Halfway through dinner, I knew I’d replay the whole evening in reverse—the bus, the snow, the walk up the tiny incline, the cathedral looming straight before me, the stranger in the elevator, the crowded large living room where candlelit faces beamed with laughter and premonition, the piano music, the singer with the throaty voice, the scent of pinewood everywhere as I wandered from room to room, thinking that perhaps I should have arrived much earlier tonight, or a bit later, or thatI shouldn’t have come at all, the classic sepia etchings on the wall by the bathroom where a swinging door opened to a long corridor to private areas not intended for guests but took another turn toward the hallway and then, by miracle, led back into the same living room, where more people had gathered, and where, turning to me by the window where I thought I’d found a quiet spot behind the large Christmas tree, someone suddenly put out a hand and said, “I am Clara.”
I am Clara, delivered in a flash, as the most obvious fact in the world, as though I’d known it all along, or should have known it, and, seeing I hadn’t acknowledged her, or perhaps was trying not to, she’d help me stop the pretense and put a face to a name everyone had surely mentioned many times before.
In someone else, I am Clara would have sprung like a tentative conversation opener—meek, seemingly assertive, overly casual, distant, aired as an afterthought, the verbal equivalent of a handshake that has learned to convey firmness and vigor by overexerting an otherwise limp and lifeless grip. In a shy person, I am Clara would require so much effort that it might leave her drained and almost grateful when you failed to pick up the cue.
Here, I am Clara was neither bold nor intrusive, but spoken with the practiced, wry smile of someone who had said it too many times to care how it broke the silence with strangers. Strained, indifferent, weary, and amused—at herself, at me, at life for making introductions the tense, self-conscious things they are—it slipped between us like a meaningless formality that had to be gotten over with, and now was as good a time as any, seeing that the two of us were standing away from those who had gathered in the middle of the room and who were about to start singing. Her words sprung on me like one of those gusts that clear through obstacles and throw open all doors and windows, trailing April blossom in the heart of a winter month, stirring everything along their path with the hasty familiarity of people who, when it comes to other people, couldn’t care less and haven’t a thing to lose. She wasn’t bustling in nor was she skipping over tedious steps, but there was a touch of crisis and commotion in her three words that wasn’t unwelcome or totally unintended. It suited her figure, the darting arrogance of her chin, of the voile- thin crimson shirt which she wore unbuttoned to her breastbone, the swell of skin as smooth and forbidding as the diamond stud on her thin platinum necklace.
I am Clara. It barged in unannounced, like a spectator squeezing into a packed auditorium seconds before curtain time, disturbing everyone, and yet so clearly amused by the stir she causes that, no sooner she’s found the seat that will be hers for the rest of the season than she’ll remove her coat, slip it around her shoulders, turn to her new neighbor, and, meaning to apologize for the disruption without making too much of it, whisper a conspiring “I am Clara.” It meant, I’m the Clara you’ll be seeing all year long here, so let’s just make the best of it. I am the Clara you never thought would be sitting right next to you, and yet here I am. I’m the Clara you’ll wish to find here every one day of every month for
the remainder of this and every other year of your life—and I know it, and let’s face it, much as you’re trying not to show it, you knew it the moment you set eyes on me. I am Clara.
It was a cross between a ribbing “How couldn’t you know?” and “What’s with the face?” “Here,” she seemed to say, like a magician about to teach a child a simple trick, “take this name and hold it tight in your palm, and when you’re home alone, open your hand and think, Today I met Clara.” It was like offering an elderly gentleman a chocolate- hazelnut square just when he was about to lose his temper. “Don’t say anything until you’ve bitten into it.” She jostled you, but instantly made up for it before you’d even felt it, so that it wasn’t clear which had come first, the apology or the little jab, or whether both weren’t braided in the same gesture, spiraling around her three words like frisky death threats masquerading as meaningless pranks. I am Clara.
Life before. Life after.
Everything before Clara seemed so lifeless, hollow, stopgap. The after-Clara thrilled and scared me, a mirage of water beyond a valley of rattlesnakes.
I am Clara. It was the one thing I knew best and could always come back to each time I’d want to think of her—alert, warm, caustic, and dangerous. Everything about her radiated from these three words, as though they were a pressing bulletin mysteriously scribbled on the back of a matchbook that you slip into a wallet because it will always summon an evening when a dream, a would-be life, suddenly blossomed before you. It could be just that, a dream and nothing more, but it stirred so
fierce a desire to be happy that I was almost ready to believe I was indeed happy on the evening when someone blustered in, trailing April blossom in the heart of a winter month.
Would I still feel this way on leaving the party tonight? Or would I find cunning ways to latch on to minor defects so that they’d start to bother me and allow me to snuff the dream till it tapered off and lost its luster and, with its luster gone, remind me once again, as ever again, that happiness is the one thing in our lives others cannot bring.
I am Clara. It conjured her voice, her smile, her face when she vanished into the crowd that night and made me fear I’d already lost her, imagined her. “I am Clara,” I’d say to myself, and she was Clara all over again, standing near me by the Christmas tree, alert, warm, caustic, and dangerous.
I was—and I knew it within minutes of meeting her—already rehearsing never seeing her again, already wondering how to take I am Clara with me tonight and stow it in a drawer along with my cuff links, collar stays, my watch and money clip.
I was learning to disbelieve that this could last another five minutes, because this had all the makings of an unreal, spellbound interlude, when things open up far too easily and seem willing to let us into the otherwise closed circle that is none other than our very own life, our life as we've always craved to live it but cheat it at each turn, our life finally transposed in the right key, retold in the right tense, in a language that speaks to us and is right for us and us alone, our life finally made real and luminous because it's revealed, not in ours, but in someone else's voice, grasped from another's hand, caught on the face of someone who couldn't possibly be a stranger, but, because she is nothing but a stranger, holds our eyes with a gaze that says, Tonight I'm the face you put on your life and how you live it. Tonight, I am your eyes to the world looking back at you. I am Clara.
It meant: Take my name and whisper it to yourself, and in a week's time come back to it and see if crystals haven't sprouted around it.
I am Clara-she had smiled, as though she'd been laughing at something someone had just said to her and, borrowing the mirth started in another context, had turned to me behind the Christmas tree and told me her name, given me her hand, and made me want to laugh at punch lines I hadn't heard but whose drift corresponded to a sense of humor that was exactly like mine.
This is what I am Clara meant to me. It created the illusion of intimacy, of a friendship briefly interrupted and urgently resumed, as though we'd met before, or had crossed each other's path but kept missing each other and were being reintroduced at all costs now, so that in extending her hand to me, she was doing something we should have done much sooner, seeing we had grown up together and lost touch, or been through so much, perhaps been lovers a lifetime ago, until something as trivial and shameful as death had come between us and which, this time, she wasn't about to let happen.
I am Clara meant I already know you-this is no ordinary business-and if you think fate doesn't have a hand in this, think twice. We could, if you wish, stick to ordinary cocktail pleasantries and pretend this is all in your head, or we can drop everything, pay attention to no one, and, like children building a tiny tent in the middle of a crowded living room on Christmas Eve, enter a world beaming with laughter and premonition, where everything is without peril, where there's no place for shame, doubt, or fear, and where all is said in jest and in whimsy, because the things that are most solemn often come under the guise of mischief and merrymaking.
Excerpted from Eight White Nights by André Aciman.
Copyright 2010 by André Aciman.
Published in 2010 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.