She was not the type he’d take to, yet she knew he’d ignite in her presence.
She was small and nondescript with brown curly hair and dark brown eyes wearing a black, calf length dress and matching flat shoes.
She was by anyone’s description, completely forgettable.
But tonight, she did stand out to someone, the only one that mattered.
Amongst all the color and glamour, she didn’t reflect a thing, nothing on her glittered or glistened. She looked quiet and safe.
And that’s exactly why he noticed.
She’d arrived at this particular affair after years of trying to figure out how she could get close enough to someone like him.
He was the president, after all.
This part of the hotel was foreign to her. As one of the housekeepers, she’d been in every room, cleaning it from top to bottom five days a week for almost a decade. She’d memorized every gold filigree in its elaborate wallpaper. She’d brushed every velvet seat, smoothed every brocaded bedspread. She’d sanitized every heated toilet seat and polished every inch of marble tile.
The Ballroom however, was a bit of a mystery to the maids of the hotel. It had its own set of employees, all with high level security clearance and above average looks. The cleaning staff wore starched white uniforms, like nurses from the twenties, so goes the stories.
She tried her hardest not to look impressed but awe crept over her smooth brown face and her large brown eyes blinked at the kaleidoscope-throwing chandeliers.
She tugged on her plain, fitted dress and moved through the crowd unnoticed. She wasn’t nervous or excited, not like she thought she’d be. She was, well, hungry.
She made her way to the buffet and began loading up a small plate with anything she could reach. Exotic fruits and cheeses were her preference and she piled them on top of the thinly sliced meats and breads she’d chosen as well.
The way she moved did not match her apparel. She was liquid, graceful and she held her head high above her narrow shoulders.
She had learned from her mother, no matter the occupation, carry yourself as your highest being. “Never walk like you’ve a burden on your shoulders,” her mother proclaimed, “Walk like you’re wearing a crown.”
He couldn’t take his eyes off of her. She’s stirred something in him that made him feel like he was capturing a moment he’d already had. Anything was better than pretending he was enjoying himself. He hated to admit it, but he was already quite bored with his new position
and the phrase, “Be careful what you wish for” was on repeat in his pampered head.
and the phrase, “Be careful what you wish for” was on repeat in his pampered head.
He welcomed even the dullest distraction, anything that wasn’t well planned and checked, double checked and triple checked first. Her appearance signaled a lost freedom he’d missed the moment he came into office. She didn’t fit and deep down, he knew he didn’t, either.
He watched her eat square after square of whatever they’d set out and wondered why such a plain little thing would even be attending such an extravagant event.
He wondered who she was with, if anyone, and he looked through the crowd to see if there was a typical match for a woman like her. He knew the Secret Service would know her name and where she came from but what’s the fun in asking them? Finding out for himself was always his favorite game to play with women and he’d be damned if this position was going to take that away from him as well.
He found an odd joy watching the hungry little woman eat as if it was her last meal. He somehow found great satisfaction in the fact that he was the one providing the lavish spread that she was enjoying so very much. Her presence made him feel alive, something he hadn’t felt in months, maybe even years.
She felt his gaze. It wasn’t particularly heavy, it held more of a curious weight.
She kept eating until she finally felt full and then, as planned, turned toward the door to leave.
He couldn’t believe it. Surely she didn’t come just for the food, he thought! Somebody like her would never give up the chance to meet an actual president! This boggled his mind, went against every pattern he’d ever witnessed. He actually felt a little bit of panic as she casually walked towards the exit.
Leaving without so much as a glance was the most interesting thing she could’ve done in his mind and she knew it.
She buttoned her coat and felt inside the right pocket for her keys. She then checked the left pocket where her weapon lay and kept her hands shoved deep inside them as she walked towards the door.
She felt his presence behind her. She looked up and saw his reflection in the glass in front of her.
He was accompanied by the Secret Service of course and a few of his constant companions. All eyes from the ballroom watched as he walked towards the small woman in the plain black coat. She turned to face the President of the United States.
He appeared before her as his guards surrounded him. He gave them the signal to stand down as he approached her, arm outstretched. He smiled his most congenial smile and tilted his head just a bit to the side and said, “I don’t think we’ve met.”
She looked down at his hand and removed hers from her right pocket and laid it gently inside his grip. He looked down and placed his other over hers as if he was protecting her. Even he didn’t know why he did it. She looked up from the greeting and said, “I’m Hadiya. I won the contest.”
Oh yes, it all made sense now! He’d held a drawing at this hotel for the employees, the winner getting an exclusive invitation to this exclusive black tie event being held inside the very Grand Ballroom.
He threw back his head and pursed his lips, “Oh, yes, the contest! Well, congratulations,
He threw back his head and pursed his lips, “Oh, yes, the contest! Well, congratulations, Hadiya, is it? And what do you do here?”
“I’m a housekeeper, I’ve worked here nine years.”
Even though the mystery of this woman’s presence was solved, she still kept him intrigued. Maybe it was because she didn’t react the way most women he’d met, especially since he’d been voted leader of the free world. He couldn’t put his finger on it but she seemed calm, almost as if they’d met before.
He continued. “Why are you leaving so soon, I mean, wasn’t part of the prize meeting me?” He chuckled and let her hand go as he smoothed the front of his jacket and posed.
She paused and searched his face. She looked for the man her mother had described to her so many times throughout her 49 years.
Sela was a young, beautiful waitress who worked at a small cafe near the college he’d attended. She’d shake her head and smile every time she told the story of the first time he wandered in with his tousled hair and soft brown eyes. She said he was the handsomest boy she’d ever seen and she had to catch her breath before she served him.
To her surprise, he spoke quietly when he ordered and seemed very shy. In Sela’s eyes this made him even more appealing.
He would watch her when he thought she wasn’t looking but she knew. She could feel his eyes on her as she poured coffee and gabbed with the regulars.
Every morning before classes he’d come in and request her station, always ordering the same thing. Sela would tease him, saying he needed to try something more adventurous than scrambled eggs and white toast.
When she told this part of the story to Hadiya she’d wink and whisper, “I wasn’t talking about anything on the menu.”
Finally, one day he found his nerve and asked her out. Within weeks they were a couple. The handsome, shy, college boy fell deeply and truly in love with the sassy waitress from the local coffee shop.
For Hadiya, this part of their story was the most romantic and magical. Almost as if they were just another normal couple.
Sela had said he was a very lonely young man. He didn’t seem to have many close friends and there was a sadness about him. He’d drop his head when he spoke to people he didn’t know very well. He’d confessed to Sela on more than one occasion that his father would berate him, calling him a mama’s boy. His father had made a sport of humiliating he and his brother in front of his colleagues, putting them down, calling them “his daughters”. He’d never shake that feeling, even after the old man’s death.
He was scared he’d never be good enough, smart enough or strong enough in his father’s eyes. He worried he’d never live up to the image his family held for him. He cared way too much about what they thought and he was insecure about the choices he was making. All of these things weighed heavy on the bright collegiate but there was really only one thing that was breaking his heart.
You see, Sela, the love of his life, was black.
They both knew his parents would never accept her. This fact may not seem like that big of a deal now but back then, it was earth shattering. And for Sela, this was the first time in her life she felt completely helpless. She couldn’t fix this for him, she had no comfort. Sela felt hopeless
He’d swore to her he’d figure it out, that he’d make a life for them, a good life where they could live happily and be accepted. They’d raise their family to be proud of who they were and where they came from. He’d promised to love her forever, no matter what.
He was a man full of hope but he was also naive. Sela had been brought up in a less sheltered world than the one her man came from. She knew there would be a time that she’d have to let him go.
Hadiya looked hard at the man before her, the man who had loved her mother so much he would’ve given up everything to keep her. She tried to see the face that was so hard for her mother to leave, even when she found out she was going to have his baby.
Hadiya pulled her hand back gently and smiled at his awkwardness. He was almost charming and as he stood there waiting for her reply, she could see the tiniest glimpse of the man her mother had so lovingly described.
She took a step back, reached into her left pocket and gripped the weapon.
Suddenly, the Secret Service were upon her, tackling her to the ground and pushing the president back, away from the threat she was about to produce.
They grabbed her arm, pulling it from her pocket while they pinned her face up on the ice cold marble floor. Still in her hand was the weapon; a photo of the president and Sela in happier times, kissing in front of the cafe where they’d met and fell in love.
He squinted and looked toward the picture that was still in her grasp. In recognition, he gasped and whispered her name for the first time in 50 years, “Sela.”
“Get off her!” he shouted and helped her off the ground. “May I?” he asked as he reached for the photo. He couldn’t take his eyes off of it. This was the only picture they’d ever had of themselves together, the only evidence. There she was, smiling that beautiful smile with her dark hair tucked under the cap she wore to work every day.
His eyebrows lifted, his face softened, while he wiped the sweat from his upper lip. THAT was the man her mother had loved so dearly. That was her father.
He looked again at Hadiya, her eyes, nose, smile, she was the spitting image of her mother. Her hair was a little lighter and straighter, her skin not as dark and lustrous but this woman was indeed Sela’s daughter.
All at once, he knew everything. He knew why Sela had left without a word, without warning, on that warm Tuesday evening. He’d held onto that hurt like a pillow, one he could scream into at the powerlessness he felt. He’d let that pain grow and cover him in an unbending armor, one that held the betrayal inside and kept everything else out. He’d felt no love like the love he felt for Sela. He felt no warmth, no security like he’d felt in her arms. He’d never made a connection, never let anybody see what he really wanted, what he really thought. Even his speech was halted, as if frozen in that terrible moment and he grew no more.
He was a tank, completely manufactured and sold to an army that cared nothing of him, only of his ability to plow through mine fields untouched.
At that very moment, he realized Sela had not abandoned him. This was her way of saving him, keeping him from a life she felt he wasn’t meant for.
She’d always put him first and this was the last time she could do that.
He stared at the photo again and then back at Hadiya. Finally, he spoke.
“Did she, I mean, is she, Sela, is she still alive?” Not since the time he’d asked Sela to marry
“Did she, I mean, is she, Sela, is she still alive?” Not since the time he’d asked Sela to marry him had he been so afraid to hear a reply.
Hadiya nodded slowly and said, “Yes, yes she is.” He swallowed hard, trying to hold back tears he hadn’t shed in decades.
“But she’s not well, sir. She’s getting weaker. I think in a way, she’s waiting for you.”
He ordered his Secret Service to bring a car around. He grabbed Hadiya’s hand and walked briskly out of the gilded palace.
They drove quietly into the night, stealing glances of the other and smiling softly.
Upon entering Sela’s hospital room, Hadiya stopped. “You go. I’ll wait here.”
He removed his coat and stood at the foot of her bed for a moment. Sela’s eyes were closed but she was still as beautiful as he’d remembered. He pulled up a chair and sat next to her. He softly stroked Sela’s now silver hair and brushed the back of his hand against her cheek. She opened her eyes to find the man she’d left behind staring back at her with the same loving expression he’d had way back when.
“I’m so sorry,” Sela whispered.
With that, the man who’d seemed soulless to so many for so long, crumbled, his shoulders quaking as he sobbed softly. Sela gathered him in a graceful embrace and held him as she always did when he felt the weight of the world was too much.
He pulled himself together and straightened.
“Why? I would’ve taken care of us, I promised you that. Why didn’t you trust me? Why’d you leave, with, with our baby?”
He looked towards the doorway where Hadiya stood silhouetted by the hallway light. He still couldn’t believe there was evidence of a time when he was alive, truly and wholly, breathing, loving and living.
She titled her head slightly towards him, her expression was so sweet. “I thought I’d taken more of you than I deserved. I thought that I was ruining you and that you’d just, I don’t know, get over me. I knew you’d go on to become the great man you were meant to be. What happened? I’ve been watching you closely, all of these years, waiting, waiting for the courageous and shy boy to come out. It was like you weren’t there, no matter where you stood, you left no footprint, no shadow. You wouldn’t wake up, you just kept wandering through it all, lifeless. I was so frightened for you.”
She lifted herself and leaned in.
“I had faith, faith you’d wake up and remember the things we’d talked about, all the dreams, the future we’d hoped for. I’d whisper wishes and prayers to you, hoping you’d hear my voice. The anger must’ve drowned it all out, it must’ve washed all of those memories away. You looked so absent. And it was all because of me. I couldn’t face you. I was too ashamed.”
He kept shaking his head no, holding her hands in his as she continued.
“I didn’t know I had the power to kill you. I didn’t know I even owned such a weapon. I watched you, dead to the world, walking amongst the living and only I could see the wound.
watched you, dead to the world, walking amongst the living and only I could see the wound. Every time I looked at Hadiya, I saw the truth and felt so guilty. I murdered you that day. I’m so, so, sorry my love. Please, forgive me.”
He lifted his head and whispered softly in her ear, “I never stopped loving you, Sela. Never.” He held her face in his hands and she pressed her cheeks against them and closed her eyes. Her breathing began to slow.
The heart monitor sounded its alarm and Hadiya rushed to the other side of her mother’s bed. She held onto her hand as her mother slowly passed.
He couldn’t take her eyes off of her. He kept hoping her chest would rise, her eyes would open and she’d say his name one more time.
Hadiya sobbed and he placed his hand on her shoulder.
All at once he felt everything again, all that he’d unplugged for so many years. The connection was too much, the shock of the overload gripped his chest and he collapsed.
Hadiya looked into his face, it was almost serene. He nodded to her as if to say, it’s okay, I’m okay now. His eyes rolled back in his head and he slumped onto her mother’s chest. He was gone.
Hadiya held their hands and shut her eyes tight. She needed this moment as much as they did.
As she walked past the Secret Service, one of the officer’s asked if the president was finished here.
“Oh yes,” she replied softly. “Quite.” and before turning to leave it all behind forever she added,
“You see, living was too much for him without her and love wasn’t enough for her to stay.”