So I was surprised-but-not-completely-surprised when they sat me down and told me I wasn’t going to Kansas.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“I’m sure you saw Stein tonight,” my father said. “And I’m sure you and your friends are all ready to go to Kansas to take a stand. When you’re a little bit older and a little bit more mature you’ll be able to do such things, if you still want to. But right now you’re only sixteen and you’re not going to throw yourself into such a volatile situation.”
I could see my mother staring at my not-black-but-kind-of-purple eye. I wanted to cover it, but it was too late.
“What happened to you?” she asked, concerned.
“Nothing. Stupid accident,” I said.
“Oh, honey. Did you put ice on it?”
“Do you want more?”
I realized I was getting distracted from the argument I needed to be making.
“Look,” I said, “I am going to Kansas. Flora’s son, Clive, has a bus, and we’re all going to go together. Not just kids, but adults, too. It’ll be fine. I promise.”
“I don’t think you’re hearing me, Duncan,” my father said. “You’re not going. You’re staying here.”
I don’t think you’re hearing me, I wanted to say. But I knew that wouldn’t go over well.
“Is that understood?” he prompted.
“Duncan,” my mother said, her voice gentler than my father’s, “I think we need to explain. We’ve always been proud of you for all the work you’ve done for Stein and the dedication that you’ve shown.” This was a surprise. I must have looked at her with complete disbelief, because she laughed and said, “Don’t look so shocked. You know I’m not the type to get involved, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be proud of my son for getting involved. We haven’t minded when you’ve come home late, when you’ve gone into some dangerous neighborhoods to talk to strangers, even when you’ve cut school—yes, we know about that, and we’re trusting you not to make it a habit. You seem to forget that your attendance record is online for us to see.
“But this is different, honey. You’re going to want to think that we’re making you stay here for some political reason. You’ll want to think of us as the enemy. But honestly, it’s not that. It’s because we’re your parents and we want you to be safe. You can’t possibly remember what the riots were like. You can’t possibly know how these things can go wrong and become violent. Stein wants you to come to Kansas—fine. But he can’t guarantee that things will remain peaceful. I know he wants them to be. Believe me, Dunc, I know. But this isn’t some picnic. This is a fight—he says so himself—and when you join a fight, you can get really, really hurt. So that’s why I—we—want you to stay here.”
She didn’t say, Look at your eye, but she didn’t have to. I thought of a thousand Satches and Jesses heading to Kansas—and millions of the people who’d yelled at me on the phone, who’d been so ready to scald Stein supporters with the power of their despising.
“There must be something you can do here,” my mother went on. “I’ll even help you. If you want. You just can’t go to Kansas.”
I went to my room more confused than ever. Because I hadn’t really been thinking about what would happen when we got to Kansas—I’d been caught up in the excitement of going, of being part of the team, of being on a mission with Jimmy. Maybe none of us had really thought it through. Because what if we were really heading toward another Bleeding Kansas? What if the opponent’s supporters were ready to do anything to throw the election?
I wondered if Stein himself had thought it through. How many people did he really think would come? Was it just a big publicity stunt? Would it spiral out of control?
I pictured millions of people angrily calling me a fag or (even more Decent) a dirty Jew. I imagined crowds and crowds of people overwhelming me. I saw myself losing Jimmy, losing everyone I knew. Riot police pressing in. Gas in the air. Being pushed and grabbed and yelled at.
It wasn’t a nightmare; I wasn’t asleep yet. I was seeing it.
I had to admit: I didn’t want to face it. Not the hostility. Not the chance of my parents being right.
I really had believed I was going to Kansas.
And now I was starting to realize I wasn’t going after all.
I thought I might change my mind about changing my mind. But if anything, the next morning’s news seemed to support my parents’ position. The opposition was now saying that if Stein’s supporters were going to Kansas, then they would, too. The governor was calling in the National Guard. The current President was said to be “reviewing the situation.” Already flights were full. Rent-a-cars were scarce. The people of Kansas were preparing for an invasion of outsiders, whether they liked it or not.
I didn’t know what I was going to say to Jimmy. So I fell quiet. He misunderstood and thought I was still bothered by the run-in with Satch the previous day. For their part, Satch and Jesse kept their distance. School almost appeared normal. Word spread that Mary Catherine and her parents had already left for Topeka.
I started to pay attention not just to the kids who were talking about the election but also to the kids who weren’t talking about it at all. I’d ignored them for the past two days, but now I was feeling almost jealous of them. Whether or not Stein would be President didn’t appear to matter to them; they cared about their field hockey game after school or whether the boy they liked would like them back or whether they’d be able to get their homework done before it was collected during third period. The election was enough to get their attention for a day—maybe. After that, it was back to life.
At lunch, Gus was talking about music for the bus and Keisha was talking about sleeping arrangements and Jimmy was saying they had to remember to bring poster paper and markers with them, because all banner-making supplies were probably sold out in Kansas. Janna mentioned bringing candles for Jimmy’s birthday on Monday, and I double gulped. Everyone’s bags, it seemed, were already packed.
“How were your parents?” Jimmy finally asked me.
“Not good,” I said.
But he didn’t ask the natural follow-up question, assuming I’d managed to make my way past them.
We were supposed to meet at headquarters at five. It wasn’t until three that I told him. We were walking to my house, I guess to pick up my bags.
“Look,” I finally had the guts to say, “I don’t think I’m going to be able to go.”
“Very funny,” Jimmy said, and kept walking.
I stopped and pulled at his shirt. “No. Really. No blinking this time.”
“What are you talking about?”
He was looking at me with such annoyed confusion, his sweet dark eyes narrowing.
“I can’t go. My parents said I can’t.”
Now I really had his attention.
“You’re really not joking, are you?” he said.
“I’m really not joking.”
I knew what was coming next.
Deep breath. Look to the ground, then back in my eyes. “And you waited until now to tell me?”
“I just—I don’t know.” What could I say? I knew he was going to think less of me, but I’d hoped to minimize the lessness.
“What?” He wanted me to tell him something, anything that made sense, even though it was clear in his voice that he doubted there could be such an explanation. At the very least, he just wanted me to acknowledge that.
But all I could come up with was a repeat performance of “I don’t know.”
He sighed. “This is so typical, Duncan.”
Which was what I was afraid of. Making the lessness part of a pattern.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Are you kidding? We’re supposed to leave in, what, two hours? And you’re backing out?”
“Well, it’s not like it’s been planned for weeks….”
“So what did they say to you? Why can’t you go?”
“They just don’t think it’s a good idea.”
“Oh. That’s a great reason.”
Scorn. I’d hit the vein of scorn.
“Don’t get angry with me, okay?” I implored. “They just think it’s—I don’t know—dangerous or something.”
I thought he’d try to argue that point. Say it wasn’t dangerous at all. But instead he said, “So?”
“What do you mean, so?”
“I mean, of course it’s a little dangerous. But staying here and doing nothing is more dangerous. You know that, Duncan.”
“I know. But, really, I can’t.” That was it, really: I couldn’t.
There was sadness in his eyes as well as anger. “Can’t, Duncan? Or won’t?”
“What do you mean?”
“You know what I mean.”
“No, I don’t.”
We both knew I did.
“Look,” he said, “do you really want me to say it?”
I couldn’t believe we were plummeting into this conversation. This wasn’t at all where I wanted to be or what I wanted us to be saying. But I couldn’t get us anywhere else.
“Well, now you have to,” I said, for the first time letting some of my own annoyance out. “Don’t you?”
“Look, don’t snap at me. I’m not the one backing out.”
I was totally open to him. Totally vulnerable. And because of that, I couldn’t stand that he was taking shots at me.
“Is that what I’m doing?” I said.
“Looks like it, doesn’t it? And you’re doing it because you’re afraid.”
“That’s not it.”
“C’mon, Duncan,” he said, almost tenderly, like I was a good ten years younger than him. “You have to take a little risk and you want to run in the other direction.”
“You make it sound like that’s what I always do.”
“I’m not saying that.”
“Well, that’s not fair.”
“I’m just saying…”
“You’re afraid. Of your parents. Of what might happen.”
It was like this rip was occurring, because we were each pulling in a different direction and couldn’t stop.
“I’m not afraid of my parents,” I told him.
“So it’s not about them, is it?”
“Look—” Please stop, I wanted to say. Please can we stop?
And Please can we stop? came out as “Why are you doing this?”
This did not go over well.
“Why am I doing this? You mean, why am I disappointed that my boyfriend is backing out of what could be the most important trip of our lives? I don’t know…could it be because my boyfriend is backing out of what could be the most important trip of our lives?”
“So you’re saying if I don’t show up, the governor of Kansas is going to say, ‘Hey, I guess we can throw the election now—Duncan didn’t show.’ But if I go, he’ll give in. Is my presence really that important?”
“It should be that important to you, ass**le. That’s what I’m saying.”
“Well, I’m sorry I can’t be you.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means, I’m sorry that I actually have to think about what might happen. That I might not want to go to a random state to be attacked by people who see me as the enemy. That might not be the kind of weekend I want to have.”
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