I fell in love for the first time when I was 22. We were interns on a farm together. We spent the summer baking pies, reading aloud to each other before bed, and making out in the grass beneath the apple trees. Fall came; we left the farm; she broke my heart. Eventually I stopped crying, joined OkCupid, and went on a few dates. Nothing stuck. By then I was running a farm of my own. I was busy. That was the last time I was in any kind of romantic relationship. Those few dates were the last few dates I went on until this past summer. I am 36. Here, I’ll do the math for you: it’s been 14 years.
A year ago, I would not have been able to write that paragraph on the internet for a bunch of strangers to read. I know — I have always known — that there is nothing wrong with how my dating life has been. There is no “right way” to navigate love and sex and relationships. But knowing something is not the same as feeling it. My head has always understood that I have nothing to be ashamed of. I know all about hetropatriarchy and its bullshit boxes and its violent, unimaginative narratives. But it has taken my heart a while to catch up.
So, why am I writing about it now, on the internet, for a bunch of strangers to read? Well, I’ve grown up and learned a lot about myself and gained a lot of confidence and done a lot of therapy. Also: I’ve become a reader of romance.
I started reading romance in the winter of 2016. At that point, it had been a few years since I’d been on a date. It wasn’t that I wasn’t interested in romantic love or sex or partnership (though, obviously, there is nothing wrong with not being interested in those things). But even though I knew I wanted — something — I had never bothered to figure out what that something was. I just assumed I wanted what everyone else around me seemed to want. One monogamous partner. Marriage (or something like it). A shared house, joint bank accounts, probably not kids, but yes to pets. Basically, a grown-up version of my first relationship. Just, you know, forever. Queer, but still easily legible to the rest of the world.
So I went on dates looking for my One True Love, and hated it, but hey, that’s part of the process, right? It would all be worth it in the end. At the same time, my farm kept growing. If you’ve ever run any kind of business, you know how it can swallow your life. “I just don’t have time to date,” I told myself. Plus, I’ve always been an introvert. I love being alone; I need a lot of space; I am very independent. The years went by, and my life was good and full and busy. But I felt weirder and weirder that I hadn’t fallen into any kind of relationship — even something casual — and suddenly it was a lot easier to convince myself that actually, I didn’t need anyone, and actually, I was just fine on my own, and no, I wasn’t lonely, and no, let’s not talk about it, and yes, maybe there was something wrong with me after all.
It was in the midst of this denial and loneliness and exhaustion that I picked up my first romance novel. I had just turned 30 and sold my farm business. I was preparing to move to a tiny island with an even tinier queer population. I do not regret that move at all, but a tiny island without much queer community is not the sort of place a single queer person moves to jumpstart their love life. It is the sort of place you move to retreat into yourself. And that’s what I did. Yes, I was excited about the move, and yes, I was also lonely. I wanted to be comforted. So I started reading romance.
When I started reading romance, I still wasn’t ready to go out into the world and actually seek out the kind of romantic relationships I want, rather than the ones the world tells me I’m supposed to want. I wasn’t ready to talk about any of it — sex, desire, attraction, kink, family-making, all the beautiful possibilities of romantic and sexual and platonic intimacy — not with myself, not with my friends, not with my therapist. But I was ready to read about it. So I read about queer people falling in love. I read about queer people falling in love and getting married, yes. But I also read about queer people falling in love and choosing not to live with their partner. I read about queer people falling in love with more than one person. I read about queer people making all kinds of beautiful families. I read about queer people reveling in intricate webs of relationship: with lovers, with sex partners and play partners, with friends, with exes.
And in all of these glorious queer romances, people talk to each other. Look, I love a good sex scene, but the truth is I’m in it for the conversation. Good romances are filled with conversations. There is just so much talking. Everyone lays their heart out on the line. It gets messy, and sometimes characters make mistakes and say the wrong thing and hurt the people they love, but they always untangle it in the end. They talk to each other about what they want and don’t want. They talk to each other about what they’re afraid of, about all their scars and hurts and regrets and insecurities. Characters who have never kissed someone before tell their love interest “I’m scared,” and their love interest says, “I know, it’s okay.” Characters figuring out their sexuality in their late 20s are met not with judgement and scorn but with kindness and curiosity. Characters who have never been able to talk openly about sex learn to talk about sex — joyfully and precisely and often.
Once I started, I couldn’t stop. Here were a million permeations of love, a million kinds of happily ever after, a million different ways of building a life. I had never read stories like this, about people like me — queer people, kinky people, real, messy, complicated, goofy, non-monogamous, non-traditional, whole, broken, hurting, loving people — making their own weird way in the world. Somewhere in the back of my brain, the wheels began to turn. For the first time in my life, I saw something I wanted. Not something I thought I should want, or something I assumed I wanted, but something I actually, genuinely, craved.
Romance held the door open for me. I was too hurt and scared and twisted up in my own head to actually start having in real life the kinds of conversations I was reading about. But those fictional conversations became a stand-in, a placeholder, a gentle but persistent invitation. When I couldn’t look at my own life head on, I looked at it sideways, in romance after romance. I told myself I was reading them for fun and comfort and escape. And I was. Romance novels are a fucking delight. But I was also reading them to get closer to myself. I didn’t realize that at the time. I just knew I felt seen and held and home in those books in a way I never had before. I could lose myself in them even when I was at my loneliest. And slowly, over years, all of those romances became a part of me, as familiar as my own skin, a collection of beloved voices saying: You are worth it. You deserve love and connection and joy. There is nothing wrong with you. Go get what you need. Go get what you want. Those voices became a chorus, a drumbeat that beat and beat and beat inside me until it got so loud that I couldn’t ignore it anymore. I had to look.
I moved away from that tiny island, the home of heart, where I was so happy and so lonely. I moved to a place that is bursting — bursting! — with queers. I talked more openly with my best friend than I had in years. I found a new therapist and told her it had been a long time since I’d dated anyone and I had a whole lot of shit to process and I was ready.
I still don’t like dating. It is still hard. I am still lonely. I haven’t found my happily ever after yet. But I can see what it looks like now. I’m on the journey. I’m even having some fun along the way. Earlier this year, I sat down on my couch with a human whose company I enjoy, and we talked about sex. What we liked and what we didn’t like and what we might want to explore together. We talked about our relationship histories. We laughed a lot. There were some weird silences. We asked each other hard questions that led to surprising answers. It was vulnerable and honest and fascinating and fun. It was the kind of conversation that, for years, I didn’t believe I’d ever get to have in real life. It felt familiar because it was the kind of conversation I had read over and over again in romances I love. It was a scary, beautiful, exhilarating beginning.
So thank you, romance. Thank you, K.J. Charles. Thank you, Katrina Jackson. Thank you, Cat Sebastian. Thank you, Alexis Hall, Rebekah Weatherspoon, E.E. Ottoman, Alyssa Cole, Kris Ripper, and Xan West. Thank you, Courtney Milan, Olivia Waite, Talia Hibbert, and Adriana Herrera. Thank you Anna Zabo, Ada Maria Soto, Cole McCade, Austin Chant, and Penny Aimes. Thank you all and so many others. Thank you for your words and your stories, and most of all, for your queer characters — flawed and seeking, hilarious and hurt, patched-up and whole. They have made my life possible.