All Along, This Was What Was Supposed To Happen
President Obama marks his one-year anniversary in office on Wednesday. As part of Slate's coverage, Curtis Sittenfeld, whose 2008 novel American Wife chronicled the personal side of politics, wrote a novella about the inauguration. Her five-part novella, published in the days leading up to the inauguration, is reprinted below. Slate's full coverage of the inauguration is here.
Yesterday, the Obama and Biden families departed by train from Philadelphia for Washington in an elegantly choreographed bit of political theater. Today, the Philadelphia train station is chaos. Patrice had anticipated as much and gotten them there more than an hour in advance of their departure time, but still, when their gate listing appears on the sign in the station center, they end up in the rear half of a long, snaking line that she checks three times to confirm is the correct one. Today is Sunday, almost 48 hours before the inauguration ceremony, so she suspects the crowds will only get worse between now and then, but already rumors are swirling that all of the trains en route from Boston and New York are overflowing. "Why don't you sit on that bench over there, and I'll hold our place?" Patrice says, but Aunt Lettie declines; she has struck up a conversation with a husband and wife behind them, a couple from West Philly who are telling her they have it on good authority from their minister that the Obamas will be acquiring a labradoodle because those are good dogs for someone with Malia's allergies. More people than not are wearing variations on Aunt Lettie's Obama apparel, hats and pins and shirts. Is anyone present not headed for the inauguration?
In one way, Patrice is reminded of the time seven or eight years ago when she agreed to join her friend Corinne in the Broad Street Run, Philadelphia's annual 10-mile road race. In the morning, as she and Corinne rode the subway to the start of the race, she kept looking around at the other passengers, all of them in shorts and spandex and race bibs, and thinking that no matter their age or appearance, they all in this moment had something in common—they had arrived in the same place, for the same reason. The difference this afternoon in the train station, though, is that unlike with the race, when she didn't care about doing anything but finishing, Patrice now feels like the people around her are her competition. They have something in common, something good, and she'll likely need to fight them for seats on the train. And maybe thisis the reason she doesn't like crowds—that they bring out her own less-than-generous impulses. She wonders again how much of an uphill battle D.C. will be, how tricky will be the logistics of hailing a cab or finding a spot on the Metro, of obtaining food; she'd intended to buy snacks for herself and Aunt Lettie, granola bars and pretzels, as well as a nice big bottle of hand sanitizer, but she ended up having to go into work yesterday and didn't get to a store.
Riding the escalator down to the boarding platform while trying to balance both her own and Aunt Lettie's suitcases on the step, she bumps the man in front of her, who says over his shoulder in a gruff tone, "Watch it." Once they're on the train, it's moving before they can find seats, and then they're in the middle of a car, being pushed from both sides by other passengers, until there is total gridlock. I knew it, Patrice thinks. But a white girl, gesturing toward Aunt Lettie's streamer-bedecked cane, says to Patrice, "Does your mom want to sit down?" Patrice gratefully accepts on Aunt Lettie's behalf. When a second girl sitting next to the first one offers her own seat to Patrice, Patrice declines, but the girl insists. She says, "We got on in Providence, so I'm ready to stretch my legs."
Of course, there's nowhere for the girls to go, so after they've stood, they just sort of park themselves in the aisle next to Patrice and Aunt Lettie, holding onto the top of the seats. "You folks from Philadelphia?" the first girl asks. She wears a navy blue bandanna that pushes back her hair and a long-sleeved T-shirt that says Got Hope? The other girl has on a sweatshirt that reads O'Bama in green letters and features a shamrock instead of an apostrophe between the letters O and B.
"I am." Patrice gestures toward Aunt Lettie. "She's from Missouri."
"Awesome," says Shamrock. "They—" she nods with her chin to the seats on the other side of the aisle "—flew in from Sweden. How cool is that? Hey, where are you guys staying?"
"Near Dupont Circle," Patrice says.
"In a hotel or with friends or what?" The girl could not possibly, Patrice thinks, be angling for a place to sleep. Could she?
"An apartment," Patrice says. "It's very small."
"Craigslist?" the girl asks, and when Patrice nods, the girl says, "That's totally what we did, too. We found a sweet place in Takoma Park—" Thank God, Patrice thinks, "—but the rates some people were charging, it's like, what the hell? Don't they have any sense of history?"
"I guess they'll charge whatever someone's willing to pay," Patrice says.
"Yeah, but $15,000 a night?" This is the other girl—Bandanna—piping up. "Don't they know there aren't any Republicans coming to the inauguration?"
Patrice laughs. She knows which listings they're talking about—five-bedroom houses in Bethesda, Md., or massive Kalorama apartments that mention stainless-steel refrigerators and Jacuzzi tubs and even maid service. Which does raise the question, if you live in a place like that to begin with, do you really need the money you'd get from renting it out to strangers? Patrice personally can't imagine what amount she'd require in exchange for allowing people she's never met to sleep on her sheets and shower in her bathroom. Granting that she's uptight, it just seems overly personal and a little unsavory.
She had never ventured onto Craigslist before two weeks ago; perhaps it was a function of her age that she'd never felt the need. After Janet mentioned that Patrice and Aunt Lettie would be staying in a place procured on the site, Patrice went online, hoping to see their actual apartment, but of course that listing had been removed. She poked around the other inaugural listings—"$2065 / 3BR – STUNNING DOWNTOWN BROWNSTONE SLEEPS 6-12," or "5 SHORT BLOCKS TO THE WHITE HOUSE"—and then, with some mix of embarrassment and curiosity, she clicked over to the "casual encounters" section of the site's personals. She'd heard about this somewhere—was it from Renee or in an article?—and it wasn't as if she were going to act on any listings, but as long as she was in the area, why not learn more about the cultural phenomenon?
Which is how she found herself sitting alone in her apartment at 10:15 at night looking at penises. Actual penises! And these were under the "m4w" heading, not even the more complicated headings that she had to pause to decipher, like "t4mw." No, in the "men for women" section, you could click on a headline as innocuous-sounding as "Looking for Fun" and find yourself gazing at a disembodied, erect male member. Were there women out there who'd be tempted by this explicit greeting? Presumably so. The world we live in, Patrice thought wonderingly, half-appalled at the seediness and half-impressed at the gumption of the individuals who'd so brazenly go after what they wanted. Patrice's own forays into online dating, which had been of the decidedly more PG-rated variety, had mostly served to remind her of the pleasures of her own company: In the last eight years, she'd been told by three separate men—two were white, and one was black—that she reminded them of Condoleezza Rice, an observation to which she'd been tempted to respond, at least to the white men, by saying they reminded her of George W. Bush.
"Hey, did you guys hear about cell phones at the inauguration?" This is Shamrock speaking. "They think they're not going to work with so many people, so they're recommending texting instead. But honestly, I wouldn't be surprised if texting barely works, either."
Patrice turns to Aunt Lettie, who has been looking out the window at the industrial corridor on the outskirts of Philadelphia. "They're talking about cell phones," Patrice says. "I was thinking we could use mine to call the family during the inauguration, but she's saying the service won't be good."
"Oh, I've got a cell phone, too," Aunt Lettie says nonchalantly.
Patrice can't conceal her surprise. "You do? Did Janet get it for you for this trip?"
"Honey, I've had this for years." Aunt Lettie removes a silver model from her coat pocket, and when she unfolds it, the screen and number pad light up. "It's how I reach Janet to pick me up from bingo."
"Do you know how to text?" Shamrock asks. "I'll show you if you want." She is leaning over them, mostly over Patrice because she's in the aisle seat, and Shamrock says to her, "Do you know how to text?"
"I have a BlackBerry," Patrice says.
To give Aunt Lettie the lesson, Shamrock and Patrice switch places. It is as Shamrock is instructing Aunt Lettie—their heads bent together, Shamrock scrolling through Aunt Lettie's phone's options—that Patrice notices on the aisle floor a backpack, presumably Shamrock's, on which a triangular pink pin reading Dykes for Obama is attached to the outermost pocket. Ah, yes. Right. Not that Patrice particularly cares, but she isn't sure how Aunt Lettie would feel about the fact that the person at this very moment helping her type "DC or bust!!!" into her phone is a proud lesbian. "Then all you have to do is hit send," Shamrock says. "Voila!"
"Bless you, sweetheart." Aunt Lettie leans over and pulls a large Tupperware container from her pocketbook (no wonder it's so heavy). She peels off the lid and extends it toward Shamrock. "You want a lemon square, baby?"
Coming tomorrow: A surprise awaits Patrice and Aunt Lettie in their Craigslist apartment.
Curtis Sittenfeld’s fourth novel, Sisterland, will be published in June.