The Going and Goodbye
Shuly Xochitl Cawood
Platypus Press 2017, 192 pp., $16
Exploring the Give-and-Take of Romance
Finding nonfiction that accurately captures the feeling of events both big and small can prove a challenge; however, The Going and Goodbye achieves this feat and much more. In her debut memoir, Shuly Xochitl Cawood explores the impact of her relationships with the three big loves of her life: her almost-fiancée, Matthew, her first husband, Rob, and her second husband, Preston, to whom the book is dedicated. Predictably, Cawood’s experiences with Matthew, Rob, and Preston do not chart a neat linear course in her personal history. Despite the overlapping nature of the narrative, the book reads as if the author exists as three different persons, a version of herself for each man in her life.
With Matthew, it’s a youthful hometown Ohio affair, a summer love that dies in the coolness of fall. The couple tries and fails to resuscitate feeling. Cawood beautifully illustrates the agony of being the person in the relationship who loves more. This naïve, fledgling Cawood yields like a pipe cleaner to every conceived notion of what might make Matthew notice and love her again. “If you have ever felt that you are not loved for exactly who you are—by someone that professes to—then that love is the one thing you will seek,” she writes.
It’s only when she flees to Mexico to teach English and live with her tia and tio (aunt and uncle) that Matthew acts like he gives a damn and follows her to Torreon. By then, Cawood has experienced a wider world, and this new world of music, dancing, and light has no room for a man with his feet half out of the circle. Years later, Matthew shows up again, except he is a pretentious born-again Christian, and gone are the days when Cawood might have molded herself to his image.
Life with Rob resembles two lovers fighting against the current of fate, straining their fingers toward each other but failing to touch. Marriage to Rob leads the pair away from Cawood’s comfortable Ohio homestead to the unknowns of North Carolina. The dutiful wife version of Cawood pretends she wants Rob’s minimalist adventurer’s life instead of a single place to belong. No one can deny the love that exists between them, but just as real as the forces drawing Cawood to familial and familiar roots is Rob’s wish to dig up his roots and transplant himself to exotic locales. Chapel Hill, NC becomes their first monumental compromise, and it isn’t too long before the happy façade crumbles.
Post-divorce Cawood stands at an impasse so vast it must feel like being drawn and quartered. Learning to live on her own again, she confronts nostalgia for people from her past and what might have been, until a contra-dancing man from Tennessee shakes her life up like a snow globe. Preston, a mortician by trade, is the final point in Cawood’s love triangle. The point of light. Through the loss of best friends, the raising of good dogs, and a significant health scare, Preston is her partner. Proudly, Cawood is his wife without being defined by him.
In non-fiction, it can be tempting to pretend, falter into pretense, act as though we are better, smarter, and kinder than we really are. Cawood refuses these temptations and tells her story as she remembers it. She may have grown up in Ohio, but she has a Southerner’s style of telling it like it is, owning up to her failures and the part she played in the devolution of her love life as well as its evolution. A reader might point out the memoir’s structure, how it jumps from scene to scene and memory to memory, which can have a jarring effect when trying to keep up with the fascinating details of Cawood’s three selves as a woman, partner, and overall independent human being. But then life isn’t linear, and love certainly isn’t, so to look at it another way: The Going and Goodbye knows what it needs to be.