The hours, p.11
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       The Hours, p.11

           Michael Cunningham
 
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  ‘‘Have you? Good.’’

  ‘‘Isn’t it weird?’’

  ‘‘Yes. It is.’’

  ‘‘He hardly even bothered to change your name.’’

  ‘‘That isn’t me,’’ she says. ‘‘It’s Richard’s fantasy about some woman who vaguely resembles me.’’

  ‘‘It’s a damned weird book.’’

  ‘‘So everybody seems to think.’’

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  ‘‘It feels like it’s about ten thousand pages long. Nothing happens. And then, bam. She kills herself.’’

  ‘‘His mother.’’

  ‘‘I know. Still. It’s completely out of the blue.’’

  ‘‘You’re in perfect agreement with almost every critic. They’d waited all that time, and for what? More than nine hundred pages of flirtation, really, with a sudden death at the end. People did say it was beautifully written.’’

  Louis looks away from her. ‘‘These roses are beautiful,’’ he says.

  Clarissa leans forward and moves the vase slightly to the left. Good lord, Louis thinks, she’s gone beyond wifeliness. She’s become her mother.

  Clarissa laughs. ‘‘Look at me,’’ she says. ‘‘An old woman fussing with her roses.’’

  She always surprises you this way, by knowing more than you think she does. Louis wonders if they’re calculated, these little demonstrations of self-knowledge that pepper Clarissa’s wise, hostessy performance. She seems, at times, to have read your thoughts. She disarms you by saying, essentially, I know what you’re thinking and I agree, I’m ridiculous, I’m far less than I could have been and I’d like it to be otherwise but I can’t seem to help myself. You find that you move, almost against your will, from being irritated with her to consoling her, helping her back into her performance so that she can be comfortable again and you can resume feeling irritated.

  ‘‘So,’’ Louis says. ‘‘Richard is pretty sick.’’

  ‘‘Yes. His body’s not in such terrible shape anymore, but his

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  mind wanders. I’m afraid he was a little too far gone for the protease inhibitors to help him the way they’re helping some people.’’

  ‘‘It must be terrible.’’

  ‘‘He’s still himself. I mean, there’s this sort of constant quality, some sort of Richardness, that’s not the least bit different.’’

  ‘‘That’s good. That’s something.’’

  ‘‘Remember the big dune in Wellfleet?’’ she says.

  ‘‘Sure.’’

  ‘‘I was thinking the other day that when I die I’ll probably want my ashes scattered there.’’

  ‘‘That’s awfully morbid,’’ Louis says.

  ‘‘But you think about these things. How could you not?’’

  Clarissa believed then and she believes today that the dune in Wellfleet will, in some sense, accompany her forever. Whatever else happens, she will always have had that. She will always have been standing on a high dune in the summer. She will always have been young and indestructibly healthy, a little hungover, wearing Richard’s cotton sweater as he wraps a hand familiarly around her neck and Louis stands slightly apart, watching the waves.

  ‘‘I was furious at you then,’’ Louis says. ‘‘Sometimes I could hardly look at you.’’

  ‘‘I know.’’

  ‘‘I tried to be good. I tried to be open and free.’’

  ‘‘We all tried. I’m not sure the organism is fully capable.’’

  Louis says, ‘‘I drove up there once. To the house. I don’t think I told you.’’

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  ‘‘No. You didn’t.’’

  ‘‘It was right before I left for California. I was on a panel in Boston, some awful thing about the future of theater, just a crew of pompous old dinosaurs they’d trucked in to give the graduate students something to jeer at, and afterward I was so blue I rented a car and drove out to Wellfleet. I hardly had any trouble finding it.’’

  ‘‘I probably don’t want to know.’’

  ‘‘No, it’s still there, and it looks pretty much the same. It’s been gussied up a little. New paint, you know, and somebody put in a lawn, which looks weird out in the woods, like wallto-wall carpet. But it’s still standing.’’

  ‘‘What do you know,’’ Clarissa says.

  They sit quietly for a moment. It is somehow worse that the house still stands. It is worse that sun and then dark and sun again have entered and left those rooms every day, that rain has continued falling on that roof, that the whole thing could be visited again.

  Clarissa says, ‘‘I should go up there sometime. I’d like to stand on the dune.’’

  ‘‘If that’s where you think you want your ashes scattered, yes, you should go back and confirm.’’

  ‘‘No, you were right, I was being morbid. Summer brings it out in me. I have no idea where I’d want my ashes scattered.’’

  Clarissa wants, suddenly, to show her whole life to Louis. She wants to tumble it out onto the floor at Louis’s feet, all the vivid, pointless moments that can’t be told as stories. She wants to sit with Louis and sift through it.

  ‘‘So,’’ she says. ‘‘Tell me some more about San Francisco.’’

  ‘‘It’s a pretty little city with great restaurants and nothing going on. My students are mostly imbeciles. Really, I’m coming back to New York as soon as I can.’’

  ‘‘Good. It’d be good to have you back here.’’

  Clarissa touches Louis’s shoulder, and it seems that they will both rise, without speaking, go upstairs to the bedroom, and undress together. It seems they will go to the bedroom and undress not like lovers but like gladiators who’ve survived the arena, who find themselves bloody and harmed but miraculously alive when all the others have died. They will wince as they unstrap their breastplates and shin guards. They will look at each other with tenderness and reverence; they will gently embrace as New York clatters outside the casement window; as Richard sits in his chair listening to voices and Sally has her lunch uptown with Oliver St. Ives.

  Louis puts his glass down, lifts it, sets it down again. He taps his foot on the carpet, three times. ‘‘It’s a little complicated, though,’’ he says. ‘‘You see, I’ve fallen in love.’’

  ‘‘Really?’’

  ‘‘His name is Hunter. Hunter Craydon.’’

  ‘‘Hunter Craydon. Well.’’

  ‘‘He was a student of mine last year,’’ Louis says.

  Clarissa leans back, sighs impatiently. This would be the fourth, at least of the ones she knows about. She would like to grab Louis and say, You have to age better than this. I can’t stand to see you make so much of yourself and then offer it all to some boy just because he happens to be pretty and young.

  ‘‘He may be the most gifted student I’ve ever taught,’’ Louis says. ‘‘He does the most remarkable performance pieces about growing up white and gay in South Africa. Incredibly powerful.’’

  ‘‘Well,’’ Clarissa says. She can think of nothing else to say. She feels sorry for Louis, and deeply impatient, and yet, she thinks, Louis is in love. He is in love with a young man. He is fifty-three and still has all that ahead of him, the sex and the ridiculous arguments, the anguish.

  ‘‘He’s amazing,’’ Louis says. To his complete surprise, he begins to weep. The tears start simply enough, as a heat at the back of his eyes and a furring of his vision. These spasms of emotion take him constantly. A song can do it; even the sight of an old dog. They pass. They usually pass. This time, though, tears start falling from his eyes almost before he knows it will happen, and for a moment a compartment of his being (the same compartment that counts steps, sips, claps) says to itself, He’s crying, how strange. Louis leans forward, puts his face in his hands. He sobs.

  The truth is that he does not love Hunter and Hunter does not love him. They are having an affair; only an affair. He fails to think of him for hours at a time. Hunter has other boyfriends, a whole future planned, and w
hen he’s moved on, Louis has to admit, privately, that he won’t much miss Hunter’s shrill laugh, his chipped front tooth, his petulant silences.

  There is so little love in the world.

  Clarissa rubs Louis’s back with the flat of her hand. What had Sally said? We never fight. It was at dinner somewhere, a year ago or longer. There had been some kind of fish, thick

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  medallions in a puddle of bright yellow sauce (it seemed everything, just then, sat in a puddle of brightly colored sauce). We never fight. It’s true. They bicker, they sulk, but they never explode, never shout or weep, never break a dish. It has always seemed that they haven’t fought yet; that they’re still too new for all-out war; that whole unexplored continents lie ahead once they’ve worked their way through their initial negotiations and feel sufficiently certain in each other’s company to really let loose. What could she have been thinking? She and Sally will soon celebrate their eighteenth anniversary together. They are a couple that never fight.

  As she rubs Louis’s back, Clarissa thinks, Take me with you. I want a doomed love. I want streets at night, wind and rain, no one wondering where I am.

  ‘‘I’m sorry,’’ Louis says.

  ‘‘It’s all right. For god’s sake, look at all that’s happened.’’

  ‘‘I feel like such an asshole.’’ He stands and walks to the French doors (seven steps). Through his tears he can see the moss in the low stone troughs, the bronze platter of clear water on which floats a single white feather. He can’t tell why he’s crying. He’s back in New York. He seems to be crying over this odd garden, Richard’s illness (why was Louis spared?), this room with Clarissa in it, everything. He seems to be crying over a Hunter who only resembles the actual one. This other Hunter has a fierce and tragic grandeur, true intelligence, a modest turn of mind. Louis weeps for him.

  Clarissa follows. ‘‘It’s all right,’’ she says again.

  ‘‘Stupid,’’ Louis murmurs. ‘‘Stupid.’’

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  A key turns in the front door. ‘‘It’s Julia,’’ Clarissa says.

  ‘‘Shit.’’

  ‘‘Don’t worry. She’s seen men cry.’’

  It’s her goddamn daughter. Louis straightens his shoulders, steps sideways from under Clarissa’s arm. He continues looking out at the garden, trying to bring his face under control. He thinks about moss. He thinks about fountains. He is suddenly, genuinely interested in moss and fountains.

  How strange, the voice says. Why is he thinking about things like that?

  ‘‘Hello,’’ says Julia, behind him. Not ‘‘hi.’’ She has always been a grave little girl, smart but peculiar, oversized, full of quirks and tics.

  ‘‘Hi, honey,’’ Clarissa says. ‘‘Do you remember Louis?’’

  Louis turns to face her. Fine, let her see that he’s been crying. Fuck it.

  ‘‘Of course I do,’’ Julia says. She walks toward him, extending her hand.

  She is eighteen now, maybe nineteen. She is so unexpectedly handsome, so altered, that Louis worries the tears will start all over again. When he saw her last she was thirteen or so, slouchy and overweight, embarrassed by herself. She still isn’t beautiful, she’ll never be beautiful, but she’s acquired a measure of her mother’s presence, that golden certainty. She is handsome and assured in the way of a young athlete, her head all but shaved, her skin pink.

  ‘‘Julia,’’ he says. ‘‘How nice to see you.’’

  She takes his hand firmly in hers. She wears a thin silver ring

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  in her nose. She is lush and strong, crackling with health, like some kind of idealized Irish farm girl just in from the fields. She must take after her father (Louis has fantasized about him, imagined him as a strapping young blond, hard up, an actor or painter maybe, a lover, a criminal, a desperate boy, down to selling his fluids, blood to the blood bank and sperm to the sperm bank). He must, Louis thinks, have been huge, rugged, a figure of Celtic myth, for here now is Julia, who even in her tank top and shorts, her black combat boots, looks as if she should be carrying a sheaf of barley under one arm and a new lamb under the other.

  ‘‘Hello, Louis,’’ she says. She holds his hand but does not shake it. Of course, she knows he’s been crying. She does not seem particularly surprised. What must she have heard about him?

  ‘‘I’ve got to go,’’ he says.

  She nods. ‘‘How long are you here?’’ she asks.

  ‘‘Just a few days. But I’m moving back. It’s good to see you. Bye, Clarissa.’’

  ‘‘Five o’clock,’’ Clarissa says.

  ‘‘What?’’

  ‘‘The party. It’s at five. Please come.’’

  ‘‘Of course I’ll come.’’

  Julia says, ‘‘Goodbye, Louis.’’

  She is a handsome nineteen-year-old who says hello and

  goodbye, not ‘‘hi’’ and ‘‘bye.’’ She has unusually small, very white teeth. ‘‘Goodbye.’’

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  ‘‘You will come, won’t you?’’ Clarissa says. ‘‘Promise me you’ll come.’’

  ‘‘I promise. Goodbye.’’ He gets himself out of the apartment, still vaguely teary; furious with Clarissa; vaguely, absurdly in love with Julia (he who has never been attracted to women, never—he still shudders, after all these years, at the recollection of that awful, desperate attempt he made with Clarissa, simply to retain his claim on Richard). He imagines running, with Julia, out of that dreadful, tasteful apartment; getting himself and her away from the linen-colored walls and the botanical prints, from Clarissa and her glasses of carbonated water with lemon slices. He walks down the dim hallway (twenty-three steps), through the door to the vestibule and then through the outer door, onto West Tenth Street. The sun explodes like a flashbulb in his face. He rejoins, gratefully, the people of the world: a ferrety-looking man walking two dachshunds, a fat man sweating majestically in a dark blue suit, a bald woman (fashion or chemotherapy?) who leans against Clarissa’s building sucking on a cigarette and whose face looks like a fresh bruise. Louis will return here, to this city; he will live in an apartment in the West Village, sit in Dante with an espresso and a cigarette in the afternoons. He isn’t old, not yet. The night before last he stopped his car in the Arizona desert and stood under the stars until he could feel the presence of his own soul, or whatever you wanted to call it; the continuing part that had been a child and then stood—it seemed a moment later—in the desert silence under the constellations. He thinks with distracted affection of himself, the young Louis Waters, who spent

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  his youth trying to live with Richard, who was variously flattered and enraged by Richard’s indefatigable worship of his arms and his ass, and who left Richard finally, forever, after a fight in the train station in Rome (had it been specifically about the letter Richard received from Clarissa, or about Louis’s more general sense of exhausted interest in being the more blessed, less brilliant member?). That Louis, only twenty-eight but convinced of his advanced age and missed opportunities, had walked away from Richard and gotten on a train that turned out to be going to Madrid. It had seemed, at the time, a dramatic but temporary gesture, and as the train steamed along (the conductor had informed him, indignantly, where he was headed) he’d been strangely, almost preternaturally content. He’d been free. Now he scarcely remembers his aimless days in Madrid; he does not even remember with great clarity the Italian boy (could his name actually have been Franco?) who convinced him to finally abandon the long, doomed project of loving Richard, in favor of simpler passions. What he remembers with perfect clarity is sitting on a train headed for Madrid, feeling the sort of happiness he imagined spirits might feel, freed of their earthly bodies but still possessed of their essential selves. He walks east toward University (seventy-seven steps to the corner). He waits to cross.

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  Mrs. Brown

  As she pilots her Chevrolet along the Pasadena Freeway, among hills still sc
orched in places from last year’s fire, she feels as if she’s dreaming or, more precisely, as if she’s remembering this drive from a dream long ago. Everything she sees feels as if it’s pinned to the day the way etherized butterflies are pinned to a board. Here are the black slopes of the hills dotted with the pastel stucco houses that were spared from the flames. Here is the hazy, blue-white sky. Laura drives competently, neither too slow nor too fast, periodically checking the rearview mirror. She is a woman in a car dreaming about being in a car. She has left her son with Mrs. Latch down the street. She has claimed a last-minute errand related to her husband’s birthday. She panicked—she supposes ‘‘panic’’ is the word for it. She tried to lie down for a few minutes while her son was napping; she tried to read a little, but couldn’t concentrate. She lay on

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  the bed with the book in her hands feeling emptied, exhausted, by the child, the cake, the kiss. It got down, somehow, to those three elements, and as she lay on the double bed with the shades drawn and the bedside lamp lit, trying to read, she wondered, Is this what it’s like to go crazy? She’d never imagined it like this—when she’d thought of someone (a woman like herself ) losing her mind, she’d imagined shrieks and wails, hallucinations; but at that moment it had seemed clear that there was another way, far quieter; a way that was numb and hopeless, flat, so much so that an emotion as strong as sorrow would have been a relief.

  And so she’s left for a few hours. She has not acted irresponsibly. She’s made sure her son is taken care of. She’s baked a new cake, thawed the steaks, topped the beans. Having done all that, she’s permitting herself to leave. She will be home in time to cook the dinner, to feed Kitty’s dog. But now, right now, she is going somewhere (where?) to be alone, to be free of her child, her house, the small party she will give tonight. She has taken her pocketbook, and her copy of Mrs. Dalloway. She has put on hose and a blouse and skirt; she has clipped her favorite earrings, simple copper disks, onto her ears. She feels faintly, foolishly satisfied by her outfit, and by the cleanliness of her car. A small dark-blue wastebasket, empty of trash, hugs the axle housing the way a saddle fits a horse. It’s ridiculous, she knows, and yet she finds consolation in this impeccable order. She is clean and well dressed, driving away.

 
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