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As soon as I allowed myself to feel anything for Barack, the feelings came rushing—a toppling blast of lust, gratitude, fulfillment, wonder. Any worries I’d been harboring about my life and career and even about Barack himself seemed to fall away with that first kiss, replaced by a driving need to know him better, to explore and experience everything about him as fast as I could.
Maybe because he was due back at Harvard in a month, we wasted no time being casual. Not quite ready to have a boyfriend sleeping under the same roof as my parents, I began spending nights at Barack’s apartment, a cramped, second-floor walk-up above a storefront on a noisy section of Fifty-Third Street. The guy who normally lived there was a University of Chicago law student and he’d furnished it like any good student would, with mismatched garage-sale finds. There was a small table, a couple of rickety chairs, and a queen-sized mattress on the floor. Piles of Barack’s books and newspapers covered the open surfaces and a good deal of the floor. He hung his suit jackets on the backs of the kitchen chairs and kept very little in the fridge. It wasn’t homey, but now that I viewed everything through the lens of our fast-moving romance, it felt like home.
Barack intrigued me. He was not like anyone I’d dated before, mainly because he seemed so secure. He was openly affectionate. He told me I was beautiful. He made me feel good. To me, he was sort of like a unicorn—unusual to the point of seeming almost unreal. He never talked about material things, like buying a house or a car or even new shoes. His money went largely toward books, which to him were like sacred objects, providing ballast for his mind. He read late into the night, often long after I’d fallen asleep, plowing through history and biographies and Toni Morrison, too. He read several newspapers daily, cover to cover. He kept tabs on the latest book reviews, the American League standings, and what the South Side aldermen were up to. He could speak with equal passion about the Polish elections and which movies Roger Ebert had panned and why.
With no air-conditioning, we had little choice but to sleep with the windows open at night, trying to cool the sweltering apartment. What we gained in comfort, we sacrificed in quiet. In those days, Fifty-Third Street was a hub of late-night activity, a thoroughfare for cruising lowriders with unmuffled tailpipes. Almost hourly, it seemed, a police siren would blare outside the window or someone would start shouting, unloading a stream of outrage and profanity that would startle me awake on the mattress. If I found it unsettling, Barack did not. I sensed already that he was more at home with the unruliness of the world than I was, more willing to let it all in without distress. I woke one night to find him staring at the ceiling, his profile lit by the glow of streetlights outside. He looked vaguely troubled, as if he were pondering something deeply personal. Was it our relationship? The loss of his father?
“Hey, what’re you thinking about over there?” I whispered.
He turned to look at me, his smile a little sheepish. “Oh,” he said. “I was just thinking about income inequality.”
This, I was learning, was how Barack’s mind worked. He got himself fixated on big and abstract issues, fueled by some crazy sense that he might be able to do something about them. It was new to me, I have to say. Until now, I’d hung around with good people who cared about important enough things but who were focused primarily on building their careers and providing for their families. Barack was just different. He was dialed into the day-to-day demands of his life, but at the same time, especially at night, his thoughts seemed to roam a much wider plane.
The bulk of our time, of course, was still spent at work, in the plush stillness of the Sidley & Austin offices, where every morning I shook off any dreaminess and zipped myself back into my junior-associate existence, returning dutifully to my stack of documents and the demands of corporate clients I’d never once meet. Barack, meanwhile, worked on his own documents in a shared office down the hall, increasingly fawned over by partners who found him impressive.
Still concerned about propriety, I insisted we keep our blooming relationship out of sight of our colleagues, though it hardly worked. Lorraine, my assistant, gave Barack a knowing smile each time he surfaced in my office. We’d even been busted the very first night we’d been out in public as a couple, shortly after our first kiss, having gone to the Art Institute and then to see Spike Lee’s movie Do the Right Thing at Water Tower Place, where we bumped into one of the firm’s most high-ranking partners, Newt Minow, and his wife, Josephine, in the popcorn line. They’d greeted us warmly, even approvingly, and made no comment on the fact we were together. But still, there we were.
Work, during this time, felt like a distraction—the thing we had to do before we were allowed to charge back toward each other again. Away from the office, Barack and I talked endlessly, over leisurely walks around Hyde Park dressed in shorts and T-shirts and meals that seemed short to us but in reality went on for hours. We debated the merits of every single Stevie Wonder album before doing the same thing with Marvin Gaye. I was smitten. I loved the slow roll of his voice and the way his eyes softened when I told a funny story. I was coming to appreciate how he ambled from one place to the next, never worried about time.
Each day brought small discoveries: I was a Cubs fan, while he liked the White Sox. I loved mac and cheese, and he couldn’t stand it. He liked dark, dramatic movies, while I went all-in for rom-coms. He was a lefty with immaculate handwriting; I had a heavy right-hand scrawl. In the month before he went back to Cambridge, we shared what felt like every memory and stray thought, running through our childhood follies, teenage blunders, and the thwarted starter romances that had gotten us to each other. Barack was especially intrigued by my upbringing—the year-to-year, decade-to-decade sameness of life on Euclid Avenue, with me and Craig and Mom and Dad making up four corners of a sturdy square. Barack had spent a lot of time in churches during his time as a community organizer, which had left him with an appreciation for organized religion, but at the same time he remained less traditional. Marriage, he told me early on, struck him as an unnecessary and overhyped convention.
I don’t remember introducing Barack to my family that summer, though Craig tells me I did. He says that the two of us walked up to the house on Euclid Avenue one evening. Craig was over for a visit, sitting on the front porch with my parents. Barack, he recalls, was friendly and confident and made a couple of minutes of easy small talk before we ran up to my apartment to pick something up.
My father appreciated Barack instantly, but still didn’t like his odds. After all, he’d seen me jettison my high school boyfriend David at the gates of Princeton. He’d watched me dismiss Kevin the college football player as soon as I’d seen him in a furry mascot outfit. My parents knew better than to get too attached. They’d raised me to run my own life, and that’s basically what I did. I was too focused and too busy, I’d told my parents plenty of times, to make room for any man.
According to Craig, my father shook his head and laughed as he watched me and Barack walk away.
“Nice guy,” he said. “Too bad he won’t last.”
If my family was a square, then Barack’s was a more elaborate piece of geometry, one that reached across oceans. He’d spent years trying to make sense of its lines. His mother, Ann Dunham, had been a seventeen-year-old college student in Hawaii in 1960, when she fell for a Kenyan student named Barack Obama. Their marriage was brief and confusing—especially given that her new husband, it turned out, already had a wife in Nairobi. After their divorce, Ann went on to marry a Javanese geologist named Lolo Soetoro and moved to Jakarta, bringing along the junior Barack Obama—my Barack Obama—who was then six years old.
As Barack described it to me, he’d been happy in Indonesia and got along well with his new stepfather, but his mother had concerns about the quality of his schooling. In 1971, Ann Dunham sent her son back to Oahu to attend private school and live with her parents. She was a free spirit who would go on to spend years moving between Hawaii and Indonesia. Aside from making one extended trip back to Hawaii when Barack was ten, his father—a man who by all accounts had both a powerful mind and a powerful drinking problem—remained absent and unengaged.
And yet Barack was loved deeply. His grandparents on Oahu doted on both him and his younger half sister Maya. His mother, though still living in Jakarta, was warm and supportive from afar. Barack also spoke affectionately of another half sister in Nairobi, named Auma. He’d grown up with far less stability than I had, but he didn’t lament it. His story was his story. His family life had left him self-reliant and curiously hardwired for optimism. The fact he’d navigated his unusual upbringing so successfully seemed only to reinforce the idea that he was ready to take on more.
On a humid evening, I went with him as he did a favor for an old friend. One of his former community-organizer co-workers had asked if he could lead a training at a black parish in Roseland, on the Far South Side, an area that had been crippled by the steel mill closings of the mid-1980s. For Barack, it was a welcome one-night return to his old job and the part of Chicago where he’d once worked. It occurred to me as we walked into the church, both of us still dressed in our office clothes, that I’d never thought much about what a community organizer actually did. We followed a stairwell down to a low-ceilinged, fluorescent-lit basement area, where fifteen or so parishioners—mostly women, as I remember—were sitting in folding chairs in what looked to be a room that doubled as a day-care center, fanning themselves in the heat. I took a seat in the back as Barack walked to the front of the room and said hello.
To them, he must have seemed young and lawyerly. I could see that they were sizing him up, trying to figure out whether he was some sort of opinionated outsider or in fact had something of value to offer. The atmosphere was plenty familiar to me. I’d grown up attending my great-aunt Robbie’s weekly Operetta Workshop in an African Methodist Episcopal church not unlike this one. The women in the room were no different from the ladies who sang in Robbie’s choir or who’d turned up with casseroles after Southside died. They were well-intentioned, community-minded women, often single mothers or grandmothers, the type who inevitably stepped in to help when no one else would volunteer.
Barack hung his suit jacket on the back of his chair and took off his wristwatch, laying it on the table in front of him to keep an eye on the time. After introducing himself, he facilitated a conversation that would last about an hour, asking people to share their stories and describe their concerns about life in the neighborhood. Barack, in turn, shared his own story, tying it to the principles of community organizing. He was there to convince them that our stories connected us to one another, and through those connections, it was possible to harness discontent and convert it to something useful. Even they, he said—a tiny group inside a small church, in what felt like a forgotten neighborhood—could build real political power. It took effort, he cautioned. It required mapping strategy and listening to your neighbors and building trust in communities where trust was often lacking. It meant asking people you’d never met to give you a bit of their time or a tiny piece of their paycheck. It involved being told no in a dozen or a hundred different ways before hearing the “yes” that would make all the difference. (This, it seemed, was a large part of what an organizer did.) But he assured them they could have influence. They could make change. He’d seen the process work, if not always smoothly, in the Altgeld Gardens public-housing project, where a group just like this one had managed to register new voters, rally residents to meet with city officials about asbestos contamination, and persuade the mayor’s office to fund a neighborhood job-training center.
The heavyset woman sitting next to me bounced a toddler on her knee and did nothing to hide her skepticism. She inspected Barack with her chin lifted and her bottom lip stuck out, as if to say, Who are you to be telling us what to do?
But skepticism didn’t bother him, the same way long odds didn’t seem to bother him. Barack was a unicorn, after all—shaped by his unusual name, his odd heritage, his hard-to-pin-down ethnicity, his missing dad, his unique mind. He was used to having to prove himself, pretty much anywhere he went.
The idea he was presenting wasn’t an easy sell, nor should it have been. Roseland had taken one hit after another, from the exodus of white families and the bottoming out of the steel industry to the deterioration of its schools and the flourishing of the drug trade. As an organizer working in urban communities, Barack had told me, he’d contended most often with a deep weariness in people—especially black people—a cynicism bred from a thousand small disappointments over time. I understood it. I’d seen it in my own neighborhood, in my own family. A bitterness, a lapse in faith. It lived in both of my grandfathers, spawned by every goal they’d abandoned and every compromise they’d had to make. It was inside the harried second-grade teacher who’d basically given up trying to teach us at Bryn Mawr. It was inside the neighbor who’d stopped mowing her lawn or keeping track of where her kids went after school. It lived in every piece of trash tossed carelessly in the grass at our local park and every ounce of malt liquor drained before dark. It lived in every last thing we deemed unfixable, including ourselves.
Barack didn’t talk down to the people of Roseland, and he wasn’t trying to win them over, either, by hiding his privilege and acting more “black.” Amid the parishioners’ fears and frustrations, their disenfranchisement and sinking helplessness, he was somewhat brashly pointing an arrow in the opposite direction.
I’d never been someone who dwelled on the more demoralizing parts of being African American. I’d been raised to think positively. I’d absorbed my family’s love and my parents’ commitment to seeing us succeed. I’d stood with Santita Jackson at Operation PUSH rallies, listening to her father call for black people to remember their pride. My purpose had always been to see past my neighborhood—to look ahead and overcome. And I had. I’d scored myself two Ivy League degrees. I had a seat at the table at Sidley & Austin. I’d made my parents and grandparents proud. But listening to Barack, I began to understand that his version of hope reached far beyond mine: It was one thing to get yourself out of a stuck place, I realized. It was another thing entirely to try and get the place itself unstuck.
I was gripped all over again by a sense of how special he was. Slowly, all around me, too, the church ladies began nodding their approval, punctuating his sentences with calls of “Mmmm-hmm” and “That’s right!”
His voice climbed in intensity as he got to the end of his pitch. He wasn’t a preacher, but he was definitely preaching something—a vision. He was making a bid for our investment. The choice, as he saw it, was this: You give up or you work for change. “What’s better for us?” Barack called to the people gathered in the room. “Do we settle for the world as it is, or do we work for the world as it should be?”
It was a phrase borrowed from a book he’d read when he first started out as an organizer, and it would stay with me for years. It was as close as I’d come to understanding what motivated Barack. The world as it should be.
Next to me, the woman with the toddler on her lap all but exploded. “That’s right!” she bellowed, finally convinced. “Amen!”
Amen, I thought to myself. Because I was convinced, too.
Before he returned to law school, sometime in the middle of August, Barack told me he loved me. The feeling had flowered between us so quickly and naturally that there was nothing especially memorable about the moment itself. I don’t recall when or how exactly it happened. It was just an articulation, tender and meaningful, of the thing that had caught us both by surprise. Even though we’d known each other only a couple of months, even though it was kind of impractical, we were in love.
But now we had to navigate the more than nine hundred miles that would separate us. Barack had two years of school left and said he hoped to settle in Chicago when he was done. There was no expectation that I would leave my life there in the interim. As a still-newish associate at Sidley, I understood that the next phase of my career was critical—that my accomplishments would determine whether I made partner or not. Having been through law school myself, I also knew how busy Barack would be. He’d been chosen as an editor on the Harvard Law Review, a monthly student-run journal that was considered one of the top legal publications in the country. It was an honor to be picked for the editorial team, but it was also like tacking a full-time job onto the already-heavy load of being a law student.
What did this leave us with? It left us with the phone. Keep in mind that this was 1989, when phones didn’t live in our pockets. Texting wasn’t a thing; no emoji could sub for a kiss. The phone required both time and mutual availability. Personal calls happened usually at home, at night, when you were dog tired and in need of sleep.
Barack told me, ahead of leaving, that he preferred letter writing.
“I’m not much of a phone guy” was how he put it. As if that settled it.
But it settled nothing. We’d just spent the whole summer talking. I wasn’t going to relegate our love to the creeping pace of the postal service. This was another small difference between us: Barack could pour his heart out through a pen. He’d been raised on letters, sustenance arriving in the form of wispy airmail envelopes from his mom in Indonesia. I, meanwhile, was an in-your-face sort of person—brought up on Sunday dinners at Southside’s, where you sometimes had to shout to be heard.
In my family, we gabbed. My dad, who’d recently traded in his car for a specialized van to accommodate his disability, still made a point of showing up in his cousins’ doorways as often as possible for in-person visits. Friends, neighbors, and cousins of cousins also regularly turned up on Euclid Avenue and planted themselves in the living room next to my father in his recliner to tell stories and ask for advice. Even David, my old high school boyfriend, sometimes dropped in to seek his counsel. My dad had no problem with the phone, either. For years, I’d seen him call my grandmother in South Carolina almost daily, asking for her news.
I informed Barack that if our relationship was going to work, he’d better get comfortable with the phone. “If I’m not talking to you,” I announced, “I might have to find another guy who’ll listen.” I was joking, but only a little.
And so it was that Barack became a phone guy. Over the course of that fall, we spoke as often as we could manage, both of us locked into our respective worlds and schedules but still sharing the little details of our days, commiserating over the heap of corporate tax cases he had to read, or laughing about how I’d taken to sweating out my office frustrations at after-work aerobics. As months passed, our feelings stayed steady and reliable. For me, it became one less thing in life to question.
At Sidley & Austin, I was part of the Chicago office’s recruiting team, tasked with interviewing Harvard Law School students for summer-associate jobs. It was essentially a wooing process. As a student, I’d experienced for myself the power and temptation of the corporate-law industrial complex, having been given a binder as thick as a dictionary that listed law firms across the country and told that every one of them was interested in landing Harvard-educated lawyers. It would seem that with the imprimatur of a Harvard JD, you had a shot at working in any city, in any field of law, whether it be at a mammoth litigation firm in Dallas or a boutique real-estate firm in New York. If you were curious about any of them, you requested an on-campus interview. If that went well, you were then treated to a “fly-out,” which amounted to a plane ticket, a five-star hotel room, and another round of interviews at the firm’s office, followed by some extravagant wine-and-dine experience with recruiters like me. While at Harvard, I’d availed myself of fly-outs to San Francisco and Los Angeles, in part to check out entertainment-law practices there but also, if I was honest, because I’d never been to California.
Now that I was at Sidley and on the other side of the recruiting experience, my goal was to bring in law students who were not just smart and hard-driving but also something other than male and white. There was exactly one other African American woman on the recruiting team, a senior associate named Mercedes Laing. Mercedes was about ten years older than I was and became a dear friend and mentor. Like me, she had two Ivy League degrees and routinely sat at tables where nobody looked like her. The struggle, we agreed, was not to get used to it or accept it. In meetings on recruitment, I argued insistently—and I’m sure brazenly, in some people’s opinion—that the firm cast a wider net when it came to finding young talent. The long-held practice was to engage students from a select group of law schools—Harvard, Stanford, Yale, Northwestern, the University of Chicago, and the University of Illinois, primarily—the places where most of the firm’s lawyers had earned their degrees. It was a circular process: one generation of lawyers hiring new lawyers whose life experience mirrored their own, leaving little room for diversity of any sort. In fairness to Sidley, this was a problem (whether recognized or not) at virtually every big firm in the country. A National Law Journal survey from the time found that in large firms African Americans made up not quite 3 percent of all associates and less than 1 percent of all partners.
Trying to help remedy the imbalance, I pushed for us to consider law students coming from other state schools and from historically black colleges like Howard University. When the recruiting team gathered in a conference room in Chicago with a pile of student résumés to review, I objected anytime a student was automatically dismissed for having a B on a transcript or for having gone to a less prestigious undergraduate program. If we were serious about bringing in minority lawyers, I asserted, we’d have to look more holistically at candidates. We’d need to think about how they’d used whatever opportunities life had afforded them rather than measuring them simply by how far they’d made it up an elitist academic ladder. The point wasn’t to lower the firm’s high standards: It was to realize that by sticking with the most rigid and old-school way of evaluating a new lawyer’s potential, we were overlooking all sorts of people who could contribute to the firm’s success. We needed to interview more students, in other words, before writing them off.
For this reason, I loved making recruiting trips to Cambridge, because it gave me some influence in which Harvard students got chosen for an interview. It also, of course, gave me an excuse to see Barack. The first time I visited, he picked me up in his car, a snub-nosed, banana-yellow Datsun he’d bought used on his loan-strapped student budget. When he turned the key, the engine revved and the car spasmed violently before settling into a loud, sustained juddering that shook us in our seats. I looked at Barack in disbelief.
“You drive this thing?” I said, raising my voice over the noise.
He flashed me the impish, I-got-this-covered grin that melted me every time. “Just give it a minute or two,” he said, shifting the car into gear. “It goes away.” After another few minutes, having steered us onto a busy road, he added, “Also, maybe don’t look down.”
I’d already spotted what he wanted me to avoid—a rusted-out, four-inch hole in the floor of his car, through which I could see the pavement rushing beneath us.
Life with Barack would never be dull. I knew it even then. It would be some version of banana yellow and slightly hair-raising. It occurred to me, too, that quite possibly the man would never make any money.
He was living in a spartan one-bedroom apartment in Somerville, but during my recruiting trips Sidley put me up at the luxe Charles Hotel adjacent to campus, where we slept on smooth high-quality sheets and Barack, rarely one to cook for himself, could load up on a hot breakfast before his morning classes. In the evenings, he parked himself in my room and did his schoolwork, giddily dressed in one of the hotel’s thick terry-cloth robes.
At Christmastime that year, we flew to Honolulu. I’d never been to Hawaii before but was pretty certain I’d like it. I was coming from Chicago, after all, where winter stretched through April, where it was normal to keep a snow shovel stashed in the trunk of your car. I owned an unsettling amount of wool. For me, getting away from winter had always felt like a joyride. During college, I’d made a trip to the Bahamas with my Bahamian classmate David, and another to Jamaica with Suzanne. In both instances, I’d reveled in the soft air on my skin and the simple buoyancy I felt anytime I got close to the ocean. Maybe it was no accident that I was drawn to people who’d been raised on islands.
In Kingston, Suzanne had taken me to powdery white beaches where we dodged waves in water that looked like jade. She’d piloted us expertly through a chaotic market, jabbering with street vendors.
“Try dis!” she’d shouted at me, going full throttle with the accent, exuberantly handing me pieces of grilled fish to taste, handing me fried yams, stalks of sugarcane, and cut-up pieces of mango. She demanded I try everything, intent on getting me to see how much there was to love.
It was no different with Barack. By now he’d spent more than a decade on the mainland, but Hawaii still mattered to him deeply. He wanted me to take it all in, from the splaying palm trees that lined the streets of Honolulu and the crescent arc of Waikiki Beach to the green drape of hills surrounding the city. For about a week, we stayed in a borrowed apartment belonging to family friends and made trips every day to the ocean, to swim and laze about in the sun. I met Barack’s half sister Maya, who at nineteen was kind and smart and getting a degree at Barnard. She had round cheeks and wide brown eyes and dark hair that curled in a rich tangle around her shoulders. I met his grandparents Madelyn and Stanley Dunham, or “Toot and Gramps,” as he called them. They lived in the same high-rise where they’d raised Barack, in a small apartment decorated with Indonesian textiles that Ann had sent home over the years.
And I met Ann herself, a plump, lively woman with dark frizzy hair and the same angular chin as Barack. She wore chunky silver jewelry, a bright batik dress, and the kind of sturdy sandals I would guess an anthropologist might wear. She was friendly toward me and curious about my background and my career. It was clear she adored her son—almost revered him—and she seemed most eager to sit down and talk with him, describing her dissertation work and swapping book recommendations as if catching up with an old friend.
Everyone in the family still called him Barry, which I found endearing. Though they’d left their home state of Kansas back in the 1940s, his grandparents seemed to me like the misplaced midwesterners Barack had always described them as. Gramps was big and bearlike and told silly jokes. Toot, a stout, gray-haired woman who’d worked her way up to becoming the vice president of a local bank, made us tuna salad sandwiches for lunch. In the evenings, she served Ritz crackers piled with sardines for appetizers and put dinner on TV trays so that everyone could watch the news or play a heated game of Scrabble. They were a modest, middle-class family, in many ways not at all unlike my own.
There was something comforting in this, for both me and Barack. As different as we were, we fit together in an interesting way. It was as if the reason for the ease and attraction between us was now being explained.
In Hawaii, Barack’s intense and brainy side receded somewhat, while the laid-back part of him flourished. He was at home. And home was where he didn’t feel the need to prove anything to anyone. We were late for everything we did, but it didn’t matter—not even to me. Barack’s high school buddy Bobby, who was a commercial fisherman, took us out on his boat one day for some snorkeling and an aimless cruise. It was then that I saw Barack as relaxed as I’d ever seen him, lounging under a blue sky with a cold beer and an old friend, no longer fixated on the day’s news or law school reading, or what should be done about income inequality. The sun-bleached mellowness of the island opened up space for the two of us, in part by giving us time we’d never before had.
So many of my friends judged potential mates from the outside in, focusing first on their looks and financial prospects. If it turned out the person they’d chosen wasn’t a good communicator or was uncomfortable with being vulnerable, they seemed to think time or marriage vows would fix the problem. But Barack had arrived in my life a wholly formed person. From our very first conversation, he’d shown me that he wasn’t self-conscious about expressing fear or weakness and that he valued being truthful. At work, I’d witnessed his humility and willingness to sacrifice his own needs and wants for a bigger purpose.
And now in Hawaii, I could see his character reflected in other small ways. His long-lasting friendships with his high school buddies showed his consistency in relationships. In his devotion to his strong-willed mother, I saw a deep respect for women and their independence. Without needing to discuss it outright, I knew he could handle a partner who had her own passions and voice. These were things you couldn’t teach in a relationship, things that not even love could really build or change. In opening up his world to me, Barack was showing me everything I’d ever need to know about the kind of life partner he’d be.
One afternoon, we borrowed a car and drove to the North Shore of Oahu, where we sat on a ribbon of soft beach and watched surfers rip across enormous waves. We stayed for hours, just talking, as one wave tipped into the next, as the sun dropped toward the horizon and the other beachgoers packed up to go home. We talked as the sky turned pink and then purple and finally went dark, as the bugs started to bite, as we began to get hungry. If I’d come to Hawaii to sample something of Barack’s past, we were now sitting at the edge of a giant ocean, trying on a version of the future, discussing what kind of house we’d want to live in someday, what kind of parents we wanted to be. It felt speculative and a little daring to talk like this, but it was also reassuring, because it seemed as if maybe we’d never stop, that maybe this conversation between us could go on for life.
Back in Chicago, separated again from Barack, I still sometimes went to my old happy-hour gatherings, though I rarely stayed out late. Barack’s dedication to reading had brought out a new bookishness in me. I was now content to spend a Saturday night reading a good novel on the couch.
When I got bored, I called up old friends. Even now that I had a serious boyfriend, my girlfriends were the ones who held me steady. Santita Jackson was now traveling the country as a backup singer for Roberta Flack, but we spoke when we could. A year or so earlier, I’d sat with my parents in their living room, bursting with pride as we watched Santita and her siblings introduce their father at the 1988 Democratic National Convention. Reverend Jackson had made a respectable run for the presidency, winning about a dozen primaries before ceding the nomination to Michael Dukakis. Along the way, he’d filled households like ours with a new and profound level of hope and excitement, even if in our hearts we understood that he was a long shot’s long shot.
I spoke regularly with Verna Williams, a close friend from law school, who until recently had been living in Cambridge. She’d met Barack a couple of times and liked him a lot but teased me that I’d let my insanely high standards slip, having allowed a smoker into my life. Angela Kennedy and I still laughed hard together, even though she was working as a teacher in New Jersey while also parenting a young son and trying to hold herself steady as her marriage slowly imploded. We’d known each other as goofy, half-mature college girls, and now we were adults, with adult lives and adult concerns. That idea alone sometimes struck us as hilarious.
Suzanne, meanwhile, was the same free spirit she’d been when we roomed together at Princeton—flitting in and out of my life with varying predictability, continuing to measure the value of her days purely by whether they were pleasurable or not. We’d go long stretches without talking but then pick up the thread of our friendship with ease. As always, I called her Screwzy and she called me Miche. Our worlds continued to be as different as they’d been at school, when she was trekking off to eating-club parties and kicking her dirty laundry beneath the bed and I was color coding my Sociology 201 notes. Even then, Suzanne was like a sister whose life I could only track from afar, across the gulf of our inherent differences. She was maddening, charming, and always important to me. She’d ask my advice and then willfully ignore it. Would it be bad to date a philandering semi-famous pop star? Why, yes it would, but she’d do it anyway, because why not? Most galling to me was when she turned down an opportunity to go to an Ivy League business school after college, deciding that it would be too much work and therefore no fun. Instead, she got her MBA from a not-so-stressful program at a state school, which I viewed as kind of a lazy move.
Suzanne’s choices sometimes seemed like an affront to my way of doing things, a vote in favor of easing up and striving less. I can say now that I judged her unfairly for them. At the time, though, I just thought I was right.
Not long after I’d started dating Barack, I called Suzanne to gush about my feelings for him. She’d been thrilled to hear me so happy—happiness being her currency. She also had news of her own: She was ditching her job as a computer specialist at the Federal Reserve and going traveling—not for weeks, but for months. Suzanne and her mom were soon to head off on some round-the-world-style adventure. Because why not?
I could never guess whether Suzanne knew unconsciously that something strange was happening in the cells of her body, that a silent hijacking was already under way. What I did know was that during the fall of 1989, while I wore patent leather pumps and sat through long, dull conference-room meetings at Sidley, Suzanne and her mother were trying not to spill curry on their sundresses in Cambodia and dancing at dawn on the grand walkways of the Taj Mahal. As I balanced my checkbook, picked up my dry cleaning, and watched the leaves wither and drop from the trees along Euclid Avenue, Suzanne was careening through hot, humid Bangkok in a tuk-tuk, hooting—as I imagined it—with joy. I don’t, in fact, know what any of her travels looked like or where she actually went, because she wasn’t one to send postcards or keep in touch. She was too busy living, stuffing herself full of what the world had to give.
By the time she got home to Maryland and found a moment to reach out to me, the news was different—so clanging and dissonant from my image of her that I could hardly take it in.
“I have cancer,” Suzanne told me, her voice husky with emotion. “A lot of it.”
Her doctors had just diagnosed it, an aggressive form of lymphoma, already ravaging her organs. She described a plan for treatment, pegging some hope to what the results could be, but I was too overwhelmed to note the details. Before hanging up, she told me that in a cruel twist of fate her mother had fallen gravely ill as well.
I’m not sure that I ever believed that life was fair, but I had always thought that you could work your way out of just about any problem. Suzanne’s cancer was the first real challenge to that notion, a sabotage of my ideals. Because even if I didn’t have the specifics nailed down yet, I did have ideas about the future. I had that agenda I’d been assiduously maintaining since freshman year of college, stemming from the neat line of boxes I was meant to check.
For me and Suzanne, it was supposed to go like this: We’d be the maids of honor at each other’s weddings. Our husbands would be really different, of course, but they’d like each other a lot anyway. We’d have babies at the same time, take family beach trips to Jamaica, remain mildly critical of each other’s parenting techniques, and be favorite fun aunties to each other’s kids as they grew. I’d get her kids books for their birthdays; she’d get mine pogo sticks. We’d laugh and share secrets and roll our eyes at what we perceived as the other person’s ridiculous idiosyncrasies, until one day we’d realize we were two old ladies who’d been best friends forever, flummoxed suddenly by where the time had gone.
That, for me, was the world as it should be.
What I find remarkable in hindsight is how, over the course of that winter and spring, I just did my job. I was a lawyer, and lawyers worked. We worked all the time. We were only as good as the hours we billed. There was no choice, I told myself. The work was important, I told myself. And so I kept showing up every morning in downtown Chicago, at the corporate ant mound known as One First National Plaza. I put my head down and billed my hours.
Back in Maryland, Suzanne was living with her disease. She was coping with medical appointments and surgeries and at the same time trying to care for her mother, who was also fighting an aggressive cancer that was, the doctors insisted, completely unrelated to Suzanne’s. It was bad luck, bad fortune, freakish to the point of being too scary to contemplate. The rest of Suzanne’s family was not particularly close-knit, except for two of her favorite female cousins who helped her out as much as they could. Angela drove down from New Jersey to visit sometimes, but she was juggling both a toddler and a job. I enlisted Verna, my law school friend, to go by when she could, as a sort of proxy for me. Verna had met Suzanne a couple of times while we were at Harvard and by sheer coincidence was now living in Silver Spring, in a building just across the parking lot from Suzanne’s.
It was a lot to ask of Verna, who’d recently lost her father and was wrestling with her own grief. But she was a true friend, a compassionate person. She phoned my office one day in May to relay the details of a visit.
“I combed her hair,” she said.
That Suzanne needed to have her hair combed should have told me everything, but I’d walled myself off from the truth. Some part of me still insisted this wasn’t happening. I held on to the idea that Suzanne’s health would turn around, even as the evidence against it stacked up.
It was Angela, finally, who called me in June and got right to the point. “If you’re going to come, Miche,” she said, “you’d better get to it.”
By then, Suzanne had been moved to a hospital. She was too weak to talk, slipping in and out of consciousness. There was nothing left to feed my denial. I hung up the phone and bought a plane ticket. I flew east, caught a taxi to the hospital, took the elevator to the right floor, walked the hallway to her room, and found her there, lying in bed as Angela and her cousin watched over her, everyone silent. Suzanne’s mother, it turned out, had died just a few days earlier, and now Suzanne was in a coma. Angela made room for me to perch on the side of her bed.
I stared hard at Suzanne, at her perfect heart-shaped face and reddish-brown skin, feeling comforted somehow by the youthful smoothness of her cheeks and the girlish curve in her lips. She seemed oddly undiminished by the illness. Her dark hair was still lustrous and long; someone had put it in two ropy braids that reached almost to her waist. Her track runner’s legs lay hidden beneath the blankets. She looked young, like a sweet, beautiful twenty-six-year-old who was maybe in the middle of a nap.
I regretted not coming earlier. I regretted the many times, over the course of our seesawing friendship, that I’d insisted she was making a wrong move, when possibly she’d been doing it right. I was suddenly glad for all the times she’d ignored my advice. I was glad that she hadn’t overworked herself to get some fancy business school degree. That she’d gone off for a lost weekend with a semi-famous pop star, just for fun. I was happy that she’d made it to the Taj Mahal to watch the sunrise with her mom. Suzanne had lived in ways that I had not.
That day, I held her limp hand and watched as her breathing grew ragged, as eventually there were long pauses between her inhales. At some point, the nurse gave us a knowing nod. It was happening. Suzanne was leaving. My mind went dark. I had no deep thoughts. I had no revelations about life or loss. If anything, I was mad.
To say that it was unfair that Suzanne got sick and died at twenty-six seems too simple a thing. But it was a fact, as cold and ugly as they come. What I was thinking as I finally left her body in that hospital room was this: She’s gone and I’m still here. Outside in the hallway, there were people wandering in hospital gowns who were far older and sicker looking than Suzanne, and they were still here. I would take a packed flight back to Chicago, drive along a busy highway, ride an elevator up to my office. I’d see all these people looking happy in their cars, walking the sidewalk in their summer clothes, sitting idly in cafés, and working at their desks, all of them oblivious to what happened to Suzanne—apparently unaware that they, too, could die at any moment. It felt perverse, how the world just carried on. How everyone was still here, except for my Suzanne.
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