I met Arlene in college, in the freshman dorm. We were not roommates but suite-mates in the corner section of a squat brick house in the center of a small college campus in the middle of Ohio. We both had moved from opposite coasts with the desire for a personalized liberal arts college experience and had become friends due to proximity more than compatibility. For example, we had nothing in common. She: Blue Ridge Mountain town. Me: central Californian city suburbs. She: declared international relations major with three eclectic minors. Me: not yet totally decided. The men she liked were brutish jocks; I had located within two weeks every single soulful gentleman on campus who wrote poetry. I found them by the length of their hair or the wear of their jeans. She liked big-budget romantic movies; I saw every documentary I could find at the library, and if I’d had any retention ability, I would’ve stored a great deal of knowledge about the world.

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, The Paris Review, and more, as well as heard on This American Life and Selected Shorts. She lives in Los Angeles.

Q&A by Will Allison

WA: Where did the idea for this story come from?
AB: It’s always hard for me to track. But I was thinking a lot about this recycling business. I was irritated at my own insistence on recycling every single little thing, including a single Post-it. And I was thinking about that Hank character, and what if a person was a perfect recycler his whole life and then killed someone by accident? It’s a ludicrous equation, but it interested me somehow.
WA: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
AB: Part Two. The transition. Into Howard. I knew I wanted her to be there, but the shift in tone was tricky for me.
WA: How is this story different from all of your others?
AB: It’s longer. It’s one of the longest short stories I’ve written, with one exception.
WA: Can you tell us a little about the title?
AB: At one point I called it “The Worst Kind of Reincarnation,” but I thought that title was too goofy. But that was the link I saw in the story after it was done—the plastic being plastic was the same as the ring return. All these changes didn’t feel like real change happening. She’s returning but in a way that is totally unsatisfying.
WA: At the outset, this story feels quite realistic, but then it becomes more surreal, particularly in the scenes with Howard. Can you talk about the role of surrealism in your writing?
AB: It was fun to write at first about a setting that was now, with wars happening now—unnamed but still of this time. But it’s just a natural move for me to move into something strange—it’s the way I understand something about storytelling, often. Or, it’s a way for things to happen that feel grounded, and tangible, to me. I wanted to discover something in that house, but I didn’t know what it would be.
WA: The first time I read “Bad Return,” I thought something awful was going to happen to Claire once she went into Howard’s house. Did you know, when you started the story, what would transpire between them?
AB: No—it took many forms. The joy of discovery is the surprise; it’s also the long and roundabout road sometimes. I worked on this story for a long time, and I have ten drafts of it on my computer. One is a horror version, where the ring is something Howard did hunt down to find, as if he were tracking her, as if he were this creature made to stop her. But it seemed too much about her, too paranoid, and I wanted Howard to have his own reason for the ring. So then I opened a new file and wrote it in a way that was less overtly scary, and that version seemed to hold together better. But yes—I’m glad you were worried. Going into a house is worrisome!
WA: I love the way Arlene goes from being a figure of gentle ridicule to almost a role model for Claire. Do you see more of yourself in Arlene, or in Claire?
AB: Good question. Definitely both. I often ridicule characters I relate to in some way, and Arlene’s ultra-earnestness I definitely feel in myself, and I will admit that I did briefly adopt a soldier a few years ago, feeling so distant from all that was happening in Iraq. I made her a little care package and included some of those same items in it—moisturizer. Peanut butter. But it got returned. I sent it again. Returned again. I wrote to the woman soldier about the address, and she didn’t know why it didn’t work. She was nice but seemed overwhelmed by my cheeriness. I wasn’t even that cheery, just a little cheery, but I did ask her if she wanted to write about it in some way, and I think I should’ve waited awhile before floating that idea. It must be unsettling to get a letter from an eager writer teacher stranger, and I don’t think I handled it all that well. Then I gave up, so then I became like Claire. I actually would like to do it again at another point.
WA: Do you think Claire and Arlene remain friends after the story ends?
AB: I do. Probably in that floundery way that can happen with some post-college friends. But yes.
WA: How long did it take you to complete this story?
AB: On and off for a couple years.
WA: What are you working on now?
AB: Mostly stories. One about an ogre. Another about a child who is skilled with scissors and a donut saleslady.
WA: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
AB: I’ve received many, but the one that I find the simplest and most repeatedly effective came from my friend Phil Hay in grad school. Write what you feel like writing each day, he said. It sounds so basic, but there’s something radical in it, and it has helped me many, many times.