the 4th of July
Like every capital city everywhere in the world, this one was mapped out for the day. A lawn here, a parking lot there, this monument’s special open hours: all for the purpose of free and equal access to the evening’s fireworks display.
Lost interest the night before, even. Fireworks reminded me of November 25th in Oman, where all that oil money went into exquisite, complicated sulphur and light formations in the sky. Who the fuck knew it was oil money then anyway? Not us expat kids, all we saw were the lights. We’d go to the houses of family friends who lived in the hills, and watch the national flag and the kanjar picked out in bursts of light in the sky. The fireworks in DC? Drugstore Americana, big umbrellas of blue, gold, white and red sparks opening and closing in turns.
We went out to eat a late lunch, then shopped discounted sales, landed at the pool finally. Went up the road from the apartment complex about half an hour before everything started. None of us seemed particularly eager to go, but there wasn’t anything else to do. The roads would be jammed, restaurant service would be bad, bars nearby would be dead. For some reason, everyone with babies had come out. Everyone! On some level, nationalist propaganda must tie into state-approved levels of procreation. Come celebrate the country’s birth with your new born!
Ungeneralizable unintentionally racist observation: in this part of the city, the white parents are getting older and older, all with SPF45 and wet-wipes and organic baby food. The Hispanic and Black parents are getting younger, as are their babies. Saw one that hadn’t even opened its eyes yet. The mother was tending to it on the grass by the sidewalk, kneeling as if to pick up a spilt handbag and this bigger guy—let’s call him Jorge, he looked like a Jorge—Jorge looks over to this skinny younger Hispanic couple. Thin and tough and young, so young, and Jorge says, don’t you want one of them? The girl tightens her lip, and the guy says, her? She calls them “it”. All the Asians who are here without a car are sitting down dutifully, no babies in tow at all. Eyes with that work visa look: they know it’s a pledge of allegiance, just showing up. Their kids eager eyed and waiting. I’m not sure if they’ve seen American fireworks before, because there’s an expectation on their face that makes me think they’re dreaming diwali. Or dussehra. Or Pongal.
Another kid with her baby harnessed across her chest. Maybe 15, 16? They’re doing all the right things though, at least this baby’s eyes are open. Teenagers are tough these days, there’s nothing you can tell them except that whatever they believe right now, they will be disappointed soon enough. We’re getting old, one of the girls I’m with laughs. Yeah we are. Shit. Look at us. The youngest 25, the oldest 31. But we could be our parents, the orderly way we’re behaving. I could be my grandfather.
What we see everywhere: folding chairs, picnic baskets, bug spray, torches, parched grass. One white family tries to keep everyone from sitting in front of them with a good-natured warning about a low hanging branch. “Ya don’t want to be wearin’ that thing on the 4th, now do ya?” Most move away, some laugh and thank them for the warning, all the ethnic folk laughing overloud and in a higher pitch than they intended, as if to wipe away that niggling doubt whether the family was just using the branch a slim excuse to get the better view. Three tough South Asian kids, all younger than 10 take a long look at the branch and sit underneath it. I want to applaud. I want to bang a fuckin’ drum and sing Dixie, because it’s a victory. You can’t teach kids to fear death. Mortality means nothing. Just start the damn fireworks. Let’s go. One kid gets up and starts swinging from a leaning lamppost in half circles. Let’s go. Let’s Go.
This far away from the Capitol we can’t hear any fanfare—there’s no voices or trumpets riding on the wind, but all the cars have stopped on road next to us, and people have gotten out with their cameras and phones on the bridge to take pictures. No one angry. You have to be stupid to think you can drive in any country during an independence day fireworks display.
I take stock. About five small groups of white Americans. The rest, all migrants, like us. Standing in a heat we wouldn’t be standing in if this was back home. Staring at heavy, hot twilight sky.And when it starts, it starts quiet, only one holler to welcome it. We stare at it like it’s a Keno machine, or the lady at the airline counter reading out stand-by seat numbers. Occasionally there’s a nice big bright one: a venn diagram of pink and blue pin pricks in the night sky. A plane flies right against one big BOOM! and that gets the crowd going.
The girl who spoke before, she and I start talking. About job prospects, about books, about that baby down on the grass, goddamn that baby is way too young to be outside like this. What are these people doing, having kids this young we say, and we shift uncomfortably, each of our shining eggs rattling around inside our purses. We are the right type of young. We go places without people asking us who we’re with. But we’re tormented by all the turgid, surging family presence all around us. I look around. The only other single people are also gathered tight together, facing outwards, wary and not knowing why. This much Americana and the heat is getting to us all. Another plane flies by. More whoops.
One of the five small groups starts a “USA! USA!” chant. Silence all around, a Ghanaian family next to us laughs quietly and one guy pleasant-voiced, yells out, but not too loud, “Go Ghana! Go Ghana!”. One of the parked car Asian families yells “Go Pakistan!” Score 2 for Dixie. Everyone within earshot grins or laughs. We’re in a new immigrant part of the city, it’s clean, upmarket and well-kept, the immigrants keep it this way and work hard to fit in with the larger crowds in the malls, on the subway. When the last wave of lights start, a black woman who had been offering free face painting to everyone turns to her young daughter and tells her it’s time to go home. The girl goes, why do we have to start leaving now? The woman goes, Baby girl, I know your mind is not developed enough to remember events from last year, but these fireworks always last only 20 minutes, and after that there’s a mad rush. We gotta leave now, girl.
I’m wondering whether we’ll remember anything at all, wondering what the past half hour meant to any of us. At this exact moment the crowd starts to rush away, pull away, suddenly stir-crazy, like that standing around was too much. There’s no music, no singing, and we all need a drink, even the ones standing there still staring at the sky, as if unsatisfied, as if there had to be more to this thing.
Next year we’ll try getting closer, one of the girls say.
I’m sad because I can’t remember the music or words of the Omani national anthem. All I remember is, you sing it as a group in Arabic, and it has that rising wave on wave feeling, till at the end of it you feel like your chest is being shot out of a cannon.
I throw the cigarette in the gutter. A shower of tiny sparks and then oblivion.
Red Lights and Loudspeakers
6 days ago