George Washington posed with ballerina grace in his high-waisted pants, a sword sheathed and stalwart between his legs as dutiful soldiers rowed his boat cross-river from darkness to sun like stagehands wheeling an opera tenor to the spotlight. Behind him, horses thrashed and whinnied in rowboats that somehow never capsized, and the supporting cast staved off ice chunks as one soldier heroically gripped an American flag center-frame. Gina loved George Washington Crossing the Delaware, painted by the German Emmanuel Leutze 50 years after the actual crossing, for its unabashed fakeness. Who stands in a rowboat? And wasn’t the flag designed seven years after the crossing? As she stood by the painting at the Met, a search on her phone returned hundreds of parody images, including Homer Simpson as Washington, Darth Vader as Washington, a Klingon, Goofy, Tom Brady, Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Further images displayed Washington aboard alternative forms of transport, including him crossing the river via BMX stunt bike or on the back of a Tyrannosaurus Rex; possible meanings criss-crossed but none added much prescient social commentary other than to parrot the painting’s own artificiality. By 1840, Washington was already pure fiction.
She thought of him as she sat on her couch in Brooklyn the next morning reading a NY Times piece on the recent Women’s March, featuring a photo of the Washington Monument surrounded by waves of pussyhats. Unlike in Leutze’s painting, American flags were distant dots, mini-trimmed pubic hairs in a ring around the marble phallus jutting through an overcast sky. Gina wondered why the photographer blurred the crowd of women, making them appear as a single unified pink.
Charlotte, her roommate, leaned in from the kitchen. “Did you email her yet?” Gina hid her face with her laptop. “You’re not allowed to come to DC with me unless you hang with Joann. She’s the best.” Charlotte was heading to a writing conference this weekend, and Gina had agreed to tag along.
“What do I talk to her about?”
“I told you. Ask her about flags. She’s in charge of the Star-Spangled Banner.”
“I’m not a real photographer though!”
Charlotte picked up her purse. “Whatever, just email her. She was the best part of that residency. She’s super-chill. Do we need anything?”
“Could you get toilet paper?”
“No problem, husband. Byeeee.”
Gina couldn’t remember when Charlotte had first used the nickname. Early on, she barely noticed it, an affectionate tease, but then she liked it.
THE CHILDREN AND THE TEXTILE
Just as Instagramers created separate accounts for their newborn child, pet pig, or local theatre company, Gina created @theflagwelove for American flags. Every time she saw a flag in public, she’d snap a photo and upload. Flags on cement mixers, pizza boxes, swim trunks, tiki torches, beach towels, shower curtains. Every morning, as she exited Penn Station to walk to work, the escalator carried her beneath a massive flag, signaling her transit from underground to above. She had fifteen or so pictures, from multiple angles, of the plastic Lady Liberty statuettes wrapped in flags that lined the window of an 8th Ave CVS. After a meal at an Ethiopian restaurant on the Upper West Side, the waitress gave her a complimentary moist towelette packaged in an American-flag wrapper. The largest she’d spotted, visible for miles, flapped above a Nissan dealership outside Hartford, Connecticut, a giant nylon protuberance blotting out the city’s skyline.
Through this filter, her world felt askew, gray-beige interims between the inevitable next pop of red, white, and blue: the highways, the rest stops, the front porches. Flags were neither copies of an original nor discrete material objects, but rather, one big flag—a paper plate, a decal on a police car, a bikini bottom—all parts of a whole, one semiotic Medusa with millions of snakes in every suburb. Personal insecurities channeled into nationalist sentimentality had super-charged each reproduction with equal amounts of ‘freedom,’ creating a fleet of consumer goods aestheticizing control. By photographing them, she was hoping to cast a spell, capture their energy, suck out the ‘meaning,’ to cure the American populace of being essentially a 250-year-old child still believing in Santa Claus. Lately she’d felt like giving up, as it seemed more and more inevitable that one day she’d arrive at a local mall with children queueing past the Pac Sun and iPhone case kiosk, waiting for their shining moment in George Washington’s lap to say what present they deserved for the Fourth of July.
IN WHICH OUR HEROES REENACT THE CROSSING FOR THE FIRST TIME
As she and Charlotte drove south on the New Jersey Turnpike, Gina pointed out the flag on every overpass. “So fun fact: they put all of these up after 9/11 because supposedly a lot of people from this area died, but they’ve never taken them down. It’s what, sixteen years later? And when one gets ratty, they just replace it.”
“It’s so gross. It’s basically a Confederate flag,” replied Charlotte.
“I wouldn’t go that far. They’re not automatically white nationalists. It’s for mourning and I get that. What I don’t get is that if the goal of mourning is to get over the thing, or at least come to some kind of peace, this does the opposite. Say your dad died sixteen years ago and you still kept a pair of his jeans hanging in the closet. Then ten years in, a bunch of moths eat the jeans and so you go out and buy new ones exactly like the old pair and hang them in the same place. I’d say you need therapy.”
“You are so hilarious with your little Everyman anecdotes.”
“What do you mean?”
“This like ‘I’m going to distill an idea that takes a whole academic chapter to explain into a quippy little story’ thing you do.”
“I agree though. The whole ‘Never Forget’ slogan is such a dude narrative. The American flag is so bro-y.”
Gina looked out the window and realized the river beneath them. “Wait, did we just leave Jersey? Is this the Delaware! Are we’re crossing the Delaware!” Gina puffed out her chest and leaned grandly forward into her seatbelt.
Charlotte laughed, honking the car horn. “My hero!”
IN WHICH GINA GAZES UPON THE DICK AND CONTEMPLATES THE PUSSY
The next morning, Gina stood on the National Mall, between branches of the Smithsonian, at the same vantage point from which the NYT photographer had taken that image of the Women’s March. She read recently that Washington was sterile, leading to one of American nationalism’s most beautiful ironies, that the monument’s designers had chosen to immortalize and commemorate the infertile first president with a five-hundred-and-fifty-five-foot hard cock. She looked at the monument and envisioned the pink circle’s encroachment and as much as it made her proud, it also felt like it didn’t belong to her. She knew her uneasiness with being a pixel in the vast communal vagina was partially due to her own contrarianism and ego, but it wasn’t just that. She felt a kinship with Washington, a fake man, not part of the pink river but adrift within it.
She’d attended the NYC march with Charlotte and her friend Lindsey, who’d come in from Jersey. Their landlady had crocheted hats for them, but not wanting to wear it, Gina offered hers to Lindsey. “Oh my god, thank you!” She tried it on and looked in the mirror. “This is the best.”
“You’re an activist now,” Gina said.
Lindsey tilted the hat, adjusted her hair, lifted her chin. “You’re sure you don’t want it?”
“Gina?” A middle-aged woman in pants and sneakers waved from across the Museum of American History’s lobby.
“Joann? Hi.” Hearty handshake. “Thanks for meeting with me.”
“So glad this worked out. When Charlotte was here for the residency she was such a sweetheart. Excited to hear about your project. Have you been here before? Should we walk around?”
“Sure, let’s walk.” They ascended a staircase, towards the exhibits.
“When Charlotte was here, she wanted to talk about the mini-things, all the trinkets, and now you want to talk about the biggest object we have.”
“Yeah, between the two of us, we’ve got the whole world covered. I felt like it was time to visit the flag mothership. How long have you been in charge of it?”
She said her first job at the Smithsonian was cleaning the gunboat Philadelphia for a WWII exhibit as an intern in the mid-80s, an American Studies major who stuck around and worked her way up to Collections Manager. When the museum bought out the contract of the naval curator responsible for flags, all the questions fell to her. “I had flag experts coming in wanting to see our collection, so I would stay with them and say, ‘What am I looking at? Talk to me about what you’re seeing,’” until she became an expert herself, the compendium of all their knowledge. She spoke fast, and in winding paragraphs, referring to the Star-Spangled Banner and Washington’s uniform as “my objects.” Gina loved thinking about history as tangible, ‘owned’ by the living, that technically, the big dick’s clothes ‘belonged’ to this cool middle-aged woman.
Joann said her latest project was an exhibit marking the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066, which President Roosevelt signed in 1942, resulting in the imprisonment of thousands of Japanese Americans and Japanese nationals. Forty years down the line, Congress formally recognized the human rights violation and pressured Reagan into signing the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, delivering an apology and restitution.
“The exhibit’s called ‘Righting a Wrong,’ though can you really right a wrong?” she asked. “But listen to this: we did an exhibit here in ’87 that included the Executive Order. The Japanese American Consortium brought Congressmen here and used our exhibit to teach them that lesson in history. So did we have an effect on passing the Act in ’88? I think so.” Joann surprised Gina because the two tenets she valued most, a sense of responsibility for her institution and the ability to rewrite her country’s history, seemed at cross purposes. She kept in mind the expectations of her primary audience, tourist veterans and their families, but also knew of her proximity to the powerful. Her objects, when eloquently arranged and placed in front of the right eyes, could tip the democratic scale, influence policy. She’d built a career on her expertise in navigating this middle, this space between.
As they moved towards the escalator, they passed the museum store, with a temporary rack in its entryway full of inauguration merchandise: shot glasses, wool hats, a children’s book titled What is the President’s Job? Inside the store, a disco ball rotated near a wall mural featuring The Beatles and Princess Leia, next to hooks adorned with rows of Superman socks, Wizard of Oz socks, American flag socks, all sold beneath a giant sign that read, in mod 60s bubble letters, ‘Pop Culture.’
Joann seemed to read Gina’s thoughts. “It’s funny because I bought a pair of Star-Spangled Banner socks to walk them upstairs and say ‘These don’t meet flag code!’ but I decided not to go that far, even though it’s sort of tasteless, especially right next to the ruby slipper socks.”
“I’m always confusing ruby-spangled with star-spangled.”
“It’s a ridiculous juxtaposition. But then I gave the socks to my son. He likes wild socks, so I’m like, ‘Okay, whatever!’”
“A boy after my own heart.” Gina wondered what would happen if Joann’s son clicked his American flag heels together and chanted, ‘There’s no place like home?’ Where would he go? She imagined millions of middle-aged white guys doing their best Judy Garland impersonations in glittery red, white, and blue pumps, closing their eyes tight in prayer, pleading for teleportation back to black-and-white Dust Bowl-era Kansas.
IN WHICH OUR HEROES DEBATE YOU
Gina had always clandestinely preferred interviews to fiction. They satisfied her curiosity for knowing how other people live while providing a surrogate, the interviewer: half-audience-member, half-protagonist. Posing the right question was one’s only chance of crossing from another’s performative, pre-programmed self to the other side. In daydreams, she often pictured herself across from Barack Obama, shoes off, feet up on comfy couch, shooting the shit. She didn’t want to follow celebrities on Twitter, she wanted to eat sandwiches with them, pluck a fry off David Byrne’s plate and see his reaction. On days she sat at her desk picking the scabs off an MFA thesis she ‘finished’ two years ago, she dreamed of drag&dropping the whole shit pile into her virtual waste basket and then flying to London to profile Tilda Swinton.
“So why celebrity profiles? You don’t even watch reality shows,” Charlotte had asked her one night over drinks.
“First off, terrible lead question. Too direct. You need some foreplay first.”
“I need to ease it in, huh?”
“Yes, I have to trust you first.”
“The idea of being a reporter is so impossible to me. I’d just end up making fun of everyone.”
“Yeah, but that’s what I like about it. You have to move past that surface impulse and really understand somebody else.”
“Don’t tell me being a gossip columnist is some save-the-world, true empathy bullshit.”
“Come on, it’s not gossip. I’d write for Vanity Fair or GQ or something.”
“I’d say you’re more Late Night with Jimmy Kimmel.”
“Shut up!” Gina crossed her legs on the bar stool to look more feminine. “So I used to read every issue of Rolling Stone in high school, cover to cover, and there was this one dude who would write all his profiles in second person, as in,” she lowered her voice, “‘You’re sitting at the bar next to Keanu Reeves’ or ‘You roll up to Lindsey Lohan’s house an hour late.’ It was so gross.”
“What do you mean?”
Gina thought about turning the glossy pages in her parents’ basement and having what may have been her first critical thought about literature. The interviewer’s attempt to collapse his subjectivity into a ‘you’ had caused the reverse, exposing the cards of literary transaction. “Instead of ‘relating’ to the writer, or the body next to Keanu being half-me, half-interviewer, it was all me. I was like, ‘All I came here to do was learn about Keanu’ and suddenly I’m looking back at myself from the page. It was like being possessed.”
“Another man fucking taking control of a woman’s body.”
“I wasn’t upset though. I made it to the other side. He was in my head, but I was also inside his.”
UPON ENTERING THE CAVE OF WONDERS
“Made possible with support from Ralph Lauren,” said the placard at the entrance to the Star-Spangled Banner exhibit. The crossing of America’s logo with another brand felt like a high-profile merger inching towards monopoly, a colonialist business plan. Gina wondered who bought whom as she and Joann entered the exhibit, admiring the illustrations of early 19th-century Maryland and listening to ambient audio of soldier chatter, boats on water, artillery fire. Gina read the museum placards narrating the flag’s context: America went back to war with England from 1812 to 1814 and this flag you’re about to see was the flag that Francis Scott Key saw at Fort McHenry in Baltimore that inspired him to write the words that would later become the national anthem.
“It’s not a complicated story, but people don’t understand it. They still think it’s Betsy Ross’s flag!” Joann said between canon blasts.
“That reminds me of this MGM silent movie I watched,” said Gina. “Washington and Ross are at this gala or something and they walk out onto the terrace together and he looks deeply into her eyes and asks about her design for the flag and she turns and grips the railing and looks out at the sky, which is early Technicolor red, white, and blue, and these subtitles appear on the clouds: ‘White is for purity and innocence-‘
“‘Red is for the blood that was shed, the stars in the heaven are on a field of blue.’ Yeah, and none of those are true. They took the colors out of the British flag because we were British. Washington was British. His aspiration was to be a British officer. I told you I have his uniform upstairs, right? He wore blue and buff and his infantry wore-“
“Blue and buff?”
“Buff’s like a yellowish tan color. Officers wore blue and buff, but the infantry officers wore blue with red turn-backs, the opposite of the British.”
“It’s like British uniforms were reversible tracksuits and the Americans flipped them inside-out.”
“People like to think they know what the colors stand for-“
“But they forget that it’s all about fashion. What’s craziest to me is that the same people who take it so seriously also treat it like shit. Like someone saying, ‘I’ll kill you if you burn a flag’ and then wiping their mouth with a flag napkin.”
“It’s a symbol of the nation, not the nation itself, and that’s where it gets confusing to people. They want to show-,” Joann paused. “I don’t know, I’m not sure what they want to show when they wear a flag t-shirt.”
“It’s an identity thing.”
“Yes and no, I’m not really sure about that. You should stand here during the summer. I watch people in the museum and people who wear flags on their shirts. It’s funny because my neighbor saw me on the Smithsonian Channel and she came up to me and she goes, ‘You were really great, I had no idea,’ and I told her, ‘Yes, I curate the flag collection’ and she goes, ‘Why don’t you have a flag up?’ and I said, ‘Because I don’t do that.’” She snapped the t of ‘that’ and left a long silence. “You know, I have two flags in my flower pots for Fourth of July and I kept them in there through the summer. They’re throwaways, I don’t keep them, they are what they are. But I’ve never hung a flag. I remember my parents hanging one for Memorial Day. My dad was in the navy in Charlestown, never went overseas. They hung it out and then they brought it in and that was all we ever did. But in my neighborhood where I lived, down near Mount Vernon, lots of people hung it 24/7, year round-”
They crossed into a dark room. The Star-Spangled Banner was thin, like a t-shirt laundered hundreds of times, and it rested behind glass, gently lit in a black chamber with Key’s poem projected in HD white sans serif on the black wall.
“It’s fun to go in there,” said Joann, pointing to the chamber, “but it’s only thirteen percent oxygen, so I get a headache every time.”
“What’s the normal oxygen level?”
“Twenty percent. We keep it low to reduce the chance of combustion. If a spark ever was created, it doesn’t have enough oxygen to burn.”
“But you still get to go in and play with it, right?”
“Of course. We have a gantry we crank out, so someone lays on the gantry and we move them around to examine it with lights and microscopes, looking for changes, anything bumpy. You’ll like this: because there’s not a lot of air exchange, it gets warm in there, and one time I was out over it and I started sweating, and we had a film crew with us shooting b-roll for the Smithsonian Channel and I was worried I was going to drip sweat onto the flag on camera.”
Gina pictured the footage of the sweat bead falling, the camera hugging the bead in tight closeup, as if Joann were an athlete in a Gatorade commercial. The camera beheld the gross bodily liquid of the present colliding with the supposedly solid, unstained past. The fabric might be irrevocably ruined or the fabric might be exactly the same.
THE SECOND PERSON
By the dawn’s early light, you strap yourself to the gantry and coast above the sacred object, sliding, star to stripe, back again. Flags on poles so far away, but close you see each stitch and blemish. Fabric breathes. The gantry spins. You realize its tangle too late, unraveling, and you spin like a US Olympic gymnast. Maybe it’s oxygen maybe it’s dream. Francis Scott Key whispers “five-hundred-fifty-five-foot hard cock” as stripes spin faster. You are no longer half-yourself and half-interviewer. You ascend the stripe staircase. You are a field of blue socks. You look down at Nissan dealership. At VFW entrance. Out from patch on police officer shoulder. You look out from bumper at other bumpers. You look at people in stadium and listen as today’s relevant pop star sings you your song. All the children clutch their chests and pledge. You say “I need space” but they won’t stop texting ‘I love u’ with heart emojis. 24/7. Two hundred years. You think it’s time to jump. To jump off the Jersey Turnpike bridge where hundreds of moving vehicles will flatten you, half of which bare your spangled face. You try to jump off the pole but the pole won’t let go. You try to jump off the past but the socks won’t let go. There’s no place like star. There’s no time like place.
MEDITATIONS UPON FIRST LAYING EYES ON THE TEXTILE
Joann’s pocket vibrated. “They’re the worst. I need to run up to the office real quick. Back in ten.” She sped off, abandoning Gina in 1812. Gina sat down along the wall and listened to her fellow tourists.
“Whoa! This is it.”
“This is the flag.”
“It doesn’t look real.”
Mom: “This flag was made over 200 years ago.” Three-year-old boy: “Why?” Mom: “Just cuz.”
“Who did they fight with?” “People in a different country.”
“Remember what I told you the flag represents?”
“Don’t lean on the glass, honey.”
To a security guard: “Is this the real flag?” Guard nodded.
Father directed daughter’s attention to wall illustration. “That is a soldier who wanted to be independent.” They turned the corner into the chamber. “Wow,” he said. The daughter peered through the glass. “Is that really there?”
At first, Gina felt a tinge of superiority as she eavesdropped but it quickly made her sick, realizing Joann’s well-intentioned hard work was a tool to pass blind patriotism generation to generation.
The feeling reminded her of spotting an SUV on the highway a few months ago, its entire shell painted as the flag. She accelerated and scrambled for her phone to take a photo. She’d never seen a full vehicular flag before. She switched lanes, approaching alongside, framing the image, then read the text on the SUV’s door: Disabled American Veterans Transportation Network.
This often happened when she spied flags: funny patriotism would cross with the consequences of patriotism, and the game wasn’t fun anymore, the hope for a punchline replaced with guilt, with a feeling of constantly being on the outside of collective identities. She couldn’t join them or stop their forward propulsion, so she pointed and giggled from the sidelines.
The rainbow flag wasn’t hers. The pussyhat wasn’t hers. Maybe the American flag symbolized her drag, a way to say ‘fuck you’ to bro culture while wearing its clothes. She’d been reading Whipping Girl by Julia Serrano, a trans woman who realized how her early days of crossdressing helped her demystify femininity. At first, she decked herself out in full hyper-femme stereotype, but once the male-bodied Serrano recognized lingerie, heels, and hose as objects of sexuality, as the veneer of womanhood, she was able to separate the uniform from the identity, and could let go of the need to loudly proclaim a gender, and fully embrace her own style of being a woman.
“Fuck,” Gina almost said aloud. She felt a sharp pain in her abdomen. A cramp. Oh my god, I can’t believe I’m getting my period looking at the fucking Star-Spangled Banner, she thought. Oh well! White for purity and red for the blood that was shed.
RIGHTING A WRONG
Joann called out, “We’re ready for you.” A chorus of women in pussyhats at the bottom of the stairs sang Key’s poem to a tune written for an 18th century London gentlemen’s club. Gina emerged, wearing Washington’s uniform. She descended the lobby’s center staircase like Prince Charming, pausing just before she reached Joann, and posed with one leg up, one hand heroically across her chest. “How do I look?”
“Blue and buff,” Joann replied. She lifted Gina and placed her on her shoulders. As Washington’s big, sturdy boots dangled in the air, Joann carried her out the front door and onto the National Mall. Before them, the river of pink encircled the monument. Gina entered the current. No one had ever crossed more bravely, no one’s shoulders were ever more broad. The women slid metaphorical icebergs from her path and Gina and Joann arrived at river’s edge, at the base of the dick itself. They mustered their collective strength and pushed, toppling the dick, and it fell with a mini-splash, into the nearby Reflecting Pool. At that moment, as if the toppling had broken a fairy tale-like spell, every American male penis folded into itself and every American woman’s vagina sealed. Gina sat Reflecting Pool-side laughing with Joann at each other’s genital neutrality, like the space between their legs was the world’s most glorious, liberating punchline. The oxygen level descended to thirteen percent, half mast, and the world stopped burning. Congressmen emerged, carrying the Star-Spangled Banner towards Gina, and spread it over her like a grandmother’s quilt. “Thank you, ladies,” she said, but could she even call them ladies, bros, anything anymore? She smiled, basking in the instability, and curled up beneath the universal logo of freedom, pulling the stripes to her chin, and fell fast, fast asleep.