All Along, This Was What Was Supposed To Happen

A New Nation
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Jan. 20 2009 7:23 AM

All Along, This Was What Was Supposed To Happen

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Listen to Curtis Sittenfeld read Part 5 of her novella here:

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Illustration by Deanna Staffo. Click image to expand.

Late Monday afternoon, while Patrice is sitting in the living room checking her BlackBerry (the living room couch is where she slept last night—she had a feeling both she and Aunt Lettie would get more rest not in the same bed), Bruce offers to make dinner. He asks whether they eat seafood. "Some," Patrice says. He proposes clams with red sauce, which sounds fine to her—it's fish she's not crazy about—and fine to Aunt Lettie, too, when Patrice checks. Together, Patrice and Bruce walk to a grocery store on 17th and Corcoran. In addition to the clams, which he buys canned, he gets crushed tomatoes, a bulb of garlic, an onion, a bunch of parsley, a box of spaghetti, and two $10 bottles of red wine, and in the checkout line, with little discussion, they split the total. At the apartment, she sets the table while he puts water on to boil and chops the vegetables. Aunt Lettie is in the bedroom talking on her cell phone to her son Steve, and Caleb is sequestered in the other bedroom doing Patrice has no idea what, though a good bet, based on observing him so far, would be listening to his iPod.

Bruce turns on the radio on Gretchen J. Shumacher's stereo, winding the knob until he settles on a station—jazz erupts into the kitchen, dining room, and living room, which are one open space—and Patrice is struck by Bruce's ability to make himself at home here; left to her own devices, she wouldn't even change the radio station, or at least not without taking note of where it was set to before. Bruce also helps himself to Gretchen J. Shumacher's olive oil, which he uses to sauté the garlic and onions, and to her herbs, which are lined up in a cabinet. He pours himself and Patrice each a glass of wine and, while stirring the contents of the skillet, he says, "You like to cook?"

"I don't do it that often," Patrice confesses. She is finished setting the table and has taken a seat at one of the stools pulled up to the counter dividing the kitchen and dining room. "I work long hours."

"Yeah?" Bruce says. "You a lawyer by any chance?"

She laughs. "I'm pretty sure you don't mean that as a compliment." It's strange, a reminder like this of how they hardly know each other—unconnected to whether she likes him at all, she has over the course of the day become accustomed to his presence. She says, "But no, I'm not a lawyer. I do strategic planning for Comcast."

"Ah, a corporate muckety-muck."

"Somehow I haven't convinced them to put that on my business card."

Bruce smiles. "But not for lack of trying?" Then he says, "I'm a humble middle school science teacher who can't even afford HBO. Think you could look into getting us a cut-rate? I'd be Caleb's hero." 

Dryly, Patrice says, "I'll talk to my supervisor."

Bruce lifts the lid off the water, peers in, then sets the lid back in place. "Watched pots, right?" he says. "So how about the personal side of things—you married, single, attached, kids, no kids?"     

Is he hitting on her? While Aunt Lettie and his teenage son are no more than a room away, while they all await tomorrow's historical milestone? And if he is, isn't that awfully tacky? "No kids," she says. "Not married."

"Divorced?"

She shakes her head.

"Lucky you," he says. "Divorce is brutal. When Deb and I split, it took me a good two, three years to get back on my feet, and it wasn't even that I thought we should stay together. But it just shakes you to the core."

"Caleb is an only child?"

"Light of my life. He's shy, obviously, but what a great kid. My proudest accomplishment."

  Shy? Really? Patrice thinks. Not surly? But she says, "It was nice of him to share his Purell today."

"Yeah, those porta-potties kinda seemed to freak you out. You a germaphobe?"

"Not exactly."

"But maybe a little?" Bruce smiles again. She's not sure about his bushy mustache, but he has a nice smile, the smile of a man with no mean or manipulative inclinations. He's corny, but he's not stupid and, his HBO comment notwithstanding, he really doesn't seem to want anything from her except inaugural conviviality; he'd be this friendly to anyone else he and Caleb had ended up sharing the apartment with.

Before they eat, Aunt Lettie gives a rambling grace, asking Jesus to watch over the soul and spirit of Martin Luther King Jr. as well as over the Obamas, her own family, and Bruce and Caleb, and though Patrice has an inkling their dinner companions are Jewish, they seem to accept the blessing in the spirit in which it's intended. When Aunt Lettie is finished, Bruce raises his wine and says, "To tomorrow."

They all clink glasses. Aunt Lettie is having orange juice—she isn't supposed to drink because of her blood pressure medication—but Caleb actually is having wine. Though Patrice didn't say anything when Bruce poured Caleb half a glass, her surprise must have been obvious, because Bruce said cheerfully, "Studies show that teens who have alcohol with their parents have much less chance of becoming problem drinkers."

The spaghetti and clams aren't bad. For dessert, they polish off Aunt Lettie's lemon squares, and when Patrice says she'll wash the dishes, Bruce says, "I've got a better deal for you. I'll wash 'em if you keep me company."

She agrees, and he opens the second bottle of wine. (Does Aunt Lettie raise her eyebrows at Patrice before retiring to the bedroom, or is Patrice imagining it?) After the dishes are clean and Bruce has carried the trash to the dumpster behind the building, he comes back inside rosy-cheeked and says, "I have a sneaky plan. Have you ever seen the Lincoln Memorial at night?"

She shakes her head.

"How about if we let Caleb and Aunt Lettie baby-sit each other and we go for a stroll?"

"Wouldn't Caleb like to go?"

"Nah, he was already bitching about the cold today."

Is it the wine that makes her say yes? Not that she's the only one drinking tonight. As they walk through Dupont Circle, the restaurants and bars, which are allowed to stay open late for the inauguration, are crowded and noisy.

Bruce says, "One of the reasons I wanted to get you out of the apartment is I have an idea to run by you. When I was taking the trash out, I saw a grocery cart by the dumpster. Would it sound crazy if I suggested we get Aunt Lettie down to the Mall by pushing her in it?"

"What, like she's a sack of potatoes?"

"Bear with me a second," Bruce says. "It's not ideal, but when we walked to the White House today, I noticed it really took it out of her. If we're getting to the Mall early tomorrow morning, and then standing around for five hours, I'm concerned she's going to collapse. Now, have I mentioned how cool I think it is that Aunt Lettie knocked herself out to come to the inauguration? We should all have that spunk when we're her age." 

"There's no way my aunt would agree to climb in a grocery cart and be pushed along the sidewalk for two miles. Besides, don't you think the cart must be some homeless person's prized possession?"

"The back of the building is closed off. It didn't look to me like a cart that's in active use."

"But it still must belong to someone."

"Patty, for Christ's sake, it's not a family heirloom! A grocery cart is by definition stolen goods."

It is in this moment of Bruce's frustration with her that Patrice recognizes the potential wisdom of his idea. Also, the kindness of it. Why should he care if Aunt Lettie gets exhausted tomorrow?

"She might be offended," Patrice says, "but I guess we ought to try. She could use a chair to climb in, I suppose. You haven't noticed a stepladder anywhere in the apartment, have you?"

"I'll poke around when we get back."

 They both are quiet, walking down New Hampshire Avenue, and Patrice says, "I should have arranged to have a wheelchair for her, or I'm sure she's eligible for special transportation even if I'm not."

"Don't be too hard on yourself," Bruce says. "None of us knew what we were getting into here, right?" 

At Washington Circle, they turn onto 23rd Street, and the Lincoln Memorial first comes into view as they cross Constitution Avenue; they're approaching it from the side. People are milling around outside the monument as if it were the middle of a summer afternoon, and when she and Bruce have made their way around to the front, Bruce says, "Doesn't it give you goose bumps? What's his line from the Gettysburg Address—'a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.' That's the country we're meant to be, not this bullshit of the last eight years."

Patrice hesitates, then she says, "I guess I go between feeling really hopeful and really cynical. I want to be hopeful."

"What's stopping you?"

She laughs. "You mean besides common sense?

"All I know is I'd rather be optimistic and wrong than pessimistic and right."

She is on the cusp of saying, Is that from a bumper sticker? but something makes her pause. She glances at Bruce's profile—slightly bulbous nose, bushy mustache—and she thinks that maybe he has a point. It's less because it really is true than because she wishes it were that, very softly, she says, "Yeah, I'd rather that, too."

Bruce turns then, his gaze meeting hers. "Are you cold?" he says. "You look cold." There is in his voice something protective, something private even. There's probably a gesture or a comment she could make now—it wouldn't need to be much—and he'd kiss her.

She doesn't do whatever it is. She considers it, and she doesn't rule it out for later (she has then an abrupt vision of herself visiting Nebraska, deplaning with a wheeled suitcase, drinking wine while Bruce prepares their dinner, riding around in his car—is Lincoln where the Sand Hills are, or is that a different part of the state?), but she decides to hold this possibility at bay for at least a little longer.  Her brand new optimistic outlook doesn't have to be synonymous with impulsivity; she's still, after all, herself. "I'm not cold," she says. "I'm good." She gestures toward the brightly lit monument. "Should we keep going?"

****

She is hung over—hung over—on Inauguration Day. How can this be? She hasn't been hung over since business school! Yes, it's only 5 a.m. when she rises to shower before helping Aunt Lettie dress, but Patrice has no one except herself to blame for her dry mouth and pounding head. Bruce brings the grocery cart around from the back—Aunt Lettie didn't object at all when Patrice mentioned it, which seems a sign of just what a toll all this walking around is taking—and they do use a chair for her to climb into it because they never found a stepladder. She sits with her legs tented out in front of her, and at the last minute Bruce throws in a blanket for warmth, even though that means either he or Patrice will have to carry it after they ditch the cart. "You look as regal as Cleopatra," Bruce tells Aunt Lettie, and Patrice cringes, but only a little.

Although the sun hasn't yet risen as they make their way toward the Mall, already the streets are crowded—Patrice suspects a lot of these people never went to bed last night. People appear tickled by Aunt Lettie's mode of transportation. They hold up their hands for high fives or call, "Go, Granny, go!"

At the Mall, east of 14th Street, they can see the long security lines, and they decide to abandon the cart. Bruce, who couldn't be more than 5-foot-8, basically lifts Aunt Lettie out, and Patrice has a momentary panic that both he and Aunt Lettie will end up flat on the pavement, but it doesn't happen. Surely it's too much to hope the grocery cart will still be there after the swearing-in; surely, if it wasn't already a homeless person's prized possession, that's what it's about to become.

The sun rises during the hour and a half they're in the security line, which seems to increase the temperature slightly. Once they're past security, Patrice grips Aunt Lettie's wrist as they weave through the crowd on the Mall, and they finally find a place with a Jumbotron view where three of them could comfortably stand and the four of them must bunch together. "Lean on me if you get tired," Patrice says to Aunt Lettie.

An a capella group that Patrice can hear but not see is singing "We Shall Overcome," and she feels in her chest an expansive happiness, an anticipation, of the sort she probably hasn't experienced since college. Her feet are freezing. An hour passes, another hour, and then time slows to increasingly shorter increments—35 minutes there, 10 here. The closer they get to the swearing-in, the more impatient Patrice grows.

It is 10 minutes to 11, then 5 to 11, 10 after 11. Patrice wants to see Barack Obama standing there with his hand on the Bible, she wants it official, no going back, a new reality. Also, she wants to see what Michelle Obama's wearing. She wants discrimination to end, and she wants to find a spotlessly clean porta-potty to use after the ceremony, and she wants her mother, wherever she is, to know about today. Under the big sky, in the cold morning, everything mundane and sacred blends, the past and the future, the immediate and the intangible, the individual and the crowd. All of her regrets, all of her hopes.

"Aunt Lettie," she says, and when her aunt turns, she says, "Thank you for getting me here."

"Baby, you're welcome." Aunt Lettie's expression is mischievous; she's holding up well. "Janet doesn't know what she's missing, does she? Squeezed into a two-piece bathing suit, having herself a piña colada."

All around them, for as far as Patrice can see, people in hats and scarves and gloves are waiting for the Bushes and the Obamas to emerge from the Capitol building; on the Jumbotron, even the dignitaries in their fancy clothes, who have actual seats up there on the Capitol steps, seem restless. It's unmistakable, Patrice thinks. Something big is about to happen. 

Curtis Sittenfeld (@csittenfeld) is the author of the novels Prep, American Wife, and Sisterland.

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