A lot of people hear the term “Romance” applied to my books and automatically assume that I write feel-good stories about white-bread people who’ve never even had a passing acquaintance with trouble (or, at very least, who have never done anything that could be construed as deadly, extremely dangerous, or even downright illegal). Those people would be wrong.
One of my most critically-acclaimed and most-loved series is my SF nod to both Military Fiction and Romance, Underground. It deals with the hard realities of living in a post-global-war world, still teetering on the edge of another war. And a lot of the characters, and some of the events, are loosely (and not so loosely, in some cases) based on real people I’ve known, real events I’ve experienced or witnessed.
The childhood terror I revealed in my last segment? Yeah, it’s there. Slightly modified, it shows up in the past of the main character, Tamia. She is my mirror, my foil, sometimes an expression of my turbulent emotions as a child and teenager, and sometimes the focus of conveyance for events that either did happen, or could have been.
It should come as a surprise to no one, then, that I first began working on Underground at the age of twelve. Incidentally, this was around the same time that my life both spiraled out of control, and began to finally find focus.
Confused? Yeah, I figured as much. I’ll try to explain, but you’ll have to bear with me through some taboo discussion topics, for a moment.
While I’m not going to talk about it, here (that’s a subject for all its own post, if I decide to get into it), it’s important to note that when I was ten, and just before the events I’m about to discuss started happening, I witnessed a horrible accident and its aftermath that would leave me forever scarred. But, as I said, that’s a subject for a post all its own.
When I began to hit puberty, at around eleven, I was still struggling daily with the shame, fear, and self-loathing of what happened when I was six. Puberty isn’t a good time, emotionally, for any kid. For me, it carried a double-whammy I knew nothing about, and never saw coming.
I began having headaches. Massive, paralyzing headaches, accompanied by wretched abdominal pain. Most times, I couldn’t even move, fought to breathe, and yet tried to downplay or hide my symptoms as best I could. I didn’t know what they were, and I was scared. Still, I began missing school, which eventually only increased the number of times I had the pain, as I fought to make up homework, classes, etc. I had blackouts (not memory ones… I remember every moment leading up to and directly after the blackouts) — I ended up in the ER several times, and each time, they hooked me up to an IV of glucose, and monitored me, and I bounced back within several hours, so they’d label it “dehydration” and send me home.
But no one had an explanation for the headaches, or the spiraling depression I was suffering (the latter, no one knew about mostly because I kept it to myself. I already felt helpless — I didn’t want to be branded “crazy” as well). Twice, I ended up in the ER because I attempted to kill myself — only, no one knew, because I never made a peep about what I’d taken. I wanted to die — why would I help them make me live? Things happened that I can’t explain here, but I will say that those events both saved my life and changed it.
Then, one day, I met a girl whose philosophy about life would forever change my own. She already knew she was dying. She had a blood clotting disorder that was killing her, and she knew she wouldn’t even make it until she graduated high school. Her life had an expiration date. And she gave me the best advice anyone has ever given me. “Life is something grand and too brief already. Throwing it away cheats everyone who wants to live and can’t.”
We became fast friends — me, her, and her brother, who was her legal guardian since their parents died a few years before . She was the sister that, until that point, I’d never had. And he was my best friend, and my confidant. I won’t divulge their names here, because they were important enough to me that, even though I’m sure it no longer matters, I will protect their memories with my life.
When I was fourteen, my soul-sister died. She was just six months older than I, and I mourned her passing with wretched grief that I kept locked away from the rest of the world. I was convinced that the rest of the world would not allow me that grief — after all, I believed that they hadn’t allowed me my own pain, when I was a child, and I felt abandoned.
But I retreated inside, became quiet and withdrawn. The only person to whom I would open my heart and soul was my best friend in the world, who was also the first man I ever loved, and the only man to whom I ever gave my whole heart, without reservation.
I know some of you will snarl and find it disgusting that over 10 years separated us in ages, and I was just fourteen at the time. I really don’t care what you think. We intended to spend the rest of our lives together, and there was nothing sordid or perverse about our love. Remember, in many ways, I had never been a child. I was well-ahead of my peers, emotionally and mentally. Many people mistook me for much older than I was, physically. I didn’t even LOOK like a child. And he gave me a joy and love I haven’t felt since. He showed me all the respect and tenderness I never felt worthy of before, and made me feel beautiful and beloved at a time in my life when it seemed the rest of the world had nothing but hateful things to say.
Sadly, it wasn’t to last. Though we were making plans for the future — a time when I would be old enough for us to finally no longer have to hide how we felt for each other — we had no idea what was coming. A freak accident took him away from me. I stood on the tarmac and watched the plane he was flying go down in flames, and a large part of me died, that day.
I can’t even describe how it felt. Every time I try, the numbness just sets in, and I can’t feel, all over again. I wasn’t allowed to grieve him, not anywhere but in the dark of night, and in the confines of my heart. Only at night could I cry, my tears muffled by my pillow. And the stress of that loss, the agony of living like that, sent my health spiraling downhill. That was something my family couldn’t help but notice. They took me to doctors, looking for answers that never came.
And, for the second time in my life, I wanted to die. But something stopped me. The words of my soul-sister, and the knowledge that ending my own life was something neither she nor the man I loved would EVER want for me. So, I decided to live — for them. But a part of my heart closed off, and I knew that loving the way I loved him would never happen again. Not in this lifetime.
That’s not to say I haven’t dated, or loved anyone, since. In 2004, I got married for the first time. I love my husband, in my own way, and he knows the story of my first love, and that there are just some parts of my heart he can never have. I’ve never kept that from him.
So, yes, I know what Romance is. It’s loving someone so much you hurt inside, but take peace from knowing that, in some ways, they’ll never leave you completely. It’s having the courage to love again, even if it’s not in the same way. It’s not about Happily Ever After — it’s about “I love you” meaning more than a fairytale. It’s about that love giving you the strength to go on, even when life seems impossible to bear.