The time travelers wife, p.44
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       The Time Traveler's Wife, p.44

           Audrey Niffenegger
 

  "Where are the kids?" I ask Charisse.

  "We parked them at my mom's. It's New Year's; we figured they'd have more fun with Grandma. Plus we decided to have our hangovers in privacy, you know?" I've never given it much thought, actually; I haven't been drunk since before Alba was conceived. Alba comes running into the kitchen and Charisse gives her an enthusiastic hug. "Hey, Baby Girl! We brought you a Christmas present!"

  Alba looks at me. "Go ahead and open it." It's a tiny manicure set, complete with nail polish. Alba is open-mouthed with awe. I nudge her, and she remembers.

  "Thank you, Aunt Charisse."

  "You're welcome, Alba."

  "Go show Daddy," I tell her, and she runs off in the direction of the living room. I stick my head into the hall and I can see Alba gesturing excitedly at Henry, who holds out his fingers for her as though contemplating a fingernailectomy. "Big hit," I tell Charisse.

  She smiles. "That was my trip when I was little. I wanted to be a beautician when I grew up."

  I laugh. "But you couldn't hack it, so you became an artist."

  "I met Gomez and realized that nobody ever overthrew the bourgeois capitalist misogynist corporate operating system by perming its hair."

  "Of course, we haven't exactly been beating it to its knees by selling it art, either."

  "Speak for yourself, babe. You're just addicted to beauty, that's all."

  "Guilty, guilty, guilty." We wander into the dining room and Charisse begins to load up her plate. "So what are you working on?" I ask her.

  "Computer viruses as art."

  "Oooh." Oh, no. "Isn't that kind of illegal?"

  "Well; no. I just design them, then I paint the html onto canvas, then I have a show. I don't actually put them into circulation."

  "But someone could."

  "Sure." Charisse smiles wickedly. "I hope they do. Gomez scoffs, but some of these little paintings could seriously inconvenience the World Bank and Bill Gates and those bastards who make ATM machines."

  "Well, good luck. When's the show?"

  "May. I'll send you a card."

  "Yeah, when I get it I'll convert our assets into gold and lay in bottled water"

  Charisse laughs. Catherine and Amelia arrive, and we cease to speak of World Anarchy Through Art and move on to admiring each other's party dresses.

  (8:50 p.m.)

  HENRY: The house is packed with our nearest and dearest, some of whom I haven't seen since before the surgery. Leah Jacobs, Clare's dealer, is tactful and kind, but I find it difficult to withstand the pity in her gaze. Celia surprises me by walking right up to me and offering her hand. I take it, and she says, "I'm sorry to see you like this."

  "Well, you look great," I say, and she does. Her hair is done up really high and she's dressed all in shimmery blue.

  "Uh-huh," says Celia in her fabulous toffee voice. "I liked it better when you were bad and I could just hate your skinny white self."

  I laugh. "Ah, the good old days."

  She delves into her purse. "I found this a long time ago in Ingrid's stuff. I thought Clare might want it." Celia hands me a photograph. It's a photo of me, probably from around 1990. My hair is long and I'm laughing, standing on Oak Street Beach, no shirt. It's a great photograph. I don't remember Ingrid taking it, but then again, so much of my time with Ing is kind of a blank now.

  "Yeah, I bet she would like it. Memento mori." I hand the picture back to her.

  Celia glances at me sharply. "You're not dead, Henry DeTamble."

  "I'm not far from it, Celia."

  Celia laughs. "Well, if you get to Hell before I do, save me a place next to Ingrid." She turns abruptly and walks off in search of Clare.

  (9:45 p.m.)

  CLARE: The children have run around and eaten too much party food and now they are sleepy but cranky. I pass Colin Kendrick in the hall and ask if he wants to take a nap; he tells me very solemnly that he'd like to stay up with the grown-ups. I am touched by his politeness and his fourteen-year-old's beauty, his shyness with me even though he's known me all his life. Alba and Nadia Kendrick are not so restrained. "Mamaaa," Alba bleats, "you said we could stay up!"

  "Sure you don't want to sleep for a while? I'll wake you up right before midnight."

  "Nooooo." Kendrick is listening to this exchange and I shrug my shoulders and he laughs.

  "The Indomitable Duo. Okay, girls, why don't you go play quietly in Alba's room for a while." They shuffle off, grumbling. We know that within minutes they'll be playing happily.

  "It's good to see you, Clare," Kendrick says as Alicia ambles over.

  "Hey, Clare. Get a load of Daddy." I follow Alicia's gaze and realize that our father is flirting with Isabelle. "Who is that?"

  "Oh, my god." I'm laughing. "That's Isabelle Berk." I start to outline Isabelle's draconian sexual proclivities for Alicia. We are laughing so hard we can hardly breathe. "Perfect, perfect. Oh. Stop," Alicia says.

  Richard comes over to us, drawn by our hysterics. "What's so funny, bella donnas?"

  We shake our heads, still giggling. "They're mocking the mating rituals of their paternal authority figure," says Kendrick. Richard nods, bemused, and asks Alicia about her spring concert schedule. They wander off in the direction of the kitchen, talking Bucharest and Bartok. Kendrick is still standing next to me, waiting to say something I don't want to hear. I begin to excuse myself, and he puts his hand on my arm.

  "Wait, Clare--" I wait. "I'm sorry," he says.

  "It's okay, David." We stare at each other for a moment. Kendrick shakes his head, fumbles for his cigarettes. "If you ever want to come by the lab I could show you what I've been doing for Alba..." I cast my eyes around the party, looking for Henry. Gomez is showing Sharon how to rumba in the living room. Everyone seems to be having a good time, but Henry is nowhere in sight. I haven't seen him for at least forty-five minutes, and I feel a strong urge to find him, make sure he's okay, make sure he's here. "Excuse me," I tell Kendrick, who looks like he wants to continue the conversation. "Another time. When it's quieter." He nods. Nancy Kendrick appears with Colin in tow, making the topic impossible anyway. They launch into a spirited discussion of ice hockey, and I escape.

  (9:48 p.m.)

  HENRY: It has become very warm in the house, and I need to cool off, so I am sitting on the enclosed front porch. I can hear people talking in the living room. The snow is falling thick and fast now, covering all the cars and bushes, softening their hard lines and deadening the sound of traffic. It's a beautiful night. I open the door between the porch and the living room.

  "Hey, Gomez."

  He comes trotting over and sticks his head through the doorway. "Yeah?"

  "Let's go outside."

  "It's fucking cold out there."

  "Come on, you soft elderly alderman."

  Something in my tone does the trick. "All right, all right. Just a minute." He disappears and comes back after a few minutes wearing his coat and carrying mine. As I'm angling into it he offers me his hip flask.

  "Oh, no thanks."

  "Vodka. Puts hair on your chest."

  "Clashes with opiates."

  "Oh, right. How quickly we forget." Gomez wheels me through the living room. At the top of the stairs he lifts me out of the chair and I am riding on his back like a child, like a monkey, and we are out the front door and out of doors and the cold air is like an exoskeleton. I can smell the liquor in Gomez's sweat. Somewhere out there behind the sodium vapor Chicago glare there are stars.

  "Comrade."

  "Umm?"

  "Thanks for everything. You've been the best--" I can't see his face, but I can feel Gomez stiffen beneath all the layers of clothing.

  "What are you saying?"

  "My own personal fat lady is singing, Gomez. Time's up. Game over."

  "When?"

  "Soon."

  "How soon?"

  "I don't know," I lie. Very, very soon. "Anyway, I just wanted to tell you--I know I've been a pain in the ass every now and then
," (Gomez laughs) "but it's been great" (I pause, because I am on the verge of tears) "it's been really great" (and we stand there, inarticulate American male creatures that we are, our breath freezing in clouds before us, all the possible words left unspoken now) and finally I say, "Let's go in," and we do. As Gomez gently replaces me in the wheelchair he embraces me for a moment, and then walks heavily away without looking back.

  (10:15 p.m.)

  CLARE: Henry isn't in the living room, which is filled with a small but determined group of people trying to dance, in a variety of unlikely ways, to the Squirrel Nut Zippers. Charisse and Matt are doing something that looks like the cha-cha, and Roberto is dancing with considerable flair with Kimy, who moves delicately but steadfastly in a kind of fox trot. Gomez has abandoned Sharon for Catherine, who whoops as he spins her and laughs when he stops dancing to light a cigarette.

  Henry isn't in the kitchen, which has been taken over by Raoul and James and Lourdes and the rest of my artist friends. They are regaling each other with stories of terrible things art dealers have done to artists, and vice versa. Lourdes is telling the one about Ed Kienholtz making a kinetic sculpture that drilled a big hole in his dealer's expensive desk. They all laugh sadistically. I shake my finger at them. "Don't let Leah hear you," I tease. "Where's Leah?" cries James. "I bet she has some great stories--" He goes off in search of my dealer, who is drinking cognac with Mark on the stairs.

  Ben is making himself tea. He has a Ziplock baggie with all sorts of foul herbs in it, which he measures carefully into a tea strainer and dunks into a mug of steaming water. "Have you seen Henry?" I ask him.

  "Yeah, I was just talking to him. He's on the front porch." Ben peers at me. "I'm kind of worried about him. He seems very sad. He seemed--" Ben stops, makes a gesture with his hand that means I might be wrong about this "he reminded me of some patients I have, when they don't expect to be around much longer..." My stomach tightens.

  "He's been very depressed since his feet..."

  "I know. But he was talking like he was getting on a train that was leaving momentarily, you know, he told me--" Ben lowers his voice, which is always very quiet, so that I can barely hear him: "he told me he loved me, and thanked me... I mean, people, guys don't say that kind of thing if they expect to be around, you know?" Ben's eyes are swimming behind his glasses, and I put my arms around him, and we stand like that for a minute, my arms encasing Ben's wasted frame. Around us people are chattering, ignoring us. "I don't want to outlive anybody" Ben says. "Jesus. After drinking this awful stuff and just generally being a bloody martyr for fifteen years I think I've earned the right to have everybody I know file past my casket and say, 'He died with his boots on.' Or something like that. I'm counting on Henry to be there quoting Donne, 'Death, be not proud, you stupid motherfucker.' It'll be beautiful."

  I laugh. "Well, if Henry can't make it, I'll come. I do a mean imitation of Henry." I raise one eyebrow, lift my chin, lower my voice: "'One short sleep past, we wake eternally, And Death shall be sitting in the kitchen in his underwear at three in the morning, doing last week's crossword puzzle--'" Ben cracks up. I kiss his pale smooth cheek and move on.

  Henry is sitting by himself on the front porch, in the dark, watching it snow. I've hardly glanced out the window all day, and now I realize that it's been snowing steadily for hours. Snowplows are rattling down Lincoln Avenue, and our neighbors are out shoveling their walks. Although the porch is enclosed it's still cold out here.

  "Come inside," I say. I am standing beside him, watching a dog bounding in the snow across the street. Henry puts his arm around my waist and leans his head on my hip.

  "I wish we could just stop time now," he says. I'm running my fingers through his hair. It's stiffer and thicker than it used to be, before it went gray.

  "Clare," he says.

  "Henry."

  "It's time..." He stops.

  "What?"

  "It's... I'm..."

  "My God." I sit down on the divan, facing Henry. "But--don't. Just--stay." I squeeze his hands tightly.

  "It has already happened. Here, let me sit next to you." He swings himself out of his chair and onto the divan. We lie back on the cold cloth. I am shivering in my thin dress. In the house people are laughing and dancing. Henry puts his arm around me, warming me.

  "Why didn't you tell me? Why did you let me invite all these people?" I don't want to be angry, but I am.

  "I don't want you to be alone...after. And I wanted to say goodbye to everyone. It's been good, it was a good last hurrah..." We lie there silently for a while. The snow falls, silently.

  "What time is it?"

  I check my watch. "A little after eleven." Oh, God. Henry grabs a blanket from the other chair, and we wrap it around each other. I can't believe this. I knew that it was coming, soon, had to come sooner or later, but here it is, and we are just lying here, waiting...

  "Oh, why can't we do something!" I whisper into Henry's neck.

  "Clare--" Henry's arms are wrapped around me. I close my eyes.

  "Stop it. Refuse to let it happen. Change it."

  "Oh, Clare." Henry's voice is soft and I look up at him, and his eyes shine with tears in the light reflected by the snow. I lay my cheek against Henry's shoulder. He strokes my hair. We stay like this for a long time. Henry is sweating. I put my hand on his face and he's burning up with fever.

  "What time is it?"

  "Almost midnight."

  "I'm scared." I twine my arms through his, wrap my legs around his. It's impossible to believe that Henry, so solid, my lover, this real body, which I am holding pressed to mine with all my strength, could ever disappear: "Kiss me!"

  I am kissing Henry, and then I am alone, under the blanket, on the divan, on the cold porch. It is still snowing. Inside, the record stops, and I hear Gomez say, "Ten! nine! eight!" and everyone says, all together, "seven! six! five! four! three! two! one! Happy New Year!" and a champagne cork pops, and everyone starts talking all at once, and someone says, "Where are Henry and Clare?" Outside in the street someone sets off firecrackers. I put my head in my hands and I wait.

  III

  A TREATISE ON LONGING

  His forty-third year. His small time's end. His time--

  Who saw Infinity through the countless cracks

  In the blank skin of things, and died of it.

  --A.S. Byatt, Possession

  She followed slowly, taking a long time,

  as though there were some obstacle in the way;

  and yet: as though, once it was overcome,

  she would be beyond all walking, and would fly.

  --from Going Blind,

  Rainer Maria Rilke

  translated by Stephen Mitchell

  Saturday, October 27, 1984/Monday, January 1, 2007 (Henry is 43, Clare is 35) HENRY: The sky is blank and I'm falling into the tall dry grass let it be quick and even as I try to be still the crack of a rifle sounds, far away, surely nothing to do with me but no: I am slammed to the ground, I look at my belly which has opened up like a pomegranate, a soup of entrails and blood cradled in the bowl of my body; it doesn't hurt at all that can't be right but I can only admire this cubist version of my insides someone is running all I want is to see Clare before before I am screaming her name Clare, Clare and Clare leans over me, crying, and Alba whispers, "Daddy..."

  "Love you..."

  "Henry--"

  "Always..."

  "Oh God oh God--"

  "World enough..."

  "No!"

  "And time..."

  "Henry!"

  CLARE: The living room is very still. Everyone stands fixed, frozen, staring down at us. Billie Holiday is singing, and then someone turns off the CD player and there is silence. I sit on the floor, holding Henry. Alba is crouching over him, whispering in his ear, shaking him. Henry's skin is warm, his eyes are open, staring past me, he is heavy in my arms, so heavy, his pale skin torn apart, red everywhere, ripped flesh framing a secret world of blood. I cradle Henry.
There's blood at the corner of his mouth. I wipe it off. Firecrackers explode somewhere nearby.

  Gomez says, "I think we'd better call the police."

  DISSOLUTION

  Friday, February 2, 2007 (Clare is 35)

  CLARE: I sleep all day. Noises flit around the house--garbage truck in the alley, rain, tree rapping against the bedroom window. I sleep. I inhabit sleep firmly, willing it, wielding it, pushing away dreams, refusing, refusing. Sleep is my lover now, my forgetting, my opiate, my oblivion. The phone rings and rings. I have turned off the machine that answers with Henry's voice. It is afternoon, it is night, it is morning. Everything is reduced to this bed, this endless slumber that makes the days into one day, makes time stop, stretches and compacts time until it is meaningless.

  Sometimes sleep abandons me and I pretend, as though Etta has come to get me up for school. I breathe slowly and deeply. I make my eyes still under eyelids, I make my mind still, and soon, Sleep, seeing a perfect reproduction of himself, comes to be united with his facsimile.

  Sometimes I wake up and reach for Henry. Sleep erases all differences: then and now; dead and living. I am past hunger, past vanity, past caring. This morning I caught sight of my face in the bathroom mirror. I am paper-skinned, gaunt, yellow, ring-eyed, hair matted. I look dead. I want nothing.

  Kimy sits at the foot of the bed. She says, "Clare? Alba's home from school...won't you let her come in, say hi?" I pretend to sleep. Alba's little hand strokes my face. Tears leak from my eyes. Alba sets something, her knapsack? her violin case? on the floor and Kimy says, "Take off your shoes, Alba," and then Alba crawls into bed with me. She wraps my arm around her, thrusts her head under my chin. I sigh and open my eyes. Alba pretends to sleep. I stare at her thick black eyelashes, her wide mouth, her pale skin; she is breathing carefully, she clutches my hip with her strong hand, she smells of pencil shavings and rosin and shampoo. I kiss the top of her head. Alba opens her eyes, and then her resemblance to Henry is almost more than I can bear. Kimy gets up and walks out of the room.

  Later I get up, take a shower, eat dinner sitting at the table with Kimy and Alba. I sit at Henry's desk after Alba has gone to bed, and I open the drawers, I take out the bundles of letters and papers, and I begin to read.

 
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