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Purple America

The Least Likely of Objects

Dreams of a Matalin-Carville romance tempt a young Washington journalist covering the death of a dictator to cross party lines in pursuit of love.

Bernardien Sternheim, De Kus (2001). Photo: Marcel Oosterwijk.

The night that Saddam Hussein was hanged, I sat at my desk at a daily radio news show in Washington, DC, and waited. Above me, four television screens tuned to different cable channels all featured countdown clocks in anticipation of the hanging.

It was 6 p.m., the end of the show and, normally, time to go home. Most of the staff had. One of my co-workers, a weathered producer named Kim with dense pale freckles and a tight blond ponytail, stood above my cubicle and handed me a bottle of organic ginger ale with a green ribbon tied around its neck.

“You might need this,” she said, before going home to her husband and kids. “You don’t know how long you’re going to be here.”

Over the course of the afternoon it had become clear that the hanging would take place, and that it would take place late, and that our show would be responsible for generating coverage when it did. We’d need only a skeleton crew, the usual for live after-hours events: an editor, a couple of producers, and a booker, me. During my time there I’d become used to giving up the occasional night for the State of the Union, or the New Hampshire primary. But this was the first (and last) time that an execution would disrupt my evening plans.

I should have cared about what was happening in Iraq. I should have cared that this significant world figure who had preoccupied American presidents since I was in preschool was about to be killed. I should have cared about the criticisms raised by the international community: Despite American support for capital punishment, most European and Arab countries balked. I should have cared about the symbolic significance of Saddam’s hanging; though there’d be little political consequence in Iraq (he’d already been out of power for three years), his killing would validate the hardship of those who suffered under his rule. I really should have cared about the various crooked Iraqi politicians I had on speed-dial, and from whom I was meant to secure some feeble assurance they’d answer their phones when we finally went live.

Somewhere our contact had taken a turn, mildly coy emails transforming into round-the-clock, rapid-fire texts on subject matters that made me blush.

I didn’t. What I did care about was that I was supposed to be on a date.

Specifically, I, a New York-raised, liberal-arts educated, indie-music-listening Democrat, was supposed to be on a date with a Republican: the press secretary for one of the two women senators from Maine. I’d met him through work, trying to arrange an interview between the senator and a host of the show I worked for. Our correspondence should have been entirely professional, and that’s how it started out. But the line between petitioning for a politician’s time and aggressive flirting is known to sometimes blur. Somewhere our contact had taken a turn, mildly coy emails transforming into round-the-clock, rapid-fire texts on subject matters that made me blush.

In 2006, I was 23. It had been a year since I moved to Washington from the midwestern city where I’d gone to a radically liberal college and begun and ended my first long-term, live-in relationship. He was a sensitive musician with an esoteric affection for Tim Russert. On Sunday mornings we’d eat breakfast over the New York Times and bemoan President Bush’s latest flubs. He was also 16 years older than me, and at the start we both knew our time together would be finite. After a solo vacation in London, I told him it was time for me to leave.

My first newly single months in DC, I gave myself permission to be promiscuous, resulting in a march of one-night stands with hipster guys who were bartenders by night, left-leaning nonprofit workers by day. Unsurprisingly, this habit was only satisfying for so long. I began to look for a boyfriend.

I’d convinced myself that because of the age gap and air of inevitable doom that had hung over my one serious relationship, I’d yet to experience a love that was real. I began to feel the same kind of manic impatience I’d had as an 18-year-old virgin, as though something essential still stood between me and womanhood. I wouldn’t rest until I’d found some Big Love, some True Connection, some age-appropriate dreamboat who would make me laugh, inspire and arouse me, and, finally, make me feel whole.

This quest led to a habit of jumping into things too fast. I wanted to connect so fiercely that I convinced myself of certain compatibility with the least likely of objects. Even Republicans. I imagined how my grandmother, the most staunchly liberal of my hyper-progressive family, would respond if she knew: “Well,” she might say, “at least his boss is a moderate.”

I had been looking forward to this date for weeks. I concocted elaborate fantasies of our future together, Carville-Matalin style, heated dinner-table debates rapidly transitioning to fiery bedroom nights.

“Well,” she might say, “at least his boss is a moderate.”

I even got waxed for the occasion, not because I thought we’d sleep together right away, but because by then I felt certain that our first date would lead to many. That he was going to be my boyfriend. Possibly even my husband. (“I’m going out with a Republican,” I explained to the stern Russian blonde at the salon, a vision in stiffness and white, as she wielded wands of hot wax above my pelvis. “Oh,” she replied, deepening her brows as she tried to discern how this related to the neglect of my pubic hair since roughly the late 1990s. “Is it serious?”)

Over text, he came across as serious. And attentive, and funny, and sweet. We became constant virtual companions, checking in throughout each day to see how and what the other was doing. We both went home for Christmas, and commiserated about coping with family. He’d ask about my parents and what I wanted in life. Confide about past romantic troubles. Ask me to touch myself. He didn’t dance around his interest like the meek liberal men I’d been dating, who could hardly ask to walk me home without tripping over themselves, ever fearful that a single direct gesture might upend 50 years of feminism. I found his forwardness refreshing.

We both took great pains to exploit the exoticism of our difference. Now it feels painfully predictable, but at the time it was only exciting; he’d tease me about being a hemp-clothed, unwashed liberal, and I’d retort with snide comments about hunting and hair gel.

“Are you going out tonight?” I’d ask.

“I’m a Republican: Of course I am,” he’d respond. “I’m in a limo drinking champagne like a straight-up pimp. With two blondes.”

I was never really sure if he was kidding.

It was nearing midnight when the cell phone video of Saddam’s hanging began to appear on the TV screens: the mustache, the long black overcoat, the men wearing facemasks and murmuring in Arabic, the noose.

There is always something absurd about being a journalist during big events—elections, disasters, hangings. You have to feign detachment regardless of whatever personal response the occasion might trigger. It can be terribly dehumanizing. That night, though, I was too busy running between my desk and the studio, too anxious about unreliable cell phone connections to process the various layers of ludicrous and sad.

 “I can meet you anywhere!” I texted the Republican after midnight, before racing, finally, to the Red Line to meet him at a bar in Cleveland Park.

I spotted him right away, sitting at the bar with a martini, wearing a shiny black button-down and a smirk.

“What can I get the lady to drink?” he asked as I slid onto the stool next to him, and the combination of his willfully suave tone and peculiar choice of the word “lady” was enough to clearly communicate that he was not my husband. The charming frankness with which he had texted became smarmy in person. The cleverness I saw in his messages came across as pretentious, even patronizing. I felt like he was leering at me instead of looking. I felt deceived; I had fallen for a different person than the one I was with.

The desire for human connection is primal: It can manipulate, it can cloud, certainly, it can blind.

But I had already invested so much. So I flirted anyway, turning my body toward his and posing intimate questions. We said we’d talk soon, though I knew we probably wouldn’t. Outside on Connecticut Avenue before getting in a cab to go home, I grabbed him for a kiss to dull the disappointment in my stomach. I couldn’t yet let go of the attachment I’d invented even as I recognized it to be false. I think I also felt guilty. How silly of me, to get so attached to the idea of a person I’d never even met. Today I have more compassion for myself. I know it’s something I do. I know it’s something we do. The desire for human connection is primal: It can manipulate, it can cloud, certainly, it can blind.

Reaction to Saddam’s killing dominated the news for the next week. President Bush called the execution an important milestone. But even he didn’t pretend that its impact would be real—only symbolic. A New York Times editorial called the hanging a “shaming embarrassment.” But for those hurt by Saddam’s hands, the image of his hanging was a significant comfort. Groups of Iraqi exiles in cities like Dearborn, Mich., gathered to celebrate. They chanted: “Now there’s peace, Saddam is dead.” Regardless of the consequences it would have on Iraq’s rule of law, the image of Saddam’s dead body became a valuable tool for many Iraqis to resolve decades of anger and pain. I longed to be in the newsroom, making copies and booking interviews. Instead, it was the weekend and I was home, unable to avoid the sinking sensation lingering inside me.

Sunday night was New Year’s Eve. I went to a party where I hardly knew anyone and made out next to a bonfire with a photographer from National Geographic who accessorized with a keffiyeh. When he led me back inside, I let him go to follow a better-looking guy who’d arrived later, with majestic black hair and a phenomenal jaw. Later, I found myself sitting on that guy’s lap in an upstairs bedroom as he told me how much he’d like to kiss me but couldn’t—he had a girlfriend, he said, and she was really beautiful.

The next morning I met my best friend for bloody marys near Logan Square to debrief and assign blame for our romantic woes. Unclear courtship expectations were at fault. DC. Unbalanced gender ratios. Possibly Republicans. We did not consider that our own recklessness might play a role in our troubles with men. We envisioned ourselves on some essential odyssey toward the Big Loves that we thought had been promised us since girlhood. Whatever feelings or egos we hurt in our path were collateral damage and nothing more. We didn’t give them a thought.

After brunch, I couldn’t resist texting the Republican. Some part of me (the bloody mary-affected part, I’d like to think) still couldn’t accept the finality I’d felt three nights prior.

“Happy New Year!” I wrote.

He responded right away: “Happy New Year to you too, doll.”

I felt a tender pang, but it was mostly nostalgic. The future I’d imagined for us was gone, and I’d left myself no choice but to see it for the delusion that it was.

Elizabeth Tannen writes the blog Dating in the Odyssey Years, which is not really about dating. She is a Minneapolis-based writer and teacher, has published work on The Rumpus, Salon, and NPR, among other locales, and is a Fellow at the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation in Taos. More by Elizabeth Tannen