Let me tell you about constituents.
I never paid them much attention. I should confess that first. Still though, talking to them was part of the job, the lowest position on the vast totem pole of the Washington DC legislature. But sometimes, particularly when a bill like ASC-INTF was coming down the pipeline, we’d be all hands on deck. In those hectic times, when the grunt work was unavoidable, the whole thing took on the appearance of ritual self-sacrifice, with exaggerated sighs and dramatic gestures. Afterwards we’d gather and commiserate, drink beers and share the most absurd or pathetic stories.
I didn’t care. You wouldn’t either. You learn quickly how to smile blandly, to noncommittally defend your beliefs and promise radical changes all at once. You learn how to dismiss without being dismissive. You learn these things because you have to, because the alternative is being reduced to tears by some redneck asshole from Delaware who thinks his legislators haven’t done enough to drive the welfare queens to Canada where they goddamn belong.
You find yourself sitting in the room with the people who are simultaneously your only friends and worst enemies. You find yourself wishing for a coffee break as some idiot from Colorado fails to understand that your politician doesn’t even represent him. “When do I get my FEMA money?” He asks you in a gravelly voice ruined by cigarettes and age. “They said I’d be getting money from FEMA. For the avalanche. You know. I talked to a nice lady the other day about it. I want my FEMA money.”
Sooner or later, you’d just stop listening. You’d hear, of course. But you would be more Chinese Room Experiment than person. I just took it a bit further, hearing key words and modeling my responses off those. It sounds incredible, maybe. It sounds insane or terrible or reckless. But you’ve heard about me on the news. You’ve seen my face, you’ve seen the press conferences and the police lines and the body-bags. You know what they say about me. You probably believe it. Good.
That means somebody is doing their job. I don’t blame them for that. I can’t.
You have to understand I wasn’t thinking. I wasn’t thinking about much of anything but my job, my real one. ASC-INTF was coming. I needed to work on subsection 3A. And then make a pithy tweet about it. That’s the real work. Mass media. Mass communication. Polling data analysis. The hoi polloi just don’t get it.
You would stop listening. I did.
Six in the morning, and the sun is just cresting the scattered lowrises of the DC skyline. I’m already pounding back coffee, looking over my trade commission notes. They’re useless now. I check twitter. I don’t have the password anymore. I check the news. No new crises. The world is quiet, or as quiet as the dull roaring traffic ever lets it be. I still notice it, even after a few years. I don’t think my guest does.
I have company, but I’m not acknowledging him yet. I have to tend to my pain first, the private crisis building in my skull.
Sometimes, I longed for a new crisis. Crises are excellent for careers, because they separate the wheat from the chaff. No matter who you are, if you play a crisis right, you can advance. It comes down to how politicians react rhetorically, whether aides remain calm under pressure, how the media covers the whole affair. Never let a good crisis go to waste, right, Rahm?
There’s no time for a life here. I took, and still take, pride in that fact. In a weird, neurotic, type A way, it’s what we all want, right? Unending days that blend seamlessly into nights, whole twenty-four hour cycles spent alternating between offices, coffeeshops and bars. All my friends are in politics now. I just missed my best college friend’s wedding and when she called me I forgot I’d even RSVPed.
It’s fun though. Over beers and coffee we confess the dirty secrets of our trade, bicker about whose politician is the worst, and sometimes, if we’re really at a low point, we might even ask each other for advice.
I’d drag strangers back to my studio apartment, apologize for the mess, make them a drink and fuck them. It was nice, I guess. I had a boyfriend or two, but they were like me. We talked shop for foreplay and when they left and my bed was empty again it became tough to remember their names or faces. They made about as much of an impression as I ever did. There was always the lingering notion that life used to be somehow different, but all my more juvenile experiences with love were tinged with heartbreak or eventual boredom or more commonly some combination of the two.
Besides, being a good lover won’t get you very far here. Ask Monica or any of the thousand nameless people like her. It just makes you a pariah. Laziness is the enemy. Shortcuts are one thing… but being dumb enough to be caught, to be known? Hell itself follows.
Still, companionship helps. It really does. Especially on those eighty-hour workweeks when everything is reduced to the simple inescapable facts of policy and politics. The machine. ASC-INTF. I don’t even remember what it stands for anymore. The vast proletariat mass and the talking heads alike called it the Family Freedom and Jobs Bill. The Johnson Bill, if you were feeling prosaic. The Dick Bill if you worked here.
If only I knew then how much the Dick Bill would fuck me, I would have ran home and gotten a job at Best Buy. Or some other real growth industry, like the Newspaper or a taxi company. But I was oblivious. We all were.
You have to remember that we knew we were the elite. We were where it happened. The movers and shakers, the silent engine that kept the government running while politicians smiled and promise and made their sexy backroom deals with cigars and brandy. Our mandates came down from on high, sure, but we made them work. We sanitized and massaged. We didn’t work in communications because our job was to explain. Half the time I swear we just made the incomprehensible even more incomprehensible, just to make sure the constituents never noticed. It was exhausting. It was stressful. But it was fun.
You don’t last in this job unless you’ve got a real passion for it. An addiction to newsfeeds and statistics, to keeping your fist clenched around the heartbeat of America. You don’t last in this job. It wears you out. It steals your soul. It steals your sleep.
Sometimes, when I got sleep, I remembered my dreams. I always remembered my dreams. The alarm somehow managed to hit right in the middle of a REM cycle without fail. I swear it waited and watched. It sensed my eyes fluttering blindly and it knew, oh it knew, to start screaming.
Last night, I confess, I slept fine.
It was tough to get any sleep until now.
A year ago, during one of those brief and pointless flings, I asked if it ever got any easier.
“The slog doesn’t end, love.” He said, fumbling around in the dark, rooting amongst old bottles and heaps of clothes for his underwear. I didn’t mention that I’d clearly tossed them in the opposite corner. Let him struggle a bit. “You want my advice? You can make twenty thousand more a year in the private sector. All it requires is compromise.”
“Yeah. You’ve got to give up the antiquated crusader mentality. DC isn’t a fortress. Your war isn’t holy. Get out. Move to the suburbs. Start a family. What are you waiting for here? Life is all those moments you’re missing waiting for your big break in a city that chews up little staffers like you.” He stood straight again, giving my room a glassy-eyed survey, taking in the contents. “Oh god, they’re on the windowsill!” He shook his head in a mockery of awe.
“Fuck that. Fuck this.” I grumbled softly, and rolled back over into the pillow. I don’t remember the rest of our conversation. I don’t remember if he tried to roll me over to plant a kiss on my cheek or if he just awkwardly said goodbye or if he laid down beside me and we cuddled for a bit. I don’t remember if I was stubborn or tractable. I don’t remember what I said.
I knew what I wanted after all. It wasn’t him, it wasn’t words with strangers. It wasn’t money or power or any sort of fame. I just wanted to be somebody. I wanted to be somewhere important.
I don’t know why I wanted that. I’m sure there’s a morning talk show asking that very question now.
It wasn’t about the crusade for me. It wasn’t about that for most of us. The diehards, the ideologues, they slipped away slowly. The pragmatism ground them down and the fled into the ACLU or the NRA, into the Sierra Club or the Brookings Institute. Good riddance.
I don’t remember a lot of the past few months. At some point it all became a blur, imperfections creeping through the cracks in my premeditated façade. The stress grew with each little trip-up, each slip only giving validation to my greatest fears.
The first sign was when I started confusing my dreams for reality, waking up and not remembering if a certain email or a certain panicked summary of a trade bill was memory of fantasy. Then later I couldn’t honestly tell you what I ate for dinner. I tried to keep track in little binders, writing ‘dear diary today I had shrimp’ and ‘remember to iron your pants’ but within a week or two they joined the endless trash pile absorbing my room.
I can’t tell you how many times potential fuckbuddies told me girls were supposed to be tidy. I can’t tell you how many of their faces I’ve forgotten.
The room is tidy now. The empty beer bottles packed into recycling beside the half-used notebooks. The clothes are neatly ordered in a way that speaks to a certain unique sort of neurosis.
The siege is external, but eventually it will end. That’s what they tell me. The reporters will get bored. The newscycle will turn over and then I’ll be forgotten, for a while at least.
That’s when the real war begins.
This is just a foretaste, and it’s already breaking me. I ate a healthy fucking meal yesterday. I sat and watched the sunrise from between the slats of my apartment blinds.
I don’t remember what was said that day. I wish I did. My family, and the rare coworker brave enough to listen to my story, offer sympathy. They seem to have bought into one of the more flattering media narratives, that of my complete mental breakdown. Some paid psychological consultants apparently have said that my voice seems indicative of someone under considerable pressure.
My coworkers, especially Aaron, just make jokes about the Dick Bill. They shoot me texts about how ASC-INTF is officially the most boring document anyone’s ever been killed over. They send me dirty jokes too. Here’s one: “The Dick Bill really blew up in Johnson’s face. They’ll be cleaning up the aftermath for weeks. Hey, did you hear he’s hiring a fluffer to bring it back to life in a few cycles?”
I guess we’re pretty far away from it all. We have that luxury.
It’s not long before there’s a new project. Some bill which will either take all the jobs and reassign them to immigrants or move them all to China. Probably both at once. Don’t worry, America.
I watch from afar until the texts dry up and the siege does not let up. I’m running low on food and beer. I can’t face the cameras. Not until I get the call, at any rate. Finally, begrudgingly, I reach outside of the beltway bubble.
A few days into the siege, a familiar face appeared at my door, squinting into the peephole. At first, I didn’t recognize him. It had been a while since college, and to tell the truth, I expected more family, and more of the barbed pity I’d grown overly accustomed to.
“Jacob Foster!” I gave him a quick squeeze and a little kiss on the cheek which seemed to leave him a bit flustered. He had bags, including a case of beer which I gratefully took from him and set on the countertop. He’d lost a bit of a weight. He looked good.
“I… um… brought supplies.” He said, running a hand over the back of his neck.
“Right you did. The siege is broken.” That got a brief, polite laugh.
He was looking around, cautiously exploring like a stray cat let into a new house. “Tidier than the last time I was here. What has it been, a year or two?”
“I’ve had plenty of free time.” It was tough to keep a strong face but I did. I think.
Still, he laid his hand on my shoulder in sympathy, and I took it slowly in my own. I didn’t really want to talk about it.
We danced around the subject for a while, almost too long. But in the end, we were already on the bed, and it was easy and comfortable. A few beers in and the world was comfortably blurred. He felt warm and safe and remarkably strong. I wanted him, and I told him that. He was better than I remembered from college. There was something different there now, an urgency that the cocky sophomore who left me years ago never had.
Later, Jacob Foster offered the narcotic of escape. His fingers ran over my skin gently and he tried to offer vague reassurance.
“Not everyone cares about this. Half the English-speaking world thinks this is all bullshit. And I have… some pull. Down the line? I can probably get you a job for a bit. Get you out of this town. Get you out of the public eye.” I think he was bragging. I guess I’ll never be sure.
There’s something desperate and mad in his expression when he talks about escape, about his own adventures across Europe. Still playing the world traveler, I guess. Still hanging out with the same superficial friends and going to the same boring parties.
In his salvation is the very thing I was trying to escape.
I’m sure you’ll use all this against me. All these confessions. You already think I’m a slut or a soulless D.C. bitch just trying to get ahead. And I am. Sure. I am what you say I am.
You’re predisposed to hate me, after all. You want to hate me because of what you’ve seen. It’s just what the media does. I think it’s some sickness in our culture. We need enemies. We need targets.
You picked me. That’s fine. Cause it wasn’t enough to focus on the psycho with the gun in the shopping mall anymore. Apparently there’s too many of those fuckers these days.
You had to take aim at the girl he called. You had to take aim at me.
And I can’t even offer a defense.
There’s a simple formula when it comes to mass shootings and politics. It’s not so different from any other issue. As with so many other crises of interest, it’s become a matter of mathematics. As a candidate, you invariably have to take a side, and that stand has undoubtedly be determined for you by a coalition of backers and constituents. The key is manipulating the rhetoric and the optics – not what you say but how you say it. The key is to come off at once as wise and statesmanlike and passionately angry. The people want to see epideictic rhetoric at work, those noble self-displays of virtue and tragic heartbreaking anguish, but they also want forensic rhetoric, the language of accusation.
They want to know who to hate.
Beltway chooses its targets in vast, unconscious patterns. The war of words, in some ways, is beyond our power to steer or manipulate. Our speechwriters might craft the buzzwords, the taglines, the lofty oratory that inspires the rank and file or dodges the execration of the other side, but all we really have the conscious power to do is become victims.
When I first came to work with the Congresswoman, I was nervous. The office seemed so huge, like an ancient temple. Her desk was an altar, and as she leaned across to shake my hand she only had one piece of advice for me.
“Politics is the art of avoiding fuckups.”
Just like every morning, it feels as if there is a nail in my skull. It feels as if my head is anchored to the bed and all the world is spinning around it.
As I drag myself out of my bed, past the sleeping body of Jacob Foster, I fumble with the coffee machine, jamming the little cup into the slot and punching the buttons.
He makes a joke about addiction as I groan into my mug.
“You drank half of that case you brought over.” I remind him. “Pot and kettle, bitch.”
His grin is the perfect combination of charming and sheepish. It helps that he’s naked.
In that moment, though, I can see right through him. I kind of want to take him up on his offer. I can’t, of course. It’s an illusion. There will be investigations and reinvestigations. Years of my life will be sacrificed to an invisible war that you, the voting public, will tire of before it even begins.
As much as I might want to forget this moment of weakness, I know that I won’t.
There is one other day I do remember, and for the rest of the world it was one of the deadliest massacres in American history. For me it was a warm summer Tuesday, and the world was ending one word at a time.
“Do you remember what was said?” The campaign’s director of communications was glaring through a pair of thin wireframe glasses. She had pale, icy eyes, and her breath smelled impeccably of mint. All else was a horrible blur. She spoke too fast for me to formulate a response. “Do you have a lawyer? Nevermind. We’ll get you a better one.”
“Take the day off.” Mike Stevenson says with a dismissive wave. “It’ll be better that way.”
Nobody’s said those words to me the entire time I worked here.
“How do you not remember?” They glare down at me, and I know there’s no escape. “How did you just forget?”
“There are certain textual ambiguities. Once the full transcript is released by the police we can use that to our advantage. But there are time delays…” Janet, one of the speechwriters, is already jotting down notes.
“It’s not clear exactly what the other speaker – the alleged gunman, intended.”
“What sort of damage are we exposed to?”
“It goes without saying that optics on this are terrible, ma’am. But we should be able to mitigate the worst of this pretty easily. News cycles move fast. None of this even happened in our district. We’re coordinating with people on the ground, and I’ve got Angela and Jan drafting a statement as we speak.”
“Good.” The congresswoman speaks finally. “It’s been a hard day for you, hasn’t it?” There’s no concern in her voice. It’s utterly affectless. “Get home before the media does. We’ll be in touch soon.”
This is all rehearsed. Preplanned with malice aforethought like one of the phone scripts I invented. It occurs to me how out of my depth I am, surrounded by these veterans. As I sit hunched in my office chair, they have me flanked, surrounded, a pack of wolves moving in for the kill.
They won’t hesitate to destroy me. I wouldn’t in their shoes.
I was almost in tears when I reached my studio apartment. My hand was shaking too much to get the key in the lock. I’d just stopped listening. It wasn’t even hard, really. They were all so predictable. So predictable, so normal, so bland.
It wasn’t a crime to stop listening.