Our Reading Lives

How Reading Out Loud Almost Saved My Marriage

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Syreeta Barlow

Staff Writer

Syreeta Barlow is a word lover from Atlanta who hordes magazines, edits her text messages, and wants to use her reading (and writing) powers for good. Follow her on Twitter @syreetasmiles.

For two years, I lived on a truck. Not a truck of the Ford or GMC variety, but a hulking 18-wheeler that my then-husband drove. Like a fractured fairytale, I was rescued from my boring college town by a knight on a 500-horsepower tractor-trailer, and I married him after six months of dating. Living on a truck afforded me a dream that only few will ever experience – copious amounts of uninterrupted reading time.

There was no distracting television or people interrupting with questions, or jobs that I could get fired from for taking a couple of glances while angry customers waited in line. And my reading time wasn’t just spent on my own interests. My husband, having been diagnosed with dyslexia while in the third grade, loved to read, but hated how long it took him to finish a book. So, before I climbed aboard, he decided to invest a small fortune into audiobooks. “Pshaw,” I declared, “I can read out loud to you.”  And that I did.

The first book I read aloud to him was Pearl Cleage’s What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day which I hadn’t yet read to myself. If reading out loud was a special talent, then I surely should have won a prize. My voice naturally deepened when speaking as a male character, I paused and lulled at just the right moments. There was a rhythm in the language, and I caught onto the phrases, the meanings, the innuendos behind every sentence.

During a particularly emotional scene, I read through tears, holding the book awkwardly in front of my face to keep the pages dry. My husband grabbed my hand and held it as we traversed the open highway. When I finally sat back, drained from the entire scene, I squeezed his hand and glanced at him, only to see the same emotions that I had just felt painted across his face. When characters did something we didn’t like, we’d yell and scream at them as if they could hear us. Reading books aloud became our favorite spectator sport. We rooted and cheered for the home team, booed when they disappointed us.

Once, after I angrily hurled a book across the dashboard and declared that I would never finish reading it because I couldn’t stand the direction it was taking, my husband soothingly begged me to continue the story, feeling that we couldn’t turn back now, as we had gotten so far in the series and invested so much in the characters.

Coincidentally, this is how our marriage would turn out.

Our favorite pastime was scavenging bookstores together. We eventually would take lawn bags filled with books to a storage area, to swap out as needed. Together we discovered Walter Mosley, L.A. Banks, and that we both liked paranormal romance. We laughed whenever we came across a word we didn’t know and I pulled out our little Webster’s, as if we were grade school students. His need for me to read aloud began to border on demanding as I would read through laryngitis, illness, and just plain not caring about the book anymore, to make him happy.

As the cracks in our marriage began to widen, only our reading time seemed to be the salve to heal our wounds. It was our own world, filled with characters whom we both loved and deplored. We could have just had a nasty argument, but if I was in the middle of a book, he’d silently hand it to me and I’d sit down and begin the new chapter. I started reading my own pain onto the characters. Sometimes I’d stop reading to sob. He’d patiently wait, try to calm me down, and then ask me to please finish the section. At other times, his anger towards the characters were a reflection of his own fears about us. I knew that our marriage was ending, but we were bound by our love for words.

We got a television. And a DVD player. I started retiring to the back to read in silence. He would listen to his audiobooks up front. Every so often, we’d pass a bookstore and fall back into a semblance of what was. I’d emerge like a hermit, bleary-eyed and giddy. We would rush through the aisles, hunting for our favorites.  I always promised to read to him again, but I never really kept that promise. We eventually began picking out our own books and magazines, with our backs to each other. Our bookstore trips became solo efforts, no longer joint ventures. And then our lives followed suit.

My ex-husband and I now amicably share joint custody of Amy Tan, J. California Cooper, and Alice Walker.  In fact, we both agree that living on the truck was the most freeing and enjoyable experience of our lives.  We reminisce fondly about our reading time, and catch each other up on the latest from our favorite authors.  Sometimes, we’ll call each other to say that we just finished a particular book that we had intended to read when we were together.  It’s never quite the same, though.  Reading out loud to someone who has the same visceral reaction as you, is a very intimate act.  It’s something that I hope to experience again in a future relationship.  But for now, I’ll always have fond memories of reading to my knight in shining semi.


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