LETTER TO A STRANGER
TO THE WOMAN WHO FOUND ME CRYING OUTSIDE THE SENATE
BY RACHEL SWEARINGEN
You’ve been a part of the story since the beginning. You’re the woman who finds me bawling in the bathroom outside the Senate. It’s the late 80’s. I’m from rural Wisconsin, in D.C. for a summer seminar. I’m president of the Young Republicans, a tiny part of a long-range plan to turn Wisconsin red. My family is working class and my father has just been laid off, and I want to make something of myself. I want to go to college. The Party insider who recruited me tells me there has never been a better time to be a woman. I’m seventeen, not old enough to vote, but I campaign for men who drink highballs, who call me “little lady” and pat me on the head, saying, “You better watch out for this one. She’s after your job.”
You must have seen my ill-fitting, scuffed white pumps under the stall. “You all right in there?” you say. Your gruff, scotch-worn voice reminds me of women from back home. I emerge in a baby-blue Nancy Reagan suit, mascara snot on my face, my permed hair melting in the humidity. I’m carrying a briefcase my dad bought for me at a garage sale. You hand me a wad of toilet paper to blow my nose as I tell you about mock congress, how my bill was just annihilated on live television. Tall, private-school boys had jumped in front of me to get on TV. Months of work for nothing. They knew nothing about the research, gave stupid answers, hammed it up for the camera.
You light a cigarette—the reason you’re in the bathroom. “Sweetheart,” you say. “You’ve got to learn how to eat your own heart if you want to get into politics.” Then you tell me to be a kid, to go out and find some trouble while I still can. This is the part I recount at parties because it was just the permission I needed to break curfew that night. The end of my budding political career. “My first and last political sex scandal,” I’d joke.
You couldn’t have been much older than I am now. The women I tell wonder what you were doing there. “Do you think she was a senator?” one will ask, and the others will laugh. “Are you kidding? Back then? How many were there?”
Turns out there were just two.
I told you I was tougher than I looked, despite the fact that I had just run crying from a fake meeting of Congress, and even the irreverent British boy who I had a crush on had laughed. I didn’t mention the boy to you.
All week, while I behaved, the other participants snuck out and had adventures. The special sit-down the local Party member had arranged with my Republican senator was just a quick photo op. I had toured the House and Senate to find men delivering speeches to empty chambers. I had walked the halls, listened in on deal-making with lobbyists, and understood this was as far as I would go, or even wanted to go. There were back-slapping men everywhere, the scent of aftershave and lunchtime booze. If anyone noticed me, it was to leer. They hid nothing of their conversations because I was of no consequence.
When you coaxed me out of that stall, I didn’t want to be what I was. A Midwesterner. A good girl. Most likely a Democrat who would never be able to eat her own heart. That same day, I had snuck away from my group to walk around D.C. and had seen disparity and segregation. I had visited my Democratic congressman’s unglamorous office and sat down for a long meeting. He had one aging secretary and wore a knit-brown leisure suit. No cameras. He looked me in the eyes and talked about the importance of public service.
For years, I told the story, and you were the wizened crone shooing me out into the world, giving me the Don’t Let the Assholes Bring You Down talk. But most fiction writers know that a minor character can never be solely at the service of the protagonist. Everyone has their own agenda. You looked so alone and stressed. Your dark hair was turning brittle with silver. You were cigarette and work-all-night skinny. I was too young to imagine the sort of life you inhabited.
That night, I stuffed my bed and asked my roommate from the Bronx to cover for me while I snuck off campus with the British boy. I wore a red, white, and blue short-set with zero irony. In a nearby golf course, we watched fireflies, talked, and kissed. It was two or three in morning when we saw the headlights of a golf cart coming at us, driven by one of the law students who was responsible for us. He had a megaphone and was shouting. My star-spangled outfit glowed as the boy and I ran across sandpits. We were alive and laughing. We were breaking the rules. We kept running until they caught us.
The law student delivered us to the director of the program. He was taking his bar exam that morning. I had to write an apology. The director told me she was filing a copy with admissions, that she would see to it I never returned to Georgetown or became a page. When I told the boy how sorry I was that I had gotten him in trouble, he said not to worry. He was having tea with the ambassador in the morning. That morning, without showering or sleeping, I walked into the cafeteria of hushed teenagers to wait for a taxi. My roommate told me the RAs had come by the night before to give me a leadership award and discovered I was gone. Also, she said, “People are saying they found you naked on a golf course with a foreigner.”
On the airplane home, I wrote in my journal about my ruined life. I barely mentioned you. That summer, I went to the library to ask how to call London and used the money I made working at a hardware store to send the boy roses. I thought I was in love with him. I didn’t yet realize that what I wanted was to be him.
When I tell the story now, I see you in your skirt and blouse, pacing the Senate halls, stealing into the rare women’s bathroom. I like to think of you taking your own advice, finding trouble that night too. Maybe I became the centerpiece of your own funny story. The small-town girl sobbing behind a bathroom stall because she found out she was a Democrat. Or were there were too many of us back then? All of us trying to climb the Hill in our borrowed shoes, reminding you of you?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Rachel Swearingen is the author of the forthcoming story collection, How to Walk on Water and Other Stories, winner of the 2018 New American Press Fiction prize. Her work has appeared in VICE, The Missouri Review, Kenyon Review, Agni, American Short Fiction, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of the 2015 Missouri Review Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize in Fiction, a 2012 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award, and the 2011 Mississippi Review Prize in Fiction. She lives in Chicago and teaches at the School of the Art institute of Chicago. You can find her on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.
Header photograph by Pogo