All Along, This Was What Was Supposed To Happen
Editor's Note: In anticipation of the inauguration, Slate asked Curtis Sittenfeld, whose 2008 novel American Wife chronicled the personal side of politics, to write an original inauguration novella. It will run in five parts, concluding Tuesday.
Standing in the arrivals area of the Philadelphia airport, waiting for her 77-year-old Aunt Lettie to come into view, Patrice thinks that it's not that she wasn't thrilled about the outcome of the election—of course she was, how could she not be?—nor is it that she wasn't planning to celebrate the inauguration. It's just that she wasn't planning to attend it. She'd seen the news reports: up to 2 million people converging on the capital. Ten thousand charter buses and 11,000 U.S. troops and (this to Patrice was the biggest deterrent) more than 12,000 porta-potties. Both blessed and cursed with an acute sense of smell, Patrice has more than once, when alone and walking by a construction site, actually crossed a street to avoid passing within a few feet of a porta-potty's stench. And besides that, what would any normal person, without special access, be able to see at the inauguration? The question wasn't whether you'd have a view of the swearing-in but whether you'd even have a view of a Jumbotron.
No, Patrice was happy to stay in Philadelphia and toast history from the comfort of her own apartment. She was going to take the day off work, and so were Renee and Corinne, and the three of them were going to order in lunch and watch at Patrice's place—Patrice has the best television, a 40-inch flat screen—and probably they were going to cry a lot and intermittently pat or grip one another's hands and ponder the incredibility of it all and discuss Michelle Obama's outfit; that's pretty much everything they did on election night, except that then they ordered in dinner instead of lunch and drank champagne that Corinne had brought.
Watching the inauguration on TV with her two closest friends sounded to Patrice like a fine plan, a grand plan, even, but shortly after Christmas, her cousin Janet called from St. Louis. "You know I hate to lean on you," Janet said after they'd exchanged pleasantries and Patrice felt a gathering of dread below her sternum; Janet has never hated to lean on anyone, least of all Patrice. "William got his dates mixed up is what happened," Janet continued. "Here he arranged a romantic getaway for the two of us—and Patty, you know we haven't taken a vacation for years, just William and me—and he's so proud of himself when he tells me Christmas morning, and what do you know but the trip's the week of January 20th?"
Patrice said nothing; she still wasn't clear what exactly Janet was after.
"Well, Patty, that's Inauguration Day," Janet said. "Now, I'm sure you remember I was going to take Momma, and now I'm just in this terrible bind—"
"Have you asked Ernie or Steve?" Patrice interrupted. These were Janet's brothers.
"Oh, Ernie and his family were there in the living room on Christmas, but, Patty, he doesn't have the flexibility you do, and with Steve's kids all crazy now and you already there on the East Coast …"
Of course: Reliably single, childless Patrice—why on earth wouldn't it be her pleasure to pick up the slack for her extended family or co-workers? It couldn't be that she chose her situation, could it? To live alone at the age of 48 in a high-rise in downtown Philadelphia, to work 60-hour weeks as a senior vice president of the nation's largest cable provider, to not even own a cat? It could only be that she settled on this life because of a lack of other options, right? (Or else—Patrice knew from Janet's clumsily faux-open-minded inquiries that this was an ongoing source of speculation—could it be that Patrice was a lesbian? The answer, which she denies her relatives the pleasure of learning, is that, no, she's not.)
By this point in the conversation, Patrice had mostly tuned out her cousin—she caught a reference to Cancun as the vacation destination, as well as a few more explanations and buttery, pre-emptive expressions of gratitude—and then there was a silence, and she knew the request had formally been made. "I'll look at my calendar," she said. "I'll call you back, all right?" This, Patrice had learned the hard way, was how you declined to do a favor, or at least how she did, because when she answered in the moment, she was inclined to say yes, and once she'd said yes, she felt obligated to go through with it.
"Absolutely, you pray on it." Janet lowered her voice. "It's Momma's dying wish. Not that she's dying, but, really, Patty, that's the only way to put it, and can you blame her? I'm disappointed myself not to go, but I'm between a rock and a hard place."
Oh, really? Patrice thought. So which one is Cancun?
She walked to her living room's sliding glass door, which opened onto a narrow balcony. Her apartment, on the 17th floor of a building on Spruce Street, was less than a block off Broad, and on election night, she and Renee and Corinne had walked outside and waved down at the revelers who'd congregated on Broad after Pennsylvania was called for Obama; the celebrating was still going strong when Patrice went to bed around midnight, and it was such a wonderful sound to hear that she purposely didn't turn on her white-noise machine.
But being overjoyed that Obama had won wasn't the same as wanting to escort Aunt Lettie to the inauguration. Apart from what was sure to be the madness of Washington, there was also the fact that Patrice and Aunt Lettie had never been each other's favorites. Growing up in a duplex in suburban St. Louis, the other half occupied by her aunt, uncle, and cousins, Patrice had always known they considered her and her younger sister, Brenda, to be a bit prissy. Even as a very young girl, Patrice had been meticulous about keeping her clothes clean, and one of her earliest memories was of Aunt Lettie mocking her after Patrice declined baked beans at a family cookout for fear of spilling them on her pink pants; the youthful Patrice had also earned her relatives' scorn for not only memorizing the spelling of the word supercalifragilisticexpialidocious but for frequently offering to recite it.
Patrice and her sister's separation from their cousins was exacerbated when, at a teacher's suggestion, first Patrice and then Brenda enrolled at a parochial high school instead of the public one, which led to their attending out-of-state colleges—Wellesley in Patrice's case—which in turn led to both of them going to graduate school, Patrice at Wharton. Neither of them has lived in St. Louis since high school. Brenda has been in London for more than a decade, married to a Senegalese-French man, and they're the parents of 9-year-old twins. Patrice and Brenda's father, an electrician, died of colon cancer in 1985, when Patrice was in her second year at Wharton; when her mother, a retired nurse, developed Alzheimer's in 1998, Patrice and Brenda paid for her to live in a top-of-the-line assisted care facility in the Clayton suburb of St. Louis, and until her mother's death in 2002, Patrice flew in to visit every other weekend and arranged for the delivery of fresh flowers on the weekends she wasn't there.
As Patrice held the phone to her ear and looked beyond her balcony—her view faced south, toward the stadiums and the shipyards on the Delaware River—it was hard not to imagine what her mother would want in this situation. In her quiet way, Patrice's mother had acknowledged that Aunt Lettie could be overbearing ("Lettie speaks her mind" was how Patrice's mother would put it), but still, to her, family was family—you shoveled out their car when you were shoveling out your own, you called to see whether they wanted to go along when you were getting Saturday lunch at the Chinese buffet. Patrice's mother would be shocked, Patrice thought, if she knew neither of her daughters had even gone back to St. Louis for Christmas this year. Don't be selfish, Patty, her mother would tell her in this moment, and her mother's voice would be not nagging but calm and generous, the voice of the person who had always believed in Patrice most. A porta-potty never hurt anyone. Take Aunt Lettie to see Barack Obama.
"Let's leave it like this," Janet was saying. "You call me in a day or two after you've—"
"Wait." Even as she spoke, Patrice winced, but at least Janet wouldn't be able to see. "I'll do it," she said.
Aunt Lettie, Patrice notes with alarm when at last she comes into view on the far side of the airport's security checkpoint, is not walking; rather, she's being pushed in a wheelchair, something Patrice has never witnessed of her aunt and a detail Janet neglected to mention over the phone. Patrice swallows, steeling herself, and walks forward. "Aunt Lettie," she calls as warmly as she can manage—after all, it's not really Aunt Lettie's fault Janet dumped her on Patrice. Aunt Lettie wears large plastic glasses and a wig Patrice hasn't seen before, a short full, model with auburn highlights, and she smiles broadly at Patrice, waves, and says something over one shoulder to the airport employee—a heavyset white woman—who's pushing her chair.
As they approach, Patrice also sees that Aunt Lettie is holding her cane so it rests diagonally across her body (which means she can walk, doesn't it? because otherwise why would she still need a cane?) and that it's wrapped in alternating red and blue streamers. A large Obama pin hangs on the collar of Aunt Lettie's black wool coat—Obama grinning broadly and pointing with his index finger beneath the words "I Proudly Voted for President Barack Obama 11/4/08"—and under her coat, which is open, Aunt Lettie wears a sweatshirt featuring a Barack Obama-Martin Luther King Jr. montage. Patrice herself has acquired no Obama merchandise, not during the election or since; she just isn't much of a pin-wearer, and living in the middle of the city, she doesn't own a car on which to affix a bumper sticker.
"There she is," Aunt Lettie says loudly as she's wheeled closer. "Patty Wilson, you come here and give me a hug."
Patrice leans over, inhaling the honeyed scent of shea butter. She feels for a moment as if it's her mother she's embracing, and she must blink back tears.
When Patrice has righted herself, Aunt Lettie continues to clasp both her hands, looking her up and down, and she says, "Baby, I don't know what you're doing, but keep right on doing it! You look fabulous!"
Excuse me? Patrice thinks. Has she ever, in 48 years, been greeted this enthusiastically by her aunt?
Then Aunt Lettie says, "Patty, are you ready to go to Washington, D.C., for the celebration of our lifetimes? Patty, yes, we did! Yes, we did, baby!"
In spite of herself, Patrice giggles, exchanging amused glances with the airport employee. So apparently, all these years, all it would have taken for Aunt Lettie to be transformed into a sunnily uncritical presence was the election of a black president.
"Ma'am, we need to go downstairs to baggage claim," the airport employee says, but, unexpectedly, Aunt Lettie stands. Glancing disdainfully at the wheelchair, she says, "I don't need that thing, that's just Janet getting herself worked up. Patty, you and me, we can carry one little suitcase between us, can't we?"
Patrice nods; she is more relieved than she cares to let on that Aunt Lettie is still ambulatory. She takes her aunt's surprisingly heavy black leather pocketbook and hitches it onto one shoulder, and Aunt Lettie holds her cane in her right hand. Should Patrice tip the airport employee? She errs on the side of assuming she should, slipping the woman a $5 bill. "What was that for?" Aunt Lettie asks before the woman has moved more than a few feet away. "That's what she's paid to do, Patty. You're just a pushover like your momma."
They collect Aunt Lettie's suitcase without incident and climb in a cab to Center City; they'll have lunch at Patrice's apartment before catching their midafternoon train to D.C. They'll be staying not in a hotel but in an apartment a few blocks off Dupont Circle that Janet's son found for them on Craigslist. Patrice is trying to remain open-minded, but she is uneasy about the fact that no matter the apartment's condition, they won't have other options.
As their cab crosses the Schuylkill River, Aunt Lettie leans forward and says to the driver, "Young man, I can tell you're as excited as my niece and I are about President Obama."
"Aunt Lettie," Patrice murmurs, before she can really stop herself. Yes, the driver is black—he looks about 30—but still.
"What? He's not hiding it." Aunt Lettie points to where an Obama-themed air freshener, a cardboard rectangle with that distinctive O, hangs from the driver's rearview mirror.
The driver looks back and grins at them. In thickly accented English, he says, "Indeed, I am as excited as you are."
Coming tomorrow: Patrice and Aunt Lettie make enemies and friends on the train to D.C.
Curtis Sittenfeld’s fourth novel, Sisterland, will be published in June.