When we no longer know which way to go,
We have begun our real journey – Wendell Berry
(Written on the Wall of Wisdom,
Waterbird Bait and Grocery, Moses Lake, Texas)
There are those times when life is a cursor on a blank page, blinking in a rhythm a bit like an electronic heartbeat, tapping out a question in three little words.
Time and space and life wait for an answer. A blank page is an ocean of possibilities.
The producer from CNN wants to know how I ended up here. Did I realize, when I started this thing, where it would lead?
The cursor would like an answer to that question. Or maybe it is challenging me. A wink instead of a heartbeat. A wink and a little chuckle that says, Go ahead and try. It’s like one of those bad jokes told by lonely traveling salesmen in hotel lounges, What do a milk cow, An Irish love legend, and a political scandal have in common…
But I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried, much less explain it. It’s easier to just look out the window, scan a DC skyline that seems out of place now, and let it fool me as it whispers, It’s summertime, Mallory. It’s balmy out here--can you feel it? Don’t you hear the crickets chirring and the hens plucking June bugs off the porch?
I let myself sink into the fantasy, let it wrap around me like a comfortable old shirt—the oversized sort with the neck torn out and the fabric washed so many times that the tag is bleached bare and the logo is only a smattering of color clinging to individual threads.
I imagine that I am home, not here in DC. I hear the waters of Moses Lake lapping at the shore, feel the rhythm of it beneath my feet. My eyes fall closed, and I drink in the water-scented Texas air, the oleander blooming, the sound of small, bare feet tramping up the hallway, a favorite blanket dragging behind. The honey-sweet tastes of a summer morning.
I’m ready to cuddle a knobby-legged little body in my lap, snuggle a case of bed head under my chin, feel the soft, downy hairs tickle my neck, hear the first snuffly breaths of morning before there’s any need to talk, or ask questions, or face the rest of the world. I’m aching for all the things I never thought I’d want, for the place that has wound its way over me like the silk of a web, soft yet strong. I am a prisoner of it, content in ways I could never have imagined. It’s strange how quickly a life can become your life, and how hard you’ll fight for it when someone tries to take it away.
CNN’s Washington Bureau wants the story in my own words, so the anchor can prep for the interview. They’re looking for details, the juicy sort that will pull in viewers. They wonder if I had any idea I’d end up here. They’re not the first ones to ask. Inquiring minds all over the world want to know.
For CNN, you’ll do things you wouldn’t do for anyone else. You’ll attempt to flatten out your life like a map, smooth your hands over it so that nothing hides in the wrinkles, trace the path, unintentional then and even now. Amazing, and shocking, and unpredictable.
I put my hands on the keyboard and try to go back to the beginning. To lean all the way over that accordion-folded sheet of memory and identify the start of a yearlong wild ride, at the far corner of the map.
The first time I saw Daniel Everson, I was scrambling on the floor of the Capitol building among papers and sticky notes, trying to gracefully manage a squat in an above-the-knee straight skirt and pumps that were practical enough to say, I’m serious about my work, yet high enough to whisper, I am woman, hear me roar. The suit was my favorite—the perfect thing to wear while posing for an early-morning congressional staff photo on the Capitol steps.
The papers skittering along the marble floor were in direct conflict with the upwardly mobile fashion choices. They said, This girl’s an idiot.
“Looks like a bomb went off in here.” The smooth, deep man-voice with just a hint of baritone was hardly welcome, just then. Neither was the observation. Bomb jokes at the Capitol are generally considered bad decorum, even early in the morning when the tourists haven’t invaded the place in droves yet.
“I’ve got it,” I answered in the flat, perhaps slightly hostile tone of a girl still sensitive about the idea that her father might have had something to do with her landing a new job as a legislative assistant in a senior congressman’s office. I squat-stepped sideways, slid a little on the slick floor, then slapped my hand over a scattershot of five sheets of the massive Clean Energy Bill, now peppered with yellow flags and scribbled with notes in the margin, headed for revisions, an exhaustive proofing, and duplication. Now, I’d have to collate the thing by hand before I could even work on it.
A gust of air whooshed past—the result of the nearby renovations to the Capitol building--and I heard papers tumbling into the cavernous space of the rotunda. A single cherry blossom cartwheeled past in a strange sort of slow motion. Two men in dark suits, engaged in a rapt conversation, circumvented me as if I were invisible. A sheet of paper went airborne and stuck itself to my rear end. I reached for it, playing an odd game of solo Twister, one hand holding the papers on the floor, the other reaching for the piece that was wedged against my backside. My fingers caught it like a scissor just as another sheet slid past. I pinned that one beneath my remaining foot.
“Hold on a minute,” the man-voice held a friendly little laugh in the undertone. I tried to place the accent. Michigan, maybe—a Yooper from the Upper Peninsula, perhaps, or perhaps upstate New York. Could be Canadian. I couldn’t quite decide. His voice had a nice sound. Warm and thick, almost musical. He leaned over and grabbed the smattering of papers I’d pinned to the floor. I imagined what he was seeing—a blond in a pencil skirt, stretched over the tile like a giant spider.
It crossed my mind that the bill was fresh from a mark-up session, and definitely not for public consumption. Technically, it was my job to protect it, and when your newly-retired father has spent his life in the lobbying business, you know that there are always people skulking around, hoping for leaks. “No. Really. I’ve got it under control.” I insisted.
“I can see that.” He slid the papers from beneath my foot, shuffled them into a stack, and squatted down to tap them on the floor. Handing them back, he looked at me and smiled, and just as in those classic black-and-white movies on late-night cable, the world stood still. I heard the rising crescendo of music that would accompany such a scene, heavy on the trumpets and violins.
Daniel Webster Everson—yes, that was his real name, though I didn’t know it yet—had the most beautiful green eyes I had ever seen. Framed by thick, black lashes, they seemed to glow with an inner light that was almost otherworldly. His hair was wavy and dark, long enough to curve around his collar, too nontraditional for congress. He was wearing a suit—rather well, I might add. Black with a pale blue button-down chambray shirt and a fairly sedate navy and gray striped tie. I wondered what his business was here. Lobbyist? Tourist who’d somehow sneaked in early? Consultant?
I wondered how in the world a person could have eyes that shade.
I wondered if he wore color-enhanced contacts.
I wondered if his father was a gypsy.
Or an actor.
He looked like a gypsy-slash-actor. The guy who would play the prince of Persia, or the pirate king, or the Jedi knight.
I wondered if he was married.
I wondered if he wanted to get married. Ever. Anytime in the next decade would be fine. Really. I’d wait.
Did he live here, or was he just visiting? Did he like furry little kittens and children? Did he visit his mother on Sundays? Was the curl in the back of his hair natural? Surely it wasn’t one of those horribly outdated man-perms my friend Kaylyn referred to as merms?
Did he like Italian food? Was he Italian?
He could be Italian…
Or a baseball player. A professional baseball player. He looked athletic. Congressmen loved to invite pro athletes in for behind the scenes tours…
I mentally cycled through all those questions in the space of an instant, before he handed me the sheets of paper, jogged into the rotunda to gather up the rest, and returned them with a smile as I was regaining my feet and trying to reel up my bottom lip. I reached for some intelligent thought, some clever comment that might indicate that this brush with klutziness was just a random incident—I wasn’t some ditzy office assistant, hired because of my dazzling beauty and the way I looked in a straight skirt and a good pair of Spanx.
But all I could think was, hubba-hubba, and all I could manage to say was, “Thanks.” I felt myself blushing, which for a thirty-four year old, city-wise girl who’d sworn off relationships in favor of political aspirations was saying something. The (at that point) nameless Good Samaritan wasn’t the most incredibly good-looking guy I’d ever seen, not in the fashion-model sort of way, but there was just… something. Fireworks, I believe my great-grandmother would have called it. Mallory, she liked to say and point that knobby grandma finger at me, A smart woman doesn’t settle for a man, just to have a man. That’s like buying shoes just because they’re cheap. If they don’t fit, what good are they?
You wait for fireworks.
Great-Grandma Louisa was from the holy city of Charleston, South Carolina, the only southerner in the family, an enigma, of sorts. She believed in misty-eyed platitudes. Offered up in that long, slow Southern drawl of hers they sounded delightful and sweet, like a taste of mayhaw jam or honey butter. She supported the idea of skyrockets and things meant to be.
I’d always thought the notion charming but sadly outdated, until the day I met Daniel Webster Everson. My heart fluttered against my ribs like a butterfly trapped in a net. I had the fleeting thought that surely he could see it. In that instant, over the jumbled carcass of the Clean Energy Bill, we seemed to be drawn together by some invisible force we both sensed but couldn’t see. He felt it. I just knew he did.
And then, all of a sudden, he shattered my fantasy completely. His wristwatch-- one of those geeky plastic digital kind with a million buttons and gadgets--beeped, he checked it, then smiled, wished me an upturn in my day, and hurried out of my life, leaving me standing there, still slightly splay-footed, speechless.
I toddled off, juggling the Clean Energy Bill like an unruly baby and feeling either rejected or teased by fate, or both. On the heels of that thought, there was a still, small voice drumming out mantras from the stack of self help books I’d been working my way through since moving to DC and shaking off the dust of my last imploded relationship. It was the longest I’d ever dated anyone, and the only reason I’d stayed two years in a career black hole at the U.S. Consulate in Milan. I’d spent the last nine months of that time trying to find a graceful way to exit without disappointing everyone’s hopes—his, my family’s, his family’s.
When you’re over thirty, single, and you date someone for more than six months, everybody decides this must be the one, the (somewhat delayed) start of the marriage-and-family phase of life. But some people really aren’t picket-fence-and-two-point-five-kids material. I’d always known that I was better suited to a career. Political life intrigued me. I liked the power, the sense of doing something world changing and important, the mystery of deal making behind the scenes. Like the underground rail system that connected the Capitol to the Congressional and Senate office buildings, the place was laced with hidden connections, and I delighted in figuring them out. This was the life I was meant for.
My mother hated the idea with a passion. She thought I should be looking for a suitable man, particularly at my age. In Mother’s family, women married influence; they didn’t seek it for themselves. She’d had her way with my four older sisters, but I would be the one who was different, who broke the mold, who became a dealmaker myself.
Yet, as I sorted my current stack of papers and put it back together like Humpty Dumpty, I was thinking of the guy from the rotunda. The one with the green eyes and the thick, boyish lashes.
We would make beautiful babies together. We really would.
I found myself wondering if I’d made a wrong turn at a crossroads of fate by letting him walk away without a word. Silly, of course. He wasn’t interested, or he wouldn’t have left me for a beeping wristwatch...