Last August 3, in Boulevard, California, a man named James Lee DiMaggio invited his friend’s wife and son to his home, killed them, shot their dog, and rigged incendiary wire on the property to burn when a timer reached zero. Before the house caught fire, he picked up his friend’s daughter, Hannah, and drove off. The car was a blue Nissan Versa.
No one knew where he’d gone. “Basically,” said a San Diego County sheriff’s lieutenant, “the search area is the United States, Canada, and Mexico. The search area is North America.” AMBER Alerts were active in California, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, and Nevada, but it seemed possible that DiMaggio, known to be a good hiker, had taken Hannah to the woods.
“He must have really had the hots for her,” says the woman behind the counter at the 7-Eleven near Fremont Street, in north Vegas. It’s a season in the news reserved for wildfires and missing hikers, and the DiMaggio story has been on TV, radio, and the Los Angeles Times home page for days. On the LCD billboards over the Las Vegas Expressway, pictures of DiMaggio and Hannah alternate with advertisements. female | age 16 y.o. | blonde hair. “If it was me,” says a goateed man at a restaurant, “I’d switch cars.”
Fremont Street spills off the expressway and runs west for four miles, a straight drive through what Vegas used to be and still is when no one’s looking. There are weekly motels with neon signs and no visitors between ten p.m. and morning, and rooming houses in pastel blues and pinks. The only people walking are those who have nowhere in particular to be: junkies, the homeless, teenagers on summer break, who, if asked, will tell you that when they have money to hang out, they don’t go to the Strip, which is for tourists.
The street’s four westernmost blocks, the Fremont Street Experience, have been covered for eighteen years now by a barrel-vault canopy of white steel strips. It’s like being in a giant church, except you can get ninety-nine-cent margaritas in plastic cups. It is middle- and lower-middle-class Vegas, the Vegas of the two-week vacation. There are T-shirts from other stays: Cabo, Cancún, Puertos Rico and Vallarta. There is every sort of scooter, stroller, and wheelchair. On one, operated by a weather-damaged old woman, a sign says, people steal my money and take adv. of me.
Not only tourists and teenagers but Las Vegans of all ages come to Fremont. On Sunday afternoons, the restaurants serve patrons dressed in church hats and long dresses. Outside, the live acts are not exclusively white but also Mexican — the second-largest ethnicity on the street — and Southeast Asian, and black. A block from the Golden Nugget, a white guy and a black guy dance at each other on the sidewalk while a black band plays “Let’s Stay Together.”
The Golden Nugget, the Four Queens, and the D are the large casino-hotels on Fremont. The Golden Nugget was built fifty years before its counterparts on the Strip, and it has no thirteenth floor. Rooms are inexpensive, and the minimums at blackjack tables are sometimes five dollars or even a buck. In summer the casino is cold and darkly lit. If you wanted to hide out for a while, you’d be better off here than in the woods.
On the second floor of the Golden Nugget, where the first annual Romance Novel Convention begins tonight, a volunteer who paid $250 to be here is handing out black badges that read author, aspiring author, cover model, and reader/guest. reader/guest means “husband.” The volunteer says there will be a thousand total attendees. At seven p.m. there are perhaps 300 in the Bel Air ballroom, mostly white women in middle age, some with Reader/Guests.
After the lines thin out at the cash bars, the DJ stops the music and a man in his early forties gets onstage. He is six feet tall and 220 pounds, with black hair to his shoulders, big hazel eyes, a thirty-three-inch waist, and a thirty-four-inch inseam. He takes a 48R jacket and a size 9½ shoe. Jimmy Thomas, who looks like a soap-opera version of Patrick Dempsey, describes himself as the industry’s leading cover model, some 3,600 covers ahead of Fabio. He is the RNC’s founder and CEO.
Everyone in the room recognizes him, and many have dealt with him professionally. His background is a little shrouded. People say he used to practice architecture. His primary business these days is covers. He has a website where you can buy a photo of him as a cowboy or a Regency aristocrat or a Southern beau or on a motorcycle. Photos run $1 to $300 and sell to Aspiring Authors hoping to break into the $1.4 billion romance-novel market, which is the most lucrative in U.S. publishing — $700 million ahead of its closest competitor, “inspirational,” and $1 billion ahead of “literary.” Fifty Shades of Grey was self-published by a woman with two kids and a day job; she made $95 million last year — more than any other writer in the world.
Romance’s largest subgenre by far is erotic romance. That’s erotic romance — not “erotica,” which to romance writers sounds pejorative, because it implies that the love story is ancillary to the sex. How to categorize Fifty Shades is a matter of debate among readers, but the official opinion of the Romance Writers’ Association is that it meets the two criteria for romance: central love story, happy ending.
“Sorry for the delay,” Jimmy says from the stage. Like many people who spend their professional lives in front of cameras, he is shy in front of groups. He lisps. “So, introducing the man that is in the building, ladies and gentlemen, Elvis Presley.”
While the singer impersonates, Jimmy takes the floor with his mother, a stocky woman in her sixties with short white hair. “Treat me like a fool,” sings Elvis, “treat me mean and cruel.” Jimmy’s mother puts her head on his shoulder. She is surrounded by women nearer her age than Jimmy’s, women who wouldn’t say no to a dance with him, and here she is, the one he said yes to.
After Elvis finishes his set, a Latino cover model in a Stetson and black chaps takes the floor with a metal pan of fire. The room gets dark around him. The DJ puts on “Wanted Dead or Alive,” by Bon Jovi, who tied the knot around the corner at the Graceland Wedding Chapel, and the model rips off his leather vest. He sets his underwear aflame. By the end of the routine, he’s wearing nothing but a jockstrap and everyone has put down her drink to applaud.
In the foyer outside the Bel Air is a woman whose real name is not H. P. Mallory, who left a high-paying marketing job to become a higher-paid writer of urban fantasy and paranormal romance (she claims to make $40,000 in a good month) and became a repeat entry on the Amazon, USA Today, and New York Times bestseller lists. Mallory ended a contract with Random House because they took too big a cut. She’s not yet forty. Tonight, she’s wearing a white sequined pantsuit and a pink stripe in her blond hair. She’s surrounded by writers in their twenties and thirties.
“He’s getting his M.F.A.,” someone says, first thing, when I join the group.
“The fuck does that stand for?” asks Mallory. “Mother Fucking Asshole?”
Because I missed the registration deadline for the RNC room deal at the Golden Nugget, I’m staying next door at the Four Queens, slightly down-market by comparison. It has looked the same for at least thirty-five years. We know this partly because a filmmaker named Scott Jacobs made a documentary called The Las Vegas Tapes in 1976, when “Las Vegas” still meant “Fremont.” Except for the canopy, the street has not changed, either. “Why do so many people come here?” a man in front of a souvenir shop asks Jacobs. “Well, it’s a tourist town for one reason. Secondary, why, it’s a release from the tension, aggravation, sorrow, and headaches. Everyone’s lookin’ for a bright time. Gay lights.”
It’s been three months since I got engaged to a woman I’d known for six weeks, and even this short explanation makes it sound more prudent than it actually was. I start picking up romance novels at Rite Aid, and the stories make a kind of sense — I’m compelled by what people can, instantly and in unison, believe about each other.
Although officially five days long, the RNC packs its classes into two. In the Merion room, Lynn Lorenz, who writes M/M (guy-on-guy erotic romance for women), offers “Plotting for Pantsers,” intended to teach formal rigor to those who write by the seat of their pants. “If you do not have a happy-for-now or happily-ever-after ending,” she says, “you aren’t writing romance. You will let your readers down.” She’s a large woman who seems warm and un-sass-brooking: if she weren’t doing this, she could be working afternoons at a cowboy bar.
Lorenz first advises us to use spreadsheets to keep track of our plots; she wants three turning points and one “dark moment” per twenty-four-chapter book. “They have to be apart, and then they have to be together,” she says of the hero and heroine, three times. “What you want is, by the time they’ve hit that third turning point, they are fighting together to get to that HEA.” She clicks to the next slide in her PowerPoint. “Setting. You know, you could say, ‘In the woods.’ Simple as that.”
She then posits a novel in which the hero meets the heroine in a Starbucks, but she has a boyfriend. “In that case,” she says, “boy meets girl, girl leaves boyfriend.” She pauses. “Heroes and heroines do not cheat. They don’t cheat.”
“No, they don’t,” says someone in the audience.
“Yes,” says Lorenz. “They don’t cheat. Heroes don’t cheat. Heroines don’t cheat.”
She starts in on the character of the hero, who can be unlikable. “ ’Cause you know her love can fix him. Ladies, we all know that’s true. No offense to the one guy, but here’s the thing I tell my daughter: Nobody changes. They are what they are. But in our books, our heroes must change.”
Then it is the heroine’s turn. “She can’t be whiny. She can’t be a bitch. She’s gotta be strong, but she can’t be cold. And if she’s got those walls up, you must show her vulnerability. She is just. Like. The reader.”
In a room called Pebble Beach, Catherine Bybee is wearing a neon-green sweater set, silver hoop earrings, charm bracelets, and a wedding band. She is peppy, with the self-consciously mischievous attitude of the woman who knocks back a few too many Chardonnays at the PTA fund-raiser. She likes Nora Roberts and Phil Collins, and she tells us at the beginning, “I suck at English lit.”
“Who’s in this for the money?” she asks us, raising her own hand. “Who wants to get famous enough to fill this room?”
There are exactly seven people in the audience, including me. “It takes seven to ten times for somebody to hear your name before they pick up your book,” Bybee says, explaining that Wife by Wednesday, her breakout, took off because she already had brand recognition. “I don’t know what jackrabbit grabbed Wife by Wednesday and flew off the map. But within six weeks I was in the top one hundred on Amazon, and a few weeks after that I was selling hand over fist . . . I had a fabulous cover, and I dropped the price.” Everyone’s taking notes.
Wife by Wednesday begins when its hero, who can’t inherit his fortune as long as he’s single, offers a matchmaker $10 million to be his temporary wife — legal purposes only, no falling in love. But can she meet the obligations of her contract even as her heart is begging her to break it? The Spanish edition of Wednesday is called simply El Contrato, and the cover is a cruel-looking fountain pen, lean and black, barely touching the paper with its tip. It’s a twist on the most fundamental romance premise: an arranged marriage that one day leads to love. It sold 125,000 e-books in its first month.
That afternoon, I buy a Coke for a guy who writes e-books as Chance Masters. At thirty, he is the second-youngest adult male at the conference. He is single, works at a fuel-line-assembly plant in Ohio, and keeps his hair buzzed even though he’s no longer in the Army.
“I make like twelve su’um an hour,” he says. “I work a fixed shift, six a.m. to six p.m. in rotating days, two on, two off.”
“So you’re here to make money,” I say.
“The one thing I’ve noticed is romance seems very easy to get into. Like, you really only need to be willing to do it in order to make it work. It’s not my passion.”
I suggest that there must be better ways to make money than writing.
“There might be. I may not have discovered them. I tried the comic-book route, but the thing I noticed was that it was just a total money sink. There was the cost of going to the conventions — like three, four hundred dollars a con.”
“This one cost two hundred and fifty dollars.”
“Oh, it was a lot more than that,” he says. “I sunk quite a bit of money into this. Oh gosh, I registered for the full convention period. Six hundred and ninety dollars. I got two extra days tacked on, plus a five-hundred-dollar flight.” He calculates for a second. “One thousand four hundred and forty dollars.”
“How much money do you make on your e-books?” I ask.
“Oh,” he says, “about forty bucks a month.”
When he’s gone, I bring up Amazon on my phone and open Wildcard, by Chance Masters and Mina Carter. “His brains were going to dribble out of his ears,” it begins. The cover shows a dog tag and six-pack abs. Whoever sold these photos to Chance may make more money off the book than he ever does. What’s always true about a gold rush is this: better to be the person selling the pan than the person panning the river.
Jimmy Thomas arrives four minutes late for his class on self-promotion, then sits down in front of us without notes. He wears a two-tone shirt and boot-cut jeans. The audience, maybe fifteen women and a Reader/Guest, wear shapeless shirts, capri pants, and sandals in Fremont hues: Creamsicle, aqua, mauve. The model who stripped to Bon Jovi sits near the back in shorts and a tank top.
While preparing for my trip, I received a strange email from Jimmy. We’d corresponded about the RNC before I knew I was going as a journalist. “What about press credentials?” I wrote, after deciding to cover the event. He responded, “What about Dr. Pepper Jesse? ;).” My next email went unanswered.
“Your cover,” Jimmy says, “is what’s going to be marketing you. If you had a package in a store, like a VCR or something, in a cardboard box, with the name in crayon, you would think it was not high quality.”
Fifteen minutes later, he opens the floor. One question comes from a pale woman with whitish blond hair. She sounds as though she’s about to cry, but doesn’t look it. A constant tearful apology is her normal speaking voice. “Is it okay if you put your name first, like bigger authors do?”
“You just answered it right there,” Jimmy says. “Like bigger authors. That’s what you want to do. When they see your name on the book, they’re thinking, Oh, she must be somebody.”
“What stock images sell best?” is another question.
“The ones where I’m leaning a girl back and kissing her neck,” says Jimmy. “Or about to kiss her neck.”
When the discussion turns to all-time-favorite covers, someone brings up the fact that the Fifty Shades series didn’t use models. The most successful erotic romance in history sold itself with photos of masks and handcuffs.
“With Fifty Shades it was the marketing,” Jimmy says immediately. “For example, Fabio. Fabio’s only been on two hundred something covers. It’s like, why is he so known? Because he got on TV. Then everybody saw him. Not just the romance readers saw him, but everyone in the world.”
“When we started out,” says a woman in the front row, “you couldn’t make a decent cover to save your soul. I have a cover from seven or eight years ago, and I hate that cover.” She has a gentle Southern accent. “I suspect I’m sellin’ it because of the name. But the cover; I would kill.”
“Why don’t you change it?” someone says.
“ ’Cause I’m a pussy.” My attention locks. Short hair; drawl; dirty mouth. It’s Angela Knight, the paranormal-erotic-romance writer. She’s hit the New York Times list four times but isn’t teaching at the RNC. You could not imagine Joyce Carol Oates or Jonathan Franzen attending a conference on fiction writing, circling product packaging in the program guide, and sitting in the front row taking notes. “I’m just a pussy,” Knight says. “That’s all there is.”
Angela Knight, whose real name that isn’t, grew up in Spartanburg, South Carolina, which she calls “the belt buckle, the true lunatic fringe.” She still lives there. She is married to Michael Woodcock, a lieutenant in the Spartanburg sheriff’s department, and spent ten years covering crime as a local reporter. All this in the state with the third-highest rate of spousal abuse and the highest rate of male-perpetrated female homicide in the United States: 2.54 murders per 100,000 residents.
Knight’s most popular series is called Mageverse, and it takes place in an Arthurian Britain populated by vampires. The latest title, Master of Darkness, concerns a werewolf named William Justice. Charged with serving as bodyguard to Miranda, the woman he loves, Justice is tormented by the idea that his attraction to her will compromise his mission. Or that he’ll hurt the person he’s supposed to protect.
“We’re much more vulnerable in a sexual encounter than men are,” Knight says, “because men are stronger than we are, and we have to be — I mean, you seem nice, but you may be Ted Bundy. A woman can risk her life in that her male partner can turn out to be dangerous. She can risk her life in that she can become pregnant. So that’s why we have to be so analytical. We have to take it seriously.”
I offer that her characters are often turned on by violence.
“The interesting thing about romance,” she says, “is that it is a way for women to talk to other women and ask things like, ‘What is the difference between criminal domestic violence and BDSM? How do you figure that out? And how do you know when you should work to save your marriage and when you need to get the fuck away from him?’ ”
I steal a glance at Woodcock, find him buried in his phone, and ask Knight if she thinks her readers take breaks to get off. “Yeah,” she says, “I mean, I do.” Woodcock is placid.
“Have you read her books?” I ask him.
“I read one,” he says.
“The other thing,” says Knight, “talking about a question you haven’t asked, is, Why write paranormal characters instead of real men? But paranormal romance gives you the opportunity to talk about aspects of men that frighten women. Vampires are predators. They drink blood. So here’s this guy, and he’s enormously strong. Not only stronger than a woman in the way a man is, but that much stronger than most men. It’s the idea of a threatening sexual hunger that you don’t always really understand. It’s something alien. And so when you dress men up in this costume, you make it that much bigger, that much more exaggerated, and it becomes easier to look at.”
It’s time for lunch. Knight rises from the couch and gives her husband of twenty-nine years her iPad, then her hand. They start off down the aisle.
Sexual contracts are a trope of erotic romance. There’s the matchmaker contract in Wife by Wednesday, for instance, or the witch’s oath, in one of Knight’s books, to service three knights of the Round Table. In Fifty Shades, Ana signs a nondisclosure agreement and a BDSM contract with Christian on their first date: “The Dominant shall provide the Submissive with all necessary training and guidance in how to properly serve the Dominant.”
Women in romances couldn’t always want sex. Readers wanted to be turned on, but without having to identify with the sort of heroine their neighbors might call a slut. In the 1980s, bodice rippers solved the problem with the rape fantasy — she’s sleeping with him because she doesn’t have a choice. You can see how mainstream sexual morality has changed by comparing the logic of the rape fantasy with that of the erotic contract: not “Take me,” but “I give myself to you.”
Contracts are a narrative expedient, of course, but they are also very sexy: in legalistic language so cold it gets hot, the text first disembodies and then reincorporates you as the person it describes. You are no longer Ana but the Undersigned.
Leopold von Sacher-Masoch was a submissive who met his lovers through newspaper classifieds or the exchange of letters. He would set parameters in advance, because a woman he met first in person would not know how to treat him, and it’s antithetical to explain in real time how you want to be dominated.
In 2012, Catherine Robbe-Grillet, an actress and the widow of the French filmmaker and writer Alain Robbe-Grillet, published Alain, a record of their sexual relationship that includes a full reproduction of their “contract of conjugal prostitution.” In brief: “During the session, the young woman will adopt a complete reserve and absolute docility. Nothing will surprise her; she will betray no opinion of what is asked of her . . . [The] sum is fixed at twenty thousand francs.” It is sexy to own and belong to.
Except, not always. The novels perhaps most on the fringes of romance are those in which the sexual ownership is entirely nonconsensual, I mean novels of kidnapping. More than most romances, these stories resemble the porn targeted to straight men. On Amazon I find lists of kidnapping novels preceded by warnings. “For obvious reasons,” one says, “proceed with caution.” This August afternoon, standing behind the Golden Nugget beneath the fire blanket of desert heat, taking out my phone to make notes about Angela Knight, I find the AMBER Alert for Hannah Anderson.
There’s a photo of me at seven, wearing a black cape and white face paint and fangs, a little blood at the side of my mouth. I liked applying the blood in front of the mirror, imagining I was someone girls wanted and were afraid of.
A few hours before I have to pick up my outfit for the costume ball — Jimmy’s personal tailor from L.A. has set up shop in a room in the Golden Nugget — I knock on H. P. Mallory’s door with vodka sodas. She’s doing her eyeliner in the vanity mirror along with Caroline Hanson, her friend and fellow writer. Unfinished sandwiches are on a plate on a room-service cart; the room has the easy atmosphere of excess.
Mallory’s Dulcie O’Neil series, about a female netherworld cop who likes S&M clubs and vampires, is now six installments long. “You think I’ve sold a million,” she says to Hanson. “I don’t think I have. I think I’m at six hundred and fifty thousand. At first, everybody came back and said my books were too funny, and funny paranormal wouldn’t sell. Then I self-published them and they went psycho.” When I ask why, she says, “The marketing that I did. The marketing.”
“H. P. Mallory’s quite famous,” says Hanson.
“To me,” says Mallory, “I think what makes vampires the most interesting of all the creatures is the strength they possess, and the holding back from hurting somebody.”
“The restraint,” says Hanson. “I’ve heard it related to whether you like blue-collar or white-collar men. For me, that’s the difference between vampires and werewolves, right? Vampires are intellectual, crafty, and manipulative. Werewolves are impulsive.”
“They’re feral,” says Mallory. “But not always. They show feeling in ways that aren’t overt.”
“You want the heroine to bring it out of him,” says Hanson. “There are so many books now where the man is totally nasty, he’s a stalker.”
“What’s that one where he kidnaps the girl?” says Mallory.
“That just happened in southern California,” I say.
“I saw it,” says Mallory. “I got it on my phone. And then the whole way up here I saw the billboards. They don’t even know if the little girl’s alive.” She shakes her head. “The dad’s friend. And he killed the wife and the kid.” It’s quiet for a second while she works on Hanson’s makeup.
Hanson is wearing a black fascinator and a black blouse with a billowy green skirt. She could almost be a Regency heroine, the kind of woman who might meet a caddish duke at a ball and lose her heart. From the waist up, I could almost be that duke. I’m wearing a gold tailcoat and an aqua vest, but both were cut for Jimmy, and they hang a little loose.
In the foyer, before the doors open, I take out my phone. A video of Hannah Anderson’s father has been posted to CNN’s website. “Tell me about your kids, Mr. Anderson,” the anchor says, “tell me about Hannah,” and Brett, blue-collar but not a werewolf, starts crying.
“Sixteen years old,” says the anchor. “She’s smart, she’s strong, but she is with an adult male. Do you have any idea where he would think he could go? What he would think he could do in a situation like this?”
“I have no idea,” says Anderson. “He’s into camping. He could be anywhere. That’s why, people that are going out to different camp spots, please keep your eyes open.”
“What is the hardest thing for you, emotionally, in dealing with having your wife, your daughter, and your son all in some type of not-being-with-you?”
People are starting to arrive for the ball; 300 years of the history of European private life are streaming past me into the Bel Air ballroom, living configurations of the ways men and women have learned over centuries to love and hurt each other.
“I believe the hardest thing emotionally is still to come,” says Anderson. “When I have to go, and start” — he chokes — “cleaning out their apartments and rooms.”
“What do you want to say to this man if he’s monitoring the news?” the anchor says.
“Just let my daughter go. Let her go home safe. Let her be with me, and try to mend things from there.”
A woman about my mother’s age approaches to ask whether I’m Mr. Darcy, and another wants to know am I Heathcliff, and we proceed into the ball.
It is oddly quiet. The lights are too harsh. Jimmy Thomas, dressed as an American Indian, stands onstage between a woman in a wedding dress and a man in a tux. The room is packed. No one seems to know that this was planned, and when the couple deliver their vows, not a few people cry. Then the music starts. Mike O’Hearn, a celebrity bodybuilder, poses shirtless.
Later I find the newlyweds downstairs by the slot machines, smoking, sipping tall iced drinks. Tom wears his beard neatly trimmed and his black hair slicked back.
“I told her mother, when I was almost sixteen, she was fourteen, that I was gonna marry her,” he says. He looks about fifty years removed from sixteen.
“And mom laughed at him and said, ‘She’s too young,’ ” says Virginia. “Said, ‘She’s gonna change a lot between now and the time she’s eighteen.’ And she was right. Lotta things did change.”
After Virginia’s mother prevented the marriage, Tom explains, he got involved with a woman — a girl — who was a juvenile ward of the court. When she got pregnant, he married her; Virginia married someone else. The two couples became friends and even vacationed together, until Virginia and her husband left Lompoc, their California hometown, in 1969. Thirty-four years passed. In 2003, when Virginia had just gotten back from teaching English in Kuwait, Tom messaged her on Classmates.com. “Remember that guy you left standing at the altar?” Virginia paraphrases. “ ’Member me?”
They agreed to meet in Las Vegas for a weekend and wound up staying a week. After that, Tom left Lompoc and moved for her to Mesa, Arizona, at which point, you might think, the story got its HEA. “Two thousand and three was when we were supposed to get married,” Tom says. “But she started having morning sickness. And I’m sixty-three years old. She went out and got a pregnancy test, two of ’em, actually, both of ’em showed positive. And I said, ‘Well, I guess we’re gonna have a kid.’ So we went to the doctor, and the doctor says, ‘I don’t know how to tell you this, but you’re not pregnant. You have to have a hysterectomy.’ That was the day we were supposed to get married.”
“We had the invitations sent out,” Virginia says.
“That was the third attempt. This is the fourth.”
Then, last Saturday, after all the plans had already been laid, Virginia’s mother had a stroke. It seemed the fourth attempt would fail. “But before she went into the operation she said, ‘Whatever you do, don’t cancel the wedding.’ ”
Now there is a small crowd around them. Me, a writer named Gina in a hooded black cape, and Tom’s and Virginia’s kids from their previous marriages. “I wrote to Jimmy,” Virginia continues, “and said, ‘Is there a two-hour break where we can sneak off and get married?’ And Jimmy says, ‘Hell no, we’re doin’ it,’ and he went and got ordained. He went and got ordained and then he went and registered with Nevada.”
“And that wedding dance?” says the eldest son. “That’s mine and Dawn’s song. And I didn’t ask for that. I just happened to ask him to play a wedding song for y’all, and it just happened he picked that one.”
In the last scene of Master of Darkness, William Justice, the werewolf, and Miranda, his lover, have sex in the bathtub of her cottage. Then:
Justice broke off, staring at her as if stunned. Miranda froze. She could see her own astonished face in the candlelight throwing shimmering reflections off the drops on her wet skin. The way her red hair was slicked down over the curves of her breasts as foam lapped back and forth.
His lips didn’t move, but she heard the question in his mind. She had to force herself to wait for him to actually ask it.
And then he did. “Marry me.”
“Yes! Oh, yes, yes, yes!” Laughing, she threw herself into his arms, sending another wave splashing out of the tub to flood the bathroom.
It was a long, long time before either of them even noticed.
“I don’t think women are that stupid,” said Angela Knight, when I asked if HEAs gave readers unrealistic expectations.
On the restless afternoon that follows the ball, a writer who’s a tarot reader spreads my cards on a grand piano and doesn’t, when I tell her I’m engaged, see an HEA. She tells me to wear condoms. She says monogamy’s a bitch. She tells me, “Take this comparison. You’re raised on rice and beans. That’s all you’ve ever eaten is rice and beans. You’re malnutritioned. You’ve never really had anything amazing before. And then you move over to a steak and potatoes and vegetables and you go, ‘Oh my God.’ Because you’ve never had anything like this ever before in your life. This right here feels right. This feels overwhelming. This feels like, ‘Of course.’ Then someone goes, ‘Well, hold on a second, why don’t cha come on over here?’ and now you’re in France, and you’re actually experiencing French cuisine, and you’re going” — she imitates a singer hitting a high C — “you’re like, ‘What was I thinking?’ You’re going, ‘Steak and potatoes? Oh my God. Crème brûlée.’
“Been there, done that. Two marriages: this is my third. That’s the right one.” Her husband is sitting on a nearby bench. “And even though I felt like in my first marriage, and in my second marriage, those were the right ones, he was rice and beans, he was steak and potatoes, and this one’s France.”
“But how do you know there won’t be a sushi restaurant?” I ask.
“Exactly,” says the tarot reader.
Lynn Lorenz was dead wrong when she said people don’t change. What makes monogamy a gamble is that they do: men and women both. And this, more than the obvious afterlife-like fantasy of an HEA, is the difference between romance and life. In romance, the change is entirely one-sided. The heroines stay the same while the heroes learn, for instance, not to hurt their lovers, or to hurt them only in the ways that turn them on — it doesn’t matter, as long as they come to understand the desires of the women they want. A vampire or a werewolf discovers the vulnerability the heroine saw inside him all along and, in recognizing it, becomes kind.
On Wednesday a group of outdoorsmen returned from a horseback ride in the Idaho woods, switched on the news, and recognized the two people they’d seen hiking, burdened by what seemed unusually light kit for the demanding terrain. On Thursday the cops found DiMaggio’s car, covered in branches on the last drivable stretch of road before the entrance to the Frank Church–River of No Return Wilderness. On Saturday I walk out onto Fremont, where it’s two p.m. and women are dancing on the bars.
During the day the street feels bright and boardwalklike, as though the ocean were close by. Although at night the screens put on light shows and the sound is loud enough to crush you, now the music is just loud. A chubby, curly-haired boy in an orange traffic vest asks me to sign a petition against killing animals. “You have a cat?” I ask. “I have a gerbil and a dog and a California king snake and a ferret named Sarin and also a ferret named Tempest.” When he hands me a pen, I write my real name.
It’s a hundred degrees outside. I want to see the billboards over the on-ramps, take some photos for the fact-checker, but the walk to the freeway is four miles. For shade I rest at a bus stop, where a young black guy is waiting with a tiny Pomeranian. He asks for a cigarette. “You live here?” I ask. “I stay out here now. I’m from Oakland.” He explains how for a while, until she fell for someone else, he dated a white woman. “It’s almost like she this dog and I’m a pit bull,” he says. “Everybody wanna know him, pet him, touch him. But when you that big pit bull, it’s a different reaction in America. They gotta see other people pet you to make sure you don’t bite.” When the bus comes, he puts the dog in his carrier and takes him up the steps.
At the freeway on-ramp, the billboards still show Hannah Anderson’s photo. But the Los Angeles Times says the police have located DiMaggio’s camp from the air and are moving in on him.
There is no safe way to kill a werewolf. Some say you must cut his head off and pull out his heart. Silver weapons often work, or rye, or mountain ash. Where a gun is used — and the bullet must be silver — the marksman should fire from a great distance, because werewolves are more resilient than humans, their blood clots faster. The FBI agent who finds DiMaggio in his hideout kills him with six shots, striking his head and chest.
Hannah makes it out without a scratch.