Goldilocks and the Three
“Happy Birthday to you,” Min’s mom and sister crooned off-key as the animatronic bears lurched to life. Papa Bear, or at least what Min imagined to be the papa bear (as he was wearing a snappy fedora), windmilled his taxidermied arm across his cherry candy-colored guitar, while Baby Bear raised his sticks and bashed at the drums, his precariously perched backwards baseball cap oddly immobile. Mama Bear, off to the side in a flowered apron, shook a tambourine weakly as a massive pink cake, candles blazing, soared toward Min, born aloft by pimple-faced teenager with a perma-scowl.
Min’s sister, Lin, started digging her fingers into the frosting before her mom could even cut the cake, but Min was too distracted by the bears to care — especially the gleaming guitar, its curves seductive and womanly (in a way her 14-year- old body was decidedly not), its neck long and elegant. She clomped to her feet in her heavy roller skates and skidded toward the guitar and the bears — who were now playing some kind of hectic polka — past a boy in a birthday hat with freshly skinned knees tearing bright red paper off of a toy truck and a girl in a frothy cream dress cramming her doll’s high-heeled feet into her own lurid pink cake.
Up close, Min could see that the bears were barely touching their instruments — the music, instead, was coming from a row of speakers in the ceiling. She felt sad for Mama Bear, still in her apron (perhaps after baking all the cakes for the sullen children), with only a tambourine. At her school, the girls were given tambourines to shake in band class — or flutes and clarinets. That was all that was left after the boys had their pick. Now, as she stared up at the guitar clutched in the Papa Bear’s claws, she wondered if he had burst into the band room when he was a boy cub, clutching and grabbing at the prized instrument while Mama Bear held her books and walked (not ran) dutifully down the hall.
“Do you like guitars?” There was a man next to her now, tall like a tree in the field of the bright flowers that were the birthday children, silly creatures wheeling around in skates wearing masks of tragedy and comedy. She had seen the man earlier, parked in front of one of the claw machines near the ice cream sundae bar in a long jacket like the kind her dad wore when it was raining. He had been carrying a bag of quarters and feeding them into the machine, mechanically maneuvering the joysticks to extract the prizes in the gleaming glass box. The quarters were gone now, but he was holding a cross-eyed stuffed cat, some plastic robot from a movie her sister liked, and, among all the plush and staring doll eyes, an inflatable, red guitar.
He shuffled the balloon out of his pile and held it toward her as she shifted her weight to one leg, jutting her hip out to the side and standing like a flamingo. He didn’t look scary, really. His face just looked like a man’s — like you might picture when someone says the word “man.” She reached out and took the guitar balloon and nodded slightly. The man smiled and shifted his pile of treasures. He pointed at her and then at the bears.
“Goldilocks and the three,” he said, reaching toward her gleaming curls. Her mom had tied a ribbon around her crown this morning and Min had spent a while in front of her vanity mirror deciding if fourteen was too old for ribbons.
“Min!” Lin grabbed her arm, leaving a smear of pink frosting across her fading summer tan. “Mom says come back to the table NOW!” She was clearly delighted to have this piece of authority, as her sugar-encrusted face was set in a stern mask that already looked similar to their mother’s.
Min skated with her back to the table, looking over her shoulder at the man in his overcoat, his arms full of toys. The girl in fluffy cream dress was standing next to him now, her skated feet crossed, reaching up to clasp the cross-eyed cat in her arms. She dropped her doll on the ground and smiled when the man put his hand on her head.
Back at their booth, Min’s mom put a slice of cake in front of her, but Min didn’t eat it. Her mom made some kind of joke about how she was already a woman, fretting about her figure, but Min was back to staring at the bears — the red guitar, the sad tambourine, the boy bear with his sticks and his hat. They were playing something Latin now, maybe the song with all the dancing that they had to do in gym class. The man and the toys were gone and so was the girl in cream, her doll on the floor on a funeral pyre of plates and cups.
When Min got home that night, she went to her room and took her craft scissors from her desk. First she cut apart the red, inflatable guitar, and then she cut off all her golden curls.