The time travelers wife, p.2
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       The Time Traveler's Wife, p.2

           Audrey Niffenegger
 

  Later that evening:

  HENRY: At 6:00 p.m. I race home from work and attempt to make myself attractive. Home these days is a tiny but insanely expensive studio apartment on North Dearborn; I am constantly banging parts of myself on inconvenient walls, countertops and furniture. Step One: unlock seventeen locks on apartment door, fling myself into the living room-which-is-also-my-bedroom and begin stripping off clothing. Step Two: shower and shave. Step Three: stare hopelessly into the depths of my closet, gradually becoming aware that nothing is exactly clean. I discover one white shirt still in its dry cleaning bag. I decide to wear the black suit, wing tips, and pale blue tie. Step Four: don all of this and realize I look like an FBI agent. Step Five: look around and realize that the apartment is a mess. I resolve to avoid bringing Clare to my apartment tonight even if such a thing is possible. Step Six: look in full-length bathroom mirror and behold angular, wild-eyed 6'1" ten-year-old Egon Schiele look-alike in clean shirt and funeral director suit. I wonder what sorts of outfits this woman has seen me wearing, since I am obviously not arriving from my future into her past wearing clothes of my own. She said she was a little girl? A plethora of unanswerables runs through my head. I stop and breathe for a minute. Okay. I grab my wallet and my keys, and away I go: lock the thirty-seven locks, descend in the cranky little elevator, buy roses for Clare in the shop in the lobby, walk two blocks to the restaurant in record time but still five minutes late. Clare is already seated in a booth and she looks relieved when she sees me. She waves at me like she's in a parade.

  "Hello," I say. Clare is wearing a wine-colored velvet dress and pearls. She looks like a Botticelli by way of John Graham: huge gray eyes, long nose, tiny delicate mouth like a geisha. She has long red hair that covers her shoulders and falls to the middle of her back. Clare is so pale she looks like a waxwork in the candlelight. I thrust the roses at her. "For you."

  "Thank you," says Clare, absurdly pleased. She looks at me and realizes that I am confused by her response. "You've never given me flowers before."

  I slide into the booth opposite her. I'm fascinated. This woman knows me; this isn't some passing acquaintance of my future hejiras. The waitress appears and hands us menus.

  "Tell me," I demand.

  "What?"

  "Everything. I mean, do you understand why I don't know you? I'm terribly sorry about that--"

  "Oh, no, you shouldn't be. I mean, I know...why that is." Clare lowers her voice. "It's because for you none of it has happened yet, but for me, well, I've known you for a long time."

  "How long?"

  "About fourteen years. I first saw you when I was six."

  "Jesus. Have you seen me very often? Or just a few times?"

  "The last time I saw you, you told me to bring this to dinner when we met again," Clare shows me a pale blue child's diary, "so here,"--she hands it to me--"you can have this." I open it to the place marked with a piece of newspaper. The page, which has two cocker spaniel puppies lurking in the upper right-hand corner, is a list of dates. It begins with September 23, 1977, and ends sixteen small, blue, puppied pages later on May 24, 1989. I count. There are 152 dates, written with great care in the large open Palmer Method blue ball point pen of a six-year-old.

  "You made the list? These are all accurate?"

  "Actually, you dictated this to me. You told me a few years ago that you memorized the dates from this list. So I don't know how exactly this exists; I mean, it seems sort of like a Mobius strip. But they are accurate. I used them to know when to go down to the Meadow to meet you." The waitress reappears and we order: Tom Kha Kai for me and Gang Mussaman for Clare. A waiter brings tea and I pour us each a cup.

  "What is the Meadow?" I am practically hopping with excitement. I have never met anyone from my future before, much less a Botticelli who has encountered me 152 times.

  "The Meadow is a part of my parents' place up in Michigan. There's woods at one edge of it, and the house on the opposite end. More or less in the middle is a clearing about ten feet in diameter with a big rock in it, and if you're in the clearing no one at the house can see you because the land swells up and then dips in the clearing. I used to play there because I liked to play by myself and I thought no one knew I was there. One day when I was in first grade I came home from school and went out to the clearing and there you were."

  "Stark naked and probably throwing up."

  "Actually, you seemed pretty self-possessed. I remember you knew my name, and I remember you vanishing quite spectacularly. In retrospect, it's obvious that you had been there before. I think the first time for you was in 1981; I was ten. You kept saying 'Oh my god,' and staring at me. Also, you seemed pretty freaked out about the nudity, and by then I just kind of took it for granted that this old nude guy was going to magically appear from the future and demand clothing." Clare smiles. "And food."

  "What's funny?"

  "I made you some pretty weird meals over the years. Peanut butter and anchovy sandwiches. Pate and beets on Ritz crackers. I think partly I wanted to see if there was anything you wouldn't eat and partly I was trying to impress you with my culinary wizardry."

  "How old was I?"

  "I think the oldest I have seen you was forty-something. I'm not sure about youngest; maybe about thirty? How old are you now?"

  "Twenty-eight."

  "You look very young to me now. The last few years you were mostly in your early forties, and you seemed to be having kind of a rough life... It's hard to say. When you're little all adults seem big, and old."

  "So what did we do? In the Meadow? That's a lot of time, there."

  Clare smiles. "We did lots of things. It changed depending on my age, and the weather. You spent a lot of time helping me do my homework. We played games. Mostly we just talked about stuff. When I was really young I thought you were an angel; I asked you a lot of questions about God. When I was a teenager I tried to get you to make love to me, and you never would, which of course made me much more determined about it. I think you thought you were going to warp me sexually, somehow. In some ways you were very parental."

  "Oh. That's probably good news but somehow at the moment I don't seem to be wanting to be thought of as parental." Our eyes meet. We both smile and we are conspirators. "What about winter? Michigan winters are pretty extreme."

  "I used to smuggle you into our basement; the house has a huge basement with several rooms, and one of them is a storage room and the furnace is on the other side of the wall. We call it the Reading Room because all the useless old books and magazines are stored there. One time you were down there and we had a blizzard and nobody went to school or to work and I thought I was going to go crazy trying to get food for you because there wasn't all that much food in the house. Etta was supposed to go grocery shopping when the storm hit. So you were stuck reading old Reader's Digests for three days, living on sardines and ramen noodles."

  "Sounds salty. I'll look forward to it." Our meal arrives. "Did you ever learn to cook?"

  "No, I don't think I would claim to know how to cook. Nell and Etta always got mad when I did anything in their kitchen beyond getting myself a Coke, and since I've moved to Chicago I don't have anybody to cook for, so I haven't been motivated to work on it. Mostly I'm too busy with school and all, sol just eat there." Clare takes a bite of her curry. "This is really good."

  "Nell and Etta?"

  "Nell is our cook." Clare smiles. "Nell is like cordon bleu meets Detroit; she's how Aretha Franklin would be if she was Julia Child. Etta is our housekeeper and all-around everything. She's really more almost our mom; I mean, my mother is...well, Etta's just always there, and she's German and strict, but she's very comforting, and my mother is kind of off in the clouds, you know?"

  I nod, my mouth full of soup.

  "Oh, and there's Peter," Clare adds. "Peter is the gardener."

  "Wow. Your family has servants. This sounds a little out of my league. Have I ever, uh, met any of your family?"

  "You met my Grandm
a Meagram right before she died. She was the only person I ever told about you. She was pretty much blind by then. She knew we were going to get married and she wanted to meet you."

  I stop eating and look at Clare. She looks back at me, serene, angelic, perfectly at ease. "Are we going to get married?"

  "I assume so," she replies. "You've been telling me for years that whenever it is you're coming from, you're married to me."

  Too much. This is too much. I close my eyes and will myself to think of nothing; the last thing I want is to lose my grip on the here and now.

  "Henry? Henry, are you okay?" I feel Clare sliding onto the seat beside me. I open my eyes and she grips my hands strongly in hers. I look at her hands and see that they are the hands of a laborer, rough and chapped. "Henry, I'm sorry, I just can't get used to this. It's so opposite. I mean, all my life you've been the one who knew everything and I sort of forgot that tonight maybe I should go slow." She smiles. "Actually, almost the last thing you said to me before you left was 'Have mercy, Clare.' You said it in your quoting voice, and I guess now that I think of it you must have been quoting me." She continues to hold my hands. She looks at me with eagerness; with love. I feel profoundly humble.

  "Clare?"

  "Yes?"

  "Could we back up? Could we pretend that this is a normal first date between two normal people?"

  "Okay." Clare gets up and goes back to her side of the table. She sits up straight and tries not to smile.

  "Um, right. Gee, ah, Clare, ah, tell me about yourself. Hobbies? Pets? Unusual sexual proclivities?"

  "Find out for yourself."

  "Right. Let's see...where do you go to school? What are you studying?"

  "I'm at the School of the Art Institute; I've been doing sculpture, and I've just started to study papermaking."

  "Cool. What's your work like?"

  For the first time, Clare seems uncomfortable. "It's kind of...big, and it's about...birds." She looks at the table, then takes a sip of tea.

  "Birds?"

  "Well, really it's about, um, longing." She is still not looking at me, so I change the subject.

  "Tell more about your family."

  "Okay." Clare relaxes, smiles. "Well...my family lives in Michigan, by a small town on the lake called South Haven. Our house is in an unincorporated area outside the town, actually. It originally belonged to my mother's parents, my Grandpa and Grandma Meagram. He died before I was born, and she lived with us until she died. I was seventeen. My grandpa was a lawyer, and my dad is a lawyer; my dad met my mom when he came to work for Grandpa."

  "So he married the boss's daughter."

  "Yeah. Actually, I sometimes wonder if he really married the boss's house. My mom is an only child, and the house is sort of amazing; it's in a lot of books on the Arts and Crafts movement."

  "Does it have a name? Who built it?"

  "It's called Meadowlark House, and it was built in 1896 by Peter Wyns."

  "Wow. I've seen pictures of it. It was built for one of the Henderson family, right?"

  "Yes. It was a wedding present for Mary Henderson and Dieter Bascombe. They divorced two years after they moved in and sold the house."

  "Posh house."

  "My family is posh. They're very weird about it, too."

  "Brothers and sisters?"

  "Mark is twenty-two and finishing pre-law at Harvard. Alicia is seventeen and a senior in high school. She's a cellist." I detect affection for the sister and a certain flatness for the brother. "You aren't too fond of your brother?"

  "Mark is just like Dad. They both like to win, talk you down until you submit."

  "You know, I always envy people with siblings, even if they don't like them all that much,"

  "You're an only child?"

  "Yep. I thought you knew everything about me?"

  "Actually I know everything and nothing. I know how you look without clothes, but until this afternoon I didn't know your last name. I knew you lived in Chicago, but I know nothing about your family except that your mom died in a car crash when you were six. I know you know a lot about art and speak fluent French and German; I had no idea you were a librarian. You made it impossible for me to find you in the present; you said it would just happen when it was supposed to happen, and here we are."

  "Here we are," I agree. "Well, my family isn't posh; they're musicians. My father is Richard DeTamble and my mother was Annette Lyn Robinson."

  "Oh--the singer!"

  "Right. And he's a violinist. He plays for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. But he never really made it the way she did. It's a shame because my father is a marvelous violin player. After Mom died he was just treading water." The check arrives. Neither of us has eaten very much, but I at least am not interested in food right now. Clare picks up her purse and I shake my head at her. I pay; we leave the restaurant and stand on Clark Street in the fine autumn night. Clare is wearing an elaborate blue knitted thing and a fur scarf; I have forgotten to bring an overcoat so I'm shivering.

  "Where do you live?" Clare asks.

  Uh oh. "I live about two blocks from here, but my place is tiny and really messy right now. You?"

  "Roscoe Village, on Hoyne. But I have a roommate."

  "If you come up to my place you have to close your eyes and count to one thousand. Perhaps you have a very uninquisitive deaf roommate?"

  "No such luck. I never bring anyone over; Charisse would pounce on you and stick bamboo slivers under your fingernails until you told all."

  "I long to be tortured by someone named Charisse, but I can see that you do not share my taste. Come up to my parlor." We walk north along Clark. I veer into Clark Street Liquors for a bottle of wine. Back on the street Clare is puzzled.

  "I thought you aren't supposed to drink?"

  "I m not?"

  "Dr. Kendrick was very strict about it."

  "Who's he?" We are walking slowly because Clare is wearing impractical shoes.

  "He's your doctor; he's a big expert on Chrono-Impairment."

  "Explain."

  "I don't know very much. Dr. David Kendrick is a molecular geneticist who discovered--will discover why people are chrono-impaired. It's a genetic thing; he figures it out in 2006." She sighs. "I guess it's just way too early. You told me once that there are a lot more chrono-impaired people about ten years from now."

  "I've never heard of anyone else who has this--impairment."

  "I guess even if you went out right now and found Dr. Kendrick he wouldn't be able to help you. And we would never have met, if he could."

  "Let's not think about that." We are in my lobby. Clare precedes me into the tiny elevator. I close the door and push eleven. She smells like old cloth, soap, sweat, and fur. I breathe deeply. The elevator clangs into place on my floor and we extricate ourselves from it and walk down the narrow hallway. I wield my fistful of keys on all 107 locks and crack the door slightly. "It's gotten much worse during dinner. I'm going to have to blindfold you." Clare giggles as I set down the wine and remove my tie. I pass it over her eyes and tie it firmly at the back of her head. I open the door and guide her into the apartment and settle her in the armchair. "Okay, start counting."

  Clare counts. I race around picking underwear and socks from the floor, collecting spoons and coffee cups from various horizontal surfaces and chucking them into the kitchen sink. As she says "Nine hundred and sixty-seven," I remove the tie from her eyes. I have turned the sleeper-sofa into its daytime, sofa self, and I sit down on it. "Wine? Music? Candlelight?"

  "Yes, please."

  I get up and light candles. When I'm finished I turn off the overhead light and the room is dancing with little lights and everything looks better. I put the roses in water, locate my corkscrew, extract the cork, and pour us each a glass of wine. After a moment's thought I put on the EMI CD of my mother singing Schubert lieder and turn the volume low.

  My apartment is basically a couch, an armchair, and about four thousand books.

  "How lovely," sa
ys Clare. She gets up and reseats herself on the sofa. I sit down next to her. There is a comfortable moment when we just sit there and look at each other. The candlelight flickers on Clare's hair. She reaches over and touches my cheek. "It's so good to see you. I was getting lonely."

  I draw her to me. We kiss. It's a very...compatible kiss, a kiss born of long association, and I wonder just exactly what we've been doing in this meadow of Clare's, but I push the thought away. Our lips part; usually at this point I would be considering how to work my way past various fortresses of clothing, but instead I lean back and stretch out on the sofa, bringing Clare along with me by gripping her under the arms and pulling; the velvet dress makes her slippery and she slithers into the space between my body and the back of the sofa like a velvet eel. She is facing me and I am propped up by the arm of the sofa. I can feel the length of her body pressing against mine through the thin fabric. Part of me is dying to go leaping and licking and diving in, but I'm exhausted and overwhelmed.

  "Poor Henry."

  "Why 'Poor Henry?' I'm overcome with happiness." And it's true.

  "Oh, I've been dropping all these surprises on you like big rocks." Clare swings a leg over me so she's sitting exactly on top of my cock. It concentrates my attention wonderfully.

  "Don't move," I say.

  "Okay. I'm finding this evening highly entertaining. I mean, Knowledge is Power, and all that. Also I've always been hugely curious to find out where you live and what you wear and what you do for a living."

  "Voila!" I slide my hands under her dress and up her thighs. She's bearing stockings and garters. My kind of girl. "Clare?"

  "Oui."

  "It seems like a shame to just gobble everything up all at once. I mean, a little anticipation wouldn't hurt anything."

  Clare is abashed. "I'm sorry! But, you know, in my case, I've been anticipating for years. And, it's not like cake...you eat it and it's gone."

 
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