Ronald Reagan is on TV
Ronald Reagan is on TV. I sit on the couch with Mom while Dad stands behind us, still in his chef uniform. He is holding his white hat in his hands. The president sits at his desk in the Oval Office, shuffling a couple of papers around. I study his face, the tilt of his head, the furrows in his glossy hair. He takes a breath and begins. “A few months ago, I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions tell me that’s true, but the facts and the evidence all tell me it is not.”
I’m ten years old, and I’m confused. I’m pretty sure this means the president lied. I don’t know what to make of him. I don’t know what to make of any of this. On the news and at school, I’ve been hearing about how some powerful men in our government sent weapons to Iran in exchange for their help freeing Americans who had been taken hostage. Then, these men used the money they made selling weapons to Iran to secretly get involved in a war in Nicaragua. Everywhere I go, adults are talking about it and many of them are upset because of the lies and the secrecy and because we’ve “negotiated with terrorists,” whatever that means. The men who have been caught have names like Poindexter and North. They just keep changing their story and either say that they don’t recall, that it wasn’t as bad as it seems, or that the results of their actions are more important than what they did.
Up until now, I believed that adults usually tried to do the right thing, that they kept their promises, and were basically trying their best to be good and honest. I thought you could count on them to tell you the truth. Believing this made me feel safer in the world, but now it seems that the people in charge of the country, even the president, are either lying or just don’t know what they’re doing. It’s a scary thought.
At home, things are changing too and that’s scary in another way. A few months ago, my parents called a “family meeting” to tell us that they’re separating and that Dad will be moving out at some point in the not-so-distant future. Mom said the words while Dad just looked at the ground and nodded sadly. Even though I’m only a kid, I know that it probably means divorce. I’ve seen this happen on some of my favorite TV shows. My parents fight a lot, so I don’t have much hope that they’ll work it out. I doubt they do either. Maybe they’re trying to protect us and just can’t bring themselves to tell us that it’s over. Maybe they don’t know that yet and are trying to protect themselves too. Either way, I know they aren’t telling me the whole truth because I’m a kid. It makes me anxious to know something is wrong and that I can’t do anything to fix it. I’m anxious a lot these days.
Ronald Reagan is still on TV. It feels like he’s getting close to the end of his speech. He looks directly into the camera and says, “Now, what should happen when you make a mistake is this: You take your knocks, you learn your lessons, and then you move on.” He makes it sound simple, but maybe it’s not. Moving on sounds good, but how do you do that when you stop trusting someone? In the kitchen, Mom bangs dishes around, while Dad wrestles with my brother and sister in the hallway. They run at him as fast as they can, jumping and tackling him when they get close. I sit on the couch and imagine what it will be like when my dad moves out and my mom gets a full-time job. She’s thinking about selling houses. I fantasize about becoming a latchkey child with a hot pink spiral keychain. I will walk my brother and sister home from school and help them with their homework. I will make a snack for us and wash the dishes when we’re done.
We go on as if nothing ever happened. Dad still lives with us, but now he sleeps on the couch every night. The plan is that everything will stay the same through the summer and then he’ll move out. “A gradual transition will make things easier for all of us,” Mom says. I don’t want him to go any sooner, but something about everything staying the same when we know it’s different feels wrong to me. I have a constant stomachache.
Because my parents are splitting up, they’ve decided that we’ll take our one and only family vacation. Mom says it’s something they always wanted to do, but that we never really had the money before. She just sold her first house, and this is how she wants to spend her commission. She says it will be good for us to take this trip and she wants us to have this memory to look back on later. She’s trying so hard to be positive and I want to believe her, but knowing that nothing like this will ever happen again puts the whole trip under pressure. The place we’ll be going is called Enchanted Forest. It’s in the Adirondacks. Mom tells me it’s like a fairy tale come to life. There’s a giant statue of Paul Bunyan in the center of the park and a pumpkin coach just like the one Cinderella took to the ball. The idea of being in a place where happily ever after is possible sounds nice, even if it’s make-believe.
A couple of weeks later, we drive through woods and mountains. At one point, when we’re getting close to Old Forge, we stop to watch bears crawling around in a garbage dump. I’ve never seen bears or a garbage dump before and I think maybe this trip will be better than I expected. We arrive at our hotel just in time for dinner. At the restaurant, the hostess takes our name and tells us it will be just a little while. To distract myself, I look at the specials on the chalkboard. The date is written in cursive at the top: July 12, 1987. I look at that date and decide to remember this moment for the rest of my life. Partly I want to test myself, and partly I hope that Mom is right, that the memory of this trip is something I can return to when I’m sad. I take it all in: the delicate cursive handwriting, the TV screen above the bar showing a soldier decorated in lots of medals. His name is spelled out in bold white letters, Oliver North. We heard about him on the car radio the whole trip up here. He’s been testifying about how he shredded documents and lied to Congress. Apparently, it was his idea to sell weapons to Iran and secretly use the money to fund the war in Nicaragua. He seems proud of what he did, but if so much of it had to happen in secret, doesn’t it mean that maybe something was wrong with this plan? It sure seems like that to me.
The hostess takes us to our table. I look around the restaurant. There are families all around us and I imagine we look just like them, but I know that our situation is different. This is our last hurrah as a family. It feels weird to pretend that things are normal, but I’m afraid if I don’t, I’ll ruin our one and only vacation together. I try to smile and think about all the rides I’ll go on tomorrow. Think about the goats I’ll pet and how I might sit in Cinderella’s pumpkin coach. I eat my lemon meringue pie while the sky darkens and rain pounds the roof.
I’m nearly eleven, and I’ve just started babysitting for my next-door neighbor. Her name is Katie too, but we all call her Baby Kate. She’s three years younger than me and that’s a lot at this age. I watch her for the first time one afternoon, right after school for a couple hours. I love babysitting because it makes me feel brave and responsible, and that’s what I want to be. I can’t wait to be an adult. I imagine it might be this way all the time.
The sunlight is pouring in through the Goldmans’ kitchen window and I’m wiping down the counter, doing my best to show everyone how mature I am so that they’ll let me do this again. I wipe my way over to the TV and flip it on. It’s time for the news. I watch it because I think that’s the adult thing to do. Dan Rather is talking about Iran again. This time it’s a story about their war with a country I’ve never heard of before— Iraq. I see images of men in tan uniforms crouching behind boulders, firing big guns, and I think it’s sad that they’re fighting since their names are only one letter different. Iran. Iraq. They’re family. It’s sad when families fight.
But my family fights. And Katie’s does too. Our dads have recently moved out of our moms’ houses and have gotten an apartment together. Katie and I were really curious about their place and begged them to take us to see it. I thought it would be fun, like some sort of sitcom—two soon-to-be divorced dads and their kids. There would be ice cream and gold necklaces with heart-shaped lockets. There would be sunlight. Maybe the living room would smell like cedar, but it wasn’t like that at all. The air felt heavy and there was a makeshift bed where my dad was supposed to sleep, a tangle of sheets and blankets on a shabby wood floor. As soon as I saw that, I just felt sad and wanted to go home. Before long, Katie’s dad will want to go home too, and he’ll move back in next door. What my dad wants, I’m not sure, but he’ll still spend most nights on our living room couch because I don’t feel safe in our house at night without him. I don’t want to be afraid, but I am.
I’m curled up on the couch with another stomachache. I hate middle school. I flip through the channels on the TV to try to distract myself. I stop when I see Ronald Reagan on the screen. There he is, sitting in a red leather chair, testifying in front of a room full of lawyers. He looks just the same as always, except maybe his hair is a bit softer and greyer. That, and sometimes he seems a bit anxious or confused. Lawyers ask him question after question about what he knew about the Iran-Contra scandal. Over and over again he says, “I don’t recall… I have no recollection of doing so… I couldn’t tell you when… I don’t remember… I don’t recall.” It’s disturbing to see him this way because either he’s lying or he really doesn’t remember and something is wrong with his mind. Whatever the truth is, it can’t be good.
I’m trying to do my own kind of forgetting. I don’t want to remember that my first boyfriend gave another girl flowers on Valentine’s Day. I don’t want to think about the red carnation he gave me that day or how it made me smile. I don’t want to remember the note he wrote telling me how much he liked me. I don’t want to think about how much I liked him too. I don’t trust him anymore and I don’t like being lied to, so it’s over and I’m sad. In about 6 months, my parents’ marriage will officially be over too. I’ll tell Mom it’s time and we all need to move on. She and my dad will agree and finally file for divorce. It won’t change much—Dad doesn’t stay over at our house anymore— but living in reality definitely feels better.
I’m fourteen years old and I’m having dinner at my friend Lauren’s house. Her mom usually has a no TV policy, but tonight the news is on. We’re waiting for the first war of our lives to begin. Dan Rather is on TV. He says, “How long these air strikes last and to what extent they’re being conducted is one of the mysteries at the moment as the fog of war begins to descend on Iraq, Kuwait, the Persian Gulf and that whole area.” In not too long, the camera will shake and, in the distance, we’ll hear the rumbly thunder of explosions. And just like that, we’re officially at war.
For the next few weeks, I see images of war on television. The way it’s filmed, it looks like a video game, rockets exploding against a dark sky, everything cast with this greenish hue that makes it hard to see exactly what’s going on. I’m old enough to wonder if it’s being deliberately presented that way to make it seem less real and dangerous. At night, I lie in bed and look up at my ceiling covered in glow-in-the-dark stars. I think of the sky and imagine bombs dropping from above, here and in Iraq. I wonder how long this war will go on. I think about Saddam Hussein and George Bush and oil and power. I think about what it must feel like to be in Baghdad tonight. Being at war makes me feel unsafe in new ways. I wonder if I’m selfish for being afraid for my own life when people in Iraq are actually being bombed right now.
One morning, soon after the war begins, I walk through the front doors of my high school and find a group of kids sitting in a circle on the floor, protesting the war. They’re dressed in black, and I want to say that they’re holding white candles. I make my way into the circle and sit down next to Lauren. Someone starts to sing in a slightly shaky voice, “all we are saying is give peace a chance.” It’s the only protest song we know and, even if it’s obvious, it says everything we want to say. This is our first war and our first protest. As students stream into the school, the circle grows and the song gets louder and louder. At one point I turn around and see a newscaster standing by, waiting to interview us. There’s the cameraman. We’re being recorded. I close my eyes. Over and over again, we sing the words to that song. “All we are saying is give peace a chance.” We aren’t pretending. We are 14, 15, 16, 17 years old and we mean it.
And then I will be 18, I will be 25, I will be 32, I will be 36. I will be 40, the same age as my parents were when they told me they were separating. I will try to be the adult I imagined—someone who keeps her promises and does her best—but sometimes I will make mistakes. Sometimes I will struggle to be honest with others or even with myself. And when I catch myself or get caught by someone else, I’ll take responsibility, learn from it, and try to move forward—but it won’t always be that simple.
And I will sit on the blue couch in my living room, turn on the TV, and see the president behind his desk in the oval office or standing on the White House steps. There he is, in front of flags or behind a podium. Or he will testify before congress and he will say, “I do not recall” and “I have no knowledge of that” or “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” Or he will say things about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. And he will say, “yes, we can” and he will say we did what we had to do, that the cost of doing nothing was greater than the risk that he took. And then we will be at war with Iraq, with Afghanistan, with one another. And the president will say, “It’s a witch hunt. It’s a hoax. There was no collusion.” And he will say that the coronavirus is like the flu, that it will just go away. And, after losing the election, he will say over and over again that “it was rigged,” that “it was stolen.” And his supporters will believe him and mount an insurrection at the Capitol in an attempt to keep him in office. And I will see them on TV in their red hats and camo and crosses. Some will carry flags or cell phones. Others carry zip ties or baseball bats, stolen laptops or stun guns. Some will take photos of themselves posing with their feet up on top of lawmakers’ desks. Others will smile and wave as they hold up a podium. Others will smash windows, push their way inside and threaten guards and the government. They say they are there to “take the country back.” The whole thing will be at once like nothing I’ve ever seen and somehow all just the same.