January

 

THEY MET in a hurricane.

Well, not a literal hurricane, and Tom had always felt proprietary about that word, growing up in South Florida and having far too vivid memories of the destruction hurricane season could bring. He didn’t throw around the word, because a hurricane was a weather event and anything else just didn’t qualify.

But he’d never witnessed the Iowa caucuses before, and if there was ever a time to reconsider his position on the word, this evening in a Des Moines high school gymnasium certainly suggested it. He’d been to many rallies, fundraisers, even some demonstrations, but this was something else completely: tumultuous, overwhelming and exciting.

As campaign staff, you’re allowed to observe only—you’re not to speak to the participants, the precinct officer had sternly warned Tom and his colleagues at the beginning of the night… as if senior staff on a presidential campaign needed these instructions. In any case, Tom, a speechwriter, was only there out of curiosity for the process. He was glad he wasn’t precisely required tonight, so he was free to watch and listen and attempt to take it all in.

When the caucusgoers had all been counted and the electioneering had begun, Tom left his spot on the bleachers to stroll around the room and listen to the participants: hundreds of people, voices upon voices as the caucusgoers spoke passionately in support of their respective candidates, trying to woo others to their camp.

In a far corner of the gym, he found a feisty elderly woman who was telling three young men, evidently of college age, why they should support Senator Wagner. Tom was impressed, and was so absorbed by her persuasive, impassioned speech that he didn’t notice the tall figure approaching him until suddenly a hand pressed into his palm. Startled out of his preoccupation, Tom’s fingers reflexively closed around the hand. It was already pulling away, slipping out of his grasp but leaving a folded slip of paper in his hand. He turned, expecting one of his colleagues on Senator Wagner’s campaign, but the eyes he met belonged to no one with whom he’d spent long days and nights drafting speeches, arguing over one word or the placement of a comma. Deep and intense, they belonged to someone he recognized but had never met, and they looked deliberately down into his, for a heartbeat. Then the man turned and strode away, leaving Tom with paper in his hand and an unsettled feeling in his stomach.

Tom turned back to the group he’d been watching, but he was no longer listening to the small silver-haired woman. Instead he was wondering why he was being passed a covert note from Nathan Harris, the deputy campaign manager for another candidate. It seemed unlikely that it was any type of official communication between campaigns—surely that would be made to someone with more seniority than Tom—but in spite of his curiosity, Tom hesitated to open it here with so many eyes, knowing the campaigns had aides who were doing nothing but observing, noting every detail in case something could be used in the future.

Presently, the precinct officer asked all participants to return to their designated area of the gymnasium for a count. Tom made his way back to the bleachers where his colleagues on the Wagner campaign were sitting. As the first group was being counted, he leaned in close to Mitchell Enns, the communications director and his direct supervisor, and murmured, “Bathroom.”

Mitch merely nodded, his gaze never straying from the events unfolding before him. Mitch always gave Tom the impression of an aging surfer, with a shock of thick blond hair punctuated by a high widow’s peak; deep-set hound-dog eyes; a large, bumpy nose that had certainly been broken at least once; and a tall, ungainly body given to careless posture. It gave him an air that could have led one to underestimate his focus, but anyone at all familiar with the inside players of high-level politics knew better than to judge Mitchell Enns by his appearance.

Tom was new to this world, but he wasn’t fooled either. He was familiar with his boss’s uncanny ability to hear at least three conversations at once and to retain them like a steel trap. Here in the gym tonight, he would pay particular attention to the pitches given on behalf of the candidates, knowing that the points covered in these speeches were an indication of how well the campaign’s messages were being relayed to the local volunteers. Later he would recount them in detail to the communications staff, using those examples to illustrate how carefully they had to tread the line between propagating the theme for the campaign versus repeating catchphrases that could see the senator turned quickly into a caricature.

Surrounded by staff who were among the best at what they did, Tom had learned quickly that he could succeed or he could get the hell off the campaign. There was no room for deficiency here, not when one speech could win or lose twenty states. Tom felt a little faint at the thought of Super Tuesday, only three weeks away now…. But the speeches for the Super Tuesday states had been in the works for weeks already, and Tom would continue to develop and shape them as events unfolded between now and then, with input from Mitch, campaign strategists, and about a hundred others. There was nothing to be gained by worrying about it tonight.

Right now all he could do was lock himself into a stall in the deserted men’s room and unfold the note, the ink slightly smudged and the paper damp from being clutched in his sweating palm. Were these confident block letters Nathan Harris’s writing or was he the courier for someone else’s words? A steady hand, no nerves shaking it when it scrawled the message that both surprised and irritated Tom:

 

You’re very good, but you’ll be unemployed by May.

Pollard’s interested.

 

Of course he knew who Susan Pollard was: Mitchell’s counterpart in Senator Erin Michaels’s campaign. Tom knew Pollard by reputation, had studied her career when he was doing his masters in poli-sci at Emory. She’d been working with her Yale classmate Erin Michaels since Michaels was a New York state senator, and stayed with her when she went to Washington as New York’s junior senator. It was commonly understood that Susan Pollard’s opinion was as important to Michaels as that of her campaign manager. From a professional standpoint, Tom admired her greatly. On a par with Mitch Enns, she was a talented communicator.

Which was more than he could say for Nathan Harris, Tom thought as he crumpled up the slip of paper. Unemployed by June? He gritted his teeth and thought of all the things he would love to have said if he’d planned to reply… because of course he’d ignore it. He knew he was good and certainly didn’t need a condescending note from Nathan Harris to tell him that. There were exactly two people whose opinions mattered to Tom, and Nathan Harris was neither of them.

Tom was lucky to have Mitch as his supervisor and his mentor. He knew Mitch believed in Bill Wagner. For his part, Tom had voted for him as the senator from Georgia ever since he’d become old enough to vote. Tom had no plans whatsoever to change camps. He was committed for the long term and he truly believed Bill Wagner was the best person for the Democratic nomination and the presidency.

So the only response to Nathan Harris was no response at all. Tom flushed the note down the toilet where it belonged, washed his hands, and straightened his tie in the mirror. He allowed himself a moment to put his game face back on before leaving the quiet of the men’s room. His blond hair was straight and tidy, his nearly black eyes inscrutable as they always were when he was at work. The new suit, one of several he’d bought for the campaign, made him feel like a professional, instead of the kid he’d often felt like in the presence of political heavy hitters.

After leaving the bathroom, he crossed the hallway where various staffers were hanging around, thumbs flying over their iPhones. He opened the door to the gym and the roar spilled out, a cacophony of hundreds of voices engulfing him. The counts had finished and several candidates had been declared inviable. Michaels and Wagner were the strongest two of only three viable candidates and the governor of Colorado, Jayne Duffy, was a near third. Tom returned to where his fellow staffers were gathered on the bleachers and sat down beside Sarah Lonstein, an aide to the campaign manager. Sarah had her laptop open, compiling results from staffers at other precincts. Midway through the night, things across the state looked much as they did here: Wagner and Michaels in a near tie, with Duffy close behind.

With nothing to do but watch and wait, Tom repeatedly found his gaze returning to Nathan Harris, who strolled around the floor, stopping to listen to a snippet of conversation before moving on to another part of the room. He was handsome, there was no denying that, and under different circumstances, Tom might have let himself dwell on Nathan’s dark features and intense gaze. He was tall, over six feet, with carefully styled black hair, rich brown eyes, and heavy eyebrows that gave him a slightly intimidating look. Nathan was the deputy to campaign manager Jason Eisenberg. Together the two had worked for Senator Michaels since her first US senate run. Tom had seen him several times during the fall at candidates’ debates, but before today had never exchanged a word with him.

Well, technically, I still haven’t, thought Tom. As he gathered up his things to head to the ballroom where Senator Wagner would give his speech, he decided that if Nathan Harris was the arrogant jerk he seemed to be, he wouldn’t mind if things stayed that way.

 

 

NATHAN HARRIS was only mildly bothered that Tom McAlindon had completely ignored his note. He certainly hadn’t expected Tom to stroll on up to Susan Pollard and ask for a job. He had imagined the thought sitting in Tom’s mind for a few days, the idea germinating into curiosity, curiosity flowering into action, and then maybe Tom might get in touch with someone from the campaign… or they’d hear he’d been making quiet inquiries about Susan… something to show he was at least giving it some thought and considering the possibility.

Nate had done his homework on the young speechwriter, even beyond what Susan Pollard had told Jason and Senator Michaels about him. He knew Tom grew up in Miami and moved to Atlanta to do his undergrad in political science at Emory. He’d stayed at Emory to do his master’s, though completing the degree had taken him four years—Nate hadn’t been able to determine why. Nate was particularly interested in the rumors about the way Tom had been hired as a speechwriter by the campaign of Isaiah Lee when he was running for mayor of Atlanta. The story he’d heard was unusual enough that he wasn’t sure he trusted it. It was a fact, though, that after Lee was elected, he’d kept Tom on as the communications and public relations director for the office of the mayor, a post at which Tom had excelled until he was scooped up by the Wagner campaign a couple of years later. It also seemed that he was liked and respected wherever he worked, and his talent was well-known. It would be quite a coup if they could persuade him to join their campaign.

However, nearly two weeks later, when the New Hampshire primary was only a day away, Nate hadn’t heard anything, not a whisper that would indicate that Tom was even curious about the opportunity. The Michaels campaign had kept a full schedule since Iowa, with numerous rallies across the country, concentrating heavily on New Hampshire and on Nevada, whose caucuses would follow New Hampshire. During that time, despite the hectic pace and the sea of faces he passed, the thought of Tom kept nagging at the back of his mind.

Having worked on Capitol Hill for ten years, Nate was no stranger to the world of politics at this level. He knew better than to take the rejection personally, but he was not accustomed to being turned down. Erin Michaels was well-liked, respected and—perhaps most important—influential on Capitol Hill. As such, she was sought out and courted for her support on various issues. Nate was used to having people come to him to ask a favor of Senator Michaels, and if he was the one asking something on her behalf… well, it was very seldom that anyone passed up the chance to align themselves with Erin. Even if she was asking for a favor, those who knew what they were doing saw it as an opportunity for leverage, something that, later, could be judiciously applied to get her support for one of their projects.

In short, Nate wasn’t used to being refused.

Except he hadn’t been refused, he’d been steadfastly ignored. It was the ignored part that bothered him most, he mused as he stretched out in his hotel room bed the night before the primary. He knew this situation was quite different from one he would encounter on the Hill: no one owed him anything, and Tom McAlindon was very likely not looking to be recruited to a different campaign. And yet it continued to nag at him. It was an odd feeling, difficult to articulate, almost as though it wasn’t only a rejection of Erin and her campaign, but of Nate himself.

And why should he feel that? Sure, he was intrigued by Tom—the same interest he’d have in anyone who was talented, who was intelligent, who could be a huge asset to the campaign.

Who was gorgeous, Nate’s brain volunteered… or maybe that wasn’t his brain talking. He grimaced and dragged himself back to the present. The next day was the primary, and they would have to hit the ground running first thing in the morning. Mentally he reviewed the next day’s itinerary before double-checking the alarm on his phone, and then, finally, he drifted off to sleep.

Tuesday was a good day, Nate later reflected. New Hampshire was a state of Libertarians, and Erin Michaels’s outspoken support of personal freedoms, and vocal opposition to significant growth within the federal government had always brought her significant support in states like New Hampshire. Nate had privately wondered if Erin Michaels might have been a Libertarian herself, had it been politically feasible.

So yes, it was a very good day, with Erin taking the primary by 3 percent over Wagner. It was also the day that, based on poor results in Iowa and New Hampshire, Jayne Duffy announced she was discontinuing her campaign and placing her support behind Erin Michaels. With his colleagues, Nate watched Duffy’s speech on television from the Hanover campaign office, and allowed himself a moment to indulge in a little dream about Erin taking the nomination with Jayne Duffy as her running mate, the first all-female ticket in United States presidential history. The thought brought a smile to his face, and it felt like the first time he’d really smiled in days.

But he was getting ahead of himself. They were only two states in, and yes, Erin had won both, but with very narrow margins. There were no foregone conclusions, and Bill Wagner would continue to be a threat, especially with Tom McAlindon for a speechwriter….

Nate shook his head as he realized his thoughts had gone there again. He hadn’t seen Tom since the night of the Iowa caucuses; the campaigns hadn’t crossed paths again. He found himself hoping for an opportunity to see him, to make eye contact and watch Tom’s reaction; to at least make Tom acknowledge him.

Or rather, acknowledge the offer, right, Nate?

A fair question, to which Nate wasn’t sure he had an answer.

 

 

TOM GROANED, angling his body toward the weak, early morning sun as he stretched muscles that were stiff from sleeping on the campaign bus. After he’d relaxed out of the stretch, he still stood, eyes closed, facing the sun. He hadn’t been warm—truly warm—since the dog days of summer had ended, five long months ago. Granted, Daytona Beach at 7:00 a.m. in January wasn’t quite akin to the sweaty heat of a Northeast summer, but in a few hours more they’d be in Miami. Tom was a Florida boy, not bred for Northeast living, and now, after an overnight trip south from DC, he was very close to being home.

He stood for several moments silently worshipping the sun’s warmth until, opening his eyes, he found Sarah Lonstein grinning at him. He returned the smile, not even feeling sheepish about his open adoration of the sun.

“Glad to be home, sunshine boy?” Sarah asked affectionately.

Tom sighed. “You don’t even know.” He rolled up his shirt sleeves and together he and Sarah started across the parking lot toward the restaurant.

“You’re right I don’t,” she agreed. “Not a big fan of the sun, myself.”

“How can anyone not love the sun?” Tom asked incredulously.

“Honey, look at me.”

Tom obliged, stopping to look her over. A year younger than him, Sarah had flawless pale skin, full russet lips, and a fan of dark lashes. With a smooth, long cascade of dark brown hair, she looked like a porcelain doll. She held out her arms, bare in her sleeveless blouse, and traced the translucent skin with her carefully manicured fingertips.

“I’m almost pigment-free. You’re awfully lucky with your pretty blond hair and your golden skin. The sun just makes me blotch.”

“Well, you’re a delicate flower,” Tom replied, and they resumed their walk to the restaurant, where their colleagues had already started to file through the doors. “But you stay out of the sun, and when you’re fifty, you’ll still have the smooth, unblemished skin of a twenty-year-old.”

“You better believe it.” The two of them parted long enough to visit the restrooms before joining the group where they had taken over several tables in one corner of the restaurant. Sarah sat in a booth across from Mitchell Enns, Tom sliding in beside her. Mitch was frowning at his iPhone as they joined him, but he soon laid it aside.

As they ate, the entire group chatted noisily, making the most of the chance to relax for an hour or two, and think and talk about something other than strategy and itinerary.

Through the window of the restaurant, the arrival of another bus caught Tom’s eye. The bus was brightly colored with an American flag emblazoned on the side and… shit.

“What?” Mitch and Sarah asked in unison, and Tom realized he’d sworn out loud.

“Erin Michaels’s campaign bus just pulled in,” Tom murmured, nodding his head in the direction of the parking lot. Both heads swiveled to look, and a millisecond later, Mitch was out of his seat, leaning over the table at the next booth, where Bill Wagner and his campaign manager Kim Harvey sat with Bill’s wife, Rebecca. Tom joined them and they quietly discussed how to react when Senator Michaels and her staff came in.

“It’s casual,” Mitch was saying. “This is a restaurant off the interstate, not an event. The Senator will certainly come over to say hello, and you’ll greet her in a way that’s as friendly and relaxed as you would any other colleague you might run into at a restaurant.”

Bill nodded. He actually was as relaxed about it as Mitch wanted him to seem. There was no reason not to be, of course, but Tom envied his calm, friendly personality, his ability to relate to almost anyone in a way that put others at ease. Tom, on the other hand, was shy. He could write words for others to say, but abhorred situations that put everyone’s eyes on him. In Atlanta he had been the mayor’s PR coordinator, but they had a spokesperson who dealt with the press. On the few occasions she wasn’t available to run a press conference and Tom had to field questions himself, he’d thrown up beforehand.

Now, he slid back into the booth beside Sarah and watched, waiting for the key players of the Michaels campaign to make their way over to where they sat. Bill stood, smiling broadly at his senate colleague and extending his hand to her.

“Erin, good to see you.”

“You too, Bill. This is a nice coincidence.”

“Have you met my wife, Rebecca?”

“We haven’t been introduced. Lovely to meet you, Rebecca.” Erin Michaels had a great smile and a friendly, open demeanor. She’d been elected to the Senate because she had managed to balance a frank style of delivery that was humorous but not sarcastic, forthright but not tactless. She’d been reelected because she did exactly what she promised she would.

Those in the group who knew each other said hello, introducing others who hadn’t met. Tom smiled at a couple of people he recognized and shook hands with a few Sarah introduced, all the time distinctly aware of a pair of deep brown eyes whose gaze had fastened itself upon him and wasn’t turning away. Tom tried hard to ignore them, tried not to give in to their draw. He tried to focus on listening to Mitch make small talk with Susan Pollard, but those eyes kept burning into him. Finally he reminded himself of the counsel Mitch had given Bill. This is casual. Keep it relaxed. To it he added, Don’t let him intimidate you. With that in mind, he allowed himself to turn slowly to meet that gaze.

His instincts were good. Nate was watching him intently, holding the gaze even when Tom met it. For several seconds, neither looked away. One of Nathan’s eyebrows twitched slightly upward—indicating what? Tom didn’t know, but he wasn’t backing down. He allowed his own eyebrow to creep up, silently challenging Nathan. Well? After another moment, Nathan smirked as though satisfied with the exchange and finally broke eye contact, turning to say something to one of his traveling companions before striding off in the direction of the men’s room.

Tom was left feeling bemused by the whole thing, wondering what the point of it had been. He looked around and was glad no one seemed to have noticed their brief staring contest. He was about to excuse himself and head back out to the bus for a few moments of quiet before everyone else started returning, but Mitchell turned to him then, asking him if he’d met Susan Pollard before. He hadn’t, and they were introduced. He managed to make small talk with Mitchell and Susan for a few moments before he was able to slip away to the bus. He wanted a chance to think in peace before his colleagues joined him.

The encounter with Nathan had seemed almost hostile… though wasn’t hostility rather an extreme reaction to simply ignoring what had been pretty much a vague suggestion? Tom sighed. He’d begun the day feeling so relaxed, so glad to be back in his home state. Now the positive feelings had all but evaporated, replaced by a general disquietude. He’d only met this guy twice—both of which barely qualified as meetings, since Tom had yet to utter a word to the man—and he’d managed to unsettle Tom both times. Nathan Harris might be very good at his job, but his social skills left a lot to be desired.

Soon the rest of the staff were making their way back to the bus, and they were preparing to leave again. They had many miles to cover, with primaries taking place in both Florida and South Carolina two days from today. They would continue on to Miami to attend several events there this afternoon; then overnight the bus would travel to St. Petersburg before continuing to Orlando and back up to South Carolina to cross that state before the end of voting on Tuesday. Tom had work to do between here and Miami, and once they were underway, he put on his headphones and got to work. Whenever he paused in thought his eyes were drawn out the window, glancing over the sun-drenched buildings as they flashed past on the interstate. And palm trees—it’d been so long since he’d seen palm trees. He didn’t realize how much he missed them until he was seeing them with his own eyes once more.

He chided himself gently and pulled down the window shade. Today he needed to focus; and then tonight he’d have the night to himself. Tom had asked for the evening off, because there was someone special in Miami. They hadn’t seen each other in too long… tonight they would be together.

Tom had left home at eighteen to pursue a degree in poli-sci at Emory, but even then he always thought of Florida as home—it was where his parents and sisters were, where he grew up. Life at Emory had given him a freedom he’d never had when he lived with his parents, a freedom to be himself, to be open with his friends, and to be out as a gay man, at least at school. Being out of his parents’ house those four years—maybe time had softened his recollection; perhaps he thought that because he was accepted by his friends and coworkers, he’d be accepted by his parents too; maybe it was subtle pressure from the guy he’d been seeing… for whatever reason, when he was twenty-two and was only a month away from finishing his degree, he decided he was finally going to come out to his parents.

He came home on Easter Weekend to spend the holiday with his family, ready to attend church with them though he wasn’t all that religious anymore, and looking forward to seeing everyone. On Saturday of that weekend he asked his parents out for lunch, and over dessert he took a deep breath and gently told them that the reason he’d never brought any girls home from college was because he knew he was gay; that he loved them and hoped they would accept him as he was, and that he hoped they’d meet his boyfriend next time they came up to Atlanta to visit him.

His father’s face went red, then purple; his mother cried silently behind her napkin. They didn’t say a word until they were out of the restaurant and in the car, and then his father exploded. Epithets of such bigotry, such hatred…. Tom sat, stunned, in the backseat of the car as his father ranted, hoping he would eventually run out of graphic, disgusting ways to describe gay sex, but it went on and on. His father even seemed oblivious to how greatly he was increasing Tom’s mother’s distress, as she simply bowed her head beside her husband, her shoulders shaking with soundless tears. Tom was truly frightened as they drove home, worried his father would have a heart attack behind the wheel. By the time they were back at his parents’ house, he had been condemned by both his parents to a life of sin and disease, followed by an eternity of torment.

It was the worst day of his life. It ended with Tom packing his suitcase and taking a bus to the home of his mother’s parents, 185 miles away. Not having time to call his grandparents before he left Miami, he planned to phone them from the bus station in Port Charlotte. As he disembarked the bus, he was brought up short by the sight of his grandfather, apparently already waiting for him, sitting on a bench in the shade outside the station, his straw hat resting on his knees. Tom locked eyes with him for a moment, then slowly made his way over to the round-shouldered old man. Without a word he sat beside his grandfather, drawing his suitcase up in front of his knees. Silently they sat, taking in the sight of people bustling around them, dashing for buses and taxis and hauling suitcases and backpacks. Several moments passed before his grandfather said, “We love you, Tommy. You are always welcome in our home, exactly the way you are. The way God made you.”

They were such simple words, but they broke a dam inside Tom. For the first time that day, he burst into tears, dropping his head into his hands and sobbing right there on a bench outside the Port Charlotte bus station. His grandfather gently soothed his hand over Tom’s back, and Tom couldn’t help turning into him, burying his face in his granddad’s shirt as though he was a little boy again. After a few moments, the worst had passed and he was able to gather himself a bit, to follow his grandfather to the car and make the short drive to the house where his mother grew up.

His grandmother met them at the door, dabbing at tears of her own but welcoming him into the little house he knew so well. She wasn’t upset by his announcement, she insisted as she made him a sandwich, but by the way his parents had reacted. “Your father,” the little woman said ruefully, “your father is such a hard-headed man, so opinionated. He has all of the rules of Christianity and none of the peace. Well, I don’t subscribe to his brand of Christianity, and your mother didn’t either, until she married him.”

“Dear,” his grandfather had gently chided, “let the boy eat in peace.”

“It’s okay, Grandpa,” Tom said, weary but smiling for the first time in hours. “I don’t mind.”

Despite his exhaustion he didn’t sleep well that night. He got up and went to church with his grandparents on Easter Sunday, then came home and helped them make Easter dinner. They fielded several calls from his parents, who were furious at his grandparents for taking him in. During one call, his father must have said something particularly offensive, and Tom, who had never heard his grandfather raise his voice except in laughter, was shocked when he caught what sure sounded like a curse word come out of his grandfather’s mouth. The call ended soon after, and neither Tom nor his grandmother could get the old gentleman to tell them what exactly had been said, except to admit that it didn’t look like there would be any happy family dinners any time soon. “However,” his grandfather added, “no matter what, I will never tell my child they’re not welcome in my home, and that’s more than I can say for—” He broke off, shaking his head in disgust, and refused to elaborate further.

Even with the passage of time, nothing really changed after that. Tom’s parents hadn’t spoken to him, even on his birthday or holidays, since that day. He had made numerous attempts to reconcile with them, phoning, writing letters, and e-mailing; every effort went unacknowledged. His grandparents continued to be the loving, stable anchors of his life—became his surrogate parents, really, never mind that he was an adult and didn’t technically need to be parented any longer. His relationship with them was a saving grace.

With his parents’ disapproval came financial insecurity, as they refused to pay for his continued education. He wasn’t quite destitute; he had held a part-time job throughout school anyway, to help pay for the additional cost of living off-campus, and had a bit of money saved. His undergrad was nearly finished and fully paid for. He knew, though, he would have to step it up if he was going to pursue a master’s as he’d planned. For that reason, it took him nearly five years to obtain his master’s degree. His budget was very tight, and he always had to have housemates—though at least grad students were far better to live with than undergrads—but with a little help here and there from his grandpare