A discovery of romance, with hellacious results

My introduction to romance began in 1995, when I was twelve years old. My family lived in a small duplex in Peterborough, a converted house built in the early 1900s that my parents bought in 1986 and renovated. At the back of our house was a one-bedroom semi-detached apartment; its living room and our kitchen shared a wall. My parents—and after my dad passed away in 1993, my mother—depended on the rental income from the apartment to pay the mortgage. At that time our neighborhood was considered fairly decent and working class (these days, it’s on the dismal side of shabby), the houses a wild mismatch of bungalows and two-story homes with odd layouts and formerly grand old homes converted into apartments. The unit at the back of our house was too small for a family, and my parents quickly realized that its size, cheap rent, and free parking, coupled with it being within stumbling distance to the bars downtown, made it appealing to only the worst of tenants: The young and irresponsible.

That year we had a particularly horrible couple who played ’90s MuchMusic Dance Mix tapes at all hours of the day and night and who quickly fell behind on their rent. To their credit, they beat it as soon as Mom started the eviction process and even managed to take most of their stuff with them. The keyword here is most.

Mom told us she needed our help cleaning the apartment after they moved out. “They left behind books,” she said, her voice strained.

“Can I see?” I asked.

“You wouldn’t like these. Get some garbage bags.”

The tenants from hell could read? My curiosity piqued, I gathered some.

My reading material was rarely censored; my sister and I were both raised to read and respect books and writers. The books left behind in the apartment couldn’t have been pornographic as our mother (later an ordained minister) probably would have burned them behind the back shed. Neither of the tenants had graduated from high school so they couldn’t be textbooks.

During the twelve years we lived in that house, I can count the number of times I saw the interior of that apartment on one hand. I was always curious to see it, this hidden part of our home, the property we owned and couldn’t set foot in without written notice. I was always disappointed because it wasn’t as nice as ours. I remember it usually being very dark and smelling of cigarette smoke and failure. Every time I set foot in that apartment I had a horrible vision of what could happen if I didn’t go to college. The place was decent and livable, but there’s only so much you can do when tenants don’t care about the property.

I eagerly entered the apartment and saw…paperback books in every corner of the living room/foyer. In little stacks of five or six that had slid over. It was the same in the bedroom—stacks of books in every corner, including the closet. They were in the corners of the bathroom and tucked behind the toilet, in the corners of the kitchen and in the cabinets. And every single book was a Harlequin category romance, all published in the ’80s, their cheap pages yellowing. In all, I counted about 70 Harlequin paperbacks loosely piled around the apartment, like little shrines built to sic the spirit of Fabio on a landlady who expected rent to be paid on time.

When Mom’s back was turned, I flipped open a book at random. I’d never read a romance novel; the back issues of Cosmopolitan I flipped through at my friends’ houses when their mothers weren’t looking had told me that a strong, liberated woman enjoyed these books and frequently featured excerpts from some of the racier ones. Growing up in an evangelical Christian faith I was discouraged from reading anything about relationships if marriage wasn’t a priority.

I knew after quickly skimming some of the back cover blurbs that my mom wouldn’t let me keep any. There was only one thing to do.

“I’ll take these to the house and call Knotanew Books and see if they’ll take them,” I quickly offered. Knotanew was one of my favorite places, a used bookstore a 15-minute walk from my house that’s still around. My allowance went a long way there.

Mom trusted me. “Thanks,” she said.

Knowing I didn’t have much time, I hightailed it out of the apartment to our house with the bags of books. Once I was sure I was alone, I rooted through the bags and quickly picked out a few paperbacks and ran upstairs to my room, where I hid them under my bed, with some dirty laundry covering them, just in case. I don’t remember the titles; one was from a suspense category whose name escapes me, one a Harlequin Historical and the third a Super Romance. I looked up Knotanew in the book and found out they wouldn’t buy Harlequins (a later trip to the library revealed they weren’t accepted as donations). I think we donated them to a thrift store.

I read my first Harlequin that evening, with the door closed—the suspense one, whose heroine was a beautiful, slim but busty brunette named Annabel. It turned out that despite having gone to university and living on her own for some time, Annabel was a virgin at 29. I remember thinking the hero was an asshole and Annabel should have taken Cosmo‘s advice and talked about sex with the guy first—that discussion might have resulted in a more mutually satisfying experience—and if he persisted in being a jerk, she shouldn’t have done the deed with him anyway. Frankly, it was a rude and obnoxious love story, and I later threw the book away in a public garbage can at the park near my house.

The historical was set in pre-Revolution France, I think, and the heroine was married to someone who needed an heir but he couldn’t father children, so she had to seduce some guy so she could get pregnant and wore a disguise so The Other Man wouldn’t know who it was, blah blah blah, five years later someone dies and they meet up again. I don’t remember how it ended. The Super Romance featured faked amnesia and a beach house.

I decided I liked romances, although I wasn’t emotionally prepared to handle that kind at 12. Instead, I bought used Francine Pascal novels at Knotanew for a quarter each, books with plots far less ridiculous than ’80s bodice-rippers and the Sweet Valley High novels that Pascal was later famous for. These too were hidden among a pile of dirty pajamas and T-shirts under the bed, but if they were discovered I would only be mocked, not punished (BTW, they weren’t discovered).

I’ve been looking for the first two on and off for the last couple of years. Earlier this year I looked for help via Smart Bitches Trashy Books, and while I didn’t find the titles, I did find out that lots of other people were just as disturbed by Flowers in the Attic as I was.

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