You made a noise like I’d heard before, that sound in the back of your throat. “You can hold onto me too,” I said, “if that would help.”
You clutched at my back, my shoulder, your fingernails digging in. “I’m sorry,” you said because you knew you were hurting me.
“You don’t have to be sorry,” I said, and for a time we didn’t let go of each other.