by Susannah Louise
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
– Ladies’ man and witty rogue Gouverneur Morris, Preamble to the U.S. Constitution, 1787.
Or, as written today:
- IN GENERAL. – There is authorized to be appropriated to us, the government having agency over the population of these United States, funds of a Department of the Treasure not less than amounts specified in succeeding clauses as made available by authority of the preceding clause.
- Amending the SOCIAL SECURITY ACT (Sec. 3(d)(i), strike clause (ii) to establish fetal tax credit (FTC), to be administered to citizen at first day of seven weeks prenatal gestation as best approximated by certified medical professional.
I gave myself an abortion live on George Stephanopoulos’ ABC morning show in Washington, DC; on the second Sunday in January of the 120th U.S. Congress.
If my abortion polled well for me – or so I thought – I might kill the political aspirations of Roy Foote, the man who knocked me up without my consent. Before George and I went on air, I considered mentioning Roy by name to make his congressional race more stressful, to displease his caucus and his party’s National Conference. Of course if I didn’t poll well in the sense that my television appearance would not hurt his chances at election at all, I hardly cared. This was not for him, after all.
I walked out under the lights to George, he blinked at me in welcome, and we sat down to get started. George is a rare warm leftover of the Bill Clinton era. Those days are hard to recall now. Sitting beside him, I forgot that I was being streamed by millions of people, that my erstwhile Washington friends would be surprised to see me. I had not warned them I was even coming back to town. I flew from Dallas into the Reagan Airport late Saturday afternoon – a warm, almost hot afternoon; the filtered off-cast of light is our only sign of winter now – and cabbed to a DuPont hotel, one I’d selected because of its marble bathtub. I brought oils and incense to purify myself for the public immolation I had planned. Ceremony will soften any act, make it communal, make it not so personal. So I ritualized this second abortion of mine, I oiled and perfumed myself like I belonged to my country as I prepared to sacrifice my privacy for my people.
George didn’t know what was coming,
One year and three months earlier.
The President’s hair had faded to rust by his second term, when my young daughter Viv and I left our clapboard Dallas cottage for a mass-produced steel-and-glass loft in Washington. An Arizona billionaire developer had made our building on the cheap in an old DC neighborhood that used to be black and full of jazz.
I came to the capitol with my friend Sophia Lampsted. She was Texas’ first Democrat-ish Senator since Bob Krueger was appointed to finish out Senator Lloyd Bensten’s term in 1993. Sophia Lampsted, attorney general of Texas, defeated the limp-tailed, long-nosed Republican Senator Cruz who displeased the president after gathering what the president considered too much power unto himself in the Senate. Just before the midterm Senate elections in which my friend Sophia ran, POTUS wielded his favorite presidential weapon—the mass text message—to denounce Cruz to Texas. Every few days he would send announcements to our phone saying things like: “Cruz has to write senate bills so his wife can pay theirs. Sad!”
These text messages, though unsolicited, were very good for Sophia. She won the Texas race as a liberal Independent.
Speaking of race, Sophia is half black, half Filipino, although most people other than the President were coy about her race; strategists on cable news called her “exotic” and model-like. The President calls her f***able [sic]. It wasn’t until POTUS said this on his Fox News Trump Today—this happened before he denounced Cruz—that her Texas polling numbers put her within reach of the seat.
My mother wasn’t happy about the President’s existence or his lust for Sophia, nor about me accepting Sophia’s offer to head her health policy team in the Capitol.
“Are you really going to Washington, that seat of power and dark money?” she said when I called her to break the news.
“Sophia’s orders,” I said. “You know how she is.”
I sensed Mother’s despair. She despises Sophia, who happens to be my oldest friend.
“What’s she going to pay you?” Mother muttered.
She would say she does not despise Sophia the Child of God. Mother does not hate any Child of God except for my uncle, her own brother, who molested me thirty years ago; and our former priest, who molested one of our neighbor’s boys around the same time. Mother took both of those men down, and doesn’t regret it. What Mother hates is Sophia’s effect on me. I would argue, however, that you are your effect on people. My uncle became his effect on me. Therefore, Mother hates Sophia.
I’ve mostly felt sorry for Sophia even when she makes me mad. She, though beautiful and street-smart and wealthy, can’t ever remember who she is. When she feels lost she calls me to be made right again. In making me the staff-job offer I couldn’t refuse, she said—as if to justify the threat she wrapped into the proposal—that she was certainly not going to venture into Senatehood without me. I could not tell Mother that Sophia had blackmailed me into the job because Mother would ring the ACLU.
“I’m a grownup, Ma,” I told her instead. “You can’t talk to me like that now that I’m the same age as a Senator. Now that I advise a Senator.”
“Stay through Thanksgiving at least,” Mother said. “I’m going to miss Viv. You might need money. Will you need money? I can’t imagine Sophia will pay you enough to live in DC. What about schools? Viv loves her school.”
“I’m fine, Ma. Sophia’s fine. Viv is fine. Don’t give me anything. I am a tough negotiator. That’s why she wants me with her on The Hill.”
Viv pattered out onto our creaky wooden porch where I was talking on my ancient landline, whose cord trailed through the window. I was drinking hot lemonade with basil even though it was an unseasonably warm night for Dallas. Viv had Mexican hot chocolate in her thermos. From the vinyl player inside, Eric Clapton’s guitar-solo part of “Leila” drifted woozily.
“Tell Mops I don’t want to go,” Viv said.
Then she shouted, so my Mother would hear it, on purpose:
“Washington DC school is poop.”
“Language!” Mother wailed through the phone.
“Don’t say poop in front of Mops, Viv,” I said. “Want to get me in trouble?”
“Yes,” Viv said. Sadness had settled into her eyes ever since I’d told her Aunt Sophia wanted to take us with her to Washington.
I don’t want to be coy or subtle over details you would know if you were watching us on TV so I will say now that my daughter Viv is black and I am white. I adopted her four years ago when she was two and a half years old and I was 33 and single. I am still single. I quit drinking two years before I adopted her.
Before I quit drinking, I had a good job, one that I liked. I distributed federal money to Texas women’s health clinics. National reporters interviewed me as an expert on abortion and birth control. National lobbyists tried to cultivate my support. I counseled women leaders from tiny African countries whose work rich white internationalists took credit for, but who are mostly stuck doing the hard and dirty stuff themselves. Planned Parenthood of Texas called me their lifeline. It’s true that without me the Texan law-making men would have driven them out of business sooner than they did. Roe v. Wade had not yet been overturned but the Ginsberg-less Supreme Court was hot for a lawsuit to try. And abortion had been all but outlawed in Texas: not by statute—we still pretended to respect federal law—but through budget cuts.
Budget savings are what legislators call their sneaky dissolution of laws they don’t like.
Not only abortion: my state had banned birth control pills from women who couldn’t pay the contraception tax. Texas lawmakers also outlawed prenatal exams that probed anything but fetus viability, or beating heart. They barred gynecological exams for women under the age of 18 except under the very eyes of a guardian; and abortion unless childbirth would kill the mother—a dispensation that was very difficult for them to make, they choked up about the inhumanity of it all during TV interviews. Their laws blunted all attempts at evasion by women and girls too poor to bribe a physician compassionate or arrogant enough to break the law for them.
So now in our state we’ve got plenty of back-alley abortions, and many of these are fatal since doctors are getting cheaper and meaner and scarcer. We’ve also got death-by-childbirth spiking among our country’s serfs. And then, most burdensome on my heart, we’ve got a breaking foster system—which I can’t even think about it without crying because I found Viv in that system after it had just about strangled her.
Then I lost my job because the lawmakers in Washington halted the federal grants I was responsible for, that I handed out to the women’s clinics. The grants were from an old Nixon-era law, and they used to go directly to doctors of poor women. By poor, I mean women making less than $15,000 a year. You try living on that in this country. The grants got slashed because they failed the Republican Rorsasch test: anything having to do with women’s health reminded them of abortion. And so they repealed it.
I tried to raise private funds to keep on with my work. Mother and her friends tried to help me. We wrote to all the rich and feisty Dallas and San Antonio and Houston ladies who liked to send checks to female causes behind their husbands’ backs.
The feds caught wind of what we were up to and sent the IRS to audit me—which would have been fine, the books were up-to-date, but they found out about my drinking problem too. They learned from acute observation that sometimes I couldn’t remember what I did when I drank. And then someone from somewhere in the upper reaches of the state capitol sent a cameraman to follow me through one of my blotto weekends, and for seven days his captured footage of me. That blotto time was one of my doozies. They caught me pissing in public and having sex in an alley behind a bar, I really wish I’d noticed the camera — cycled through all the cable news shows of Texas. I made national shows too. The Senate Majority Leader denounced me on Fox News Trump Today and then on CNN. Most Democrats denounced me too, although I received two letters of support from one female Senator who will come in later.
I had to go home to Mother, get sober, and figure out my life again. I was 31 and looked 51. And I knew I’d never deserve a child like Viv if I didn’t get straight. How I wanted a child who wasn’t biologically mine.
Sophia, though purportedly my oldest friend, vanished during my darkest time. Didn’t call, didn’t try to help. I couldn’t blame her: I was—I am—a heavier liability than a brown female Texas politician should ever be asked to bear. Not only was I a drunk, I was enemy number 1 to Texas Republicans in both House and Senate. She, meantime, had sweet-talked her way to the brink of what would become the party endorsement for election to Texas Attorney General. After I was sober and had adopted Viv, she became my friend again, she insisted on weekly happy hours. This is why Mother hates Sophia. Mother would take Viv—muttering harsh pronouncements against users and leaches —and I’d sit for hours with Sophia. I nursed non-alcoholic beers while she sucked down salt-rimmed margaritas and told me I would right now be as successful as she if I hadn’t dropped out of law school.
“What’s success?” I said.
“You should go back and finish,” Sophia said, “now that you’re sober. You could do it in two years and then get into politics where you can do some good.”
“What about my past?” I said.
“They love a sordid past they can forgive. Look what it did for George W.”
“If I had known success would make alcoholism acceptable,” I said bitterly as she finished her fourth drink, “I would have postponed becoming an alcoholic til the time was right.”
I like non-alcoholic beer, though.
I liked my new little nonprofit, too, even if I could barely eke out a living. It sharpened my legal skills better than law school had because it pushed me to the very edges of the law. I pushed myself to the edges of the law. Out of a small office in the suburbs I ran a privately funded, telephone-operated abortion clinic for girls and women who hadn’t hit six weeks gestation yet. I had to watch legislators and their staff—federal, state, and local—as they daily churned out their new statutes for the ladies. For whenever men make a rule, women have to figure a way through, around, or over it and keep the ACLU on speed-dial.
In my office, my two colleagues and I measured mifepristoneandmisoprostol powders, legally acquired, into small black bags labeled with the pharmaceutical names but no instructions in case the mailing envelopes were intercepted. With each packet we included an out-of-state 1-800 phone number that rang to our office landline. We mailed these envelopes to girls all across Texas and then, as other state laws began to tighten, to girls in Florida, Arizona, Alabama, Georgia, Nebraska, and Kansas. Our clients called us once they received their packets and we on the other end of the line would soothingly talk them through their abortions.
In theory, our website explained what we did and concealed nothing: Our services rendered were called, simply, “abdomen aspirations.”
Typically I don’t to hide my intents and purposes, but this was a legal matter of life and death.
Sophia started to piss me off long before she blackmailed me into joining her DC staff. First she rebranded herself as a political Independent and made the rounds of Texas’ Republican circles. As it turned out, she could say the same words to Republicans and Democrats, plus and minus a few buzzwords, and raise equal amounts of money from both. “You can be a moderate Republican without changing anything but your spots,” she told me at happy hour the week before she announced her bid for the U.S. Senate. “The key is commitment to Economic Growth.”
Not a full 24 hours after her election victory, she stopped by my cinder-block 1970s office in the dingy fringe-suburb of Dallas called Irving. To get into the front office where I keep a desk with neat stacks of legal papers and a second-hand computer and photos of Viv and not much else, you had to ring a bell and state your name, while I looked you over through the surveillance camera.
“Has the FDA ever done a sweep around here?” Sophia asked, almost first thing. I had congratulated her over the phone on her victory night, but had not seen her in a little while.
“Why should they?” I said.
“Aren’t you even afraid that they will?” she pressed me, and darkness gathered in her eyes. Her pupils blurred.
“When are you leaving?” I said uneasily. “Don’t you have freshman orientation or something?”
“I’ll leave when you’ll come with me,” she said.
I laughed. A hollow laugh.
“It’s only a matter of time before you are shut down,” Sophia said, acting earnest. She poised herself elegantly on the edge of the chair by my desk. I picked up an apple from the small fruit bowl and uneasily began to eat it.
“I want an apple,” she said.
“I’ve only got one.”
“Well, what about it?” With one manicured and moistened hand she laid papers on my desk. “I’ve got staff positions to fill and I want you to head my health policy team.”
“What do I know of health policy?”
“I hope you know something, considering what you’re up to here.”
“I know my pills,” I said, trying to make a joke.
The joke wasn’t funny, considering my rehab past. I hurt my own feelings with it, but Sophia had made me nervous, that’s why I said it.
“I’m serious,” Sophia said. “I’ve shirked my responsibilities as Attorney General allowing you to stay open. I’ve done it because I know what it means to you; and you’ve been through enough already.”
“Means to me?” I said, mad. “What does it matter what it means to me?”
“Well, with your past and everything,” she said.
“We’re the last hope a lot of girls from West Virginia to Arizona have got,” I said. “You’re threatening a lot of other things. Do you know how many packets we sent off today? I bet you can’t even guess.”
She set her cell phone on the desk too. She had recorded what I’d just said. She stopped the recording and I had jumped off my desk by now and I thought I would throw my apple core at her and throw her fucking phone out the window.
“This is to save you,” Sophia said. “You admit you sell across state lines. I know these guys you’re up against. They’re in every corner of Texas law. I know how much they hate you. They’ll put you in jail.”
“They can’t put me in jail.” I said.
“They can and you know it,” she said. “Think of what they’ll appoint in my place when I’m gone. They won’t care about Viv. They won’t care about anything. They’ll get you in court and behind bars. And the ACLU is busy these days.”
So, when I picked Viv up from school I told her we were going to go to Washington, DC and maybe this would be good because she would learn how to be President.
My mild little baby threw a fit when I said that.
“I’m not going to the dark side!” she said.
I’d forgotten that in her life she’s known only one President. How I explained democratic politics to her was through the original Star Wars so she could believe that one day the rebels would beat him.
One year after Sophia’s election.
It was around the time that Sophia said the vote would be called soon on my first bill, my foster-care bill – which Sophia had introduced as her first real piece of legislation – that I got a strange feeling about Roy Foote.
Roy Foote worked for Senator Las Harrington, the senior Texas senator and the Republicans’ razor-sharp whip. Roy was charming. Roy walked out one Tuesday night at seven o’clock from Sophia’s office just as I was returning from a meeting. He looked at my feet and then at my face and said, “I thought you’d be there too.”
Roy Foote is Texan like all of us, except he went northeast for law school, SMU wasn’t good enough for him. Former Marine turned Capitol Hill law-broker. Credited with negotiating the total Free and Private Insurance take-over of health care when he was just a young, shadowy operative for the House Energy & Commerce Committee. Roy moved up to the Senate where we all figured he would stay until he saw fit to return to Texas and run for a seat himself. Perhaps Harrington’s. Perhaps Sophia’s. Perhaps just a lowly representative’s.
The next morning in the crowded café in the basement of the Russell Senate Office Building, my friend Leah looked at me with her half-twinkling, half-mourning eyes and said she feared Sophia was working behind our backs to undermine the bill. My bill. Her bill.
Leah Leahy is my friend’s full name, and she advised Phyllis Dreher, deputy Democratic whip for the Senate and the meanest, sharpest, oldest woman lawmaker on Capitol Hill. Dreher’s hands and face were wrinkled like tissue paper, her voice was raspy from decades of cigarettes, she looked 90 at least; and yet her eyes flashed fire and she made even the President afraid, or so it was reported. Dreher was one of the two female senators who wrote to me personally after my booze-driven scandal in Texas that cost my job. In her letter she told me baldly that I possessed truer morality than any of the hypocrites who had taken me down. I adored Dreher.
And I started adoring Leah because she helped me write my foster-child bill and got Dreher to co-sponsor it and steer it through committee. Leah had also recruited two Republican Congressmen to introduce it to the House where it passed in record time.
I was in love with Leah and pretended I wasn’t.
“What do you mean?” I said now to Leah. “Do we have to go through mark-up again?”
“You shouldn’t ever start out with anything that means too much to you,” Leah said sadly. “Anyway, they’ve pounced on Lampsted. Promising her things. They think they can bring her into their fold.”
“How do you know?” I said.
By Harrington’s people, she meant Roy Foote. She looked around her, and I did too. The aides and the reporters they were gossiping with were loud, but someone was listening to us somewhere. Someone always is in those basement Senate building cafes.
“She hasn’t told me anything,” I whispered, quivering. And then I recalled, with bitterness, how shitty people are in general and how shitty Sophia could be in particular.
“All I’m saying is, keep an eye on her,” Leah said. “She’s already in the top five Senate fuckwits. Why don’t you ditch her next midterms?”
“It’d be nice to go back to Texas,” I said, wistfully. “I’ve got my daughter growing up here like I never wanted her to.”
“Among the DC mercenaries and their highly legitimate spawn?”
“In SoDoSoPa, no less.”
“There’s got to be a statute of limitations on whatever Lampsted’s got on you,” Leah said, amused. “It’s not like you’re doing mail-order abortions anymore.”
She bit her lip and I did not want to leave her yet.
“You don’t know how mean Sophia can be,” I said, to get her to feel sorry for me.
“You’re a bit cautious for someone who so happily makes enemies all around this town,” Leah said.
She wrapped an endless silk skein around her throat as a scarf and grinned broadly at me. We hesitated, looking at one another, and I felt quite warm and content and accompanied when I left her, as I always did.
Abandoning Leah for the bleak basement passages wore me out. I took the corridor through Russell and Dirksen to the Hart building and then the elevator up to the bright-white atrium. In the Lampsted office, I found only the economic and energy staff still at their desks. And Sophia herself, surprisingly: She was on the phone with either a reporter or campaign donor, I could tell from her flirtatious tone. She summoned me with her pinky.
“C’mere, doll,” she said, covering the telephone receiver. Her new appellation for me. “I haven’t seen you in ages.”
“It’s been three hours at least,” I said. And, full of the confidence only Leah and Viv could give me these days, I sashayed my way to the leather seat directly before her and picked up the blue-glass paperweight shaped like Texas.
I missed my fucked-up Texas. I missed our Dallas cottage. I missed good barbecue. I missed the road-trips with Viv to Corpus Christi, where we’d play in the muddy tide and pretend we were swimming to Mexico to join the Aztecs in the jungle.
Sophia resumed her call. “I would say,” she said into the receiver, “we are working with the President on the jobs problem. No, no, you didn’t hear that from me. Maybe we’re fucked now or maybe we’re fucked in fifty years. But jobs are my first priority. Other than you.”
“That went well,” I said as she replaced her receiver.
“It always does,” she said.
“How’s it going with my bill?” I said, shutting the door out of considerateness. For I’m the only aide who speaks straight to her and she doesn’t like other staff to hear it when I do.
“I’m going to get it passed,” she said, and eyed me warily. “Harrington is helping me.”
“We’re going to pass a beautiful piece of bipartisan overhaul with the Children’s Health Insurance Program appropriation. It will be palatable for everyone. It will be Congress working together again.”
“Palatable to everyone usually means something disgusting,” I said. “Like Olive Garden.” And that’s all I said. I didn’t want to start guessing what the Senators were doing to Children’s Health Insurance.
“GOP wants to make a clean break with government health care,” Sophia said. “It’s up to us to stop them.”
“I don’t want to lose Foster Child Safety along with Children’s Health Insurance,” I said, slowly.
“You won’t lose,” Sophia said. “Trust me. This is a big lame-fucking-duck health legislative package for the ages. It’s about kids and it’s about health. Your two favorite things. Next to abortion, of course.”
I must have looked glum because she said, “We’ll be celebrating soon. We’re going to get your baby law through Congress and out to Texas where it can do some good.”
I did not smile—Sophia could nevermore disarm me—but I felt the gentle flare of muted excitement that can still at times brighten you no matter how disappointed you’ve been.
For dinner that night, I made grits with pork fat, smothered in crispy salted kale and leftover pulled pork.
Viv had finished her homework and was curled up in her little kitchen armchair to read Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales From Shakespeare: Cymbeline while I finished cooking.
“Viv,” I said. “I think we need look in the Rearview Mirror.” Which is what we call history in our house.
She glanced up at me, dazed from her flight into ancient Briton’s forests. She answered without protest: “OK.”
“Do you remember Lycurgus?”
“He was in ancient Sparta and he didn’t want to be evil so he made his nephew king and he just planned everything so all the people could live happy and good,” she said.
“Yes,” I said, and my heart was joyful and proud of my little one, who could look with clarity through the peepholes of history at age 7. “And do you remember the greatest thing he ever did?”
“He went to every country to see who had good laws and then he wrote the best laws in the world,” she said.
“Why were they the best?” I said, giving her a spoonful of grits to taste.
“Because,” she spoke through her chews, “he made sure everyone had the same things, and no one was too rich. And he was a really good man. Everyone tried to be as good as him.”
“Do you think we can make these good laws in our country?” I said.
She looked at me seriously, though she wanted to get back to her violent Shakespeare story. “No,” she said, simply.
“And why is that?”
Because Lycurgus’ Sparta was the first pure communist state in human record.
“Because Aunt Sophia won’t let you,” she said.
The next day I went to Sophia and said she needed to let me in on her talks with Senator Harrington and his people. She played coy, wouldn’t say yes or no, so I marched to Harrington’s office, not trusting the telephone and Sophia’s team of always-listening aides she had assembled against me, and ordered the be-suited, freckled front-desk boy to call Roy Foote for me.
“May I ask your name?” the front-desk boy said.
I gave him my name. “From Lampsted’s office,” I said. “You know me.”
“Yes indeed, Ma’am,” he said with inscrutable politeness, and he called Roy and to Roy’s credit he appeared within seconds through the doorway that’s surmounted with a great Lone Star State flag.
“Hey there,” Roy said. He’s got a deep, gruff voice. It feels thoughtful of you. That’s his best trick. “How’s your mother?”
“Why, you’ve been talking to her?” I said.
“I like your mother,” he said.
“You met her once.”
“I’m sorry it wasn’t more than that,” he said. “If you were more like her, we’d get along.”
“Doubt it,” I said. “Can we sit down or something?”
“Of course,” he said. “I’m going to have Derek here make you the best coffee you’ve ever had.”
Derek, the be-suited front desk boy, didn’t look pleased.
“Don’t bother,” I said.
“You’re right. Derek makes shit coffee. I’ll make it.”
And he ushered me into his office. It was glossy and bright. There was a tall, pale orchid for one thing and a turntable for another and I kid you not, here in the middle of the day on Capitol Hill Roy was playing—very softly—Texas’ own crooner Jim Reeves singing “Adios Amigo.” He also had an espresso machine and small refrigerator from which he drew a glass dairy bottle of morning-fresh local milk, the kind that DC Democrats buy for their whole-food babies.
“I’m not sure I’m in the right place,” I said agreeably. “You are Roy Foote, aren’t you?”
“Just try and find a better one,” he said. “Now I’m going to make you the best latte you’ve ever tasted and then I want to hear what you and your boss are up to.”
Just like that, I was relaxed and Jim Reeves was singing:
When two love the same love, one love has to lose.
“Speaking of one of us losing,” I said. “What’s going on with Children’s Health Insurance?”
“I’m for it.”
“As long as children are happy, you’re happy?”
“You know it,” he said, and poured the thick-foamed milk over the espresso and gave me the beautiful coffee.
“So let me see the bill draft you’re working on,” I said. “I’ve heard it’s bipartisan.”
“Lampsted is the definition of bipartisan,” Roy said. “But are you?”
“Try me,” I said.
“I’d like to,” he said.
Just like the best of the Texas boys, he’d slipped under my skin. His eyes made me uncomfortable and I was pleased.
“Help me out,” I said, finally. “I need to see your working draft.”
“I’ll have it once you add the finishing touches,” he said. “Of course you’ll collaborate with us.”
I finished the latte—it was so softly rich—and stood. “I don’t know what that means. Collaborate.”
“It means I’ll tell you what you need to know,” he said agreeably.
“Thanks for nothing,” I said. “The riders on this thing are going to be crazy.”
“Our definitions of crazy may differ,” he said. I didn’t like him once he turned sarcastic. He drew out a notebook of thick, cream-colored paper and a silver-plated pen. He scrawled out some names. Last of all, grinning a little, he wrote out a ten-digit phone number with a Houston area code. A guy hadn’t given me his number since my days as a good-time floozy.
“These are the people who have been invited to help us sweeten up Children’s Health Insurance,” he said. “Lampsted is one of them. It’s about time you asked for my number.”
As I left the office, foundering a bit, I had Jim Reeves stuck in my head.
Adios compadre, what must be must be
Remember to name one muchacho for me
Back in my office, I got out Roy’s list of names of Senators and more lowly members of the House and started to figure out what each of them wanted. For the rest of the day I pored over all the bills they’d introduced but hadn’t gotten past leadership yet. I didn’t find anything that alarmed me except a bill from Carrie Ives (Republican. From Iowa). I didn’t like that she had a place at our negotiating table. Congresswoman Ives doesn’t play nice. And, I knew this well, she had a little bill that worried me, a long-dormant bit of legislation that ten years ago everyone had called a piece of crazy. She called it the “Heart-Beat Humanity Act.”
This Act would grant, to every six-weeks-gestated fetus, citizenship to the United States of America and a social security card that promised more rights than the fetus could ever hope for once it was born. For fetuses get special treatment. They need no money or education, nor do they have brown, black or lightly toasted skin.
Roy kept his promise about letting me in on the Children’s Health Insurance talks. He rang me one night just before I left the office and said he and a few others were going to hash out some issues ahead of their bosses’ lunch meetings the next day. He said they were heading to Tortilla Coast. Did I want to come?
“I assume I’ll be well outnumbered,” I said.
“Didn’t think that would bother you,” he said. “But of course you may bring an ally.”
I called Leah’s office to say she better come with me.
“Oy,” she said. “We’re going out with Roy and his band of brothers? I know we need to stay on top of it, but do we have to get on top of them?”
“Our sister prostitutes have been doing it for millennia,” I said.
I rang a friend and begged a baby-sitting favor and she said yes, she would go pick up Viv, and Leah and I walked to the restaurant: shoulder to shoulder.
Crumbling at Roy’s table amid baskets of tortilla chips and vats of guacamole were: four male GOP aides—including one of Carrie Ives’. Roy and his friends were blond and thin and rumpled in an organized way. I silently dubbed them the Gang of Five. Everyone except me and Leah (who seemed to think I would fall off the wagon if she drank when I was around) was high on tequila. Roy was good at getting information out of each and every one of them once they were drunk. They complained about their bosses. They griped about their lobbyists. They spoke of the hopes and fears of the next election. They gave him everything he needed to know.
I said nothing and neither did Leah. We listened. Then I drove Leah home. When we left, Roy looked at us, surprised and displeased.
“Why do I feel that tonight wasn’t just what it seemed?” Leah said on the way to Logan Circle.
“In my drinking days Roy Foote could have got anything out of me too,” I said.
“I don’t like the sound of that,” Leah said.
Roy sweet-talked me every minute he could, and his constant attention surprised and then finally flattered me because I knew how little time he has for the basics of living, much less for trying to win an unwinnable woman. He mostly sleeps in the office, wrapped around his phone, as his Jim Reeves albums wind down slowly so he doesn’t feel the stone-cold emptiness of the nights.
The final draft text of the Children’s Heath Insurance appropriations bill wasn’t out yet, but we were hurtling into the deadline because already it was nearly Thanksgiving and the House wanted to take it up for vote by the following week so the Senate could dawdle and quarrel and still give the President time to sign it before Christmas. Roy sent a page to my office with reams of text, which was dumped on my desk. I reviewed it all line by line, with Leah, and we wrote notes for our bosses to take to their negotiations.
He also sent a note with the bill. I slipped it into my desk drawer and now and then throughout the day opened the drawer to read it. He had written:
This is why you should like me too:
I like it when you spill coffee on yourself and rub the stain deeper into your pants.
I like it when you check your makeup in the window reflections if you think no one’s looking.
I like it when you see your daughter’s picture on your desk while we’re working
And smile sneakily, like you know it’s you and she that run the world and the idiots in it.
I like it when you bite your lip when you look at me, like you’re telling me: “Look out. I love the taste of blood.”
Meantime, Mother broke her leg a few weeks before Thanksgiving and canceled her planned trip to visit us in Washington for the holiday. Wednesday I drove Viv to the Baltimore airport after school and put her on the plane for Dallas to eat turkey with her grandmother. Thanksgiving itself I spent with Leah at her friends’ house in leafy northwest DC. We weren’t getting along, she and I. I thought this was because she liked me as I liked her. As Roy said he liked me. And that she knew what Roy was up to.
Within those few weeks of working with Roy, she and I had grown awkward. We quarreled over what compromises we were willing to make on the bill. We quarreled over everything, even over what we’d order for lunch. We strained to get along. I still wanted her, though. Or so I thought.
And yet Roy had confused me and I had an uneasy feeling that maybe I wanted him. I couldn’t be sure. I could never be sure. When I quit drinking, I also quit sex. Chaste, they would have called me back in the day. I was thirteen when my uncle started touching me, fourteen when he stuck his thing inside me. See? I’m almost forty years old and I call it a “thing.” That’s how repressed I am. I’d never have had sex again if I hadn’t grown into a drinking problem that zapped my hardwires. As an alcoholic I managed a few bad relationships, but even then I needed to be drunk to make love. Though love never had much to do with it.
But I loved Leah. Throughout Thanksgiving dinner I looked at her forlornly across the table. We spoke hardly at all.
And then this happened: during dessert. I had made the coffee and our hostess was dishing out the apple-cranberry pie. Leah’s phone buzzed and she excused herself to take the call. When she returned to the table she looked bad. She said nothing, then she stirred again and abandoned the table for the kitchen. I followed her. Even though she is tougher than Mother she had tears in her eyes.
“Phyllis”—and she never called Senator Dreher by her first name—“just had a heart attack. She’s at the Detroit Heart Hospital.”
Dreher, who was from Michigan, had gone home for Thanksgiving.
“How bad?” I said.
“They don’t think she is going to make it,” Leah said.
Well, it got worse after that, but before it got worse something very beautiful happened to me. I walked Leah into her apartment that night, for she didn’t want to stay at the dinner after the call. I was still thinking and feeling on the intimate, personal level more than the political sociological level, and I was sadder about losing Dreher the human, the keen and bright soul, than about losing a Senator whose seat might go red.
Leah asked me if I wanted to come up to her apartment. I did. I parked my Saab and followed her into her little brick building in Logan Circle. In the upstairs hall as she unlocked her door, the overhead lamp flickered and died, so the only light was the moon. And it bent her face, making her cheek small and white. And this seemed very poignant to me, and I kissed her—there in the hall; I kissed the side of her mouth. We got the door open, and some of my body turned liquid, but not all of it; parts of me ached until she touched them. I don’t remember if we were on the floor or her sofa, but I remember it seemed like her skin was mine, her breasts were mine, her tongue was mine. We melded together. By the time we made it to her bed and to sleep we had forgotten everything except the need to hold one another.
But then it was six o’clock the following morning and we were each getting calls. Dozens of them. Senator Dreher wasn’t dead yet but close; and Roy wanted to meet with me Saturday afternoon to review the final legislation.
“Aren’t you worried about Dreher?” Roy asked when we met at the best barbecue joint in Mt. Pleasant. “You don’t look worried about anything.”
He seemed cold and offended. He treated me stiffly. His manner made me feel as if I had wronged him somehow, and I became stiff too. We were half way through combing the text of the bill, and legislative text is more unreadable than Derrida, and I excused myself for the toilet. He said, as if pained, that he needed a drink.
“Get me one too,” I said. “But virgin of course.”
When I returned to the table he had a vodka martini for himself and for me what I assumed was my usual—sparkling water with lime and a little grenadine, with a maraschino cherry. When I tasted it, nothing seemed off. I didn’t suspect anything. He’s a Texas boy. A Texas boy who had written me a poem.
I researched my symptoms after my three blotto days. He’d slipped me a drug called gamma-Hydroxybutyric acid, or GHB, or liquid fantasy. Used often in place of Rohypnol because under liquid fantasy’s influence the victim grows eager. The rapist doesn’t have to deal with a comatose doll. He can feel as if I want him too.
But Roy wasn’t ready for my violent physical reaction to his particular fantasy. I believe, now – although it was beyond proof once I made it through the hangover-coma all traces of the drug had passed out of my system — that he mixed the drug with a little vodka and slipped it into the grenadine. Even now, I get flashes of what happened: I remember bringing him to my loft. I remember doing things with him the memory of which would have made me practically suicidal a decade earlier. Beyond that, I don’t know much. Time was warped. I don’t think I was conscious of Viv or Mother or Leah or Sophia. Certainly not of my foster-child bill.
Mother dispatched the police to my apartment when she couldn’t reach me to discuss Viv’s pickup from the airport. Leah, sensitive because of what happened between us, misinterpreted my disappearance as rejection of her and didn’t look for me until Monday. I wasn’t in my office and she knew something had gone wrong. The police got me to a doctor. The doctor just said I had reacted badly to alcohol. He looked at my medical records and then at me, soberly.
“With your history,” he said, “it was a mistake to drink.”
“But I didn’t,” I said.
Mother rang every lawyer she knew to see what charges we could hang Roy Foote on. She cursed and railed and promised she’d cut off his penis with her sewing scissors.
“And I tell you one thing,” she concluded. “Harrington’s not going to survive this either. Even if he doesn’t keep that Foote in his mouth.”
Leah didn’t believe my side of the story. Three days is too long for an aide who’s worth anything to go missing from Washington action. Roy got his story out before my brain was straight again. Dreher was dying in the Detroit Heart Hospital. The Senate’s Democrats had no deputy whip. Leah was already sad. A little innuendo, the timely circulation of YouTube footage of my long-ago Texas humiliation by certain Gang of Five lackeys, elevated Roy and ruined me. I would get no new chance in this town.
Sophia railed against me bitterly before firing me. She said I had ruined her, too.
“Voters will forget,” I said.
“My colleagues won’t,” she said.
“You’ll end up fine,” I said.
“But your work won’t,” she said. I could swear she seemed happy about that.
When the House voted on the Children’s Health Insurance Reconciliation Act, Roy and his Gang had slipped Carrie Ives’ “Heart-Beat Humanity Act” alongside my “Saving Foster Care Act.” The two were one. Sophia couldn’t disclose she was bullied or blackmailed into letting this happen—she would look stupid—so she pretended she and Carrie Ives had planned the whole thing, all along. It was the Ives-Lampsted bicameral bipartisan bill. A legislative victory. In a press conference, Sophia stood beside Ives. They said, one after the other, beaming broadly, that it was appropriate and right to fight for the good of all children.
The House passed it. The Senate passed it. The President, his hair fading fast, signed it into law. Sophia was among the lawmakers on the stage behind him as he signed it and held up the paper for all to see. He gave her one of his stupid pens. I saw it on TV.
At least Viv and I got to return to Texas before Christmas. A good thing, because by New Year’s I sensed I was pregnant. I took the test three times, but it was right the first time. It always is. I didn’t tell Viv, but I did tell Mother.
Mother cried. The last time she had cried was when I was fourteen, and she—lifelong Catholic—drove me to the abortion clinic because I was so afraid of the thing growing inside me that her brother had put there.
But I didn’t feel like crying. A few days earlier, while I was unpacking my Washington bags, I had found Roy’s note to me.
I like it when you bite your lip when you look at me, like you’re telling me: “Look out. I love the taste of blood.”
This was the line that gave me my idea.
I asked Sophia’s press secretary to call in a favor to George Stephanopoulos’ producer. I had met George a few times, he knew who I was. George’s producer called me back. He said Yes, George would like to interview me about the Heart-Beat Humanity Act and Senator Lampsted’s sponsorship of the most anti-abortion legislation in decades. I flew up to Washington on Saturday afternoon with a small bag each of mifepristoneandmisoprostol. And a vegetarian capsule.
For the Sunday morning broadcast, I dressed in muted gray. I sat with George, and his producer had set a glass of water in front of me. On-camera, George and I chatted. He asked me whether women in this day and age could still say with their heads held high that abortion was all right.
“It’s all right for me,” I said. “At least it’s all right today, and today’s my last chance. Because tomorrow I will be six weeks and could be arrested for murder.”
I flustered even George. I hadn’t told him what was coming.
“I got raped by Washington,” I said. “Sometimes people have a hard time defining rape. But Roy Foote knows what he did.”
George recovered his charm while I drew out the powders and the capsule and explained the dosage.
“Is this safe?” George said.
“It will save me,” I said. “My body is not Roy’s but today I’m Lycurgus.”
He looked confused by that. I had to move quickly to dissolve the awkwardness. I picked up my water glass and put the pill on my tongue; looked into the camera and drank to Viv.
About the Author:
Susannah is a Washington-based journalist. A graduate of USC’s master of professional writing program, she has published short fiction in New World Writing and Californios. Her noir novel based on her experiences trading vanilla in Polynesia is represented by Dystel & Goderich.