Young Democrats in love

Zach and I met working on political campaigns, but as my youthful idealism fell apart, so did our relationship

Topics: Love and Sex, 2008 Elections, Hillary Clinton, U.S. Politics, Democrats,

Young Democrats in love (Credit: Reuters/Jim Bourg)

On November 2, 2004, at the moment John Kerry lost Florida, I was on a dark highway in northern Wisconsin, happy to be with Zach, and happy that he was driving. I was aware of the nearness of his arm to mine on the center console and the neat way he trimmed his fingernails. I was also aware of the blackness of the forest that surrounded us and the threat of deer crossing our path. As we drove, Zach entertained me by spotting them. He had seen six by the time I saw one: just a pair of silver eyes staring out from the dark woods. Years later, driving through a different forest in a different state, he showed me how to spot them, but there on that night in the north woods of Wisconsin, I was content for him to guide.

I was a city girl, after all. I’d moved to Wisconsin seven weeks before, though by election night it felt like it had been longer. I’d chosen Wisconsin strategically: It had 10 electoral votes and was the swingiest of swing states. I was idealistic, a new college graduate, a life-long Democrat. I began work — calling voters, knocking doors, distributing yard signs — the day I arrived in Green Bay.

A week later, back in Massachusetts, my 52-year-old dad suffered a heart attack. I hurried to buy a flight home, but he phoned from the ICU and told me to stay put and to keep on working. A week after that, my grandmother died, but not before she told me, from her deathbed, to “Give ‘em hell.” She meant Republicans.

I flew home on a grief ticket for the funeral. At the wake, between bouts of weeping, my dad and I talked political strategy with my uncles. Grieving, we consoled ourselves with assurances of Democratic victory. Surely, my grandmother could not have died in vain. More than once I imagined her meting out cosmic justice, working through me to ensure Kerry’s election. I was convinced my suffering would be balanced by joy come November.

I returned to Wisconsin on the first of October. The sign in our office announced, “Thirty-three days left to change the world!” With my grandmother gone, my father infirm, the work felt more difficult, more urgent. Away from my family, I found solace in 16-hour workdays. Plus, while I’d been away, Zach had arrived. He was the campaign’s Rural Organizer, and he looked the part: bearded and milk-fed. For 33 days we eyed each other while making voter ID calls. Late on election night, when pairs were dispatched to remote precincts, his eyes caught mine. I nodded.



We entered the woods before any results had been reported. Soon both our cell phones went silent. Radio stations flickered in and out. Zach tuned and re-tuned. The sleeve of his wool coat brushed my hand each time he sought a new signal. When the voice of a newscaster cut through the static, we fell silent, waiting, it seemed, for news from another land entirely. Outside our car, away from these dense woods, in elementary schools and senior centers across the nation, machines and volunteers tallied votes, the numbers accumulating toward an irrefutable verdict. Inside our warm car, crowded with yard signs and campaign fliers, we tallied deer. We knew only hope. I removed my mittens, laying my fingers just millimeters from Zach’s arm.

Florida’s loss — announced amid the static and darkness — breached the purple Nissan’s defenses. We shouted and recoiled from the radio. Our hands flew up in momentary protest before coming to rest between us, intertwined, electric. I gripped Zach’s palm as we desperately reviewed electoral arithmetic. Could Kerry win with Michigan’s 17 plus Nevada’s 5 plus maybe one more from Maine? Silently, I did my own macabre accounting. Hadn’t I given enough: my father’s heart, my grandmother’s life? I studied Zach’s hand — blue veins, blonde hairs, neat fingernails — to keep myself from weeping.

It was my first Relationship, and I was suitably Reckless. Within days we’d planned a life together. In Wisconsin, I said. In Massachusetts, he said. In a swing state, we decided. We’d have a boatload of children named for Democratic icons. Jack, Teddy, Billy and Eleanor would be old enough to go door-to-door by 2012, wouldn’t they? The passion that had driven us to jump into campaigning with both feet, to give ourselves away to a cause, now bound us together. My grief was reborn into a love that felt destined to be. I’d lost so much so quickly, but loving Zach made me feel as if I’d won. In ’08, we vowed, he would lead us as we avenged the wrong we’d felt on that night in the North Woods.

Politics had brought us together, but I loved Zach for more. He never reclined his seat on buses or planes, lest he encroach on the person seated behind him. He possessed a bag of equipment for trimming his beard, a vanity he tended daily. When we moved to Virginia — a congressional race — he promised to make me furniture, puttering and cursing in the basement for hours before emerging with a table like a newborn fawn, leggy and unstable. He called me “babe,” an endearment no one before or after him ever attempted, much less pulled off.

When he moved to Iowa in 2006 — working first for a congressional race, then for Tom Vilsack’s short-lived presidential campaign and finally for Hillary Clinton’s more drawn-out affair — we agreed that it didn’t make sense for me to follow. He was never sure to what region he’d be assigned or for how long. He would carry on living our dreams while I worked and applied to medical school in Massachusetts. I visited as often as possible.

At first, long layovers and weather cancellations were merely small obstacles in our march to ’08. But the campaign trail began to wear on me, even as it grew on Zach. I could plan weeks in advance, arranging airline tickets and vacation days, but political events — Vilsack dropping out, Terry McCauliffe stumping for Hillary — trumped romance every day of the week. That first summer, the peppers and tomatoes we’d potted on Zach’s porch withered for lack of care. The following summer, we never considered potting plants.

One winter Sunday, driving between Des Moines and Davenport, we were caught in an ice storm. Parts of I-80 were closed, and a three-hour ride stretched to nine. We worried we would run out of gas. Power outages made it impossible to fill up. In Iowa, adversity never brought us together. Inside the purple Nissan, we fought bitterly about what would come next.

“Can’t we just take some time for us?” I begged.

“Here we are! Together! That’s all I need. I’m happy just being near you.”

But he didn’t look happy, and I needed something else. I felt disloyal for wanting something more than the noble life we had imagined for ourselves.

We counted stranded cars along the side of the interstate, state police-issued neon flags glistening from the snow-covered roofs.

On January 3, 2008, when Hillary Clinton lost the Iowa caucus, I was in Muscatine, Iowa, a small town in the state’s southeast corner. Zach was nearly an hour northeast in Davenport. I’d told him to send me wherever I was needed, but I didn’t expect to be dispatched to another city.

At the caucus, they counted bodies rather than ballots, but I chauffeured just one elderly body on that frigid January night. For an hour, I sat with my charge in the school gymnasium, sipping sugar-free lemonade while she regaled me with stories of playing piano for Teddy Kennedy during JFK’s 1960 campaign. A few more Clinton supporters trickled in, taking their own cups of lemonade and sitting heavily in scattered folding chairs. Moments later, the Obama caucus-goers marched into the gymnasium as a unit and formed themselves into vaguely martial lines. I marveled at their number and agility.

That night I returned to Davenport on Highway 22, winding along the western banks of the Mississippi. Temperatures had been hovering below zero, and I was alone in a rental car. I was wearing gloves beneath mittens, tights under jeans. For a long stretch, Zach didn’t answer his phone. I learned that Hillary had lost statewide when my dad called. He joked that spending election nights on Midwestern highways was becoming a bad habit. I laughed, but I, too, had been remembering that other election night, warm with Zach in the North Woods.

Later, in Davenport, Zach got drunk, and I put him to bed. The next morning he drove to Des Moines for an important campaign meeting, and I packed up the wreckage of his apartment before flying home. This, of course, was the beginning of the end — for our relationship and for Hillary’s candidacy — but equal parts denial and optimism made that hard to recognize. I was not yet ready to give up on destiny.

After Iowa, Zach darted to South Carolina and then to Wisconsin, racking up loss after crushing loss. He took enough time off the campaign trail to call it quits in person. Afterward, he packed the Nissan and drove from Massachusetts to Ohio, arriving just days before Clinton won the primary.

In the months of mourning that followed, I was often incredulous, unable to accept that our relationship, and our dreams, had dissolved. I spent most of that season confused, personally and politically. All the Democrats I knew were picking sides. I kept the Hillary sticker on my car and told anyone who asked about her superior healthcare plan — with its utterly pragmatic individual mandate — and her workhorse Senate record. But my passion was gone. Come June, Clinton’s surrender didn’t provide any closure. In August, my therapist told me it was perfectly normal to cry throughout the Democratic National Convention. While every other Democrat I knew was swept up by Obama’s idealism, I cynically resisted. Hope didn’t impress me. Zach and I had had hope.

Still, in October, I dutifully volunteered for the Democratic ticket. I spent weekends knocking on New Hampshire doors. The foliage was magnificent, but the field offices bustling with idealistic 22 year olds left me cold. Waiting to receive my walk list from a particularly energetic young staff person, I felt as old as the Iowan pianist. I thought, sadly, of the failed Kerry-Edwards campaign. For years, I had told myself that meeting Zach had made up for that loss. I’d taken his hand — blue veins, blond hairs, neat fingernails — and forestalled sorrow.

But there in New Hampshire, while tallying the yard signs that decorated antique farmhouses, I realized how wrong I had been. In 2004, my father had been ill, my grandmother had died, and John Kerry had lost the election. Loving Zach had not changed any of it. For too long I’d counted our love as compensation for heartache, my due after a season of sacrifice. How important it had felt, then, to come out ahead, to win! But life doesn’t have a balance sheet. Love and loss cannot be counted like ballots, or yard signs, or deer.

On November 4, 2008, when Obama won the presidency, I was in Quincy, Mass., in my parents’ den, watching Wolf Blitzer on TV. By November, the imminence of Democratic victory had rekindled my old enthusiasm.

I don’t know where Zach was working that night, and I thought of him, sadly, as the polls came to a close. But I was glad to share the triumph with my family. We shed tears, all five of us, when Wolf called the race, and again when Obama appeared in Grant Park. Outside our house, away from our warm den, in campaign offices and in labor halls and in yard-sign-filled sedans across the nation, 22-year-old Democrats were celebrating their success. They knew hope and fatigue and the righteousness of victory. They did not yet know disappointment or sorrow. Inside our house, in the blue light of the television, Obama’s victory could not redeem my losses. But it felt spectacular anyway.

Liz Quinn is a writer and a family physician living north of Boston.

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>