Two days after the Women’s March on Washington, a man comes to my house to install new carpet on the stairs and in the upstairs hallway. I have the day off work and intend to spend these hours revising a story at my dining room table. It’s raining, which means the new carpet can’t be cut outside as planned. Progress will be slower than I’d hoped.
The carpet installer measures the stairs while I read the submission guidelines for a literary magazine’s themed issue. I worry the story I’d planned to send is not enough of a fairy tale for this journal. I worry, too, that this is not the time to concern myself with such smallness: my writing career, my literary striving. I’ve nearly talked myself out of submitting when I read the phrases resist domination and protest annihilation in the submission call. I scrawl these words across the top of my story draft in soft green ink.
When my husband and I bought this house, the same cheap carpeting stretched across the living room and dining room. We tore it up ourselves, revealing original hardwood that was blackened with mold. For hours we sat on the floor yanking out carpet nails while listening to a portable radio. Gotye’s “Somebody that You Used to Know” was the big hit that year. When everything was finally cleared out, we set to scrubbing the mold off the hardwood. It was grueling, tedious work, but when we finally finished and applied shellac, the floors shone.
Back then I prided myself on knowing every inch of our floors, every flaw. Now I sit at the dining room table while a professional does his work. I read my story. I make changes. I measure the story’s degree of protest, of resistance, and I do not find it lacking. I try to view this piece as reflected in the words of Kate Bernheimer: Radical strategies of survival. Ways to get out alive.
The carpet installer slashes off the old carpet and leaves the stairs waiting, naked. The stairs are made of the same original hardwood that runs throughout the rest of the house, and it’s just as I had hoped: rich and deep in color. I halfway wish we could forgo the new carpet and keep the original wood, but the rest of our floors are already so hard and cold. In at least this one small space, we need something that yields.
I turn back to my story. So much of what we send into the world comes back dressed in rejection.
I hit submit.
After my friends drop me off in Cleveland, I can’t find my keys. I used them to get inside the house, so they must be somewhere. I turn everything over. I empty my bags again and again. I shake things, listening for a rattle. I go up and down the stairs. Check the bathroom, the nightstand, the bookcase. I look inside the medicine cabinet and inside the refrigerator. I go outside and shine a flashlight into the flower beds and under the porch. I find nothing.
I think about Rosebud Ben-Oni’s post about losing her keys after the election. I think about it as I overturn all my possessions. I think about it as I text my friends to ask if someone might have picked up my keys by accident when they came inside to use the bathroom. I think of it as I get down on my knees and dig in the bottom of the coat closet. They could have fallen anywhere. They could be lost. They are.
Rosebud does not know me. She has no idea that her writing pops into my mind from time to time. She doesn’t know that I recall her blog posts when my neighbor loses her honey bees yet again, or when I feel my own metaphysical pull toward horses. When I cannot find my keys. When the world does not make sense.
That same night, I receive a message request on Facebook from a stranger. He worked on a literary magazine last year where one of my stories was under consideration. He’d fought for the story, but it wasn’t accepted, and now after all this time he seeks me out to say he’s never forgotten it, that he wants me to know how my writing has affected him. That story has since found a good home. He is glad to hear it.
I unpack from the weekend. When I head up to the attic to stash my sleeping bag, I find my box of old journals. I dig through until I find the one from 2004, the year I lived in DC. The journal is hardcover, spiral-bound, covered in multi-colored polka dots. I flip through until I find the entry dated April 26, 2004. One day after the March for Women’s Lives. I wrote about what it felt like to be a part of something so large and backed by such passion. I wrote about stepping onto the Metro and nearly tearing up when I saw the first protest signs. In that journal entry, I questioned how I could encourage more women to run for office, to be more confident, to prompt change. I wondered how I could find a way to believe in myself.
My friends text me back. They have my keys, which someone did indeed grab in the chaos of leaving. We make a plan to bring my keys home. Later, the friend who’d hosted us sends one last message to our group. “Went to see Hidden Figures today,” she wrote, “and it redoubled my intersectional feminist rage and celebration.”
How perfectly she hit on our weekend together: celebration and rage. That morning, before we left DC, we were talking in angry rushes about the state of our country when her boyfriend popped his head into the room.
“I like to hear you guys get so worked up about this,” he said. “It’s almost like you now know how it feels to be black in this country.”
We told him no. We don’t know that.
On the way to the march, I look out the window of the train as we roll past my former Metro stop. When I lived in DC, this was the platform I stood on every morning for my commute to work. It was a part of my past life, the foundation of a former self I barely remember.
We get off at Union Station and walk toward the Capitol. I think of all those long-ago weekends I spent wandering the Hirshhorn, the Museum of Natural History, the National Gallery of Art, or just taking long walks around the Mall. My year in DC was largely a lonely one. When I moved away, I made a list in that polka-dot journal of some things I thought I’d miss. They were all simple imprints of day-to-day life: the long escalator rising out of the Dupont Circle station, the stone church with the red door, the vegan bakery, my favorite thrift store in Takoma Park, and the way sun spilled through the blinds on my apartment’s sliding glass door.
More than a dozen years have passed and here I stand again on the Mall. My friends and I shuffle into the crowds, moving deep into the crush until I feel claustrophobic and need to break away. I’m rushing toward a bit of space when someone grabs my arm, and I turn to see the woman I meet every year on an island for a writing retreat. It is my only chance encounter during the march. There on the National Mall, we take a photo together. Her sign says RESIST.
At last, we begin to march, but it’s more of a shuffle, a shifting press among hordes of people. “That was the first and only time,” one of my friends says later, “that I have ever felt completely safe in such a large crowd.”
Hours pass. My feet are throbbing and my lips are chapped. Each of us had brought granola bars and a sandwich, food that is long gone. During the walk to the Metro, a faint mist starts to fall. On the train we’re packed in, my back to a man coughing, my side pressed against a woman wearing a green coat. At every stop I crane my neck to read the protest signs on the train going the opposite way.
When we finally make it back to the apartment, we order dinner and check our phones. I go on Facebook and see one of my contacts making a sexist joke and disparaging the march. Enraged, I unfriend him. As if that will do anything at all. But I’m shaking and furious because this person has daughters he loves and yet considers feminism a blight. I cannot make these two realities align in my mind no matter how hard I try.
I find myself thinking of the fairy tale I wrote for this blog not long before the election. When I wrote that piece, I’d believed a different result would come to pass. I believed in that little girl in red, how she so calmly stepped forward after the monster was vanquished.
Here’s a secret about that fairy tale: it’s a slanted version of the truth, fantasy mixed with fact. It’s the story of my life.
My friends, who made their way from Missouri, Michigan, and Toledo, pick me up in Cleveland on our way to DC. It’s raining lightly. The first time we pull into a rest stop, we see a woman in a pink hat and wave at her hard. Later, while enclosed in bathroom stalls, we hear women cheering in the travel plaza. We are on our way.
By the time we get to our friend’s apartment in the DC area, we are exhausted. We open champagne and decorate our protest signs. Mine merely reads FEMINISM, as if there isn’t so much more to say.
One of my friends pulls out a copy of The Handmaid’s Tale, which she is re-reading for the first time in years. “The last time I read this,” she tells us, “I was a virgin.”
We are staying less than a mile from my old apartment. In many ways, my friend’s place reminds me of that apartment: hardwood parquet floors in the living room, checkerboard bathroom linoleum, a narrow kitchen that best accommodates only one person at a time. Nostalgia rises in my throat like fog, like a ghost. I make half-hearted plans to pass by my old apartment at some point over the weekend, but this never happens. The past stays in the past.
We finish making our signs. Someone wonders aloud what we should say if we encounter counter-protestors. One of my friends doesn’t hesitate before giving her response:
“Welcome to the future,” she says.
It’s two days before I leave for DC, three days until the march, and I head to the craft store. I’m busy and in a hurry. I want to get in and get out.
Instead, I find myself wandering the aisles as if in a fugue state. I meander through the fine arts section until I see a woman carrying poster board. I ask where she found it, and she leads me to the right place. We stand there together as I give her a sideways look. I ask if she’s protesting, and of course the answer is yes.
I select some poster board and continue wandering the aisles. A woman approaches me and asks where I got my supplies. Then another. And another. Soon I’m floating through the store, moving among streams of women grasping markers and posters and duct tape. We’re sharing sign-making ideas and advice. We’re asking who’s traveling to DC, who’s staying in Cleveland. Otherwise we offer silent nods of recognition as we pass each other. We’re doing this. We’re making this happen.
At home, I walk upstairs and think about how that carpet will be replaced within a week. It’s such a trivial, domestic concern, and yet I can’t help but think how inconvenient that day will be. I’ll have to lock the cats in a bedroom, stay downstairs, use the creepy bathroom in the basement. During that time, my home will not be my own. But when it’s over, everything will be turned over and fresh. I’ll have a clean, soft surface to live with every day.
And before it’s complete—after the old carpet is torn away but before the new one is put down—I’ll catch a glimpse of what lies underneath. What I’ll see there has existed beneath my feet all along, and it will remain even after being concealed again: a solid foundation of covert beauty. Something strong and lovely that endures.