The time travelers wife, p.39
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       The Time Traveler's Wife, p.39

           Audrey Niffenegger
 

  "Tell me you aren't going anywhere. Tell me Clare doesn't want Gomez. Tell me everything's going to work out. Or tell me it's all shit, I don't know--just tell me what happens!" Her voice shakes. She puts her hand on my arm, and I force myself not to pull away.

  "You'll be fine, Charisse. It'll be okay." She stares at me, not believing and wanting to believe. I lean back in my chair. "He won't leave you."

  She sighs. "And you?"

  I am silent. Charisse stares at me, and then she bows her head. "Let's go home," she says, finally, and we do.

  Sunday, June 12, 2005 (Clare is 34, Henry is 41)

  CLARE: It's a sunny Sunday afternoon, and I walk into the kitchen to find Henry standing by the window staring out at the backyard. He beckons me over. I stand beside him and look out. Alba is playing in the yard with an older girl. The girl is about seven. She has long dark hair and she is barefoot. She wears a dirty T-shirt with the Cubs' logo on it. They are both sitting on the ground, facing each other. The girl has her back to us. Alba is smiling at her and gesturing with her hands as though she is flying. The girl shakes her head and laughs.

  I look at Henry. "Who is that?"

  "That's Alba."

  "Yes, but who's with her?"

  Henry smiles, but his eyebrows pull together so that the smile seems worried. "Clare, that's Alba when she's older. She's time traveling."

  "My God." I stare at the girl. She swivels and points at the house, and I see a quick profile and then she turns away again. "Should we go out there?"

  "No, she's fine. If they want to come in here they will."

  "I'd love to meet her..."

  "Better not--" Henry begins, but as he speaks the two Albas jump up and come racing toward the back door, hand in hand. They burst into the kitchen laughing. "Mama, Mama," says my Alba, three-year-old Alba, pointing, "look! A big girl Alba!"

  The other Alba grins and says, "Hi, Mama," and I am smiling and I say, "Hello, Alba," when she turns and sees Henry and cries out, "Daddy!" and runs to him, throws her arms around him, and starts to cry. Henry glances at me, bends over Alba, rocking her, and whispers something in her ear.

  HENRY: Clare is white-faced; she stands watching us, holding small Alba's hand, Alba who stands watching open-mouthed as her older self clings to me, weeping. I lean down to Alba, whisper in her ear: "Don't tell Mama I died, okay?" She looks up at me, tears clinging to her long lashes, lips quivering, and nods. Clare is holding a tissue, telling Alba to blow her nose, hugging her. Alba allows herself to be led off to wash her face. Small Alba, present Alba, wraps herself around my leg. "Why, Daddy? Why is she sad?" Fortunately I don't have to answer because Clare and Alba have returned; Alba is wearing one of Clare's T-shirts and a pair of my cutoffs. Clare says, "Hey, everybody. Why don't we go get an ice cream?" Both Albas smile; small Alba dances around us yelling "I scream, you scream, I scream, you scream..." We pile into the car, Clare driving, three-year-old Alba in the front seat and seven-year-old Alba in the backseat with me. She leans against me; I put my arm around her. Nobody says a word except little Alba, who says, "Look, Alba, a doggie! Look, Alba, look, Alba..." until her older self says, "Yeah, Alba, I see." Clare drives us to Zephyr; we settle into a blue glitter vinyl booth and order two banana splits, a chocolate malt, and a soft-serve vanilla cone with sprinkles, The girls suck down their banana splits like vacuum cleaners; Clare and I toy with our ice cream, not looking at each other. Clare says, "Alba, what's going on, in your present?"

  Alba darts a look at me. "Not much," she says. "Gramps is teaching me Saint-Saens' second violin concerto."

  "You're in a play, at school," I prompt.

  "I am?" she says. "Not yet, I guess."

  "Oh, sorry," I say. "I guess that's not till next year." It goes on like this. We make halting conversation, working around what we know, what we must protect Clare and small Alba from knowing. After a while older Alba puts her head in her arms on the table. "Tired?" Clare asks her. She nods. "We'd better go," I tell Clare. We pay, and I pick Alba up; she's limp, almost asleep in my arms. Clare scoops up little Alba, who's hyper from all the sugar. Back in the car, as we're cruising up Lincoln Avenue, Alba vanishes. "She's gone back," I say to Clare. She holds my eyes in the rearview mirror for a few moments. "Back where, Daddy?" asks Alba. "Back where?"

  Later:

  CLARE: I've finally managed to get Alba to take a nap. Henry is sitting on our bed, drinking Scotch and staring out the window at some squirrels chasing each other around the grape arbor. I walk over and sit down next to him. "Hey" I say. Henry looks at me, puts his arm around me, pulls me to him. "Hey" he says.

  "Are you going to tell me what that was all about?" I ask him.

  Henry puts down his drink and starts to undo the buttons on my shirt. "Can I get away with not telling you?"

  "No." I unbuckle his belt and open the button of his jeans.

  "Are you sure?" He's kissing my neck.

  "Yes." I slide his zipper down, run my hand under his shirt, over his stomach.

  "Because you don't really want to know." Henry breathes into my ear and runs his tongue around the rim. I shiver. He takes off my shirt, undoes the clasp of my bra. My breasts fall loose and I lie back, watching Henry stripping off his jeans and underwear and shirt. He climbs onto the bed and I say, "Socks."

  "Oh, yeah." He takes off his socks. We look at each other.

  "You're just trying to distract me," I say.

  Henry caresses my stomach. "I'm trying to distract myself. If I also manage to distract you, that's a bonus."

  "You have to tell me."

  "No, I don't." He cups my breasts in his hands, runs his thumbs over my nipples.

  "I'll imagine the worst."

  "Go ahead." I raise my hips and Henry pulls off my jeans and my underwear. He straddles me, leans over me, kisses me. Oh, God, I think, what can it be? What is the worst? I close my eyes. A memory: the Meadow, a cold day in my childhood, running over dead grass, there was a noise, he called my name--

  "Clare?" Henry is biting my lips, gently. "Where are you?"

  "1984."

  Henry pauses and says, "Why?"

  "I think that's where it happens."

  "Where what happens?"

  "Whatever it is you're afraid to tell me."

  Henry rolls off of me and we are lying side by side. "Tell me about it," he says.

  "It was early. A day in the fall. Daddy and Mark were out deer hunting. I woke up; I thought I heard you calling me, and I ran out into the meadow, and you were there, and you and Daddy and Mark were all looking at something, but Daddy made me go back to the house, so I never saw what you were looking at."

  "Oh?"

  "I went back there later in the day. There was a place in the grass all soaked in blood."

  Henry says nothing. He presses his lips together. I wrap my arms around him, hold him tightly. I say, "The worst--"

  "Hush, Clare."

  "But--"

  "Shh." Outside it is still a golden afternoon. Inside we are cold, and we cling together for warmth. Alba, in her bed, sleeps, and dreams of ice cream, dreams the small contented dreams of three, while another Alba, somewhere in the future, dreams of wrapping her arms around her father, and wakes up to find...what?

  THE EPISODE OF THE MONROE STREET PARKING GARAGE

  Monday, January 7, 2006 (Clare is 34, Henry is 42)

  CLARE: We are sleeping deep early morning winter sleep when the phone rings. I snap into wakefulness, my heart surging and realize Henry is there beside me. He reaches over me and picks up the phone. I glance at the clock; it's 4:32 a.m. "'Lo" says Henry. He listens for a long minute. I am wide awake now. Henry is expressionless. "Okay. Stay there. We'll leave right now." He leans over and replaces the receiver.

  "Who was it?"

  "Me. It was me. I'm down in the Monroe Street Parking Garage, no clothes, fifteen degrees below zero. God, I hope the car starts."

  We jump out of bed and throw on yesterday's clothes. Henry is booted an
d has his coat on before I'm in my jeans and he runs out to start the car. I stuff Henry's shirt and long underwear and jeans and socks and boots and extra coat and mittens and a blanket into a shopping bag, wake Alba and stuff her into her coat and boots, fly into my coat and out the door. I pull out of the garage before the car is warmed up and it dies. I restart it, we sit for a minute and I try again. It snowed six inches yesterday and Ainslie is rutted with ice. Alba is whining in her car seat and Henry shushes her. When we get to Lawrence I speed up and in ten minutes we are on the Drive; there's no one out at this hour. The Honda's heater purrs. Over the lake the sky is becoming lighter. Everything is blue and orange, brittle in the extreme cold. As we sail down Lake Shore Drive I have a strong deja vu: the cold, the lake in dreamy silence, the sodium glow of the streetlights: I've been here before, been here before. I'm deeply enmeshed in this moment and it stretches on, carrying me away from the strangeness of the thing into awareness of the duplicity of now; although we are speeding through this winter cityscape time stands immobile. We pass Irving, Belmont, Fullerton, LaSalle: I exit at Michigan. We fly down the deserted corridor of expensive shops, Oak Street, Chicago, Randolph, Monroe, and now we are diving down into the subterranean concrete world of the parking garage. I take the ticket the ghostly female machine voice offers me. "Drive to the northwest end," says Henry. "The pay phone by the security station." I follow his instructions. The deja vu is gone. I feel as though I've been abandoned by a protective angel. The garage is virtually empty. I speed across acres of yellow lines to the pay phone: the receiver dangles from its cord. No Henry.

  "Maybe you got back to the present?"

  "But maybe not..." Henry is confused, and so am I. We get out of the car. It's cold down here. My breath condenses and vanishes. I don't feel as though we should leave, but I don't have any idea what might have happened. I walk over to the security station and peer in the window. No guard. The video monitors show empty concrete. "Shit. Where would I go? Let's drive around." We get back into the car and cruise slowly through the vast pillared chambers of vacant space, past signs directing us to Go Slow, More Parking, Remember Your Car's Location. No Henry anywhere. We look at each other in defeat.

  "When were you coming from?"

  "I didn't say"

  We drive home in silence. Alba is sleeping. Henry stares out the window. The sky is cloudless and pink in the east, and there are more cars out now, early commuters. As we wait for the stoplight at Ohio Street I hear seagulls squawking. The streets are dark with salt and water. The city is soft, white, obscured by snow. Everything is beautiful. I am detached, I am a movie. We are seemingly unscathed, but sooner or later there will be hell to pay.

  BIRTHDAY

  Thursday, June 15, 2006 (Clare is 35)

  CLARE: Tomorrow is Henry's birthday. I'm in Vintage Vinyl, trying to find an album he will love that he doesn't already have. I was kind of counting on asking Vaughn, the owner of the shop, for help, because Henry's been coming here for years. But there's a high school kid behind the counter. He's wearing a Seven Dead Arson T-shirt and probably wasn't even born when most of the stuff in the shop was being recorded. I flip through the bins. Sex Pistols, Patti Smith, Supertramp, Matthew Sweet. Phish, Pixies, Pogues, Pretenders. B-52's, Kate Bush, Buzzcocks. Echo and the Bunnymen. The Art of Noise. The Nails. The Clash, The Cramps, The Cure. Television. I pause over an obscure Velvet Underground retread, trying to remember if I've seen it lying around the house, but on closer scrutiny I realize it's just a mishmash of stuff Henry has on other albums. Dazzling Killmen, Dead Kennedys. Vaughn comes in carrying a huge box, heaves it behind the counter, and goes back out. He does this a few more times, and then he and the kid start to unpack the boxes, piling LPs onto the counter, exclaiming over various things I've never heard of. I walk over to Vaughn and mutely fan three LPs before him. "Hi, Clare," he says, grinning hugely. "How's it going?"

  "Hi, Vaughn. Tomorrow's Henry's birthday. Help."

  He eyeballs my selections. "He's already got those two," he says nodding at Lilliput and the Breeders, "and that's really awful," indicating the Plasmatics. "Great cover, though, huh?"

  "Yeah. Do you have anything in that box he might like?"

  "Nah, this is all fifties. Some old lady died. You might like this, I just got this yesterday." He pulls a Golden Palominos compilation out of the New Arrivals bin. There's a couple new things on it, so I take it. Suddenly Vaughn grins at me. "I've got something really oddball for you--I've been saving it for Henry." He steps behind the counter and fishes around in the depths for a minute. "Here." Vaughn hands me an LP in a blank white jacket. I slide the record out and read the label: "Annette Lyn Robinson, Paris Opera, May 13, 1968, Lulu." I look at Vaughn, questioningly. "Yeah, not his usual thing, huh? It's a bootleg of a concert; it doesn't officially exist. He asked me to keep an eye out for her stuff a while back, but it's not my usual thing, either, so I found it and then I kept forgetting to tell him. I listened to it; it's really nice. Good sound quality."

  "Thank you," I whisper.

  "You're welcome. Hey, what's the big deal?"

  "She's Henry's mother."

  Vaughn raises his eyebrows and his forehead scrunches up comically. "No kidding? Yeah...he looks like her. Huh, that's interesting. You'd think he would have mentioned it."

  "He doesn't talk about her much. She died when he was little. In a car accident."

  "Oh. That's right, I sort of remember that. Well, can I find anything else for you?"

  "No, that's it." I pay Vaughn and leave, hugging the voice of Henry's mother to me as I walk down Davis Street in an ecstasy of anticipation.

  Friday, June 16, 2006 (Henry is 43, Clare is 35)

  HENRY: It's my forty-third birthday. My eyes pop open at 6:46 a.m. even though I have the day off from work, and I can't get back to sleep. I look over at Clare and she's utterly abandoned to slumber, arms cast apart and hair fanned over her pillow willy-nilly. She looks beautiful, even with creases from the pillowcase across her cheeks. I get out of bed carefully, go to the kitchen, and start the coffee. In the bathroom I run the water for a while, waiting for it to get hot. We should get a plumber in here, but we never get around to it. Back in the kitchen I pour a cup of coffee, carry it to the bathroom, and balance it on the sink. I lather my face, and start to shave. Ordinarily, I am expert at shaving without actually looking at myself, but today, in honor of my birthday, I take inventory.

  My hair has gone almost white; there's a bit of black left at the temples and my eyebrows are still completely black. I've grown it out some, not as long as I used to wear it before I met Clare, but not short, either. My skin is wind-roughened and there are creases at the edges of my eyes and across my forehead and lines that run from my nostrils to the corners of my mouth. My face is too thin. All of me is too thin. Not Auschwitz thin, but not normal thin, either. Early stages of cancer thin, perhaps. Heroin addict thin. I don't want to think about it, so I continue shaving. I rinse off my face, apply aftershave, step back, and survey the results.

  At the library yesterday someone remembered that it's my birthday and so Roberto, Isabelle, Matt, Catherine, and Amelia gathered me up and took me to Beau Thai for lunch. I know there's been some talk at work about my health, about why I have suddenly lost so much weight and the fact that I have recently aged rapidly. Everyone was extra nice, the way people are to AIDS victims and chemotherapy patients. I almost long for someone to just ask me, so I can lie to them and get it over with. But instead we joked around and ate Pad Thai and Prik King, Cashew Chicken and Pad Seeuw. Amelia gave me a pound of killer Colombian coffee beans. Catherine, Matt, Roberto and Isabelle splurged and got me the Getty facsimile of the Mira Calligraphiae Monumenta, which I have been lusting after in the Newberry bookstore for ages. I looked up at them, heartstruck, and I realized that my co-workers think I am dying. "You guys..." I said, and I couldn't think how to go on, so I didn't. It's not often that words fail me.

  Clare gets up, Alba wakes up. We all get dr
essed, and pack the car. We're going to Brookfield Zoo with Gomez and Charisse and their kids. We spend the day ambling around, looking at monkeys and flamingoes, polar bears and otters. Alba likes the big cats best. Rosa holds Alba's hand and tells her about dinosaurs. Gomez does a great impression of a chimp, and Max and Joe rampage around, pretending to be elephants and playing hand-held video games. Charisse and Clare and I stroll aimlessly, talking about nothing, soaking in the sunlight. At four o'clock the kids are all tired and cranky and we pack them back in the cars, promise to do it again soon, and go home.

  The baby-sitter arrives promptly at seven. Clare bribes and threatens Alba to be good, and we escape. We are dressed to the nines, at Clare's insistence, and as we sail south on Lake Shore Drive I realize that I don't know where we're going. "You'll see," says Clare. "It's not a surprise party, is it?" I ask apprehensively. "No," she assures me. Clare exits the Drive at Roosevelt and threads her way through Pilsen, a Hispanic neighborhood just south of downtown. Groups of kids are playing in the streets, and we weave around them and finally park near 20th and Racine. Clare leads me to a run-down two-flat and rings the bell at the gate. We are buzzed in, and we make our way through the trash-littered yard and up precarious stairs. Clare knocks on one of the doors and it is opened by Lourdes, a friend of Clare's from art school. Lourdes smiles and beckons us inside, and as we step in I see that the apartment has been transformed into a restaurant with only one table. Beautiful smells are wafting around, and the table is laid with white damask, china, candles. A record player stands on a heavy carved sideboard. In the living room are cages full of birds: parrots, canaries, tiny lovebirds. Lourdes kisses my cheek and says, "Happy birthday, Henry," and a familiar voice says, "Yeah, happy birthday!" I stick my head into the kitchen and there's Nell. She's stirring something in a saucepan and she doesn't stop even when I wrap my arms around her and lift her slightly off the ground. "Whooee!" she says. "You been eatin' your Wheaties!" Clare hugs Nell and they smile at each other. "He looks pretty surprised," Nell says, and Clare just smiles even more broadly. "Go on and sit down," Nell commands. "Dinner is ready."

 
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