Everything conspires against the spoken word.
In front of me, a man reads aloud. As he reads I can feel my pulse as it hits the insides of my teeth, like waves breaking against a seawall; I had a root canal this morning.
I can smell the stranger next to me. I want to describe it. I spend several minutes trying to think of some association I have to his smell, some trait I can identify so I might communicate this experience to others. But I fail. I can smell him; you can’t. I can’t even tell you what he smells like. His right elbow intrudes into the corner of my vision. I see a maroon sweater and the edge of the arm of the seat separating us. I want to turn my head, to see more, but I don’t want to be caught looking. So I keep my head turned towards the speaker, my eyes slyly drifting away.
Words on a page, at least, know they command my vision, even if they can’t control my aches or sweat or the feel of the seat underneath me. On the page, words command my actions, the gesture of my hands as they hold the book, the page, as they turn from one page to another. I can’t move or walk or speak. As I read, the words sneak into my ears, not through the usual channels of waves through the air, pressure on my eardrum; they come in through the back, through the employee door, through my eyes into the space where I understand that words have sound, and I can hear them. The voice is clear and familiar. It is my voice. The act of reading makes the words mine.
In front of me, a man reads aloud. His words filter through the air between us, through the sight I have of him, through the sight he has of me. He is tall, well-built, handsome. When he raises his arm to drink from his water bottle (plastic, disposable), his shirt lifts away from a studded leather belt. Hip, but not ostentatious. I am one of one hundred or so Iowans in a lecture hall; I am in the fourth row at the edge on his right hand side. We are students, faculty members, writers, hopeful writers, writers who have given up or come back, who still struggle, love, abandon, rediscover, break up, and get back together with words on pages, words spoken, words ignored or igniting, words looking hopelessly and self-referentially for an ending to a very long sentence. I am being self-indulgent. I am trying too hard to be clever. I will end this piece and begin another.