The following is a very short work of fiction, though I can’t promise that large parts of it aren’t true, particularly the parts involving space travel and advanced robotics.
At the start of 2009, I was reeling from a lot of unexpected and very dark news. First was the fact that I managed to get both married and divorced over the course of 2008, which was more than a little embarrassing. Fortunately I think most of the people I care about, including my mother, chalked it up to temporary insanity, so I emerged mostly unscathed from the experience, though I was pretty sure I wouldn’t talk to my, um, ex-wife for a long time. I also lost three good friends in fairly rapid succession. “Lost” sounds a little precious. Three good friends died, and one of them was pretty close to me. Actually, we were close for this brief period several summers ago, when we lived in the same house in Providence.
I remember that summer really well. It was 1999, and I had just finished my junior year of high school. Because I lived in an incredibly small town – before he died, my father sank the last of what had been a small fortune into a motel comfortably situated in the middle of nowhere – my mother was always scheming to get me some exposure to the wider world. So she goaded me into applying to this obscure but very promising-sounding summer program that took place every summer in a few different locations: Malibu, Maui, Monterey, and … Providence. Naturally I wound up in Providence, and I’m glad I did. Having never traveled to that part of the country before, I was punched in the gut by the beauty of the place, and all the handsome colonial architecture.
But mainly I was taken in by the girls, particularly the older and smarter RISD students who seemed to set the tone. And the girls in the program were no slouches, particularly Mairead, who was by a wide margin the most charismatic of the campers. I want to say she was sexually charismatic as well, though I’m not sure if that makes sense. Basically, she was always drawing people in. Yet I never fell for her, unlike the seven other boys in the program. I was, lucky for me, hung up on one of the younger teachers at my school, who, on an unrelated note, is now kind of a famous feminist comic book auteur, but that’s neither here nor there. The upshot is that Mairead saw me as kind of romantically neutral, and we wound up spending a lot of time together. I was not immune to her insane attractiveness. She was Dominican and Irish and from New York, and worldly in ways I’d never be, and she had intense black hair. I imagined her as one of the bad kids in the movie Kids, except she obviously had to be pretty square to be attending a nerd camp voluntarily. During seminar, I was one of three or four kids who would talk a lot, but Mairead generally held her fire. She’d made one or two extremely trenchant comments each day, and you could tell our professors perked up whenever she opened her mouth. Her charisma clearly translated to the elderly. Mairead was also an awesome writer: at 16, her writing was so lucid that it was a pretty serious rebuke to the rest of us. We had no excuse. Somehow none of us hated her for it. This is not to say that she was flawlessly brilliant. In fact, Mairead could be noteworthily irrational in conversation, and she just took for granted the fact that she could impose her will on everyone else through arched eyebrows and rolled eyes. It didn’t matter, though. I was quite confident that she’d be president or generalissimo at some point in the future.
Almost every day, we’d take long walks through the Brown campus. All of the boys were incredibly jealous of me, and there was something unfair about the whole thing. Really, I just blubbered to her about my hopeless crush, and she’d talk about her kid sisters and medical oddities and, most interestingly to me, her various romantic experiences. Where I came from, boys and girls didn’t have the same easy rapport I had with Mairead, so I credit her with unraveling a lot of mysteries for me. After I returned home, we stayed in touch over email. She kind of walked me through my first “relationship” and break-up, which, I’m not proud to admit, was engineered primarily to give me something to plot and plan with Mairead. For whatever reason, we drifted once we both made it to college. I was always roughly aware of what was going on with her, i.e., who she was dating, what she was studying, etc. I found other friends, of course. All the same, I always had a deep affection for her, and I like to think she felt the same way about me. When I heard about her death – car accident – I took it very hard. The worst part is that the only person I wanted to talk to about it was my now ex-wife, who for all her faults had the necessary context to get why I was feeling so tremendously sad.
After the funeral, I saw Reihan, another kid from the program, who had stayed in better touch with Mairead. He was one of the many who was powerfully smitten with her, but it seems they established some kind of equilibrium. I definitely liked Reihan, but he was a little bit of a cliché – kind of a slippery Bengali version of Robin Williams during the cocaine years, only less coherent. I was definitely hard on him, but only because someone had to be. He was always getting away with some kind of spectacular crime. Someone told me that he was involved with right-wing politics. Someone else told me that he had taken to wearing a beret and epaulets, and insisting that people call him “Hugo.” I can’t say I really cared either way, except I had the strong sense that he was going to do something spectacularly inappropriate and maybe even evil.
It must have been a day or two after the funeral when I realized that Reihan had somehow managed to sedate and kidnap us all. We were floating miles above The Bronx, and slowly drifting towards the Long Island Sound. Though I was still pretty groggy, I could faintly make out that we were in a vehicle of some kind – a souped-up dirigible. But why would Reihan want to kidnap us? What was he thinking? I knew that he was slightly off-kilter – yet I never would have guessed that he’d commit an act so uniquely horrible, indeed so gauche, as to kidnap a bunch of people who were grieving the loss of a dear friend. Just as these questions were racing through my mind, Reihan, who looked a lot taller than I remember, tore off his “face” – a latex mask, as it turns out – to reveal that he was in fact … President Barack Obama.
At the risk of boring you, it turns out that the super-dirigible was funded by the stimulus package. Far from a simple kidnapping plot, this was the secret unveiling of a new energy platform designed to free the American economy from the tyranny of oil. Mairead, after leaving behind the history of science and dating drummers, was heavily involved in crafting alternative energy strategies for the new Administration. This fanciful gesture was Barack Obama’s strange and elaborate tribute to a brilliant and beautiful young woman cut down in her prime.
I won’t lie to you: I supported Chris Dodd in the Democratic primaries, mainly because I like my presidents slightly rotund, but this warm-hearted gesture won me over. Barack Obama was indeed my new bicycle, I decided that fateful day.
But what happened to the real Reihan? It turns out that there never was a “Reihan.” The young man I knew as “Reihan” was in fact a primitive cyborg built during the waning days of the Carter White House to amuse and entertain visiting extraterrestrials. Is he out there still, wandering amongst the stars? Does he continue to consume nothing but steamed broccoli, chicken korma, and axel grease? Only time will tell.