A Visit from the President

Monday, July 16, 2018

In October, near the end of that terrible year, there was finally something to look forward to. In July, my favorite uncle had died of brain cancer, less than twelve months after he’d retired from his job as a sociology professor. In June, my father-in-law had been arrested again, this time for violating the terms of his parole, and was soon to disappear into a jail cell, awaiting a trial that as of this writing (more than a year and a half later) has still not been scheduled. That year my wife and I were fighting about everything: about our sadness, mostly, but also about money, and the fact that three years after leaving Los Angeles and suffering a complete reversal in our financial fortunes, we were still losing. We’d run through our savings. Our credit card debt was skyrocketing. We’d bought a house that we’d only seen pictures of online, and that turned out to be a dump that I hated. The previous owner had been a real estate criminal who’d been caught buying and selling houses to defraud mortgage companies, and this was the house he’d gotten stuck with. He left the house in disrepair, and in the weeks since we’d taken possession, we had discovered that the roof leaked and that the kitchen was overrun with mice; the garage door had fallen off its tracks, nearly crushing my wife and son as they drove to preschool. We had no money to fix any of it.

By October of that year, I was more than a month into my new job, the whole reason I’d moved my family back to Ohio in the first place, and was struggling to find anything that I liked about it. It paid less than any teaching job I’d had before; it required that I teach more classes than my previous two jobs combined; and the bulk of the classes I had to teach were remedial, at a level I hadn’t taught since graduate school. Worst of all, I was supposed to be good at teaching, but at my new school I wasn’t good at all. The students didn’t laugh at my jokes, they complained that I swore too much, they blinked in stony silence whenever I asked a question. Sometimes they were hostile. “This is stupid,” said one student, a mean girl with a lazy eye, after I’d spent fifteen minutes showing them how to write a thesis statement. The rest nodded in agreement. “What does this have to do with anything?” 

I wasn’t sure. In fact, I agreed with them. 

After years of steady progress, making small but incremental gains toward goals I’d once thought admirable (earning my Ph.D., publishing a book, then another book, getting a tenure-track job), I wasn’t sure about the point of anything. The Ph.D. seemed meaningless, not a measure of expertise or accomplishment, but an affectation, like something a frivolous person would do for self-improvement (learn to ride horses, taste wine, pair foods, read and appreciate eighteenth-century British literature). My books hadn’t sold well, and the process of publishing the second with a bankrupt and going-out-of-business publisher had been so demoralizing that I wasn’t sure I wanted to write a third, and even then I wasn’t sure I had a third one in me. The tenure-track job hadn’t solved any of my problems. For the first time in years, I had job stability, an ongoing contract that meant I wouldn’t have to pack up and move from state to state every nine months with the academic calendar, but I was still broke. It still felt like everything was tenuous, unformed, and shifting around me. 

In other words, if I listened to what I’d told my students—that a thesis statement gives shape and meaning—then by October of that year I was beginning to realize that the thesis statement I’d been living my life by had turned out to be a false one. It was stupid, as my mean student said. I’d spent years chasing an academic fantasy that had nothing to do with reality. 

“None of that stuff matters,” my uncle said, the last time I talked to him. It was May, a month before he was going to die, and we were in his bedroom in Pennsylvania. He was in a hospital bed next to his real one. His head was shaved and scarred from multiple surgeries. He was so skinny I couldn’t look him in the eyes. All I could do was stare at his bare knees, which were big on his stick legs and bathed in green light from his tree-filled backyard that overlooked the Susquehanna. 

“None of that matters,” he said, with great, halting effort after I’d complained about my teaching load or salary or something. But I wasn’t sure what he meant by that. If none of that mattered, what did matter? What was supposed to be important? In the predawn mornings of that bad October, as I made coffee and watched mice run from one cabinet to another, I felt out of step with my own life, off the rails. Wherever I was going, it felt like I was headed in an unexpected and dangerous direction. 

As I drove home from work each night, I got the sense that I wasn’t the only one. By October of that year Trump signs were beginning to outnumber Hillary ones in my suburban neighborhood north of Columbus. What had seemed inconceivable months ago—as absurd as Uncle David dying or my marriage becoming one of those marriages, cliché and unstable, where happiness hinged on money—was beginning to seem like a real possibility. The crises of my life seemed to be ripples in a larger pond, smaller circles inside bigger ones, that were expanding until crisis covered the surface of everything.

But then, as I said, by the end of October there was finally something to look forward to. As the leaves of the magnolia tree outside my office window began to change and drop, and summer reemerged one last time, making my office, a former dorm room, smell like sweaty socks and years of teenage hormones, a rumor began circulating around campus. President Obama was coming to visit. He was coming for all the ordinary reasons a politician comes to central Ohio near the end of an election year, to stir the base and excite the apathetic, but still I couldn’t help but take the news of his visit personally. Here was someone who’d lifted the country out of some of the darkest times I’d known, a legitimate Great American, and now he was coming to Columbus, to my school, and at a time when I badly needed lifting.

When I told my wife, she was excited, too, but also skeptical. She’d never lived in a swing state and so was unused to the parade of politicians and celebrities who came from the coasts every four years to tell us that we mattered and that our votes were important. She liked Obama almost as much as I did (though she had, as I would occasionally remind her, voted for Hillary in the 2008 primaries), but she was worried about the logistics of the event. Would we be able to get tickets? Where would she park? What to do about Ezra? 

“We’ll bring him,” I said. “Of course.” I said that we’d pull him out of preschool. After all, it wasn’t every day that your son got to see the president, especially this president, one of the great ones. 

“I don’t know,” she said, meaning that he was three and a half years old and would be bored to tears watching anyone give a speech; it didn’t matter whether it was Elmo or the best president of our generation.

“It’s important,” I said, meaning back that I’d already concocted an elaborate fantasy in my head that the three of us would go to the rally and somehow Obama would speak to us directly. He’d heal the wounds of our recent past, erase the acrimony, and draw us back together, transforming us by the proximity of his greatness.

“Okay,” she said. “But I don’t think it’s a great idea.” 

When the day came, I wore a suit and tie to campus. I’m normally the type of professor who can barely change his jeans once a week, but since the president was coming and there was a chance, I imagined, that I might stumble on him sneaking a cigarette, I decided to dress in the costume of a real and serious person. That day I canceled my classes, telling my students that they’d be too distracted by the goings-on, when in fact I was the one who could barely concentrate. I sat at my desk nearly vibrating with anticipation. The stack of papers I’d set aside to grade went ungraded. I clicked the refresh button on my browser repeatedly, forcing time to pass with each wipe of the screen. Finally, around two o’clock, I got a text from my wife. “We’re here,” she said, and I slammed my computer closed and set off to find them. 

It was a beautiful day with a high, blue sky and a light, warm breeze that moved through the leaves, causing them to flash orange and red in the late afternoon sunshine. It was one of those days that made me feel okay about moving back to Ohio and giving up my apartment near the beach in Los Angeles or my house in the mountains in Colorado, or leaving all of the beautiful places I had once lived to come back here, which was where I was from, and had only been too happy to leave behind forever a decade earlier. Okay because winter and the unrelenting gray of the Midwest seemed far away, and we were about to elect our first female president, and the entire climate was hopeful. Obama was talking in the gymnasium, which was located on the far side of campus. As I walked across campus, I saw that the streets surrounding the school had been closed off with police cars, and wide columns of people snaked through the suburban neighborhoods. The mood was celebratory. Students who would’ve normally been in classes moved in happy packs, chatting and laughing. Vendors worked the crowds, selling t-shirts and buttons, and on every corner a news reporter gripped her microphone and smiled into a camera. Helicopters buzzed overhead, and when I found my wife and son, they were standing in line eating ice cream. 

We hugged, and I bought matching Hillary buttons for my son and me, which we proudly pinned to our shirts. I waved to some of my students. Then we waited. Two o’clock became three o’clock. The line didn’t budge. My wife took an iPad from her backpack and gave it to my son. He sat on the curb and watched half of The Incredibles. The helicopters left, refueled, and came back again. I eavesdropped on the group of students in front of us. They were from Ohio State and one of them, a bro-y guy in a red football jersey, repeated over and over that he was just here to see Obama. He didn’t like Hillary or Trump. He wasn’t even going to vote in the election. 

“We can go,” I said to my wife, after the same lady selling bottled water and buttons walked by for the hundredth time. My throat was dry, and I’d spent all of my money on buttons. 

“I think the line’s moving,” she said. The line lurched forward, and we were pushed toward the metal detectors. My wife took the iPad from my son, who protested, and gave it to a Secret Service agent. We went inside, and it all went downhill immediately. 

While my wife and I blinked in the artificial light, Ezra continued complaining about the iPad. He wanted it back, or he wanted to go home. Regardless, he wanted to do anything other than what we were doing now, which I understood to be important and momentous but he only understood as boring. 

The entire gymnasium had been transformed. Gone were the university’s regal purple and white colors; they had been replaced by a vomitous displayof patriotism. On one end of the basketball court, a gigantic American flag hung from the ceiling. The walls were dripping in red, white, and blue everything. A stage had been set up in the center of the court, which was surrounded by a battery of speakers blasting Katy Perry. Behind the stage, a temporary set of bleachers was filled with lucky students who waved tiny flags and cheered the rest of us as we stumbled in the from the daylight. As the crowd pushed toward the stage, Ezra changed his tactics. 

“I want a blue Gatorade,” he said as we walked past a vending machine. 

“Gatorade?” I said. We barely let him drink apple juice at home, much less soda or sugary sports drinks. Where had he heard of Gatorade? 

“Blue,” he said. His face was turning red, he was on the verge of erupting into a tantrum.

“Check out that flag,” I said, gesturing to the giant American flag, which was at least as large as the basketball court itself, maybe the largest American flag I had ever seen. “Let’s go take a picture.” I grabbed his shoulders and tried to steer him away from the vending machine toward the flag, but his feet were rooted to the hardwood. He understood that he had an advantage and was pressing us on our weakness.

“Blue Gatorade,” he said.

I looked at my wife. We were so close to the stage. We’d waited so long to hear Obama. She didn’t know my grand plan—that somehow Obama was going to save us—but she could see my desperation. 

“Fine,” she said. 

“But I don’t have any money,” I said. 

Ezra heard this and lost it. The students shuffling past stopped and turned to see who was murdering a toddler. I saw one of my colleagues, a psychology professor who was on my first-year performance review committee, and hurried after her. She smiled as I approached, but when she saw the look on my face, her smile dropped. She took a step back when she realized that I was coming at her with a problem.

“A dollar,” I said. “Please. Gatorade for my screaming child.” She gave me a five and told me to keep it. 

When I came back with the electric blue Gatorade, we found a spot near the stage, not super close but close enough, I figured, to absorb some of the greatness. And then, again, we waited. My wife took out the iPad, and Ezra sat on the floor near our feet, doing his best to concentrate on superheroes and drink his Gatorade, while the space around us shrank and the basketball court became hot with bodies. I saw more of my students, waved, chatted, and read the text messages of the woman who was standing in front of me. She was standing so close it would have been strange and obvious to look anywhere else; I’d have been drawing more attention to myself and my ability to snoop than if I just stood there snooping. 

She was complaining to whoever was on the other end of her texts that the rally was boring. And it was. It was so boring! I’d forgotten how boring political rallies could be. The last time I’d gone to one had been in 2004, also in Columbus. I’d stood in some floodlit parking lot on a cold November night, waiting and waiting and waiting for John Kerry to arrive. I couldn’t remember if I’d made it or not, or if I did, what Kerry had talked about. All I remembered is that I’d forgotten to bring gloves, and by the time I’d left the rally, my fingers had gone from white to red, numb to burning. 

We’d been waiting for Obama for three hours. The Incredibles ended, and my wife took a small bag of Legos from her backpack, which my son spread out in front of him. He was hunched over, elbows out to protect his few inches of floor space. I’d given up trying to look at my phone. Reception in the gymnasium was spotty at best, and we’d landed in a dead space.

“How was your day?” I asked my wife for the thousandth time. 

“I already told you,” she said. 

“Sorry,” I said. I asked because if I kept asking, there might be something that she’d forgotten, something for us to really talk about. Finally something happened. The music dipped, and a handful of stagehands ducked onto the stage, checking cords and adjusting the heights of microphones. 

“Something’s happening,” I said because my mind was so numbed all I could do was narrate what was happening around me. The woman in front of me texted, “Something’s happening.” 

“Something’s happening,” I said to Ezra. He looked up from his Legos, blinked as if from a dream, and frowned at me. 

“I want to go home,” he said. 

“But look!” I said. “The president!” I gestured at an empty stage. The stagehands were gone. The music was creeping back up again. 

“Now,” said Ezra. There were tears in the corners of his eyes. I was thirty-four years old, totally exhausted, overwhelmed and bored at the same time, cranky and thirsty. I couldn’t imagine what he, three and a half years old, was feeling. 

“The president’s coming,” I said. “And he’s going to talk to us. It’s really important.” 

“No,” said Ezra. Then he opened his mouth and began wailing. The crowd stepped away from us. I glanced around and saw another child in his parent’s arms, several feet away, right up next to the stage, and completely placid. I wanted that child. 

“Please,” I said. I offered him another Gatorade, a candy bar, anything that I could buy with the psychology professor’s money. But he was gone, way beyond bribery or reason. His crying had turned into a tantrum, a self-reinforcing loop where each scream was another reason to keep screaming. The parents of the child near the stage turned around to look at us. 

“The president,” I said. “The president.” 

“We need to go,” said my wife. She was right. She knew when we had been defeated. We’d run a long race but had collapsed in front of the finish line. 

“We’ll go,” I said. “You stay.” 

“You sure?” she said. 

“I grew up in Ohio,” I said. “I got to see the president every four years. It’s no big deal.” 

I scooped up Ezra, and we pushed through the crowd, past the big flag, and out of the gymnasium. A Secret Service agent told us that we couldn’t go back in once we left. I said okay. No big deal. But it was a big deal. Everything was a big deal. We’d been so close, waited so long, and for what? I’m not just talking about Obama. That was supposed to be the year everything turned around, but instead, just when I got close to what I thought I wanted, it moved away, or my desires changed, or I let myself focus on everything I didn’t have, and I found myself still wanting. 

Outside, the day was still beautiful. Blue sky, birds hopping on the ground and picking through the trash the crowds had left behind: empty water bottles, food wrappers, scuffed-up Hillary buttons. The police were taking down the barriers. Ezra huffed in my chest. He blew snot on my jacket. 

“I’m sorry,” he said. He didn’t know why I was upset. He only knew that he’d been crying and I was angry. 

“That’s okay,” I said. I was still physically upset. My heart was still thumping. “I’m sorry I got upset. I just wanted to see the president.” 

He blew his nose and looked at me thoughtfully. “What’s a president?” 

“What?” I said. I blinked. We hadn’t told him? “The president is the guy we’ve been waiting around for all afternoon. He’s sort of like the boss of the country.” 

“Oh,” said Ezra. “Like a king?” 

“Sort of,” I said. “But not really.” 

We walked across the empty campus. The sun was going down, and the red brick buildings cast long shadows. 

“Daddy,” said Ezra. “I’m sorry I didn’t get to see the king of the country.” 

“He’s just a guy,” I said. “Really, it’s not that important. And we live in Ohio, which means we’ll get to see plenty of presidents, every four years at least, if not more often.”

“Good,” said Ezra. “I’d like that. I had a fun time.” 

“Really?” I said. 

“Yeah,” he said. “I got to eat ice cream, drink Gatorade, watch a movie.” 

“When you put it that way,” I said. I thought about the pain, the tears, the hours of boredom.  

“None of that stuff matters,” my uncle said after I’d complained about something. 

“Let’s do it again,” Ezra said. 

“In four years,” I said. “I promise.”

Monday, July 16, 2018