Reading, My Lover; Theater, My Spouse by Michael Barakiva
The first crush I ever had in my life was on reading. Reading was that girl with pigtails you chased in recess. Reading was that boy with a goofy haircut who caused your heart to flutter. I fell for reading before I even knew how to do it. I can still recall, with uncanny accuracy, the bedtime stories my parents read to me when we were still living in Israel, before I could read or write myself.
I didn’t know English when we moved to the States so I started reading later than my peers, since I had to learn the language first. A mild case of undiagnosed dyslexia, which made distinguishing “P” from “9” and “p” from “q” almost impossible, didn’t help. But as a shy boy with a thick Israeli accent, reading stopped me from being lonely, and that felt infinitely easier than trying to make friends.
Reading and I were a perfect match. I could read for hours endless as a child, and our romance picked up quickly and lasted years. I’d cuddle up in bed with a book into the wee hours of the morn, desperate for just one more chapter. As I read, I imagined the book getting bigger and bigger, until I was just the size of a twelve-point letter, dwarfed by the enormity of the paper. Happiness, for me, was living on a page.
And then, for reasons even then unknown, I auditioned for my first play in sixth grade. As Orphan #1 in Oliver!, I had the enormous responsibility of singing the first solo, “Hot sausage and mustard.” I was reliably off-key every time. As was clear to everyone who saw me, I had no business being onstage. Sometimes I wonder what would’ve happened if I’d never done a play again. Or if Mrs. Anzuini hadn’t been so desperate for boys that she didn’t cast me. I gave her plenty of reasons not to: naturally imperfect pitch, two left-feet, and profound self-consciousness that still settles over me like a jacket with too-narrow shoulders every time I get on a stage.
Theater is that crazy girl you make out with in an academic building after hours in college. Theater is that guy who you can’t stop yourself from calling over and over, praying each time that the phone has been turned on in the ten seconds since you last called, and having your dreams crushed each time the call just rolls into voicemail. Theater is a rollercoaster ride with dark lows and terrifying highs. Theater is stumbling home after that bender as the sun is coming up, hoping (and failing) that you’ve got enough energy to take your clothes off before you fall asleep.
Theater stole me away from reading. Theater pretended it wouldn’t be so. “You can have us both,” theater cooed into my ear. “You’re young. We’re young. We can just have fun.”
But theater lied. Theater is getting married too young, and spending the rest of your life wondering if you should’ve waited.
Reading waited patiently when I got home late and didn’t judge. By the time I got to college, I’d skip the last fifty pages of a reading assignment because I needed to help build the set of the play I was directing. The Internet was hatched around the same time, and reading became something you did on the fly, something that shouldn’t take more than a few minutes anyway. A back-lit afterthought, something to do while talking on your cell phone. By the time I hit 30, my attention span had been shot, like an alcoholic’s liver.
And then I started writing. I’d never really written before, since it never gave me the joy that reading had. But I lost two dear mentors, both women, both writers taken decades of years and thousands of words before their time. And when I wrote, I could hear their voices clearly, encouraging, challenging and guiding. Writing took me back to senior year of college, crashing in Ann’s living room the day before my thesis was due, putting in the final corrections as she proofed the bibliography. Writing took me back to working for Wendy, typing the words she spoke, both of us pretending we didn’t know the only reason I had a job was because her eyesight and health were failing.
Theater knows I’m cheating (no one has ever been cheated on without really knowing). But I come home revitalized from my affair, and I’m kinder to theater, and theater is kinder to me. It’s like that bizarrely progressive episode of Friends where Joey tells his mother that his father is cheating on her and she tells him she doesn’t mind because of how much better their relationship has been since.
Writing helped me rediscover the abandon that reading gave me as a child, that feeling that infinity lay before you, if only you could relax enough to see it. And now that I can write for hours on end, I’ve found that I can read that way again, too.
Michael Barakiva is a theater director and writer of Armenian/Israeli descent who lives in Manhattan with his husband, Rafael. He is a graduate of Vassar College and the Juilliard School, an avid cook and board-game player, and a soccer player with the New York Ramblers. He is the author of the recently published One Man Guy. Also, you can read his blog at www.michaelbarakiva.blogspot.com, and check out his web site at www.michaelbarakiva.com and follow him on Twitter as @mibarakiva. Or if you’d like to receive his very occasional newsletter about his theatrical or writing shenanigans, click here.