Authors: Maya Lang
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For all the readers who never made it through
(or haven't wanted to try)
Dubliners celebrate the 100th anniversary of “Bloomsday.” That would be June 16, 1904âthe day the [events in
] take place. And it's not just a Dublin thingâJoyce fans all over the world are celebrating the unique literary event.
âLynn Neary, NPR
, “Celebrating the âBloomsday' Centennial,” June 16, 2004
The book is diffuse. It is brackish. It is pretentious. It is underbred, not only in the obvious sense, but in the literary sense. A first-rate writerÂ .Â .Â . respects writing too much to be tricky.
âVirginia Woolf on
in her diary, September 6, 1922
Leopold turns the volume up
as the hail comes down, as if he can drown out its sound, the thudding so loud that Nora worries the windshield will crack and across it a giant web will bloom.
She can see the cracked glass, the fingers spreading across the surface in a slow ripple. She takes a deep breath and tries to imagine something more pleasant. We are a happy couple under a shower of rice, she tells herself. Who knows? Such a moment could be lovely, a silent symphony of smiles.
Leo hasn't said a word about his grandmother since they got the news. There has been no reminiscing, no look of regret while knotting his black tie that morning. He had merely paused in the foyer before they left. “You okay? I know this is the firstâ” Nora had stopped him with her eyes. The first, the first. It is all firsts. The first meal at a restaurant since. The first movie since. And now this, coming full circle.
Ten miles of highway behind them, Philly's skyline lost in the rearview. Leo is relaxed beside her, in pilot mode. He adjusts the dials and knobs and vents, attuned to his instrument. Leo is most at peace like this, filled with the pure act of driving. He would make a happy chauffeur.
Nora leans back against the headrest. There will be no nap; she feels too frazzled. But she sees music when she closes her eyes, and this soothes her.
She has always been able to do this, ever since she was a girl. A better hobby than books because no one knows she's doing it. No one ever peeks over her shoulder to say, “ âThe Very Thought of You!' Is that the Ella Fitzgerald version?”
Black notes float across the white page. It is the opening riff, Ray Noble's score.
The very thought of you / And I forget to do / The little ordinary things / That everyone ought to do
She can tell how the notes want to play out, how they are hopeful, lifting up, an easy springtime swing. The song is flirty, but she wonders about doing it in B-flat, her voice molasses instead of a bird. Sometimes the thought of someone isn't delicate, feathered, about to take flight. Sometimes it is a weight, syrupy and thickâ
Stephen fills the white bowl
with hot water. He cups the bowl in his hands and carries it to his desk, where a mirror and razor lay crossed.
The razor has a tortoiseshell handle, the brush a head of badger hair. The set, wrapped in green velvet, was a gift from his mother. “Not the sort of thing I could have given Leo,” June had said with her tinkling laugh. But he'd caught the look in her eyes just beneath the laughter, that uneasy, questioning look.
The thought of such a ritual brings comfort now. Stephen will need to gather himself today, as though he were in small pieces, a vase knocked over by a careless hand.
He sets the bowl down and perches the mirror against the wall, leaning it at an angle. He moves his books to the floor (how good it feels, to demote them to the floor!). And suddenly, when he sits, he is no longer in gritty, graffitied Philly, filled with kids on bikes, girls with braids skipping rope, looking too suggestive, too big, too knowing for their age. Just like that, he is transported to a different time, when men wore hats and donned violets as boutonnieres. When a shave did not involve cheap cartridges or canisters of foam.
Stephen picks up a washcloth and dips it in the water. 9:07 train, he remembers. But he wants time to slow, to not think about the schedule. He has the radio on in the background, the comforting sounds of NPR, and he will listen for some tidbit to pass along to Nora. The first funeral since her mom's. They will all be focused on themselves and the party tonight. Stephen will pass along a story to make her smile.
They are going through the news on the radio, the morning report, and he hears with a stir of annoyance that they are doing a feature on Bloomsday. Of course. He pauses, squeezing the washcloth over the bowl, listening to the woman's voice. She is in Dublin, the streets teeming with celebration, the drinking and reenactments in full swing.
He presses the washcloth to his face, breathing in its warmth. Time slows beneath its weight. The world always prods us to go faster, but it is a heinous concept, that faster is better. The sound of his computer dialing up said it all (“How do you not have Ethernet?” Leo would groan), like a village in Eastern Europe getting bombed.
Grandma Portman would have agreed with him. “There is no longer any downtime,
,” she would have said. “Everyone is much too busy for it.” When he draws the washcloth away, his face is flushed.
He touches the shaving brush to the tin of fragrant cream. The voice from the radio floats out to him. “There are still those in Dublin who neither like nor understand James Joyce,” the reporter says.
Stephen smiles. Smart ones, he thinks, brushing the cream against the grain of stubble.
He clears a small path through the white shaving cream, watching his progress in the mirror. It is like shoveling snow, pushing these pathways clear. The handle of the razor feels substantial, cool in his palm.
Stephen pulls the skin of his cheek taut. He makes a small stroke by his sideburn, ensuring the rectangle of it is a clean line. He will enjoy this ritual, tuning out the radio until the Dublin report passes. He examines his face in the mirror and, satisfied, turns to complete the other side. He wags the razor back and forth in the bowl. The water obscures, turning cloudy and whiteâ
“So this will be good,”
Leo ventures, lowering the volume. To his relief, they are making excellent time.
“Good?” Nora yawns into her hand. “You don't mean the funeral?”
“You'll get to see everyone. Sharon and her side. They'll all be there.”
“Circumstances could be a little better.”
“Whatever.” He shifts gears, switches lanes. “Funerals can have an upside. Just think of it like a wedding without the chicken dance.”
“Maybe. But no alcohol.”
“No alcohol,” he concedes. “This is true.”
“Plus there's that whole deceased thing.”
“Though maybe they're similar in other ways,” she murmurs, glancing out the window.
Leo frowns, sensing his words about to get hijacked.
“No one really wants to be there, if you think about it,” she pursues. “I mean, the bride and groom are happy, I guess. And the person who passed away would want a crowd. But no one wants to get dressed up. No one sees it as anything but an inconvenience.”
“And here I'd been looking for the silver lining.” He smiles to show her he means it lightly. She brings her hand up to her hair.
“You pulling?” he asks.
“No.” She drops her hand to her lap. Her ring catches the light and winks at him. Emerald cut, color E, VVS1. A solitaire.
“We need some hair on that head for the wedding,” he adds, and she laughs a little, despite herself.
This will be his task, such moments of small victory. Looking after Nora and shepherding her through the day, ducking questions about how they don't have a date (“Still!” he can hear them), while smiling reassuringly. A casual shrug as if to say, You know how it is, so busy. But we love each other and that's what matters.
This to be exuded, his arm around her. Checking on his dad, making sure Stephen isn't being a snob at the service. “I'm writing my dissertation on Virginia Woolf's nose hairs,” Stephen will announce. “Their contribution to literature.” Making sure it all goes smoothly. Two hours to manage like a quarterback on the field before returning to the car, gliding homeâ
eo wakes to the rumble of his stomach. He reaches for the button on his alarm clock, unsure why he bothers setting the thing when he's always up before it anyway.
He snakes out from under the covers and grabs his robe, an old flannel rag Nora has been threatening to toss. But he prizes it, even if it is tattered, linty, undeniably musty, not holding up well under assaults from the washing machine. A small hole has crept into the seam of the left pocket, so when Nora held it up and said in her I'm-trying-to-be-reasonable voice, “Leo, the thing
,” he could only point out that another rinse cycle might kill it. L.L. Bean had stopped making them (“And there is a
for that,” Nora would say, eyeing it from her side of the bed), so a certain olfactory presence has to be tolerated. He couldn't admit it to her, but he has come to feel the robe is his morning companion. Old and loyal, it sits waiting for him by the foot of the bed, eager to be put to service. A sort of sartorial dog.
He pads into the living room and reaches across the counter to set the coffee brewing. This is his routine, his morning lap: wake, hit the alarm, slip from the bedroom, an a.m. assassin. Follow the curve of the breakfast bar, start the coffeemaker (another device he beats to the punch), and smack on the lights of the guest bathroom.
Only here, under the bright flood of fluorescents, does he begin to feel awake, as though the series of moves that brought him to the white bowl (whose seat he is mercifully permitted to leave up) were performed on autopilot. Leo plunges his hands into the water at the sink before it has a chance to warm.
His morning is predictable, unassailable. Even today, a familiar dilemma awaits: There is the gnawing in his stomach and the reality of the dormant kitchen, with only himself to fill the gap.
Every morning this comes as a quiet devastation, for certain promises had been made when they first moved in together. “You'll have such a sucky commute,” Nora rued as they unpacked boxes. “I should, like, make breakfast for you.”
“You're a night owl,” he pointed out.
“I don't mean
morning. But I could whip up something on weekends. A big scramble or a quiche, that'd be easy enough.”
He was so touched by this vision, so moved by the portrait of domesticity she painted, that he'd given an embarrassed shrug and mumbled, “That'd
be nice.” Insteadâand he sees this now, with the wincing clarity of hindsightâhe should have pounced on the offer, taken her up on it right there. But he was like a virgin being offered a blow job, too startled by the offer in its wondrous generosity to accept. He should have held her to it when he had the chance, cementing it into their routine. Because now, after living together for so long, the thought of making him breakfast would cause Nora to double over with laughter. He didn't know it then, but the terms get set at the start.
It doesn't matter that he is the breadwinner, the majority owner in the franchise of their domestic life. The person who, for some time (years!), has posted the rent and slipped the credit card onto the bill at dinner, shielding the amount from her eyes. And he does it, waking hideously early, so that they can have this urban loft that she had loved. A place near Rittenhouse, she'd said, because she wasn't quite ready for Philly's outskirts.
And in exchange, in exchange, would it be so much to ask? Not to whip up a fresh plate of eggs for him each morning or anything like that, though some vestigial part of him toys with the image occasionally: Nora in an apron, a floral counterpoint to his flannel robe. Leo understands this is off-limits, not to be considered. But if even the weekend quiche is impossible, would it be so much to have her there with him? If she could just
there, perched at the counter on a stool, what a luxury that would be.
Instead, the specter of her promise taunts him each morning.
There is no quiche for you in the fridge,
the empty kitchen seems to gloat, and he feels her words sail away all over again. “Remember that time, how you saidÂ .Â .Â . ,” he might begin, but she'd scowl and shoot him that look, that look that said a thousand things (How could you? How dare you? Are you thoughtless, insensitive, a caveman?) in one bullet of a glance.
The kitchen is gray, quiet. He pauses at its threshold. Speckled Formica masquerades as granite; linoleum sits underfoot. A stem rack above the sink allows inverted glassware to drip directly into the basin below, and this detail, of all things, had sold Nora on the place. “That one with the stem rack,” she said fondly when they were deliberating between apartments, no matter that he could've installed one in any of the contenders for all of twenty bucks.
When they signed the lease, he figured the kitchen presented an opportunity.
, in the jargon of real estate. They had the option to buy, which he assumed they'd promptly do, never imagining that five years of rent would go down the tubes.
His plan had been to put in new countertops. Quartz seemed like a good bet; granite was surely on its way out. Stainless steel appliances, maybe one of those wine storage units his parents have, glowing blue. The investment would be worth it. Apartments in the building were getting snatched up and the market was bulletproof. His dad would nod approvingly, eyeing the finished reno. Would nod and say, “Smart move.”
Of course, the ideal apartment would be in a building that solved the whole breakfast conundrum. Leo pictures a buffet, maybe like a grown-up dorm. Newspapers in the corner, one of those conveyor belts where you stick your tray. Enter, eat, leave.
As it is, the common space of the Club Room at 2400 Locust sits untouched, the oversize couches and mounted flat-screen getting traffic only during tours, future residents imagining parties that never actually take place. Why not have a breakfast plan instead? It could be pitched to the working crowd, the commuters and consultants and corporates like him who share the elevator, waiting for the doors to open so they can resume scrolling on their BlackBerrys. Nothing fancy, just a way to help the early risers tackle the morning. Genius.
Because no one should have to do this. Stand there unshowered, unshaved, trying to figure out what to
. Only after having coffee and breakfast does he feel capable of making coffee and breakfast. And he can never bring himself to down a bowl of cereal or one of those protein bars.
“You're like a Brit,” his mom likes to say when he piles on the eggs and sausage at Sunday brunch. He ignores her, not wanting to encourage her Europhile moments, but the truth is that he'd loved London. He'd stopped there on his way to see Nora when she was studying abroad. He'd crashed with Geoff, a friend doing a semester at LSEâthe kind of thing his parents had hoped he would do (“LSE!” his dad had boomed. “I did a year there, you know.” Yes, Dad. We know).
He liked the city more than he thought he would. People had warned him about the food, but he liked that, too. Bangers and mash, black pudding. There was no freak-out about cholesterol, fat. They ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowl. Ate it without apology. Between the pints and the fry-ups, Leo felt a heightened sense of manliness. Soccerâfootballâwas not muted in the background so that your girlfriend could talk to you and test your levels of eye contact. It was on full blast, all eyes fixed its way. The women talked to each other or were fans themselves.
He watches the coffeemaker speculatively, the pot still empty, a few dribbles collecting at its base. It is a relic, black plastic, a freebie from when Nora signed them up for a coffee subscription service. It claimed to have an “auto pause” feature so that you could pour while brewing, but whenever he tries that, it keeps right on going, the drips hitting the vacated plate with a hiss. They should register for something better, if he can ever get Nora around to registering. Maybe one of those espresso machines, shiny and chrome, a Ferrari to greet him in the morning.
He tugs open the fridge door, breaking the hermetic seal of the cushioned rubber, and spots the eggs hiding in the backâa day past their date but surely fine. He grabs the carton along with the package of bacon, squishy and cold. He'll make a scramble, maybe adding the Chinese sausage left over from last night, sweet and toothsome. Two kinds of pork at breakfast! Stephen would be disgusted. Stephen, too filled with ideas to ever need food.
He starts the bacon in the cast iron skillet. Nora never touches it, put off by the fact that you aren't supposed to wash it. “No soap?” she asked, incredulous. Her pots and pans are scrubbed to a mirrored finish, gleaming as they hang above him on the pot rack. The skillet, meanwhile, sits out of sight in the cabinet, the bastard child of the kitchen. It is unsightly, barnacled; Nora is right that the kitchen looks better with it hidden. Still, he has a soft spot for it, for all the dorm rooms and camping trips it's seen him through. You're no city boy, it rasps.
The flannel robe gathers about him loyally, warm.
The cat interrupts his thoughts, pressing his leg. A dramatic stretchâher back foot lingering in the interstice between stepsâbefore she goes in for the head-butt.
“Maria,” he greets her, leaning down to scratch under her chin. She purrs, the sound traveling up his hand.
Nora had adopted the cat after she graduated, naming it after some opera singer. He was in Boston at the time, a year of school still left. “I figured she'd be good company,” Nora explained. “It's weird, being here with everyone gone.” By everyone, he knew she meant Stephen. Leo couldn't tell what bothered her more: her mother's illness or her best friend's absence. Still, he'd taken the cat as a good omen. A pet was surely a sign of hope.
“Breakfast?” She cries, delighted, leading the way to her bowl. Clever girl, he thinks. They understand what we say better than we understand them. He pops a piece of sausage into his mouth after feeding her and glances up at the kitchen clock. 7:12. He saunters over to the bedroom door.
“Hungry?” he calls out. He hears stirring, the rustle of bedcovers.
“Mnnn.” A noncommittal grunt. Not hungry, he decides.
“Tea?” he tries.
Another grunt, more affirmative.
“Tea it is,” he tells the cat, who mews in response.
He returns to the skillet and presses the bacon. One of the world's best sounds, surely. He cracks three eggs, tossing the shells into the disposal. He shoots, he scores! He fills the kettle with water even though it will take a small eternity. Nora will smile from beneath the covers when she hears its whistle.
The service starts at ten, so they should leave by eight thirty. Nine at the latest. But he planned an early start, figuring Nora would insist on her time alone. And this way there will be no tensions, no bickering. He won't have to consult his watch and then the kitchen clock, muttering, “Christ, Nora, traffic!” He'll go for his run and maybe even enjoy it, not wondering why on earth she felt the need to banish him from the apartment.
The eggs lift their milky-white edges from the skillet as they set. He shovels the whole mess of it onto a plate, the sausage lumped in with the eggs, the bacon like a carpet beneath. The plunge of his fork releases the yolk in a bright yellow stream. Nora has probably drifted back to sleep, but soon the kettle will sound its opening notes and the white mountain of duvet will stir.
He glances at the phone mounted on the wall. His parents were probably doing their own version of this routine a few blocks away on Delancey, nibbling egg whites and toast. It's ridiculous that they're still hosting the party. “But this is what he wants,” Nora murmured last night over dinner. “Your dad loves Bloomsday. It's his thing.” Maybe. Leo doesn't understand the party during a normal year, let alone this one. “Of course that's what he
,” he replied. “He just doesn't want to disappoint my mom.”
His dad isn't the type to make a fuss. This is what he nearly told Nora, that his dad isn't the type to let a funeral get in the way. But the words had stalled on his tongue, some instinct preserving him.
He won't call home now. It's far too early. But maybe he'll swing by on his jog. He usually defaults into tourist mode, chugging past Independence Hall and Penn's Landing, as though his feet can come up with nothing more original when left to their own devices. Today he will stop by Delancey, his father passing him that look, the one reserved just for him. Not of pride, exactly, but of recognition. My son. Stephen would never think to check on their folks.
Leo will assemble breakfast for Nora the way she likes, tea and toast on that silver tray. It's warped, a flea-market find, but it makes her feel special. He'll take the paper with him into the guest bathroom, this time more content, sated after his meal. Linger pleasantly as his bowels release, the ripe perfume of the morning rising to greet him, the world spread before him in black and white: sports section, tech news, headlines. A second bathroom could be the thing that saves relationships.
When he hits the streets at a steady clip, the owner of the corner bodega will nod at him, his Korean eyes quiet, kind. Flowers set out in white buckets, dripping onto the sidewalk below.
He'll leave the tray with a note (
See you in an hour. Love, L
) and then shut the door behind him. Twisting the bolt so that Nora, hearing its click, will know she has her time. And, with luck, they will be on their way.