K.S. ANTHONY: Hope, Seen Through A Window

17 November 2016

Hope, Seen Through A Window

There's a scene in Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife where Henry, the time-traveler in question, is visiting Clare – who will later become the eponymous spouse – in 1984. In 1984, however, Clare is 12 and time-traveling Henry is 36. Clare asks Henry if he's married. Henry, of course, is: to a future version of Clare. For various reasons, Henry tells Clare that he's married, but declines to give any more information than that. The scene, told in first person by Henry, ends as follows.

      "Does she worry about you?"
      "Yes," I say softly. "She does." I wonder what Clare is doing now, in 1999. Maybe she’s still asleep. Maybe she won’t know I’m gone.
      "Do you love her?"
      "Very much," I whisper. We lie silently side by side, watching the swaying trees, the birds, the sky. I hear a muffled sniffling noise and glancing at Clare I am astonished to see that tears are streaming across her face toward her ears. I sit up and lean over her. "What’s wrong, Clare?" She just shakes her head back and forth and presses her lips together. I smooth her hair, and pull her into a sitting position, wrap my arms around her. She’s a child, and then again she isn’t. "What’s wrong?"
      It comes out so quietly that I have to ask her to repeat it: "It’s just that I thought maybe you were married to me."

The scene reminded me of the innumerable interactions I've had in my life, where I, possessed in equal measures by hope and longing – for reassurance, for reciprocation – found myself painfully outside, like someone who's come miles to knock on a door only to find it locked, only to find himself staring in through a window at a chandelier dripping light over a table that he will never sit at, that, for a moment he thought might be a home of some kind.

For Clare, of course, there's what you might call a happy ending in that she does eventually end up married to the transient Henry, but I've never really gotten there. My stories stop where Clare's voice drops into near silence: the moment of disappointment, marked by profound shame for having been stupid enough to hope and even more profound embarrassment in having made oneself vulnerable enough to ask a question with an answer that you know, but somehow still refuse to believe, will leave you scarred and alone outside that window, looking in, but forever barred entry.

Eventually you learn to keep your hopes – few that they are – locked away. The ones that you express are the minor ones, the ones with consequences that can no longer hurt you, the ones with outcomes that you've already given up caring about. To express these faded hopes lends an air of emotional authenticity: they keep people in your orbit, satisfied with what they think are genuine dreams, smug in the fantasy that they know you, or that they know something about you. These faded hopes keep your real hopes safe, if undeclared and unrealized.

At some point, all hope ossifies. You no longer expect anything. You know that your life is what it is and that the lives beyond those windows aren't as perfect as they seem. You know that just as you look in and wonder what your life might have been if the answer had been yes, I still love you or wait, please stay, those people behind the window look out into the night at 4am and wonder where their possibilities fled.

Once you start asking the questions you're most afraid of, you realize that none of the answers matter anymore and that perhaps hope doesn't either.

But you'll keep looking in those windows and wondering what your life might have been like had the answers been different.