Only To Us: On Leaving DC
A Tuesday last December.
On the 5:40 pm flight out of Reagan, I left Washington, DC after four years. At the gate, I spent some time reflecting on the legacy I was leaving behind.
In the District’s centuries of existence, I figured, I was probably the only person ever to:
- Begin a sentence to a member of Congress: “Schtup, marry, kill…”
- Wander the DEA Museum on benzos
- Sob in the office of the deputy chief of staff for the highest-ranking Democrat in the Senate while quitting my job then tell him, as he gently extended a box of Kleenex my way: “Oh no, it’s just allergies.”
That’s something, I thought. It’s not nothing.
I came to DC when I was 23 and left when I was 27 and those years in between lack almost any connective tissue, which makes me uncomfortable because I thrive on a clean narrative.
I can divide my time there into three parts. The eight or so months between when I arrived and when I got my first job. The next two and half years — working in the Senate and quitting the Senate and about a year of muddling through a career change. And the final seven months, when a breakdown with my old office extinguished any loyalty I had miraculously maintained towards the institutions in the neoclassical style and the men cradling BlackBerrys like periapts of perma-relevance and the town they called home but I never did.
(More on the BlackBerry men here).
The “Goodbye to All That” essay, the writerly trope of relocation in which I am now indulging, centers itself on the idea that living in a particular city says something about the people we want to be and leaving it marks a deliberate break, a shift in rhythm, in the flow of our lives. Intrinsic in the form is a sense of awe for the power of cities to shape us. And gratitude. We need to be thankful for the people and places that show us, however brutally, what we don’t want — the worlds we can stand not to be a part of.
In less than the lifespan of a gerbil, Washington as it existed in my mind transmuted itself from a romantic ideal, an industry that I thought I might die — might actually die — if I didn’t break into, to a place from which I could casually walk away.
The thing is: DC and I never had a chance. To understand that, we need to go back to the beginning. To the giant miscalculation from which I never fully recovered.
There are a few texts that are absolutely essential to my sensemaking, the way my brain tunnels the stimuli of the world through something like an outlook. They are foundational. They are load-bearing. They are instructive. I can recite them at parties.
There’s Alice Roosevelt Longworth’s instinctive philosophy on life: Fill what’s empty. Empty what’s full. Scratch where it itches. Raymond Chandler on produce and being too precious for your own good: Cleverness, like perhaps strawberries, is a perishable commodity. My father on parenthood and false choices: You can have a rich dad or a nice dad. The introduction to Law and Order: SVU: In the criminal justice system…
And the contents of a generic rejection email on which I was BCC’d on January 1st, 2013:
Thank you for interviewing for a position with the office of…Unfortunately, there were far more qualified applicants than there were positions available in the office…Once again, thank you for your interest and support, we’ll keep your resume on file in the event that positions become available.
That’s it. That’s the act break. Four years later and I can still feel it: the visceral shock of a man I didn’t know putting a hard stop on the life I thought I was building. The moment, five days before I was set to fly to DC, that I lost the job I had been told was mine to lose.
I should quickly mention that I don’t often lose things. Call it one of the rare pleasant side effects of a check-the-burners-style anxiety. I can provide a very specific tally of the things I’ve lost. An old camera battery. My long division skills. Disc three of a Sex and the City season two DVD pack. An autograph from Shaquille O’Neal on a bowling alley napkin in 1999. And then, this.
At the time I received the email, I had just spent six months on a campaign in Boston and was wrapping up the holiday season at home in Los Angeles. I was preparing for the plan.
The plan was DC. The plan was a new laptop and a sleek black work tote under the Christmas tree. The plan was CJ Cregg and power blazers and lattes to-go and speechwriting and a path to success laid out in a series of clear, easy steps, the first of which I was about to take.
The plan was formed three days after the election, after our guy won in a landslide though it was always obvious he would. I was called into an office and asked would I ever consider moving to DC because they wanted me. They wanted me in his congressional office. I would just have to go through the motions — interview in Massachusetts, phone call with the newly-hired chief of staff in Washington, the man who would make the ultimate decision, who would send the email.
I spoke with my boss from the campaign about the email. Should I still move to DC, I wondered. I was told that yes, they still wanted me — the timing just wasn’t right. I should still come to DC. I might just have to wait a little for things to fall in place.
And so I moved and I waited, and waited. I waited until I felt like an asshole and then like a fool. I waited far past the point where it was pathetic. I waited while I looked for other jobs, offers I could use as leverage to compel the chief of staff to hire me. I waited as those offers did not come.
Am I writing my name as Casey Anthony on my resume? asked my friend Caitlin, also unemployed, also hunting, wondering why no one would call her back. And I wondered too. And waited.
I waited even if I knew in my bones that a man who couldn’t bother to use my name in an email was never going to hire me.
I waited until I learned, and I suppose it was time I did, that being wanted and being chosen are not the same thing.
In July, when I was finally done waiting, I booked a flight home to regroup — unsure if I’d return.
A week later, I got offered my job in the Senate. But it never took. I had waited too long.
When I was little, I lost a purple crystal ring my aunt had given me for my birthday in a sandbox at school. The ring was too big. My mom wanted to get it sized properly but I was too excited to wear it. It fits, I insisted. I lost it that first day. It slipped off my finger, sunk deep beneath my tiny toes in the sand. I dug and dug, but I could never find it.
That night, I fashioned a replacement ring out of a strip of paper. I colored it yellow and drew a stone on it with purple crayon and taped the ends together. I wore it around thinking my mom wouldn’t be able to notice. And actually, she didn’t. Or she didn’t care.
I told her this story recently and we laughed. She had no memory of the ring — either one.
The things we lose only ever really matter to us.