It wasn't just what she calls the "crazy talk" that Obama, a professed Christian, was really Muslim or a socialist or not American at all. It wasn't just that she felt Obama was being held to a higher standard because he was black - the old saying that you have to be twice as good to be half as good.
What bothered her more than all of that was how, in her view, such talk had become so ordinary, so bold, such a part of the mainstream political discussion.
"It makes me think, 'Okay, something has changed here,' " Brown said, driving along on a sunny afternoon.
And that change had introduced a nagging worry in the back of her mind, one that she was struggling to understand.
The Best Buy manager finally called late that night. Would Mathur be able to work on Good Friday? "Yes," he said. And with that he had his first official job as a college graduate, as a member of the Geek Squad at a store in Skokie, Ill., working 20 hours a week.
"I feel like this is a win for us," Coleman told him. "In this economy? That's a win. Even at Best Buy."
"It's just a job," he said. He had applied for several hundred others - in computer programming, design and software development - before settling for this one.
"You could have been too prideful," Coleman said. "You could have decided it was beneath you, but you didn't. That says a lot."
"Just a job," he said again.
"I'm proud of you," she said, reaching for his hand.
"I don't want to talk about it, okay?"
"I'm sorry," she said.
Much of their year together had been spent boosting each other's self-confidence and explaining away each other's disappointments in hourly text messages and nightly talks on Skype. Their mounting debts? "Everybody is poor in America now," Coleman said. Their chronic underemployment? "This is life in the Bush-Clinton-Obama economy," Mathur said.
To create something to look forward to, they had started planning their lives together in e-mails they sent back and forth. He would start a business and make most of the money. She would travel the world to take photos. They would marry in a ceremony that honored his Hindi heritage and raise their kids the same way they had been raised - solidly middle-class, living in the Midwest. That was the American life they wanted, and the American life that felt increasingly like "a fantasy," Coleman said.
She had encouraged Mahur to take an unpaid position as a designer for an Internet start-up company, on the promise that he would be paid later. He had encouraged her to spend $4,500 on a camera with two lenses, which she had taken out a loan to buy. "A smart investment," he called it, but she wasn't so sure. Was it really smart to take on more debt in this economy? Was it smart to invest in herself?
"Am I just wasting my time and money being here?" she asked. "I feel stuck. I used to feel so sure about everything."
"You made the right choice," he said.
"Do I even have the personality to succeed?" she asked.
"Of course," he said.
"I don't have endless supplies of motivation anymore," she said. "I need a win every once in a while to maintain. I can't just keep taking hits."
She had been taking them for four years, each blow chipping away at the hopefulness of Grant Park, until sometimes it seemed to her that only the photos remained.
This was Chinyere Brown's nagging worry: that the upward trajectory of her own life as a successful African American woman was occurring in a society that in some ways resented it.
In the apartment with the vaulted ceilings, she reached for a scrapbook on a shelf. She flipped to the famous Chicago Sun-Times cover from Nov. 5, 2008, the one with Obama's face and the words "Mr. President" underneath. Then she flipped to another photo, this one of her - not the one with Kelly Coleman but one of her alone, holding the flag on election night, a photo that had run with stories in at least two newspapers.
Here she was beaming under the headline "Race Breakthrough or Logical Step?"
Here she was again under "Obama Leads Nation Across Racial Divide."
"Year by year racial tensions have eased," Brown began, reading part of the article. Then she stopped. "Okay, they are painting a kind of rosy picture here," she said, but it was the reader comments at the ends of the articles that she thought told her "what people are really thinking."
People said they wanted to "take the country back," which made her wonder, "from whom?" She came across crude racist jokes that seemed to catch on rather than be condemned. She heard politicians like Newt Gingrich call Obama "the food stamp president" and watched large white crowds cheer when he did.
"Things have changed," Brown said. "People are more vocal, and when people are more vocal, it is rational to have a little more fear."
This was how things were different now than they were four years ago in Grant Park: along with her emergent success, an emergent fear.
On that night, she had worn a "Yes We Can!" sticker on her smiling cheek and felt safe walking home to her grandfather's house. Now a pile of Obama stickers and car magnets were sitting on her desk, unused, because she worried that displaying them would make her a target in a country that was angrier and more divided.
"If it's 50-50 that someone is not an Obama supporter," Brown said, referring to the rough breakdown in North Carolina, "and if a small percentage of those might be extremely anti-Obama, I wouldn't want something on my car to draw attention to me. Maybe someone has a beer and wants to do something crazy," she said, trailing off. "That is in the back of my mind, too."
A week or so ago, she had glimpsed an article online - a report police now describe as a tragic hoax - about a Louisiana woman wearing an Obama T-shirt who had been set on fire.
"I didn't want to read it because I didn't want to get upset," Brown said. "But it did make me wonder: Do I want to wear my Obama T-shirt, or do I want to cover it up?"
Brown shut the scrapbook and got dressed for work. She got into her pickup truck, where she still could not find the flag.
"I'm thinking, 'Where is that?' " she said later, after looking for it again. "Did I leave it in Chicago?"