I am very honored and happy today because Heather Fowler has given me permission to share with my readers her great short story, "Man of Books". The alleged theme of my blog, literary works about people who lead lives at least partially centered upon reading, is dealt with in a very interesting thought provoking fashion in this story.
Heather Fowler on The Reading Life. (This link includes a very wide ranging Q and A session, a post by Heather Fowler on short stories and one of her stories, which she kindly allowed me to publish last year)
Man of Books
By Heather Fowler
“I heard what you said
Marguerita heard Tom
And of course you’re a bore
but in that you’re not charmless“
- Velvet Underground
Some men you just can’t hang onto, especially those that love books. Marguerita’s mama had told her that.
Tom loved books. Because he loved books so much, Marguerita loved Tom. This bookishness presented no trouble for their relationship at first — because it was casual, because they had not slept together, because his knowledge of such topics was the kind of cornucopia awareness that made her tremble with how much she could learn, for she was unused to being schooled by anyone, and she was grateful. Still, the slow courtship occasionally bothered her in its lack of greater physical connection.
She had been a slut in the past. Old habits died slowly, if ever. At first, she had listened to her mama in avoiding the smart ones. She sought instead the boys of summer who impressed her with their pectoral muscles and feats on waves, those who said, “Hey babe, let’s go down to the shores,” them or the rich boys who bought her fancy dates to satisfy her high dining urges, yet continually hoped for immediate sex. And too, there were the random boys she’d slept with without knowing, from any number of locations, almost right away and almost without thought, because the night was right, they’d said the right thing, or her loneliness felt irrefutably dominant, as if an invisible clamp on her arm forced her to direct it, as soon as possible, to their groins — though all of these boys were gone now. But oh, the gratitude her rapid embraces fleetingly engendered, she remembered! Oh, the false fulfillment, which was satisfying for the entire twenty minutes it took to create — and often for a week or so afterward. But all desire for shallow pleasure left her now. Smart guys were the only ones she hadn’t had, so she took a chance and combined her real interests with her body’s interests when she found Tom, also known as Book Guy, because he did it for her.
Except, Book Guy, Tom, well, she wasn’t sure he had a libido off the page.
He was cute. He was punctual, courteous, and handsome in the Ivy League way of being too clean behind his ears and messy in deportment. She found it thrilling that he could not only present a book for discussion, but also make several points about whatever book it was, and he smiled each time she pulled up in her wrecked red van to the corner shop, waved, and had even turned out her cafe chair before her arrival as if to say, “Here it is. Just waiting. And how’s your family?” He drove a BMW. He was pale.
He always asked about family, some throwback to his East Coast childhood, she assumed. Sometimes she pictured him arriving on the scene of a raging house fire to say to the inhabitants, with ominous black smoke rising its heavy curtain into the twilight behind them, “So, how’s your ma? Aunt Bette? Poodle?” before inquiring about les pompiers. He was calm, too, alternating this flat affect with nervous gestures, effusive and spare in an intellectual way.
His wardrobe was tweed. And linen. Pressed cotton. His skin looked like vellum. Oh. How. Sexy.
Several times during their first meetings, she felt consumed with a girlish exuberance to touch him that led her to clutch his navy blue jacket sleeve as she made a point, brush a loose tangle of brown hair from his cool brow, or attempt to fix his eyebrows should they be curling strangely, for he always appeared slightly sloppy in grooming, though immaculate in composure. He spoke about desire, passion, literature, kissing, and submission.
When he did, the conversation was sometimes desultory, sometimes elevated, and sometimes electric. Tom! She wanted to jump his bones. “A guy who likes books too much will never be able to handle a real heroine,” her mother had said, warningly. “He only likes what’s weak and ready to pillage with ink.”
Marguerita blew this off. “He likes my mind, Mama,” she said. “He’s old-fashioned. It’s cute.”
As they met each week, she at first tried to mimic his mode of dress, remain conservative, wearing the sort of blouses of a schoolteacher on a date with another schoolteacher, but later, as he continued to speak without touching her, without requesting other than their complicitly understood pattern of random, non-random meetings in public places, she upped the stakes by wearing slightly less — suits without blazers one month, black jeans and skimpy tops. The next month, she graduated to short skirts without nylons. Following that, she appeared in leather of the increasingly shrinking variety. If he noticed a change in her apparel, she saw it only in the sidelong glances he gave to her increasingly visible cleavage or the audible clearing of his throat as she sat beside him and in the way, sometimes, as they were about to leave each other, he seemed just about ready to jump up and walk her to her car.
“The point of the cultural dialectic,” he went on recently, most of his longest monologues punctuated in her imagining with the sort of day-dreamt striptease where he shyly took his clothes off as he spoke, hiding behind screens between garments like a girl, “was that interpersonal relationships play only a small role regarding the internal interpretations made by one person of the opposite sex regarding the other. A controlled response is what will happen based on such dynamics, not necessarily personal, especially in terms of fetishistic behavior and the like.”
She laughed, imagining his neck-tie getting caught on his ankle when he tried to take it off, watching him hop, hop, hop, looking silly, though he wore none that day.
“You see?” he asked, seeming satisfied with his point, whereupon she nodded, feeling quite ready to force a different sort of reaction.
“That’s nice, Tom,” she said. “But what about the interpersonal role of relationships taking precedence over the generic nature of the fetish? Can it be performed with anyone for equal satisfaction? Dates, for example, Tom. Would you, going on a date with me, present a different stimulus than a hypothetical date that could be imagined as more open-ended — or would I be just another cultural artifact for your interpretation that would lead you to question your own behavior, but not change it, based on the socio-economic or classist structures you know to exist, paired with your simultaneous mental dissection of my relative historical damage and value system? And would you wear a tie on this date?” She pictured a green tie with yellow stripes, the same one she’d imagined him kicking away in chagrin. “A really cute tie?”
“What?” he said. “Gleason R. wasn’t talking about that sort of thing at all.”
“Still,” she said, stroking the tabletop with her fingertip, tracing the symbol for womanhood again and again: Circle. Line down. Cross the T. “What if he were?”
“If he were, it would be a different book we were discussing,” Tom replied sanely.
“Ah,” she said, enjoying the flush that began to creep into his cheek. “And what if I were to lean over right now, right now, and kiss you full on the mouth, with tongue, possibly some groping? Would that change anything about your perceived date dynamic, or would you then just come up for air and push me away before talking about women’s sexual liberation movements in the modern age — or some text by Beauvoir or Lacan? Yes, you see, I have been listening to you.”
It was at this moment that she saw a sudden ripple on his arm at the interstice between his jacket and his watch, an almost imperceptible movement of shadows like the ruffling of a deck of cards. His lips, too, appeared to ripple, creating the same visual phenomenon but in pink
smooth tissue. “Wow. What the fuck is happening to you, Tom?” she asked. “You’re rippling!”
“Nothing,” he said. “Nothing’s happening! I’m not rippling!”
She decided to ignore the ripple, focused on her point of sexual capture, “And if I said,” she went on, “that I just want to take you home with me and fuck you, that I am a base animal and require no further mental stimulation until the act that provides the necessary satiation bridge, what would you say to that?”
“Ermm,” he said.
“We don’t speak now of hypothetical acts or fictionalized acts,” she asserted, “such as those rendered by Cornet or Sade. We speak now of months, Tom, eight to be exact, of discussing books — and frankly, I feel beastly. I could use some satisfaction!”
Her book man shifted in his seat. He blinked again, said, “So you don’t like what we do now?”
“Which is not to say that I don’t feel tenderly towards you,” she admitted, continuing in a soft voice almost a whisper, trailing off, and beginning again shortly thereafter with, “and I don’t mean to suggest that the conversation hasn’t helped me in many ways — or that I’m not grateful. It’s just that — well, what are we doing here? If there is no attraction, why do we keep meeting? Tom, you can talk about books with people far smarter than me. Isn’t there something else you want me for? Anything?”
She took this moment to apply, slowly, carefully, a cherry red lip gloss and watched as he watched her. She ran a pink tongue over her lips. She said, “Let’s walk together, Tom. Somewhere away from here.”
“Well, I-I can’t,” he said. “That is…I…well—”
“I understand you are afraid,” she replied, as one might address a refugee frightened by mob-rule. “But, culturally, I am a small woman and I need you to walk me to my car. As you’ll notice, it’s not parked close tonight and you are the man and I am the weak female who requires escort.” She waited a second before producing the piece de resistance, which she had been saving: “And I ask you, what would Montaigne have done?” She threw her hair back over her shoulder so that it might float upon her back while she walked and stated, “I’ll tell you, Tom! He
would have walked me to my car! Unless it is only possible for us to discuss things in the safe yellow light of the cafe. But you can leave here, can’t you? Get free?”
Below the table, she used a foot to trace his leg from his ankle to his knee before saying, “You can, Tom. And if I take you out from the café, you won’t disappear like daylight, will you?”
Marguerita laughed, grabbing his hand and pulling, so he allowed her to lead him up out of his chair and into the evening scented with roses and jasmine from a nearby flower cart. She wanted to buy him a flower. A Middle Eastern woman in a wrinkled tuxedo manned the register as Marguerita purchased a dyed blue orchid and handed it to him saying, “Here is your sign or symbol, Tom,” touching his sleeve lightly. “Your floral pussy or clitoris. A blue piece. From a woman. A modern stance. You like it?”
“It’s nice,” he said, but his cheeks were rippling again. Again, she smelled old paper. It was like in high school when she’d made love in the library stacks.
This turned her on. “It is also a romanticized gift,” she stated, “regardless whether a man or a woman should buy it, not uncommon among those having such conversations as those pertaining to dating or love. Incidentally, I take this moment to remind you of De Amore by Andreas Capellanus, which was written in the 1180s on the subject of courtly love, where he said, ‘Every action of a lover ends in the thought of his beloved.’ Not that Capellanus didn’t end his book with an extensive girl-bashing, disingenuous tirade, which I’ll forego discussing in this moment — just consider the ‘anus’ hosted by the last part of his name, if not its translation to chaplain—but back to the flower...Hey, does something smell like books?”
Tom blushed. He sniffed the flower. “Thank you,” he said. “Very sweet. Where’s your car?”
“There,” she replied, pointing. “Two blocks up.”
They walked into a darkened set of suburban blocks. She had in mind dragging him to an alley full of wisteria, an alley where she once read as a teen, one that was lit, here and there, with patches of diffuse amber light from the illuminated homes behind the fences, and as he ambled behind her, she walked briskly to let him watch her swinging hips’ extra undulation due to her swivel walk and three inch heels that created a slow forties saunter that had driven many former men wild. With him behind her, giddy, she found it hard not to run.
Though progressing with a determined gait, Tom seemed less certain he wanted to follow her. “Are y-you sure you know where you’re going?” he asked. “I d-don’t see any cars here. No one is p-parked in this alley. Wwhere’s your r-red van?”
“Listen, Tom,” Marguerita said. “Do you think I’m pretty?”
“V-very pretty,” he said. “You have p-perfect lips.”
“So, how about you kiss me?”
Again, he blinked. “O-okay,” he said.
“You know, you don’t stutter when you talk about books,” she replied. “Am I making you nervous?” She came closer and pushed him gently into the nearest wooden fence, only to notice more odd ripples of his skin. She put her hand below his shirt and felt them on his chest.
“I h-have to get back to the cafe,” he said. “Soon. So, if you want to k-kiss me, d-do it quick.”
Marguerita had engineered many seductions in her time, having been herself seduced in countless intervals, so she pressed her short frame against his tall slender body, making sure to rub her breasts against his chest as she put her hands upon his shoulders and stood on tip-toe to kiss him. Tom’s lips were dry and flavored like mint, dollars, old notes. She pushed her tongue in his mouth, letting her hands move down his body, touching, finally touching the places she’d so often eroticized.
When he kissed her back and pulled her close, she felt intoxicated, but after a moment, he backed up and returned to the idea of gently trying to shrug her off. “I have to get b-back now,” he said.
“No, you d-don’t,” she argued, adjusting her skirt in the front, adding, “You look good in my lipstick.”
“Y-yes, I do,” he said. “H-have to go. L-let us talk next week about D-derrida. D-did you want to suggest the text? Or perhaps, Angela C-carter? H-hell, even Mmelville. But not F-freud. He b-bores me. On the b-boring list is as well is J-junot D-diaz.”
“I like Junot,” she said, dropping her gaze. “Let’s get back to business.”
“I thought you liked talking about reading,” he said.
“I do,” she replied. “But there’s a time and place for everything. And about Junot, if you read his recent interview at Narrativo, which is a money grubbing terrible periodical that robs from the poor and aspiring writers to pay the rich already successful authors with their submissions practices, you would see he is much like you in how he thinks about reading and writing, but—” She quieted, her throat constricting briefly, at the sight of his mouth gaping in horror.
“I like Narrativo,” he said, which did not compel her in any way except to make her want to embrace him, but she did not restrain him again, did not push her whole body against his as she examined his face, but instead used three fingertips from her right hand to slide up the back of his covered thigh. “But what I mean is,” she said. “Who cares about Narrativo? P-please me, Tom. N-n-now.”
As his eyes widened, she entertained an idea of him pressing her back against the nearby fence and fucking her in the nearby dark as she quietly quelled her response — desiring, too, the warm sensation of his palm against her lips to help her with her silence, so that she might taste his firm papery hand against her mouth as he thrust himself inside her. Maybe she wanted him to tell her, finally, in a whisper, to shut the fuck up and be there with him, please, in that moment of carnal defilement — or to assert some complete control over her body, which was something she rarely ceded but so desperately wanted, and she thought how delicious it would be if he did her half-clothed in this way, wearing his same jacket with his pants down, his shirt tickling her abdomen. God, she loved Tom! A ticket from the police would be only mildly disturbing—possibly exciting. “Tom, I love you,” she said. Her eyes sparkled. She smiled. She looked at him fondly. But his skin — it rippled again, all over. He backed away. It was like she viewed him through the spinning blades of an area fan. “In the b-book a-bout love,” he began.
“This is not a book, Tom,” she said. “No books here.”
“W-where the auth—”
“I don’t care about the author,” she challenged, stepping forward to finally touch his pale skin like a lover — but when she unzipped his pants and put her hand inside them, she pulled her fingers out abruptly, for they were cut and bleeding, had been lacerated by sharp textures.
She stepped back, whitening. “Oh,” she said.
“It’s b-better we keep our exchange to b-books,” he said. “B-better f-for you. Freer.”
“Oh,” she said again, her eyes so moist they almost spilled over. “But I don’t think so. I would like to expand our relationship. Can’t we do that? Tom?”
“I c-cant,” he said as the rippling on his flesh became a tremor, this tremor overtaking his body until his skin assumed a vast retinue of breaks and fissures visible below his clothes before a wild flipping of wafer-thin pages began, flapping until his whole person seemed a book, revealing a man-sized series of coverless oeuvres towering in the shape of Tom, his human pages turned frantically as if thumbed by thousands of invisible hands desperate for the right passage. His expression was pained.
“T-this is all I c-can offer y-you,” he said then, though his face flipped, too, and was distorted.
As she watched his fractured face, the only witness to its explosion, his whole body flew apart before her, fluttering to disburse into so many floating pages in the comfortable place where she had tried to read him, tried to love him, and had consumed so much literary content well before him — so briefly, foolishly, she reached out as if to catch his sheets to hold him together, but such unbound pages eluded her grasp and saddened her; he was a book left spineless, and soon, his sheets filled the street’s whole expanse, engorged the alley with words and pages so beautiful that they shone like gold or the vellum of his skin until it was as if the alley itself had lit up brighter with the visceral flood of Tom.
“There goes Tom,” she said. But the only page left of him for her, his clothes having collapsed where he’d stood, was the one that landed haphazardly and facedown in her hand, which she flipped to read and regard. It said: “I regret both being this way and that I cannot be much more. I regret you read me wrong, and I shouldn’t have tried to teach you. What I’m trying to say, M, is that you are coarse. I don’t mean that in a negative way. I loved you as I love all sentient beings and especially loved that you loved to read, but some kinds of love fall apart.”
As she read this, she heard the Velvet Underground playing in her head. “Some kinds of love…”
She cried and closed her eyes but opened them again to review the last section of his note, which read, “Still, I’m so sorry. We could have been something, maybe, in another world. I guess what I’m lobbying for here is—” but he didn’t finish his sentence, just signed off. At the bottom of that page was an ornamental font detail like the orchid she had bought him.
The real orchid, she then noticed, catching her breath as his pages continued to scatter, was at her feet, crushed accidentally by an earlier misstep of her black stiletto heels, which she had worn to impress him, which she now regretted wearing and felt cheapened by — for she would never see this man again outside of her retreating memory, she’d dressed like a slut tonight, he’d resultantly called her coarse, and all the other pages she tried to pick up to read him by were blank. She supposed he had turned into the mysterious, indecipherable man of books he’d always wanted to be: the one who said yes and no, and no, and no and no and no — so she couldn’t touch him, which she wished she’d known sooner. But who could have known he would come closer and then fall apart? Even her romantic gift for him, that yonic flower blue as a banshee’s wail, had been separated and soiled.
This story is protected under international copyright laws. This story is the exclusive property of Heather Fowler and cannot be published in any format without her express permission.
Heather Fowler is the author of the story collections Elegantly Naked In My Sexy Mental Illness; This Time, While We're Awake; People with Holes; and Suspended Heart. Fowler’s work was named a 2012 finalist for Foreword Reviews Book of the Year Award in Short Fiction. She received her M.A. in English and Creative Writing from Hollins University. Her stories and poems have appeared in:PANK, Night Train, storyglossia, Surreal South,Feminist Studies, The Nervous Breakdown, and others. Her website:www.heatherfowlerwrites.com is very well done and has all the latest information on her work.
I think in the fullness of time, Heather Fowler will publish many wonderful books and stories. Expect to see much more about her on The Reading Life.