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.
Listen to Curtis Sittenfeld read Part 4 of her novella here:
They are father and son. The father, apparently, is named Bruce; the son is Caleb. They drove here (yes, drove) from Nebraska: They left Lincoln yesterday morning, stayed last night at what Bruce cheerfully describes as a fleabag motel outside Toledo, then rose today at the crack of dawn and put in another 10 hours—hence their "hitting the sack," as Bruce also puts it, before 9 p.m. this evening. They're Obamaniacs who started volunteering for the campaign back in February '07, Bruce explains, and wild horses couldn't have kept them from the inauguration. Caleb has never visited Washington. Bruce worked on Capitol Hill during his idealistic youth—more years ago than he cares to remember—but he hasn't returned in decades, and he's excited as hell to see the back end of George W. Bush and celebrate the advent of change that's been far too long in coming.
This information emerges while Patrice stands in the doorway with her arms folded; Aunt Lettie stands behind her wigless and nightgowned, peering into the room; Bruce perches on the edge of the foldout couch, above the covers, in his T-shirt and a pair of boxer shorts dotted with faded red hearts (it's not as if Patrice is looking, but the boxers are on clear display, along with his scrawny and rather hairy legs); and Caleb watches the women in a surly way before lying back down and pulling a pillow over his head. Caleb does not, to say the least, seem Obamaniacal.
Oh, and, Bruce adds, they took this bedroom because it seemed like the one that wasn't occupied, but if she and her mother would rather switch—?
There then ensues the part of the conversation when Bruce reveals that he was well-aware he and Caleb would be sharing this apartment with strangers. No mix-up occurred, no error—all along, this was what was supposed to happen. He can hardly believe what they're paying, Bruce says, but, hell, compared with some of the prices people are charging in this very neighborhood, it's a steal.
Patrice turns to Aunt Lettie—did Aunt Lettie also understand that this was the arrangement?
"Janet took care of everything," Aunt Lettie says.
"Is Craigslist a miracle or what?" Bruce is saying. "I gotta tell you, I hardly remember what any of us did before it." To her distress, Patrice immediately finds herself thinking of those penis pictures, wondering whether Bruce is the kind of man who'd post a photo like that. Is he married or single? Not, based on what she gleaned during her search, that being single is a prerequisite for posting penis pictures on Craigslist. But she merely nods in a noncommittal way as Bruce adds, "When Caleb's mom and I split up, I used Craigslist to furnish my new place for under a thousand bucks, no exaggeration. Some stuff people aren't even selling. They're just so glad you'll take it off their hands they're offering it free. With my pal Davey's truck, I was golden." This answers two separate questions, or at least sort of. "Tell you what," Bruce says, "Lemme get myself decent and come out in the living room, and we'll all have a glass of wine. Nothing a bottle of vino among new friends can't set right, eh?"
"You don't need to get up," Patrice says. "Really. I'll just move my suitcase out of here."
"No offense, ma'am, but after that blood-curdling scream, I'm not sure I could go back to sleep," Bruce says. "You don't by any chance make your living acting in horror movies, do you?"
Patrice realizes then, based on the ma'am, that she hasn't introduced herself. She says, "I'm Patrice Wilson, and this is my aunt, Miss Lettie." She pauses, and it feels like an awkward pause. Then she says, "We'll give you some privacy." She darts into the room, picks up her suitcase, and carries it out, closing the door behind her.
How it is that Bruce and Caleb end up accompanying Patrice and Aunt Lettie on their walk to the White House on Monday Patrice isn't sure, but Bruce seems to assume that now they're all in this together and it feels too decisively rude to inform him otherwise. It occurs to Patrice that he might be the type of white person who's extra-pleased to be spending time at the Obama inauguration with actual, authentic black people, or, even worse, that he might try to strike up some earnest conversation about race. (She discusses race with Corinne and Renee, of course—the irritation of still, after all these years, being mistaken for her own assistant or just the slight eye-widening in professional situations that means the other person didn't imagine she'd be black; the expectation from total strangers that she'll be their sassy, finger-snapping girlfriend; the implicit and explicit signs she sometimes gets from other blacks that with her education and job and lifestyle, she has sold out—but these are certainly not topics she'd want to chew on with Bruce from Nebraska. Although there was a brief period at Wellesley when consciousness-raising seemed heady and well worth the effort, that was a long, long time ago.)
Caleb, who is 14, speaks little, especially in contrast to his voluble father, and Patrice wonders whether he is annoyed to find himself in the company of an old woman and a middle-aged one. "If you two would rather keep moving, go ahead," Patrice says to Bruce while Aunt Lettie is a few feet away snapping pictures of the north lawn of the White House, but Bruce says, "Patty, we've got no particular agenda—just glad to be enjoying a moment of history on a historic day." He means Martin Luther King Day, though Patrice is more focused on the fact that not only does Bruce call her Patty, having ignored the way she introduced herself and instead picked up on what Aunt Lettie says, but he also addresses Aunt Lettie as Aunt Lettie. She keeps wavering on whether to correct him. While the habit seems disrespectful, she and Aunt Lettie will ride back to Philadelphia after the inaugural parade on Tuesday, meaning they'll know Bruce for only about 24 hours longer. Is taking a stance worth it?
Part of the reason Patrice wanted to come to the White House today is that it's a little closer to Gretchen J. Shumacher's apartment than the Mall is and therefore gives her the chance to find out roughly how long the walk will take them tomorrow morning and how Aunt Lettie will hold up. The answer to the former question is quite a while (an hour to go less than two miles), and the answer to the latter seems to be OK. They rested a few times along the way.
Outside the gates on Pennsylvania Avenue, a jolly throng of protestors, monitored by a cadre of police officers, is chanting "O-ba-ma! O-ba-ma!" and then they switch to "Bush, go home! Bush, go home!" Patrice wonders whether this is worth the energy, either. Bush, too, will be gone in 24 hours. Is he now packing—does a president pack any of his own possessions? His time in office has appalled but rarely surprised her; even his decisions, or lack thereof, around Katrina felt less like new information than like more evidence of what she'd already suspected.
Patrice looks at the White House's four huge Ionic columns, and above them the pediment and then the American flag; in its massive symmetry, its peculiar familiarity, the building really is a stirring sight.
"Patty, turn around and smile," Aunt Lettie says, and Patrice complies. Aunt Lettie takes no fewer than half a dozen shots of her.
"Let me take some of you," she finally says, and Bruce, who has been using his camera, says, "Why don't I take one of both of you together?"
He does, first with Aunt Lettie's camera, then with his own (perhaps to document the actual, authentic black people he has befriended?). Patrice didn't bring her camera to Washington—if they were going to meet Barack and Michelle, sure, she would have, but she guessed she'd mostly be seeing the back of a lot of people's necks.
Caleb buys a hot dog from a vendor on the corner, consumes the whole thing in about 10 seconds, then goes back to buy another. Twenty feet from them, a street performer, a magician in an Uncle Sam costume, sets up and begins his tricks, and they watch him without moving closer; the crowd that assembles in front of him soon obscures their view.
When Patrice checks around for Aunt Lettie, her aunt is facing the White House again, and Patrice is surprised to see that tears are running down her cheeks. Their eyes meet, and Aunt Lettie says, "A black family is going to live in there, Patty. Did you ever think we'd see the day? That brave man and his strong, beautiful wife and those two little girls—" Aunt Lettie shakes her head. "The world those girls will grow up in, they'll have no idea there was a time when you were told you didn't count just for the color of your skin. God bless that family, Patty."
1931—that's the year Aunt Lettie was born, and Patrice's mother was born two years later. Aunt Lettie was 23, married and pregnant with Janet when Brown v. the Board of Education was decided, 33 during the march on Washington. Patrice knows from having heard her mother talk about it that they all watched King's speech on the living room television in Aunt Lettie and Uncle Ernest's half of the duplex; Patrice was 3 and has no memory of it. And then Aunt Lettie was 37—still much younger than Patrice is now—when King was shot. Who could have imagined Barack Obama then? And Patrice thinks, as she almost always does when considering Obama's election, Let it be as good as we hope. Don't let there be some shard of horror mixed in. Let him be, at worst, unexceptional, let people criticize him in the ways and for the reasons Carter or Clinton were criticized—because they were, in the end, only men. Let Obama be an ordinary president, not a cautionary tale, not a symbol, and please, please not a tragedy.
Aunt Lettie doesn't particularly seem to be waiting for an answer, and so Patrice doesn't give one; instead, she sets her hand on Aunt Lettie's back and leaves it there for nearly a minute.
The four of them, she and Aunt Lettie and Bruce and Caleb, are crossing H Street, heading back up 16th, when Patrice spots the porta-potties—six in a row, set at the edge of the sidewalk. Walking around yesterday and today, they've passed plenty of others, but she hasn't considered using one until now. Can she hold it until they return to the apartment? Already today, when they went by a Starbucks, she looked in the plate-glass window and saw a line 20 deep for the women's bathroom.
She gestures vaguely forward and says, "If you'll all excuse me for a minute. Aunt Lettie, maybe you also need to—" Aunt Lettie nods, and while she goes, Patrice stands outside the porta-potty holding her aunt's cane, almost glad for the delay. Aunt Lettie doesn't ask for help, but she's in there a good eight minutes, during which time Patrice attempts to breathe through her nose as minimally as possible. When Aunt Lettie finally emerges, Patrice passes back the cane, squares her shoulders—she'd rather eat glass than what she's about to do—and enters the one Aunt Lettie just exited. She tries to let none of her skin or clothing touch any surface, an unlikely goal given that she's wearing a knee-length shearling coat. She lays strips of toilet paper—of course it's a thin, cheap brand and hard to tug off the roll—onto the seat and perches there. The smell from down below—human shit inadequately concealed by an industrial-strength disinfectant—is unignorable, and she starts to gag. Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, she thinks. Oh, how she hatesporta-potties. But somehow, because all moments eventually do, this one passes. She stands. To open the porta-potty's door, she bends her index and middle fingers and turns the lock with her knuckles. And then—fresh air! Thank God! She does actually gag once as she steps back into the light, but it's practically a relief-gag now that the ordeal is finished.
When she has rejoined the others, Caleb holds something out to her and says, "You want this?" She looks from his face—that distracting pierced lip—to his hand and sees that it's a clear, travel-size container of Purell. She accepts it, and when she's squeezed out a dollop, and then a second dollop for good measure, she thinks that Caleb has just become her favorite person in the world.
Coming tomorrow: Our novella concludes with inaugural smooching and political sea change.
Curtis Sittenfeld’s fourth novel, Sisterland, will be published in June.