Updated: Mar 30
“They’ve got charisma,” Carrie Bradshaw tells her friends. She is talking about Vaughn, her lover du jour, and about the family he comes from: Jewish, intellectual, liberal. In the Manhattan brownstone, where Vaughn’s parents live, the table is always set, the topics of conversation move from sex to literature, and the anecdotes on sixties bohemia are as pickled as the herring from Zabar’s that’s going around.
The theme of the episode “Shortcomings”, from the second season of Sex and the City, is family. Samantha hooks up with Charlotte’s recently divorced brother. Miranda goes out with a single dad. Carrie falls in love—not with Vaughn, but with his family. “They’re like Tom Cruise,” she says. “They’re the Tom Cruise of families.”
My heartbreak was substantial, derailing. I tried to close my hands around it, but every time I thought I had grasped it, it slipped through my fingers again. I’m a short-work kind of person. One day, my sadness can feel unending, and the next, I can have forgotten it so completely that it scares even me. But I wasn’t able to make short work of this heartbreak. I staggered, lost my balance. My heartbreak ripped my roots right out.
This disaster did not come alone. Just when I was ready to test the waters, the world closed up and everything stood still. Weirdly enough, it aligned with what I felt: that I was starting from scratch. Love became a theoretical thing, something that only existed in my mind. I could piece it together, customize it. What do I want? I thought. What type of person? Nothing was set in stone. I found possible love interests in passers-by, shopping assistants, Twitter followers, baristas. Who would it be? Who would kiss me before the end credits started rolling? And how would I know, if there were no end credits? What suited me? What made sense?
In their podcast, Sentimental and the City, Caroline O’Donoghue and Dolly Alderton treat six seasons and two full-length movies’ worth of Sex and the City like Great American Novels. Not only do they tell us which of the men they think are the hottest, which outfits they like best—they look for red threads, distinguish themes, discover connections, interpret, analyse. They were teenagers when they first watched Sex and the City. The show, initially leading them towards their adult lives, grew along with them, turned out to be a part of who they were. They knew the four main characters like close friends, and their love for the show allowed them to connect to other women, to each other.
O’Donoghue and Alderton also share their theories on season two. One of them claims that it’s about how you can stand in your own way sometimes, when it comes to love. The other claims that it’s about the difference between being alone and loneliness.
Just like everyone else, I settled down at home. I decorated my house with books, LPs, fine china. I read poetry, one collection after the other, like I was solving puzzles. I listened to jazz and tried to discover what I liked best—which artists, which time periods, which instruments. I listened to Lana Del Rey, to her whole body of work, on repeat. I ordered pyjama sets, underwear, a bathrobe at a warehouse, perfumed packages from Chanel. I discovered what type of coffee was my favourite, how I could best prepare it, and served it with tiny biscuits and chocolates. I wrapped my monotonous existence in everything beautiful, refined, luxurious, delicious—like a memory of civilization, of something bigger than myself. I searched for continuity. In collections of works. Between different jazz artists. Poets led me to other poets. I longed for something complete. I saw a key in everything; behind every door, I suspected there would be a new door. I found playing cards on the street: first a six of diamonds, then a nine and a king of diamonds. In the spring, I found a queen of diamonds.
In the very first episode of Sex and the City, Carrie Bradshaw meets the man we know only as “Mr. Big”. Mr. Big is older, and richer. He’s charming and elusive. In the following episodes, in the following seasons and films, Carrie and Big constantly revolve around one another. He gives her what she wants—for a while, just a little—and takes a step back again. In Sentimental and the City, they conclude he’s making Carrie sick. He’s turning her into an addict. Carrie, who at first is neurotic in a cute way, becomes unreasonable, insecure, obsessed, desperate, paranoid.
We hate Sex and the City because of the hacky wordplay and the sentimental voiceover. We hate Sex and the City because of its unrealistic premise, the farcical situations, the embarrassingly outdated ideas. When men say they hate the show, we tell them they just don’t understand it. When women say they hate the show, it’s because they understand it all too well. We hate Sex and the City because, behind everything that’s good and nice and attractive about it, there is something else, hidden, something we don’t want to face.
The only man Carrie wants is one who doesn’t want her—not really. What does that say about her?
I told Tina about a tweet I read. “Of course this amazing actress has an amazing husband, too,” the tweet read, with a photo underneath of the Amazing Actress and her Amazing Husband on some red carpet. They’re not only amazing, I told Tina, they’re the same. The same type of people, who are attractive in the same way. Intelligent, left-ish, artsy. I want someone who’s the same, too, I said. Someone who suits me, someone you can see makes sense.
I already knew what Tina would say when I saw her raise her eyebrows as I was talking. But Basje, she said, we’re not that kind of people.
Tina and I, we’re single-minded. Nothing fits with us. At most, something may fit next to us. But she said “we”, because at least I belong with her.
In Sentimental and the City, Dolly Alderton swoons at Vaughn and his family, the “Tom Cruise of families”. At the brownstone, the pickled herring. She wants to be a part of it, of that big, warm family.
I grew up without siblings and was raised by a single parent. I learned to entertain myself. I read and drew. I wrote before I could really write—notebooks full of scribbles. I liked to play with other kids, they were always girls. We created fantasy worlds and lost ourselves in our make-believe. But every time, there came a point of saturation, a moment at which it became too much for me and I wanted to be alone. In my room, I sat with my back against the door, keeping everyone out.
Did I like being alone, or had I learned to be? Was it out of necessity?
Had I forgotten how to be alone, in my relationship? Or had I actually forgotten how to be together?
“But you had such a beautiful wedding.”
Charlotte and her recently divorced brother are at the dining table. Being Charlotte, she baked him muffins, as a type of consolation. He is telling her how bad his marriage was, but she doesn’t believe him. Why would you throw it all away? she asks him. You need patience for a marriage, she says, and understanding.
On Twitter, someone complains that people separate too quickly. It’s a young man who’s complaining; his tweet receives congruent responses from countless other young people. Why would you throw it all away, is the unanimous question, but nobody seems interested in the answer.
When do you decide that being alone is better than being together? When is leaving better than staying? Why would you throw it all away? And what is it you’re throwing away?
“I’ve seen you,” Anna tells Verena in Unrelated. “You’re surrounded by your family. You belong somewhere.”
Like Verena, Anna is in her forties. But Verena has a family, and Anna is unmarried and childless. Unrelated is the 2007 debut film by British filmmaker Joanna Hogg, about a holiday in Tuscany. Besides Anna and Verena, the group consists of parents with grown-up children. Anna is the only one who’s alone, who arrives late, who doesn’t belong anywhere. She doesn’t hang out with her peers but chooses to spend her time with the young adults, with whom she smokes, tears across Tuscany, gets drunk, dances. When you don’t belong anywhere, you could belong anywhere. Is that what freedom is? Or is it rather an extraction? “I will just be forever, now, on the periphery of things,” Anna tells Verena.
At home, Anna has a boyfriend, Alex. Throughout the film, she speaks to him on the phone. Each time, Anna is standing in some landscape by herself. Each time, we only hear her side of the conversation. She says she likes being engrossed in this “big extended family”. Is she married to Alex? Does it matter? She is looking for something to hold on to—and apparently, she’s not finding it in him.
Why would you throw it all away, Twitter users asked. Why is marriage not as important as it used to be? What they didn’t think about is that marriage has not only emotionally, but judicially become less important, ever since the law was changed in 1971. What they didn’t think about is that the social pressure to stay together has faded. As the pressure disappears, and laws disappear, the support disappears too. And as the support disappears, doubt comes in. Why wouldn’t you leave when it gets hard? Why would you wait for it to get better?
What they didn’t think about is that sometimes, you don’t have a choice. Sometimes the other person leaves, and it’s you who wants to stay.
I didn’t particularly want to have kids. Maybe it will happen, I thought. If the opportunity presents itself, if I have a man, if I have a house, if we’re fertile, I thought. Only now do I realize that my decisions were definitely predicated on the maybe. Around the time that I turned thirty, I chose to have committed relationships with men who were at similar stages in their lives. I picked out a spacious house with a permanent rental agreement. The conditions were favourable for this maybe. But it didn’t happen.
Usually when people think of midlife crises, they think of fast cars and young mistresses, balding men and second families, but isn’t the female version much more compelling? Why aren’t we—filmmakers, writers, essayists—discussing the enormously dramatic potential of menopause, or the preamble to it?
The door closed, my eyes opened. What will I choose to guide me, when there’s no longer a maybe to take into account? There’s no pressure, no weight. The possibilities are endless. Is that what freedom is?
I fell in love with someone who is almost half my age. And it makes sense, and it doesn’t. There are no end credits, there’s no way to predict how it will play out. I analyze us, overthink it all incessantly. What do I hope to gain from having an answer to why?
I tell a friend about the Amazing Actress and her Amazing Husband. About the tweet, about it making sense, about how I want it to make sense too. He and his boyfriend also “make sense”, he says. They’re the same type, attractive in the same way. But that’s what’s on the outside, he says. On the inside, they’re completely different. The friend said: you’re only looking at it from the outside. Who do I want it to make sense for? For me? Or for the paparazzi picture?
The wedding was beautiful, the marriage was celibate. Charlotte’s brother doesn’t need muffins, he needs to get laid.
I know that it makes sense, I feel that it does. There’s a sense of continuity that I’m just beginning to see. A whole that I was blind to all this time.
The man I fell in love with visits his grandparents. He goes bowling with cousins, goes to dinner parties, meets up with people. I rarely see my family, and my last grandmother died when I was seventeen. But I call my mother. I video call my father’s family on the anniversary of his death. We toast him in front of the camera, holding glasses of jenever.
People who have kids see their own lives repeated back to them. I didn’t want kids, but I like the logic of it. When I was alone with my heartbreak, all my things started imposing on me: boxes filled with photographs, shelves filled with diaries. I remember how I used to look at my parents’ photo albums as a kid, full of pictures from before I was born. I belonged with those people, I would become like those people. The repetition of it soothed me.
Who will look at my pictures? Who will throw it all away when I die—not just my stuff, but my parents’ stuff? What does it mean for me to be the last one? How am I a part of this whole?
“I will just be forever, now, on the periphery of things,” Anna says in Unrelated. I like how she first says forever, and then now. When I was alone with my heartbreak, when everything stood still, when I started from scratch, there was only forever. There was too much of a whole, there was only the whole. By now I know how to zoom in, how to think about now. I look for playing cards in the street. I frame the queen of diamonds.
Basje Boer (Amsterdam, 1980) is a writer and essayist. She has published three books, the most recent being the novel Nulversie (Nijgh & Van Ditmar, 2019). Additionally, she writes about film, literature and all other forms of (pop) culture for, among others, De Groene Amsterdammer.
Photo: Anneke Hymmen
Translation: Fannah Palmer
 The Dutch divorce law of 1971 made it possible to file for divorce on grounds of “sustained disruption”, rather than merely on grounds of adultery.