It began like Baywatch: brawny lifeguard to the rescue, CPR, water-vomiting resurrection. One moment, Rachel was dog-paddling. The next moment, she was Lazarus.
Of course, Rachel remembers it differently. One moment, she was bobbing in the water, a stranger’s surfboard gliding dangerously close to her head. The next moment, she was perusing the aisles of a vast toy department, pulling an action figure off a display rack.
Call it what you will. Near-death experience. Misfiring neurons. Low-oxygen shopping.
The action figure looked conspicuously like Rachel: rust-colored hair, pear-shaped body, left foot noticeably longer than the right. Upon closer inspection, it was Rachel. At least, that’s what the lightning bolt label on the packaging read: “Rachel (Weak-Ass) Dudley!”
Weak-Ass was Rachel’s middle school nickname, coined from her habit of toting a seat cushion—an oversized latex donut—for three years as she recovered from a bruised tailbone. Truthfully, Rachel only needed the cushion for a month and a half, but the desks at her middle school were designed with a Paleolithic understanding of ergonomics, and so she milked the cushion until high school.
Inside the vast toy department, a boy approached Rachel and advised her against buying her own action figure. “Ma’am, it’s a rip-off,” the boy said. “You have to buy the ass-cushion separately. Besides, the wind-up nervous breakdown feature is a total bust. She takes two quick breaths and the gears snap.”
Rachel tried to ignore the boy as she read her own product description. Apparently, her action figure was part of the “Plebians of the Universe” set, a group of toys devoted to the most stunted creatures in the cosmos. Her toy came with a “give-up grip!” feature, guaranteed to drop whatever it touched. It also included a keyhole located at heart-level that promised bonus features (such as turning Rachel’s entire action figure inside-out) but which could only be unlocked by an accessory—a soulmate—that was never built due to budget cuts.
This was Rachel’s first near-death experience. She was thirty-one years old.
Call it what you will. Revelatory. Objectifying. Disappointing.
So disappointing in fact that Rachel set about transforming herself. She called it “Project Butterfly.” Meditation. Art classes. Exercising her glutes. Her life became an 80’s training montage. Despite her agnosticism, Rachel even sampled confession: “Father, I can’t hyperventilate correctly.”
It wasn’t until her late-thirties that Rachel’s curiosity got the better of her. Was her action figure still, well, pathetic? She had to know.
Rachel simulated cardiac arrest by renting a helium tank and taping a plastic bag (an “exit bag”) around her neck, making sure to provide a steady helium flow with a hose slipped under the plastic. According to a do-it-yourself suicide website, the less carbon dioxide the body inhales, the less alarmed it becomes. Rachel’s sister, after much coaxing, was enlisted to monitor Rachel’s breathing. Her job was to tear the bag off her sister’s head once sufficient—but not too sufficient—asphyxiation was induced.
Here’s what happened.
Rachel, once again, found herself inside a vast toy department, pushing a shopping cart, and holding an action figure that was unmistakably herself. “All new!” the packaging read. “Rachel (Post-Larva) Dudley!”
Sure, some of Rachel’s features were familiar. The “give-up grip!” was as yielding as ever. But there were also new features, such as a “turn my life around!” button on Rachel’s forehead which, when pushed, twirled Rachel’s head in a creepy, Exorcist sort of way. Not to mention a new accessory, a plastic bag (sold separately) that fit snugly around Rachel’s head and promised to “promote clarity!”
Again, a boy—the same boy—approached Rachel. He stood in front of her shopping cart and said, “Ma’am, wait a week, and they’ll throw that toy in the discount bin.”
Rachel blushed. She couldn’t help but feel that the discount bin was progress.
Rachel went public. She guest-starred on podcasts. She held retreats. She sold customizable plastic bags. Sure, anyone could talk to a shrink, but there was something about seeing your own action figure—mid-asphyxiation—that was positively breathtaking.
Call it what you will. Internet sensation. Therapeutic breakthrough. Near-death fad.
It wasn’t uncommon to find Rachel sitting cross-legged at a mountain resort and coaching her acolytes. “Remember,” she’d say, “friends lie, therapists sugarcoat, but your own action figure, I assure you, is brutally honest. If you don’t like what you see, by all means, do something about it. But above all, ask yourself: if you wouldn’t play with it, who would?”
Andrew Gretes is the author of How to Dispose of Dead Elephants (Sandstone Press, 2014). His fiction has appeared in Witness, Booth, Sycamore Review, and other journals.
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