Reading Aloud

Reading3018
Photo by Mona Cao.

On Mondays and Wednesdays at 4:30 p.m., Anna takes off her clothes and reads to Sam. Reads him cable box directions and instant soup instructions, unpaid bills and pages from his textbooks. Each week she peels off her garments one by one, arranging them beside her chair with practiced stealth. Usually, Sam makes an exotic tea and they relish in descriptions from their mutual senses; it smells like cinnamon berries, it tastes like honey smoke, it feels warmer today. Both can hear its soft percolation, but only Anna can see its cloudy mauve whirlpool. Only Anna can see her wilting breasts and her varicose veins. So she looks at him and he looks at nothing. And they let the words lift off the pages of the manuals and brochures and cereal box backs and float fully formed from the sixty something naked woman to the twenty something blind man.

Her doctor suggested it. The reading, not her wardrobe choice. Said something about the benefits of purpose or the advantages of routine. Anna was sick and she knew it. Ever since her husband un-retired, she’d had an ache in her left knee joint and she sometimes felt nauseous. For four days last April, she was convinced unquestionably of her pulmonary tuberculosis; for three days in June of her endometrial cancer. She’d taken to leaving an old copy of The Diagnostic Almanac on her bedside table — flipping ardently through its pages. Naturally, she’d verify each hypothesis with recurrent appointments. Anna liked her doctor and his magazines, lemon drops, and pristine coats. Liked him enough to forgive his misidentification of her symptoms as “psychologically derivative.” Liked him enough to agree to volunteer at the city library’s Visually Impaired Assistance Program for “purpose and routine.”

__

On a Monday at 4:28 p.m., Anna knocked on Sam’s apartment door. It was the same knock she knocked every week for twelve weeks — like she knew he knew she was already there. Her knee hurt and the building elevator was under renovation, so the two flights of stairs added a glisten to her forehead and a rhythm to her breathing. She hated herself for it. Back when her back could bend and her toes could point, Anna could do Black Swan’s 32 fouettés en tournant without moistening her leotard — spinning and tucking on a single slipper. Aging is harder for beautiful people, and Anna was beautiful. The was haunted her from mirror to mirror in her Westchester high-rise. People used to stare at her, envy her, pay seven dollars to watch her grand jeté at the Metropolitan Opera House. But not Sam. Sam never watched her do anything. So twice a week, Anna didn’t watch herself. His place had no mirrors and even his fogged eyes were unreflective. So when he opened his door, she focused on his face.

“Hi Anna,” said Sam.

“Hi Sam,” said Anna. He reached forward, placing a hand on her elbow in his standard gesture of greeting. “Your knee doing okay?”

“Well, not really,” she stepped forward, swinging the door shut behind her. “They just don’t know about these things these days. Might be pulmonary tuberculosis. They just don’t know.” She shook her head. “There’s a large brace on it right now, actually.”

There wasn’t a large brace on it, actually, but Anna liked the way it sounded. She also liked Sam.

Sam wasn’t always blind; he’d managed a whole two years before the fog came. His visual memory puzzled him, tricked him, disillusioned him. Trapped him with a visual arsenal of table bottoms and grownups’ feet, forever restricting him from the bipedal perspective. He was a masters student in a divinity school just outside the city and at night, in the black, he moved about his apartment, tracing his fingers across the thousands of tiny dots of Jacob and Isaiah, Luke, and Matthew. Fingering the psalms and stroking the Gospels. Religious Studies he would clarify to friends and uncles and the women like Anna who read to him. “I study God, not worship Him.”

Sam’s apartment lived an immaculate life. Clutter was more than an inconvenience — it was a hazard. Anna walked by the Bibles and Torahs and Korans convened with books on Indian cooking and music theory in alphabetized rows of Ikea shelving. He’d built them himself. Felt every screw and every piece of artificial wood, sliding them together as Anna read him the instructions during one of her first visits. Everything had a location. Every utensil had its hook and every coat had its hanger. Tiny blue dotted labels speckled the apartment like some kind of laboratory. The microwave buttons, the light switches, the drawers, and the cans; all had their names displayed in bright Braille blue. A Malaysian tapestry hung above the sofa and an Andy Warhol print hung opposite the door. “For company,” he shrugged when Anna asked. “My mother’s idea.”

“Well, sit down, sit down!” He gestured to the exact spot of her usual armchair, turned forty-five degrees to the left and took six paces before stopping in front of the counter. “I’ve got a lot for you today.”

“I think I can handle it,” she said.

“Anna, Anna,” he mocked distress. “What would I possibly do without you?”

“You know perfectly well they’d just send someone else by.”

Sam smiled as he placed his pile on the table.

“I’m teasing you,” he said. “You know I love teasing you. Come on, sit down. I don’t want that knee of yours giving way. What was it? Pulmonary tuberculosis? Let’s not play around with pulmonary tuberculosis.”

Anna could see Sam’s grin, but she blushed anyway. She sat down and studied him. The way his skin held taut around his forearms, the way his pants creased in as he walked, the way his hands pulled and pushed and shifted and organized, steadily, confidently, free from a seer’s incessant second glances or double checks. He was young, and his hair was thick, and his body still strong. Anna thought he had a dancer’s body and imagined his hands on her waist, lifting her up above his head before placing her down as he jumped. She imagined his fingers tracing her fingers in backstage shadows, the pulse of the crowd turning air to endorphin. When high off the heat of their bowing bodies, all she could hear was the rhythm of their breath. The same breath she felt quicken when she sat in this armchair; when she slipped off her shoes and sat down to read.

“Alright then,” Sam handed her the pile of mail and bills and misplaced receipts. “Let’s start with the boring stuff.” He sat down at his computer, ready to translate her voice into his language of dots.

She read him an advertisement for car insurance and unbuttoned her sweater.

She read him a credit card receipt and rolled down her stockings.

Sam sat at his desk, blind. Sat typing and sipping and small talking between his chorus of Toss it. Toss it. Keep it. What? Toss it. What? Repeat that. Don’t throw that out! Anna knew she wasn’t the strongest reader; she’d spent her childhood staring at mirror boxes not pages of books. But he never corrected her. Never smiled into his keyboard when she struggled with entrepreneur, bureaucracy, Jesuit, psalms. Not like Martin. Martin would have said something, would have laughed. Laughed at his wife, who — “Oh, did I mention, used to dance at the Met.” Excusing her dinner party mispronunciation of bon appétit to platefuls of partners at the firm’s annual dinner. She’d said it again once they’d served the dessert, deviously looking him in the eye and smiling her victorious smile: “Bone appetite, everyone! Bone appetite!”

But that was before Martin retired. When he left work to stay home and question the amount of mayonnaise in the tuna salad and why she let that damn Chinese family overcharge her for the dry cleaning. Before he reconsidered and, at seventy-one, went back to the firm. When she realized that she’d liked when he complained about the mayonnaise and didn’t really mind that he was home for lunch.

One morning, Martin made Anna scrambled eggs before she woke up. She didn’t say anything when they tasted oddly sweet, but once she found the empty cream carton in the trash, they nearly cramped up laughing. The next weekend, Martin had taken her golfing for the first time. And later that summer to the city for a show. But he must have missed his keyboard and his meetings and his legal briefings because the following fall he went back to his office, his job, his early mornings, and late dinners. Anna’s career had peaked in her twenties, deteriorating with her body, not expanding with her mind. She retired at 28 and worked in a studio for a while, but eventually settled into her house and her hobbies. His decision puzzled her. And sooner or later her knee started hurting and her nausea began and she got the Diagnostic Almanac and Dr. Limestone prescribed her “purpose and routine.”

Sometimes, in the shower, or in the car, or loading the dishwasher, Anna would wonder what would have happened if she had offered to read to Martin. Offered her eyes to cable box directions and instant soup instructions, unpaid bills and pages from his law books. I’ll be your glasses, she would have said. That doesn’t say milk, it says cream.

__

On Wednesday at 4:22 p.m., Anna knocked on Sam’s apartment door.

“Hi Anna,” said Sam.

“Hi Sam,” said Anna. He placed his hand on her elbow.

“Your knee doing okay?”

“Not really, Sam. They think it might be a sign of hemolytic anemia.”

“That’s terrible, Anna. Come on, sit down, sit down.”

She sat.

“I’m just tired. I’m tired all the time. I wake up, and I’m tired, I go to sleep and I’m tired.” She looked at him; he looked slightly to the left of her.

“You know I love having you here, but there are other volunteers in the program and if you’re too—”

“No, please,” she interrupted. “Really, I’m fine.” Anna brushed past Sam and settled on the sofa. “Did I ever tell you I could do Black Swan’s 32 fouettés en tournant without breaking a sweat?”

Sam smiled.

“I’ll put on some tea.” The kettle needed washing and Anna was wearing a dress, so by the time he sat down at his desk, her clothes were already piled neatly beneath the armchair.

He looked at her. She loved when he looked at her. Loved imagining Martin imagining him looking at her. As he sat at his firm’s desk, too good to retire, staring at a case as his wife parted her bare legs in the apartment of a younger man.

Anna hadn’t made love since Martin un-retired. Or for that matter since her knee started hurting and the nausea began. But her pulse would quicken like it did in her twenties. Sometimes, when she’d finished a sentence, or a letter, she’d pause for a minute, letting Sam’s clicking fingers catch up and close her eyes. Sam couldn’t see the way her breasts hung down in pockets of thinning skin. Or the way her pubic hairs had begun to thin near the bottom. So she imagined that they didn’t and they hadn’t. Anna just sipped her tea and let the years fall off her with her clothes. She was 25. Her skin was taught and her hair strawberry yellow. Her joints were smooth and her voice was crisp.

That morning in her closet Anna sorted through options. Straps were preferable. Cottons and silks were quieter, skirts and dresses easier to remove. Buttons were practically essential. Her knuckles struggled with detail, mandating a patient delicacy in sliding the tiny polished plastic through their knitted holders. She started with a hand on her neck, lingering on the divot above her collarbone before sliding her fingertips under the strap and letting it fall off her shoulder like a leotard. Sentence by sentence, she fingered the circles, tossing them aside with the periods, semi-colons and dots from the “I”s. Sometimes though, the anticipation was too much. Sometimes Sam would turn towards her at the right moment and her lips would part, and her back would hurt, and she’d lose her place on the page — looking back at Sam like she’d looked at Brian from Conservatory or Lev from her summer in Moscow or Martin before he’d taken the Bar. It was these times that she ached to rip off her straps and to let her buttons crack off like tiny moons.

__

“I miss dreaming forwards,” Anna said.

“What?”

“I dream backwards now. You won’t believe how backwards you’ll dream someday.” She cupped one of her breasts in her hand, sliding it up her body and closer to her neck.

“I didn’t think dreams had directions.” His broken eyes managed a smile.

“You’re teasing me.”

“Anna, I would never tease you,” he teased. She liked the way he said her name. It rolled it off his tongue to say I’m talking to you, to say I’m listening to you.

“I dream of the past, of things that could have happened, or should have happened or never happened. You dream of the future. You’re so young Sam. You don’t realize it now, but you’re so young.”

“I dream in sounds and tastes and textures,” he said.

She paused for a moment, studying his half lidded eyes.

“Future sounds.” She reopened the book. “Future tastes and textures.”

__

Sam wasn’t lonely. Not completely. His mother came up from Jersey every few weeks, and some of his college friends still lived in the city. They’d warned him about enrolling in a “normie” program. His college had been filled with dark classrooms and Braille keyboards, audio books and hallway railings. A college where students left their red-stripped canes at the bottom of the staircase, feeling forearms and cupping faces. Pressing together to the vibrations of the speakers, dancing and slipping back to unmade beds based on the smell of one’s hair or the curve of their wrist or the way their breath tasted. From time to time, Sam would sit awake in his living room, drink a Bordeaux and blast these half forgotten rap songs. He couldn’t stand to have a roommate, to subject some Westchester graduate student to the role of perpetual babysitter. After all, he already had nannies. Women who came and read to him like he was some charity case. But Anna was different. She never asked about his classes or his family or what it was like to be blind. It wasn’t about him. She just sat down and read. Read until her voice got dry or her eyes got tired and they would merely sit in silence for a while. She understood silence the way he understood darkness — running from neither as the sun set and the words ran out.

__

Sam stayed on his side of the room. He always did. After three weeks, Anna realized his pattern, and with it how easy it was to take off her scarf without notice. How easy it was to do the same with her sweater. Her blouse. Her beige cotton underwear. Three months later the routine had evolved. At around 6:30 p.m. she’d excuse herself to the bathroom, bunch up her pile and emerge fully clothed and fully satisfied. Even as she sat in her kitchen, Martin-less. More satisfied that she was Martin-less. Itching as she ate her dinner to ask how his arthritis was, how his hemorrhoids were doing, and how very exciting his day was.

One night, as she waited, Anna fantasized about choking to death. Martin would come home from work and find her dead on the kitchen floor, a giant slab of steak still warm in a puddle of watery blood, a single fatal bite missing from its side. Her funeral would probably have a slideshow of pictures back from the Opera House, perhaps her nephew would read one of his poems. Beef would be banned from all hors d’oeuvres. Didn’t you hear, people would whisper, that’s how she died. I just can’t imagine, they’d sob, died in her own kitchen. Anna wondered whether an article would run in the Times, or if she’d just get one of those one-liners in the Westchester Daily. Alone, in the evenings, when Martin was at the office and her daughter was living in London and her Portuguese cleaning lady was gone and her Chinese dry cleaner was gone and Sam was somewhere dark, Anna thought about such things. Thought and thought until she felt the satiable company of the guilt she’d inspire and the soothing comfort that surely she’d be missed. But then she’d think more. Think and think until she started cutting her steak into smaller and smaller pieces, over-chewing each bite before she tentatively swallowed.

__

Anna read Sam a wedding invitation and peeled off her socks.

Anna read Sam a chapter from The Dao of Pooh and unclasped her bra.

The heating vent chocked.

The tea percolated.

The clock hit 6:30, and Anna went to the bathroom.

__

And so it went. Twice a week, every week, for twelve weeks. Anna bought a book on Malaysian culture and another on Indian cooking and another on the faith of Dao. Martin came home, tired, old, proud. And Anna told him about the drycleaner and the tuna salad and the similarities between Judeo-Christian monotheism and the singularity of Allah. But Anna was still sick, and she knew it. She told Martin, but he told her she was just bored. That she should just find more things to do with her day. That her knee was fine and the nausea was normal.

That night, she went to bed earlier than early and forgot to leave a towel for his bath or some water for his pills, lying propped up in bed beside her Almanac. She purposefully climbed in on Martin’s side of the bed, pretending to be asleep for a whole thirty minutes before she heard him sigh, walk around the bed and lower his weight inside the cold half of the sheets. Anna pressed her face into her pillow and scrunched up her features. But Martin was snoring before he could feel the blankets shaking slightly up and down.

__

On Tuesday at 7:53 p.m., Anna was fantasizing about choking to death when her phone rang. No one called at this hour. Martin wasn’t home yet so she hoped it wasn’t someone trying to sell her something; somehow she could never figure out how to hang up on those people. She let it ring a few times just in case it was Martin dialing in his delay — she never answered right away, never wanted to seem like she was waiting.

She picked up. It was the annoying women who sat at the front desk of Martin’s firm. Occasionally, she’d call to say he’d be running late — that there was some meeting or that his car wouldn’t start. Anna hated when she called. She had bad taste in Christmas cards and had let herself get fat.

“Anna, hi, is that you?” She paused. Her voice sounded funny.

“Yes it is. Is Martin running late?”

She didn’t answer.

“Hello? Sorry can you hear me?” Anna hated the new phones Martin had installed last summer — she never knew quite where she should be talking into.

“Yes, yes, I can. Anna…” she paused again. “They told me I should call you…better than the police or something. I, I really don’t know how to say this. Anna — Martin had a heart attack.”

Anna swallowed.

“Where is he? Which hospital? Last time they took him to Pembrook and he had to stay the night. Is he on that machine yet? Let me…” But the woman interrupted her.

“Anna, I don’t think you understand. It’s not like that this time. He pressed the buzzer and we called 911, but when we got back in there he was…they tried…Anna, I, I’m so sorry. I don’t know what to say.”

Anna was silent.

“Oh…dear…I, is anyone else home?”

“No.”

“Anna…they did everything, really.”

Silence hung between them for a good ten seconds.

“You have a car, I presume, um, can you get to the hospital?” Anna could feel her throat tightening as the phone began to shake against her face.

“I…” Anna swallowed. “I’m not supposed to drive into the city at night.” She couldn’t think, couldn’t breath.

“Alright, um,” she heard muffled voices in the background. “We’re sending someone. Sit tight Anna, I…I’m so sorry.”

Anna hung up the phone and stared at her watery steak. Surely there was some mistake. The desk lady was crazy anyway. Martin would drive home in an hour or two, tired, hungry, and homesick. And Anna would make him eggs and lie next to him in bed and read him his papers or his letters or some entries from her almanac. And he would roll over to her side of the bed, and stay there forever. Agree to retire for good this time. And then they’d play golf, and cook, and see a show in the city, and she’d read him the scorecard and recipes and the playbill.

Anna pushed her plate away, looking down then up then ahead — her features scrunched and paralyzed in silence. She lifted up her hands, clenching them slowly together. She stood up, walked into the living room and then walked back to the kitchen. Martin wasn’t dead. He wouldn’t just die like that. People don’t just die like that. She pulled her steak in front of her, swallowing hunks whole, forcing down bites too large for her esophagus. Swallowed and swallowed and swallowed until it was gone. Until she hadn’t choked. Until she couldn’t swallow her throat’s other lump and let her wrinkled face sink to her hands.

Anna walked over to the phone, dialed Sam’s number and hung up.

__

On Wednesday at 4:42 p.m., Anna knocked on Sam’s apartment door.

“Hi Anna,” said Sam.

Anna looked at him.

“How does your knee feel today?”

“Yes,” she said. “Yes, it is.”

Anna went inside and sat down.

Sam tilted his head slightly and chuckled.

“No tuberculosis or anemia or endometrial cancer?”

“No,” she said. “No there isn’t.”

Sam put on some tea and handed her his pile.

“I’ve got a lot for you today. Two of those Saint Augustine chapters, and I want you to look at this pile of coupons.”

She read him an advertisement for car insurance.

She read him a sheet of coupons for Walgreens.

She read him a page of Saint Augustine’s philosophy.

Sam’s clicking stopped. He looked towards her, as if listening for something, or smelling for something or tasting for something or feeling for something.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

Sam stood up from his desk, went into the kitchen briefly and walked over to her side of the room. Sam never left his side of the room.

“I found this on the chair last week and I presume it’s yours.” Sam leaned against her chair, handing her a thin beige cardigan. Anna took it from him, careful to avoid meeting his skin.

“Thank you, Sam. I must have left it here on Wednesday.”

Sam wasn’t certain if he was looking directly at Anna’s eyes. He was never certain with her. He could only guess, wonder, speculate until he told himself he was being silly, being egocentric, being sick.

“Anna,” he repeated, reaching out slowly, hesitantly, before placing a hand on her shoulder — exhaling into relaxation as he felt the smooth linen fabric beneath his fingers. “You sure you’re okay?”

Anna nodded, knowing he could somehow sense the motion of her head. Then picked up the book, dislodging his hand.

“I’m fine, Sam. Really.”

She listened to the sound of the tea percolating and thought about their mutual senses; it smells like cinnamon berries, it tastes like honey smoke, it feels warmer today. “Did I ever tell you I could do Black Swan’s 32 fouettés en tournant?”

“No,” Sam went back over to his desk and resumed his clicking. “You’ve never told me that, Anna. That’s impressive.”

Then Anna read to Sam. Read to him as he turned her words into a language of spots. A language that she now knew he could read in the steam and in the tea and in the books and in his body. In the painting and the shelves and the music and the air.

Anna brought her mug to the sink before excusing herself to the bathroom. She didn’t let him hear her turn the wrong way —­­­ but she knew when she clicked shut the front door that he’d know she’d never be back. Knew because her sagging breasts and varicose veins were covered in cotton. Knew because he could hear her tears spot his book like Braille.

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