Holiday fiction: Aimee Bender’s ‘A New Year’s Split’


(Illustration by Chris Koehler)
November 14, 2012

She declared that this year her resolutions would be real. On the 1st, she would improve her entire identity. She’d become a kinder person, A. B, she’d be a prettier person by tending better to her grooming and her posture. C, she would be smarter, by spending at least 10 minutes a night reading the dictionary and/or tackling a word game. To further cement the plan, she took a calligraphy class on a Saturday afternoon and learned enough about quill, ink and paper to write the statements out in silky cursive onto parchment, rolled and held in place by a ruffled blue ribbon from the stationery store. It took hours to write out the three: Kinder, prettier, smarter. In this way she would fulfill the potential given to her by being born.

She hadn’t picked specific instructions for kindness — she figured it had something to do with asking people how they were more often and remembering their answers. That was too hard to write on the scroll.

When the class was over, on December 27, she brought the scroll in its ribbon home and placed it on a shelf. She made herself a cup of peppermint tea. She was already a decent person, she felt, and this would only make her a little nicer. A little better. She dipped the tea bag gently in the hot water.

She did not say anything aloud, but something else hummed beneath the words. By the time she finished rinsing the mug, the plan was set for New Year’s Eve.

***

She didn’t wash her hair for days and was able to rat it into a nest. She soured her mouth with the darkest of lipsticks. She put herself on the road with a thumb on the night of the most drunken driving, wearing fishnet stockings beneath a black wrap made from the thickest, harshest cotton, the kind used for army duffel bags.

What she knew by the way her body awoke when she prepared and put on her clothes for the night was that ugliness seemed to equal sex in her mind. That too much prettiness was to be looked at, not touched, and ugliness was to be mauled, in a good way. Her skin rubbed against the roughness of the cotton. The night was windy, and air blew against her thumb. Her nails were bitten far past the dome. Starting tomorrow, they would grow.

That she got into a car with a stranger was risky. One might even call it dumb. But she wanted to get across town, as she’d had several shots of whiskey at her apartment, wishing her breath to be sharp. Plus, she was curious about who was out there on the streets, what was happening in the world. The man who picked her up on the side of the road was a kindly, worried father in a tan Datsun, his head framed by a ring of hair. He looked a bit frightened of her, his shoulders hunched in.

“Young lady,” he said. “Miss. It is not smart to hitchhike ever, and in a city, and on New Year’s Eve!”

He had mild eyes behind the frames of old-style glasses, and he attempted to fix them upon her.

“But it’s my final night of the slovenly,” she told him. She had so much eye makeup on he could hardly even focus on the brown of her iris, looking as it was almost reddish against the thickness of the black kohl streaks.

He had little else to say. He had no daughters. He let the radio news announcer talk on about the history of New Year’s Eve. The Gregorian calendar closed on December 31, and the idea of celebrating the end had been around since at least the time of Shakespeare. She folded down the sun visor to find the small mirror inside of which her face resided, and she located a tiny black dot high in her gums from the poppy-seed bagel she’d eaten as a snack. Out! Her eye whites shone. Finally, he dropped her off at her request at a corner full of bars. Despite her breath, her clothing, her soured mouth, her poor listening, she still looked so desperately young to him, like a too small plum plucked early for market.

“Do you have a father?” he asked, as she extricated her skirt from an entanglement with the seat belt.

“No,” she said, picturing her father right then going into the yard to pick his New Year’s pink winter primrose, which he would put in a bud vase and later give to her as he did every January as a way to wish her a fine year ahead. She had seven glass bud vases lining a shelf in her closet. He was skillful with the garden. He had a way with the coaxing of stem from dirt, and would’ve been a marvelous pregnant person had it been possible. Her mother, a divorcee in France, was already deep into the next year, probably sleeping or up late in her kitchenette drinking grappa with Greta, her tall German friend who lived downstairs and, yes, wore braids.

“He is buried,” she told the man, laughing to herself, harshening her voice against any seedlings of guilt, seeing her own dad buried under papers for work and then buried in his own garden under vines and soil, none of it a good joke for her or for the man dropping her off, but in this way they parted. “Please be safe,” he said, as she closed the car door behind her.

***

The bar was packed already, at 8:30 p.m. She settled into a corner. She looked like Halloween, but men found her in minutes. Who could resist? (Well, many, but not all.) Since she did not smell bad, her choices seemed deliberate. If deliberate, what was the message? Did it mean she might have extra zest in bed, or a desire for unusual speed or slowness or ... ? Her eye makeup, though extravagant, was precisely drawn.

In pairs, in tandem, the men bought her more shots of whiskey, and at some point they all ate nachos covered in olives and sliced jalapeños. She ate a few chips daintily and then felt angry with herself and dropped her manners as cheese flicked onto the table and her purse.

She talked a lot more than usual. She told stories of drowning sailors. She said she had heard a siren once in a kayak. “Reedy,” she said, gesturing with a corner of nacho. She said she spoke perfect Italian but refused to demonstrate. She spoke of a cross-dressing senator.

“You’re nuts,” said a young man admiringly, as this was just the kind of woman he hoped to take home on a night such as this. A night of the new. His New Year’s resolution was to be different, to do anything different, and why not start early? He was wearing his best shirt, the one that was nicely made but had a bit of edge due to the skull stitched on the upper sleeve. The shirt that acknowledged death and therefore made him feel young and alive. I am far from you, he had told his sleeve, as he buttoned up in his apartment. If he took home a woman such as this one, perhaps he would expand his experience. He felt so naive. He did not know what his friends knew. He was from a suburb of Ann Arbor, and his parents were still together, and he didn’t mind church. He fell in love easily. He was not ashamed of tears. He could be relied upon to return e-mails within a reasonable window of time.

He watched other men come and go from the table, and her stories changed, and her language changed from Italian to French, and her hair began to flatten around her ears, and he hung around until she was so drunk she couldn’t stand right. He gently elbowed aside a motorcycle guy who was falling all over the booths, yelling about socialism, and the young man walked the young woman home to his nearby apartment, where she plastered her face against the coolness of the picture window while he plied her with water and aspirin and put on the TV to watch the ball drop. Below, the streets lit up with cheering. She could barely focus, even though she was pleased to be somewhere new. She meant to reach out to him but fell asleep on his sofa, which invited her with its very soft and yet not-too-soft pillows. He hoped for a nighttime wake-up full of surprises. He had a drawerful of condoms and a sincere desire to learn. She slept the night, however. Once he realized what was happening, he brushed his teeth and fell into bed, too.

***

What a surprise to awaken and find a young woman in pastels in front of him, her face so pinked by light, doing a crossword puzzle in the morning, wearing a bathrobe he’d kept from his ex who had left him because he was too kind. “And how are you?” she asked. He shook his face awake. He could taste nests in his mouth, as if he’d been sucking on the other girl’s ratty hair.

“Did you see the girl who was here?”

“I did not,” the pink one said. “But she called me. She asked me to take you to breakfast as a thank-you.”

“A thank-you for what? What’s going on?” he asked, sitting up, groggy, pulling on a T-shirt with a sports team on it. He was both shocked by her presence and also kind of not because this new person looked and talked and acted just like the type of distant-yet-attractive woman he always dated, and it was as if he’d dreamed the whole night before and the most intense and wicked-seeming woman at the bar had magically transformed into his exact usual. How did such a thing work? A desperate sinking poured through him.

She tucked the crossword neatly into the purse he recognized from the woman last night. After he staggered up and splashed water on his face, they went below to the diner, which was empty, as it was still early, and ordered two bowls of oatmeal since even the word “egg” made one want to hurl. He could not see a hangover on her face, but maybe it was due to the strange way she was sitting so tall. The woman was wearing clothes that struck him as very familiar, and only later did he realize they were also the leftover clothes of his ex-girlfriend. He realized this when they arrived in the mail, washed and pressed, about a week later.

“This is confusing,” he said over his oatmeal.

“Thank you for taking care of her,” she said, dabbing the corner of her mouth with a napkin. “Who knows what could’ve happened.”

She paid for breakfast, even though he tried to dissuade. She took the bus home after pecking his cheek. Later, in his bathroom, he found a washcloth covered with black and burgundy makeup, wrung out and hanging over the side of the tub.

He hung it out his window to dry. “This washcloth is your new year, buddy,” he told himself, “if you’re not careful.”

On the bus home, she kept her spine straight. She could not remember much about the evening before, she thought, as she cleared a cheese glob off her purse. On her doorstep, her father had left the primrose in a vase. He must have driven over so early in the morning, at sunrise, which he liked to do on New Year’s Day. Inside, on her message machine, the man who had given her a ride in the Datsun had called her; apparently she’d given him her phone number. “Please,” he said. “Let me know you’re okay.” All these caring men, she grumbled to herself, and then remembered her new identity and thought, All these caring men, how nice and how kind they are. She unfurled the scroll and looked at her own calligraphy. She read it all carefully. Then she called the man back. “I’m fine,” she said. “Safe and sound. Thank you again. I won’t do such a stupid thing again.”

She called up her father. “Thank you,” she said. “I love the flower. It’s beautiful. Happy New Year.”

She called up the young man. “Thank you,” she said. “For taking care of me last night. I was so drunk.”

Surely there was a way to be alive in the world without risking herself unreasonably. But how? She sat on the sofa and looked blankly out the windows at the shining new year.

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Aimee Bender is the author of four books, including “The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake” and “The Girl in the Flammable Skirt.” Her next book will be a collection of short stories. She lives in Los Angeles. To comment on this story, send e-mail to wpmagazine@washpost.com.

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