The hours, p.15
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       The Hours, p.15

           Michael Cunningham
 
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  The light changes. They cross.

  ‘‘All right,’’ Sally says. ‘‘Well. Pretty sick.’’

  ‘‘These times,’’ Walter says. ‘‘God, these times.’’

  Sally is taken, again, by a wave of indignation that rises up under her belly and washes her vision with heat. It’s Walter’s vanity that’s unbearable. It’s knowing that as he says the correct and respectful things—even as he quite possibly feels the correct and respectful things—he’s thinking, too, of how fine it is to be the semifamous novelist Walter Hardy, friend to movie stars and poets, still healthy and muscular past the age of forty. He would be more comic if he had less influence in the world.

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  ‘‘Well,’’ Sally says on the far corner, but before she can take her leave Walter strides up to a store window and stands with his face several inches from the glass.

  ‘‘Look at these,’’ he says. ‘‘How beautiful.’’

  There in the window are three silk shirts, each displayed on a plaster reproduction of a classical Greek statue. One shirt is pale apricot, another emerald, the third a deep, royal blue. Each is differently embroidered along the collar and down the front in silver fine as a spider’s thread. All three hang liquidly, iridescently, over the statues’ lean torsos, and from each collar emerges a serene white head with full lips, a straight nose, and blank white eyes.

  ‘‘Mm,’’ Sally says. ‘‘Yes. Beautiful.’’

  ‘‘Maybe I’ll get one for Evan. He could use a present today. Come on.’’

  Sally hesitates, then follows Walter into the store, unwillingly, helplessly borne by an unexpected surge of remorse. Yes, Walter is ridiculous, but along with her disdain Sally seems to feel an awful and unavoidable tenderness for the poor fuck, who has spent the last few years expecting his pretty, brainless boyfriend, his trophy, to die and now, suddenly, is faced with the prospect (does he have mixed feelings?) of the boyfriend’s survival. Death and resurrection are always mesmerizing, Sally thinks, and it doesn’t seem to matter much whether they involve the hero, the villain, or the clown.

  The store is all varnished maple and black granite. It has somehow been made to smell faintly of eucalyptus. Shirts are laid out on the glossy black countertops.

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  ‘‘I think the blue,’’ Walter says as they enter. ‘‘Blue’s a good color for Evan.’’

  Sally lets Walter speak to the handsome young clerk with the slicked-back hair. She wanders meditatively among the shirts, looks at the tag on a cream-colored shirt with motherof-pearl buttons. It costs four hundred dollars. Is it pathetic, she wonders, or heroic to buy a fabulous, hideously expensive new shirt for your tentatively recovering lover. Is it both? Sally herself has never developed the knack for buying gifts for Clarissa. Even after all these years, she can’t be sure what Clarissa will like. There have been successes—the chocolate-colored cashmere scarf last Christmas, the antique lacquered box in which she keeps her letters—but there have been at least as many failures. There was the extravagant watch from Tiffany’s (too formal, it seems), the yellow sweater (was it the color or the neck?), the black leather handbag ( just wrong, impossible to say why). Clarissa refuses to admit it when a gift doesn’t please her, despite Sally’s exhortations. Every present, according to Clarissa, is perfect, exactly what she’d hoped for, and all the hapless giver can do is wait and see whether the watch will be deemed ‘‘too good for everyday,’’ or the sweater be worn once, to an obscure party, and never appear again. Sally begins to be angry with Clarissa, Walter Hardy, and Oliver St. Ives; with every optimistic, dishonest living being; but then she glances over at Walter in the process of buying his lover’s brilliant blue shirt, and is filled instead with longing. Clarissa is probably at home right now.

  Sally suddenly, urgently wants to get home. She says to Walter, ‘‘I’ve got to go. It’s later than I thought.’’

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  ‘‘I won’t be long,’’ Walter says.

  ‘‘I’m off. See you later.’’

  ‘‘You like the shirt?’’

  Sally fingers the fabric, which is supple and minutely grained, vaguely fleshly. ‘‘I love it,’’ she says. ‘‘It’s a wonderful shirt.’’

  The clerk smiles gratefully, shyly, as if he were personally responsible for the shirt’s beauty. He is not aloof or condescending, as you might expect of a handsome boy working in a store like this. Where do they come from, these impeccable beauties who work as salesclerks? For what do they hope?

  ‘‘Yes,’’ Walter says. ‘‘It’s a great shirt, isn’t it?’’

  ‘‘Goodbye.’’

  ‘‘Hey. See you later.’’

  Sally gets out of the store as quickly as she can, marches toward the subway at Sixty-eighth. She’d like to come home with a gift for Clarissa, but can’t imagine what. She’d like to tell Clarissa something, something important, but can’t get it phrased. ‘‘I love you’’ is easy enough. ‘‘I love you’’ has become almost ordinary, being said not only on anniversaries and birthdays but spontaneously, in bed or at the kitchen sink or even in cabs within hearing of foreign drivers who believe women should walk three paces behind their husbands. Sally and Clarissa are not stingy with their affections, and that of course is good, but now Sally finds that she wants to go home and say something more, something that extends not only beyond the sweet and the comforting but beyond passion itself. What she wants to say has to do with all the people who’ve died; it has to do with her own feelings of enormous good fortune and

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  imminent, devastating loss. If anything happens to Clarissa she, Sally, will go on living but she will not, exactly, survive. She will not be all right. What she wants to say has to do not only with joy but with the penetrating, constant fear that is joy’s other half. She can bear the thought of her own death but cannot bear the thought of Clarissa’s. This love of theirs, with its reassuring domesticity and its easy silences, its permanence, has yoked Sally directly to the machinery of mortality itself. Now there is a loss beyond imagining. Now there is a cord she can follow from this moment, walking toward the subway on the Upper East Side, through tomorrow and the next day and the next, all the way to the end of her life and the end of Clarissa’s.

  She rides the subway downtown, stops at the flower stand attached to the Korean market on the corner. It’s the usual array, carnations and mums, a scattering of gaunt lilies, freesia, daisies, bunches of hothouse tulips in white, yellow, and red, their petals going leathery at the tips. Zombie flowers, she thinks; just product, forced into being like chickens whose feet never touch ground from egg to slaughter. Sally stands frowning before the flowers on their graduated wooden platforms, sees herself and the flowers reflected in the mirror tiles at the back of the cooler (there she is, gray-haired, sharp-faced, sallow [how did she grow so old?], she’s got to get more sun, really), and thinks there is nothing in the world she wants for herself or Clarissa, not four-hundred-dollar shirts, not these pitiful flowers, not anything. She is about to leave empty-handed when she notices a single bouquet of yellow roses in a brown

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  rubber bucket in the corner. They are just beginning to open. Their petals, at the base, are suffused with a deeper yellow, almost orange, a mango-colored blush that spreads upward and diffuses itself in hairline veins. They so convincingly resemble real flowers, grown from earth in a garden, that they seem to have gotten into the cooler by mistake. Sally buys them quickly, almost furtively, as if she fears the Korean woman who runs the stand will realize there’s been a mix-up and inform her, gravely, that these roses are not for sale. She walks along Tenth Street with the roses in her hand, feeling exultant, and when she enters the apartment she is slightly aroused. How long has it been since they’ve had sex?

  ‘‘Hey,’’ she calls. ‘‘Are you home?’’

  ‘‘In here,’’ Clarissa answers, and Sally can tell from her voice that something’s wrong. Is she about to walk into one of those little ambushe
s that pepper their life together? Has she stepped, with her bouquet and her nascent desire, into a scene of domestic peevishness, the world gone gray and morbid because she has once again revealed her selfishness and left something undone, failed to clean something, forgotten some important call? Her joy fades; her lust evaporates. She walks into the living room with the roses.

  ‘‘What’s up?’’ she says to Clarissa, who is sitting on the sofa, just sitting there, as if she were in a doctor’s waiting room. She looks at Sally with a peculiar expression, more disoriented than stricken, as if she is not quite sure who she is, and Sally briefly experiences an intimation of the decline to come. If they both survive long enough, if they stay together (and how, after all this, could they part?), they will watch each other fade.

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  ‘‘Nothing,’’ she says.

  ‘‘Are you all right?’’

  ‘‘Hm? Oh, yes. I don’t know. Louis is in town. He’s come back.’’

  ‘‘Bound to happen eventually.’’

  ‘‘He stopped by, just rang the buzzer. We talked for a while, and then he started crying.’’

  ‘‘Really?’’

  ‘‘Yes. Out of nowhere, more or less. Then Julia came over, and he ran off.’’

  ‘‘Louis. What can you say?’’

  ‘‘He’s dating a new boy. A student.’’

  ‘‘Right. Well.’’

  ‘‘And then Julia turned up with Mary—’’

  ‘‘My god. The whole circus has been here.’’

  ‘‘Oh, look, Sally. You brought roses.’’

  ‘‘What? Oh, well. Yes.’’

  Sally flourishes the roses and, at the same moment, notices the vase full of roses Clarissa has put on the table. They both laugh.

  ‘‘This is sort of an O. Henry moment, isn’t it?’’ Sally says.

  ‘‘You can’t possibly have too many roses,’’ Clarissa says.

  Sally hands the flowers to her and for a moment they are both simply and entirely happy. They are present, right now, and they have managed, somehow, over the course of eighteen years, to continue loving each other. It is enough. At this moment, it is enough.

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  Mrs. Brown

  She is later than she’d meant to be, but not seriously late; not so late as to need an explanation. It is almost six. She has gotten halfway through the book. Driving to Mrs. Latch’s house, she is full of what she’s read: Clarissa and insane Septimus, the flowers, the party. Images drift through her mind: the figure in the car, the airplane with its message. Laura occupies a twilight zone of sorts; a world composed of London in the twenties, of a turquoise hotel room, and of this car, driving down this familiar street. She is herself and not herself. She is a woman in London, an aristocrat, pale and charming, a little false; she is Virginia Woolf; and she is this other, the inchoate, tumbling thing known as herself, a mother, a driver, a swirling streak of pure life like the Milky Way, a friend of Kitty (whom she’s kissed, who may be dying), a pair of hands with coral-colored fingernails (one chipped) and a diamond wedding band grip

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  ping the wheel of a Chevrolet as a pale blue Plymouth taps its brake lights ahead of her, as late-afternoon summer sun assumes its golden depths, as a squirrel dashes across a telephone wire, its tail a pale gray question mark.

  She pulls up in front of Mrs. Latch’s house, where two painted plaster squirrels are attached to the gable over the garage. She gets out of her car and stands for a moment, looking up at the plaster squirrels, still holding her car keys. Beside her, the car emits a peculiar ticking sound (it’s been doing this for several days now, she’ll have to take it by the mechanic’s). She is overtaken by a sensation of unbeing. There is no other word for it. Standing beside her ticking car, facing Mrs. Latch’s garage (the plaster squirrels throw long shadows), she is no one; she is nothing. It seems, briefly, that by going to the hotel she has slipped out of her life, and this driveway, this garage, are utterly strange to her. She has been away. She has been thinking kindly, even longingly, of death. It comes to her here, in Mrs. Latch’s driveway—she has been thinking longingly of death. She has gone to a hotel in secret, the way she might go to meet a lover. She stands, holding her car keys and her purse, staring at Mrs. Latch’s garage. The door, painted white, has a little green-shuttered window in it, as if the garage were a miniature house attached to the larger house. Laura’s breathing is suddenly labored. She’s slightly dizzy—it seems she might stumble and collapse onto Mrs. Latch’s smooth concrete drive. She considers getting back into her car, and driving away again. She forces herself to go forward. She reminds herself: she has to retrieve her child, take him home, and finish assembling her husband’s birthday dinner. She has to do those ordinary things.

  With some effort, she draws a breath and goes up the walk to Mrs. Latch’s narrow front porch. It’s the secrecy, she tells herself; it’s the strangeness of what she’s just done, though there’s no real harm in it, is there? She’s not meeting a lover, like some wife from a cheap romance. She simply went away for a few hours, read her book, and came back. It’s a secret only because she can’t quite think how she’d explain, well, any of it—the kiss, the cake, the panicky moment when her car topped Chavez Ravine. She certainly doesn’t know how she’d explain two and a half hours spent reading in a rented room.

  She draws another breath. She rings Mrs. Latch’s rectangular, illuminated doorbell, which glows orange in the late-afternoon sun.

  Mrs. Latch opens the door almost immediately, as if she’d been standing right there, waiting. Mrs. Latch is florid, huge-hipped in Bermuda shorts, overly kind; her house is full of a rich brown smell, some sort of meat roasting, which unfurls from behind her when she opens the door.

  ‘‘Well, hello,’’ she says.

  ‘‘Hi,’’ Laura answers. ‘‘Sorry I’m late.’’

  ‘‘Not at all. We’ve been having a fine time. Come on in.’’

  Richie rushes in from the living room. He is flushed, alarmed, all but overwhelmed by love and relief. There is the feeling that Laura has caught him and Mrs. Latch at something; the feeling that they’ve both stopped what they were doing and hurriedly stashed some sort of evidence. No, she has a guilty conscience today; it’s just, she thinks, that he’s confused. He’s spent the last few hours in another realm altogether. Staying at

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  Mrs. Latch’s house, even for a few hours, he has begun losing track of his own life. He has begun to believe, and not happily, that he lives here, has perhaps always lived here, amid this massive yellow furniture, these grass-cloth-covered walls.

  Richie breaks into tears and runs toward her.

  ‘‘Oh, now,’’ Laura says, picking him up. She inhales his smell, the deep essence of him, a profound cleanliness, undefinable. Holding him, inhaling, she feels better.

  ‘‘He’s glad to see you,’’ Mrs. Latch says with elaborately hearty, bitter good cheer. Had she imagined she was some kind of treat for him, a favorite, and her house a house of marvels? Yes, she probably had. Does she suddenly resent him for being a momma’s boy? She probably does.

  ‘‘Hey there, Bug,’’ Laura says, close to her son’s small pink ear. She is proud of her maternal calm, her claim on the boy. She is embarrassed by his tears. Do people think she’s overprotective? Why does he do this so often?

  ‘‘Did you get it all done?’’ Mrs. Latch asks.

  ‘‘Yes. More or less. Thanks so much for taking him.’’

  ‘‘Oh, we had a fine time together,’’ she says heartily, angrily. ‘‘You can bring him by any time.’’ ‘‘Did you have fun?’’ Laura asks. ‘‘Uh-huh,’’ Richie says, his tears abating. His face is a min

  iature agony of hope, sorrow, and confusion.

  ‘‘Were you good?’’

  He nods.

  ‘‘Did you miss me?’’

  ‘‘Yes!’’ he says.

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  ‘‘Well, I had a lot to do,’’ Laura says. ‘‘We ha
ve to give your daddy a proper birthday tonight, don’t we?’’

  He nods. He continues staring at her with teary, abashed suspicion, as if she might not be his mother at all.

  Laura pays Mrs. Latch, accepts a bird of paradise from her yard. Mrs. Latch always offers something—a flower, cookies— as if that were the object of payment, and the babysitting were free. Laura, apologizing again for her tardiness, citing her husband’s imminent arrival, cuts short the customary fifteen-minute conversation, puts Richie in the car, and pulls away with a last, slightly exaggerated wave. Her three ivory bangles click together.

  Once they are away from Mrs. Latch, Laura says to Richie, ‘‘Boy oh boy, we’re in trouble now. We’ve got to race right home and get that dinner started. We should have been there an hour ago.’’

  He nods solemnly. The weight and grain of life reassert themselves; the nowhere feeling vanishes. This moment, now, midblock, as the car approaches a stop sign, is unexpectedly large and still, serene—Laura enters it the way she might enter a church from a noisy street. On either side, sprinklers throw brilliant cones of mist up over the lawns. Late sun gilds an aluminum carport. It is unutterably real. She knows herself as a wife and mother, pregnant again, driving home, as veils of water are tossed up into the air.

  Richie doesn’t speak. He watches her. Laura brakes for the stop sign. She says, ‘‘It’s a good thing Daddy works as late as he does. We’ll put it all together in time, don’t you think so?’’

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  She glances at him. She meets his eyes, and sees something there she can’t quite recognize. His eyes, his entire face, seem lit from within; he appears, for the first time, to be suffering from an emotion she can’t read.

  ‘‘Honey,’’ she says, ‘‘what is it?’’

  He says, louder than necessary, ‘‘Mommy, I love you.’’

  There is something odd in his voice, something chilling. It is a tone she’s never heard from him before. He sounds frantic, foreign. He could be a refugee, someone with only rudimentary English, trying desperately to convey a need for which he has not learned the proper phrase.

 
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