This year Mama Athens and Daddy Sparta moved from ultra-liberal Berkeley to conservative central Pennsylvania so that Sparta could attend the Army War College. This in itself was hard to explain to my friends at home. I’d usually start with how prestigious it was, how rare for a reserve officer to be picked, but I’d be interrupted. “War College? as in W-A-R? War?”
Here in Carlisle, I’m the one with the dirty little Democratic secret. Or at least I was, until Election Day, when I came home from “Get Out the Vote” for the Kerry campaign and was outed. I had carefully peeled off my Kerry/Edwards sticker, along with the cheery “Hi, I’m Sophia” nametag below it. I didn’t want the guards at the barracks gate to see it, or the childcare center staff, or my neighbors. But I forgot that I had the same stickers on a light jacket I’d worn that morning, which I unwittingly threw on in the afternoon chill of the playground.
“EEEWWWW! GGGRRROOSSS!” shrieked my seven-year old neighbor, pointing at me. She pressed her non-pointing hand, claw-like, toward her chest, and sat on air to punctuate her outbursts, “EEWW, EEWW, EEEEWWWW! YOU have a KERRY STICKER ON! Oh my GOD!! Oh! MY! God! GROSS! GRO-OSS!”
I looked down at my jacket, heat rising to my face, and tried to say nonchalantly, “Oops, I meant to take that off . . .” but the girl was still keening, while her friend brought in the percussion, “Bush! Bush! Bush is right! Bush is good! Bush is right! Kerry is evil!” The first girl’s mom began shushing, “Now girls, we don’t all think the same way . . .” But the second girl’s mom was not there, and she was not deterred. She pelleted me with accusations, her staccato faltering only briefly as she made the upswing into an incredulous interrogative, “YOU. LIKE. KERRY?! YOU. VOTED. For KERRY?!”
My teeth were grinding and I was preparing a biting counter-strike, but something held me back, a flashing light in my brain. I wanted to let fly what I thought about Bush, but I was scared, too. I was aware of the other moms at the playground, who were my neighbors and best friends here in Carlisle. I pictured them averting their eyes from mine as we passed on the sidewalk, tugging their kids away from my son at the playground.
So instead I stood as tall above my antagonist as I could and hissed, “I don’t appreciate your tone. I can vote for WHOMEVER I want. GET IT? THAT’S what this country is about. And YES, I voted for KERRY!”
She stared at me. I stared at her. She looked at her shoes. I looked at my shoes. I felt the other moms behind me, probably looking at their shoes. We all stood there, frozen with awkwardness. This wasn’t what I wanted. I didn’t want to shout her down, to shut her up. I wanted dialogue, exchange. I thought I should tell her it was okay to be curious about my views, that we could discuss them as long as she was respectful.
I began, “Listen, sweetie, it’s okay to–” But suddenly there was a shriek, a wail from the direction of the sandbox. “It is NOT! Stop it! Don’t say that!” a little boy sobbed, “Mom-MEE! She called my truck a KERRY truck!”
My son watched this whole interaction with a tentative smile on his face, wondering how to join in on the excitement. At three-and-a-half, he’s pretty much oblivious to politics. No, this election year was harder on me, Mommy Athens, than on our little bipartisan creation. In all election years, my and Sparta’s different political orientations become harder to bear. The dinner table seems to split; a yawning Indiana Jones-style chasm crashes open between us, spanned only be a flimsy rope bridge. There we teeter until November. But this year was particularly difficult. This year the fibers of our rope bridge, weighted down with my convictions and my solitude, started fraying.
It became supremely important for me that Sparta NOT vote for Bush. He was on the fence. While he was highly critical of Bush, he also didn’t like Kerry. This drove me nuts. If he was on the fence, then couldn’t he just take into consideration the strength of MY convictions? It felt to me that if he voted for Bush, Sparta couldn’t possibly understand, let alone love me. It would mean he did not value my opinion at all, or wasn’t listening. Our little rope bridge would collapse.
I re-registered to vote in Pennsylvania, without telling Sparta. I threw away the voter registration packets that the Republican National Committee sent him. (I felt bad about it, I really did, but I figured our relationship was more important.) One night I made a little speech before bed. “This isn’t a threat,” I began, “but I feel it’s only fair that you should know.”
He looked up from Nuclear Terrorism by Graham Allison. “Yes?”
“Well, I just want you to know — if you vote for Bush, I’m not sure I could ever have sex with you again.” I added hastily, “It wouldn’t be a punishment. It just might gross me out too much.”
He just smiled.
If we were at home in Berkeley, I would be defending Sparta. I’d be trying to explain his views to my friends who sidle up to me at the playground, at the supermarket, or at parties, and say, “So how about Sparta? What does he think?” This followed by the inevitable inquiry sotto voce, “I mean, he’s–” glancing back and forth to be sure no one nearby might hear “–not a Republican, is he?”
I’d be giving my little speech about him being a Republican like the Republicans used to be: a pro-civil liberties, small government, pro-defense Republican, as opposed to a pro-life, anti-gay, teach-creation-in-schools Republican. Or perhaps I’d be talking about how interesting it is to have a Republican partner who sees the world so differently from me, how it has helped us maintain our individual identities. Either way would go over like the teacher in the old Peanuts cartoons: WONH-wonh-WONH-wonh — REPUBLICAN.
But here in Carlisle, a funny thing is happening. While I stare at my shoes in playgrounds, Sparta has become a gadfly. The other evening, he came home fuming, “You know these guys just won’t listen? They just tune you out if you don’t agree with them. I tried to point out Bush is not focusing enough on the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and they just blew me off!”
A little chorus went off in my head. Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Ha-a-LAY-loo-yah!
I can relate to being the outsider in a group of like-minded thinkers. Maybe there is hope for our rope bridge, for our marriage.
And for our sex life, too.