The bestselling author of The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake returns with a wondrous collection of dreamy, strange, and magical stories.
Truly beloved by readers and critics alike, Aimee Bender has become known as something of an enchantress whose lush prose is “moving, fanciful, and gorgeously strange” ( People), “richly imagined and bittersweet” ( Vanity Fair), and “full of provocative ideas” ( The Boston Globe). In her deft hands, “relationships and mundane activities take on mythic qualities” ( The Wall Street Journal).
In this collection, Bender’s unique talents sparkle brilliantly in stories about people searching for connection through love, sex, and family—while navigating the often painful realities of their lives. A traumatic event unfolds when a girl with flowing hair of golden wheat appears in an apple orchard, where a group of people await her. A woman plays out a prostitution fantasy with her husband and finds she cannot go back to her old sex life. An ugly woman marries an ogre and struggles to decide if she should stay with him after he mistakenly eats their children. Two sisters travel deep into Malaysia, where one learns the art of mending tigers who have been ripped to shreds.
In these deeply resonant stories—evocative, funny, beautiful, and sad—we see ourselves reflected as if in a funhouse mirror. Aimee Bender has once again proven herself to be among the most imaginative, exciting, and intelligent writers of our time.
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AIMEE BENDER is the author of the novels The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake—a New York Times bestseller—and An Invisible Sign of My Own, and of the collections The Girl in the Flammable Skirt and Willful Creatures. Her works have been widely anthologized and have been translated into sixteen languages. She lives in Los Angeles.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Excerpted from the hardcover edition.
I once knew a girl who wouldn't eat apples. She wove her walking around groves and orchards. She didn't even like to look at them. They're all mealy, she said. Or else too cheeky, too bloomed. No, she stated again, in case we had not heard her, our laps brimming with Granny Smiths and Red Deliciouses. With Galas and Spartans and yellow Golden Globes. But we had heard her, from the very first; we just couldn't help offering again. Please, we pleaded, eat. Cracking our bites loudly, exposing the dripping wet white inside.
It's unsettling to meet people who don't eat apples.
The rest of us now eat only apples, to compensate. She has declared herself so apple-less, we feel we have no other choice. We sit in the orchard together, cross-legged, and when they fall off the trees into our outstretched hands, we bite right in. They are pale green, striped red-on-red, or a yellow-and-orange sunset. They are the threaded Fujis, with streaks of woven jade and beige, or the dark and rosy Rome Beauties. Pippins, Pink Ladies, Braeburns, McIntosh. The orchard grows them all.
We suck water off the meat. Drink them dry. We pick apple skin out from the spaces between our teeth. We eat the stem and the seeds. For the moment, there are enough beauties bending the branches for all of us to stay fed. We circle around the core, teeth busy, and while we chew, we watch the girl circle our orchard, in her long swishing skirts, eyes averted.
One day we see her, and it's too much. She is so beautiful on this day, her skin as wide and open as a river. We could swim right down her. It's unbearable just to let her walk off, and all at once, we abandon our laps of apples and run over. Her hair is so long and wheatlike you could bake it into bread. For a second our hearts pang, for bread. Bread! We've been eating only apples now for weeks.
We close in; we ring her. Her lips fold into each other; our lips skate all over her throat, her bare wrists, her empty palms. We kiss her like we've been starving, and she tilts her head down so she doesn't have to look at us. We knead her hair and kiss down the long line of her leg beneath the shift of her skirt. We pray to her, and our breath is ripe with apple juice. You can see the tears start races down her face while our hands move in to touch the curve of her breasts and the scoop of her neckline. She is so new. There are pulleys in her skin. Our fingers, all together, work their way to her bare body, past the voluminous yards of cloth. Past those loaves of hair. We find her in there, and she is so warm and so alive and we see the tears, but stop? Impossible. We breathe in, closer. Her eyelashes brighten with water. Her shoulders tremble like doves. She is weeping into our arms, she is crumpling down, and we are inside her clothes now, and our hands and mouths are everywhere. There's no sound at all but the slip of skin and her crying and the apples in the orchard thumping, uncaught: our lunches and dinners and breakfasts. It's an unfamiliar sound, because for weeks now, we have not let even one single fruit hit dirt.
She cries through it all, and when we're done and piled around her, suddenly timid and spent, suddenly withered nothings, she is the first to stand. She gathers her skirts around herself, and smooths back down her hair. She wipes her eyes clear and folds her hands around her waist. She is away from the orchard before we can stand properly and beg her to stay. Before we can grovel and claw at her small perfect feet. We watch her walk, and she's slow and proud, but none of us can possibly catch her. We splay on the ground in heaps instead as she gets smaller and smaller on the horizon.
She never comes by the orchard again, and in a week, all the apples are gone. They fall off the trees, and the trees make no new ones. The air smells like snow on the approach. No one dares to mention her, but every morning, all of our eyes are fixed on the road, waiting, hoping, staring through the bare brambles of an empty orchard. Our stomachs rumble, hungry. The sky is always this same sort of blue. It is so beautiful here.
The Red Ribbon
It began with his fantasy, told to her one night over dinner and wine at L'Oiseau d'Or, a French restaurant with tiny gold birds etched into every plate and bowl.
"My college roommates," he said, during the entree. "Once brought home."
"Women," said Daniel softly, "that they paid for." Even in candlelight, she could track the rise of his blush.
"Prostitutes?" Janet said. "Is that what you mean? They did?"
The kitchen doors swung open as the waiter brought a feathery dessert to the table next to theirs.
"I did not join in, Janet," Daniel said, reaching over to clasp her hand tightly. "Never. Not once. But I sometimes think about the idea of it. Not really it, itself--"
"The idea of it."
"I never once joined in," Daniel repeated.
"I believe you," said Janet, crossing her legs. She wondered what the handsome couple sharing the chocolate mousse would make of this conversation, even though they were laughing closely with each other and seemed to have no need for anyone else in the restaurant. She herself had noticed everyone else in the restaurant while waiting for the pate to arrive, dressed in its sprig of parsley: the older couple, the lanky waiter, the women wrapped in patterned scarves. Now she felt like propelling herself into one of their conversations.
"I'm upsetting you," he said, swirling fork lines into his white sauce.
"Not so much," she said.
"Never mind," he said. "Really. You look so beautiful tonight, Janet."
On the drive home, she sat in the backseat, as she did on occasion. He said it was to protect her from more dangerous car accidents; she liked thinking for a moment that he was her chauffeur, that she had reached a state of adult richness where you did nothing for yourself anymore and returned to infancy. She imagined she had a cook, a hairdresser, a bath-filler. A woman who came over to fluff her pillow and tuck her in. Daniel turned on the classical music station and a cello concerto spilled out from the speakers in the back, and from the angle of her seat, Janet could just catch a glimpse of the bottom of her nose and top of her lips in the rearview mirror. She stared at them for the entire ride home. Her nose had fine small bones at the tip, and her lipstick, even after dinner, was unsmudged. There was something deeply soothing to her in this image, in the simplicity of her vanity. She liked how her upper lip fit inside her lower lip, and she liked the distance between the bottom of her nose and the top of her mouth. She liked the curve of her ear. And in those likings and their basic balance, she felt herself take shape as Daniel drove.
Back at home, she spent longer than usual in the bathroom, suddenly rediscovering all the lotion bottles in the cabinet that were custom-made for different parts of the body. For feet, for elbows, for eyes, for the throat. Like different kinds of soil that need to be tilled with different tools. When she entered the bedroom, fully cultivated, skin stenciled by a lace nightgown, the lights were off. Only the moon through the window revealed the tiny triangles of skin beneath the needlework.
"Time for bed, honey," she said cheerily, which was code for Don't touch me. But there was no real need; his back already radiated the grainy warmth of sleeping skin. She slid herself between the sheets and called up another picture, this one of Daniel, a green bill wrapped around his erection like a condom. The itch of the corners of the bill as they pricked inside her. His stuff all over the faces of presidents. Stop it now, Janet, she thought to herself, but she finally had to take a pill to get the image out of her head; it made her too jittery to sleep.
Daniel went to work at the shoe company in the morning, suit plus vest, and Janet slept in, as usual. Her afternoons were wide open. Today, after she had wrested all the hot water out of the shower, she went straight to a lingerie shop to buy a black bustier. She remained in the dressing room for over twenty minutes, staring at her torso shoveled into the satin.
"So, Janet," called the saleslady, Tina, younger and suppler, "is it lovely? Does it fit?"
Janet pulled her sweater on and went up to the counter.
"It fit," she said, "and I'm wearing it home. How much?"
Tina, now at the cash register, snapped a garter belt between her fingers. "I need the little tag," she said. "This isn't like a shoe store."
Janet inhaled to full height, had some trouble breathing out because her ribs were smashed together, and said, sharply: "Give me the price, Tina. I will not remove this piece of clothing now that it's on, so I either pay for it this way or walk out the door with it on for free."
When she left the store, emboldened, receipt tucked into her purse, folded twice, Janet thought of all the chicken dishes she had not sent back even though they were either half-raw or not what she had ordered. Chicken Kiev instead of chicken Marsala, chicken with mushrooms instead of chicken à la king: her body was made up of the wrong chickens. She remembered Daniel's first insistent kiss, by the bridge near the Greek cafe on that Saturday afternoon, and she hadn't thought of it in years and she could almost smell the shawarma rotating on its pole outside. He had asked her out again, and again, and told her he loved her on the fourth date, and bought her fancy cards inside of which he wrote long messages about her smile.
By seven o'clock that night, all the shoes in Daniel's shoe store were either sold or back in boxes, and clip-clop-clip came his own up the walkway. The sky was dimming from dark blue into black, and Janet sat in the warmly lit hallway, legs crossed, bustier pressing her breasts out like beach balls, the little hooks fastened one notch off in the back so that she seemed a bit crooked.
Daniel paused in the doorway with his briefcase. "Oh my," he said, "what's this?"
She felt her upper lip twitching. "Hello, Daniel," she said. "Welcome home."
She stood awkwardly and approached him. She tried to remember: Be slow. Don't rush. When she had removed his coat and vest and laid them evenly on the floor, she reached into the back of his pants and pulled out his walnut-colored wallet. He watched, eyes huge, as she sifted through the bills until she found what she wanted. That smart Mr. Franklin.
He usually used the hundred-dollar bill to buy his best friend, Edward from business school, a lunch with fine wine on their sports day.
She waved it in his face.
"Okay?" she said.
He grabbed her waist as she tucked the bill inside the satin between her breasts.
"Janet?" he said.
She pushed him onto the carpet and began to take off the rest of his clothes. Halfway through the buttons on his shirt, right at his ribs, she was filled with an enormous terror and had to stop to catch her breath.
"For a week, Daniel," she whispered, trembling. "Each time. Okay? Promise?"
His breathing was sharp and tight. "A week," he said, adding figures fast in his head. "Of course, I would love a week, a week," and his words floated into murmur as she drove her body into his.
They forgot about dinner. They stayed at that spot on the carpet for hours and then tumbled off to the bedroom, his coat and vest resting flat on the carpet. He stroked the curve of her neck with the light-brown mole. She fell asleep first.
On Wednesday, Janet heard Daniel call Edward and cancel their lunch date. "I'm just too busy this week," he said. Janet smiled to herself in the bathtub. He brought her handfuls of daffodils. "My wife doesn't love me," he told her in bed, which made her laugh from the deep bottom of her throat. She put a flower between her teeth and danced for him, naked, singing too loud. He grabbed her and pushed her into chairs and she kept singing, as loud as she possibly could, straddling him, wiggling, until finally he clamped a hand over her mouth and she bit his palm and slapped his thighs until they flushed pink. When it was over she felt she'd shared something fearfully intimate with him and could barely look him in the eye, but he just handed her the hundred and went into the bathroom.
On their wedding day, Daniel had given her a card with a photograph of a beach on it. "You are my fantasy woman," he'd written inside. "You come to me from my dreams." It had annoyed her then, like a bug on her arm. I come to you from Michigan, she had told him. From 928 Washington Street. He'd laughed. "That's what I love so much about you, Janet," he'd said, whirling her onto the dance floor. "You're no-nonsense," he'd said. She'd spent the song trying furtively to imitate Edward's wife, who danced like she had the instruments buzzing inside her hips.
By the end of the week, nine hundred dollars nestled in her underwear drawer. She put the bills on the ironing board and flattened them out, faces up, until they were so crisp they could be in a salad.
She'd thought about buying a dress. My whore dress! she'd thought. She considered sixty lipsticks. My hooker lips! she thought. Finally she just tucked the cash into her purse and took herself to lunch. Thirty dollars brought her to the best bistro in the area, where she had a hamburger and a glass of wine. The juice dripped down, red-brown, and left a stain on her wrist.
"Ah, fuck you," she said to the homeless man on the street who asked for change. "You really think I can spare any of my NINE HUNDRED DOLLARS that I made by SELLING MY BODY?"
The man shook his head to the ground. "Sorry, ma'am," he said. "I never would have guessed."
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