I started rereading All the King's Men, a book I haven't read in 20 years, over the weekend. The first time I read it I was 14, at a Youth in Government convention at a downtown hotel. I'd forgotten I was supposed to have it read by Monday, and I walked over to the Central Library and checked it out and crammed it, in between "trying a case" in the Appeals Court and electing officials and a bunch of other activities I wasn't totally interested in, though I was ostensibly there to learn citizenship and the political process and it was massive and well-organized. I hardly remember a thing about the book, or the weekend, frankly. I do remember that I had to share a bed with my fellow Appeals Court lawyer and her feet smelled powerful. Every time either of us shifted in the bed, the foot waft almost killed me. The other girls in our room said that after ski practice you could smell her feet before she took off her boots.
This past weekend I read the book in a DC-adjacent hotel, on the Metro, on the airplane. I read slowly and went over paragraphs again. I lugged it down the Mall in the dark on the way to the airport, my rolling bag rattling over the pebbly sidewalks, Washington Monument ahead, Capitol behind, not a soul around. It's easy to use this book to travel back and forth in time: 20 years ago I was getting ready for a dance, the culminating social event of the weekend, that same book on my bedside table, torturing my bangs into the appropriate configuration before descending to the ballroom and not dancing with anyone; this weekend I put on a 5 dollar dress from the 60s and danced my ass off at a wedding reception, even when no one else was dancing and Dom was boycotting "Dancing Queen." Or let's say I danced whenever the DJ complied by not killing the mood with incongruous or plain wack selections. I'd kicked off my platform shoes under the table, trading them for ballet shoes.
Back 20 years to the very beginning of my deliberate education in the humanities and forward to my continuing self-education through books and wandering and keeping my eyes open; back 20 years to the State Capitol and forward to the nation's capital; back 20 years to the subtle thrill of being on my own in a downtown hotel even if it was only a few miles from home and forward to the relaxed and confident affirmation of adulthood that happens every time I work my way through an unfamiliar city, especially this one, 950 miles from home and chock-a-block with evidence of your tax dollars going to work. That's a phrase you hardly ever hear uttered without a trace of irony, but that's how I mean it here.
This weekend worked my tear ducts, y'all, from the moment we circled over the Potomac to land at DCA. Between Friday afternoon and Sunday evening we hit the memorials to Lincoln, WWII, Jefferson, and FDR (my favorite); the National Portrait Gallery and the American Art museum; the Hope Diamond and the infinitely more interesting collection of crazy rocks and minerals from around the world; a Shaw neighborhood vegetarian restaurant; the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, the Constitution. Our dear friend got married and the first time I'd seen her in five years turned out to be the moment she entered the church to walk down the aisle. On the way to the reception, we stumbled upon the Marine Corps Memorial, which was overrun with Japanese schoolgirls. I was in a floor-length gown and Dom in a suit, and they asked to pose for a picture with us. It was surreal. "Oh just a typical Saturday afternoon," we kept tra-la-ing, like for example when we were walking through Whole Foods to get a slice of pizza in the long interval between ceremony and reception. "Just out for a stroll in my gown; just going to get a slice." We got searched at Fort Myer, which was exciting, and then we walked through the "neighborhood" inside, noting the names on the steps of the houses: Major Work (seriously), Champoux. We invented a sitcom in which we'd be the ones to run the community theater group in the fort and have wacky adventures with our military officer roommate. A black cat ran out of the bushes to greet me and when she showed me her belly, it was as licked and denuded as Ace's, in just the same neurotic way. I snapped her picture.
I was expecting something out of this weekend, a kind of keyed-up political fizzing in the air, and what I got instead was a cure for cynicism, or at least a damn good analgesic, or a vitamin shot. Back 20 years to Bush Sr. on his way in; forward and W. is on his way out one way or another.
I walked so much on Sunday, back and forth across the Mall and all over the museum, that sitting on the plane that evening turned out to be an uncomplicated pleasure. I slid over into the window seat and pressed my face against the pane as we lifted off over the illuminated monuments and the glittering city. Then we ascended into a cloud and the city faded as though my breath had fogged the glass. A few minutes later the stars appeared around me and I opened my book.