Doug realized his crush on Moira Feldberg was a cliche, a subplot on a sitcom or a set-up for a letter to Penthouse. But he didn’t care. He thought Moira the librarian was the sexiest woman he’d ever seen.
She wasn’t obviously beautiful, or even attractive, really. In fact, most men of Doug Bishop’s age, raised on hotel porn, would say Moira Feldberg was actually quite unappealing. She possessed the figure of a ripe Bartlett pear, thin and formless above her waist and bulbously round below, befitting a woman who had abjured the sweaty rituals of the gym in favor of extra moments at her desk, accompanied by an oft-read volume of Harding. Or Trollope. Or in her wicked moments, Jules Verne. Moira Feldberg was neither athletic nor toned, neither seductive nor overtly feminine. She had shortly cropped black hair, held away from her eyes with a forest of bobby-pins. Her skin was the peculiar shade of pale achieved by those who almost never find themselves outdoors. And, yes, just as the cliche would have it, Moira Feldberg wore black horned-rim glasses.
And to Douglas Bishop she was irresistible.
He loved her smile, which caused crater-like dimples to appear in both sides of her face. He adored her facility with languages; she spoke English, French, Spanish, Italian, and Hebrew. And most of all he worshipped her kindness.
Doug Bishop would sit at a table near Moira Feldberg’s reference desk at Erie, Pennsylvania’s James P. Johnson Memorial Library and watch her help people. An immigrant Russian lady with tall frosted hair, searching for a reverse translation of Nabokov. A gum-cracking high school student, her hardened midriff proudly exposed, looking for a biography of Anna (Kournikova, not Karenina). A bedraggled and mildly smelly ogre (homeless maybe?) wanting something “unexpected” about chess. All of them, an endless procession of supplicants, received from Moira Feldberg the same attentiveness, equal patience and, it seemed, genuine interest. If her patrons sought, Moira saw it has her duty to help find. If they wanted advice, she dispensed, Comparative Literature having been her major, English her minor, at Case Western, where she read “Silas Marner” more times (3) than had proper dates (2).
Books, words, ideas – these humble pleasures thrilled Moira Feldberg the way diamonds, beachfront condominiums and Manolo Blahniks excited her contemporaries. When a library visitor wasn’t entreating her to help him find the perfect children’s book for his grandson, Moira returned to her ongoing Shakespeare Project, in which she hoped her third complete reading of the plays and sonnets would yield her a richer understanding than when she was a callow 22-year old filled with the populist Stanley Wells-inspired notions subscribed to by her mentor, Professor Raif, on whom she had a fervent but unconsummated crush.. (Her subsequent survey of the texts, two years later, during her Peace Corp service in Costa Rica, was cursed, Moira felt, by the whole Earl of Oxford versus Bard of Avon controversy, which, despite her Sontagian resistance to interpretation, perverted every masterfully turned phrase into admissible evidence on the work’s True Authorship.) Now, age 32, gainfully employed in a temple of joy, a sanctuary from a popular culture she neither liked nor understood, Moira was free to revisit Lear and Beatrice and Shylock, and all the glorious others, and get paid for it.
Moira Feldberg explained to her best friend, Millie, who was a fitfully employed fundraiser for a succession of failed Erie modern dance companies that she felt, well, almost guilty at her job. “I get paid to read!” Moira said.
“Honey, you’re paid to help people find books. The reading is just a side benefit.” Millie considered herself a realist. She also considered herself environmentally responsible and an expert on the lyrics of Leonard Cohen, but foremost she was a realist.
“I’m so insanely happy!” Moira squealed. “I’m like Prospero in Act Three. I’m giddy.” She flashed her dimples. “Let’s eat ice cream and talk of kings!”
Moira Feldberg was reading “Hamlet” again when Douglas Bishop approached her desk. She was in the midst of Act Two – “I am one man in ten-thousand” – when she felt she was being observed, as though eyes were piercing her cable-knit sweater.
“To be or not to be. That is not my question,” he said. (It had sounded more clever in his head.)
Moira raised her eyebrows. “Oh! Yes?” He was very cute, she thought. In a non-threatening, pithy secondary character kind of way. The blue eyes. The grin. The stack of books in his hands. She felt her cheeks reddening.
“Hamlet,” Doug said, shrugging.
“Right. Well done.”
“I saw you reading it.” He shook his head, feeling bashful. “We had to study it in high school. I don’t remember much – I mean, you know, besides the famous parts. Get me to a nunnery! Ha. But, anyway.” He was not, at this first meeting, wildly infatuated with the slightly overweight-but-ineffably-charming librarian. He was just nervous about the lacunae in his formal education, which, thanks to his SAT shenanigans, looked better on paper than in practice.
Moira closed her volume, marking the page with her embroidered Emily Dickinson bookmark, the one with “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” copied down the middle in cursive script. “How may I help you?” She gave him her standard two-dimple job, the one she bequeathed to anyone who inquired, not just cute men who made awkward Prince of Denmark jokes.
Doug immediately noticed her radiance, and he almost said as much; but he caught himself, realizing that this slightly dowdy woman would probably take his compliment the wrong way, as though there were such a thing.
He gingerly placed his stack of books on Moira’s desk, careful not to invade her workspace, the clearing she’d made between her computer monitor and a melange of sticky notes and peculiar periodicals. (She subscribed to The Decimal, not because she was a big fan of Mr. Dewey – her mom had suggested, in fact, that he was a committed anti-Semite – but because it contained profiles of librarians she admired, people like F. Franklin Merks, Chief Librarian of the New York City Library, who held positions to which Moira Feldberg not-so-secretly aspired.) There was a miniature plush animal – what was it? A squirrel? A ferret? – the kind children took to bed with them, squatting over a short stack of memos. And a white coffee mug that had Charles Darwin’s mutton-chopped portrait upon it.
Moira saw the highest book on top of Doug’s column: It was called “Mystery Man: The Strange but True Story of Daniel Dooling, Ireland’s Gandhi.” She couldn’t see what tomes were concealed beneath, but she was curious. She was always curious about what people were reading, and she was curious without being judgmental about their choices, though it was true: Moira Feldberg often felt teenaged girls would find stronger role models in the Bronte sisters than in the popular Mary-Kate and Ashley adventures. Her fingers moved involuntarily toward the books, as though her digits were thirsty roots seeking moisture.
The man said, “I’m doing a project, a research kind of exploration into non-traditional ways of looking at the world, specifically deities and, you know, power structures, and so forth.”
“Yes,” Moira said calmly, nodding and smiling.
“And I already checked the online catalogue – at least I think I did it right! – and it doesn’t seem like your library has a single book on the ancient West Indian custom known as Idol Magic, which most people call by the name voodoo, although that’s misleading. It’s not, like, simply a matter of sticking pins in to dolls. That’s the Hollywood version.”
“Voodoo. Let’s see,” Moira said, typing on her keyboard, the concentration on her brow enormously attractive to Douglas Bishop.
If she disapproved of his alternative interests, she certainly didn’t show it. This was also enormously attractive to Douglas Bishop.
Also, her smile. Spectacular.
“Huh,” Moira remarked, scanning down columns of listings. “Interesting.”
Doug looked around the library, hoping no one else needed help. He liked watching the librarian do whatever it was she was doing.
“When I do a master search – title, subject, author – you’re right. I don’t get any voodoo. We go from ‘Volpone’ to ‘Voorhees.’ But,” she said, looking Doug in the eye, “no idol magic.”
“That’s too bad,” he said, happy to bask in the light of her face,
She cocked her head slightly. “May I make a suggestion?”
“Please. Yes. Of course.”
Only in retrospect did Doug Bishop realize that Moira Feldberg’s recommendation of Twain’s “Life on the Mississippi” was a stunningly inspired and unexpected choice since it didn’t, upon first consideration, have anything to do directly with voodoo. But he discovered it did sort of, in the parts about New Orleans. And even when it didn’t it was wonderful, and strangely subversive. And he was glad to have read it. But just then, when the librarian first handed him a sticky note with the book’s Dewey number on it, he thought she might have misunderstood what he was looking for. It was like asking a record store clerk for a tip on modern music and having him lead you to the Bach section.
“Thank you very much for your help,” Doug said, returning the librarian’s smile.
“My pleasure,” Moira Feldberg said. It’s what she always said, because it was true. This was what gave her pleasure. (This and reading.) But she didn’t always say the next part. “Please let me know if I can be of further assistance. I’ll be here for you.”
She felt a pleasant flutter in her tummy when she said it, and then a warming under her eyes.
“I will,” Doug said, suddenly feeling much younger than he had when he walked into the library, a half hour earlier.
Every week, for the next six weeks, Doug would conjure a reason to go to the library. It was true, as Lenny pointed out repeatedly: Almost anything you wanted to look up in the library could be gleaned from the Internet. But, Doug explained to his friend, the library was filled with sensual pleasures that couldn’t be replaced by a plastic keyboard. The feel of paper on your thumb. The smell of worn leather on an ancient copy of Bartlett’s “Familiar Quotations.” The sound of high heels click-clacking slowly through the stacks, looking, searching, finding.
“Whatever,” Lenny said.
Doug Bishop didn’t want to tell Wizenberg about the librarian, whose name he did not yet know. She was, in the pantheon of conquests, an embarrassment, with her big ass and jiggling saddlebags, her boyish haircut and her Aunt Eller clothing. A stripper with legs like a racehorse – that you showed off to your buddies. A broad with a figure like Sarah Jessica Parker’s – that you crowed about. But a mushy librarian who was probably a lesbian anyway? That was not something to brag about.
Moira Feldberg was Douglas Bishop’s secret, his guilty pleasure. He would ensconce himself at a table near her reference station and busy himself with contrived projects. And he would stare at her when she wasn’t looking his way. He particularly liked to watch her help other patrons, because, invariably, he would get to see her smile.
After some time he became one of the regulars at James P. Johnson Memorial Library. It happened seamlessly, gradually, like a suntan. Simply by being there frequently, his presence became expected. Moira would glance to her left and see Douglas Bishop huddled near Sam Crisedale, a frail shrew of a man who came in every morning to read the previous day’s New York Times, and portly Vladimir Zorbotov, who was allegedly at work on an epic novel about the rise and fall of his native Russia’s cotton industry, and the two-shirt owning Tim Tell, who may or may not have been homeless and who religiously read a 14-item cycle of periodicals that included The New Republic, Reason, and Entertainment Weekly. When he got to the end of his cycle, he changed his shirt and began again.
And there was Doug Bishop, apparently doing something. It seemed to casual observers that he was making notes and accumulating piles of non-fiction books, most of which he returned to their original place before he departed. What he was really doing most was dreaming of kissing Moira Feldberg.
He wondered what it would be like. Doug Bishop had never been with a girl as homely as the librarian. Plus, he suspected that there was a very good chance she had never truly been kissed, not really. So it would be a collision of firsts.
How would he approach her? How would he tell her the truth without scaring her? And equally important, how would he communicate to her that she was not just a convenient pick-up, that he truly was smitten with her smile and her kindness and her pale skin and the way she got those little lines in her forehead when she read her Shakespeare?
Did every man who gazed upon her fall in love with Moira Feldberg? Was he simply another fool caught in her spell?
No, that was impossible. Sam and Vlad and Tim, they didn’t seem to even notice her. And Lenny. . .Lenny! He would make a joke about her admittedly largish backside. “Junk in the trunk,” or something like that. Luckily, Wizenberg had left town for some pressing business down south. That was one less explanation Doug had to make.
After consulting a worn copy of “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” Doug decided one day to simply be bold, for it seemed to him the most natural and honest way to manifest a possibility. He watched her help a young man, 12 or 13 years-old perhaps, with what seemed to be his science project – Doug could make out the words Pasteur and Curie – and he decided that when she was done with him and if there was no one else in line he would walk purposefully to the librarian’s desk and say something like, “You probably don’t remember me, but . . .”
Since his first inquiry six weeks back, the one about voodoo, Doug Bishop hadn’t actually spoken to Moira Feldberg. He had observed her like an avian scientist tracking a rare species of finch, but he hadn’t had a word of conversation, meaningful or otherwise. In less than two months he learned what languages she spoke, and what authors she favored, and how deeply moved she was when she first discovered the childhood charms of “Frog and Toad Together.” But he didn’t even know the librarian’s name.
He just knew he loved her, that every time he saw her smile, her nod, her graceless waddle even, he felt something stirring behind his sternum.
When the science boy had learned what he needed and shuffled away toward a distant corner of the stacks, Doug pushed back his wooden chair from the wooden table and rose to his feet. The blood rushed from his head.
That he felt slightly faint thrilled him. He hadn’t felt this way since. . .he couldn’t remember when. So this was what love was supposed to do to a grown man’s body! It was exquisite.
Moira Feldberg looked up from “Troilus and Cressida” to see Voodoo Man ambling toward her desk. The look on his face – she couldn’t be certain if it was fear or elation, or maybe both – startled her. Many of the library’s most regular denizens were slightly troubled, a bit askew, but in a mostly harmless and endearing way. People who weren’t on grand knowledge quests would call Moira Feldberg’s acolytes “quirky,” i.e., peculiar in their obsessions, those obsessions not being in any way related to acquiring the fabulous possessions and accoutrements of success a respectable consumer ought to be chasing. Why else work 60 hours a week at Kline, Borcher & Higgins if not in the noble pursuit of a Lexus and a once-a-year getaway to a Caribbean island with the word “Saint” in it? Those that came to James P. Johnson five days a week – thanks to county budget cutbacks, the library was closed on weekends – generally had about them an obsessive-compulsive quality that drove them to return to the corner of Durant and 3rd (across from the DMV) with the blind devotion of spawning salmon. Like rummies who occupied the same bar stool until their liver gave out, library regulars returned daily to their favorite reading table until their eyes quit or until the answer to their big question had been finally and incontrovertibly answered.
Voodoo Man was by now one of the regulars, part of the quotidian scenery Moira associated with a day at the office, as usual and somehow comforting as her coffee mug and cup of pencils. Though she sometimes wondered if he would ever seek further assistance in his search for Idol Magic – Moira pictured a wizard who never got out of bed – the librarian had never considered him odd or dangerous. Certainly not more odd or dangerous than any other of the pilgrims in their solitary ships, captains of expeditions only they understood.
Still, the look in his eye, you might almost call it deranged, startled her. And thrilled her, too.
The second time Moira Feldberg had made love (she was almost 20; it was near the end of her Sophomore year at Case) was to Mr. Welder. She could never get herself to call him Raoul, as he frequently asked her. He had that look, that same look, as he hovered above her, his mouth enveloping her chin and his hardness brushing insouciantly against her nether hair. The look of a predator on the verge of devouring his kill.
Raoul Welder was her French professor, a not very nice-looking man of 37 who, nonetheless, had learned early in the game that his mastery of Racine and Rimbaud could open doors that his weak chin (masked expertly, he thought, by a distinguished beard) and drooping ears often closed. As a visiting lecturer at Cleveland State, he had been the subject of an informal investigation brought on by a spurned amoureuse. No action was taken against him (what could anyone prove?), and he was not compelled to write the letter of apology the hysterical girl had demanded, but Professor Welder got the sense that tenure would never be his at State. He then spent three undistinguished semesters at St. Millons, a nominally Catholic college outside of Akron, where the lack of romance there allowed him to complete more than 200 pages of his book, “Miserable!”, about Victor Hugo’s tempestuous love life. Welder left St. Millons when a junior position at Case opened and an old friend from Amherst, Stuart Canick, himself an expert in the romance languages, recommended Welder for the job.
Case Western hadn’t any prohibitions on the natural discourse of ideas and emotions between men and women, teachers and students. Raoul Welder was more or less free to pursue his love of French and young women who loved older men who loved French. “Canards en tonneau” was the secret code Welder and Canick had for the situation. To them, “The Reserve” wasn’t merely a university; it implied free-roaming wild game. Here you had girls in their late teens, sheltered from the real world by their well-meaning parents, suddenly exposed to aphorism-spouting intellectuals who had actually, honest-to-God, no kidding, been to Paris. And could recite passages from “The School for Husbands” in the original verse. Welder and Canick and all the other professors who were so inclined were literally men among boys. Older but not old. Wiser but not wizened. And they could tell a recently-of-legal-drinking-age-in-the-state-of-Ohio maiden the difference between vin rouge from Burgundy and claret from Bordeaux.
And they had their own apartment.
Moira Feldberg was not Raoul Welder’s first choice among his students of the elective course, “Moliere: Child of Aristophanes or Father of Upton Sinclair?” He quite liked Sarah, the perky blonde with immodest tastes in décolletage, who invariably sat in the front row of his classroom, tucking her hair behind her ear as she took feverish notes. But she was a Christian, or at least that’s what Welder supposed, based on the golden cross that swung heavily from her neck, settling occasionally in the warm canyon between her freckled breasts. And he didn’t waste time on those sorts. It was hard enough overcoming resistance to age and authority disparities, let alone a life-long conditioning on the evils of pre-marital connubial bliss.
He also liked Felicia, the Goth queen, whose dyed black hair and dramatic mascara made her look like a well-fed smack whore. But she wasn’t impressed with Professor Felder, or his class, or the “clones” at Case Western Reserve University, or anything much, save for the hallucinatory ramblings of William Burroughs and the cinematic miracles wrought by a gentleman named Wes Craven. Welder convinced himself she hated all men and directed his attentions elsewhere.
Though she wasn’t nearly as portly as she was now, nearly ten years later, in college Moira was already more plump than svelte. Still, she retained the vestiges of a teenager’s taut muscularity. Her hair was also much longer, almost “wild”, dropping in waves of springy black ringlets past her shoulders. And although she wore no makeup – no one, least of all her hippie mother, had ever taught her how to apply it – her eyes and lips and teeth all sparkled, if only because Moira Feldberg was finally in her element, surrounded by men and women of thought.
Professor Welder took her frequent visits to his office (for clarification of a difficult idea involving rhyming couplets; for “help” with a thesis statement) as incontrovertible evidence that she was offering herself to him to do with as he pleased. This seemed good and right to him, his priestly reward for ministering to a hungry flock of intellectually starved suburban kids. He had eschewed a better paying career in advertising – he could have been making $50,000 right out of Amherst, easy – for the less lucrative halls of academia. Surely he was entitled to compensation to which one couldn’t attach a price.
Welder, like most men, didn’t find Moira Feldberg physically appealing, at least not in the obvious way that would induce envy in Canick and the rest of his faculty mates. For that he would have had to nail Christian Sarah. He did, however, find her utter ingenuousness, her apparent obliviousness to the sexual dynamic in their relationship, weirdly compelling.
Could it be she was really so infatuated with words and stories and characters upon a printed page that she had somehow missed the fact that she was a woman and he was a man? Surely she must have felt her power, her ability to make men do things they otherwise wouldn’t. Surely she had felt the frisson of desire, if only in tiny doses. And could she really be so naive as to view her professor as merely a pedant? Surely she must have sensed his appetite. Surely she had felt his sublimated instincts, what his hero Rousseau had called “the sublime animal” inside every man’s breast (and balls.)
Moira Feldberg fascinated Professor Welder because she seemed utterly unaware that she had the potential to be fascinating.
On the winter afternoon that she had her epiphany – “Oh, my! He wants to fuck me!” – Moira Feldberg was, in fact, marking, in Proustian fashion, the six-month anniversary of the loss, the expiration, of her virginity. She disliked framing the event as a loss, preferring instead to characterize it with her friends as a “shedding.” Half a year earlier, Daniel Weber, the bearded, serious graduate assistant assigned to Moira’s summer German seminar, had consummated a torrid two-day courtship with the declaration that one should not wait for knights in shining armor in one’s life, that, as Socrates had asserted (or was it Plato?), the doing is everything. She had signed up for the seminar in the fanciful hope that she might read “The Sufferings of Young Werther” in the original language. After Weber’s clumsy tearing of her hymen and even clumsier recitation of Kurt Weill quotations post-coitus, Moira Feldberg decided she didn’t really like German (or Daniel Weber) much, after all.
But it had been done. The shedding.
She was sad that it wasn’t magical or transforming or even somewhat nice. But she was glad to have done it, to have moved into the next chapter of her ongoing narrative. If nothing else, it would make excellent material for her journal. Or a collection of post-feminist poetry she sometimes contemplated authoring.
Six months later, on the solstice, Moira Feldberg lit a vanilla-scented candle in her dormitory room and read an apposite passage from Thackeray. Then she went to her scheduled appointment with Professor Welder.
They talked of French literature, in formal French, and Moira dutifully noted her professor’s bon mots in the embroidered diary she devoted to Welder’s class. Each time she looked up from the page, where her pinched handwriting filled all the white spaces, she saw Raoul Welder looking. And not just casually, but with intent. He was evaluating her, casting her, possibly even — could it be? — undressing her.
Since she had shed her virginity, Moira began to notice that men looked at women differently than they did anything else. Men looked at women as though they were prey, objects of desire, fuel to be harnessed and consumed. Even if men weren’t instantly interested in having a woman pinned beneath them, spread and vulnerable, they still viewed all women as potential receptacles for their fantasies.
At least that’s the way it seemed to Moira. It hadn’t been previous to Daniel Weber. But now she was open to new ideas, metaphorically speaking. The man who worked at the organic food store, the cashier fellow who always said hello to her when she came in for lavender tea, was no longer innocent. Nor was Phillip, the guy at the dormitory front desk. Nor Sean, her Civil Liberties study partner. Nor Enrique, the sweet Mexican man — well, more like a boy, really, but old enough on paper to be included –who did his work-study as a custodian in the Humanities building. They all looked at her with an elaborately concealed leer that suggested there was more to their “Hi, Moira”s than they would admit. It wasn’t overt, and never ill-mannered. But Moira knew now how men thought and possibly how they felt. Although Herr Weber hadn’t exactly been a Goethe when it came to romantic proclamations, she now understood more clearly how men assessed the world, and she was sure that being a woman qualified her as a target for their penetrating gaze.
And now she caught Professor Welder looking at her in that way, too. She saw it: The slight narrowing of the eyes; the hint of a smile; the quickening breath. He was talking about Jean-Baptiste Poquelin. But his mind, Moira Feldberg could tell, was on the undeniable fact that she was a woman. A woman with breasts, and hips, and smooth skin that smelled of flowers. A woman.
She looked back at him. She didn’t yet know how to look at a man, how to evaluate if he might be pleasing between her legs, or if he liked himself, or if he was kind. But she looked anyway, searching for what she didn’t know.
He was. . .well, he was her professor. Decent-looking. Not cute exactly, but not unpleasant. Clean. Clean fingernails. And his mind: Well, now that was a turn-on. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, Moira thought, if Professor Welder wanted to lie in bed naked and talk. Just talk. For hours. About everything he knew. And maybe they would kiss a little bit. And then talk some more.
She felt her cheeks getting hot.
He would probably invite her to nearby cafe for an end-of-the-day glass of something, as though they were colleagues at the Sorbonne. She would probably say, yes, why not? As they sipped and smoked, he would tell her stories about Paris and publishing and how academia wasn’t nearly as glamorous as it appeared to outsiders. And she would listen raptly and ask smart questions and let him look at her without fear of reprimand. And the first glass would certainly lead to another, and maybe one more. He would probably suggest dinner at an authentic little Provencal place he knew, on the west side of town, around the corner from his apartment. She would say, sure, why not? And they would leave together in his old but not decrepit Volvo or Saab or Fiat. And over supper he would share with her more of his grand ideas about literature and art and love and she would reveal some of her dreams about doctorates and wood-paneled libraries and writing blank verse poetry, and they would both wonder if the other knew what was really happening. Then, at some point before the waitress brought out a chocolate Napoleon that, according to Raoul, everyone must really try at least once, if only to know what heaven on a fork meant, the professor would manufacture a pretext for bringing her, his student, back to his apartment. Whether it was a rare translation of Dumas or a sonnet he had composed once on the banks of the Seine or an as-yet-unpublished essay on the importance of sadomasochism in Sartre, she would go. She would say, sure, why not? And she would go. They would talk and smoke and drink some more, and at some point the conversation would turn to Collette, and they would inexplicably find themselves in each other’s arms, kissing. He would lead her to his bedroom, which would have stacks of books haphazardly piled on the floor, and he would kiss her more and tell her how the brilliance of her questions in class had always made him profoundly interested in her, his best and most promising student. She would say something flattering about his lectures; he would say something self-deprecating about his physique; she would say something reassuring. Then he would undress her, kissing her all the time, until she was exposed before him. He would lay her on his bed and look at her with a frankness he could never have allowed himself previously. Then, kneeling between her legs he would gently spread her open.
What would happen next, how it would be, Moira couldn’t picture, didn’t want to know.
But she was sure it would happen.
And it did.
Which proved to Moira Feldberg that, yes, the look meant something, something “decodable,” as Foucalt might say. There was something in it.
Voodoo Man, he had it now. Predictably — she knew her body now – Moira felt her cheeks warm and her mouth get wet, as though an omniscient chef had placed a glazed doughnut on her desk.
“Hello,” Douglas Bishop said to the librarian. “May I speak with you?”
“Of course,” she said, flashing him a smile he knew he would never forsake. How could he ever tire of such a brilliant beacon? It was like Armstrong’s cadenza to “West End Blues,” de Kooning’s slashes of color, the overture to “Figaro.” You didn’t turn your back on transcendent art.
Douglas Bishop would remember Moira’s smile, her soft kisses and her even softer words whispering in his ear, the first time he violated her trust. He would remember the poem she wrote for him on his birthday, the one about Phoenix rising and Apollo falling. He would remember the ineffable happiness he felt listening to her talk about Massenet and Gounod, and he would almost laugh when he recalled that originally he thought she was referring to an upscale brand of bathing soaps. He would recall all of Moira Feldberg’s goodness the first time he made the mistake. But he would do it anyway.
Her name was Phoebe Ferry, and she was so stereotypically alluring that sleeping with her was somehow absurdly comical. But he did it, anyway. Phoebe was the physical embodiment of everything a man like Doug Bishop desired and everything a woman like Moira Feldberg feared: The lingerie goddess extant in the world. Shiny long hair, blue eyes, petite wrists, big round boobs, flat belly, graceful hips, ass like a 16-year-old girl, skin like foam on a cappuccino. She was stunning, the kind of woman everyone encourages to move to Los Angeles. (Which she eventually did, settling into a long career as a convention model, handing out product samples to giggling automotive executives.) When Phoebe decided she wanted to fuck someone, she had him. One day at the grocery store express checkout line, she favored Doug Bishop with her attention and that was the end of the discussion.
Yet, even as he disrobed in her condominium, never averting his gaze from the astoundingly delicious plaything crawling on the mattress beside him, Doug would recall Moira Feldberg’s smile. He would wonder why he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, stop himself before it was too late. But stopping was never an option. A guy only had a Phoebe Ferry once in his life, and only if he was ridiculously lucky.
Strangely, once Doug Bishop had done it with Phoebe – and it was only once, to his great chagrin – he couldn’t stop himself from doing it with anyone, whether or not they were the breathing approximation of a masturbatory fantasy. And most often they were not. If they showed any interest in him at all, or if they did not, he wanted to penetrate them, to hear how they gasped when he plunged. Fat, thin, round, slender – it didn’t matter. It wasn’t the sex that compelled him, it was the violation.
The blessing of Moira Feldberg’s smile no longer made him immune to his compulsions. He was still enraptured by her, as much in love as he had ever been with anyone, but that didn’t stop his desire – his need? – to stray, to accept the perverse reassurances of any female that would have him.
Moira would never find out about the others. But Phoebe Ferry was enough. Moira and Doug were having lunch one day on The Promenade, the invention of desperate downtown Erie merchants attempting to make their decrepit city look like a Southern California beach community, with sidewalk cafes and morose retailers selling junk from carts. Phoebe walked past them carrying shopping bags from Banana Republic in one hand and the leash of her Pekinese, Amber, in the other. The way she looked at Doug, even before courteous salutations were exchanged, Moira knew who she was and what had been done. She just knew.
Two weeks later, after many tearful phone calls and two threats of suicide (one per person), Doug Bishop left Erie, Pennsylvania and the ghost of Moira the Librarian.
He drove through the night to Huntsville, Alabama, where he met up again, as he always seemed to do, with his old friend Leonard Wizenberg.