The Boy at the Reading
He’s here now too, sitting in the back of the audience with his one leg crossed over the other and his head tilted downwards to read something in his lap. I notice him mid-sentence, mid-line; my vision and my attention snag on his thorn-bush beard and his carelessly popped collar. My first thought is: I’m imagining it. It’s a projection of my pre-reading nervousness, my anxiety familiarizing, flowing into the vacancies of an unfamiliar face.
But it’s not.
(I make eye contact with the professor whose class I spoke with earlier, who is the reason I stand at this podium; he beams a comforting smile. I read, and when I reach a section I’m particularly comfortable with, I direct my gaze to the seats sequestered in a darkened pocket above the others and deliver the line, with practiced cadance and perfect poetic emphasis, to a boy who leans over to the girl next to him and whispers something. My voice echoes in the near-empty auditorium, the words I’ve already spoken still strong and unphased by how he cups his hand to her ear as she leans attentively inwards. I can’t be sure, but I think I manage to keep from faltering noticeably, even when they split, covering their mouths with cupped palms and crooked elbows and eventually burying their faces in their laps. I do not betray that I hear their unsuccessfully suppressed barks of laughter. I think, in fact, I don’t even miss a beat when I look up again and see the whole lot, four, maybe even five students, clustered in the topmost seats, faces red and mouths gaping like fish in air. There are those people sometimes who disturb the reading atmosphere giggling at texts, snickering at whispered comments and facebook posts, but something about this, I can tell they’re laughing at me. At my poem. At the section about the swan on the water. After the reading, after the question and answer section, I don’t notice any of them leaving, but I also don’t see them in the audience. Some of the faculty come up to thank me for the reading. One of them, a woman carrying a young child and several books I haven’t written, tells me it was an honor. Some students have lined up in the aisle, wanting to meet me. I try to see past them. I sign three books, absently; I drift to the back of the auditorium, to the door, outside; it’s cold, and there are no leaves on the trees, so I can see very far, through the mountains and to the highway, but I don’t see the boy anywhere.)
He doesn’t notice that I notice him, but for a period of time I can’t be certain of but which can’t be more than a few seconds, I gaze at him in intimate suspension, like falling in love across a crowded dance floor. He tilts his head upwards and directs his vision toward the front of the room, towards me. His brow furrows and his eyes cloud with indecision. I try to keep going; it’s only as I near the end of the poem that I realize I’ve skipped a line, no – a whole stanza!