On a bookstore prowl, I come across, leather bound, a rare book, the object of many early quests, and a very rare woman, the object (she must be) of many men's quest.
The initial object of my desire: an 18th century edition of the Old French Romance, Lancelot du Lac. The new provocation: A beautiful woman bound in black leather pants with a purple silk blouse, as alluring to me as the jacarandas in Los Angeles when they bloom in late April.
Can you judge a book by its cover? Sometimes. I am thus amused and not startled when I overhear her ask a clerk for Tobsha Learner's Quivers and a collection of contemporary erotica and love poetry.
Can you judge a book by its binding? A better bet than the cover. Just look down the spine. Contemporary publishers often deceive us: they give us a hard back cover but paste the pages to the spine, the same as a paperback book. The leather bound and hand sewn quality of this woman seems to be no delusion.
I run into the Black Leather Woman a second time, waiting at the elevator. We enter and punch up different floors. While ascending, I make her an offhand suggestion. "If you are looking for interesting erotica, especially poetry, don't forget the classics."
She looks at me a bit quizzically, then asks, "What do you have in mind specifically?"
I mention a few authors and titles. She thanks me for the suggestions, and gets off, the doors opening for her floor.
We meet again later in the classics section, a small room off on the fourth floor. We smile in recognition, and she asks me again for my recommendations.
I suggest Aristophanes' Lysistrata, Catullus, Ovid, Theocritus, the King James version of "The Song of Solomon," and, first and foremost, Sappho.
I find her a copy, and she reads: "I confess....I love that which caresses me....My tongue is broken...a thin flame runs under my skin...I drip with sweat...trembling shakes my body...I turn paler than dry grass....If you will come...I shall put out new pillows for you to rest on..."
Her eyes glint, her lips purse, her limbs loosen, she exhales, then remarks, "This is beautiful...it's remarkable... The words pierce me and curl inside. When I was 14, 18 this stuff always seemed so dry. What else is good? Do you have time to talk?"
Yes, I did have time, but Sappho proved no Gallehault. We just read and talked more and more that day.
We left the bookstore, several new books in her hands, and went for an espresso at a French bistro next door, and we kept talking, through the evening (as the espressos gave way to dinner) about literature, language, words, my career as as a professor of literature, her interests in writing, fiction, film, life.
And for months, we kept talking, just talking and conversing: through letters, emails, meetings for lunch, about logos and eros, language and the sensual. She had her lovers, female as well as male. I had my wife and three children. The conversations about all of them except my kids were relatively flat, straight, and short--mostly Hemingway prose, simple nouns and adjectives: fine, the same, ok, some pleasure, frustration, hope, some interest, a possibility, a lie.
The conversations about the literature, however, were bliss, the pleasures of the text: something of a menage a trois of Virginia Woolf, Tom Stoppard, and Octavio Paz talking, debating, pronouncing, condemning, celebrating, taking joy, giving pleasure.
Almost a year after our first meeting, she calls, thrilled, and asks me to meet her at the restauarant again next to our bookstore. She's dressed more formally than usual--a black silk dress with sheer black lace stockings. She orders my favorite dishes for us to share: an avocado and melon salad with a lime and cayenne pepper dressing and Coquilles St. Jacques.
After dinner, she asks for the best champagne and presents me with a gift: a copy of a literary journal containing her first story in print. The title: "The New Paradiso, Canto V." The epigraph is from Sappho: "I confess...I love that which caresses me." We exult, we toast, we kiss, and we toast again and again.
"What's it about?," I ask.
"Oh, it's rather unbelievable. A literature professor in California and an English woman seduce each other through the internet; he introduces her to Sappho, she has a muse of fire, and they light up the screen."
"How does it end," I ask.
"It's more a Hollywood than an Alina Reyes ending. No mystification. When they finally meet, they make words flesh in the classics section of a London bookstore."
Silly story, I think to myself. We almost finish the bottle of champagne, and she leaves me to read the story as she must go off for a date.
I read the story with pleasure, noting my favorite lines, the ones that hit first the spine and rush up it, as if we have a wick inside us that can be lit up at the top into a flame by words: "My cover opened, my pages turned, my spine inspected, leather bound....The erotic must unfold slowly, like petals opening before the morning sun....Men are wonderful at listening to themselves talk; woman at listening to others....I am just so coquettish with you--a nymph dancing in your mind....Having bitten the apple you will remain in paradise."
At the end of the story, she has inscribed a note. "If you want me to thank you the proper way, I'm yours in the classic section. Take me. (I never wear anything underneath a black silk dress)."
The Paradiso is the story of incarnation: The word made flesh. Life must imitate art. Let the word be made flesh. He entered the bookstore. They read no more that night.
Footnote 1. Here is the ending of Dante, The Inferno, Canto V, the story of Paolo and Francesca:
"One day for pastime, we read of Lancelot, how love constrained him; we were alone, suspecting nothing. Several times that reading urged our eyes to meet and took the color from our faces, but one moment alone it was that overcame us. When we read how the longed-for smile was kissed by so great a lover, this one, who never shall be parted from me, kissed my mouth all trembling. A Gallehault was the book and he who wrote; that day we read no farther in it."
Footnote 2. Gallehault was one of the characters in the Old French roman, Lancelot du Lac. During Gallehault's residence at King Arthur's court a warm friendship developed between him and Lancelot, who confided his love for Queen Guinevere. Gallehault arranged for the two to meet. In the course of this interview, Gallehault urged the queen to kiss Lancelot--and so began the adulterous passion between those two. From the part he played on this occasion, the name of Gallehault, like that of Pandarus, became a synonym for 'go-between.'