The Red Zone: A Love Story by Chloe Caldwell (Soft Skull Press, 2022).
When Chloe Caldwell entered her thirties, she was already known for writing three books chronicling the freedom, friendship, financial instability, and personal exploration of her twenties. The author of two essay collections, Legs Get Led Astray and I’ll Tell You in Person, as well as the novella Women, Caldwell had cultivated an identity that looked beyond romantic relationships as the only kind that bring fulfillment. Instead, she presented a captivating life that made my life look embarrassingly basic. I imagined being her Brooklyn roommate—the two of us taking drugs, hosting orgies, and ravenously eating diner cheeseburgers after being, well, ravished.
But in her fourth book, The Red Zone, Caldwell has become a full-fledged adult—she’s an accomplished author and writing teacher whose books get Instagrammed by Lena Dunham. However, as her friends begin to partner up, get married, and have kids, she can’t help feeling abandoned. “I smiled with my teeth, and was happy for them in my heart, but it wasn’t without a sense of panic,” Caldwell writes. She mostly embraced her single life, but she had also grown weary of so much daily self-reliance. Half-heartedly, she began swiping right on Tinder and going on dates that more often than not made life seem better alone.
“On a Tinder date, a guy said he didn’t like a movie I like because it’s plotless,” she recalls of one date. “‘I like things without plot,’ I said. He ignored me. Told me what he knew about Scotch.”
Caldwell once confessed to her therapist that her ideal partner would be someone divorced with a child. “You aren’t supposed to want someone divorced, with baggage. You’re supposed to want someone with a clean slate—but I didn’t,” she says. “I had a past, and as an author and essayist, my past could be known. Divorced people’s pasts couldn’t be hidden, either.”
Enter Tony and his young daughter Sadie. A local musician whom Caldwell’s father dubs “like the best pianist in the world,” Tony swoops into Caldwell’s life bearing bouquets of forsythia and no hidden agenda. Their bond is swift enough to be both exhilarating and disorienting. Caldwell, whose parents’ divorce left her unclear on what stable partnership entailed, isn’t sure how to trust Tony’s openness and availability. But with him and Sadie, Caldwell starts to believe. “It was surprisingly clear to me that I was with the two people I was meant to be with,” she says of dropping Tony and Sadie off at the airport. “That day or forever? I didn’t know.”
But Tony and Sadie’s fortuitous entry into Caldwell’s life creates a confluence with something else she had been coping with on her own: her period.
“Something wasn’t right,” she says. “Since I’d gotten into my thirties, my periods had become more severe,” growing heavier and less predictable as her moods grew more mercurial. Even as Caldwell takes the trust-fall of building a life with Tony and Sadie, she also has outbursts that confuse Tony in the moment and leave Caldwell feeling confused later. “Imagine a fire hydrant you’re standing next to bursting,” she writes. “You didn’t see it coming but neither did the fire hydrant.” With the help of her therapist, she is eventually diagnosed with premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD).