The Bell Jar
I wouldn’t have missed Lenny’s place for anything.
It was built exactly like the inside of a ranch, only in the middle of a New York apartment house. He’d had a few partitions knocked down to make the place broaden out, he said, and then had them pine-panel the walls and fit up a special pine-panelled bar in the shape of a horseshoe. I think the floor was pine-panelled, too.
Great white bearskins lay about underfoot, and the only furniture was a lot of low beds covered with Indian rugs. Instead of pictures hung up on the walls, he had antlers and buffalo horns and a stuffed rabbit head. Lenny jutted a thumb at the meek little grey muzzle and stiff jackrabbit ears.
“Ran over that in Las Vegas.”
He walked away across the room, his cowboy boots echoing like pistol shots. “Acoustics,” he said, and grew smaller and smaller until he vanished through a door in the distance.
All at once music started to come out of the air on every side. Then it stopped, and we heard Lenny’s voice say “This is your twelve o’clock disc jock, Lenny Shepherd, with a round-up of the tops in pops. Number Ten in the wagon train this week is none other than that little yaller-haired gal you been hearin’ so much about lately … the one an’ only Sunflower!”
I was born in Kansas, I was bred in Kansas,
And when I marry I’ll be wed in Kansas…
“What a card!” Doreen said. “Isn’t he a card?”
“You bet,” I said.
“Listen, Elly, do me a favour.” She seemed to think Elly was who I really was by now.
“Sure,” I said.
“Stick around, will you? I wouldn’t have a chance if he tried anything funny. Did you see that muscle?” Doreen giggled.
Lenny popped out of the back room. “I got twenty grand’s worth of recording equipment in there.” He ambled over to the bar and set out three glasses and a silver ice-bucket and a big pitcher and began to mix drinks from several different bottles.
…to a true-blue gal who promised she would wait—
She’s the sunflower of the Sunflower State.
“Terrific, huh?” Lenny came over, balancing three glasses. Big drops stood out on them like sweat, and the ice-cubes jingled as he passed them round. Then the music twanged to a stop, and we heard Lenny’s voice announcing the next number.
“Nothing like listening to yourself talk. Say,” Lenny’s eye lingered on me, “Frankie vamoosed, you ought to have somebody, I’ll call up one of the fellers.”
“That’s okay,” I said. “You don’t have to do that.” I didn’t want to come straight out and ask for somebody several sizes larger than Frankie.
Lenny looked relieved. “Just so’s you don’t mind. I wouldn’t want to do wrong by a friend of Doreen’s.” He gave Doreen a big white smile. “Would I, honeybun?”
He held out a hand to Doreen, and without a word they both started to jitterbug, still hanging on to their glasses.
I sat cross-legged on one of the beds and tried to look devout and impassive like some businessmen I once saw watching an Algerian belly-dancer, but as soon as I leaned back against the wall under the stuffed rabbit, the bed started to roll out into the room, so I sat down on a bearskin on the floor and leaned back against the bed instead.
My drink was wet and depressing. Each time I took another sip it tasted more and more like dead water. Around the middle of the glass there was painted a pink lasso with yellow polka dots. I drank to about an inch below the lasso and waited a bit, and when I went to take another sip, the drink was up to lasso-level again.
Out of the air Lenny’s ghost voice boomed, “Wye oh wye did I ever leave Wyoming?”
The two of them didn’t even stop jitterbugging during the intervals. I felt myself shrinking to a small black dot against all those red and white rugs and that pine-panelling. I felt like a hole in the ground.
There is something demoralizing about watching two people get more and more crazy about each other, especially when you are the only extra person in the room.
It’s like watching Paris from an express caboose heading in the opposite direction—every second the city gets smaller and smaller, only you feel it’s really you getting smaller and smaller and lonelier and lonelier, rushing away from all those lights and that excitement at about a million miles an hour.
Every so often Lenny and Doreen would bang into each other and kiss and then swing back to take a long drink and close in on each other again. I thought I might just lie down on the bearskin and go to sleep until Doreen felt ready to go back to the hotel.
Then Lenny gave a terrible roar. I sat up. Doreen was hanging on to Lenny’s left earlobe with her teeth.
“Leggo, you bitch!”
Lenny stooped, and Doreen went flying up on to his shoulder, and her glass sailed out of her hand in a long, wide arc and fetched up against the pine-panelling with a silly tinkle. Lenny was still roaring and whirling round so fast I couldn’t see Doreen’s face.
I noticed, in the routine way you notice the colour of somebody’s eyes, that Doreen’s breasts had popped out of her dress and were swinging out slightly like full brown melons as she circled belly-down on Lenny’s shoulder, thrashing her legs in the air and screeching, and then they both started to laugh and slow up, and Lenny was trying to bite Doreen’s hip through her skirt when I let myself out the door before anything more could happen and managed to get downstairs by leaning with both hands on the banister and half sliding the whole way.
I didn’t realize Lenny’s place had been air-conditioned until I wavered out on to the pavement. The tropical, stale heat the sidewalks had been sucking up all day hit me in the face like a last insult. I didn’t know where in the world I was.
For a minute I entertained the idea of taking a cab to the party after all, but decided against it because the dance might be over by now, and I didn’t feel like ending up in an empty barn of a ballroom strewn with confetti and cigarette-butts and crumpled cocktail napkins.
I walked carefully to the nearest street corner, brushing the wall of the buildings on my left with the tip of one finger to steady myself. I looked at the street sign. Then I took my New York street map out of my pocket-book. I was exactly forty-three blocks by five blocks away from my hotel.
Walking has never fazed me. I just set out in the right direction, counting the blocks under my breath, and when I walked into the lobby of the hotel I was perfectly sober and my feet only slightly swollen, but that was my own fault because I hadn’t bothered to wear any stockings.
The lobby was empty except for a night clerk dozing in his lit booth among the key-rings and the silent telephones.
I slid into the self-service elevator and pushed the button for my floor. The doors folded shut like a noiseless accordion. Then my ears went funny, and I noticed a big, smudgy-eyed Chinese woman staring idiotically into my face. It was only me, of course. I was appalled to see how wrinkled and used-up I looked.
There wasn’t a soul in the hall. I let myself into my room. It was full of smoke. At first I thought the smoke had materialized out of thin air as a sort of judgement, but then I remembered it was Doreen’s smoke and pushed the button that opened the window vent. They had the windows fixed so you couldn’t really open them and lean out, and for some reason this made me furious.
By standing at the left side of the window and laying my cheek to the woodwork, I could see downtown to where the UN balanced itself in the dark, like a weird, green, Martian honeycomb. I could see the moving red and white lights along the drive and the lights of the bridges whose names I didn’t know.
The silence depressed me. It wasn’t the silence of silence. It was my own silence.
I knew perfectly well the cars were making a noise, and the people in them and behind the lit windows of the buildings were making a noise, and the river was making a noise, but I couldn’t hear a thing. The city hung in my window, flat as a poster, glittering and blinking, but it might just as well not have been there at all, for all the good it did me.
The china-white bedside telephone could have connected me up with things, but there it sat, dumb as a death’s head. I tried to think of people I’d given my phone number to, so I could make a list of all the possible calls I might be about to receive, but all I could think of was that I’d given my phone number to Buddy Willard’s mother so she could give it to a simultaneous interpreter she knew at the UN.
I let out a small, dry laugh.
I could imagine the sort of simultaneous interpreter Mrs Willard would introduce me to when all the time she wanted me to marry Buddy, who was taking the cure for TB somewhere in upper New York State. Buddy’s mother had even arranged for me to be given a job as a waitress at the TB sanatorium that summer so Buddy wouldn’t be lonely. She and Buddy couldn’t understand why I chose to go to New York City instead.
The mirror over my bureau seemed slightly warped and much too silver. The face in it looked like the reflection in a ball of dentist’s mercury. I thought of crawling in between the bed-sheets and trying to sleep, but that appealed to me about as much as stuffing a dirty, scrawled-over letter into a fresh, clean envelope. I decided to take a hot bath.
There must be quite a few things a hot bath won’t cure, but I don’t know many of them. Whenever I’m sad I’m going to die, or so nervous I can’t sleep, or in love with somebody I won’t be seeing for a week, I slump down just so far and then I say: “I’ll go take a hot bath.”
I meditate in the bath. The water needs to be very hot, so hot you can barely stand putting your foot in it. Then you lower yourself, inch by inch, till the water’s up to your neck.
I remember the ceilings over every bathtub I’ve stretched out in. I remember the texture of the ceilings and the cracks and the colours and the damp spots and the light fixtures. I remember the tubs, too: the antique griffin-legged tubs, and the modern coffin-shaped tubs, and the fancy pink marble tubs overlooking indoor lily ponds, and I remember the shapes and sizes of the water taps and the different sorts of soap-holders.
I never feel so much myself as when I’m in a hot bath.
I lay in that tub on the seventeenth floor of this hotel for-women-only, high up over the jazz and push of New York, for near on to an hour, and I felt myself growing pure again. I don’t believe in baptism or the waters of Jordan or anything like that, but I guess I feel about a hot bath the way those religious people feel about holy water.
I said to myself: “Doreen is dissolving, Lenny Shepherd is dissolving, Frankie is dissolving, New York is dissolving, they are all dissolving away and none of them matter any more. I don’t know them, I have never known them and I am very pure. All that liquor and those sticky kisses I saw and the dirt that settled on my skin on the way back is turning into something pure.”
The longer I lay there in the clear hot water the purer I felt, and when I stepped out at last and wrapped myself in one of the big, soft, white, hotel bath-towels I felt pure and sweet as a new baby.
I don’t know how long I had been asleep when I heard the knocking. I didn’t pay any attention at first, because the person knocking kept saying “Elly, Elly, Elly, let me in”, and I didn’t know any Elly. Then another kind of knock sounded over the first dull, bumping knock—a sharp tap-tap, and another, much crisper voice said “Miss Greenwood, your friend wants you,” and I knew it was Doreen.
I swung to my feet and balanced dizzily for a minute in the middle of the dark room. I felt angry with Doreen for waking me up. All I stood a chance of getting out of that sad night was a good sleep, and she had to wake me up and spoil it. I thought if I pretended to be asleep the knocking might go away and leave me in peace, but I waited, and it didn’t.
“Elly, Elly, Elly,” the first voice mumbled, while the other voice went on hissing “Miss Greenwood, Miss Greenwood, Miss Greenwood,” as if I had a split personality or something.
I opened the door and blinked out into the bright hall. I had the impression it wasn’t night and it wasn’t day, but some lurid third interval that had suddenly slipped between them and would never end.
Doreen was slumped against the door-jamb. When I came out, she toppled into my arms. I couldn’t see her face because her head was hanging down on her chest and her stiff blonde hair fell from its dark roots like a hula fringe.
I recognized the short, squat, moustached woman in the black uniform as the night maid who ironed day-dresses and party-frocks in a crowded cubicle on our floor. I couldn’t understand how she came to know Doreen or why she should want to help Doreen wake me up instead of leading her quietly back to her own room.
Seeing Doreen supported in my arms and silent except for a few wet hiccups, the woman strode away down the hall to her cubicle with its ancient Singer sewing-machine and white ironing-board. I wanted to run after her and tell her I had nothing to do with Doreen, because she looked stern and hard-working and moral as an old-style European immigrant and reminded me of my Austrian grandmother.
“Lemme lie down, lemme lie down,” Doreen was muttering. “Lemme lie down, lemme lie down.”
I felt if I carried Doreen across the threshold into my room and helped her on to my bed I would never get rid of her again.
Her body was warm and soft as a pile of pillows against my arm where she leaned her weight, and her feet, in their high, spiked heels, dragged foolishly. She was much too heavy for me to budge down the long hall.
I decided the only thing to do was to dump her on the carpet and shut and lock my door and go back to bed. When Doreen woke up she wouldn’t remember what had happened and would think she must have passed out in front of my door while I slept, and she would get up of her own accord and go sensibly back to her room.
I started to lower Doreen gently on to the green hall carpet, but she gave a low moan and pitched forward out of my arms. A jet of brown vomit flew from her mouth and spread in a large puddle at my feet.
Suddenly Doreen grew even heavier. Her head drooped forward into the puddle, the wisps of her blonde hair dabbling in it like tree roots in a bog, and I realized she was asleep. I drew back. I felt half-asleep myself.
I made a decision about Doreen that night. I decided I would watch her and listen to what she said, but deep down I would have nothing at all to do with her. Deep down, I would be loyal to Betsy and her innocent friends. It was Betsy I resembled at heart.
Quietly, I stepped back into my room and shut the door. On second thoughts, I didn’t lock it. I couldn’t quite bring myself to do that.
When I woke up in the dull, sunless heat the next morning, I dressed and splashed my face with cold water and put on some lipstick and opened the door slowly. I think I still expected to see Doreen’s body lying there in the pool of vomit like an ugly, concrete testimony to my own dirty nature.
There was nobody in the hall. The carpet stretched from one end of the hall to the other, clean and eternally verdant except for a faint, irregular dark stain before my door as if somebody had by accident spilled a glass of water there, but dabbed it dry again.