BASS 2016: Lisa Ko, “Pat + Sam” from Copper Nickel #21

It was a cold October night in 1974. They smoked back then, everybody did. This was before Pat’s two children became Sam’s and before there were three children, before they grounded the oldest when Pat found a pack of Newports in her room. By then they would have forgotten their own youth, or rather, they would hold to their children to higher standards. The children would be confident and happy – they’d feel entitled to happiness – and for that Pat and Sam would resent them.

And here I am in that awkward place where, despite having connected earnestly with several moments in the story, and despite appreciating the overall narrative technique, I found the contributor note to be more enlightening on the whole than the story. I suspect it would succeed wildly, however, as a first story in a collection of linked stories about Pat, Sam and the family they eventually form, and it just so happens Ko has written some of those linked stories. This one interested me greatly in finding out where these people went next.

But first, what we have in front of us: A nascent-relationship story told by alternating points of view. I was thinking how much this reminded me of Groff’s earlier story, where the characters were isolated, not sharing much, but the reader connected them. Turns out Ko makes exactly that point in her Contributor Note, admitting “The story came together when I stopped resisting the alternate points of view.” I’ve read that before, a writer not wanting to write the story that wants to be written, and discovering that it’s so much better when you let the story tell itself as it wants to be told.

Well-written moments abound. There’s an incident of racism in a New Jersey restaurant, and again that isolation becomes a force: Pat is relieved that Sam didn’t make a scene when white families are seated while their Chinese family – or pseudofamily, since he’s just a date at this point – is left waiting, but he wonders if she’s disappointed at his lack of confrontation. And as the reader, I have to smile at the implied chauvinism: if she felt confrontation was a good idea, why wouldn’t she have done it herself?

Another nice moment, and a subtle one, comes when Sam, on their first date after having met at a party, tells Pat her husband died.

“It was almost a year ago.”
Only? Almost? “I’m sorry.”

We’re in Sam’s head, so he’s the one wondering if she’s saying, “It was only a year ago so don’t expect too much of me” or “It was almost a year ago so I’m ready to get on with my life.” But I wonder: does Pat know for sure if it’s almost or only?And what opinion does the reader bring? All that, conveyed in so few words. Very nice. And again, highlighting the isolation of a new relationship between two reserved people. How does anyone every manage to get past that? Slowly, laboriously, anxiously, we find out.

I like to think about the typography of the title in that vein. Not “Pat and Sam” or “Pat & Sam”, either of which would be more expected; fiction readers occasionally encounter ampersands but rarely plus signs, although they are both symbolizations of the Latin word for “and”, et. Today, the plus sign connotes addition, which makes the title a mathematical expression – not an equation, since there is no equals sign, which leaves us with the question: What do you get when you add Pat and Sam? This story holds no solution, only the question..

I was also quite fond of one of Sam’s observations, that at one point “Pat began to take on a new shape, that of the steely, vulnerable survivor. Someone who’d been wanted, before.” We all have those moments when we discover new information, and everything looks different. I was, as a teenager, panting after a boy, but when I saw him with a friend of mine I realized they were right together, and we were… not. Not at all. These moments can be hard, but they’re important. Reality is always important. Remember that going forward, by the way. There’s also Pat’s sense of unease in New Jersey, highlighted by her thought, as she walks through her back yard littered with autumn: “She had never raked leaves in her life.” And the perennial truism: “When you start to hope, then comes the danger.” Yep. Hope is the thing with feathers that, if we had any sense, we’d strangle before it ever chirped. But we don’t, because to do so is death.

But, as I said, to me the story works so much better as a first chapter. So when I discovered via the Contributor Note that it is in fact a first chapter – an origin story – I was a lot happier:

I’d previously written stories with the two characters in the present day, as retirees, and others from the points of view of their daughters, but always wondered what got them together in the first place. I started the story knowing how I wanted it to end, with a particular image that had been chasing me, a man and woman in bed, physically close but emotionally distant, weighing the compromises they’re about to make.

I’m guessing one of those later stories was “Proper Girls” featured in One Teen Story in early 2014. I’m also guessing her forthcoming novel, The Leavers, is unrelated to this family, but having now read a sample of her capabilities, I’m very interested in taking a look.

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