Romance novelist and author of Following Chance Baxter Brown discusses the joys and pains of slow burn romance and why it matters to LGBTQ+ audiences
We’ll get to the kiss, you have my word…
When I was in the first grade, I developed a crush on a girl named Andrea. She was a mixture of strength, energy, and wild hair that she brushed back from her face. It was such a contrast to my hair; straight, boring, and contained in matching pigtails. I was drawn to the differences between us, perplexed by our similarities, but more than anything, I wanted to share my cookies with her, a fact that makes me smile to this day.
During arts and crafts, I took out a sheet of paper and wrote ANDREA in big block letters. I added hearts and rainbows and at the very bottom I wrote, I’m going to marry her! Putting the words on paper made it real and I felt accomplished. I folded up my affirmation into a tiny square and tucked it into the front of my overalls.
While our teacher was reading my eyes drifted to Andrea. I watched as she became engrossed in the teacher’s words. I took out the paper and looked at it longingly, but I was interrupted from my thoughts when our teacher asked me to come up to the front.
“May I see that?”
My hand trembled as I handed over the note. I couldn’t hold her gaze, too embarrassed at being caught. I focused on my sneakers. The Velcro straps kept me in place, or I would have bolted for the door.
“I see…” she said quietly. “Does she know?”
My head shot up. “No!” I practically cried.
“Are you going to tell her?”
My mouth hung open in utter disbelief. Tell her? Why on earth would I ever tell her? No, I mouthed slowly.
“I don’t want to see that out again.” She handed me the paper and I quickly shoved it into my pocket.
For the remainder of the class, I kept my focus glued to the front of the room as the sheet of paper burned a hole in my chest.
At recess, I sat alone quietly eating my cookies. I cleaned my hands off on my pants and took out the note.
I ripped that piece of paper into a thousand tiny shreds. I spent the rest of recess eating every scrap of paper. I wasn’t going to be caught a second time.
There is something incredibly satisfying about anticipation. A cold drink on a hot day, a safe harbor in a thunderstorm, and of course, a long-awaited kiss.
Slow burn romance is, for many LGBTQ+ people, the essence of our youth, adulthood, and even golden years.
When my father took me to watch The Little Mermaid when I was six, we sat in the back row with a bucket of popcorn between us. I was enthralled. I can still recall standing up on my seat and yelling out into the theater, “Kiss her!” The fated lip lock before sunset never happened, despite my plea, but it instilled something in me that remains to this day: anticipation is everything.
the finest of wines
I’ll sip you all evening,
I’ve got nothing but time.
As I became older, well after I’d written love notes to myself about Andrea and yelled at Eric to kiss Ariel, my fondness for anticipation drew me to stories that took an unhurried approach to develop relationships, aka slow burn romance. Unfortunately, as a youth there was limited LGBTQ+ representation to get my fix. I found myself becoming enamored with couples like Niles and Daphne from Frasier or Mulder and Scully from The X-Files. In other instances, I found it in queer baited couples, like Jane and Mura from Rizzoli and Isles, where it was all development and teasing a strong connection, but no happy ending. It was ultimately literature that satisfied that craving. I gobbled up every lesbian romance that I could find, but it wasn’t enough, which is one of the reasons I came to writing.
I’m fascinated by writing slow burn because finding the right balance between character development and romantic tension isn’t easy and usually, if you’re not mindful, you can alienate the reader. It needs to feel genuine. The reader can’t be left thinking, I waited for this? Instead, they need to feel, I waited for this! I often wonder if I’m striking the right chord as I take the reader through two hundred pages of development, angst, ache, and longing because to delay the kiss for that long you need those elements. By the time the reader reaches the precipice, I’m crossing my fingers and toes that it’s been worth the wait.
Recently, I’ve been pondering slow burn and our community and why, for me, it’s the perfect marriage, and then it hit me. It is, for many LGBTQ+ people, the essence of our youth, adulthood, and even golden years. Slow burn is a vehicle to showcase longing and rejection, but at the same offer happily ever after. We can all find common ground in the themes of crushes, longing, unrequited love, and ache. For me, these themes are the delicious bittersweet middle of slow burn. If you grew up in the 80s, 90s, or even early 00s, did you get the first girl you asked out? I didn’t. It was a process of many missteps, and I’m sure there will be many more to come, but there is something beautifully heartbreaking about each one.
Near the end of high school, I spent most of my free time writing in coffee shops. Cliché I know, but it happened. I visited a popular chain almost every Friday night. Nicole was the barista. Originally, I went to write, but I returned again and again, just so that I could catch a glimpse of her reflection in the windowpane.
My presence wasn’t lost on her because over time we started to share smiles, conversations, lingering gazes, and off-the-menu drinks. In retrospect, she probably took pity on my quiet Friday nights, but I couldn’t help myself, I was smitten.
I wanted to shout it from the rooftops, but I didn’t know how to approach her. Honestly, at that age, what does one say without throwing up all over themselves?
I could have tried, “I know almost nothing about you, but what I do know, makes me want to know more.” or “Can I buy you a coffee? Yes, you would have to make it, but I can pay.”
No matter how many times I practiced the words they seemed terrible.
LGBTQ+ communities can appreciate slow burn on a different level, as many of our relationships have been forced to endure a measured and methodical trajectory.
One night, I couldn’t take it any longer. I decided that all the smiles, the chatting, the free coffees had to add up to something, right? So, I decided to write her a note. I went through numerous drafts because it had to be perfect. When I was completely satisfied, I scribbled my words down on a napkin confessing my crush. I told her that I thought she was charming and that I wanted to take her out for coffee. Yes, a date, I wrote. I added my phone number at the bottom 555-HOPELESS. I folded the napkin in two and on the front wrote, Please read me.
Just before she closed for the night, I tidied my table and approached the cash register. I slid my napkin across the counter. “I’m heading home. I wrote you something, so…” I removed my fingertips. “Goodnight.” I offered an unsteady smile. I left the shop with my heart beating wildly in my throat. I couldn’t swallow it back down into my chest no matter how hard I tried.
The next day, I received one call from an unknown number. My mouth went dry. I let the phone ring three times so as not to appear completely desperate. I picked up the phone and channeled every ounce of self-confidence into words.
“Hello?” I squeaked out.
The second the word was off my lips, the line went dead.
She never called or she never called back.
To this day, I don’t know which is worse.
I believe that LGBTQ+ communities can appreciate slow burn on a different level, as many of our relationships have been forced to endure a measured and methodical trajectory—one which has been filled with longing and aches, because of our place in society as the other. Despite my tender age, I was not able to share my cookies with Andrea in the 80s, out of fear. After being caught, I ate my words. Out of sight, out of mind. If the rainbow doesn’t exist, you don’t need the pot of gold.
We never experienced slow burn in popular culture because it wasn’t permitted, but damn we lived it. Whether it was coming out later in life, harboring secret crushes, or falling for straight girls, it all lent itself to a long process of romantic development. Almost conversations, almost admissions, and almost kisses; the trifecta of anticipation. And even when we did have those elements, we were still ever mindful. Who’s watching? How will this be interpreted? Is this a safe space? Slow and steady often won the race.
Maybe something was happening between Nicole and I. Maybe if I ever went back to that coffee shop, I would have found out. But what I interpreted as rejection, coupled with apprehension, stopped me in my tracks. The seventeen-year-old in me still thinks about that almost phone call because even if it was to say, I dig you, but I just want to be friends, the acknowledgment would have been worth its weight in gold.
Short on Days and Dollars or Unrequited Love
Unrequited love: “It’s like drowning, but you just won’t f *cking die.” – Urban Dictionary
Sara and I tried so hard to be friends, but it was impossible. We were never friends. Faulty foundations. Just a crush that became a quagmire that swallowed me completely. I never stood a chance. Near the very end, we sat across from one another in a coffee shop drinking overpriced lattes while exchanging pleasantries. We were pretending. We were lying in the worst way possible. My eyes, of course, gave me away.
“You can’t look at me like that anymore.” She sighed heavily into her cup.
“How am I looking at you?” I asked, but I knew the answer. I closed my eyes. I never wanted to open them again.
“Like you’ve always looked at me…” she trailed off.
I opened my eyes and found hers.
“Like I’m everything,” she finished sadly.
I bit down on my lip and begged for blood to come instead of tears. The room spun wildly until I found the equilibrium of my words. “I don’t know how else to look at you,” I uttered as my eyes welled up.
I felt completely defeated.
“I think it’s over.” I exhaled and held onto my cup for dear life. My vision blurred.
The blood never came.
Tale as old as time, even though it shouldn’t be. If we weren’t a part of this community, we wouldn’t have half of these experiences. It’s not just simple longing and rejection, it’s more complex. It is a lived experience of denied and repressed emotions. Some of us have been waiting for kisses our whole lives that are never going to happen, and it’s important to acknowledge that reality. Our romantic relationships aren’t often built around the simple narrative of girl meets girl, but one day, hopefully, they will. Thank goodness we’ve got slow burn lesbian romance to flesh out all the cookie crushes, almost somethings, and epic fails, because those developments are defining and they should be explored.
Admittedly, I’ve only shared the slips because they make standing up and yelling, “kiss her!” all the more worthwhile. This girl doesn’t kiss and tell, but I am a woman of my word…
There’s plenty of kissing in Following Chance out August 13, 2020, I’m pretty sure it happens before page two hundred.