The hours, p.5
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       The Hours, p.5

           Michael Cunningham
 
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  She turns down Bleecker, goes up Thompson. The neighborhood today is an imitation of itself, a watered-down carnival

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  for tourists, and Clarissa, at fifty-two, knows that behind these doors and down these alleys lies nothing more or less than people living their lives. Grotesquely, some of the same bars and coffeehouses are still here, done up now to resemble themselves for the benefit of Germans and Japanese. The stores all sell essentially the same things: souvenir T-shirts, cheap silver jewelry, cheap leather jackets.

  At Richard’s building she lets herself in through the vestibule door and thinks, as she always does, of the word ‘‘squalid.’’ It is almost funny, the way the entrance to Richard’s building so perfectly demonstrates the concept of squalor. It is so obviously, dreadfully squalid that it still surprises her slightly, even after all these years. It surprises her in almost the way a rare and remarkable object, a work of art, can continue to surprise; simply because it remains, throughout time, so purely and utterly itself. Here again, surprisingly, are the faded yellow-beige walls, more or less the color of an arrowroot biscuit; here is the fluorescent panel on the ceiling emitting its sputtering, watery glare. It is worse—much worse—that the cramped little lobby was cheaply and half heartedly renovated a decade ago. The lobby is far more discouraging with its soiled white brick-patterned linoleum and its artificial ficus tree than it could possibly have been in its original decrepitude. Only the ancient marble wainscoting—a palomino-colored marble, veined in blue and gray with a deep yellow, smoky overlay, like a very fine old cheese, now hideously echoed by the yellowish walls—indicates that this was once a building of some consequence; that hopes were nurtured here; that upon entering the lobby people were ex

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  pected to feel as if they were moving in an orderly fashion into a future that held something worth having.

  She gets into the elevator, a tiny chamber of intensified, bleached brightness, paneled in wood-grain metal, and pushes the button for the fifth floor. The elevator door sighs and rattles shut. Nothing happens. Of course. It works only intermittently; in fact, it is something of a relief to abandon it and climb the stairs instead. Clarissa presses the button marked with a chipped white ‘‘O’’ and, after a nervous hesitation, the door rattles open again. She is always afraid of getting trapped between floors in this elevator—she can all too easily imagine the long, long wait; the cries for help to tenants who might or might not speak English and who might or might not care to intervene; the strange numbing deathlike fear of standing there, alone, for a considerable time, in the brilliant, stale-smelling emptiness, either looking or not looking at her distorted reflection in the dim circular mirror fastened to the upper right-hand corner. It is better, really, to find the elevator frankly inoperable, and to walk up five flights. It is better to be free.

  She mounts the stairs, feeling both weary and bridal—virginal—with her armload of flowers. The treads of the stairs, chipped, worn down at their centers, are made of a peculiar, milky-black, rubberish substance. At each of the four landings a window offers a different view of laundry hanging from lines: flowered sheets, baby clothes, sweatpants; lurid in their inexpensive newness; not at all the sort of old-fashioned laundry— dark socks and elaborate women’s underwear, faded housedresses, luminous white shirts—that would make the air shaft

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  feel like something ordinary but marvelous, preserved from another time. Squalid, she thinks again. Simply, squalid.

  Richard’s hallway, painted the same arrowroot-biscuit color, is still tiled as it must have been at the turn of the century (the linoleum gives out, mysteriously, on the second story); its floor, bordered in a mosaic of geometric, pale-yellow flowers, bears a single cigarette butt stained with red lipstick. Clarissa knocks at Richard’s door, pauses, knocks again.

  ‘‘Who is it?’’

  ‘‘Just me.’’

  ‘‘Who?’’

  ‘‘Clarissa.’’

  ‘‘Oh, Mrs. D. Oh, come in.’’

  Isn’t it time, she thinks, to dispense with the old nickname? If he’s having a good enough day, she’ll bring it up: Richard, don’t you think it’s time to just call me Clarissa?

  She opens the door with her key. She can hear Richard speaking in the other room, in a low, amused voice, as if he is imparting scandalous secrets. She can’t tell what he is saying— she makes out the word ‘‘hurl,’’ which is followed by Richard’s low, rumbling laugh, a slightly pained sound, as if laughter were something sharp that had caught in his throat.

  Well, Clarissa thinks, it’s another day of this, then—not a day, certainly, to bring up the subject of names.

  How can she help resenting Evan and all the others who got the new drugs in time; all the fortunate (‘‘fortunate’’ being, of course, a relative term) men and women whose minds had not yet been eaten into lace by the virus. How can she help feeling

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  angry on behalf of Richard, whose muscles and organs have been revived by the new discoveries but whose mind seems to have passed beyond any sort of repair other than the conferring of good days among the bad.

  His apartment is, as always, dim and close, overheated, full of the sage and juniper incense Richard burns to cover the smells of illness. It is unutterably cluttered, inhabited here and there by a wan circle of pulverized non-dark emanating from the brown-shaded lamps in which Richard will tolerate no bulb more powerful than fifteen watts. The apartment has, more than anything, an underwater aspect. Clarissa walks through it as she would negotiate the hold of a sunken ship. It would not be entirely surprising if a small school of silver fish darted by in the half-light. These rooms do not seem, in any serious way, to be part of the building in which they happen to occur, and when Clarissa enters and closes behind her the big, creaky door with the four locks (two of them broken) she feels, always, as if she has passed through a dimensional warp—through the looking glass, as it were; as if the lobby, stairwell, and hallway exist in another realm altogether; another time.

  ‘‘Good morning,’’ she calls.

  ‘‘Is it still morning?’’

  ‘‘Yes. It is.’’

  Richard is in the second room. The apartment contains only two rooms: the kitchen (into which one enters) and the large other room, where Richard’s life (what remains of it) is conducted. Clarissa passes through the kitchen, with its ancient stove and large white bathtub (dimly luminous as marble in the

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  room’s eternal dusk), its faint odor of gas and old cooking, its piled-up cardboard cartons full of . . . who knows what?, its gilt-framed oval mirror that gives back (always a bit of a shock, no matter how thoroughly expected) her pale reflection. Over the years, she has gotten used to ignoring the mirror.

  Here is the Italian coffeemaker she bought for him, all chrome and black steel, beginning to join the general aspect of dusty disuse. Here are the copper pans she bought.

  Richard, in the other room, sits in his chair. The shades are drawn and all six or seven lamps are lit, though their feeble output barely adds up to the illuminating power of one ordinary desk lamp. Richard, in the far corner, in his absurd flannel robe (an adult-size version of a child’s robe, ink-blue, covered with rockets and helmeted astronauts), is as gaunt and majestic, and as foolish, as a drowned queen still seated on her throne.

  He has stopped whispering. He sits with his head thrown back slightly and his eyes closed, as if listening to music.

  ‘‘Good morning, my dear,’’ Clarissa says again.

  He opens his eyes. ‘‘Look at all those flowers.’’

  ‘‘They’re for you.’’

  ‘‘Have I died?’’

  ‘‘They’re for the party. How’s your headache this morning?’’

  ‘‘Better. Thank you.’’

  ‘‘Did you sleep?’’

  ‘‘I don’t remember. Yes. I believe I did. Thank you.’’

  ‘‘Richard, it’s a beautiful summer day.
How about if I let in a little light?’’

  ‘‘If you like.’’

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  She goes to the nearest of the three windows and, with some difficulty, raises the oiled-canvas shade. A compromised day-light—that which angles down between Richard’s building and its chocolate-brick sister fifteen feet away—falls into the room. Across the alley is the window of a peevish old widow, with its glass and ceramic figures on the windowsill (a donkey pulling a cart, a clown, a grinning squirrel) and its venetian blinds. Clarissa turns. Richard’s face, its hollows and deep, fleshly folds, its high glossy forehead and smashed pugilist’s nose, seems to rise up out of the darkness like a sunken sculpture hauled to the surface.

  ‘‘Awfully bright,’’ he says.

  ‘‘Light is good for you.’’

  She goes to him, kisses the curve of his forehead. Up close like this, she can smell his various humors. His pores exude not only his familiar sweat (which has always smelled good to her, starchy and fermented; sharp in the way of wine) but the smell of his medicines, a powdery, sweetish smell. He smells, too, of unfresh flannel (though the laundry is done once a week, or oftener) and slightly, horribly (it is his only repellent smell), of the chair in which he spends his days.

  Richard’s chair, particularly, is insane; or, rather, it is the chair of someone who, if not actually insane, has let things slide so far, has gone such a long way toward the exhausted relinquishment of ordinary caretaking—simple hygiene, regular nourishment—that the difference between insanity and hopelessness is difficult to pinpoint. The chair—an elderly, square, overstuffed armchair obesely balanced on slender blond

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  wooden legs—is ostentatiously broken and worthless. It is upholstered in something nubbly, no-colored, woolen, shot through (this is, somehow, its most sinister aspect) with silver thread. Its square arms and back are so worn down, so darkened by the continual application of friction and human oils, that they resemble the tender parts of an elephant’s hide. Its coils are visible—perfect rows of pale, rusty rings—not only through the cushion of the seat but through the thin yellow towel Richard has draped over the cushion. The chair smells fetid and deeply damp, unclean; it smells of irreversible rot. If it were hauled out into the street (when it is hauled out into the street), no one would pick it up. Richard will not hear of its being replaced.

  ‘‘Are they here today?’’ Clarissa asks.

  ‘‘No,’’ Richard answers, with the reluctant candor of a child. ‘‘They’re gone now. They’re very beautiful and quite terrible.’’

  ‘‘Yes,’’ she says. ‘‘I know.’’

  ‘‘I think of them as coalescences of black fire, I mean they’re dark and bright at the same time. There was one that looked a bit like a black, electrified jellyfish. They were singing, just now, in a foreign language. I believe it may have been Greek. Archaic Greek.’’

  ‘‘Are you afraid of them?’’

  ‘‘No. Well, sometimes.’’

  ‘‘I think I’m going to talk to Bing about increasing your medication, would that be all right?’’ He sighs wearily. ‘‘The fact that I sometimes don’t hear them or see them doesn’t mean they’re gone,’’ he says.

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  ‘‘But if you don’t hear them or see them,’’ Clarissa says, ‘‘you can rest. Honestly, you didn’t sleep at all last night, did you?’’

  ‘‘Oh, a little. I’m not so worried about sleep. I’m much more worried about you. You look so thin today, how are you?’’

  ‘‘I’m fine. I can only stay a minute. I’ve got to get the flowers in water.’’

  ‘‘Right, right. The flowers, the party. Oh, my.’’

  ‘‘I saw a movie star on my way over here,’’ Clarissa says. ‘‘I think that’s probably a good omen, don’t you?’’

  Richard smiles wistfully. ‘‘Oh, well, omens,’’ he says. ‘‘Do you believe in omens? Do you think we’re taken that much notice of ? Do you think we’re worried over like that? My, wouldn’t that be wonderful? Well, maybe it’s so.’’

  He will not ask the name of the movie star; he actually does not care. Richard, alone among Clarissa’s acquaintance, has no essential interest in famous people. Richard genuinely does not recognize such distinctions. It is, Clarissa thinks, some combination of monumental ego and a kind of savantism. Richard cannot imagine a life more interesting or worthwhile than those being lived by his acquaintances and himself, and for that reason one often feels exalted, expanded, in his presence. He is not one of those egotists who miniaturize others. He is the opposite kind of egotist, driven by grandiosity rather than greed, and if he insists on a version of you that is funnier, stranger, more eccentric and profound than you suspect yourself to be—capable of doing more good and more harm in the world than you’ve ever imagined—it is all but impossible not to believe, at least in his presence and for a while after you’ve left him,

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  that he alone sees through to your essence, weighs your true qualities (not all of which are necessarily flattering—a certain clumsy, childish rudeness is part of his style), and appreciates you more fully than anyone else ever has. It is only after knowing him for some time that you begin to realize you are, to him, an essentially fictional character, one he has invested with nearly limitless capacities for tragedy and comedy not because that is your true nature but because he, Richard, needs to live in a world peopled by extreme and commanding figures. Some have ended their relations with him rather than continue as figures in the epic poem he is always composing inside his head, the story of his life and passions; but others (Clarissa among them) enjoy the sense of hyperbole he brings to their lives, have come even to depend on it, the way they depend on coffee to wake them up in the mornings and a drink or two to send them off at night.

  Clarissa says, ‘‘Superstitions are a comfort sometimes, I don’t know why you so adamantly refuse all comforts.’’

  ‘‘Do I? Oh, I don’t mean to. I like comforts. Some of them. I like some of them very much.’’

  ‘‘How are you feeling?’’

  ‘‘Well. Quite well. A bit ephemeral. I keep dreaming that I’m sitting in a room.’’

  ‘‘The party’s at five, do you remember? The party’s at five, and the ceremony comes after, at eight, uptown. You remember all that, don’t you?’’

  He says, ‘‘Yes.’’

  Then he says, ‘‘No.’’

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  ‘‘Which is it?’’ she asks.

  ‘‘Sorry. I seem to keep thinking things have already happened. When you asked if I remembered about the party and the ceremony, I thought you meant, did I remember having gone to them. And I did remember. I seem to have fallen out of time.’’

  ‘‘The party and ceremony are tonight. In the future.’’

  ‘‘I understand. In a way, I understand. But, you see, I seem to have gone into the future, too. I have a distinct recollection of the party that hasn’t happened yet. I remember the award ceremony perfectly.’’

  ‘‘Did they bring your breakfast this morning?’’ she asks.

  ‘‘What a question. They did.’’

  ‘‘And did you eat it?’’

  ‘‘I remember eating it. But it’s possible that I only meant to. Is there a breakfast lying around here somewhere?’’

  ‘‘Not as far as I can see.’’

  ‘‘Then I suppose I managed to eat it. Food doesn’t matter much, does it?’’

  ‘‘Food matters a great deal, Richard.’’

  He says, ‘‘I don’t know if I can bear it, Clarissa.’’

  ‘‘Bear what?’’

  ‘‘Being proud and brave in front of everybody. I recall it vividly. There I am, a sick, crazy wreck reaching out with trembling hands to receive his little trophy.’’

  ‘‘Honey, you don’t need to be proud. You don’t need to be brave. It’s not a performance.’’

  ‘‘Of course it is. I got a prize for my performance, you must

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  know that. I got a prize for having AIDS and going nuts and being brave about it, it had nothing to do with my work.’’

  ‘‘Stop this. Please. It has everything to do with your work.’’

  Richard draws and exhales a moist, powerful breath. Clarissa thinks of his lungs, glistening red pillows intricately embroidered with veins. They are, perversely, among his least compromised organs—for unknowable reasons, they have remained essentially unharmed by the virus. With that potent breath his eyes seem to focus, to gain greener depths.

  ‘‘You don’t think they’d give it to me if I were healthy, do you?’’ he says.

  ‘‘Why, yes, as a matter of fact, I do.’’

  ‘‘Please.’’

  ‘‘Well, then, maybe you should refuse it.’’

  ‘‘That’s the awful thing,’’ Richard says. ‘‘I want the prize. I do. It would be far easier if one cared either more or less about winning prizes. Is it here somewhere?’’

  ‘‘What?’’

  ‘‘The prize. I’d like to look at it.’’

  ‘‘You haven’t gotten it yet. It’s tonight.’’

  ‘‘Yes. That’s right. Tonight.’’

  ‘‘Richard, dear, listen to me. This can be simple. You can take simple, straightforward pleasure in this. I’ll be there with you, every minute.’’

  ‘‘I’d like that.’’

  ‘‘It’s a party. It’s only a party. It will be populated entirely by people who respect and admire you.’’ ‘‘Really? Who?’’

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  ‘‘You know who. Howard. Elisa. Martin Campo.’’

  ‘‘Martin Campo? Oh, my lord.’’

  ‘‘I thought you liked him. You’ve always said you did.’’

  ‘‘Oh, well, yes, I suppose the lion likes the zookeeper, too.’’

  ‘‘Martin Campo has steadfastly published you for over thirty years.’’

  ‘‘Who else is coming?’’

 
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