By Cynthia Romanowski
2017: January. Huntington Beach.
I’m on my couch. Tears rolling down. Obama just thanked Michelle in his farewell and I’ve finally lost it. This is not about politics, at least it doesn’t feel like it, it feels like something more.
In the kitchen my boyfriend opens a package from the mail. It’s the Japanese wet stones he’s been waiting for. He stands at the kitchen counter throughout the entire speech, sharpening every blade in we own.
2001: September. Huntington Beach.
Senior year of high school. I am the associated student body president. My job is to show up an hour early for school to lead a group of drowsy overachievers. Besides picking a cabinet of my peers, it’s not very political. We are glorified event planners. Prom. Pep Rallies. Talent show.
On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, I’m running late for our pre-dawn meeting. I haven’t made copies of the agenda, and a bunch of kids are crowded around a little TV in our offices. Something has happened, but I don’t know what their deal is. So I corral them away from history to discuss Homecoming.
In my first period English class, the fear is palpable. Even here on the West Coast you can feel it, even in a high school classroom. This is Orange County, California and religious kids are talking about the rapture.
I leave class to meet with the vice principal and we decide to do an ad hoc rally in the outdoor amphitheater between classes.
I deal with the moment the only way I know how: I make posters.
I roll out long sheets of white paper and write out political slogans in red and blue. “Let freedom ring.” “God bless the USA.” I have no words of my own, no context, I have nothing but feelings that are too complicated for my developing brain to process and express.
At the rally, I hold the microphone and do what has worked for me at football games and spirit camp and attempt to lead the entire student body in a cheer.
I yell into the mic: “Who here is proud to be an American?!”
The audience is still stunned by the day. Confused. And they don’t react much when I say it again.
I still cringe just thinking about it … how little I had to say.
2004: October. Manhattan.
Sophomore year of college. I’m at “Success and the City,” a conference for the Public Relations Student Society of America. I am vice president of PRSSA at Long Beach State and I hate all the other girls in the group, especially the sorority girl president (I do not yet know what feminism is, let alone Bad Feminism). Donald Trump is the keynote and they are excited to see him speak and it gives me yet another excuse to separate myself. Even at age 20 I know this is fucking ridiculous. That this reality TV star is not a person to admire. I put on headphones and blast the new Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs album, Fever To Tell, and walk all over the city. Alone.
2016: November. Huntington Beach.
I go to my polling place, which is at a church, and vote for one of the most qualified presidential candidates in history, who happens to be female. I don’t love her and I didn’t vote for her in the primary, so I am surprised at the feeling that swells inside me. A clenching of the throat, swift and strong and unexpected. I laugh it off and post on Facebook:
“Just cast my ballot. Had an emotion.”
I have no idea what the evening holds. How minuscule this feeling will seem as the night beats on.
When my boyfriend gets home, I encourage him to rush to the polls. We know she’s going get California, but he goes anyway, and, as in the primary, he fills in the box next to Hillary.
Later, around 1:00 a.m. I will shake him awake to tell him that Trump has won and he won’t believe me.
2003: March. Sunset Beach.
It’s a Wednesday night at my restaurant job and I’m the only server scheduled. The sky is gray, and the bartender and I know that we are poised to make zero dollars. The only customers are Marsha, our office manger, and Kayak Kenny, who is already in his corner with a Miller Light. On the little TV behind the bar there are bombs exploding all over Iraq. Shock and awe. Within seven hours, over 70 sites are destroyed. And the four of us just sit there watching, feeling completely helpless.
On my college campus, it seems like there are walkouts and protests every week. In seminars, we discuss the Patriot Act and WMD’s and Jihad and liberal bias in the media. I am angry and conflicted and disappointed with the status quo, but I don’t do anything. I just work at the restaurant and try to make my way through school. I declare a double major of political science and journalism.
2016: November. Portland.
The morning after the election, I fly to visit my friend Stephanie and her two-year-old. The past 18 hours have been spent bingeing on Facebook, scrolling through the shell shock. Fear and uncertainty abound. Some people are already talking about coming together as a nation, and I want to tell them to go fuck themselves. I turn off my phone instead.
Steph and I meet up with two other writer friends for a sad ramen lunch. We are deflated and dreary, but we have also been stirred awake.
“Goddamnit. Now we have to become activists,” Stephanie says. It’s a statement drenched with privilege, and we acknowledge this fact, how the years of Obama presidency have lulled us into complacency. I think about Bush and all the ways in which this is the same and all the ways in which this is completely different. We talk about Brexit. Make plans to March in January and eventually we do.
By the end of the week, we’ve logged calls to representatives. We’ve donated money. We’ve promised not to forget this feeling. To stay active.
That night on SNL, Dave Chapell and Chris Rock do a sketch about white people being shocked and disturbed by the election and I see myself in the satire.
2003: September. Long Beach State.
To be a good political science major, I join the intercollegiate Model United Nations team. We carry around heavy binders filled with paperwork from the Geneva Convention and Kyoto Treaties. Policy statements and position papers that we’ve written lie next to CIA Fact Book printouts. My father would probably see this moment as my indoctrination into the liberal bias of the university. Perhaps it is.
It is two years before the release of Thomas Friedman’s The World Is Flat, but our advisor, Dr. Larry Martinez, has already honed in on the varieties of upheaval quaking across the globe. Open societies. Open technologies. Open markets. A perfect storm. Economic liberalism and a swelling of wealth at the top.
The California recall is in full effect. A porn star and the lead singer of T.S.O.L. are trying to replace Governor Gray Davis. My dad is excited about Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the Terminator himself is paying CSULB a visit. I’m standing steps away from the actor as a raw egg hits his shoulder. He doesn’t flinch and casually removes his jacket. Thirteen years from now, Donald Trump will announce his candidacy for president, and I will immediately think of this moment: how a Republican action hero won the plurality in California with 48 percent.
2008: November. Long Beach.
My college apartment is filled with foreign exchange students and we’re all drunk and celebrating the election of Barrack Obama. My roommate leads an International Student’s Group so several nations are in represented: Chile, Japan, Colombia, Italy, Sri Lanka, Germany … then there of a bunch of middle-class Americans like me.
Our filthy living room is full of future journalists and art directors, international NGO organizers and government representatives, engineers and academics. But right now, we are just college kids drunk at a party, trying to sleep with each other. Elated with history. Blissfully unaware that we are about to graduate into the great recession, not yet cognizant of the sheer grit that will be required of us or how long it will take to become all these things that we’ve set out to be. The storm is reaching it’s peak, but we’re still in the bubble.
The next morning, my roommate Daniela tells me the news: They’re talking about Hillary for secretary of state. My mind races into the future and when my eyes meet D’s we smile with a sense of hope. Anything is possible.
2016: November. Huntington Beach.
After Portland and sad ramen. I will go over to my boss’s home office to help him de-clutter and set up a filing system, knowing full well that the paper will pile up and the mess will accumulate in a matter of days. He is a Trump supporter, but a somewhat reluctant one.
We will talk about Trump, and I’ll attempt to look him in the eyes when I say the words: “Grab them by the pussy.” But then my voice will shake and I’ll keep my eyes down on his mountain of useless documents.
I’ll tell him how devastated my friends are, how I’m worried about the environment and my gay friends and my Muslim friends and my friends who are immigrants. I’ll think back to high school ASB and think of Ryan Jaumann. I’ll think back to Long Beach State and think of Julio Salgado. I’ll think of long afternoons spent drinking coffee and chain smoking with Farooq at the Coffee Bean on campus.
“I don’t think he’s really gonna do any of that. … Do you?” my boss will ask.
As we speak, my boss will have three Mexican workers inside his home, washing his windows, and I will wonder what they think of our conversation.
I will want to mention the recent spike in hate crime. I will want to explain our position of privilege, how it offers us the convenience of dismissing threats of registries and walls. I will try to speak. But in the end, my words will be such a sloppy blur, that I won’t even remember most of them.
He’ll talk about Obama’s spending. Deficits and debt. The rising cost of insurance. And I’ll kick myself for not having answers and rebuttals ready.
I will bring up Bush and expensive wars and deregulation. The housing crisis. The situation that Obama walked into. Technological disruption that stretches far beyond the leadership of a single nation. I’ll speak until my voice quivers again. Then I’ll look down at my hands and realize how I’m just shuffling the papers around and not actually organizing anything.
We will sit together among his mess of paper—decades of obsolete invoices sprawled across the floor. The mess will feel small and pointless and I will want to go home. But I won’t.
Cynthia Romanowski holds an MFA in fiction from UCR’s low res program in Palm Desert. Her monthly book round-up, Shelf Awareness, can be found in Coast Magazine and her fiction has appeared in The Weekly Rumpus, The Nervous Breakdown, MARY: A Journal Of New Writing, Lit Central OC and on the podcast No Extra Words. She has also been featured reader for The New Short Fiction Series, Dirty Laundry Lit and Tongue & Groove. Read more of her work at cynthiaromanowski.com.
Photo credit: Joy via a Creative Commons license.