Smoke tendrils rose from César and Brett's lit cigars as they came outside and joined CJ on the courtyard. The intoxicating aroma of tobacco battled the more robust tang from logs burning in the fire pit and lost. Owen was next door, his nose stuck in a book, studying for an exam. Ritchie was running around Georgetown with two friends from school; they dressed up but instead of asking for candy, they were collecting funds for UNICEF. CJ fondly remembered doing the same his first Halloween in Washington.
He came outside around dusk, laid a couple of logs in the fire pit, and lit the candles inside the jack o’lanterns he and his brother carved over the weekend. He had two bowls of treats―one filled with candy and the other one full of granola bars―from which the costumed kids approaching the house could pick.
“Hey, dads, what are you doing a week from tonight?”
“That’s the night before the election?” Brett glanced at César who shrugged. “Nothing planned. Not that I’m suspicious butwhat are you up to?”
“Me? Nothing?” CJ countered his fathers’ mistrustful stares with a smirk. “But the campaign has something planned. I was going to invite you guys but it’ll mean missing some work on Monday since we’d have to leave town in the afternoon.”
César waited while a miniature Wolverine helped himself to the Snickers; his mother’s suggestion to take one of the healthier snacks fell on deaf ears. “Out with it, CJ. Don’t be a tease.”
“Damn, you’re getting cranky in your old age, Dad. The campaign’s having a big rally in Philadelphia. I get to go on stage and thought you guys might like to come. President Obama will be there and I can introduce you to him.”
“I don’t know, CJ. You have permission from your dean to skip classes but Ritchie has to go to school on Tuesday. And Brett and I have to work. I’m not sure it’s a good idea for us―”
“Bruce Springsteen’s performing. You can probably meet him in person too.”
César almost jumped out of his chair. “What time do we have to leave?”
Ritchie bitched about not being allowed to go with his brother and the fathers; in the end he acquiesced and agreed to spend the night next door. The drive to Philadelphia was over two hours. The men decided to take César’s Escalade and were unsure what time they’d be back in Washington.
“CJ! My man!” President Barack Obama's toothy smile shone in the semi-darkness of back stage. “You’re looking good. I’ve been impressed with your TV appearances. Well done.”
“Thank you, Mr. President. Hi, Mrs. Obama. It’s great to see you again.” CJ shook hands with the President and received a peck on the cheek and a hug from the First Lady.
“Barack’s right, CJ. You’ve done a wonderful job speaking on behalf of Hillary. We’re both very proud of you. Malia says hello. She figured you’d be here tonight.”
“Thank you. It’s been a very interesting experience. If I may, I’d like you to meet my parents. Dad, Papa, I know I don’t have to introduce the President and First Lady.”
César extended his hand towards the couple. “César Abelló. It’s a pleasure to meet you both.”
“Sir, ma’am.” Some things are ingrained in a military man and Brett almost snapped off a salute to the Commander in Chief. He hesitated before offering his hand to shake. CJ knew marines never saluted when out of uniform. “Brett Davenport, sir. It’s an honor to meet you.”
“I don’t have to be a genius to figure out you’re the retired marine your son told us about. Hard to hide that posture.”
CJ waited a moment before tugging on Owen’s hand. “I’d also like to introduce you to my boyfriend. This is Owen Liston.”
“Mr. President, Mrs. Obama. It’s a pleasure.”
“Great accent, mate.” President. Obama’s choice of words made CJ smile while Mrs. Obama shook her head. “I truly enjoyed my visits to your country.”
“Thank you, Mr. President.”
“CJ! Are you already driving the Jesuits at Georgetown crazy?” Bill Clinton’s drawl and rasp were recognizable and when CJ turned around he grinned at the former President’s goofy smile.
“President Clinton! I don’t know about that, sir. I’ve been too busy to get in trouble.”
“You’ve somehow made an impression then. I had a call from the School of Foreign Service asking about you.”
Brett stared back and forth between the two Presidents flanking his son and smirked. “Is there something you haven’t told us, CJ?
“NO! Ooops, sorry for shouting. I haven’t done anything wrong, Papa. Mr. President, this is Brett Davenport. He’s one of my dads.” CJ pointed at Brett and then at César. “And this is the other one, César Abelló.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. President.”
“Same here, sir. What did our son do?”
“You should be proud of your son, gentlemen. The dean wanted to find out how I’d met CJ. He was surprised I wrote a letter of recommendation for him. It seems your son impressed him with his appearances on behalf of my wife.”
“It figures I’d find you in between two Presidents of the United States.” Brian Sims clamped a hand on CJ’s shoulder before giving him a hug. “You’ve done well, buddy. I’m proud of you. César, Brett, Owen, you guys should be too. CJ’s been spectacular. I hope one day I can convince him to come work for me. I’d be happy to find a spot for him on my staff.”
“Hey, Brian!” Brett shook hands with the Pennsylvania State Representative. “How about we get him through college first? We can worry about him getting a job after he graduates.”
CJ saw César’s mouth open―without a sound coming out―at the same time he felt someone tap him on the shoulder. “Excuse me. You’re CJ, right?”
Bruce Springsteen approached CJ without him noticing. But César most certainly did. CJ twirled around again and smiled at his father’s favorite artist. “Yes, I am, sir. It’s great to meet you, Mr. Springsteen.”
“Please, it’s Bruce.” Springsteen nodded at Obama and Clinton. “Barack, Bill, sorry to interrupt. I thought it appropriate to make myself known since I understand this young man will be introducing me.”
“I am, sir. It’s great to meet you. I’ve grown up listening to your music.” CJ glanced at César and winked. “If I could, I’d like to introduce you to my boyfriend and my fathers. You’ll have to forgive the dark-haired one. I think he’s about to go all fangirl on us.”
The artist laughed while trading names and shaking hands. “I’ll assume he’s the reason you’ve been listening to my music. I’m always happy to meet fans. How about we take some pictures. Anybody have a phone handy?”
Owen took his out and CJ posed his dads with each of the Presidents and Springsteen. The basement gallery would be growing and CJ wouldn’t be the focus of all the pictures this time around. While the men from Washington mingled with the national figures surrounding them, local Philadelphia and Pennsylvania candidates had an opportunity to speak. When a campaign representative approached and gave CJ a five minute warning, everyone wished him luck as they stepped further into the shadows of back stage.
He approached the microphone at center stage and faced Independence Hall with a giant, vertical Stars and Stripes behind him. “Hellooo, Philadelphia!” He paused for a moment, reminding himself not to rush. He wanted those standing in front of him, and those watching at home to hear each word he uttered. “My name’s CJ Abelló. You may have heard of me before. I’m the impertinent twerp―that’s what the campaign manager for the other candidate called me―who had a difference of opinion with their camp’s representative during a recent appearance on FOX.”
The crowd roared in approval. CJ stole a quick glance at his fathers and boyfriend and was rewarded with double thumbs up by Brett and smiles from all three. As planned, his remarks were brief, lasting less than five minutes, culminating in his introduction of Bruce Springsteen. The artist lavished praise on him and CJ smiled when the sonorous ovation as he left the stage was much louder than when he had taken it.
Carrying a guitar and with a harmonica around his neck, Springsteen strolled onto a second stage located in the middle of the throng. After a quick greeting, the harmonica came to life and moments later he strummed the opening bars of “Thunder Road” to the enthusiastic approval of the crowd. CJ stood with his dads and Owen who appeared frozen in place, transfixed by the performance. CJ’s eyes however, were on César. The ineffable satisfaction of orchestrating his father meeting his musical idol made every minute dedicated to the campaign worth it.
When Springsteen finished the song, he continued to pluck the guitar while addressing the multitude of people on the plaza. He acknowledged the presence of the high-powered politicians in attendance and heaped praise on Hillary Clinton for her honesty, experience, attitude, and vision for America. He also spoke for a few moments about Donald Trump, calling him a self-serving individual not fit to lead the United States.
With a comment about his dream of a better America, Springsteen performed “Long Walk Home”―calling it a prayer―closing out his set with “Dancing in the Dark” from the Born in the USA album. CJ marveled at how great the acoustic version of the three songs sounded. When he looked at César, his dad was wiping at his eyes. The feeling of satisfaction returned even stronger than before and CJ squeezed Owen’s hand. He had taken hold of it at some point, not conscious of doing so.
Back on the main stage, Chelsea Clinton spoke, ending with an introduction of the forty-second President of the United States, her father, Bill Clinton. The former President yielded to First Lady Michelle Obama who once again called for the Democratic Party and its supporters to go high when the other side went low. It was a line CJ often borrowed during his own presentations. When President Barack Obama called for votes instead of boos, CJ experienced some sort of déjà vu; it was an exhortation he also used while addressing audiences.
The evening came to a crescendo when Hillary Clinton strode into the spotlight with Katy Perry’s “Roar” blaring from the sound system. She spoke about goals for her presidency and asked those in attendance for their support and votes. After warm farewells and a few more pictures, the four men from Washington headed home. It was late and the next day promised to be a long one, but CJ was awake and alert. The exhilaration he felt was not lost on his fathers who kept thanking him. Behind the wheel, with his boyfriend in the passenger seat, his fathers in the back, and Springsteen blaring from the sound system, the long ride home was as pleasant an experience as he ever had.
As he did during the primaries, CJ refused to vote early or use an absentee ballot. He wanted to experience casting it on the actual Election Day. He was careful slipping out from under the covers, allowing Owen to stay in bed a bit longer. They had returned from Philadelphia in the middle of the night and crashed; it was not enough sleep, but CJ figured they could catnap during the day.
He showered, dressed, and stole out to the garage after downing an energy drink―he would start the coffeemaker when he returned. Straddling Hunter, CJ experienced the familiar thrill which suffused him every time he turned the motorcycle on. Since graduation day, he grasped every possible opportunity to take it out for a spin. Riding to the voting booth was as good a reason to ride as any.
Later that morning, as they rode Amtrak to New York, both slept most of the way. Once in their apartment, CJ asked Owen to run out to the deli and get them lunch while he returned phone calls. Over the past few months, CJ traded numbers with a multitude of journalists and soon found out they would often call him directly to ask for comments on whatever the news of the day were. He checked in with the communication staff in Brooklyn first and was given the go-ahead to talk to reporters on behalf of the campaign using his best judgement. The trust placed on him was both scary and satisfying.
After eating, they headed to Clinton’s campaign headquarters. The mood was a combination of fear and excitement amongst staff and volunteers. An electricity ran through the offices; everyone seemed intent on whatever they were doing. Although the door was open, CJ knocked on the frame and poked his head through instead of barging in. “Hey, Robbie. You’re probably going crazy but I wanted to say hi.”
“Get your ass in here, buddy.” Clinton’s campaign manager stood and walked around the desk to greet his visitors. “Hi Ozzie, welcome to the madness. I’m actually glad to see you guys. CJ, would you mind giving us a couple more hours of your time today?”
CJ looked at Owen and was rewarded with an almost imperceptible nod and a gentle smile. “Sure, what can I do for you?”
“Interviews! Radio and TV, mostly in Spanish, both American and foreign media. I also want you to talk to Armed Forces Radio. Play up your dad’s a marine and a Republican but he’s supporting Secretary Clinton. You know the routine. You’ve been our surrogate long enough. Ozzie can stick with you. Two young, good-looking young men will be great optics. And by the way, those shirts are awesome.”
CJ surprised Owen with a polo style shirt with the campaign’s H and arrow logo embroidered above the left breast. He had the design scanned and the shirts custom made. “Glad you like them. I had one made for you. I hope you don’t mind they’re all pink.”
“Dude, I’m as gay as the two of you. I can rock the pink. I’m going into hiding pretty soon. I’ll see you guys tonight at the Javitz Center. Here, take these. They’ll give you access to the backstage area.”
Returning to Manhattan in the late afternoon, they crawled into bed and napped for a couple of hours. Once awake, CJ called the dads while Owen took a shower. He recounted what they had been doing and promised to call again in the morning to let them know what time they would be returning to Washington―it all depended on how late they stayed up celebrating Clinton’s victory.
CJ was surprised when he saw his name scroll across the screen and in a frantic search tried to locate the remote control while calling out to Owen to come see. With the sound now on, they watched a report about Arizona high school students skipping classes to go canvassing on behalf of Clinton. CJ was their inspiration according to one of the boys: “If that kid from Washington, a fellow Latino, can get involved and play such a big role in a presidential campaign, so can we.”
“Mate, you’ve been a bad influence on those guys. You’re contributing to their truancy.”
Both men received appreciative glances from passersby as they strolled down Fifth Avenue. CJ thought of Chipper and his singing “Autumn in New York”; his friend introduced him to what he called The Great American Songbook and CJ was hooked. The crisp evening, bright lights, and jostling crowds truly made the season special in New York City. They had dinner reservations at a Japanese restaurant in Midtown Manhattan but were in no hurry, enjoying their time alone.CJ did not expect any calls―as far as he knew, his responsibilities to the campaign were done with―so they both turned their phones off before leaving the apartment. They would switch them back on after dinner. This was us time.
“You know, I read this article about Jack Kennedy and what he did on election night 1960.” CJ picked up a sliver of pickled ginger with his chopsticks and stuck it in his mouth. “I can’t remember the details right now, but he was supposedly so nervous, he wanted to disappear and hide in a bar.” CJ glanced around the restaurant admiring the muted colors and subtle Asian decoration. It was a quiet place conducive to private conversations. A good place to hide. “And I feel the same way.”
“Are you that nervous?” Owen sounded surprised.
“Yeah… What if Trump pulls an upset?”
“Mate, it wouldn’t matter. I’m not sure I’ve made it clear enough how proud I am of you. The way you’ve handled yourself the past few months is mind blowing. At eighteen, you’ve done more than most people twice your age wouldn’t even dream of doing. Win or lose, you’ve done your part and you’ve earned the respect of so many damn people.”
No longer concerned with anyone knowing he was underage and catching him consuming alcohol, CJ ordered a bottle of sake. He took a sip and smiled at his boyfriend. “It’s been interesting. And I’m glad you let me spend so much time doing all this shit.”
“It hasn’t been shit, CJ. It’s been incredible! When I first started thinking about coming to the US to study after hearing Uncle JP talk about living in Washington, I never dreamt I’d end up here.”
“You mean eating sushi in New York?”
“No, you dork! With you. This close to a political campaign. It’s been a wild, wonderful ride all thanks to you.”
“I’m glad you’ve enjoyed it. But get ready for changes after tonight. With no more political responsibilities, I’m going to concentrate on being a college student. On spending more time with you, Ritchie, and the dads. And on ESPN and the sports section of the Post instead of MSNBC and the front page.”
“Yeah, right! That’s until Robbie or someone like him calls. I can see you doing an internship at the White House next year. But I really don’t mind, CJ. You’ve made it a point of including me. Anything I’ve missed has been my decision. And I’ve enjoyed some things a lot. The debate, the trip to South Beach in August, and last night stand out. And it’s not because of the celebrities. It’s been because of you. The way you relate to people and the way they react to you.” Owen motioned for their server and asked for the check.
“Yeah, those events were a blast. I liked being able to introduce Dad to Springsteen. His expression when Bruce tapped me on the shoulder made all the bullshit worth it. Thanks for dinner, babe.”
After the meal, they strolled the few blocks to their next destination hand in hand. CJ wanted to stop at Rockefeller Center to see the election map projected on the ice rink in front of the main building in the complex. The skyscraper was lit in red, white, and blue and American flags around the rink fluttered in the breeze. They stopped at Starbucks and cups in hand, leaned against the railing looking at the ice.
CJ wiggled against Owen’s arm until his boyfriend draped it across his shoulders. “I love you,” he said, resting his head against the taller man’s chest.
“And I love you back. I really do. I’ll repeat what I said before: I’m so proud of you. I know we all kid you about how people remember you and recognize you. And how you seem to stumble into situations where you meet people most of us never would. But I think some of it’s us being jealous.”
“Yeah, you guys give me shit but don’t mind meeting the same people after I break the ice. You just better remember who’s in those pictures down in the basement the most. Can you believe it’s been almost three years since we met?”
The United States map displayed on the ice showed all fifty states and the District of Columbia. As polls closed and the television networks declared a winner for each state, its shape was colored crimson if declared for Trump, or indigo if for Clinton. There was more red than blue on display when the guys arrived.
“That doesn’t look good.” Owen sounded concerned.
“Nah, nothing to worry about yet. Indiana and West Virginia have voted for Democrats in the past but I was sure they were going for Trump this time. Kentucky and South Carolina are part of the southern Republican stronghold. No surprises so far.”
At eight o’clock, a large number of states closed their polls and projected winners were announced in quick succession for a multitude of them. When enough of those states were blue and Secretary Clinton took the lead in the electoral vote count, the crowd roared its approval. CJ hugged Owen and thought if the noise of the crowd was any indication, Manhattanites had rejected one of their most famous residents. Trump supporters appeared to be in the minority.
“You know something, Ozzie? One of my fears, no matter who wins, is for the future of the Republican Party. I fear for its viability. I’m still amazed at how the Grand Old Party nominated Trump. Even though he stands for so much that has been anathema to the Republicans for a long time.”
“Anathema? You better be glad Brett’s not here. He’d be giving you hell right now. What do you mean, anyway? And why would you care about them? You’re a Democrat and I'd imagine you’d be happy.”
CJ hesitated for a moment. “I guess I’m a firm believer in the two party system. I think the country benefits from having opposing views debated. A robust discussion of the issues facing our country helps keep stagnation at bay. And I’m concerned with their continued existence because of what the polls have shown about their supporters.”
“You mean that basket of deplorables stuff?”
“Nah, and that was way too stupid a comment for a politician to make. I understand what she meant and the Trump campaign twisted it around for their purposes. But you have to be careful about insulting any potential voter. You don’t have to cater to them, but you need to show respect. Anyway, the polls have shown African-Americans, Latinos, and college-educated whites leaning towards the Democratic Party more with each election. And those groups are the future. Their percentage of the total population will continue to grow.”
“And why do you think it’s happening?”
“Religion and money, the two greatest evils in the world.”
“Don’t do that, CJ. Please?”
”Don’t do what?” CJ turned to look at Owen, furrowing his brow in confusion.
“Don’t trash religion. I know we see things differently. And I don’t disagree with you entirely. But I don’t like it when you say bad things about it. And take your own advice. Religious people are voters. Show them some respect.”
CJ stared at Owen and his serious expression softened as a smile crept up on him. He leaned in and brushed his lips against his boyfriend’s. “Sorry… And thank you for correcting me. I’ll try to improve. But if I falter, spank me.”
“Oh, I can spank you anytime you want, babeee.”
“Asshole! What I meant by religion when I misspoke before was social issues. The Republican Party’s stance on racial, gender, and sexual orientation matters run against the growing feelings in the general population. And when I said money, I meant the economy. If we have a strong economy and people feel wealthier, they’ll look at conservative, smaller government proposals in a better light.”
At nine, Trump regained the lead in the Electoral College and the number of red-colored shapes on the map grew. A smattering of cheers came from the crowd. When NBC projected Clinton as the winner in New York State, the roar heard before was nothing but a whisper compared to the deafening thunder emanating from Rockefeller Plaza.
CJ leaned in and kissed Owen. “Come on. Let’s walk over to St. Patrick’s and catch a cab. We have a party to get to.”
Both men wore jeans, dress shirts, and ties, but while Owen donned a Brioni, wool, double-breasted blue blazer CJ gave him as a birthday present, CJ himself eschewed a proper coat and instead wore his black leather motorcycle jacket. Neither one had shaved since the previous day.
CJ had washed off the TV makeup at the apartment but was now ready to have his face painted again. While riding to the Javitz Center, he received a text message asking him to make one final TV appearance. They were met at the entrance to the venue by a young effeminate guy who stared at him while running a hand down the front of his Perfecto jacket and decided he needed minimal cosmetics. He applied powder to diminish the glare from the lights and told him how good he looked with his scruff. Owen laughed, reminding his boyfriend how the make-up woman in Brooklyn wanted CJ clean shaven.
While CJ did his interview, Owen strolled over to the bar and returned with two Bud Lights in hand. Once the camera was turned off, CJ grabbed his beer, took a long pull from it, and then dragged Owen around. They said hello to people they’d met before, and posed for pictures with two young women who flirted in an outrageous way with them until CJ mentioned Owen was his boyfriend.
As the night wore on, the convention center was almost quiet and the mood was tense. CJ thought it was due to how close the vote was in Florida, North Carolina and Virginia―three states the pundits claimed were essential for her to win. A cheer went up when Clinton took a lead in Virginia for the first time.
At half past eleven, Florida was called for Trump. CJ looked at Owen and spoke in a quiet tone. “Let’s get out of here.” His voice had a slight tremble and his eyes were moist.
“You sure, mate? It’s not over yet.”
“Yes it is, Ozzie. Florida was the final blow as far as I’m concerned. I don’t see the onslaught ending until Trump is declared the winner.”
“Are you okay?”
CJ wiped at his eyes and shook his head as they walked outside. “No… Not really. I’m sad. I’m angry. I’m disappointed. I’m scared. I’m… FUCK! I don’t even know what I’m feeling. This sucks!”
“Well, I’m still proud of you, CJ. You did everything that was asked of you and more. And you did it with grace. I don’t think this will be the last campaign you work on. Whichever candidate gets your support in the future will be lucky to have you. If Trump does end up winning, you can be gratified about your part in the election. And one day, when you tell our kids about what you did, I’ll be right there letting them know their father is one of the best men I ever met.”
CJ will return in early 2018. Look for Georgetown: Over The Rainbow then.
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