It had been years, but Barbie's voice on the phone was unmistakable, not much different from her voice in person, actually. We were born within two days of each other, she on March 9, me on March 11, back in 1959. We'd been quite close when we were young, though we'd drifted apart over the years, and her invitation to brunch in celebration of our upcoming fiftieth birthdays sounded like great fun. The café at Neiman-Marcus won out over the Polo Lounge (though Barbie's never lost her preference for pink décor) -- fewer paparazzi and the promise of a killer sale on Laboutins.
On my way to meet her that Saturday, my mind wandered back over our long relationship. We were both about six when I received her as a gift one holiday morning. I loved her instantly, with her perfect, dancer's figure, dainty feet, luscious red lips and coy expression. My affection for high-heeled mules persists to this day. So young and innocent then, who could have known we would both end up as Rorschach tests for society's changing notions of femininity, alternately blamed for everything from anorexia to promiscuity and hailed as icons of sexual liberation. It's not easy being blonde and from California.
I arrived a little early, despite having changed three times. Barbie was perfectly punctual. I'd been a bit awkward as a kid, but she was one of those girls who did everything just right. She still looked just as I remembered her, in Capri pants and a just-tight-enough top. I told her she hadn't changed a bit since our last meeting.
"Oh but I have," she insisted cheerfully, sliding into the booth and pushing her white-framed sunglasses up onto her head. "I've been slimmed down, had my eyes, hair and skin a bunch of different colors, and some of those outfits they put me in, what were they thinking?
"Tell me about it. Still, you've inspired some pretty amazing designers from Bob Mackie to Anna Sui."
"At least I've got my original curves back now. For a while there they kind of toned them down so I wouldn't look quite so much like my half-sister."
She lowered her voice conspiratorially, half hiding behind her menu.
"You know, Lili, the German girl we're not supposed to talk about."
"I guess she and I could probably swap a few stories," I admitted. "Ever had the popovers?"
"OMG! Fantastic! It's a good thing I'm doing my gig as a personal trainer tomorrow."
"You certainly have a varied resume," I said, thinking back. "Let's see, you've been a model, a pilot, an astronaut, a scuba diver, a NASCAR racer, a nurse."
"That was one of my favorites. I heard you went to nursing school too."
"Actually, I was going to be a midwife, but then I started working as a dancer in college and one thing sort of led to another."
"Well, at least you found a career you could stick to. I'm still job jumping at fifty."
The waiter came to take our orders: soup, salad, popovers and double cappuccinos. We both looked him over as he headed back for the kitchen.
"Bet we could have some fun with him," I said. Barbie shrugged.
"I've always been more popular with girls than boys."
"Come on, tell Nina. What really happened between you and Ken?"
She leaned in close to confide.
"Well, you know those rumors about him?"
I'd heard a few.
"They're true. He's like totally gay. I love him to death but it could never have worked between us. He's got a chain of dog grooming stores and lives with his lover and three mixed-breed rescues in our old Malibu place."
"So," she said, stirring a cube of sugar into her coffee, "I read that you're happily married now."
"I got lucky on the second try. It's not every guy who can live with a controversial public figure."
"That's what we are, I guess," Barbie sighed. "Actually, I'd have been a bit more wild but Mother would have killed me."
I had to laugh.
"You were plenty wild with me! At the height of the secret agent fad back in the 1960's I tied you up all the time, just so you could make a daring, timely escape, usually naked."
"It never bothered me. You weren't the only one. But I do hate being kept in the box by collectors. I like to get out and play."
"Me too. I've always found you sort of an inspiration."
She rolled her blue eyes.
"Just don't say that in any interviews, okay? I have to stay G-rated. I get blamed for enough stuff as it is, no offense."
"None taken. But a lot of girls in my business do try to look like you."
"And a lot of girls who aren't try to act like you."
I shook my head at the worrisome thought.
"I never told them to do that. I always say that porn is fantasy and urge them to act responsibly in their own lives. It's not as if either of us set out to be role models. Who knew that we'd be so popular all over the world?"
"Not the whole world. I'm banned from Saudi Arabia."
"Well, I've been kicked out of Canada."
"How did that happen?"
"Long story. Did you ever feel bad about not having kids?
Barbie licked some foam off her cappuccino. Strangely, her lipstick never left a print on the cup.
"I think I prefer being an aunt."
"Works for me. I imagine a lot of girls out there like that about us. Before you, dolls were all about family life and responsibility."
"And before you, sex was all about marriage and babies."
I thought she gave me way too much credit.
"People project a lot of guilt and anxiety onto us, but it was really a matter of timing. We just came along with the right qualities at the right moment."
"But we sure made the best of it."
We clinked cups. Then she looked almost pensive.
"You know, it's not all the perks and luxuries that keep me going year after year. It's also the thrilled expression I see when they unwrap me."
"Me too! It's fun to make a dream come true, even if it's only for a little while."
"Does it get to you, the mean stuff people say?"
"Not as much as they hope. My message is that it's good to enjoy sex. Your message is that it's good to be female. If somebody's got a problem with either of those messages, it's their problem, not ours."
"We're a couple of pretty tough little dolls, I guess."
"We have to be to lug around all our baggage."
I'm sure everybody in the restaurant wondered what we were laughing about. There was some staring and whispering, but that comes with the territory.
"I thought you were great in Boogie Nights, by the way," Barbie said when we caught our breath.
"They cut my best lines and I got killed."
"Please, in Aliens all they used was my head. Creepy."
Barbie shuddered at the memory.
"Even after all these years, it's still a struggle for respect," I said.
"Who needs respect when you have love?"
It was a good point, but I can be stubborn.
"Why can't we have both?"
"Take it from me, Nina. There is such a thing as being too popular. And too thin. And too sexy. The more they want you, the less they see you as you really are."
Just then the check came. She picked it up. "Deductible, you know," she said cheerily, tipping twenty percent. "Now, how about that shoe sale?"