When I think of my sister Megan’s and my first Eurotrip together as adults in 2012, I remember laying on a deflated air mattress on the hard, unyielding floor of her dorm at University College of London. Punchy from jet lag-induced insomnia, reading and crying myself to sleep—my reading material a chick-lit novel that made the tears stream down my face as I sought answers to my broken heart in the love lives of imperfect women.
For the first few days after the breakup, each morning had the same routine: Drag myself out of bed, stumble through my suddenly strangely empty two-bedroom apartment, turn the shower to blisteringly hot. Each morning, I began to feel more like myself just in time to shout along to Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know” on Spotify.
But you didn’t have to cut me off
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Make out like it never happened and that we were nothing
And I don’t even need your love
But you treat me like a stranger and that feels so rough
No you didn’t have to stoop so low
Have your friends collect your records and then change your number
I guess that I don’t need that though
Now you’re just somebody that I used to know
The singers in that video are remarkably restrained, even when they’re belting out the chorus. I had no such face to save, but there was also no one to hear me.
The first time Will* broke things off in 2008—because he’d developed feelings for someone else and thought everyone would be better off if he were unattached to anyone—my go-to song was Leona Lewis’ “Bleeding Love.”
I don’t care what they say, I’m in love with you
They try to pull me away, but they don’t know the truth
My heart’s crippled by the vein that I keep on closing
You cut me open and I
Keep, keep bleeding love
In retrospect, I probably shouldn’t have been surprised when, some three years later, he gave me a reason to find a new coping song.
Will “helpfully” ended our five-year relationship mere days before I was set to join my sister in Europe for a ten-day spring break. ”That way you won’t have to be there while I’m moving out,” was his defense (have your friends collect your records and then change your number).
The two days between the breakup and my flight are a blur, partly because Will was still in our apartment and we operated in weird orbits around one another, intersecting only for the occasional conversation in which I begged him to reconsider and he stood firm. I don’t remember much of my travel preparations; I have no idea when it was that I decided to put two chick-lit novels on my Kindle.
But I know exactly why I chose them. Emily Giffin’s Baby Proof presents a happily married childfree couple in Claudia Parr and her husband Ben…until he changes his mind about being childfree, and just like that, it’s over. Rachel’s Holiday, one of Marian Keyes’ many chronicles about the Walsh sisters, takes hard-partying Rachel Walsh to rock-bottom, to a breakup with her boyfriend Luke, to rehab at Ireland’s version of the Betty Ford Clinic, though it’s hardly the holiday she expects.
In both cases, these women’s attitudes, which seem unlikely to change, influence their breakups. Not that Claudia’s breakup is her fault, per se, but she is made to lose someone dear to her for the unshakeable belief that she doesn’t want children. And Rachel, for all that she is forced to learn more about herself, is very much to blame for her circumstances at the start of the book.
Call it projection, a desperate search for solidarity. Since childhood, I’ve gone through almost every single personal and professional interaction believing that I had somehow done something wrong. (That’s low-grade anxiety for you.) In this case, there was also the undeniable fact that I had had a hand in our breakup: The last few weeks of our relationship were characterized by 3 a.m. shouting matches—sparked by my frustration that he would wake me up in the middle of the night coming home from his service-industry job, disrupting my sleep before waking up at 7 a.m. for my blogging job; his frustration that he had lost his blogging job and was struggling to make ends meet; other deep-seated issues about sex and trust and communication that had plagued us since our first breakup three or so years earlier.
One of those nights, I became so furious with him that I felt the physical compulsion to express my anger and frustration—without thinking, I smacked the pillow next to his head. He went stiff, then rolled over and wouldn’t talk to me for the rest of that night. I knew that physical expressions of anger were triggering for him, but I couldn’t control myself. Of course that wasn’t the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, but it had the same violent effect. In reading these books, especially Rachel’s Holiday, I was looking for the reassurance that people could lash out in ugly ways and still be forgiven.
I’ve long found solace in pop culture when I’m too emotionally drained to process what has just happened, when I need flickering lights in front of my eyes or to seal myself into a sound bubble with music. After a particularly brutal fight with Will over the phone during our junior year of college, I turned on my tiny TV at 2 a.m. and fell asleep to The Bodyguard, one of my favorite movies. There was a solid two-year period in which I would find The Bodyguard playing on TV late at night and, no matter which part of the movie it was in, fall asleep. This habit took years to shake.
It’s like comfort food: something familiar that taps into endorphins when you’re unable to motivate yourself out of despondence. I only sing Whitney Houston songs when I’m drunk at karaoke, and I fell in love not with my bodyguard but with a cute guy living ten floors above me in our freshman dorm. So, realistic it’s not. What’s important is how the movie ends: with the sweepingly romantic visual of Rachel Marron running out of the plane to embrace Frank Farmer set to And III–eee–III will always love youu–ooh–uuu. It’s the kind of moment you can wrap yourself in.
I was kind of a late bloomer in the romance department, so for years I lived vicariously through the hyperbolic love stories in romantic comedies and chick-lit novels. (I discovered Marian Keyes on a trip to visit my grandparents in Germany in high school, so I knew her books had substance.) I never shared the disdain others did for either genre, believing that whatever over-the-top contrivances or wacky misunderstandings cloaked nonetheless valuable lessons about communication and expectation, how we talk about falling in love and what we do about it.
By the time I was screaming in the shower to Gotye, I had begun to seek out stories that more mirrored my experience. I didn’t just need reassurance that love conquers all—I needed to know that other people had made my mistakes and still came out all right. That even if they lost the person who was meant to be the love of their life, they met someone new, and better.
I finished Baby Proof on Megan’s floor at 2 a.m. in London, my back aching, my head swimming. I mouthed, What the fuck? so as not to wake her; had I been holding a physical copy of the book, I would have slammed it shut. The heroine got her Happily Ever After, all right, but it wasn’t the HEA I’d expected or, frankly, needed to read.
Claudia and Ben get divorced because he changes his mind about having kids and she is unwilling to do the same. So, it would stand to reason that she would find a new guy who supported and shared her belief in being childfree, right?
Wrong. At the end of the book, Claudia and Ben get back together. Even worse, she decides that she would be willing to entertain the notion of a baby if it means getting him back. If I remember correctly, it’s implied that he is willing to go back on his own baby plans, making this couple a sunnier version of The Gift of the Magi. At any rate, it was frustrating as hell. I didn’t need a story where the heroine got back with her ex; that was exactly what I wanted to happen to me at the time, so I needed books that didn’t encourage me.
We spent a rainy day or so in London before heading to the second leg of our trip, in Paris. At the time, I didn’t know that Megan, after returning to Columbia for her senior year of college and a final summer in New York City, would move back to London. Nor did I know that I would spend wonderful trips exploring her neighborhood and catching up at her favorite restaurants. At the time, London—and my Eurotrip—just looked bleak.
On our two-and-a-half-hour Chunnel ride from London to Paris, I hoped that Rachel’s Holiday would give me the catharsis that at this point I seriously yearned for. Rachel thinks she’s keeping up with New York City’s hustle when instead she has developed a serious cocaine problem. Denial does her no good, as it gets her shipped off to Ireland, with boyfriend Luke going strangely cold until she promises to get clean. OK—transformation, redemption, new love. I could work with this.
I almost sabotaged our stay in Paris. The first night, I was up until—you guessed it—3 a.m. desperately Facebook chatting with Will. I kept asking the same questions as if they would reveal new answers: Why didn’t you tell me things felt broken? Couldn’t we have fixed it? What did I do wrong? How did you go from someone who wanted a future with me to someone who doesn’t care about how devastated I am?
Despite sleeping in the next morning, Megan and I were both groggy—me from lack of sleep, her from a sudden sensitivity to light that we later figured out occurred after she somehow scratched her cornea. We hid in our hotel room with the shades drawn for another few hours, me reading and her trying to limit how much she opened and closed her eyelids. At one point, we stumbled out to an apothecaire, where we communicated in broken French “scratch—eye—drops?”
By the time we made it back to our hotel and Megan could see with only minimal pain, the sun was close to setting. We’d wasted most of our daylight in Paris, city of light and love and adventure. On top of that, I’d finished Rachel’s Holiday: After hooking up with someone else in the program (not unlike Claudia rebounding in Baby Proof), Rachel got her act together, learned not to become reliant on drugs…and reunited with her ex-boyfriend, Luke.
Are you shitting me? Once was baffling enough, but both of my comfort-food books had cheated me out of the cathartic, encouraging endings I had needed. Furthermore, it made me doubt my own knowledge of rom-com tropes: Weren’t Ben and Luke the seemingly perfect guys who you realize in retrospect don’t actually respect or get you as much as you had thought? Isn’t part of Claudia and Rachel’s journeys finding partners better suited to them?
The temptation was strong to just change back into our pajamas and stay in our hotel watching rom-coms all night. But we could do that anywhere—we were in Paris, and only for this night and another day. We decided to make the most of our limited time: Shaking ourselves out of our funk, we got dressed up and started walking out of the Marais.
We came to some unspoken agreement not to take the Métro, perhaps because we’d spent so much time indoors already. As the sun dipped further, we walked past Le Centre Pompidou, admired the Paris Opera from afar, resisted the urge to dip into the Galeries Lafayette department stores, made a detour into a shady part of town where we’re pretty sure someone was following us until we darted onto a less dodgy street, and eventually (almost an hour later) made our way up to Montmartre, the highest point of the city, and the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Paris, or Sacré-Cœur.
It was closed.
For a few minutes, we just stood at the base of Montmartre, giggling uncontrollably. Of course we hadn’t thought to look up the hours of operation. We had simply assumed that Sacré-Cœur, this historical structure symbolizing the heart of the city, was just open 24 hours a day.
The Eiffel Tower was glittering in the distance as we retraced our steps, making note of all the places we would venture the next day when it was daylight and the doors were actually open. (One of those places would be an amazing dinner at L’Ambassade d’Auvergne, home of the insanely good lentils du puy and aligot potatoes and chocolate mousse.) We would double down on visiting a museum (we had seen the Louvre on a prior trip) and a garden and plenty of window-shopping.
As we re-entered the Marais, we found another place that was just beginning its evening: Candelaria, a hole-in-the-wall Mexican place with wonderfully authentic tacos and impressive cocktails. We ate our tacos hunched over the bar and peeked into the back room whenever we needed to use the bathroom and talked.
And sure, we hadn’t made it up to Sacré-Cœur for some kind of replenishing experience. I was still heartbroken, and out of reading material. But on that trip I started to mend—not because some charming Frenchman swept me off my feet, not because Will changed his mind, not even because I magically became a better person, or because I had a feeling that two and a half years later that better person would come along. It was a different kind of love that helped me pick up the pieces.
The final leg of our trip was in Barcelona, and wound up being our favorite part—because it was new (and bright and engaging), and because we’d both finally kicked jet lag and various other impediments. I didn’t buy any new books; for those few days, I didn’t need them.
* Name changed.