Michael Cunningham

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Michael Cunningham

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Almost involuntarily (it feels involuntary, to her) she steps or stumbles forward, and the stone pulls her in. For a moment, still, it seems like nothing; it seems like another failure; just chill water she can easily swim back out of; but then the current wraps iteself around her and takes her with such sudden, muscular force it feels as if a strong man has risen from the bottom, grabbed her legs and held them to his chest. It feels personal.

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We’d hoped vaguely to fall in love but hadn’t worried much about it, because we’d thought we had all the time in the world. Love had seemed so final, and so dull – love was what ruined our parents. Love had delivered them to a life of mortgage payments and household repairs; to unglamorous jobs and the fluorescent aisles of a supermarket at two in the afternoon. We’d hoped for a love of a different kind, love that knew and forgave our human frailty but did not miniaturize our grander ideas of ourselves. It sounded possible.

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Sally gets out of the store as quickly as she can, marches toward the subway at Sixty-eighth. She’d like to come home with a gift for Clarissa, but can’t imagine what. She’d like to tell Clarissa something, something important, but can’t get it phrased. ‘I love you’ is easy enough.

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We throw our parties; we abandon our families to live alone in Canada; we struggle to write books that do not change the world, despite our gifts and our unstinting efforts, our most extravagant hopes. We live our lives, do whatever we do, and then we sleep—it’s as simple and ordinary as that.

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What I wanted to do seemed simple. I wanted to create something alive and shocking enough that it could stand beside a morning in somebody’s life. The most ordinary morning. Imagine, trying to do that. What foolishness.

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When I was younger all my lovers had been clenched, possessive people. My husband Denny had danced six hours a day, and still despised himself for dilettantism. My lover Helene had had screaming opinions on every subject from women’s rights to washing spinach. I myself had had trouble deciding whether or not to wear a hat. In my twenties I’d suspected that if you peeled away my looks and habits and half-dozen strong ideas you’d have found an empty spot where the self ought to be. It had seemed like my worst secret.

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Still, she loves the world for being rude and indestructible, and she knows other people must love it too, poor as well as rich, though no one speaks specifically of the reasons. Why else do we struggle to go on living, no matter how compromised, no matter how harmed?

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She always surprises you this way, by knowing more than you think she does. Louis wonders if they’re calculated, these little demonstrations of self-knowledge that pepper Clarissa’s wise, hostessy performance. She seems, at times, to have read your thoughts. She disarms you by saying, essentially, I know what you’re thinking and I agree, I’m ridiculous. I’m far less than I could have been and I’d like it to be otherwise but I can’t seem to help myself.

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There is true art in this, this command of tea and dinner tables; this animating correctness. Men may congratulate themselves for writing truly and passionately about the movement of nations; they may consider war and the search for God to be great literature’s only subjects; but if men’s standing in the world could be toppled by an ill-advised choice of hat, English literature would be dramatically changed.

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Yes, Clarissa thinks, it’s time for the day to be over. We throw our parties; we abandon our families to live alone in Canada; we struggle to write books that do not change the world, despite our gifts and unstinting efforts, our most extravagant hopes. We live our lives, do whatever we do, and then we sleep– it’s as simple and ordinary as that. A few jump out of windows or drown themselves or take pills; more die by accident and most of us, the vast majority, are slowly devoured by some disease or, if we’re very fortunate, by time itself.

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