Nerve Classics

I Was a Single Woman in Washington

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When I got divorced a couple of years ago, I was a little like Gollum coming out of the cave, staggering into the sunlight. I’m from New York, but I’ve been working as a journalist in Washington, D.C., since 2000. So when I became single, I started to do the Washington thing, which means having email friends. And to one cute fellow journalist, I wrote, “I hope you’ll set me up with your friends.” He said, “Sure, you just have to lower your standards.”

The first thing I did was go to a dinner party. The guests included a defense contractor, a woman just in from Baghdad (who flinched every time a garbage truck rolled by) and a busty religion outreach director for a Democratic candidate. The food’s really nice but what do we have in common besides the fact that we’re Washington singles? It all seemed sort of awkward. Then at the end of the dinner, the host comes out and in his hand he has . . . Trivial Pursuit. My heart just sank. But I fought my instinct to run and we sat down and played.

And what do you know, it’s so much fun. Just incredible. We get loud and drunk and stay there until four in the morning, playing the game and laughing. I was in heaven. Then the busty woman stands up and says, “What are we all doing here? Don’t we have important things to do in the morning?” And I was thinking, “I just got out of a difficult marriage. There’s nowhere else I’d rather be.”All the nerdy parties were fun. Even the one with the Washington artists, who, like Columbus, just seem to have missed their real destination and settled on the wrong piece of land.

But the political world has been less fun. At one fancy dinner, a campaign manager started flirting with me and telling me how much he’d liked my recent appearance on a network news show. And by way of flirting, he said, “Do you want to meet Ted Kennedy?” I said, “Sure,” and as he’s leading me over to Ted Kennedy, he says, “So you’ll have dinner with me, right?” I realized what a transaction it all was. As it turned out, it was good that I met Ted Kennedy. He was really nice to me. He knew my work. But then I was faced with this dinner. It just seemed weird, this currency of introductions and dinner.

I’ve come to realize that men in Washington are small-town people. They wear polyester suits, and they have a really primitive idea of sex. It’s so high school. These are the guys in the government clubs. In school, they weren’t the nerdy-cool people. They were the nerdy-nerdy people. They say stuff like Foley did about some kid’s shorts — “love to slip them off for you” — and think it’s hot when it’s just sleazy and childish.

Speaking of which, Foley has provided Washington with its first sex scandal in a long time, and it’s the perfect one for the city. It reminds you that men in Washington just really don’t like girls, and that they’d much rather talk about sex than have it. If Foley had had sex with these boys, at least the older ones, it would have been fine, because they had reached the age of consent. But because it all happened by email he’s in a lot of trouble. It’s so typical of Washington: it’s really sleazy but it doesn’t actually involve sex.

That Dennis Hastert is involved makes perfect sense. I was at a lunch with him last year. He used to be a wrestling coach, you know, and he has that demeanor. At high schools you always have that teacher, that coach, who’s creepy that way. These Foley-type things happen while you’re in high school — I mean, an older man comes on to a male student — and it’s kind of awful. You’re not sure what to do about it or how to help the student. The adults just try to ignore it and hope it will go away. That’s what happened with the Foley scandal.

And it makes sense that email is involved, too. Most relationships in D.C. are conducted that way, and it reinforces people’s inability to relate to each other. This one guy who’s married emailed me and said he’d had a dream about me. So corny. Before I think about it, I write back, “What was I wearing?” I think I’m being funny. It seems obvious I’m making fun of him. But of course he writes back this long email, waxing poetic about my clothes.

It’s not like I’d never been to D.C. before I moved here. I went to Georgetown for college. People there would actually ask what you got on your SATs. It’s the most vulgar thing in the world, and it’s typical of people in D.C.: you can’t relate to people as human beings; you can only find out if they can do something for you.

When I was leaving New York for D.C., this banker friend of mine said, “Don’t move to Washington. It’s all about power. It’s not like it is in New York, where it’s all about money.” It’s true. At least in New York people know why they’re doing things: to get rich and famous. In D.C., they are motivated by these constantly shifting power dynamics, always trying to get to the top. And it’s not like you can just look at your W-2s to know where you stand. You have to be ever-vigilant about who’s important from one day to the next, and get close to those people. It means having sex is not a high priority.

Not that I’m Miss Sensuality. I don’t want to be in touch with my body. I go to yoga but I skip the spiritual part at the end. I don’t think my body’s a temple. But even I am shocked by people in D.C.: they really don’t care about pleasure at all. It’s all about subjugating, about having higher SATs. They all sublimate their feelings. For all my many problems, at least I can understand that I have emotions and tend to act on them. But every sexual feeling these men have transfers to their work. So they get really weirdly worked up over budget discussions. Recently, I went to an event at a conservative institute and Ken Starr was on the panel with John Yoo, who wrote the torture memo, so you know they’re both obsessed with sex. But what did they get all feverish and agitated over? Constitutional law and the question of presidential power.

The other day, I was trying to think of couples I know in D.C. who have loving relationships. Plenty are happy, but few are affectionate. Even the highly functional ones I could think of are weird. I always like to see this famous journalist and his hot girlfriend with her miniskirt and short black hair. He’s nice-looking too, the kind of guy you’d ask for advice on your stock portfolio. But he enjoys telling groups of guys what he likes to do with his girlfriend, how he likes “to take her.” That’s what it’s about in Washington: he’d rather talk about doing her to his friends than actually to have sex with her.

Then there’s the business card thing. I was on the train coming back from New York and met this guy who works for an intelligence agency and goes to Africa a lot. I was so excited to meet a spy and was bragging about it later to my friend, who said, “Did you give him your card?” And I felt a stab of fear. Because I had and I’d forgotten how in D.C. it’s so loaded, giving people your card.

Like once at a party this government worker, a chunky loser without hair in his thirties or forties who would never have a chance with me, asked for my card and I figured, why not? Then I see him later and he’s tapping the card on the table and nodding to himself, like “Ahhh, business card!” He was all holding it up, almost like “I got her!” Every day I get all these emails, like, “Latin American Leadership Forum!” from people who I gave my business card to without thinking about it. Again, it’s not about sleeping with people. It’s about who you are, who’s surrounding you. It can be really soulless. If you can talk to another human being, you’re way ahead of everyone else.

Power couples are weird. It’s not about money. Take this couple I met at a dinner last Monday. They were both in the Bush administration. You know how they got together? He came to her office one day and said, “Tell me about Afghanistan.” She knew that was a come-on. Because no one cares about Afghanistan. Now they’re married and he’s a foreign policy expert and she manages his career. And it’s as if their deal is she will provide sex for him if it helps him create position papers.

Most people are in a couple in Washington. There are very few singles. So they act out their sexuality publicly. At one party I watched a woman describe how two columnists had fought over her decades before and she was practically fondling her crotch while she spoke.

But there are some people actually having sex besides the foreign correspondents, who are all sleeping with each other, and that’s the Eurabia-trash crowd. I like those parties. All the women are Latina terrorism experts and super hot. Their skirts are half the length of mine, and I wear short skirts. The host plays really bad club music and comes out, all “Who wants to dance?!” And so you dance with some guy from Der Spiegel with no body hair. Or some writer from Al-Hayat

But for the most part, people don’t really want to sleep with you. They just want to show you off. This Bush appointee invited me into his office during a meeting just so his staff would see me in his office. He didn’t really want to have an affair with me. He just wanted people to think he was. I had to watch this staffer he was meeting with feel the humiliation, thinking his boss had brought his mistress in. It feels lousy. As a woman, you don’t want to be for show.

A year ago, I met a New York journalist and fell in love with him. But he’s in New York, so I’m still going out alone all the time, just watching all this transpire, and even though I’d like to go back to New York eventually there are times when I find Washington really sweet. Like the other night I got a ride with a couple from a charity ball to an embassy party. They weren’t married — at least not to each other — but they were very close. They forgot I was in the backseat. The guy, a congressional staffer, said, “At night, I can’t go to sleep because I think about that line in the bill I should have fixed.” And she looked at him and said, “That’s so sad.” The moon was coming through the windshield, and they looked into each other’s eyes. It was wonky, but it was loving and really sort of nice. They seemed happy. At that moment, I realized, D.C. couples don’t live in their bodies. They can’t have normal sex lives. But they really care about what they do.

As told to Ada Calhoun.

This article originally appeared in Nerve’s 2006 personal essay collection.