Books To Break Up To
by Laura Winnick
He told me he wasn’t coming to New York with me one Wednesday night in April in Oakland. We were at the peak of the Bay Area’s allergy season. I stayed up all night rereading Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation and sniffing, alternatively popping little round homeopathic pills like tic-tacs: sneezing, crying, sneezing.
With her stainlessly honest quips about partnership, Jenny somehow made me feel like I could laugh at the absurdity of it all. Just last week, he and I had contemplated seriously a two-bedroom in Bed-Stuy, idealized rent cheap enough for a home office, a room for him to write.
The sparse, cherished prose of Dept. of Speculation anchored me: the narrator spilling outward, ruminating over the ending of a marriage, her own unwinding. She writes, Sometimes at night I conduct interviews with myself. What do you want? I don’t know. What do you want? I don’t know. What seems to be the problem? Just leave me alone. I laughed, then cried, carried by the gripping, shaky internal monologue.
Rereading it, I found it was as much about the impossibility of motherhood as it was the deceit of the husband’s affair. Offill’s fragmented narrative centers the inherent messiness of life, how, in partnership, the stifled parts of self always manage to resurface.
A woman’s life, then, neatly summed up in dense poetics: all challenge, no mercy.
I spent much of my last solitary month in Oakland naked, rolling around on my bare bed in the afternoon light, feeling through fingers. After I finished, I’d open my laptop and send off emails to strangers on Craigslist in Brooklyn, looking for roommates, offering myself.
My room slowly emptied itself: first the coat rack went, next the desk, then the dresser, finally the chair. The posters ungrasped the walls, the pile of magazines shifted to recycling, and I packed box after box after box, forgetting to label them as I went.
The bookshelf, with its well-worn books and memories of him (narratives we shared, swapped, sweated over), was the last to go.
I found that I woke up at 5 am nightly, knew the night’s hour before turning over my candled phone screen. In my bed, there were multiple books, wadded-up tissues, scattered pills.
It was the nightly pre-dawn dawning, this awakening, this routine. I got out of bed to pee, walked quietly on the soft bare pads of my feet, climbed back under my covers, turned on my reading lamp, opened the page, and dove in.
I often had Lucinda Williams’ “Are You Alright?” in my head, as I conducted interviews with myself: Are you alright? Are you sleeping through the night? Do you have someone to hold you tight? Do you have someone to hang out with? Do you have someone to hug and kiss you? The intuitive, reflexive response: I don’t know. I don’t know. Leave me alone.
I made daily pilgrimages to the bookstore up the street, some attempt to re-stabilize, return to myself.
I found Lydia Davis’s The End of the Story on the used bookshelf, after a friend explained how she had shipped it to her ex-boyfriend’s house post-break up, without even a note; it said all the things I felt.
Davis’s novel both says and unsays the feelings and the things of a separation. A woman writes her way through a break-up (as it turns out I’m not the first one). As readers, we wonder whether we can trust her hand-collaged memories. Her cut-and-pasted snippets of a life now boxed away mark a mess of a chronology, a ransom-note of a book. Whether or not we can trust Davis’ narrator, she delivers us sharply astute commentary on what we love in a partner, which is, ultimately, what we miss most: But when I thought my mind was altogether taken up with other things, as I stood on a railway station platform, waited by a car, entered or left a house, walked up or down a driveway, went out into the cold, went back in out of the cold, I would suddenly remember the sweet smell of his skin, and I would miss his open arms, how perfectly still he was when he opened his arms to me, as though all his attention was on me and on taking me into his arms…
That last month I said goodbye to all parts West—to California and her willowy cadences, to the hike near my house that brought me, in a steeped twenty minutes, to overlook the scenic Golden Gate, to the twinkling East Bay sprawled out below, her highways, her hills.
But most of my adieus were exchanged in my bedroom, as I read, sifted through old notes, cards, journals, compiling and then separating: making large piles smaller and smaller. Such is the work of erasure, of goodbyes, of removing a character who once played a prominent role.
When I woke, the light in my bedroom an afterglow, there was usually a soft wind shushing through my drapes, settling me back to the page.
In those middle-of-the-nights, I felt a heaviness in my chest and I wondered when it would release itself. Sometimes I read until the sun came up and my stomach growled for coffee. Other days, I read for a dark two hours and then fell back asleep, waking up bleary-eyed, not remembering if the fiction was a dream conjured from my subconscious or if the fiction was a fiction.
When my friends asked me how I was coping, I could not put into words my emotional state; it simply refused narration. I said, I’m okay. I’m not really sleeping through the night... but I can’t stop reading.
There are unhealthier ways to deal, friends often responded.
Yeah, I replied, remembering my 5 am alertness, yearning for narrative-as-release, my unwinding, I guess so?
In the middle of the night the books were catharsis. They became the canvas for mapping my internal emotions; they allowed me to see myself and see my sadness and see them separately.
It was a liminal mourning: a private, nocturnal ritual. The characters I passed in the night were abstracted versions of myself: unmoored, unwound.
I knew certainly that I was alone—that the finding of these fictional others and immersion of myself in them was all outward projection, perhaps inward deception.
And, still, the floodlight question: Are you alright? Are you alright?
I missed in fervid snapshots of desire: his arm at my back, his open and ever-adjacent hand to hold, his body swimming next to mine in my sheets. And less corporeal: his ideas, his earnest pitches, his thoughtful analysis, spoken deliberately, in that deep, cavernous voice. His books, his book recommendations.
Are you sleeping through the night?
Julia commented, “You’re reading a lot of sad books.”
My mom said delicately, “Intense novel choices, Laura.”
My grandmother asked, “Can you say that title again... and spell it?”
One night, I started to reread Sarah Majka’s Cities I’ve Never Lived In, an old sad favorite, one I had already reread, returning to it for its poignancy. This sadness, though, was too much to take this time.
She writes, What I missed most when I lost a man I loved was someone who held a record of my life from that time. It was the way we told each other things. Without them I went back to my quiet life, but with them there was a transcript of living. Transcript, of all words, as a way to describe love. But we all want, in some way, to be able to record our life, and for some reasons lovers do that for each other. Of all things. Of all jobs for them to be given.
I scrolled through old text messages: a compilation of what-do-you-need-from-the-grocery-store, coming-home-now, be-there-soon, meet-you-when, how-was-your-day, and the age-old emoji hieroglyphics that spell out missing-you-my-love.
Of course, the books were supposed to allow me to leave him and yet they somehow simultaneously returned me to him.
We went to readings at least once a week—his and others, never mine. I felt continually that my role was passive audience member, constantly courting his literary group, praising his work, recipient.
The reading I remember most: in the back of a small San Francisco bookstore: a series of short talks on the end of the world. He read a story that began with a postcard I had left him months ago, hidden in a book; as he narrated my penned dispatch, I felt myself grow more and more apocalyptic. He slowly vocalized our reality into a lightly-veiled fiction, depicting his insecurities about our relationship, the threat of it expiring.
The fight that followed—one in which we tried to draw the lines between fact and fiction—drew subsequent lines between us. I demanded that he should have told me before the public reading, that it was betrayal; he demanded that it was fiction, that he was entitled to fictionalize, that he was convinced I’d enjoy the surprise of it all.
I don’t remember his response—only that we slept in separate beds that night—an echoed: What did I want? What did I want? What seemed to be the problem?
And the daughter from Dept. of Speculation, how she asks her mother, why would you ruin my favorite thing?
Why would you ruin my favorite thing.
I passed sleepless weeks reading, and then I found Elena Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment, which brought me to a fervor. I read the novella in its entirety in the middle of one particularly sleepless night, punctuated by anxiety.
Ferrante, in her female-first narrative, details the protagonist Olga’s unwinding after her husband leaves her for a younger woman. The book centers on one tortured night where Olga, in the middle of a heatwave, finds herself locked into her apartment with her two frightened children, and is forced to confront herself, her demons, her mania.
In the line-by-line depiction of the woman’s psychosis, I started to question my own sanity.
What happens in abandonment? When you are left to your internal emotions, to feel your way through the skin of them?
I had been finding myself frenetic, untethered, keeping midnight hours, ingesting fiction at a speed I could not fully fathom.
Does a character know when she finally arrives at her breaking point?
I walked back and forth from my bedroom to the bathroom, unwilling to start a book, to begin another narrative, wondering whether the narratives had penetrated too deeply.
I didn’t start to pursue the rereading of Maggie Nelson’s Bluets until I left California, until I was driving across the country and found some inner openness, space to dive into a capacious acceptance I’d ignored.
By that time I had said my goodbyes, had bequeathed the bare bedroom to the next renter, had left even the break-up books behind.
Departing Northern California, my friends and I drove south into the heat of a summer that had been cut off by the Bay Area’s microclimates. We drove through desert and windstorm, undertook a great distancing. En route, we read out loud: packed together into car or bed or couch, ever-near, always sharing, even what had been my solitary act of reading.
To them, I slowly shared Maggie’s deep blues; her writing has the kind of bejeweled language that merits oration. Suppose I were to begin by saying that I had fallen in love with a color, she writes. We supposed.
On the road trip there were so many blues; once you started Bluets, it was near impossible to un-see the surrounding shades, hues of azure, cobalt, indigo. They were in the water and in the sky—obviously—but also clung to the Southwest stucco, dotted the pottery, flashed neon at the gas station. We went around encapsulating them, snapping photos, pointing the shades out to one another.
Despite Nelson’s imagery and crystallized prose poetry, I found that I was somehow not taken by her words: they removed me instead of bringing me closer to my sadness.
Although Maggie finds herself mostly becoming a servant to sadness, one who is still trying to look for beauty in that, I found her instead a servant to theory, to an abstraction of emotion.
The breakup book, heralded in my memory, somehow fell flat.
And so, the book somehow got tossed to the backseat, in favor of love poems to saguaros and moons, Toni Morrison, our horoscopes, Sarah Manguso’s 300 Arguments.
I thought that Maggie, of all people, knew. And yet, caught in her Plato paraphrasing and her Goethe gesticulating, she seemed suddenly misguided, absent of feeling.
What could Maggie show me in the depths of the night that I hadn’t yet uncovered for myself?
Where was her embodying of the fictions of pain and ruin and challenge and merciless destruction—the work of the break-up book—that both absolved and affirmed me of such emotion?
The last book that summer, as it turned out, I didn’t have to finish reading: my blues irrevocably having bled themselves out.
Laura Winnick is a middle-grades librarian attempting to get tweens excited about critical media literacy, zines, and reading. Her Pushcart Prize-nominated fiction, book reviews, and essays have appeared or are forthcoming from VICE's Broadly, i-D Magazine, Women's Review of Books, and Digging Through the Fat Press.