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fifteen

My parents and I never went on big vacations when I was younger. Mostly we stayed within a few hours of our house. Money was an issue—it always was an issue during the Greater Depression. Even though we had a conversion car, it still cost a lot to fuel it up. And then there was the matter of time, which was an even bigger issue during the Greater Depression for my family. Both of my parents had jobs, and those jobs required them to work more and more hours as the economy worsened. Even when my mom was home with me, she was also at her workstation, trying to get her assignments done. I remember times when she would read her memos aloud to me in her best storybook voice, trying to trick me into believing that international travel restrictions were as transfixing as the location of wild things. Vacation days became voluntary for both of my parents, meaning that both of them were paid more if they left the office less. In a time when there were so many people out of work, replaced by computers and outsourcing, it wasn’t like my parents were going to put up a fight. I was the only one who resisted, seeing places on my screen and demanding to be taken to them. I wanted to go to Australia. I wanted to see the Grand Canyon. My parents downloaded simulations for me, but it wasn’t the same. I wanted to touch a koala. I wanted the Grand Canyon to hear my voice.

The older I got, the more I realized how lucky we were. Some members of Congress had wanted to start a Second New Deal to get unemployed people back to work, restoring some of our national parkland and renovating schools and libraries. But instead the President started his War to End All Wars, and a lot of the unemployed men and women got shipped away to “defend democracy” and “defeat evil.” It was as if the President had decided that superpowers needed to follow the same plotlines as superheroes, that in order to be good you had to be actively, constantly fighting evil. So he sent our troops to Africa, which had been so debilitated by AIDS and other diseases as we watched, and to the Middle East, trying yet again to create the area in our own image. He left Europe alone because they were enough like us. And he left China alone because China would have bombed us to oblivion if we’d tried anything. The plan was poorly drawn, and as a result the WTEAW was drawn out and drawn out and drawn out, until enough people had died and the economy had recovered enough for the President to declare a victory only he believed.

So at least my family was safe. And if that was the price to pay for not traveling, I was willing (in retrospect) to pay it.

Still, as we drove on through Ohio and Indiana and Illinois, I started to get a sense of everything I’d been missing. I was used to everything kinda looking the same—the same superstores, the same fast-food places, the same caffeine stops. I knew there were tens of thousands of each of them, spread out across the country, all dressed in the same architecture and, it felt, pumped with the same air. But what I hadn’t counted on was the difference of the land. I thought I’d seen flatness before, but nothing at all compared to the way the highway stretched out across the plains expanse, an infinitely straight line of pavement with exits that led to nowhere close. As we dipped a little south, the trees were still shedding their final colored leaves—green muting into shades of rust and coffee and mud. It all passed in a blur, but every now and then I would notice a detail—a hand-painted, salvation-urging billboard for a church, two kids running through a field of grazing cows, a huge old statue of a brown-haired boy clutching a hamburger and smiling slyly. It made me sense the individuals in the multitude, the truth that not everywhere in America was just like everywhere else.

This, I thought, was encouraging.

It was right before dawn on Sunday morning when we made it to Kansas City, Missouri, in the hopes of making a quick crossing into Kansas City, Kansas. But there weren’t going to be any quick crossings that day—the sheer number of people trying to get into Kansas and farther on into Topeka was preventing that. By the time we got to the Kansas Turnpike it was a near-complete standstill.

“Kansas is turning into a parking lot, la!” Gus observed. “And this bus is starting to smell like a locker room.”

This wasn’t entirely true, but all of us were definitely ready for a shower and a change of clothes. We were used to seeing one another day by day, but we weren’t used to being with one another day into day. Most of us were wearing seven-day deodorant, but it seemed to have taken the weekend off.

Gus wasn’t going to let this mess up his style, though. Somehow he managed to squeeze into the bus’s coffin-size bathroom and change into a tight orange-and-purple T-shirt that read I’M TOO SEXY TO LET YOU STEAL THIS ELECTION.

On the news channels, we saw the mass of cars and ESVs and buses and trucks converging on Topeka—skycopters sent back pictures of highways that looked like strings of slowly moving beads. Some people gave up on their cars and started to walk—marching and chanting and plunging forward until they got to the state capitol.

“We won’t take to foot yet,” Virgil told us, “but I hope for your sakes that you wore comfortable shoes.”

The governor of Kansas was still insisting on his recount, and all the old Decents were rallying around him. They said the future of the country was at stake—something that we knew all too well.

For his part, Stein held hourly news conferences, encouraging more and more people to take part in the protest. For people who couldn’t travel, Kansas Protests were being set up on the lawns of every state capitol in the nation. When I called my parents to check in, my mother didn’t mention whether or not she’d go to the one in our state. I doubted she would; my defiance of my father was probably enough to fill the family argument quota for the month, if not the year.

I was pretty sure Jimmy’s parents were already at our capitol, setting up amps. When I told him this, he laughed.

“It’s not so far from the truth,” he told me. “They’ve set up a station to make banners.”

We didn’t talk about the conversation we’d had last night. It wasn’t exactly like it hadn’t happened—there was an ounce of further caution in our comfort, and there wasn’t anywhere else it could have come from. But we seemed to have wordlessly agreed to let it go. I needed to believe he wasn’t thinking about it, and he needed to believe I wouldn’t make him talk about it anymore. It was merely added to the list of invisible truces that made up a living relationship.

“I bet my grandparents are locking their doors and barricading themselves inside,” Jimmy went on. “They live in Tallahassee, only about ten minutes from the capitol building. They must be treating this like the eleventh plague.”

I knew immediately which grandparents Jimmy was talking about. While his mother’s side was a mix of almost every race and background imaginable, his father’s parents hadn’t been too happy to have their son marry someone who wasn’t as black as they were.

“They never got it,” Jimmy told me now, shaking his head. “What my parents did—that’s what all of America should be doing. Love who you want to love. Have children who are such a mix that it blurs everything. Make us all a mix, you know? You can’t hate someone so much for being different when their blood contains some of yours. It’s so simple. But my grandparents—they don’t get that at all. They wouldn’t get us at all.”

It felt good to be part of an “us,” even if it was being defined by the people who wouldn’t understand.

I could only imagine what Jimmy’s grandparents thought of Alice Martinez, Stein’s vice president. I remembered sitting next to Jimmy on the day she accepted her nomination, watching awestruck from Jimmy’s couch as she said:

“I am proud that I defy your categories. I am proud that I don’t fit easily into any box. I am proud of all the things I am and all the things I can be. Question yourself every time you think you only see one thing in me. If you’re seeing me only as a woman, think again. If you’re seeing me only as Latina, think again. If you’re seeing me only as black, think again. If you’re seeing me only as straight, think again. If you’re seeing me only as a politician or a mother or a daughter or a sister or a citizen of my town, my state, my country, my world—think again. I am all of these things at once, and I am going to put every last one of them to use.”

I knew Keisha had also been moved by Martinez’s words; she often told us that she was as much a Martinez supporter as she was a Steinhead. It was hard to see much of that spirit now, though. She, Mira, and Sara had stayed as far away as possible from one another since the dimensions of their triangle had been revealed.

Even though it was cold out, we opened windows wherever we could. We wanted air—any air that hadn’t been sitting with us for hours.

Finally, Clive needed to stop the bus for fuel, so we were all released into a rest station a few miles short of Lawrence. Virgil told us to be back in twenty minutes and swore he’d leave without us if we straggled.

“Gonna make you sweat,” he said, chuckling. Flora hit him in the arm.

This was our first waking break since the previous night, so when we walked out of the bus we were hit momentarily by the shock of daylight, air, freedom, and time. It didn’t take me long to notice that the rest area had divided itself roughly into two factions—with Steinheads keeping to one part and the opposition keeping to another, with only the restrooms and the food counters witnessing a tense intermingling of the sides.

I lost track of everybody while I used one of the bathroom mirrors to aid me in reconstructing my hair into something that looked like a style and not a follicular homicide. Once I managed to product myself into presentability and razor through the rubble of my stubble, I emerged to find Gus surrounded by three guys whose hotness made my thermometer spike to feverish heights.

“Duncan!” he called out to me. “Come meet the triplets!”

It was soon explained that Glen, Gary, and Ross had hitchhiked from Greenfield, Ohio, to get to Topeka in time for the march. Glen and Gary were both g*y; Ross was not. But they were identical in all sorts of other ways, including their dimples, their bright-sky eyes, and their willowy light blond hair.

“We have room aplenty for them, don’t we, Dunc?” Gus asked.

“I’m sure we can find a way for them to squeeze in,” I replied, wondering if it would be inappropriate to offer my lap.

“Super awesome!” Gus cheered, then grabbed Glen’s hand to lead the brothers back to the bus.

Gus wasn’t the only one of us making new friends. Mandy had met an elderly woman named Mrs. Everett on the line for the ladies’ loo. Mrs. Everett was a choir director from Chattanooga who’d come up with her church to march for Stein. When Mandy mentioned where she was from, Mrs. Everett said, “Why, you must know Virgil, then!” Mandy promised a reunion once their wait was over.

Jimmy met a boy named Elwood, who was from Tonganoxie, a town a few miles away, and he’d escaped from his parents to take his stand in Topeka. He couldn’t have been older than thirteen, but he was determined to get there, no matter how many people forbade him from going. Watching him was like seeing a match starting to burn, and Jimmy promised him space on the bus if there was any left to be had.

On the other side of the rest stop there were people who clearly would’ve preferred to slash our tires. One woman wore a shirt that said THE OVAL OFFICE IS NO PLACE FOR A SODOMITE, while another guy wore a cap that said THIS IS MY COUNTRY…DON’T MESS WITH IT. One mother stopped her children from playing with a kid with a Stein sticker on his backpack, as if he were contaminated by some liberal disease. It was so sad to me, that politics could get in the way of kids playing.

I walked over to where Janna and Mira were feasting on fries and taking a good look around. The two of them had been inseparable since last night’s fallout moment, as if Mira had subbed in a friend to make up for the absence of a girlfriend.

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