Ask anyone who knows me; I am a romantic.
When I awake with the rising of the sun and venture out to pick up the newspaper from its resting place on the front lawn--wherever my careless paper boy has tossed it with his usual wanton indifference--I will instinctively take time out to notice things:
The dew that covers the grass like a basting of diamonds from the sky. The way the early morning clouds form surreal shapes that can inspire me, amuse me and, yes, frighten me. And when they frighten me, I will sometimes shudder briefly, delicately.
I see the trash--empty beer bottles, Big Gulp cups, crushed cigarette butts bearing telltale lip prints of Crimson Passion by Revlon--left on the sidewalk by last night's neighborhood revelers. I notice an old person strolling past, his brittle limbs carrying him along, ambling toward the cold December of his years as I stand in the prime of life, strong and virile; unabashedly ticklish to a world that is, for me, a cornucopia of sensuality.
At moments like this, I smile coyly to myself as I realize, once again, what a romantic I truly am.
I would have it no other way.
And that is why I could barely conceal my rapturous delight when I discovered that the Phoenix Desert Rose Chapter of Romance Writers of America would soon be holding the "Decade of Dreams" conference in nearby Mesa.
Mesa . . . .a maelstrom of romantic thoughts undulated through my mind at the earthy depth of the place. And the exact location? Why, the Mesa Hilton Pavilion hotel. Even though I was alone, I sat at my desk one afternoon and spoke it aloud several times, the name rolling off my tongue like a taut nipple.
The day finally came. I stepped lightly into my Toyota, a vehicle borne of the exotic shores of the Far East, and peeled back the windows to allow the sultry desert breeze to play against my face. I drove with abandon, as I often do, but before reaching the Hilton, I realized a faint yet undeniable lust for a certain something in the pit of my stomach.
At that moment, I saw the McDonald's. Its yearning arches of gold stretched into the air like the arms of a familiar lover, and knew I would not--could not--ignore such an offering.
The car fussing and trembling like a stallion drawn from the heat of mating, I approached the drive-through and heard a voice come through the speaker: frank, husky, strangely dispassionate. The voice was female. And young.
Without hesitation, I requested a Sausage and Egg McMuffin Meal, stipulating in the stern, guttural tones that I wanted no cheese on the McMuffin. I heard her voice catch as she repeated my order; clearly the girl was not used to being treated in such a rough-cum-tender fashion. Suddenly, without even being conscious of it, I felt the blood rise in my face as I glanced in the rearview and saw a half-ton pickup in line behind me.
Yes, she would soon be speaking to another man using her innocent, even prudish charm, submitting to the demands of this coarse, feed-cap-wearing brute . . . but for what? Hotcakes platter? Sausage and Egg Biscuit? Breakfast Burrito? Or perhaps a 24-piece Chicken McNuggets, which cannot even be had before 11 a.m.?
I advanced; she drew her window aside as I watched my reflection disappear and her face take its place. How to put such moments into words? Her eyes were as brown and vexing as a wild doe's in heat. Her skin the color of a thick, tropical smog. Her hair, black as a midnight that time forgot, was teased back and gathered in a mandatory McDonald's scrunchie that was unable to disguise the enticing beauty of her locks.
Her name tag read Conchita.
I handed over the money, and our fingers touched for a second, maybe two, but as she made change, the electricity of our coupling lingered and brought images to mind that I blush to reveal. Just when I expected this fast-food minx to hand me the bag of McMeal, she thrust her hand in without shame and withdrew my Sausage and Egg McMuffin.
She seemed to fondle the meat-laden bun, chipped purple nails digging into the wrapper as she unfolded it in a way that, much to my pleasure, I found shocking.
"You want no cheese, right?" she asked softly, nostrils flaring and eyes locking with mine to drive the moment into my soul. A smile grew upon her mouth revealing braces and so very much more. Her lips wordlessly told me that she was an innocent only on the outside. Within, there was naught but fire.
This little McVixen was toying with me! Playing control games with a breakfast sandwich, with a man's heart, over a chance meeting that already had me spiraling into a delicious swirl of sweat and rage and hunger.
"Yes! Yes! No cheese!" I sputtered as the heady musk of grease and deep fryers hit me like a slap from a kid-leather glove. I wrenched the McMuffin and the bag of hash browns and orange juice from this woman-child as her upper body bucked against the unforgiving chrome barrier between us. I punched the gas pedal and sped into traffic, scolded by the horns of people I did not give a damn about.
I felt a trickle of sweat weave its way down my well-muscled pecs, and I laughed lightly to myself. Hating her, wanting her, forgiving her.
What is a person to expect, to anticipate, from the largest gathering of romance writers west of the Rio Grande? As I entered the Hilton Pavilion that rises like a mighty concrete sword into the virgin Mesa sky, I asked myself this.
Being a romantic, naturally I am well-versed in the great romantic works--Byron's Don Juan, Goethe's The Sufferings of Young Werther, Longfellow's The Song of Hiawatha, Linda Lovelace's Ordeal. Yet I was sure that here I would be turned on to new styles, probe different twists, find titillating glimpses into works that might have me swallowing thickly and shuffling nervously as the world spun beneath my feet and somewhere fools slept.
I made my way through the willing, open portals of the hotel, and right there in the lobby I found tables of books laid out like a printed feast of moist, tender delicacies:
Child of Eve, Sing to Me of Dreams, Tell Me No Lies, Too Deep for Tears, Fallen Angel, and the blockbusting seasonal foursome Summer's Storm, Spring's Fury, Autumn's Flame and Winter's Heat.
My loins aflame, kind of, I began to glance around the room.
I was surrounded by women. Hundreds of women.
Women of all shapes, ages and sizes, women with fantastic tans in miniskirts and matching spike heels that would have had them flayed alive by aghast churchmen mere centuries ago. Women of Rubenesque proportions in billowing dresses that held vast secrets better left untold. There was one woman wearing a shawl. I saw women sunken into deep, accommodating couches, women brooding, perhaps longing, sipping Diet Coke. High-spirited women carrying notebooks and clutching pens in a firm, experienced grasp.
Women who perhaps did not look like their names were Susanna Pleydell, Lily Sterling, Faith Devlin, Astrid Collier, Saylah or Adelaide, names I had seen on the back covers of books for sale.
But then what did I know?
I saw only one man, other than myself, and he was bald and had the odd look of the serial killer or maddened societal misfit. But he did have a pair of those wraparound sunglasses favored by the elderly, and his were in that bright yellow color endorsed by such avid hunters as unrepentant machoholic Ted Nugent.
It was the 11 o'clock hour, and a seminar called "Always Let Them See You Sweat--the Fine Art of Sexual Tension" was about to begin in the "Kiva" room. Balls clenched between my well-muscled thighs in what can only be described as "sexual tension," I strode toward the doors of Kiva.
And with a deliberate shove, I entered that place.
A woman named Linda Howard is up there on the podium, clearly dominating the scene with the seasoned prowess of one who has tasted her role many times in the past. And, of course, I love a woman with a past.
Ms. Howard is the author of 28 romance novels, winner of Romantic Times' Best Writer of a Series Romance in 1986, and in 1988 she received the Readers' Favorite award from Affaire de Coeur.
She is going to reveal things to us, me and some 60 women, and the first thing on the agenda is the "12 Steps of Intimacy." Being a romantic, I have long been aware of a number of different such steps--bouquets, Certs, television, subtle begging and lingering walks in the moonlight followed by the foolproof 12 Pack of Intimacy.
This Howard woman states that she does not cotton to flowery language and--God love her--enlightens us in the fine art of bringing romantic writing to a head.
She begins with examples of "Awareness."
"Her scent gives him an erection," she spews boldly, yet there is nary a gasp. "He notices how delicate the nape of her neck is and he fantasizes about what her breasts look like." And then, tired of beating around the bush, Howard goes full bore:
"He wants to fuck her constantly. She notices how big his hands are. His kisses taste just like the way a man should taste. She watches his butt. The raised veins in his muscular forearms. How his throat works when he drinks. Her mind senses the danger, but her body doesn't listen."
Sixty-some hands scribble down these valuable titbits. Mine is the only one in the room with raised veins on the forearm. Howard then advises us to "take the most shocking word you know of and type it over and over. Type breast, nipples, penis and balls, but you don't have to use them all the time."
I imagine the women around me typing this unholy mantra in the privacy of their own homes, achieving a kind of "Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!" rhythm. Then I stop imagining that.
"Judicious use of a shocking word is effective."
Well, she's fucking right about that.
Then, driving her point with unbridled fervor into the soft, velvety folds of our brains, she gets to some actual phrases in romantic writing that she finds distasteful.
"'A weapon molded from marble': Why can't we call a spade a spade?" she demands. There are giggles aplenty. "'A felled tree lying in a forest of black fur.' 'Her sugared walls.' Resist the urge to pretty it up! I cringe when I hear a vagina described as a cavern!"
Hey, me too.
We move on to "Detail."
"You have to be able to describe how his calloused thumb feels on her nipple. How she enjoys rubbing her cheek against his hairy chest." Then, in an effort to get her female students to concentrate on the situation at hand, she says this:
"You have to study men. Men are naturally heroic, but they are matter-of-fact about it. Men love women--they think about us constantly. You have to remember that a man is not just a hairy woman."
There was more, a lot more, but my veiny forearm was cramping up, and I couldn't get it all down. My session with Howard was fulfilling, and as the applause died down and ladies went out to light up cigarettes, the woman next to me turned and grabbed my arm.
"I just want you to know," she said, eyes burning, and, for all I could tell, belly quivering, "I don't think of you as a hairy woman."
Joining the languid stream exiting the Kiva room, I found myself a lone island of Maleness in a Hilton lobby brimming with Female. I was surrounded by the spectacular, heaving chests of ivory-skinned heroines recently pleasured by Fabio types, by women weeping in ecstasy at the raw, wicked gyrations of magnificent grunting beasts. And there were others, ferocious ladies teasing against taut satin sheets, clad in ancient bustiers only Houdini could undo, and women who had found true love with a man down the street who was nothing less than perfect on or off two feet.
But they were all between the pages on the tables. The rest of us were plain, old nonfiction. I scratched my head with a well-muscled index finger and got out of there, spent.
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