Authors: Audrey Niffenegger
Tags: #Science Fiction, #Time Travel, #Fantasy fiction, #Fantasy, #Fiction, #General, #Romance, #Domestic fiction, #Reading Group Guide, #American Science Fiction And Fantasy, #Fantasy - General, #Fiction - Fantasy, #Married people, #American First Novelists, #Librarians, #Women art students, #Romance - Time Travel, #Fiction - Romance
"Have we met? I'm sorry, I don't..."
Henry is glancing around us, worrying that readers, co-workers are noticing us,
searching his memory and realizing that some future self of his has met this
radiantly happy girl standing in front of him. The last time I saw him he was
sucking my toes in the Meadow. I try to explain. "I'm Clare Abshire. I
knew you when I was a little girl.,." I'm at a loss because I am in love
with a man who is standing before me with no memories of me at all. Everything
is in the future for him. I want to laugh at the weirdness of the whole thing.
I'm flooded with years of knowledge of Henry, while he's looking at me
perplexed and fearful. Henry wearing my dad's old fishing trousers, patiently
quizzing me on multiplication tables, French verbs, all the state capitals;
Henry laughing at some peculiar lunch my seven-year-old self has brought to the
Meadow; Henry wearing a tuxedo, undoing the studs of his shirt with shaking
hands on my eighteenth birthday. Here! Now! "Come and have coffee with me,
or dinner or something..." Surely he has to say yes, this Henry who loves
me in the past and the future must love me now in some bat-squeak echo of other
time. To my immense relief he does say yes. We plan to meet tonight at a nearby
Thai restaurant, all the while under the amazed gaze of the woman behind the
desk, and I leave, forgetting about Kelmscott and Chaucer and floating down the
marble stairs, through the lobby and out into the October Chicago sun, running
across the park scattering small dogs and squirrels, whooping and rejoicing.
Henry: It's a routine day in October, sunny and
crisp. I'm at work in a small windowless humidity-controlled room on the fourth
floor of the Newberry, cataloging a collection of marbled papers that has
recently been donated, The papers are beautiful, but cataloging is dull, and I
am feeling bored and sorry for myself. In fact, I am feeling old, in the way
only a twenty-eight-year-old can after staying up half the night drinking
overpriced vodka and trying, without success, to win himself back into the good
graces of Ingrid Carmichel. We spent the entire evening fighting, and now I
can't even remember what we were fighting about. My head is throbbing. I need
coffee. Leaving the marbled papers in a state of controlled chaos, I walk
through the office and past the page's desk in the Reading Room. I am halted by
Isabelle's voice saying, "Perhaps Mr. DeTamble can help you," by
which she means "Henry, you weasel, where are you slinking off to?"
And this astoundingly beautiful amber-haired tall slim girl turns around and
looks at me as though I am her personal Jesus. My stomach lurches. Obviously
she knows me, and I don't know her. Lord only knows what I have said, done, or
promised to this luminous creature, so I am forced to say in my best
librarianese, "Is there something I can help you with?" The girl sort
of breathes "Henry!" in this very evocative way that convinces me
that at some point in time we have a really amazing thing together. This makes
it worse that I don't know anything about her, not even her name. I say
"Have we met?" and Isabelle gives me a look that says You asshole.
But the girl says, "I'm Clare Abshire. I knew you when I was a little
girl," and invites me out to dinner. I accept, stunned. She is glowing at
me, although I am unshaven and hung over and just not at my best. We are going
to meet for dinner this very evening, at the Beau Thai, and Clare, having
secured me for later, wafts out of the Reading Room. As I stand in the
elevator, dazed, I realize that a massive winning lottery ticket chunk of my
future has somehow found me here in the present, and I start to laugh. I cross
the lobby, and as I run down the stairs to the street I see Clare running
across Washington Square, jumping and whooping, and I am near tears and I don't
Later that evening:
Henry: At 6:00 p.m. I race home from work and
attempt to make myself attractive. Home these days is a tiny but insanely
expensive studio apartment on North Dearborn; I am constantly banging parts of
myself on inconvenient walls, countertops and furniture. Step One: unlock seventeen
locks on apartment door, fling myself into the living
room-which-is-also-my-bedroom and begin stripping off clothing. Step Two:
shower and shave. Step Three: stare hopelessly into the depths of my closet,
gradually becoming aware that nothing is exactly clean. I discover one white
shirt still in its dry cleaning bag. I decide to wear the black suit, wing
tips, and pale blue tie. Step Four: don all of this and realize I look like an
FBI agent. Step Five: look around and realize that the apartment is a mess. I
resolve to avoid bringing Clare to my apartment tonight even if such a thing is
possible. Step Six: look in full-length bathroom mirror and behold angular,
wild-eyed 6'1" ten-year-old Egon Schiele look-alike in clean shirt and
funeral director suit. I wonder what sorts of outfits this woman has seen me
wearing, since I am obviously not arriving from my future into her past wearing
clothes of my own. She said she was a little girl? A plethora of unanswerables
runs through my head. I stop and breathe for a minute. Okay. I grab my wallet
and my keys, and away I go: lock the thirty-seven locks, descend in the cranky
little elevator, buy roses for Clare in the shop in the lobby, walk two blocks
to the restaurant in record time but still five minutes late. Clare is already
seated in a booth and she looks relieved when she sees me. She waves at me like
she's in a parade.
"Hello," I say. Clare is wearing a
wine-colored velvet dress and pearls. She looks like a Botticelli by way of
John Graham: huge gray eyes, long nose, tiny delicate mouth like a geisha. She
has long red hair that covers her shoulders and falls to the middle of her
back. Clare is so pale she looks like a waxwork in the candlelight. I thrust
the roses at her. "For you."
"Thank you," says Clare, absurdly
pleased. She looks at me and realizes that I am confused by her response.
"You've never given me flowers before."
I slide into the booth opposite her. I'm
fascinated. This woman knows me; this isn't some passing acquaintance of my
future hejiras. The waitress appears and hands us menus.
"Tell me," I demand.
"Everything. I mean, do you understand why
I don't know you? I'm terribly sorry about that—"
"Oh, no, you shouldn't be. I mean, I
know.. .why that is." Clare lowers her voice. "It's because for you
none of it has happened yet, but for me, well, I've known you for a long
"About fourteen years. I first saw you
when I was six." "Jesus. Have you seen me very often? Or just a few
"The last time I saw you, you told me to
bring this to dinner when we met again," Clare shows me a pale blue
child's diary, "so here,"—she hands it to me—"you can have
this." I open it to the place marked with a piece of newspaper. The page,
which has two cocker spaniel puppies lurking in the upper right-hand corner, is
a list of dates. It begins with September 23, 1977, and ends sixteen small,
blue, puppied pages later on May 24, 1989. I count. There are 152 dates,
written with great care in the large open Palmer Method blue ball point pen of a
"You made the list? These are all
"Actually, you dictated this to me. You
told me a few years ago that you memorized the dates from this list. So I don't
know how exactly this exists; I mean, it seems sort of like a Mobius strip. But
they are accurate. I used them to know when to go down to the Meadow to meet
you." The waitress reappears and we order: Tom Kha Kai for me and Gang
Mussaman for Clare. A waiter brings tea and I pour us each a cup.
"What is the Meadow?" I am practically
hopping with excitement. I have never met anyone from my future before, much
less a Botticelli who has encountered me 152 times.
"The Meadow is a part of my parents' place
up in Michigan. There's woods at one edge of it, and the house on the opposite
end. More or less in the middle is a clearing about ten feet in diameter with a
big rock in it, and if you're in the clearing no one at the house can see you
because the land swells up and then dips in the clearing. I used to play there
because I liked to play by myself and I thought no one knew I was there. One
day when I was in first grade I came home from school and went out to the
clearing and there you were."
"Stark naked and probably throwing
"Actually, you seemed pretty
self-possessed. I remember you knew my name, and I remember you vanishing quite
spectacularly. In retrospect, it's obvious that you had been there before. I
think the first time for you was in 1981; I was ten. You kept saying 'Oh my
god,' and staring at me. Also, you seemed pretty freaked out about the nudity,
and by then I just kind of took it for granted that this old nude guy was going
to magically appear from the future and demand clothing." Clare smiles.
"I made you some pretty weird meals over
the years. Peanut butter and anchovy sandwiches. Pate and beets on Ritz
crackers. I think partly I wanted to see if there was anything you wouldn't eat
and partly I was trying to impress you with my culinary wizardry."
"How old was I?"
"I think the oldest I have seen you was
forty-something. I'm not sure about youngest; maybe about thirty? How old are
"You look very young to me now. The last
few years you were mostly in your early forties, and you seemed to be having
kind of a rough life... It's hard to say. When you're little all adults seem
big, and old."
"So what did we do? In the Meadow? That's
a lot of time, there."
Clare smiles. "We did lots of things. It
changed depending on my age, and the weather. You spent a lot of time helping me
do my homework. We played games. Mostly we just talked about stuff. When I was
really young I thought you were an angel; I asked you a lot of questions about
God. When I was a teenager I tried to get you to make love to me, and you never
would, which of course made me much more determined about it. I think you
thought you were going to warp me sexually, somehow. In some ways you were very
"Oh. That's probably good news but somehow
at the moment I don't seem to want to be thought of as parental." Our eyes
meet. We both smile and we are conspirators. "What about winter? Michigan
winters are pretty extreme."
"I used to smuggle you into our basement;
the house has a huge basement with several rooms, and one of them is a storage
room and the furnace is on the other side of the wall. We call it the Reading
Room because all the useless old books and magazines are stored there. One time
you were down there and we had a blizzard and nobody went to school or to work
and I thought I was going to go crazy trying to get food for you because there
wasn't all that much food in the house. Etta was supposed to go grocery
shopping when the storm hit. So you were stuck reading old Reader's Digests for
three days, living on sardines and ramen noodles."
"Sounds salty. I'll look forward to
it." Our meal arrives. "Did you ever learn to cook?"
"No, I don't think I would claim to know
how to cook. Nell and Etta always got mad when I did anything in their kitchen
beyond getting myself a Coke, and since I've moved to Chicago I don't have
anybody to cook for, so I haven't been motivated to work on it. Mostly I'm too
busy with school and all, sol just eat there." Clare takes a bite of her
curry. "This is really good."
"Nell and Etta?"
"Nell is our cook." Clare smiles.
"Nell is like cordon bleu meets Detroit; she's how Aretha Franklin would
be if she was Julia Child. Etta is our housekeeper and all-around everything.
She's really more almost our mom; I mean, my mother is...well, Etta's just
always there, and she's German and strict, but she's very comforting, and my
mother is kind of off in the clouds, you know?"
I nod, my mouth full of soup.
"Oh, and there's Peter," Clare adds.
"Peter is the gardener."
"Wow. Your family has servants. This
sounds a little out of my league. Have I ever, uh, met any of your
"You met my Grandma Meagram right before
she died. She was the only person I ever told about you. She was pretty much
blind by then. She knew we were going to get married and she wanted to meet
I stop eating and look at Clare. She looks back
at me, serene, angelic, perfectly at ease. "Are we going to get
"I assume so," she replies.
"You've been telling me for years that whenever it is you're coming from,
you're married to me."
Too much. This is too much. I close my eyes and
will myself to think of nothing; the last thing I want is to lose my grip on
the here and now.
"Henry? Henry, are you okay?" I feel
Clare sliding onto the seat beside me. I open my eyes and she grips my hands
strongly in hers. I look at her hands and see that they are the hands of a
laborer, rough and chapped.
"Henry, I'm sorry, I just can't get used
to this. It's so opposite. I mean, all my life you've been the one who knew
everything and I sort of forgot that tonight maybe I should go slow." She
smiles. "Actually, almost the last thing you said to me before you left
was 'Have mercy, Clare.' You said it in your quoting voice, and I guess now
that I think of it you must have been quoting me." She continues to hold
my hands. She looks at me with eagerness; with love. I feel profoundly humble.