It’s Not You, It’s Me: A Breakup Reading List

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A late bloomer as far as relationships go, my first encounter with heartbreak came from the track. It was junior year. The district meet: all big Texas sky and girls next to me adjusting hair ties and heat waves shimmering ahead. At that point in my life, I had devoted myself entirely to running. I had skipped every pool party and social gathering for three years to chisel myself into a faster time, a college scholarship, or something I couldn’t quite put my finger on — something that would finally indicate to me I had succeeded. I had won handily the year before, and everyone in the stands anticipated I’d win again. But when the gun went off, and I eased into a pace that should have felt easy given the rigor of my training, my legs stiffened. With each of the eight laps, I grew slower. Girls passed and I watched their ponytails sway across their thin frames. No matter how much I cajoled myself forward, no matter how many times I reminded myself of the years of work I’d put in, my body didn’t respond. I came in close to last.

Usually, at the end of a season, I jumped right back into running, but that loss felt like an irreparable fissure between me and first love. Heartbreak tasted like Coca Cola and boxes of Sour Patch Kids, and sounded like Coldplay’s “Fix You” repeated for melodramatic effect on the bus ride home. Too sad to study splits at night, and having ignored all social situations for years, I found myself reaching for something to fill what felt like a hunger inside me, a gnawing that reminded me of the ways I’d failed, the potential I’d lost. Those nights, I began a ritual of reading in my closet. I devoured books until one or two in the morning. At first, there was an escapist tendency to my reading; I wanted to forget the world I was living in and enter another. But, after weeks and a stack of novels, I realized that the words were guiding me back to solid ground. In reading about the nuances of another’s life, I was far enough removed to engage with what felt like the losses in my own. Slowly, I began to heal. I returned to running and pursued longer distances and faster times, my muscle evolving through training cycles; I’m sure there’s a metaphor for love buried somewhere in there.

Recently, over a decade after that track race, I experienced heartbreak again, but this time with someone I thought I might spend a life with. Just as I had after my district race, I mourned the possibilities of what could have been. I reviewed my own shortcomings. I doubted in my capacity to feel that sweet burn of distance again, the ache of muscle that indicates you are moving through the world as well as the bounds of your body will allow. I wondered if I would ever be able to trust again, to love. In the weeks that followed, as if grooved into some map of memory, I found myself reading a book a day, disappearing from the world for a few hours before surfacing again. I read and I ran and I read and I ran until I sloughed away the dead parts of the past, and trusted that the beautiful parts of the relationship — the parts that taught me compassion and made deeper my vulnerability and nurtured me toward growth — remained with me, even if the person who had fostered them did not.

Here, in case you, too, are experiencing any variety of heartache, is a reading list of essays that have allowed me to grieve. They’ve been friends telling me exactly what I needed to hear, and ultimately, have given me hope that there are new and unexpected futures ahead, even if now I only have a glimpse.

1. On Nighttime (Hanif Abdurraqib, May 15, 2019, The Paris Review)

Hanif Abdurraqib ruminates on places he has spent a series of nights: watching over a hospital bed, working at a hotel, waiting up for a long-distance love. By holding his experiences of heartache up to the light and carefully considering Lucy Dacus’s song “Night Shift,” Abdurraqib explores the liminal space that exists between hearts that are whole and broken, and moments that bleed between darkness and light.

In those days, I imagined daylight hours as no time to build a graveyard for memory. I couldn’t do what I needed to among the waking, forcing myself to run errands or pulling the shades down against the sun.

2. The Perfect Man Who Wasn’t (Rachel Monroe, April 2018, The Atlantic)

Finding true love amid the slush of online dating profiles often feels like a fantasy, which is why, when about a dozen women connected romantically with a man who called himself “Richie,” they felt lucky beyond measure — but only at first. Rachel Monroe, in this riveting read, reveals how Derek Alldred deceived so many women, explores the history of the con man, and, in a most satisfying turn, explains how his victims banded together after heartbreak to ensure he would never have the chance to con again.

Even Derek’s victims, who understand better than anyone else how these things work, repeatedly questioned one another’s choices when speaking with me: How did she let it go on that long, why did she let him move in when she barely knew him, how did she not see through this or that obvious lie?

3. When I couldn’t tell the world I wanted to transition, I went to Dressbarn (Katelyn Burns, May 23, 2019, Vox)

But by March of the following year, my dysphoria became too much to bear. My wife did her best to come to terms with my coming out, but we broke up when I told her I was starting estrogen, and I moved out shortly afterward.

After divorce, Katelyn Burns reflects on her relationship with a “little black Calvin Klein dress with stripes” that reminds her both of past heartbreak and a new world of possibility that opened when she first tried it on.

4. Love Running (Joseph Holt, March 2019, The Sun)

Joseph Holt’s ex-girlfriend was the reason he began running, but after their breakup, he continues on his own. Solo, running becomes both a reminder of their past as well as a salve for heartbreak.

I think about her every time I run, and I run every day. I feel her loss like a phantom limb, yet somehow this, too, is beautiful. And I run now with deep, propulsive gratitude for her influence.

5. How to Be Heartbroken (Brittany K. Allen, March 20, 2018, Catapult)

How much is the way we grieve the end of relationships influenced by portrayals of breakups in popular culture? Is there comfort to be had in performing different stages of heartbreak? How do we know when we’re ready to move on? Brittany K. Allen addresses these questions and more in this gorgeous exploration of “halving” herself from a former partner.

Isn’t it funny how the language we reach for when describing the real, wretched thing itself smacks of commercial copy? Heartbreak, heartbreak. It’s a pop song. It’s something you buy at Claire’s, or in the candy aisle.

6. The Breakup Museum (Leslie Jamison, Spring 2018, Virginia Quarterly Review)

Married for two-and-a-half years, Leslie Jamison peruses the exhibits featured in The Museum of Broken Relationships, a place where people from around the world send otherwise banal objects — “a toaster, a child’s pedal car, a modem handmade in 1988” — that somehow represent love lost. Jamison ruminates on what it means to separate from a partner, what we carry with us after a relationship is over, and how objects can conjure memory.

Which is all to say: I grew up believing that relationships would probably end, but I also grew up with the firm belief that even after a relationship was over, it was still a part of you, and that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.

7. Her Fiance’s Mountain Bike Crash Was a Tragedy. What She Did After Was a Miracle (Gloria Liu, February 14, 2019, Bicycling Magazine)

Just three weeks before Will Olson was supposed to move from Colorado to Vermont, where his longtime girlfriend, Bonnie McDonald lived, he perished in a freak trail biking accident. Gloria Liu tenderly chronicles McDonald’s grief in this deeply moving piece, but also notes how heartbreak, over time, can evolve into some kind of hope.

As Bonnie spoke more about the experience, she came to use the term “heart opening” instead of heartbreaking. ‘I never knew my heart could feel this much loss and this much love,’ she says. ‘I never knew my heart had this much capacity.’

 

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Jacqueline Alnes is working on a memoir about running and neurological illness. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter @jacquelinealnes.