I'm a romance writer, and I've never read a romance novel.
Well, maybe I have, if you count all of the fantasy and horror novels which have both adventure and thrills and smooches and doomed love. And, heck, I've read my fair share of Shakespeare, and goodness knows he showed us quite a bit of passion. And maybe I've read the poetry of Pablo Neruda, and Lorca's plays, and Sharon Olds's "Sex Without Love." Maybe I've watched Moulin Rouge a million times, and Henry and June, and I know I adore Hadestown and Camelot.
And, well, I spent nearly all of last year reading Harry Potter fanfiction, with its magic and tropes and will-they-or-won't-they. The slow burn fics, hundreds of thousands of words which had me on the edge of my seat, waiting for the big reveal and sudden declarations; the short pieces which were more about, uh, "intimacy," than romance.
But no, I've thought. Romantic literature is not for me.
I've written about love, here, and yet love has always been tricky for me. Without a doubt, I've loved my husband for fifteen years, and I love my family more than I can say. I was desperately hungry for love as a child and a teenager, and I looked for it in the typical stupid places, in my peers and my role models and (ugh) a teacher or two. I wanted the kind of love I read about in fanfiction, and I wanted, though I didn't know it, a best friend sort of love. I wanted the platonic just as much as the romantic. And I wanted parental love which was not particularly forthcoming.
I was hungry, so hungry.
I'm not sure that ever stops.
We live in such a strange world, right now, and I think it's easy to feel a lack of love even as we need it more than ever. This country is just hateful, all the time, and the hunger for real affection and intimacy increases. We are isolated, cut off from our usual sources of closeness - friends and coffee shops and grandparents - so of course it all feels worse. Harder. It's very human to feel this way. We are pack animals, even those of us who are quite content with our own company.
So I've felt that hunger, though there's still a part of me which doesn't fully understand it. I've written a whole darn romance novel, yet a few months into the pandemic I still found myself (oh, I'm embarrassed) googling, "What does it feel like to fall in love?" I should know the answer, right? I've got 80 thousand words on the topic - and, well, I am quite happily married! I guess I still have my own challenges with emotions, but I think that another challenge is the numbness of the pandemic. How is our internal narrative affected by the external - how are our identities, our reliance on others, informed by separation?
I've realized, through my writing, that so much of love is about the little things. And little things are what we both do and do not have right now. We have this time where we can see little things in a new light - a partner with whom you can sing in the kitchen, or with whom you talk incessantly over a loved TV show. A new puppy and endless walks, or (thinking of my Grandmere's companion, here) an endlessly adorable and constantly terrifying cat. Trips through the Starbucks drive through with family members who just need to get out of the house, gosh darn it. Dinners by the light of a bonfire, togetherness which demands distancing but is still so precious.
A hot bubble bath, skin on skin, or board games, or crying with your closest friends, or giggling with your sibling, anything, anything to keep the connections going, anything to maintain love. To keep the little details which mean - with partners or family or friends or even pets - we are not alone.
There are little things we can't have, of course. I can't sit with my Grandmere, down in her apartment in South Carolina, and talk about anything and everything. I can't invite a weird assortment of friends to Christmas dinner (a family tradition I've been happy to keep). I can't give my best friend a hug. It stings, this loss. I miss those little things.
I'm lucky, I know. For a girl who needed so much love to a woman who isn't always sure what love means, I am fortunate to have a lot of it. And I still need it, I'm still hungry, because I think it's the only way I'm going to get through the bitterness of the world. I need to learn these ways to love, to love without jealously, without regret, without resentment, without pride. I need to move forward from a foundation of lack to a future of abundance.
Things are about to get a hell of a lot harder, I think, because the election is coming and who the hell knows what is going to happen. All I want to do is gather my loved ones to me. I want, next Tuesday, to have my people, my closest and most essential people, near, within reach. I want to hold and be held. I want to cook ridiculous food and wear a ridiculous outfit. I want the little things - from kisses which linger to scritches behind the ears of my friends' pups - while we are forced to go through big things. I want to say, yes, I know what love is, and I have it, here, now, always, no matter what.
I guess - it seems like I have sort of figured out the love thing. At least a tiny bit. Enough to get me through - well, I hope it will. I'm trying to squeeze whatever lessons I can get out of the pandemic, and maybe this is the most important and essential of lessons. Because I have to meet the hatred in this country with a deep well of love. Love for my people, for myself, for acquaintances and strangers, for any positive future. I need this. We need this.
So, heck. Yeah, I read romance, and watch it, and write it, too. I've got love in me, and right now, as our world is falling apart -
What else do we have?