A YOUTHFUL ROMANTIHOLIC
Portence hung in the air like a thick fog. She felt a shiver as she eyed him from across the bar. He worked the room as if he was running for office, calling everyone by name and seeming genuinely interested in their idle babble. When he touched her shoulder, she sat erect . . . "I don't believe we've met," he said with an all-American smile that revealed compelling dimples. "Oh, my God," filled her head so loud that she feared she may have actually uttered the phrase.
—E-MAIL FROM A FORMER BOSS, APING TYPICAL HARLEQUIN PROSE
Not long after Girlfriend #3 began her Peace Corps service in Africa, she reported: "There's a lot of 1950s Harlequins floating around over there. I'd never read one before, but I picked a couple up. And when I read it, I thought, 'Now I understand Anna.' "
The gist of such prose is aptly evoked in an e-mail response to my first interview in publishing. Shortly after moving to New York in 2002, I set off to find my dream job. I'd moved here days after earning my M.A., intending to take a break from the classroom, ponder a Ph.D. . . . and better my chances of someday being published myself by getting an editorial job. At one time my dream "literary coup" was to be the virgin who wrote convincing sex scenes--the Meg Ryan of the romance novel. Who better to hire me for such work than the top purveyor of all that pulp? Remarkably, Harlequin needed another assistant. Given my extensive reading of their catalog back in the day, and the entry-level nature of the position, no first job in publishing could have been better suited to my talents.
When I arrived for the appointed interview, there was little hint these offices churned out such salacious lines as not just Harlequin Desire (formerly their "sexiest" series) but now also Harlequin Blaze (just this side of pulp erotica, as I'd learned from preinterview research). No lustrous red walls worthy of any Vegas bordello; no life-size posters of Fabio, ravishing something other than butter. Rather, the front office conjured the environs that prompt many a wistful reader to turn to Harlequin in the first place, which demographic was also evoked by the middle-aged, portly receptionist. She told me I looked like the Brat Pack redhead, but had to call a friend to supply the name: Molly Ringwald. Ignorant of '80s movies, thanks to my homeschool education, I shrugged and returned to vain attempts at recalling business-reference phone numbers. When finished, I had time to inspect the various paperbacks installed in two glass cases flanking her desk. Apparently they didn't want guests flipping to the "good parts" and reading them impertinently aloud. Pages must be certified FREE of reader palm sweat!
The interview (with a mousy man of indeterminate sexual tastes and a sense of humor about his job in an otherwise all-female office) went well enough, but in the middle of crafting a follow-up letter, I hesitated. Maybe $26k per annum wasn't quite enough money for reading crap femme porn by day and by evening fending off horrified e-mails from the half of my family that rarely drinks. I settled for merely regaling friends--and alarming family--with an e-mail about the interview. As would be the case with many of my New York adventures, just getting a good story was enough.
WEIGHTING FOR LOVE
The Harlequin habit meshed nicely with a life plotline I'd been developing since childhood. Some girls plan their wedding; I planned my courtship--right down to the anticipated engagement sometime near the end of college. But all that my leading man would share with the cads and smokers and rebels who tended to populate Harlequin romances was a commitment to pursuing me. Other than that, he'd be a man whose chief virtues were not swagger or bravado but integrity and kindness.
Initially this fantasy was just the best escape I could conjure up to fight insomnia; in a sheltered childhood defined by home and a close-knit extended family, I had little concept of growing up to do more than re-create that loving community with children of my own. I figured ten would do. As long as Hoped-for Husband married me soon enough, we'd have plenty of time to space them out, every two years or so.
He would be three years older than me, I decided, and the oldest of a family whose other children would probably give my younger siblings spouses as well. We would meet during college, I a freshman, he the dashing senior man about our California campus (since I imagined attending a SoCali Christian school known for its choir and music program). After college, he'd go off to the other coast to start his med school training, but we'd maintain contact through the mail…and eventually phone calls, probably one each week. We'd alternate the bill like good friends would, of course. Besides, he'd need time to recover from the betrayal of the girlfriend he had when I met him (in one version of the soap opera—er, story—she proved to have mothered twins with a much older man, during a hush-hush Parisian affair she had on a modeling break from high school).
During the course of our three years apart, Hoped-for Husband would not only get over his girlfriend but, unbeknownst to me, his clueless friend, fall deeply, madly in love with me—no doubt helped along by the power of my oh-so-delightful letters (during Gulf War I, I'd written a soldier from our church and knitted him slippers; when he got back he brought me a colorful, wood-bead necklace from Africa. Proof my method worked? I think so. I'd even baked him cookies).
In the early days it seemed God might let life conform to these dreams, including my carefully worked-out timeline. Sophomore year of high school, I fell for a boy in The Music Man—the show our school produced that spring. We were even cast as characters who dated. Musical Man was blond and had the requisite blue eyes, but his real feat was the ability to lift me.
Sometime during junior high, a well-intentioned parent had hinted a bookworm like me might need to watch my weight so it didn't spiral out of control. Well, I could be suggestible. Sure enough: as puberty kicked in, I watched the scales climb from a slight 110 pounds around sixth grade to a not unhealthy 136 by freshman year. A curvy five foot eight or not, I deemed this "spike" a sure sign that my parents' concern was prophetic (no one thought to tell me a womanly figure weighs more than a girl's does). As soon as I started giving my weight the brain time boys would later merit, it complied nicely by moving upward. By sophomore year I considered myself overweight, a perspective reinforced by regular fatherly admonitions regarding how I could be more self controlled in my eating.
Dad termed his role that of "coach." Since he'd also been my guitar teacher, it wasn't such a stretch for him. For me, though, our lessons had always been less about whatever I was learning and more about a chance for precious time alone with him. Probably half the reason I never took to guitar was that my studies were so often sidelined by Dad's work on his master's in engineering—well, his coursework and the fact my only female-guitarist role model in those years was Leona Boyd, whom I promptly deemed a "tramp" because her album covers showed cleavage, mind you, cleavage. She was like the Dolly Parton of the guitar world. Younger siblings got more focused, consistent lessons later, once Dad's diploma came, but I'd already moved on to an instrument I could learn on my own and with regular instruction—not to mention one whose role models were more decorous men like Horowitz and Van Cliburn.
Ironically, I probably would have had more father-daughter time had I not quit the guitar when I began public school in grade nine. But by sophomore year I was so engrossed in novel pastimes like journalism and theater I didn't realize how much I still longed for the conversation only Dad could provide, but rarely did.
If he sought me out to ask about my homework assignments or interesting topics in class, I don't remember it. Instead I found that the subjects that most inclined Dad to pay attention to me were music, God, and the changes in my body. The latter he was reluctant to praise, as if his acknowledgement I was becoming a woman would allow men to lust after me. Mostly Dad addressed the topic with warnings on how such "drooling dogs" would look at my blossoming figure… especially if I could lose the extra weight his coaching was meant to help me fight.
A book I once read on discipline in the classroom said that when tackling misbehavior in students who do it for attention, you have to be sure to balance your feedback on both the good things and the bad things they do, giving much more to the former, or you'll just reinforce the unhealthy behaviors they've learned. In large part, Dad's "nurture" was probably just a healthy parental response to alarming and baffling trends in his oldest child's conduct--like a tendency to foreground a burgeoning sexual self. But somehow the way he handled these tentative feints at forming identity inadvertently reinforced such bents in my "nature." I learned that even with Dad it was my body that got his attention.
Ironically, in contrast to such "worldly" values as physical beauty, Dad placed a constant verbal emphasis on the character a good man should admire. Which was well and good for Mom, whom he'd clearly admired and desired enough to actually marry. But I was not so sure I wanted a man who merely "admired" me—and that for a few odd, fairly generic traits. Nor was I convinced that Dad pursued Mom with such disregard for her evident beauty! Their chemistry belied his condemnation of desire.
He was by his frequent and candid admission a man who'd been an adolescent bad boy--like the sort against which he warned me--until God began reforming him into the kind of man who went for righteousness in women. In my mind this meant I needed both the virtue Dad liked to praise, and the beauty I evidently lacked, to really get a man's attention. I wanted to be loved for an inherent worth, but pragmatically prepared to work hard to earn it, just in case. That seemed by both Dad's reckoning and mine to depend on controlling my weight. After all, such discipline would reveal not just the beauty beneath the pounds, but also his much-celebrated character.
It proved far easier being a character. "Plump" or not, I was undeterred from trying out for The Music Man early spring 1994. After being homeschooled through eighth grade, school plays were something I'd never had the chance to join before. But hadn't I long entertained my family by striking the models' poses from Sears catalogs we got? What girl gets drafted at six to play the voice of Satan (Mom and Dad were preparing a skit to dramatize Genesis 3 for the church youth, but their Adam and Eve required a third) without becoming a dramatic sensation? Clearly I was destined for a career before the stage lights.
Sure enough, I made it through to the coed dance auditions, in which men and women were taught an individual part then paired up to dance a brief duet. But when we were told that at one point the guys would perform a brief lift of the girls, I mentally wrote this out of my tryout. Sure, maybe my hapless partner's move was to try for airtime, but what puny high-school male could lift a heavyset girl like me?
A blue-eyed, blond fro-sporting member of the swim team, it turned out. For Musical Man to lift me in that audition—without contracting major injury—was the kindest thing a guy could have possibly done in those days. And our onstage audition chemistry (him doing his thing, me flopping around surprisedly at my unexpected aerial) proved winning. I was cast as the clumsy pianola girl, his main squeeze and partner in a rousing chorus and dance number called the "Shipoopi." Already a committed thespian, I threw myself into the part by falling for him in real life too.
Unfortunately he had a real-life girlfriend. But that didn't trouble me much--I had anticipated such a plot twist, and I could wait things out till Musical Man realized I could bake him better bread than his girlfriend. After all, that was Etta James's main selling point in "I Just Want to Make Love to You," and in those days she was my guide on all things romantic. Considering "At Last" immediately followed that rousing torch song on the Etta record I owned, her approach seemed quite successful: she offered to bake his bread, next thing she had her man. The album was no doubt "based on a true story," right?
I'd discovered Etta not long after my parents made the television plunge in 1993…shortly after I had to watch a neighbor's TV to complete a homework assignment. Part of the excitement of finally having our own "boob tube," as Dad called it (as if to diminish his ownership of the dubious appliance), was the joy of watching commercials. Sometime between 1993 and 1996, Diet Coke ran a series set to classic songs I was guaranteed to melt for. There was the masterfully subtle pairing of a honeymoon suite ad with "Makin' Whoopee," the bubble bath set to Mama Cass's "Dream a Little Dream of Me," the waitresses who sunbathed to Bobby Darin's "Beyond the Sea"…and the anchor spot: Lucky Vanous as the shirtless construction worker behind an office's 11:30 "Diet Coke Break." Soundtrack for their lust-fest? Etta James and "I Just Want to Make Love to You."
Not only did I call up Coca-Cola to ID every song used in the series (especially Lucky's), I even splashed out for his calendar—to date, the only beefcake calendar ever owned by Anna Broadway. My parents forbade neither the purchase nor the display of the calendar, nor even the purchase of an Etta James CD, but they intervened at audible playing of the song…at least when they were around. Since I was still, in those days, considering law as a possible career, I tried lobbying for the nonsalacious nature of the content. As a well-versed reader of romance novels, I was well-nigh an expert on more historic forms of the genre. And in these literary specimens, I argued, use of the phrase "make love" applied to scenarios we might today call "making out" (I had yet to hear Shirley Horn ask, "For what is dancing but making love set to music playing?"). Since Etta had recorded this song circa…1960… it was a clear--dare I say prima facie?--instance of that usage.