September 1972

This is how it was settled: my father’s first cousin, who was some minister or deputy of tourism or other, would help him get a room at the Hilton by the bay. Failing that, his other cousin the congressman had one of his half-dozen apartments in Bel-Air. We could stay in the guest room, which was really his home office. The only caveats: his maid might come in at odd hours to retrieve from one drawer in the filing cabinet, bottles of black label Johnnie Walker, Courvoisier, bourbon; also: his Korean mistress might be in town. He borrowed a government car which came with an assigned driver; after all, it was his oath-taking ceremony at the palace.

My mother took special care, ironing his barong between sheets of dressmaking paper. Feeling generous, he told my mother she could bring a friend, but she didn’t want to invite any of the women in her various clubs. So I invited Rhonda instead. We listened to the adults gossip through the six hour trip and drowsed or threw up in paper bags from motion sickness. There was a new and explosive biography about the First Lady, telling of her origins in the south. How she lived in the garage, illegitimate child of the man in whose household her mother served. A few surreptitious copies were making the rounds; the writer had gone into hiding.

Of course it was hot. Even a butterfly pod would shrivel in the shade, split a sleeve open before its time. But still, we fished out our swimsuits as soon as we got there, and went to bake in the sun by the pool, armed with cheap plastic sunglasses. To hell with heatstroke. We were too young for anything but pineapple juice on the rocks, but the waiters brought them with paper parasols. Rhonda tried to teach me how to affect what she called an air of worldly ennui, but I was working through a library copy of Anna Karenina. She gave up on me and flopped face-down, on her untanned belly.

The next day, the swearing in itself was a blur; but mostly because someone decided at the last minute that we (women) might not have the protocol clearances. The cousin-congressman and cousin-deputy went with him. As for us, we returned to the pool and ordered sandwiches and Coke. My mother cooled her bunioned feet in the water and filed her nails. After lunch, my father came back and said we had to hustle. Rumors, he said. Best to travel back north before nightfall. When I think about it now, I realize he was what his contemporaries might have thought a lightweight, not a big stakes player. Too conscientious for his own good, never took a bribe.

That evening, after we got back, more rumors. Then radio and TV blackouts, and sirens at six and at nine. Not the clarion of the Angelus, but signals for the first of many curfews and the squall ahead. Our sunburned skin peeled for weeks afterward, but nothing of that sort mattered anymore. At home, in the streets where people cast furtive glances at each other, we learned bits of new vocabulary: martial law, suspension, writ of habeas corpus; rally, molotov cocktail, salvage, subversive, detain.

 

In response to Morning Porch and small stone (150).

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