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Bender’s Sister Speaks by Julie Zuckerman


John Bender: rebel, criminal, icon; twin? In her new ekphrastic flash piece, “Bender’s Sister Speaks,” Julie Zuckerman imagines a different backstory for Jonathan Bender—a twin sister. With terrific humor and consistent tone, Zuckerman examines the toxic masculinity of the ’80s through Bender’s sister’s eyes (see her author’s note for discussion of the inspiration for this piece and more). Here, when Bender triumphantly raises his fist in the air, the camera crew cuts away and we enter the slipstream, following Jonathan across the field and into his Nana’s kitchen, where his sister tells us the real story behind the crafting of the legend.  —CRAFT


 

What they don’t show when John Bender crosses the Shermer High School football field, trench coat flapping in the wind and arm punching the air, is where he’s headed after his day of detention. He’s not going fishing with Brian’s dad or to Sporto’s for wrestling practice. Claire’s diamond earring, now in his left ear, is a promise, something to savor for the future.

In that final, triumphant strut, Bender’s vivacity fills the screen, much like it’s filled my existence. A life partially eclipsed from the moment he was pushed into the world four minutes after me. I’m happy for him, but I wish I had a smidgen of his glow.

When the camera cuts away, Bender backtracks to an exit behind the bleachers and walks to Nana Rose’s for a family dinner. Our last name is Bender, that’s true. But his first name is Jonathan, not John. And the whole tough guy act, the shut-up-bitch-go-fetch-me-a-turkey-pot-pie and the cigar burn on his arm because “this is what you get in my house when you spill paint in the garage” is BS. Our dad is a soft-spoken accountant who doesn’t smoke. We’re Jewish; we don’t eat turkey pot pie. Jonathan’s rage is an act, though I’ll admit he’s a darn good actor. He never once mentions me to his new friends, even though I taught him how to whistle, make his eyes go googly, and say—to great effect—“Eat. My. Shorts.”

By the time Jonathan arrives at Nana’s, his fingerless cowhide gloves are off, and he’s replaced his motorcycle boots with Dockers. He’s exchanged his flannel shirt for a button-down; he looks more like someone headed to Oberlin than to juvie. He kisses Nana on the cheek and peeks in the oven. I’m helping Nana slice pickles and carrots; to me, he only grunts hello.

“Brisket and potatoes. I made your favorite,” she says.

I expect Jonathan to flash me an expression of solidarity. Nana loves me but she’d never consider making a meatless main course. When Poppy was alive, he looked upon my tofu with horror. It’s a phase, Nana loud-whispered.

“You’re the best, Nan.” He throws an exaggerated shrug in my direction as if to say, that’s Nana for you, but his grin is haughty, gloating.

“What’s up your butt?” I mutter.

Nana gives Jonathan a giant smile; it’s no secret she believes her oldest grandson to be a prince. “The brisket needs another fifteen minutes and we have to set the table. But here—” she sets out Tam Tams and chopped liver in front of him and takes a seat. “Now, tell me, why were you at school on a weekend?”

Jonathan’s mouth is full of crackers and chopped liver, and he signals he needs a second to choke down the cardboard-tasting Tam Tams.

“Can you get him a glass of water?” she asks me.

Why he can’t stand on his own two feet and get himself water is beyond me, but I do as I’m asked, setting down the pitcher and a glass with a loud thud. “Someone’s pissy today,” he whispers, a smirk in his tone.

Standing behind Nana, I shake a middle finger at him.

“Senior theater project,” Jonathan says. “What happens when you throw together a jock, a princess, a loner, an honors student, and a criminal for a day. We each took a part.”

“You were the honors student, yes?” She beams. “My brilliant grandson!”

An audible “Psht!” escapes my lips. I’d like to remind her which one of us has the higher GPA. Which one of us is going to Yale, nothing against Oberlin. Which one of us started Students Against Drunk Driving in our high school and organizes the middle schoolers from our synagogue on weekly visits to the old age home. Nana knows all of this, but when Jonathan is around, I may as well not exist. Usually he’s my cheerleader, like the Thanksgiving he handed out copies of our high school literary journal with my first published poem, boasting of his talented sister. Only Aunt Marcia took her copy home.

But now Jonathan leans back and chuckles to himself, enjoying the adoration. He cocks an exultant eyebrow at me, to which I reply with a simple, silent question: What the fuck?

“No, Nana,” he says. To me he mouths: “Eat. My. Shorts.”

“The jock?” She looks confused.

Maybe we’ll laugh about this later. Jonathan will do a perfect imitation of Nana’s worried pitch.

“The criminal. Well, not really, but a guy who doesn’t care about authority.”

She frowns, busying herself with basting the brisket. “I don’t understand.”

I don’t understand, either. Has the acting gone to Jonathan’s head, or is he deliberately trying to piss me off? At school we run in different circles, but at home we’re supposed to be a team.

“It was an experiment. Acting. I nailed it, though I could have played any one of the characters. Well, maybe not the princess.” A smile forms on his lips, and I roll my eyes. He’s thinking of Claire.

Nana clucks in my direction. “The plates.” The dinnerware is stacked in the top cabinet, a reach for me but no problem for my five-foot-ten brother. I’m on my tiptoes, struggling, but Jonathan stays seated.

“Can you help?” I bark at him.

They both look up in surprise. “He’s eating!”

Nana’s in her seventies but if I confronted her directly, she’d get as defensive as a petulant child. I glare at Jonathan. Where is my real brother, my best friend, the one who comes to see about me when I’m upset? Some acting experiment. I, for one, am not a fan.

I stomp away without apologizing. “Being bad feels kind of good, right?” Jonathan calls. I don’t turn back. Who needs his glow? I’ll be out of here soon enough. Cue the music. I can almost taste the future, my own victory strut in the wind, arm raised and poised to soar.

 


JULIE ZUCKERMAN’s debut novel-in-stories, The Book of Jeremiah, was published in May 2019 by Press 53. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Tikkun, Jewish Women’s Archives, Crab Orchard Review, The Coil, The SFWP Quarterly, Ellipsis, MoonPark Review, Sixfold, and The MacGuffin, among others. A native of Connecticut, she now lives in Israel with her husband and four children. Please visit juliezuckerman.com to learn more.

 

Author’s Note

“Bender’s Sister Speaks” started, as so many of my stories do, with a writing prompt. Prompts were one of the things I fell in love with when I began writing fiction twelve years ago. From my first workshop in a damp Jerusalem apartment, when the instructor gave us a simple prompt—write something about a secret—the permission to unlock my imagination has been a delicious pleasure, akin to the wonder of childhood.

Unlike some, I don’t walk around with stories building inside me; I come to the blank page knowing nothing. In a first draft, I try to play with the narrative, the characters, and the sentences without thinking too much. Revision is where intention kicks in, and sometimes I only begin to uncover and reflect on why I’ve written what I have after the story is complete. I write to know what I think.

In June 2019, during a Kathy Fish Fast Flash Workshop, Levi Andrew Noe joined as a guest lecturer to teach on surrealism and the subgenres of magical realism, absurdism, and slipstream. Oh dear, I thought as I reviewed his lesson, this is not me at all. Fortunately, one of options for that day’s exercise felt doable: “Choose a character from literature, TV, cinema, pop culture or wherever and place them into the world and subgenre of your choice.”

The Breakfast Club, and the character of John Bender specifically, was my obvious choice. For many of us who came of age in the 1980s, The Breakfast Club struck a chord more than any other film. My family owned a VHS copy, and over the course of a few months in eleventh grade, I watched it at least thirty times. I knew the lines by heart. (I still know them, I discovered, showing the movie to my kids a few years ago.) For the uninitiated: over the course of one Saturday, five high school students from different social circles—a jock, a brain, a princess, a rebel, and a loner—are thrown together in detention, and asked to write an essay on who they are. What they come to realize, predictably but in a way that felt authentic and hopeful to my teenage self, is that “You (their vice principal, and people in general) see us as you want to see us…in the most convenient definitions. But what we found out is that each one of us is a brain, and an athlete, and a basket case, a princess, and a criminal.”

Played by Judd Nelson, John Bender exudes such bad-boy sexiness and confidence that even the popular princess, Claire (Molly Ringwald), finds him hard to resist. The final scene shows Bender walking across the football field with his arm raised in a final pose of victory and determination. I didn’t dwell on whether I was writing a story in a surreal or absurd or slipstream fashion. I simply began imagining an alternate John Bender off the screen. He has a twin sister. His real name is Jonathan, not John. Whereas John may be headed to juvie, Jonathan is leaving for Oberlin in the fall. His father is a soft-spoken accountant. Lo and behold, he’s Jewish, and has a doting grandmother waiting to feed him brisket. And while the physically and verbally abusive family John Bender describes in the film has no basis in the “reality” of my story, all is not well with my Benders either.

My narrator, Bender’s twin, never gets a name, and is constantly overlooked, despite her achievements. Nana Rose is the worst offender, directing orders and implying that the women must serve the needs of the men. The sister snaps when she has enough of Nana’s fawning. “Can you help?” she barks at Jonathan, and then stomps away. In the first few drafts of the story, Jonathan was a passive bystander, oblivious to his sister’s distress and rage. With the encouragement of the CRAFT editors, I added more of her backstory and ramped up the tension between brother and sister.

I am one of three girls; unlike my narrator, I didn’t experience blatant or passive favoritism in my family, though when I brought the story to my writing group, all those with brothers nodded their heads. “Oh yes,” they said. “The Prince. The son on whom the sun rises and sets.” Perhaps my subconscious was reminding me of story we used to tell about my grandfather. “I have eight grandchildren, all of them boys!” he would say with pride, before continuing, “Except four are girls.” Surely, he meant it as a humorous quip, and I can’t recall any other instance of similar comments or acts. Maybe, after having only boys himself, he was unsure of how to handle granddaughters, though my grandmother was delighted to have girls on whom she could dote, sewing doll’s clothes, crocheting ponchos, and taking us to the beauty parlor.

Many of my stories explore family dynamics. Not only large acts of antagonism between partners, siblings, or parents and children, but tiny acts of microaggression as well. The twins in my story do love each other deeply, and I believe they’ll get through this moment. But I want the sister to stomp away; I hope Bender, in a more reflective moment, will understand why his sister has finally snapped.

The first draft of the story was written about nine months after Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing and subsequent appointment. In those days of September and October 2018, I stomped around fuming, as did every woman I know, regardless of whether we’d experienced sexual assault firsthand. A lifetime of fear for one’s safety, catcalls, subtle discrimination or worse was enough. I remember seeing a simple, screaming tweet that captured how I felt: “How AM I?” It wasn’t a stretch to tap into the rage simmering within my young narrator, made all the worse by her grandmother being part of the problem. My narrator has simply had enough. It’s her “How AM I?” moment.

 


JULIE ZUCKERMAN’s debut novel-in-stories, The Book of Jeremiah, was published in May 2019 by Press 53. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Tikkun, Jewish Women’s Archives, Crab Orchard Review, The Coil, The SFWP Quarterly, Ellipsis, MoonPark Review, Sixfold, and The MacGuffin, among others. A native of Connecticut, she now lives in Israel with her husband and four children. Please visit juliezuckerman.com to learn more.