Louisa’s mother had finally gone off the deep end. She knew this day would come, knew it would be difficult, but hadn’t been prepared for the sudden disappearing act, the theft of the neighbor’s car, the clearing out of bank accounts. It was hard to believe, but as she sped along the alphabet soup of Long Island highways--the CIP, LIE, GCP, VWE--the evidence stared brazenly back at her from the lighted signs above: SILVER ALERT. MISSING ADULT. 05 FORD FOCUS YELLOW. NY PLATE EFW975.
A piece of work. That was how Louisa described her mother to friends and strangers alike. A piece of work, nothing more. Louisa felt no need to share her childhood stories of neglect and humiliation. No need to elaborate on her mother’s pathological selfishness, her narcissism, her depression, her numbness, her ambivalent loves and resentments. Why bother? To Louisa, everyone had some version of the same pathetic story about their shitty childhoods, how one or the other of their parents had fucked them up.
Correction, thought Louisa, as she glanced down at the smiling face illuminating her jangling phone, not everyone had a crappy childhood.
“Louisa. Hi, just checking in. How’re you holding up?”
It was her brother Tom. Tom, who lives in San Francisco with his wife, a children’s book illustrator, and their two perfect sons. Tom, a rising star at his firm and occasional triathlon winner. Tom, whose only burdens in life were a few remaining law school debts and a way of enunciating hard consonants and holding his s’s which made people assume he was gay. Fuck that. He would be no help with this, Louisa thought, even if he didn’t live three thousand miles away, even if he was sitting right here next to her.
“I’m okay,” Louisa said. “Nothing yet, but it’s only been twenty-four hours, right?”
“Yeah, I guess.”
Actually it had been more like thirty-six hours. According to Nancy Swong, her mother’s neighbor, it was Thursday afternoon when she had “borrowed” Nancy’s car to make a quick run to the grocery. It was only when a concerned Mr Swong called Louisa late Thursday night that the fun had officially begun. Louisa had made all the requisite calls--to hospitals, the police, what few friends her mother had--but she was nowhere to be found.
“Look, I’ll call you if I hear anything,” said Louisa. “I should get off the phone, keep the line open, you know? ”
“Yeah, yeah, of course. Pam and the boys send their love. Take care, sis.”
Say goodbye, thought Louisa.
As soon as she got off the phone, Louisa felt a wave of relief and relaxed once again into the driving. It was early morning on a Saturday. Open roads, no traffic. Low clouds were awash with golden light coming up from below the horizon. Higher up, a pale crescent moon was just visible against a fading periwinkle night. It was one of those in-between times, thought Louisa, where you could forgive someone for mistaking dawn for dusk, a beginning for an end.
The giant travel mug of coffee Louisa had made earlier that morning was empty. It seemed that no amount of caffeine would burn off her mental fog, and now on top of that, her bladder was painfully full. With no gas stations or rest stops for miles, she pulled over, grateful for the cover of some low trees and shrubs on the shoulder. Louisa squatted in the brush and thought about what her mother would make of this scene. Disgusting, she would say, people’ll think you were raised by wolves, no self-control for chissakes--they’ll say I’m a terrible mother. Is that what you want? Well, congrats kiddo, mission accomplished. Smirk. Huff. Sigh. Louisa could hear every inflection of her mother’s voice, sarcastic to self-pitying, her shame steaming and messy like the puddle of urine beneath her.
Back in the car, Louisa buckled herself in. She told herself to focus. Her mother couldn’t have gone far. If only Dad were still alive, she thought, he would know what to do, where to find her, how to fix this. Suddenly Louisa felt exhausted, an empty stomach and a night of poor sleep had caught up with her. She rummaged through her purse, found an energy bar and forced it down in small bites, resting her forehead on the steering wheel. As her blood sugar leveled, the thought occurred to her that maybe she wouldn’t find her mother, and what’s more, maybe she was okay with that. The sun had broken the horizon and Louisa felt its warmth on the crown of her head, her shoulders. She sat up with a jolt. She suddenly realized exactly where her mother must be.
One summer, when Louisa and her brother were eight and ten, their mother temporarily transformed into a different person. She had been spending a lot of time with a new friend, Kate. Louisa found Kate both intriguing and terrifying, with her chain smoking and no makeup, her mane of hair flowing freely down the back of a tie-dye shirt, and afternoons of wine and earnest whispers with her mother. Kate also had a car, so instead of leaving Tom and Louisa to fend for themselves for days on end, as she usually did during summer vacation, their mother would herd them into Kate’s car and they would all drive out to Jones Beach every chance she got. Even though Tom said that Kate was just a dirty hippy, Louisa thought the four of them felt like a family and she noticed their mother was happier now, her edges softened somehow.
As she peeled off the shoulder, Louisa’s memories of those beach days came flooding back --the soft serve ice cream and easy laughter, the hot sand that burned the soles of her feet as she sprinted for the waves, and her mother’s hand, slick and smelling of coppertone coconut, resting lightly on her shoulder. There was the same warmth she had felt just now--of the sun on her head and shoulders--as she half-slept in the back seat of Kate’s car on their drives home, trying to decipher the code of adult conversation up front, trying to hold on to a tenuous feeling of togetherness, and then falling asleep, always falling into a dreamless sleep.
As she pulled into one of the Jones Beach parking lots, Louisa noticed a state police car had followed her in with its lights flashing. She wondered if she’d been speeding, or maybe a brake light was out. She pulled into a spot and cut the engine, reaching for her coffee before remembering it was empty.
A low dune blocked her view of the beach but she could see the blue gray ocean beyond. The vastness, the depth, the power of all that water, had terrified Louisa as a child, still did. Her mother despised Louisa’s fearfulness, her timidity. Buck up Louisa, she would say, I can’t have people thinking I coddled you. One time she had caught a daddy long legs to show her mother she wasn’t afraid of spiders anymore. The feeling of it cupped between her hands made her swoon with nausea. When Louisa revealed her prize, her mother said, Great, what do you want--a ticker tape parade? Get that thing out of my kitchen.
Someone was tapping on her window.
Where did he come from, Louisa wondered.
Her phone was ringing in the cup holder, amplifying the sound. It was Tom again. What does he want now, Louisa thought.
More knocking at her window. Louisa was frightened, baffled by the presence of a strange man standing outside her car.
Focus focus focus, thought Louisa. She picked up her phone.
“Lou, it’s Tom”
“Yeah, what is it? I need to keep the line open.”
“Look, you just need to come home.”
Tap tap tap. That man again, thought Louisa, as she struggled to find the words. Police. Officer. She knew she should roll down the window but had to get Tom off the phone first. She couldn’t handle his judgement right now.
“But I just got to the beach. She’s here somewhere, I can feel it in my bones.”
“You’re out at Jones Beach?”
“Yeah, where else?”
“Okay, good. Just stay put, okay? I’m coming.”
Louisa wondered what she would say to her mother when she found her. She hadn’t thought about it at all, but she would need to somehow convince her mother to come back with her, that she wasn’t well and needed help. That would be the hard part, Louisa thought. Her mother could be so stubborn, and now with this dementia--well, that was another whole can of worms.
Tap tap tap.
Louisa lowered the window. The man was talking into his radio, holding his knee up against the door as she tried to open it.
“License and registration, please,” he said.
“Listen officer, whatever the problem is, I’ll take care of it, but I’ve got to get to the beach.” Louisa handed over her license, started pulling papers out of the glove box. ”It’s an emergency. My mother’s been missing for more than a day and I think she’s here somewhere.”
“That’s exactly why I’m here ma’am. Now just sit back a minute and let me call this in.”
Louisa continued ticking down her to-do list. She would need to make an appointment with her mother’s doctor, start making arrangements for moving her to some type of supervised care facility, figure out how to pay for that. Did Tom just say he was coming? That made no sense. But at least he’d know how to handle all the legal stuff.
“Ma’am,” said the officer, “I’m going to have you exit the vehicle and come with me please.”
“I don’t understand,” said Louisa. She felt dizzy, reached again for her coffee mug. Empty. Need more coffee, she thought.
Louisa massaged her temples and closed her eyes. She could feel a migraine coming on. They’d have to sell her mother’s condo, go through all her stuff, get rid of anything she couldn’t take with her to a nursing home. Louisa was dreading that task--her mother loved her things, would fight her every step of the way, would be a royal pain in the ass.
Louisa stepped out of the car, shielding her eyes. The day felt too bright, the car too yellow, rendering the man in front of her into a flat gray silhouette. She wondered how he didn’t get swept up like a piece of paper in the breeze coming off the ocean. She could hear the waves crashing and turned toward the beach, hoping to catch sight of her mother standing at the edge of the lapping tide, staring out at the ocean as she often did that summer, silent and inscrutable.
Louisa’s head was throbbing now. She turned to the gray paper man.
“It’s too bright, I can’t see her. Can you see her?” said Louisa.
There was so much to do. Sell the condo, move her mother, deal with her stuff, powers of attorney, get in touch with her sister, call her friends, arrange for the wake, the burial, the memorial, write a eulogy, say goodbye. Say goodbye.