Swearing in, January 20, 2009 ( a Fiction piece) by Meron Hadero
I remember the cold first of all, the kind I embrace one day each winter when I plant the tulip bulbs. I remember the Potomac stretched forth like a frozen arctic landing, and the wind danced over it, and it stung. The tears in my eyes were as much for the ecstasy as for the cold. I felt the great pride of having chosen my home wisely after all, my faith tested when, for instance, I stopped raising my hand in my night school classes because my teacher couldn’t understand my accent, or when I was called a traitor by my suspicious neighbor, or the woman who worked below me knew she could pass off my assignments as hers (she and my boss were old family friends, and I, always an outsider). This moment mattered to someone like me who sacrificed personally believing in all this, these symbols, their message, the songs, the flag, the promise I trusted so profoundly that when it called out to me from thousands of miles away, I responded…. Maybe this is why, somehow despite everything, an immigrant can be the most patriotic of all a country’s citizens.
Rows of jumbotrons stretched from the podium to the Washington Monument like billboards along a highway, and the picture from the stage reflected back again and again. I heard the words long after seeing them spoken on the telecast, a great slow echo passing over an expanse of red, white and blue that I would have mistaken for a Fourth of July parade except for the parkas and Polar Tec.
I was there to witness with my own two eyes, and to hear with my own ears, to take part in the swearing in of this man whose father came from the part of the world I did, too, perhaps charmed by the same promise. Aretha Franklin sang My Country ‘Tis of Thee; her voice rung like a meditative bell, her flight and dip gospel tone, the deep well of her melody reverberating over our millions.
At 12:04 a twenty-ish woman with thick glasses and silver-blue streaks in her red hair squealed, “That’s the Lincoln bible.” I nodded, almost giddy myself. Roberts fumbled the oath; I laughed nervously giving careful attention to the words we were gathered there to hear. Michelle wore a skirt, and on a day like this, people around me declared this choice a sure sign of fortitude, and I chimed in, of course. Stevens swore in Biden, and by then my toes were numb, but I stayed put. The trek home was disorienting; subways were all a trap, impossible, jammed up for miles. I walked back to Virginia amid spontaneity, sudden outbursts of song, of embracing. There was dancing in the streets.
I heard a man ask a boy I assumed was his son if the world looked different. The man held his son’s wrists; the child wore his father’s too-big gloves. It was inevitable that this man would remind me of my own father, dark skin, a neat afro picked up then patted down, that same rigid look of someone who’d weathered tough experiences. I thought of the country I’d left behind, the family who contributed what they could so I’d have enough for my journey (money, extra clothes, envelopes, some advice). They thought everything would be different for me, but I struggle here just as I struggled there, only this time under the heavy scrutiny of our collective hope. I watched this child lift his gloved hands, jump up and down, and chant, “Change! Change! Yes We Can!” The father leaned down and said to him, “You see this? You feel this? We’ll take this back home with us. This will last us.”
I wanted this to last, too, this feeling returned, this promise renewed, belief restored, everything feeling possible again. As I walked back to the garden apartment where I spent most of my days studying and carefully balancing spreadsheets of my costs versus my earnings from sporadic odd jobs, I knew the world seemed just like the one I’d known the day before, but I wondered if I’d look back eventually to find something new sprung up from those hours. And I walked along the banks of the icy river towards home with tears still welling on that cold January afternoon thinking about the tulips.
Meron Hadero is an Ethiopian-American fiction writer and a graduate of the Helen Zell Writers’ Program at the University of Michigan. Her fiction is scheduled to appear in The Missouri Review and Boulevard. She has received fellowships from The MacDowell Colony and Yaddo, and holds a JD from Yale and an AB from Princeton in history. Meron is a member of the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto currently living in Oakland, CA. On Twitter @meronhadero.