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A State of Variance

On her fortieth birthday, the woman lost the ability to sleep for more than a single hour. She did not accumulate a tired feeling; in fact, that one hour served the purpose of eight, and she awoke refreshed. But because that hour was full of only the most intense, involving sleep, the sleep beyond rapid eye movement, the only consequence was that she had no time in her sleep hours for dreams. So, during the day, she would experience moments when the rules of the world would shift and she would see, inside her teakettle, a frog floating, dead. And then blink and it would be gone. Or she would greet the mailman and he would hand her a basket of sea water, dripping, with stamps floating wetly on top. And then she would smile and bring in the mail. These moments were sprinkled throughout every day; she still had a driver’s license and wondered if she should revoke it herself, as the zombies who passed through the crosswalk and disappeared into the lamppost were confusing.

She assumed she would die at eighty. She figured this because the sleep shift began on her fortieth birthday and all her life, things had happened symmetrically like that. Her birthdate was 11.25.52 and that was not notable until she realized that she had been born in Amsterdam and there the day comes first: 25.11.52; the address of the only house she could afford for miles and miles was 1441, on a street named Circle Road on the edges of Berkeley. She had a son the day her father died. Her son’s face was almost a perfect mirror of itself, in such a way that one realized how imperfections created trust because no one trusted her son, with that perfect symmetry in his face; contrary to the magazine articles that stated women would arch and flex easily above him, beneath him, due to that symmetry, no—his symmetry was too much, and women shied away, certain he was a player. Certain he would dump them. And because no one approached him, when he did have a girlfriend every now and again he would dump them, because he found he did not trust them either, because they were always looking at him so furtively—making, with their faces, the action of holding up your hands in front of your chest to block a blow.

He told his mother he could not seem to meet a woman that had a core strength to her, and his mother, studying geometry at the kitchen table with cut-outs of triangles and squares, said she was sorry for what her pregnancy had done.

“What did it do?” he asked.

She held a mirror up to his nose. He saw his face in the hinged reflection. “What?” he said. Then she did it to herself, and the sight of his mother in perfect matched halves so disturbed him that he went and made himself a huge ham sandwich.

“So what are you saying?” he asked, mouth full of meat.

“I am saying that your face repels trust,” she said. “Because it is too exact. I am saying,” she told him, “that I will die on my eightieth birthday, because I stopped sleeping at forty.”

He knew, in a vague way, about the sleeping. The shapes on the table danced in front of her and slipped into her mouth, large mints. Then they were regular again. The mirror on the table was a mouth. She put a finger in and it bit her, wet. She’d finally told her son about the sleeping when he complained that she had made him too many colorful crocheted blankets and he had no more room for them in his apartment. “Take them to the shelter,” he’d pleaded, and then asked, “How are you making all these, anyway? Are you taking drugs?” (He himself had been taking overdoses of B vitamins to relieve stress to take the edge off how he felt when he smiled at another person who seemed to have an inordinately tough time smiling back.) His mother had laughed. She told him not about the dreaming aspect but about the one hour, the way she didn’t feel tired, and how it began promptly on her fortieth birthday.

He finished his sandwich and touched the blob of mustard left on the plate with the tip of his finger.

“Are you saying you believe in some kind of grand plan?” he asked. “Because I never thought you raised me to believe in any kind of overarching concept.”

“I’m just noticing the patterns,” she said. But her voice was so doubtful that he made a mental note with a sponge in his hand to be sure to be there on that eightieth birthday itself, so that she would not try to do anything herself, so interested in the pattern that she might let herself be a sacrifice to it.

Neither missed their father/husband who travelled so often he was unrecognizable when he returned. He came back from the latest trip with his hair dyed black and a deadly cough that landed him in the hospital. He lay there for weeks and weeks, and his hair grew in long and brown. The cough got worse. Above him, before death, stood his symmetrical son, whom even he did not trust, and his wife who he could not sleep next to anymore, as she read until all hours and wanted to talk to him about what she was reading, and had forgotten that other people needed more than an hour. She resented the world, he felt, resented that all people were not exactly like her in this way. She was so lonely for those seven hours, and when he awoke he always felt that she was slightly blaming him for sleeping. After she turned forty-five, he traveled more, for years, so that those eight hours could be his alone, and in different cities he loved different beds—his mistresses not flesh and blood but made of pillows and sheets and the wide open feeling of waking up without alarm or expectation. As he died, as he looked at these two people he had loved most, he only thought: What a curious pair they are, aren’t they? And then it was the white light, and he felt fine about succumbing to it. He was not, by nature, a big fighter.

A year or so after his father died, the son felt a strong desire to get his mother a suitor, so that his mother would not lean on him as the main man in her life. He knew a son’s role could be confused that way, just as he’d felt the tugging from inside all those crocheted blankets, and he was too keenly vulnerable himself to the attention. He could see it, marriage to Mom, never official or blessed, and yet as implicit as breakfast or dinner. He did not want that. For all the lack of trust the world had bestowed upon him, he still had hope that something would happen to his face that would soften its appearance to others, and allow him into the palm of love. So he went on a dating search for his mother. He answered several personal ads on Craigslist for men who were looking for women that sounded, more or less, like her, and so he wrote them, explaining that he was looking for his mother, and invited them, one by one, over to the house at 1441 Circle Road, under the guise of landscape gardener. The men were skeptical about the idea, which seemed untrustworthy, and even more skeptical once they met the kid, who seemed untrustworthy, but they all fell for his mother, almost elegantly, and in contrast to the general lore that good men were difficult to find, here were four, almost instantly, who were ready to take her mourning and knead it into their hearts. Two became her weekend companions: one on Sunday day, one on Friday evening. She did not tell them of the sleeping, or of how when watching a movie, another movie often superimposed itself onto the screen so that when he asked, after, how she’d liked it, she wasn’t sure which movie he had seen and which was her dream addition.

The son, now, had some space to do things. His father was gone. Which was sad but his father had never trusted him, and that had always been a problem. He went to the Grind It Up coffee shop down the street from his apartment in Oakland and ordered himself a raisin scone and a black tea. Then he sat down at the table of a large man, a man with tattoos but the old kind, before tattoos became dainty and about spiritual life. This man wore tattoos from the time when tattoos meant you liked to kick people around.

“Yes?” the man said, moving his newspaper aside.

The young man didn’t move. He sipped his tea.

“I’m sitting here?” said the man. He was a big man too. He took up most of the table. There were plenty of other free tables in the cafe. The young man trembled inside but he kept his hand steady. He steadied his symmetrical face.

“You a homo or something?” asked the man.

The son didn’t respond. But he could see the man digesting the face, the perfect face, and the man lifted the table gently, and the scone slid down into the boy’s lap, and the tea wobbled, and the boy just put the scone back on the now slanted table and kept his eyes on the scrawny facial hair of the large man.

The man, Marty, was tired. He did not want to fight. He had done that so many times before. He was tired of it, and he was taking classes now, and they told him to acknowledge how he was really hurt inside, not angry at all. He read his paper high over his head and stopped looking at the young man. So, it was a homo. So, he was picked up today at the cafe by a homo. This was new for him. He decided to do what that lady said, and try to find the humor in it, and when he did he really did find it funny and behind his paper, he started to laugh.

Well, the young man was stuck. He’d wanted a hit, a real hit, a hit that would complicate his face. Finally he put a hand on the man’s newspaper, folding it down. “Listen,” he said. “I’m sorry to bother you, but I just want to get hit.” Marty laughed and laughed some more. His arm tattoo read Skull Keeper, and had an illustration of bones wrapped in ribbons. “You want to get hit?” he said. “Too bad. I’m done with that shit.”

“Please?” said the young man, and Marty said no, but the tight businessman eavesdropping at the next table with an iced mocha blend said he’d do it, sure, a hit?

“Right on the cheek,” said the young man, and he asked Marty to oversee because now he trusted Marty far more than the tight businessman whose smile was far too pleased at the idea. “Let’s all go out back? Please?” he asked Marty, who folded up his paper and agreed, because it was the modern world, and he was old but open-minded, and being the protector was a better role for him anyway, maybe a role to consider, in fact, for the future. And the tight businessman looked so tightly delighted and the boy said, “Cheek please,” but he did not know the tight businessman had poor centering perception, and had never, in fact, hit another man although he’d wanted to, his whole life, ever since he had been teased everyday on the walk to school by that bastard boy, Adam Vermouth, who had told him in a squawking voice that he was useless, useless, useless. The tight businessman played with his hands as fists all the time at the office, but when put in the actual situation, aiming for the cheek, what he got instead was the nose, and he slammed the boy straight on and broke the bone, blood pouring out of his nostrils. “Okay?” said Marty, holding his arms out flat like a referee. “Are we done?” “That’s good,” gasped the boy, reeling with pain, and the tight businessman was just warming up, was dancing on his toes, ready to pummel this handsome young man into the brick of the cafe’s back wall, but Marty clamped one soft big paw on the businessman’s shoulder, and said, “You’re done now, son.” The tight businessman relaxed under Marty’s hand, and the young man, too, relaxed under Marty’s voice, and later, Marty did decide that it had been a far better day for him, being the fight mediator, the protective bulldog, and when he told the lady he had figured something out, tears broke in his eyes, like eggs cracking, bright and fresh. She was proud of him. He was such a good man inside, underneath all the butt-kicking and bravado.

The young man, bleeding all over the wall, waved off offers to go to the hospital or the doctor. “No, thank you, thank you,” he said, stumbling inside, using up a pile of brown recycled napkins, then holding the cafe’s one pint of coffee ice cream to his nose, and the businessman kept saying, “It will heal poorly,” and the young man said that was the point. And he shook the hand of the tight businessman who was feeling cheated, like a taste of nectar one could hardly even feel in the mouth. The young man waved at Marty, who was at the payphone telling about his revelation, and he headed home. There, he tended to his nose for days, hoping and hoping, and he went over to his mother’s on the day he was ready to really look at it straight on, ready to remove the band-aids making a little pattern all over his face. She was in the kitchen, eating jelly beans off the counter—eating them even when they turned into tiny tractors and then back again—and she helped him peel each band-aid off, one at a time, and then they both went to the bathroom mirror. She put a hand on his shoulder. They stared at his face for a long, long time.

What had happened of course is that it had healed symmetrically. The nose was severely broken and bumpy, but the bump was a band over the middle of his nose. It had complicated the vertical planes of his face, but horizontally, he still matched himself exactly. The young man’s eyes filled and he felt the despair rushing into his throat, but his mother, wiping his cheeks clear of the leftover crusted blood, breath smelling of jelly beans, listened to the story and laughed, and said, “Son, my sweet, sweet son, it’s just that you are a butterfly. That’s just what you are. I don’t think you can do anything about it.”

***

Finally, he was eating a hamburger one afternoon and when licking the ketchup off the knife, he cut open the side of his lip. It was a small mark, but it needed stitches, and when they took out the stitches he had a small raised area above the left side of his lip which provided the desperately needed window. He met a woman—Sherrie Marla—in a week. True, about a month or two later, she, while kissing him passionately, bit the other side, creating an identical mark. She dabbed ice on his lip, apologizing, and he dreaded it, dreaded her change, his eyes filling with tears in advance of her leaving, but the fact was Sherrie Marla trusted him already. When he took the ice off, and showed to her his new symmetry, she didn’t flinch. His face was him to her now; it was not a map or an indicator of some abstract idea. Turned out it was only the first impression he’d needed to alter.

His mother came over for brunch with her Sunday suitor, and when she saw Sherrie Marla take her son’s hand and kiss it on the thumb, a circle completed inside her.

In bed, after the brunch, Sherrie Marla turned to him with bright eyes, touching his lip wound with her fingertips, her head propped on her open hand.

“You have movie star lips now,” Sherrie Marla told him, smiling, as he leaned in to kiss her, tenderly, her kisses very very gentle on the sore area, just pillows in the air between them.

Her own face was wildly asymmetrical. One eye much higher than the other. A nostril tilted. The smile lopsided. The front right tooth chipped. The dented chin. The larger right breast. The slightly gnarled foot. It had caused her her own share of problems. We are all, generally, symmetrical: ants, elephants, lions, fish, flowers, leaves. But she was a tree. No one expects a tree to be symmetrical at all. It opens its arms, in its unevenness, and he, the butterfly, flew inside.

© 2007 by Aimee Bender.
Originally published in Awake! A Reader for the Sleepless,
edited by Steven Beeber.
Reprinted by permission of the author.

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Aimee Bender

Aimee Bender is the author of four books, including The Girl in the Flammable Skirt and The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. Her short fiction has been published in Granta, Harper’s, McSweeney’s, Opium, The Paris Review and more, as well as heard on “This American Life” and “Studio 360.” She lives in Los Angeles.