The time travelers wife, p.3
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       The Time Traveler's Wife, p.3

           Audrey Niffenegger
 

  "Have your cake and eat it too."

  "That's my motto." She smiles a tiny wicked smile and thrusts her hips back and forth a couple times. I now have an erection that is probably tall enough to ride some of the scarier rides at Great America without a parent.

  "You get your way a lot, don't you?"

  "Always. I'm horrible. Except you have been mostly impervious to my wheedling ways. I've suffered dreadfully under your regime of French verbs and checkers."

  "I guess I should take consolation in the fact that my future self will at least have some weapons of subjugation. Do you do this to all the boys?"

  Clare is offended; I can't tell how genuinely. "I wouldn't dream of doing this with boys. What nasty ideas you have!" She is unbuttoning my shirt. "God, you're so...young." She pinches my nipples, hard. The hell with virtue. I've figured out the mechanics of her dress.

  The next morning:

  CLARE: I wake up and I don't know where I am. An unfamiliar ceiling. Distant traffic noises. Bookshelves. A blue armchair with my velvet dress slung across it and a man's tie draped over the dress. Then I remember. I turn my head and there's Henry. So simple, as though I've been doing it all my life. He is sleeping with abandon, torqued into an unlikely shape as though he's washed up on some beach, one arm over his eyes to shut out the morning, his long black hair splayed over the pillow. So simple. Here we are. Here and now, finally now.

  I get out of bed carefully. Henry's bed is also his sofa. The springs squeak as I stand up. There's not much space between the bed and the bookshelves, so I edge along until I make it into the hallway. The bathroom is tiny. I feel like Alice in Wonderland, grown huge and having to stick my arm out the window just so I can turn around. The ornate little radiator is clanking out heat. I pee and wash my hands and my face. And then I notice that there are two toothbrushes in the white porcelain toothbrush holder.

  I open the medicine cabinet. Razors, shaving cream, Listerine, Tylenol, aftershave, a blue marble, a toothpick, deodorant on the top shelf. Hand lotion, tampons, a diaphragm case, deodorant, lipstick, a bottle of multivitamins, a tube of spermicide on the bottom shelf. The lipstick is a very dark red.

  I stand there, holding the lipstick. I feel a little sick. I wonder what she looks like, what her name is. I wonder how long they've been going out. Long enough, I guess. I put the lipstick back, close the medicine cabinet. In the mirror I see myself, white-faced, hair flying in all directions. Well, whoever you are, I'm here now. You may be Henry's past, but I'm his future. I smile at myself. My reflection grimaces back at me. I borrow Henry's white terrycloth bathrobe from the back of the bathroom door. Underneath it on the hook is a pale blue silk robe. For no reason at all wearing his bathrobe makes me feel better.

  Back in the living room, Henry is still sleeping. I retrieve my watch from the windowsill and see that it's only 6:30. I'm too restless to get back into bed. I walk into the kitchenette in search of coffee. All the counters and the stove are covered with stacks of dishes, magazines, and other reading material. There's even a sock in the sink. I realize that Henry must have simply heaved everything into the kitchen last night, regardless. I always had this idea that Henry was very tidy. Now it becomes clear that he's one of those people who is fastidious about his personal appearance but secretly slovenly about everything else. I find coffee in the fridge, and find the coffee maker, and start the coffee. While I wait for it to brew, I peruse Henry's bookshelves.

  Here is the Henry I know. Donne's Elegies and Songs and Sonnets. Doctor Faustus, by Christopher Marlowe. Naked Lunch. Anne Bradstreet, Immanuel Kant. Barthes, Foucault, Derrida. Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience. Winnie the Pooh. The Annotated Alice. Heidegger. Rilke. Tristram Shandy. Wisconsin Death Trip. Aristotle. Bishop Berkeley. Andrew Marvell. Hypothermia, Frostbite and Other Cold Injuries.

  The bed squeaks and I jump. Henry is sitting up, squinting at me in the morning light. He's so young, so before--. He doesn't know me, yet. I have a sudden fear that he's forgotten who I am.

  "You look cold" he says. "Come back to bed, Clare."

  "I made coffee," I offer.

  "Mmm, I can smell it. But first come and say good morning."

  I climb into bed still wearing his bathrobe. As he slides his hand under it he stops for just a moment, and I see that he has made the connection, and is mentally reviewing his bathroom vis-a-vis me.

  "Does it bother you?" he asks.

  I hesitate.

  "Yes, it does. It does bother you. Of course." Henry sits up, and I do, too. He turns his head toward me, looks at me. "It was almost over, anyway."

  "Almost?"

  "I was about to break up with her. It's just bad timing. Or good timing, I don't know." He's trying to read my face, for what? Forgiveness? It's not his fault. How could he know? "We've sort of been torturing each other for a long time--" He's talking faster and faster and then he stops. "Do you want to know?"

  "No."

  "Thank you." Henry passes his hands over his face. "I'm sorry. I didn't know you were coming or I'd have cleaned up a little more. My life, I mean, not just the apartment." There's a lipstick smear under Henry's ear, and I reach up and rub it out. He takes my hand, and holds it. "Am I very different? Than you expected?" he asks apprehensively.

  "Yes...you're more..." selfish, I think, but I say, "...younger."

  He considers it. "Is that good or bad?"

  "Different." I run both hands over Henry's shoulders and across his back, massaging muscles, exploring indentations. "Have you seen yourself, in your forties?"

  "Yes. I look like I've been spindled and mutilated."

  "Yeah. But you're less--I mean you are sort of--more. I mean, you know me, so..."

  "So right now you're telling me that I'm somewhat gauche."

  I shake my head, although that is exactly what I mean. "It's just that I've had all these experiences, and you... I'm not used to being with you when you don't remember anything that happened."

  Henry is somber. "I'm sorry. But the person you know doesn't exist yet. Stick with me, and sooner or later, he's bound to appear. That's the best I can do, though."

  "That's fair," I say. "But in the meantime..."

  He turns to meet my gaze. "In the meantime?"

  "I want..."

  "You want?"

  I'm blushing. Henry smiles, and pushes me backward gently onto the pillows. "You know."

  "I don't know much, but I can guess a thing or two."

  Later, we're dozing warm covered with midmorning October pale sun, skin to skin and Henry says something into the back of my neck that I don't catch.

  "What?"

  "I was thinking; it's very peaceful, here with you. It's nice to just lie here and know that the future is sort of taken care of."

  "Henry?"

  "Hmm?"

  "How come you never told yourself about me?"

  "Oh. I don't do that."

  "Do what?"

  "I don't usually tell myself stuff ahead of time unless it's huge, life-threatening, you know? I'm trying to live like a normal person. I don't even like having myself around, so I try not to drop in on myself unless there's no choice."

  I ponder this for a while. "I would tell myself everything."

  "No, you wouldn't. It makes a lot of trouble."

  "I was always trying to get you to tell me things." I roll over onto my back and Henry props his head on his hand and looks down at me. Our faces are about six inches apart. It's so strange to be talking, almost like we always did, but the physical proximity makes it hard for me to concentrate.

  "Did I tell you things?" he asks.

  "Sometimes. When you felt like it, or had to."

  "Like what?"

  "See? You do want to know. But I'm not telling."

  Henry laughs. "Serves me right. Hey, I'm hungry. Let's go get breakfast."

  Outside it's chilly. Cars and cyclists cruise along Dearborn while couples stroll down the sidewalks and there we are with them, in the morning su
nlight, hand in hand, finally together for anyone to see. I feel a tiny pang of regret, as though I've lost a secret, and then a rush of exaltation: now everything begins.

  A FIRST TIME FOR EVERYTHING

  Sunday, June 16, 1968

  HENRY: The first time was magical. How could I have known what it meant? It was my fifth birthday, and we went to the Field Museum of Natural History. I don't think I had ever been to the Field Museum before. My parents had been telling me all week about the wonders to be seen there, the stuffed elephants in the great hall, the dinosaur skeletons, the caveman dioramas. Mom had just gotten back from Sydney, and she had brought me an immense, surpassingly blue butterfly, Papilio ulysses, mounted in a frame filled with cotton. I would hold it close to my face, so close I couldn't see anything but that blue. It would fill me with a feeling, a feeling I later tried to duplicate with alcohol and finally found again with Clare, a feeling of unity, oblivion, mindlessness in the best sense of the word. My parents described the cases and cases of butterflies, hummingbirds, beetles. I was so excited that I woke up before dawn. I put on my gym shoes and took my Papilio ulysses and went into the backyard and down the steps to the river in my pajamas. I sat on the landing and hatched the light come up. A family of ducks came swimming by, and a raccoon appeared on the landing across the river and looked at me curiously before washing its breakfast and eating it. I may have fallen asleep. I heard Mom calling and I ran back up the stairs, which were slippery with dew, careful not to drop the butterfly. She was annoyed with me for going down to the landing by myself, but she didn't make a big deal about it, it being my birthday and all.

  Neither of them were working that night, so they took their time getting dressed and out the door. I was ready long before either of them. I sat on their bed and pretended to read a score. This was around the time my musician parents recognized that their one and only offspring was not musically gifted. It wasn't that I wasn't trying; I just could not hear whatever it was they heard in a piece of music. I enjoyed music, but I could hardly carry a tune. And though I could read a newspaper when I was four, scores were only pretty black squiggles. But my parents were still hoping I might have some hidden musical aptitude, so when I picked up the score Mom sat down next to me and tried to help me with it. Pretty soon Mom was singing and I was chiming in with horrible yowling noises and snapping my fingers and we were giggling and she was tickling me. Dad came out of the bathroom with a towel around his waist and joined in and for a few glorious minutes they were singing together and Dad picked me up and they were dancing around the bedroom with me pressed between them. Then the phone rang, and the scene dissolved. Mom went to answer it, and Dad set me on the bed and got dressed.

  Finally, they were ready. My mom wore a red sleeveless dress and sandals; she had painted her toenails and fingernails so they matched her dress. Dad was resplendent in dark blue pants and a white short-sleeved shirt, providing a quiet background for Mom's flamboyance. We all piled into the car. As always, I had the whole backseat to myself, so I lay down and watched the tall buildings along Lake Shore Drive flicking past the window.

  "Sit up, Henry" said Mom. "We're here."

  I sat up and looked at the museum. I had spent my childhood thus far being carted around the capital cities of Europe, so the Field Museum satisfied my idea of "Museum," but its domed stone facade was nothing exceptional. Because it was Sunday, we had a little trouble finding parking, but eventually we parked and walked along the lake, past boats and statues and other excited children. We passed between the heavy columns and into the museum.

  And then I was a boy enchanted.

  Here all of nature was captured, labeled, arranged according to a logic that seemed as timeless as if ordered by God, perhaps a God who had mislaid the original paperwork on the Creation and had requested the Field Museum staff to help Him out and keep track of it all. For my five-year-old self, who could derive rapture from a single butterfly, to walk through the Field Museum was to walk through Eden and see all that passed there.

  We saw so much that day: the butterflies, to be sure, cases and cases of them, from Brazil, from Madagascar, even a brother of my blue butterfly from Down Under. The museum was dark, cold, and old, and this heightened the sense of suspension, of time and death brought to a halt inside its walls. We saw crystals and cougars, muskrats and mummies, fossils and more fossils. We ate our picnic lunch on the lawn of the museum, and then plunged in again for birds and alligators and Neanderthals. Toward the end I was so tired I could hardly stand, but I couldn't bear to leave. The guards came and gently herded us all to the doors; I struggled not to cry, but began to anyway, out of exhaustion and desire. Dad picked me up, and we walked back to the car. I fell asleep in the backseat, and when I awoke We were home, and it was time for dinner.

  We ate downstairs in Mr. and Mrs. Kim's apartment. They were our landlords. Mr. Kim was a gruff, compact man who seemed to like me but never said much, and Mrs. Kim (Kimy, my nickname for her) was my buddy, my crazy Korean card-playing babysitter. I spent most of my waking hours with Kimy. My mom was never much of a cook, and Kimy could produce anything from a souffle to bi bim bop with panache. Tonight, for my birthday, she had made pizza and chocolate cake.

  We ate. Everyone sang Happy Birthday and I blew out the candles. I don't remember what I wished for. I was allowed to stay up later than usual, because I was still excited by all the things we'd seen, and because I had slept so late in the afternoon. I sat on the back porch in my pajamas with Mom and Dad and Mrs. and Mr. Kim, drinking lemonade and watching the blueness of the evening sky, listening to the cicadas and the TV noises from other apartments. Eventually Dad said, "Bedtime, Henry." I brushed my teeth and said prayers and got into bed. I was exhausted but wide awake. Dad read to me for a while, and then, seeing that I still couldn't sleep, he and Mom turned out the lights, propped open my bedroom door, and went into the living room. The deal was: they would play for me as long as I wanted, but I had to stay in bed to listen. So Mom sat at the piano, and Dad got out his violin, and they played and sang for a long time. Lullabies, lieder, nocturnes; sleepy music to soothe the savage boy in the bedroom. Finally Mom came in to see if I was asleep. I must have looked small and wary in my little bed, a nocturnal animal in pajamas.

  "Oh, baby. Still awake?"

  I nodded.

  "Dad and I are going to bed. Are you okay?"

  I said Yes and she gave me a hug. "It was pretty exciting today at the museum, huh?"

  "Can we go back tomorrow?"

  "Not tomorrow, but we'll go back real soon, okay?"

  "Okay."

  "G'night." She left the door open and flipped off the hall light. "Sleep tight. Don't let the bedbugs bite."

  I could hear little noises, water running, toilet flushing. Then all was quiet. I got out of bed and knelt in front of my window. I could see lights in the house next door, and somewhere a car drove by with its radio blaring. I stayed there for a while, trying to feel sleepy, and then I stood up and everything changed.

  Saturday, January 2, 1988, 4:03 a.m. /Sunday, June 16, 1968, 10:46 p.m. (Henry is 24, and 5)

  HENRY: It's 4:03 a.m. on a supremely cold January morning and I'm just getting home. I've been out dancing and I'm only half drunk but utterly exhausted. As I fumble with my keys in the bright foyer I fall to my knees, dizzy and nauseated, and then I am in the dark, vomiting on a tile floor. I raise my head and see a red illuminated EXIT sign and as my eyes adjust I see tigers, cavemen with long spears, cavewomen wearing strategically modest skins, wolfish dogs. My heart is racing and for a long liquor-addled moment I think Holy shit, I've gone all the way back to the Stone Age until I realize that EXIT signs tend to congregate in the twentieth century. I get up, shaking, and venture toward the doorway, tile icy under my bare feet, gooseflesh and all my hairs standing up. It's absolutely silent. The air is clammy with air conditioning. I reach the entrance and look into the next room. It's full of glass cases; the white streetlight glow through the high windows
shows me thousands of beetles. I'm in the Field Museum, praise the Lord. I stand still and breathe deeply, trying to clear my head. Something about this rings a bell in my fettered brain and I try to dredge it up. I'm supposed to do something. Yes. My fifth birthday...someone was there, and I'm about to be that someone... I need clothes. Yes. Indeed.

  I sprint through beetlemania into the long hallway that bisects the second floor, down the west staircase to the first floor, grateful to be in the pre-motion-detector era. The great elephants loom menacingly over me in the moonlight and I wave to them on my way to the little gift shop to the right of the main entrance. I circle the wares and find a few promising items: an ornamental letter opener, a metal bookmark with the Field's insignia, and two T-shirts that feature dinosaurs. The locks on the cases are a joke; I pop them with a bobby pin I find next to the cash register, and help myself. Okay. Back up the stairs, to the third floor. This is the Field's "attic," where the labs are; the staff have their offices up here. I scan the names on the doors, but none of them suggests anything to me; finally I select at random and slide my bookmark along the lock until the catch pushes back and I'm in.

  The occupant of this office is one V. M. Williamson, and he's a very untidy guy. The room is dense with papers, and coffee cups and cigarettes overflow from ashtrays; there's a partially articulated snake skeleton on his desk. I quickly case the joint for clothes and come up with nothing. The next office belongs to a woman, J. F. Bettley. On the third try I get lucky. D. W. Fitch has an entire suit hung neatly on his coat rack, and it pretty much fits me, though it's a bit short in the arms and legs and wide in the lapels. I wear one of the dinosaur T-shirts under the jacket. No shoes, but I'm decent. D. W. also keeps an unopened package of Oreo cookies in his desk, bless him. I appropriate them and leave, closing the door carefully behind me.

  Where was I, when I saw me? I close my eyes and fatigue takes me bodily, caressing me with her sleepy fingers. I am almost out on my feet, but I catch myself and it comes to me: a man in silhouette walking toward me backlit by the museum's front doors. I need to get back to the Great Hall.

  When I get there all is quiet and still. I walk across the middle of the floor, trying to replicate the view of the doors, and then I seat myself near the coat room, so as to enter stage left. I can hear blood rushing in my head, the air conditioning system humming, cars whooshing by on Lake Shore Drive. I eat ten Oreos, slowly, gently prying each one apart, scraping the filling out with my front teeth, nibbling the chocolate halves to make them last. I have no idea what time it is, or how long I have to wait. I'm mostly sober now, and reasonably alert. Time passes, nothing happens. At last: I hear a soft thud, a gasp. Silence. I wait. I stand up, silently, and pad into the Hall, walking slowly through the light that slants across the marble floor. I stand in the center of the doors and call out, not loud: "Henry."

 
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