• Day


    Title: Day

    Author: Michael Cunningham

    Read In: 2024

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    It seems, momentarily, that the tree itself has chosen this moment to inform Isabel that it is sentient, and watchful.


    She has, for as long as Robbie can remember, laid claim to her own singularity simply because she looks so unapologetically like herself.


    “There’s this neither-here-nor-there thing about sitting on the stairs.”


    She brushes on another hint of eye shadow. Is it too much? Robbie knows—it seems no one else does—that Isabel has never been quite sure about what she looks like. She’s sometimes only semi-identifiable to herself, in photographs. She has, since childhood, been trying to catch glimpses of her authentic, immutable self.


    Marta is a nineteen-year-old who speaks in full sentences, who says “outwardly” and “however.” She thinks she and Chess are an academic comedy team of sorts, one whose schtick is arguments delivered in elaborately courteous tones that only serve to emphasize their mutual disdain.


    Although Robbie isn’t packing up yet, he’s begun sorting through the small stuff, that which has long resided behind a book on the bookshelf or at the bottom of a seldom opened drawer. Robbie, veteran of numerous moves, has learned that before the moving-out process begins in earnest, before the sofa and tables and bed have been hauled onto a TaskRabbit’s truck, an apartment, any apartment, however diminutive, still seems to be made up of uncountable, generally inconsequential, items that for most of their endless inanimate existences simply move from one place to another. They were acquired for valid reasons but have, for some time existed strictly for the purpose of transit. They are held and examined only when they’re about to be moved to their next location.


    As Robbie sets about packing, as he opens drawers and boxes that exhale their draughts of 2003 or 2011, he worries that these bits of ephemera, shown to a stranger, would not collectively suggest any specific person at all.


    Robbie is sure the photograph will turn up. He can’t have thrown it away. It’s probably stuck between the pages of a book. Robbie has always used whatever’s closest to hand as a bookmark. He found a desiccated marigold once, in Anna Karenina, and a decade-old electric bill in The Magic Mountain. Someday he’ll open an old copy of a book he hasn’t read since college and the picture will come tumbling out. He feels sure about that.


    But it’s not ten ‘clock yet and she’s already imagined seeing an owl, she’s already wept on the subway.


    But this semester, which requires Chess to hold forth largely uncontested . . . it isn’t too much trouble, it’s only less fun. The students, most of them, are Zooming from their childhood bedrooms, which inspires compassion in Chess. It’s important to care about her students but not love them too much.

    This year, however, this disembodied semester . . . they’ve been snatched back to rooms they’d assumed they’d escaped forever. Their childhoods, as it turns out, exert gravitational pull none of them had anticipated. Here’s Agatha backed by a Stevie Nicks poster. (How could Agatha, nineteen years old, know or care about Stevie Nicks? Here’s Rafi seated before an aquarium in which there appear to be no fish at all; it’s only a glass box full of murky green water. Chess, for her part, has set herself at her worktable in front of the bookcase. She’s done some editing of the books that stand within visual range. No reason for the students to know she still owns her childhood copy of Winnie-the-Pooh or, of more recent vintage, the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Nor is there any reason for them to see the rest of her apartment, which, while filled with the expected pile upon pile of books, is also testament to her indifference about furnishings: the white sofa and chairs and end tables from IKEA (white was on sale), the futon on the floor. Although Chess has lived in this apartment for almost four years, she hasn’t lost her habit of temporality, the sense that she’s here at present but it’d be pointless to settle in, given that she’ll be leaving again.


    It isn’t bad, being cocooned like this, self-reliant, a tiny nation whose sole population is mother and child. She worries less. She’s been assured by the Internet that a diet composed largely of Cheerios and cheese, the only food Odin considers to be food at all, will do him no lasting harm. In a different era, Chess would grow wearier sooner of the endless game of toss-and-retrieve, the opening and closing of the kitchen cupboards, Odin’s unslakable desire to climb up onto the sofa, which is undiminished by his inability to do so; his new habit of pointing at objects of all kinds, to which Chess answers “lamp” or “chair” or “book” and sometimes, when he seems to be pointing at nothing in particular, “air” or “here” or “us.” In their sequestered world, it’s how the days pass. She is, in a way, seventeen months old, along with Odin. She’s able to share his attachment to repetition, which resembles the chants of monks and nuns, reciting their devotions so unvaryingly that devotion becomes an involuntary bodily function, like breath and heartbeat.


    There’s a holiness here. A nearness to something.


    She did not smile at him as he stood waving from the sidewalk. She nodded. It was less than he’d hoped for, but Chess has never been much of a smiler. She’s of the opinion (she told him so, years ago, when they were living in the dump on Water Street) that it’s best if a woman refrains from smiling too much, and from any other indication of a desire to please.


    Most people, even (or especially) those who care most about you, will permit you a month or two of mourning before they start growing impatient, on your behalf, and on theirs.