On Female Friendship and the Sisters We Choose for Ourselves

Essayist Chloe Caldwell on the “sisters” we choose for ourselves, and her close relationship with her surrogate younger sister, Cheryl Strayed’s daughter Bobbi.

Chloe Caldwell | I’ll Tell You In PersonCoffee House Press | October 2016 | 19 minutes (4,768 words)

“Do you get in bed and cuddle with Chloe in the mornings?” It was an early evening in spring, and Bobbi and I were in the kitchen, standing across from each other at the counter. We’d just finished eating pizza and salad with ranch on the back porch. Bobbi’s mom, Cheryl, was on speakerphone, calling from her hotel to check in on us.

“She doesn’t!” I said, making eye contact with Bobbi, who looked at me skeptically in a way only an eight-year-old can.

“Yeah but that’s ’cause . . . well, do you sleep naked?” Bobbi asked, lowering her deafening voice for once like she was asking me in total confidence.

I burst out laughing.

“No!” I said.

I’ve had countless sleepovers with Bobbi in the past three years, and I never don’t pretend she’s my little sister, even though, at twenty-eight, I’m too old to be her sister. I feel too young and immature to be her mother. At twenty-eight, I’m more like an aunt or a cousin. I could easily be engaged or pregnant or have children of my own. But that is not my life. Instead, I babysit, still waiting for my real life to begin. In limbo. A friend sent me a birthday card that read, Happy Saturn Return, good luck with that, seriously.

“You could be in India having sex next year,” Cheryl told me once when I was down on myself about being such a loose end in the domestic department.

“Whereas I probably won’t!” she said.

When Cheryl called that night, Bobbi and I had been in the middle of an improvised séance, though I was unsure what dead person we were trying to contact. We held hands around an orange candle and chanted gibberish. It reminded me of the opening scene in Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.

In a mock new-age voice, Bobbi said, “o.k. now breeeeeeeaaathe in the baaaaaad energyyyyyy.”

“No way! Not doing that,” I said.

“Yeah but then you breathe it out.”

“Yeah but why do I have to breathe it in at all?”

“Just trust me and do it.”

“K.”

“Now look up at the sky and repeat after me: Iloveyoumommy-Iloveyoumommy.”

“IloveyoumommyIloveyoumommy.”

The phone rang. We screamed. 

***

When I was younger, my mom and I had a running joke about her having another baby. My mother—so youthful at heart— seemed fertile and healthy, in good physical shape, so the joke seemed plausible even when she was in her forties. Once on April Fool’s Day many years ago, my mom called up her siblings to lie that she was pregnant, while she and I stifled laughs in the living room. My mom grew up with seven siblings, four sisters and three brothers. I have zero sisters and one brother a couple years older than me. Trevor likes to say we were best friends when we were three and five, but then we didn’t talk for years. Then when I was twenty-one and he was twenty-three we became best friends again. 

But I couldn’t share clothes with a brother. I couldn’t ask a brother about my period or my breasts that were getting larger by the day. Sometimes when I was home alone, I would go into my brother’s room and try on his jeans. I was envious of him because he had skinny legs and olive skin. I had fair skin and ample legs. I was developing quickly; it seemed more curves appeared each night. I’d go into his room and take his jeans out of his drawers, admire their tininess. The waist four or five inches smaller than my own. The jeans wouldn’t fit me, and I’d leave the room defeated and feeling fat.

I begged for a sister. “Let’s adopt!” I said. My mom says that since I don’t have a sister, my fantasy is better than how it would be in reality. Obviously. In my fantasy we would braid each other’s hair and borrow shirts and share cigarettes. Like the scene in Tiny Furniture when Lena Dunham is showering and her real-life sister is reading her a poem on the toilet. That would be my life. A little sister. How she’d love me. How I’d love her. We’d speak in our own language and sleep in the same bed. But those are only the cliché things we would do. The real things we would do are too nuanced and special for me to know. I loved Summer Sisters by Judy Blume because the girls in it were not blood sisters, and I’ve spent my life looking for female friendships that would replicate the relationships in that book. I read it three times each summer as a teenager. Beezus and Ramona Quimby. Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield. Lena and Grace Dunham. Natasha and Malia Obama. Dot and Kit.

***

I like to say my father has a thousand daughters. He’s had so many teenage girls work at the music store he owns, taught countless girls guitar and ukulele lessons. He’s been in some of their lives from when they were seven into their early twenties. The girls still stop by when they’re home from college. They leave notes for him on fluorescent Post-its.

Rob, I stopped by but u r avoiding me

i really don’t like this distance between us so please be here next time 

♥ Sharece

Rob i thought u were my bae 

love ashley 

My father has a thousand daughters the way I have a thousand sisters.

***

When I was a child, my mother worked for an organization called the Fresh Air Fund. It was a program helping inner-city kids from low-income families to come upstate and stay with a family for a couple of weeks. The year I was six years old, my mother was the chairperson for the Fresh Air Fund. We took the train into Grand Central to pick up the kids and take them back upstate. I brought my blond Baby Alive doll that could eat and poop. My family wasn’t getting a “fresh-air kid” that year—we’d hosted one for years, and my dad wanted a summer off from having three children. But on the train home I sat next to a nine-year-old girl. She had a doll too, hers black, mine white. She asked me if she could brush my hair. She brushed and braided it and we played with our dolls. She was outspoken. When we arrived upstate, and the kids went with their corresponding families, Tiffany’s family didn’t show up. 

“I’m going home with you! I wanna go with you!” she declared to my mom.

I pleaded, already taken with Tiffany. How do you not love someone who brushes and plays with your hair? I didn’t have to twist my mom’s arm. We piled in the red Toyota, and Tiffany and I sat thigh to thigh. “cow!” she’d exclaim as we passed farms.

That’s how I met Tiffany, my summer sister. She came every summer for the next six years. Tiffany was the funniest person I’d ever met in my short life. Tiffany and I played with American Girl dolls—I had Addy and she had one she’d created that she named Tatiana. She did my hair for years, putting it in elaborate updos and French braids. We shared a bedroom. When we got older, we begged my mom for diaries at Fashion Bug, and we wrote in them at night, griping about each other. We were supposed to go the mall but my mom won’t take us until Tiffany eats something but she says she’s fasting. so annoying!!!! 

Every morning, early, my dad would turn on the coffeemaker, and Tiffany told me for the first few years at our house, she didn’t know what this sound was. She’d thought it was the sound of my dad farting.

My mother and I recently had a conversation about our summers with Tiffany.

“She brought a lot of laughter to our house when we needed it,” she said. My parents were still together then, but there were issues. Such as my dad coming home to find he had an extra child in the living room, one with a booming laugh, brushing his daughter’s hair.

We brought Tiffany to Cape Cod with us one summer. We jumped the waves. Tiffany borrowed my mom’s turquoise two-piece suit, and she got wrecked from a wave, laughing and crying, her bikini top falling off. Tiffany was vocal about hating mosquitos, sun, grass, swimming. When we were kids, my brother and I played outside in the sandbox. My mom told her to play with us.

“I’m not getting in that! That’s dirt!” she said.

***

I’ve always idolized older girls. Even now some of my best friends are in their forties. There’s a photo of Tiffany and me where she is crossing her legs, so I am too. Besides Tiffany, I also had my cousin Megan for a surrogate big sister. Megan was five years older than me, my cool cousin—skinnier, blonder, older. I got my belly button pierced because hers was. I got my cartilage pierced because hers was (she took me). I waitressed because she did, drove stick shift because she did. When I was a freshman in high school, she was a freshman in college, at suny. My parents had just separated, and Megan e-mailed me to invite me to stay with her for a weekend. I brought my two best friends along. I forever jokingly blame this experience for why I did not go to college. It was the first time I funneled beer, and my friends and I ended up throwing up all over the place. Megan lent me her expired id, and I bought beer with it from ages sixteen to nineteen, when my mom found it while snooping through my jeans. She mailed it back to Megan with a note saying, There are other ways to be a cool cousin. 

Megan warned me about getting older. Every year since I’ve turned twenty-five, on my birthday she reminds me, “It’s all downhill from here.” We went to the beach every summer, and we once saw a woman with tan legs, loose skin wobbling all around. “I’m scared my legs are gonna look like that,” she said. Another year we walked along the water and she said, “My thighs rub together while I walk now. They never used to do that.” It was one of the most morbid statements I’ve ever heard, and it still haunts me. I was twenty-three then and assumed my body would function perfectly my entire life. Now my thighs also rub together.

Megan and I spent this past New Year’s Eve together.

“Remember when you wanted a breast reduction?” I asked her over a glass of champagne.

“Yeah, now I want a lift,” she responded.

***

The first time I met Bobbi was in 2011, when she was five and I was twenty-five. She was always animated, but polite and somewhat shy. (Now that we are pseudo-sisters, now that she is ten, she is not polite and shy with me. Sometimes I have to tell her to give me ten minutes. Sometimes I have to take her into the other room. Sometimes we yell and I swear.) 

In 2013 I lived at Cheryl’s during the months of November and December while her family went to Australia. It was just me and her two cats in the house. The house was medium-sized but felt big for only one person. I was lonely. I knew I wasn’t a child anymore, but I didn’t know myself as an adult yet, either. Instead of sleeping in the main bedroom, I found myself over and over retiring to Bobbi’s small bed on the floor, with the red-and-blue Spider-Man fleece blanket. Last year I told Bobbi I slept in her bed instead of her mom’s so I could curl up next to the wall.

“That is the weirdest thing I’ve ever heard in my whole life,” she said.

***

Last summer I stayed with Bobbi and her older brother, Carver, in Portland for a week, and there was an E. coli scare. We had to boil and bottle the water before we drank it. The kids were excited because they got to drink Gatorade and Vitaminwater and sugary drinks they normally weren’t allowed to have. It was all anyone was talking about. E. coli. One morning at the dog park with Bobbi’s puppy, Janie, Bobbi asked me, “What would you do if there wasn’t any water to drink for a month?” 

I said I would go in grocery stores and suck water from different fruits and that I would go to parks in the early morning and lick the dew off the grass. Bobbi burst into hysterics, like this was the most ridiculous thing she’d ever heard.

“I would just make smoothies!” she exclaimed. And then, “Do you think Janie knows what she looks like? Like, do you think she thinks she’s a really good-looking dog?”

***

Bobbi is passionate about horror. She gets a rush from scaring herself crapless. She loves true stories and ghost stories and the author April Henry. One afternoon we drove to Powell’s, where I promised to buy her one book. She had to make the excruciatingly difficult decision between April Henry’s novels The Body in the Woods and Girl, Stolen. She chose The Body in the Woods. She sleeps in her brother’s room the nights she binges on horror. She’ll follow me everywhere, saying things like, “What if we open the door and there’s a serial killer sitting at the table?” and “What if we come upon a dead clown?” She wants desperately not to be alone after reading these books and watching these movies. She even comes into the bathroom with me and stands under a bath towel while I pee. But she’s addicted. 

***

One day we were in her mom’s library looking at the books on the shelves. I pointed out my book of essays. 

“What’s it about?” Bobbi asked.

“My life.”

She grew uncharacteristically quiet.

“Was your life sad?”

“No . . .” I said.

She perked back up and matter-of-factly said, “Good!”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because when people write about their lives, they usually had bad or sad lives.”

“That’s a great observation,” I said.

***

I get irritated in the mornings packing Bobbi’s lunches when she didn’t eat the tomato soup she’d begged me to put into a Thermos and the hummus and pita and apple and orange I packed the day before. She only ate the two Thin Mints. I toss it all into the compost and ask Bobbi why she didn’t eat at lunchtime. 

“I was too busy talking and telling ghoooossssst stories!” she said.

“Well, try to eat what I pack you today, ’cause this is a waste of food and a waste of my time.”

Yes, ma’am!” she shouted, dramatically straightening her posture and hand-saluting me.

“Can I try your coffee, pleeeeeeaaase? Can you give me your iPhone password, pleeeeeeeaaaaassse?”

“I’m so happy you’re seeing how hard my life is,” Cheryl said that day and gave me a gift certificate to Massage Envy.

In my own life, in my own apartment, all I have to take care of is a jade plant, which barely needs anything. Besides that I just make sure to get out of bed every day, shower, eat protein, get a little exercise. I answer to no one. So it’s a trip, walking into Cheryl’s and having responsibility for not only two small humans but also a dog and two cats and a fish. Usually I am my first priority, but now I am my last. When evening rolls around, I become completely overwhelmed with fixing dinner, loading the dishwasher, walking the dog, getting the kids to brush their teeth. I often pass out right after they do, not enough energy to finish a glass of wine or read one of Cheryl’s one million books and advance review copies.

I am asked if I have children only once or twice a year, and I try not to bristle. I’m not exactly sure why I do bristle—I think because these people are not really seeing me, seeing my incredibly non-mom life. I try not to scream, like in that episode of Broad City, i am not a mom! do i look like i have kids?

I’ve noticed for the past few years, I’ve been trying on families instead of boyfriends. Through writing I’ve made many special friendships with women in their forties. There is one decade between us, and I’m curious what that decade will make of me. I visit these women, stay at their homes with their husbands and children. I sleep in their guest rooms or their daughters’ beds. I observe. I note-take in my mind. I want open communication the way they have, but I don’t want a rescue dog because I won’t be able to juggle a kid and a dog. They have what I do not—stability, Legos, school lunches—and I have what they do not: endless time to read or masturbate or watch three movies in a row or stare at the ceiling wondering what is to become of them.

***

In her essay “Munro Country” about her infatuation with author Alice Munro, Cheryl writes, “I didn’t really think I was Alice Munro’s daughter. I’m not talking here about delusion.” 

I feel similarly about Bobbi. I don’t actually think she is my sister. I’m just joking around. But it would be untrue to say I don’t feel a connection. When we lie on the couch watching Bob’s Burgers, my feet in Bobbi’s lap, when we walk down the street and she puts her arm around my waist, when she wakes me up in the middle of the night to get her water, or when she animatedly tells me about her dreams over tea and eggs in the mornings, I feel safe. Something akin to love.

***

When I made friends with Fran, she was someone I recognized immediately as family. It was as though I’d known her forever. She was so familiar to me and I couldn’t fathom it. 

“I can’t believe how well we get along,” I said to her. “This is crazy.”

“Maybe we’re karmic sisters,” she responded. “That happens sometimes.”

***

Bobbi and I watched My Girl. “This is my new favorite movie,” she declared. We watched The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. We watched Anchorman 2. Mean Girls 2. The Sandlot 2. Zoolander 2. We ate at Red Robin. We ordered pizza and Caesar salad and went out for cheeseburgers. We went on the tire swing at the park. We did yoga on the front porch. We drew pictures. We went to the pet store for materials to clean her fish tank. We picked flowers. I practiced her lines with her when she got the part of Elsa in her acting class’s version of Frozen. Her best friend came over and they danced on top of the coffee table to “Call Me Maybe.” I drove Bobbi and Carver to school, piano class, acting class, soccer, and basketball practice. I sat on the bench while she participated in her parkour class. “Are you gonna stay and watch?” she’d asked me. 

One thing I love about kids is they don’t even know how much they are helping you. The summer I had a broken heart so bad I thought I was dying, Taylor Swift’s song “Trouble” had just been released. We were in the car all the time, as the children’s camps were opposite directions from one another. “Trouble” came on the radio often, and each time, Bobbi and I sang it at the top of our lungs. I call this sort of thing “active grieving.”

I knew you were trouble when you walked in 

So shame on you now 

Flew me to places I’ve never been 

Now I’m lying on the cold, hard floor 

Carver told us our singing was really annoying. He asked me to please change the station.

During the breakup, I showed up to babysit and told Cheryl I was in a bad headspace. That I was devastated. “Is it terrible or will you be o.k.?” she asked. I was about to tell her it was terrible, and I wouldn’t o.k., but she interrupted and said, “Listen— even if it is terrible, you will be o.k. And if it makes you feel any better—my twenties were full of crazy bitches.”

***

If you ask kids, “Wanna do something fun?” they yell, “Yeah!” Adults don’t do this. They often roll their eyes and groan, “Like what?” 

On my last day with Bobbi before I would fly back to New York, I picked her up at school. I loved picking her up in the afternoons, feeling like anything was possible. The sun shone on the windshield. Bobbi saw me from the distance and jumped in the car.

“Hi, friend,” I said.

“Hi, friend!”

“Let’s have fun!”

“Yeah! Let’s get frozen yooooooogurt!” she said.

“Good idea!”

“Guess what a boy gave me,” she said, pulling a large chocolate bar wrapped in gold foil out of her backpack.

I’d been craving chocolate all day.

“I love you so much right now,” I said, reaching my hand back for a piece.

“Yay,” she said, slapping a square in my hand.

We parked on Hawthorne Boulevard and skipped around town. We got frozen yogurt. While I was in the bathroom, Bobbi piled her yogurt with everything I said she couldn’t have, like gummy bears and chocolate chips. We went to the bookstore. We went to one of my favorite boutiques because I had babysitting money burning a hole in my pocket. She helped me pick out a jean jacket with sweatshirt sleeves. I rolled the sleeves up, and she said, “No, keep ’em down, that’s how the kids are wearing them.” I got a text from Cheryl, Coming home soon? We jumped back into the car, singing along to First Aid Kit on the Wild soundtrack.

“Are you thinking about mac and cheese?” Bobbi asked me as I drove, catching my eye in the rearview mirror.

“No . . .”

“Oh. You look like you are.”

***

Two summers ago, Cheryl was teaching a writing workshop at Omega Institute for a couple of weeks, and my mom and I drove there to have dinner with Cheryl’s family. We opened a bottle of red and a bottle of white and ate cheese and crackers. 

“You guys—do you know the story of how we know Chloe and her mom?” Cheryl asked her kids.

“Yep,” Bobbi said, coming to sit next to me on the couch and patting me twice on the knee.

“You do? What is it?” Cheryl asked, sipping her wine.

“Like—we’re actually all related or something,” Bobbi said dismissively, shoving crackers into her mouth, already bored by the story.

“What did she say?” my mom asked me from across the room.

“She said we’re all related.”

My mom and Cheryl and I laughed. We told the story, which is a complicated one with a few twists.

In spring of 2011, I’d just begun publishing my writing online, and I published an essay on the Rumpus. The anonymous writer Dear Sugar commented, Chloe Caldwell, I don’t know who you are, but I know you’re a sweet pea rock star. I loved this essay. Loved it. Keep on writing like a motherfucker, sister. I was touched but had no clue who this mysterious writer was. I thanked her on Twitter.

Meanwhile, I was sitting on my mom’s couch reading personal essays in the Sun magazine online. I stumbled upon “The Love of My Life” and was so moved I called my mom into the room and told her she had to read it. My mom looked over my shoulder and said, “I think I’ve read that. I think I even e-mailed the author.” This habit of e-mailing authors when they make you feel something is one of the best traits my mother has passed down to me.

I messaged Cheryl on Twitter telling her I loved her essay, and she told me she loved my Rumpus essays. We began e-mailing. I was e-mailing with both Dear Sugar and Cheryl Strayed at this point and had no idea they were the same person.

I told Cheryl my mom thought she’d e-mailed her many years ago. Cheryl responded four minutes later:

Is your mother Michele? She e-mailed me in 2002. We had an exchange about how much we both love Lucinda Williams. How old were you then? 

Sixteen. I was sixteen then, and here I was eleven years later, unknowingly e-mailing the same author about the same essay my mother had.

That same spring, I got a book deal for my first book. All of these magical things were happening. Did Cheryl do this? I wondered. I asked her.

“I didn’t say anything to anyone,” she said. “It was all you, babe. In some interesting way, it was your mother who brought us together, through my mother. They were the original contact. I wrote in The Sun about how much I loved my mother, and your mother wrote to me saying she loved it. Our friendship was in the stars.”

***

After dinner in the cafeteria at Omega—including a vegan cupcake we all found inedible—we took a walk on one of the trails to a pond. Bobbi was licking my arm. 

“Give me some space,” I said.

“Yeah, God, Bobbi, why do you get so hyper around Chloe? It’s annoying,” her brother said.

“Because she’s awesome,” Bobbi said.

On this fifteen-minute walk, Bobbi wanted me to give her dares.

“Run to that tree and do twenty jumping jacks.”

“o.k. now what?”

“Say, ‘Hi, how are you?’ to this group of boys walking toward us.”

“o.k. now what?”

“Count to one hundred.”

“o.k. now what?”

“Stop talking to me for one full minute.”

“Oh come on.”

***

When I stay with Bobbi consecutive nights, we become so used to each other we finish each other’s sentences. When I accidentally broke the family’s SodaStream bottle, she wrote an apology note to her parents, from me. When she got lice, I shampooed her hair. I sat on the toilet while she bathed, and we talked about the girls in her class. Her dog and kitten sat with us in the bathroom. She wears my t-shirts a few days in a row. She gets the shirt dirty and documents everything we did on it. “This is when we ate ice cream at Salt and Straw, this is when we painted pictures . . .” She wears my band shirt that says Girls In Trouble. “Next time you come,” she said, “can you bring me a shirt that says Tomboy on it?” After meeting my mom a couple of times, she once said, “Your mom’s, like, active.” 

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“You know, like, she’s a ‘let’s have a dance party’ kind of person,” she explained impatiently. “And she photo bombs people.”

***

When Cheryl had to fly to Los Angeles to attend the Golden Globes, she flew me to Portland to stay with her kids for a week. The kids and I had a Golden Globes party. We ordered pizzas and I broke out the wine with my friends. Every time we saw Cheryl on the tv screen, we screamed. 

Be quiet, everybody!” Bobbi said, jumping up and running to the tv to see her mother. “She might say something about us!”

When we picked Cheryl back up from the airport, the first thing Bobbi said was, “Chloe said ‘fuck’ seven times driving here.”

“Did you say ‘fuck’ seven times?” Cheryl turned her head to look at me.

***

Bobbi and I both eat avocados out of the shell with lots of salt. I know she likes her eggs scrambled hard, and she knows I get lost if she’s engaging me in a conversation while I drive. She taught me frozen blueberries are delicious in oatmeal, and I taught her what the word stealth means. Sometimes we buy candles and she runs and drops them on my friends’ doorsteps. We both have a love affair with macaroni and cheese. We love nonfiction books and don’t care for sports. When we walk to the store for butter at night because we don’t have any to make chocolate chip cookies, I am surprised to see she does what I do when I’m alone—when she sees a man walking toward us, she crosses the street to the other side. “He’s freaky,” she says, grabbing my hand. 

When I fly home after my weeklong babysitting stints, I always feel melancholy. I lament I was too hard on her—not fun enough, too strict, and I ache for her company. I miss the height of her standing next to me at all times, especially when we brush our teeth or cook meals, her head near my shoulders. I open my computer and find she’d been looking up the ten worst shark attacks on YouTube.

I miss you, I texted her from the airport. Hi I miss you too, she texted back, along with every single emoji that exists. It must have taken at least an hour. Cheryl texted me the next day, Sorry Bobbi sent you one thousand emojis! She only did it because she loves you.

I know she does, I said.

 

***

Chloe Caldwell is the author of the novella Women and essay collection I’ll Tell You in Person (Coffee House, Oct. 2016).