Though my childhood was hardly puritanical, I did grow up attending Catholic school and the most I ever learned about sex and romance was relegated to Bible stories and my own imagination. When you're left with a snake, an apple, sharing of ribcages and nudity in a garden, your mind can only wander so far. My parents weren't afraid to be matter of fact with me, though, and because they believed in things like evolution and science, I could ask and learn about the scientific aspects of just about anything without getting in trouble. The first job I ever held was at my local public library, which suited my intellectual curiosity just fine. As a page, we were required to work no more and no less than 10 hours a week, and our shifts were filled with shelving, stamping due date cards and helping patrons with library equipment like photocopiers and microfiche machines. Periodically, we would help at the reference or circulation desks or in the back room with special tasks. I used to hide in the stacks at work sometimes, devouring book upon book about human sexuality and childbirth. I was fascinated with anatomy and the function of each particular body part. There was a woman responsible for shelving all of the genre-specific fiction that the library held, anyway, and so it never dawned on me to investigate anything beyond the non-fiction and fiction collections. Then, she went on vacation.
I stood in the backroom, discharging books on a cart that was almost entirely red and pink. The library was across the street from my high school, and I prayed with every virginal and holy bone in my body that no one I knew would wander into or past the section I was about to work in. I pushed my cart behind the stacks and snuck into the romance section quietly. The books were well-worn and musty, like most mass market books tend to be, and though I was fascinated by the incredibly cheesy cover art, I didn't dare read a backcover or flip through the pages. I made it probably halfway through my cart before my curiosity got the best of me, so I picked up a book and read the first few pages. There's a tangled mess of emotions mixed into the teenage mind and body, and what that book did in its first few pages was to validate my need for both distraction from reality and provide a justification for this nebulous need within me to understand something with which I had no experience. Love, lust, sex...it was all new to me. I discretely stashed the book on the cart while I finished shelving and then snuck into the backroom again. Though we weren't technically permitted to check out our own books, I did that evening because I had no idea how I would approach the guy who worked at the circulation desk with my book. He was cool and hip, in his 20s and probably flirtatious with me in a way I couldn't interpret. I scanned the book, slipped it into my bag and left for the evening.
That was about 15 years ago this summer, and the experience ignited a ritual for me that has failed to wane in all of those years despite my growing up, growing out and on from the various conventions that kept me demure and pure in my youth. As a queer adult, it makes absolutely no sense for me to get wrapped up in a heterosexual fantasy world, but I do. Every summer. Sometimes, I will start out with an old favorite like Pure Sin by Susan Johnson or I'll find something at a beach house or at the airport on the way to visit my parents that piques my interest. Beyond the one favorite that I've held onto since the beginning, I have few rules about what I'll read. I enjoy Regency-era novels about the British aristocracy; plots that somehow revolve around a wildly intelligent Jane Austen-esque character and her accidental pairing with a ravishing devil, with little regard of his family's fortune. I also have read completely inappropriate novels about the American west where white women are held captive by "savages", cringing the entire time at the thinly veiled racism sprinkled throughout. I like Scottish highland novels like Outlander, sans heavily scripted battle scenes, and I've even read some modern and paranormal romance novels too. I marvel at the fact that pretty much every single man in these novels is at minimum 6'4", well hung, with rippling muscles, limited body hair and the most intoxicating scent known to womankind...and no sexually transmitted diseases despite the fact that he's been fucking women since he hit puberty. Conversely, most women are lithe, fairylike creatures with delicate bone structures, perfect bodies, fertile and responsive bodies and the unfathomable ability to orgasm within five seconds of a sex act beginning. Every single thing I believe in as far as social justice is concerned is flung out the window; its a crazy luxury, and I'm aware of this. I laugh at myself, and accept the laughter directed at me graciously. I also accept the derision. It is weird, and unorthodox, and strange.
You'd be surprised how many readers of romance novels are out there, and how divergent we are from the stereotypical reader you think of when it comes to these sorts of things. Em's asked me on certain occasions what I get out of them...whether it's some sort of sexual kick, or if I rework the scenes in my head to match up with a more appropriate ideal, or if I read them for the dialog (impossible), or if I'm sure I'm gay. Yes? No? I don't know? Maybe! It's hard to say why I'm concerned at all with throbbing shafts and heaving bosoms. I like the escape. This weekend, I read four novels in less than three days. This summer, I'll probably read dozens. Keeping my strange obsession restricted to the summer helps me curb the expense of both time and money when it comes to acquiring and consuming the novels. It also allows me to vacation in my own mind when various circumstances would prevent a more legitimate vacation elsewhere. I imagine I will always look to this genre for one reason or another.
Over the years, it's been hard to admit that I even know anything about [literary] romance. And sometimes, it's been downright shameful. When I admitted to my readers that I am a nose picker with a easing fear of the dentist, it was a reminder to me that I am hilariously imperfect. I don't keep a pristine home, I sometimes intentionally plant my ass on the couch on Friday night and don't move until Monday morning, and I often choose cheese over vegetables. Guilt and shame hide in the same places where we keep our secrets. If I do anything with this blog, it's going to be to tell the truth: I read, and love, romance novels. Get used to it.
[Image courtesy Rebound Designs - Naughty Bits Pins]