A short story by Dorothy Tse, translated from the Chinese by Natascha Bruce
That year, hollow plastic dolls imported from City No. 4 rapidly became the bestselling toys in town. Even now, when people mention these old curios, they still refer to them as “classic Angeliques.”
It was the year K’s father suddenly stopped going to work. Thirty-inch-long plastic dolls piled up inside his bedroom, and every night he slept splayed on top. As soon as he woke in the morning, he started swimming. Sometimes neighboring fathers would come to join, diving into the mountain of dolls like kids into a ball pit, wrestling with them and barking with laughter, completely losing track of the world outside. Little by little, the dolls came to occupy the whole apartment, squeezing K and his mother out into the hall. Soon after, they flooded through the front door, forcing K and his mother to retreat once again, this time to the roof of the apartment block. The building was thirty-two stories high. Looking down from the top, K saw little mountains of dolls heaped all over the city, each one covered with oblivious swimming fathers.
“Now it’s my turn to have fun,” his mother announced.
K turned and watched her indignantly strip off her dingy old shirt and shapeless trousers, revealing the fleshy body beneath. Her fat churned like an overflowing lake. With careful focus, as though playing with mud, she stuffed herself into one of the same pink lacy skirts that the dolls were wearing. The corners of her mouth slowly softened, then stretched out into a sunflower-wide grin. Two other mothers dressed just like her stood anxiously on the other side of the roof, holding hands; they seemed to have been waiting a long time. K noticed that at some point, a very long slide had been erected, stretching all the way to the ground. The three doll-like mothers scrambled on and went down screeching with delight, sliding out of his world.
Left behind on the rooftop, K felt crushingly bored.
He was thirteen that year, past the age of caring about toys; now he wanted something more authentic. From his solitary look-out, he could see a giant shopping mall looming in the distance. He recognized the enormous balloon outside its entrance, there to advertise the hollow dolls, the doll face printed across its surface always slightly warped, no matter which angle you viewed it from. It didn’t interest him at all, and yet the brand stayed lodged in his memory.
Before school closed down, K used to pass through the mall every day on his way to class. He would loiter near the basement-level escalator until about ten past eight, when a girl from the year above him would sail down from the top. She was the school prefect, and every day she wore the same dull uniform, in strict adherence with the rules. But at the bottom of the escalator, peering through the clear plastic guardrail, K could glimpse her colorful underwear, like a shifting rainbow, flashing over his head then gone.
Thinking of the rainbow made K a little sad. He didn’t understand why his chest felt crammed with these shifting clouds, filling him with emotions he couldn’t control, while the city that lay like a playground beneath his feet grew only more distant and illusory. He closed his eyes and curled on the floor, like a lonely bean waiting to sprout. He fell fast asleep.
In his dream, K was back in the shopping mall. The only other person there was a girl in school uniform, sitting on a motionless escalator. She was too far away for him to see her face properly, but he could make out the new scenery beneath her skirt: her smooth white thighs were open and she wasn’t wearing underwear, leaving her genitals on full display.
K’s excitement mounted, but he couldn’t approach. There was someone else in the mall now, another boy in school uniform. He had been there a while. The girl was looking at this boy imploringly, encouraging him to come over. K felt his penis shoot up like a mushroom after rain, turning tense and vital, and all he could do was watch as the other boy walked to the escalator and crouched before the girl.
Her moans and gasps grew increasingly dramatic. Her legs extended stiffly forward, like a frog’s, and beads of sweat accumulated on her forehead. In all the porn movies K had ever seen, no actress had ever shrieked like this. Eventually, the girl’s body went slack. After all that effort, she had given birth to a baby girl. Taking charge of the delivery, the boy shoved an uncleaned hand under her skirt, but when he brought it out again all he held was a big, weightless balloon, which bobbed in front of her face.
“Is that her?” The girl hardly dared believe it.
The boy pulled a small pair of scissors from his shirt pocket—the blunt kind usually only seen in primary school art and craft classes. He snipped the umbilical cord (well, really it was the nylon string attached to the bottom of the balloon).
“If you don’t want it, pop it,” he snapped.
But it’s the big balloon from in front of the mall, thought K. The one there to advertise the hollow dolls! He wanted to shout out and tell them but, before he had the chance, the girl had snatched the balloon, presumably to prevent the unscrupulous little boy from throttling her baby.
With the long nylon string gripped in one hand and holding onto the boy with the other, the girl led them both down the escalator.
Waiting outside the mall was a bright clean road that glinted in the sun, and a pristine bicycle. K watched as the girl and boy leapt onto the bike and then, as in a close-up from an ad, turned in unison to reveal matching angelic smiles. He couldn’t believe it: they were two schoolchildren, but they looked exactly like his parents. They were ready now, off to bring their floating baby home. K wondered if they knew that this baby was especially hollow (she only had that thin, thin skin), and that she might pop at any moment.