Photo #1: At age 17, I’m sporting a layered shag, highlighted in skunky streaks. I’m wearing a Blondie T-shirt, even though I have no idea who Blondie is, and holding a portable phone against my face with one ticked-up shoulder. My hands are thrown up in surprise as my mother catches me with her camera on my way out the door.
Photo #2: At age 17, he’s wearing a starched suit and posing outdoors under a tree, on his way to a homecoming dance. With his pallor and cold-yet-striking gaze, he looks like one of those vampires from Twilight, ageless and elegant. I would have definitely given him a second glance.
These are spontaneous moments of youth, immortalized in the album I gave my husband on our first anniversary, full of scanned photos of each of us. There’s me at a beach in Vietnam, balanced on a concrete beam. Him in a jacket tapping a maple tree up north. Us at Halloween, each in our respective costumes, and later at high school graduations, arms slung around friends we no longer keep track of. All the photos lead up to the very first one we took together, smiling in the stadium at a Cubs game in 2006.
As teenagers, because of our seven-year age difference, the two of us would have never existed in the same space together. While he was 17, I was 10, still kissing my stuffed animals every night before bed. When I was 17, he was 24, about to buy a modest first home with a friend, in a town where you could do such things on two entry-level salaries. When we met — at 29 and 22, at a karaoke bar in Chicago — it was one of those meetings that could only have happened at that specific time, in that specific place. A few months earlier, and we wouldn’t have been ready. A few months later, I’d have moved to Boston, where I’d thought my career was going to take me. Instead, we met. We ended up staying in Chicago for a few years and got engaged. The end and the beginning.
The Time Traveler’s Wife, an HBO show based on Audrey Niffenger’s book of the same name, is also based in Chicago, near the neighborhood where we first met and later lived in a century-old apartment building by the El where the pocket doors never closed and the smell of our neighbors’ bacon wafted through the vents in our bedroom.
I’ve always had a soft spot for the novel, about a time-traveling man named Henry, who meets his future wife Clare back in time, when she is six, and he is 36. He continues to drop in on her in her family garden until finally, they meet in their “real” timeline, when Clare is 20 and Henry is 28. Clare, of course, recognizes him from those visits in the garden and is ready to start their relationship. Henry, however, is a cad at that age and nowhere ready to commence a relationship with the love of his life. It’s a problem of timing. Clare is in despair over “Young Henry,” a pale imitation of the nuanced, loving 36-year-old Future Henry she’d fallen in love with over the years. She often says that she can’t see herself with Young Henry; she tells him that she wants her Henry. And isn’t that how it so often goes? We may meet a person early in life and don’t see them with heart-eyes until much later. Or, we might look back on a person we’d been head-over-heels with once, and wonder, Why? Timing, like love, is a confounding mix of luck and will.
After my husband and I watched the show — a darker, grittier adaptation than the 2009 Eric Bana/Rachel McAdams movie — we began speculating.
“Would we have gotten together in high school?” I ask him.
“Probably not. You were too cool for me.”
“I was anything but,” I laugh. “I was in orchestra. You wouldn’t have even noticed me.”
I try to hide my hurt that he’s pegged our hypothetical high school relationship as impossible. But we did have vastly different interests. Even though I might have wished otherwise, we likely would not have noticed one another. He went to a Catholic high school and played sports. His competitive streak has become family lore; fellow parents in his hometown still comment on his epic fits during soccer games.
Meanwhile, I couldn’t kick a ball to save my life. I kept obsessive tabs on my GPA for the escape route that was out-of-state college. I read constantly and worked at chain restaurants after school. For a time, I had an unexplained interest in Irish mythology. Back then, I fell for the broody types who’d sooner quote Nietzsche than join a team sport.
Clare fell in love with Young Henry eventually, for all his youthful indiscretions, but I doubt my husband would have fallen for me had we met earlier in life. I’ll always think about the narrow gap that opened between our lives in our twenties — a gust of wind rushing through the open doors of a dive bar with sticky floors, a touch on the lower back that felt prescient. I’ll think about how we were so close to missing it altogether.
There’s a TikTok trend of spouses showing photos of themselves as “teenage dirtbags,” alongside photos of their current spouses. The archetypes rear up here: theater kids with dark eyeliner alongside women flipping luxurious locks over their shoulders; bespectacled bookworms side-eyeing musicians with the hair flop that would have made many a ’90s heart tumble. The caption usually reads something like, “15-year-old me would never have believed who they ended up with.”
It’s one of those cute trends that encapsulate the wonder that many feel towards their partners. How did I get picked by you?
But sometimes I think about how absolutely unlikely it is that we stay together. Given that we all evolve so much, through age and experience and trauma, isn’t it sort of magical when things do work out?
I’m a different woman than I was in my twenties. Nowadays, I’m much bolder and more blunt. Intimacy is harder won, though the tenderness that I’m able to offer seems to have been excavated from deeper inside of me, like a jagged crystal. I like to think I don’t suffer fools, even if I end up often being one myself. And my husband has grown into one of the most thoughtful, sensitive people I know. He’s become more protective of our family. He cries more readily. In short, I’ve grown harder, while he’s grown softer. Would our current versions find each other now? Or might we slide past each other with blank smiles, thinking ahead to dinner plans and vacations that don’t include each other?
Time is a funny, unexpected thing. It feels linear and matter-of-fact, when it isn’t at all. There are brief moments — like the instant I laid eyes on my child, or the time I got in a car-totalling accident in Tallahassee — that stretch like taffy. And some years, like the year I turned 11, contract so fully that I swear I never fully lived them at all.
I wonder what would happen if we could fold time, as in a piece of speculative fiction, inserting our present selves somewhere in the past. What would we change? Who could we transform into? It’s no coincidence that there’s been a rise in popularity for time-traveling media (like Emma Straub’s This Time Tomorrow or the Outlander TV drama). With the figurative loss of years from the pandemic, many of us are eager to think of time as elastic. As something you can win back, with just a bit of magic.
My grandmother often repeats stories. My mom calls it Old Timer’s, a twisty and adorable mispronunciation of Alzheimer’s. My grandma forgets so much, though her body is hale as ever, a sturdy shell for a mind drawn backwards. My grandfather tells her that she’s living in the past, and in the washed-out cast of her eyes, I see it’s true. She’s 16 again, holding his gaze on a dusty road in Vietnam. This year, they’ll celebrate their 67th anniversary. Then and now, for all the brutal love between them, they have chosen each other.
Would I choose my husband, if we met today for the first time? Would he choose me? I really think so. Over the years, it seems that we’ve grown towards each other, rather than apart, and now we are all tangled up — past selves wrestling with present selves in a Tasmanian whirlwind. There’s the hot rush of lust from those early days; the hope as we said our vows; the ennui from that summer we could not connect; the chaos of new parenthood; and later bliss of finding our stride together again. A decade freckled by TV shows paired with cherry ice cream, and bodies fitted together under a thick quilt, and fights over Gin Rummy, and walks along a heat-scooped arroyo, and baby toes lifted for kisses.
History is not everything; I know that. It’s often not enough. Yet, for me, love stories — no matter how long they last — are a defiance of time. Despite the knowledge that our years are numbered, and despite the inherent risk in offering ourselves to others, we persevere, out of hope or a dogged determination to flaunt our own mortality. Through our memories, we can often travel back in time together, reliving a story that feels extraordinary, if only to ourselves.
Thao Thai is a writer and editor in Ohio, where she lives with her husband and daughter. Her debut novel, Banyan Moon, is forthcoming in 2023 from HarperCollins. She has also written for Cup of Jo about books and motherhood and alternate fathers and physical affection. You can subscribe to her newsletter here.
(Photo by Sidney Morgan/Stocksy.)