BY MATT KESSLER
Now my mind is cluttered with the champion’s confetti of history, the newspaper headlines and TV clips, the documentaries and museum displays, but we were there that night in Grant Park when, for one brief moment, this country felt good and we felt serious about correcting our many mistakes. The war mongering, the warrantless surveillance, the foreclosures and the waterboarding would be dealt with. We wanted the same things, the people in Grant Park and us, the country and us, Obama and us. This was once again a country we could believe in. The past eight years had just been a mistake.
It was a warm November night, and I wore a button-down shirt and a sweater vest that showed a couple drinking champagne and dancing in a roaring Twenties jazz club. Bea wore a silk top with neon bubbles. We were twenty-somethings ready to float off wherever Obama’s rhetoric would take us. We’d been pulverized by the Bush administration, and we’d spend the weekends investigating how to apply for Canadian citizenship or how to teach at International American high schools. If McCain won, we didn’t know what we would do. But the polls, both on TV and the new more reliable data-driven blogs, assured us that Obama had this. We clenched hands as we walked past the Art Institute, past the street vendors selling Obama victory t-shirts and towards the long concrete bridge on LaSalle that led the pedestrians from Michigan Avenue into the park.
In my mind, I was young and brimming with ideas but I was just so typical. I slotted into a demographic that could have been called disaffected Jewish male, sees what ails broken world, too wary to be dragged down by American careerism, no plans for the future. I talked big and drank and asked around for cocaine and listened to records and rode bicycles with other men my age who wanted to believe they were still boys. Bea drank and had fun but also volunteered for the Obama campaign, which led to us and a group of friends spending Saturdays in September driving across Indiana knocking on strange doors in small, flat towns with paint-chipped feedlots. I’d never spent much time in the Rust Belt or talked to strangers about the political process or driven so far on an open highway to do anything but burn brain cells and be overwhelmed by the sweet sounds of Sixties pop music on my car stereo. Political canvasing spooked me. I’d read so many cynical essays about how Obama would disappoint us because that’s what politicians did, disappoint us, that try as I might, I could never get those nagging doubts out of the back of my mind. But still, I hated Bush so fiercely that I’d have knocked on every door in Indiana if it’d make a difference, and the data-driven blogs—which I trusted more than the canned words in the paper or the corporate spiel on TV—insisted that it would.
We’d been to the Obama headquarters in Chicago to pick up fliers, pamphlets, buttons and stickers. We’d seen behind the red curtain of the campaign machine and witnessed the men and women wearing the headsets, pleading with strangers to consider hope and change. A brick warehouse in Logan Square had his motto Yes We Can painted across the top in presidential blue which was visible from anywhere on Logan Boulevard. Even the most cynical of my friends liked him and rooted for him a little until the election was over, and Pepsi put up ads with words like Optimism and One for All in the Obama font. Nobody wanted McCain, or more of the invasion, or more FEMA negligence, or more predatory NINJA loans, and so we crossed the bridge and joined the throngs huddled around the TV screens in the park, knowing full well that “the arc of history” as Obama called it, was on our side, that the country had come to its senses, and that we could believe in it again.
This victory was just the tiniest part ours to share and, as if on cue, as we crossed the bridge and stepped into the park, CNN—the station all the TV screens played—called Pennsylvania for Obama and the crowd erupted in screams, claps and laughter. Bea and I jumped and hugged each other, as if we hadn’t spent the past four months arguing about the future of our relationship and dragging our feet on breaking up, which we would do six long, sad months later. All of that pain was invisible now, impossible to feel or remember. We jumped and chanted, “Yes we can,” with the rest of the hopeful. Pennsylvania was a big hurdle to cross. Ohio and Indiana were still undecided. The West Coast was too early to call but sure to go Obama.
I flipped open my phone but had no service. We were supposed to meet Lisa and James, another couple like us that had just moved to Chicago and who were perfectly nice and therefore also involved in the long torturous yearlong breakup rather than the clean split favored by sane, self-involved people. Lisa had dragged James to Chicago from Seattle for her enrollment in art school. Lisa and me, our friendship was built on an unspoken understanding that we wanted the same thing, permission to break up with our partners. Her best friend, a redhead, would get drunk and rub my leg whenever Bea walked out of the room, and I’d reciprocate. After those evenings would end, Bea would pick a fight and say that she wanted to live in New York, not Chicago, and would ask if I’d follow her. No matter how I answered, Bea would cry and say that it probably meant that we should seriously think about things. I’d ask what that meant, seriously think about things, and she’d say, I don’t know, I don’t think you love me as much as I love you, I don’t understand why we’re in Chicago when I want to be in New York, and then she’d roll over and I’d get hard thinking about the redhead, the flirtatious way she’d cock back her head, taunting me to go ahead and take it, and I’d just die, wanting to have fun in the new city, and not wanting the night to fade out in another sexless fight.
But here we were, two decent couples in Grant Park for the Obama election party, trying to meet up.
Bea held my hand, which was on my phone, and said that we didn’t have to find them, that we could enjoy this alone. It was like we were at a drive-in theatre, waiting for the most classic Hollywood movie of all-time to start, something with Jimmy Stewart, something about small towns and big dreams, overcoming great odds, and good guys always winning in the end. Bea gave me her twisty-turny, crooked path smile, the kind she got when she was being both nostalgic and dreaming on the future. She grew up in a farming town in Iowa and believed in the decency of small communities, labor unions and representational government. It didn’t have to be corrupt. This was the proof. Obama.
I wanted it too. I could become a community organizer and a lawyer. I could work for the IRS and chase Wall Street fat cats and hedge fund types. We could move back to the small town and build a rec center, a communal garden, launch women’s reproductive educational campaigns, start locally and build something we could all be proud of. It wasn’t about politics, it was about people and communities, and everyone was decent, if you could just get them together. Bea and I could start a family, decent, decent, decent.
I pulled her into me and we kissed. It was the first romantic moment we’d had in weeks. “Yes we can,” I whispered in her ear. “Behind that tree.”
She shoved me away.
God, Bea. It pains me now to think not that I lost you but how that decency and goodness have been chipped away at, by guys like me and the types of dreams Obama offered knowing full well that he couldn’t fulfill. She didn’t see people, she saw the full promise and optimism of their vision and would work as hard as them to make it come to life. When the project started to sour, and Bea had already put so much selfless work into it, she would be unceremoniously dropped. Not out of meanness but because her optimism was too painful a reminder to have around when the rest of the team had pivoted to survival mode. I did that to her with my petty comic book project, a feminist magazine did that to her when the political landscape made sparring partners out of truth and ideology and editorial heads had to be paraded on pikes, and an up-and-coming feel-good female congressman did that to her when she’d sucked as much free service as she could out of Bea and it was time to win. Then, in the Trump administration, broke and single, she gave up on dreams and service, hope and change, and got a job at an advertising firm.
“Let’s go find Lisa and James,” I said.
“Wait. One more second. I want to remember this.”
Tens of thousands of people stretched out in every direction, swaying. The skyscrapers of the Magnificent Mile illuminated the dark sky. Helicopters flew over Lake Michigan. Below us, in the grassy plains of Hutchinson Field, a stage was set up with speaker towers. That would be the stage Obama would deliver his speech from. A teeming crowd gathered in anticipation. FBI and Secret Service guards pointed guns at the masses from atop the towers. I was worried that someone would assassinate Obama that night.
“Let’s find them,” I said.
“I don’t want to.”
We scanned the endless crowd. Smiling, hopeful people as far as the eye could see. Lisa had texted me to say that they were by the TV screen close to Buckingham Fountain by a cast iron streetlamp. It seemed hopeless. As we followed the human current that eddied around the LED monitors, the pundits called Ohio for Obama. A shrill, childish scream came from my throat as the park erupted. Bea and I threw our hands up, and I felt a hard thump on the back of my shoulder. James. His mouth was stretched wide in an ecstatic scream. He knelt and jumped high into the air, and I caught him above my shoulders in a bear hug. Bea and Lisa held each other’s wrists and shouted.
American flags waved above the crowd. I looked at the hopeful, crying faces and thought, this is our shot. There was such joy, such pure joy. We’d rolled out of the clutches of evil in the eleventh hour. The comeback rally began now.
Lisa was crying. It surprised me so much. Gone was the cunning face that coyly dismissed the aspirations of our friends, the upturned smile that seemed to be perched so high, peering down on the meaningless squabble of daily conversation. In its place was a still, satisfied face, beholding the flags waving in the air, listening to the crowd chant as one, “Yes we can.” Lisa, who so delighted in delivering the assessments that would crack people into two, looked calm and contemplative within this single voice, this unified chant, this expression of oneness.
James stomped his feet. He was lanky and had a lot of energy and got swept up in the natural sway of activity. That was how he’d ended up in Chicago. He thought a lot, but not about his own life, which prevented him from having to make decisions. His curse would be to stumble from one talented girlfriend to the next, each more successful than the last, as he plateaued as a line cook in a string of fancy restaurants. He was like a cat, he survived on the easy emotional support he provided. But standing next to that radiant brilliance, and achieving so little, ate him up. His drinking became so bad that one night, he combined it with too many pills and stumbled off the roof at a party in Pilsen and fractured his spine. But by then, I hadn’t seen him in years. None of us had. Bea was in Chicago, Lisa was with her husband in Seattle and I was drying out at my parents’ house in Alabama. The great circle route. Back to where it started, all stories end that way, right?
But what did I know about Oxycontin and Donald Trump? Heroin and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill? Syria, Trayvon Martin and the Deporter in Chief?
“Lisa,” I teased. “Are you crying? For America?”
“It’s a great moment. I’m happy.” She rolled her eyes. “Stop.”
I stepped closer to her. We were falling into our old routine, cynicism. Bea glanced over at us.
“I didn’t realize you were such an Obama fan,” I said.
“How can you not be? Look at this,” she waved at the screaming people in the park. “It’s stupid. But still.”
We thought we were so smart. Avoiding the mistakes our parents had made. Not rushing into careers and families. The surprise was that foregoing a dead-end career was more stressful; the limits of our own talent and mental fortitude were the true enemies, and the nine-to-five workday was a convenient straw man to blame our failures upon. It didn’t matter. Our worst fears came true. The great circle route. Lisa became a kept woman, the wife of a charismatic adventurer whose great-grandfather drilled holes across the plains of Texas and sucked oil from every crevice and peddled it at government-protected rates. Soon it’d be his turn to hold but not budge the globally traded steering wheel. She ran around with fast-talking women with daring earrings, asymmetrical dresses and stiff, dependable husbands. Affairs, alcoholism, pills—those old tropes of the American rich, I can’t say, but I think she avoided them. However she’d always be a patron of the arts, not an artist, a woman who traded on the beauty that was given to her, but couldn’t find anyone to trade for the beauty that she forged with her own hands. The type of woman many tall-legged white women have been raised to believe they should be in America, rich and incapable, a Great Dane, Best In Show.
“Elie’s at the Rainbo. She wants to meet up after,” Lisa said.
“Sure,” I said. Elie was the redhead.
“She’s with some guy. You think you can handle that?”
“I can distract him.”
In the alley of the Rainbo, while we were smoking, I pinned Lisa against the brick wall like it was the easiest thing in the world. Our tongues and hands worked over each other and our eyes played stupid the rest of the night. Tequila shots twist every night around. It was the only time for us, but it was the spark that set off so much bad behavior.
James walked up to me and began to chant, “Obama! Obama!” We chanted in anticipation of the booths closing on the West Coast and for a better America, one we could hardly believe we’d willed into being through knocking on doors, handing out pamphlets and spreading our enthusiasm to undecided voters in houses charted in national databases.
“Did your parents vote?” I asked.
“Oh yeah,” James said.
“C’mon man,” he said. “They live in Northern California. Of course.”
Me? I ditched everyone because I thought it was somehow more honest to snort white powders and spew out lies to account for my whereabouts and hook my soul up to a television which seemed like the only honest witness left to life’s absurdism, the only friend who saw its nihilism and reflected it in a never-ending parade of high-budget nineties action movies. In the morning, I’d clutch the toilet and hack and puke until I was wrung out and couldn’t stand. I was on choppy waters, stranded at sea, a sap, a parasite, a pleasure receptor, another warm body in front of the tube dedicating my time on earth, the prime of my life, the highest functioning cognitive skills that my brain would ever muster to watching imperialist propaganda war stories starring gym rats with fake Hollywood names concocted by lawyers. At the end their reward was a biscuit, a fucking biscuit, railing some peroxide blonde with big fake tits after destroying a country that wasn’t America. I watched variations of that movie for two years and tripped out to fuzzy visions and memories, and imagined I was a type of hero, a young bohemian going against the grain, and woke up to find that I was just a bald man with fewer friends than last week, and no photos to account for the time that had passed, and angry voicemails from my boss, and the same uneaten food in my fridge, just a pale reflection in the mirror losing weight, losing the catch in his eyes, drowning in two pools of dead tar. A highly medicated couch potato. Just like the rednecks of my childhood.
Bea asked Lisa to take a photo of us with her digital camera. Lisa nodded and looked into the display screen to frame it. James stood behind her to watch. Bea and I grasped each other’s shoulders and smiled. Lisa said, “Kip,” to rattle the toothy grin off my face but it was hopeless. Bea looked at the photo on the display screen, showed it to me and said, “Cute, right?” I agreed.
“We should take one of the four of us,” I said.
Bea and Lisa glanced at each other, and Bea said, “After he’s won.”
We huddled together and watched the news anchors on the TV screen analyze numbers, charts and maps. A giddiness built up in the crowd, the wobble of throttled energy trying to contain itself, the silly and joyful seizure of power. It emanated from our feet. The crowd counted down. Ten, nine, eight, the closing of the voting booths in Hawaii was as gripping as the detonation of a bomb. And then the explosion—CNN said Obama Elected President and a flurry of arms swirled in the air. I jumped and hooted and turned away from James and Lisa and kissed Bea clumsily. The skyscrapers flashed USA. Grant Park looked like a fuzzy field of shaking bodies, the whole world was shaking, we’d jolted it back on track. “Yes we did,” the people chanted, and I joined them because our efforts had been herculean, but we’d gotten there, we’d elected a Black man president of the United States, now there’d be no stopping us, it’d be a new chapter for our country, people would get their houses back, corporations would be kept in line, the government would look after the poor and the down-trodden. We wouldn’t invade and destabilize Middle Eastern and Latin American countries. We would regulate our technology, protect our freedom of speech. Obama.
On the projection screen important public figures stood close to the stage, fighting back tears. My eyes watered too. Shimmery glistening paths streamed down Bea’s cheeks. She rocked back on her heels, put two fingers in her mouth and whistled, as if she was hailing a dream that we almost caught, a dream that would have saved all of us.