I like to tell people I fell in love with my husband before I knew much about him, including what he looked like, how old he was, and whether or not he was single. This is true -- sort of.
While editing draft chapters from his memoir, I became so enraptured by the way he wove "Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan" into an utterly irrelevant anecdote that I begged my boss to introduce me.
Our first date went well -- we ate shrimp -- and yadda yadda yadda, here I am four years later, typing at our dining room table while he watches "Dallas" upstairs. (Speaking of which: Larry Hagman! Noooo.)
Here's the thing, though: I might have fallen in like with my husband because of his prose, but I fell in love with him because of Charlotte Bronte's. When I finally did meet Matt, I discovered he looked like Edward Rochester, and I'm not going to lie -- that's what really did it for me.
I am a Rochosexual. I have been ever since the eighth grade, when I read Jane Eyre in Mrs. Buchanan's English class. Come Gilbert and Gubar, come Jean Rhys and Kate Beaton and even Julieanne Smolinski, my attraction to the type has persisted: older, swarthy, laconic, melancholy, a little rude, broad-shoulderaaaablaaahhh I'm getting all hot and bothered just writing this.
Were you to meet any of my past, er, intimate partners, you’d have to be Blanche Ingram not to see Mr. Rochester in disguise. I’ve dated a lot of older men, including my husband, who's 14 years my senior. I’ve also dated many British men, loners, and people who are now incandescently gay. (Psst: in the era of no-fault divorce, "madwoman in attic" has been replaced by "closeted homosexuality” as the leading cause of sexy, mysterious torment in a man’s eyes.)
Why do I find these traits so attractive? A Freudian psychologist might suggest daddy issues, but I had one of those dads who wrote and illustrated an ongoing series about the squirrels in our backyard, dropping a page of the story my school lunch bag every day. In other words, he was awesome.
Meanwhile, an evolutionary biologist might point to the nesting capabilities of a landed older gentleman or the enhanced male sex characteristics of a swarthy, muscular brute. That is also bullcrap. I'd bang stump-hand no-eyeball Mr. Rochester just as enthusiastically as I'd bang pre-fire Thornfield Mr. Rochester. No money? No problem!
So what is it? Why am I this way? When I began to write this article, my hypothesis was that the broad strokes of my sexuality were genetic, but the specifics got imprinted in adolescence. Kind of like in the Twilight saga, that stupid no-talent Jane Eyre knockoff, when the werewolf imprints on the baby. Though unspeakably gross in detail, it IS an apt allegory for how I'd always thought things went down: longing erupted from my adolescent endocrine system, flowed into the mold of an attractive thing nearby, and solidified into rock.
Turns out I was literally the only one of my friends who thought sexuality developed that way. Like me, they all remembered a specific moment when they really understood what it was to long for someone. But they'd known all along what they were going to like.
Here's how one friend, 27-year-old Nora*, described it: "In elementary school I was fascinated by strong girls, mostly in books -– Leslie Burke in "Bridge to Terabithia", "The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle" -- but also a few girls around me who I thought were pretty but who were totally unlike me in being brash, athletic, etc."
She continued, “I first understood what it was to long for someone when I was 11 and in sixth grade and fell obsessively in love with this seventh grade girl who for whatever reason (I forget now) started teasing me a lot (she was outgoing and into sports, I was a child who sat around writing Victorian novels). I found her very attractive and I loved having her attention paid to me, so I developed strategies to court it. This was when I realized the exhilaration of getting all the references to love and longing in our culture."
In sum, Nora’s desires were the same throughout childhood. Adolescence didn’t change the tune; it simply added a thumping bass clef.
Other friends reported a similar pattern. One -- a Wallflowers fan since elementary school -- felt her heart sink under a strange new weight of melancholy when she learned a classmate had met Jakob Dylan in person. Another started crushing on superheroes at the age of 5 -- her first love was Michelangelo, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle -- but she didn’t actually lust for her heroes until middle school, when she discovered Greek and Norse mythology.
Twenty-nine-year-old Naomi, a friend of a friend, studied the neuroscience of desire in college. Her hypothesis about sexuality fit my friends’ stories much better than my own. "I think everyone is drawn to a different cocktail of physical and emotional experiences that are for the most part hard-wired,” she said. “It feels like my mind was waiting to experience moments that would help me understand what I was already feeling and wanting."
As for the first “moment” that triggered the bomb: “You will die. It was in that movie about the dog named Beethoven. Maybe also called Beethoven, but the second one. Beethoven 2? It was a scene at the end of the movie where one of the heroines gets put in a dicey situation with an older man who comes onto her."
The actual name of the movie is “Beethoven’s 2nd.” That I knew the answer immediately made me blush. That I remembered the scene in detail made me blush harder, and that I’m pretty sure I was turned on by it, too, made me blush hardest of all.
The scene Naomi is talking about is an attempted rape. You know, typical fare for a PG-rated family film. One of Beethoven’s owners, a teenage girl, attends an alcohol-sodden party at a beach house, for some reason with Beethoven in tow. She leaves him chained to the front of the house, goes inside, and is rather quickly cornered in a bedroom.
As the girl’s attacker closes in, twirling the keys to the locked bedroom door, Beethoven struggles to yank himself free. In the process, he manages to take the entire façade off the beach house, exposing the scene in the bedroom and scaring off the rapist. St. Bernards: what can’t they do?
I don't even know where to begin with what is wrong about that scene, but the truth is that I was just as excited as Naomi when I watched it. I’d repressed the memory out of sheer embarrassment. At just eight years old, I wasn't sexually aroused per se, but I remember going home from the theater thinking Oh man, that was about sex. Penises and vaginas. Fascinating.
Now, as I think back honestly to my childhood, I realize it was full of such proto-sexual moments. There was time I watched "Contact" alone in my basement and suddenly started fantasizing about how nice it would be to sit in the lap of Jodie Foster’s blind colleague -- a minor character played by William Fichtner, every tween girl’s dream -- and let him run his hands over me. I think I was 12.
Even more embarrassing: when I was a toddler -- a toddler -- I was a huge "Inspector Gadget" fan. It wasn’t because of the gadgets or the gags -- the humorous kind of gags. I liked that show because I was oddly compelled by the scenes in which Inspector Gadget’s niece got kidnapped and tied up. It’s hard to describe what I mean by “oddly compelled,” but those of you who’ve felt it too will know.
I was as far as a kid can be from sexual awakening; I wasn't even aware that intercourse existed. And yet. And yet. A girl was being tied up by dark and powerful older men, and I was interested in that.
Maybe Mr. Rochester was with me all along. Maybe he wasn’t. Either way, I’m still left hanging on my biggest question: WHY? What the fuck? Sexuality is so weird and fascinating.
The answer doesn’t matter to me in a practical sense. My husband has all the good Rochester qualities I love -- rugged good looks, age and experience, strange sense of humor, disdain for pointless social mores -- minus the rapeyness, racial bullshit, and attic of surprises.
Reader, I married him. I'm happy. But I guess I'll never know why.
*Names have been changed, for obvious reasons.