We Always Start with the Seduction
The Speaker claims the Wilson Bridge is his “secret place,” though as a section of I-95 crossing the Potomac (or: the nation’s most crowded highway spanning the river every op-ed reader recognizes as shorthand for out-of-touch politics), the Wilson Bridge is scarcely secret. The secret might be this pedestrian walkway alongside the southbound side of the bridge that is virtually unknown outside Old Town Alexandria (where the Speaker lives). Bridge and walkway link Virginia to Maryland, also not a secret.
The Speaker crosses the bridge several times a week on foot, acknowledging the handful of fellow walkers and joggers with a non-committal nod or a quick, loose flip of one hand, gestures that tend to be unreturned. He’s just another middle-aged white guy getting in his 10,000 steps. Yet he’s also the third most powerful man in the United States, which translates to “in the free world.” Out walking. He has convinced the no-nonsense security suit-drones to jog back and forth along the walkway, looping him into safe circles, instead of directly tailing him. The men (and women!) are grateful for the exercise. And who will tell their boss?
The Speaker enjoys that he is out among the people, unrecognized, yet also he is made anxious by this fact (unrecognized!), though he’s careful in his thoughts to believe himself only to enjoy it. “Do you know who I am?” pulses through his mind, the syllables creating the rhythm his feet fall into as he walks.
The word “secret” is alluring, particularly in Official DC, and catches a woman’s ear, but beyond that, he’s truly convinced that these anonymous walks carry him into an unfathomable, private space, peeling through exoskeleton, de-layering to a forgotten scrap of soul, where he imagines himself capable of surprise and what he would call “intimacy.” It may seem impossible that the Speaker is capable of surprise or intimacy or what the hell, owning a soul. He is capable. We all are. We all are.
So, at the office, eager to impress a particular twenty-three-year-old girl, he creates a reason to mention his secret place. This is the brunette he overhears talking with other girls eating sad little lunches of carrots and Triscuits. New-to-Washington, trying-to-be-tough talk amuses the Speaker, so he pauses in the hallway to listen, pretending to text on his phone. One girl says, “Everyone knows fucking a senator is better than a congressman because there’s only a hundred senators.” Nervous giggles tinkle like wind chimes. The brunette scoops up her long hair, flicking the handful like a horse tail, sends a look around the circle, silently inviting them to lean in closer. He has the sense she knows he’s listening. And why not? They are instructed that their job is simple, to be aware of him each second of every working hour, what he might need or request or want. A pen. A coffee. A folder. Without lowering her voice any, she says, “Well, if that’s what we’re talking about, let’s all remember there’s only one Speaker of the House.” She drops her hair so it drapes her shoulder. Another girl wearing a tiny pair of clear plastic glasses says, “Tough odds. Might as well play Powerball.” “I do that too,” the brunette says. “Win much?” someone asks, and the brunette laughs: “All the time.”
He likes her cocky little laugh. He likes her ambition. He likes the way her hair drapes along her shoulder. He doesn’t—EVER (thanks to our tricky modern times)—EVER fuck these young girls or accept blowjobs or request sexts: the phone trail, sure, the upwardly ticking price of the barest tinge of scandal—but perhaps, also, he is embarrassed, now, to imagine experiencing pleasure from demeaning others, embarrassed that he must acknowledge that it’s his title not him, that all pleasure for them is the title, which, well, demeans him. A younger man can blow through this equation. Not the older.
But a dose of old-fashioned flirting seems to harm no one, tiptoeing up to and along a defined line everyone agrees won’t be crossed. These girls, trained in hook-ups and dance floor grinding, don’t find enough joy in meaningful glances across the sea of navy blue at a tedious reception or the pleasure of clinging longer than necessary to a handshake at a conference table or fingers lightly grazing a jacketed shoulder (never bare skin!) to emphasize a point. He’s married, perpetually married, always with one wife or another. So the Speaker flirts, and everyone knows this. Flirting is an art, a game to play where, for once, the objective isn’t winning. Possibly it’s the only game like this that the Speaker knows.
The brunette lives in nearby Arlington and why yes, she says, she’s a runner, loves running, would love to meet up for a run. Campaign brochure photos show the Speaker mid-stride, but at the last minute the Speaker invents an injury for himself, navigating the promised group run into a walk instead. She’s actually not a runner, not at all, so walking instead is a relief, and she over-enthuses her love of walking, how super-fun it will be to walk across the Wilson Bridge. She’s thinking about Instagram, how she’s already done all the major monuments and the highlights of the Capitol tour the interns lead. (She is not an intern! She has a business card! And a desk!) Maybe a selfie with him, she calculates, something casual that’s not the usual grope-line photo fuckery that other people display on their office brag walls.
It continues to amaze the Speaker that elements so often fall into place as if pre-ordained.
She’s waiting in the park at the foot of the Wilson Bridge, amid the web of asphalt paths crowded with joggers, people pushing strollers or walking dogs, maniacal cyclists. She perches on a bench near the bathrooms, and it annoys him that he can’t determine which car in the lot is hers. Not that it matters. But the Speaker believes in gathering information. Information isn’t power: information is information, and power is power. But pop your information in the bank, and it becomes currency, and currency “buys that cup a coffee,” as the Speaker likes to drawl.
She wears a short, black athletic skirt—the Speaker doesn’t know the word “skort”—and a not-overly-form-fitting red tank. A perky ponytail swings through her UNC cap, and she clutches a Tar Heel blue water bottle. She, like everyone in the office, knows the Speaker graduated from the University of North Carolina. She looks ready for a walk with an uncle. He looks like an uncle. He makes a big show of starting his running watch, grumbling about how cautious his doctor is about the imaginary injury. The security drones are distant, dressed down, looking like any very fit weekend runner equipped with an earpiece.
He has done this the proper way: A group invitation to all the DC newcomers, offering to show them this “secret place” on Saturday morning, yet it turns out that only she is able to join him. How is that? #blessed, the Speaker thinks.
According to the Speaker’s watch, the walk to the bridge entrance takes 6:31, and that time fills with lazy clichés about weather because today is a classic DC August morning: hot, humid, hazy. She asks questions—“It’s usually this humid?”—and he makes pronouncements—“Last summer was worse, so imagine that.”
Then they’re on the walkway, St. Mary’s cemetery below to the left (who are the Fannons, she wonders, eyeing a towering mausoleum carved with that single name, and he could have answered her, “donors,” but she’s too nervous to ask). Highway traffic flies by on the right. Speed limit’s 55, but Washingtonians are in a rush, so the average runs 70 or more. A high glass wall separates walkers from the road for 50 yards or so, not to protect the people, as she’s thinking, but for noise abatement, a concession to the nearby Alexandria houses during the endless negotiations between city, state, county, and federal governments back when the bridge was rebuilt and reconfigured in the last decade. One of those monstrous government projects that give government a bad name until completion when the talk pivots to how amazing the new bridge is.
The glass abruptly ends, leaving only a low cement jersey wall between them and the speeding cars. Sound whips up, a dull, racing roar. Like hurtling forward into space, the Speaker always thinks, like moving into the thing where you’re not wanted.
“No one walking’s been hit by a car?” the girl asks.
“Not yet,” the Speaker says.
She better think about something that’s not getting mowed down by rampant SUVs. Like, she’s walking side by side with the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives! The runners looping large circles around them are security. She’s never seen him standing alone, being alone. Even in her imagination, when last night she mentally role-played the morning ahead because she couldn’t sleep, even then he was surrounded by people. There’s a thrill to proximity, though why, she wonders, when it’s a walk, he’s a man, it’s a bridge.
The cemetery has fallen aside on the left, shifting into the park and a playground below, the jungle of a community garden in the distance (wholesome projects, the Speaker instinctively notes, good government at work) and now—as the bridge rises higher—the river itself is below, the Potomac, a wide ribbon of muddied water, pocked with algae bloom so thick a white egret balances on top.
They’ve run out of weather clichés and silence masses between them. The Speaker knows people are nervous around him. “Relax,” he’ll often urge with faux gusto; but he prefers anxiety. Anxiety gets things done, is a motto of his. He once told a shrink that anxiety makes him his best self. She suggested that anxiety doesn’t foster successful personal relationships. “The only true friend in politics is your dog,” he said. “Surprising how many times I’ve heard that,” she said, not that the Speaker was surprised, and not that she was either.
There’s a place they stop roughly halfway across, a short distance before the drawbridge that rises several times a year allowing historic tall ships to dock at Alexandria and attract tourists and their money. Security men hover, poised, push at their earpieces. The girl and the Speaker gaze at the cityscape before them, the low townhouses of Alexandria; the zigzag of runways at Reagan National; the District, where the Washington monument is the size of the Speaker’s thumb. He can’t love the city, not the way the girl presumably does, not as newcomers and visitors can, but he admires it as a worthy foe. Admires that it’s inanimate cares nothing for him. “This is the greatest achievement,” he once wrote on a piece of paper that he immediately ripped up.
He needs to say something important right now, something memorable: quotable words. He always needs that, wants always that. It’s reflex, not even a desire he knows how to express. He starts: “I come here to look at this vast sprawl, this distance. This everythingness.” That’s why? The question fills his mind and he pushes back with his answer, this everythingness, until he is satisfied. The words are nonsensical.
She seems attentive, her liquid brown eyes studying his face. And she hasn’t pulled out her phone yet; promising. A plane passes overhead. They watch that, then he points to a nearby spider web situated midair, spanning the iron railing and the edge of the historical plaque. A dark spider the size of a quarter poses in the center, as if placed by staff members preparing for this exact moment. Behind the web is a large light to illuminate the bridge at night. One wouldn’t have to get nature other than observing moths circling a porch light to understand this superb example of location, location, location. Admirable, how nature is so comfortable with its ruthlessness.
The Speaker inhales, gathers his wits and his words and plunges forward: “Yet here’s this spider, reminding us that in the midst of the great vastness is home. That’s what we see, where we focus. These few, familiar strands.”
“So beautiful,” the girl breathes.
He understands: he’s created a story for her friends, possibly a story she will tell often, the “famous person” story. Eventually, maybe soon, she will mock him and the pompous banality of his words, centering herself into the story. Yes, the Speaker knows how pretentious he sounds, sermonizing on spiders. But he also knows this: he has delivered. Maybe she doesn’t get to fuck the Speaker (not this one anyway) but what has happened here is greater. The unspoken promise has been fulfilled, he has done what he has been put on God’s earth to do: create a story. Create a legend. Offer proximity. That is his secret place, that rare moment of knowing the certainty of his existence.
The girl props her elbows on the railing and leans, gazing straight down at the river below. “A boat!” she cries. It’s filled with tourists taking a scenic trip from Alexandria to Mount Vernon, George Washington’s house. Everyone loves George Washington. She says, “Wave and see if they wave back.” What he thinks right then startles him: one shove puts her over the edge, how easy. The bigger surprise: how easy for him to follow. To disappear. There’s the briefest moment where he wonders how the headline would read, then she says, “They’re waving back! They see us,” and she gestures wildly. “Some guy’s taking our picture.”
Perhaps unnecessaryily, but also powerfully instinctual, the Speaker steps back, turns his head, invents an itch on his forehead, shielding his face with one hand.
She’s observant and instantly halts the childish waving, moves away from the railing. “I’m sorry,” she says. “For not thinking.” A swelling burn of tears tells her she’s stupid, and being stupid makes her angry. She’s always stupid, so stupid. He doesn’t need the taint of being seen with her. She’s nothing and no one, she’s a nameless “girl.” Packs of them roam Capitol Hill. Luring her to this so-called “secret place,” which by the way was written up in the Washingtonian magazine with the Cheap Eats cover, this is the logical extension of his scandal-filled past, his power, of her essence: cute-not-pretty, smart-not-brilliant, sweet-not-savvy. Easily duped, bought off, or discarded. He sniffed her out, he knows. Everyone in DC knows and knows her. The security, trained not to think and judge, silently thinking and judging right now. Her plan has been to sleep with him yet tell no one, holding this powerful secret within herself for years and years and years. But now this. Crying. She could be in North Carolina, working for her dad in the family bank. But she didn’t want that, she wanted this. “DC is super exciting,” she writes in her texts. “I’m meeting so many important people. I’m making a difference in our country.”
He feels caught out by something, embarrassed by what’s been revealed—his vanity and his paranoia, his mind viewing her as a sexual conquest, this everythingness—so he talks aside the feelings: “We’re tiny figures on a bridge,” the Speaker says. “We’re nothing, no one.” Which is exactly why people jump off bridges like this, he thinks, then, no, no, no: the reason people jump off bridges like this is a lack of government funding for mental health services. “We’re each as vulnerable as this spider,” and he chops his hand down the perimeter of the web, watching the spider scuttle upwards onto the iron railing and slip deep into a crevice. “We could have killed it dead,” he says. “That’s the universe we live in. The difference is that the spider is blissfully unaware, and we are willfully unaware.”
The girl might email the Washington Post or Politico, tell them something like, “The guy’s losing his mind.” No one would believe her, of course; she’s just a girl. His chief of staff warns that an avalanche is only one flake too many. Over and over he says this, until around the office they call him Flake, sometimes forgetting he’s in the room; “Not cool,” the chief of staff says when he catches this nickname, “Hoping to the motherfucking gods of hell you won’t see I’m right, but trust me you will. I’m so right on this.” An avalanche is one flake too many.
God is dead, the Speaker thinks, then whispers: “God is dead.” It’s the bone-deep chant of his 4 a.m. now, the rhythm reverberating through his skull as he lurches out of bed on sleepless nights to lift weights, hauling them up, easing them down, up, down, regaining his calm.
The girl knows she should have been listening, she admires the Speaker SO MUCH, and wants to learn tons from his wisdom and vast experience, wants him to be impressed by her, and so she can’t cry, can’t cry, can’t cry, can’t cry, and there’s the first stupid tear, another, another. Better to wipe them away fast? Or to look down, hoping he doesn’t notice, which is what she does, mesmerizing herself with the glittering cement, blinking out the tears until they drop to the pavement. She scuffs her shoe over their tiny splotches.
But he is a man who notices, not that he cites this essential skill when asked, “What qualities are important for success?” His answer: “Luck,” and he waits for the startled faces, the wonder at such a simple (and truthful) response. Tears do not move him. He won’t cry. Lost elections? Abandoned dreams? Simply the flotsam and jetsam of any long political life. Deaths? The collateral damage of living. There is nothing to cry about over here, and he says this now to the girl: “There’s nothing to cry about over here,” murmuring the words as he lets her sob herself silly onto his shoulder, as he holds her close on the bridge where no one knows who he is.
He’s lying, of course. Of course he is. He fucks them. Every time.