The hours, p.8
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       The Hours, p.8

           Michael Cunningham
 
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  Then the feeling moves on. It does not collapse; it is not whisked away. It simply moves on, like a train that stops at a small country station, stands for a while, and then continues out of sight. Clarissa pulls the flowers from their paper, puts them in the sink. She is disappointed and more than a little relieved. This is, in fact, her apartment, her collection of clay pots, her mate, her life. She wants no other. Feeling regular, neither elated nor depressed, simply present as Clarissa

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  Vaughan, a fortunate woman, professionally well regarded, giving a party for a celebrated and mortally ill artist, she goes back to the living room to check the messages on the answering machine. The party will go well or badly. Either way, she and Sally will have dinner afterward. They will go to bed.

  On the tape is the new caterer (he has an untraceable accent; what if he’s incompetent?) confirming his three o’clock delivery. There is a guest asking for permission to bring along a guest of her own, and another announcing that he has to leave town that morning to see a childhood friend whose AIDS has developed, unexpectedly, into leukemia.

  The machine clicks off. Clarissa pushes the rewind button. If Sally forgot to mention her lunch with Oliver St. Ives it’s probably because the invitation was made to Sally alone. Oliver St. Ives, the scandal, the hero, has not asked Clarissa to lunch. Oliver St. Ives, who came out spectacularly in Vanity Fair and was subsequently dropped from his leading role in an expensive thriller, has gained more notoriety as a gay activist than he could ever have hoped for had he continued posing as a heterosexual and cranking out pricey B-movies. Sally met Oliver St. Ives when he appeared on the very serious, very highbrow interview show she co-produces (which would never, of course, have considered him when he was just an action hero, and not one of the first rank). Sally has become someone he invites to lunch, though he and Clarissa have met several times by now and had what Clarissa recalls as a long and surprisingly intimate conversation at a fund-raiser. Doesn’t it matter that she’s the woman in the book? (Though the book, of course,

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  failed, and though Oliver, of course, probably reads very little.) Oliver did not say to Sally, ‘‘Be sure to bring that interesting woman you live with.’’ He probably thought Clarissa was a wife; only a wife. Clarissa returns to the kitchen. She isn’t jealous of Sally, it isn’t anything as cheap as that, but she cannot help feeling, in being passed over by Oliver St. Ives, the waning of the world’s interest in her and, more powerfully, the embarrassing fact that it matters to her even now, as she prepares a party for a man who may be a great artist and may not survive the year. I am trivial, endlessly trivial, she thinks. And yet. Going uninvited feels in some way like a minor demonstration of the world’s ability to get along without her. Being passed over by Oliver St. Ives (who probably did not consciously exclude her but simply did not think of her at all) resembles death the way a child’s shoebox diorama of a historic event resembles the event itself. It’s a tiny thing, bright, shabby, all felt and glue. But nevertheless. It isn’t failure, she tells herself. It isn’t failure to be in these rooms, in your skin, cutting the stems of flowers. It isn’t failure but it requires more of you, the whole effort does; just being present and grateful; being happy (terrible word). People don’t look at you on the street anymore, or if they do it is not with sexual notions of any sort. You are not invited to lunch by Oliver St. Ives. Outside the narrow kitchen window the city sails and rumbles. Lovers argue; cashiers ring up; young men and women shop for new clothes as the woman standing under the Washington Square Arch sings iiiii and you snip the end off a rose and put it in a vase full of hot water. You try to hold the moment, just here, in the kitchen with

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  the flowers. You try to inhabit it, to love it, because it’s yours and because what waits immediately outside these rooms is the hallway, with its brown tiles and its dim brown lamps that are always lit. Because even if the door to the trailer had opened, the woman inside, be she Meryl Streep or Vanessa Redgrave or even Susan Sarandon, would have been simply that, a woman in a trailer, and you could not possibly have done what you wanted to do. You could not have received her, there on the street; taken her in your arms; and wept with her. It would be so wonderful to cry like that, in the arms of a woman who was at once immortal and a tired, frightened person just emerged from a trailer. What you are, more than anything, is alive, right here in your kitchen, just as Meryl Streep and Vanessa Redgrave are alive somewhere, as traffic grumbles in from Sixth Avenue and the silver blades of the scissors cut juicily through a dark green stalk.

  That summer when she was eighteen, it seemed anything could happen, anything at all. It seemed that she could kiss her grave, formidable best friend down by the pond, it seemed that they could sleep together in a strange combination of lust and innocence, and not worry about what, if anything, it meant. It was the house, really, she thinks. Without the house they would simply have remained three undergraduates who smoked joints and argued in the dormitories at Columbia. It was the house. It was the chain of events initiated by the old aunt and uncle’s fatal congress with a produce truck on the outskirts of Plymouth, and Louis’s parents offering him and his friends the use, for the whole summer, of the suddenly vacated house,

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  where lettuce was still fresh in the refrigerator and a feral cat kept checking, with growing impatience, for the scraps it had always found outside the kitchen door. It was the house and the weather—the ecstatic unreality of it all—that helped turn Richard’s friendship into a more devouring kind of love, and it was those same elements, really, that brought Clarissa here, to this kitchen in New York City, where she stands on Italian slate (a mistake, it’s cold and subject to stains), cutting flowers and struggling, with only moderate success, to stop caring that Oliver St. Ives, the activist and ruined movie star, has not asked her to lunch.

  It was not betrayal, she had insisted; it was simply an expansion of the possible. She did not require fidelity of Richard— god forbid!—and she was not in any way extorting property that belonged to Louis. Louis didn’t think so, either (or at least wouldn’t admit to thinking so, but really, could it have been mere chance that he cut himself so often that summer, with various tools and kitchen knives, and that he required two separate trips to the local doctor for stitches?). It was 1965; love spent might simply engender more of the same. It seemed possible, at least. Why not have sex with everybody, as long as you wanted them and they wanted you? So Richard continued with Louis and started up with her as well, and it felt right; simply right. Not that sex and love were uncomplicated. Clarissa’s attempts with Louis, for instance, failed utterly. He was not interested in her nor she in him, for all his celebrated beauty. They both loved Richard, they both wanted Richard, and that would have to do as a bond between them. Not all

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  people were meant to be lovers, and they were not naı¨ve enough to try and force it beyond one stoned failure in the bed Louis would share, for the rest of the summer, only with Richard, on the nights Richard was not with Clarissa.

  How often since then has she wondered what might have happened if she’d tried to remain with him; if she’d returned Richard’s kiss on the corner of Bleecker and MacDougal, gone off somewhere (where?) with him, never bought the packet of incense or the alpaca coat with the rose-shaped buttons. Couldn’t they have discovered something . . . larger and stranger than what they’ve got? It is impossible not to imagine that other future, that rejected future, as taking place in Italy or France, among big sunny rooms and gardens; as being full of infidelities and great battles; as a vast and enduring romance laid over friendship so searing and profound it would accompany them to the grave and possibly even beyond. She could, she thinks, have entered another world. She could have had a life as potent and dangerous as literature itself.

  Or then again maybe not, Clarissa tells herself. That’s who I was. That’s who I am—a decent woman with a good apartment, with a stable and affectionate marriage, giv
ing a party. Venture too far for love, she tells herself, and you renounce citizenship in the country you’ve made for yourself. You end up just sailing from port to port.

  Still, there is this sense of missed opportunity. Maybe there is nothing, ever, that can equal the recollection of having been young together. Maybe it’s as simple as that. Richard was the person Clarissa loved at her most optimistic moment. Richard

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  had stood beside her at a pond’s edge at dusk, wearing cut-off jeans and rubber sandals. Richard had called her Mrs. Dalloway, and they had kissed. His mouth had opened into hers; his tongue (exciting and utterly familiar, she’d never forget it) had worked its way shyly inside until she met it with her own. They’d kissed, and walked around the pond together. In another hour they’d have dinner, and considerable quantities of wine. Clarissa’s copy of The Golden Notebook lay on the chipped white nightstand of the attic bedroom where she still slept alone; where Richard had not yet begun to spend alternate nights.

  It had seemed like the beginning of happiness, and Clarissa is still sometimes shocked, more than thirty years later, to realize that it was happiness; that the entire experience lay in a kiss and a walk, the anticipation of dinner and a book. The dinner is by now forgotten; Lessing has been long overshadowed by other writers; and even the sex, once she and Richard reached that point, was ardent but awkward, unsatisfying, more kindly than passionate. What lives undimmed in Clarissa’s mind more than three decades later is a kiss at dusk on a patch of dead grass, and a walk around a pond as mosquitoes droned in the darkening air. There is still that singular perfection, and it’s perfect in part because it seemed, at the time, so clearly to promise more. Now she knows: That was the moment, right then. There has been no other.

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  Mr s. Brown

  The cake is less than she’d hoped it would be. She tries not to mind. It is only a cake, she tells herself. It is only a cake. She and Richie have frosted it and she has, guiltily, invented something else for him to do while she squeezes yellow rosebuds onto the edges from a pastry tube and writes ‘‘Happy Birthday Dan’’ in white icing. She does not want the mess her son would make of it. Still, it has not turned out the way she’d pictured it; no, not at all. There’s nothing really wrong with it, but she’d imagined something more. She’d imagined it larger, more remarkable. She’d hoped (she admits to herself ) it would look more lush and beautiful, more wonderful. This cake she’s produced feels small, not just in the physical sense but as an entity. It looks amateurish; handmade. She tells herself, It’s fine. It’s a fine cake, everyone will love it. Its clumsy aspects (the scattering of crumbs caught in the icing, the

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  squashed appearance of the ‘‘n’’ in ‘‘Dan,’’ which got too close to a rose) are part of its charm. She washes the dishes. She thinks about the rest of the day.

  She will make the beds, vacuum the rugs. She will wrap the presents she’s bought for her husband: a necktie and a new shirt, both more expensive and elegant than the ones he buys for himself; a boar-bristle brush; a small pungent leather case that contains nail clippers, a nail file, and tweezers, for him to take with him when he travels, as he does occasionally, for the agency. He will be happy with all these gifts, or appear to be happy; he will whistle and say ‘‘Get a load of this’’ when he sees the expensive shirt and tie. He will kiss her, enthusiastically, with each present, and tell her she’s done too much, she shouldn’t have, he doesn’t deserve such fine things. Why, she wonders, does it seem that she could give him anything, anything at all, and receive essentially the same response. Why does he desire nothing, really, beyond what he’s already got? He is impenetrable in his ambitions and satisfactions, his love of job and home. This, she reminds herself, is a virtue. It is part of his loveliness (she would never use that word in his presence, but privately she thinks of him as lovely, a lovely man, for she has seen him at his most private moments, whimpering over a dream, sitting in the bathtub with his sex shrunk to a stub, floating, heartbreakingly innocent). It is good, she reminds herself—it is lovely—that her husband cannot be touched by ephemera; that his happiness depends only on the fact of her, here in the house, living her life, thinking of him.

  Her cake is a failure, but she is loved anyway. She is loved,

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  she thinks, in more or less the way the gifts will be appreciated: because they’ve been given with good intentions, because they exist, because they are part of a world in which one wants what one gets.

  What would she prefer, then? Would she rather have her gifts scorned, her cake sneered at? Of course not. She wants to be loved. She wants to be a competent mother reading calmly to her child; she wants to be a wife who sets a perfect table. She does not want, not at all, to be the strange woman, the pathetic creature, full of quirks and rages, solitary, sulking, tolerated but not loved.

  Virginia Woolf put a stone into the pocket of her coat, walked into a river, and drowned.

  Laura will not let herself go morbid. She’ll make the beds, vacuum, cook the birthday dinner. She will not mind, about anything.

  Someone taps at the back door. Laura, washing the last of the dishes, can see the faint outline of Kitty through the filmy white curtain. Here is the vague halo of Kitty’s brown-blond hair, the scrubbed pink blur of her face. Laura swallows a pang of excitement and something stronger than excitement, something that resembles panic. She is about to receive a visit from Kitty. Her hair is hardly brushed; she is still wearing her bathrobe. She looks, too much, like the woman of sorrows. She wants to rush to the door and she wants to stand here, immobile, at the sink, until Kitty gives up and goes away. She might actually have done it, stood motionless, holding her breath (can Kitty see inside, would she know?), but there is the

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  problem of Richie, witness to everything, running now into the kitchen, holding a red plastic truck, shouting with a mix of delight and alarm that someone’s at the door.

  Laura dries her hands on a dish towel covered with red roosters, and opens the door. It’s only Kitty, she tells herself. It’s only her friend from two doors down, and this, of course, is what people do. They drop by and are received; it doesn’t matter about your hair or your robe. It doesn’t matter about the cake.

  ‘‘Hi, Kitty,’’ she says.

  ‘‘Am I interrupting anything?’’ Kitty asks.

  ‘‘Of course not. Come on in.’’

  Kitty enters, and brings with her an aura of cleanliness and a domestic philosophy; a whole vocabulary of avid, nervy movements. She is an attractive, robust, fleshy, large-headed woman several years younger than Laura (it seems that everyone, suddenly, is at least slightly younger than she). Kitty’s features, her small eyes and delicate nose, are crowded into the center of her round face. In school she was one of several authoritative, aggressive, not quite beautiful girls so potent in their money and their athletic confidence they simply stood where they stood and insisted that the local notion of desirability be reconfigured to include them. Kitty and her friends— steady, stolid, firm-featured, large-spirited, capable of deep loyalties and terrible cruelties—were the queens of the various festivals, the cheerleaders, the stars of the plays.

  ‘‘I need a favor,’’ Kitty says.

  ‘‘Sure,’’ Laura says. ‘‘Can you sit a minute?’’

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  ‘‘Mm-hm.’’ Kitty sits at the kitchen table. She says a friendly, slightly dismissive hello to the little boy as he watches suspiciously, even angrily (why has she come?) from a place of relative safety near the stove. Kitty, with no children of her own yet (people are starting to wonder), does not attempt to seduce the children of others. They can come to her, if they like; she will not go to them.

  ‘‘I’ve got coffee on,’’ Laura says. ‘‘Would you like a cup?’’

  ‘‘Sure.’’

  She pours a cup of coffee for Kitty, and one for herself. She glances nervously at the cake, wishing she could hide it. There are cru
mbs caught in the icing. The ‘‘n’’ in ‘‘Dan’’ is squashed against a rose.

  Following Laura’s eyes, Kitty says, ‘‘Oh, look, you made a cake.’’

  ‘‘It’s Dan’s birthday.’’

  Kitty gets up, comes and stands beside Laura. Kitty wears a white short-sleeved blouse, green plaid shorts, and straw sandals that make a small, crisp sound when she walks.

  ‘‘Aw, look,’’ she says.

  ‘‘One of my maiden attempts,’’ Laura says. ‘‘It’s harder than you’d think, writing in frosting.’’

  She hopes she is careless, debonair, charmingly unconcerned. Why did she put the roses on first, when any idiot would have known to begin with the message? She finds a cigarette. She is someone who smokes and drinks coffee in the mornings, who is raising a family, who has Kitty as a friend, who doesn’t mind if her cakes are less than perfect. She lights her cigarette.

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  ‘‘It’s cute,’’ Kitty says, and punctures Laura’s brash, cigarette self at its inception. The cake is cute, Kitty tells her, the way a child’s painting might be cute. It is sweet and touching in its heartfelt, agonizingly sincere discrepancy between ambition and facility. Laura understands: There are two choices only. You can be capable or uncaring. You can produce a masterful cake by your own hand or, barring that, light a cigarette, declare yourself hopeless at such projects, pour yourself another cup of coffee, and order a cake from the bakery. Laura is an artisan who has tried, and failed, publicly. She has produced something cute, when she had hoped (it’s embarrassing, but true) to produce something of beauty.

 
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