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.
10 thoughts on “Queer Romance Month Guest Post #2 with Alexis Hall”
Thanks for this lovely piece. Ordered Life After Joe
I loved Life After Joe. It is brilliantly done.
This thing shredded my heart. It was wonderfully articulated as always, and you made your point about the importance of happy endings with that personal story in a way that nothing less heartfelt could have ever come close to doing.
But I can’t even bring myself to care about Romance, Queer or otherwise at the moment. All I can care about is that it makes me sad, & angry, that horrible people can make you feel this kind of fear, when you have the man you love, & he loves you, & he’s right there with you, & you should just be able to enjoy that & celebrate that as the miracle it is, without being haunted by this fear of having it all taken away. Jesus Christ, no wonder TC and Honeybear gets to you so much. And everything else by John Grant. And Life After Joe. 🙁
I know the anguish of seeing the world hurt the person you love & take things away from him & being powerless to prevent it or protect him. I’ve felt that way for my husband many times, though obviously for different reasons. And I feel that way as your friend, not to be able to say or do one single thing to make this better for you & the person you love. I wish I could.
I can see you hold yourself responsible for this in some way, which I guess you know is crazy & I guess you can’t help anyway, but I just want to remind you, it’s the awful, unforgivable evil of homophobia that is at fault, not you.
And you should remember something: That you *are* giving the person you love the life he wants, because what he wants more than anything, if he loves you, is a life that has *you* in it. No, it’s not right or fair that he has to choose, but apparently he *wants* to choose, has chosen, & he’s chosen *you*. Just as you’ve chosen him. And for the same reason. Because he loves you. You just have to figure out how to stop fearing that’s going to change.
I know, I know, I’m trying to reason with you about feelings, and that doesn’t work 😉
But here’s one last thought. You said: “I would understand if he got sick of it. It certainly wearies the heck out of me.” Yes, but in a way, maybe that’s encouraging? It wearies you, but you stay, because it’s worth it, right, to be with him? Could it ever weary *you* enough that you would *leave* him over it? Could the heartbreak *that* would entail ever possibly be better? I don’t see how, but only you can answer that. If the answer, for you, is no, or even *probably* no, then there’s no reason to think it isn’t the same for your partner. I think loving you means it probably is.
And in that case, the only real thing to fear, becomes the possibility that love could ever end. And that’s a whole other kind of trust issues. But that’s the possibility we all share, when we love someone.
Sorry if this is a little too personal. But your post was personal. And I couldn’t help but say what was in my heart.
Your posts always touch me very deeply! Thank you for being so open and honest, I wouldn’t have the courage to share my feelings and fears so freely. I wish I had some wisdom to impart on how not to be afraid, but I really don’t have any.
You made me think how I want to make life better, easier and ultimately, happier for the person I love. I have to tell you, it’s not always easy to do that. I just think that if the person we love loves us back, this should help make the big inconveniences seem smaller.
And, I’m adding Life After Joe to my TBR list asap 🙂
I have been poised to write something about this since I first read it. Often articles/ posts that condense a number of emotionally resonant ideas I find difficult to read. Mainly because for me, these ideas are formulated through experience and time.
So to see a distillation of that can seem slightly overblown, I’m not doubting the sincerity the writer here, but for me it can all turn a little ‘Hallmark’.
However this post, and some others that have been written on QRM recently have touched on a couple of issues that have affected me personally; which in turn have had an impact upon what I read.
Loss, sacrifice and the road to HFN/ HEA : found out when I was relatively young that the chances of me having children was very small, I actually found out before I ever had a sexual relationship. Maybe because of this, having children never seemed important. I fell in love, we bought a flat and talked about our future; the no children thing did not seem a big deal. It gradually became the thing we never talked about, eventually we stopped talking about anything of significance.
No matter what anyone said about him being a twat, I felt that my biology had caused the break up.
Life with me was difficult after this, as responses to chat up lines go, ‘I’m barren’ wasn’t a crowd pleaser (not that I actually wanted anyone either). Life went on, then I didn’t think about it every day or every week. I met new friends, new somebodies and eventually a new someone.
When we were first together the thought that he would miss out because of me would wake me up and I would sit in the half dark smoking and picking at my emotional scabs. (We did get pregnant, naturally 6 years later, which changed everything.)
While I don’t believe that books need to mirror life, and certainly not in romance, I would like to see more recognition that the road to HFN/ HEA does not, and should not be the same for every character, and there is support for authors who chose to explore that.
I want to hug you so much right now 🙂
My husband and I struggled with fertility issues and and had a few unsuccessful medical procedures before we had our baby girl two years ago. So, I now I’m convinced that loving someone takes a lot courage and strength.
And I fully agree with you that more diversity along the road to the HFN/HEA in contemporary romance is much appreciated.
Ellie, you are so right, when I was told that you need to work at a relationship I used to poo poo that, but they do need work. Also hugs back
@ Karen: Oh my gosh. *so many hugs* That’s so moving. And so courageous of you to relate something so deeply painful & personal.
(Which also goes for what Alexis wrote as I somehow failed to say in all my wordy emoting above :/)
That feeling that, due to some aspect of who you are or are not, or some quality you are “lacking”, that you are, in some sense, failing the person you love, is extraordinarily painful. I’ve experienced in my own relationship though unlike you I’m not brave enough to say more. I’ve been lucky in the sense that other factors seem to greatly outweigh this “shortcoming” most of the time, so it hasn’t felt as acutely painful as what you have described, or Alexis. But the awareness is always there.
In a way, though circumstances vary, I think this feeling may be universal. None of us can give the person we love everything they need to be happy. Everyone sacrifices one type of life for another, in large ways & small, merely by virtue of falling in love & choosing to share a life with a particular person & the kind of life being with them entails.
When I married I was older but still could have, potentially, had a child. But I knew going into the relationship that children, for a number of reasons, weren’t right for my husband in this stage of life. And there were other sacrifices I made for our relationship, which I won’t go into here. I knew this worried him, that I was giving up things up to be with him, that I might regret it one day. But to me it was such a no-brainer. I loved him deeply, as he loved me. He was already so much a part of me that I would have felt his loss like the loss of a limb. The idea of ever trading him for a dicey grab at a mythical brass ring of “perfect life” felt unthinkable & frankly, insane. No doubt my attitude is colored by the fact that for so long feared love wasn’t a thing I was “allowed” to have. But, to me, to turn aside from love for such a reason would be to refuse a miracle in hopes of a “better” miracle. Choosing as I did felt instinctively right. And I have *never* regretted it. In fact, I find the path I chose, in every respect, wasn’t just the right one for him, or for our relationship, it was the right one for *me*. Which makes me think, (apologies in advance for the “new agey”), that choosing by love is another way of being guided by spirit/God/the universe, whatever you prefer, sort of like following a lighted path. (Eek, probably way worse than Hallmark, sorry if I gagged anyone :P)
I could not agree with you more on the road to HEA/HFN. The road & the destination should be as as diverse as the human beings traveling it.
Thank you – I really hope you enjoy it. The ending is a little contrived in the actual sense, but emotionally it’s perfect.
It’s one of my favourites – probably will be forever 🙂
Thank you Pam, I’m so happy you liked it – although I’m sorry I mad you so sad and angry. I feel slightly bad about that, to be honest. I mean, these are squishy late night fears, and I’m pretty sure everyone has them for some reason or another. I mean I’m a highly strung commitmentphobe – I’m scared of my own shadow, and I’m not very good at relationships, so I think broader irritations with the world get folded into personal anxieties about, well, basically everything.
As you say, it’s basically just trust issues, and something I’m working on 🙂
In all honesty, in the cold light day, it all looks rather silly. But that’s what I like about romance novels – they speak to all the foolish and noble places of the human heart. And give you space to think and feel these things, rather than stewing nervously in your own head, which is my usual coping strategy 😉
I do, however, appreciate the pep talk – my inner voice tells me all of these things in very bracing tones quite often.
“And in that case, the only real thing to fear, becomes the possibility that love could ever end. And that’s a whole other kind of trust issues. But that’s the possibility we all share, when we love someone.”
I think this is kind of a big deal for me, and I think what’s Life After Joe addresses more universally than its directly queer-centric fears.
Thank you Ellie. I used to write a lot of book reviews, but I don’t any more for various complicated reasons, so I kind of wanted to use the opportunity to talk more personally about my reactions to queer romance. I didn’t really feel I was bearing too much of my heart because “I get occasionally get irrationally scared about something unlikely” strikes me as pretty common human vulnerability. At least, I hope it is, otherwise I’m rubbish at relationships 🙂
I wish I was better at making life good for the people I love as well…. but I also console myself with the idea that’s pretty common too.
I do hope you enjoy LAJ 🙂
Thank you for this comment, Karen. You’ll be happy to hear that my next post is Queer is Fun so hopefully that should cut down on the Hallmark angst 🙂 I just feel that books have an extraordinary capacity to speak to us and reflect us, and it’s good to talk about that sometimes. Even if/when we feel they fall short in some ways.
Anyway, I am sending you a massive internet hug, for whatever that’s worth. There’s been a lot of discussion around Happy Ever Afters recently and, like you, I wish there was a broader sense of the roads people take to happiness … i.e. that it is a road and not just a conveyor belt.
As Pam and Ellie say, I think ideas of what a relationship looks like, and how we can tell a relationship is successful, are so engrained that we forget how many people those definitions exclude – and not just queer people, but people who don’t want or can’t have children, people who can’t or don’t want to get married, and etc, anyone who makes different choices in the way they live, or the things (and people) they value.
This was a beautiful post. Thank you. I loved both the pieces you recommended here.