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....
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.