For those who aren’t familiar with the work of Aimee Bender, her writing includes several books of short stories and two novels, and can be generalized as a blending of the magical and surreal with the everyday. Through unique means, Bender renders characters and emotions with honesty and insight, often cutting to the heart of the human condition with a deceptively simple touch. I’ve been going through her latest book of short stories, The Color Master, and was struck by the way she used the thread of sustainability in a story called Bad Return. The story is centered on college senior Claire and her environmentally obsessed roommate Arlene, who is so broken up about a yogurt cup she finds littered in front of their apartment that she comes in crying about the existence of plastic: “We recycle it,” she says, “but it can’t do anything on its own, and all it can ever do is be itself again. It is the worst kind of reincarnation. Lame! That is so lame! And it’s everywhere!”
Claire’s relationship with Arlene is a strained one; she doesn’t feel that they have anything in common. It’s evident that Claire holds a slight bit of resentment towards Arlene, wondering at one point how “Arlene, of the questionably toxic perms and mascara drips and yogurt cup righteousness, always got the better guys.” Claire mutters her hatred for Arlene and her boyfriend Fred as she shoves eggshells into their “small kitchen compost pile, which smelled like rotten food, which is just exactly what it was.”
In just a few pages, Bender creates a super realistic portrayal of the roommate relationship, one that anyone living with another, college student or not, can likely relate to. It’s that dynamic in which the smallest things, the things that may even have seemed positive about the person at first, start to seem very annoying. Claire ventures out that night to avoid the lonely feeling that comes with spending time around a couple. After a strangely enlightening interaction with an old man who may or may not have a daughter named Nina, Claire returns home to find Arlene up late, making waffles in the kitchen. It is here that Claire is able to see again to the core of Arlene’s person, remembering the first time they met and feeling the effect of that encounter wash over her as if it had just happened. “In the fall,” Claire says of Arlene, “she would be doing the Peace Corps or Teach For America….Arlene, who made sure every used item went into the right bin because she wanted all things, everything, to find its way back into the world, new.”
I won’t transcribe the ending because it is beautiful enough to require personal discovery. Bender’s story is a wonderful reflection on the miracle that occurs when we’re able to see past what annoys us about a friend to the love that underpins it; in this case, Claire seeing the beauty of the core idea that underlies Arlene’s environmentalism, and how that idea applies to her whole person. Bender writes this realization as an act of renewal itself, and the thought of human love being a sustainable substance capable of renewal is one that we all hope for.
What are you reading right now? Besides the usual batch of textbooks, of course.