Wednesday, February 08, 2006

A Bookstore Romance.


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The following item appeared in New York Press recently:

"A survey of 1003 New Yorkers between the ages of 25 and 35 revealed that the hottest current pick-up joints in town are no longer bars, nightclubs or church groups, but rather chain stores. Topping the list were Barnes & Noble and Starbucks."

I have known this for some time. The best place to "meet" a woman now is in a bookstore. Border's will do just as well, by the way. To begin with, this reduces the competition from other men, since most of them are incapable of reading books. In fact, most of them are incapable of reading. Bookstores are also great places to meet women who are in a nostalgic or romantic frame of mind already, based on the books that they happen to be glancing at -- as they used to say in the fifties, they are "pre-heated."

Loiter, inconspicuously, near the poetry section on any weekday evening, for example, and you are likely to see a number of women browsing through collections of romantic verse and blowing their noses.

Although I have now "sheathed my sword," as it were, if I were still in a questing mood, I'd approach one of these women and whisper some lines from one of the greats, preferably Keats or Byron. Especially now, in my slim and dashing (if graying) "poet phase," when I have so much wisdom to offer. I'd be doing them a favor. And I am a charitable person. Naturally, I reserve Shakespeare for that one great passion in my life.

This literary approach is almost guaranteed to get one's foot -- and perhaps more -- in the door, shall we say.

True, there are cynics who are dismissive of romance as self-deception. H.L. Mencken once defined romantic love as "the delusion that one woman differs from another." Voltaire unkindly remarked that, "When the lights are off, all women are the same." To which women might respond that "there are many men who may wish that the same could be said of them." On the other hand, Balzac spoke for those of us who disagree by defining romance as "precisely to the moral nature what the sun is to the earth." I agree with Balzac.

There is nothing that can compare with the look in a woman's eyes of joy and happiness when you, the person she loves, have made her laugh and feel beautiful, turning her day into a romantic comedy. As for what you should do to make her evenings more interesting, I will remain tactfully silent. Romance is like that moment in Wizard of Oz when Dorothy finds herself in a technicolor Oz, on a yellow brick road, having left a dreary black-and-white Kansas far behind. Romance is, in the best sense, magical.

"Never pass up an opportunity to have sex," Gore Vidal said, "or to go on television." What would he say about the chance to have sex while on television? I cannot say, but I am sure that Myra Breckinridge would approve. That's what I call a romantic surprise for a woman. "Look, honey, we're on candid camera!"

I am a bookstore prowler. A few evenings per week, usually Tuesdays and Thursdays, I stroll through my beloved Manhattan and visit some favorite bookstores, coffee shops, video and music places, relishing the anonymity and freedom of the city in the enveloping darkness. Recently, I was in the huge Barnes & Noble bookstore accross from Lincoln Center, found some books I wanted to look through, then went upstairs to the coffee shop and darted over to a table that quickly emptied.

As I sat down, I noticed a woman sitting at the next table with her back turned to me. Her hair was collected in a kind of bun, so that the back of her neck was visible to me -- and her neck was so erotic, graceful, long and feminine. She wore a simple light sweater, her hair was auburn colored. She turned only once to see me, but offered me a melting smile as she rose to leave. Suddenly, time was frozen. No one moved. The clock stopped. I had one of those cartoon epiphanies, when a tiny version of me dressed in red and with horns sat on my left shoulder, while another tiny version of me, dressed in a white suit and with a halo, like an angelic Tom Wolfe, sat on my right shoulder. The evil me (but which was it, the one in the white or red suit?) said: "This is a golden opportunity, boy. This is achievable, Juan!"

I just thought of John Updike's most passionate prose passage: a page and half describing a single "act of love," whose nature I will not disclose. Wouldn't I love to have something like that to describe for a page and a half? I might casually walk up to her and mention Count Vronsky and Anna. She had a copy of Anna Karenina. Besides, we are in the vicinity of Julliard. Chances are that we are dealing here with an artsy-fartsy type dance major or music student, possibly a graduate student, which makes the odds even better for me. If I simply offer some chat about Stravinsky and an invitation to listen to music together, sprinkle some Leftist politics over everything, I'm in, as it were.

She had kicked off her shoes, I noticed, so I might rise slowly and smilingly mention that her glass slipper seemed to have been left behind. Might I help her to slip it back on? ... But then, that annoying other guy chimed in with his two cents' worth.

"Juan," he said. "Think about this. She is very young, lovely, but much too young. Would it really be right? How would you feel about this later, after spending some time achieving an unconditional victory, what about your commitments and your so-called real life?"

Mistakenly, I had taken some philosophy books upstairs to the coffee shop, including a volume on ethics. I hate ethics. Isn't it all relative? Conscience, that dreaded thing, began to struggle against eros. Suddenly, my evil self began to speak in a voice very similar to Richard Burton's classically trained baritone. He shrugged his tiny shoulders: "Once more into the breach!, Juan."

I did the right thing. I allowed a golden opportunity to slip away.

I admit to a Jimmy Carter-like "lust in my heart," and in other parts of me too. I am also cursed with a moral conscience and reluctant to get involved with someone that I might hurt. Luckily, there is the enchanted country of the imagination, where everything is possible. After all, it is so depressing to consider that there are only a limited number of high C's for any tenor, in a manner of speaking, no matter how "heroic" he may be. I am in my Operatic prime right now! I am ready for the "heldentenor roles" and I allowed a perfectly fine soprano to get away last night. I am burdened with what Nietzsche would describe as a crippling case of the "bite of conscience." In more prosaic terms, I can't stop thinking about whether I fucked up.

So I have devised several plots involving the two of us, this mysterious young woman and me, getting ourselves into a romantic adventure -- like those characters in "Brief Interlude," a great film from the thirties or forties.

I dress her in a forties outfit and we are suddenly in a train station. Everything is black and white. Everyone is trying to get out of Paris because the Germans are coming. The night is foggy. There is a tear in her eye, as she looks at me. True, it may be indigestion, but I prefer to think the best. I kneel before her and slip her shoe back on. We embrace. There is only one ticket and it has to be for her. We embrace again and kiss. She says: "I can't ... " But I insist: "You must." There is music. Stravinsky perhaps. No, Rachmaninoff is better. Lots of piano keys flutter. More fog begins to roll in, right on cue. (It's never wise to skimp on the fog at such moments.)

Minutes later, I wave to her as the train pulls out of the station. (Close up on me.) I resemble ... let's see, ... Oh, I know: Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.! I am in a trenchcoat, dark suit underneath. I push the hat back from my forehead and light a cigarette. (Fade to black.)

William Trevor has spoken of the writer's habit of turning strangers into characters in stories. Who is she? This delightful ingenue. Does it matter? She will live in my imagination now forever, along with a few other women ... no, ultimately becoming only one other woman, yet another color in my pallette. In my imagination, the conflict vanishes. In dreams, to borrow from Delmore Schwartz, I escape responsibilities and pursue the one quest that I will not give up, EVER. Maybe that's my ultimate responsibility.

Everything is possible in imagination.

Maybe I'll write the story. Maybe she'll read it. Will she recognize herself? But then, it will no longer be that young woman in the bookstore. It will be someone else -- that someone else knows who she is, in my stories and in my life. If one is separated from a lover, an agony which is beyond even Kafka's dark imagination, then dreams come to the rescue and every work of art and idea, nearly every experience, becomes amenable to re-interpretation in terms of the lover's quest. An absent lover lives in every page of one's imagination.

I just realized that I have written the story after all.

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