Karina took me by surprise. When we met one humid August, both working as counselors for the same summer camp in Boston, I was still wounded from an earlier heartbreak. I wasn’t looking for anyone or anything new. Then enter Karina, soft-voiced and sure. Karina, monochrome in her black button-up and Dr. Martens. At the Central Square CVS, where we’d been sent on a supply run for the campers, I was enchanted by the way she danced down the toothpaste aisle. Her boots tapped against the carpet as she shimmied in time to the dreamy indie pop song playing over the tinny speakers. She looked up and we locked eyes. That was it — I was in deep. I vowed that no matter what she did to me, I would never save myself from her.
We lived in different cities, several hours apart. As I hurtled across the northeast towards her, I curled up on the seats of Greyhounds and Amtraks and calmed my restless mind with books. I read the works of Melissa Febos, Carmen Maria Machado, Eileen Myles, Adrienne Rich. Usually, though, I was reading Women.
Chloe Caldwell’s autobiographical novella is a tight and biting account of the unnamed narrator’s affair with a woman named Finn, who is twenty years older than her and in a decade-long relationship with someone else. Finn is the first woman the narrator has ever fallen in love with, and she shatters everything the narrator believed to be true about her life.
I was a freshman in college when I discovered the book in the stacks of my school’s main library. A few months had passed since my first heartbreak at the hands of a woman, but the wound was just as raw. My parents were still struggling to wrap their heads around my sexuality, and my friends had long grown tired of my hysterics. I felt deeply and profoundly alone in my pain. But then I found Women. I took it home and read it in two hours. I found solace in the narrator’s unsparing, piercing descriptions of her own heartbreak. By the time I finished, I was excavated.
Since that spring four years ago, I have read Women in full more times than any other book. I worshiped the affair that played out across its pages in all its passion and futility, all its grotesque emotions and adult (read: unnecessary) complications. Caldwell was telling the story of my life: obsession to ruin and back again. She knew the pain of being too much for the world. Women held me steady when I was shaking with the force of my own desire and the fear it inspired within me. On a base level, though, I was just drawn to the love story.
At its core, the novella is about two damaged women — one opaque and withholding, the other a tornado of feeling — who, despite all their differences and all the circumstantial impossibilities, still want and take each other desperately. They don’t have a happy ending, but their love is seismic. I wanted a love like that more than I wanted anything else in the world.
It was only when reading Women that I started to understand how it really felt to live a queer life in adulthood. In its sparse pages and wrenching vignettes, I could glimpse a slice of the characteristic ecstasy and messiness such a future held. Autostraddle Co-Founder Riese Bernard wrote that part of Women’s power comes from the narrator’s immediate acceptance of her feelings towards Finn: “This new categorization of affair is approached not with hand-wringing” on the narrator’s part, “but with nervous, tentative, flushed excitement and curiosity.” This thrilling joy was everything my younger self desperately needed to believe was waiting for me and everything my older self would eventually require help navigating.
There exists a storied lineage of queer novels depicting a central, sexual, (semi-)loving lesbian relationship (The Color Purple, Rubyfruit Jungle, The Price of Salt), but Women was the very first of these I’d ever read. It was no wonder, then, that three years after I found Women in the stacks, I would pursue a relationship so inevitably and equally doomed; the chance to live out the plot of a book that fundamentally shifted my understanding of my own sexuality and maturity proved impossible to reject.
Like Finn, Karina wore her red flags like badges of honor. She smoked American Spirits and couldn’t sleep without the windows open in the dead of winter. She lied to me about her height and only dressed in black. She was allergic to commitment and emotional vulnerability, so we were “together” but not “monogamous.” If she could sense herself starting to open up to someone, she immediately and abruptly pushed them away. She even eerily fit Finn’s description, “an olive-skinned woman that touches you just so,” who “read books avidly,” “walked with a certain swagger,” and occupied “the sweet spot” between butch and femme.
When I showed my friends photos of her, their comments were eerily similar to what the narrator’s friend Nathan had to say about Finn: “I can’t tell if she’s incredibly cocky or incredibly tortured.” As it turned out, the answer was both.
After a fair amount of buildup, Finn and the narrator finally make the breach, that first unretractable kiss that quickly leads to more, in the narrator’s basement apartment. They take to calling the apartment “The Aquarium” after the teal color of the walls. When I entered Karina’s room for the first time, the first thing I noticed was the pale turquoise paint. I distinctly remember thinking, the universe has gotten pretty heavy-handed lately. On her couch, she leaned in to kiss me, and I could only hear Caldwell’s voice in my head. “There is no teeth clanking, no awkwardness,” she says, describing the narrator’s first time kissing Finn. “Just fucking, and no fumbling.”
As we fell into bed, I noticed she didn’t dissolve into me the way I did into her. I knew something so imbalanced couldn’t last long. “She reads me a poem she wrote about us,” Caldwell’s narrator reflects. “The poem says she knew the we or us of this would never make it out of that ocean-colored room but that she loved me anyway.” On the bus ride back home, I held the book open in my lap and traced my fingers over these exact sentences again and again. I wanted to suspend myself in our own Aquarium. If I could find a way to freeze us in the blue, maybe I could subvert the inevitable.
“She is going to ruin you,” my friend Isabel implored. It was October, and we were standing on the balcony of a house party in Brighton, Massachusetts. I had come directly from the holistic health store Karina had taken me to, where she’d made me an herbal blend to roll my joints with. The jar filled with small plastic baggies labeled in her cramped scrawl was a pulsing heart in the bottom of my tote bag, a sign of something sure. Isabel grabbed my hands, stared directly into my eyes. “She is going to tear you apart.”
There was no talking me out of it. If Finn and Karina were the immovable object, then Women’s narrator and I were the unstoppable force. It was always me on the bus or the train, putting my life on hold just to have her in my arms for one night. On my end, the time Karina and I spent together was always characterized by sharp spikes in adrenaline, cortisol, and all the shitty chemicals that delude you into thinking that what’s happening between you and the reticent person you’re obsessed with actually means something. I swung wildly between euphoria and despair. She told me about the other girls she was also dating and how much she liked them. She took hours to respond to my texts and never messaged first. She mocked me for my favorite movie and recommended ones she thought were “better.” There was never a moment where I felt secure. But then, this was how Finn had made the narrator feel. This was going to be that wild, big love I’d been waiting for since I read Women’s first line. The lows may have been low, but the highs were so high. How could I give it up?
And so I followed Karina all around her city. We picked out books for each other in the dusty basements of used bookstores. We browsed the rock and new wave sections of record shops, dancing to the Florence + The Machine album blaring from the loudspeakers. We spent hours in sticky bars talking about our shared passion for writing. She’d pull out her phone where she had recorded her thoughts on the last book I’d given her, and we’d go through them all, point by point. The days and nights would predictably end with me following her up the winding stairs to her apartment, where she laid me out on her forest-green comforter and made me feel again and again and again. She slowly wove the tapestry of her past for me, and I was gentle with the fabric.
In retrospect, I should have known it was too good, too fast. I should have known she would be scared by so much truth coming from both of us. But I think part of me subconsciously wanted to see us crash and burn. Like in Women, our collapse would be proof of our romance’s firepower.
Caldwell’s narrator tells us, “I can’t be in a relationship with anyone, [Finn] says, so if you have to grieve something, grieve that. When we get off the phone, I am in a fetal position on the bathroom floor, holding my heart while it literally aches.”
Karina ended things on Christmas Eve. I was back in my hometown in upstate New York and had driven my dad’s Subaru down to the waterfront so that I could be totally alone. It had snowed three inches the night before. I crunched over the white and dialed her number, staring into the gray water.
I had been with her just days earlier. Over breakfast the morning I left, she told me that one of the other girls she’d been seeing wanted to be monogamous. She told me they were going to talk about it. She told me it wasn’t what she wanted, but that she was probably going to do it anyway. Because I was too complicated.
“You have deeply affected me,” she had whispered, her voice thick with tears.
Now, over the phone, she was devoid of emotion. “We’ve decided to try the monogamy thing,” Karina said. “I’m happy.”
Dry. Casual. Cold. Nothing like the voice of the woman I had spent the past few months starting to love. I closed my eyes. I inhaled the icy air and let it burn.
It took pursuing a relationship almost identical to the one in Women to realize that it wasn’t what I actually needed. I knew that Finn and the narrator’s relationship wasn’t healthy, but I didn’t want to acknowledge that their wild passion and desire that I longed for, and that I chased in Karina, was inextricable from their toxicity. When things ended, I had to confront the fact that I fell in love with someone else’s story just as hard as I’d fallen for Karina, and I was trying to make it mine instead of listening to my brain and body’s warning signs.
The nausea that gripped me when I saw her coming down the sidewalk, dark and distant. The heart palpitations. The tongue tie. I felt smaller in her presence, less myself, more performance than woman. I desperately wanted to be cool for her. Sexy, smart, down for whatever. I didn’t want her to know how badly I thought I needed her. I couldn’t acknowledge that this was unsustainable, that my life wasn’t the novella I had convinced myself it was.
After their affair has ended, the narrator of Women meets Finn for the infamously unproductive “closure talk.” She is spinning out of control in her grief, grasping at straws, trying to create some sense out of this nonsensical heartbreak.
“But we were so close,” the narrator pleads.
Finn will not bend. Dry, casual, cold, she replies, “That’s what women do.”
It’s a convenient deflection of responsibility, made possible by the historical and societal denial of the very possibility of lesbian intimacy. Wave your hand and all the love vanishes. Of course this was nothing. It’s just what women do. How could you ever believe otherwise?
Standing in the snow, listening to Karina slam a wall down between us, I understood the narrator’s desperation. But we were so close, I wanted to scream, wail, sob. I was unmoored. I wanted Karina to anchor me in the reality I had spent months believing, the reality where she wasn’t afraid of her feelings for me. But she just couldn’t, or wouldn’t, give in to them; to her, I suppose the vulnerability was unfathomable.
In a way, I’m grateful that she broke my heart. I can only imagine how my distrust of her would have ballooned into paranoia, how my insecurities would have multiplied as I grasped for a love that she wasn’t equipped to give. In a note to me a few weeks before the end, she’d written, “My cowardice still wins over my sincerity.” And I knew it would have killed me if it happened again, if her cowardice triumphed once more, if she erased everything between us with her own version of That’s what women do.
So instead I said, “Congratulations.” And then I said goodbye.