Chloe Caldwell reads an excerpt from her novella, Women, published in October by Short Flight / Long Drive Books.
What I know for certain about this time: My pupils were expanding. I never did figure out if this was a symptom of falling in love or a side effect of the Chinese herbs my transgender friend Nathan was hooking me up with. Either way, I was stoked because I read an article that explained you are perceived as prettier when your pupils are dilated. A few years later, my pupils have shrunk back to their regular size, staring back at me, sometimes small as pinheads, each morning. But I don’t take the Chinese herbs any more either, so, who can really know.
Sometimes I wonder what it is I could tell you about her for my job here to be done. I am looking for a shortcut—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. I wonder what I could write that would help you to understand that it is profoundly easy to fall in love with an olive-skinned woman that touches you just so, and who has a tattoo of a quote from Orlando trailing down her back. Show me your tattoo again, I’d say in bed. She’d pull up the bottom of her shirt, and I’d trace my fingers over the cursive words by Virginia Woolf that read: Love, the poet said, is a woman’s whole existence.
My mother still lives in the house in which I was raised—a woodland cottage in a small hamlet in the country. As a child, I adored the woods and spent the days playing in streams, sitting on my singing rock making up songs, crowning my head with dandelions and using berries as lipstick. I loved chewing on mint leaves and chives. My mom showed me how to soak Queen Anne’s lace in food coloring overnight and we’d wake in the morning to bright pink and blue flowers. We often took walks in the woods, sometimes together, sometimes alone. In my teenage years, it was inevitable that after an argument, the door would slam and one of us would trudge off toward the woods. When I was sixteen, a lesbian couple in their forties built a house across the woods from us. This was significant as we’d never had any neighbors. The woods behind the house were chaotic. Walking through you were bound to return home with scratches and tick bites. But when the lesbians moved in, they landscaped the woods so that there would be a loop on which they were able to walk their dogs. Right away, my mom took to walking the circle as well. We’d leave notes for each other on the kitchen counter, Went to walk the circle. The lesbians were an intriguing couple, one was wealthy and of some notoriety, the other a struggling artist. My mom often chided me when I was a teenager for calling them “the lesbians” but the only reason I called them that was because she did.
Ten years later, in late summer, some nights before I move out of my mother’s house, she takes a gig dog sitting the lesbians’ poodles, and I join her. We pack overnight bags and cut through the woods to their home. Their house is something out of Home & Gardening magazine. There have been articles written about the house describing how it is “non-toxic” and “cutting-edge.” While the sun goes down, we sit outside, marveling at the view, drinking expensive wine from their wine cellar and eating their exotic cheeses. While we have a warm buzz, we get the idea to pull the pillows off of the lounge chairs, lug them up the hill. We lie on our backs, giggling, looking at the stars, pointing out constellations. I remember thinking to myself that this was one of the best nights I’d ever spent with my mother. I felt content in her company, like there was no one else I’d rather be with. As though I never wanted to leave. But a few days later, I left. I boarded a plane and was gone.
Finn asked me to marry her once. She was off to get our third round of drinks and she leaned over me where I was sitting. Her arm hung over the booth. She hunched over me. She told me she’d been thinking about it. Would you marry me? she asks. I won’t answer but she won’t let me off the hook so finally I say either duh or of course. In the morning, I remind her of it. What a jackass, she says. I see now that she said, would you, as opposed to: will you.
Excerpted from Women with permission of Short Flight / Long Drive Books. Copyright © 2014 by Chloe Caldwell.