Early Morning, 1870
Lying in bed, Odessa hears it all as if it were both memory and presentiment, both past and future, and she, having been plucked out of the present as she slept, can only wonder if she is hearing it, remembering it, or anticipating it.
Outside, the oysterman croons, Fruits of the sea, food of the gods, as the choir of paperboys announce the souls feared lost and the cart horses measure time with their hoofbeats.
It is, after all, so utterly real.
And yet, Odessa's sense of disquiet is sufficient that she rises out of bed and goes to the window . . .
. . . where, instead of the corner of Fifth Avenue and Twenty-Third Street, she sees a herd of whitetailed deer grazing in a grove of long grasses, even as the cries of the oysterman and the paperboys continue, although more faintly, as if they were the rumbling of a distant storm.
A moment later, Fifth Avenue returns to itself, with its brick and limestone facades, its carriages, its frock-coated men hurrying to their offices, as its sounds, its hoofbeats, and its heralding of oysters and catastrophes return to their full volume.
It is, then, merely a bit of dream residue. Odessa's room is unaltered. Streaks of windblown snow continue falling on the Japanese waves in the prints on the wall. The new drapes (are they a more vivid rose than they ought to be?) ruffle slightly, as they do every morning, in the noisy breeze blowing up from Fifth Avenue.
Yet even Odessa's bedroom feels strange in its familiarity, as if it were already a bedroom from the past, a memory of itself, the image of a room that had once been fashionable, with its Chinese vases and its moss-green walls and the pink flush of its new drapes.
Odessa is twenty-two, recently exported from Albany to New York City by her husband, who is older than she.
Odessa is compassionate, clever, and nervous. She understands that, as the wife of a prosperous older man, she is both a prize and an embarrassment.
Odessa, however, is not generally prone to the inexplicable. She never has been. It's odd, then, that on this morning, for the first time in her life, she's so certain about her own passage out of time's progression and into some state she can't name, in which her bedroom window overlooks a herd of white- tailed deer grazing in a grove of long grasses as well as a Fifth Avenue in which horses pull trolleys and newsboys cry their canticles to today's disaster.
Odessa takes her wrapper from the cabinet. The wrapper is so natural to her, a costlier version of the one she wore when she lived in her father’s house. She hopes that the wrapper, its immaculate silk and its tasseled sash, the most innocently girlish of her clothes, might help return her to her sense of the usual.
As she slips her arms into the wrapper's sleeves, however, a chill prickles along the back of her neck. The sensation of timelessness has not left her; it has, if anything, increased. She is, at the moment, a young woman putting on a wrapper and the memory of a young woman putting on a wrapper. She does her best to focus her attention on the immediacy of sleeves, on pearl buttons smaller than a hummingbird’s eggs. Still, she is present and she is absent. She seems to observe herself from a certain distance.
She tries to dismiss the idea, as she'd try to forget a minor indiscretion by an elderly aunt or a lamb roast not quite sufficiently cooked. Odessa, a forthright and sensible person, said only last week, at a dinner during which someone enthused over a public séance by the Fox sisters, "I believe in profits over prophets, if you don’t mind my saying so"—a remark that pleased her husband even if it pleased no one else.
Odessa is, at moments like that, the woman she most intends to be now that she’s a member of New York society: skeptical and direct, a no-nonsense person from Albany, where people survive and sometimes prosper on a diet of custom and habit; where they maintain a devotion to the felicities of the ordinary (elms, libraries); a place that Odessa, in marrying and moving to this city, has never wanted to abjure. She had no intention, when Nicholas brought her to Manhattan, of looking like an arriviste—a girl of no particular breeding or background who’d happened to catch the eye of a banker on one of his excursions to the state capital.
Odessa is a schoolteacher’s daughter, hence her unorthodox name, her childhood spent in a modest but comfortable house where she subsisted on love, on simple meals and dresses, on a temperance that prized the lamp and the book over social calls and parties. She is not, and will not be mistaken for, some feckless girl who married her way to prosperity by means of seducing a wealthy man two decades older than she.
She understands, however, that her youth, and her unapologetic frankness about her origins, would go awry if she dressed inappropriately or spoke immoderately; if she failed to express an opinion about Wagner or the Franco-Prussian War or the Fifteenth Amendment. She would be rural. She would embarrass her husband.
It's necessary, then, that her dress and comportment be correct. She earns respect only if she practices, impeccably, the customs of the country to which she has migrated.
She wonders again, as she ties the sash of the wrapper, about the bedroom drapes. Are they stylishly bold, or do they flirt with the lurid? She wonders too about the gown she’s had made for this evening's dinner . . . But Sasha, her closest friend and only confidante, had insisted to Mrs. Cleaves, the dressmaker, that Odessa, being so young, will not excite comment with a neckline lower than usual, and that she will look entirely natural in a sapphire blue so brilliant it seems to emit a light of its own. As Sasha says, One must always carry oneself as the beauty one knows oneself to be.
Odessa sits at her vanity to arrange her hair. No one, not even Nicholas, ever sees her in a condition of disarray. As she pins her hair into place, she struggles to put the premonitions out of her mind. She is, after all, rendered anxious enough simply by living through a day, and today holds more than the usual challenges. There’s the trip to the dressmaker to discuss a gown for the wedding of the Walshes' daughter (who is quite pleasant), and another to the upholsterer (the fabric on the chaise in the library has begun showing its age); there's tea with the Duppers (whom Odessa has never met); lunch with Sasha (who is exceedingly pleasant) at a location yet to be revealed; and, tonight, dinner with the Grimsditches (who are not pleasant at all but must be treated as if they were).
Every day is a battle. Every day requires as many as five changes of outfit and, with every change, the possibility of a misstep—a hat too small or too large for the dress, a bustle too high or too low. Hadn't Odessa heard, just days ago, one ancient Griselda sister stage whisper to the other, who was older still, If they’re going to let them in, they ought at least to teach them how to dress, which could only have meant that, according to the sisters, Odessa had gotten some detail wrong, her bustle too high or the cameo she wore around her neck insufficiently ancestral looking.
Nicholas, of course, has no idea about any of that.
Odessa arises from her vanity, appraises herself once more in the mirror before going downstairs to breakfast with her husband. She is fortunate in Nicholas, who's as compassionate and importuning at home as she knows he must be severe when he goes to the bank; a figure who causes clerks to sit up straighter when he enters and, occasionally, to nervously spill their inkpots. Odessa knows a Nicholas invisible to all others; a Nicholas of her own—doting, sentimental, humorous.
She hurries down to her husband. She does not, for the moment at least, worry about any discomposure beyond this: Nicholas will set down his coffee cup, he will assume an expression of wonder at today’s first sight of her, and he will say, as if still surprised that he’s married to her at all, Well, then, good morning, Mrs. Bonthrop.
Odessa is in the present now, she has not come unmoored, she is exactly and only a woman going downstairs to have breakfast with her husband. The past is an extended recollection, the future unknowable.
Before she starts downstairs, she hears a woman singing from the street . . .
ee um fah um so
foo swee too eem oo
It’s only a beggar singing for coins, and the song is all but lost in the rest of it . . .
Flowers of the sea . . .
Souls feared lost . . .
The horses' hooves and the trolley bells . . .
She descends the stairs. It is, after all, neither more nor less than the sounds worlds make as they turn their faces to the sun.
Excerpted from "Out of Time" by Michael Cunningham in About Time: Fashion and Duration published by The Metropolitan Museum of Art and distributed by Yale University Press. Story © 2020 by Michael Cunningham, reproduced with permission.
Read a Now at The Met interview with Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Cunningham about his short story, "Out of Time".
Iris van Herpen (Dutch, born 1984). Dress, fall/winter 2012–13 haute couture. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Iris van Herpen, in honor of Harold Koda, 2016 (2016.185). Photo © Nicholas Alan Cope
Charles James (American, born Great Britain, 1906–1978). Ball Gown, 1951. Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Coulson, 1964 (2009.300.1311). Photo © Nicholas Alan Cope