I like to joke that I’m not single or taken — instead, I’m in love with a fictional character. Characters, if I’m being honest. Exactly when this gag entered my psyche is lost on me, but it’s been years that I’ve repeatedly raised the eyebrows of those who don’t speak single-girl-sarcasm. Nonetheless, I continue saying it, because it fits me better than my favourite shirt.
The facts are: I am 27 and have been single for nearly five years. In this time, I’ve been on exactly one date and can count the number of hookups I’ve had on one hand. As everyone around me celebrates finding their soulmate over Zoom, I struggle with even swiping right on Hinge, preferring fictional meet-cutes and literary lust. While this practice has kept me sane during this extended period of singledom, I can’t help but wonder if it’s to blame.
In 2020, I promised my friends and family (mostly my mum) that I’d put myself out there more. You know, put the books down and break out of my shell. Before I even had a chance to agree to plans that I’d strongly consider cancelling later, coronavirus hit. I wasn’t happy that my life and everyone else’s was (and remains) upended — salaries slashed, homes lost, families unable to be together for their loved ones’ last moments. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t let out a small sigh of relief once it became clear that the pandemic meant I could put dating on the back burner again.
When my ex-boyfriend and I broke up in 2016, I followed the “how to get over a break up” handbook to a T: lots of Kleenex, Toni Braxton’s “Unbreak My Heart” on repeat, and the modern version of cutting your ex out of photographs — i.e. deleting all the photos of us together off Instagram — while still occasionally (read: constantly) checking his social media accounts.
In the two years that followed, I waded between missing my ex and behaving like a character in Living Single. Neither felt 100% right. Especially once I learned that my ex had moved on, and my potential prospects in Brooklyn were lacking… potential. That’s around the time when I turned my full attention back to my first love: books. Once I found myself back in a bookstore, I remembered that there’s nothing better than taking long, lingering walks through the stacked shelves. Well, except maybe heading straight for the section dedicated to romance, something I desperately needed in my life.
If you haven’t read a romance novel lately, you should know that the genre has come a long way from the “bodice rippers'' literary snobs like to rag on. Yes, there’s sex. Lots of it. Some of it involves bodices, but not all of it. More importantly, there are high-stakes plots, beautiful portrayals of female friendships, and characters taking agency over their own lives, careers, and sexuality. Most importantly, romance novels now feature Black women like me getting their happily ever after without trauma, something that’s rarely seen in literary fiction — or most TV shows and movies, for that matter.
For years, romance novels and I lived in harmony and (occasionally) ecstasy. When I wanted a sweet adventure, I turned to a contemporary about a woman who agreed to pose as a wedding date to a total stranger she met in a lift. My craving for lust was soothed by a paranormal featuring a very seductive werewolf prince. Opportunities to experience these feelings in real life presented themselves countless times. But for every good message I’ve got on a dating app, I got five more bad ones, ranging from ultra- cheesy to super- creepy. Therefore, it felt more comfortable to spend my weekends curled up with a book.
A few months ago, however, my therapist and I started discussing my dating life. I’d made small talk at the beginning of the session about what I was currently reading, which inadvertently proved to be the perfect segue into the topic I’d been dodging for the last year. Until that point, I’d generally spoken of my ex and other men in fragments, preferring to steer the conversation in the direction of family, friends, work — my comfort zone. Talking about my frustration over not getting a promotion or the friends I’d outgrown was easier than admitting that I only wanted to talk about love in the context of a fictional story, that I wanted to live the fantasy.
My reality has been that dating sucks. Bad relationships even more so. I’ve experienced what it’s like to be in a relationship with someone who’s unconcerned about your feelings, who makes you feel guilty for chasing your dreams, who mocks you when you reveal your deepest fears and anxieties — and who can’t for the life of them remain faithful.
Is there a man who would never act like this? Yes — the one in my favourite novel. He’s always supportive. He’s a good listener. He’s loyal. And he prioritises his partner’s pleasure. So, instead of searching for the next fish in the sea, it's easier for me to stick with a paperback partner. With romance novels, I get to experience all the best parts of a relationship without any of the heartbreak.
In the end, I told my therapist all this — I told the truth. And the real, slightly neurotic truth is that I’m afraid. I’m afraid my love story won’t be anything like the ones in the books I read. I’m afraid I won’t get my perfect meet-cute — in a bookstore where a man approaches me as I casually browse the shelves. I told my therapist about this scenario, and then went into more detail: It wouldn’t happen while I’m deep into reading the book’s synopsis. Or while I’m wearing sweats. Or while there was anything that screams “I have issues” in my basket.
My therapist smiled. I smiled too, thinking, She gets me. Wrong. She called me out on my shit. Up until that moment, I’d thought what I was doing was harmless — just indulging in a series of paperback fantasies. But, as someone who probably knows me better than I know myself at this point, she explained that I was getting in my own way of making those fantasies a reality. I think the technical term is self-sabotaging. Because I won’t let go of trying to control everything and of playing life safe on the sidelines, no one even gets a chance to try and be the man from the book. She reminded me that having standards and some expectations for what I want out of a relationship is good. But, allowing completely arbitrary reasons — such as poorly composed profile photos, mentions of hiking in their bio, and misquoting movies, all things I’m guilty of swiping left over — to get in the way of even going on a date is not. Maybe somewhere in the back of my mind, behind a reel of literary tropes and steamy sex scenes, I already knew this. But this is what I pay her for: to point out things that I’m not ready to admit to myself.
There’s still a stack of romance novels in my to-be-read pile, but I’m trying to put equal energy into cultivating a real-life love life. At times, I get discouraged and consider going back on hiatus, but in those moments I breathe, swipe, and release myself from the pressure of finding Mr. Right, right now. For too long, I’ve tried to control the narrative. Not anymore. I’m going to let happily ever after come to me. Because if there's anything I’ve learned from the romance genre, it’s that the best moments happen unexpectedly. You’ve just gotta keep turning the page.
Welcome to The Single Files. Each instalment of Refinery29's bi-monthly column will feature a personal essay that explores the unique joys and challenges of being single right now. Have your own idea you'd like to submit? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.