Falling for Jenny changed everything.
We were both minimum wage workers in our early twenties, suffering away in the clothing department for a chain store. During one of the massive training shifts where dozens of workers filed into the break room according to last name, I sat by myself in a corner, a book in front of my face to block out unwanted stares. Jenny sat across from me, her smile wide.
“That book is good,” she said, referring to my copy of The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood. “But have you read The Handmaid’s Tale?”
I warmed up to her quickly. Books were a language I was far more comfortable with than any kind of small talk, though my English Lit and Women’s Studies bachelor’s degree made me the predictable book snob. I refused to read the current YA books that seemed to be flooding the market by John Green or Rainbow Rowell, and when I went over to Jenny’s house (she still lived with her parents, like me) I turned my nose up at the stacks and stacks of Harlequin romance novels she had lining her shelves.
“Don’t knock them until you’ve tried them,” she told me. “They got me through a lot of hospital visits.”
Jenny had a seizure disorder which had turned her life–and emerging career as a contractor–upside down two years earlier. She moved back in with her parents and younger brother, lost her driver’s license, and effectively went backwards in time, back to her teenage years. I figured it was no wonder she’d discovered Harlequins in waiting rooms, and then continued to read them when she was out of the hospital and seizure free for over a year. They provided her with a way to pass the time in her cramped teenage bedroom and an escape into a domestic life that she thought she couldn’t have anymore.
At least, not with me.
When I first saw Jenny during one of our training sessions, I was instantly attracted to her. Her closely cropped short hair was sandy and her thin frame made her jawline prominent, almost masculine. She wore men’s shirts and loose pants, and laughed almost constantly. She was the kind of butch lesbian I’d read about in my books by Lillian Faderman and Leslie Feinberg, and then discussed in my Women’s Studies class–but I’d never actually seen outside a university setting. I didn’t drink so I never went to gay clubs; I was a nerd who still lived at home with a conservative mother, and so instead of living queerly, I read my books.
Jenny was the first time that I could actually fall for a woman and have her fall for me back. And shortly after setting foot inside her cramped bedroom, that’s exactly what we did.
I say falling for Jenny changed everything, but what I really mean is that fucking Jenny changed everything. I’d fallen for women before; in fact, it was my near constant state. I could fall in love with my first girlfriend in high school in a matter of three weeks, and still be heartbroken after she stood me up for dates. I could fall in love online with a dozen other women, never actually getting to kiss them, but knowing it would have been amazing if we did. I could fall in love with my roommate who said she ‘wasn’t sure’ if she was a lesbian–and then, be crushed when she got a boyfriend. I was used to loving women.
I was not used to fucking them. I already knew I was bisexual, but my life seemed to be a constant pattern of falling in love with women and only fucking men. It was okay–but I always wanted something more substantial. I wanted the love and the sex. The dinner and date. The marriage and honeymoon period. I wanted something that was in those romance novels, despite my consistent dismissal of them.
Before I took the job in the clothing department, I had been training to become a manager at a thrift store. I started in the book section, where I would dig through piles of National Geographic, copies of Twilight, and of course, Harlequin romances to put out on the shelves as I desperately tried to reach my quota for the day. And although those thin books helped me to reach that quota of 900 items shelved each day, I hated them. They embodied what I spoke out against the most in my university career: terrible writing and sexism. Sometimes my co-worker in the back room and I would ogle the cheesy covers and laugh at how terrible Fabio’s hair was before I’d scamper off and shelve them.
Secretly, I wanted to read them. I wanted to write them. Several times I’d said in a half-serious tone that these books must be so simple to write, so I could do it in an afternoon. I wanted to write one in an afternoon, getting lost inside a billionaire’s loft and going to exotic locations.
Instead, I quit the thrift store, applied to graduate school, and found a temporary job in the clothing store until the end of the summer.
My time with Jenny was limited from the start. I knew I was leaving for grad school going into our relationship, and so did she, which was maybe why we just decided to fuck almost right away. And that was all it was; we’d meet up before work, stay the night after work, and casually touch one another on the back at work. The closest we got to commitment was starting a book club together, where we’d pick what we felt like reading that week and race one another in the break room to see who could finish it first.
“Why haven’t you suggested a romance novel?” I asked when we’d gotten through Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. “If you liked the love story in this book so much, why not another one that’s just about love?”
“Because I don’t think you’d let me.” She laughed it off, but I was wounded. I realized I’d wanted her permission, in some odd way, to read romance.
“You know,” she eventually said that night after we’d been together. “There are lesbian romance novels too. Hundreds of them. I just don’t have them on the shelf because they’re mostly e-books.”
And there it was. I was sold.
What should have been obvious to me–a complete shadow history of LGBTQ romance novels existing during the same period as Harlequins–soon came to me in a couple of months. In the same way that cheaper paper supplies and effective glue enabled the boom of pulp novels in the early 1950s and 1960s, the cheaper supplies allowed for indie presses to spring up and publish Victor J. Banis and Ann Bannon as they wrote about falling in love queerly and getting to ride off into the sunset. When self-publishing became cheaper, more effective, and successful in the mid 2000s, the indie presses sprouted up again and wanted to publish all the LGBTQ romance stories they could. And they published a lot.
After Jenny and I parted ways at the end of the summer, I consumed book after book. Radclyffe’s medical dramas kept me fascinated and intrigued and her publishing house, Bold Strokes Books, gave me even more lesbian authors to read and choose from. There were also m/m writers of gay romance like Michael Thomas Ford and TJ Klune whom I also devoured–but there was something so compelling, so wonderful and elating about Bold Strokes Books. Women loving women wasn’t something fought for–it was given freely. And I wanted to find myself in those pages.
I also started to research the LGBTQ romance publishers and their guidelines. I wrote and tinkered around with characters, but I soon became side-tracked by graduate school and actually falling in love in all the complete ways I wanted to with a dude in my class. When he and I decided to move to a new town to complete our PhDs, and move in together, it seemed like I got the happily ever after that I’d always wanted.
As we moved boxes into our apartment, Jenny came to my mind. It had been over two years since I last saw her in the department store’s shoe section, and ages since we texted one another. But she came to me so vividly: her laugh, her smile, and her strong jaw line. As my partner and I moved boxes in and out of our rooms, I caught the side of one of the boxes marked FRAGILE in capital letters. I stood staring at the word for several minutes, thinking of Jenny and that summer, before shaking myself out of my daydream.
But the thought had caught hold: FRAGILE was what the two of us felt together, how the two of us felt against a larger, straighter world. And FRAGILE was what my sexuality felt like for a long time. In spite of knowing–in spite of coming out and having experiences–I was still tenuous, still unsure, and still scared about my own desire. Even as I fell in love with my current partner, I still felt so fragile about being queer.
So I turned to romances again. Romances reminded me–and Jenny–that even if the world was hostile to us, even if lesbians and bisexual women seemed to always die on screen, in the pages of a lesbian love story, we would live–and be happy again.
Fragile is how I feel right now, too. Since Donald Trump has taken office, I flinch every time I go to my Facebook feed and I tense each time I listen to the news in my kitchen. It’s been more than five years now since I’ve been with Jenny, but I feel fragile all over again.
And I want to turn to romance novels once again, especially as a way to resist. There have been a dozen opinion pieces on how to take care of yourself in between activism work; Audre Lorde’s words of self-care as revolution stick to me more than ever before. Reading a book to recharge is an act of self-care, and when it’s about love between two people, it can seem especially freeing, even if it’s something “trashy” like a romance novel. We need to think about the love between those pages more than ever.
While I advocate for feelings of love, I know also that love–like Sara Ahmed has written about–can also be linked to the same kind of fascist rhetoric we’re seeing now. Love has been used to disguise many ugly emotions, as a justification for many ugly deeds, and romance as a construct itself has been criticized as a tool of the patriarchy. All of this is true, and all of these problems do show up in the romance novel as a genre. When I heard criticisms of the romance genre before Trump, I would also default to Janice Raymond’s seminal text Reading The Romance, where she discusses the community that women formed around these books. They discussed their wants, their desires, their preferences–along with their dislikes and criticisms–in the pages. They formed reading communities, and by virtue of being together and talking to one another, they voiced their opinions. LGBTQ groups are doing this right now with their subgenre of romance novels.
Reading romance after Trump still feels like an act of solidarity. It can be community building, which is another act of love. But what Jenny and I did with our books–talking to one another because we wanted to be around one another, despite how fragile we were–is also love and resistance, and it’s those private moments I want to focus on the most in 2017. This is where the personal walls of my bedroom become political, where the apex of our thighs and the borders of our bodies fall away and become something beyond nationality. Being together with someone away from the nonsense of the world for a little while helps to establish the world in your own terms once again. And after devastation, when fragility has broken us all apart, it’s in bedrooms and bodies where we piece everything back together again.
The summer I was with Jenny, I did a lot of walking. I listened to This Island by Le Tigre, especially the song “Viz” and felt as if my desire for her was exploding under my skin. It was strong, sudden, intense–but also imaginative. Years later, the experience would remind me of what José Esteban Muñoz says about queerness and the future:
Queerness is not here yet. Queerness is an identity. Put another way, we are not yet queer. We may never touch queerness, but we can feel it as the warm illumination of a horizon imbued with potentiality. We have never been queer, yet queerness exists for us as an identity that can be distilled from the past and used to imagine a future. The future is queerness’s domain. (Emphasis mine).
When I’d walk, my end goal was always a large hill. With music in my ear and Jenny on my mind, I’d scale it. Then when I got to the top, I’d look back at my hometown that I hated, but that I was starting to feel more present in. I knew I’d see Jenny that night, and for a while, I’d imagine the two of us alone in her bedroom, talking about books.
I’d feel okay before walking home again. The happy endings of romance novels do the same thing that Munoz talks about; they give us a horizon to project to, to imagine something better.
And in the next four years, I’m imagining more and more for everyone. Including love, including solidarity, including hope.
 Not her real name.