Political Animals: a 21st Century Love Story


Heart online.
Heart online.

A friend story, a love story, and it’s fiction.

Kristin sprawls out on her bed, reading Emma, the small metal fan blowing directly in her face. It is mid-June and this is how she usually spends one week every summer: escaping the heat and rereading all of Jane Austen’s novels. She teaches first grade, and while she loves her classroom of six and seven-year olds, the week following the end of the school year, the beginning of her summer, means she needs to decompress and regain her humanity. Chocolate milkshakes and Austen usually do that for Kristin, but this time Jane and her heroines and small country social circles are not providing the same magical spell.

Her laptop, with tabs open to Facebook and e-mail, is on the bed next to her. Every summer she tells herself she will try to do her secret bidding, to write a book. She turns 38 in July and Kristin decides if it does not happen this summer, then perhaps she should bury the childhood dream, putting it away like the Christmas decorations she stores in plastic bins in the closet off the small patio of her apartment. She does not mind getting older, but she does mind that the person she had imagined herself to be is a bit different from the real Kristin on the cusp of 38.

She rolls over and looks at the clock. It is 6:30 pm and still in the midst of the heat of the day in the middle of the city. Besides the heat, there is the smoke from all the surrounding wildfires in the mountains west of Denver. It seems like the whole of Colorado is in flames. She picks up the dog-eared, water-wrinkled paperback, battered from too many bathtub reads, and slowly returns to the well-mannered land of Emma and mistaken matchmaking.

I wish someone would be a matchmaker for me, even mistakenly, Kristin thinks.

The computer dings, a 21st century sound breaking in to the afternoon tea party Emma was attending. Kristin looks up; it is the Facebook chime of an instant message. She ponders turning off the computer, but she is already distracted from the novel. Emma will keep, she is sure, but Miss Austen would disapprove.

The blinking icon indicates she has a message from Adam. Surely, she is reading that wrong. Nope, it is Adam. He has been one of her best friends since college, after a semester they had spent at the University of Idaho on student exchange, away from their regular campuses. They are kindred spirits she knows, but like many people who live in different parts of the world, they had only kept in touch sporadically in the years since their long nights of political discussions; the frequent long-winded letters and e-mails of their post-college adventures had trickled down to “liking” each other’s status updates more recently. Kristin clicks on the window to read the message.

“Hi! Hope you’re online! You’re still in Denver, right?”

She drags the laptop closer, sitting up to click on the keys. “How the hell are you? Yes, I’m in Denver! Why? Aren’t you in Hong Kong?”

Another ping, another message from Adam. “Actually, I’m in Beijing on a business trip for a couple of weeks, but I’m returning to the good ol’ U. S. of A. for a job interview and then a month’s vacation.”

Kristin’s heart starts thumping. Adam had lived in Hong Kong for seven years, and as far as she could remember, he had never returned home in that time.

A new message from Adam pops up on the screen. “The interview is in Denver. I’d love to see you. How long has it been? Ninety-six, huh? Can you believe we’re almost 38?”

Adam has a twin brother Aiden, but Kristin also shares the same birthday, July 4. It is the day of the birth of the nation, also the day when Adams and Jefferson died, old political rivals turned good friends. She had never met Aiden. Kristin looks at the screen, but she cannot type.

Are you there? What about meeting up in Denver? Will you show me around? I want to catch up and reconnect and see how you’re doing. It’s been too long.”

Kristin’s heart is pounding, growing larger by the moment, as if she had seen a mouse run across the floor of her closet. She hates mice.

It is not a mouse, only Adam, she tells herself.

The computer rings again. A downpour of characters hits the screen. She rubs her eyes and reads the next message from him. “My interview is on the afternoon of the third. I fly in to San Francisco on the 30th. I’m staying with my old college roommate for a couple of days and then I fly in to Denver the morning of the third. I should be done with the interview by five. Will you be around?”

She laughs. Adam, like Kristin, did not believe in butchering English with text-slang. Even instant messages were thoroughly typed, flying through cyberspace and across continents, thoughts forming. Another ding, another message.

“My folks and brothers came to visit me in the spring, so I won’t be heading home to Maine. I thought I’d try a great American road trip. Except for those few months in Idaho, I’ve never seen your beloved West.”

Kristin smiles at the memory, a snowy January morning in 1996. He had stood ahead of her in line at the campus post office at the University of Idaho. She remembered his unruly, curly mop of brown hair, his red-and-green plaid flannel shirt, faded ragged jeans sloppily tucked in to Sorel snow boots, and no coat. It was 15 below outside and she was buried under layers of wool and down, identical Sorel snow boots on her feet.

He smiled at her after he bought a book of stamps and headed in to the blustery day with a confident and fast, but somewhat lopsided gait, as if his right knee was not completely connected to his leg. Three days later, they bumped into each other in the cafeteria line. This time she was first, grabbing silverware and tray before heading off to the salad bar of limp mid-winter greens and tasteless hothouse tomatoes. There was not much offered for a vegetarian. She plopped down at a corner table and pulled out her copy of The Wilderness Hunter by Theodore Roosevelt. Kristin imagined Teddy as a friend, “her president.” She had been on a quest to read everything he wrote. She looked up in between bites of stale salad, noticed the guy’s distinctive walk, and still no coat.

The computer chirped again, bringing her back to 2013 and a new message from Adam. “Do you still have the summer off? Want to play tour guide to my tourist? I finally read Edward Abbey after all these years, after all your urging. I am ready to meet the deserts and the rocks.”

A new chime. “I know it’s presumptive of me to ask, not much warning after all these years. Things came together quickly, at the last minute. The interview’s for a job I applied for more than a year ago. I had planned to bounce around China for my month off, but decided to go ‘American’ with the interview. I feel like my life as an ex-pat is coming to a close.”

“Are you there?” Another beep.

Kristin lets out a puff of hot air, blowing her too-short bangs off her sweaty forehead. “Yes, I’m here. Yes, you are presumptuous, but a road trip through Abbey-land seems like just the thing. How about we get together for dinner first? Birthday?”

She taps the keys quickly and loudly, carefully feeling for the rubber bubble underneath the broken E key.

Adam’s sprint-like reply arrives, flooding the screen. “Maybe it’s aging or indecision, but I’m ready for some adventure and reflection. Bring me up to speed, K.”

Kristin sighs. How do you summarize 17 years in a few lines of an instant message? Adam knew most of the details anyway. Their conversations and letters and e-mails were intermittent, but, like nomad souls, they always seemed to connect at the important points anyway. Here goes, she thought, fingers flying. “It’s so good to hear from you. I can’t believe we’ll be in the same time zone, much less the same town, occupying the same space.”

She frowns. How could she get to the old familiarity, the intimacy of deep friendship? Start with the surface, she guesses.

“Well, I’m teaching first grade in Denver. I’m committed to one more year, but I’m feeling a bit listless and rootless. I’m itching for change. I’ve been teaching at this same school for five years, an experimental charter school in a poor, but wonderful neighborhood. I absolutely love it and the community. It’s my fourteenth year as a teacher, yikes! Twitchy and hemmed in is how I feel somehow. I want to write and realize some other dreams.”

She pauses and continues typing. “It’s my first week of summer, rejuvenating with Jane Austen, like always. No big plans this summer, I was going to stick close to home and reach those stay-cation goals.”

A new message for her pops up almost immediately. “Are you still with David?” Adam chimes again. “I know what you mean about feeling restless. Perhaps we’re having mid-life episodes.”

Kristin giggles. Same old Adam. It was her turn to answer quickly. “I’m thinking about something completely different, but I’m embarrassed to tell you.”

Pause, pause.

Adam beeps again. “I can’t wait to hear. I’m intrigued.”

“What time is it there?” Kristin types.

“You’re avoiding. Just say it.” Adam could prod and provoke thousands of miles away.

Adam types. “It’s 9:00 am. Just 12 hours from the eastern time zone and 13 after the time change.”

Kristin takes a breath. “It’s 7:00 pm in Denver. No, I broke up with David two years ago, a slow quiet disintegration, but we picked up all the threads to remain occasional social friends when our circles and lives overlap. Ahh, the awkwardness of pauses and parallel conversations in messaging drives me crazy. Pesky 21st century problem. I miss pen and ink.”

Adam’s message rapidly hits her smudged screen. “Yes, my dear Luddite pal, I love your preferences of letters and stamps and envelopes, but in that time our letters might not have reached each other.”

She could reply as smartly and rapidly as he does. “You think? Hong Kong and the Colorado frontier?

Again, Adam’s words appear on the screen, she swore his typing speed eclipses the computer’s chime.

“You’re deflecting. What is it? What do you want to do?”

She absently scratches at a mosquito bite on her left calf and then let her words outpace her thoughts and her inner editor. “Well, there’s the much-buried dream of becoming a writer, but I have another idea as well. Massage therapy school. There is a school nearby and they have an evening program that takes a year. I could balance it with teaching during the day. I thought about moving to some spa town. Maybe Santa Barbara or Santa Fe or some little gateway town. Do some writing and running and just escape to do something different for a while. Leave the politics and little minds behind for a while. Silly, huh? I’m awaiting your judgment.”

Kristin realizes she is holding her breath. She inhales through her nose, standing up on the bed to jump. I am such a three-year-old, she decides. Is this happening?

She walks into the kitchen and pours a glass of tea from a Ball jar in the fridge. She opens the shades in the living room, closed to keep the sun from heating the already stifling apartment during the day. She steps onto the small patio, the hustle and honks of cars on nearby Colfax Avenue trickle over her. Kristin stretches and touches her toes, smelling the smoky haze. Turning around, she lifts the old faded green plastic water can. It is mostly full of last night’s spaghetti cooking water. Kristin pours the cloudy moisture into her hanging baskets of tomatoes and strawberries. She is pleased that the heat of the sun has barely wilted the leaves. A forgetful, but enthusiastic black-thumb, she is happy that her small urban garden is still alive!

She brushes off the dirt from her calloused bare feet and heads back into the dark living room. Back to her computer. Back to Adam or at least back to his flurried storm of words on the screen. She hears a chime. Then another ding. She picks up the glass of tea and returns to her bedroom. Her reunion with Emma is on hold, but reuniting with a dear old friend might be around the corner. She looks at the Georgia O’Keefe print calendar hanging above her desk in the corner and counts the days. It is 12 days until July the third, 13 days and then her birthday. Less than two weeks and Adam will be in Denver. After 17 years, 12 days feels like a time warp. Not possible, is it?

“Kristin! Kristin! Why are you embarrassed? It sounds like a good idea. Why not? A break from teaching and politics and campaigns! Recharging, rejuvenating, trying something new. Sounds brave and exciting, just as you are!”

Kristin settles in, cross-legged on the blue quilt, pulling the silver laptop onto her knees. She balances the unsweetened iced tea on the battered red Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations on the pine bedside table. She cracks her knuckles.

Typical Adam, he is enthusiastic, supportive, and open-minded after all these years. He is the same dear friend she remembers from that semester in Moscow, Idaho.

She goes back to that winter. Kristin had applied for a teacher education exchange at the University of Idaho. She grew up in New Mexico and could not afford to study abroad, but her scholarship covered tuition for Idaho. The exchange program between her home school, the University of Wisconsin in Madison, and the University of Idaho was brand new. After several more sightings of the mop-haired dude with the crooked walk and crooked smile, she finally met Adam at an evening lecture, “The Political Landscape of Idaho in the New Millennium.” Several students had lingered to hear the passionate young political science professor answer questions. Adam was in the middle of the throng, while she stood on the outskirts of the circle of 10 or so people. She did not say anything, but was silently soaking up the questions and personalities, checking the chemistry of the group. It was an interesting mix of political science junkies: the head of the Conservative Student Association whispered with a student reporter, the libertarian student body president made the rounds like a smooth female Bill Clinton.

As the students left in pairs and threes, Kristin looped her red wool knit scarf around her neck and shyly made her way to the professor, waiting to speak. The no-coat guy was still chatting with the political science professor.

“Thanks for the lecture. I am looking forward to reading your book,” she said softly and spun around to leave.

“I hope you’ll let me know what you think. My colleague will be giving a lecture with quite a different take on things next week,” the professor twinkled as he polished his grandpa glasses. She smiled and walked into the freezing cold night. Adam leaned against the column standing on the top steps.

Kristin’s reverie is interrupted by another computer chime from him. “What do you think about birthday dinner in Denver after my interview on the third? Then we can end our 37th year in company! . . . Unless you have other plans?”

Kristin flexes her fingers and begins typing. “Thanks for your encouragement! I’ve always admired your enthusiasm! Dinner on the third sounds wonderful! How long were you going to be in Denver before embarking upon the great West?

Adam’s reply is fast. “Yay to birthday eve dinner! What about the trip through the West? I figured you would be the perfect guide and road trip companion. It’s like the trip we talked about all those years ago before I went back to Maine, before you went home to see your mom in New Mexico.”

Kristin goes back to the snowy night of the lecture. Adam waited, his breath forming the smoke of cold air she loved. He still was not wearing a coat.

“I’m here for a semester. I followed Professor Stephens here. He used to teach in New Hampshire where I go to school. I’m doing an independent study and research class with him before going back to New England for my senior thesis next fall. Oh, by the way, I’m Adam. You’re Kristin, right? I heard you chat with Stephens,” his words formed in vapor rising above his shaggy head.

Before she could speak, another cloud of his words formed in the night. “You like politics? Do you know where to get a cup of coffee or some tea?”

Kristin shivered, shrinking into her coat, but lifted her head. “There’s a cute place across the street at the edge of campus. They’re open ‘til midnight. I go there sometimes to read, just to get out of the dorm.”

The computer chimed again and she was back in hot, summery Denver. “Do you remember the night we met? We spent the next few hours drinking hot tea and talking politics. I miss that.”

“Me, too. That’s pretty much my memory of that semester in Idaho, lots of tea and plenty of politics!” She hits the enter button.

“Are you working on any local campaigns this year?” Adam dings.

Simultaneously, Kristin taps on the keyboard, “How’s Ellen? Why isn’t she joining you in Colorado, or is she working? Send her my love.”

A silent beat. She takes a sip of tea and moves the fan, waiting for the familiar ping. She adjusts the pillows and settles in against the pine headboard of the bed. No ping, usually she is the delay in their online message sessions. Maybe Adam was deciding what thread to pick up, in the weird chat form. The chat is not a 21st century improvement, but it still amazes her that she is chatting with a friend halfway around the world. He will be celebrating birthday dinner across a table from her in less than two weeks.

Kristin wiggles her big toes, wrapping them around her longer second toes, bunching the quilt under her feet. No chime.

She decides to use the pause and reply. “No, I’m not working on any campaigns, local or otherwise. Last year’s presidential one was rough. I helped on a Congressional race here in Colorado as the local press person. I kept up through the fall, juggling first grade during the day and dealing with much-less mature adults on the evenings and weekends. We had some nasty mud-slinging and I’m burned-out and exhausted. I’m still keeping up with the city and county races, but I haven’t been to any meeting since the wrap-up of the fall elections. Did you do some stuff?”

Finally, a chime from Adam. “Yeah, I kept out of electoral politics, because of work and otherwise. Instead, I helped with get-out-the-vote efforts and helped ex-pats with registering and getting ballots. We did some workshops and online things. It was difficult with the delays of international mail and making sure people had the proper registration forms and stuff. It was exciting to focus on nonpartisan issues this time around. I got to write a couple of op-eds for the English newspaper here and that was cool.”

“Think you’ll ever run for office?” Kristin’s keys clack under her fingers. “I always thought you’d run.”

The distinctive chime from Adam was immediate. “Yeah, well it’s hard to run from Hong Kong. I decided a couple of years ago that I wouldn’t. The dream of Congress has waned. I would rather work on the sidelines on small local stuff. It’s more pleasant out of the spotlight. Plus, folks like you and me can get a lot more done in other ways, don’t you think? After so many years, it’s nice to have other things to give my attention to.”

“Sounds like we’re burned out in our middle age, huh?” She giggles as she taps enter.

“Or maybe we know there are other forms of political engagement. Rejuvenation and reflection are of  great importance, too.” Adam’s response startles her.

“Well, Adam, as I live and breathe, are you turning soft?”

“No, dear K. I just think it would be fun to be active in other ways. Maybe find some new directions. I’ve been doing business deals in Hong Kong for seven years and it’s been hard with all the economic instability. It would be nice to get out of high stakes and look at small, local entrepreneurship. That explains part of my desire for a road trip. I have adored my time abroad, but I’m ready to come back to America to live.

In another blur of seconds, Adam’s thoughts continue to pop up on the screen. “The Denver job is with a small think-tank, working on matching community infrastructure needs with small business.”

Kristin raises her bushy eyebrows. “Wow! That’s perfect and high-minded. Here I want to rub the backs of the rich, instead of teach the poor. Actually, I’d love to have an affordable massage option for people, because I want that myself. Maybe a bike-mobile massage practice? Ha!”

Adam responds and she feels the immediacy of his thoughts through the bland fonts. “Don’t sell yourself short, K. You’ve been doing urban education in high needs schools for more than a decade. It’s okay to want a change. You can return to teaching or do both. Maybe you could find more time to write. . .”

She snorts air out of her nose, like a horse. “Yeah, it’s put-up-or-shut-up-time for me, kind sir. I submitted an article last week. I’m going to eat and read and hike and write in August and challenge myself to a book’s length of words before I go back to teaching in the fall. Even if I don’t become the great American essayist, I’d like to go for the ‘try and do’ instead of just endlessly talking about it, as I always have. I’d feel satisfaction at the act of completion and being brave enough to send it out in the world.”

There is a whole note of quiet, less staccato than before, before the shrill chord of the message signal. “Ellen is gone. She left Hong Kong last November. She married Michael.”

Kristin sucks in her breath and puffs out her cheeks. How can that be? Another quick ring from the computer follows. Maybe he’ll explain. “Are you shocked? Everyone else was, too. We had been going through the motions for too long. Together for eight years and two continents and we kept coming up with excuses to delay the wedding. At the time, I thought we were flaky. Now, I just thank God. It’s how it should be. The last few months have been unreal. But she’s happy and now, so am I.”

She carefully and quietly composed her response. “Wow! Adam, I had no idea. I’m so sorry. What can I do?”

His answer is cheeky. “Have dinner with me on the 3rd. Celebrate the 4th. Go on the road trip, and show me Abbey’s country and your landscape.”

Then another chime and more from Adam. “We will drive. We will find small towns. We’ll prowl used bookstores, we’ll hike. We’ll talk politics and argue. We’ll solve all the world’s problems. We’ll catch up on 17 years. We’ll ponder pasts. We’ll . . .?”

Kristin looks up at the ugly popcorn ceiling, a grin splits her cheeks making her sunburn itch. She walks over to the closet. She stands up on tippy-toes and reaches. Nylon rustles as her bulky tent bag slides off the shelf. She returns to the quilted nest of her bed.

The cursor blinks. She takes a deep breath and squeezes her fingertips, just as she does when her lovely first graders become unruly and wild. “We’ll camp. My tent is ready. We’ll get lost. We’ll drink tea. We’ll find silence. We’ll pick up as we always do, mid-conversation as if no time has passed.

This time it was Adam’s turn to type. “Pulling out the USA atlas and Desert Solitaire right now.”

She lets out one more breath. Kristin closes her computer after typing these last words:

“Good night, dear Adam. See you in 12 days. We’ll talk and listen and just be. Here’s to 38 and all the adventures it brings.”

 

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Author: Kary Schumpert @runningintolife

I am a composter, an environmental educator, a runner, a writer.

7 thoughts on “Political Animals: a 21st Century Love Story”

  1. Thanks, Jan! Since this is my first “real” attempt at fiction, I hadn’t gotten as far as another chapter, but I like the idea. Yes, there will be another chapter, thanks to your invitation! 🙂

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