I met the man who would become my husband in the run-up to the 2004 presidential election. If I were more susceptible to omens, I might have looked at the timing as foreboding. We were -- and remain -- committed Democrats. We went on canvassing dates, waking up before dawn to drive the short distance across the border from the solid blue state where we attended graduate school to the decidedly undecided state next door whose electoral votes looked like they could be the difference between a continuation of the nightmare of the Bush administration and the installation of John Kerry, who seemed to us a worldly, experienced, honorable man.
My future husband was -- and is -- a kind and gentle person. He was studying Comparative Literature. My field at the time was European History. We met early in the semester and made each other feel deeply at ease. As the autumn wore on and the election grew closer we’d go canvassing or drinking with fellow-traveler friends and stagger back to my apartment for tired but affectionate sex. He was eager and lively and seemed to be enraptured by my body. It was all somewhat strange. I was coming off a series of punishing relationships and pseudo-relationships, loveless fuckfests with scholars of different fields, stripes, marital statuses. These relationships, if you could call them that, were volatile, often demoralizing, sometimes fun. I wasn’t a masochist, exactly, but there was something enlivening about low-level psychic pain. Genuine warmth, by contrast, left me bored and restless.
D., my future husband, worked hard to make me come in those early months, but often failed. He held me and I wrapped myself around him, feeling his disappointment, his self-reproach, his yawning sense of inadequacy. I promised again and again it wasn’t him or us but me. And in fact it wasn’t really me, per se. There were all sorts of proper nouns conspiring against him. There was Lexapro. Yasmin. And also, there was Dubya.
Sometimes, as we lay in bed in the increasingly chilly nights, we role-played our apocalyptic fantasies of what life would be like in a second Bush administration. My husband favored a scenario where a casus belli to declare war on Iran was dug up, leading to a wholesale destabilization of the Middle East and a series of increasingly painful terrorist attacks on the U.S.
I was more focused on life in Canada. Or Panama. Or New Zealand. Any other country that would have us -- tucked-tail liberals fearing a future of endless war and Judeo-Christian-fueled repression. A small city, I imagined, nothing so big as to attract terrorist attacks. He dwelled on the damage and I talked about our little house beyond the fallout zone. Grim as it may sound, it was actually very romantic. We understood a crucial bleakness in one another, the way others might bond over a sport or Russian cinema. We had a common relationship with doom that felt right.
There’s no need to rehash how the first Tuesday of that November turned out. We met at the house of a friend’s thesis adviser, someone who had once been a minor figure in the Carter administration, full of hope we both knew was hollow and false and had been swiftboated into oblivion before we even plopped down on the couch. D. and I left after Florida was called for Bush, a little before midnight. Did we really believe that our future, the country’s future, the future of the planet, had been plunged into desperate doubt by this one vote? Or were we indulging in a negative fantasy?
The next morning we had perhaps the most vigorous sex we’ve ever had. He was angry, he was desperate, he fucked like he was looking for an answer inside of me for what had happened last night. He wasn't just aggressive, he was interrogating my body, which, without any solace to offer him, was only good for more punitive searching. I didn’t tell him to stop. He missed the class he TA’d.
For the next few days, our couplings continued in this vein. He was more aggressive and adventurous than he’d ever been, and the fact that I played along only encouraged him, though I felt more defeated than aroused. When he was inside me, I was still thinking of Canada, imagining a flat in Montreal or a cottage on the Pacific coast of British Columbia. I began to think the relationship was doomed.
I told him spending Thanksgiving together, with either of our families, felt a little rushed, and he agreed. He went back to the East Coast to be with his parents. I, too broke to visit mine and, unwilling to hit them up for plane fare, got on a bus headed for the Chicago suburbs, where an aunt and uncle on my mom’s side had invited me for their big annual Thanksgiving gathering.
It’s an easy target for mocking, the Thanksgiving dinner. The ethically stunted, the politically abhorrent, the morally perplexing individuals we find ourselves sharing this meal with feel almost obligated to play their part. It’s odd that we’ve codified this behavior, turned it into a part of the ritual just like football and trampling strangers to death before dawn the next day for a cheap DVD player. At any dinner there is always someone who is going to offer an unsolicited opinion on what the country really needs, just between you and me. One year, Uncle So-and-So dropping n-bombs before we even reached the table. Another year, Dad’s Coworker X openly wishing “Monica [Lewinsky] had taken a big chomping bite.” As far as I knew these were people who, on a regular day, were garden variety Republicans. But the turkey and the assembling of bodies and the beginning of the seasonal cold activated something vicious in them.
My initial reaction to the buffoonery, by the time I was old enough to know what it was, was often disgust, and I can remember slinking away from the table as quickly as I could. Once I was in high school and began helping myself to a glass of wine like the grownups (it grew bigger each year), I found myself joining in the fray because why not. It was pointless debating but pointlessness seemed to be the point. Rebutting the stranger with a combover who believed that every Palestinian wanted to bomb Israel into the sea was more fun than sitting in my room alone, waiting for my friends to finish their dinners so we could smoke weak joints in the Target parking lot. I glared, they smirked. I rolled my eyes, they tut-tutted. And so on and so on.
In a way, it was the reverse of the playacting I did later with the men I slept with and pretended to admire, men who might have been selfish douchebags or insensitive pricks, but who were at least progressive, enlightened, academy-educated insensitive pricks. They didn’t think twice about asking to come on my face but would call me a reactionary if I put on mascara. An English doctoral candidate whose dissertation was about Virginia Woolf and early postcolonial theory, a man who called himself a feminist whenever he got the chance, confided to me that he received blow jobs from about 80 different women per calendar year. His true passion, though, was to fuck redheads in the ass. The sociologist who talked me into a threesome with his best friend used an argument that included lots of hash and a discussion of communitarianism.
I was pulled toward these left-leaning dudes. We spoke a common language, shared a belief system, and, maybe most importantly, hated the same people for the same reasons. Nobody wants anything more from a romantic engagement than a reminder that she isn’t the only one who sees the world in a particular way.
But it was during the 2004 presidential campaign, just as I’d finally met the man who would break my marathon of infatuations with lefty man-children, that one of my darkest, most deeply hidden secrets began making itself known to me. I’d see G.W. Bush on the campaign trail, smiling his witless smile, spouting unfiltered hollowness in his affected twang, looking halfway between a goon who wanted to see your tits outside a football game and the inquisitor who’d light the pyre at your auto da fe, and I knew… or, I knew without knowing. There was a dim, muted part of my brain that wanted to fuck him, that was tired of the skinny academics I took to bed. My fantasy was to fuck a Republican.
The conservative contingent at my aunt and uncle’s was smug on arrival and they wasted no time in expressing relief over the electoral disaster they had recently avoided. My mom’s sister could offer me little more solace and than an exaggerated eye roll and a quick, generous refill of my wine glass. Her sympathies were liberal but her passions were domestic. Her husband to this day openly questions our current president’s birthplace. I was very much on my own.
I drank, thought briefly about D., drank some more, noshed on almonds, tried to imagine what it would be like to engage in the kind of postgame congratulating the Dubya fans were going on with. They struck up an odd refrain. “There hasn’t been another 9/11.” They said it sincerely, repeatedly, with variants and personalizations. “He’s kept us safe from another 9/11.” “We will not have another 9/11 because he won and you can bank on it.” This statement or ones like it went on for so long that I began to wonder if they were actually commercials during the football game on TV.
It was an untruth that bred a communal euphoria. If you looked in at them from the outside, gathered on couches, repeating each other, growing glassy-eyed, you might have thought they were all on acid. I became deeply jealous and despondent.
At dinner I sat beside the only person remotely close to me in age, the son of some family friend or another who worked investment banking in New York but was in Chicago on business. His father, or his father’s friend, I couldn’t quite be sure, introduced him -- as though he were a 6-year-old incapable of performing the social motions on his own -- as Alex.
“Alexander, actually,” Alex-now-Alexander said.
“Alexander,” I said, shaking his hand. “Very formal. Very classical. I’m Penelope.” I tossed some spiced almonds into my mouth, tried to figure out which glass of Pinot Grigio on the table belonged to me, waited for a smile from Alexander that never came.
“Penelope,” he repeated flatly. “Nice to meet you.”
“So,” I said, “what are your feelings on the lack of another 9/11?” I hated that phrase, all hollow and devoid. Of course I was goading him but I couldn’t deny a small hope that a cogent – not a logical, not an undercutting, not a shared but just a cogent -- response might emerge.
He wouldn’t, or didn’t know how to, take the bait.
“Kerry was weak on national security. He was weak on foreign policy. He was weak on a lot of things.” He picked up his glass of wine and drank half of it down in a single gulp. “I think he was just weak.”
His hair was exactly the color of the liquid through the crystal. He had a dimple in his chin, wore a watch that if pawned could have probably fed me for a semester, and had a throat-clearing habit that grew less annoying as the minutes wore on. Though the room was warm with gas forced heat and the energy of my aunt’s high-end range, he was wearing what I believe is called a sports coat. When he sat, he sat with a straight back, elbows knocking at the boundaries of his place setting; he had a square jaw and wide shoulders and when he stood, he stood as though the sole point of standing were to take up space.
He held the carving board and asked if I’d like light meat or dark.
“Sorry,” I said. “Don’t eat meat.”
“Of course you don’t,” he said, and gave me just the slightest fraction of a smile. Looking back, it was the smile that did it, the boyish arrogance of it, the pulse of entitlement in his eyes.
I really hate this person, I thought, and yet once the bird had moved on I raised my glass and asked him to refill it.
For the next 75 minutes, we engaged in the sort of politely hostile, oddly revealing chatter that I imagine goes on between war criminals awaiting trial in The Hague. He was originally from San Diego but lived on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. He was engaged to a girl named Holly, a law student from Atlanta. He owned a condo and drove an Audi. His cultural apex was high-stakes poker games with other bankers with more money who lived on higher floors of nicer buildings than his. I told him about D. and about my research and he asked a few barbed but facile questions about the liberalization of the academy and the questionable market value of the humanities. I confided that a few people in my department had drifted a little too far to the left to be useful anymore, and that some of D.’s work was just confusing. I didn’t really mean any of it; it was all a mixture of exaggeration and lies. I was drunk. I realized I was saying things I knew Alexander wanted to hear. I kept up the self-denigration act, the total inverse of the Thanksgiving debates I’d had when I was younger, ceding my own points, my own beliefs, looking into Alexander’s cleanly shaven, lightly flushed face, bashing myself for his benefit. Would there ever be a better opportunity to so thoroughly exorcise my demon, to compromise myself so completely? As pie was passed around the table, he said something with just the right proportions of flirtation and snark: “You’re kind of cute for a hippie.” He put half a slice of pie in his mouth in a single bite, chewed, almost winked. “We should exchange email addresses or something.”
“I have a better idea,” I told him. “Why don’t you take me back to your hotel.”
I’ve never told anyone about the night that followed. Playing out a fantasy is a bit like trying to describe a dream. We were both drunk but the Chicago highways were empty on the holiday night. Alex was staying at a massive hotel on Michigan Avenue. He led me up to his room with a practiced assurance; it was very clear he had done this before.
If it had been D. I was with we would have reached the room, fallen together on the bed, inched and touched and kissed gradually toward sex. With Alexander that wasn’t how it would be. Before he could unlock the door I flattened myself against the hallway wall. He stood motionless for a second, then smiled slyly again. He shoved both of my shoulders against the wall and rammed his lips against mine. He forced his tongue into my mouth and I could taste the goopy, gelatinous residue of the turkey and gravy. So much the better. I spread my legs so he could finger me in the hallway. I thought I heard footsteps. Maybe the room next to his, maybe coming down the hall. I didn’t care.
Once in the room he gave me light but not-so-playful shove onto the bed, which I received without a fight. He stood over me, undoing his belt, pulling down his pants. The smile had faded into something more urgent. That was a bit of a disappointment. He asked if I had a condom.
“Don’t you?” I said.
“Fuck it,” I said. God knew what frat house-incubated viruses were swimming around in him but at least I was on the pill. I pulled down his boxers. He was smaller than D. but I feigned surprise at his size. I turned around and lifted my ass into the air. I was giving myself to him. I was literally presenting. This was it. This was my chance to be fucked by everything vile and soulless and cruel that I’d built a life out of despising. The country was going to die, the world was going to burn, so why not let one of the apocalypse’s shock troops bang the shit out of me while the flames spread. He lifted up my skirt and yanked aside my panties. With one hand he pushed my face into the bed, with the other he guided himself in. I didn’t need to apologize to anyone, not D., not myself, not my ideals. All I wanted was to feel this current of consuming disgust. It swirled through my head, behind my eyes, between my legs. He thrust and I gasped.
The swirling died down. Everything did.
Reader, he came.
The whole thing couldn’t have lasted more than 15 seconds. He mumbled something I couldn’t make out and scurried to the bathroom.
The demon that was exorcised that night turned out to be an insubstantial one, because he never returned. I think I’d imagined and feared that giving myself to such a man might unleash some awful darkness inside me, that I’d start throwing my face under the boot of every fascist I could find. But it didn’t. I realized that the face I’d been staring at that night at dinner wasn’t evil incarnate. It was just the face of a dude, a regular, flawed, entitled-as-hell but probably well-meaning dude whose worldview I happened to find gross. How did I think that fucking one person could expel all my feelings of disgust and rage and impotence, my feelings of helplessness living in a crazy fucking country that elected a man (twice) to its highest office, basically because it liked the way he looked in a cowboy hat? If I was going to expel those feelings, I was going to have to do a lot more than feel sorry for myself and fuck a Republican in a fit of self-pity.
Four years later, D. and I watched a genuinely decent (and quite hot) man celebrating his ascension to the White House with a fussy, gassy infant swaddled between us. A warmth spread over us, the three of us, a warmth that hasn't abated since -- though it has been spindled, balled up, cursed, thrown up on, screamed at, put in time-out, stormed out of the room, wept, needed hugs, needed conciliatory lollipops, conciliatory blow jobs -- a warmth that burns far hotter than any dark desire for something I hated. And I am thankful.