Introduction by Anthony Marra
I came to A.J. Bermudez’s work without introduction. There were no marketing materials or blurbs or jacket copy or review coverage, none of the means through which our perceptions of a book are subtly shaped before we read its first page. What I had, instead, was a stack of doubled-spaced prose belted in rubber bands, indistinguishable, at a glance, from the other manuscripts I’d been sent when I served as a judge for the 2022 Iowa Short Fiction Prize.
But within the first few paragraphs of Stories No One Hopes Are About Them, I felt I was in the company of a writer of singular originality and vision. The stories in Bermudez’s debut don’t share the same characters, or even the same continent—my personal favorite of the collection is set in Antarctica—but instead feel drawn together by Bermudez’s stylistic energy, searching intellect, and deep compassion.
In “Bottle Girl,” we see some of the themes that infuse Stories No One Hopes Are About Them: the commodification of youth and objectification of female bodies, the psychological costs of transactional relationships, the financial excesses and moral compromises of capitalism, the saving grace of friendship. Amy, who turns twenty-one as the story opens, works as a “bottle girl” in a hedonistic club popular with hedge fund managers, professional athletes, and jackasses of all stripes. In a nod to the consumption of flesh, one party reserves its table under the name “Donner.” Bermudez deploys surreal imagery to describe the experience of working under the predatory gaze of potential cannibals. Under the club lighting, Amy “is one of eight silhouettes, each seeping into the other like an undulating caterpillar of hair and skin.”
Halfway through the story, just as you begin to sense where Bermudez is going, the narrative takes a sharp turn. In the VIP lounge—where men are eating dessert off a nude woman—Amy is noticed by Kevin, a former middle school classmate. “He recognizes Amy before she recognizes him, which is to be expected. So much more of her is showing.” In the exchange that follows, Kevin, rather than Amy, feels mortified. Not because he’s eating mini cheesecakes off another human being, but because he realizes that Amy earns as much, if not more, than him. (Kevin is, brilliantly, a podiatrist.)
I won’t spoil what happens next, other than to say that the crushing power of the ending is delivered with the lightest of touches. If you like the story, I’d urge you to buy Stories No One Hopes Are About Them. The book has no introduction. The work speaks for itself.
– Anthony Marra
Author of Mercury Pictures Presents
A Bottle Girl More Flush Than Your Hedge Fund
Bottle Girl by AJ Bermudez
Amy is twenty-one today.
(Everyone is twenty-one today.)
The club—seafoam green, on the insistence of a long-since-vanquished investor—thrums with the buzz of a thousand bees. Bass as buzz. Flirtation as buzz. Crane-necked/half-verified celebrity as buzz. Neon sign reading EXCEPTION AS RULE, hot pink and glittering, as buzz.
Amy visited a bee farm once, in youth, on a middle school field trip. The bees were endless. A woman in a netted helmet pulled a full-on honeycomb out of a box. Amy had not realized, prior to this, that a honeycomb was a thing outside of cereal.
Mrs. Parker couldn’t be blamed, of course. Twenty-eight children is a lot, and when two of the twenty-eight overturned a beehive while she was watching the other twenty-six, there was an eruption of screams. Bees were everywhere. Children scattered and fell like bullets from a sawed-off barrel. But Amy stood perfectly still. She’d been stung thirty times, the doctors said. Amy’s mother was a livid wreck, suspicious of the round number thirty. She spat on the tile floor of Saint Francis Memorial and made it known.
All Amy remembers is the sound.
But the buzz was nothing compared to this.
There’s another neon sign, in the ladies’ room, that reads NATURE IS INVENTION. There are a thousand images on the web—Amy’s seen a few of them—with women beneath the sign: lips malbec-red and bronze and coral and pretty-in-pink and blue and once really blue, though the last of these was resolved with an ambulance out the back and, later, a modest settlement.
Anyway, Amy is, as it turns out, allergic to bees.
The ceiling of the club is a lattice of pipes, all leading to nowhere. Technically, there’s one pipe that matters, a fat ventilatory pipe, and someone—presumably the same ousted club investor with an affinity for seafoam green—had the bright idea to build a maze of thin nowhere-pipes, faux infrastructure-as-artwork, around it. The sound in the club drifts up and rockets around the pipes like a pinball, echoing back down as a tantrum of sound, a rearranged mist of inside jokes and pick-up lines descending damply below.
Amy slouches at the rail over section 4, half-lit by the vintage banker’s lamp on the hostess stand. Viewed from below, she is one of eight silhouettes, each seeping into the other in an undulating caterpillar of hair and skin. If lit from the front, they’d look like a calendar from 1994, a strappy, inconvenient mass of breasts and hips mediated by hourglass middles. Latexy leather, delicate chains accentuating décolettés, metallic strings dripping between tits, glitter-laced lotion slick on the same collarbones over and over and over.
To Amy’s right there are Mel, Elise, Indica (whose real name is Gladys, after her grandmother, but who’s experienced a 26 percent increase in tips since opting for Indica), and Arielle. To her left are Iris, Lane, and Bérènice. This is the last moment of fidgeting, of sleepiness, of normalcy (costumes notwithstanding) before the door is broken down by the thrum that’s already audible, little-black-dress-clad clubgoers and hedgefunders like orcs, hungry for the press of bodies and Belvedere, swan-shaped ice buckets and sparklers in the offing. Enthusiasm like a horizon leaking toward the doors.
“Happy birthday,” says Indica. And the party begins.
Beneath the canopy of superfluous piping is a crowd, whirring and eddying. Nestled at varying heights are the tables, geodelike slabs over zebra-skin rugs that everyone’s pretty sure (but not completely sure) are fake.
Tonight it’s the same crew of Germans from last week, give or take a couple, smacking one another and guffawing, their Stemar boots pressed flat on the floor, knees wide, oblivious to the angle of their own suit-clad crotches, slouched and electric with self-congratulation. There’s a twenty-one-year-old birthday party, bankrolled by someone’s father’s last name, then the next. A table of athletes—basketball players, Amy is pretty sure, from their shape and the profusion of rare-edition Air Force Ones. That dimpled actor from that new show, network, who hasn’t figured out how to spend the money yet. The Donner Party, which has to be a joke, except that it isn’t. A handful of bachelorettes, faces and skin shellacked with wealth, their bodies painted with variants on the same lacquer-sheen dress in emerald, gold, sapphire blue, with straps in functionless configurations around the collar, leaving little indents revealing the extent of their tans.
At the table of athletes, Elise is seated in one of their laps, the second-to-main one. The main one is famously married, recently forced by a slew of magazine covers into a season of chastity, or at least a period in which girls who look like Elise don’t publicly sit in his lap. There’s a bet, to see if she can coax them into another $10K, and she’ll win, though the causality of Elise’s presence is strictly conjectural. There’s always another $10K. When the spend lands, Amy helps Iris and Bérènice haul a Nebuchadnezzar of Cristal to the table. Sparklers crackle, casting a hazy, orange strobe of smoke and light, spectacular but contained, like the bombing of a distant village watched on TV.
The girls stay to serve the champagne, and are invited to help consume it. Amy sits on the arm of the slick leather sofa, one gangling leg draped over the other, an unrecognized hand resting lightly, politely on the small of her back.
Amy’s always preferred the athletes, sensing in their entrances and exits an aura of inspection, as though they dipped in and out of existence when watched and unwatched. They belonged to the tightly assessing gazes, the guessings at strength and weight, the paper-doll conjectures of how they’d look in various poses, in and out of clothes. Graceful and drenched in magic. Mel tracks the news, business, and sports, and often gawks, half-lit by her phone screen, at the figures—who earned what, whose contract just got pushed to which mil—but Amy is unfazed. To be owned that way, she thinks, to belong so thoroughly to the long look and the calculating half smile, they deserve every penny.
The Donner Party, who turned out to be a team of lawyers, has ordered appetizers brought in from off-site. Amy helps Lane retrieve them from the back serving station, where they’ve been extracted from their nondescript delivery boxes and artfully plated. The china dishware is freckled with translucent pink droplets of blood. Steak tartare.
“Morons,” says Lane, balancing a string of plates on her slender forearms, a holdover from a past life at a steak restaurant.
It’s something, Amy thinks, the circumstances under which eating blood is accepted.
Following the childhood incident at Halford Honey Farms, Amy had become enthralled by bees. She’d checked books out from the library, squandered ink from the slow-moving Canon on color printouts of various species, URLs with Apis koschevnikovi and Apis cerana faint in the corners of the pages. She tucked the printouts and trivia, meticulously handwritten, into a folder, which she studied while her mother cooed over her, dabbing Neosporin in thirty places, wincing as though it were her own flesh.
Amy had learned—and announced, folded glumly in the empty tub—that the venom from a honeybee is more lethal than cobra venom by volume. That it’s also used as a treatment for high blood pressure and arthritis.
Amy’s mother was not listening, more concerned with the obviation of scars, propping a first aid booklet open with her knee on the bathroom tile.
“All worker bees are female. Did you know?” said Amy.
“Of course,” said Amy’s mother, although she didn’t.
“They never sleep.”
Amy’s mother dabbed three buttons of hydrocortisone onto a trio of red lumps just above Amy’s knee.
“The buzzing,” said Amy, “it’s their wings. Flapping over two hundred times a minute.”
Amy’s mother angled her neck beneath Amy’s outstretched arm, slathering vitamin E on a patch of puckering skin near the armpit.
“They all died,” said Amy.
“The bees,” said Amy. “When they stung me.”
Her mother flinched at a particularly prominent sting, nestled in the skin between Amy’s nose and mouth, which she seemed to instinctively know would leave a scar.
“Good,” she said.
In the VIP lounge, a guest has insisted upon celebrating some event with dessert-based nyotaimori, and this request has apparently been indulged. A woman with cropped black bangs lies fully nude on a length of table, her body lined with truffles, blackberries, French silk chocolate shavings, dollops of mousse. Shards of brûlée like broken stained glass. Mini cheesecakes.
“It’s your birthday?” Mel edges past the velour-roped stanchion, past Amy, with a tray of tittering champagne flutes. “Indica said.”
“Happy happy.” Then: “Emilio’s, after.”
Amy nods and wavers at the entrance, a chilled bottle turning warm in her grip. Inside, a parade of suit-clad men hangs jocularly around the table, laughing in a tight spectrum of tenor bravado, making a show of ignoring the confection-strewn model, affecting ease. They perk up at the advent of glassware, of Mel. Someone they know what to do with.
Amy marvels at their unnecessary layers: suit jackets, ties, tie pins, pocket squares. She is herself a palate of minimalism, straps and strips of cloth, as little as possible.
In the course of most service professions, running into someone you know is inevitable. Tonight it’s Kevin, a former classmate, one year ahead, the voice of the morning announcements in the same regime in which Amy served as student council vice president, a sinecure befitting her social rank at age twelve. He recognizes Amy before she recognizes him, which is to be expected. So much more of her is showing.
He catches her by the wrist and looks into her eyes. “You look fucking wild!” he announces, already loose. “You aged the hell out of your ugly duckling phase.” Amy’s heard it called that before, her “ugly duckling phase,” but it had never been that. She had simply been tall and thin in a way that scared people.
Kevin is sweaty and wet-eyed, a doughier iteration of his middle school self. He’s a doctor now, he’s saying, though Amy has not asked.
“Of what?” she says.
“What of what?”
“A doctor of what?”
Kevin laughs. “Of medicine.”
The table glows with mixers, ordered but untouched, lit from below and gleaming like traffic lights. Kevin swallows a mouthful of whiskey, his thick, pallid hand a hamburger bun around the glass.
“Podiatry,” he says. Then, brutely: “No one dies on my table.”
Kevin laughs at this, loves this. “Fuck you,” he says joshingly, then, “It’s better money than you think.”
“Good for you,” she says, and from the shift in Kevin’s expression, he must know that she makes what he makes.
Mel has been steered, gamely, toward the dessert table. A liaison of sorts. She is laughing, mouth ecstatically overwide, chin angled in poses of catalog flirtation. At the coaxing of the group, she bends at the waist, hands clasped behind her back, and eats a blackberry, nested in a dollop of whipped cream, from the model’s ribcage. As she rights herself, tonguing her lips and laughing, there are hands on her arms and waist, knuckles riddled with hair, wrists heavy with watches.
A man gestures for Amy, and when he does, the champagne in his other hand sloshes over Mel’s collarbone, drizzling over the curve of her chest toward the low angle of her push-up bra. He motions toward Mel with the ebullient theatrics of a gameshow host.
“Lick it off,” he says.
Amy and Mel laugh, together, a flicker of eye contact conveying the humor of a dark inside joke. They’re already in the car, on the way to somewhere else, counting the money.
With the fearful awe of a zoogoer, Kevin watches, glassy-eyed and enthralled, as Amy licks the champagne from Mel’s breast.
“We knew each other in middle school,” Amy hears Kevin say, his voice soggy and unmodulated, the wrong volume for the room. “Amy’s a freak.” The cohort laughs, variants of disbelief and you-lucky-dog, misinterpreting his gist. “She used to carry a two-liter bottle of Coke around school. With a bee in it.” The laughter is loud, confused, writhing around the pipes and crashing back down like a mash of confetti.
Amy wants, in this moment, to drag her hand through the stripes of custard, the freckles of nonpareils. She wants to dig pebble-hard sprinkles from beneath her nails. She wants to bite the strawberry straight from the woman’s mouth and not even eat the whole thing.
Over a weekend, after the scar above her mouth had only partly healed, Amy had tracked down a patch of black-eyed Susans, which she had swiftly ascertained to be a hangout for bees. She had read, in her exhaustive research, that bees are attracted to caffeine, so she had arrived with a nearly drained two-liter bottle of Coca-Cola, dark liquid splashing around the four-leaf clover of plastic at the base. She had sat on the ground and planted the bottle within the cluster of flowers as a trap.
There was no way of knowing how much time had passed, but when a bee zoomed through the little portal of the bottleneck, Amy was thrilled. She screwed on the cap and watched, mesmerized, as the bee darted toward the pool of soda, proboscis outstretched, jointed legs dipping in and out of wetness. She panicked, struck with the thought that the bee might drown, and poured out the bulk of the soda, careful not to let the bee escape, then hurried home, where she offered more soda through a dropper, watchful and restrained.
She must have known the bee would die, but having seen how casual bees were with their own lives, was undeterred.
She slept to the hum of its wings, better than any idling TV set, the THWAP THWAP THWAP of its bullet of a body against the plastic. She marveled at its fur, so like the down of a baby chick, the glossy bulbs of its eyes. She wondered, fleetingly, whether it missed its hive or was content with its solitary fortune.
On Monday, the bee was still alive, so she took the bottle to school. This defined her for a little while, in the way that minor eccentricities do. It was close enough to scientific experimentation that the teachers allowed it. The bee lived for days, blitzed on a diet of high fructose corn syrup, caramel color, phosphoric acid, and caffeine.
On Wednesday, in study hall, she watched it die, whirring and slamming its body against the frame of the bottle, its wings invisible except when motionless, etched by light and shadow, defined by external conditions alone. Someone hummed “Taps,” making mouth sounds like a kazoo.
It died in a haze of ecstasy, she imagines, buzzed to oblivion, unaware of its own fate until the final instant.
Amy leaves the flaccid, uninhabited shape of her costume strung over a hanger on a rack populated by similar ghosts, all destined for dry-cleaning and resurrection. She sloughs off sections of makeup, replaces them. Borrows a lip color that doesn’t remind her of anything. Puts on her own clothes. In the glow of the vanity mirrors, she looks resplendent, godlike even. Anyone would.
She crosses beneath a lesser member of the constellation of neon lights—YOU ARE ALIVE in foxfire green—at the service entrance, the outside world like a train that’s left without her. She gets in a nondescript car, Mel’s car, basic and black, its costs all auxiliary: parking, parking tickets, title, and insurance. The inside is lavish with odd touches: cherry-red Audi seat covers, although the car is not an Audi; vitamins like candy in the ashtray; a tampon, clean and frayed, dangling from the rearview mirror like a lucky rabbit’s foot.
In the moment before Mel switches on the ignition, there’s a rift of silence like the vacant racetrack of space between songs on a record. The radio kicks on and the moment is past.
Emilio’s is more of a recurring party than a place, effervescent celebrations of nothing on a routine cadence. Emilio is often absent, which Amy suspects to be a half-witted attempt at Gatsbyesque mystique, although she’s met Emilio, everyone has, so she’s not sure what the point is.
She knows already what will happen at the party.
She’ll meet someone. Someone who’s someone. They’ll drink something, smoke something. He’ll recognize youth on her like a cloak, damp with the impulse to wring it out, knowing it won’t last. The party will drink to her health, her birthday, as though they wouldn’t drink otherwise. She’ll circle back to a half joint on the roof. Will wake at his place after a half hour of sleep, tiptoe to the foyer (he has a foyer), where a series of portraits hang. The portraits are of royal pets. Greyhounds, Persian blues, a leopard. All staring dead-eyed into the camera. All tamed.
Her favorite photograph is of a bleak-looking bull terrier, Dotty, the dotted, uninventively named pet of Princess Anne of Edinburgh, accused of canicide and attempted puericide, who even in studio photography looks like it’s plotting a murder. She imagines blood around the puckered pink of the snout, flecks of skin beneath the well-trimmed nails. Her second favorite is a series of Windsor goats, framed individually in the style of high school graduates or confirmands, each respectfully ovalled in mahogany, all in full military regalia. There is something at once farcical and noble about them, she thinks, posing effortlessly, outranking humans.
He—her date, presently half asleep at a wayward angle in his infinity-thread-count sheets—is important, she supposes. He is important for moments at a time, all the time, and if you string enough discrete packets together you get light. You get importance.
When he wakes up, dragging a Henley over his forgettable torso, there’s something like guilt around him, like a stench. “You’re so pretty,” he says. “Beautiful.”
“I know a guy,” he says, and the way he says it sounds like an apology. Like he’d like her to remember him fondly. “A photographer. He’s good. Really good.”
“Thanks.” Amy is always thanking people.
The air hangs densely between them. There is breakfast and, at the doorway, a goodbye kiss mashed between the corners of their mouths, the angle of an avoidable car crash. Amy will call him in a day or two, committed to the bit. The pretense that they really like each other. That this is not just the things they have, reputation and youth, a one-for-one exchange.
Amy has read about Elizabeth Báthory de Ecsed, the Hungarian countess who lured young women from neighboring villages to work her estate, convinced she could stay young by bathing in their blood. In the winters, she would strip them naked and leave them in the fields to freeze. In the summers, she would strip them naked and drizzle them with honey from her own apiary, letting the insects eat their skin.
In the interstitial spaces, alongside the garment rack or at the back serving station, the girls talk about their futures. Iris is working on a lingerie line. Indica aims to invest in real estate. Bérènice will travel. Elise is going to NYU in the fall, although she may delay a semester with an eye toward paying for the whole thing up front. They talk about the money like it’s money and nothing else, as though no other cost will have been exacted.
Amy wants only to be elsewhere. Just last week, when she came across a website featuring derelict castles for sale, she fell in love with a fifteenth-century fortress in the Lleida region of Spain, as tall and thin and impenetrable as any building she has ever seen. Although she does not and will never own this place, she arranges to have her mail forwarded there. Since all her bills and payments are electronic—she has not opened a piece of hardcopy mail in years—the stakes of this whim are low, but she delights in the thought of her credit card offers and coupons trekked up the cobblestone path. She is thrilled by the automated email: “Congratulations on your move!”
Amy only needs one day off from the club but requests three.
The photographer’s studio is whiter than any room she’s ever been in. There are needlessly exposed pipes tendrilling their way across the ceiling, and she feels at home.
“I love this,” the photographer is saying. “I love it; it’s madness.” His thumb is on her chin, a finger stroking the half-dimpled skin at the crease between her nose and mouth. “Not quite a beauty mark, is it?” he’s saying. His voice is fictional British, Yale British. “You were born with it?”
“It’s not a beauty mark,” says Amy. “It’s a bee sting scar.”
The man is deciding, clearly, whether this is more or less magical. He looks at her closely, then stalks toward the slick bay of lighting and camera equipment and yells something vile at the camera operator. Although they’re out of earshot, Amy recognizes the squeamish certainty, the shrinking relief of knowing, at last, what someone expects of you.
It’s all about the scar now, the photographer is saying. She can’t hear him but she can tell. The way the lights are shifting, the puzzled, stoic loyalty of the makeup artist who re-dabs her face.
The whole story is the scar.