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  • Learning to Float
  • Written by Lili Wright
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Learning to Float

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The Journey of a Woman, a Dog, and Just Enough Men

Written by Lili WrightAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Lili Wright


List Price: $12.99


On Sale: July 16, 2002
Pages: 320 | ISBN: 978-0-7679-1314-0
Published by : Broadway Books Crown/Archetype
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Lili Wright is a thirty-something woman on the emotional lam. Faced with a choice between two men--Stuart, the steady veterinarian, and Peter, the dreamy writer--she climbs into her car and leaves them both behind.

With only a borrowed dog named Brando for company and a map of twelve states in her pocket, Lili sets out on a road trip, hoping that by setting herself in motion she will find a way to settle down. Charting a course from Cadillac Mountain in Maine to the faded glory of Key West, Florida, she camps out on beaches and crashes on couches, in sketchy motels and even in a cop's trailer. She travels not only south, but also back in time, trying to figure out why previous relationships with a Nantucket waiter, a French tennis clown, a Utah ski bum, and others flared and fizzled.

Along the way, Lili meets a string of unlikely gurus, including a well-worn shrimper, a vegan astrologer, and even a woman who marries herself. These and other unassuming strangers offer offbeat wisdom and guidance as Lili struggles to understand the nature of love, the voodoo of sex, and how couples can settle down without settling for. Between adventures, Lili tackles tough questions: Why does everything love touches turn risky? Does staying with the same person mean staying the same? Where does love come from, and where does it go? By journey’s end, this restless traveler begins to see how she can share her life with just one other person, and how love, like water, can make a body float.

Lili Wright’s engaging memoir from the road updates the tradition of the picaresque traveler’s tale. With unflinching honesty and refreshing wit, she captures the torn emotions, comic misfires, and inevitable trade-offs felt by young people everywhere.

From the Hardcover edition.



I've never seen a mermaid, but for years I felt like one.

Half pretty woman. Half cold fish.

No one knows the precise origin of the folklore, but sailors from Scandinavia to the Caribbean have sighted these bare-breasted sirens perched on ocean reefs. The most common explanation is that sailors, overcome by sun and testosterone, mistook a manatee for a beautiful woman. Manatees and women do share certain traits. Both have hair. Both sun themselves. Both breast-feed their young. And, well, that's about it.

But apparently the isolation of a long sea voyage can take its toll on a man; he learns to let his vision blur with pent-up desire. One Arctic explorer understood this well and hired the ugliest hag he could find to serve as ship cook. When the old crone began to look good to him, he knew it was time to head home.

Though the myth of the mermaid dates back to ancient Greece, she's lost none of her allure. Wherever I drove that summer, from Kennebunkport to Key Largo, mermaids perked up T-shirts and billboards and roadside menus, inevitably copping the same cartoonish pose--huge breasts, a tantalizing golden mane, a curvaceous tail that slimmed to a wedged bottom fin. Mermaid as sex symbol; it has always struck me as odd. I mean, below the belly button, the woman has nothing but scales.

Then again, perhaps it's the logistical impossibility of possessing a mermaid that makes her so desirable. She's the lover who can't be kept, the lady fish who swims away. In revenge, the scorned suitor depicts her as caricature--a big-titted monster, a high-maintenance vamp with a hand mirror and comb. Maker of storms. Tormenter of ships. Seducer of seamen. Vargas Girl meets Flipper.

Yet, for some reason, I'd always seen mermaids as kindred spirits, independent women who artfully slip between worlds. A mermaid can woo a brawny seaman and, when she tires of him, flip her tail and dive down to play with silver fishes. But the more I thought this through, and I did a lot that summer, the more I decided I had it all wrong. A mermaid is the saddest sort of hodgepodge, fulfilled in neither world. Eye on land, tail in the sea, she lingers on the cold rocks, hoping to catch the eye of a passing sailor she'll never call her own.

At the Bar

Fenwick island, de. It was Happy Hour and the rummy crowd at Smitty McGee's had knocked back enough half-price drinks to feel sun-flushed and loose. Around large wood tables, beaming vacationers gorged on buckets of steamers. I sat alone at the U-shaped bar, breathing in cigarettes and radon, listening to the blender grind ice cubes into slush. Finally, Christi, with a name tag, arrived with my white wine, which was served in a fish bowl and tasted like apple juice distilled through dirty nickels.

"It's huge," I said.

"Twelve ounces," said Christi, smiling. Christi had a tan.

Twelve ounces was fine with me--I was looking to catch a buzz. A month ago, I'd fled New York and the romantic mess I'd made there. I do my best thinking near the ocean, like dull rocks that look brighter when wet, so I'd mapped out a coastal pilgrimage from Maine to Key West. I was thirty-three and single, a woman on the emotional lam. I couldn't go home until I made some decisions, until I knew what to say to whom. But so far, I hadn't come up with any great answers.

Christi returned with a menu. I wanted oysters, but funds were running low, so opted for a salad. Then I pulled out the Buddha book my friend Maurice had recommended, a three-inch tome I had been too impatient to read for more than a few minutes at a stretch. So far, Buddha was wandering around hoping to find a prophet who could show him the Way. It wasn't much of a plan and, in that way, reminded me of my own venture. As I was discovering, wanting to find the Way and finding the Way were two very different things. Siddhartha had been muddling along for a hundred pages or so, meditating, waiting for truth to reveal itself. He was more patient than Job. Meanwhile, I had meandered a thousand miles from Maine to Delaware, waiting for anything to reveal itself. Frankly, I was getting impatient--for him and for me.

I read a couple sentences. Buddha was focusing on eternal enlightenment; I started worrying about Stan. Stan was a cop I'd met that morning who'd offered to let me sleep in his trailer, no strings attached, no Stan attached--he'd be out of town working for a couple of days. Though originally this freebie had seemed like a real traveling coup, now that it was nearly dark, the initial trustworthiness he had conveyed seemed like a distant and perhaps unreliable first impression. The idea of sleeping in a strange man's trailer, a man whose face I could no longer clearly picture, a man who said he was a cop but who knew? . . . well, it wasn't the most secure situation. I resolved to drink myself brave or sleepy, whichever came first.

Of course, if I'd really been brave, I never would have called Stuart. A woman of substance should be able to sustain herself, I lectured the side of my brain willing to listen. A woman of substance should be able to sustain herself without phoning up her ex. Look at Buddha. He left behind his wife and son for seven years and traveled alone, and even when the Way-less monk had company, he ate his meals without speaking, in "mindfulness," trying to appreciate every precious grain of rice.

Reaching for my wine, I took a hefty gulp and tried to decide just how much mindfulness I'd need to make this house white grow precious.

Two men walked in and slid onto the bar stools next to me. The younger one, forty or so, ordered beers and pushed a couple of bucks Christi's way. He had a mustache, straight brown bangs, and reminded me of Sonny Bono, back in the Cher days, only with thick glasses and wafflely sneakers. Beyond him slouched an older guy, bulldoggish with long gray sideburns, neck like a frog. Under his VFW cap, he wore the empty expression of a man thinking hard about his next cold draft.

I pretended to read until the younger guy, the one sitting next to me, interrupted.

"You mind if I smoke?"

I looked up. A scar broke over the bridge of his nose like shattered glass.

"No," I said. "Go ahead."

I returned to Buddha. Then they ate in silence, mindful of each bite.

"You visiting?" he asked.

In bars, as on airplanes, it's always risky to start up a conversation with the guy sitting next to you, particularly if you're a single woman. A single woman at a bar sticks out like the final bowling pin waiting to be taken down. Still, when traveling alone, I'd rather eat with dubious company at the bar than alone in the dining room, if only to avoid that moment when the hostess peers over your shoulder and asks, "Just one?" as if you've never had a friend in your life.

Besides, tonight, I had nowhere to go but back to Stan's trailer and I wasn't in any hurry to get there, so conversation seemed like a fine idea. I closed Buddha, mindfully, looked hard into this guy's glasses to convey I was not flirting but simply passing time, and set to work opening him up, seeing what lay inside.

"Visiting," I said. "I'm in grad school, traveling for the summer. What about you?"

"Oh, I live here," he said, pushing back his sleeves. "Work as a dental technician."

"What kind?" I asked.

After being a reporter for ten years before grad school, I could usually gather someone's life story without revealing so much as my name. It isn't hard, really. Most people are desperate to find someone who will listen. Sure enough, this guy began yammering away about his work in dental care. He smoked a Camel, snuffed it out, and lit another. My salad arrived, and I dug into iceberg, while he smoked some more, eventually wrapping up his tale.

"My name's Carl," he said, holding out his hand. His nails were bitten to the quick.

"Lili," I said.


"No, Lee-lee. Who's your friend?"

Carl looked confused. I pointed.

"Oh, that's my dad, Ward."

Ward looked over. I smiled and held out a neighborly hand. I felt bad the old guy had been sitting by himself all this time. His hand was shoe leathery, and he had great gray bags under his eyes.

"Nice to meet you Ward," I said, trying to be polite. "How are you?"

"Fine," he said slowly. "Been drinking since nine a.m."

He turned back to the TV.

Carl grinned, as if this admission were endearing.

"Is he serious?" I asked.

"He's retired," said Carl. "He's free to do what he wants. He's earned it."

I sipped my wine, digesting. Did that mean Carl had been drinking since breakfast? He didn't seem drunk, though I was quickly moving that direction. The bar had become warm and pleasantly fuzzy, like a sweatshirt turned inside out.

"You married?" asked Carl.

"No," I said. "You?"

I was going to hold up my end of the conversation. Tit for tat.

"Separated," said Carl, cleaning what was left of his nails with a matchbook. "Getting divorced."

"I'm sorry," I said. And I was. Just one more story of love gone south. We sat quietly for a moment or two. Carl ordered more beers. The bar was filling up. A chubby woman in a red tank top dangled her arm over her froggy guy, then wiggled her hand between two buttons and rubbed his chest.

"So what went wrong?" I asked.

"With what?"

"Your marriage."

Carl stirred his dead cigarette in the ashtray, making designs in the cinders.

"We were married nineteen years. Three kids. We had a house, a big house on the bay, a boat, forty-five horsepower. In the summer, we'd take the boat out on the bay, cruise around. The kids loved it."

He stopped. I waited a beat or two.

"Sounds nice," I said.

"It was nice," he said. "It was nice until it wasn't nice any more."

Carl took a defiant swig of beer, wedged his chin against the air. Foam clung to his mustache, tiny bubbles waiting to pop.

"Is your dad still married?" I said, trying to shift the subject, scrounge up a little hope.

"My mom passed away last year, but they stayed married for forty-two years."

"That's pretty great," I said, perking up. "So what was his secret?"

"I don't know." Carl waved his cigarette. "Why don't you ask him? Hey, Pop, I told this lady you and mom were married forty-two years, and she wants to know how you did it."

The old man craned his big head my way.

"It waren't easy." He turned back to the TV.

I smiled like this was a fine joke, then pushed back my salad. A cocktail tomato rolled around the bowl like a head without a body. Carl lit a cigarette, motioned Christi for another round. She brought two drafts and a wine.

"Oh, wow," I said. "You didn't have to do that."

Carl nodded.

I couldn't imagine drinking a second glass, mindfully or mindlessly, but I bravely set forth in that direction. Happy Hour was over and the lights had dimmed down to sexy and the tape deck was thumping like a heart in love. Young people pressed against the bar, all big teeth and cleavage.

Carl spoke up again, his voice thin and ghostly. "I guess it was a communication problem. There wasn't much point in talking any more. So we gave it up."

I could hear that silence. I saw his wife, a bony woman, pretty but frayed. She was still wearing her gray work skirt and stubborn pantyhose as she leaned on a vacuum cleaner in the second-floor hallway. Toys were scattered about, and you could tell by vacuum tracks molded into the carpet that she'd steered around the playthings instead of picking them up. On a wooden table under a mirror sat a mug of cold coffee, nondairy creamer congealed into a cumulus cloud. As she looked up, her mouth puckered like yesterday's rose. She took a sip, frowned, turned on the vacuum. The machine growled, sucking and wailing, filling its cavernous belly with whatever dirt it could find.

I sipped my wine, hoping old Carl was going to lighten up and tell me more about dentures, reassure me that love didn't have to come to this, but he tapped his fingers on the bar, lost in thought.

"It got so I couldn't stand the sight of her," Carl said slowly, as if I hadn't understood the first time, as if he wanted to make things perfectly clear. "She couldn't stand the sight of me. We couldn't stand the sight of each other."

I shuddered, watched his wife shut off the vacuum, turn her back, walk into the bedroom, close the sky-blue door. No love of mine had gotten that bad, but maybe I'd left before things ran their course.

It was time to go, but I wanted to get something from this man. A lesson perhaps, some nugget or quote to remember. In my experience, you're as likely to get decent advice from a stranger as a shrink, and you don't have to wait as long or pay as much or think up all the answers yourself. But you do have to be patient because the guy often drops the gem just when you're on the verge of giving up and hunting down someone who is, as TV journalists like to say, a "better talker."

Carl folded his cocktail napkin, then unfolded it and refolded it, like some origami project that wasn't going well. I ripped the cuticle on my thumb, a nervous habit I never realize I'm doing until I start to bleed.

"But I don't get it," I said, wondering if I sounded drunk and deciding no, not quite. "That's sort of why I'm taking this trip. Marriage terrifies me. I mean, forever is a long time, and how do you know when you've met the right person? What happened between you and your wife?"

Carl said nothing for several moments, just watched his smoke billow and plume. I sucked down wine like a thirsty plant. Who was I kidding? I was buzzed and feeling gloriously self-destructive, bold as the woman I wanted to be. Just when I assumed Carl had forgotten my question or didn't care to answer it, he looked at me hard, angry even, bullet eyes cocked, like I was the one who'd broken his heart, like this whole fiasco called love was my fault and he was ready to get even.

From the Hardcover edition.
Lili Wright

About Lili Wright

Lili Wright - Learning to Float
Lili Wright spent ten years as a journalist in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Utah, and Mexico. Her work has appeared in newspapers nationwide, including the New York Times and the Baltimore Sun. A graduate of Columbia University’s M.F.A. program, she currently teaches creative writing and journalism at DePauw University and lives in Greencastle, Indiana, with her husband and daughter.

From the Hardcover edition.


"Following Lili Wright as she floats from one seaside town to another is an invitation to break from our stodgy existences and experiment with adventure in our own lives. A must read, for not only the thirty-something crowd but those of us way beyond."
-- Joan Anderson, author of A Year by the Sea and An Unfinished Marriage

"With ribald candor, Lili Wright charts the treacherous territory between the desire for emotional connection and the safety of cavalier independence. Learning to Float is an incredibly smart, brave, and honest book about a woman trying to come to her senses."
--Ken Foster, author of The Kind I'm Likely to Get

"The joy of this book is the combination of fearless self-confrontation and the freedom of the open road. Lili Wright did what so many women dream of: She drove away from her relationships, had adventures, and lived to tell the tale in a funny, honest, and fascinating book."–Haven Kimmel, author of A Girl Named Zippy and The Solace of Leaving Early

“Romantic confusion has never been as much fun as this trip down the east coast in Lili Wright's Mazda. Learning to Float is witty, touching, endlessly charming, and as human as a face in a snapshot.”–Luc Sante author of Low Life

From the Hardcover edition.
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Discussion Questions

About the Book

If you're part of a reading group, the following questions about love, travel, and the art of learning to float may spark an even more lively discussion by highlighting key passages, exploring underlying themes and motifs, and helping you relate this memoir to your own life.

About the Guide

When Lili Wright left her familiar world for the open road, she opened herself up to a life-changing adventure. She journeyed south in her Mazda, but also back in time to revisit her old relationships, hoping to understand what makes a romance thrive or falter. With help from a series of surprising sages who offered offbeat guidance and advice, she struggles to understand the voodoo of sex, and how couples can settle down without settling for.

Discussion Guides

1. At the beginning of the book, Lili sets off on a road trip alone to gain new insight into her failed relationships. Have you ever taken a journey of self-discovery? Do you learn more about yourself from being with other people or being alone?

2. Why do you think this memoir is called “Learning to Float”? How does floating act as a guiding metaphor for the book? Why does Lili compare herself to a mermaid?

3. One reviewer suggested that Lili approaches her romantic life more like a man than a woman. Do you agree? Do men and women have fundamentally different conceptions of sex and love?

4. At the beginning of the book, Stuart lashes out at Lili saying: “You’ve never loved anyone. You’ve never given anything.” Did Lili treat Stuart fairly? What about her other boyfriends? Is it possible to put yourself first and still have a healthy relationship? What do you need to give a partner to make a relationship last?

5. What did you think of Lili’s description of playing with Barbie? Can you look back at how you played with toys and see ways it foreshadowed the adult you became?

6. At the beginning of the book, Lili says she can’t seem to get her heart, head and body moving in the same direction. Do you ever think one thing and feel another? When you face a difficult decision, do you listen to your head or your heart? What role, if any, does intuition play? Do you trust a decision even if you can’t explain it?

7. How is Lili like her parents and how is she different?

8. In Utah, Lili dates several people in quick succession, often with an uncomfortable “overlap.” Why does she find it so hard to commit to one person? Is this related to the pressure she feels to “settle down”? Have you felt similar pressures?

9. p. xxx , Lili tells Stuart that sometimes she forgets she driving and Stuart insists that means she’s driving well. Lili says she can only do it when she is alone and then compares this to sex. What does she mean? Are there some things you do well alone but struggle to do with your partner? Why? Is it possible to think too much?

10. How do Nana’s expectations for Sandy Bottom Beach relate to Lili’s struggle?

11. In the chapter, “Back at the Bar,” Lili describes the alternating euphoria and desolation she feels while traveling. What are the joys and challenges of traveling alone? Is it more rewarding to plan a trip or be spontaneous? Do bad trips make better stories?

12. In the Tangier chapter, Lili compares herself to crabs, which shed their shells many times as they grow. Lili realizes she has used her relationships to help her find herself. Have your romantic relationships helped you define yourself? Is there anything wrong with doing this?

13. In the chapter, “Fear of Flying,” Lili Wright writes that although sex is a natural act, it didn’t come naturally to her. Can you relate to this statement? How does our popular culture (movies, television and advertisements) portray sex and is that portrayal accurate?

14. In Edisto, Lili scolds herself for playing things too safe. Soon after, she climbs into the motorboat and goes shrimping with Troy and Randy, two men she has just met. Would you have gotten in the boat? Have you taken similar risks? If so, why?

15. In the scene at the black Baptist church, Lili defines grace as “the marriage of strength and surrender.” How would you define grace?

16. What does Lili learn from Grampy? What role does he play in the book? What have your own grandparents taught you about love and life?

17. On the road, Lili meets many eclectic characters, from Troy, the redneck shrimper, to Leon, the vegan astrologer. How does she learn from the people she meets? Is it sometimes easier to take advice from a stranger than from a close friend or relative? Why? Do you see things differently when you're away from home?

18. While having her chart read in Key West, Lili muses that perhaps it doesn’t matter so much which man you choose, what matters most is the faith you have in him.
Do you think there is such a thing as a Mr. or Ms. Right? Or is there just a Mr. or Ms. More Right Than Everyone Else? How does this relate to Roger’s question: “Who are you willing to fight for?”

19. As she drives into Key West, Lili says she feels “bolder, more optimistic.” How has she changed?

20. What does Lili learn from the Woman Who Married Herself?

21. While wading in ocean off Little St. Simons (island in the final scene, Lili thinks: “We spend our whole lives swimming alone.” Do you agree?

  • Learning to Float by Lili Wright
  • June 10, 2003
  • Biography & Autobiography
  • Broadway Books
  • $19.00
  • 9780767910040

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