Writer in Residence · 06/02/2010


When John met Louisa, it was 1963. He was twenty-four years old, a graduate student from Middlebury College studying in Paris, and recently discharged from a mental hospital where he had recuperated from a nervous breakdown. His delicate features—fine bones, narrow face, and sensitive, liquidy eyes—accented his fragility. He chose to sit next to Louisa in a French Literature course at the Sorbonne because she was the most beautiful girl in the classroom.

She was not French, as he was soon to discover, but Austrian. She had long, thin legs that she crossed and uncrossed nervously. Her beauty was her strongest asset and she used it relentlessly. Soon John discovered that she was hungry, that she worked in an exporting company as a secretary during the day, as a nanny at night and on the weekends, and rarely spent her precious salary on food. Rather, she paid for two courses at the Sorbonne in weekly installments and just made the rent for a room in the Latin Quarter that had a shared kitchen and bath.

He bought her dinner—which she ate so ravenously it frightened him a bit—and kissed her goodnight, wetly, on the lips. Louisa was taken aback by the forwardness of his behavior, but thrilled as well. She had a few suitors of interest. But the American was to become her husband. She didn’t exactly know it at the time, but she was in Paris to marry well, to get out of her small Austrian town where laboring men like her father beat their families and women bitterly spent their lives doing housework and minding children. Upon leaving her father’s house, she claimed it was purely for an education that she was on her way to Paris. Her family scoffed at her search for a better life: they would not give her a shilling.

Six months later, after nineteen year old Louisa had lost her virginity to John, (running in tears to confess her great sin to a Priest the morning after); he was supposed to return to the States, to his hometown of Memphis, Tennessee. He said, “If only I wanted to marry you.” She bit her lip and asked him to drive her to Italy where she waitressed at a resort during the summers. He obliged.

They drove to Italy in a small, black Volkswagen Bug that John had rented for his stay in Paris. Two hours passed on their trip to Italy, the sky darkened, and John realized he could not drop Louisa off and leave her forever. He asked her, in a practical manner, there in the car, whether she would marry him. She said yes. He said that she would need to be careful and not drop the babies, because Louisa was a clumsy girl and dropped everything and tripped on everything. They turned the car around to drive back to Paris, but first, John pulled over to the side of the road to make love to Louisa in the back of the tiny car. They were both, separately and secretly, very excited about the turn of events. After they pulled their clothes back on and wiped their faces with the backs of their hands, they returned to the front streets and continued the drive. It was dark now, and although they couldn’t see Paris, they knew it lay somewhere before them.

His mother, Edith, flew over for the wedding that took place in a small, dreary Catholic church in Leobon, Austria. She wasn’t happy with Louisa. Not for her John, her baby, her favorite son who really was quite needy, what with his condition. The girl could not speak English and was poor, not to mention Catholic. But here it was. Her son gave her no choice. And to think that Eleanor back in Memphis had her hopes set on John! Eleanor, Edith thought, would have provided a stable life for her boy. She was from a good family, had a good heart, was active in the church, and because of her lame leg (from polio) couldn’t complain about John’s condition. But this Louisa! Did she even know about John’s mental problems? Would she leave him? Would she break his heart? Edith, understandably, was worried. The wedding ceremony was in German and Edith couldn’t understand a thing. She cried, and pretended that it was because she was moved by the wedding, but really she was very sad he was marrying this woman.

Their honeymoon was a no-frills hike through the Austrian Alps, and John and Louisa were enormously happy, climbing in silence all day except for the occasional yodeling that Louisa indulged in, which made John laugh. In the evening they ate stews and potatoes and drank beer at the inns scattered along the mountain tops. They shared dark cots in rooms with other hikers where the wool blankets had the word Füssen stitched on one side. Louisa had planned this honeymoon and John thought it very unromantic in some way. No privacy! But the mountains made him believe in God with their quiet and grandeur and he loved Louisa’s sweaty, exhausted body. Their first child was conceived.

Back in the states, John continued his graduate work at the University of Wisconsin on recommendation from his mentor at Middlebury, Professor Perret. He was given an adjunct position. It was supposedly the best program for French philosophy. He had never been to the Midwest before, and he liked Madison, more or less. It was different than Middlebury and the Northeast in general, not quite as impressive really, but Madison had some character. His mental health was good and although he still was a bit nervous and sensitive, Louisa’s presence stabilized him. She took good care of him. They moved into a two bedroom apartment in the graduate student housing project and Louisa kept the place clean and bright, with something delicious smelling always coming from the kitchen.

Louisa wanted to take classes as well, but John didn’t think it was a good idea. Why would she need to study anymore, now that she was his wife? Was she not happy being his wife, he teased? Of course I’m happy being your wife, Louisa answered, I just want to finish my degree. I enjoy studying. She took two classes and he said nothing more. Louisa threw up often, and thought it was because she was nervous in this new country, because she hadn’t figured out yet that she was pregnant. John and she spoke French at first, like they had in Paris, but slowly, as they began to make acquaintances, they began speaking some English. Louisa’s Austrian accent in English was strong and harsh sounding, and John didn’t like it. He hadn’t noticed it when she spoke French. Sometimes he thought, how is it that I went to Paris and came back married to an Austrian? But she was still beautiful and affectionate, and she cooked wonderful meals. He was happy with her.

Louisa was not so happy. She liked her classes and she was beginning to make some friends, but there was so much she didn’t like. She hated the white, doughy bread, the weak coffee, the tasteless butter that smelled rancid with salt. In general, people in the Midwest seemed as bland as the ugly architecture and the flat landscape, and no one waved their arms when speaking, or raised their voices in enthusiasm. She began suffering panic attacks. A doctor told her to carry a brown paper bag around with her and breathe into it when she felt panicky. This helped some, but she felt ridiculous. When she figured out she was pregnant, she told John and he was delighted. She hoped that the panic would go away as the pregnancy continued.

It didn’t really go away. And in some ways, her anxieties worsened. Married life was not what she imagined and although she felt passionately about her husband—the line of his nose, the mournful tone of his constant whistling, the way his eyes betrayed deep vulnerability, these things, and more, made her knees weak— she wasn’t sure she liked him. She no longer carried the paper bag around, but she didn’t sleep well at night. It became more difficult to do the housework because of her large, pregnant stomach. One night after dinner, she asked John to help her with the dishes. He laughed and said in French, “Sweet thing, don’t I pay the bills on time? Save them until the morning if you’re not feeling well.” With that, he patted her gently on her stomach and went into his office to read.

Their daughter was born in the University hospital on a blistery cold Wisconsin, March day. Louisa’s labor, like her pregnancy, was normal and not so difficult, but the doctor had heavily drugged her without telling her, which left her disoriented and scared, and then he gave her a huge episiotomy. As he sewed her up afterwards, looking up from where he was doing his work, he said, “And this stitch is for your husband”, and winked. Then, when she wanted to breastfeed, everyone seemed disgusted. The pediatrician said, “What are you, a cow?” and laughed at her. She nursed her daughter anyway, and as her infant suckled, she was filled with acute despair, a certain heimweh. In Austria, or even in France for that matter, things would not be this way. Everyone in Europe knew breastfeeding was good and beautiful. European doctors didn’t slice away at mother’s vaginas for no reason. On the flat fields of the Midwest, motherhood was not as precious or sensuous as in her homeland.

John, who had so looked forward to the arrival of his child, was bewildered. Firstly, he had thought it would be a boy. It was a girl. Secondly, she was an ugly, wrinkled little thing who screeched abominably without end in the evenings. How could he finish his dissertation under such circumstances? He rehearsed asking her to go visit her family in Austria for a few months. He knew she hated them, but he felt desperate. Things were just so bad since the baby was born! Louisa smelled of sour milk and would get up all through the night to nurse the baby. This, of course, he found disruptive to his own sleep. Here he was, with a new child, and instead of being happy, he was miserable and exhausted. His mother flew up from Memphis and was pleased they named the girl after her. But she thought Louisa held her too much and complained to John that the girl would be spoiled. John agreed with his mother, but Louisa, already getting thin again, ignored their admonishments and snuck around the house with the swaddled infant, cooing and bent over her package like some wild, crippled animal.

After John’s mother left, he decided to approach Louisa at night. The baby was asleep; they had eaten a wonderful goulash, sopping up the spicy sauce with a loaf of bread, and were sitting in the tiny living room drinking a glass of wine. Louisa was knitting a sweater for the baby while trying to read a novel propped up on a table beside her. John thought she looked ravishing—her hair fell against her neck and her dark eyes glowed with exhaustion. The motion of her thin fingers and the knitting needles excited him and he went to her, pushing the sweater out of her hands, and kissed her forcefully. She wasn’t healed yet from the birth, but she obliged him anyway, and he was grateful for that.

Edith became a beautiful little girl. She was towheaded and blue eyed and lanky, reminding Louisa of her beloved older sister, Eva, who had left the family when Louisa was only eight. Edith’s manners were delicate and her voice soft. Louisa loved her more than anything and was amazed that she and John had made this creature. As Edith began talking and playing with other children, Louisa felt ready to have another baby. John’s dissertation was moving along and he had that bit of money he inherited when his father died. She brought it up with him and he agreed: it was time to try for another child.

John was excited at the thought of having another child, and hoped that this one would be a boy. While he had grown to love Edith, it was as if the impression she made as a screaming infant was insurmountable in some way, and he longed for a little male child for whom he could buy train sets and toy soldiers. Louisa got pregnant easily and after the initial nauseous period, was a healthy, lovely pregnant woman. She, too, hoped it would be a boy.

This time, when arriving at the hospital in labor, Louisa shrilly commanded that no drugs be given to her. Although she hadn’t managed to stop the doctor from giving her another episiotomy, (“You don’t want to stretch yourself out, do you,” the doctor yelled as she tried to protest the blade coming down on her), she delivered her child without being hampered by the frightening haze of demoral. The doctor passed her another girl, a smaller baby girl than Edith had been, with an alarming head of dark hair. She was quiet and quickly became fat. Fat and content, Louisa and John joked, and never talked of their disappointment that it was another girl. Louisa named her Greta, after her own mother, who died at the end of the war from a mysterious illness, when Louisa was just five.

Edith, sweet-tempered, beautiful, well-behaved Edith, became extremely jealous of her baby sister. Despite the fact that Greta was an easy, complacent baby, Edith couldn’t stand the attention taken away from her. She threw shrill tantrums and cried dramatically, recalling her infant behavior, and so Louisa passed the baby to John and took Edith on walks or for a drive to the store. John, bewildered at first, looked at this fat baby in his arms, his second daughter, whose dark hair had abruptly fallen out and was now growing in blond like her sister’s. He had rarely held Edith when she was an infant—Louisa would barely let him. But it was not hard to care for Greta—everything he did made her happy. She never screamed all evening like her sister had. She greedily took the bottle from him when he offered it to her, sucking loudly and blissfully, often falling asleep cradled in his arms. Gradually, his time with Greta began feeling quite special, like a secret love affair. He would play Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata and dance her around the room. He believed she loved the music, believed she understood it like he did. Now, when Edith grew antsy and demanding, he’d offer to take Greta, and encourage his wife to go out with their eldest daughter. And so Greta became his, and Edith was hers.

John finished his degree. His dissertation was received with some ambivalence. He began looking for a tenure track position and the pressure felt enormous. He lost some weight. He thought for sure he could get a position at Middlebury and he wanted badly to move back to New England. Professor Perret had been so encouraging, had so recommended studying in Wisconsin. But it didn’t happen. And he thought that Professor Perret would send him a letter, an explanation of some kind. But no matter how often he checked the mail, no letter came. He kept looking for positions, but he felt depressed about it. Finally, a small university in Iowa, St. Theresa’s, hired him, and Louisa and he packed up their stuff into a truck and drove the children across the plains, deeper into the heartland, to his new job.

The college was renowned for its lovely campus, but the town itself was ugly. They bought a three bedroom, contemporary brick house near the university. It was supposed to be an exciting moment in their lives, but neither of them felt excited. Louisa seemed overwhelmed with the task of setting up house, what with the two girls running around at her feet, and John had grown increasingly quiet and thin. He felt as if he had not lived up to his potential, that he had not gotten a job worthy of his talent. He felt like a failure. He walked to and from the campus every day down the side of a road that was busier than he would have liked. The sun burned the back of his neck a reddish brown and he stood in front of his eager students, ghostly pale except for the back of his neck, teaching a literature and a philosophy about which he no longer felt passionate. The young women in his classes loved his gentleness and vulnerability and often approached him for questions and conversation after class. They reminded him of Louisa when he had first met her—enthusiastic, energetic, loving—and this only further added to his melancholy.

Their children grew, Edith into a slightly bossy but beautiful girl, and Greta into the center of John’s heart. Louisa finally settled—her English was good, her girls were more self-sufficient— and she hired a babysitter so she could take some graduate courses in psychology. She still hated the bread, so now she made her own, and she found a place that shipped her Viennese coffee. The Midwest would never suit her, but she made the best of it. It was 1972; feminism was making a big splash on TV and even slightly on the conservative campus at St. Theresa’s. Louisa, despite her attachment to home cooked meals and a clean house, felt inspired. She made new friends and joined a women’s reading group. She argued politics and smoked and drank at parties. John felt her growing away, felt her confidence and joy with her new friends and ideas, and it pained him.

The new politics were lost on John; in fact, his long nurtured love of 16th century French philosophy and classical music barely thrived. But his love for Greta grew. The fat, happy baby had blossomed into a ruby mouthed, coy girl, with a deeply mischievous side. She worshipped her father. Often she would exclaim that Daddy and she were going to get married, wrapping herself around his legs blissfully. Louisa, while clearing the table, would ask, what about me? What will happen to me? Greta, as if stating the obvious, would say that when she grew up, Mommy would be old and wrinkly, but Daddy would still be shiny and new. And so they would get married. Everyone laughed at this point, Edith because her little sister was so silly, Louisa and John because she was so cute and so in love with her Daddy.

And so, when John walked down the too busy road to teach his beautiful young students at St. Theresa’s, it was Greta who made it possible. And when his mind became dark and distracted—why this college, why this small town, why did Professor Perret not hire me after he recommended I study at Wisconsin, why is Louisa so distant?—he would think about his second daughter and her complete devotion to him and he would keep walking, keep teaching, and even manage the walk back home. And so he got through his days and his evenings, he managed the nights out that Louisa took to go to her book group or to some political rally, but certain things he didn’t manage. He didn’t manage keeping an appetite. He recognized Louisa’s food as delicious, but could only eat a few bites. And occasionally his head hurt so badly that he could not get out of bed. He knew it was a matter of time before Greta could no longer bear the weight of his life. She was, after all, at this point, only a five year old girl.

What was he to do? If he rolled around on the floor with Greta, laughing and playing and carrying on like he was having a good time, everyone would probably think, he’s having a good time. And maybe for him he was. But really the entire time, he thought, If I talk in this way and touch here, push there, and swing her around, it will appear I am having a good time. It will even feel like a good time to Greta, of this he was quite sure. His daughter could not stop touching him, pulling his ears, crawling on his lap. There was no end to it for her. But John’s despair won out over all of his acting, beat down all of his genuine efforts to move through his days. It was bigger than him, and even bigger than Greta, although Greta thought nothing was bigger than her.

One Saturday, in the late morning, white lipped and thin as a stalk of wheat, he got in the station wagon and drove away, without a word to Louisa or his children, who watched as he backed down the drive.

Louisa walked out after him, down to the street. John? This was peculiar, even for John. The day passed uneventfully. Evening drew near and Louisa became nervous. John had not returned. She had her reading group tonight and he knew it— so where was he? He had never left like this, abruptly without saying anything. She thought of calling the police and the thought embarrassed her. Greta was asking for her father and Edith was annoyed that her mother had to pay attention to her younger sister. Usually her father took care of that. After dinner and much crying at bedtime, after the children were safe in bed, Louisa phoned the police. A few hours later, two uniformed policemen brought John home, dazed and quietly talking to himself. He had been found in a field outside of town. They spotted the station wagon on route 31 and found him lying in the grass, in a ditch, not far from where he had parked. He was hospitalized that night. The police took him there.

This, of course, would not be the last time in their marriage that John would be “sick” and away. Louisa did not know about his previous breakdown, but when she found out, she was not surprised. She took Greta and Edith to visit him. He was heavily drugged, sewing leather belts together, a crafts activity the hospital provided for its patients. Electroshock therapy started the next day and they wouldn’t be able to visit him for quite some time. Louisa’s eyes filled on her way home from that first visit. Was it wrong to have wanted his help with the dishes? Was it wrong to have friends and ideas? She glanced in the rearview mirror at her two beautiful daughters, one striking and exact, the other lush and dreamy. Edith seemed even more rigid than usual—she did not like change. Greta’s face was clouded over—she wanted her father. But would she ever have him again? Perhaps not, definitely not, thought Louisa, as she turned the car up the drive toward their home.

Paula Bomer is the author of the forthcoming short story collection, Baby (Word Riot Press, 2010). Find out more about her here: www.paulabomer.com


posted by Roxane Gay