Showing up at the ballot booth was hardly “political activism.” It was the bare minimum for participating in society.
Josh saw me naked long before we ever slept together. I met him his junior year, right at the tail end of his transition from New England jock to elfin hipster. This happened frequently at my small liberal arts college—the polos and crew cuts of prep school eventually gave way to the knit caps and plaid button-ups of higher education. He was a year older than me, a film major with a prickly reputation, and somehow I ended up in one of his experimental videos—one that required my bare body to be painted white, a shock of black paint slashed on the small of my back. He painted me himself. I liked it.
Hipsters were hardly my style, but he was never meant to wear skinny jeans. There was something visceral and outdoorsy about him. He was swarthy and strong and serious, the perfect last-minute hookup. I propositioned him a year after the film shoot, at a lawn party during his graduation week. “I never did see that movie,” I pointed out. We had intense, wasted sex at his house, lights off, a row of our painted classmates bobbing on the television screen. I thought I’d never see him again.
In the fall, I bumped into him during the first week of class. It turned out that Josh was taking his time, and still had a semester left in school. We started hanging out almost by default. Our chemistry was not dazzling, but little by little, we got to know each other. I explained that I was writing my senior thesis on 1970s porn, and instead of cracking a joke about a money shot, he asked how Vietnam fit in. I told him my dad had run for governor of New York on the Green Party ticket, and he thought that was awesome. He ran his half-formed film project ideas by me, the kind generated specifically to make the audience feel uncomfortable. I smiled and nodded.
More than once in a while, he’d make an esoteric, artsy reference, and I’d feel too awkward (and annoyed) to ask for an explanation. But I actually appreciated that he wasn’t that fratty bro anymore. He was smart and creative, and politics-wise, he seemed to be on the same page as me. When I went off on the war in Iraq or crisis pregnancy centers or homophobia, he listened. He never got fired up, though, and that was kind of nice, too. I could spend hours arguing about politics. For the month or so we were fooling around, I relished the respite.
One night, after a handful of Old Grand-Dads on the rocks, my heartbreak at the 2004 election made its way into our pillow talk. The election results had come during the first half of my junior year, when I was in Chile taking a semester off. I had sent in my absentee ballot weeks before, I told Josh, but I felt a million miles away from it all—the pundits, the polling, my politically conscious friends. I spent election night on the carpet of my Chilean friend’s floor agonizing with another American, feeling powerless and horrified as another four years of Bush became inevitable.
When John Kerry conceded the election the next day, I burst into tears at an internet café. I called my mom and cried more. I felt even worse when I walked through a student-led protest in a Santiago plaza. A replica of the Statue of Liberty was on fire. A crowd of pissed-off Chileans trampled on an American flag on the ground. “Don’t they know that half of the country voted against Bush?” I thought. Nobody understood. I had never felt more homesick.
I glanced over at Josh, and he looked genuinely perplexed.
“You were crying?” he asked me.
“Well, yeah,” I replied. “I know it’s kind of silly, but Bush won by three million votes. It all just felt so hopeless.”
He shrugged. “Well, I don’t vote,” he said casually.
“Are you serious?” I tried not to sound shrill. “But you’re from New Hampshire!”
“Democrats and Republicans are all the same, anyway,” he replied. “And the third parties never win. Electoral politics are bullshit. I try to stay out of them.”
Now we were arguing. I conceded that, yes, both parties are bought out by rich people, and yeah, it sucks to have to choose the lesser of two evils. But come on! Josh was educated and informed—how could he just recede into that “disaffected youth” cliché? Political activism, he explained, was just not his style.
That really set me off. I believed in pressuring members of Congress and pushing for campaign finance reform, but I was far from a blinky-eyed stereotype. I was never the one organizing campus protests or knocking on doors registering voters. Showing up at the ballot booth was hardly “political activism.” It was the bare minimum for participating in society.
Eventually, we dropped it and fell into a drunken sleep. When I woke up the next day, the whole thing clicked. Josh was generically leftist and mildly querulous, but at the end of the day, he had a degree and a trust fund: bohemian by choice. He didn’t really need to invest in everyone’s future, because his was all set. If it were up to him, he would have probably remained on that campus his whole life, lacquering college girls and making movies in his artistic bubble.
I managed to file one more self-righteous zinger that night, the last one we spent together. I told him that if he didn’t show up on Election Day, he didn’t have a right to complain. He rolled his eyes at me and said, “I don’t complain that much.” He was right.