BP Note: Welcome to the second installment of our Queer Romance Month guest post series with Alexis Hall. I recommend you read the first one (all links open in a new window) because this follows directly after. I hope this particular post really makes you think. I know it certainly did for me!
Queer is Real
It really is that simple.
They teach us who we are, and how not to feel alone. They give us hope. And, sometimes they give us a framework to confront the things that terrify us. Perhaps it seems a strange thing to say about romance, this most dismissed and devalued genre that it supposed to pander solely to goodfeelz and fantasies. But, for me, it is precisely the safety of romance, the metatextual certainty that a happy ending is coming that makes it bearable – possible even – to think about the things that quietly flay me. To feel them just a little through some stranger’s words.
So here it is, on the internet, my greatest fear, the murkiest, most sordid, late-night monster that isn’t really based on anything rational but gluts itself nonetheless and grows fat like a toad on every flicker of insecurity, every set back, every moment that isn’t as easy as it should be: I’m terrified my partner will leave me for a life that requires fewer compromises. And, honestly, it makes no sense. I could be the one to make that choice if I wanted. But our life experiences are so different. Mine have taught me to take certain things for granted that his just … haven’t. I still remember the first time we were out together not as friends, but lovers, and the charge between us was different enough, that someone called us faggots from the other side of a line of traffic. And his eyes, wide, staring into mine for an answer I didn’t have: what do we do?
Even then, I think he knew: you live with it.
When you get right down it all relationships come down to learning to live with things. But I’m angry there are things he has to learn to live with beyond the fact I squash right up against at the wall at night, or that I freak out when he puts the teaspoons in the vertical partition of the cutlery drawer, instead of the horizontal one. And I’m sorrowful, faintly guilty, that there are things he has to give up to be with me. Some of them are large (biological children, being the most obvious), some of them are small (the irritation of me not being able to pay the water bill because it’s in his name) and some of them are shockingly unexpected. I think he didn’t get a job, last year, because they asked him – and his wife – to a post-interview dinner. And, after a week or so of angst, half-resolving to call in an Undercover Lesbian Wife Substitute, he took me anyway. But perhaps we were just poor dinner guests.
I would understand if he got sick of it. It certainly wearies the heck out of me.
I think it’s natural enough to fear your partner leaving you. I wouldn’t like it he fell in love with someone else (regardless of gender). I wouldn’t like it if he fell out of love with me. I wouldn’t like it if he decided my snuggle-squashing and teaspoon-anality became too much for one sane human to endure on a daily basis. These things would break my heart, but I’d grieve, and heal, and keep on living. The thing that I can’t fit into my brain, can’t find a way to deal with … is not being able to give the person I love, the life he wants.
Life After Joe is a book all about this. It was the first m/m romance I read that really spoke to me. And I think until the day I die I will always secretly think of it as the book Harper Fox wrote for me. Partially it’s a stylistic thing: I am drawn to pretty words, and it’s stunningly well written. But deeper than that, it’s full of things I recognise. Emotionally and psychologically and … honestly … literally. I grew up very close to where the book is set, and I’m a real sucker for sense of place. My personal articulations of selfhood and queerness are, to a degree, rather landscaped: I remember where I was somewhat better than the people I was with, stealing snatches of myself from a stranger’s skin, under the pier, or down some alleyway, or in the sticky corners of the club the protagonist visits as the book opens. There are so many northeast-specific references in Life After Joe that, to the part of me that will always be a working class northern boy from a council estate, it read as homecoming. A gentler, kinder homecoming that I will ever know. Impossible not to experience such a thing without a deep and slightly painful sense of gratitude.
Life After Joe very much a story of imperfect people. When it opens, the hero Matt is deep in a drugs, drink and sex-fuelled spiral of self-destruction. His childhood friend, later lover, and life partner – the eponymous Joe – has left him for the life he thinks he should have:
He loved me, always would. But he couldn’t live forever in the subculture. He wanted kids. He wanted someone to take home who wouldn’t make his mother cry and his dad’s face turn apoplectic purple. Basically, he wanted a girl, and over the past two years he had found, wooed and won one. Joe had walked out to get married.
The plot is very simple: while he’s not so much getting over Joe, as failing to, Matt meets Aaron at a night club, an oil rigger who is – unknown to Matt – deep in his own grief. Aaron, for what it’s worth, is another perfect articulation of something unique northeast. They don’t make their men like this down south: not quite this strong, and rough, and gentle all at once. Aaron is once a stereotype of northern machismo and a queering of it, his vulnerability and his capacity for love as integral to his masculinity as his ability to hold his own in a fight.
Despite the fact both Matt and Aaron assume the other is likely to be little more than a one night stand, they develop a tentative connection that develops into love. There’s a few misunderstandings along the way, and an unlikely journey to an oil rig on Christmas Eve, but this isn’t really a story about happenings, it’s a story about loss, and hope, and the love that comes after love.
Life After Joe eviscerates me. The intensity of Matt suffering and alienation doesn’t make him the most sympathetic protagonist – pain is ugly, there’s no way getting away from it – but his hurt feels so true to me, so unbearably real, as he tries to lose and find himself in the bodies of strangers, while his life slips away from him:
If Joe had been the heart of my life, this flat, these rooms, had been its bones, an enduring skeleton. Structure and shelter in the mess.
It’s unrelentingly present, as well, striking even in moments that are usually held sacrosanct in romance novels, for example the first Aaron and Matt sleep together, there’s still so much sorrow in the pleasure, and – of course – the memory of Joe:
When my lungs were empty, I hauled in a sobbing breath and shouted again. It was welcome, protest at the size of him, wild excitement—a sudden grief that, of all the men I’d let inside my body, for the first time I wanted one, wanted to be filled and fucked by someone other than Joe.
A lot of the romance novels I’ve read have been very much committed to the idea of one love above all others. It’s understandable, of course, because Happy Until I Meet My Next Partner lacks a bit of oomph and part of our investment in the couple comes from understanding their particularities: why this person and this other person are better together than they are with anyone else. Why, in short, that this relationship is real and lasting. I suspect this may be partially why rakes who have banged their way across London can be unravelled by the right virgin’s kiss, and why so many heroines in contemporaries are usually only permitted to have one (sexually unsatisfying) relationship before she meets the hero.
To me – and I acknowledge this is entirely personal – this just isn’t romantic. I believe all love has value, no matter how fleeting, how imperfect, no matter how shadowy it feels compared to the bright reality of the present. I don’t like the idea that it can only be “proper” love by contrast to other experiences that weren’t, or turned out not to be. But old-love and burgeoning-love are intertwined throughout Life After Joe, and that feels not only right to me, but humane. Moving on – in my experience – is not so much about diminishing the past as learning to live with it. There’s something terrifying, I think, in the power of other people to affect us, and here we have two characters as close to broken by love as you can get. But as lost as they may they feel, they’re never as lost as they fear, because while Life After Joe does not flinch from despair, it is so very full of hope: not a story of ending but of continuing. Loss and love will always be integral to each other but, no matter what, there will always be life after.
I read Life After Joe when I am feeling very scared. Only in pieces, because I can’t quite manage the whole thing without … well … let’s just say manly snuffling, and leave it that.
But it helps.
I finished off my last piece—Queer is Intimate—with some further recommendations, and that’s obviously a bit more difficult with this one, because it’d be just a list of books that were meaningful to me. We all find our own real after all. But if you’re looking for something else resonant with themes of love and loss that also happens to make me cry I would suggest:
When You Were Pixels by Julio Alexi Genao. I could tell you this is a collection of cyberpunk fragments, but all you really need to know is that it’s a goodbye letter, closer to poetry than prose, and that it’s beautiful. Full of small mysteries, and unexpected spaces, it’s a depiction of love that draws its exquisite clarity from its juxtaposition with the oppressive alienation of the coldly watching world in which it—fleetingly—flourishes.
I gave you all my secrets, and you lost them all. You lost a lot of things.
But treasure was in the giving, not the keeping.
You’ve forgotten me, but I’ll remember you as long as I live.
Queer Romance Month is running throughout October. We will be showcasing over a hundred essays, articles, stories, recommendations and flash fiction pieces from a broad range of queer, queer-writing and queer supporting authors from across the het and queer romance communities. We do hope you will join us.