Row upon row of romance novels lined the walls in my high school boyfriend’s basement. After school we’d come through the door, say hi to his mom, then bounce down the stairs with the excuse of doing homework, but really, we just wanted to make out. We’d curl up on the old velvet couch to kiss under the smoldering gazes of buxom damsels and dashing buccaneers.
My boyfriend’s mom, Mrs. B, was always reading one of those romance novels with their wafer-thin pages and spines that cracked when you opened them. My boyfriend’s parents had been high school sweethearts. At 21, they married under a heart-shaped canopy of white roses on a humid Midwestern summer day. Thirty years later, there had to be 200 thumbed-through romance novels stashed away in the basement.
At the time, I didn’t understand the fascination. Why would anyone want to read about love when they could experience it themselves with its sweaty palms, fluttering hearts and constant, delicious aching? Almost 15 years of marriage and three kids later, everyday life with its deadlines and carpools, meetings and bills, has elbowed romance out of the way. I can hardly remember what it feels like to be under new love’s spell where every beat of your heart is like the thump of a big drum, and every love song playing on the radio is about you. The kind when every time the phone rings, your breath catches. You write a love poem on a piece of notebook paper, folding it again and again until it’s a small thick square that fits quietly into a back pocket or the palm of a hand.
In the beginning of our relationship, the charge between me and my husband was undeniable, stealing my appetite, making me want more all the time. We married high on love, believing it would always be that intense. Time, of course, changes everything. Love slips and slides, rushes and retreats, booms and abates. The birth of each of our girls brought me a different, newfound love for my husband. A miscarriage, work-life challenges, the demands of parenthood—these experiences shaped a more complex, deeper love between us. Still, I miss the crazy fervor of our beginning, the simplicity of it, its rawness and how we never questioned it.
Maybe that’s where romance novels come in. They remind us of the most thrilling kinds of love: first love, love at first sight, love despite the odds, overpowering love, undeniable love, the butterflies in the belly kind of love. The closest I’ve ever come to reading a romance novel is when I devoured the Twilight series. Yes, the story is aimed at teens, but it’s really a classic tale of first love anyone can identify with: Innocent girl meets wrong boy, serious romantic tension ensues, danger threatens to tear them apart, odds are overcome, girl dies then comes back to life, girl and boy exist together forever. It’s Romeo and Juliet, vampire style.
While the first kiss between the two was the scene that kept me turning the pages, it turns out my favorite scenes in the book are scattered throughout Twilight. They are the ones where the vampire boy is full of restraint, worried he might tear her throat out if he follows his desire. Instead of kissing her, he pulls her close, holding the shivering body of his eternal true love in his strong arms. The girl’s cheek rests against his cold, hard chest, her warm breath floating up into a canopy of fir trees.
Those scenes are real love scenes. When my husband holds me close, I can’t turn my face to look up at him. That’s when I give in, close my eyes and listen to his heart beat. I let myself be exactly where I am, my cheek nestled into the dip just below the front of his shoulder. Neither one wants to break away first. No matter what level of chaos is going on around us, I know this is what it means to love and be loved.
There are still moments when my heart skips for him, but I’ve traded in new love’s constant jitters for the profound connection that true love builds over time. For days on end of reckless passion and wild abandon, I’m heading for the nearest romance novel. I wonder which one Mrs. B would recommend.