Keisha came over to ask me quietly if I’d seen Sara by the bus or if I’d noticed whether Sara had taken her gear or not. I pointed out that there’d be no way for Sara to get into the bus without Clive’s keys and said I hadn’t seen her since she’d left. Keisha looked worried. “I’m sure she’s okay,” she insisted, “but I’d still like to know for sure.” I told her to call Sara, and she said that she’d tried but hadn’t received an answer.
Mira had gained custody of their tent, so Keisha was going to stay with Janna and Mandy. She tried to make it seem like this was okay, but I could tell she was sad about everything. Sad about Sara, sad about Mira. The conflict of her sadnesses made them cut even deeper.
I was glad that things were simpler with me and Jimmy. He was where I was supposed to be, and he was where I went. We zipped our sleeping bags together and nestled into each other as we grooved ourselves into the ground.
“Soon it will be your birthday,” I whispered to him as we fell asleep.
“I hope I get my wish,” he whispered back, then drifted away in my arms.
The tree Jimmy had planted for me for my last birthday was really a sapling. I’d noticed it immediately when I’d woken up and looked out my bedroom window on that birthday morning, and I’d known without a doubt that it had come from him. It was the best present I’d ever received. I could imagine it growing along with my life, along with our love. At first, it needed a lot of care—Jimmy and I would take out the hose and water it gently, then spray each other until we were all grass stains and laughter. We’d watched as its first leaves turned the yellow of raincoats. Then we’d wrapped its base snugly when the chill set in. We knew that—like ourselves, like our love—it would eventually require less care, less attention. Someday it would be able to take care of itself. It would be so strong, so tall, that its permanence would be irrefutable.
I couldn’t give him something so permanent. Not here, not now. So I was going to give him something entirely different.
I was going to give him something momentary.
I didn’t wake him, but I was ready when he woke up.
The sky was the color of pink lemonade. I couldn’t see the sun, but I knew it was coming. He squeezed his eyes closed a little tighter before opening them. He blinked away the blur, stretched in the sleeping bag, pressed against me.
I kissed his forehead, his eyelids, his cheek, his lips, his neck. I held his hand, then pressed it against my chest.
“Happy birthday,” I said quietly.
And we stayed like that. On our backs, looking skyward. Listening as the world woke up. Tents unzipping, people yawning and groaning and saying good morning. Children crying out for breakfast, parents using their placating voices. Birds speaking to one another, wondering what was going on. Green banners rippling in the breeze. Footsteps, music. We couldn’t see any of it—nothing but the blue of the sky emerging from the pink.
My heartbeat: steady, unrushed.
The two of us: awake in the pause, enjoying the ordinary within the extraordinary, each moment only slightly different from the last. My thoughts drifting to him. His thoughts drifting to me.
My birthday present: the ease of the day. This small stop. The beat that keeps me going.
We could’ve stayed there for minutes or for hours. The point was: Time didn’t matter. Only our bodies, our breath. Only us.
And we stayed there, listening.
Then, a voice. Stein’s voice.
“I’m sorry to wake you, but I wanted to let you all know how much I appreciate how many of you have stayed and how many of you have joined us over the last twelve hours. Your message is being heard, loud and clear. I hear it, my opponent hears it, and America hears it. There are well over a million of you here and over five million of you at state capitols around the nation. Also, over twenty million of you have posted your name on our site to offer support. We will start showing those names on the screen to my left, just to let you all know that you don’t just stand here in Kansas for yourselves, but you do so on behalf of countless others.
“It has been, as you can imagine, a long, long night for many of us. The governor of this state would prefer that we not be here. He would like us to pack and go home, so he can try to steal this election without any scrutiny. Members of the opposition party have told me to let the process take its course. If I don’t like the results, they say, I can always sue. Well, I have to tell you: As far as I’m concerned, this is part of the process. I am not going to wait, I am not going to rely on others to make my case, and I am not going to silence my own voice or the collective voice of the people who voted for me. I am not going to shut my eyes and hope it goes away. There have been popularly elected Presidents who came before me who did not take to the streets when their elections were challenged…and these Presidents always lost the Presidency they deserved. I will not make that same mistake. I owe it to my voters, to my country, to our democracy, and to my faith in justice to actively and forcefully defeat any efforts that seek to undermine the results of this election and the will of the people. I will be here for as long as that takes…and I thank you for joining me.”
Stein would return to the stage once an hour, every hour, until the governor of Kansas backed down. In between his appearances, various other politicians and entertainers came onstage to rally us on. First up was a folksinger from the ’90s—a favorite of Mira and Keisha’s—who came armed with little more than her voice, a guitar, and some carefully chosen words. The song she sang was one I’d always thought of as a breakup song. But now I realized it was a protest song as well.
The houses have been condemned on Memory Lane
I’m tired of this struggle that leaves everything the same
I’ve tried so hard to make it work
that I’m dying inside
Well, you can take my past
But you can’t have my tomorrow
Promises that remain promises are useless and they’re cheap
I wish I could put a price on words so I could make them keep
I put so much faith in you
I lost all my faith in me
Well, you can take my past
But you can’t have my tomorrow
I’m giving up on giving up
I can’t leave it all to prayer
’Cause the first step in getting better
is knowing what’s not there
You said you’d make it better
and that just makes it worse
Well, you can take my past
But you can’t have my tomorrow
Yes, I want my life to last
So you can’t have my tomorrow
No, you can’t have my tomorrow
Jimmy and I lay listening from our sleeping bags. Then, when the folksinger was through, I unclasped his hand so we could both applaud.
We were ready now to jump back into the world.
Janna and Mandy’s present was blueberry pancakes. This in itself would have been sweet, but even sweeter was the collective effort that went into making them. Since all of the nearby grocery stores had been pretty much cleaned out, Janna and Mandy didn’t just make the pancakes from scratch; they also had to dredge up the ingredients from scratch. All they had, at first, were the blueberries, which Janna had packed from home, knowing they were Jimmy’s favorite. So they started talking to our neighbors. Janna and Mandy and Sue and Elwood and Flora and Keisha and Mira moved from blanket to blanket, tent to tent, finding flour in one spot, eggs in another, cooking oil in a third. The pug owners behind us had brought along an electric griddle, which they let Elwood borrow. In return, we gave away some of our Everything Bars—but mostly people didn’t ask for anything in return. They were happy to help out with a birthday present.
Jimmy enjoyed it thoroughly.
The only members of our group who didn’t join us for breakfast were Gus and Glen, who remained in their tent even as the rest of the rally bustled to life. I imagined the best (while taking care not to imagine too specifically)…but when Gus finally emerged, it wasn’t sparks I was seeing. Instead of looking peachy, he looked like the pits.
“Uh-oh,” I murmured to Jimmy.
“Oh, not again,” he murmured back.
As Glen came out of the tent and made his way to his brothers, Gus trudged over to us.
“What happened?” I asked.
“Oh, it’s just so everything,” Gus replied with a sigh. “I mean, he’s super hot and he has good teeth, but when we were just us, you know, he didn’t really play the hits. The oomph and aahhh were height-worthy, but the chatter was mucho ungood. I mean, he said he loved how surface I was, and I know it was meant as a compliment, but I don’t know if that was the right compliment to shoot me. Plus plus plus we totally couldn’t sleep right—parts of us kept falling asleep before the rest of us did, you know? I just don’t think it’s going to work.”
“Another soul mate bites the dust,” Jimmy said.
“So much for love,” Gus agreed. “So much for moon-star-sun-aligning knock-your-socks-off-through-your-shoes I’m-so-lucky-I-found-you kismet kissing-grinding love love love. Now, where are the pancakes?”
Somehow I knew Gus was going to be okay.
Glen, too, looked like he was going to be all right. Until I realized that the brother coming over to talk to Virgil wasn’t Glen. It was Gary. Or maybe Ross.
“We should probably head home,” he said. “But we wanted to thank you for giving us a ride.”
Virgil shot a chastening look Gus’s way. (Gus, forking pancakes onto his plate, didn’t notice.)
“You don’t need to let hinky-jinky get in the way of your protest,” Virgil told Gary (or Ross).
“No, sir. It’s just that my brother has a match he has to get back for, and we didn’t really plan to be here this long. I think the crowd is big enough that the three of us won’t be missed.”
I couldn’t figure out if the “won’t be missed” was directed at Gus or not. Gary/Ross didn’t sound too bitter; if anything, he sounded genuinely thankful for the ride and the company.
As we watched the triplets leave, Gus looked particularly bummed. But I think the rest of us were a little bummed, too—this was the first departure from our group, and it meant that other departures were also possible.
Gus came over and we all sat together at the center of our makeshift campsite. Hundreds of names scrolled across the screens each minute—the names of all the people who were with us even though they couldn’t be with us, who had texted in to add weight to what we were doing. In the background, politicians tried to rouse us with their oratory, and musicians tried to engage us with their songs. We were focused, for the moment, on smaller things, like our lives.
“That’s the problem with triplets,” Gus said between bites. “You always wonder whether you went with the right one.”
“Oh, that’s not just with triplets,” Jimmy chimed in.
I put down my fork. “What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked, trying to play at making it sound playful.
“Nothing. I wasn’t talking about us,” Jimmy assured me. “And anyway—it’s my birthday. You’re not allowed to be angry with me.”
“Maybe you’ve mistaken me for one of my identical twins,” I said.
“Nah. I’d know you with my eyes closed.”
Gus was starting to squirm. “Hey now, hey now,” he said. “We’re in a no-bickering zone, comprende?”
“We’re not bickering,” Jimmy and I said at the same time.
“Well, as long as the two of you agree on that…”
Jimmy thanked everyone for the effort behind the pancakes. We cleared off the plates, returned what needed to be returned, and then…sat. And listened. And waited. As promised, Stein came and spoke every hour on the hour. There wasn’t much new to report—more election officials were coming out against the governor, but he was standing firm. Almost two million people were now in Topeka, but nobody knew what that would really mean. We were prepared to stay, but we weren’t entirely prepared to have nothing to do but cheer and applaud and dig in our heels.
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