Friday, June 09, 2006

A stray strand

He reads alone. Strictly alone. Just having another person in the room when he's reading makes him anxious. It doesn't matter how quiet the other person is, or how careful, there is always some slight sound, some whisper of presence that serves to distract him. No, it's more than that, it's the consciousness of the other, the possibility of being disturbed that he or she represents, that troubles him. The other person doesn't even have to be in the same room for this, even the thought that he or she could walk in through the door is enough. That is why he has taken to locking himself in his room and switching off the telephone every time he wants to read. There is still the chance that someone will knock, of course, but over time he has let people know how much this displeases him, so that now they stay away.

Safe in this cocoon of his own creation, he is able to give himself entirely to the book. Able to sink into it completely, lose himself in the alternate universe it has to offer, emerging, when the book is finished, into a strange disorientation, like the moment when you wake and cannot imagine where you are. This is why he needs the privacy. This is what the presence of another, anchoring him perforce to the real world, will not let him do.

He is constantly puzzled by how other people manage to read in company. He watches movies on the TV and there are all these couples sitting up in bed, reading in blissful companionship. He cannot understand that. How could you possibly sink into a book with someone else lying just inches away from you? Imagine being that vulnerable, that exposed. Nor has he ever been able to figure out the logic behind public 'reading rooms'. As if anyone could read in a room full of strangers. "It's like being naked", he tells people when they make fun of him. "You wouldn't just take of all your clothes in front of other people, would you? You'd want to go somewhere private. Well, reading a book is just as intimate, don't you see". This only makes them laugh all the more.

Such mockery only strengthens his need for withdrawal. Reading is a sacred, a magical act, and must be undertaken only when one is by oneself. He is convinced of this.

And yet, once, long ago...

A lazy Sunday afternoon in June. The hum of the airconditioning. The sunlight filtering in through the window blinds, softened, harmless.

They are sitting side by side on his bed, reading Samson Agonistes. She is leaning forward a little, holding the book in her hands. He has thrown himself back against the bedhead, and looks down over her shoulder to the page. From the other room the sound of her boyfriend snoring reaches them, like the gurgling of some distant sea.

He reads a little faster than her. Not much, otherwise the discrepancies in their speeds would have made this joint reading impossible. But fast enough so that there is a pause of a few seconds between the time he gets to the last line of the page and the time she reaches over to turn it. She is only two or three lines behind him.

Here it is again, that instant. Trying to hold on to the momentum of the poem, he reads the last line a second time, then, half-repeating the words to himself, glances at her out of the corner of his eye. She is wearing a white kurta, and tiny platinum earrings. From behind her ear, a stray tendril of hair has fallen loose and is lying along her neck, tracing its long, delicate curve. Seeing these details magnified this way, he is suddenly aware of how close together they are sitting. He is about to pursue this thought further when she turns to him, her eyes still glazed from the poem, lost, seeking confirmation in his. Quickly, a little guiltily, he nods. She turns the page. His attention is back on the poem now. What was that last line again? Dammit! he has forgotten. A new vista of words opens itself up before him. Milton's glorious cadences. He loses himself in them utterly, forgetting the person sitting next to him, forgetting the shadow of the thought that was just about to cross his mind....

Forgetting.

Come to think of it, it's been years since he read Samson Agonistes. He hunts for it in his bookshelf but cannot find it. He could have sworn he had a copy.

She would have one. The one they were reading that day was hers, after all. He wonders if he should call her. But then he'll have to go over to pick up the book. There'll be the kids. There'll be the stilted conversation with her husband, who's never managed to get over his suspicions, entirely unfounded though they are. He doesn't feel up to it. He figures he'll skip over to the library when it opens tomorrow morning and get a copy.

Meanwhile he has plenty of other stuff to read. Stuff he's never read before. How did he go off on this tangent anyway? He checks to make sure the door is locked, then picks up his book from the floor and goes back to reading.

Five minutes later, somewhere in the house a phone rings. But he is engrossed in his reading and does not hear it.


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19 comments:

dazedandconfused said...

Maybe its her call?

Anonymous said...

hm..
Is it?
Fiction?
??

~N.

Prakriti said...

visiting after a long time..sometimes I think when I read what you write in the non current affairs category really intices me.

scout said...

I loved it; someone rec'd you and I really must thank them - this is awesome :D

mk said...

Interesting..Your stories are (too?) cerebral. Your average guy would find it difficult to identify with the characters..

"Its like being naked". Uh, perhaps its more like having sex or a better analogy still, masturbation? For me, its that intimate engagement with the book, the accompanying sighs and titters and gasps and tears and general squirming around that might be too private to be done with people around.(actually no, but then I'm slightly exhibitionistic literally, so the analogy still holds..)And more than reading, its music that I cannot "do" with people around.
And I think her husband's suspicions are entirely founded. Cannot imagine ANYTHING more intimate than riding the up-down, in-out of those rhythmic cadences together. My 25 year old gay friend is having a rip-roaring affair with his 47 year old female lit. proff!(they do an awful lot of poetry together) Ofcourse he denies it.

Anonymous said...

Real Good one.. Though for me, if a book is good enough and is my kind, the world around me becomes one big blur and soon fades into oblivion.. Have even missed my station, when on a train because of a book.
But ur posts always have the lost in romanticism touch...Lonliness and longing splattered everywhere. Wonder why.

nevermind said...

came here through N, our shared commenter. hi N!

for god's sake, call the woman.

Falstaff said...

d&c: More likely it's a wrong number

N: Ah, now that would be telling. Certainly I have read Samson Agonistes. Certainly I do like reading alone. The rest, well, let's just leave that open shall we.

prakriti: Yes, this one is definitely an affair that's not current. :-).

scout: Welcome. And Thanks.

mk: Hmmm. Agree with you on the doing poetry together bit - part of the thought process behind the post is that I can think of few things (if any) more intimate than reading a book with someone. That kind of connection is so rare and such a big deal. I'm always amused by the fact that our definitions of infidelity include only sex, which, frankly, can be so peripheral. Your 25 year old friend is just in denial.

anon: "Loneliness and longing spattered everywhere. I wonder why". Yes, I've wondered about that myself. I'd like to think it's because I have such a tortured life, but mostly it's just because it's so much easier to write about loneliness than it is to write about companionship and happiness.

nevermind: Welcome. And okay, I will. Just as soon as I get to the end of this one chapter...

meditativerose said...

Fiction my foot!!!

confused said...

@Falsatff,

With due respects, I think the husband's suspicions are completely logical.

Knowing you only through your blog, I can safely say, you letting a girl read with you is perhaps the most intimate thing you can do.

Sex is kind of immaterial after that.

and like MR, fiction my foot!

The Man Who Wasnt There said...

ah vintage stuff Falstaff..:) Forgive me for trespassing but couldnt help visualise as I read along...

Anonymous said...

i wouldnt buy that explanantion falstaff.. happiness is as easy to express as meloncholy. Try it for a change..
Couldnt help noticing, how many "would-have-been" relationships have you had?? Time for some serious introspection, maybe..

The ramblings of a shoe fiend said...

My husband is always trying to make me read while he watches TV and I just can't. When he's suitably lost in the match, news or whatever it is he's watching I quietly slip away. There's nothing quite like reading alone is there? That said, I manage to get a great amount of reading done on my daily commute. Go figure :) Lovely post as always. I must come up with some new words.

Paradise, Lost said...

I like:)There's nothing as intimate as sharing poetry, though sharing stunning music(Mitchell?Ella?Mozart?) on the same pair of headphones can come close sometimes...

The ramblings of a shoe fiend said...

oh! and thanks so much for the link on DP. Am grinning like an idiot

aquamarine said...

The act of reading by its very nature is one of intimacy. YOu are making love all the time. People or the lack of it is immaterial.

aquamarine said...

And memory leaves a dim painfully enjoyable fragrance in the air.

Falstaff said...

MR: huh? what do you know about it?

confused: true. though I wouldn't go as far as to say that sex is immaterial.

girish: thanks

anonymous: errrm..this stuff is fiction, you know. No matter what MR or others say. So it's how many 'might have been' relationships I've written about, not necessarily had.

shoe-fiend: Yes, reading alone is great. I think the deal with reading in public is that there's actually fairly little risk of anyone interrupting you. Reading with someone you know around means that you have to be prepared to be spoken to.

Oh, and you're welcome.

paradise lost: Ah, yes. And that would be Schubert by the way.

aquam: true, true. This would make reading with someone else a threesome, no?

I would agree more vehemently, but what with confused and his sex being immaterial and you with making love to books, I feel like I'm being condemned to lifelong celibacy

Chinmayi said...

It's beautiful...