Strangers in the Night
Strangers in the Night
I love the smell of books. I think that, even more than my love of literature, may be the reason I work in a used book store. That and because it is so quiet. I love quiet places where I find I can think more clearly. I know people who crave noise and feel lonely in places like this book store.
However, I feel right at home among the books of Pablo Neruda and Anne Sexton two of my favorite authors among the many represented in the stacks of this antiquarian book store. The books are like companions to me. I feel as though I am in the company of the ancients with Sophocles and Sappho present in spirit in the form of a book. All I have to do is open the pages, read, and I commune with these long dead authors. I gaze into their minds and relish the treasures of their legacy.
It is a late November afternoon in the French Quarter of New Orleans. The day has been kind of cold and rainy and the tourist haven’t flocked the streets as much as usual. The radiator creaks as I stand by it warming my hands. The cold seems to seep through the old oak floors. My fingers are beginning to feel warm again as the heat soaks into them. I keep my wool sweater on feeling the rough abrasion against my soft young breasts as I move across the store helping customers.
The building is old. It goes back to the late eighteen hundreds and looks like a room out of a Dickens novel. The manager doesn’t want to install central heat. During the summer the ceiling fans and small air conditioner, his only concessions to modern technology, do little to cool the rooms. On cold days in the winter it is like an ice box.
I gaze at the print of the Collier nude “Lilith” which hangs near the door. The look on her face is one of total rapture as the snake wraps round her in a seductive embrace.
I think how my life is so caught up in images such as this painting. I interpret the world through images. There are gender images, such as the Botticelli Venus, which are etched in my mind. Then there are the images of Chagall, of androgynous beings from some mythical region of the mind.
In my mind’s eye I can see myself as a wide hipped, big breasted Venus figurine, from some
Paleolithic cavern in France. I still cannot fathom how these images influence my conscious mind. But they are there in the depths of my subconscious ocean. They shape my world and guide my every thought, feeling, and action.
I walk over to the window and look out at the light drizzle with sunlight sparkling through the drops leaving a golden mist in the street. Tourists walk by carrying their cameras strapped around their shoulders and wearing light jackets.
As I gaze out at the scene I begin daydreaming. I watch a woman walk by in a long black dress wearing a tiny white, speckled with red, carnation on her left breast. She stands talking to a man in a long black rain coat. The man has shaggy long black hair, specked with grey, and a small pince-nez beard. She kisses him languorously on the lips and whispers something in his ear. Her red hair is wet with the light rain and shines in the late afternoon sunlight.
A flock of pigeons descends onto the street and begins wandering around them. He turns around, blows her a kiss, and strides off into the crowd making the pigeons scatter into the air. I wonder
what their lives are like.
It is funny how I briefly glimpsed these snap shots of stranger’s lives. People come into the store alone with frightened looks or well dressed and confident. Some seem lost and others, I imagine, enjoy their solitude.
I watched a young teenage girl once as she sat in the sofa in the corner. She was intensely focused on the book she was reading. When she put it up I saw that it was Jean Genet’s play, “The Balcony.”
I wonder what connotations it brought her and why it fascinated her so much. Perhaps by reading about the bizarre characters in it she felt more normal. Perhaps she, like I, had found a kindred spirit in a stranger’s heart. By reading this book, so full of passion, perhaps her spirit was rekindled. Perhaps she had a tragic life and found herself validated by sharing Genet’s suffering.
I wake from my daydream and see the tall dark woman in the street walk toward the building. She strides like a Ballerina with her long lithe legs. I gasp as I hear the bell ring and the door creak open.
She floats into the room and stands looking at
Me. Her eyes pierce me with her predatory gaze.
She walks up to me and leans down, asking me, “Would you have anything, romantic, with a happy ending?”
I say, “Well, we have a few harlequins in the back.”
She wipes the rain from her brow and says, “Oh no. I want something of literary quality. Do I look to you like some woman who watches soap operas all day?”
“Maybe you would like Anaïs Nin or Henry Miller?” I query.
She replies, “You lead the way.”
I smile coyly and say, “Why sure. Come let me show you.” She follows me into the narrow passageway between the stacks. I pick out a few books and hand them to her.
She takes them from me holding them delicately in her long slender fingers and caressing their spines. She says, “Don’t you think books are wonderful? They are so fragile yet can be so full of beauty and knowledge. I think there is nothing more sensuous than to open a book, feel its texture, and smell its scent.”
Not wanting to pursue this conversation I lie
saying, “I never thought of it that way. But I suppose I can see what you mean.”
She walks past me toward the opening at the end of the stacks and steps up to the radiator standing close to it. She asks, “Would you mind if I stay here a while and get warm? I feel as though I am frozen to the marrow.”
I think she is strange and feel nervous around her. But at the same time I feel intrigued by her. I say, “Sure, make yourself at home.”
She smiles at me and says, “Please come get warm. You look like you’re shivering.” I walk up to her and stand next to her with my hands on my hips. I feel the heat from the radiator warm my hips and sex through my wool skirt. I stretch raising my hands to the ceiling and put my hands back into my sweater pockets. She asks me, “What are those books you gave me about?”
I blush with embarrassment and look down away from her penetrating eyes. I say, “Well they’re sort of erotic.”
She says, “Oh really! I love books that celebrate
I don’t know what comes over me but I feel free
with this woman. Spontaneously, before I know what I am saying, I say, “I grew up Catholic and my mother insisted that I remain a virgin until marriage. I couldn’t do it. I found Catholicism to be like starched stiff dress which didn’t fit. I never really grew till I gave it up.”
I am wondering why I am telling this total stranger something this personal.
She gazes into my eyes with a fierce look and asks me, “When was the first time you made love?”
I say, “I was about to graduate from high school. I had a boyfriend named John. We were sitting in a car one night at the lake front. He undid my blouse. I had never done this sort of thing before.”
The strange woman says, “My first time was with a woman.”
I ask with amazement, “You mean you made love to a woman?”
She says, “Yes. I discovered early that I was attracted to women.”
I blush again and ask, “What is your name?”
She runs her fingers through her hair and says,
“Cassandra. My friends call me Cassie. I’m sorry. I
should have introduced myself. I am afraid my brain must be cold.” I stand looking at her. She places her right hand lightly on my shoulder and smiles warmly saying, “Please call me Cassie.”
I think maybe she has escaped from some lunatic asylum. But somehow she seems together in a weird way. I am hungry to know more about this strange woman. I say, “My name’s Jennifer.” I hold out my hand timidly taking hers in my fingers. I go to the check out desk and reach under it pulling out my purse. I hand her a comb from my purse. She smiles and combs her hair.
I say, “Here let me help you.” I stand behind her combing her hair and feeling the fine velvety texture of it. Then I run my fingernails along the crest of her scalp.
She sighs. She turns, leans down, and rests her right palm on my face. She kisses me lightly on the cheek. I smell her perfume like a bouquet of flowers. I say, “Cassie, you seem like a really interesting person. I’d love to get to know you more. Why don’t we have tea after work?”
She says, “I’d love to. But let’s go to my house.
You’ll love the exotic ambiance.”
My fascination overcomes my caution. She sits far back in the stacks reading Anaïs Nin as I check out customers.
Darkness falls upon the city. I look out the window across the street at a young lesbian couple. One has cropped hair and is wearing tight leather shorts with a leather vest. She has an image of a witch emblazoned on her upper back.
The woman holding her hand is a young girl with orange hair, a black leather miniskirt, and halter top which seems to cling to her body like a second skin. She wears a dog collar around her neck with sharp metal spikes. They wander into the crowd.
I think of how these atavistic notions of ownership in relationships still pop up in the modern world. I wonder how far we had come from the days when women were chattel. Now, it takes the form of fantasy. However, these instincts still shape our world. It amazes me that men will pay women to tie them up and humiliate them. These dark mysteries of the human soul never cease to create wonder in me. What perplexes me
the most is how I fit into the picture?
A police car passes slowly by with its blue lights flashing in the night and its siren letting out a couple of shrieks. People step aside to let it through.
I open the door and stand on the steps. The evening is shrouded in fog. Mists roll in from the river across the shimmering haze of lights casting their glow from stores and restaurants lining Decatur Street. Tourists move by like apparitions haunting the night air.
I breathe deep the heady aroma of alcohol and woman’s perfume, feeling the moist night breeze caress my soft female face.
I retreat back in the store and close the door. I feel like a hermit crab hiding in her shell from the world outside. I walk back in the stacks where Cassie is asleep. She is lying back in the chair with her eyes closed. She looks like a Madonna with a calm smile of beatific bliss on her glowing face.
I wonder how I appear to her. I am wearing a knee length wool skirt, pink blouse, and oxfords. While she is resting I tie my hair into a pony tail. However, each individual’s perception is different. My perception of myself, when I look into the mirror, may be completely different from hers. She sees me in the context of her emotional history. I cannot not imagine what I mean or represent to her.
I touch her face and she wakes up with her eyes still closed. She grins as I continued to stroke her cheek.
Cassie opens her eyes. She looks enraptured as she speaks haltingly saying, “I can see the pain in your face. Where does it come from?”
I say, “I think it comes from the pain in my soul; the agony of existence. I am terrified of life, especially at night as I feel my heart beat in my chest. I feel the terror of existence, but then I ask myself how am I going to enjoy the experience? Even, existential fear must be appreciated and fused into one’s life as a motivating force. Death is what defines or punctuates our life.”
I look down at her and say, “I see the same sorrow in your eyes.”
I stand leaning over her and ask, “Cassie, who was that man I saw you with out in the street?”
She says, “He is just a dying ember of a once passionate flame. We are just friends now, close
I feel a rush of tingling pleasure emanate from my solar plexus. I help her up, turn out the light, lock the door, and follow her into the night.