I grew up in a house of avid readers. I don’t remember learning how to love reading. I think about this a lot as I imagine (fantasize really) being a parent, particularly a parent who will want her child to feel the same rush of joy looking at a book, but I just can’t ever pinpoint a time I wasn’t lost in a book. There are different kinds of reading, and there is, like it or not, a hierarchical divide among books – good books and bad books, classics and trash, heavy and light. I dabble in most areas, I think. Enjoying a classic work like The Time Machine one week and then plowing through a silly cozy mystery the next day. But there was a youthful time in my life in which I did not diversify at all, in which all I wanted in the world was to read teen romances.
I would have to say it started in sixth grade – hormones budding, little girl crushes developing. And then of course there was the Bookmobile, that genius idea tailored to young kids with no driver’s license and an intense desire to pillage a library. Ours would come once a week to the school, even now, some twenty years later I can remember it was on Thursdays. I can remember bringing in my bag of books in the morning and putting them in the hollowed out underside of my desk with all the other school books and notebooks. I remember feeling excited all day, the books almost buzzing beneath me and my mind daydreaming of what titles I would find that day in the large, stuffy bus that was painted a bright blue with one long yellow stripe.
When it was our turn we would get marched out of our classroom and down the hall, down the stairs, out to the car port where we would normally wait for buses or our parents cars, and there it would be, filled with books, waiting for me. And there I would go and search until I had enough small, paperback teen romances to fill my entire bag.
My favorite series was called Sweet Dreams. It always had some picture of a teenage girl on the cover, and some silly title like “Crazy for You,” or “Cowboy Kisses.” I didn’t know anything about the series, but I knew there were a lot, because they would come in numbers like 177, or 145, and on a rare occasion if I found one in the teens or twenties, the picture would look funny and old like photos of my mother before I was born. Looking at that number and knowing that there were one hundred and seventy-six more books to read filled me with immense relief and excitement, because even at eleven, I could devour these books in one night. I can still remember begging to be taken to the library on the weekend because I couldn’t wait long enough for the next Thursday to come around.
The books were always kind of the same, which both pleased me and potentially created a false expectation for what romance must be like, for which I was probably way more miserable in my teens than I needed to be. There was always some girl in high school, and she had something special about her. Maybe she was the star gymnast or the most popular DJ at her school’s radio. Maybe she was super into weather and trying to be a meteorologist even if the cool kids made fun of her (I absolutely read that one). Or maybe it was something darker, like her father had just passed away or she was really really shy. And then there was a boy. Sometimes it was the boy she had liked for a long time who never noticed her, but most often it was the boy she didn’t like at all because he was anti-gymnastics or tried to get funding to the radio cut as part of his class president campaign. And then something would happen to push them together, like he gets assigned as her partner for the weather lab, or she gets forced to be in the school play to fight her shyness and he is the demanding director. And from there, romance, confusion, hurt feelings and then romance again took place, culminating ultimately in that one passionate, perfect kiss.
Oh, what those pages would do to my little pre-teen body. I can still remember the antsy, jittery feeling and the wave of warmth that would fill my stomach up into my chest. It would take several more years for my naïve mind to recognize this as arousal, but I knew enough to know I liked it and I couldn’t get enough. Some people judge sex addicts or porn fanatics, but I feel no grounds to condemn them. I get it. I was addicted to teen romance books. And I can recall now in retrospect, it wasn’t because they were well-written.
Today it seems like young adult and teen novels have been infiltrating mainstream adult reading so that lately I can’t really tell the difference between the two. Whether it’s a nationwide obsession with Twilight, which is not even remotely limited to a teen audience or it’s the slew of teen dramas on networks like the CW, which my adult friends watch (and which I have been known on occasion to stream in shame on Netflix). There is less and less an idea or stigma that young adult novels are for the young adult alone. Some of these books, I get. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is a young adult novel I read from an amazon recommendation before knowing it was young adult, and I loved it. It is smart and well-written, and I recommend it freely and without shame. But I think it’s more of an exception, and you know what, even that book had a little love story to it. It just seems overall, it’s the girl meets boy stories that grab us most. I’m not sure why this is, but I think there’s something about that young idea of romance, of a simple, absolute love that is appealing to all of us, even those old enough to know better.
Wednesday MJ and I stop at the library on the way home to pick up books and I grab a young adult novel, that while recommended as well-written, I secretly am excited to read for the romance. It is a romance. There is not much else to it, although the author actually does an excellent job exploring the complicated dynamics of a divorced family. I start to read it right away and find myself staying up later than usual, even considering staying up later when MJ closes his book and turns the light off on his side of the bed. I go to bed, but it makes little difference, by lunch the next day I’m done, having finished in the small breaks I have between morning hearings. And I loved every minute of it. And my stomach fluttered at that penultimate, passionate kiss.
But once it dies down, I spend the rest of the day questioning myself, wondering why I seem to be reverting to my eleven and twelve year old self. Why this teenage, ideal view of a first romance is somehow more exciting to me than something adult, something aged, something that was tested and survived. In my mind I know that is the basis of real love. It’s not the young one, it’s the old one, it’s the forty years later and you’re still happy when the other comes home, and you still make each other laugh and you still want to tell them everything first. In my mind I know that love is hard, not easy. That it isn’t about getting over that one misunderstanding, it’s about getting over the one hundredth and one. It’s about getting through all the bad stuff, but getting through it together. I know love is work. I know it’s the work that makes the love stronger and, well, better. I also know that things can get better than just a kiss.
And yet still, I find myself wanting to follow up with another teen romance, or even spend a day in the library seeing if those old Sweet Dreams books are around as much for actual reading as for nostalgia.
The thing is, my life is really complicated right now. It’s hard and most of the time it is not any fun. Dealing with infertility is one of the hardest things I have ever had to do, and to be honest, I am not a person without struggle in their life or other things to get through, so I do not say that lightly. But this, this feeling of constant loss and sadness is overwhelming to me, and I am not sure how MJ and I have even managed to keep things between us as good as they are, even if they aren’t really all that great right now. I am surprised everyday he is still around and I am constantly shocked I have not imploded.
How could I not get some kind of kick out of going back in time? Out of revisiting those beginning feelings of love and affection, those early moments of romance – the crush and the furtive looks and the first kiss – all those moments that are filled with possibility, all those moments that have yet to be tainted or tarnished or tested in any way. All those moments in which the future feels open and full of possibility and of getting everything you dreamed of. How could I not rather imagine myself a teenage girl, still able to have children, still healthy, just going through a normal life, being a normal girl, worrying only about what to wear on my date or whether he’s going to kiss me.
And how could I not just want to simplify it all? The well-written sections of that latest book, the ones that described the complications of a divorced family – I skimmed through them. I only wanted the romance. A simple story: girl meets boy, girl likes boy, boy likes girl, boy kissed girl. The end. No health problems to intervene, no overworked stressful job, no money problems, no infertility. It appears even now, at thirty-five, teen romances are still my ultimate escape.
At thirteen, fed up with my constant devouring of Sweet Dreams paperbacks my mother bought me a copy of Paul Zindel’s The Pigman and Carson McCuller’s The Member of the Wedding and, in so many words, told me to stop reading crap. I ended up loving both books and an entire new world opened to me of books about things, books that were so well written the words felt like candy in my mouth, and the images were technicolor-ed films in my mind. I never looked back. I never read another Sweet Dreams book. I ignored the entire world of so-called “young adult” novels, and instead took up pursuits like Jane Austen, and Hemingway (not kidding, I went through a weird Hemingway phase in high school).
I am ashamed enough about the recent teen romance to have hidden the cover from MJ as I read it, and to have slipped it straight from my work bag back into the “return to library” bag I keep hung on a doorknob. So I don’t think I’ll be reading another, even though I can’t deny an urge to do so. And I can’t deny thinking (fantasizing really) about the story, and all those Sweet Dreams stories that are now flooding back into my memory and being envious, jealous even. Jealous of a life that is simple, and full of promise and romantic, even if it is, after all, fictional.