Aimee Bender reads two story excerpts from her newest collection, The Color Master, published in August by Doubleday.
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.
My sister got the job. She’s the overachiever, and she went to med school for two years before she decided she wanted to be a gifted seamstress. (What? they said, on the day she left. A surgeon! they told her. You could be a tremendous surgeon! But she said she didn’t like the late hours, she got too tired around midnight.) She has small motor skills better than a machine; she’ll fix your handkerchief so well you can’t even see the stitches, like she became one with the handkerchief. I once split my lip, jumping from the tree, and she sewed it up with ice and a needle she’d run through the fire. I barely even had a scar, just the thinnest white line.
So of course, when the two women came through the sewing school, they spotted her first. She was working on her final exam, a lime-colored ball gown with tiny diamonds sewn into the collar, and she was fully absorbed in it, constructing infinitesimal loops, while they hovered with their severe hair and heady tree-smell—like bamboo, my sister said—watching her work. My sister’s so steady she didn’t even flinch, but everyone else in class seized upon the distraction, staring at the two Amazonian women, both six feet tall and strikingly beautiful. When I met them later, I felt like I’d landed straight inside a magazine ad. At the time, I was working at Burger King, as block manager (there were two on the block), and I took any distraction offered me and used it to the hilt. Once, a guy came in and ordered a Big Mac, and for two days I told that story to every customer, and it’s not a good story. There’s so rarely any intrigue in this shabberdash world of burger warming; you take what you can get.
But my sister was born with supernatural focus, and the two women watched her and her alone. Who can compete? My sister’s won all the contests she’s ever been in, not because she’s such an outrageous competitor, but because she’s so focused in this gentle way. Why not win? Sometimes it’s all you need to run the fastest, or to play the clearest piano, or to ace the standardized test, pausing at each question until it has slid through your mind to exit as a penciled-in circle.
In low, sweet voices, the women asked my sister if she’d like to see Asia. She finally looked up from her work. Is there a sewing job there? They nodded. She said she’d love to see Asia, she’d never left America. They said, Well, it’s a highly unusual job. May I bring my sister? she asked. She’s never traveled either.
The two women glanced at each other. What does your sister do?
She’s manager of the Burger Kings down on Fourth.
Their disapproval was faint but palpable, especially in the upper lip.
She would simply keep you company?
What we are offering you is a position of tremendous privilege. Aren’t you interested in hearing about it first?
My sister nodded lightly. It sounds very interesting, she said. But I cannot travel without my sister.
This is true. My sister, the one with that incredible focus, has a terrible fear of airplanes. Terrible. Incapacitating. The only way she can relax on a flight is if I am there, because I am always, always having some kind of crisis, and she focuses in and fixes me and forgets her own concerns. I become her ripped hemline. In general, I call her every night, and we talk for an hour, which is forty-five minutes of me, and fifteen minutes of her stirring her tea, which she steeps with the kind of Zen patience that would make Buddhists sit up in envy and then breathe through their envy and then move past their envy. I’m really really lucky she’s my sister. Otherwise no one like her would give someone like me the time of day.
The two Amazonian women, lousy with confidence, with their ridiculous cheekbones, in these long yellow print dresses, said okay. They observed my sister’s hands quiet in her lap.
Do you get along with animals? they asked, and she said, Yes. She loved every animal. Do you have allergies to cats? they asked, and she said, No. She was allergic only to pine nuts. The slightly taller one reached into her dress pocket, a pocket so well hidden inside the fabric it was like she was reaching into the ether of space, and from it her hand returned with an airplane ticket.
We are very happy to have found you, they said. The additional ticket will arrive tomorrow.
My sister smiled. I know her; she was probably terrified to see that ticket, and also she really wanted to return to the diamond loops. She probably wasn’t even that curious about the new job yet. She was and is stubbornly, mind-numbingly, interested in the present moment.
When we were kids, I used to come home and she’d be at the living room window. It was the best window in the apartment, looking out, in the far distance, on the tip of a mountain. For years, I tried to get her to play with me, but she was unplayable. She stared out that window, never moving, for hours. By night, when she’d returned, I’d usually injured myself in some way or other, and I’d ask her about it while she tended to me; she said the reason she could pay acute attention now was because of the window. It empties me out, she said, which scared me. No, she said to my frightened face, as she sat on the edge of my bed and ran a washcloth over my forehead. It’s good, she said. It makes room for other things.
Me? I asked, with hope, and she nodded. You.
We had no parents by that point. One had left, and the other died at the hands of a surgeon, which is the real reason my sister stopped medical school.
That night, she called me up and told me to quit my job, which was what I’d been praying for for months—that somehow I’d get a magical phone call telling me to quit my job because I was going on an exciting vacation. I threw down my BK apron, packed, and prepared as long an account of my life complaints as I could. On the plane, I asked my sister what we were doing, what her job was, but she refolded her tray table and said nothing. Asia, I said. What country? She stared out the porthole. It was the pilot who told us, as we buckled our seat belts: we were heading to Kuala Lumpur, straight into the heart of Malaysia.
Wait, where’s Malaysia again? I whispered, and my sister drew a map on the napkin beneath her ginger ale.
During the flight, I drank Bloody Marys while my sister embroidered a doily. Even the other passengers seemed soothed by watching her work. I whispered all my problems into her ear, and she returned them to me in slow sentences that did the work of a lullaby. My eyes grew heavy. During the descent, she gave the doily to the man across the aisle, worried about his ailing son, and the needlework was so elegant it made him feel better just to hold it. That’s the thing with handmade items. They still have the person’s mark on them, and when you hold them, you feel less alone. This is why everyone who eats a Whopper leaves a little more depressed than they were when they came in.
Reprinted from The Color Master with permission by Doubleday. Copyright © 2013 by Aimee Bender.