I Looked For You, I Called Your Name by Laura van den Berg

5 Aug

Normally when a new issue of a literary magazine arrives at my apartment, I add it to my “To Read” stack and get to it eventually. Or not. I saw Laura van den Berg’s name on the back cover of Ploughshares 37.2/3 and opened the magazine right away. This issue is the 40th anniversary issue and it’s full of fancy writers like Alice Hoffman, Maxine Kumin, Nickolas Butler, Gary Soto and others. That’s well and good. The only story I want to talk about is van den Berg’s “I Looked For You, I Called Your Name,” a beautiful story about a couple on their honeymoon in Patagonia.

From the outset, we know the honeymoon didn’t go well. The story begins, “The first thing that went wrong was the emergency landing.” A simple declarative statement sets the tone for the story that follows with writing that is at once plain and provocative.  After an emergency landing on the last leg of their journey, when her husband’s elbow hits the narrator in her face (we later learn her nose is broken), the narrator moves to stand.

“The seatbelt sign is still on,” my husband said, resting a hand on my back.

I leaned forward, away from his touch. These were the kinds of moments that had recently been giving me pause. We’re new at this, I kept telling myself, but there was no denying that I was often confounded by his priorities.

On one level, “I Looked For You, I Called Your Name,” is a story about a new marriage and a woman experiencing doubts. However, there is another layer, one that is elegantly crafted, and reveals how the narrator doesn’t know where or how or if she fits in the world. She both struggles and is at peace with her sense of displacement. She also tries to make sense of what she feels for her husband, wonders if what she feels is love. We follow the couple on their honeymoon and the calamities they encounter. There are few tender moments. Mostly, we see the void between the narrator and the people around her. At times, the story flashes forward. We don’t know if this couple is happy or what their marriage becomes but through subtle clues, we know they are together. That knowledge complicates the story and how we understand the present, the awkwardness of how this couple relates, and what we know about how she feels about herself and her new husband. This complication of a known future creates unexpected depth and elevates the story into something truly memorable.

We know some of why the narrator feels this sense of displacement (I don’t want to spoil it for you), and that added knowledge  makes this woman, no matter how disaffected she seems, easy to empathize with. It explains what might otherwise seem inexplicable.

Late one night the narrator goes to the beach while her husband sleeps. Alone on the sand, she thinks about an emptiness she has always felt.

I opened my mouth and started packing it with fistfuls of damp sand. The grains scratched the roof of my mouth and got wedged between my teeth. Grit ran down the back of my throat. My cheeks ballooned; sand stuck to my gums…. And years later, after Patagonia was far behind us, this was the moment I would remember—because I had acted inexplicably in the middle of the night and I never had to explain myself.

Ultimately, what the narrator seems to be grasping for throughout this story, is to feel that sense of freedom, that ability to be herself, in plain sight, without needing to explain herself. It’s heartbreaking, when you think about it.

The Ploughshares  issue containing Laura’s story is not listed online for purchase yet but it should be soon. Check back at the Ploughshares website. You definitely want to get your hands on this story ASAP. This is the kind of story I will use when I try to explain to my students how to tell stories we know in unknown ways. I would not be surprised to see it in a certain Best anthology. It’s that good.

One Response to “I Looked For You, I Called Your Name by Laura van den Berg”

  1. Dawn. August 21, 2011 at 8:19 am #

    Awesome post, Roxane. I so need to read this story. Laura van den Berg is brilliant and I’ve been hungry for more of her work since reading and loving What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us. Which reminds me: can she come up with some fucking fantastic titles or what?

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