The hours, p.17
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       The Hours, p.17

           Michael Cunningham
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  Dan lets Richie remove the burnt-out candles before guiding his son’s hands in slicing the cake. Laura watches. The dining room seems, right now, like the most perfect imaginable dining room, with its hunter-green walls and its dark maple hutch holding a trove of wedding silver. The room seems almost impossibly full: full of the lives of her husband and son; full of the future. It matters; it shines. Much of the world, whole countries, have been decimated, but a force that feels unambiguously like goodness has prevailed; even Kitty, it seems, will be healed by medical science. She will be healed. And if she’s not, if she’s past help, Dan and Laura and their son and the promise of the second child will all still be here, in this room, where a little boy frowns in concentration over the job of re


  moving the candles and where his father holds one up to his mouth and exhorts him to lick off the frosting.

  Laura reads the moment as it passes. Here it is, she thinks; there it goes. The page is about to turn.

  She smiles at her son, serenely, from a distance. He smiles back. He licks the end of a burnt-out candle. He makes another wish.


  Mrs . Wo olf

  She tries to concentrate on the book in her lap. Soon she and Leonard will leave Hogarth House and move to London. It has been decided. Virginia has won. She struggles to concentrate. The beef scraps have been scraped away, the table swept, the dishes washed.

  She will go to the theater and concert halls. She will go to parties. She will haunt the streets, see everything, fill herself up with stories.

  ... life; London ...

  She will write and write. She will finish this book, then write another. She will remain sane and she will live as she was meant to live, richly and deeply, among others of her kind, in full possession and command of her gifts.

  She thinks, suddenly, of Vanessa’s kiss.

  The kiss was innocent—innocent enough—but it was also


  full of something not unlike what Virginia wants from London, from life; it was full of a love complex and ravenous, ancient, neither this nor that. It will serve as this afternoon’s manifestation of the central mystery itself, the elusive brightness that shines from the edges of certain dreams; the brightness which, when we awaken, is already fading from our minds, and which we rise in the hope of finding, perhaps today, this new day in which anything might happen, anything at all. She, Virginia, has kissed her sister, not quite innocently, behind Nelly’s broad, moody back, and now she is in a room with a book on her lap. She is a woman who will move to London.

  Clarissa Dalloway will have loved a woman, yes; another woman, when she was young. She and the woman will have had a kiss, one kiss, like the singular enchanted kisses in fairy tales, and Clarissa will carry the memory of that kiss, the soaring hope of it, all her life. She will never find a love like that which the lone kiss seemed to offer.

  Virginia, excited, rises from her chair and puts her book on the table. Leonard asks from his own chair, ‘‘Are you going to bed?’’

  ‘‘No. It’s early, isn’t it?’’

  He scowls at his watch. ‘‘It’s nearly half past ten,’’ he says.

  ‘‘I’m just restless. I’m not tired yet.’’

  ‘‘I’d like you to go to bed at eleven,’’ he says.

  She nods. She will remain on good behavior, now that London’s been decided on. She leaves the parlor, crosses the foyer, and enters the darkened dining room. Long rectangles of moonlight mixed with street light fall through the window


  onto the tabletop, are swept away by windblown branches, reappear, and are swept away again. Virginia stands in the doorway, watching the shifting patterns as she would watch waves break on a beach. Yes, Clarissa will have loved a woman. Clarissa will have kissed a woman, only once. Clarissa will be bereaved, deeply lonely, but she will not die. She will be too much in love with life, with London. Virginia imagines someone else, yes, someone strong of body but frail-minded; someone with a touch of genius, of poetry, ground under by the wheels of the world, by war and government, by doctors; a someone who is, technically speaking, insane, because that person sees meaning everywhere, knows that trees are sentient beings and sparrows sing in Greek. Yes, someone like that. Clarissa, sane Clarissa—exultant, ordinary Clarissa—will go on, loving London, loving her life of ordinary pleasures, and someone else, a deranged poet, a visionary, will be the one to die.


  Mrs. Brown

  She finishes brushing her teeth. The dishes have been washed and put away, Richie is in bed, her husband is waiting. She rinses the brush under the tap, rinses her mouth, spits into the sink. Her husband will be on his side of the bed, looking up at the ceiling with his hands clasped behind his head. When she enters the room he will look at her as if he is surprised and happy to see her here, his wife, of all people, about to remove her robe, drape it over the chair, and climb into bed with him. That is his way—boyish surprise; a suave, slightly abashed glee; a deep and distracted innocence with sex coiled inside like a spring. She thinks sometimes, can’t help thinking, of those cans of peanuts sold in novelty shops, the ones with the paper snakes waiting to pop out when the lids are opened. There will be no reading tonight.

  She slips her toothbrush back into its slot in the porcelain holder.

  When she looks in the medicine-cabinet mirror, she briefly imagines that someone is standing behind her. There is no one, of course; it’s just a trick of the light. For an instant, no more than that, she has imagined some sort of ghost self, a second version of her, standing immediately behind, watching. It’s nothing. She opens the medicine cabinet, puts the toothpaste away. Here, on the glass shelves, are the various lotions and sprays, the bandages and ointments, the medicines. Here is the plastic prescription bottle with its sleeping pills. This bottle, the most recent refill, is almost full—she can’t use them, of course, while she’s pregnant.

  She takes the bottle off the shelf, holds it up to the light. There are at least thirty pills inside, maybe more. She puts it back on the shelf.

  It would be as simple as checking into a hotel room. It would be as simple as that. Think how wonderful it might be to no longer matter. Think how wonderful it might be to no longer worry, or struggle, or fail.

  What if that moment at dinner—that equipoise, that small perfection—were enough? What if you decided to want no more?

  She closes the medicine-cabinet door, which meets the frame with a solid, competent metallic click. She thinks of everything inside the cabinet, on the shelves, in darkness now. She goes into the bedroom, where her husband is waiting. She removes her robe.

  ‘‘Hi,’’ he says confidently, tenderly, from his side of the bed.

  ‘‘Did you have a nice birthday?’’ she asks.


  ‘‘The greatest.’’ He pulls back the sheet for her but she hesitates, standing at the side of the bed, wearing her filmy blue nightgown. She can’t seem to feel her body, though she knows it’s there.

  ‘‘That’s good,’’ she says. ‘‘I’m glad you had a nice time.’’

  ‘‘You coming to bed?’’ he says.

  ‘‘Yes,’’ she answers, and does not move. She might, at this moment, be nothing but a floating intelligence; not even a brain inside a skull, just a presence that perceives, as a ghost might. Yes, she thinks, this is probably how it must feel to be a ghost. It’s a little like reading, isn’t it—that same sensation of knowing people, settings, situations, without playing any particular part beyond that of the willing observer.

  ‘‘So,’’ Dan says after a while. ‘‘Are you coming to bed?’’

  ‘‘Yes,’’ she says.

  From far away, she can hear a dog barking.


  Mrs. Dalloway

  Clarissa puts her hand on the old woman’s shoulder, as if to prepare her for some further shock. Sally, who has preceded them down the hallway, opens the door.

  ‘‘Here we are,
’ Clarissa says.

  ‘‘Yes,’’ Laura replies.

  When they enter the apartment, Clarissa is relieved to see that Julia has put away the hors d’oeuvres. The flowers, of course, remain—brilliant and innocent, exploding from vases in lavish, random profusion, for Clarissa dislikes arrangements. She prefers flowers to look as if they’ve just arrived, in arm-loads, from the fields.

  Beside a vase full of roses, Julia sleeps on the sofa with a book open on her lap. In sleep she sits with an air of surprising dignity, even authority, foursquare, shoulders relaxed and both feet on the floor, head bowed discreetly forward, as if in prayer.


  At this moment she could be a minor goddess come to attend to mortal anxiety; come to sit with grave, loving certainty and whisper, from her trance, to those who enter, It’s all right, don’t be frightened, all you have to do is die.

  ‘‘We’re back,’’ Sally says.

  Julia wakes, blinks, and rises. The spell is broken; Julia is a girl again. Sally strides into the room, shrugging off her jacket as she walks, and there is a brief impression of Clarissa and the old woman standing shyly in a vestibule, hanging back, carefully removing their gloves, though there is no vestibule and they are not wearing gloves.

  Clarissa says, ‘‘Julia, this is Laura Brown.’’

  Julia steps forward, stops at a respectful distance from Laura and Clarissa. Where did she get such poise and presence, Clarissa wonders. She’s still a girl.

  ‘‘I’m so sorry,’’ Julia says. Laura says, ‘‘Thank you,’’ in a clearer, firmer voice than Clarissa had expected from her.

  Laura is a tall, slightly stooped woman of eighty or more. Her hair is a bright, steely gray; her skin is translucent, parchment-colored, aswarm with brown freckles the size of pinpricks. She wears a dark floral dress and soft, crepey, old-woman shoes.

  Clarissa urges her forward, into the room. A silence passes. Out of the silence rises a feeling that Clarissa, Sally, and even Laura have arrived, nervous and edgy, knowing no one, more than a little underdressed, at a party being given by Julia.

  ‘‘Thanks for cleaning up, Julie,’’ Sally says.


  ‘‘I reached almost everyone on the list,’’ Julia says. ‘‘A few people showed up. Louis Waters.’’

  ‘‘Oh, god. He didn’t get my message.’’

  ‘‘And there were two women, I don’t remember their names. And somebody else, a black man, Gerry something.’’

  ‘‘Gerry Jarman,’’ Clarissa says. ‘‘Was it pretty awful?’’

  ‘‘Gerry Jarman was all right. Louis sort of, well, broke down. He stayed almost an hour. I had a long talk with him. He seemed better when he left. Sort of better.’’

  ‘‘I’m sorry, Julia. I’m sorry you had to handle all this.’’

  ‘‘It was fine. Please don’t worry about me.’’

  Clarissa nods. She says to Laura, ‘‘You must be exhausted.’’

  ‘‘I’m not quite sure what I am,’’ Laura says.

  ‘‘Please sit down,’’ Clarissa says. ‘‘Do you think you could eat something?’’

  ‘‘Oh, I don’t believe so. Thank you.’’

  Clarissa guides Laura to the sofa. Laura sits gratefully but cautiously, as if she were very tired but could not be certain the sofa was entirely stable.

  Julia comes and stands before Laura, leans close to her ear.

  ‘‘I’m going to make you a cup of tea,’’ she says. ‘‘Or there’s coffee. Or a brandy.’’

  ‘‘A cup of tea would be nice. Thank you.’’

  ‘‘You really should eat something, too,’’ Julia says. ‘‘I’ll bet you haven’t eaten since you left home, have you?’’


  Julia says, ‘‘I’m just going to put a few things out in the kitchen.’’


  ‘‘That’s very nice, dear,’’ Laura says.

  Julia glances at Clarissa. ‘‘Mother,’’ she says, ‘‘you stay here with Mrs. Brown. Sally and I will go see what we’ve got.’’

  ‘‘Fine,’’ Clarissa says. She sits beside Laura on the sofa. She simply does what her daughter tells her to, and finds a surprising relief in it. Maybe, she thinks, one could begin dying into this: the ministrations of a grown daughter, the comforts of a room. Here, then, is age. Here are the little consolations, the lamp and the book. Here is the world, increasingly managed by people who are not you; who will do either well or badly; who do not look at you when they pass you in the street.

  Sally says to Clarissa, ‘‘Does it seem too morbid to eat the food from the party? It’s all still here.’’

  ‘‘I don’t think so,’’ Clarissa says. ‘‘I think Richard would probably have appreciated that.’’

  She looks nervously at Laura. Laura smiles, hugs her elbows, seems to see something on the toes of her shoes.

  ‘‘Yes,’’ Laura says. ‘‘I think he would, indeed.’’

  ‘‘Okay, then,’’ Sally says. She and Julia go into the kitchen.

  According to the clock, it is ten minutes past midnight. Laura sits with a certain prim self-containment, lips pressed together, eyes half closed. She is, Clarissa thinks, just waiting for this hour to end. She is waiting until she can be in bed, alone.

  Clarissa says, ‘‘You can go right to bed if you’d like to, Laura. The guest room’s just down the hall.’’

  ‘‘Thank you,’’ Laura says. ‘‘I will, in a little while.’’

  They settle into another silence, one that is neither intimate nor particularly uncomfortable. Here she is, then, Clarissa


  thinks; here is the woman from Richard’s poetry. Here is the lost mother, the thwarted suicide; here is the woman who walked away. It is both shocking and comforting that such a figure could, in fact, prove to be an ordinary-looking old woman seated on a sofa with her hands in her lap.

  Clarissa says, ‘‘Richard was a wonderful man.’’

  She regrets it instantly. Already, the doomed little eulogies begin; already someone who’s died is reassessed as a respectable citizen, a doer of good deeds, a wonderful man. Why did she say such a thing? To console an old woman, really, and to ingratiate herself. And, all right, she said it to stake her claim on the body: I knew him most intimately, I am the one who’ll be first to take his measure. She would like, at this moment, to order Laura Brown to go to bed, shut the door, and stay in her room until morning.

  ‘‘Yes,’’ Laura says. ‘‘And he was a wonderful writer, wasn’t he?’’

  ‘‘You’ve read the poems?’’

  ‘‘I have. And the novel.’’

  She knows, then. She knows all about Clarissa, and she knows that she herself, Laura Brown, is the ghost and goddess in a small body of private myths made public (if ‘‘public’’ isn’t a term too grand for the small, stubborn band of poetry readers who remain). She knows she has been worshipped and despised; she knows she has obsessed a man who might, conceivably, prove to be a significant artist. Here she sits, freckled, in a floral print dress. She says calmly, of her son, that he was a wonderful writer.


  ‘‘Yes,’’ Clarissa says helplessly. ‘‘He was a wonderful writer.’’ What else can she say?

  ‘‘You were never his editor, were you?’’

  ‘‘No. We were too close. It would have been too complicated.’’

  ‘‘Yes. I understand.’’

  ‘‘Editors need a certain objectivity.’’

  ‘‘Of course they do.’’

  Clarissa feels as if she’s suffocating. How can this be so difficult? Why is it so impossible to speak plainly to Laura Brown, to ask the important questions? What are the important questions?

  Clarissa says, ‘‘I took the best care of him I could.’’

  Laura nods. She says, ‘‘I wish I could have done better.’’

  ‘‘I wish the same thing myself.’’

  Laura reaches over and takes Clarissa’s ha
nd. Under the soft, loose skin of Laura’s hand, palpably, are the spines and knobs of bones, the cords of veins.

  Laura says, ‘‘We did the best we could, dear. That’s all anyone can do, isn’t it?’’

  ‘‘Yes, it is,’’ Clarissa says.

  So Laura Brown, the woman who tried to die and failed at it, the woman who fled her family, is alive when all the others, all those who struggled to survive in her wake, have passed away. She is alive now, after her ex-husband has been carried off by liver cancer, after her daughter has been killed by a drunk driver. She is alive after Richard has jumped from a window onto a bed of broken glass.


  Clarissa holds the old woman’s hand. What else can she do?

  Clarissa says, ‘‘I wonder if Julia has remembered your tea.’’

  ‘‘I’m sure she has, dear.’’

  Clarissa glances over at the glass doors that lead to the modest garden. She and Laura Brown are reflected, imperfectly, in the black glass. Clarissa thinks of Richard on the windowsill; Richard letting go; not jumping, really, but sliding as if from a rock into water. What must it have been like, the moment he had irrevocably done it; the moment he was out of his dark apartment and released into air? What must it have been like to see the alley below, with its blue and brown garbage cans, its spray of amber glass, come rushing up? Was it—could it possibly have been—a pleasure of some kind to crumple onto the pavement and feel (did he momentarily feel?) the skull crack open, all its impulses, its little lights, spilled out? There can’t, Clarissa thinks, have been much pain. There would have been the idea of pain, its first shock, and then—whatever came next.

  ‘‘I’m going to go see,’’ she says to Laura. ‘‘I’ll be back in a minute.’’

  ‘‘All right,’’ Laura says.

  Clarissa stands, a bit unsteadily, and goes into the kitchen. Sally and Julia have taken the food from the refrigerator and piled it on the counters. There are spirals of grilled chicken breast, flecked black, touched with brilliant yellow, impaled on wooden picks, arranged around a bowl of peanut sauce. There are miniature onion tarts. There are steamed shrimp, and glistening bright-red squares of rare tuna with dabs of wasabi. There are dark triangles of grilled eggplant, and round sand

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