Elaine thinks about the nature of time, which she identifies as dimensional instead of linear—her brother (Stephen) told her this when she was a child, and she comes to believe that time has a “layered shape,” and “nothing goes away.”
This description of time sets the tone for the entire novel, which is composed of interconnected narratives and motifs of repeated, layered events. This also establishes the role that physics and a scientific understanding of time will play in the novel as it interweaves with Elaine’s subjective experience of the passage of time.
Elaine tells her friend Cordelia that time isn’t linear while the two ride the streetcar together. They make fun of that idea, as well as the old ladies they see on the train. Elaine is particularly captivated by the women who seem like they have made an effort, with stage prop earrings and verbal tics—Cordelia says that she wants to be like these women. Elaine intends to have a pet iguana and wear nothing but cerise. Suddenly, the narrative voice skips forward and it becomes clear that Elaine is much older now, and that she was remembering the time on the streetcar.
Elaine and Cordelia clearly share a close relationship, the narrative quickly establishes connotations of cruelty underpinning the way that they treat other women. Their girlhood involves a fear of aging along with an established sense of how a woman should look and act, which illustrates how early social expectations for women and girls set in. When the narrative jumps to the future, readers realize that the novel occurs over two different timelines, despite the vivid nature of Elaine’s childhood memories.
Elaine thinks about aging, and how she resembles those old ladies they made fun of. These days, she sometimes even goes to restaurants with pink walls because those with yellow walls make her skin look too old. She hasn’t seen Cordelia in years, and wonders where she is and if she has aged. She pictures her aging badly, growing fat and trying to give the public illusion of youth by wearing fashionable glasses. Elaine pictures bad things happening to Cordelia, sickness and infirmities—she fantasizes about Cordelia ending up in an iron lung, where she “could not move or speak.” Their eyes would meet.
Elaine’s reflections on her aging body establish a certain amount of chronology—although she can look backwards at her childhood via flashbacks, her body carries the marks of irreversible aging. The negativity of these thoughts points to gendered expectations about what a woman’s body should look like, and how female worth is lost once that outer appearance changes. The dark fantasies that she has about Cordelia point to the degree to which that relationship was defined by conflict.
Elaine walks through the city, which is the same one she grew up in. She walks through January slush and observes changes in the city, the growth of towers that remind her of gravestones, and fashionable people walking along the sidewalk. She says that she’s started chewing her fingers again, and that the blood tastes like “orange Popsicles, penny gumballs, red licorice, gnawed hair, and dirty ice.”
Elaine continues to have a negative perspective on the passage of time, as demonstrated by her association of tall buildings with gravestones. The habits that she remembers sound childish, as she references chewing her fingers and eating copious amounts of old-fashioned candy. This gestures to events that happened in her childhood, and implies that a specific moment in her early adolescence greatly shaped her identity.