Well before the manic pixie dream girl meme was coined, Aimee Bender turned the trope on its head with, “Call My Name” (1998) the 2nd story in her first collection, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt.
In it, the heir to an adhesive wall hook empire rides the subway in one of her many sexy expensive dresses, auditioning men for one who’ll leave her “breathless and weak, crumpled by the entrance of another person inside [her] soul.” In other words, she’s lonely and bored. After a close call, she sets her sights on “the shy man,” who remains “the shy man” long after his shyness has been completely discredited. (The only shy thing about him is that he hasn’t been paying attention to our dolled-up heroine.)
Their initial encounter sets up a pattern followed by the rest of the story: She pursues, he ignores. She is so thoroughly delighted with herself–her dress on the plastic seat sounds to her “like a holiday”–that his inattention baffles her. When the shy man gets off the subway, she follows him to a shoe store, follows him home. You can imagine how creepy this would be if the roles were reversed, but the story’s hook comes more from the entitlement her wealth grants her than from her gender.
Any response from the man is taken as an encouragement. “Persistent dress lady,” he says when she lets herself into his apartment, “you are one persistent cookie.” Then comes my favorite line in the story: “I love being called cookie,” she narrates. “I love it. I love it.”
As she tries to seduce him, the first non-neutral thing the shy man says to her is, “I suppose I’d like to cut that dress right off you” (15). Here, the story threatens to take a darker turn, but the surprise is that it doesn’t. He cuts her dress off, then goes and gets a glass of water. When she suggests he tie her up, he does it, but again, neutrally. He’s detachedly amused by the encounter, then less so. They watch TV together. He offers to untie her, but she’s not yet ready to go home.
One of the story’s big clues comes 3/4 of the way in, after the shy man has tied her up: “Why does everybody but me look so fucking tired?” (18) she wonders. Even though she’s shrewd about why she gets attention (When she’s already working on how to relate this story to a shop girl later, who will “giggle, for I am, after all, the customer”), she hasn’t yet figured out is that her presence alone can’t brighten the days of people with work and worries.
The manic pixie dream girl is, as Nathan Rabin puts it, “that bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” This ideal has been with us long enough for some women to internalize it, and Bender’s story is a perfect example of how it doesn’t compute in practice. The narrator’s shallow whimsy a privilege.
And yet our woman does, in her way, delight, and not just as we laugh at her. We can relate. We’re hungry for attention. We want to be called cookie.
Urge to delight is never far from the surface in Bender’s stories with their irresistible premises and spare evocative details that can read almost like jokes. She’s very recommendable, very teachable, because so much of what she does, she does out in the open. And yet she rewards rereading and consideration. It’s quite a gift. I like her a lot.