Washington is a city of southern
efficiency and northern charm.
—JOHN F. KENNEDY
This is what people talk about at an Obama campaign reunion:
· How early they joined the campaign
· What they did on the campaign
· Who they slept with on the campaign
· Good hotels
· Bad hotels
· How many Hilton points they have
· How many frequent flier miles they have
· Who worked for Hillary before joining Obama (This was whispered behind the backs of former Hillary staffers like it was a shameful secret. Sort of like herpes.)
· Inside jokes about lost luggage
· How amazing Iowa was (Usually you’d hear someone say something like “Weren’t you in Iowa? Oh man, you should’ve been there. You missed out. It felt like we were changing the world.” Then you’d brace yourself for about an hour’s worth of Iowa stories.)
We were at a bar near the White House called The Exchange, which had a lot of TVs and smelled like bleach and dirty rags. Matt ordered drinks for us at the bar and then we walked around, stopping every few seconds so he could give someone a handshake or a half hug and say, “Hey man, how’ve you been?” He was more hyper than usual—being around the campaign people made him jumpy like he’d been chugging Red Bull. All that Hope and Change will do that to a person. Every time he introduced me to someone, he’d put his hand on my back and push me forward a little, saying, “This is Beth, my wife.” And when he’d tell me the name of the person I was meeting, he’d always include their job title. “This is Larry, an associate research director at the White House.” Each time, I’d say something like “Wow, that’s great.” I had no idea what any of it meant, but I did my best to look impressed.
Eventually we found ourselves standing in a circle of people listening to this guy, Billy, tell a story about one of the early fund-raising events. He was animated and everyone was hanging on his every word. “So, I was driving the Senator around Minnesota in a rental car,” he said. “A Ford Fiesta, I think. This was sometime in 2007. And we hit a pothole and almost lost a tire.”
Everyone laughed like this was really funny, so I did too, but it gave me kind of a creepy feeling. Billy was telling this story like it was about potholes or Ford Fiestas, but it wasn’t. The real points of the story were:
1. Billy knew Obama when he was a senator and he knew him so well that sometimes he just forgot that he was the president now and still referred to him as the Senator. Such a simple mistake.
2. He joined the campaign so early that there weren’t even drivers yet, which means that Billy drove around Minnesota with Obama in shotgun. How crazy is that? How jealous is everyone?
3. And again, just to repeat it, he joined the campaign early. So early. Earlier than everyone else. Before you, definitely. He always knew Obama would be the nominee. Possibly, he was the first person in the world to know.
As everyone laughed at the hilarious Ford Fiesta story, Matt put his hand on my back and I braced myself to be introduced to someone else, but he just leaned down and whispered, “We can go soon, okay?” I nodded and tried to look like I was having fun, like I loved being at this reunion. (Which by the way was a really weird thing to call it—a reunion—because all of these people lived in DC and most of them worked together. If they wanted to reunite, they could do it over lunch or coffee or running into each other in the hallway.) And so, I just shrugged and said to Matt, “Sure, we can go whenever you want.”
Matt smiled at me like he knew I was lying, which I appreciated. I was making an effort to be positive about moving to DC, but these people didn’t make it easy. Everyone at that happy hour seemed just a little off, in a way I couldn’t put my finger on. When I mentioned this to Matt, he said, “It’s all people who work in politics. Nature of the beast, I guess.”
But as we stood there that night, listening to another story about Iowa, I had a realization. All of the people there reminded me of high school student council members, the ones who fought for pizza lunches and dance themes with great passion. They were all so eager. (And borderline annoying.) Was Matt one of them? Had I never noticed? Had he always been this way or just become one of them when I wasn’t paying attention?
I’d been in DC for about a week at that point, and I kept waiting for the newness to wear off, for it to feel less strange. Matt had already been there for months by the time I moved—he’d started working for the Presidential Inaugural Committee right after the election—and he seemed to have no trouble fitting in to this new city. I visited him often while he was working on PIC (the horrible acronym everyone used for the committee, which made me think of fingers in noses), and as I met his work friends and walked around the monuments, I tried to imagine what our life would look like there, tried to see the good parts of DC. But each time I left to return to New York, I was relieved. I’d get off the train at Penn Station, breathe in the smell of urine, popcorn, and dirt, and feel like I was coming home.
After the inauguration, Matt was offered a job in the White House counsel’s office and I knew we were really moving to DC. It was what we’d talked about, what we’d planned for. It was the whole reason Matt joined the campaign in the first place. It was too late to back out now.
We found a place just north of Dupont Circle, on a tiny block with six town houses, diagonally across the street from a Hilton. The day we’d gone to look at the apartment, Matt had pointed at the hotel. “Do you know what that is?” he asked.
“What? The hotel?”
“Yeah, that right there. Look at the doorway. Does it look familiar?”
“Not at all? Just look at it for a minute.”
Matt was always doing this, always insisting that I knew things I didn’t. Once, when we were on opposite teams during a Trivial Pursuit game with friends, he refused to let me pass on the question “Who once warned, ‘Never eat more than you can lift’?” I didn’t even have a guess, but Matt wouldn’t let it go. “Come on, Beth, you know this,” he kept saying, as our friends sat there and I got embarrassed and then mad. “I don’t know,” I kept insisting. (The answer was Miss Piggy, and to this day, I have no idea why Matt was sure I knew the answer, but it still remains one of the biggest fights we’ve ever had. We didn’t play Trivial Pursuit for years after that.)
Standing in front of the apartment, I didn’t have the patience to play Matt’s game and guess what was special about the Hilton. “Just tell me,” I said.
“It’s where Reagan was shot,” he said. “It’s the Hinckley Hilton. Look, that’s where he was coming out of the hotel, and right there is where he got shot. Crazy, right?”
“Crazy,” I said. I was tired of walking around and looking at apartments, and knew that my attitude was putting a sourness over the whole afternoon. Matt was just trying to lighten the mood, but it was a little weird to try to cheer me up by showing me the spot of an attempted presidential assassination, wasn’t it? (Although I soon found myself pointing it out to everyone who came to visit. When a friend from college who lived in Brooklyn told me that Sesame Street was filming on her block, I quickly came back with “From our front door, you can see where Reagan was shot.” Take that, Elmo.)
When we signed the lease, the broker took notice of Matt’s jacket, a fleece with an Obama-Biden logo embroidered on the chest. These jackets were given to the staff on election night, and you saw people wearing them all over town, like badges of honor.
“Did you work on the campaign?” the broker asked, and Matt nodded.
“It’s so great he won,” the broker said.
“It really is,” Matt agreed.
“I mean, for business it’s great,” the broker said. “All the real estate agents here are thrilled. We’ll be renting so many more places. Republicans don’t live in the District, you know, they live in Virginia.” He said this like it was a fact everyone knew.
“Isn’t that weird?” I said to Matt later.
“Not really.” He shrugged. “It’s like anything else divided down party lines. Republicans like Fox News and NASCAR and Democrats like MSNBC and Starbucks.”
“Simple as that?” I asked, and he said, “Absolutely.”
Our new neighborhood was nice—that was my answer to everyone who asked. And then I’d add, “I mean, it’s not New York, but it’s fine.” Dupont Circle was just so different from Manhattan—residential and much quieter; one step closer to the suburbs.
If you walked over to Eighteenth Street, there were a couple of restaurants and a gay bar called Larry’s Lounge that advertised “Yappy Hour” on the patio from five to seven, a time when customers could bring their dogs to hang out with them while they got drunk. If you walked five blocks down, there was a stretch of shops and then some more restaurants. Everything looked a little worn, like it was past its prime. Also, we lived just a few houses down from the “original” Ron Hubbard house, which to be honest freaked me out just a little. I wasn’t thrilled to have Scientologists as neighbors.
And there were so many trees and so much grass that it was disorienting. Maybe it was just more oxygen than I was used to. After we signed the lease, Matt and I took a walk around the neighborhood. He held my hand and squeezed it. “I think you’re really going to love it here,” he said.
I hoped he was right, I really did. I reminded myself that I’d once gone to a six-week boot camp class in Central Park, where a man yelled at us as we did push-ups and squats in the grass at 7:00 a.m. If I could convince myself that I liked that, I could do anything.
I spent my first couple of weeks in DC going to as many social gatherings as I could. We said yes to every invitation, asked people to dinner, made plans for almost every night of the week. Matt kept saying, “Once you meet people and get settled, it will feel like home.” And I believed him. (Or at least I wanted to.)
So we went to a dinner party where everyone—I swear to God—went around the table and announced their level of security clearance. As people said “Secret,” and “Top Secret,” the rest of the guests nodded and murmured. When they got to me, I looked at their expectant faces and then finally said, “Nothing. I don’t have clearance for anything.” There was a small pause and then the man to my left picked it up and said, “SCI,” which apparently stood for sensitive compartmented information, and got the most approving reaction of the night. I just took a bite of my chicken and concentrated on chewing. What a bunch of nerds.
And then one night, we went out with Alan Chu, one of Obama’s personal aides who sat just outside the Oval Office all day. Alan was slim and always perfectly dressed, although there was something fussy about his look that suggested he spent twenty minutes picking out his tie and sock combinations in the morning. Alan and his boyfriend suggested we go to La Fourchette, a French restaurant on Eighteenth Street, and I had high hopes for the evening, until it became clear that every one of Alan’s stories started with “One time POTUS said” and “POTUS was in a great mood today.” I tried to steer the conversation away from work, asking Alan where he was from and where he went to college. Each time, he’d answer me quickly and then resume talking to Matt as if they were the only two there. Alan’s boyfriend, Brett, looked just as bored as I felt, and at one point he started playing with the little candle in front of him, tilting it back and forth, letting the wax drip onto the tablecloth.
On top of everything else, the service that night was terrible—there was a private party in the back room and the whole staff (our waiter included) kept rushing back there and ignoring the tables in the main dining room. As the waiters pushed the curtain aside to get back there, we caught a glimpse of Newt Gingrich’s round and red smiling face. “It’s his birthday,” our waiter whispered to us later. He was breathless with excitement. “Welcome to DC,” Matt said to me, and I gave a little laugh.
After we left dinner that night, I said to Matt, “When Alan talks about the President, he sounds like an infatuated boyfriend.”
“He’s not that bad,” Matt said.
“Sure,” I agreed. “In the same way that stalkers are just passionate.”
Trying to make new friends was like dating—meeting so many new people and feeling them out, trying to find common interests and topics of conversation. It was harder than I’d thought it would be. I tried to adjust, tried to remain positive. But the one thing I could never get used to when we were out with these people was the BlackBerries—oh, the BlackBerries that everyone kept close by, right next to their beers or their plates, just in case someone was trying to get ahold of them. If we were with a big group, chimes and dings and bike bells rang out constantly. The table buzzed and beeped, and each time there was a new chirp, everyone reached for their phone, certain that it was theirs, clicked away on the keyboard just to make sure they hadn’t missed anything, each of them believing themselves to be more important than the next.
Our unpacking process was slow. No matter how many boxes I got through each day, there were always more, almost like they were multiplying behind my back. Bubble Wrap was strewn everywhere—on the coffee table and the floor and couch. Matt came home one Thursday night, a couple of weeks after we moved in, to find me standing in a circle of boxes, unsure of where to put any of it.
“Hey,” I called, as he came up the stairs. I was trapped in of middle of everything and he came over to kiss me hello.
“How’s it going?” he asked.
“I don’t know how we have so much stuff. We’re just going to live out of boxes forever,” I said.
“Okay,” Matt said. “Fine by me.”
“Seriously, this apartment is like twice as big as our last place and I still don’t know where to put anything.”
“Ugh,” Matt said, leaning over to look into one of the boxes, which was filled with the most random of our possessions—Post-it notes, a shower cap, a pair of wooden lovebirds. “Let’s just toss it.”
“Deal,” I said. I stepped over the pile of stuff around me and sat on the couch as he went to the kitchen to get himself a beer.
“How was work?” I asked.
“Good,” he said. He sat down on the couch with a sigh and leaned his head back. “I’m so tired.”
“Too tired for a trip to the grocery store? I was thinking we could go to the Giant up on Connecticut.”
“Why do you want to go all the way up there?”
“We need so much stuff. It’s not that far. I can’t eat Chipotle again for dinner. The employees are starting to recognize us and it’s getting embarrassing.”
“I know,” Matt said. “The manager seemed genuinely excited to see me last night.”
“We basically have no food in the house. I just think the Giant is our best bet.”
There were two Safeways within walking distance of our apartment, but they were both disappointing, full of dirty produce and questionable meat. In DC, all of the Safeways had nicknames—the one in Georgetown was the Social Safeway, because apparently it was a good place to find a date, although I never met anyone who actually got picked up there. There was the Stinky Safeway (self-explanatory), the Underground Safeway, the UnSafeway. The two closest to us were the Secret Safeway, because it was tiny and hidden away on a side street, and the Soviet Safeway, because the shelves were always bare.
People found these nicknames charming. I found them stupid. When I went to the Soviet Safeway for milk and had to walk away empty-handed because the dairy case was empty, I wasn’t amused. I just wanted them to get new management.
“We need a real grocery store,” I continued. “One that has actual food on the shelves.”
“Do you think you could take the car and go?” Matt asked. He gave me an apologetic look. “I’m so beat.”
Matt had started insisting that I drive as soon as I got to DC. “You just have to get used to it again,” he kept saying. But I disagreed. After living in New York for seven years, I’d pretty much completely forgotten how to drive. When I went home to Madison, I sometimes dared to take my parents’ car a few blocks, gripping the wheel at 10 and 2 and riding the brake the whole time.
Even when I was a teenager, my dad had to beg me to practice driving, taking me to empty parking lots where I coasted along at fifteen miles an hour, slammed on the brake when it was time to turn. Some people love driving, love the feeling of being in control, swerving in and out of lanes; I’ve always preferred being a passenger.
I’d driven exactly once since I’d been in DC, when we went to brunch in Georgetown. I’d panicked as I tried to parallel-park and a line of cars honked at me like I was purposely holding them up. Matt and I had to switch places so that he could pull the car into the parking spot, which was mortifying. And now here he was, casually suggesting that I “take the car” like he was going to trick me into driving.
“I don’t really know where I’m going,” I finally said.
“You have the GPS. And you know where you’re going.”
“I really don’t. I have no idea where anything is.”
“Beth, it’s like riding a bike. I promise. You just need to get back on.”
“I think you mean, it’s like a horse. The saying is, get back on the horse.”
“Yeah, sure, okay. Driving is like that. You need to get back on the horse.”
“Well, I hate horses. You know that.”
Matt looked at me, like he couldn’t decide whether or not to be amused.
“Fine,” I said, grabbing the car keys. “I’ll go.”
I walked out the door, waiting for him to come after me. When he didn’t, I said, “Fuck,” and went to the car, which was parked in an alley that was home to the biggest rats I’ve ever seen. Just a few days earlier, one had charged at me and I’d screamed bloody murder. Matt said it sounded like I was being assaulted, and I said that’s what it felt like. It was something no one had told me about DC—the rats are bigger there. And bolder. I think the warm weather makes them this way.
I found the store just fine, of course. Deep down, I knew Matt was right about the driving. What did I expect? That he’d drive me wherever I wanted to go, always? Like my own personal chauffeur? As I loaded a case of Diet Coke into my cart, I felt slightly ridiculous for making a big deal out of it.
But then, on the way home I got lost. I missed the turn onto T Street and somehow ended up entering the Dupont traffic circle. The GPS had been telling me to turn around, but as I continued around the circle for the fifth time trying to find the right exit, she couldn’t keep up, and just kept saying, “Recalculating.” When we’d gotten the GPS, Matt had set it to speak in an Australian accent, which was funny at first but now I couldn’t understand the stupid Aussie. “Tell me where to go,” I screamed at her. And then, like she would care, I added, “I hate it here.”
Leaving our apartment in New York had been harder than I’d expected. It was our home for five years, the first place we’d lived as a married couple, and I was attached to it. It didn’t help that my parents had sold the house I’d grown up in just a year earlier, and now lived in an unrecognizable ranch house in a retirement community. Our New York apartment was the only home I had left.
I made a point of telling everyone that we were moving—the man who worked at the wine store around the corner, the workers behind the counter at our bagel place. When I pulled the manager of J. G. Melon aside to say good-bye, Matt looked embarrassed. “What?” I said. “We come here all the time. Don’t you think it would be weird if we vanished? If we never came back?”
“People leave New York all the time,” Matt said. “I’m sure they’re used to it.”
“I just want to say good-bye. It’s the right thing to do.”
The day the movers came, I couldn’t stop crying. I cried as they carried out our boxes and furniture, and when I hugged the twitchy doorman, Bob, good-bye. For the whole time we lived there, he’d blushed and said, “Okay, now,” whenever I said hi to him or told him to have a good day, and when I wept on his shoulder on moving day, he just about turned purple.
We watched the moving truck pull away, and then we got into our new car, which was loaded with the rest of our things, and started the drive to DC. Matt kept his hand on my leg, sometimes rubbing my shoulder or smoothing my hair to comfort me. But after about an hour, I knew he just wanted me to stop crying. And that night, as we got ready for bed, and I still had tears in my eyes, he was a little impatient.
“Come on, Beth,” he said. “I know it’s hard, but what did you think? That we were going to live in that apartment forever? For the rest of our lives?”
“Maybe,” I said. “I guess I didn’t really think about it.”
He sighed that night and reached over to put his arm around me. “We’re here,” he said. “And home is wherever we’re together.”
It was a nice thought, but I didn’t totally believe it.
When I got back from the grocery store, Matt came right down the stairs to meet me at the door. “I thought you’d need help with bags,” he said, looking at my empty hands.
“I left it all in the car,” I said. And then, feeling stupid, “I got lost.”
“Oh, no. Did the Australian fail you?”
“Yes,” I said. And then, before I could help myself, “I hate it here.”
“I know,” he said. “I know.”
I hated everything about DC. I hated the weather in the summer, how it was so humid you could barely breathe, how you started sweating as soon as you walked out the door.
I hated the way people asked, “Who do you work for?” as soon as you met them, like that was the only thing that mattered. I hated the shorthand people used to talk about their jobs: I work at Treasury, they’d say. Or at DOD, or For POTUS, or I’m an LA. It was like they didn’t have enough time to say the whole thing, like if you didn’t know what their acronym meant, you didn’t matter anyway. (I also hated how it wasn’t long before I used these acronyms, how they so quickly became a part of my vocabulary.)
I hated that the Metro was carpeted, and that it was so far underground—you felt like a mole by the time you got down the escalator—and I hated that you had to swipe your card to get in and out of the station. I hated that you couldn’t eat or drink on the train, and I especially hated that everyone obeyed the rule, like they were afraid they’d be arrested for sipping a cup of Starbucks on their morning commute.
I hated the helicopters that buzzed overhead, like we were in some sort of war zone. I hated how the motorcades stopped traffic, halted the Metros, and clogged up the streets, usually when you were running late to get somewhere.
I hated how young everyone was, especially on the Hill, how they walked around all doughy and baby faced, wearing suits that their mothers had bought for them, thrilled with the fact that they’d accepted a salary of $23K to work for ten hours a day. I hated that they were all so eager, ready to tell you about their passion—healthcare or Planned Parenthood or clean water—whether you asked or not. I hated the way people dressed, in collared shirts and knee-length skirts, muted suits and sensible ties. I hated that all the women looked like they’d just left an Ann Taylor store (and I hated that most likely, they probably just had). I hated that so many women wore sneakers and socks with their suits while they commuted, as if it were still 1987. I wanted to pull them aside and tell them that there was no need for this, that there were very comfortable ballet flats out there they could wear instead.
I hated the way that everyone wore their ID cards around their necks and tucked into their front suit jacket pockets, so that the only things visible were the lanyards, just so they could let you know that they were very important people who worked at very important places.
I hated how the cabs were always dirty, how they only took cash, and how the drivers never seemed to know where they were going. I hated that you couldn’t order takeout past 10:00, unless you wanted pizza from a questionable place. I hated that I had to drive to get decent groceries, that there weren’t any good neighborhood stores. I missed our neighborhood bodega. I missed it every day.
That night, after Matt had made three trips to retrieve the groceries from the car, he unpacked them and made grilled cheese for dinner. He insisted that I stay on the couch, and brought me a glass of wine. “For my little driver,” he said. “My master of direction.” He sat down next to me and ran his hand over my hair. “It’ll get better, Buzz. I promise.” When we’d first started dating, I told Matt how my parents used to call me Busy Bee as a child, which he thought was hilarious. He started calling me that as a joke, then it turned into Buzzy Bee, and then Buzzy, and then just Buzz, which sounded more like a nickname for a large, bald man and less like a term of endearment. But it stuck.
“Thank you,” I said. “That’s why I love you.”
I tried not to take Matt’s kindness for granted, tried to appreciate it. It wasn’t always a given that I’d marry someone like this, especially because I spent most of college dating (and I use that term loosely) a guy named Justin Henry, who once told me about a recent date he’d gone on while I was lying naked in his bed and once walked right by me on the street—just completely ignored me and continued down the sidewalk.
Not long after Matt and I were married, I’d said something about craving Indian food and he’d said, “Let’s do it,” even though he hated Indian food. When I asked him if he was sure, he’d said, “Whatever makes you happy.” It was so easy for him, so simple. He wanted me to be happy and he’d do anything (even eat naan for dinner) to make it happen. For him, kindness was a reflex, and I envied that. I wanted it to be the same for me, to automatically put his wants first. But most of the time I had to remind myself to reciprocate, the way a socially awkward person struggles to remember appropriate topics of conversation.
That night, I ate my grilled cheese and told Matt all the things I hated about DC. I wanted him to understand how I felt, but he just told me it was impossible to hate that many things. “It’s not impossible,” I told him. “It’s hard. And it takes a lot of energy, but it’s not impossible.”
Matt looked at me like he wasn’t sure what to say. He rubbed my leg. “Do you want some more wine?” he asked, and I nodded. He got up to fill my glass, and I pulled a blanket off the back of the couch and covered myself with it, curled my legs underneath me, suddenly tired.
When he handed me my wine, he leaned down to kiss me. “Maybe,” he said, “if you try to hate it here a little less, you eventually will.”
“I doubt it,” I said.
“But maybe you could try it.”
“I could,” I said. But I didn’t say that I would.