I met Michelle Obama in the girls’ locker room when I was wearing nothing but a soggy bathing suit and a broken watch.
It was fall 2011, and I had just started school at American University. And trust me, if I had known the First Lady was going to be hanging by the changing area, I would have worn something nicer, like probably some shoes and a bra. But I digress.
I had been at college barely two months. I had just gotten out of the elevator on my floor when I caught my friend Allison skipping down the hallway shouting something about Sasha and Malia Obama. After listening for a minute I realized she was jumping around because, allegedly, the Obama girls were swimming in the swimming pool—in our swimming pool—taking lessons.
“I’m going down to the pool right now!” she cried.
“I’m coming!” I said, getting back in the elevator I’d just taken.
Allison and I sprinted down to the gym, where a giant glass wall separated the lobby from the pool below. The glass wall was lined with parents watching their kids swim in the pool. I then noticed something…off. In every corner, stationed about twenty feet apart from one another, were straight-faced men in uniform, unsmiling, unfriendly, just standing.
As Allison and I tried to glance down at the pool, one of the men leaned forward, halting us with his eyes.
“What do you think you’re doing,” he demanded, deadpan.
Allison and I glanced at each other. “We—we—I mean, I—um—”
“We…just wanted to see the pool,” I said.
The man stared at us menacingly. “You can’t do that.”
“I mean, we just wanted to go down to the pool. To swim. In the pool.”
The man gave us the once-over. “All right.”
Allison and I shuffled away from the window.
“Now we’ve gotta actually go down to the pool,” I mumbled as we walked toward the gym, trying not to look behind me.
When we reached the desk, the girl asked for our IDs. You need your ID if you’re going to use the gym. Or the pool, we learned. In the excitement back in our dorm, Allison had forgotten her ID.
“Can’t I swipe her in?” I asked.
“But—I’m a student here,” Allison objected. “Can’t you look me up on the computer or something?”
So we sprinted back up to our building to retrieve Allison’s ID. While we were there, we decided it might be a good idea to grab our bathing suits so we could actually go in the pool. We would go for an undesired swim if necessary, just to see the Obama girls, if they were actually there, of course. And if we were allowed.
We flew back down to the gym, presented our IDs to the girl at the desk, and bounded down the stairs to the basement, where we changed into our bathing suits and tiptoed out to the pool.
From the pool area, we could see a dozen adults watching from the glass panels above. In the main pool, a large group of middle school-aged girls dove and swam and stood in their sporty swim suits while Allison and I touched the water’s surface with our toes, contemplating getting in.
“I think we should just do it,” I said. “Then we can say we swam in the same pool as the Obamas. How cool is that. Right?”
We slid in. Did a couple lame laps, lifting our heads up every so often to get a glance of Sasha or Malia. We stopped at one end of the pool.
“I think that’s her,” I said.
“Who?” Allison looked at the girl standing on the diving platform. “Sasha?”
“Doesn’t that kind of look like her?”
“I mean, she’s black…”
Though our behavior seems, in retrospect, quite pathic, I don’t think either of us realized it. We kept pretending to swim. On the other end of the pool, Allison squinted up at the giant glass window.
“Does that look like Michelle Obama to you?”
“Up there…in gray?”
I looked. “I mean, I think so… Can you tell, though?” I asked. “I’m not wearing my glasses.”
“Neither am I.”
“I think it’s her.”
Then I glanced at my watch. “Shit, shit.” I waited in vain for the second hand to jump back to life. “I knew I should’ve taken this off. Shit.” I looked around. “We need to stop staring and get out of this pool before the Secret Service comes down here and arrests us.”
I followed Allison out of the pool and into the locker room.
“Well, I’m pretty sure that now we can say we swam in the same pool as Sasha Obama, right?”
When we got back to the bench where we’d thrown our clothes, Allison walked back toward the door. “I’m going to the water fountain.”
I began to collect my things, located my other sock, shook out my waterlogged watch in the hopes that it would begin to tick again, heard something—
“…honor to meet you…”
My ears perked up. Who was Allison talking to? I went to investigate, turning the corner of our enclave of lockers, and—
There she was. In the flesh. Tall, regal. In an elegant mix of black and gray. Her skin gleamed in the humid locker room air. Her presence was enough to render me speechless. Her smile could probably end wars.
Goosebumps everywhere, suddenly aware of every droplet of water on my skin, I stood, frozen.
“Hi,” she smiled.
I inched away from the scene, backing farther and farther into the small area of lockers where my socks were strewn next to my American University sweatshirt and my ID was somewhere on the floor. Suddenly Allison and I were leaning against the lockers on the other side of where she had been standing. And we just sobbed uncontrollably.
A few young girls appeared at lockers near ours, staring at us. They’d been swimming in the pool with Sasha.
“Oh my gosh!”
“Are you okay?”
“I think they’re crying…”
“Are you guys crying?”
I shook my head, trying to wipe my tears away and stop shaking. “Yeah, no, I’m fine,” I blubbered. “We’re fine…”
The girls gave us another concerned look and hesitantly turned back to their lockers.
Allison and I burst into tears all over again. Trembling, we got half-dressed and fled the scene. Outside the locker room, we were met with a giant crowd of students dressed for the gym, waiting to be let into the locker room. They looked at us funny; I didn’t know whether this was because we had been allowed in the locker room…or because persistent tears were still rolling down our cheeks.
We squeezed past the throng. We made it upstairs. It was a madhouse. At least a hundred students, maybe two hundred, stuffed into the lobby of the gymnasium. All hoping to meet the Obamas. All hoping to meet the Obamas. Hoping to meet the Obamas.
Later, I found out that, when Allison had gone back to the water fountain, she had run into Sasha Obama, who had dropped her water bottle, and Allison had picked it up for her. I also found out that, even though I don’t remember saying a thing, I had said a feeble “Hi” the First Lady.
When Allison and I returned to our dorm, I ran straight into the laundry room and called my mom, crying into the phone about how I should have at least had the gumption to shake her hand!
I went over everything rapidly in my head, replaying every second. Had I really worn a red bathing suit? I couldn’t’ve at least been wearing a blue one? I was a Democrat–what was wrong with me?!
After I got off the phone with my mother, I entered the lounge, only to be made fun of by everyone on our floor because they’d witnessed our crying. A friend invited me to lean on his shoulder, only to mock me about how what I’d done was really embarrassing and stupid. “Yeah, thanks,” I said, sitting up.
Later, when the tears stopped, I looked down at my broken watch. Worth it, I thought. Totally worth it.