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."