The hours, p.9
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       The Hours, p.9

           Michael Cunningham
 
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  ‘‘When is Ray’s birthday?’’ she says, because she has to say something. ‘‘September,’’ Kitty answers. She returns to the kitchen table. What more can be said about the cake?

  Laura follows with the coffee cups. Kitty needs friends (her own husband’s earnest, slightly stunned charm is not holding up particularly well in the larger world, and there is the matter of their continued childlessness), and so Laura is someone she visits, someone from whom she asks favors. Still, they both know how relentlessly Kitty would have snubbed her in high school, had they been the same age. In another life, not very much unlike this one, they’d have been enemies, but in this life, with its surprises and perversities of timing, Laura is married to a celebrated boy, a war hero, from Kitty’s graduating class and has joined the aristocracy in much the way a homely German princess, no longer young, might find herself seated on a throne beside an English king.

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  What surprises her—what occasionally horrifies her—is how much she revels in Kitty’s friendship. Kitty is precious, just as Laura’s husband is lovely. Kitty’s preciousness, the golden hush of her, the sense of enlarged moment she brings to a room, is like that of a movie star. She has a movie star’s singularity, a movie star’s flawed and idiosyncratic beauty; like a movie star she seems both common and heightened, in the way of Olivia De Havilland or Barbara Stanwyck. She is deeply, almost profoundly, popular.

  ‘‘How is Ray?’’ Laura asks as she sets a cup in front of Kitty. ‘‘I haven’t seen him in a while.’’

  Kitty’s husband is Laura’s chance to right the balance between them; to offer Kitty her sympathy. Ray is not an embarrassment, exactly—not a complete failure—but he is somehow Kitty’s version of Laura’s cake, writ large. He was Kitty’s high-school boyfriend. He played center on the basketball team, and went on to do well but not spectacularly at USC. He spent seven months as a prisoner of war in the Philippines. He is now some sort of mysterious functionary in the Department of Water and Power, and already, at thirty, is beginning to demonstrate how heroic boys can, by infinitesimal degrees, for no visible reasons, metamorphose into middle-aged drubs. Ray is crew-cut, reliable, myopic; he is full of liquids. He sweats copiously. Small bubbles of clear spit form at the sides of his mouth whenever he speaks at length. Laura imagines (it’s impossible not to) that when they make love he must spurt rivers, as opposed to her own husband’s modest burble. Why, then, are there still no children?

  ‘‘He’s fine,’’ Kitty says. ‘‘He’s Ray. He’s the same.’’

  ‘‘Dan’s the same, too,’’ Laura says kindly, empathically. ‘‘These guys are something, aren’t they?’’

  She thinks of the gifts she’s bought her husband; the gifts he will appreciate, even cherish, but which he does not in any way want. Why did she marry him? She married him out of love. She married him out of guilt; out of fear of being alone; out of patriotism. He was simply too good, too kind, too earnest, too sweet-smelling not to marry. He had suffered so much. He wanted her.

  She touches her belly.

  Kitty says, ‘‘You can say that again.’’

  ‘‘Don’t you ever wonder what makes them tick? I mean, Dan’s like a bulldozer. Nothing seems to bother him.’’

  Kitty shrugs dramatically, rolls her eyes. She and Laura, at this moment, could be high-school girls, best friends, complaining about boys who will soon be replaced by other boys. Laura would like to ask Kitty a question, one she can’t quite phrase. The question has to do with subterfuge and, more obscurely, with brilliance. She would like to know if Kitty feels like a strange woman, powerful and unbalanced the way artists are said to be, full of vision, full of rage, committed above all to creating . . . what? This. This kitchen, this birthday cake, this conversation. This revived world.

  Laura says, ‘‘We’ve got to get together soon, really. It’s been ages.’’ ‘‘This is such good coffee,’’ Kitty says, sipping. ‘‘What brand do you use?’’ ‘‘I don’t know. No, of course I know. Folgers. What brand do you use?’’

  ‘‘Maxwell House. It’s good, too.’’

  ‘‘Mm-hm.’’

  ‘‘Still. I’m thinking of switching. I don’t know why, really.’’

  ‘‘Well. This is Folgers.’’

  ‘‘Right. It’s good.’’

  Kitty looks into her coffee cup with elaborately false, foolish absorption. She seems, briefly, like a simple, ordinary woman seated at a kitchen table. Her magic evaporates; it is possible to see how she’ll look at fifty—she’ll be fat, mannish, leathery, wry and ironic about her marriage, one of those women of whom people say, She used to be quite pretty, you know. The world is already, subtly, beginning to leave her behind. Laura stabs out her cigarette, thinks of lighting another, decides against it. She makes good coffee carelessly; she takes good care of her husband and child; she lives in this house where no one wants, no one owes, no one suffers. She is pregnant with another child. What does it matter if she is neither glamorous nor a paragon of domestic competence?

  ‘‘So,’’ she says to Kitty. She is surprised at the power in her own voice; the hint of steel.

  ‘‘Well,’’ Kitty says.

  ‘‘What is it? Is everything all right?’’

  Kitty sits motionless for a moment, looking neither at Laura nor away from her. She gathers into herself. She sits the way one sits among strangers on a train.

  She says, ‘‘I have to go into the hospital for a couple of days.’’

  ‘‘What’s the matter?’’

  ‘‘They don’t know, exactly. I have some kind of growth.’’

  ‘‘My lord.’’

  ‘‘It’s in, you know. My insides.’’

  ‘‘I beg your pardon?’’

  ‘‘My uterus. They’re going to go in and have a look.’’

  ‘‘When?’’

  ‘‘This afternoon. Dr. Rich said sooner’s better than later. I need you to feed the dog.’’

  ‘‘Of course. What did the doctor say, exactly?’’

  ‘‘Just that there’s something there, and they need to find out what. It’s probably—what the trouble’s been. About getting pregnant.’’

  ‘‘Well,’’ Laura says. ‘‘Then they can get rid of it.’’

  ‘‘He says they have to see. He says there’s no point in worrying, not at all, but that they have to see.’’

  Laura watches Kitty, who does not move or speak, does not cry.

  ‘‘It’ll be all right,’’ Laura says.

  ‘‘Yes. Probably it will. I’m not worried. What would be the point of worrying?’’

  Laura is filled with sorrow and tenderness. Here is Kitty the powerful, Kitty the May Queen, ill and frightened. Here is Kitty’s pretty gold wristwatch; here is the quick unraveling of her life. Laura has always imagined, as have most others, that Ray is the problem—Ray with his obscure job in a municipal office; his bubbles of spit; his bow ties; his bourbon. Kitty has seemed, until this moment, like a figure of bright and tragic dignity—a woman standing by her man. So many of these men are not quite what they were (no one likes to talk about it); so

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  many women live uncomplainingly with the quirks and silences, the fits of depression, the drinking. Kitty has seemed, simply, heroic.

  The trouble, however, turns out to reside with Kitty, after all. Laura knows, or believes she knows, that there is in fact something to worry about. She sees that Kitty and Ray, their trim little house, are invaded by misfortune; they are half devoured by it. Kitty may not, after all, become that hale, leathery fifty-year-old.

  ‘‘Come here,’’ Laura says, as she would say to her child, and as if Kitty were Laura’s child she does not wait for Kitty to obey but goes to her. She takes Kitty’s shoulders in her hands and, after an awkward moment, bends down until she is practically kneeling. She is aware of how big she is, how tall, next to Kitty. She embraces her.

  Kitty hesitates, then lets herself be held. She surrenders. She does not cry
. Laura can feel the relinquishment; she can feel Kitty give herself over. She thinks, This is how a man feels, holding a woman.

  Kitty snakes her arms around Laura’s waist. Laura is flooded with feeling. Here, right here in her arms, are Kitty’s fear and courage, Kitty’s illness. Here are her breasts. Here is the stout, practical heart that beats beneath; here are the watery lights of her being—deep pink lights, red-gold lights, glittering, unsteady; lights that gather and disperse; here are the depths of Kitty, the heart beneath the heart; the untouchable essence that a man (Ray, of all people!) dreams of, yearns toward, searches for so desperately at night. Here it is, in daylight, in Laura’s

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  arms. Without quite meaning to, without deciding to, she kisses Kitty, lingeringly, on the top of her forehead. She is full of Kitty’s perfume and the crisp, clean essence of Kitty’s brown-blond hair.

  ‘‘I’m fine,’’ Kitty whispers. ‘‘Really.’’

  ‘‘I know you are,’’ Laura answers.

  ‘‘If anything, I’m worried about Ray. He doesn’t actually manage all that well, not with something like this.’’

  ‘‘Forget about Ray for a minute,’’ Laura says. ‘‘Just forget about him.’’

  Kitty nods against Laura’s breasts. The question has been silently asked and silently answered, it seems. They are both afflicted and blessed, full of shared secrets, striving every moment. They are each impersonating someone. They are weary and beleaguered; they have taken on such enormous work.

  Kitty lifts her face, and their lips touch. They both know what they are doing. They rest their mouths, each on the other. They touch their lips together, but do not quite kiss.

  It is Kitty who pulls away.

  ‘‘You’re sweet,’’ she says.

  Laura releases Kitty. She steps back. She has gone too far, they’ve both gone too far, but it is Kitty who’s pulled away first. It is Kitty whose terrors have briefly propelled her, caused her to act strangely and desperately. Laura is the dark-eyed predator. Laura is the odd one, the foreigner, the one who can’t be trusted. Laura and Kitty agree, silently, that this is true.

  Laura glances over at Richie. He is still holding the red truck. He is still watching.

  ‘‘Please don’t worry,’’ Laura says to Kitty. ‘‘You’ll be fine.’’

  Kitty stands, gracefully, without haste. ‘‘You know the routine, right? Just give him half a can in the evening, and check his water every now and then. Ray can feed him in the morning.’’

  ‘‘Is Ray driving you to the hospital?’’

  ‘‘Mm-hm.’’

  ‘‘Don’t worry. I’ll take care of things here.’’

  ‘‘Thank you.’’

  Kitty looks briefly around the room with an expression of weary approval, as if she had decided, somewhat against her better judgment, to buy this house after all, and see what she can do about fixing it up.

  ‘‘Bye,’’ she says.

  ‘‘I’ll call you tomorrow, at the hospital.’’

  ‘‘Okay.’’

  With a reluctant smile, a small compression of her lips, Kitty turns and leaves.

  Laura faces her little boy, who stares at her nervously, suspiciously, adoringly. She is, above all else, tired; she wants more than anything to return to her bed and her book. The world, this world, feels suddenly stunned and stunted, far from everything. There is the heat falling evenly on the streets and houses; there is the single string of stores referred to, locally, as downtown. There is the supermarket and the drugstore and the dry cleaner’s; there is the beauty parlor and the stationery shop and the five-and-dime; there is the one-story stucco library, with its newspapers on wooden poles and its shelves of slumbering books.

  . . . life, London, this moment of June.

  Laura leads her son back into the living room, reintroduces him to his tower of colored wooden blocks. Once he is settled, she returns to the kitchen and, without hesitation, picks up the cake and tips it from its milk-glass platter into the garbage can. It lands with a surprisingly solid sound; a yellow rose is smeared along the can’s curved side. She immediately feels relieved, as if steel cords have been loosened from around her chest. She can start over now. According to the clock on the wall, it is barely ten-thirty. She has plenty of time to make another cake. This time, she will prevent crumbs from getting caught in the icing. This time, she will trace the letters with a toothpick, so they’ll be centered, and she’ll leave the roses for last.

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  Mrs . Wo olf

  She is reading proofs with Leonard and Ralph when Lottie announces that Mrs. Bell and the children have arrived.

  ‘‘That can’t be,’’ Virginia says. ‘‘It’s not two-thirty yet. They’re coming at four.’’

  ‘‘They’re here, ma’am,’’ says Lottie in her slightly numbed tone. ‘‘Mrs. Bell has gone straight into the parlor.’’

  Marjorie glances up from the parcel of books she’s been wrapping in twine (she, unlike Ralph, will compliantly wrap parcels and sort type, which is a blessing and a disappointment). She says, ‘‘Is it two-thirty already? I’d hoped to have these off by now.’’ Virginia does not wince, not visibly, at the sound of Marjorie’s voice.

  Leonard says sternly to Virginia, ‘‘I can’t stop working. I will make my contracted appearance at four o’clock, and if Vanessa chooses to remain that long, I’ll see her then.’’

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  ‘‘Don’t worry, I’ll attend to Vanessa,’’ Virginia says, and as she stands she’s aware of her disheveled housedress, the lank disorder of her hair. It’s only my sister, she thinks, but still, after all this time, after everything that’s happened, she wants to inspire in Vanessa a certain surprised admiration. Still she wants her sister to think, ‘‘The goat’s really looking rather well, isn’t she?’’

  Virginia is not looking particularly well, and there’s not much she can do about it, but at least by four o’clock she’d have fixed her hair and changed her dress. She follows Lottie upstairs, and as she passes the oval mirror that hangs in the foyer she is tempted, briefly, to look at her reflection. But she can’t. Squaring her shoulders, she enters the parlor. Vanessa will be her mirror, just as she’s always been. Vanessa is her ship, her strip of green coastline where bees hum among the grapes.

  She kisses Vanessa, chastely, on the mouth.

  ‘‘Darling,’’ says Virginia, holding her sister’s shoulders in her hands. ‘‘If I tell you I’m enchanted to see you now, I’m sure you can imagine how ecstatic I’d have been to see you at the hour you were actually expected.’’

  Vanessa laughs. Vanessa is firm of face, her skin a brilliant, scalded pink. Although she is three years older, she looks younger than Virginia, and both of them know it. If Virginia has the austere, parched beauty of a Giotto fresco, Vanessa is more like a figure sculpted in rosy marble by a skilled but minor artist of the late Baroque. She is a distinctly earthly and even decorative figure, all billows and scrolls, her face and body rendered in an affectionate, slightly sentimentalized attempt to de

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  pict a state of human abundance so lavish it edges over into the ethereal.

  ‘‘Forgive me,’’ Vanessa says. ‘‘We got finished in London earlier than I’d ever imagined we would, and our only other choice was to drive in circles around Richmond until four o’clock.’’

  ‘‘And what have you done with the children?’’ Virginia asks.

  ‘‘They’ve gone around to the garden. Quentin found a dying bird in the road, and they seem to believe it needs to be in the garden.’’

  ‘‘I’m sure their old Aunt Virginia is no competition for that. Shall we go out to them?’’

  As they leave the house, Vanessa takes Virginia’s hand in much the way she would take the hand of one of her children. It is almost as irritating as it is satisfying that Vanessa feels so proprietary; so certain she can arrive a full hour and a half before she’s invited. Here she is, then; here is her hand. If only Virgini
a had had time to do a little something with her hair.

  She says, ‘‘I’ve packed Nelly off to London for sugared ginger for our tea. You can expect it in about an hour, along with a nice little draught of Nelly’s heart’s blood.’’

  ‘‘Nelly must bear it,’’ Vanessa says. Yes, Virginia thinks, that’s it, just that tone of stern, rueful charity—that is how one speaks to servants, and to sisters. There’s an art to it, as there’s an art to everything, and much of what Vanessa has to teach is contained in these seemingly effortless gestures. One arrives early or late, claiming airily that it could not be helped. One

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  offers one’s hand with motherly assurance. One says, Nelly must bear it, and by so doing forgives servant and mistress alike.

  In the garden, Vanessa’s children kneel in a circle on the grass near the rosebushes. How astonishing they are: three beings, fully clothed, conjured out of nothing. One moment there are two young sisters cleaving to each other, breast against breast, lips ready, and then the next moment, it seems, there are two middle-aged married women standing together on a modest bit of lawn before a body of children (Vanessa’s, of course, all Vanessa’s; there are none of Virginia’s, and there will be none). Here is grave, handsome Julian; here is ruddy Quentin holding the bird (a thrush) in his red hands; here is little Angelica, crouched slightly apart from her brothers, frightened, fascinated by this handful of gray feathers. Years ago, when Julian was a baby, when Virginia and Vanessa were thinking of names for children and for characters in novels, Virginia had suggested that Vanessa name her future daughter Clarissa.

  ‘‘Hello, changelings,’’ Virginia calls.

 
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