Between Debates

Wondering what was going through the President’s mind between debates? This weekend, Sarah Braunstein takes us into the head of Barry Obama, and what we find there is maybe not what you’d expect. —Matt Salesses, Good Men Project Fiction Editor


Ladies and gentleman, thank you. It’s wonderful to be here tonight. I understand that many of you were disappointed in my recent performance, and I want to say how exceedingly grateful I am for this opportunity to clarify a few things. First and foremost, I want to assure you that, yes, I want this job, and I have the skills and stamina to make you proud.

Ladies and gentleman.

Ladies and gentleman, I don’t know what to say.

Thank you so very much for being here tonight. Thank you for your support, your donations, your t-shirts and pins and lawn signs and bumperstickers and mugs and for having my back.

Ladies and gentleman, you deserve an explanation.

Which is as follows:

One day, a few weeks back, I woke up with a voice in my head. Are you familiar with Camus’ The Stranger? Please don’t look at me that way; I am done apologizing for literature. The first line of the stranger is: “Mother died today.” Well, I woke up that day and the words in my head were: “Barry died today.” It was a Thursday, not quite seven a.m. The curtains still drawn. Distant helicopters churned the sky. Church bells made pretty knots of sound. Someplace far away: rioting, an election, a coup. And down a hall I knew there was a royal blue plate holding two pieces of French toast and one segmented grapefruit.

But this voice says: “Barry died today.” Not a ghost voice, nothing ominous. It was clinical, matter-of-fact. I sat upright. I’d been dreaming. Has a president ever shared his dreams with the public before? Can I be the first?

I was dreaming about a girl I hula hooped with on a day in August when I was ten years old. The sky was a silver frying pan. Terrible, erotic longing. Longing that can’t be spoken. I do realize it’s strange for the president to talk about the erotics of sharing a hula hoop with a girl who’s wearing a pale pink terry cloth romper and who’s sprayed herself with her mother’s Shalimar perfume. Her pigtails sway. Her hips sway. Sharing one hula hoop, a universe of two, two slim bodies moving in unison, not touching, facing one another, me and her, looking each other square in the eye.

A president is not supposed to say the word “erotics” or talk about a young girl’s hips or his unconscious life. Unless, I suppose, he is the president of France. Ha ha.

Ladies and gentleman, Barry is dead and no one can ever resurrect him.

Ladies and gentleman, I swear to god I have your back.

Ladies and gentleman, I see your faces. I fear you’re misunderstanding me. Haven’t you too woken up one day utterly certain some essential part of you—a child self, a self of pure love and hope—is gone? You don’t need to be me to experience this slippage. You need only to have been a child. You need only to have stood under a silver sky and fallen in love while you swayed in a hoop with a girl who smelled like Shalimar. In your case it might have been a jungle-gym. It might have been hopscotch. Chanel Number 5 or curry or Drakkar Noir or Hubba Bubba. You need only to have been that child and then, decades later, to wake up hearing a voice telling you that that child is dead.

I have read Proust. If that makes me an elitist, I accept it. I eat arugala too. And quinoa.

Ladies and gentleman, please stop looking at me like that. I am trying to tell you why I sometimes feel like I am drifting in a wind no one else can feel.  I am trying to tell you about the demons that claim my sleep.

Please realize how hard I am trying.

Here is a partial list of things I cannot ever do again: Walk into a shopping mall and buy my wife trashy underwear and consume the perfumed froth of an Orange Julius and then, fuck it, a cheesy pretzel. Play cards in a smoky bar in Chicago and walk home afterward under yellow streetlights, alone. Eat a Macintosh apple on a highway overpass and toss the core down into the bed of a pickup.

Since we’re on the topic of dreaming, I’ll admit have this one nightmare where Nancy Pelosi is performing dental work on me. I wake. There is a warmth near me, thank God Michelle, and I turn to her, ready to tell her about my nightmare, but it’s Nancy who rises from the pillow with a Soviet-looking dental implement.

Ladies and Gentlemen: Please accept this small part of my psyche as a token of appreciation.

Ladies and gentleman, once I was a boy in a hula hoop with a girl. Our hips in unison. Our faces one face—one face in concentration and in love.

Ladies and gentleman, Today I am declaring the death of the boy. It is a matter of pubic record. Notarize this.

Ladies and gentleman, I could use a little air. Maybe a glass of water? I am feeling faint.

Ladies and gentleman, Do you know what Napoleon’s last words were? “France. An Army. At the head of the Army: Josephine.”

Do these words not shivers down your spine? I’m sure when I die—when I die my real death, not this metaphoric death you been so kind to indulge tonight—but when my real death comes, I predict that my last words will be very unlike Napoleon’s. I will thank Michelle, of course, I will say my children’s beautiful names, I will say something about my gratitude for this good and flawed country. And you can be sure  I will mean every single word.

But deep in my heart, these will be my last words; this will be the song playing in the chamber in the core of me, this the message I’ll be writing down in my secret bunker:

The United States of America. An Army. At the head of the army: That girl in the hula hoop.

An Army. At the head of the army, always, only, her.

Ladies and gentleman, I promise I will never mention her again.

Ladies and gentleman, let us each consider what the other has lost. Can we do that for each other? Is it really too much to ask?

Ladies and gentleman, as of today, I promise you. I am free from my past. I am ready. I am hungry. My appetite would kill a lesser man.


photo Flickr/Austen Hufford

About Sarah Braunstein

Sarah Braunstein is the author of The Sweet Relief of Missing Children (W.W. Norton). In 2010 she was named one of “5 Under 35” fiction writers by the National Book Foundation. Her work has appeared in AGNI, Ploughshares, The Sun, and on NPR’s All Things Considered. She lives in Portland, Maine.


  1. Dorine Moore says:

    Seriously. I don’t get this at all. ??? Can anyone clue me in if there is some deep meaning in this?

  2. Lori Greenstein says:


    Ladies and gentlemen, this left me feeling absolutely nothing.


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