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It was in the breakfast room of my small Oxford guest house where I started thinking about curtains. My server of corn flakes and coffee kept walking back into the kitchen, pulling the curtains behind her, closing off her work area from the public space where hotel guests were seating themselves at small, round, perfectly set tables. The server would walk back into the breakfast space with jugs of orange and apple juice, individual French presses of coffee, and bowls of corn flakes or cocoa puffs. Then she’d ask if we wanted white or brown bread, strawberry or peach yoghurt, and walk back into her curtained space.

Curtains separate public spaces from private spaces, the inner from the outer, the higher from the lower, the servant from the master, the rich from the poor, upper classes from the lower classes, the day from the night, and the server from the servee.

My Air Canada flights had curtains separating the first class seats from mine in economy. If I’d dared to walk past those curtains into first class, I’m sure I would have quickly been redirected to my economy seat. The curtains were a class wall I had not paid to breach.

Curtains of course also separate the audience from the play, and saying, “curtains” (such as in “it was curtains for him”) means the end, a death, the final scene. In my state of Utah, we have “Zion curtains,” which separate young, impressionable minds from the depravity of pouring drinks and mixing cocktails at a bar.

Curtains keep our roles clear, our place in society defined. Several times during my breakfast I wanted to tell our server, “Leave the curtains open! I don’t care if I see you pouring coffee grounds into the press!” But curtains also gave perhaps a modicum of privacy that she needed. We were not equal, she and I. I was on vacation, waiting at a small table for her to bring me food. She was working, required to please the hotel customers and do what her boss had trained her to do.

I think about how in movies a servant or pushy relative sails into a murky bedroom and flings open the drapes with great and often violent flourish, throwing glaring sunshine into the horrified eyes of sleeping persons minding their own business. The opened drapes say there surely has been enough sleeping, enough laying about, lollygagging, and holidaying. It’s time for some good honest work.

Whether the curtains are white lace, velvet drapes, pull-down Roman blinds, striped café curtains, or just sheets and pashminas flung over drapery rods, the purposes and effect are often the same: definition, boundary, privacy, and class.

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