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…
“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.