The time travelers wife, p.34
Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font       Night Mode Off   Night Mode

       The Time Traveler's Wife, p.34

           Audrey Niffenegger
 

  "I thought we knew everything there was to know about this kid. Surely Kendrick tested for red hair?" I say.

  Henry retrieves the book from me. "Yseult? Zoe? I like Zoe. Zoe has possibilities."

  "What's it mean?"

  "Life."

  "Yeah, that's very good. Bookmark that."

  "Eliza," Henry offers.

  "Elizabeth."

  Henry looks at me, hesitates. "Annette."

  "Lucy."

  "No." Henry says firmly.

  "No," I agree.

  "What we need" Henry says, "is a fresh start. A blank slate. Let's call her Tabula Rasa."

  "Let's call her Titanium White."

  "Blanche, Blanca, Bianca..."

  "Alba," I say.

  "As in Duchess of?"

  "Alba DeTamble." It rolls around in my mouth as I say it.

  "That's nice, all the little iambs, tripping along..." He's flipping through the book. "'Alba (Latin) White. (Provencal) Dawn of day.' Hmm." He laboriously clambers off the bed. I can hear him rummaging around in the living room; he returns after a few minutes with Volume I of the OED, the big Random House dictionary, and my decrepit old Encyclopedia Americana Book I, A to Annuals. '"A dawn song of the Provencal poets...in honor of their mistresses. Reveilles, a l'aurore, par le cri du guetteur, deux amants qui viennent de passer la nuit ensemble se separent en maudissant le jour qui vient trop tot; tel est le theme, non moins invariable que celui de la pastourelle, d'un genre dont le nom est emprunte au mot alba, qui figure parfois au debut de la piece. Et regulierement a la fin de chaque couplet, ou il forme refrain.' How sad. Let's try Random House. This is better. 'A white city on a hill. A fortress.'" He jettisons Random House off the bed and opens the encyclopedia. "AEsop, Age of Reason, Alaska...okay, here, Alba." He scans the entry. "A bunch of now wiped-out towns in ancient Italy. And the Duke of Alba."

  I sigh and turn onto my back. The baby stirs. She must have been sleeping. Henry is back to perusing the OED. "Amour. Amourous. Armadillo. Bazooms. Goodness, the things they print these days in works of reference." He slides his hand under my nightgown, runs it slowly over my taut stomach. The baby kicks, hard, just where his hand is, and he starts, and looks at me, amazed. His hands are roaming, finding their way across familiar and unfamiliar terrain. "How many DeTambles can you fit in there?"

  "Oh, there's always room for one more."

  "Alba," he says, softly.

  "A white city. An impregnable fortress on a white hill."

  "She'll like it." Henry is pulling my underwear down my legs and over my ankles. He tosses it off the bed and looks at me.

  "Careful...," I tell him.

  "Very careful," he agrees, as he strips off his clothes.

  I feel immense, like a continent in a sea of pillows and blankets. Henry bends over me from behind, moves over me, an explorer mapping my skin with his tongue. "Slowly, slowly..." I am afraid.

  "A song sung by the troubadours at dawn..." he is whispering to me as he enters me.

  "...To their mistresses," I reply. My eyes are closed and I hear Henry as though from the next room:

  "Just...so." And then: "Yes. Yes."

  ALBA, AN INTRODUCTION

  Wednesday, November 16, 2011 (Henry is 38, Clare is 40)

  HENRY: I'm in the Surrealist Galleries at the Art Institute of Chicago, in the future. I am not perfectly dressed; the best I could do was a long black winter coat from the coat check room and pants from a guard's locker. I did manage to find shoes, which are always the most difficult thing to get. So I figure I'll lift a wallet, buy a T-shirt in the museum store, have lunch, see some art, and then launch myself out of the building and into the world of shops and hotel rooms. I have no idea where I am in time. Not too far out there; the clothing and haircuts are not too different from 2001. I'm simultaneously excited about this little sojourn and disturbed, because in my present Clare is about to have Alba at any moment, and I absolutely want to be there, but on the other hand this is an unusually high-quality slice of forward time travel. I feel strong and really present, really good. So I stand quietly in a dark room full of spot-lit Joseph Cornell boxes, watching a school group following a docent, carrying little stools which they obediently sit on when she tells them to park themselves.

  I observe the group. The docent is the usual: a well-groomed woman in her fifties with impossibly blond hair and taut face. The teacher, a good-humored young woman wearing light blue lipstick, stands at the back of the flock of students, ready to contain any who get boisterous. It's the students who interest me. They are all about ten or so, fifth grade, I guess that would be. It's a Catholic school, so they all wear identical clothes, green plaid for the girls and navy blue for the boys. They are attentive and polite, but not excited. Too bad; I would think Cornell would be perfect for kids. The docent seems to think they are younger than they are; she talks to them as though they are little children. There's a girl in the back row who seems more engaged than the rest. I can't see her face. She has long curly black hair and a peacock-blue dress, which sets her apart from her peers. Every time the docent asks a question, this girl's hand goes up, but the docent never calls on her. I can see that the girl is getting fed up.

  The docent is talking about Cornell's Aviary boxes. Each box is bleak, and many have white, painted interiors with perches and the kind of holes that a birdhouse would have, and some have pictures of birds. They are the starkest and most austere of his pieces, without the whimsy of the Soap Bubble Sets or the romance of the Hotel boxes.

  "Why do you think Mr. Cornell made these boxes?" The docent brightly scans the children for a reply, ignoring the peacock-blue girl, who is waving her hand like she has Saint Vitus' Dance. A boy in the front says shyly that the artist must have liked birds. This is too much for the girl She stands up with her hand in the air. The docent reluctantly says, "Yes?"

  "He made the boxes because he was lonely. He didn't have anyone to love, and he made the boxes so he could love them, and so people would know that he existed, and because birds are free and the boxes are hiding places for the birds so they will feel safe, and he wanted to be free and be safe. The boxes are for him so he can be a bird." The girl sits down.

  I am blown away by her answer. This is a ten-year-old who can empathize with Joseph Cornell. Neither the docent nor the class exactly knows what to make of this, but the teacher, who is obviously used to her, says, "Thank you, Alba, that's very perceptive." She turns and smiles gratefully at the teacher, and I see her face, and I am looking at my daughter. I have been standing in the next gallery, and I take a few steps forward, to look at her, to see her, and she sees me, and her face lights up, and she jumps up, knocks over her little folding chair, and almost before I know it I am holding Alba in my arms, holding her tight, kneeling before her with my arms around her as she says "Daddy" over and over.

  Everyone is gaping at us. The teacher hurries over.

  She says, "Alba, who is this? Sir, who are you?"

  "I'm Henry DeTamble, Alba's father."

  "He's my daddy!"

  The teacher is almost wringing her hands. "Sir, Alba's father is dead."

  I am speechless. But Alba, daughter mine, has a grip on the situation.

  "He's dead," she tells her teacher. "But he's not continuously dead."

  I find my wits. "It's kind of hard to explain--"

  "He's a CDP," says Alba. "Like me." This seems to make perfect sense to the teacher although it means nothing to me. The teacher is a bit pale under her makeup but she looks sympathetic. Alba squeezes my hand. Say something, is what she means.

  "Ah, Ms.--"

  "Cooper."

  "Ms. Cooper, is there any possibility that Alba and I could have a few minutes, here, to talk? We don't see each other much."

  "Well... I just...we're on a field trip...the group... I can't let you just take the child away from the group, and I don't really know that you are Mr. DeTamble, you see..."

  "Let's call Mama," says Alba. She runs over
to her school bag and whips out a cell phone. She presses a key and I hear the phone ringing and I'm rapidly realizing that there are possibilities here: someone picks up on the other end, and Alba says "Mama?... I'm at the Art Institute... No, I'm okay... Mama, Daddy's here! Tell Mrs. Cooper it's really Daddy, okay?... Yeah, 'k, bye!" She hands me the phone. I hesitate, pull my head together.

  "Clare?" There's a sharp intake of breath. "Clare?"

  "Henry! Oh, God, I can't believe it! Come home!"

  "I'll try..."

  "When are you from?"

  "2001. Just before Alba was born." I smile at Alba. She is leaning against me, holding my hand.

  "Maybe I should come down there?"

  "That would be faster. Listen, could you tell this teacher that I'm really me?"

  "Sure--where will you be?"

  "At the lions. Come as fast as you can, Clare. It won't be much longer."

  "I love you."

  "I love you, Clare." I hesitate, and then hand the phone to Mrs. Cooper. She and Clare have a short conversation, in which Clare somehow convinces her to let me take Alba to the museum entrance, where Clare will meet us. I thank Mrs. Cooper, who has been pretty graceful in a weird situation, and Alba and I walk hand in hand out of the Morton Wing, down the spiral staircase and into Chinese ceramics. My mind is racing. What to ask first?

  Alba says, "Thank you for the videos. Mama gave them to me for my birthday." What videos? "I can do the Yale and the Master, and I'm working on the Walters."

  Locks. She's learning to pick locks. "Great. Keep at it. Listen, Alba?"

  "Daddy?"

  "What's a CDP?"

  "Chrono-Displaced Person." We sit down on a bench in front of a Tang Dynasty porcelain dragon. Alba sits facing me, with her hands in her lap. She looks exactly like me at ten. I can hardly believe any of this. Alba isn't even born yet and here she is, Athena sprung full blown. I level with her.

  "You know, this is the first time I've met you."

  Alba smiles. "How do you do?" She is the most self-possessed child I've ever met. I scrutinize her: where is Clare in this child?

  "Do we see each other much?"

  She considers. "Not much. It's been about a year. I saw you a few times when I was eight."

  "How old were you when I died?" I hold my breath.

  "Five." Jesus. I can't deal with this.

  "I'm sorry! Should I not have said that?" Alba is contrite. I hug her to me.

  "It's okay. I asked, didn't I?" I take a deep breath. "How is Clare?"

  "Okay. Sad." This pierces me. I realize I don't want to know anything more.

  "What about you? How's school? What are you learning?"

  Alba grins. "I'm not learning much in school, but I'm reading all about early instruments, and Egypt, and Mama and I are reading Lord of the Rings, and I'm learning a tango by Astor Piazzolla."

  At ten? Heavens. "Violin? Who's your teacher?"

  "Gramps." For a moment I think she means my grandfather, and then I realize she means Dad. This is great. If Dad is spending time with Alba, she must actually be good.

  "Are you good?" What a rude question.

  "Yes. I'm very good." Thank God.

  "I was never any good at music."

  "That's what Gramps says." She giggles. "But you like music."

  "I love music. I just can't play it, myself."

  "I heard Grandma Annette sing! She was so beautiful."

  "Which recording?"

  "I saw her for real. At the Lyric. She was singing Aida."

  He's a CDP, like me. Oh, shit. "You time travel."

  "Sure." Alba smiles happily. "Mama always says you and I are exactly alike. Dr. Kendrick says I am a prodigy."

  "How so?"

  "Sometimes I can go when and where I want." Alba looks pleased with herself; I'm so envious.

  "Can you not go at all if you don't want to?"

  "Well, no," She looks embarrassed. "But I like it. I mean, sometimes it's not convenient, but...it's interesting, you know?" Yes. I know.

  "Come and visit me, if you can be anytime you want."

  "I tried. I saw you once on the street; you were with a blond woman. You seemed like you maybe were busy, though." Alba blushes and all of a sudden Clare peeks out at me, for just a tiny fraction of a second.

  "That was Ingrid. I dated her before I met your mom." I wonder what we were doing, Ing and I, back then, that Alba is so discomfited by; I feel a pang of regret, that I made a poor impression on this sober and lovely girl. "Speaking of your mom, we should go out front and wait for her." The high-pitched whining noise has set in, and I just hope Clare will get here before I'm gone. Alba and I get up and quickly make our way to the front steps. It's late fall, and Alba doesn't have a coat, so I wrap mine around both of us. I am leaning against the granite slab that supports one of the lions, facing south, and Alba leans against me, encased in my coat, pressed against my bare torso with just her face sticking out at the level of my chest. It's a rainy day. Traffic swims along on Michigan Avenue. I am drunk with the overwhelming love I feel for this amazing child, who presses against me as though she belongs to me, as though we will never be separated, as though we have all the time in the world. I am clinging to this moment, fighting fatigue and the pulling of my own time. Let me stay, I implore my body, God, Father Time, Santa, anybody who might be listening. Just let me see Clare, and I'll come along peacefully.

  "There's Mama," says Alba. A white car, unfamiliar to me, is speeding toward us. It pulls up to the intersection and Clare jumps out, leaving it where it is, blocking traffic.

  "Henry!" I try to run to her, she is running, and I collapse onto the steps, and I stretch out my arms toward Clare: Alba is holding me and yelling something and Clare is only a few feet from me and I use my last reserves of will to look at Clare who seems so far away and I say as clearly as I can "I love you," and I'm gone. Damn. Damn.

  7:20 p.m. Friday, August 24, 2001 (Clare is 30, Henry is 38)

  CLARE: I am lying on the battered chaise lounge in the backyard with books and magazines cast adrift all around me and a half-drunk glass of lemonade now diluted with melted ice cubes at my elbow. It's beginning to cool off a bit. It was eighty-five degrees earlier; now there's a breeze and the cicadas are singing their late summer song. Fifteen jets have passed over me on their way to O'Hare from distances unknown. My belly looms before me, anchoring me to this spot. Henry has been gone since eight o'clock yesterday morning and I am beginning to be afraid. What if I go into labor and he's not here? What if I have the baby and he still isn't back? What if he's hurt? What if he's dead? What if I die? These thoughts chase each other like those weird fur pieces old ladies used to wear around their necks with the tail in the mouth, circling around until I can't stand one more minute of it. Usually I like to fret in a whirl of activity; I worry about Henry while I scrub down the studio or do nine loads of wash or pull three posts of paper. But now I lie here, beached by my belly in the early evening sun of our backyard while Henry is out there...doing whatever it is that he is doing. Oh, God. Bring him back. Now.

  But nothing happens. Mr. Panetta drives down the alley and his garage door screeches open and then closed. A Good Humor truck comes and goes. The fireflies begin their evening revels. But no Henry.

  I am getting hungry. I am going to starve to death in the backyard because Henry is not here to make dinner. Alba is squirming around and I consider getting up and going into the kitchen and fixing some food and eating it. But then I decide to do the same thing I always do when Henry isn't around to feed me. I get up, slowly, in increments, and walk sedately into the house. I find my purse, and I turn on a few lights, and I let myself out the front door and lock it. It feels good to be moving. Once again I am surprised, and am surprised to be surprised, that I am so huge in one part of my body only, like someone whose plastic surgery has gone wrong, like one of those women in an African tribe whose idea of beauty requires extremely elongated necks or lips or earlobes. I balance my weight a
gainst Alba's, and in this Siamese twin dancing manner we walk to the Opart Thai Restaurant.

  The restaurant is cool and full of people. I am ushered to a table in the front window. I order spring rolls and Pad Thai with tofu, bland and safe. I drink a whole glass of water. Alba presses against my bladder; I go to the restroom and when I come back food is on the table. I eat. I imagine the conversation Henry and I would be having if he were here. I wonder where he might be. I mentally comb through my memory, trying to fit the Henry who vanished while putting on his pants yesterday with any Henry I have seen in my childhood. This is a waste of time; I'll just have to wait for the story from Himself. Maybe he's back. I have to stop myself from bolting out of the restaurant to go check. The entree arrives. I squeeze lime over the noodles and scoop them into my mouth. I picture Alba, tiny and pink, curled inside me, eating Pad Thai with tiny delicate chopsticks. I picture her with long black hair and green eyes. She smiles and says, "Thanks, Mama." I smile and tell her, "You're welcome, so very welcome." She has a tiny stuffed animal in there with her named Alfonzo. Alba gives Alfonzo some tofu. I finish eating. I sit for a few minutes, resting. Someone at the next table lights up a cigarette. I pay, and leave.

  I toddle down Western Avenue. A car full of Puerto Rican teenagers yells something at me, but I don't catch it. Back at the ranch I fumble for my keys and Henry swings the door open and says, "Thank God," and flings his arms around me.

  We kiss. I am so relieved to see him that it takes me a few minutes to realize that he is also extremely relieved to see me.

  "Where have you been?" Henry demands.

  "Opart. Where have you been?"

  "You didn't leave a note, and I came home, and you weren't here, and I thought you were at the hospital. So I called, but they said you weren't..."

  I start laughing, and it's hard to stop. Henry looks perplexed. When I can say something I tell him, "Now you know how it feels."

  He smiles. "Sorry. But I just--I didn't know where you were, and I sort of panicked. I thought I'd missed Alba."

  "But where were you?"

  Henry grins. "Wait till you hear this. Just a minute. Let's sit down."

  "Let's lie down. I'm beat."

  "Whadja do all day?"

  "Laid around."

  "Poor Clare, no wonder you're tired." I go into the bedroom and turn on the air conditioner and pull the shades. Henry veers into the kitchen and appears after a few minutes with drinks. I arrange myself on the bed and receive ginger ale; Henry kicks off his shoes and joins me with a beer in hand.

 
Turn Navi Off
Turn Navi On
Scroll Up
Scroll
  • 11 749
  • 0
Add comment

Add comment