Book: The Time Traveler's Almanac

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WHAT IF

Isaac Asimov

Isaac Asimov was one of the most prolific and beloved science fiction writers of the twentieth century. In addition to his popular fiction, he wrote quite a lot of nonfiction. Some say he published over 500 books altogether. He had a knack for taking complex scientific ideas and presenting them so that the layman could understand these concepts. This story was first published in Fantastic Story Magazine in the summer of 1952.

Norman and Livvy were late, naturally, since catching a train is always a matter of last-minute delays, so they had to take the only available seat in the coach. It was the one toward the front, the one with nothing before it but the seat that faced the wrong way, with its back hard against the front partition. While Norman heaved the suitcase onto the rack, Livvy found herself chafing a little.

If a couple took the wrong-way seat before them, they would be staring self-consciously into each other’s faces all the hours it would take to reach New York; or else, which was scarcely better, they would have to erect synthetic barriers of newspaper. Still, there was no use in taking a chance on there being another unoccupied double seat elsewhere in the train.

Norman didn’t seem to mind, and that was a little disappointing to Livvy. Usually they held their moods in common. That, Norman claimed, was why he remained sure that he had married the right girl.

He would say, “We fit each other, Livvy, and that’s the key fact. When you’re doing a jigsaw puzzle and one piece fits another, that’s it. There are no other possibilities, and of course there are no other girls.”

And she would laugh and say, “If you hadn’t been on the streetcar that day, you would probably never have met me. What would you have done then?”

“Stayed a bachelor. Naturally. Besides, I would have met you through Georgette another day.”

“It wouldn’t have been the same.”

“Sure it would.”

“No, it wouldn’t. Besides, Georgette would never have introduced me. She was interested in you herself, and she’s the type who knows better than to create a possible rival.”

“What nonsense.”

Livvy asked her favorite question: “Norman, what if you had been one minute later at the streetcar corner and had taken the next car? What do you suppose would have happened?”

“And what if fish had wings and all of them flew to the top of the mountains? What would we have to eat on Fridays then?”

But they had caught the streetcar, and fish didn’t have wings, so that now they had been married for five years and ate fish on Fridays. And because they had been married five years, they were going to celebrate by spending a week in New York.

Then she remembered the present problem. “I wish we could have found some other seat.”

Norman said, “Sure. So do I. But no one has taken it yet, so we’ll have relative privacy as far as Providence, anyway.”

Livvy was unconsoled, and felt herself justified when a plump little man walked down the central aisle of the coach. Now, where had he come from? The train was halfway between Boston and Providence, and if he had had a seat, why hadn’t he kept it? She took out her vanity and considered her reflection. She had a theory that if she ignored the little man, he would pass by. So she concentrated on her light-brown hair which, in the rush of catching the train, had become disarranged just a little; at her blue eyes, and at her little mouth with the plump lips which Norman said looked like a permanent kiss. Not bad, she thought.

Then she looked up, and the little man was in the seat opposite. He caught her eye and frowned widely. A series of lines curled about the edges of his smile. He lifted his hat hastily and put it down beside him on top of the little black box he had been carrying. A circle of white hair instantly sprang up stiffly about the large bald spot that made the center of his skull a desert.

She could not help smiling back a little, but then she caught sight of the black box again and the smile faded. She yanked at Norman’s elbow.

Norman looked up from his newspaper. He had startlingly dark eyebrows that almost met above the bridge of his nose, giving him a formidable first appearance. But they and the dark eyes beneath bent upon her now with only the usual look of pleased and somewhat amused affection.

He said, “What’s up?” He did not look at the plump little man opposite.

Livvy did her best to indicate what she saw by a little unobtrusive gesture of her hand and head. But the little man was watching and she felt a fool, since Norman simply stared at her blankly.

Finally she pulled him closer and whispered, “Don’t you see what’s printed on his box?”

She looked again as she said it, and there was no mistake. It was not very prominent, but the light caught it slantingly and it was a slightly more glistening area on a black background. In flowing script it said, “What If.”

The little man was smiling again. He nodded his head rapidly and pointed to the words and then to himself several times over.

Norman put his paper aside. “I’ll show you.” He leaned over and said, “Mr. If?”

The little man looked at him eagerly.

“Do you have the time, Mr. If?”

The little man took out a large watch from his vest pocket and displayed the dial.

“Thank you, Mr. If,” said Norman. And again in a whisper, “See, Livvy.”

He would have returned to his paper, but the little man was opening his box and raising a finger periodically as he did so, to enforce their attention. It was just a slab of frosted glass that he removed – about six by nine inches in length and width and perhaps an inch thick. It had beveled edges, rounded corners, and was completely featureless. Then he took out a little wire stand on which the glass slab fitted comfortably. He rested the combination on his knees and looked proudly at them.

Livvy said, with sudden excitement, “Heavens, Norman, it’s a picture of some sort.”

Norman bent close. Then he looked at the little man. “What’s this? A new kind of television?”

The little man shook his head, and Livvy said, “No, Norman, it’s us.”

“What?”

“Don’t you see? That’s the streetcar we met on. There you are in the back seat wearing that old fedora I threw away three years ago. And that’s Georgette and myself getting on. The fat lady’s in the way. Now! Can’t you see us?”

He muttered, “It’s some sort of illusion.”

“But you see it too, don’t you? That’s why he calls this, ‘What If.’ It will show us what if. What if the streetcar hadn’t swerved…”

She was sure of it. She was very excited and very sure of it. As she looked at the picture in the glass slab, the late afternoon sunshine grew dimmer and the inchoate chatter of the passengers around and behind them began fading.

How she remembered that day. Norman knew Georgette and had been so embarrassed that he was forced into gallantry and then into conversation. An introduction from Georgette was not even necessary. By the time they got off the streetcar, he knew where she worked.

She could still remember Georgette glowering at her, sulkily forcing a smile when they themselves separated. Georgette said, “Norman seems to like you.”

Livvy replied, “Oh, don’t be silly! He was just being polite. But he is nice-looking isn’t he?”

It was only six months after that that they married.

And now here was that same streetcar again, with Norman and herself and Georgette. As she thought that, the smooth train noises, the rapid clack-clack of wheels, vanished completely. Instead, she was in the swaying confines of the streetcar. She had just boarded it with Georgette at the previous stop.

Livvy shifted weight with the swaying of the streetcar, as did forty others, sitting and standing, all to the same monotonous and rather ridiculous rhythm. She said, “Somebody’s motioning at you, Georgette. Do you know him?”

“At me?” Georgette directed a deliberately casual glance over her shoulder. Her artificially long eyelashes flickered. She said, “I know him a little. What do you suppose he wants?”

“Let’s find out,” said Livvy. She felt pleased and a little wicked.

Georgette had a well-known habit of hoarding her male acquaintances, and it was rather fun to annoy her this way. And besides, this one seemed quite … interesting.

She snaked past the lines of standees, and Georgette followed without enthusiasm. It was just as Livvy arrived opposite the young man’s seat that the streetcar lurched heavily as it rounded a curve. Livvy snatched desperately in the direction of the straps. Her fingertips caught and she held on. It was a long moment before she could breathe. For some reason, it had seemed that there were no straps close to be reached. Somehow, she felt that by all the laws of nature she should have fallen.

The young man did not look at her. He was smiling at Georgette and rising from his seat. He had astonishing eyebrows that gave him a rather competent and self-confident appearance. Livvy decided that she definitely liked him. Georgette was saying, “Oh no, don’t bother. We’re getting off in about two stops.”

They did. Livvy said, “I thought we were going to Sachs.”

“We are. There’s just something I remember having to attend to here. It won’t take but a minute.”

“Next stop, Providence!” the loudspeakers were blaring. The train was slowing and the world of the past had shrunk itself into the glass slab once more. The little man was still smiling at them.

Livvy turned to Norman. She felt a little frightened. “Were you through all that, too?”

He said, “What happened to the time? We can’t be reaching Providence yet?” He looked at his watch. “I guess we are.” Then, to Livvy, “You didn’t fall that time.”

“Then you did see it?” She frowned. “Now, that’s like Georgette. I’m sure there was no reason to get off the streetcar except to prevent my meeting you. How long had you known Georgette then, Norman?”

“Not very long. Just enough to be able to recognize her at sight and to feel that I ought to offer her my seat.”

Livvy curled her lip.

Norman grinned, “You can’t be jealous of a might-have-been, kid. Besides, what difference would it have made? I’d have been sufficiently interested in you to work out a way of meeting you.”

“You didn’t even look at me.”

“I hardly had the chance.”

“Then how would you have met me?”

‘’Some way. I don’t know how. But you’ll admit this is a rather foolish argument we’re having.”

They were leaving Providence. Livvy felt a trouble in her mind. The little man had been following their whispered conversation, with only the loss of his smile to show that he understood. She said to him, “Can you show us more?”

Norman interrupted, “Wait now, Livvy. What are you to try to do?”

She said, “I want to see our wedding day. What it would have been if I hadn’t caught the strap.”

Norman was visibly annoyed. “Now, that’s not fair. We might not have been married on the same day, you know.”

But she said, “Can you show it to me, Mr. If?” and the little man nodded.

The slab of glass was coming alive again, glowing a little. Then the light collected and condensed into figures. A tiny sound of organ music was in Livvy’s ears without there actually being sound.

Norman said with relief, “Well, there I am. That’s our wedding. Are you satisfied?”

The train sounds were disappearing again, and the last thing Livvy heard was her own voice saying, “Yes, there you are. But where am I?”

*   *   *

Livvy was well back in the pews. For a while she had not expected to attend at all. In the past months she had drifted further and further away from Georgette, without quite knowing why. She had heard of her engagement only through a mutual friend, and, of course, it was to Norman. She remembered very clearly that day, six months before, when she had first seen him on the streetcar. It was the time Georgette had so quickly snatched her out of sight. She had met him since on several occasions, but each time Georgette was with him, standing between.

Well, she had no cause for resentment; the man was certainly none of hers. Georgette, she thought, looked more beautiful than she really was. And he was very handsome indeed.

She felt sad and rather empty, as though something had gone wrong – something that she could not quite outline in her mind. Georgette had moved up the aisle without seeming to see her, but earlier she had caught his eyes and smiled at him. Livvy thought he had smiled in return.

She heard the words distantly as they drifted back to her, “I now pronounce you—”

The noise of the train was back. A woman swayed down the aisle, herding a little boy back to their seats. There were intermittent bursts of girlish laughter from a set of four teenage girls halfway down the coach. A conductor hurried past on some mysterious errand.

Livvy was frozenly aware of it all.

She sat there, staring straight ahead, while the trees outside blended into a fuzzy, furious green and the telephone poles galloped past.

She said, “It was she you married.”

He stared at her for a moment and then one side of his mouth quirked a little. He said lightly, “I didn’t really, Olivia. You’re still my wife, you know. Just think about it for a few minutes.”

She turned to him. “Yes, you married me – because I fell in your lap. If I hadn’t, you would have married Georgette. If she hadn’t wanted you, you would have married someone else. You would have married anybody. So much for your jigsaw-puzzle pieces.”

Norman said very slowly, “Well-I’ll-be-darned!” He put both hands to his head and smoothed down the straight hair over his ears where it had a tendency to tuft up. For the moment it gave him the appearance of trying to hold his head together. He said, “Now, look here, Livvy, you’re making a silly fuss over a stupid magician’s trick. You can’t blame me for something I haven’t done.”

“You would have done it.”

“How do you know?”

“You’ve seen it.”

“I’ve seen a ridiculous piece of – hypnotism, I suppose.” His voice suddenly raised itself into anger. He turned to the little man opposite. “Off with you, Mr. If, or whatever your name is. Get out of here. We don’t want you. Get out before I throw your little trick out the window and you after it.”

Livvy yanked at his elbow. “Stop it. Stop it! You’re in a crowded train.”

The little man shrank back into the corner of the seat as far as he could go and held his little black box behind him. Norman looked at him, then at Livvy, then at the elderly lady across the way who was regarding him with patent disapproval.

He turned pink and bit back a pungent remark. They rode in frozen silence to and through New London.

Fifteen minutes past New London, Norman said, “Livvy!”

She said nothing. She was looking out the window but saw nothing in the glass.

He said again, “Livvy! Livvy! Answer me!”

She said dully, “What do you want?”

He said, “Look, this is all nonsense. I don’t know how the fellow does it, but even granting it’s legitimate, you’re not being fair. Why stop where you did? Suppose I had married Georgette, do you suppose you would have stayed single? For all I know, you were already married at the time of my supposed wedding. Maybe that’s why I married Georgette.”

“I wasn’t married.”

“How do you know?”

“I would have been able to tell. I knew what my own thoughts were.”

“Then you would have been married within the next year.”

Livvy grew angrier. The fact that a sane remnant within her clamored at the unreason of her anger did not soothe her. It irritated her further, instead. She said, “And if I did, it would be no business of yours, certainly.”

“Of course it wouldn’t. But it would make the point that in the world of reality we can’t be held responsible for the ‘what ifs’.”

Livvy’s nostrils flared. She said nothing.

Norman said, “Look! You remember the big New Year’s celebration at Winnie’s place year before last?”

“I certainly do. You spilled a keg of alcohol all over me.”

“That’s beside the point, and besides, it was only a cocktail shaker’s worth. What I’m trying to say is that Winnie is just about your best friend and had been long before you married me.”

“What of it?”

“Georgette was a good friend of hers too, wasn’t she?”

“Yes.”

“All right, then. You and Georgette would have gone to the party regardless of which one of you I had married. I would have had nothing to do with it. Let him show us the party as it would have been if I had married Georgette, and I’ll bet you’d be there with either your fiancée or your husband.”

Livvy hesitated. She felt honestly afraid of that.

He said, “Are you afraid to take the chance?”

And that, of course, decided her. She turned on him furiously, “No, I’m not! And I hope I am married. There’s no reason I should pine for you. What’s more, I’d like to see what happens when you spill the shaker all over Georgette. She’ll fill both your ears for you, and in public, too. I know her. Maybe you’ll see a certain difference in the jigsaw pieces then.” She faced forward and crossed her arms angrily and firmly across her chest.

Norman looked across at the little man, but there was no need to say anything. The glass slab was on his lap already. The sun slanted in from the west, and the white foam of hair that topped his head was edged with pink.

Norman said tensely, “Ready?”

Livvy nodded and let the noise of the train slide away again.

*   *   *

Livvy stood, a little flushed with recent cold, in the doorway. She had just removed her coat, with its sprinkling of snow, and her bare arms were still rebelling at the touch of open air.

She answered the shouts that greeted her with “Happy New Year’s” of her own, raising her voice to make herself heard over the squealing of the radio. Georgette’s shrill tones were almost the first thing she heard upon entering, and now she steered herself toward her. She hadn’t seen Georgette, or Norman, in weeks.

Georgette lifted an eyebrow, a mannerism she had lately cultivated, and said, “Isn’t anyone with you, Olivia?” Her eyes swept the immediate surroundings and then returned to Livvy.

Livvy said indifferently, “I think Dick will be around later. There was something or other he had to do first.” She felt as indifferent as she sounded.

Georgette smiled tightly. “Well, Norman’s here. That ought to keep you from being lonely, dear. At least, it’s turned out that way before.”

As she said so, Norman sauntered in from the kitchen. He had a cocktail shaker in his hand, and the rattling of ice cubes castanetted his words. “Line up, you rioting revelers, and get a mixture that will really revel your riots – Why, Livvy!”

He walked toward her, grinning his welcome, “Where’ve you been keeping yourself? I haven’t seen you in twenty years, seems like. What’s the matter? Doesn’t Dick want anyone else to see you?”

“Fill my glass, Norman,” Georgette said sharply.

“Right away,” he said, not looking at her. “Do you want one too, Livvy? I’ll get you a glass.” He turned, and everything happened at once.

Livvy cried, “Watch out!” She saw it coming, even had a vague feeling that all this had happened before, but it played itself out inexorably. His heel caught the edge of the carpet; he lurched, tried to right himself, and lost the cocktail shaker. It seemed to jump out of his hands, and a pint of ice-cold liquor drenched Livvy from shoulder to hem.

She stood there, gasping. The noises muted about her, and for a few intolerable moments she made futile brushing gestures at her gown, while Norman kept repeating “Damnation!” in rising tones.

Georgette said coolly, “It’s too bad, Livvy. Just one of those things. I imagine the dress can’t be very expensive.”

Livvy turned and ran. She was in the bedroom, which was at least empty and relatively quiet. By the light of the fringe-shaded lamp on the dresser, she poked among the coats on the bed, looking for her own.

Norman had come in behind her. “Look, Livvy, don’t pay any attention to what she said. I’m devilishly sorry. I’ll pay—”

“That’s all right. It wasn’t your fault.” She blinked rapidly and didn’t look at him. “I’ll just go home and change.”

“Are you coming back?”

“I don’t know. I don’t think so.”

“Look, Livvy…” His warm fingers were on her shoulders—

Livvy felt a queer tearing sensation deep inside her, as though she were ripping away, clinging cobwebs and—

*   *   *

—and the train noises were back.

Something did go wrong with the time when she was in there – in the slab. It was deep twilight now. The train lights were on. But it didn’t matter. She seemed to be recovering from the wrench inside her.

Norman was rubbing his eyes with thumb and forefinger. “What happened?”

Livvy said, “It just ended. Suddenly.”

Norman looked uneasily, “You know, we’ll be putting into New Haven soon.” He looked at his watch and shook his head.

Livvy said wonderingly, “You spilled it on me.”

“Well, so I did in real life.”

“But in real life I was your wife. You ought to have spilled it on Georgette this time. Isn’t that queer?” But she was thinking of Norman pursuing her; his hands on her shoulders …

She looked up at him and said with warm satisfaction, “I wasn’t married.”

“No, you weren’t. But was that Dick Reinhardt you were going around with?”

“Yes.”

“You weren’t planning to marry him, were you, Livvy?”

“Jealous, Norman?”

Norman looked confused. “Of that? Of a slab of glass? Of course not.”

“I don’t think I would have married him.”

Norman said, “You know, I wish it hadn’t ended when it did. There was something that was about to happen, I think.” He stopped, then added slowly, “It was as though I would rather have done it to anybody else in the room.”

“Even to Georgette.”

“I wasn’t giving two thoughts about Georgette. You don’t believe me, I suppose.”

“Maybe I do.” She looked up at him. “I’ve been silly, Norman. Let’s – let’s live our real life. Let’s not play with all the things that just might have been.”

But he caught her hands. “No, Livvy. One last time. Let’s see what we would have been doing right now, Livvy! This very minute! If I had married Georgette.”

Livvy was a little frightened. “Let’s not, Norman.” She was thinking of his eyes, smiling hungrily at her as he held the shaker, while Georgette stood beside her, and regarded. She didn’t want to know what happened afterward. She just wanted this life now, this good life.

New Haven came and went.

Norman said again, “I want to try, Livvy.”

She said, “If you want to, Norman.” She decided fiercely that it wouldn’t matter. Nothing would matter. Her hands reached out and encircled his arm. She held it tightly, and while she held it she thought: “Nothing in make-believe can take him from me.”

Norman said to the little man, “Set ’em up again.”

In the yellow light the process seemed to be slower. Gently the frosted slab cleared, like clouds being torn apart and dispersed by an unfelt wind.

Norman was saying, “There’s something wrong. That’s just the two of us, exactly as we are now.”

He was right. Two little figures were sitting in a train on the seats which were the farthest toward the front. The field was enlarging now – they were merging into it. Norman’s voice was distant and fading.

“It’s the same train,” he was saying. “The window in back is cracked just as—”

*   *   *

Livvy was blindingly happy. She said, “I wish we were in New York.”

He said, “It will be less than an hour, darling.” Then he said, “I’m going to kiss you.” He made a movement, as though he were about to begin.

“Not here! Oh, Norman, people are looking.”

Norman drew back. He said, “We should have taken a taxi.”

“From Boston to New York?”

“Sure. The privacy would have been worth it.”

She laughed. “You’re funny when you try to act ardent.”

“It isn’t an act.” His voice was suddenly a little somber. “It’s not just an hour, you know. I feel as though I’ve been waiting five years.”

“I do, too.”

“Why couldn’t I have met you first. It was such a waste.”

“Poor Georgette,” Livvy sighed.

Norman moved impatiently. “Don’t be sorry for her, Livvy. We never really made a go of it. She was glad to get rid of me.”

“I know that. That’s why I say ‘Poor Georgette’. I’m just sorry for her for not being able to appreciate what she had.”

“Well, see to it that you do,” he said. “See to it that you’re immensely appreciative, infinitely appreciative – or more than that, see that you’re at least half as appreciative as I am of what I’ve got.”

“Or else you’ll divorce me, too?”

“Over my dead body,” said Norman.

Livvy said, “It’s all so strange. I keep thinking, What if you hadn’t spilt the cocktails on me that time at the party? You wouldn’t have followed me out; you wouldn’t have told me; I wouldn’t have known. It would have been so different … everything.”

“Nonsense. It would have been just the same. It would have all happened another time.”

“I wonder,” said Livvy softly.

*   *   *

Train noises merged into train noises. City lights flickered outside, and the atmosphere of New York was about them. The coach was astir with travelers dividing the baggage among themselves.

Livvy was an island in the turmoil until Norman shook her.

She looked at him and said, “The jigsaw pieces fit after all.”

He said, “Yes.”

She put a hand on his. “But it wasn’t good, just the same. I was very wrong. I thought that because we had each other, we should have all the possible each others. But all of the possibilities are none of our business. The real is enough. Do you know what I mean?”

He nodded.

She said, “There are millions of other what ifs. I don’t want to know what happened in any of them. I’ll never say, ‘What if’, again.”

Norman said, “Relax, dear. Here’s your coat.” And he reached for the suitcases.

Livvy said with sudden sharpness, “Where’s Mr. If?”

Norman turned slowly to the empty seat that faced them. Together they scanned the rest of the coach.

“Maybe,” Norman said, “he went into the next coach.”

“But why? Besides, he wouldn’t leave his hat.” And she bent to pick it up.

Norman said, “What hat?”

And Livvy stopped her fingers hovering over nothingness. She said, “It was here – I almost touched it.” She straightened and said, “Oh, Norman, what if—”

Norman put a finger on her mouth. “Darling…”

She said, “I’m sorry. Here, let me help you with the suitcases.”

The train dived into the tunnel beneath Park Avenue, and the noise of the wheels rose to a roar.

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