Summer Lessons

Balance doesn’t come easily to me.

I suspect I’m not alone. I suspect what I’m about to describe is common, not only to many writers, but to many creative people.

I love to write, and once I start, I don’t want to stop. I don’t want to exercise, shower, get dressed, meet the bus, or help with homework. I don’t want to grocery shop, make dinner, or talk to my best friend on the phone.

(Of course, once I stop, I don’t want to start again, but that’s a whole other problem, for a different post.)

What’s more, I love romance. I could write it all day long and read it all afternoon and evening, and I’d only have to take a break once a month or so (flogging myself all the way) to read a book club book so I can have the pleasure of my friends’ company for an evening. (The whole time I’m doing it, though, I will be thinking about whether I could start a romance book club …)

On top of that, I love the romance community. I love Tweeting with romance readers and writers (some of whom are the same people), reading reviews of new books, hearing on Facebook from fans, and exchanging emails with my writer friends. Recently, I’ve even made some local romance-writer friends, which means I can take walks, eat at the pub, and have girls’ nights with romance writers. One of my neighbors is an avid romance reader, too, and always happy to talk about her favorite books.

One nice thing about writing romance is that if you have other writer friends who write brilliant books, they send you their manuscripts to read, which means that when I’m not writing romance or reading romance just for fun, when I’m not chatting online with romance writers or taking a walk with a local romance-lover, I can read and critique manuscripts that are every bit as wonderful as the books I buy or take out of the library, and then I can send emails and have conversations about these wonderful books, which always makes me think really interesting thoughts about how to make my own writing better.

In short, I love what I do so much that the trickiest part is not to do it all the time. And when I say all the time, I’m really not exaggerating. Last year, I woke up at 5:30 a.m., stretched (because I’d given myself repetitive motion injuries by, yes, writing and reading), and started writing. I wrote all the time, except when I was tweeting about writing, posting to Facebook about something I’d written, emailing someone about writing, reading other people’s posts and emails about writing, or—you know, taking a walk with a writer friend and talking about writing.

It was glorious, but it had its price.

At some point, I realized that I was having trouble conversing with people who didn’t read or write romance. I would cast about in my mind for something to talk about, something I’d done other than read, or write, or talk to readers, or talk about writing, but—

Luckily for me, summer, which has opinions of its own, intervened. Summer delivered to me two children who are not remotely interested in romance, and—though avid readers—do not particularly want to be engaged in a lengthy discussion of what they’ve read.

Summer delivered to me three separate trips—a road trip to Yellowstone Park, a trip back east to hang out with the family and friends I left behind when I moved to the West cost, and two vegging weeks at my in-laws’ beach house. Summer delivered three sets of house guests.

It also delivered invitations to the pool, opportunities to eat dinner on the beach (we live on an island in Puget Sound), a weekly “all-comers” track meet, summer sandlot baseball, the discovery that we can fill a 64-oz metal insulated flask with draft beer from our local brewery and take it wherever we want, and an assortment of other things calculated to wake me up and make realize that I’d lost something.

All the other parts of me.

This summer, I spent a ton of time talking with my kids. I played board games with my son, shopped for a back-to-school wardrobe with my daughter, took visitors to one of the prettiest free beaches I’ve ever had the luck to live near, talked with friends, read fantasy and sci-fi, listened to NPR. I kayaked with my family, saw mountain ranges I’d never seen before, walked five miles on the beach from one town to another, kids in tow.

I wrote, too, half a novel, snuck into the tiniest interstices of my otherwise brimming (but not crowded) life.

It was glorious.

I can’t do it all the time. Summer is special. It has its own rules, and as much as I want to keep “summer brain” as I head into this jam-packed nutso school year, it’s just not possible.

The best I can do is remember how it felt to be reminded of how big my little corner of the world is, and how my job as a writer is not only to write, but also to live, so I can write bigger and better, richer and broader, so I can come back to my people and my community with stories to tell and advice to give, and—most of all—a heart wide open to what you all are telling me, too.

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Cat Seeks Dog

When my husband and I moved from Massachusetts to Oregon in June, we lived with my lovely mother-in-law for two months while we waited for our new lease to start. She’d just adopted a rescue dog, a comely—if hyper—chihuahua / spaniel mix. As dogs go, she’s a good little pooch, and getting better all the time. But I’m simply not a dog person. I get why people love dogs. I can’t criticize the impulse; dogs are charming. But dogs demand more than I personally am able to give.

I can’t say I’m a cat person either, if only because I’ve never had a pet cat. (I grew up with birds, shock of shocks.) But I’m starting to suspect I’m a non-practicing cat lover. Put a good-tempered cat in my vicinity and I will develop an immediate crush on it, wondering what I can do to win its attention, all the while wanting to appear cool in front of it. Whereas with a dog, I spend a lot of time and energy trying to deflect the love-assault. That’s the thing—dogs give out their love like buckshot sprayed at your face. Cat love is held in reserve and will only be dispensed at the cat’s own fickle discretion.

We recently settled in our new place, and a stray has been coming around—a handsome and nosy adolescent black cat I’ve named Sam Friendly. He’s even burgled his way into our house a couple times, sneaking in through a second-floor window, then sauntering past us like he has every right to be there. I sort of want to adopt this ballsy bastard, but at present I’m slightly more infatuated with my new couch, which I’d hate to see ripped up along with my newfound interest in cat guardianship. Still, I did swing by the local clinic to ask how much it would cost if I could lure Sam Friendly into a carrier and bring him in for chipping and basic medical care. He’s a good guy. He deserves that much, at the very least.

In addition to all this real-life cat and dog intrigue, I just finished revising Give It All, the second Desert Dogs book, and there’s this scene in it where the heroine, Raina, is talking with her ex, Miah (Jeremiah), about why they never worked out.

“You saw things about us I refused to,” Miah said. “Like how I’d probably have come to resent you a few years down the road, feeling like I was giving so much, when you can seem so…”


“Not quite. But indifferent.”

She nodded. “Like cat love. You’d have been stuck settling for scraps of me.”

He laughed. “I’ve always hated cats.”

“That’s so my style—stingy little morsels of affection. Give a man a taste, then wander off and do my own thing. Dogs are…”

“Dog love is like a hose you can’t turn off,” Miah offered.

“Yeah, one that never runs dry. Too much. All you can do is try to dodge the spray. Sloppy.”

My husband and I share this same dynamic. I’m the cat, he’s the dog. His well of love is bottomless—it will never go dry, and it can never be overfilled with incoming affection. It’s never not a good time to touch him. He’s never uttered the phrase, “I need some space,” in the seven-plus years we’ve been together. Not once, while I bet I say it weekly.

My well of affection, on the other hand, is finite. It needs time to replenish after it’s been tapped, or else I’m left exhausted and cranky. I mete out my more earnest and tender thoughts in tiny parcels, and it’s about a fifty-fifty split, the likelihood that I’ll be receptive to casual physical attention or not. Hug me when I’m in an anxious or pensive mood and it’s probably about as satisfying as cuddling a rock. I’ve worried more than once that if we end up having a child, I’ll be the frazzled or distant parent, compared to my husband, the all-you-can-squeeze love buffet. I’m hoping that what some friends have said is true—that parenthood opens up untapped reserves of affection and fondness in even us frosty types.

I used to feel like something in me was broken, until I noticed that dogs and cats operate in these exact same ways. If a cat’s in the mood for attention, it trots straight over and pushes itself right up against you. Once it’s content—or if you don’t pet it to its standards—it simply wanders away. Dogs, on the whole, can’t get or give enough affection. As Miah put it, dog love is a hose you can’t turn off. As a cat, that makes me feel like I’m drowning, sometimes. And my husband, as a dog, must feel like he’s giving everything and getting a bum exchange rate.

Except in our case, it seems to work. Probably because we both know how the other person operates, so no one takes it personally. He might wish I was a little less twitchy about my personal space sometimes, and I might wish he understood what it was like to be a sponge, instead of a bottomless well—I get both oversaturated and wrung out pretty quickly, when it comes to receiving and giving emotional sustenance. Try as I might, I’ve never been able to will myself into a more doggish disposition.

I’ve dated fellow cats before, and I can admit it’s not a ton of fun. Maybe I worked a little harder to earn those precious droplets of affection, and maybe I take the deluge for granted now that it’s mine to swim in whenever I like. But I have to say, I’ve never felt so secure with a man as I do with my love-hose of a husband. Like a dog, he never leaves me doubting his feelings and loyalty for a second.

And I think I’d rather drown in love than spend my life feeling thirsty for it.

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someday I will be kissed in the pouring rain

Sometimes I think I know the spaces of my partner’s body better than I know anything else about him.

I know how to fit myself to his every curve and angle so that every part of me isn’t touching every part of him.

I know where to put my hand so that my little finger aligns with his, close enough that I half-imagine I can feel the heat of his skin mingling with the heat of mine. But not so close it looks gay, you understand.

I know how to make a thousand secret symmetries between us, my shoulder to his shoulder, the angles of our elbows and forearms, the distance between my thigh and his, the turn of a wrist, the brush of a knee.

Sometimes I think this is all gaydar really is: intense awareness of negative space, an ability to read between the lines. If you want to be able to recognise queer couples, all you have to do is watch for the innumerable, significant ways they don’t touch.

Because this is how we live in public. In lacunae. Endlessly calculating these tactile geometries.

And, for the record, I don’t want to dry hump my partner in Trafalgar Square. I, honestly, just want to hold his hand sometimes. Smooth down the collar of his coat in winter. Stand too close when we say goodbye.

I don’t want to live on the brink of some helpless betrayal that transforms these everyday banalities into someone else’s business.

But here’s the thing: I live in a relatively cosmopolitan, relatively liberal town in the industrialised west. I’m not illegal. The likelihood of actual physical violence is incredibly small. The worst I’m probably going to suffer are some jeers and catcalls, a handful of words that have close to lost their edges for me, some tired jokes based on some false assumptions about what it means to be who I am.

So what I am right now—what I have been all my life—is a coward. If I want to hold my partner’s hand, I should damn well hold his hand, and stop whining about it. The way to effect change, after all, is to live it. But, hilarious as it may sound considering I do occasionally—in some very small and unimportant way—make myself a talking point on the internet, I’m private, and taking my partner’s hand is always, inevitably, undeniably, inescapably, a political act. And sometimes I am simply too weary and too small to live my politics.

I just want be quietly, unimportantly, inconspicuously in love.

I don’t want anyone to find it disgusting. I don’t want anyone to find it hot. I don’t want anyone to give a damn, except the broadest, most universal sense that love is a good thing for people to have, and the world is a better place with more love in it.

Back in the early 2000s, I was maybe eighteen or nineteen years old, and I’d fallen in love for the first time in my life. I can’t even remember what this honey-drawling, silk-and-satin, golden lion of an all-American boy was doing in my city. But there he was for the whole summer. Maybe you talk to people differently when you know you might never see them again, trust them more, take more risks, I don’t know. But I remember being caught in a thunderstorm one night and taking shelter in the lea of one of the boathouses as the river rushed by, sitting side-by-side, faces angled close so we could hear each other over the beating of the rain. “If you don’t move, I’m going to kiss you,” I said, and he didn’t move. So we were actively in love for the last two weeks he was in England. Though, of course, we’d been in love all along.

It feels odd, remembering it. I don’t think I’ve ever been so innocent as that summer, which was long after I’d dispensed with such concepts. I’m sure we slept together—I can remember faking being bad at blowjobs so he wouldn’t think I was a slut—but I think maybe only twice. Nowadays I can’t imagine feeling that strongly for someone and not turning it into a bedfest, but for some reason love was in other places then, in the amber haze of an English August, wild flowers and cheap weed, streets of silver and gold, everywhere we shared our secrets and stole our touches.

He left in grey September on a bus that departed at 7am. And I kissed him, because it was the last time, and I couldn’t not.

Nobody called us homophobic names, or threw broken bottles. But there was laughter, and it wasn’t kind. It wasn’t fair.

I didn’t need the romcom ending. I didn’t need the soaring soundtrack and wild applause from a group of strangers. I didn’t even need him to jump back off the National Express and into my arms. I just wanted to say goodbye to my lover the way humans have been saying goodbye to their lovers for as long as there’s been love and humans and goodbyes.

For all the legal and social equalities we have fought for and (occasionally) won, the truth is that same-sex love is still widely perceived as being outside that human context: that when we’re talking about love, we’re basically talking about straight people. And don’t get me wrong, it’s undeniable that same-sex love exists within a different cultural framework to heterosexual love. But when you strip it all back to the simplest truths: the pain of loss, the joy in being together, that red hot filthy need to be unashamed and heart-deep naked with another person, that’s just love.

Part of the way teach ourselves to understand what love means is through the stories we tell each other. Maybe when there are more stories about people like me, my love won’t seem so out-of-context any more. Maybe it won’t be funny or unreal or disgusting or otherwise noteworthy. Maybe it will just be love, the same as any other love. And maybe I’ll be able to hold my partner’s hand in public because people will stop caring who we are, and instead they’ll just be annoyed that we’re one of those limpet-glued couples who should really be out of the honeymoon period by now.

But this is why romance is so important, and why queer romance is necessary, not as tangent or sidebar, but simply as part of the genre. To stand as manifesto and reminder that really the only thing that matters about love is that it’s love.

Queer Romance Month is a thing that is happening in October. I hope you will support it. You can also follow them on Twitter at @QueerRomance.

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