On the steamy second floor of Adrian's Book Cafe, strangers fan themselves and talk aimlessly about the unexpected burst of summer heat. It's all small talk, subterfuge really, for what's truly on their minds. Those gathered here - from the clean-cut Catonsville couple to the ribald divorcee - harbor one unyielding thought: Sex.
Before the night ends, they will speak of it. The secret urgencies and cries of love, rain-swept sheets and ripening fruit. The great beast within? It will come out, in conversation at least, and the unleashing will make them laugh and fidget, stare dreamily at the ceiling tile and applaud - out of relief and satisfaction - when it's over.
Readings of erotic literature at the Fells Point bookstore-restaurant are like this. A one-time event that proved popular enough to make a monthly gathering, these evenings are consciousness raisers for the libido. Strangers recite and discuss what polite company never would: trysts at the convenience store, husbands who don't satisfy and the curves of a voluptuous woman.
It helps that they can read from esteemed authors Anne Rice, Milan Kundera and Isabel Allende on the subject. But their own meanderings - including a high-school poem and a semi-autobiographical story of a couple's romp - find their way into the discourse on love.
"Erotica has become more prevalent because people are trying to have sex without having sex," says Avril Haines, co-owner of Adrian's. "Others are trying to find new fantasies to make their monogamous relationships more satisfying. ... What the erotic offers is spontaneity, twists and turns. And it affects everyone."
She defines the genre - sandwiched between "self-help" and "parenting" in her store - as "everything that's repressed, guttural, instinctual, chaotic and creative."
Initially, though, when a customer suggested a reading of erotic literature, even Ms. Haines balked, believing the works were more akin to pornography than art. But after reading several stories and realizing what she had been buying often fell into that category, she reconsidered.
"We were terrified who might show up," she says of the events that began in March. "We thought it would be a bunch of dirty old men. And a lot of our friends gave us a hard time. They said, 'You just want a mass orgy in your bookstore.'"
By 8 o'clock, the atmosphere in this cozy room with red candles resembles a slightly-awkward dinner party for eight. A few people gather by an open window to inhale the sweet smell of bread from the bakery nearby. Others study what they will read later, while one couple peruses the bookshelves. Everyone's killing time, waiting for the sparks to begin.
David Davighi, co-owner of the store, pulls the gauzy blue curtain, giving them the sign.
To warm up the crowd, he and Ms. Haines ask people to describe what kind of romantic prose most appeals to them. No one seems prepared for Kati Bush Burton's reply.
"I like a broad spectrum of stuff," says the 53-year-old divorced technical writer from Columbia. "I'm not into things that hurt, but anything that's wildly different would appeal to me. ... My second husband and I used to ride around in his pickup truck. He'd throw his beer cans in the back of the truck, and I'd read him the letters from Penthouse. He used to like that a lot."
For a moment, everyone is quiet, dumbfounded by this gray-haired woman wearing a fuzzy black sweater and too much jewelry. One person's erotica can be another's pornography - and in this cloistered room, no judgments are made. It may be the '90s, but sex doesn't have to be safe here. You don't have to love the one you're with. And you don't have to say you'll call the morning after.
"Foreplay," says Randy Cornish, 25, an Adrian's employee who lives in Fells Point. "I like foreplay. There's a lot of sex that goes on even with your clothes on - walking through the grocery-store stuff. Sometimes that's very cool."
Unlike the feared band of geezers, the group at this April reading looks more like a cross-section of America. Twentysomethings and fiftysomethings. City dwellers and suburbanites. Single, divorced, gay and straight.
Ms. Haines reads first, selecting the opening from "The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty," by Anne Rice (writing under the pseudonym A. N. Roquelaure).
In the topmost bed chamber of the house (the prince) found her. He had stepped over sleeping chambermaids and valets, and, breathing the dust and damp of the place, he finally stood in the door of her sanctuary. ... And approaching her, he gave a soft gasp as he touched her cheek, and her teeth through her parted lips, and then her tender rounded eyelids.
In this fairy tale, much more than a kiss is required to arouse sleeping beauty. As the prince romantically resuscitates her, the room grows quiet, save for a waitress tiptoeing in with dinner trays.
No one eats. They listen and stare at their chicken tostadas.
"I'm your prince," he said, "and that is how you will address me, and that is why you will obey me."
The deed done, they unfold napkins and pick up silverware - their hunger awakened by the consummation.
Kim Collins, a 25-year-old massage practitioner who lives in Catonsville, is next. She adjusts her off-the-shoulder top and steals a glance at her boyfriend, Kevin Griffin, before beginning an excerpt from "Eva Luna," Isabel Allende's fantastical tale of a child's coming of age in a sultry Venezuelan town.
Zulema, avid as a carnivorous flower, fluttered her fragrant petals to lure him to her trap. That lazy and docile woman, who had lived her life lying on a bed with cold cloths pressed to her forehead, was transformed into a stupendous female, a pale spider tirelessly spinning her web. ...
The cousin resisted heroicly for 72 hours. The tension was building to an excruciating level, and I feared the air would explode like lightning, reducing us all to cinders.
Ms. Collins continues, but her soft voice is drowned out by the traffic on Broadway.
She cornered her prey ... BRMMMM ... night of his defeat ... SCREECH ... breasts ... BRMMMM ... bubbling lava ... SCREECH ... disrobed ... BRMMMM ... smothering him with her ...SCREECH.
indow and pauses: "I'll wait for this truck."
For Ms. Burton, who is sitting close by, the din hasn't dulled a thing. She eats voraciously, pulling off chunks of bread from her tostada. She stabs at a lemon slice that has sunk to the bottom of her water glass. Cupping it in her hand, she sucks out the flavor.
Mr. Cornish laughs and claps when Zulema gets her man. He seems anxious to stall the inevitable, but seconds later he clears his throat and reads from a fabric-covered journal. "Death Speaks" is his own creation:
Come to me sweet lover
And let my lips suck the warmth from your flesh.
I can feel your heat, your pain, your fear,
Your screams are like music to me ...
He recites the lines briskly, lessening their emotional wallop.
"You wrote that when you were how old?" someone asks.
"Sixteen," he says, unsure whether to feel embarrassed or proud.
Ms. Burton's turn arrives, and she sits throne-like, high on the steps, to read an explicit "Zen-inspired poem" about a Vietnam veteran and the alleged virgin he meets overseas. She describes the cold sweat of wonder, the cheap hotel rooms and long, blissful nights.
Listeners begin to stifle yawns and close their eyes, their senses dulled by two hours of innuendo. An R-rated nursery rhyme begins to sound like an adulterer's confession, which begins to sound like a menopausal woman's passion. Drift out a moment, and one could return clueless to the story of an enormous naked lady in a swimming pool.
A good hostess, Ms. Haines picks up on the body language. She begins to wrap up the night by making announcements about the May reading, which takes place tomorrow.
"We were thinking for next time of asking if there's an aspect of erotica that doesn't turn you on, if you could try to write about it. It doesn't have to be serious; nothing in here has to be serious," she says.
The nodding tells her that people consider this a worthy pursuit.
Except Ms. Burton.
"But what if we like it all?" she asks.
"Then," says a voice from the crowd, "you should think about sex therapy as a profession."
The next reading of erotic literature takes place at Adrian's Book Cafe, 714 S. Broadway, at 8 p.m. tomorrow. The cost, including dinner, is $17 per person and $30 per couple. Guests may read from a published work or take their own. Call (410) 732-1048 for more information.