The time travelers wife, p.35
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       The Time Traveler's Wife, p.35

           Audrey Niffenegger
 

  "Tell all."

  "Well." He raises one eyebrow and opens his mouth and closes it. "I don't know how to begin."

  "Spit it out."

  "I have to start by saying that this is by far the weirdest thing that has ever happened to me."

  "Weirder than you and me?"

  "Yeah. I mean, that felt reasonably natural, boy meets girl..."

  "Weirder than watching your mom die over and over?"

  "Well, that's just a horrible routine, by now. It's a bad dream I have every so often. No, this was just surreal." He runs his hand over my belly. "I went forward, and I was really there, you know, coming in strong, and I ran into our little girl, here."

  "Oh, my god. I'm so jealous. But wow."

  "Yeah. She was about ten. Clare, she is so amazing--she's smart and musical and just...really confident and nothing fazed her..."

  "What does she look like?"

  "Me. A girl version of me. I mean, she's beautiful, she's got your eyes, but basically she looks a lot like me: black hair, pale, with a few freckles, and her mouth is smaller than mine was, and her ears don't stick out. She had long curly hair, and my hands with the long fingers, and she's tall... She was like a young cat."

  Perfect. Perfect.

  "I'm afraid my genes have had their way with her... She was like you in personality, though. She had the most amazing presence... I saw her in a group of schoolchildren at the Art Institute and she was talking about Joseph Cornell's Aviary boxes, and she said something heartrending about him...and somehow I knew who she was. And she recognized me."

  "Well, I would hope so." I have to ask. "Does she--is she--?"

  Henry hesitates. "Yes," he finally says. "She does." We are both silent. He strokes my face. "I know."

  I want to cry.

  "Clare, she seemed happy. I asked her--she said she likes it." He smiles. "She said it was interesting."

  We both laugh, a little ruefully at first, and then, it hits me, and we laugh in earnest, until our faces hurt, until tears are streaming down our cheeks. Because, of course, it is interesting. Very interesting.

  BIRTHDAY

  Wednesday, September 5-Thursday September 6, 2001 (Henry is 38, Clare is 30)

  HENRY: Clare has been pacing around the house all day like a tiger. The contractions come every twenty minutes or so. "Try to get some sleep," I tell her, and she lies on the bed for a few minutes and then gets up again. At two in the morning she finally goes to sleep. I lie next to her, wakeful, watching her breathe, listening to the little fretful sounds she makes, playing with her hair. I am worried, even though I know, even though I have seen with my own eyes that she will be okay, and Alba will be okay. Clare wakes up at 3:30.

  "I want to go to the hospital," she tells me.

  "Maybe we should call a cab," I say. "It's awfully late."

  "Gomez said to call no matter what time it was."

  "Okay." I dial Gomez and Charisse. The phone rings sixteen times, and then Gomez picks up, sounding like a man on the bottom of the sea.

  "Muh?" says Gomez.

  "Hey, Comrade. It's time."

  He mutters something that sounds like "mustard eggs." Then Charisse gets on the phone and tells me that they are on their way. I hang up and call Dr. Montague, and leave a message with her answering service. Clare is crouched on all fours, rocking back and forth. I get down on the floor with her.

  "Clare?"

  She looks up at me, still rocking. "Henry...why did we decide to do this again?"

  "Supposedly when it's over they hand you a baby and let you keep it."

  "Oh, yeah."

  Fifteen minutes later we are climbing into Gomez's Volvo. Gomez yawns as he helps me maneuver Clare into the back seat. "Do not even think of drenching my car in amniotic fluid," he says to Clare amiably. Charisse runs into the house for garbage bags and covers the seats. We hop in and away we go. Clare leans against me and clenches my hands in hers.

  "Don't leave me," she says.

  "I won't" I tell her. I meet Gomez's eyes in the rearview mirror.

  "It hurts," Clare says. "Oh, God, it hurts."

  "Think of something else. Something nice," I say. We are racing down Western Avenue, headed south. There's hardly any traffic.

  "Tell me..."

  I cast about and come up with my most recent sojourn into Clare's childhood. "Remember the day we went to the lake, when you were twelve? And we went swimming, and you were telling me about getting your period?" Clare is gripping my hands with bone-shattering strength.

  "Did I?"

  "Yeah, you were sort of embarrassed but also real proud of yourself... You were wearing a pink and green bikini, and these yellow sunglasses with hearts molded into the frames."

  "I remember--ah!--oh, Henry, it hurts, it hurts!"

  Charisse turns around and says, "Come on, Clare, it's just the baby leaning on your spine, you've got to turn, okay?" Clare tries to change her position.

  "Here we are," Gomez says, turning into Mercy Hospital's Emergency Unloading Zone.

  "I'm leaking," Clare says. Gomez stops the car, jumps out, and we gently remove Clare from the car. She takes two steps and her water breaks.

  "Good timing, kitten," Gomez says. Charisse runs ahead with our paperwork, and Gomez and I walk Clare slowly through ER and down long corridors to the OB wing. She stands leaning against the nurses' station while they nonchalantly prepare a room for her.

  "Don't leave me," Clare whispers.

  "I won't" I tell her again. I wish I could be sure about this. I am feeling cold and a little nauseous. Clare turns and leans into me. I wrap my arms around her. The baby is a hard roundness between us. Come out, come out wherever you are. Clare is panting. A fat blond nurse comes and tells us the room is ready. We all troop in. Clare immediately gets down on the floor on her hands and knees. Charisse starts putting things away, clothes in the closet, toiletries in the bathroom. Gomez and I stand watching Clare helplessly. She is moaning. We look at each other. Gomez shrugs.

  Charisse says, "Hey Clare, how about a bath? You'll feel better in warm water."

  Clare nods. Charisse makes a motion with her hands at Gomez that means shoo. Gomez says, "I think I'll go have a smoke," and leaves.

  "Should I stay?" I ask Clare.

  "Yes! Don't go--stay where I can see you."

  "Okay." I walk into the bathroom to run the bathwater. Hospital bathrooms creep me out. They always smell like cheap soap and diseased flesh. I turn on the tap, wait for the water to get warm.

  "Henry! Are you there?" Clare calls out.

  I stick my head back into the room. "I'm here."

  "Stay in here," Clare commands, and Charisse takes my place in the bathroom. Clare makes a sound that I have never heard a human being make before, a deep despairing groan of agony. What have I done to her? I think of twelve-year-old Clare laughing and covered with wet sand on a blanket, in her first bikini, at the beach. Oh, Clare, I'm sorry, I'm sorry. An older black nurse comes in and checks Clare's cervix.

  "Good girl," she coos to Clare. "Six centimeters."

  Clare nods, smiles, and then grimaces. She clutches her belly and doubles over, moaning louder. The nurse and I hold her. Clare gasps for breath, and then starts to scream. Amit Montague walks in and rushes to her.

  "Baby baby baby, hush--" The nurse is giving Dr. Montague a bunch of information that means nothing to me. Clare is sobbing. I clear my throat. My voice comes out in a croak. "How about an epidural?"

  "Clare?"

  Clare nods. People crowd into the room with tubes and needles and machines. I sit holding Clare's hand, watching her face. She is lying on her side, whimpering, her face wet with sweat and tears as the anesthesiologist hooks up an IV and inserts a needle into her spine. Dr. Montague is examining her, and frowning at the fetal monitor.

  "What's wrong?" Clare asks her. "Something's wrong."

  "The heartbeat is very fast. She is scared, your little girl. You have to be calm, Clare, so the baby can be cal
m, yes?"

  "It hurts so much."

  "That is because she is big." Amit Montague's voice is quiet, soothing. The burly walrus-mustachioed anesthesiologist looks at me, bored, over Claire's body. "But now we are giving you a little cocktail, eh, some narcotics, some analgesic, soon you will relax, and the baby will relax, yes?" Clare nods, yes. Dr. Montague smiles. "And Henry, how are you?"

  "Not very relaxed." I try to smile. I could use some of whatever it is they are giving Clare. I am experiencing slight double vision; I breathe deeply and it goes away.

  "Things are improving: see?" says Dr. Montague. "It is like a cloud that passes over, the pain goes away, we take it somewhere and leave it by the side of the road, all by itself, and you and the little one are still here, yes? It is pleasant here, we will take our time, there is no hurry..." The tension has left Clare's face. Her eyes are fixed on Dr. Montague. The machines beep. The room is dim. Outside the sun is rising. Dr. Montague is watching the fetal monitor. "Tell her you are fine, and she is fine. Sing her a song, yes?"

  "Alba, it's okay," Clare says softly. She looks at me. "Say the poem about the lovers on the carpet."

  I blank, and then I remember. I feel self-conscious reciting Rilke in front of all these people, and so I begin: "Engel!: Es ware ein Platz, den wir nicht wissen--"

  "Say it in English," Clare interrupts.

  "Sorry." I change my position, so that I am sitting by Clare's belly with my back to Charisse and the nurse and the doctor, I slide my hand under Clare's button-strained shirt. I can feel the outline of Alba through Clare's hot skin.

  "Angel!" I say to Clare, as though we are in our own bed, as though we have been up all night on less momentous errands,

  Angel!: If there were a place that we didn't know of and there,

  on some unsayable carpet, lovers displayed

  what they could never bring to mastery here--the bold

  exploits of their high-flying hearts,

  their towers of pleasure, their ladders

  that have long since been standing where there was no ground, leaning

  just on each other, trembling,--and could master all this,

  before the surrounding spectators, the innumerable soundless dead:

  Would these, then, throw down their final, forever saved-up,

  forever hidden, unknown to us, eternally valid

  coins of happiness before the at last

  genuinely smiling pair on the gratified

  carpet?

  "There," says Dr. Montague, clicking off the monitor. "Everyone is serene." She beams at us all, and glides out the door, followed by the nurse. I accidentally catch the eye of the anesthesiologist, whose expression plainly says What kind of a pussy are you, anyway?

  CLARE: The sun is coming up and I am lying numb on this strange bed in this pink room and somewhere in the foreign country that is my uterus Alba is crawling toward home, or away from home. The pain has left but I know that it has not gone far, that it is sulking somewhere in a corner or under the bed and it will jump out when I least expect it. The contractions come and go, remote, muffled like the peal of bells through fog. Henry lies down next to me. People come and go. I feel like throwing up, but I don't. Charisse gives me shaved ice out of a paper cup; it tastes like stale snow. I watch the tubes and the red blinking lights and I think about Mama. I breathe. Henry watches me. He looks so tense and unhappy. I start to worry again that he will vanish. "It's okay," I say. He nods. He strokes my belly. I'm sweating. It's so hot in here. The nurse comes in and checks on me. Amit checks on me. I am somehow alone with Alba in the midst of everyone. It's okay, I tell her. You're doing fine, you're not hurting me. Henry gets up and paces back and forth until I ask him to stop. I feel as though all my organs are becoming creatures, each with its own agenda, its own train to catch. Alba is tunneling headfirst into me, a bone and flesh excavator of my flesh and bone, a deepener of my depths. I imagine her swimming through me, I imagine her falling into the stillness of a morning pond, water parting at her velocity. I imagine her face, I want to see her face. I tell the anesthesiologist I want to feel something. Gradually the numbness recedes and the pain comes back, but it's different pain now. It's okay pain. Time passes.

  Time passes and the pain begins to roll in and out as though it's a woman standing at an ironing board, passing the iron back and forth, back and forth across a white tablecloth. Amit comes in and says it's time, time to go to the delivery room. I am shaved and scrubbed and moved onto a gurney and rolled through hallways. I watch the ceilings of the hallways roll by, and Alba and I are rolling toward meeting each other, and Henry is walking beside us. In the delivery room everything is green and white. I smell detergent, it reminds me of Etta, and I want Etta but she is at Meadowlark, and I look up at Henry who is wearing surgical scrubs and I think why are we here we should be at home and then I feel as though Alba is surging, rushing and I push without thinking and we do this again and again like a game, like a song. Someone says Hey, where'd the Dad go? I look around but Henry is gone, he is nowhere not here and I think God damn him, but no, I don't mean it God, but Alba is coming, she is coming and then I see Henry, he stumbles into my vision, disoriented and naked but here, he's here! and Amit says Sacre Dieu! and then Ah, she has crowned, and I push and Alba's head comes out and I put my hand down to touch her head, her delicate slippery wet velvet head and I push and push and Alba tumbles into Henry's waiting hands and someone says Oh! and I am empty and released and I hear a sound like an old vinyl record when you put the needle in the wrong groove and then Alba yells out and suddenly she is here, someone places her on my belly and I look down and her face, Alba's face, is so pink and creased and her hair is so black and her eyes blindly search and her hands reach out and Alba pulls herself up to my breasts and she pauses, exhausted by the effort, by the sheer fact of everything.

  Henry leans over me and touches her forehead, and says, "Alba."

  Later:

  CLARE: It's the evening of Alba's first day on earth. I'm lying in bed in the hospital room surrounded by balloons and teddy bears and flowers with Alba in my arms. Henry is sitting cross-legged on the foot of the bed taking pictures of us. Alba has just finished nursing and she blows colostrum bubbles from her tiny lips and then falls asleep, a soft warm bag of skin and fluid against my nightgown. Henry finishes the roll of film and unloads the camera.

  "Hey," I say, suddenly remembering. "Where did you go? In the delivery room?"

  Henry laughs. "You know, I was hoping you hadn't noticed that. I thought maybe you were so preoccupied--"

  "Where were you?"

  "I was wandering around my old elementary school in the middle of the night."

  "For how long?" I ask.

  "Oh, god. Hours. It was beginning to get light when I left. It was winter and they had the heat turned way down. How long was I gone?"

  "I'm not sure. Maybe five minutes?"

  Henry shakes his head. "I was frantic. I mean, I had just abandoned you, and there I was just drifting around uselessly through the hallways of Francis Parker... It was so... I felt so..." Henry smiles. "But it turned out okay, hmm?"

  I laugh. "'All's well that ends well.'"

  "'Thou speakest wiser than thou art ware of.'" There is a quiet knock on the door; Henry says, "Come in!" and Richard steps into the room and then stops, hesitant. Henry turns and says, "Dad--" and then stops, and then jumps off the bed and says, "Come in, have a seat." Richard is carrying flowers and a small teddy bear which Henry adds to the pile on the windowsill.

  "Clare," says Richard. "I--congratulations." He sinks slowly into the chair beside the bed.

  "Um, would you like to hold her?" Henry asks softly. Richard nods, looking at me to see if I agree. Richard looks as though he hasn't slept for days. His shirt needs ironing and he stinks of sweat and the iodine reek of old beer. I smile at him although I am wondering if this is such a hot idea. I hand Alba over to Henry who carefully transfers her into Richard's awkward arms. Alba turns
her pink round face up to Richard's long unshaven one, turns toward his chest and searches for a nipple. After a moment she gives up and yawns, then goes back to sleep. He smiles. I had forgotten how Richard's smile can transform his face.

  "She's beautiful," he tells me. And, to Henry, "She looks like your mother."

  Henry nods. "There's your violinist, Dad." He smiles. "It skipped a generation."

  "A violinist?" Richard looks down at the sleeping baby, black hair and tiny hands, fast asleep. No one ever looked less like a concert violinist than Alba does right now. "A violinist." He shakes his head. "But how do you--No, never mind. So you are a violinist, are you now, little girl?" Alba sticks out her tongue a tiny bit and we all laugh.

  "She'll need a teacher, once she's old enough," I suggest.

  "A teacher? Yes... You're not going to hand her over to those Suzuki idiots, are you?" Richard demands.

  Henry coughs. "Er, actually we were hoping that if you had nothing better to do..."

  Richard gets it. It's a pleasure to see him comprehend, to see him realize that someone needs him, that only he can give his only granddaughter the training she will need.

  "I'd be delighted," he says, and Alba's future unrolls in front of her like a red carpet as far as the eye can see.

  Tuesday, September 11, 2001 (Clare is 30, Henry is 38)

  CLARE: I wake up at 6:43 and Henry is not in bed. Alba isn't in her crib, either. My breasts hurt. My cunt hurts. Everything hurts. I get out of bed very carefully, go to the bathroom. I walk through the hall, the dining room, slowly. In the living room Henry is sitting on the couch with Alba cradled in his arms, not watching the little black and white television with the sound turned low. Alba is asleep. I sit down next to Henry. He puts his arm around me.

  "How come you're up?" I ask him. "I thought you said it wasn't for a couple of hours yet?" On the TV a weatherman is smiling and pointing at a satellite picture of the Midwest.

  "I couldn't sleep," Henry says. "I wanted to listen to the world being normal for a little while longer."

  "Oh." I lean my head on Henry's shoulder and close my eyes. When I open them again a commercial for a cell phone company is ending and a commercial for bottled water comes on. Henry hands Alba to me and gets up. In a minute I hear him making breakfast. Alba wakes up and I undo my nightgown and feed her. My nipples hurt. I watch the television. A blond anchorperson tells me something, smiling. He and the other anchorperson, an Asian woman, laugh and smile at me. At City Hall, Mayor Daley is answering questions. I doze. Alba sucks at me. Henry brings in a tray of eggs, toast, and orange juice. I want coffee. Henry has tactfully drunk his in the kitchen, but I can smell it on his breath. He sets the tray on the coffee table and puts my plate on my lap. I eat my eggs as Alba nurses. Henry mops up yolk with his toast. On TV a bunch of kids are skidding across grass, to demonstrate the effectiveness of some laundry detergent. We finish eating; Alba finishes, too. I burp her and Henry takes all the dishes to the kitchen. When he comes back I pass her to him and head to the bathroom. I take a shower. The water is so hot I almost can't stand it, but it feels heavenly on my sore body. I breathe the steamy air, dry my skin gingerly, rub balm on my lips, breasts, stomach. The mirror is all steamed up, so I don't have to see myself. I comb my hair. I pull on sweatpants and a sweater. I feel deformed, deflated. In the living room Henry is sitting with his eyes closed, and Alba is sucking her thumb. As I sit down again Alba opens her eyes and makes a mewing sound. Her thumb slips out of her mouth and she looks confused. A Jeep is driving through a desert landscape. Henry has turned off the sound. He massages his eyes with his fingers. I fall asleep again.

 
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