At nine years old, I walked into tiny Oxford Books alone for the first time. The nut-brown hippie girl counterperson made no fuss about my shoelessness. She looked up from a newspaper, smiled, and nodded.
I stepped lightly among labyrinthine shelves, all exuding the woodsy warmth of paper. The only sounds were my dirty feet on the carpet, my fingers grazing the book spines, and the hippie girl turning the pages of her paper.
A paperback cover drew me in: an old-timey sepia-toned photo of a woman sitting on the arm of a chair, right leg drawn up so the hemline of a black dress rose almost to her waist, exposing a lace-edged slip, the tops of stockings and an attached garter belt. A flapper’s cap obscured her face, but everything in her body language was invitation.
Sensing I’d be left alone, I accepted that invitation. I grabbed Delta of Venus by Anais Nin, and sank to the carpet to indulge.
Although I’d never read erotica, I’d seen my grandfather’s ill-hidden vintage Playboy magazines. Indeed, those quickened my pulse. But not like Delta of Venus.
The novel’s voice was like my inner, truer voice – desiring similar things: connection, adventure, appreciation. But unlike me, Nin’s heroine engaged her will to satisfy desire, come what may. She conveyed fear, but also an ability to master it through risk, through action. This was bravery to me, and I wanted it.
I began visiting Oxford Books regularly. Only smiles and nods passed between the hippie girl and me. I grew more comfortable heading straight to the “Erotica” section at the back, burrowing into my secret spot and reading for hours. More visual selections like The Joys of Sex were there, but Delta of Venus was my favorite.
The hippie girl became my first sexual fantasy, part friend, part “no-expectations” lover, the first person to silently share space with me as I devoured a book. I thrilled at the very real possibility my silent partner knew exactly what I was doing.
My impulse to transgress was strong, though no one who knew me at nine would’ve said so. I usually held it in check, building my wise-beyond-his-years persona, the dependable, nice guy. Who would want to hurt or leave such a person? Delta of Venus gave me temporary relief from these notions, freeing me from chains I was unwittingly wrapping around myself.
Once, after being particularly engrossed, I sensed absence. I padded to the front desk. The hippie girl was gone. The lights at the front of the store were off. Late summer dusk had fallen. I was locked in Oxford Books.
Panic rising, I stood at the glass door. A young couple spied me. After I explained through the glass, they called the police from a payphone.
“Sure you don’t want us to call your parents?” the woman said.
“They’re not home,” I answered. I didn’t go into my dad being dead, etc. I was enjoying this scene. It was all about me.
In minutes, the hippie girl pulled up, and unlocked the door, apologizing profusely. The police had called her.
“Oh, my God! Did you fall asleep?”
This was the most I’d ever heard her say. Her panicked sweat filled my nostrils.
“No,” I said. “I was just reading.”
“I’m so sorry!”
Seeing her upset gave me no pleasure. I wanted her serene and unconcerned, as usual. I didn’t want her fussing over me, treating me like the child I was.
“You need a ride somewhere?” she said.
“No, thanks,” I replied, my face hot.
I ran home, feet slapping cooling pavement, to a vacant house, as Venus herself flickered to life in the sky, pulsing constant.