by Chloe Caldwell
(Short Flight/Long Drive Hobart; 144 p.)
It is not unusual to encounter a narrative in which a romantic relationship between two women ends in disaster. And sexuality aside, let’s not forget about affairs: we know how those narratives go.
Like these narratives I’m also familiar with relationships that don’t end in friendship, as well as relationships in which the desire I felt for a lover was so intense because it wasn’t allowed, was only partially realized, or because feelings weren’t communicated in any substantial or direct way—same old gay story, same old affair story.
Chloe Caldwell’s novella Women is a combination of those two kinds of narratives, yet saves itself from being a same old story. The jaded reader would miss out on this book if they only knew this: two women fall in love with each other; for one of them it’s the first time of being with a woman, and it ends in a really depressing break-up. They’d still be jaded even with this addition: P.S. It’s an affair. Finn, is twenty years our narrator’s senior and in a long term relationship. Our narrator is a writer who works in the library. We’ve read that story before, but we haven’t read this one. No, really. It’s different this time. It feels different, and I don’t mean in the way we lie to ourselves when we love someone we aren’t supposed to love.
“This is damaged,” Finn says of the relationship. For six months they’ve been on another planet, both the narrator and Finn agree.
“We need to get off this planet,” the narrator shouts into the phone. They laugh, they are hopeful in the possibility of being friends. It is not quite a spoiler to say this does not come to pass.
I’m not sure if it’s fair to say that they are hopeful in the possibility of being friends as much as I was hopeful as a reader, just as I felt comforted every time they got to spend the night together even when things in the book were going very wrong, even when I already knew that there would be no surprise ending. Our narrator is much savvier in navigating these narratives than we are as readers and she doesn’t forget to remind us of how destructive and real the situation is: “What was exhilarating and rousing,” Caldwell writes, “later makes your stomach turn.”
The narrator of Women wonders at the start how to make us love Finn, but also how to tell this story so that her job could be done. “I am looking for short cut—something I could say that would effortlessly untangle the ball of yarn I am trying to untangle here on these pages. But that would be asking too much from you. It wasn’t you who loved her, or thought you loved her.” And maybe because of this, from the onset we want to love Finn but aren’t sure whether to trust her. Does Finn love us enough, we wonder, meaning, does she ever love the narrator enough? The narrator is just as uncertain. With Women, readers are likely to become immersed in the damage of the relationship as well as the beauty of it—the strangeness of our own desires to want something more than what we’ve thought possible.
The power of Women is in its non-linear storytelling. One moment the narrator is hurt by Finn, months after the relationship’s end and then we are back to an earlier time, when the narrator is in bed with Finn and it is very pleasing for all involved, including the reader. This could be confusing, but to try to explain why it isn’t would be to attempt to try to explain something we don’t need to about relationships or love. Perhaps this is what I mean when I say this story feels different.
There is an undertone of sadness to the night. I say, I don’t understand why you’re here, it confuses me. She says she wanted to see me. She wanted to make sure I was okay. Do you want me to leave? No. Yes. No. Yes. Of course I want you to leave. Of course I don’t want you to leave.
When she tells me she loves me, I pretend I cannot hear her. What?
Under that weight language can become like the ball of yarn our narrator is trying to untangle. Caldwell’s language is never halted—her sentences weave through the story lyrically, are part of what drive you to keep reading, but her narrator often struggles with words, how they are said to her, and using the right ones. Finn accuses the narrator of forgetting that words “are powerful. That you can’t take them back once they are out there.”
Chloe Caldwell’s work is known for its vulnerability with her collection of essays Legs Get Led Astray. In Women we witness the narrator’s recklessness, like when she throws her phone into the street with Finn on the line, or when she snorts coke that a date from OK Cupid gave her, but we could also argue that it was the inclination towards recklessness and vulnerability that gave our narrator the possibility to explore this relationship and an identity that she hadn’t considered before. It’s reckless vulnerability that enables Women to take place.
Books are like doctors and I am lucky to have unlimited access to them during this time. A perk of the library. I borrow anxiety and depression workbooks, binge eating workbooks, books on codependency […] It’s an intimate thing, borrowing books like Bi Lives: Bisexual Women Tell Their Stories, having them checked out by a coworker, someone I have to work beside the next day.
The narrator is reckless with her heart and is ruthlessly honest about her experience without blaming anyone but herself or her own moods. We get to see Finn criticizing moods that our narrator never actually expresses towards the reader. This could be seen as a criticism, but I think it’s the success of a character so consumed with love that she can’t see much beyond her own self. We are never set up to hate Finn, instead we are set loose inside this story’s ball of yarn and even transform into the narrator with all the knowledge about love and relationships that we don’t need to bother explaining. We know the relationship is going to end and that it should. And yet every moment they are physically together feels simultaneously like a victory and like bathing in a dirty tub.
We will never go through with these plans we have for the future […]We never have sex again either. I don’t think either of us wanted to know this.
Caldwell’s character survives all of this, as evidenced by the writing of this story—which is the way that the narrator works through, understands, and harnesses the power of all those words said and unsaid. Her power of recklessness and vulnerability allowed the story to happen, and its these powers that enabled her to see it all the way through and to stay so composed in the telling that a reader can recklessly read and feel this story in a much more personal way. Sure, these stories have been told before. But I doubt you’ll feel them quite like this.