Before Cat and I became a couple, before we even knew each other, we were a team: knocking on strangers’ doors to bring them Barack Obama’s tidings of hope. Everyone in Brooklyn was already voting for him anyway, so they just cheered us on and thanked us for our service. There was a precoital vibe, a tingling anticipation of victory. On election night 2008 we stayed out late dancing in the streets of Park Slope, and when we fell into each other’s arms on Cat’s futon at four in the morning, it seemed like the consummation of something huge: not just between the two of us, but between us and America.
Neither of us had dated a woman before, so everything was new: this person’s body, so similar yet so other; the thrill of recognition as we passed gay couples on the street, like we were members of a secret club. And then the actual secret club — lesbian bars, queer potlucks, dyke knitting circles. Knitting circles!
But eventually we learned a sad lesson: that no matter how progressive their sexual practices or identity politics, all couples fail in the same way. Barack Obama had promised us the future. Instead we’d gotten what we’d always had: the present. It was just as provisional and unsatisfying as ever, as clogged with obligation and regret.
One day, after we’d been living together for more than a year, I came home to find Cat sitting on our bed, staring at the blank white wall.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Trying to decide on a strategy.”
“We’ve tried everything, right?” Cat said. “The posters made it look like a dorm room. And all those album covers just made it cluttered.”
“I thought we decided not to care, that the wall was OK with nothing on it.”
“We didn’t decide anything. We just stopped trying.”
I sensed that we were no longer talking about the wall.
“I just want to wake up one morning,” she said, “and look at something that’s not nothing.”
I didn’t respond. I would never have survived as a cave-person. I have no fight-or-flight instinct, only a freeze-and-blend-into-the-background instinct. In this case, though, there was nothing to blend into. There was just us.
I stood there and watched as Cat got up, a look of resolve on her freckled face, and began throwing clothes into a bag. I stood and watched as she walked out the door and slammed it behind her. I watched the room attempt to settle itself, the objects stunned and mute in the wake of her sudden absence.
I didn’t move. I could stand there for a long time, probably. My legs wouldn’t even start to ache for another hour or two. Humans could go days without water, weeks without food. If I could just refuse the present, it would slide backward into the past, and everything would be OK again.
I’d probably been standing there for an hour when my phone rang. I lunged for it, assuming it was Cat, only to see a puzzling 301 area code on the screen. Thinking she might be calling from someone else’s cell, I answered. “Hello?”
“Is this Andrea Green?” a man asked in a chipper voice, as if he might have a special offer for valued customers like me.
“Yes, it’s Andrea.”
“Hi, this is Jeremy! I’m calling from Barack Obama’s office?”
“What? Wait, Jeremy Bird? The guy from all the fund-raising e-mails?”
“No, my name is Jeremy Spoon! Like the utensil? Anyway, I’m calling from Barack Obama’s office with some good news! You’re an alternate!”
“The Dinner with Barack contest!”
I faintly remembered getting an e-mail: Andrea, I am writing to invite you to dinner. Donate $15 or more today, and you will be entered in the running to have dinner with me. Amused by the thought of Barack Obama so desperate that he’d ask me out, I’d clicked on the PayPal button, donated twenty bucks, and forgotten about it.
“I’m an alternate?” I asked Jeremy Spoon. “What does that mean?”
“It means that we have four winners, but we draw five names, and yours was the fifth. We always draw an extra, just in case. Family illnesses, freak accidents, lightning. Not to be a downer, but things happen!” He said that if none of the others dropped out, I’d get a consolation prize: a phone call from the president and a gift certificate to Applebee’s.
“Cool,” I said. “I like Applebee’s.”
“One more thing. We post interviews with the winners on our website. In case you end up being chosen, we’ll need the same footage for you that we’ll have for everyone else. So we want to come film you at your home next week — ask you about your life, your hopes, your relationship to the campaign. It should be fun!”
“Yes, that does sound like fun,” I said, though actually it just sounded anxiety inducing.
We set up a date for the interview: in one week, a camera with America on the other end would come to our apartment. America would stare us in the face, behold and appraise us. It was terrifying but also a near-magical second chance to get Cat back — an excuse to prove, on camera, that we were something that was not nothing. In other words, I had a one-week deadline to get the apartment ready. I had one week to get something amazing onto that blank wall.
In truth my life with Cat wasn’t perfect, but before we’d met, the closest thing I’d had to a relationship in over a year was giving drunken hand jobs to one of my co-workers at Mustache Mark’s, an overpriced vintage-clothing store in Williamsburg. (Actually it was Mustache Mark himself.) Cat had convinced me to quit my job there and finish Losers on the Roof, the short film I’d been working on since college, so I could apply to film school. At first it went great. Cat’s hot breath on my neck each morning was the wind in my sails. But I kept looking at my movie through an NYU admissions officer’s eyes, deciding it was adolescent and bloated, and deleting half of it, only to put the excised parts back the next time. I was no longer folding and reshelving clothes, but my life still consisted of taking things out and putting them back.
I couldn’t stay stuck any longer.
I swallowed what pride I had left and went to Ikea. I bought a track-lighting fixture and a large floor plant that I was promised would bloom in a matter of days. None of the mass-produced artwork, though, was worthy of the task I needed it to perform. The pictures all seemed sterile and self-effacing in a particularly Scandinavian way. I needed something more assertive: something American, or at least French.
I hung the track lighting, positioned the plant in the corner, and spent the rest of the day on Craigslist, looking for assertive home decorations. There were leopard-print rugs, coffee tables shaped like bears, life-size cardboard cutouts of Miley Cyrus, but nothing seductive enough to get Cat back. Plus, I could not abide the thought of choosing something chipped and nicked and stained with other people’s failures.
And then, just like that, I found it.
Three questions ran through my mind as I approached Tom’s apartment: One, was “Tom” even his real name? Two, what if he was the latest incarnation of the Craigslist Killer? (The farther I walked from the G-train stop, the more alleys and vacant lots I passed — places that seemed specifically designed for the disposal of bodies.) And three, did he even have a giant poster of the Dalai Lama?
Cat was obsessed with His Holiness. She’d twice paid forty dollars just to be in the same room as him, and both times she’d come back gushing about his “presence,” how he “radiated happiness” and “transcended physical space.” This, of course, had made me jealous. She’d recently accused me of “depressiveness,” in a tone that said my dark moods and failure to finish my movie and apply to film school were really acts of aggression against her. I saw emotions as being like the weather — regionally influenced yet cosmically mysterious — but Cat believed they were a case of mind over mind. She was the kind of person who went running for five miles every day, even in the actual rain. She went to those dharma talks alone while I stayed home, resentfully googling the Dalai Lama. This gift, then, was a paradigm shift. It said, For you I renounce my worldview. I renounce my right to be right.
Tom lived in a converted warehouse; I had to check the address several times to make sure I’d found it, because the building didn’t look like a place where a human would live. It was an empty industrial shell made of dun-colored bricks, bordering a vacant lot surrounded by chain-link and barbed wire. I texted him: Here, I think?
He emerged a couple of minutes later: scruffy beard, knit cap pulled over shaggy hair, faded flannel shirt. He smelled like Old Spice and pot. “Yo,” he said.
Who still said, Yo? I followed him through the lot, stepping over broken bottles, discarded car parts, and bits of fiberglass. He pushed open an unmarked door.
“Watch your step,” he told me as we entered. I looked down, expecting a high threshold or steep stair, but it turned out he was referring to a person. A girl was sprawled out in front of the door, asleep, her green dress twisted up around her middle so that her hot-pink panties were exposed. Tom stepped casually over her.
“Is she OK?” I asked.
Tom looked back at the girl. “To be honest, I’m not sure who she is. I think she’s my roommate’s.”
“But are you sure she’s not dead?”
“Oh, yeah. She got up a little while ago and went to the bathroom and lay back down. I think this is her way of waiting for him or something.” He shrugged. “Everyone’s got their thing.”
“OK,” I said, gingerly stepping over her. She rolled over onto her side without waking up.
“Come on,” said Tom. “It’s in here.”
We stepped into a large space partitioned into rooms by plywood walls decorated with everything from indie-band posters to a papier-mâché sculpture of breasts to a watercolor portrait of Tom Selleck.
And then I saw him, leaning against one of the dividers: the Dalai Lama — or, rather, his five-foot-tall face, staring at me. I looked into his twinkling, pixilated eyes and burst into tears.
Tom didn’t seem taken aback. He just pulled a joint from his back pocket, lit it, and took a drag. Finally, when my sobs had subsided and I was starting to catch my breath, he extended it to me. I inhaled gratefully. The effect was instant and powerful.
“I’ve never felt so soothed in my life,” I said.
“Do you still want the picture?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said. I passed the joint back to him. “Sorry about that.”
“It happens,” he said. “Probably your tear ducts were cramped.”
“I didn’t know that could happen.”
“Yeah. If you don’t use them for a while, they get stiff, like any other muscle.”
“Oh. That makes sense.” It occurred to me that I hadn’t actually cried since Cat had left.
“I try to make myself cry every once in a while so my tear ducts stay in shape,” said Tom.
“You can make yourself cry?”
“Yeah, watch.” He closed his eyes, squeezing them shut really hard, and when he opened them, they were full of water. One tear ran down his left cheek, and another down the right.
“People get really moved when they see this picture, though. Imagine if you saw the real dude. You’d probably pass out.”
“I might meet Barack Obama,” I said.
“I don’t really follow that stuff,” Tom replied. “I’m a libertarian.”
“Do you want to wash your face?” he asked. “You have, like, black streaks all down your cheeks. It looks kind of bleak.”
“Sure, I guess so.”
I went into Tom’s “bathroom” — a toilet and sink separated from the rest of the space by a few sheets of plywood — and splashed some water on my face. When I came out, he was sitting cross-legged on the floor with two open beers in front of him.
“I once met Sting,” he said as I sat down next to him on the floor. “My sister’s co-worker is his cousin or something. He came to her wedding.”
“Yeah. There was karaoke, but he didn’t want to sing. Everyone was kind of disappointed, but you have to give the guy a break. It’s like his job.”
“How’d you get the picture, anyway?” I asked.
“Oh, that one?” he said, gesturing toward the Dalai Lama, as if he’d just noticed it. “I stole it.”
I waited for him to say more, but he only reached for his beer. I grabbed mine and took a long swig. It was delicious. I felt every pore of my body relaxing and loosening. I closed my eyes for a moment, and when I opened them, Tom was staring at me. No one had stared at me like that in a long time. His stare was not only sexual but indisputably male: easy, unaffected, possessive — I want that. It was surprising, after a complicated year with Cat, to see that look again. It was even more surprising to realize that I wanted him, too.
Before I could second-guess myself, I leaned over and kissed Tom. He responded hungrily, pulling my face into his with one hand and wrapping the other around my waist. He lowered me to the floor, and suddenly there was cool cement beneath me and a warm man on top. After we’d made out for a while — Tom’s hands ranging around inside my clothes but not removing any — he whispered, “Can we go to bed?”
I thought for a moment. “Yes,” I said, “but under three conditions: One, you have to wear a condom. Two, I have to be on top. And three, you have to cry the whole time.”
He frowned. “I think my tear ducts might be connected in some way to the ducts in my penis,” he said.
But he was willing to try. At first he had a hard time getting started. He squinched his face until some tears started to come out. Then it was like he couldn’t control it. He was sobbing the way I had minutes earlier in front of the Dalai Lama picture. I found this incredibly erotic, to be straddling someone who was more emotional than I was, rather than the other way around.
After it was over, I pulled my pants back on and held out the sixty dollars Tom had asked for in his ad.
“I feel like a prostitute,” he said.
“I’m paying you for the picture,” I said. “If I didn’t give you the money, then I would be the prostitute.”
“Good point,” he said. “Though you would probably be the first person ever to prostitute themselves for a picture of the Dalai Lama.”
Ten minutes later I was in the back of a gypsy cab, the mounted poster of His Holiness dividing me from the driver. I looked again into the Dalai Lama’s twinkling eyes and felt he was smiling directly at me, across time and space.
But I didn’t feel like crying anymore. In fact, I was starting to think maybe I didn’t need Cat to come back. Perhaps my trip to Ikea and my Craigslisting had never been about making a home for the two of us, but rather about making a home for me.
When I got to the apartment, I wrangled the picture through the door with the Dalai Lama’s face pressed to my chest, and there was Cat, sitting at the kitchen table. She was wearing a green-and-black-checked shirt that I’d never seen before. Maybe she’d bought it, or maybe she’d borrowed it. It was surprisingly painful to see her in this unfamiliar shirt: for so long I’d known intimately every piece of clothing she’d owned. Already her life had taken a small turn away from me. I began to doubt the feelings of independence I’d had in the cab.
“Hi,” I said.
“The bedroom looks nice,” she said grudgingly.
“Thanks. I tried.”
“What’s that?” She nodded to the giant poster in my arms.
“I got you a present?” I’m not sure why I said it like a question. I turned the picture around so that she could see His Holiness in full effect.
Cat stared for a long moment. She didn’t cry like I had, but the tension seemed to drain from her body. Her mouth fell open. She unfolded her arms and raised her hands to her face. “Oh, my God,” she said. “You got that for me?”
“Holy shit, Andie. That’s incredible.”
She came over and embraced me, nestling her face into my neck. She’s about two inches shorter than I am. I had never dated anyone shorter than me before, and so no one else had used this nestling spot. And now that it was once again occupied by her face, I thought she might be prepared to forgive me for my sulking and inaction, that a window had opened. Despite my cab-ride revelation, I still wanted her warm body, her prodding encouragements, her gruff snort of a laugh. I wanted to watch her screw up her freckled face in amusement when I did something clumsy. I wanted her. And why shouldn’t I have what I wanted? Surely the Dalai Lama could make it happen. Isn’t it possible to want two things that seem mutually exclusive? Couldn’t I have her and still have myself?
I kissed her on the face and ears. I smelled her scalp. “I missed you,” I whispered.
“I missed you too,” she said. “It was really hard to stay away.”
Then she started sniffing me. “What do you smell like?” she asked suspiciously. “Is that Old Spice?”
I took a step back. I wanted to look at her, because it struck me that this would probably be the last time I saw her in this apartment.
“Have you been with a man?” Cat asked.
“I did it for you?” I said. Though this was true on a technical level, I realized how unconvincing it sounded.
Jeremy Spoon was very taken with the Dalai Lama picture.
“I love him,” he said, clutching his chest. “He’s so special.”
Jeremy was a slight, energetic gay man with a shock of white-blond hair — a hummingbird of a person. He bounced around my apartment, proclaiming everything special: “This quilt is so special!” and, “This view of the expressway is so special!” It felt like a blessing. The way priests scatter holy water, Jeremy Spoon scattered specialness.
We did the interview with me seated in front of the Dalai Lama picture. Then Jeremy wished me luck, and he and the camera operator left.
A few days later he called back to regretfully inform me that I’d forever remain an alternate. The dinner was tomorrow, and the original four people were still in perfect health. “I’m sure this is disappointing,” he said.
“It’s all right,” I said. “I’m glad nobody died or got hit by lightning.”
“That’s the spirit!” he chirped.
A week after that, at a prearranged time, I got a call from a private number. “Is this Andrea Green?” asked a nasal female voice.
“Yes, it is.”
“Hold, please.” I heard the muffled click of a switched line, and then a deep, familiar male voice said, “Andrea, this is President Obama.”
“Holy shit,” I said. “It is you. Oh, my God. I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t have said holy shit.”
The president laughed. “That’s all right. So, Andrea, I’m sorry we couldn’t share dinner in Washington, but I want to thank you personally for your service. I understand you were a volunteer on my campaign. Without the commitment of people like you, we certainly couldn’t have won.”
When he said the word commitment, something twisted up inside of me, a knot of panicked remorse. Commitment, of course, was exactly where I’d failed. Just the night before, Cat and I had shared a final breakup dinner at Applebee’s. We’d both ordered “fiesta” dishes — Fiesta Chicken Salad for me, Fiesta Lime Shrimp for her — and then quietly cried into our fiesta plates as we discussed the terms of the lease. I came home to an empty apartment, a short film I was too depressed to touch, and a floor plant that was already dying because I’d forgotten to water it. The Dalai Lama’s gaze still twinkled down at me, but his encouraging smile now seemed oppressive. I wanted to turn him around to face the wall.
“Andrea?” said the president. “Are you there?”
“Yes, sorry. I just —” I took in a sharp breath, then said, “Can I ask you something?”
“It’s just, I thought you might understand. . . . Sorry. I didn’t mean it that way. I still support you and everything. But I’m going through this awful breakup, and . . .”
I told him how I’d driven away the person I loved. I told him how my dream was to make films, but I couldn’t stop seeing myself as someone who would screw up everything I touched, and I feared I’d end up a forty-five-year-old Starbucks barista with gray streaks in my hair and two divorces and a hundred thousand dollars in student debt and a studio apartment that smelled like cat pee, talking people’s ears off about the good old days when I’d canvassed for Obama and everything had seemed possible.
“What I mean is,” I concluded, “didn’t you think everything would . . . change more than it did?”
He was quiet for a long time. I could hear him breathing on the other end of the line. He cleared his throat. “Um, well, Andrea . . .”
He paused again. The pause grew longer and longer. The pause grew until it filled the entire room.