I see you the first time from across the conference hall, as I am waiting for the presentation to begin. You are sitting on a table talking, looking down at a man with curly black hair. You run your fingers through the blonde hair that frames your perfect face. You laugh, too loudly, and say something about football. My mind has already formed a sum, and it whispers in a cold voice: Stupid, slow, half-wit, spoiled brat, unworthy to share the room with me, I who have read the Greeks. I concur and wrap you in contempt.
I make you a symbol of my greatness before returning to my book. It is too loud in the auditorium to actually read it, but I stare at the pages and hope someone will notice that I am reading Milton. I force myself to believe that I am not reading the book just so someone will see me reading Milton. I feel a flush of self-esteem for my purism. Then a man notices and I feel an elation which I do not permit myself to know the cause of. I realise that he may come over and ask how I like it. For an unnamed reason, I begin mentally rehearsing things like "yes, I just love Milton's use of metaphor when he describes the gates of Hades." He does not approach, and I feel a causeless relief.
The presentation begins twenty minutes later. I sit in the front and pretend to concentrate. The formula: eyes fixed, brow furrowed, mouth squeezed into a thin line, hand on chin. I force myself to believe that I am not pretending to concentrate, feel a warm glow, and laud myself for my self control. Then my mind wanders. I realise I don't remember a thing from Milton except the number of the page I am on. Something terrible broaches the surface of my consciousness - I'm not reading that book! I haven't really read for years! I just move my eyes impotently over dry pages and flip them when the whim strikes!... - and I manage to force it back down before it can show me too much of myself.
The room is suddenly silent, and I return to reality. It is the question and answer period. You are standing confidently at the microphone. You speak. Your voice is clear and you are more articulate than I expected. I do not remember the presentation, so your question does not make sense to me. Someone in the audience lets out a low whistle when you finish, and a few people laugh quietly. The speaker chuckles and his brow furrows a little before he makes a reply that even I can see is not adequate. I decide that you might be worthy of my company after all, and think that, if we met, I might give you the privilege of conversation. It would be a little one-sided, but I am willing to make sacrifices. It might even be fun to seduce you with my superior erudition. I imagine myself quoting Milton to you and stop when I cannot remember any verses to quote. Well, I could at least say that I am reading Milton's... what was the title? I manage to forget the whole line of thought, and run through a mental list of authors I have read.
Three more people ask questions, which I ignore. A final word by the speaker, and the conference dissolves. People start to funnel out of the room. I feel proud of myself for having read Milton and focused so well on the presentation. I am carrying the book out the door, title pointedly facing the crowd.
"Oh, cool, Paradise Lost!" I had not seen you approach. You are looking at the book.
I glance down at the cover. "Erm... yes. Yes, it is." I tell myself that you will interpret me as condescending rather than stupid.
"Which part are you on?"
"I'm on the section... about... the gates. The section about the gates."
"You mean this section?" And, impossibly, you begin reciting lines, pages, chapters of Paradise Lost. You speak fluently and dramatically, and - I check the text when you close your eyes for the passionate lines - your memory is perfect. Soon your words blend together, and there is only the sound of your voice and an image in my mind: rows of marble columns, crumbling. Fifteen minutes later, I interrupt you politely to explain that I have an appointment to go to. I drive home. I collapse into my brown leather recliner. As I watch birds fly past the window, a little bit of drool dribbles down my chin, but I do not wipe it away. Only part of me wonders why every breath feels like a contradiction.