I’ve never loved the term “hopeless romantic.”
It sounds so sad and vulnerable, the description of someone too lovesick to even notice when tidal waves of hurt and rejection are sweeping their way.
Although, if I’m being honest, I can think of no better way to describe myself. Cut to my teenage bedroom, which was full of dozens of romantic stories: meet-cutes and misunderstandings and perfect first kisses. My VHS of Romeo + Juliet was worn through from how many times I’d rewatched the aquarium scene, and the spine of my copy of Pride and Prejudice was cracked cleanly in half.
I didn’t date — although, hoo boy, did I try — and by 16, I’d mastered the art of dissecting every text, blink, and head nod my current crush threw in my general direction. But I didn’t let my own lackluster love life get in the way of my belief that, someday, I would find a happily-ever-after.
In reality, though, I moved around so much that “happily-ever-after” was a pretty distant prospect. My dad is from France and my mom is from Scotland, but I didn’t grow up in either of those places. Instead, my family moved back and forth between Japan and the States, each move seemingly timed to happen when I had finally established close-knit friendships that I would have to abandon. No matter how many times I went through this, I was somehow never prepared for the distance that would grow between me and the people I left behind. I remember visiting the States when I was 15, one year after I’d moved away to Tokyo, and how shocked I was when I realized that my entire world there had changed without me. My friends now spent their time driving cars and kissing boys while I was still desperate to crawl into our old lives, bingeing episodes of Friends and talking in hushed tones about all the places our futures would take us. I felt like a piece of paper that had been folded in half so many times, I was starting to rip at the seams.
Inside, though, I’d created a space immune from the hurt of these constant goodbyes. I lived in the stories I knew by heart — stories where I stood on top of the Empire State Building with my soulmate; where I chased the person I loved through the snow; where I sensed a shift in someone I thought I despised as they stared across the room at me in a new and exhilarating way.
I was completely hopeless. And completely romantic.
At 18, I moved yet again, this time from South Carolina, where I’d spent my final years of high school, to New York City to start university. With me, I brought all the starry-eyed visions of this city I’d collected over the years. Visions of a Nora-Ephron New York, of a steel-and-snow wonderland where love unfolds in coffee shops and strolls through Central Park. But even as I held these secret hopes close — nervously going over and over them that first time my plane landed at LaGuardia Airport — I also knew that my love-obsessed marshmallow heart could be something of a liability. Even in high school, I used to poke fun at my mushy, fairy-tale tendencies, just to make it clear I didn’t take them that seriously. I worried that being “romantic” was the same thing as being frivolous, and I really didn’t want to be frivolous. So I tried to strike a balance between liking what I liked and not liking it too much, between wishing for a happily-ever-after and also pretending I didn’t care if it actually happened or not. This balance seemed extra crucial now that I would be living on my own in one of the most intimidating cities in the world.
It was a muggy August morning when I unpacked my stuff in a dorm room at Barnard, a Seven Sisters college on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. From almost the first second I arrived on campus, I was awestruck by my classmates. They all seemed so unattainably cool, so sharp and confident and…the exact opposite of me. I felt like an impostor, as ridiculous as a little kid on Halloween, dressed up like a businesswoman and shouting to adults about the “important calls” I needed to make on my plastic cell phone.
I’d wanted to go to Barnard ever since I’d read about its creative writing program and all the authors who’d graduated from there. But this same reputation also daunted me. It took several semesters for me to work up the nerve to join a writing class, and when I finally did, I kind of wished I hadn’t. On one of the first days of class, I overheard a group of girls laughing and making fun of the Twilight books. They were perfect Urban Outfitters hipsters, wearing tortoiseshell glasses and drinking iced black coffee and looking so sophisticated that it made my stomach cramp. I tried to suppress an increasingly nauseating thought that my heavy book bag was currently bulging with a brand new copy of Twilight: Breaking Dawn. What would happen if I had to unzip the bag during class? Would they see the book? Or worse! Would the book fall out and skid across the floor? Would the room go dead silent and would they all stare and would one of them finally stand up, point at me, and shout “IMPOSTOR!” while everyone else — including the teacher — demanded that I get out?!
Admittedly, this reaction was a teensy bit dramatic. And, looking back on it now, I know that a healthy degree of paranoia was responsible for that. I know there were other Barnard girls who read Twilight. I know there were Barnard girls who loved love stories too. But I clung to moments like that one — moments where I felt small and foolish — because they were proof of something I believed deep down: that an intelligent, successful woman would never rewatch When Harry Met Sally, mouthing along with the dialogue, or page frantically through a new book, hoping the characters would kiss. This ideal woman, the kind of woman who deserved to be at a school like Barnard — she was nothing like me.
So, over the next few years, I tried to shut those parts of myself down. I never once read my favorite familiar passages from The Princess Diaries or swooned over Leo and Claire eyeing each other up through some fish. Although I did take a class on Jane Austen, I told anyone who would listen that I was interested in the social commentary of her work, not the “romantic aspects.” And when I wrote my senior-year thesis for the last creative writing course of my university career, I described it to my professor as “a striking meditation on what happens when a bitter old man begins to age and die.” You know. Topics near and dear to my heart.
Of course I was miserable, lying awake at night and feeling like this bright city and this life that I’d yearned to lead were closing in around me. But I was also confused. I thought I was finally grown up! I used phrases like “striking meditation” for crying out loud! But the more I tried to cram myself into this model of who I thought I should be, the more my life began to unravel. The quiet, daydreamy world I had cultivated over so many years was gone. There was no space left for me to go and breathe and be myself.
On top of that, at 19, I began my first serious battle with depression. A battle that, in my senior year, came back with a painful vengeance. At its best, the depression felt like a fog I was constantly trying to push aside. At its worst, I would wake up with a splitting migraine and a body so leaden, I struggled to leave my bed. On one of those mornings, too shaky to even think about studying, I picked up the only nonacademic book I had on my desk, a book a friend who interned at a publishing house had lent me.
It was a young adult romance: 13 Little Blue Envelopes by Maureen Johnson.
And I fell in love with it.
Love. That's the only way I can describe the feeling. This feeling like frosted sugar cookies and sweetness and bright, snowy mornings. This feeling like looking at the stars on a clear night and laughing at a friend's joke until your stomach hurts and the corners of your mouth begin to ache. Every sentence I read felt like a gentle crack being tapped into the jaded facade I’d tried so hard to construct. And, through that crack, something soft began to pour out of me.
After that, my life began to change. I began to read for pleasure again. I began to find my way back to love stories. Not just the boy-meets-girl love stories I’d been obsessed with before, but girl-meets-girl and boy-meets-boy stories, too. I devoured stories that were about nonromantic love as well: the love between friends and the love that builds a sisterhood and the love you feel when you’re awestruck by a moment and everything about it just seems right.
These stories transformed me. Or, maybe more accurately, they stopped me from trying to transform into somebody else.
After graduation, I got a job in children’s publishing and rented a room in my first real Manhattan apartment. The room was barely furnished, but I filled every corner of it with books — stacked against the walls and tucked beneath the bed and covering my bedspread while I slept. I was living my own kind of love story then, a fairy tale where the words I read crept around me like vines and pulled me into a cocoon of wonder and comfort and delight.
I began to understand that all the work I’d done pulling away from those same emotions hadn’t made me more “grown up.” It had made me cut off and disconnected. It had made me ashamed of who I was, so ashamed that I’d chosen to write about old men in a desperate attempt to run as far away from myself as I possibly could. But now here I was, reading E. Lockhart and Maureen Johnson and Meg Cabot. I was laughing and grinning and swooning for the first time in years.
I think I was drawn to young adult romance in particular, because these books explored what it was like to be young and messy and finding your feet as well as falling in love. I was a bit older than I’d been when I’d sat anxiously in those Barnard writing classes, old enough that I now understood that stories like these weren’t babyish at all. They were witty and wise and insightful, and they showed me that I could be those things, too, without sacrificing my romantic, wistful self in the process. I didn’t have to choose between being smart or sentimental, clever or whimsical — I could be all those things at once. I’d always been all those things at once.
That realization was like oxygen. A deep lungful of it after years of holding my breath. I suppose, in some ways, it was the same feeling I’d had back in high school when I used love stories as a balm against leaving so many people and places I cared about. But, this time, it felt like much more than that. Because I wasn’t trying to build a wall between me and what I knew mattered to me most. This was my true happily-ever-after: diving into these stories wholly and, piece by piece, discovering and embracing me.
The me who was romantic. And so full of hope.