He had always been a slow reader, chewing each word carefully until it popped between his teeth and spilled its music across his tongue. This is how he heard the flavor of language, tasted its harmonies and dissonances; how he knew that tongue and ear are reciprocal poles of the same glorious organ.

He knew, too, from a young age that words make the world. Whenever he read, the voice he heard speaking the words had always been his own: whether they formed narration, dialogue (be it spoken by man, woman, child, or pig), or a recipe for tomato soup, he heard each and every one in his own internal voice, his familiar thrum and savor. In this way was the world his own.

At one point in college, he simply ran out of time: five courses, three with heavy reading, and suddenly there were too many words to swallow. Out of ill-perceived necessity, he investigated tips on how to improve one’s reading rate. “Avoid focusing on every word,” he read. “No more subvocalizing—stop saying the words in your head.” More alarming still: “don’t feel you must read every single word.”

The next day he dropped a class, aghast at the alternative.

For over a decade, then, his life continued as always. It was more than a year after he met her when he noticed with a jolt that the voice speaking the words was no longer always his own: at first there was a single line of dialogue in a novel; then poems of a certain cadence and sibilance; and then even articles in the morning paper, all sounding as if she were reading them to him aloud over breakfast. Sometimes she was.

As he grew increasingly lost in her, more and more he heard the words in
her voice instead, a distillation of sandalwood and cello tones. Before too long he knew that the world would never be his own again.

And so he began to read faster, swallowing first without tasting and then without chewing. He taught himself to skim, to skip, to lock in on topic sentences. Where words once lived and laughed, now only grim passport photos of words remained. He subsisted on a diet of meaning without texture; sound and flavor ceased to exist, and his world became a bowl of quiet dust, of gist.

It worked: soon she was gone from his head, and then from his life. Because he was gone, too, once every word he bit into was made of wax.

(first appeared in volume 1 of Constellations)