“I can’t believe there’s going to be a gay Jewish president.”
As my mother said this, she looked at my father, who was still staring at the screen. They were shocked, barely comprehending.
I sat there and beamed.
I think it was the Jesus Freaks who were the happiest the next day at school. Most of the morning papers were saying that Stein’s victory wouldn’t have been possible without the Jesus Revolution in the church, and I don’t think Mandy or Janna or any of the other members of The God Squad would’ve argued. Mandy was wearing her Jesus Is Love T-shirt while Janna had a Love Thy Neighbor button on her bag, right above the Stein For President sticker. When they saw me walk through the door, they cheered and ran over, bouncing me into a jubilant hug. I wasn’t the only gay Jew they knew, but I was the one they knew best, and we all had been volunteers on the Stein/Martinez campaign together. After the hugging was done, we stood there for a moment and looked at one another with utter astonishment. We’d done it. Even though we wouldn’t be able to vote for another two years, we’d helped to make this a reality. It was the most amazing feeling in the world, to know that something right had happened, and to know that it had happened not through luck or command but simply because it was right.
Some of our fellow students walked by us and smiled. Others scoffed or scowled – there were plenty of people in our school who would’ve been happy to shove our celebration in a locker and keep it there for four years.
“It was only by one state,” one of them grunted. “Only a thousand votes in Kansas.”
“Yeah, but who got the popular vote?” Mandy challenged.
The guy just spat on the ground and moved on.
“Did he really just spit?” Janna asked. “Ew.”
I was looking everywhere for Jimmy. As soon as the results had been announced, I’d gone to my room and called him.
“Can you believe it?” I’d asked.
“I am so so so happy,” he’d answered.
And I was so so so happy, too. Not only because of the election but because I had Jimmy to share it with. I had two things to believe in now, and in a way they felt related. The future – that was it. I believed in the future, and in our future.
“I love you,” he’d said at the end of the call, his voice bleary from the hour but sweetened by the news.
“I love you, too,” I’d replied. “Good night.”
“Very good night.”
Now I wanted the continuation, the kiss that would seal it. The green states had triumphed, the electoral college was secure, and I was in love with a boy who was in love with me.
“Somewhere Jesus is smiling,” Janna said.
“Praise be,” Mandy chimed in.
Keisha and Mira joined us in the halls, fingers entwined. They looked jubilant, too.
“Not a bad day for gay Jew boys, huh?” Keisha said to me.
“Not a bad day for Afro-Chinese lesbians, either,” I pointed out.
Keisha nodded. “You know it’s the truth.”
We had all skipped school the previous two days to get out the vote. Since we weren’t old enough to drive, we acted as dispatchers, fielding calls from Kennedy-conscious old-age-home residents and angry-enough agoraphobic liberals, making sure the ESVs came to take them to the polls. Other kids, like Jimmy, had been at the polling places themselves, getting water and food for people as they waited hours for their turn in the booth.
I felt that history was happening. Not like a natural disaster or New Year’s Eve. No, this was human-made history, and I was an infinitesimally small part of it. We all were. Suddenly I felt two arms wrap around me from behind, the two palms coming to rest at the center of my chest. Two very familiar hands – the chewed-up fingernails, the dark skin a little darker at the knuckles, the wire-thin pinkie ring, the bright red watch. The bracelet with just two beads, jade for him and agate for me. I wore one just like it.
I smiled then – the same way I smiled every time I saw Jimmy. He made me happy like that.
“Beautiful day,” he said to me.
“Beautiful day,” I agreed, then turned in his arms to give him that this is real kiss.
The first bell rang. I still had to run to my locker before homeroom.
“Everything feels a little different today, doesn’t it?” Jimmy asked. We kissed again, then parted. But his words echoed with me. I was too young to remember when the Supreme Court upheld the rights of gay Americans, and all the weddings started happening. But I imagined that day felt a lot like today. I’d heard so many people talk about it, about what it meant to know you had the same rights as everyone else, making anything possible. I knew that this time it was just the Presidency, and that Stein was likely to become more moderate to get along with Congress, especially since we’d only won by the margin of Kansas. But still…everything did feel a little different. Yes, the kids walking the halls around me were the same kids who’d been there yesterday. The books in my locker were piled just the way I’d left them. Mr. Farnsworth, my homeroom teacher, waited impatiently by his door, just like he always did. But it was like someone had upped the wattage of all the lights by a dozen watts. Someone had made the air two shades easier to breathe.
I knew this feeling wouldn’t last. As soon as I realized it was euphoria, I knew it wouldn’t last. I couldn’t even hold on to it. I could only ride within it for as far as it would carry me.
The second bell rang. I sprinted into class, and Mr. Farnsworth closed the door.
“I expect to see you standing today,” he said to me.
This was the deal we had: If Stein won the Presidency, I would stand for the Pledge of Allegiance for the first time since elementary school. Even back then, I hated the way it seemed to be something rote and indoctrinated – most people saying the words emptily, without understanding them. I didn’t want to drone it unless I meant it.
I’d always said the six last words, though. And today I said them extra loud, standing up. With liberty and justice for all.
When I went to sit down, I found that my chair wasn’t there. I landed butt-first on the floor.
“What’s the matter, Duncan?” Jesse Marin’s voice taunted. “Head in the clouds much?”
There was some laughter, but most of it was Jesse’s. He cracked himself up on a regular basis.
“That’s how it goes,” he went on. “You stand up for something, you end up falling down on your ass.”
Jesse’s parents were big Decents in our town, and like most Decents he wasn’t taking defeat very well. You would’ve thought he’d be used to it now, with all the changes that had happened over the past few years. With each one, the Decents had sworn it meant the demise of civilization. But of course civilization did okay without the Decents proclaiming what needed to be censored and what needed to be “protected.” They’d been smart at first – labeling everyone who wasn’t a Decent as indecent. The initial reaction to that was to say “No, I’m not indecent!” or “What I’m doing is not indecent!” – which immediately put us on the defensive. It was only when we could say, “Actually, I’m decent and you have no right to call me otherwise” that changes began. The rise of the green states. The Jesus Revolution. The All Equal Movement. Stein’s idea of The Great Community. And now, the election.
The Decents didn’t even call themselves “the Decents” anymore. We’d won back the word, just as we’d won back words like moral and right and compassionate in earlier years. Because words mattered. Winning the words was a good part of the battle. And we won them by defining them correctly.
The principal’s voice came over the speakers and read the morning announcements. He made no mention of the election; to him, the only part of the future worth noting was the Conservation Club’s bake sale next Thursday and the football team’s game against Voorhees on Saturday. School is its own country, he seemed to be saying in all that he wasn’t saying. I am the leader here, and I am not subject to any election. What happens in the world at large remains at large while you are here.
I wanted to say something back to Jesse, to gloat or to cut him down. But then I thought of what Janna and Mandy would do, and I decided that I couldn’t let winning make me any less kind. The whole point of winning was to build The Great Community. Telling Jesse that he was an asshalf prickwad Decent wouldn’t be working towards a community at all. I could see Mr. Farnsworth keeping watch over me, wondering what I was going to do. When the bell rang, I made eye contact with him and received a small, approving nod. Then, as I was about to pass by his desk, he asked me to stay back for a second.
Once the other students had gone, he said, “If I’m not mistaken, you’re in Mr. Davis’s class first period.”
“Look, Duncan, be careful today. He’s not taking this well. He wants to detonate on someone – don’t let it be you.”
I looked at Mr. Farnsworth. I knew nothing about his life – where he lived, how he voted, who he loved. But I could see he was genuinely worried. For me, yes. But for something bigger, too.
“I’ll be careful,” I promised.
And then I headed to Mr. Davis’s class.
The plus about Mr. Davis’s class: Jimmy was in it.
The minus: Mr. Davis was in it, too.
Both Jimmy and I had tried to switch out, but it was the only history class available first period, and we both needed a history class then in order to graduate. At first, in September, Mr. Davis had been only barely tolerable – he still held on to the idea that, say, indigenous Americans got a great deal when the Pilgrims came over, and that the word savage was acceptable to use in a history class, as if killing someone with a stick was somehow more horrible than doing it with a bomb. Jimmy and I figured we could get through it because other teachers had already told us the truth, not just the Thanksgiving version. But then, as the election heated up, Mr. Davis seemed to forget he was teaching history and started lecturing us on current events instead. At one point, he let it slip that he was an Iraq War Re-enactor, which disturbed me so much that I went to my guidance counselor and complained. I’d read in magazines about what Iraq War Re-enactors did – the “interrogations,” the simulated rescues, the ill-equipped soldiers facing ambushes, the falsified evidence – and I didn’t want to have anything to do with a teacher involved in such things. My guidance counselor understood, but explained about needing the history class and promised she would have a talk with Mr. Davis about not making inappropriate statements. This was, of course, the last thing I wanted her to do – but she did it anyway, and soon Mr. Davis was railing into “the Steinheads” even more.
To Mr. Davis, the three worst things that had ever happened were:
1) The Jesus Revolution
2) Stein’s Candidacy
3) The All Equal Movement
1) Saying Jesus would be kind and loving instead of vengeful and violent didn’t fit into Mr. Davis’s plans.
2) Two words: Gay. Jewish. Although he’d never say it in only two words.
3) Every time another group became equal to straight white guys, it made Mr. Davis feel like he had that much less power . . . when the truth was that he never should’ve had so much power in the first place.
In choosing the three worst things that had ever happened, he conveniently forgot (among others):
1) The Debt, Deficit, & Fuel Depression (aka The Greater Depression)
2) The hundred million people who died of AIDS in Africa before Worldwide Health Care went into effect
3) The Reign of Fear
It all started, I guess, with 9/11, decades before I was born. America was in shock and the politicians decided to use fear to get what they wanted. Fear of mass destruction. Fear of nonwhites and non-Christians. Fear of the unknown. As more bad things happened (caused, in part, by the way we alienated the nonwhite non-Christians with our fearful aggression), the politicians had more fuel for the fear they were creating. Meanwhile, the country spent more and more, and went further and further into debt. Some people said this was deliberate, in order to bankrupt the social programs that the administration at the time didn’t like. Other people said it was just gross stupidity. Finally, when some foreign countries decided they wanted to be paid their part of the debt, things began to bottom out. It started first with gas prices heading over ten dollars a gallon. Then everything else became more and more expensive, too. The Greater Depression had begun. And the President decided he needed to end this depression the same way the first Great Depression had ended. Pandering to fears and singling out “extremists everywhere,” he launched The War to End All Wars. As everybody knows, it didn’t work. The Reign of Fear began to lose its grip. People started to protest – the Prada Riots, to revolt against the fact that some people were so rich in a time when everyone else was struggling so hard; the Worldwide Heath Care movement, to end the monopoly of drug companies over whole dying nations; the rise of the progressive green states, leading to Stein’s candidacy. The good was coming from the bad . . . although in Mr. Davis’s version I was sure he’d say the opposite. I hadn’t been looking forward to Mr. Davis’s class on that post-election morning; Mr. Farnsworth’s warning only made me more nervous. I would’ve cut – and I’m sure Jimmy would’ve joined me – if I wasn’t certain that Mr. Davis would’ve used it as an excuse to fail me. I wanted to convey Mr. Farnsworth’s warning on to Jimmy, but I was too late to class, and Mr. Davis had seated us as far away from each other as possible, as if we might overpower the room with gayness if we weren’t separated by three rows of chairs and computers. The joke was that he put me between Keisha and Mira instead. I told them to lay low once Mr. Davis came into the room; Keisha tried to pass it on, but Mr. Davis barged in at that moment and slammed the door so hard the map of the world shook.
I hoped that Jimmy would know to lay low.
He didn’t look afraid. But then, Jimmy never looked afraid. The first time we ever went out, I was so nervous my leg shook. But Jimmy could have been napping for all the insecurity he showed. Not that he seemed sleepy; the thing I recognized right away was that he was paying attention to me — not just to the things I was saying, but to details I didn’t even know I had.
It was, of all things, a homework date, made so casually that I wasn’t even sure it was a date until he was kissing me. At the end of school one day last year, he’d asked me to come over to work on physics together. Giddy and terrified, I’d said yes, then ran to get my things before either of us could change our minds. As we walked home, I kept drying my palms in my pockets, while he talked about why he was sure physics was going to end up as his worst subject in all of high school. When we got to his house, he offered me a powerwater and settled us down in his living room, where a muted screen was tuned to an open news channel.
At first, we stuck to the subject. How much weight needs to be attached to pulley x to get weight y up incline z? But then, with a smile, he started to weave other questions in. If the weight of y is doubled and the incline of z is halved, do you feel you’re more an optimist or a pessimist? If we add two more weights, w1 and w2, to pulley x, would you mind if I told you that you have beautiful eyes?
I thought there was no way my eyes could be as beautiful as his. I looked at them now, shy, then looked a little lower and saw a gentle scattering of freckles across the top of his cheeks.
“You have freckles,” I said.
“Probably my Irish great-grandfather . . . but who knows? When you have African and Indian and Irish and French and Catalan grandparents and great-grandparents – well, it’s all just a mix.”
I wanted to tell him it was a wonderful mix, but I couldn’t. We sat there on the floor for a moment, our problem sets spread out like kindergarten drawings between us. I had liked him for so long without being able to say it. Now here we were, the pulleys and the weights and the inclinations moving into their delicate balance, that equilibrium of desire, awaiting the conversion of thoughts into words and movements.
My leg shook. He reached over and placed his hand on it. And I . . . I moved my hand and settled it onto his. He looked into my eyes to see if it was okay, then leaned in and kissed me. Once, softly. I closed my eyes, stopped hearing, shut down all my senses but the nerve endings in my lips. Felt him there. Felt the space after. Felt my own smile as I opened my eyes again.
He loosened me then, with a gentle “Can I kiss you again?” My caution eased. The bad tension turned into good tension. He raised his hand so that my ear was in the crook of his palm. The edge of his hand settled close to my pulse. I moved my own palm up, matched him. We were both so serious, and we were both so smiling. Our homework crushed beneath us.
We kissed in whispers for minutes, our bodies finding hundreds of ways to hold each other. All the while, the screen unfolded the world to us wordlessly. When we let go, we saw a familiar figure stepping up to a podium, green flags waving in a sea in front of him.
“Look, it’s Stein,” Jimmy said. He pressed a button and the sound came on. We rested into each other and watched.
“There is no such thing as equality for some. Equality must be for all. That is what freedom is. That is what liberty is. No human being is born more or less important than any other. How can we allow ourselves to forget that? What simpler truth is there?”
As the crowd cheered, I looked at Stein’s husband, Ron, standing by his side.
“Ron’s pretty cute, isn’t he?” I said. “I mean, for a forty-five year-old.”
But Jimmy wasn’t interested in that (although later he’d tell me that, yes, he thought Ron was adorable, especially when little Jeffrey and Jess were around). Instead he asked me, “Do you believe he can actually do it?”
I knew Jimmy’s own answer was yes. But at that moment, I had to tell him what I really thought.
“I’m not sure,” I confessed. “I really don’t know.” I paused for a moment, feeling this wasn’t enough. “I want to believe it. I want to believe there are enough people in this country who agree with us and want to do the right thing. I want to believe that The Reign of Fear is over, and people want true equality and fairness. But I guess . . . well, I guess I’m still afraid that people’s minds can’t open that far.”
I was worried that Jimmy was going to correct me, that he was going to say I didn’t believe enough. Instead, he kissed me again and said, “Well, we’re going to have to try, aren’t we?” And I knew he was talking about politics, and I also knew he was talking about us.
So I said yes twice. I didn’t promise him anything, but I promised myself. I was going to try.