The hours, p.12
The Hours, p.12Michael Cunningham
At home, the new cake waits under an aluminum cake-saver with a wooden knob shaped like an acorn. It is an improvement over the first cake. This cake has been frosted twice, so there are no crumbs caught in the icing (she has consulted a second cookbook, and learned that bakers refer to the first layer of icing as the ‘‘crumb layer,’’ and that a cake should always be iced a second time). This cake says ‘‘Happy Birthday Dan’’ in elegant white script, uncrowded by the clusters of yellow roses. It’s a fine cake, perfect in its way, and yet Laura is still disappointed in it. It still feels amateurish, homemade; it still seems somehow wrong. The ‘‘y’’ in ‘‘Happy’’ isn’t what she’d hoped it would be, and two of the roses are lopsided.
She touches her lips, where Kitty’s kiss briefly resided. She doesn’t mind so much about the kiss, what it does and does not imply, except that it gives Kitty an edge. Love is deep, a mystery—who wants to understand its every particular? Laura desires Kitty. She desires her force, her brisk and cheerful disappointment, the shifting pink-gold lights of her secret self and the crisp, shampooed depths of her hair. Laura desires Dan, too, in a darker and less exquisite way; a way that is more subtly haunted by cruelty and shame. Still it is desire, sharp as a bone chip. She can kiss Kitty in the kitchen and love her husband, too. She can anticipate the queasy pleasure of her husband’s lips and fingers (is it that she desires his desire?) and still dream of kissing Kitty again someday, in a kitchen or at the beach as childrenshriek in the surf, in a hallway with their arms full of folded towels, laughing softly, aroused, hopeless, in love with their own recklessness if not each other, saying Shhhh, parting quickly, going on.
What Laura regrets, what she can hardly bear, is the cake. It embarrasses her, but she can’t deny it. It’s only sugar, flour, and eggs—part of a cake’s charm is its inevitable imperfections. She knows that; of course she does. Still she had hoped to create something finer, something more significant, than what she’s produced, even with its smooth surface and its centered message. She wants (she admits to herself ) a dream of a cake manifested as an actual cake; a cake invested with an undeniable and profound sense of comfort, of bounty. She wants to have baked a cake that banishes sorrow, even if only for a little while. She wants to have produced something marvelous; something that would be marvelous even to those who do not love her.
She has failed. She wishes she didn’t mind. Something, she thinks, is wrong with her.
She shifts over to the left-hand lane, presses the accelerator. For now, right now, she could be anyone, going anywhere. She has a full tank of gas, money in her wallet. For an hour or two, she can go wherever she likes. After that, the alarms will start up. By five o’clock or so, Mrs. Latch will begin to worry, and by six at the latest she’ll start making calls. If it gets that late Laura will have explaining to do, but right now and for at least another two hours, really, she is free. She’s a woman in a car, only that.
When she tops the rise at Chavez Ravine, and the hazy spires of downtown appear, she has to make a choice. For the past half hour it has been enough to be headed, vaguely, toward downtown Los Angeles, but now here it is—the staunch, squat older buildings, the skeletons of newer, taller ones going up— all suffused with the steady white glare of the day, which seems to emanate not so much from the sky down to the earth as from the air itself, as if invisible particles in the ether emitted a steady, slightly foggy phosphorescence. Here is the city, and Laura must either enter it, by way of the left-hand lane, or switch to the right-hand lane and bypass it altogether. If she does that, if she simply continues driving, she’ll be headed into the vast, flat stretch of factories and low-rise apartment buildings that surrounds Los Angeles for a hundred miles in every direction. It would be possible to veer right, and find her way eventually to Beverly Hills, or to the beach at Santa Monica, but she doesn’t want to shop and she hasn’t brought anything for the beach. There is surprisingly little to enter, in this immense bright smoky landscape, and what she wants—someplace private, silent, where she can read, where she can think— is not readily available. If she goes to a store or restaurant, she’ll have to perform—she’ll have to pretend to need or want something that does not, in any way, interest her. She’ll have to move in an orderly fashion; she’ll have to examine merchandise and refuse offers of help, or she’ll have to sit at a table, order something, consume it, and leave. If she simply parks her car somewhere and sits there, a woman alone, she’ll be vulnerable to criminals and to those who’ll try to protect her from criminals. She’ll be too exposed; she’ll look too peculiar.
Even a library would be too public, as would a park.
She pilots her car into the left-hand lane, and drives into the city. She seems to arrive at her decision almost physically, as if by going left she had entered a course of action that was waiting for her as palpably as is Figueroa Street, with its shop windows and shadowed sidewalks. She will check into a hotel. She will say (of course) that she’s there for the night, that her husband will be joining her soon. As long as she pays for the room, what’s wrong with using it only a couple of hours?
It seems such an extravagant, reckless gesture that she is giddy with the possibility of it, and nervous as a girl. Yes, it’s wasteful—a hotel room for an entire night, when all she means to do is sit there reading for two hours or so—but money is not particularly tight right now, and she runs the household with relative thrift. How much can a room cost, really? It can’t be that much.
Although she should go to a cheap place—a motel, somewhere on the outskirts—she can’t bring herself to. It would feel too illicit; it would feel too sordid. The desk clerk might even take her for some sort of professional; he might ask questions. Motels of that sort are outside her experience, they probably involve codes of conduct with which she’s utterly unfamiliar, and so she drives to the Normandy, a sprawling white building just a few blocks away. The Normandy is large, clean, unremarkable. It is V-shaped—twin white ten-story wings that enclose a fountained, urban garden. It has an air of sanitized respectability; it is intended for tourists and businessmen, people whose presence there contains not even the suggestion of mystery. Laura pulls her car up under a chrome canopy on which the hotel’s name stands in tall, angular chrome letters. Although it is full daylight, the air under the canopy has a slightly nocturnal quality, a lunar brilliance; a scoured white-on-white clarity. The potted aloe plants on either side of the black glass doors seem astonished to be there.
Laura leaves her car with the attendant, receives her ticket for its redemption, and enters through the heavy glass doors. The lobby is hushed, gelid. A distant chime rings, clear and measured. Laura is at once comforted and unnerved. She walks across the deep blue carpet toward the front desk. This hotel,
this lobby, is precisely what she wants—the cool nowhere of it, the immaculate non-smell, the brisk unemotional comings and goings. She feels, immediately, like a citizen of this place. It is so competent, so unconcerned. Still, at the same time, she’s here under false or, worse, inexplicable circumstances—she’s come, in some obscure way, to escape a cake. She intends to tell the desk clerk that her husband has been unavoidably delayed, and will arrive with their luggage in an hour or so. She has never lied like that before, not to someone she doesn’t know or love.
The transaction at the front desk proves surprisingly easy. The clerk, a man about her own age, with a sweet, reedy voice and ravaged skin, clearly not only suspects nothing but does not entertain the possibility of suspicion. When Laura asks, ‘‘Have you got a room available?’’ he simply, unhesitatingly answers, ‘‘Yes, we do. Do you need a single or a double?’’
‘‘A double,’’ she says. ‘‘For my husband and myself. He’s coming, with our luggage.’’
The clerk glances behind her, looking for a man struggling with suitcases. Laura’s face burns, but she does not waver.
‘‘He’s coming, actually, in an hour or two. He’s been delayed, and he sent me o
She touches the black granite countertop to steady herself. Her story, it seems, is wholly implausible. If she and her husband are traveling, why do they have two cars? Why didn’t they phone ahead?
The clerk, however, does not flinch. ‘‘I’m afraid I’ve only got rooms on the lower floors. Is that all right?’’
‘‘Yes, it’s fine. It’s just for the one night.’’
‘‘All right, then. Let’s see. Room 19.’’
Laura signs the registration form with her own name (an invented one would feel too strange, too sordid), pays now (‘‘We may be leaving very early in the morning, we’ll be in a terrible hurry, I’d just as soon have it taken care of ’’). She receives the key.
Leaving the desk, she can hardly believe she’s done it. She has gotten the key, passed through the portals. The doors to the elevators, at the far end of the lobby, are hammered bronze, each topped by a horizontal line of brilliant red numerals, and to reach them she passes various arrangements of empty sofas and chairs; the cool slumber of miniature potted palms; and, behind glass, the interior grotto of a combination drugstore and coffee shop, where several solitary men in suits sit with newspapers at the counter, where an older woman in a pale pink waitress costume and a red wig seems to be saying something humorous to no one in particular, and where an almost cartoonishly large lemon-meringue pie, with two slices missing, stands on a pedestal under a clear plastic dome.
Laura rings for the elevator, presses the button for her floor. Under a glass pane on the elevator wall is a photograph of the eggs Benedict that can be ordered in the hotel restaurant until two in the afternoon. She looks at the photograph, thinks about how it is just barely too late to order eggs Benedict. She has been nervous for so long, and her nervousness has not dissipated but its nature seems to have suddenly changed. Her nervousness along with her anger and disappointment in herself are all perfectly recognizable to her but they now reside elsewhere. The decision to check into this hotel, to rise in this elevator, seems to have rescued her the way morphine rescues a cancer patient, not by eradicating the pain but simply by making the pain cease to matter. It’s almost as if she’s accompanied by an invisible sister, a perverse woman full of rage and recriminations, a woman humiliated by herself, and it is this woman, this unfortunate sister, and not Laura, who needs comfort and silence. Laura could be a nurse, ministering to the pain of another.
She steps out of the elevator, walks calmly down the hall, fits the key into the lock of room 19.
Here is her room, then: a turquoise room, not surprising or unusual in any way, with a turquoise spread on the double bed and a painting (Paris, springtime) in a blond wood frame. The room has a smell, alcohol and pitch pine, bleach, scented soap, all floating heavily over something that is not rancid, not even stale, but not fresh. It is, she thinks, a tired smell. It is the smell of a place that’s been used and used.
She goes to the window, parts the filmy white curtains, raises the blinds. There, below, is the V-shaped plaza, with its fountain and struggling rosebushes, its empty stone benches. Again, Laura feels as if she’s entered a dream—a dream in which she looks onto this peculiar garden, so uninhabited, at a little past two in the afternoon. She turns from the window. She takes off her shoes. She puts her copy of Mrs. Dalloway on the glass-topped night table, and lies on the bed. The room is full of the particular silence that prevails in hotels, a tended silence, utterly unnatural, layered over a substratum of creaks and gurglings, of wheels on carpet.
She is so far away from her life. It was so easy.
It seems, somehow, that she has left her own world and entered the realm of the book. Nothing, of course, could be further from Mrs. Dalloway’s London than this turquoise hotel room, and yet she imagines that Virginia Woolf herself, the drowned woman, the genius, might in death inhabit a place not unlike this one. She laughs, quietly, to herself. Please, God, she says silently, let heaven be something better than a room at the Normandy. Heaven would be better furnished, it would be brighter and grander, but it might in fact contain some measure of this hushed remove, this utter absence inside the continuing world. Having this room to herself seems both prim and whorish. She is safe here. She could do anything she wanted to, anything at all. She is somehow like a newlywed, reclining in her chamber, waiting for . . . not her husband, or any other man. For someone. For something.
She reaches for her book. She has marked her place with the silver bookmark (‘‘To My Bookworm, With Love’’) given her by her husband several birthdays ago.
With a sensation of deep and buoyant release, she begins reading.
She remembered once throwing a sixpence into the Serpentine. But every one remembered; what she loved was this, here, now, in front of her; the fat lady in the cab. Did it matter then, she asked herself, walking toward Bond Street, did it matter that she must inevitably cease completely; all this must go on without her; did she resent it; or did it not become consoling to believe that death ended absolutely? but that somehow on the streets of London, on the ebb and flow of things, here, there, she survived, Peter survived, lived in each other, she being part, she was positive, of the trees at home; of the house there, ugly, rambling all to bits and pieces as it was; part of people she had never met; being laid out like a mist between people she knew best, who lifted her on their branches as she had seen the trees lift the mist, but it spread ever so far, her life, herself. But what was she dreaming as she looked into Hatchards’ shop window? What was she trying to recover? What image of white dawn in the country, as she read in the book spread open:
Fear no more the heat o’ the sun, Nor the furious winter’s rages.
It is possible to die. Laura thinks, suddenly, of how she— how anyone—can make a choice like that. It is a reckless, vertiginous thought, slightly disembodied—it announces itself inside her head, faintly but distinctly, like a voice crackling from a distant radio station. She could decide to die. It is an abstract, shimmering notion, not particularly morbid. Hotel rooms are where people do things like that, aren’t they? It’s possible—perhaps even likely—that someone has ended his or her life right here, in this room, on this bed. Someone said, Enough, no more; someone looked for the last time at these white walls, this smooth white ceiling. By going to a hotel, she sees, you leave the particulars of your own life and enter a neutral zone, a clean white room, where dying does not seem quite so strange.
It could, she thinks, be deeply comforting; it might feel so free: to simply go away. To say to them all, I couldn’t manage, you had no idea; I didn’t want to try anymore. There might, she thinks, be a dreadful beauty in it, like an ice field or a desert in early morning. She could go, as it were, into that other landscape; she could leave them all behind—her child, her husband and Kitty, her parents, everybody—in this battered world (it will never be whole again, it will never be quite clean), saying to one another and to anyone who asks, We thought she was all right, we thought her sorrows were ordinary ones. We had no idea.
She strokes her belly. I would never. She says the words out loud in the clean, silent room: ‘‘I would never.’’ She loves life, loves it hopelessly, at least at certain moments; and she would be killing her son as well. She would be killing her son and her husband and the other child, still forming inside her. How could any of them recover from something like that? Nothing she might do as a living wife and mother, no lapse, no fit of rage or depression, could possibly compare. It would be, simply, evil. It would punch a hole in the atmosphere, through which everything she’s created—the orderly days, the lighted windows, the table laid for supper—would be sucked away.
Still, she is glad to know (for somehow, suddenly, she knows) that it is possible to stop living. There is comfort in facing the full range of options; in considering all your choices, fearlessly and without guile. She imagines Virginia Woolf, virginal, unbalanced, defeated by the impossible demands of life and art; she imagines her ste
Mrs . Wo olf
She sits in the kitchen with Vanessa, drinking her tea.
‘‘There was a lovely coat for Angelica at Harrods,’’ Vanessa says. ‘‘But then nothing for the boys, and it seemed so unfair. I suppose I shall give her the coat for her birthday, but then of course she’ll be cross because she believes coats ought to come to her anyway, as a matter of course, and not be presented as gifts.’’
Virginia nods. At the moment, she can’t seem to speak. There is so much in the world. There are coats at Harrods; there are children who will be angry and disappointed no matter what one does. There is Vanessa’s plump hand on her cup and there is the thrush outside, so beautiful on its pyre; so like millinery.
There is this hour, now, in the kitchen.
Clarissa will not die, not by her own hand. How could she bear to leave all this?
Virginia prepares to offer some wisdom about children. She has scant idea what she’ll say, but she will say something.
She would like to say, It is enough. The teacups and the thrush outside, the question of children’s coats. It is enough.
Someone else will die. It should be a greater mind than Clarissa’s; it should be someone with sorrow and genius enough to turn away from the seductions of the world, its cups and its coats.
‘‘Perhaps Angelica—’’ Virginia says.
But here’s Nelly to the rescue; furious, triumphant, back from London with a parcel containing the China tea and sugared ginger. She holds the package aloft, as if she would hurl it.
‘‘Good afternoon, Mrs. Bell,’’ she says with an executioner’s studied calm.
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