Is it a novel? Or a collection of linked short stories? However you classify it, Louisa Meets Bear is something special, a piercing look into whether we can—or can’t—choose how and whom we love. Read the beginning of the first story below!
Instructions to Participant
When I was five, my mother, like all the other mothers I knew, slept each night in pink curlers so her dark hair would flip up at the ends. She had carefully plucked brows, a pear-shaped figure that looked skinny when seated and plump when she stood up, a closet full of polished pumps that I played grown-up in, and an unused Vassar degree. Then, my parents, who still lived together and, I imagine, believed they’d always do so, shielded us, my brother and me, from what they must have viewed as the provinces of adult life. We were not told about the Bay of Pigs or the arrest of the Freedom Riders. We were not told about grandparents’ cancer diagnoses or our father nearly (but not in the end) being passed over to become a partner in his law firm. We were not told about the desperate attempts of my Aunt Anna, my mother’s year-older sister, to win the respect of my scientist uncle, or about her having fallen in love with a sheep farmer in Mendocino County. We were not told—and I would not learn for another thirteen years until, flat on my back with my own calamity, my mother slowly uncoiled the tale—about what happened to my mother that year.
At the time, I still suffered considerable confusion about where my mother stopped and I started and a terrible anxiety about being apart from her (Off, off, my little kangaroo, my mother ordered those first days of school when, at the kindergarten door, I clung to her belly), so that the changes that took place in my mother seemed to me bigger than a person—more like weather or a sea shift, akin to lying on a hot, still beach when suddenly there are black clouds overhead and a wind lifting sheets off sand and soon people are packing their bags, glancing every few seconds at the dark sky and the water whipped with whitecaps. In my memory, one day my mother was all hustle and bustle, packing lunches, leaving directions for our after-school babysitter, stuffing books and shoes into a maroon canvas tote she kept under a mahogany table in the front hall. The next day, she was lying on the living room couch, staring out the ceiling-to-floor glass windows, her face bloated and pasty, a bead of blood on her lip from a place where she’d bit the skin. Although she would not have stayed on the couch for more than a few days, she never fully returned. When she got up, it was to quietly drive us to school, to a routine of laundry and carefully prepared dinners and supervising my brother’s and my evening baths.
My mother, I would later learn, had quarreled with my father about going back to school. To him—or so she remembered—it seemed like a lot of disruption for, in the end, very little money. As he put it, they’d have to pay nearly as much for a babysitter as she’d ever make as a social worker.
My mother, however, insisted. Her sister, Anna, worked. My cousin, Louisa, born a few months before me, had not been harmed. My mother’s first semester, she took three courses, traveling into Manhattan two days a week for the classes. Your father softened, my mother told me, when I brought home all As. I think he was as proud as if it had been one of you.
In the second semester, my mother signed up for an interviewing class. As part of the course, each student was required to interview a family on public assistance, the visits arranged by one of the school’s casework instructors. My mother could have selected a family closer to home, but she chose to go to East Harlem.
I still remember that morning, my mother told me, how I’d wadded my money into one of your change purses, a plastic thing with Donald Duck on the top that I hid inside my raincoat. It was the first time I’d taken the subway north of Bloomingdale’s, the first time I realized I was scared of people who were poor.
Coming out of the station at 103rd Street, the vista before her came as a surprise. My mother had not known there were hills in Manhattan. There it was, a gentle decline from 102nd to 103rd, the length and steepness of the bunny slopes on which she and my father had taught my brother and would soon teach me how to ski.
My mother headed down the hill. Everywhere there were signs in Spanish: carnicería, farmacia, pan recién hecho. Christmas lights flashed over doorways and windows. Behind the rolling storefront gates and on tables dragged onto the street were fish dried and salted into leathery flats, bunches of green plantains, plastic shoes the colors of jelly beans.
At 105th Street, my mother turned east. Some of the buildings had boarded-up windows. A carton of milk and a stick of butter sat on a sill.
I remember the number, my mother said—235. A house dweller all of her life, it hadn’t occurred to her to ask for the apartment number too. She climbed the steps to look at the names posted by the bank of bells, but most of the labels were too faded to read or missing altogether.
A boy with black hair poking out from under a hooded sweatshirt came through the front door. He sat on the stoop and took out a pack of gum.
My mother gave him her mother-smile. “Excuse me, do you know where the Hendricks family lives?”
Slowly, the boy unwrapped three pieces of green gum.
“A lady named Jacqueline and her two children?”
A green bubble emerged from the boy’s mouth. He pointed
to the roof.
My mother rang the top two bells and stepped back to wait. She folded her hands over the belt of her raincoat and smiled again at the boy.
The boy darted his tongue in and out to gather the gum back into his mouth. “Bells don’t work.”
My mother could feel herself perspiring beneath her dry-cleaned blouse. The casework instructor had told her that the Hendricks family didn’t have a phone. “Can you let me in? I’m here to interview Miss Hendricks. I can show you my ID card.”
The boy wadded the gum and stuck it on the sleeve of his sweatshirt. “Door ain’t locked.”
The hinges made a nasty creak when my mother turned the knob. The light was out in the hallway. Not until she reached the elevator could she see the out of order sign.
Before her fears could gel, she pushed the door marked stairs and started to climb. At the third-floor landing, she froze. Had something scampered out from behind the piles of newspapers, Pampers boxes, garbage bags?
On the highest floor there were two apartments, one with the name torres taped over the bell. My mother knocked on the other. She turned her ear to listen. Had she knocked loudly enough? How long should she wait before trying again?
She gave the door two more raps.
“Hold on, Jesus, I’m coming.” There was a clumping noise and then what sounded like locks and chains being undone. The door swung open and a teenage girl appeared with a baby on her hip. A toddler holding a bag of Fritos trailed behind.
When, the summer after I turned fourteen, my mother sat my brother and me down to explain that she was moving out of the house, it seemed that her decision was somehow connected to those shadowy memories from when I was five of her laid out like a mummy on the living room couch. We lived in Dobbs Ferry, a river town fifteen miles north of New York, and my mother was heading three thousand miles west to Berkeley, where she had enrolled in social work school for the fall. They’ve accepted my credits from nine years ago, she told my brother and me—as though this were an explanation as to why she was moving across the country, across the bay from where her sister had lived until her death five years before in a car accident.
That summer, my brother had ditched the name we’d always called him, Josh, for Jay. Taller and broader than our wiry father, with gray eyes that already hid his emotions, he acted blasé, her decision peripheral to his real life. He’d been the vice president of his junior class. In the fall, he would be captain of the football team. He had two girlfriends: one a popular, freckled cheerleader who kept a horse in the north part of the county; the other a secret girlfriend, a Latina from Mount Vernon with a job modeling for the catalogues.
As for me, under siege by breasts and hips erupting on my large frame at a rate that had left me feeling both exposed and terrified that my destiny was not to be what my best friend Sandra optimistically described as statuesque and curvaceous but rather big and fat, my mother’s announcement felt like a bomb had blown the roof off my precarious life. I was mortified, certain everyone would look at me with horror and pity. It took me a week to tell Sandra, who responded by bursting into tears and then saying my name over and over—Lizzy, Lizzy, Lizzy—which I interpreted as evidence that what my mother was doing was shameful, a blight that would affect even Sandra, her place in the world threatened by her proximity to me.
My father couldn’t or wouldn’t talk about it. All he said was, It’s your mother’s decision. The week after my mother left, he hired a housekeeper. Whereas he had always worked until ten or eleven three or four nights a week, he now managed to make it home most evenings by seven or eight for forcedly animated dinners during which he and my brother would discuss politics— Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia, about which my father attempted to take a balanced view; Kent State, which Jay, just two years younger than two of the murdered students, experienced as a personal assault, evidence of a fascist undercurrent—after which he would retreat to his study to resume his work. A year later, with Jay already off to Yale, my father began dating a divorcée: a pleasant, buxom woman who seemed to be endlessly whipping up mushy casseroles out of what I still thought of as my mother’s kitchen.
As for my mother, she wrote—or, rather, typed—my brother and me weekly letters, addressed to the two of us together. At first I made a show of not even looking at the letters, on several occasions ripping the paper into confetti when my brother tried to hand it to me. After Jay left for college, my mother took to sending one or the other of us the carbon copy and, with no witness for my little dramas, I took to carrying my copies around, back and forth from school, the envelopes growing dog-eared in the bottom of my book bag, until, giving in to what I told myself was simply curiosity, I’d lock myself in the bathroom and read two or three at a time.
Through the letters, I learned that my mother was doing her social work internship at a state prison, where she provided substance abuse counseling to first-time offenders. I learned that my mother was living in a small apartment in Oakland. (That’s where the Black Panthers are based, my brother would later say, knowingly.) I learned that my mother had taken to the California landscape: that she had driven north to Mendocino County to see the redwoods and the wild, rocky coastline and then south to see the sequoias and Kings Canyon; that she and a friend were planning a five-day backpacking trip into the more isolated parts of the Tuolumne Meadows. I learned that every Sunday she took my cousin, Louisa, out to lunch and that sometimes Louisa would bring Corrine, her babysitter when she was younger and now her best friend, and the two of them would go shopping afterward at the vintage clothing stores on Telegraph Avenue.
In the letters, my mother invited us, my brother and me, to visit her, anytime, well, anytime except April or May or December or January—then, she wrote, she’d be too preoccupied with her exams and papers to really show us around—but neither of us did. The first summer after she left, she came east for a month, staying with my grandmother in Hartford, but I refused to see her, refused to even discuss it with anyone, and although I heard hushed conversations between my father and her over the phone, I surmised that she’d decided I was old enough to decide for myself if I wanted to see her, an awareness that left me even more miserable than had she or my father insisted.
My mother’s second visit, prompted by my grandmother’s hip operation, came the fall I began college—having managed to graduate from high school a year early by taking senior English and honors calculus in summer school but then, secretly afraid of going too far away, following my brother to Yale. Jay must have received our mother’s letter a day before me because I remember hearing from him first about her request to visit the two of us in New Haven. It was a hot Indian summer afternoon, the kind of day when complexions look oily and sallow, half the campus still in sandals, the other half with long-sleeved shirts stuck to their backs, and my brother and I were having coffee together at Naples, sitting in one of the worn wooden booths etched with initials, a fan whirring above, the smells of oregano and pizza dough wafting around us. I must have been silent in a sullen, aggrieved way after Jay told me about our mother’s request, because he spoke to me sharply, saying something about how it was time to cut the crap—Christ, Lizzy, can’t you give her a break?
The words of my usually unflappable brother fell like a slap, and I remember him reaching for a napkin from the dispenser for me to wipe my eyes and ending up with a wad two inches thick and then, a few weeks later, sitting in the same booth with my mother and brother, the three of us sharing a pizza while Jay talked about his plans for a semester in Grenada and I tried not to stare at my mother, who in the three years since I’d last seen her seemed to have grown younger—thinner, with her hair cut short in a way that elongated her neck, golden against a white peasant blouse—and who, I could tell, was using every ounce of self-control not to stroke my arm or push my hair off my forehead.
After that visit, I took to answering my mother’s letters and she took to writing separately to my brother and me, and even though things were not what any of us could call okay, it seemed that we were on the path to rediscovering some kind of connection and even planning for me to visit her the following Christmas. Which I would have done had I not, the fall of my sophomore year, gotten pregnant.
Lisa Gornick is the author of the recently released Louisa Meets Bear (Sarah Crichton Books/ Farrar, Straus and Giroux), as well as two earlier novels: Tinderbox (Sarah Crichton Books/ Farrar, Straus and Giroux) and A Private Sorcery (Algonquin). Her stories and essays have appeared widely, including in Agni, The New York Times, Prairie Schooner, and Slate, and have received many honors including Distinguished Story by the Best American Short Stories anthology. She holds a B.A. from Princeton and a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Yale, and is a graduate of the writing program at NYU and the psychoanalytic training program at Columbia. She lives in New York City with her husband and two sons.
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