Authors: Siri Hustvedt
Tags: #Contemporary, #Mystery, #Romance, #Art
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For Liv, Astrid and Ingrid Hustvedt
She had been watching him for three weeks. Every morning since the beginning of May, she had gone to the window to look at him. It was always early, just before dawn, and as far as she knew he had never seen her. On that first morning, Lily had opened her eyes and spotted a light coming from a window across the street in the Stuart Hotel, and once she had moved closer, she had noticed him in the shining square: a beautiful man standing near a large canvas. Stripped down in the heat to only his shorts, he had stood so still for a minute that he hadn’t looked real to her. But then he had started to move, using his whole body to paint, and Lily had watched him reach, stoop, lunge, and even kneel before the canvas. She had watched him pace the floor, rub his face hard with his hands, and smoke. The man smoked little cigars, which he held between his teeth whenever he paused to think. And sometimes, when he was just quietly smoking, he would nod at the painting as if it were talking to him. Lily had studied the lines of his muscles and the light brown color of his skin and the way it gleamed in the light, but she had not seen what he was painting. The front of the canvas had always been hidden from her.
Division Street was wide and treeless. The man’s room was at least twenty yards from Lily’s, and she had never been closer to him than that. Exactly what she expected from watching him she didn’t know, but it hardly mattered. The truth was that she couldn’t look at the man enough, and on those days when he didn’t go to bed but stayed up and worked through the dawn, she had to force herself to close her curtains and turn away from the window.
On this particular morning, however, it was raining hard and Lily couldn’t see him clearly. She stuck her head out the window and squinted in his direction. Rain pelted her face, and water was streaming down his closed window, so all she could make out was a blurred, waving body behind the glass. And then, before she understood what was happening, he walked to his window, jerked it open and leaned out into the rain. Lily ducked beneath the sill and squatted on the floor. Her heart was beating fast and her cheeks turned hot as she listened to the noise of water running in the gutters. She had taken a terrible risk leaning out that way. Before that moment, she had scolded herself a little for spying on him, but the thought that she had been discovered filled her with sudden, acute shame. She had been so careful, too, always crouching beside her window with only her eyes above the sill, making sure no light was on in her room, and every time she did turn them on to shower and get dressed for work, she had kept her curtains tightly closed.
Lily knew that the man’s name was Edward Shapiro. Although they hadn’t exchanged a single word, she had gathered several facts about him and had heard a lot of gossip. She knew for certain that Edward Shapiro had spent a year as “artist in residence” at Courtland College. She knew that instead of returning home to New York City at the end of his last semester, he had decided to stay on in Webster, and that was when he had rented the room in the Stuart Hotel. She also accepted as fact that sometime in March, his wife, who had been living with him in faculty housing, had packed her bags and left him. The rest was rumor. A lot of people wanted to know what he was doing in a fleabag like the Stuart, a hotel so crummy that it didn’t even take women. The five or six old codgers who lived there were a sad bunch, and Lily knew most of them. The hotel’s restaurant had been closed for as long as she could remember, even though they had never taken down the sign for it, and just about every morning, one by one, the men would shuffle across the street to eat their breakfasts at the Ideal Cafe, where Lily waited on them six days a week. She had heard that Edward Shapiro was poor, that he gambled his earnings at the college on baseball games, and she had heard he was rich but was too cheap to rent a decent place. She had heard his wife left him because he gambled, and she had heard she left him because, as Lester Underberg put it not a week ago in the cafe, “he couldn’t keep his pecker at home.” Lester had it “on good authority” that Shapiro had “nailed” a beautiful redheaded student in his office while playing Verdi at full tilt. According to Lester, Shapiro had received dozens of young opera fans in his office while he was at the college, but the truth was that Lester couldn’t be trusted. He collected dirt on everybody and anybody, and on a couple of occasions Lily had caught him telling out-and-out whoppers. Lester was right about Edward Shapiro’s love for opera, however. There had been nights in the past weeks when she had heard music coming from his window, and twice the voices had been so loud that they had woken her from a deep sleep. The story about the redhead stuck in her mind nevertheless, and Lily kept adding details to it that Lester had left out. She imagined Shapiro and the girl, saw her lying with her legs open on a desk, her skirt pulled up around her waist and the man standing over her, completely dressed except for an open zipper. Over and over, she had played out the scene in her mind, had seen papers scatter and books drop from the desk as the man grappled with his student. Lily had watched for women to appear in the man’s window, but if they visited, they never stayed the night. The narrow iron bed that stood in the far right-hand corner of his room had been empty twenty-two mornings in a row.
Lily balked at moving, but very slowly she peeked over the sill. Shapiro’s window was dark, and she felt her shoulders sink in relief. When she closed her curtains, she heard footsteps from the apartment next door. Mabel’s up, she thought. Mabel Wasley slept very little, and the wall between the two rooms wasn’t thick enough to muffle even the smallest noise. Day after day, Lily listened to the old woman walk, rustle papers, open and close cupboards and drawers, clink dishes, cough, mumble, flush her toilet, and all afternoon and far into the night she listened to Mabel type. Exactly what Mabel was writing had never been clear to Lily, although the woman had once explained it. The enormous manuscript was an autobiography of some kind that included dreams and how they mixed into everyday life, but whenever Mabel talked about the book, she went on and on and used words Lily didn’t understand, and sometimes when she was particularly excited, her voice would get very loud until she was almost shouting, so Lily didn’t like to bring up the subject. For nine months Lily had lived above the Ideal Cafe alone. She had rented her room only a few days after graduating from high school, and when Mabel arrived in early March, Lily had welcomed the company, even though from time to time, she had the impression that Mabel was hiding something. No one knew much about her, although she had taught at Courtland College for twenty years. There were rumors that she had been married several times before she came to Minnesota, but Mabel had never mentioned a husband, and although she was very friendly, she was also stiff, and that stiffness forbade prying.
Lily sat down at her table where she ate and put on her makeup and did anything else that required sitting. She had hung her mirror above it and looked at her own tired face in the reflection and at Marilyn Monroe’s face behind her on a poster she had fastened to the wall. Boomer Wee had once said she looked like Marilyn, only dark, and even though Lily knew this wasn’t true, she liked the idea. She leaned toward the mirror, lowered her eyelids, parted her lips and pushed her breasts together to make a long cleavage over her white bra. She glanced at Marilyn again and then heard a knock at the door.
“It’s open,” she said, her voice hoarse with sleep.
Without turning around, Lily saw Mabel enter the room in the mirror. The old woman walked quickly, her long robe sweeping the floor, and stopped when she reached the chair.
“I’m sorry to bother you, but I wanted to catch you before work and ask you how the play was going and tell you that if you’re still having trouble with the part, I might be able to help. You know I taught
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
for, well, close to thirty years, and it struck me last night that I could coach you. Hermia’s a wonderful part, really, and you’re perfect for it. What do you think?” Mabel delivered this speech fast and with few breaths, addressing Lily’s reflection in the mirror, all the while waving her hands for emphasis, and once her fingers brushed the top of Lily’s head. Then she let her hands fall and rested them lightly on Lily’s shoulders. They were both silent for several seconds, and Lily stared at their faces in the mirror and at Marilyn’s between them, and she thought that the three of them looked strange together. Mabel’s small heart-shaped face, with deep wrinkles on her forehead and around her eyes and mouth, had an intense expression that could have been either defiance or concentration. Marilyn wasn’t smiling either, but her lips were parted to show teeth, and her fingers indented the flesh of her right breast. There was something too perfect about the way the three of them were framed in the mirror, and it bothered Lily. It created an annoying stillness that made her think suddenly of things that were alive and things that were dead, and she shrugged her shoulders to release herself from Mabel’s touch.
“Monday’s good after work. I need help. I remember my lines, but half the time I don’t know what they mean.”
The woman clasped her hands. “We’ll have tea first.”
Mabel’s happiness irritated Lily for some reason, and she said nothing more.
Mabel left the room. She didn’t say good-bye. Instead, she recited some of Lily’s lines from the play: “Dark night, that from the eye his function takes.” Lily saw Mabel put a finger to her ear. “The ear more quick of comprehension makes; / Wherein it doth impair the seeing sense, / It pays the hearing double recompense.”
The woman’s voice was thin and old, but her delivery had a nuance and understanding Lily knew she lacked completely. That’s why she did it, she thought, to show me how natural and good she is. Isn’t that what Mrs. Wright had been telling her in rehearsal? “Just speak in your natural voice,” and Lily had thought to herself: But what is my natural voice?
* * *
The early customers who straggled into the Ideal Cafe were all men, all regulars, and none of them had much to say. Between five and six the place was pretty quiet. The men who came in during that first hour didn’t have wives or girlfriends, but every one of them would have had a story to tell if he’d chosen to tell it, a story about the accident, death, bad break or quirk of personality that had turned him into what he was now: a solitary character who arrived at the crack of dawn to eat his breakfast alone in a room full of other solitary characters who were eating their breakfasts alone.
Pete Lund usually arrived first, after chores on his big farm east of town. Pete’s wife had died of breast cancer a couple years back, and he had taken to eating his meals out. A year ago when Lily first started working, he had placed his order aloud, and it still stood: a cup of black coffee, two eggs, scrambled, and three pieces of white toast with strawberry jam, not grape jelly. After that, he hadn’t bothered to speak. When Lily approached him, he nodded at her, and she put in the order. Harold Hrdlicka, who had bought the old Muus farm, took his eggs sunny-side up with hash browns, and Earl Butenhoff from the Stuart Hotel ate a bowl of Wheaties before his eggs—once over easy—and finished off his meal with a fat, usually half-smoked stogie that he carried around in his shirt pocket. By five-thirty that morning they had all arrived, each one sitting in his own booth waiting for food. Pete was staring over the counter at Vince’s collection of “semiantique” windup toys. Harold was reading the
and Earl studied the tabletop between repeated throat-clearings—during which he spat gobs of yellow mucus into a huge, stained handkerchief that he pulled in and out of his pants pocket. From the kitchen, Lily could hear Vince singing “Anything Goes” in a low voice. She could hear the rain outside and smell bacon and sausage on the grill, and from the street came an odor of wet pavement, grass, and what she supposed were worms crawling onto the sidewalk, and as she moved from table to table with her pot of coffee, she felt happy and hummed along with Vince under her breath.
Martin Petersen walked into the cafe around six, took his usual seat in the booth by the window and started staring at Lily. Every time he came in for breakfast, he stared. She was used to it, not just from Martin, but from lots of people. She had suffered through braces on her teeth, breasts that wouldn’t grow and a reputation as a tomboy, but the year she turned fourteen, it had changed, and now after five years she had grown used to her looks and the staring that went with them. Sometimes she liked it, and sometimes she didn’t, but she had learned to pretend that she didn’t notice. Martin, however, was different. He always studied her calmly and deliberately as if it were his job to look at her, and because she couldn’t penetrate what he meant by those long stares, Martin’s eyes made her a little uncomfortable. But at the same time, she felt oddly drawn to him. Martin was mysterious. She had heard rumors that he was gay and rumors that he was a person who had no interest in sex. Linda Haugen had once whispered to her in confirmation class that Martin had been “born both” and that “they took the girl half away.” But this had to be nonsense. The secret of Martin wasn’t his body, but it wasn’t his mind either. He gave off something peculiar—an air of hidden knowledge or intuition that sometimes made Lily feel he was looking at her from a great distance even though he was only inches away.