Her wrinkles catch my eye. Her sex jokes capture my heart. Mary Everett, a 60-something sparkplug measuring 5 feet in heels on a tall day, sits next to me on the edge of the beachside volleyball court.
"So, you got sent to cover this?" she asks, eyeing my notepad.
"I got the short straw," I joke back.
This is the 23rd Romantic Times Booklovers Convention, an annual weeklong conference that draws about 1,000 romance novel-reading women (and a few men), along with published and aspiring authors.
The romance genre is a force to be reckoned with. According to the Romance Writers of America, romance novels brought in $1.2 billion in 2004, with more than 2,200 new titles released that year. Nearly 40 percent of all popular fiction sold in 2004 was romance.
It's no surprise, then, that so many show up for the convention. This year, there will be some 125 workshops on topics from the mundane (how to get published) to the sensational (sex with extraterrestrials). Three hundred industry reps from all the major publishers will be there.
I've arrived just in time for the cover-model volleyball game. Actually, I'm a few minutes early. Waiting in the sand for the buff boys to begin their frolicking, I flip through the schedule for the next few days, which looks to be a whirlwind of parties, seminars and contests.
I ate breakfast this morning with a new author, Diana Groe, and still to look forward to are the "Faery Court" costume ball and the Mr. Romance pageant where rippling-haired men seeking a romance-book cover contract will put their ripped abs on display in a roomful of heaving bosoms. Needless to say, I'm excited.
"Have you seen CJ?" Everett asks, as if we're best friends, as if I know who CJ is.
Everett has round blue eyes made even bigger by thick glasses, an overbite accented when she pops her giant grin, and the skin of a woman of a certain age, though she won't reveal exactly what that age is. "A real woman has her secrets," she says. She traveled from Tennessee for the convention, along with her daughter, Ceejay More and granddaughter, Candace More, all longtime fans of romance novels.
"CJ," I discover, is CJ Hollenbach, a veteran cover model with scads of fans No. 1 among them being Mary Everett. She fills me in on his details: a luscious mane of hair down to his "gorgeous tuchis," a solid-oak chest and the biggest heart of any man you'll meet. She e-mails him routinely.
"You know he didn't win," she says, referring to the Mr. Romance contest of a few years back. "It was in the middle of his father dying, and he still had to take care of his mother, and it wasn't like his sister was much help."
Jesus, how does she know all this?
"It took a lot for him to even come this year. He's getting older, and he's worried about the younger guys outshining him." She leans to within inches of my face, winks and says, "But no one can outshine my CJ."
The growing crowd of 50 or so women is getting antsy. As the models file out of the hotel onto the beach, Everett cranes her neck and squeals. "There's CJ!" She stands and waves. The man who waves back is bronze and broad, with a pouf of blonde hair in front and that golden mane cascading to his tuchis. He could just as easily be fronting Whitesnake as modeling for romance books.
Finally, the volleyball game begins. Women in the audience train their cameras on six-pack abs and bulging biceps, shooting frantically to catch the shirtless, hard-bodied men leaping, laughing and slapping high-fives. The atmosphere is fecund with the scent of suntan lotion and homoeroticism.
Everett points out Evan Scott, an older cover model sporting a curly mullet. Scott and his thick-thighed girlfriend, Tamara, are running the game; she's doing the color commentary on a PA system. "Someone please help them find their balls," she says when the volleyball lands out of bounds.
During pauses in the game, a model places a lei around the neck of a woman. Tamara chimes in: "She's getting lei'd by a cover model!" The women in the crowd eat it up. They laugh and clap and ogle. Everett giggles like a teenybopper and gives my hip a flirtatious slap.
CJ saunters over after the game. "I can't hug you," he says to Everett. "It would be a sweaty one."
"Those are the best kind," she says, throwing a raised eyebrow at me and stabbing a bony elbow into my kidney.
CJ's voice is low with a hint of a lisp, like Sylvester Stallone playing a gay surfer. He hands me a piece of paper the size of a baseball card with a stoic picture of him on the front and a list of his "stats" on the back: height, weight, favorite color (purple). At close range, he reminds me of a trim Meat Loaf.
Everett will read any book with CJ on the cover. "He gives us old women something to dream about."
Which nicely sums up the entire genre, I think. This conference isn't about literature; it's about fantasy. "It's simple," says Diana Groe, the newbie author I had breakfast with. "People want that happy ending. They're looking for the hope at the end."
Sex with aliens
This was what she'd waited for. This moment. Where had Gordal been all her life? She knew the answer: fighting intergalactic battles around planet Dulltron. But now, after this magical week in Vegas, the alien was hers. With his third eye trained on her womanhood, Gordal let out a small whimper, then jumped in bed.
In the hallway outside the conference rooms are long tables covered with knickknacks hawking new books. "Get stroked by midnight," reads one button. I pick up two fortune cookies and crack one open: "Fall in love with a dangerous man," it says. Prescient? Perhaps. I slip the other cookie in my pocket for later.
Inside a conference room, at a seminar titled "Hooks, Books and Great Beginnings," 19 women and two men are learning to write that great hook. Literary agent Mary Sue Seymour is the teacher. One eager woman in the back volunteers to share her writing first: "She slid her hand down his back and then in front to cup him. She realized then this definitely wasn't her husband."
The group snickers like middle-schoolers in a sex-ed class.
Another woman's opening includes the phrase "naked buttocks of the groom thrusting between the sprawled legs of the maid of honor." It's good stuff, Seymour tells the class.
On Day Two, I join a panel discussion on paranormal romance. Eighty women and I are soaking up pointers on vampire sex and werewolf love from authors Cheyenne McCray, Deidre Knight and MaryJanice Davidson. Someone asks the panel what the writers are currently working on. Knight says her latest book "is kind of a fusion of paranormal, sci-fi and time travel. With a sultry guy who has sex, of course."
At 3 p.m., it's off to another panel discussion, this time featuring an author, a literary agent and an editor. Twenty people attend.
Someone asks the agent for an example of a good paranormal idea she's received, and she pauses to think, finally coming back with the adage that most people don't know how to put a new twist on an old standby for instance, the "classic "romance with dragons' plot." I have a hard time wrapping my head around the idea of dragon sex, but everybody else is following along.
The agent says she recently got a pitch set during the time of the Napoleonic Wars. This one had a nice twist: Dragon-mounted warriors were interjected into the battles.
"I mean, wow! What a great idea, you know?" says the agent. People nod in excited agreement. One woman behind me says to her neighbor, "I'd love to read that."
Another panelist asks for a tally of how many people watched the now-defunct sci-fi show "Roswell." All 20 hands go up. Still another panelist wonders aloud "what Darth Vader was like in bed," and I have to admit that I've wondered that, too. Who hasn't?
At the front of the room, a young, heavy-set woman with deep Merlot hair and knee-high boots lined with steel plates keeps answering other attendees' questions before the panel can. I pull her aside afterward.
Brenna Lyons is the author of 13 novels put out via e-publishing, a less expensive and less prestigious form of getting your work out to a love-hungry world. Lyons writes about vampires, fairies, werewolves and aliens. Like many people engrossed in unusual pursuits, she takes her work very seriously. I crack wise about the Vader-sex comment; she only stares back. Wondering about issues like Vader's staying power is a job for her.
She eagerly lists her credentials: five EPIC (Electronically Published Internet Connection) Awards, three PEARLs (Paranormal Excellence Award for Romantic Literature), she's president of this, member of that.
Since Lyons is a qualified expert on the topic of human-nonhuman love, and it's rare that you come across a person with that kind of expertise, I take the chance to ask her how authors can pull in readers when their main character is not even of the same species as the reader.
"Aliens are people, too," she says. I laugh. She doesn't.
After awkwardly ending the conversation with Lyons, I make my way to the third paranormal workshop of the day. This one touts Laurell K. Hamilton, whose book Micah was the No. 1 paperback on The New York Times Best Sellers list when it came out in March. It's me and 90 middle-aged women in this seminar.
There's a long discussion among the panelists about where the line is for sex with shape-shifters. If your character is a werewolf by night, can he have sex at night? Is that kosher, or would it be bestiality? (The consensus we reach is that there is no line, really. One author tells me her recent novel included human-on-liger sex, a fact that seems to add some closure to the debate.)
By now, I'm in another world. One author, while holding the microphone near her mouth, says the word "tool," then pauses, and everybody erupts in laughter. But I'm growing weary of weighty discussions of deep-dicking werewolves and leave before the session ends.
Time to hit the bar. Just outside the entrance, a well-dressed older woman sits in the lobby. Despite my ache for a drink, I plant myself on the couch beside her.
"Here for the convention?" I ask.
"No," she says, then reverses. "Yes. My daughter is an author. I'm here for moral support. She's not a romance writer." She says this last part defensively.
Ahh, I think, a normal one.
Margaret McCormick tells me that romance readers are the most prolific of all readers. Up to five books a week, she says. "That's a great market to get a piece of."
Her daughter writes historic fiction, but is here for exposure. "And only exposure," McCormick adds as she leans in so as not to be overheard. "These people are a little eccentric. You know what I mean?"
"It's all a bit ... well, it's just weird."
I'm thoroughly enjoying a conversation without the words "vampire" or "oversized manhood" sprinkled in. We talk Sonics basketball (she's from the Seattle area), a little about politics and even about mass transportation. Fifteen minutes in, a younger woman with tight curls in her hair walks up.
"Hey, Mom," she says to McCormick. Marie Bostwick is her name. She sits down while we all order drinks. I confide in Bostwick about the trouble of writing paranormal sex scenes.
"I know," she says. "Apparently, bestiality is OK here."
When I bring up liger sex, Bostwick deadpans a perfect Napoleon Dynamite: "It's pretty much my favorite animal." Like a trio of loners at a party, we sit in the corner and wax on the absurdity of this whole thing. It's a huge relief. We slow down as our drinks dwindle. Margaret speaks up.
"These people are definitely fervent about their romance," she says. "They're devoted. But even though it's not what you or I are into ..." She downs the rest of her dirty martini and holds up one finger as she swallows. "But, but, but. You can't discount that much passion."
It takes a non-fan to point out the beauty of this crowd: They are unabashedly obsessed with romance. That zeal, crazy or not, is to be admired. I leave a little woozy from the gin, but with a newfound excitement for tonight's "Faery Court" ball.
Bad hip or not, she thrust toward him. No matter that he could have been her grandson. The granny wanted this boy. She needed this boy. All the sexuality, all the skills she once had came back in a rush. Granny panties or no, she still knew how to seduce a man.
It's a scorched ballroom when I arrive at 10 p.m., the kind of night that lends itself to few clothes and heavy breathing. The aroma of romance is in the air.
With the possible exception of the Mr. Romance contest, the parties are the most anticipated events of the convention. Most of the cover models will show up scantily clad and dance with the big-boned middle-agers. For a night, housewives, bankers and lunch ladies can be prom queens again.
I scour the dimly lit room, where more than 200 people stroll around in medieval dresses and sheer wings, all shouting over the DJ playing a mix of classic '80s dance music. (The Cure is in heavy rotation.)
I feel a tug on my shirt and peer down. It's Mary Everett, from the volleyball game. Her womanhood bursts at the seams of her purple satin dress, and her Shirley Temple wig bounces with soft femininity. She buys me a drink and we sit. My heart races with anticipation. What does the night hold for me?
We talk a little of CJ, but she seems more interested in another of the cover models, Bobby K., who is talking with a blonde across the room. Mary leaves and brings him back. With an eye on Mary, I inquire how the convention is going for Bobby K.
"Great, man," he says, pointing to the Barbie-doll woman he was talking to. "I've been banging her for two days."
Yes, love is in the air.
As if on cue, Mary grabs my hand and pulls me toward the dance floor. We wedge our way into the middle and stand nervously waiting for the next song to begin. I gaze down at her and my heart flutters. She giggles a little and steals glances at me. Finally, the Quad City DJs blast from the stage: "Come on ride the train, hey, ride it."
Mary cups my back and pulls me close. I feel her heart thumping in her chest. With a glint in her eye and a fire in her fruit, she peers up at me through her trifocals. Her wrinkled skin glistens in the strobe light. The rest of the room melts away as we slide around the floor, two bodies as one.
Cover models around the room rub up against women, but Mary is my only focus. Mouth agape, her breath heaves faster and faster. Her heart rate quickens. Our moves get slow. She pulls me flush with her ample body. The intoxicating smell of wig disinfectant fills my nostrils as her legs straddle my right thigh. She moves rhythmically up and down to the beat of the music.
"And boo, you need to stop faking / and come on with me / I wanna take you home with me / to be alone with me."
Her body rolls with me back and forth and I wonder what my wife will say. It doesn't matter. There is no force that can stop these two vessels from connecting. I drip with sweat.
Just when I think I will explode, the DJ ends the song abruptly and we're driven out of our moment. I stare around the room, trying to catch my breath and my bearings. Mary's bony hand caresses mine, pulling me down to her level.
She whispers in my ear, "That was great." And with a sly grin, she turns and walks out.
Back up in my room, I scavenge for food to feed my sudden appetite. I find the crumbs of some potato chips and a few pretzels. Then I feel a bulge in my pocket, reach in and pull out yesterday's fortune cookie. Cracking open the wafer, I read:
"What happens in Daytona stays in Daytona."
"Say my name!" Lexi exclaimed in the throes of passion. Strewn clothes created a trail from the living room to the bedroom. What had started as dinner with a spacey neighbor had ended in rumpled sheets. A crazy thought entered her mind: This could be the man of her dreams.
"Say my name!" Lexi exclaimed again.
"Oh, Crystal!" he finally responded. Her hopes were dashed.
I spend the next day nursing my leg and counting down the minutes until the Mr. Romance pageant. On my way down from my room, I see Lennell Dunbar, Mr. Romance 2003 and, by the look of his hair, one half of Milli Vanilli.
As I take my seat among the 300 or so women, "I'm Too Sexy" blares from the speakers. The contestants trot out on stage, some shirtless, some in disarrayed tuxedos, still others in cowboy garb. All strike a sexy pose, which more often than not includes a pelvic thrust. There are whoops from the crowd and flashbulbs pop like we're witnessing history. The ladies next to me are bouncing in their seats. "Oh my God," exclaims one.
"He seems really sweet," says another.
Let's meet the contestants. One guy, who's missing a neck, describes his interests as "on- and off-road motorcycles, pistol shooting and working out." On the other end of the spectrum, a skinny model with cornrows tells the crowd of women that he enjoys coin collecting.
The meat of the competition is a question-and-answer session, with dating-show-type queries from the audience. What kind of lover are you? What is your favorite body part on a woman? The contestants give generic answers, but the crowd still eats it up. My neighbors stare wide-eyed at the contestants' pecs and say things like, "He really does seem like a good guy."
Coin Collector, who is currently in the police academy, says he aspires to be the next "Colin Cowell," as if being a cop is a precursor to becoming U.S. secretary of state. Then he adds, "Oh, wait, is that his name?"
Two friends of the fawning girls, less won over by the contestants, muse over possible questions. What's your stance on Medicare reform? What about global warming? Do you support gay marriage?
One question "What would you do on a first date?" generates some of the best answers. One guy says, "If you're on a first date with me, I don't expect much from you." I think he meant to say the lady would be well-provided for, but it didn't come out very well.
Bobby K. gets up to answer the same question. He would first take his date to a trendy night spot, then rent a stretch limo and take her back to a hotel. That didn't come out right either, so he backtracks fast into another hole. "But only if the girl wants to go. I don't force women."
But the answers prove to be a mood-killer. These guys are anyone's fantasy? Allowing them to talk has only confirmed a stereotype: They're a pack of pretty, dimwitted Neanderthals. Where's the romance? Where's the happy ending?
This is depressing.
Evan Stone, curly-mullet man from the volleyball game, takes full advantage of the lull and jumps onstage with what he says is an important interruption. Rose in hand, he calls his girlfriend, Tamara, onstage to thank her for her help with the convention. As the crowd politely applauds, Evan digs in his pocket and produces a tiny black box. The crowd gasps.
Evan drops to one knee, and Tamara finally turns back from the crowd to see him there. She covers her mouth and trembles. Everyone is leaning forward in their seats. Evan takes a deep breath while Tamara opens the box and squeaks. And then, as slowly as his shaking voice can muster, Evan asks, "Tamara, will you marry me?"
Bawling, Tamara nods her head, and the two embrace. The audience whoops and claps louder than they have all night. A woman in the row in front of me wipes her eyes. Here it is. Here's the thoughtful man of oh-so-many books. Here's the romance. There's hope for everyone.
It's a storybook ending, minus the deep-dicking.