Hidden Desires

A friend recently confided that she reads romance novels. Loves them, she said. She responds to the book; her boyfriend responds to her response. "But," she confessed, "when someone asked me what book I was currently reading, I couldn't tell them I was reading a romance. So I lied."

Fact is, romance novels for women are like chocolate bonbons and breast implants. You don't want anyone to know you have either. To go buy a romance novel at the Wal-Mart, you find yourself dressing incognito. You know--big floppy hat, scarf, dark glasses, trench coat. You kind of saunter by the book section, stopping at the "New Releases" section. You glance through the latest Larry McMurtry novel and anything Anne Tyler. You thumb through Cormac McCarthy and act positively enthralled by Tom Wolfe.

All the while, you're straining your eyeballs to get a good sidelong view of the romance shelf for a new Sandra Brown or Judith McNaught, Jayne Ann Krentz or Tami Hoag. You look around to see if anyone's watching. You glance up at the black ball that holds the security cameras. Then, humming nonchalantly, you stroll past the rows of paperbacks with bare-chested men on their covers and casually sweep the new Danielle Steele into your shopping cart, immediately covering it up with a copy of Popular Science.

When friends ask about the latest book you've read, naturally you mention something you heard about on the Today show. Salman Rushdie's latest, you tell them, quickly diverting the conversation to something else.

If ever you're caught with a romance, you mutter something about it belonging to your sister-in-law. Or you tell them, "Remember the blond you met at my house last year? You know, the airhead? She left the book." Never, ever do you confess it's yours.

Well, I can't take the pressure hear inside the closet any longer. I'm coming out. I confess. I read romance novels. Have for years. I have bought stacks and stacks from the local PeaPicker Bookstore (the only bookstore in Henderson County, Texas), but, like my thighs and my rubber breast enhancers, I keep them hidden. I have even purchased--and this is hard for me to admit, what with considering myself a serious writer and all--Harlequin Romances. But let me state for the record that I read nothing with Fabio on the cover. I do have my standards.

My pleasure and my poison is Sandra Brown, the best-selling author from Arlington, Texas. I've hidden in the bathroom for hours on end, soaking in a hot tub, reading Breath of Scandal. I've sat in the pickup truck in a parking lot at the local Food Rite reading Slow Heat in Heaven.

Fact is, even my husband enjoys a good Sandra Brown session. He likes for me to read the dirty parts aloud to him. Especially if he's naked, I'm naked, and whipped cream is involved.

This passage from Brown's French Silk scored a particularly big hit in our house:

"Cassidy withdrew his finger and found the distended heart of her sexuality. Round and round he caressed the slippery nubbin. ... Claire was seized by a purling climax. ... [I always skip over the unnecessary description to get to the good parts.] Cassidy wrapped his arms around her and carried her to the bed, where he laid her down before following with his own body. He removed her chemise, then his hands moved over her flushed breasts. His fingertips lingered on her nipples, and the sensations that concentrated there were so strong, Claire whimpered. He lowered his head and kissed them urgently but tenderly. She grasped handfuls of his hair, knowing she should stop this, but conceding that she might just as well try to stop the pounding rain.

"He kissed her belly. Anxiously she murmured, 'Cassidy?' 'Shh.' He blew gently on her delta of hair. 'Cassidy?'

"Disregarding her hesitancy, he scooped her hips in his hands and lifted her against his open mouth. His tongue investigated her sweet, wet center. He flicked it lazily, delved deeply. He nuzzled her affectionately, then kissed her intently, as thought sucking the nectar from a piece of luscious fruit. With the tip of his tongue he reawakened that tiny seed of femininity."

Excuse me. I need a cigarette.

SANDRA BROWN'S AND other romance novelists are among the bestsellers in former Eastern-bloc nations. In fact, Brown's first fan club is in Russia. I can see this. After all, those women have been locked up behind the Iron Curtain for years with nothing but a stuffed (or life-sized blow-up) Lenin to provide romance in their lives. These women were starving for the Tyler boys from Brown's Texas trilogy set in the oil fields of East Texas--Texas! Lucky, Texas! Chase, Texas! Sage(!). The setting may be foreign to them, but the hormones sure ain't.

Romance novels, Brown's particularly, are sexy, sensuous, mysterious, and generally fast-paced, with plenty of plot twists to keep you glued to the end of the over-stuffed couch, not caring that your potatoes are boiling over or that your kids are running like wild banshees through the house or that your husband just tracked mud through the hallway and has Creamy Coral lipstick on his collar, even though you wear Pretty in Pink.

And, though I hate to admit it, here behind the Pine Curtain in the buckle of the Bible Belt romance is not necessarily thriving, except in these books. Why do you think woman buy those goofy, soft-cover book slips that look like gingham purses? Would any self-respecting woman actually carry a purse like that? Hell, no. And you certainly don't put your Bible in them, though, oddly, you see them most often at church.

That's right. While the preacher is in the pulpit extolling the virtues of turning the other cheek, his wife is in the congregation reading about it in Slow Heat in Heaven. Only it's a different kind of cheek she's turning. Yes, we look forward to attending church. Mostly because it gives us two glorious, uninterrupted hours to read Fat Tuesday without chasing children. It also explains why there's so many "amens" sighed on Sunday mornings.

Carol Countryman is a freelance troublemaker in Tool, Texas.

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