never married, over forty, a little bitter

the cockeyed

The most dramatic decisions I’ve made in my life feel now as though they were launched by a level-headed unconscious: leaving Texas, stopping drinking, getting clear of bad relationships. Occasional leaps of faith toward the unknown that seemed cockeyed or frightening but turned out well.

— Gail Caldwell, New Life, No Instructions, p. 60

lip service

One of the fascinating things about the book is the portrayal of your friendship. Our cultural reference points for female friendship seem to be either the Sex and the City ideal or the folksy Ya-Ya Sisterhood. Or, we’re talking about “frenemies” and the “toxic friendship” aspects of how women can relate. But yours is such a loving portrait of your day to day; I found it hard to believe that a friendship that close wasn’t competitive or codependent at times.

But it was! We did have that; the difference is that we dealt with it. Caroline and I had both suffered those terrible breaks that women have, that empathic failure–the, Well, never mind then, goodbye, and you start to drop away from each other. We were so attached, and both of us were so loyal, and our MO in the world was to go toward a problem as opposed to away from it. I really wanted to write about the struggles that we had, I could hear Caroline saying to me, “You can’t make this all happy.” We were incredibly competitive and all we did was sublimate it. We arm-wrestled and she beat me; I’d try to beat her in the pool. I knew I had to talk about the struggles and how piercing they can be.

One of the most heartfelt aspects of the book is the way you write about your love for her–it feels very clear and pure and unapologetic. And you’re not writing about your parents or child or partner; you’re writing about your best friend. We often give lip service to the importance of female friendship but we don’t talk about the possible depths of that kind of love.

That was paramount for me, and I’ve been really appreciative of the reviews that have gotten that. In a reading the other night, someone asked me if I ever had that horrible disappointment where people would go, “But it was just a friend.” It’s jaw-dropping when someone does that, because if your friendships are primary, as this one was–grief is not a stair-step of who gets the most attention.

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One afternoon I went out on the river in a bad state. I was tired and worried about the surgery, and I had spent an hour the evening before immersed in a toxic pastime: Googling old boyfriends and pondering the road not taken. Thanks to the new world of knowing too much about anyone you ever met, this was hardly a revelatory activity, but that night I stumbled upon new data about two different men I had loved.

The first was a recent wedding announcement, the other an acknowledgment to a spouse in a book published years earlier. Both instances suggested the kind of wife I had never been and probably never could have been: both painted tableaux, at least in my mind, of flawless dinner parties and social hobnobbing and renovated barns in Greenwich or the like. I was lying on the couch in the living room when I read these tidbits, wearing gym shorts with my hair in a ponytail. Shiloh and Tula were lounging nearby; I was having leftover chicken and watching reruns of Nurse Jackie. Here was the life I created, and whatever it was, it was not a flawless dinner party waiting to happen.

The next day, while I was rowing, I let my mind run free. This was an old and treacherous internal tape: I had forgotten to marry and have kids; I often preferred canine company to human; I would die sad and alone. Such was my recitation of despair, pulled out time to time like an ill-shaped sweater you can’t bring yourself to give away.

— Gail Caldwell, New Life, No Instructions, p. 43