Woman of the Century
by Claire Polders
At birth, she takes everything for granted. The impossible sky. Fleece to squeeze. A pair of tender green eyes that peer into hers each time she tests her voice. The plasticity of her mind, expanding, expanding.
When she turns ten, angst dominates. The world, apparently, doesn’t revolve around her and she won’t be loved for the goodness of her intentions. She becomes the girl who hangs back and sniffs the air, waiting for her life to begin.
At twenty, she has it all figured out and writes her slogan on the wall. IT’S USELESS AND SILLY AND KIND OF NARCISSISTIC TO THINK OF YOUR LIFE AS BEING USELESS AND SILLY AND KIND OF NARCISSISTIC BECAUSE THERE IS NO OTHER TYPE OF LIFE.
During the next decade, she meets regret. The man who deciphered her turns out to be flawed. He considers “feminine” a synonym for “fake” and pokes holes through the pretensions she needs to believe in herself. She starts and stops drinking. Her life takes on the sour smell of missed opportunities.
At forty, she deals with ghosts. A green-eyed mother lost to cancer. Two miscarriages. A friend who fell or jumped off a cliff. Living in the spirit of what will never be, she watches her tears blur a page in a book on Pompeii. Fate is an accident for which nobody can be blamed.
In her fifties, she feels her second wind coming on. She’s ready to dedicate herself and give more than she can miss. The air in her lungs, the blood in her veins, the thoughts still unvoiced in the hollows of her mind. If only the world, windswept and gray, could be a little less indifferent.
At sixty, she goes on a diet of culture and art, no longer bothering herself with the news. Politics is for people who are bored and, subsequently, boring. She denies it with her heart, her mind, her feminist convictions, but feels it nonetheless: she’s missing someone.
Turning seventy, she lives through a period of togetherness and exquisite tension. Smiles bounce back and forth between her and the man at her breakfast table. They know how to be kind while staying on full sexual alert. Every day, toast and coffee lasts until noon.
At eighty, she becomes a minimalist. The present contains so much past that there’s no more room for shallowness. She’s not surprised when the monsters hiding beneath her bed take their leave. Not surprised yet disappointed. She must learn to sleep alone again.
In her nineties, she proliferates. Walks with the stumbling grace of a baby deer. Frowns with the gloominess of a retired judge. Laughs with the confidence of a skilled magician. Her friends, too, seem to multiply, then fall away, one by one.
Alone and dying, she maps out every hour, unable to locate herself. Have her ashes already been scattered? When death finally takes her away to a place beyond matter, her self dissolves and her ambiguous century ends.
I’ve never written a sequel before, but after I wrote Woman of the Week (also published by matchbook), I wasn’t ready yet to abandon that story’s voice. Quite by accident, I had told a monotonous narrative of a rather dull character in a more or less compelling way and I wondered: How did I do that? And: Can I do it again? It hardly ever happens that I find my own work satisfying, so when it does occur, I think there’s something to be learned. Writing Woman of the Century as a sequel helped me better understand what I’d like to do as a writer: render the ordinary unfamiliar and mystify the mundane.
Claire Polders is a Dutch author. Her most recent flash fiction was published online by Whiskey Paper, Cheap Pop, and Connotation Press. Two of her personal essays will appear this fall in print in The Pinch and Room Magazine. Together with her husband, she wrote the novel A Whale in Paris, a kid’s book for all ages, forthcoming in summer 2018 (Atheneum/Simon & Schuster). You can find her at clairepolders.com.