Saturday, April 26, 2014

Arbor and Ardor: Growing Attraction

Having not celebrated the annual Arbor Day this year, I felt I should at least share a mention of it in my new novel Message of Love. Considering that the companion novel, Every Time I Think of You, starts off with an arborous and amorous encounter between the narrator Reid and his boyfriend-to-be Everett, trees not only take on a symbolic aspect, but an oft-repeated literal role in both books.

Here's a short excerpt from Chapter 15: March 1981, where two young women mistakenly flirt with Reid and Everett at a mostly-straight college party:
As I returned with a paper-plate full of anything edible on the already scrounged dining room table, Everett already had two admirers, both blonde young women. I stood back, nibbled on pretzels, until he saw me across the room leaning in a doorway. With his plaintive eyebrow raise, a helpless tiny shrug, I realized I had to save him.
The girls actually turned out to be a lot of fun, and amid this babbling four-way chatter session, I decided to just move toward a segue, jostling myself back beside Everett, dislodging the more buxom of the pair, who, it seemed having just learned of Everett’s disability, had begun to nudge herself just a bit too close to him.
They didn’t get the message, until my arm slung across Everett’s shoulder, and I rubbed his neck.
A gasp. “Oh, mah gawd. Are you guys…?”
Another gasp. “Figures. The two cutest guys in the room.”
The party was so noisy, I wasn’t sure whether we were offered drinks, or that they were leaving. One of the girls sauntered off, but the other hung back.
“So, how did you guys meet?”
Then came what had become a familiar snort of shared jokes. Everett would choose one of many euphemisms, obscure yet declarative, which referenced that wintry day in a forest where we nearly froze our butts off in a first-time smooch and yank session.
“Arbor Day Club!”
The intent sailed over her fluffed hair and into the kitchen, where someone else laughed at something else.

 The inside joke is both significant and obscure. Reid fumbles when others ask how he and Everett first met, blurring the encounter as "We met in high school." 
In the second chapter of Every Time I Think of You, Everett, as Reid describes it, unspools "the most involved lie I'd ever heard" about what is essentially an impulsive and innocent encounter.
Like many gay men of a certain era, their first meetings with other gay men are/were sexual. Whether they later become friends, lovers or remain strangers, a common aspect of a young gay male life is that of sometimes furtive encounters.
This truth is often missing from many contemporary romance books. The main characters' first sexual experience is often a long drawn-out process, taking multiple chapters and involving a lot of preamble or interruptions.
 Since many of the current batch of romances are written by women, I can't help but feel a disconnect with the often "cutesy" way gay M/M characters meet and eventually connect. Many of the stories involve pleasant public encounters in shops, gyms, or other respectable establishments. Their initial sexual encounter is often preceded by a lot of processing, usually with the help of a chatty best friend.
I've yet to read a M/M romance where the two main characters are able to say, when asked how they met, "Oh, we hooked up in an alley behind a bar," or "We met on Grindr and have been dating ever since."
Is it because most romance writers feel the need to draw out even the first stages of an affair? Certainly that may be a more interesting way to prolong the story. But a lot of these books take on a heteronormative monogamy and a drawn-out plot that fails to grasp a more realistic storyline: gay men have sex, often quickly after meeting.
Or is it because many romance authors have never experienced quick and dirty anonymous gay sex?
Whether an author has lived the events of a fictional story that s/he creates should be irrelevant, so long as it retains some semblance of authenticity. Unfortunately, many of the books in this genre don't.
The author's challenge in the Romance genre is to see how or if such a fictional relationship can or will last. And that's the challenge I placed upon myself, and my fictional characters, in Message of Love.
I've read a lot of books in this genre since winning a Lambda Literary Award for 'Gay Romance.' Many of them take on a standard template, which I deliberately broke in the sequel. The specific difference I've found with my own pair of romance books is that how the lovers met remains a private inside joke, their own sacred, tree-hugging connection. It's not only a pastoral scene, but an essential earth-loving focus 'rooted' in natural erotic symbolism.
Is it still a romance? That's perhaps for the reader to decide.
In the meantime, Happy Arbor Day!

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