The summer after I graduated from my Central California high school, I interned for my Congressman Gary Condit in Washington, DC. I couldn’t wait to move out of my hometown that summer—to move to a big city and have a job instead of seven academic periods each day. To be an adult who lived in an apartment and ran out for 3am burritos at will (it didn’t occur to me then that this combination is a contradiction in terms). However, Condit was later embroiled in the Chandra Levy murder scandal. The whole experience was thrilling and formative for me, and then ultimately disillusioning as the rumors about Condit flew and the media feeding frenzy began. Once I encountered the darker side of DC, the secret bargain of “leaving home” became clear to me: you can never go back. The adolescence I was so ready to leave behind was actually wonderful in its own way—maybe even idyllic. And suddenly gone for good.
In my debut novel The Perfect Candidate, eighteen-year-old Cameron Carter similarly moves across the country and runs headlong into an internship on Capitol Hill. This excerpt reveals the first few pages of the novel: After a brief but ominous prologue, we find him in a taxi, speeding toward his new apartment and envisioning an idealistic few months. Like many recent high school grads, he’s too intoxicated with the possibilities of adulthood to realize that life as he knew it is definitively over. But Cameron will soon face one other troubling truth: he may not get out of DC alive.
The End of the Summer
You don’t notice it at first.
Initially, you see our nation’s next Speaker of the House, whose all-American grin is rivaled only by the pick me! smiles of the interns surrounding him. You see the gleaming, upright dome of the Capitol in the background—lodged into the building like some massive, neoclassical Fabergé egg. You see good, uncomfortable posture.
It is the official summer intern photo op we are looking at here. A glossy eight-by-ten, automatically sent by the Capitol photographer’s office to summer interns’ homes, a few weeks after they drain out of the city. It’s the picture that will hit the proud local papers. The one that will stay on the refrigerator.
And in my case, some FBI file.
You don’t notice it at first, but then you can’t not see it.
It’s the sweat pouring from my forehead, matting down my hair, and tickling the end of my nose. But I’m not sweating because it’s hot.
It’s the outline of two cell phones—one in each pocket of my khakis.
It’s the smiles that aren’t really smiles—at least not mine. How can you smile when someone is trying to kill you?
That summer was supposed to be my Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the movie my high school government teacher had shown three times: at the beginning and end of the year and before winter break. He really should have just shown us the sequel: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Where Secrets Get You Killed. And the sequel to that: Mr. Smith Goes to Hell.
Forgive the strong language.
“Offensive speech” was forbidden in the intern manual they gave us on day one, after all. I just seemed to have some difficulty following the rules that summer. The first page listed guidelines of conduct for interns:
- No offensive speech
- Don’t talk to strangers (e.g., press!). Report suspicious individuals to intern supervisor
- Do what you are asked
- Be safe
- Only enter the congressman’s office when invited/accompanied
- Ask questions!
- Don’t e-mail any sensitive documents that you wouldn’t want to see plastered all over the political blogs within hours
- Build our congressman’s reputation!
- You’re not here to change the world
- Have fun!
I technically followed only one of them.
I asked questions.
Just not the ones they wanted to hear.
Oh, and I had a little fun, too.
The taxi was going eighty miles per hour. And we weren’t even on the freeway yet.
When the driver made eye contact with me through the rearview mirror, I quickly hunched down in the back seat so that he wouldn’t think I questioned his judgment.
“You think I’m going too fast,” he taunted.
“No, no, it’s fine.” I shrugged with a brief smile, not quite grasping the courtesy I felt obliged to offer the man (I was paying him, after all).
As we left the Dulles airport, I saw a sign illuminated in the night sky: Virginia State Route 267.
We were moving too fast. Everything was moving too fast.
Three days before, I was graduating from high school, on a dusty and dry May night. The kind of heat that California’s Central Valley conjures up to warn you about the punishing summer ahead. Three nights ago, I was hugging and selfie-ing and lying to everyone that we would “totally keep in touch.”
I guess they were mostly good people. Though among the graduating class were the guys who’d dipped me into a trash can, headfirst, as congratulations for winning the sixth-grade spelling bee. And the girls who pretended not to know me as they sat poolside and I mowed their parents’ backyard lawns for my dad’s landscaping business. And the vice principal who ratted out Ingrid Cuevas’s family to the immigration authorities, which meant our student body president/softball team captain disappeared after spring break a couple months ago.
Okay, maybe they weren’t mostly good people. But for some reason, three thousand miles away, hurtling toward an unknown city and a lesser-known summer internship, I missed home.
“It’s late on a Sunday night—no traffic. We’ll get to DC in no time,” barked the driver, over the soft jazz station he’d tuned the radio to. “So where’d you fly in from?”
“Lagrima,” I shouted back.
Pronounced Luh-GRIME-uh. My hometown was no exception to the grand tradition of California cities named after Spanish words with butchered pronunciations. The English translation of the word was chillingly accurate: tears. As in, This town makes me cry.
“La-what?” he shot back.
“It’s basically San Francisco,” I answered.
“Basically San Francisco”: two hours inland, filled with tract homes past their prime and abandoned strip malls.
“So are you coming home or leaving home?” asked the driver, as progressive exit signs announced unfamiliar suburbs: Reston, Wolf Trap, Falls Church . . .
“Coming home,” I lied. I’d be going to Lagrima Junior College in the fall, but one could dream. Or at least pretend.
“You work? In school?”
“I work for Congressman Billy Beck.”
Summer intern, to be more precise.
I needed the internship because my mom met my dad while she worked for the Department of Agriculture in DC eighteen years ago. She got her start as a summer intern and then landed a full-time gig after graduating from the University of Virginia. Your parents show you your paths. And when your dad shoots horse manure pellets into rich people’s lawns, and your mom once helped run the country—you choose your mom’s path.
“Powerful man,” observed the driver. “If the Dems take back the House in November, he’ll be the new Speaker.”
“You follow politics?” I was impressed.
“It’s DC,” he said. “Politics follow everyone.”
Suddenly both talkative and surprisingly civic-minded, the driver started ranting about none other than health care reform and if I could please do something about lower deductibles.
I nodded, but my thoughts were drifting.
To when my parents fell in love, or something like it, and I came along. And when my mom left the East Coast so she could get married and raise me. In that crap hole of a town. She went from senate hearings and lobbyist lunches to strip malls and cold cuts. I planned to do the reverse.
A semitruck started to merge into our lane, and the driver slammed the car horn and actually sped up.
“Think they own the road,” he muttered as he coolly gulped coffee from a tall cup. “Sorry about the horn.”
“No worries,” I said.
“Even the name Affordable Care Act is a paradox, and they all know it . . . ,” his rant continued.
Another distraction. A memory, maybe my first: a foggy December morning when my mom drove me to preschool. Someone had too many beers for breakfast and thought our lane was their lane. How do you explain a closed casket to a four-year-old? My dad did his best. Lagrima took my mom away from DC, and then it killed her. And Lagrima isn’t going to kill two members of the Carter family.
“So are you in it for the long haul?” asked the driver. “On the Hill. You know, most folks only last a few years before they burn out. Working all the time, making less than me, even . . .”
“Oh yeah, definitely,” I eagerly replied, naively certain of a career I hadn’t begun. Though if you counted the grassroots committee for the last election, I guess I started a couple years ago. I led other high school students door to door, telling people to get out on Election Day. I even convinced some dude with an oil painting of Ronald Reagan in his living room to vote for Congressman Beck.
And I was hooked. Hooked on all of it. The policy, the possibilities, the campaign. I imagined the people at The Hill and Politico wondered who used that single Lagrima, CA, IP address that refreshed their sites day and night. It was me. My friends got on BuzzFeed to take quizzes that told them which celebrity child was their spirit animal. I read it because it’s the best-kept secret of political news. And all I wanted was to be where that news—where history—was made.
I recognized the first city name on a freeway sign: Arlington. Getting closer. And then a sign for the Pentagon, like the opening act for the main event.
“Foggy Bottom, you said?” asked the driver.
“Yeah,” I said, acknowledging my new neighborhood, which sounded more like the name of a garage band than the metro stop for George Washington University. I pulled out the orientation packet I’d received from the home office, to verify the apartment address. “Corner of New Hampshire Avenue NW and I Street NW.”
I read through a few other details in the packet: I would be living with roommates “Zephaniah” and “Hillary” in an apartment just west of GWU. And I would take the blue line on the metro every day to the Capitol South stop. As in: the Capitol of the United States of America. My office for the summer. No big deal.
And then the leafy trees on either side of the freeway gave way to a view of that giant, gleaming Styrofoam cooler of a monument—the Lincoln Memorial. As we rounded the road surrounding Honest Abe’s shrine, the piercing white Washington Monument appeared briefly in the distance. The driver banked to the left and headed through several clean, abandoned street blocks. We zoomed by a tiny brown sign that identified the hulking marble building behind it as the State Department, and if it was possible to be starstruck by an office building, I was.
The ride came to an end in front of a three-story brick building that looked like it was made of vomit-colored Legos. The driver’s parting words were something about Hollywood fund-raisers, but I had long stopped paying attention. I stood in front of my summer residence, bags in hand. My jeans and long-sleeved shirt were suddenly oppressively hot in the thick East Coast air. The clumsy footsteps and bellowing laughter of some students echoed from the GWU dorms across the street. Though they were probably just a high school graduating class ahead of me, they seemed so much older. College students. Adults. Who lived in apartments with roommates instead of in a house with a dad. Like the apartment I was going to live in, starting in a few minutes. Like the adult I was about to become? An urgent desire to be back home at Taco Bell with my dad tiptoed toward the front of my mind, but it faded as I clunk-clunk-clunked my suitcase up the stairs.
I slipped in the locked front door as an oblivious resident walked out. That wish about Taco Bell kind of came true because the hallway smelled like a food court at three a.m.—all fried/sticky/industrial cleaner. Muted murmurings came from each doorway and floated through the stale air as I searched for my apartment—number 1F. I heard it (opera music) before I saw the apartment door. And that internship brief had not prepared me for the person on the other side.