Becoming An American
    Ellen Champagne
On September 11, 2001 we watched World War Three begin. That's what we thought. I had heated up yesterday's coffee in the microwave and flicked on the television. I saw Tom Brokaw looking stunned. I saw some footage. I woke up my husband and said “I think we're at war” and together we watched a replay of people exploding in an airplane, and then the New York skyline falling, and then the Pentagon as a mass of rubble, and then another plane mashed in a ditch in Pennsylvania.

You were there; you remember. We were all there. We've never been so there during one event, not even the Superbowl. Because, you see, I don't like football. My husband doesn't either, even though he is a man. Geoff was born in London, so perhaps that lets him off the hook. They don't have football in England. They think they do, but it's really another blood sport altogether, and part of the game is maiming the opposing team's spectators if one's own team doesn't win.

Isn't it odd that as we all sat in front of televisions that day, we knew that's exactly what every other American was doing, and we knew exactly what expression was on their faces?

We were in Oregon, working on a fixer-upper we had just bought. We had to fix a toilet that kept washing the bathroom floor. We had to fix some window frames that had longed to break free of their bond with the glass. We had to build a new fence. No small task, for all of Oregon has a one-sixteenth inch layer of soil, then below that, a ten-mile layer of the stuff the monoliths in the movie “2001” were made of. We had to scrape glue off a wooden floor because the former homeowners had trained their dog to dip its paw in wet paint then walk on the floor, at which point they said to one another:

“Hey! Instead of cleaning up paw prints, lets glue hideous carpeting onto this nice hardwood!”

And then they said “Let's use extra glue!”

So there we were, too worn out to make fresh coffee, watching the horrors unfold. We had long planned to drive back home to Texas on September 12, but now all we could do was postpone our trip and watch the images on television, over and over and over, as if we were trying to learn a new language through extensive repetition. We were trying to comprehend that much hatred. I'm not one who believes that people are, as Anne Frank said, basically good at heart, but the hatred for America that day was outside even my radar scope.

I felt fundamentally changed that day, and I kept having the most trivial but overwhelming desire to look changed on the outside. I kept wanting to cut my hair short. Really, really short. My hair had always been long, past my waist. I'd watch the plane explode and then I'd imagine myself walking down the street with short hair. I felt ridiculous for thinking this. I tried to think about bringing canned goods to the battered woman's shelter, or becoming a foster parent, or recycling plastics. Something that mattered.

As I was wondering if I should dye my hair blonde after I cut it off, my husband turned to me and said:

“I wish I were an American.”

He had all the citizenship paperwork partially filled out, at home on his desk back in Dallas. He'd had the paperwork partially filled out on his desk for years. He'd lived in the U.S. for twenty years, and always meant to become a citizen. He'd always meant to get around to it some day. Geoff, you see, is a wee bit of a procrastinator.

I said “Okay, let's make it happen.”

Next we watched Muslims dancing in the street in Palestine, gleeful that thousands of Americans had been blown up, as if they had just received a giant Christmas gift from overseas. I think we all had a hard time unwrapping our own notion of ourselves when we saw that.

For days we stayed riveted to the news, cut off from friends, way up there in southern Oregon, the chin of the northwest. Days passed, air traffic resumed, and we concluded that perhaps we were not exactly in the middle of World War Three, although we didn't know what we were in the middle of. I was worried about going back to an urban center with tall naked buildings and un-padlocked water supplies.

We drove back to Dallas on roads jammed with cars full of people who no longer thought flying was an amenable pastime. There were a lot of American flags flapping on car antennas on the highway. Flags adorned all gas stations. “God Bless America” lettered every hotel sign. Everyone wanted to do something external to themselves.

When we got home, I bought Geoff a book called “Don't Know Much About History,” by Kenneth C. Davis, in which everything you learned in grade school about American history is retold in a manner that does not induce a coma. In other words, the author is basically good at heart. For months, Geoff read the book, the whole book, and nothing but the book. It is organized into Amusing Questions, then chapters that answer the Amusing Questions. Here's an example:

Who were the Pilgrims, and what did they want?

Did the Indians really sell Manhattan for $24?

Few eras in American history are shrouded in as much myth and mystery as the long period covering America's discovery and settlement. Perhaps this is because there were few objective observers on hand to record so many of these events. There was no “film at eleven” when primitive people crossed into Alaska. No correspondents were on board when Columbus's ships reached land. Historians have been forced instead to rely upon accounts written by participants in the events, witnesses whose views can politely be called jaundiced.

Geoff also downloaded sample citizenship questions from the Immigration and Naturalization Service website. Some that I thought were easy Geoff found difficult. Such as:

What color are the stars on an American flag?

The first time I asked him, he said they were blue.

I said, “Blue?”

He said, “Aren't they?”

I said, “Are you kidding?”

He looked stricken. He was thinking he'd been living in the United States for twenty years, that he'd been on the highway overtaking thousands of cars with flapping American flags and hadn't ever noticed what color the stars were. I told him that the stars were white, on a blue field. He still looked stricken. He was thinking he would flunk the test.

“When you don't grow up in America, you don't notice what color the stars are,” I suggested. I wondered if he had gone colorblind.

The next time I asked him that question, he got it right. And it went on like that, for some more months. He continued to study the history book. He downloaded additional questions from the I.N.S., which were much harder. He began to know stuff that I didn't know, such as.

Who were the robber barons? and

Who was the first president to serve in the twentieth century?

In January, he submitted his citizenship application, along with a check and two glossy head shots. In February, he received a letter back from the I.N.S. He hadn't paid enough, the letter said. It now costs two hundred and FIFTY dollars to apply. You could almost hear the exasperation in their form-letter syntax. Geoff looked at the I.N.S. website. It had never been updated. It still said two hundred and TWENTY-FIVE dollars. He swore loudly, then drank a rum-and-Coke, then swore some more. He really wanted to be a citizen before September 11 rolled around again.

He sent in another check, and in March received a letter with an I.D. number on it. A very high number, in the tens of thousands. “Don't call us, we'll call you,” the letter said. Then it was signed “Nyah-nyah, from We-Who-Run-The-Nation.” So we waited while they did their simulated background checks. Geoff studied. I asked him questions. Most of them he knew, but if he didn't, he'd go right off and learn the answers from Kenneth C. Davis.

In May, another letter came from the I.N.S. He was scheduled to take his test in two weeks. He began to forget stuff he'd known for months. We started to hold a Q&A period every night. We started to drink jumbo rum-and-Cokes. I told him the questions would probably all be those easy ones, from the very first set he'd downloaded. Questions like:

Who was the father of our country? and

What is the Supreme Law of the Land?

I was convinced that starving refugees from Serbia would not be required to know what a robber baron was in order to become an American Citizen. He said the I.N.S. was getting awfully picky about who they were allowing to become a citizen. It had been on CNN Headline News. They were cracking down.

The night before the test we checked into a hotel near the testing center, because Geoff had to be there at 8 a.m. on a weekday, and we live twenty miles away along traffic-jammed highways. We went out for a nice Italian meal that night. I brought the questions and began to ask him some. He turned pale. He told me to stop. He said he hadn't told anyone but me that he was trying to become an American, in case he flunked. We ate ravioli, drank a bottle of chianti, walked around, then went back to the hotel. We watched a Mary Tyler Moore reunion special. That's how bad he felt.

The next morning in the hotel lobby, we ate breakfast alongside a concrete brook stocked with listless koi. We were eating scrambled eggs when I pulled out the questions. Geoff turned pale again. He stood up.

“I have to go back upstairs,” he said.

“You want me to come?” I said, stuffing the papers into my purse.

“No, no. I'm fine,” he lied.

He rode up the glass elevator and didn't look at me as he went, as he would have usually done. He usually would have waved and smiled, maybe made a goofy face. I had never known Geoff to want something so much it would make him hurl scrambled eggs. I had assumed his procrastination all those years was because he didn't care that much whether he became a U.S. citizen. I knew he loved America but I thought he just wasn't a patriotic type of guy. Plus with different passports, we had always been able to choose whichever customs line was shorter. We'd be giving up a big perk of the dual-citizenship family.

Did I mention that I cut my hair? Real short. Without telling Geoff. One Saturday, two months after 9/11 I went out to pick up some milk, breezed into a salon and asked the kohl-eyed teenager to cut it all off. I watched my tresses float in slow-mo to the floor. Afterwards I hung around the supermarket for an hour, catching my reflection in the meat case, picking up cereal boxes and reading the ingredients. When I finally arrived home, Geoff and I chatted. It took him a few moments to notice the new me. He stopped sharpening a kitchen knife. He asked me to turn around. I became concerned about the knife. When I faced him again, he did not look happy. He did not understand why I couldn't just stay the same. Neither did I. I had no defense.

Geoff rode back down the glass elevator to me and the koi, smiling a little. I drove him to the I.N.S. building. Snipers in military uniforms stood on the roof. Honest to God. The guard at the entrance said I was not allowed to accompany the applicant. I stepped back and said “good luck” to Geoff, who still looked like he was going to hurl. He went through the metal detector and disappeared inside.

An hour later, Geoff called me at the hotel.

“Come get me,” he said.

“What happened?”

“I passed.”

So soon? No branch of the United States government was this efficient. I drove down there. He was waiting outside the building. He got in the car. I yee-haw-hugged him as best I could, not being a Texas native and all. Geoff was barely smiling.

“What's wrong?” I said.

“I thought I'd be a citizen today, but I have to come back.”

“Right, for the swearing-in ceremony.”

“I didn't realize,” he pouted.

“How was the test?” I asked.

“All the questions were from the first set I downloaded. The super-easy questions.”

“Are you sorry you studied the hard questions?”

“No,” he said, “Because now I know so much more about America.”

Isn't he a dreamboat?

Next we got gummed up in a traffic jam. Seventeen accidents, one after the other. An average day's drive on the highways in Dallas. When I dropped him at work, I asked him when the ceremony might be. He said he'd get a letter from the I.N.S., a month in advance of the ceremony date.

A few weeks later he received the letter. The date they gave him was in July when we had planned to be back in Oregon, doing some more fixing-upping. We were flying with non-refundable tickets and he had to refuse the date, ask them to give him another. We went to Oregon, then came back. No letter had come. Another month passed. No letter. He began to fret. Perhaps they were miffed that he'd stood them up. Perhaps they had 'lost' his paperwork. Perhaps he'd have to reapply all over again.

Then in mid-August a letter finally came, from the Department of Justice. Immigration services had switched federal departments since the last letter, but Geoff had not been lost in the shuffle. This is powerful evidence that extraterrestrials have taken over the United States government.

Geoff became an American citizen on September 7, 2002. Swearing in ceremonies are always held on Saturdays, so loved ones may wave tiny American flags while the brand-new citizens recite the Pledge of Allegiance. He only just made it by his deadline: the last Saturday before September 11, 2002, the first anniversary of what we thought was the start of World War Three. The jury's still out on what September 11 actually was. It all depends on what They-Who-Run-The-World think up next. I wonder if Kenneth C. Davis is writing an update to his history book. I'll bet he is staring at a blank page right this moment, trying to think.

There were hundreds of people at the ceremony, from India and Nigeria and Iran and China and Israel. Canada, even! We all waved tiny flags and took photos, and all those people who walked in from somewhere else walked out American. Everyone was weeping. They didn't hate America, they felt lucky to be here, probably all for different reasons, but so what? I thought about those Palestinians dancing in the street and could not reconcile that picture to what was before my eyes.

That afternoon I baked Geoff a Flag Cake. Chocolate, his favorite. With red and white striped frosting. And blue stars.

Ellen Champagne's work has appeared in many fine zines, including Exquisite Corpse, Literary Potpourri, Sweet Fancy Moses, and Opium Magazine. She is currently working on her first novel.


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