I lived in Middle Tennessee in 1991. A lot of people had people in Iraq, or had people who had people in Iraq. They had been gone for quite some time. I’d never felt like belonged there. Not for one minute, not for one second. Not until everyone else felt like strangers in their own town, and tied ribbons around trees, and felt just as off-kilter and disjointed as I did all the time.
It was an adolescent emotion, but I was adolescent. We all watched green-tinged infrared footage of smart bombs slamming into bunkers at night on CNN.
We had a moment, Whitney. It was when the phone rang. A classmate was dead from a random nut allergy, some accident of allergens and unlabeled chocolates. You are fourteen, and even acquaintances are serious friends at that point, and serious friends are extensions of your body. We get on the phone and talk for too long without saying anything. Facts and emotions are confirmed and reconfirmed and re-reconfirmed.
It is a few hours before the Super Bowl. Someone who is not supposed to be dead is dead for the first time in my life. There is dip, and chips, and a dead person I knew lying somewhere in the town I never liked anyway, mourned by people I will eventually forget completely, but at the moment it’s the most serious thing that has ever happened to me or anyone I know.
And there’s Whitney. She has on this misbegotten jumpsuit, something a fat F1 pit crew member cast off five years previously. The hair is pulled back with a simple white hairband. She could be grocery shopping, or walking out to get the mail. There is a small breed dog that goes with this outfit. It is not housetrained, and never will be.
She destroys it. Just fucking annihilates the anthem, careening full-throttle into every high note. She had no reason to hesitate: the song was lip-synced, something you probably found out later and are still somewhat surprised by because seriously, watch her lips quiver, the chest rise with the inhalation. She could have nailed it live. For all we know, she did. The anthem’s singing her. She’s a medium for something Francis Scott Key never knew was in there, a voice that’s neither feminine nor masculine, an arrest of the eyes towards an invisible American flag that appears somewhere in the distance no matter when or where you hear it.
More than anything, it is a motherfucking anthem. It is what Yosemite falls sounds like when you put your ear to it. It is the sun rising over a grey New Jersey shoreline morning. After you hear it, you want to strike plowshares to swords, or swords to plowshares. Pointed in the right direction, you can and will do either, most likely while getting a tattoo of George S. Patton riding Secretariat on your back.
I tear up each time I hear it. I teared up that night, but I’m still not sure why. Someone was dead, and there was a war, and I was an amoeba dividing and becoming something different, something I left behind thirty or forty iterations of my person ago. There you were, singing like something solid and unyielding ran through the gelatinous and constant new terror of the present.
We moved later that year, and everything I hated fell away off the last scrabbly edge of my childhood. Yet you’re always there on January 27, 1991, the last unbending signpost of anything certain, holding that long final note over the last three chords of the anthem. We had a moment, Whitney, right at the onset of the long slide into the free-fire oblivion of adulthood. I owe you for that.
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