My step-step-grandmother’s basement, to be exact. My stepfather’s dad and stepmom lived in Virginia, in a giant house on a reasonably sized hill, just tall enough to get a good amount of speed pelting down it to fling yourself off the dock and into the lake. Picturesque! And I a Florida girl who had never been in a basement before, let alone one transformed into a veritable third floor of rooms, complete with a bathroom, storage space, and two bedrooms. I had thought all basements were cobwebby and contained killer clowns or giant spiders. This one was just where I was staying, sleeping in a double fold-out couch bed with my sister, two new step-step-cousins across the room in twin beds, and my parents down the hall in the other bedroom. There were bookshelves, lots of them, and crates of books piled haphazardly in the closets. The joy of swimming and the big hill to run down paled in comparison to ferreting through the books. I was That Kid in the corner, giant owl glasses peering over the cover of The Blue Sword or whatever it was that day. There had to be something in these boxes or on the shelves that would tide me over! I hadn’t brought enough reading for the road, of course.
So there, between Maeve Binchy novels and a travelogue of Denmark, sat The Flame and the Flower, a hoary work of romance with that delightfully outdated ‘70s romance-novel cover. At the time I had no idea that romance novels even existed, let alone that this one had been downright revolutionary upon publication for its frank portrayals of premarital sex and “erotic subjugation,” AKA rape. At twelve years old in 1999, a Millennial child, I should have been bored when the pages fell open to the good parts (it’s not like I was trying; romance novels kind of only have good parts), but I happened to be a Mormon Millennial child who wasn’t even supposed to be watching Gilmore Girls because there were too many makeouts and children born outside wedlock. And lo, I was shocked! horrified! titillated! confused! by page after page of breasts in too-small bodices and swarthy, grumpy gentlemen in ships and murder and jealous mistresses. I shoved the book back into its box and went to watch Anastasia with my step-step-cousins, feeling shaky and guilty and weird.
The book teased, though. I wandered past its box at intervals, snatching glances at the pages here and there, pretending to be looking at canals in Copenhagen whenever anyone else walked by. I knew what I was doing was wrong, but adolescent curiosity and hormones would not be denied. To my credit, I suppose, the book stayed in the closet when we left for Shenandoah National Park. Sneakily reading pornography was bad, but stealing pornography--from your grandmother--was probably worse. The discovery of The Flame and the Flower tipped off a career in clandestine erotica consumption, from easing a Nora Roberts compilation of fiery Irish beauties and their horse-obsessed manly men off my eighth grade English teacher’s shelf to rereading the novelization of The Wicker Man five times in high school, culminating, naturally, in the fanfic boom of recent years. Standing in a walk-in closet reading vintage Kathleen Woodiwiss isn’t so different from surfing AO3 on your lunch break.