The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffeneger.
This book is one of my all time favorite love AND sci-fi stories. Set on earth, where a young man has been a part of a unique phenomena his whole thing… he jumps through time, sometimes on purpose but mostly randomly, and rarely knows where and when he will be going.
In this scene he knows where he is randomly jumping: to the palatial compound of his wife’s rich family, when she is only a girl. It is the first time in life they will ever meet.
FIRST DATE, TWO
Friday, September 23, 1977 (Henry is 36, Clare is 6) Henry: I’m in the Meadow, waiting. I wait slightly outside the clearing, naked, because the clothes Clare keeps for me in a box under a stone are not there; the box isn’t there either, so I am thankful that the afternoon is fine, early September, perhaps, in some unidentified year. I hunker down in the tall grass. I consider.
The fact that there is no box full of clothes means that I have arrived in a time before Clare and I have met. Perhaps Clare isn’t even born yet. This has happened before, and it’s a pain; I miss Clare and I spend the time hiding naked in the Meadow, not daring to show myself in the neighborhood of Clare’s family.
I think longingly of the apple trees at the western edge of the Meadow. At this time of year there ought to be apples, small and sour and munched by deer, but edible. I hear the screen door slam and I peer above the grass. A child is running, pell mell, and as it comes down the path through the waving grass my heart twists and Clare bursts into the clearing.
She is very young. She is oblivious; she is alone. She is still wearing her school uniform, a hunter green jumper with a white blouse and knee socks with penny loafers, and she is carrying a Marshall Field’s shopping bag and a beach towel.
Clare spreads the towel on the ground and dumps out the contents of the bag: every imaginable kind of writing implement. Old ballpoint pens, little stubby pencils from the library, crayons, smelly Magic Markers, a fountain pen. She also has a bunch of her dad’s office stationery. She arranges the implements and gives the stack of paper a smart shake, and then proceeds to try each pen and pencil in turn, making careful lines and swirls, humming to herself. After listening carefully for a while I identify her humming as the theme song of “The Dick Van Dyke Show.”
I hesitate. Clare is content, absorbed. She must be about six; if it’s September she has probably just entered first grade. She’s obviously not waiting for me, I’m a stranger, and I’m sure that the first thing you learn in first grade is not to have any truck with strangers who show up naked in your favorite secret spot and know your name and tell you not to tell your mom and dad. I wonder if today is the day we are supposed to meet for the first time or if it’s some other day.
Maybe I should be very silent and either Clare will go away and I can go munch up those apples and steal some laundry or I will revert to my regularly scheduled programming, I snap from my reverie to find Clare staring straight at me. I realize, too late, that I have been humming along with her.
“Who’s there?” Clare hisses. She looks like a really pissed off goose, all neck and legs. I am thinking fast,
“Greetings, Earthling,” I intone, kindly.
“Mark! You nimrod!” Clare is casting around for something to throw, and decides on her shoes, which have heavy, sharp heels. She whips them off and does throw them. I don’t think she can see me very well, but she lucks out and one of them catches me in the mouth. My lip starts to bleed.
“Please don’t do that.” I don’t have anything to staunch the blood, so I press my hand to my mouth and my voice comes out muffled. My jaw hurts.
“Who is it?” Now Clare is frightened, and so am I.
“Henry. It’s Henry, Clare. I won’t hurt you, and I wish you wouldn’t throw anything else at me.”
“Give me back my shoes. I don’t know you. Why are you hiding?” Clare is glowering at me.
I toss her shoes back into the clearing. She picks them up and stands holding them like pistols. “I’m hiding because I lost my clothes and I’m embarrassed. I came a long way and I’m hungry and I don’t know anybody and now I’m bleeding.”
“Where did you come from? Why do you know my name?”
The whole truth and nothing but the truth. “I came from the future. I am a time traveler. In the future we are friends.”
“People only time travel in movies.”
“That’s what we want you to believe.”
“If everybody time traveled it would get too crowded. Like when you went to see your Grandma Abshire last Christmas and you had to go through O’Hare Airport and it was very, very crowded? We time travelers don’t want to mess things up for ourselves, so we keep it quiet.”
Clare chews on this for a minute. “Come out.”
“Loan me your beach towel.” She picks it up and all the pens and pencils and papers go flying. She throws it at me, overhand, and I grab it and turn my back as I stand and wrap it around my waist. It is bright pink and orange with a loud geometric pattern. Exactly the sort of thing you’d want to be wearing when you meet your future wife for the first time. I turn around and walk into the clearing; I sit on the rock with as much dignity as possible. Clare stands as far away from me as she can get and remain in the clearing. She is still clutching her shoes.
“Well, yeah. You threw a shoe at me.”
Silence. I am trying to look harmless, and nice. Nice looms large in Clare’s childhood, because so many people aren’t.
“You’re making fun of me.”
“I would never make fun of you. Why do you think I’m making fun of you?”
Clare is nothing if not stubborn. “Nobody time travels. You’re lying.”
“Santa time travels.”
“Sure. How do you think he gets all those presents delivered in one night? He just keeps turning back the clock a few hours until he gets down every one of those chimneys.”
“Santa is magic. You’re not Santa.”
“Meaning I’m not magic? Geez, Louise, you’re a tough customer.”
“I’m not Louise,”
“I know. You’re Clare. Clare Anne Abshire, born May 24, 1971. Your parents are Philip and Lucille Abshire, and you live with them and your grandma and your brother, Mark, and your sister, Alicia, in that big house up there.”
“Just because you know things doesn’t mean you’re from the future.”
“If you hang around a while you can watch me disappear” I feel I can count on this because Clare once told me it was the thing she found most impressive about our first meeting.
Silence. Clare shifts her weight from foot to foot and waves away a mosquito.
“Do you know Santa?”
“Personally? Um, no.” I have stopped bleeding, but I must look awful. “Hey, Clare, do you happen to have a Band-Aid? Or some food? Time traveling makes me pretty hungry.”
She thinks about this. She digs into her jumper pocket and produces a Hershey bar with one bite out of it. She throws it at me.
“Thank you. I love these.” I eat it neatly but very quickly. My blood sugar is low. I put the wrapper in her shopping bag. Clare is delighted.
“You eat like a dog.”
“I do not!” I am deeply offended. “I have opposable thumbs, thank you very much.”
“What are posable thumbs?”
“Do this.” I make the “okay” sign. Clare makes the “okay” sign. “Opposable thumbs means you can do that. It means you can open jars and tie your shoes and other things animals can’t do.”
Clare is not happy with this. “Sister Carmelita says animals don’t have souls.”
“Of course animals have souls. Where did she get that idea?”
“She said the Pope says.”
“The Pope’s an old meanie. Animals have much nicer souls than we do. They never tell lies or blow anybody up.”
“They eat each other.”
“Well, they have to eat each other; they can’t go to Dairy Queen and get a large vanilla cone with sprinkles, can they?” This is Clare’s favorite thing to eat in the whole wide world (as a child. As an adult Clare’s favorite food is sushi, particularly sushi from Katsu on Peterson Avenue).
“They could eat grass.”
“So could we, but we don’t. We eat hamburgers.”
Clare sits down at the edge of the clearing. “Etta says I shouldn’t talk to strangers.”
“That’s good advice.”
“When are you going to disappear?”
“When I’m good and ready to. Are you bored with me?” Clare rolls her eyes.
“What are you working on?”
“May I see?”
Clare gets up carefully and collects a few pieces of stationery while fixing me with her baleful stare. I lean forward slowly and extend my hand as though she is a Rottweiler, and she quickly shoves the papers at me and retreats. I look at them intently, as though she has just handed me a bunch of Bruce Rogers’ original drawings for Centaur or the Book of Kells or something. She has printed, over and over, large and larger, “Clare Anne Abshire.” All the ascenders and descenders have swirling curlicues and all the counters have smiley faces in them. It’s quite beautiful.
“This is lovely.”
Clare is pleased, as always when she receives homage for her work. “I could make one for you.”
“I would like that. But I’m not allowed to take anything with me when I time travel, so maybe you could keep it for me and I could just enjoy it while I’m here.”
“Why can’t you take anything?”
“Well, think about it. If we time travelers started to move things around in time, pretty soon the world would be a big mess. Let’s say I brought some money with me into the past. I could look up all the winning lottery numbers and football teams and make a ton of money. That doesn’t seem very fair, does it? Or if I was really dishonest, I could steal things and bring them to the future where nobody could find me.”
“You could be a pirate!” Clare seems so pleased with the idea of me as a pirate that she forgets that I am Stranger Danger. “You could bury the money and make a treasure map and dig it up in the future.” This is in fact more or less how Clare and I fund our rock-and-roll lifestyle. As an adult Clare finds this mildly immoral, although it does give us an edge in the stock market.
“That’s a great idea. But what I really need isn’t money, it’s clothing.” Clare looks at me doubtfully.
“Does your dad have any clothes he doesn’t need? Even a pair of pants would be great. I mean, I like this towel, don’t get me wrong, it’s just that where I come from, I usually like to wear pants.” Philip Abshire is a tad shorter than me and about thirty pounds heavier. His pants are comical but comfortable on me.
“I don’t know….”
That’s okay, you don’t need to get them right now. But if you bring some next time I come, it would be very nice.”
I find an unused piece of stationery and a pencil. I print in block letters: Thursday, September 29,1977 After supper. I hand Clare the paper, and she receives it cautiously. My vision is blurring. I can hear Etta calling Clare. “It’s a secret, Clare, okay?”
“Can’t tell. I have to go, now. It was nice to meet you. Don’t take any wooden nickels.” I hold out my hand and Clare takes it, bravely. As we shake hands, I disappear.
Wednesday, February 9, 2000 (Clare is 28, Henry is 36) Clare: It’s early, about six in the morning and I’m sleeping the thin dreamy sleep of six in the morning when Henry slams me awake and I realize he’s been elsewhen. He materializes practically on top of me and I yell, and we scare the shit out of each other and then he starts laughing and rolls over and I roll over and look at him and realize that his mouth is bleeding profusely. I jump up to get a washcloth and Henry is still smiling when I get back and start daubing at his lip.
“How’d that happen?”
“You threw a shoe at me.”