It is August 2011 and I've been in the United States a couple of months; and I've also got married and become stepfather to a nine-year old boy in that time. Everything is different to anything to which I am accustomed, and on occasion it feels like I'm living on a different planet. At this precise moment, having only just woken up, my most immediate concern is that the bedside table is just a little too far away from the bed. This concerns me because it means that nothing on the bedside table - alarm clock, reading glasses, earplugs, glass of tea, crappy science-fiction novel - is quite within comfortable reach, and it also concerns me because whilst I know this to be a problem which would take less than a minute to solve, I know this to be precisely the sort of problem I will never get around to addressing. My personality has doomed me to suffer the yawning gulf between bed and bedside table for at least as long as my wife and I remain in this house.
I reach out and miss, as usual, and there follows the sound of something hard hitting the floor. Cursing, I rise from the bed and pick up my wristwatch. I look at the time. The watch has stopped.
The watch was a present from my mother, something connecting me to the world as it was before K1 visas and wild leaps in the dark. There is something horribly symbolic about this, and from this point on each time I think about my watch falling to the hard wooden floor, I will think of it in unnecessarily dramatic terms borrowed from the fourth volume of Watchmen by Dave Gibbons and Alan Moore - swarms of tiny broken cogs and springs cast cinematically to the floor; and the djinn refusing to return to its oil lamp, Pandora's futile efforts to cram all that crap back into the box, or the man in the child's joke crying with laughter as he tells me I should have seen the monkey trying to put the cork back in.
I feel terrible.
'Take it to Walmart,' my wife tells me. 'It's probably just the battery.'
I consider asking how likely it would be that the battery just happened to run out of juice as I dropped the thing, but I say nothing because it's hardly her fault; and I suppose it might be worth a try.
A few hours later I am in Walmart at the jewellery counter. I have explained to the girl what happened, although she doesn't seem that interested. Either she is confused by my accent, or I've given her more information than she needed. She pops off the back and prises the battery free from its housing, and meanwhile there is now someone here who isn't at all confused by my accent.
'Why you must be from England!'
A jovial older woman who walks as though there's something wrong with her leg grins at me. It is the grin of someone generally addressed as Mawmaw as she calls ranch hands in for their supper, a nourishing stew with chitlins and grits and vittles, whatever those may be.
I smile an encouraging smile, because although I have a feeling I'm about to experience that conversation yet again, it's difficult to take ill against someone who seems so clearly delighted by one's presence.
'Yes, I am from England.'
She asks which part. I tell her Stratford-upon-Avon because she will almost certainly have heard of the place and it seems more likely to facilitate conversation. I spent the first two decades of my life within ten miles of Shakespeare's birthplace, but lived in London longer, and concluded with a couple of years in Coventry before moving to the United States. I think of myself as being from London, but it seems best to give a simple, populist answer.
She asks how I like Texas, clearly expecting cute complaints about being unable to find a pub that serves Marmite or uncertainty as to whether my prayer mat is correctly orientated towards Buckingham Palace. I tell her that I like Texas very much, because I do. I find the people generally a little more pleasant than the English, and the weather is less depressing.
'Well,' she chortles, apparently taken aback, 'it's a fine country, I guess.' The tone of her voice becomes conspiratorial. 'It'll be an even finer one when we get rid of that damned Obama!'
I find myself shocked by this, not quite so much the sentiment as the thematic thrust of the sentence, clearly a revision of that damned nigger! I'm suddenly annoyed by the presence of this idiot, and annoyed with myself for having failed to recognise her as such. It's the assumption that I find aggravating, the assumption of our all being in agreement regarding that damned ni—that damned Obama and our supposed desire to be rid of him.
I glance over at the girl behind the counter, still fiddling with my watch. She is black. She can't really have misread the situation, somehow believing I might know this woman, but she has no way of knowing whether I too wish to be rid of that damned ni—that damned Obama. Then again, maybe she didn't hear; or maybe she too wants rid of that damned ni—that damned Obama; or maybe she doesn't care.
It doesn't make a great deal of difference to me in the sense that I'm not eligible to vote, but generally speaking, I like Obama. For one, he's the first black president of a country which still had widespread racial segregation laws as recent as 1964; so his election seems indicative of something positive to me, regardless of whatever else the man may have done. Of course there are those who would probably describe this as an inverse form of racism, typical of a wet lefty liberal tofu-scoffing PC thug commie apologist like myself, but such persons - at least in my unfortunate experience - also tend to spout crap about white heterosexual males being the last minority which it is still apparently okay to oppress, so their testimony is really worth no more than that of a sophisticated mobile telephone.
I don't follow politics inordinately closely because I find the small print fairly dull and almost always unpleasant, but nevertheless I fail to see why anyone would object strongly to Obama on grounds other than that he's American - if you're from somewhere else and dislike America as an institution - or because he occasionally gives the appearance of favouring regular people over people with more money than they need, in the event of that not being your scene. I expressed this admittedly casual support by sharing a pro-Obama campaign meme on facebook during the last Presidential election. Inevitably an English person I don't actually know responded with a sneering well, what about the tent cities?
I replied with a dismissive and hopefully annoying sure, because I wasn't interested in an argument, and particularly not one fought in the name of point scoring as indicated by an opening salvo equivalent to I suppose you think it's good that tiny babies are being roasted alive? I suppose you think that's a good thing, do you? Perhaps I am indeed an over-privileged and uninformed moron on the grounds that I don't spend twenty-five hours a day quivering with indignation, but the bottom line was that I would prefer to live in a country governed by Obama than a country governed by a man who believes the Earth to be only six-thousand years old, or who is at least popular amongst those who believe the Earth to be only six-thousand years old, and for reasons that really should be obvious. I nevertheless regard the majority of politicians to be essentially corrupt, so it struck me in this case as patronising to assume that my support equated to blind adoration; but of course, that's the internet for you.
In any case, those who dislike Obama probably need to cheer up a little given that there's so many of them. Obama is referred to as the worst president we ever had by some, even as a dictator by those who apparently can't tell the difference between concentration camps, news blackouts, and a politician saying things you don't like whilst raising certain taxes. National Enquirer regularly plasters a haplessly grinning Barack across its front cover, explaining how once again he's been caught having a sneaky peek at someone's tits and the Obama marriage is in ruins, and what we really need to do is to tie weights to his feet and drop him in the sea, and then at last we will be free... free, I tell you... ha ha ha...
It was the same with Tony Blair, I suppose. I don't know anyone who didn't spend the day punching the air when it was announced that he had become Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, ending what felt like four-hundred years of Conservative government; but was anyone really under any illusion that he wouldn't ultimately turn out to be just another shiny-faced three-timing insurance salesman? That's what politicians do; and despite his apparently being the most evil man who ever lived, I still think Obama is probably okay in context of the menu as a whole.
I didn't say any of this to the woman in Walmart for the same reason that I didn't bother responding to Mr. what about the tent cities? Happily she had already moved away, chuckling to herself and probably composing some anecdote about the British guy at the store by which to entertain the ranch hands as they tucked into their stew and chitlins and grits and vittles.
I like Obama, personally, I imagined myself saying to the girl behind the counter in an effort to disassociate myself from the woman, but thankfully I had the sense to keep my mouth shut, given that such a defence would only continue the cycle of assuming stupid shit about complete strangers. Hey, great - you know I really love the music of Bob Marley!
She handed back my watch. 'It was the battery. I put in a new one for you.'
I looked. The second hand was moving again.
It seemed like an incredible thing.
The world was set to right.