It Begins - short story by Ramona du Houx
It Begins - short story by Ramona du Houx
Heath care promise is America's
I cupped my hands around a mug of freshly brewed coffee, waiting for Aurora’s sunrise. She’d vanished when the President-elect became a reality show host. Lost within a withering world of projected dystopian futures, I desperately wanted to reclaim my America. A part of me had been stolen from the clown-faced thief of the night, and needed to be replaced, refurbished, reconstituted. Hit in the solar plexus, betrayed by the Electoral College, I sought solace—at the top of the world. Bundled up like a polar bear I looked out over Maine’s coastal islands awaiting America’s first sun on Cadillac Mountain.
I surprised myself by how emotional I’d become, but this election had been about the world’s future, not just mine. Glad I’d put on two parkas, long underwear and a ski mask that made me look like a SEAL on a secret-op, I felt insulated from the bitter world. Relaxed in a half dream state, my mind traveled back to the last time I’d risen to commune with the sunrise.
I remembered slightly shaking in the pre-dawn chill, as I blew puff circles of forgotten thoughts into the air, and watched them drift into space. That’s when I caught sight of it, growing out of a pale blue-green band that stretched across the horizon, coating the morning’s slumber in a blanket soon to be tossed aside. As the yellow orb awoke and began her ascent over the land, she warmed my soul. Iron scaffolding, gridded together like a tightly woven scarf, reflected her light sending out rays of hope into the morning, touching a few groups huddled together in clusters of anticipation. While the sun rose higher, naked trees soaked up her heat alongside hundreds of thousands of people waiting in long lines to be processed through security. I’d wondered what it was going to be like standing in a sea of a million bodies.
“Funny,” I thought now inside the crowd’s epicenter, “it’s no different than going to a concert.” Then sniffer dogs, heavily armed policemen and Army National Guard personnel walked in front of me. “Well, a bit different,” I conceded. Walking like a penguin in a parka, I negotiated a path towards the stage to a space under a tree growing on top a slight knoll, to be directly in line with the podium in front of the Capitol. Right up against the barrier, I was as close as I could get without a VIP ticket. This was my first Inaugural, President Obama’s second. Not that I hadn’t seen him personally inspire folks before—the first time was in Denver during his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention.
I closed my eyes to give them a needed rest from rising at 3:30, and my consciousness traveled back further into the recesses of my memories, as it filled with the sights and sounds of the football stadium filled to capacity. The heat of that Colorado summer penetrated my soul as I recalled 86,000 people springing up from their seats, reaching for the heavens only to sink back down barely touching their chairs before they stood again. This endless motion, which rippled around the oval in a wave, built the more it passed through and with me. Each time I stood, warmth rose inside of me and rushed through my palms into the atmosphere where it combined with the energy of thousands of other united souls. A hurricane of circular motion surrounded the stage, only to subside as speakers and bands entertained an anxious, overexcited crowd. At times the beat from a band would engage us to pound on the bleachers, shaking the roots of this collective organic organism, building the anticipation to a breaking point. Then he entered. The collective erupted as everyone stood, booming, “Yes we can.”
His smile filled us with instant recognition connecting equally with me, the stranger next to me, the distant spec of a man waving from the top of the roof of the world— with all of us. Each and every one of us felt as though he was speaking only to them. As the hurricane energy grew in intensity, he remained cool, calm and collected. The more he spoke his storm centered soul washed over us, embracing us with his passionate words that filled our hungry beings with unabated hope. Never before had I been in the presence of someone who cares so much, that their empathy and understanding can expand through words, into the depths of the most cynical of souls and transform them into optimists.
All too soon, the speech ended and he casually walked up and down on the stage waving, never stopping being the center of the storm, the refuge for all living creatures caught in the election’s path, as he remained steadfast, unwavering, unyielding and at peace.
At my perch, on top of the world in Maine, I realized it was these qualities that would follow him and guide him throughout his presidency. My maze of memories warmed me as I sipped coffee, letting my mind travel back once more to the Inaugural.
As I nestled into my spot, while the sun’s fingers reached towards us, their sudden light made me squint compelling me to turn around. There I saw a patchwork of colors dotting the Mall, until they melted into the horizon. The closer the dots were to me, the more they turned into bodies bundled up for an arctic exploration. Closer still, their faces came in clear view, from the tiniest baby to the most world-worn seniors. The diversity blew my mind, everyone, every ethnic background was represented. This is my America, their America, and within all their eyes one thing bond us together—hope.
“So that’s what a million people looks like.”
“You bet,” said a middle-aged woman standing to my left. “Until now, it didn’t register. But seeing it . . .”
“Makes it real,” I said. “Where you from?”
“Lincoln, Nebraska. You?”
“Maine.” I reached out my three-layered mitten hand. “Mia.”
“Julie,” she said, cradling my glove.
“You’re a long way from home.”
“I suppose, but I had to come.” She pointed to a button on her coat that displayed the iconic poster of Obama on it. “I owe him.”
I tilted my head.
“He saved us.”
My eyes wanted to know more, and she eagerly wanted to tell me.
“Obamacare. When the recession hit George was laid off and all our healthcare benefits evaporated.” Julie wiped her eyes. “My husband’s a proud man” She looked into the sky likely conjuring up his memory. “Worked all his life, doesn’t want anyone’s help even if he needs it.”
“My man.” She smiled and sighed deeply. “Oh my, I’ve been sprouting off like a whistling teakettle.”
I smiled at her expression.
“Tell me to be quiet, if I’m talking too much, or if I bore you.” She smiled.
“I happy to have the company,” I said, realizing it wasn’t everyday a stranger tells you their personal things out of the blue, unless they’re not all together—together. But she seemed harmless. In fact, she was sweet, and as far as I could tell, just in need of companionship.
“Thanks. Coming to a big city can be a bit much.” She looked around. “I haven’t really had a chance to talk with anyone, but the taxi driver.”
“Well, now you’ve got me.”
The wrinkles on her face faded as she relaxed. “Isn’t this amazing. I’ve never been with so many united people.”
She laughed. “Oh, please excuse me, sometimes modern expressions to me seem radical.” She rubbed her mittens together for warmth, and so did I. “It’s such a trusting crowd, I can’t help wonder how often that happens.”
“Now you’ve mentioned it, I’ve only experienced anything like this once.” As I described my adventure seeing Obama give his historic nomination acceptance speech, Julie absorbed my words like a sponge.
“Far out,” she exclaimed.
“That’s an expression, I don’t get,” I said as she smiled. “But thanks for listening.”
“No need for thanks. The way you told it took me there, that’s why it’s far out.”
“Ah.” I smiled, encouraged that I might have story telling skills. “Julie, you started to tell me about George, your proud breadwinner.”
“And love of my life.” She took a deep breath looking off into the distance. “You have to take into account he’s never been further than two counties over. He’s comes from a traditional rural farming family.” She looked into my eyes. “I don’t want you to get the wrong impression of him. He’s a good man.”
“There’s no way you’ll ever give me the wrong idea about him,” I said, placing my arm on hers.
“Alrighty then, it took months for me to get him to start to understand that my working wasn’t the same thing as saying he couldn’t provide for me. At one point it got so bad, I forgot how to laugh.” Her eyes became watery, my eyes questioned. “I know it sounds strange.” She paused looking at a little girl waving at her, and she waved back. “It’s funny how folks take little things like laughter for granted,but it’s often those little things that make living worthwhile.” She blew her nose.
Her mannerisms, her directness, her spirit reminded me of so much of my mom before she died, I found myself becoming attached.
“My first day, as a secretary, someone made a joke and I laughed so hard . . . it’s a wonder they didn’t let me go.”
I hugged her and she returned the warmth. “Is George okay, you’re working?”
“He hates it.” She put on a brave smile. “But he loves to eat.”
I put my arm around her shoulder as her eyes smiled at me.
“When he got a temporary highway construction job, with Obama’s stimulus, I thought the rainbow landed on our home. He was so happy. You should’ve seen him.” For an instant, years of age melted away and a light shown in her eyes. “Overnight he turned into the man I’d married twenty-two years ago.” She beamed, but her smile soon turned into a pained expression. “Six months after the job ended, he got sick . . . he lost so much weight.” Her eyes welled up.
Suddenly the sun enveloped the Capitol’s roof entirely, and welcoming warm hues spread over the souls who’d traversed America to witness history.
“And so, it begins,” she said taking in the sun’s rays.
“Sorry, it’s a family saying. Every morning, as the sun rose my mom would say, ‘and so it begins.’ Then all eight of us kids would tuck into a hearty breakfast, and I mean hearty, and get going on our chores before school. Mom said the sun was our true provider and gives us a sense of belonging. She’d say, ‘start the day like the sun, for it’s always a new beginning with no end.’”
I looked puzzled.
Julia laughed. “I thought she was nuts growing up, but when I got older, I began to understand.” She pulled an apple and made a fist with her other hand. “Imagine this,” she nodded to her fist, “is the sun.”
“And the apple, earth?”
“You got it.” She moved her apple around the fist. “The sun rises at different times across the globe, so it’s technically always rising and never sets—depending on how you view things.”
“George and I still live on the farm and every day we say, ‘and so it begins’ to each other, watching the sunrise. Since George has been ill, it’s come to mean much more.” She wiped her eyes. “Dear me, getting up so early makes me too emotional.” She closed her eyes and together we soaked up the sun’s warmth. “It won’t be dawn at home for hours. But he’ll be watching.” She bent down pulling out a bright yellow hat from her backpack, that read, Yes We Did. At the bottom was a farm knitted into it, with a sun rising over its silo. “He wants me to put it on for the speech. Says, he’s sure to spot me. Imagine that, in this crowd.” She smiled broadly. “He’s a romantic at heart.”
“Put it on,” I encouraged.
“Alrighty.” It fit snuggly over her blue knit hat.
“Looks great. I hope you don’t mind me asking, but is George okay?”
Suddenly, I was being bear hugged. “Thank you, so many folks shy away from hearing about cancer.” My heart sank, remembering what it’s like losing someone you love. “Don’t look so sad. He’s in remission and if all goes well,” she looked at the sun, “he’ll continue to be fine. Only time will tell.” She dove back into her labyrinth backpack full of hidden goodies. “Here, have an organic, whole-wheat turnover with apple-cinnamon filling.” She thrust it in my direction and magically pulled out a thermos of coffee and poured me a cup.
“Thanks, you’re a life-saver.”
“Don’t be silly, you remind me of our daughter. I had no idea how I was going to spend six hours waiting.” Julia tilted her head. “Are you by yourself?”
“Clare’s here.” I pointed to the sea of people growing exponentially. “Out there somewhere.”
“No young man?”
I felt my face flush, shaking my head. “Haven’t been as lucky as you.”
“For me, it wasn’t love at first sight, you know. We’ve had our ups and downs, but George is the real thing.” She looked off into the crowd, but I could tell all she could see was him.
“Was George smitten from the get go?”
“Sure was, after he got over being tongue-tied, I got to really know him. Then the mad rush of hormones took over, kids came, well, the rest is our history.”
“How’d you know it was love?”
“Comes a time when you can’t imagine a day without your man.” She smiled, as she reminisced. “During our annual family 4th of July picnic, I remember watching him with our kids. The way they played together, and when they misbehaved the way he’d put them right. The way he’d joke . . . and how he could adapt with all the crazy kinds of things that can happen at a picnic. That day, I truly saw how special he is. That night, I tried to imagine what the day would’ve been like without him, and I knew I couldn’t live without my best friend. It got me thinking and I realized I’d loved him longer than I knew, going back our courting time.” She wiped her eyes and looked deeply into mine. “You’ve been there.”
Stunned, I didn’t say a word. I’d worked so hard to cover the tracks of my broken heart, so hard to disguise my shame. I wondered how I could still be so transparent.
I tried to ignore her for a bit, popped a fresh piece of gum in my mouth and rolled my shoulders. While warm-up acts worked with the sun’s ascent, layers of clothes peeled off. Eventually, we had to nestle up against the tree to make a path for some shorter folks, welcoming them to stand in front of us. By now, we were like marbles at the bottom of a glass jar standing shoulder-to-shoulder, as every empty space became occupied with added sand. Miraculously, everyone remained in buoyant even excited. I stepped on many a shoe accidently, surprised their occupants only smiled back.
My mom always knew when I was hiding something. She’d corner me into a confession, which always upset me, but ultimately helped me see myself better. That’s what Julia had done. I smiled at my temporary surrogate mom, letting her back into my life.
Her eyes smiled back. “Don’t you think it’s amazing folks wear their experiences, in their soul expressions?”
“Take a look at the couple over there.” She pointed out a millennial pair with their heads together, taking a selfie. “Now, over there.” She redirected me to another couple, also taking their portrait but they were gazing into each other’s eyes while clicking the shutter. “The one’s locked in love’s gaze, have a far better chance.”
“Probably right,” I said.
“Eyes and how you direct them tell so much,” she explained. “When I told you about George, your eyes told me you’ve experienced love. It’s not anything to be ashamed of—you’ve been blessed.”
“Didn’t feel that way.”
“And it still doesn’t, I know.” She sighed and stared at a lone hawk-circling overhead. “George wasn’t my first love.”
My eyebrow rose, questioning.
“George’s best friend. We were engaged, but he knew George would be devastated if we married, so he broke it off.” I felt my heart miss a beat. “In hindsight, I’m glad he had the courage to do it, although at the time I felt like a discarded rag doll.” She looked at me with sympathy.
“How’d he know, George loved you?”
“He saw it in his eyes.”
Stunned, I fell silent. “How could she know what happened to me?” A part of me wanted to console her, but I was hesitant, suspiciously wondering what the chances were of meeting a stranger, that shared the same kind-of love experience. Was it just a coincidence?
I wiped my eyes remembering the empty pit in my stomach that lasted for months, while I pretended to listen to James Taylor’s You’ve Got a Friend. The endless lonely moments, the lack of motivation to do anything, still haunted me. I couldn’t face the future, any future. Eventually that frail emptiness turned into determination to do something with my life, and to never trust a man so entirely. When Benoynce hit the stage, I let her words wash through me, empowering me. That’s when I realized I’d transferred my distrust for Bill to Julia. Would I ever be free of him? I looked at Julia questioning, what is coincidence? Perhaps, people with similar stories are destined to meet.
“It really happened,” said Julia, reconnecting. “That’s how I recognized your kindred soul.”
“Does it get any better?”
“One chapter doesn’t always write our future.” Her eyes smiled. “Over time, it will make you stronger, the more you understand what happened.”
I thought I already did, but I registered her advice while we let the music relax us in the crowd’s embrace. “Is everyone in Nebraska like you?”
She laughed. “I’ve never been shy.”
“But, well . . .”
“I do speak differently, I know, but that’s one thing George loves.”
“I like how you talk, it’s . . .”
“My frankness.” She looked at the sea of buoyed heads. “Sometimes I am, sometimes not. But here we all like minded. I feel safe. So,” her eyes sparkled. “I’m being freer than I would back home.”
“But how’d you know about me?”
“Watching the sunrise daily, has given me strengths in ways I can’t explain.”
“Well, she always reminds me we’re only temporary caretakers of the land, so we best get done as much as we can, and be as direct as she is, when we can.”
“I’ve Cheyenne blood. Long ago I embraced many of their ways, although I’m sure I’m not a true to my ancestors as I could be. It’s important to look after Mother Earth, our families, friends, ancestors, and community.”
“We’re our brother’s and sister’s keepers.”
“Yes, I knew you’d understand.” She smiled. “That’s why I love to share special times with people, thank you. It would’ve been too hard for George.”
“I’m psyched you’re here.”
Her eyes welcomed me. “Why isn’t Clare with you?”
“She wouldn’t get up before sunrise.” I smiled. “But I had to be close enough to see him, you know, be in his presence.”
“Same goes for us,” said a voice to my left, emanating from a Pillsbury doughboy snowsuit. “I’m Jerry.” He put his arm around another man. “This is Dave.”
“We came four years ago but couldn’t get through the wall of people, so we had to watch way down the Mall, on one of those screens.” Jerry pointed to the massive video rectangle, to the side of the stage. “The people were awesome; the atmosphere took us over the rainbow, but we couldn’t see him.”
“So, we’re back,” said Dave. “This time hoping that he’ll say something about . . . well, about making our relationship legal.”
Time passed swiftly, as we talked and polished off Julie’s goodies. Then we moved on to the second course, Dave’s soup, bread and cheese. I felt bad that all I could offer was sugar-free gum, but they said it was plenty for a college student. After a while, I tuned out of our group conversation, taking in the overall community celebration atmosphere.
I was grateful, propped up against the tree that had witnessed countless other inaugurals, a lookout watching our democracy’s transition of power, infused with the hopes and dreams of those who had stood here, before me. As her roots had grown, so had we.
I peered out into the moving landscape that undulated with people still finding their places, looking like a garden blooming with red, white and blue blossoms. Every kind of American had gathered here to celebrate our four-year peaceful ritual. My soul was overwhelmed with wonder. “So,” I thought, “a million equality-minded folks are love.”
I caught sight of some of the VIP’s greeting each other. Some gentlemen, in full uniform, where being honored by celebrities, regaled with hugs and praise. Tuskegee Air Men. A wealth of emotion stirred in me, as I wondered what it must have been like to fight two battles at once. It was up to them to gain the respect as black men from a country, which had only allowed them the official right to fight in combat because of Roosevelt’s Presidential decree. Their record of bringing down Nazi planes was unsurpassed. But when they returned home, they had no parades in their honor, no official recognition, no employment offers, and no true voting rights. Now, after all they’d been through, they were to bear witness to a black president’s second inaugural. Although, they’d attended his first, this time was different. This time the knowledge that both their battles had finally been won was confirmed, for the nation had reelected a black man. This was no fluke.
When the President took the stage a million claps and cheers rolled through me, and with me, lifting me up, while spreading throughout the land. He stood humble, yet proud, taking in history.
When he started to speak the crowd was silenced listening to his broadcast along the Mall, allowing a tidal wave of enlightened words entrance to our souls.
“We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity. We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations . . .”
My heartbeat faster as my face flushed in excitement. He did it, he affirmed to the world one of my deepest worries and confirmed that we must take action to stop global warming. No President had dared to speak this truth, until now. For me this, with the crowd’s backup applause, meant there was real hope for humanity.
“We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths—that all of us are created equal—is the star that guides us still . . . just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear . . . that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul.”
“Bound to the freedom of every soul,” I repeated in my mind, grafting the words to my memory.
“Our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts.”
Our eyes welled up, and the roar of thousands echoed in a wave down the Mall.
“Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law.”
Dave’s jaw dropped, and Jerry’s tears blessed the ground as the audience boomed.
“For if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.” The couple embraced, kissed and leapt slightly into the air with tears streaming down their faces.
“Did you hear?” asked Jerry turning to us. Feeling my emotions take over I cried, and swung my arms around them. Julia huddled with us. United, we let the love of a million souls begin to heal years of injustice.
“You and I, as citizens, have the power to set this country’s course. You and I, as citizens, have the obligation to shape the debates of our time—not only with the votes we cast, but with the voices we lift in defense of our most ancient values and enduring ideals . . .”
I felt a lump in my throat as a thundering applause echoed in my mind merging with his words— “shape the debate with our voices in defense of our values and ideals. Julia and I embraced and turned to hear, “Embrace with solemn duty and awesome joy what is our lasting birthright.”
We exchanged contact information, blissfully still under his spell.
Dazed, yet enthralled we streamed towards subway lifted up by each other, the moment, our country, our President. Everyone was in a dreamy state of existence. Locals were supper helpful giving out thousands of directions to temporary homes, while millions of souls across the nation were letting the speech sink in, gaining an awakening understanding of their home and the path we all were on.
“What’d you think?” asked Clare, while we waited for the waitress. I barely heard her, still thinking about the America spirit he inspired, written on the hundreds of thousands of faces that were stowed away in the chambers of my mind. Gazing out the window I saw the Capitol all lit up. But now, the scaffolding looked like prison bars and formed dark shadows that cast specters on the dome. Lady Liberty stood with her sword by her side, a silent frozen sentinel on top, waiting to be freed. I knew without a majority in the House, Obama wouldn’t be able to get critical laws passed. I felt chilled.
“You sure you’re okay?”
“Not mad at me?”
“No, why should I be?”
“I didn’t get up.”
The waitress arrived. “Can I get you ladies some drinks to start?”
“Hot coco, please,” I said accepting a menu.
“Water,” said Clare.
The door swung open, and personnel from every branch of the service rushed in, like a burgeoning river meeting the sea, and flooded the vacant tables. Seated, they calmed.
“The mad rush before the ejaculation of manhood, just how Max had sex,” whispered Clare. “Men in uniform, they’re all the same.”
“Depends if the uniform wears the man or the man wears the uniform,” I retorted. “One army sergeant doesn’t represent an entire army, or all the other branches.” I put my hand over hers. “I know he hurt you but . . .”
Clare’s hand shot up and the waitress zipped over and amiably put my hot coco in front of me.
“That’ll warm you up, honey.”
“Thanks,” I said, “It’s been quite a day.”
“You were there?”
“Must have been amazing, gave me chills even in here.”
“It was rad,” I said thinking of Julie.
“Two margaritas, please,” interrupted Clare.
“Coming right up.” She vanished to the bar.
I watched Clare glare at some army guys. Her pre-existing condition mentally towards service men wasn’t only because of Max. I don’t know where it began. All she’d say was that she simply believed in peace and “they” represented war.
“Seems we chose the wrong restaurant,” huffed Clare.
“Simmer.” The drinks arrived just in time. “So, what looks good?” I perused the menu.
“Not the company.”
I glared at her over the menu’s top. “Get over it.” I wasn’t going to let her scar my day, not that she meant too, but sometimes she couldn’t help herself.
Surprised, she took a long drink. “Humm, lasagna.”
I picked up my drink.
“Cheers,” we said in unison.
Clare smiled. “So, tell me what’d you think?”
“It’s not easy.” I briefly closed my eyes, visualizing the sea of people. “It was being there, being a part of it, seeing him move a million people. That’ll always be embedded in my memory. But that doesn’t describe what I felt, the emotions that lifted us . . . the people . . .” I smiled. “You?”
“It was cool being part of history, watching folks as they listened.” Her matter-of-fact tone surprised me. “But I worry about those reverent expressions.”
“Why? It’s part of a President’s job to inspire.”
“I suppose, but they were enraptured. He became the embodiment of a persona, who they’ll expect miracles from. That’s dangerous.” She covered her mouth. “Hey, I guess I am a philosophy major.”
“That you are.” I tilted my head. “But he’s reached millions of people who voted for the first time, that’s got to outweigh your fears.”
“Inspiration is one thing, but if he can’t deliver, we’re going to be in trouble.”
“But he already has with Obamacare, the recovery act, avoiding a Great Depression, saving the auto industry . . .”
“Mia, I know. I get it. What I’m saying is, whoever comes after Obama will never be able to meet his auditory splendor. Speakers like him don’t come along every day.” She looked around the room and then at the TV that was replaying inaugural highlights. “If you ask me, we, as a people, are too attached to the showmanship.”
I took a drink, processing her words.
“We’re always looking for a speech delivered by a great sage, rather than the content of their policies.” We watched the reactions on people’s faces glued to CNN, watching Obama inside the box hovering over the restaurant like an angel.
“They want a god?” I asked.
“Or the son of a god.” She winked. “They should know all his achievements you mentioned, as well as how he improved our status around the world.” She sighed. “But they probably don’t.”
“You’ve got a point,” I agreed. “But they must know its policies that bring about change, not speeches.”
“Some might, I think you give folks too much credit.” She took a deep breath. “I worry that this willful ignorance blinds. They simply don’t see that the cards are stacked against him. Too many still expect miracles from Obama, and that’s not fair to him or our democratic process.”
Sometimes Clare could stun me. “Sure, you aren’t the political science major?”
She smiled pleased and congratulated herself sipping her brew.
I looked around the room and then at passers by walking down the sidewalk towards the glowing dome of the Capitol’s guiding light. “But today he called on us to take part in our democracy.”
“You and I actually listened.” She looked at the bar. Those who were watching the box, couldn’t hear a thing over the loud rolling conversations. “But who here, did? They aren’t now. And if they did then—will they take part?”
“I get what you’re saying. Reagan was an actor, Clinton gave a great speech. Recently, we look for icons to give us divine guidance.”
“But our nation wasn’t built by orators,” I said. “Jefferson was horrible, yet he wrote a document that endures more than his presidency. It’s our North Star.”
“Point taken.” She took a drink.
“Our nation was set up to make sure we work together. It relays on that in order for us to govern—not on speeches.”
“True but . . .”
“Excuse me ladies,” interrupted the waitress. “As you can see, we’re packed and these gentlemen,” she waved her hand towards the entrance at two men decked out in their Air Force Blues, “they’ve worked all day at the Inaugural.”
“We’ve got two spare seats,” I said. Clare’s eyes flared, at me.
“Fantastic.” She smiled politely in their direction and they started their journey to us. She put her hand on my shoulder. “Thank you.”
“We’d love the company.”
The waitress smiled, and went back to her duties.
“It’ll be fun.”
Clare polished off her drink.
“Two more for the ladies, and two whiskey-sodas,” said the Lieutenant. “Thank you so much for rescuing us.”
“Empty chairs share no secrets,” I said, as I waved to them to sit.
“We’ll happily fill them,” said the dark brown haired, wide-eyed officer. “But we’re bound to hold on to our secrets.”
“Not the personal ones, surely?” asked Clare.
“You sure about this Don?” asked his Asian American buddy, raising an eyebrow.
“I’m Mia, this is Clare.”
“I’m Don,” he extended his hand and I shook it wholeheartedly.
His friend bowed. “I’m Lee.” He kissed Clare’s hand, despite her eyes were steely.
“Mia’s an unusual name, it’s beautiful,” said Don.
“Her mom screamed, ‘Cara Mia,’ over and over when giving birth,” said Clare.
“The Mia stuck,” I said.
“Glad it did, it suits you,” said Don.
Clare rolled her eyes, while I buried my face in the menu as drinks arrived.
Don raised his glass. “To America.”
The toast centered our eyes on the glasses, bringing us together. I watched every motion slow to a snail’s pace and the room’s chatter vanish, as the glasses greeted each other with just enough emphasis to click without spilling, ensuring safe passage to our waiting lips. As soon as I took a sip the commotion returned, but I noted Clare’s face had softened.
“Are you stationed here?” I asked.
“For the time being,” said Don. “It’s our first Inaugural, bit different from our last duty.”
“Where was that?” asked Clare.
“Doing what?” pressed Clare.
“A little sun bathing, sand dune trekking, and camel shooting before slicing up natives,” said Lee. “You know, the usual.” Clare had to smile; it was her brand of humor.
“Communications,” blurted out Don, not wanting to be misinterpreted. “We’re communications specialists.”
“I could tell,” said Clare. “What do you think of our President?” I kicked her leg slightly under the table.
“We’re proud to serve our Commander in Chief,” said Don, sitting up straighter.
“Really?” she pursued.
“Well then, what looks good on the menu?” I asked.
“Really,” said Lee. “We take an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”
“So, political opinions don’t get involved?” asked Clare.
“We follow orders, from the President on down,” said Don. “Opinions are for off-duty discussions.”
“Do you ever follow orders you don’t want to?” persisted Clare.
“You’d be surprised how many of us didn’t want to go, but did their duty in Iraq,” said Don.
“Did you?” I asked.
He nodded and pointed to one of many symbols on his uniform. “That’s what this is for.”
He had so many badges, I clumsily pointed to another. “What’s that one?”
“Nothing really, they’re handed out for every little thing.”
“Don’t let him kid you. He saved our asses, excuse my language, when he spotted an IED.” He looked at his friend. “I’d be in ten thousand little pieces, if Hawkeye hadn’t seen it.”
“Nothin’ you wouldn’t have done,” said Don.
“’Cept you did it, and then this guy tackled me and two others to the ground, to protect us as it went off.” Lee raised his glass. “To Hawkeye.”
The modest Lieutenant blushed and quickly counter-raised. “To our brothers and sisters.”
After we took a sip Clare rolled her eyes, but this time Lee wasn’t going to let her escape.
Clare shook her head. “Sorry, I meant no disrespect, I just don’t buy this brothers and sisters in arms, thing.”
“We were just toasting our biological brothers and sisters,” said Lee innocently.
“Now, you must be thinking, he’s Asian so he’s got a huge family, right?” asked Lee.
“But,” piped in Hawkeye wanting to put the record straight once more, “neither of us have any biological siblings.”
Clare stared at Lee, not letting him off the hook. “So, what’s this, brothers in arms thing?”
“So, you’re at college?” asked Lee.
“Yeah,” said Clare.
“Bet your dorms have tight quarters.”
“So, you eat and socialize with the same people year after year. I imagine it’s a blast.”
“Sure, what’s the point?”
“It’s no different than us, except the reality of what a blast means to us.” Lee took a drink, and locked eyes with Clare. “Would any of those classmates put their life on the line for you?”
We fell silent.
“He’s just saying, we’re trained to have each other’s back under the worst circumstances,” said Hawkeye breaking the chill. “So, we naturally develop lasting bonds.”
“Like family,” I said.
“Exactly.” Don lifted his glass. “To lasting peace.”
“Peace?” asked Clare
“We prefer it to war, don’t you?” asked Lee.
Clare finally had met her match. “To peace.”
As we took a long drink, I admired Hawkeye’s diplomacy and smiled. “Your nickname suits you.”
He blushed. “If only I could be as good a man, as Fennimore Cooper described.”
“I thought he meant the Hawkeye from M.A.S.H.,” said Clare.
“Both, and neither” said Lee. “Cooper’s man with a warrior’s spirit, the doctors with his compassion. But neither as he is his own man.”
“Enough, I just did my job,” said Don, clearly embarrassed as he toyed with his fork. “It’d be sweat, if I could write something like M.A.S.H.”
“The book, movie or series?” I asked.
“There wouldn’t be anything without the book,” said Don putting his hand to his chin. “But it’s the series that wins me over.”
“You know the author . . .” started Clare.
“Hooker?” asked Hawkeye.
“Yeah, he lived in Maine, it’s where we’re from,” said Clare.
“Seriously, we were based there,” said Lee. “In Brunswick, near Bowdoin College. Know it?”
Clare and I looked at each other. “Small world,” I said.
She turned to Lee. “We’re seniors there. Hooker went there.”
They’d plowed through Clare’s anti-military wall sending ice sheets of misconceptions down the Potomac River, to be consumed by the ocean.
“What can I get for you?” asked the waitress licking her pencil.
“Today, the gentlemen go first.” Clare bowed her head to Lee.
Lee returned the gesture. “Lasagna, and a bottle of your best red.”
“Scallops,” said Don.
Clare and I smiled at each other as the mystery of coincidences had grown expediently. The meal was extraordinary. The scallops melted in my mouth, and the sauce accented it like a soft layer of sunlight, tantalizing my taste buds with hidden secrets. I marveled how the atmosphere, and company affected my senses.
Concerned about our budget Clare and I had previously decided not to get dessert, so when the waitress appeared placing the house specialty chocolate mousse in front of us all, I feebly tried to stop her, but she winked at me and whispered, “Don’t worry about it, honey.” Then she popped a bottle of champagne. “The party at the corner table,” she nodded her head towards the back of the restaurant, “have paid for you all, and wish to express their gratitude for your service.”
Don and Lee stood raising their glasses to our benefactors. In turn the mysterious patrons put their hands together in front of them, and then placed one hand over their hearts, bowing their heads.
“Does that happen to you a lot?” asked Clare.
“Depends where we are. In D.C., a couple times,” said Lee. “I never get used to it. We’re only doing our jobs.”
“It always reinforces my belief in the American people.” Don looked out the window, taking a deep breath. “Once, when I’d just returned from Iraq, I was eating my first stateside meal when,” he cleared his throat, “well, it was the best welcome home ever.”
Sitting on top of Olympus looking out over the landscape sat the proud statesman, who most likely would have been uncomfortable being placed in such a lofty position, carved out of marble. Yet, he never could have known how important this place would become to our nation’s consciousness. Echoes of Martin Luther King speech still rang out from here, and seemed to pass through me, fortifying my connection to the nation’s soul. This was where King proclaimed that his dream would one day become America’s reality.
I had opted to see D.C.’s monuments at night with Don, while Clare dawned her Cinderella slippers to dance the night away with Lee, at one of balls. As we ascended higher, I realized Lincoln was looking directly at us, connecting with all those who came to greet him. Somehow the warmth within his eyes gripped me. His soul’s struggles, and unwavering belief in the promise of our country and people had been empathically carved into his demeanor.
“Wasn’t he something?” asked Don, while we walked around the statue’s base.
“Sure was. I wonder how the artist . . .”
“Captured his essence?” finished Don.
“Yeah,” I said, analyzing the folds in his face that depicted inner emotions as his soul emanated from his eyes. The boyish wisp in his hair brought out his determined, unconventional spirit, and hinted of his wit. He’s wise aged face, showed his trials making our nation whole.
Don drew a deep breath, as if he were taking in Lincoln’s presence. “A great Republican.”
“The last one of yours.”
“Wooh, I never said I was a Republican.”
“I’m aligned with my Democracy. Lincoln represented what I believe, so did F.D.R., Ike.” He smiled. “And Obama.”
I blushed in the towering figure’s light.
“You know, if Lincoln were alive today, he’d probably be labeled as a Democrat,” said Hawkeye.
I thought for a bit. “You’re probably right, and I apologize for assuming your political affiliation is right.”
He smiled. “No worries, I love puns too. But that was . . .”
“A bit too much or not enough?”
“What do you think?”
“I think Lincoln believed politics is about people, about their rights to live, work and thrive in harmony—in peace.”
“Right.” He winked. “So, choosing who represents you the most is our responsibility. To vote is our moral obligation.” Don looked me in the eyes, as he put his arm around my shoulder and guided my vision with a slight movement of his hand and gaze towards Lincoln’s continence. “He swept our path clear.”
“Never thought of him as a janitor.”
“But he might have said that about himself,” said Hawkeye with a glint in his eye. “He was so modest, and throughout it all remained that way.”
“If he’d turned into an egotistical monster, we wouldn’t have won the war.”
“That was bad.”
“True, couldn’t help myself.” He took my hand, looking at the statesman in awe. “But it was hard on him to see the country torn. Maybe he found solace in Shakespeare, and the bible.”
“Maybe, good thing they filled his pockets, his hands were too full.”
“I’m just thankful he kept our humanity intact.”
The statues garments flowed like liquid at every juncture making the solid formation fluid. Waves of history swept through us, taking in his presence. But a north wind began to whip around, forcing us to retreat to the steps.
“How come you know so much about Lincoln?” asked Hawkeye.
“I’m a poli-sci/lit major.”
“No really.” I felt my heartbeat faster. “Why’d you join the Air Force?”
“Always loved Snoopy’s epic fights with the Red Barron.”
“Actually, I’m a history buff.”
“Really? I couldn’t tell.”
He smiled. “Long story, short, history got me hooked on our nation.”
“No father, uncle, distant cousin in the service?”
“Maybe a cat, definitely a dog.” We smiled. “I’m the first in my family.”
“I’m not the professor type.” We stopped and locked eyes. “Have you ever considered why firefighters, policemen or some politicians serve?”
I shook my head. “Not really.”
He glanced up at Lincoln compelling me to do the same. “He knows why. There’s no higher calling.”
“You really love this country.”
“You bet, we put our lives on the line for our democracy—wouldn’t you do the same for something you love?”
Walking down the stairs, I stopped and turned around for one last look. As the lights illuminated Lincoln, I felt him reaching into my being, touching the “better angel” of my nature. That woke me up. I’d never fully realized, I too love my country. Maybe, until I met Don, I never possessed the courage to admit it. But after Lincoln, I’d never deny it.
Everyone coming and going became silhouettes in the crisp night, merging together like a sea of leaves floating to the earth. Cast in the night’s purple hue all races turned into one, as the statesman for all time watched over us.
Clouds, covering me in a massive quilt of memories, began to dissipate as the pale pre-dawn dance began. I stretched my legs, and rubbed my arms while taking long deep breaths. Whenever a major decision confronted me, I’d come here. This mountain of creation’s embrace always helped me put my plight into perspective. She made me see the vastness of time, and that no matter how small I maybe, I had a role to play. But, most of the time, I was clueless to my path.
Oranges and pinks merged in the dawn coating the clouds, sculpting a cast of personalities in place. The male-faced Justices on this ethereal Supreme Court viewed me, determined to decide my fate. Then Aurora broke through, softening their countenances with warmer hues that melted their predispositions. Now the Justices’ became supporting actors to the orb, while she began her ascent. Her path always clear, yet always shifting within the seasons of the universe. Her hands held my face, reminding me the dawn is always rising on America, reminding me that my path had always been clear, but I’d failed to see the alignments contained within a mind still forming experiences.
Julia and Don had managed to reawaken me to love’s possibilities. The kind of love I usually took for granted, the love of family, friends, and community. They were my brothers and sisters in arms.
“In arms, against what enemy?” I asked Aurora.
I looked into the center of her soul, and a flash of a memory during the Inauguration flooded my mind. All of us, listening, soaking up the song of hope—they were also my community. That too was love, love for country and one another—a love worthy of fighting for. I remembered Don’s words, “we put our lives on the line for our democracy—wouldn’t you do the same for something you love?”
My path was becoming clearer but still undefined. Julia said she’d liked the way I told a story, I’m a literature major and political geek. Maybe, this isn’t rocket science.
I remembered the betrayal I’d felt when Bill left me, the same emptiness hit me last November after the election was called.
When President Reagan said in an Inaugural address, “Government is the problem,” he sent us on a course that progressively worsened. A path that was broadcast though multiple media platforms. A path that was embraced by a dissatisfied populous, that created the locust swarm that morphed and formed into the persona of a megalomaniac, narcissistic reality show conman. Government can be, and should be a part of the solution. We wouldn’t have social security, public education, our social safety net that saves lives, investments in research, infrastructure and yes, Obamacare, without our government. We have to rid ourselves of corruptions that use billions in advertising against our real interests, of lobbyists’ intent on stealing our rights and polluting our land. It’s time we take back what is for we the people—our democracy. We need Lincoln’s path, which Obama put us back on when he made it his, to become ours once again.
I can accept we elect charismatic figures. I now understand it’s something we’ve done throughout our history. But I refuse to accept our willful ignorance. We have the power to understand how government can do more for all of us. Throughout our history it has. We have the power to change, for it is still our democracy, our country.
My vision was clear. I’d take up arms against ignorance, and become a journalist.
Julia’s words echoed in my mind, “start the day as if it’s always a beginning with no end.”
And so, it begins.