I am reading erotica at the Chicago Public Library.
I didn’t plan on it.
I am here to pick up a Charles Bukowski biography. Or perhaps Sylvia Plath. Anne Sexton. Or Pablo Picasso.
It is one of my weekly assignments in Finding Water, the second in The Artist’s Way trilogy – reading a biography (or autobiography) that details an artist’s life, especially the disappointments and hardships weathered. It’s an easy and obvious Artist’s Date – number 17.
But first, I’m going to need a library card.
It’s about 2 p.m. on Saturday afternoon and it’s busy in here. I ask the guard what I need to do to get a library card. She points me to a painted blue desk to fill out a form, and then to the check-out counter, where there is a long line, for processing.
A little girl in front of me is trying to balance a stack of large books she has chosen. She is about five. On the wall to my right is a display of staff picks, among them, Committed by Elizabeth Gilbert. It is the follow up to Eat, Pray, Love. I make a mental note. I’ve wanted to read it, but not today.
I am handed a library card, my name printed on it with a Sharpie marker. The librarian apologizes that there is no clear tape to put over my name so it doesn’t smear. I lay it flat in my wallet and hope for the best.
The map on the wall guides me to the second floor. I’ve been here once before – this past fall, to print out boarding passes for my trip to Charleston. I forgot I could pull them up on my smart phone at the gate.
It was raining and I was talking on the phone to my father, telling him about my plans to see my birthmother. I had gotten a call just the day before. She was dying. It seems like a lifetime ago.
I point myself to a bank of computers, to locate the biography section. My search does not pull up the results I am looking for. I change my search terms. Nothing. It is not intuitive. I miss the card catalog. The tiny wooden drawers with typed cards sitting in alphabetical order inside. It was easy. Hello, Dewey Decimal.
I wander away from the computers to the shelves. Each end cap lists what is contained in the stacks. Of course it does. I wander through the periodicals. AARP. People. The Chicago Jewish Week. There are bound books, entire years of Time, The Saturday Evening Post and National Geographic dating back to the 1940s. I make another mental note, to come back to better acquaint myself with publications I plan to pitch.
I keep wandering, reading end caps. Nope. Nope. One of my Weight Watchers members is standing in front of me. She is wearing purple horn-rimmed glasses. We exchange hellos and brief small talk.
“American Literature.” Sounds promising. I feel silly, like I should know my way around the library. I remind myself I’ve only been here once before.
I remember feeling intimidated by the library at Michigan State University. I avoided it, even when class assignments clearly dictated its use. That is, until I started going there with my friend, Brian.
He suggested we go to the library to study on the weekends. And to look at cute boys. We took cigarette breaks in the men’s bathroom on one of the upper levels, sitting on vinyl couches in the tiled bathroom lounge as if we were at Nordstrom’s. Smoking. Guys would come in to pee and look at me funny. Confused, sometimes blushing. No one ever said a word.
I am in the A’s of the American Literature section. The first book I see is The Best American Erotica 2005, edited by Susie Bright. I love the Best American series. I have copies of several years of The Best American Food Writing, The Best American Travel Writing and The Best American Essays. I didn’t know there was a The Best American Erotica.
I pull it from the shelf. On the cover, a pair of women’s feet strapped into incredibly tall sandals. The heels look like nails. Thin. Silver. Blue, sheer panties dangle around her ankles. I carry it with me, smiling to myself. I hadn’t planned on this.
The section includes both literature and biographies. I pull titles that speak to me. Names I do not know. Women war correspondents. I put them back. I think I should write them down so that I can mention them in my blog, but I don’t. I’m trying to be “in the moment.”
I stumble upon Henry Miller. There are several biographies. I think about reading Tropic of Capricorn. I had tried many times without success. It “took” the day I approached it hopped up on coffee and cigarettes.
I felt frenetic, like the writing, stretched out on the couch, reading the minimally punctuated stream-of-consciousness straight through. I don’t remember much of what I read, but it made sense to me at the time. I felt like I had cracked the code.
I settle on The Happiest Man Alive by Mary V. Dearborn and tuck it under my arm with the erotica book. A theme is developing. I scan for Anais Nin. No biographies. No Delta of Venus – my favorite. Only her journals.
I pick up a biography on Anne Sexton, a black and white photograph of her on the cover. She is wearing a sleeveless dress with a swirling pattern, and she is holding a cigarette – her hands gesturing. She has great legs.
I read the inside cover and learn that she was a fashion model. That she married in her teens. That she attempted suicide after the birth of her second daughter, and that a therapist suggested she try writing poetry.
She wrote for 18 years, producing nearly a dozen books – including Pulitzer Prize winning Live or Die. The final words on the inside back jacket read, “It is not a tale for children nor for the innocent, for Sexton’s complicity in her own self-destruction was the despair of her friends, to many of whom this biography will reveal more than they understood while Sexton was alive.”
I add the book to my stack.
The alphabet begins again and I find Bukowski, Philip Roth, Nikki Giovanni, Maya Angelou. I pick up the Bukowski biography. It is much thinner than the Miller and Sexton tombs. Most of his face is covered by a folded newspaper, but he is clearly smiling. The crow’s feet at his eyes and the parentheses around his mouth give him away. His hands have age spots.
I am limited to checking out just five books during my first 30 days, so I think it is best to stop. I sit down at a table by myself and open the erotica book. I scan the table of contents, looking for a short reading.
“The Bounty of Summer,” by Carol Queen. Pages 79-81.
It is well written, neither violent nor overly sentimental. It’s about play and surrender, trust and fruit. Yes, fruit. She writes, “It’s the honeymoon suite, though we are not married, just fucking like it’s the only thing we will have to do for the rest of our lives.”
I like it.
I begin another story, “After the Beep,” about a man receiving anonymous, sexual instructions on his answering machine. It is titillating but too long. I do not finish it. I begin another, “Sit.” Three pages in and it’s all still set up. Nothing dirty. I cannot “sit” with it. I close the book.
I think about the journals I recently unearthed. They are filled with poetry and prose. Juicy, explicit details of my experiences in my 20s, when I was single. The writing is good. Better than this, I think.
I gather my books. Before heading to the check out, I pull a second The Best American Erotica from the shelf – 2006.
The librarian scans the Miller biography. Bukowski. Sexton. They are due back May 4. I will never read them all by then. She scans in the two erotica books. “Figures,” she says. “They are not in the computer.”
What does that mean?
“I’m just going to give them to you.”
I giggle to myself. There’s a dirty joke in there somewhere. And I walk out with my stack.