A Well-Read Man
It was almost a month into her job at the bistro that Wanda first noticed the man, perhaps in his late twenties, early thirties. He was casually dressed but smart, often a suede jacket, shirt open at the collar, jeans and tan Timberland boots. There was something about him which was scholarly without being nerdish, the tousled black hair just unruly enough to suggest that while looks might matter to him, they weren't everything, that there were things of the soul and the mind which were more important still. The rucksack he carried always seemed crammed with books.
He came in two, three, four times a week, would have a coffee and a light snack, maybe humus and bread or a bowl of chili. And always he would pause in the doorway on entering, considering the room and its customers before deciding where to sit. Never would he choose an empty table.
It was this which caused her to notice him, that invariably he would seat himself facing some attractive young woman, or two or three together. With a shy smile, as if apologizing for the intrusion, he would nod to a vacant seat at their table, one dark eyebrow lifting to pose the unspoken question ... 'please, may I, do you mind?' In the face of such courtesy no one was ill-mannered enough to deny him a seat at their table.
Then, after further observation of him, a couple of other things occurred to Wanda. Firstly, that though he would always end up in conversation with his neighbors he was never the one to instigate it; the young woman, if she was alone, or one of her group if she was in company, would always speak to him first. Secondly she noted that though he invariably entered the bistro alone he rarely left alone, and never with the same woman twice.
Curious, she quizzed the other waitresses about the man, but none had noticed anything remarkable about his visits.
“He is a bit dishy, in a quiet sort of way,” was the best that any of her co-workers could offer, and so she resolved to find out more for herself.
It was only after observing a number of these encounters that she got her first inkling of what he was up to.
She had seen him enter and pause as usual, then go towards a table already occupied by two young French women, maybe students, maybe tourists. The unspoken question could be read in his manner -'May I?'- and one of the women had gestured to a vacant seat facing.
“Bien sur,” Wanda could almost hear her say, across the crowded room.
He nodded his thanks, sat, took out the customary book from his bulging rucksack and hid behind it, lowering it only to give his order to one of the other waitresses.
It was as Wanda was wiping the table next to his that she caught the conversation.
“You read Sartre?” one of the young women asked, in a smoky French accent.
The man lowered his book slowly, as if regretting that his peace had been interrupted, said, “Sorry? You were speaking to me?”
“Pardon Monsieur,” the woman said. “But I see you read Sartre?”
“Ah yes, Jean-Paul Sartre,” he understood, now closing the book and setting it on the table, resting his fingers lightly on it as if about to caress it. “But only in translation,” he smiled apologetically, “and only his fiction. His philosophy is much too difficult for me to comprehend, I'm ashamed to say.”
“But Monsieur! There is no cause for shame! It is gratifying to find an American who can love Sartre as much as I do!”
Fifteen minutes later Wanda saw the man leaving in the company of the French woman.
Two days after that he was seating himself opposite a Russian girl and taking out a translation of Dostoyevsky, 'The Brothers Karamazov' -'So much passion, so much pain,' Wanda heard him say- and the following week he was brandishing a copy of Paolo Coelho's 'Eleven Minutes' so brazenly before a trio of Portuguese girls that they couldn't fail but recognize his literacy and appreciate his erudition.
The final dawning came when Wanda saw him charming -yes, that's what he was doing, charming these people- charming a lone Spanish woman, moving around the table to sit beside her and share with her the book she recognized.
“Cervantes!” Wanda heard the girl enthuse, as she passed by with a tray of half empty cups.
“I love Don Quixote's innocence and trust,” he said. “If only modern men could be like him. I, sadly, trust too easily, and so people tend to hurt me.”
Wanda wanted to tip the dregs of coffee over him, so offended was she by the blatant self-pity and the devious ploy which she now understood only too well. The conniving charmer was singling out the foreign customers -young, pretty, female- guessing at their nationality and choosing his reading matter accordingly from the library he carried abut with him. It was not a scheme which was guaranteed success, but more often than not the woman would feel compelled to comment on the fact that he was reading one of her country's authors. His apparent reserve, his polite approach and subsequent silence was no doubt a further encouragement for them to speak to him.
But one thing now troubled Wanda. Okay, that he left with a different woman every time was easily explained; underneath the shy scholarly exterior he was that breed of man she hated so, a chauvinist, a sexual predator. His type would not be seen with the same woman twice. Why, though, did none of the women who left with him ever return to the bistro again?
Wanda wore her hair down, falling like a silky shroud about her face rather than tied back as work required. Her make-up was heavier than usual, emphasizing her cheek-bones, darkening her eyes, and she wore a skirt so short that when she crossed her legs it became little more than a black Lycra bandage at the top of her thighs. She had set herself up as bait for him; the thing to do was ensure that he took it, and she thought she had the answer. Making her coffee last, biding her time, she waited patiently in the hope he would show, was finally rewarded by the sight of him standing in the doorway.
Seeing his eyes scan the room, waiting until his gaze moved in her direction, Wanda raised her hand and snapped her fingers, called out, “Bitte? Another coffee here?”
There. He would take her to be a foreigner now. Quickly she lowered her head over the open book which lay flat on the table before her, her hands cupping her face, offered her thanks and exchanged a few brief words with Carmen, the colleague who served her.
No sooner had Carmen left than Wanda heard a discreet cough, looked up and saw him standing before her, looking inquiringly at one of the vacant seats facing her. She shrugged, gestured to him to sit, then returned to her book. She heard him order -coffee and a Danish pastry- heard him served, heard him rummage in his rucksack for the required reading matter, but let five long minutes pass before looking up.
He had before him Thomas Mann, 'The Magic Mountain', but she made no comment, simply rested back in her seat, raising her own book from the table and hiding behind it, as he had so often done.
Finally, after more long minutes, she heard him clearing his throat as if needing to speak, lowered her book a couple of inches and peered over the top to see him trying to read its cover.
“Venus im ... what? Leopold von ... who?” he said, trying to decipher the title between her splayed fingers.
“Venus im pelz, by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch,” Wanda told him, lowering the book further to reveal her smile. “In English it would translate as 'Venus in Furs'. Are you familiar with it?”
“No, I can't say that I am,” he confessed.
“Ah, but it is such a beautiful book,” she said, and flicked through a couple of pages. “Here, listen, he says, 'To love, to be loved, what happiness! And yet how the glamour of this pales in comparison with the tormenting bliss of worshiping a woman who makes a plaything out of us, of being the slave of a beautiful tyrant who treads us pitilessly underfoot.' Nice, yes?”
“Well, it's certainly suggestive,” he said, letting out a low whistle, and Wanda laughed as she closed the book, setting it on the table between them.
“Suggestive? You say that as if you were some kind of prude,” she remarked, a taunting look in her eye.
“Me? A prude? Hell no!” he scoffed.
“No, I guess not, I'm sure you've had women aplenty. But still, for all the experiences, maybe a little limited in true experience?”
Again the insult was too much to take, his pride was wounded and he laughed out loud. “What rubbish!”
“Tell me-,” she began, then hesitated, a beckoning gesture of the fingers asking for a name.
“Stephen, the name is Stephen,” he said, offering her his hand.
She took it, shook it, held it. “And I am Wanda.”
“Pleased to meet you Wanda. I think.”
“So tell me, Stephen,” she continued, not releasing his hand, “how would you like to become my slave? How would you like me to be your beautiful tyrant who tramples you pitilessly underfoot?”
“Huh?” he said, extricating his hand from hers. “What are you on about?”
She stood, laughing to see his shock, his confusion, said, “How about we move on? A drink elsewhere? Then maybe back to your place?”
The fact that he followed her so readily to the door was the first indication that he could indeed be her slave, that she could be his beautiful tyrant.
Drink helped to relax him again, a glass or two of wine and he was laughing off Wanda´s suggestion that she might trample him pitilessly underfoot, denying that it had shocked him at all. Once more he regained his composure, again he boasted of his experience with women and exercised his considerable charm. It was easy to see why he had had such success with his foreign ladies, he could be witty and engaging, was pleasant company to be with, but for all that she was attentive to him she distanced herself from him, kept herself a little aloof.
Not for the first time she turned the subject back to the book she had been reading, the book which had attracted his attention.
“Sacher-Masoch was the poet of masochism,” she told him, “the need of one individual to be completely and unconditionally subject to the will of another of the opposite sex, to be humiliated, abused, and tormented, even to the verge of death.”
“A bit extreme,” he said dismissively.
“But the theme recurs continually in literature, in the 'Confessions' of Rousseau, in Prevost's 'Manon l'Escault', in Zola's 'Nana' to name but a few. A well-read man like you, I'm surprised you haven't come across it more often.”
“I'm well-read, am I?” he grinned, thinking that she used the phrase as a compliment.
“Oh yes, I know just how well-read you are,” she said, and before he could question what she meant she took his hand.
“Come on, let's go back to your place.”
Thinking that it was his charm which had brought him this far, he pressed his body against hers as they walked the couple of blocks to his apartment, his hip chafing hers as he squeezed her hand, frequently bowing his head to kiss her cheek, her neck, her ear.
“Patience,” she told him. “Patience.”
“But I want you,” he said.
“Yes, I know you do,” she smiled, permitting him to kiss her as they stepped from the evening bustle of the street into the quiet of the building, then more passionately still as they rode the elevator up to his apartment.
Inside, the apartment was as much designed to impress as his manner had been, the books which lined the walls speaking of a studious and sensitive man. A man to be trusted. Wanda, though, knew the books for what they were, the tools of his seduction,and she was ready for his blundering assault, and guessed that for all his charm he would lack any finesse when it came to the actual act of making love. The many foreign ladies he had enticed there, they would have been fucked and forgotten, used and abused, debased. That was why none had ever returned to the bistro; they were too ashamed, too nervous at the prospect of seeing him again.
That would not happen to her, though.
As he came towards her, his arms outstretched, a lurid smile contorting his face, she took one step into his embrace, brought a hand up to the side of his neck and pressed hard with her thumb at the sensitive pressure point behind his ear. His head twisted, his shoulder lifted, his body tried to fold in on the stabbing pain which had him close to blacking out.
“A little trick I learned from a policeman friend,” she grinned, stepping back, drawing him with her, then turning him and leading him backwards across the room. A foot from the settee, she placed her other hand in the middle of his chest and pushed hard, sending him sprawling onto it.
“Now if you want me as much as I think you do it will have to be a little different from your usual 'find em, fuck em and forget em' routine,” she told him, standing before him with arms folded across her chest as he rubbed his neck gingerly.
“Mad bitch,” he muttered.
“No,” she corrected him, “I don't get mad, I get even.”
“Even? For what?”
“For the way you've treated all those other poor women, and the way you would have treated me the same, given half a chance.”
But now he cursed her as a stupid bitch.
“Stupid-?” she was about to say, when her words were cut short by a blow to the back of the head which left her reeling, swaying on her feet.
“Dostoyevsky can be heavy stuff,” he grinned up at her, through his own pain. “The collected works, hard cover. It can be too much to take.”
She looked down at the heavy volume which lay open on the floor at her feet, its pages turning rapidly as if caught in a breeze, though there was none in the room. As if some hand was turning them, though there was none to be seen.
“Cervantes can be heavy going, too,” he added, as a second blow struck her temple.
“Puta!” she heard, a hiss of an Hispanic accent behind her, the force of an illustrated Don Quixote spinning her around even as it brought her to her knees.
From the shelves she saw the figures appear, extricating themselves from between the books, from the spaces above them, arms straining as they pulled themselves free, frantically swatting at books to send them flying about the room. Faces she might have recognised confronted her, young women once so vibrant and alive but now yellowed with age, their complexions as brittle as ancient parchment, skin cracked and spotted with mold. Silverfish and book-lice shivered across the cheek of one, while the soft exhalation of another brought with it the stink of long neglected books, musty and cloying.
“My librarians, my book-keepers, my bibliophiles,” he smiled, rising gingerly from the settee, flexing his shoulders and grimacing as the pain subsided, and she was aware that the sound of tearing paper was the clothes being ripped from her body, and the scoring of her skin, and the ripping of her flesh.
And then the creatures were pouring from the books themselves, spines splitting to spit them out, gold leaf flaking and spilling to the floor, a confetti of torn paper swirling all about her.
“Lovecraft and Ligotti, King and Ketchum...” Stephen listed the authors as their creations were brought forth. “Poe and Rice and Rector... But hey, if it´s something classical we´re after then what about Nietzsche?” he laughed. ´How to Philosophize with a Hammer´? Always been a favorite of mine.”