Home > The Time Traveler's Wife(7)

The Time Traveler's Wife(7)
Audrey Niffenegger

"Sit up, Henry" said Mom. "We're here."

I sat up and looked at the museum. I had spent my childhood thus far being carted around the capital cities of Europe, so the Field Museum satisfied my idea of "Museum," but its domed stone facade was nothing exceptional. Because it was Sunday, we had a little trouble finding parking, but eventually we parked and walked along the lake, past boats and statues and other excited children. We passed between the heavy columns and into the museum. And then I was a boy enchanted. Here all of nature was captured, labeled, arranged according to a logic that seemed as timeless as if ordered by God, perhaps a God who had mislaid the original paperwork on the Creation and had requested the Field Museum staff to help Him out and keep track of it all. For my five-year-old self, who could derive rapture from a single butterfly, to walk through the Field Museum was to walk through Eden and see all that passed there. We saw so much that day: the butterflies, to be sure, cases and cases of them, from Brazil, from Madagascar, even a brother of my blue butterfly from Down Under. The museum was dark, cold, and old, and this heightened the sense of suspension, of time and death brought to a halt inside its walls. We saw crystals and cougars, muskrats and mummies, fossils and more fossils. We ate our picnic lunch on the lawn of the museum, and then plunged in again for birds and alligators and Neanderthals. Toward the end I was so tired I could hardly stand, but I couldn't bear to leave. The guards came and gently herded us all to the doors; I struggled not to cry, but began to anyway, out of exhaustion and desire. Dad picked me up, and we walked back to the car. I fell asleep in the backseat, and when I awoke We were home, and it was time for dinner. We ate downstairs in Mr. and Mrs. Kim's apartment. They were our landlords. Mr. Kim was a gruff, compact man who seemed to like me but never said much, and Mrs. Kim (Kimy, my nickname for her) was my buddy, my crazy Korean card-playing babysitter. I spent most of my waking hours with Kimy. My mom was never much of a cook, and Kimy could produce anything from a souffle to bi him bop with panache. Tonight, for my birthday, she had made pizza and chocolate cake. We ate. Everyone sang Happy Birthday and I blew out the candles. I don't remember what I wished for. I was allowed to stay up later than usual, because I was still excited by all the things we'd seen, and because I had slept so late in the afternoon. I sat on the back porch in my pajamas with Mom and Dad and Mrs. and Mr. Kim, drinking lemonade and watching the blueness of the evening sky, listening to the cicadas and the TV noises from other apartments. Eventually Dad said, "Bedtime, Henry." I brushed my teeth and said prayers and got into bed. I was exhausted but wide awake. Dad read to me for a while, and then, seeing that I still couldn't sleep, he and Mom turned out the lights, propped open my bedroom door, and went into the living room. The deal was: they would play for me as long as I wanted, but I had to stay in bed to listen. So Mom sat at the piano, and Dad got out his violin, and they played and sang for a long time. Lullabies, lieder, nocturnes; sleepy music to soothe the savage boy in the bedroom. Finally Mom came in to see if I was asleep. I must have looked small and wary in my little bed, a nocturnal animal in pajamas.

"Oh, baby. Still awake?"

I nodded.

"Dad and I are going to bed. Are you okay?"

I said Yes and she gave me a hug. "It was pretty exciting today at the museum, huh?" "Can we go back tomorrow?"

"Not tomorrow, but we'll go back real soon, okay?" Okay.

"G'night." She left the door open and flipped off the hall light. "Sleep tight. Don't let the bedbugs bite."

I could hear little noises, water running, toilet flushing. Then all was quiet. I got out of bed and knelt in front of my window. I could see lights in the house next door, and somewhere a car drove by with its radio blaring. I stayed there for a while, trying to feel sleepy, and then I stood up and everything changed.

Saturday, January 2, 1988, 4:03 a.m. /Sunday, June 16, 1968, 10:46 p.m. (Henry is 24, and 5)

Henry: It's 4:03 a.m. on a supremely cold January morning and I'm just getting home. I've been out dancing and I'm only half drunk but utterly exhausted. As I fumble with my keys in the bright foyer I fall to my knees, dizzy and nauseated, and then I am in the dark, vomiting on a tile floor. I raise my head and see a red illuminated exit sign and as my eyes adjust I see tigers, cavemen with long spears, cavewomen wearing strategically modest skins, wolfish dogs. My heart is racing and for a long liquor-addled moment I think Holy shit, I've gone all the way back to the Stone Age until I realize that exit signs tend to congregate in the twentieth century. I get up, shaking, and venture toward the doorway, tile icy under my bare feet, gooseflesh and all my hairs standing up. It's absolutely silent. The air is clammy with air conditioning. I reach the entrance and look into the next room. It's full of glass cases; the white streetlight glow through the high windows shows me thousands of beetles. I'm in the Field Museum, praise the Lord. I stand still and breathe deeply, trying to clear my head. Something about this rings a bell in my fettered brain and I try to dredge it up. I'm supposed to do something. Yes. My fifth birthday... someone was there, and I'm about to be that someone...I need clothes. Yes. Indeed. I sprint through beetle mania into the long hallway that bisects the second floor, down the west staircase to the first floor, grateful to be in the pre-motion-detector era. The great elephants loom menacingly over me in the moonlight and I wave to them on my way to the little gift shop to the right of the main entrance. I circle the wares and find a few promising items: an ornamental letter opener, a metal bookmark with the Field's insignia, and two T-shirts that feature dinosaurs. The locks on the cases are a joke; I pop them with a bobby pin I find next to the cash register, and help myself. Okay. Back up the stairs, to the third floor. This is the Field's "attic," where the labs are; the staff have their offices up here. I scan the names on the doors, but none of them suggests anything to me; finally I select at random and slide my bookmark along the lock until the catch pushes back and I'm in. The occupant of this office is one V. M. Williamson, and he's a very untidy guy. The room is dense with papers, and coffee cups and cigarettes overflow from ashtrays; there's a partially articulated snake skeleton on his desk. I quickly case the joint for clothes and come up with nothing. The next office belongs to a woman, J. F. Bettley. On the third try I get lucky. D. W. Fitch has an entire suit hung neatly on his coat rack, and it pretty much fits me, though it's a bit short in the arms and legs and wide in the lapels. I wear one of the dinosaur T-shirts under the jacket. No shoes, but I'm decent. D. W. also keeps an unopened package of Oreo cookies in his desk, bless him. I appropriate them and leave, closing the door carefully behind me. Where was I, when I saw me? I close my eyes and fatigue takes me bodily, caressing me with her sleepy fingers. I am almost out on my feet, but I catch myself and it comes to me: a man in silhouette walking toward me backlit by the museum's front doors. I need to get back to the Great Hall. When I get there all is quiet and still. I walk across the middle of the floor, trying to replicate the view of the doors, and then I seat myself near the coat room, so as to enter stage left. I can hear blood rushing in my head, the air conditioning system humming, cars whooshing by on Lake Shore Drive. I eat ten Oreos, slowly, gently prying each one apart, scraping the filling out with my front teeth, nibbling the chocolate halves to make them last. I have no idea what time it is, or how long I have to wait. I'm mostly sober now, and reasonably alert. Time passes, nothing happens. At last: I hear a soft thud, a gasp. Silence. I wait. I stand up, silently, and pad into the Hall, walking slowly through the light that slants across the marble floor. I stand in the center of the doors and call out, not loud: "Henry."

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