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From the Corner of the Oval: A Memoir

Chapter 1

Connecting the Dots

2011–January 2012

“so what do you do?” is the first question d.c. people ask, and the last question you want to answer if you’re unemployed, which I am. It’s October 2011, and since the summer, I’ve spent nine to five at my kitchen table writing cover letters no one will ever read. I keep setting the bar lower and lower, and I’m no longer hoping for actual interviews, but just generic acknowledgments that my applications have been received so I know that I haven’t actually disappeared from the universe even if my savings and confidence have. I’ve grown to appreciate employers considerate enough to reject me properly with a courtesy email. The halfhearted Google spreadsheet I keep on my desktop shows zero job prospects but tons of student loans, and rent due in four days. And now it’s time to go blow more money I don’t have at a bar full of douchebags.

Dante failed to mention the tenth circle of hell, which is for people pretending to be happy at a happy hour full of young politicos at a lousy bar with sticky floors two blocks from the White House. These are soulless TGI Fridays–type places, except that the cocktails are $17, and every time I walk into one, the soundtrack from Jaws plays in the back of my head.

I know the question is coming; it’s lurking just below the surface like a patient predator: What do you do? What do you do? What do you do?

Happy hours in D.C. are thinly veiled opportunities to network, hook up, or both. I’m not trying to do either, but here I am at Gold Fin because I promised my boyfriend I’d talk to his coworker’s girlfriend about doing research at her think tank. However, now that I’m here, talking to Think-Tank Tracy seems like a waste of everyone’s time. I’m not a good fit for a think tank, or a PR firm, or a nonprofit; I haven’t even received a generic rejection in weeks. I’m slowly figuring out that I’m not a good fit for this city in general, where everyone acts as if they know something you don’t and dresses as if they’re going to a mob boss’s funeral in 1985. Black on black on black. And not cool New York black. Boring, uninspired, ill-fitting Men’s Wearhouse–meets–Ann Taylor Loft black.

So instead of looking for Think-Tank Tracy, I look for the bartender. I try to get drunk right away so I can stop worrying about my bank account and how I’m going to answer the inevitable “What do you do?” question. As the edges of the room begin to blur, the floor feels less sticky, and life seems beautiful and ironic and funny.

As I wait at the bar for another drink, I watch the pantomime of ladder-climbing bobbleheads who eagerly anticipate the moment they can offer up their freshly minted business cards. These twentysomething Thursday night kickballers and Saturday night kegstanders are as interesting as the bleached walls of this bar, and yet they’re so arrogant, I must be the one missing something. After all, they are real people with real jobs earning real paychecks. They are young professionals who don’t go grocery shopping in sweat pants in the middle of a Wednesday afternoon. Staring into the bottom of my drink, I wonder, When did I fall so far behind? When did I become some loser twenty-five-year-old without a job or a life plan, who isn’t even financially responsible enough to do her drinking at home?

I’m two Cape Codders deep and waiting for a third when a guy with a severe side part and a visible desperation to be his father sidles up next to me, introduces himself, and then casually asks, “So what do you do?”

I know that other people in my predicament say, “I’m between things,” or “I’m weighing my options,” but everyone knows what that means and I hate bullshitting. So instead I look this baby-faced Reaganite in the eye and tell him I don’t have a job.

He keeps an urbane smile pasted on his lips, but I can see him recalculating, the wheels turning. He tilts his head, as though he might be able to assess my condition better from a different angle. This is how three-legged dogs must feel, I think.

The funny thing is, nobody cares what you do. They don’t ask because they’re curious about how you spend your day or what you’re interested in. What D.C. creatures really care about is whether you’re important or connected or powerful or wealthy. Those things can help advance a career. But a jobless girl getting buzzed at the bar can’t do anything for anyone.

The Reaganite backpedals away once he gets another beer, doesn’t even bother to offer me a business card, and so I quickly knock back my third drink and leave the bar before Think-Tank Tracy shows up. On my walk home, I text my boyfriend to say I’m done with happy hours. They make me too depressed.

i’d moved to d.c. in the spring of 2011, by myself, for a semester-long tutoring job at Sidwell Friends School. I would live in the nation’s capital for three months, and not a moment longer, because who wants to live in D.C.? I had enough friends to make a three-month stint exciting, but enough self-respect to know that D.C. and I would never really be into each other. D.C. is the girl who never swears and always wears a full face of makeup; the guy who makes a weekend “brunch rezzie” for him and his ten closest bros and thinks tipping 15 percent is totally solid. I moved to the city with two suitcases and my eyes wide open—I’d use D.C. to build my résumé, and D.C. would take all my money for rent and bland $11 sandwiches.

An exclusive Quaker school, Sidwell Friends flaunts quite a roster of notable alumni, from Teddy Roosevelt’s son to Bill Nye the Science Guy to Chelsea Clinton. In such a pressure cooker, where the Friday speaker series includes parents who also happen to be members of Congress, I was not surprised to learn that Sidwell students were unbelievably worried about not being smart enough or good enough at oboe/squash/debate/all of the above to get into college. So in addition to essay structure and thesis statements, I spent a solid portion of my tutoring sessions reassuring sixteen-year-olds that they were plenty smart, definitely going to college, and absolutely prom-date-worthy. In other words, my job in the spring of 2011 was to help those hormonally charged stressballs chill the fuck out.

Sidwell’s grounds were beautiful, and so were the smoking-hot, super-fit male teachers I saw in the hallways. I assumed the school boasted some top-tier experimental outdoor physical education program to have drawn all this masculine brawn. As a single woman with limited time on campus, I didn’t waste a precious moment playing coy. But every time I looked over to say hi to one of these human Ken dolls in a short-sleeved button-down, he’d look back at me with a quick, close-lipped smile, completely uninterested.

Sitting across from one of the square-jawed teachers in the cafeteria one day, I went for it and introduced myself. He gave me a sheepish smile and explained that he was working. “Working on what?” I asked. He didn’t have a stack of papers, a pile of tests, or even a pen in his hand. He sat there with nothing in front of him, but he was working? He said it again and threw his head in the direction of a group of girls sitting at a table diagonally across from us. I was confused, until one of the girls shrieked “Malia!” and the whole table cracked up laughing.

Oh, right. The Obama girls were at Sidwell, as were Joe Biden’s granddaughters. These guys weren’t male models moonlighting as gym teachers; they were Secret Service agents.

I gave up on the agents around the same time I gave up on D.C. in general. The city was too buttoned-up for me, too obsessed with politics. When my job at Sidwell ended in June, I’d pack up and go wherever the next job took me, abandoning my large group of college friends that had migrated to D.C. after graduation.

Not that D.C. was all bad—I’d miss spending time with Sarah, Erin, Charlotte, Emma, and Jade—five of my former lacrosse teammates whose apartments in Foggy Bottom were as close to one another as college dorms. Living in the District with a deep bench of friends had been like being a senior on a small campus all over again. I was dizzy-busy. There was always a rooftop happy hour or birthday party to attend, or jazz in the National Gallery Sculpture Garden on Friday nights, or boozy brunches on Saturdays that started at noon and ended after dark. We would meet up for runs in Rock Creek Park and make our way down to the National Mall, winding our way among the monuments and lamenting how slow we were compared to our mile times during preseason.

“It’s kind of funny,” Sarah said one Saturday in May as we walked arm in arm to a party on Seventeenth Street. JD and Elle, also Wesleyan alums, were throwing the first barbecue of the season. “It’s kind of like D.C. is the new Wes.”

“Only without the papers or stress or freezing lacrosse games in Maine,” Jade said, shuddering at the memory.

“Or boy drama,” Charlotte said. “Or is there boy drama?”

I feel her elbow in my ribs as they all stop to look at me.


“Really?” Emma asked. “Any luck with the Secret Service agents?”

“Definitely not. But it’s fine, because I’m not dating guys while I’m in D.C.”

“Does that mean you’re dating girls?” Jade asked.

I shake my head. “I’m only here for one more month. I’m not going to waste my time dating Napoleon wannabes.”

Washington is great for a long weekend to see the monuments and the cherry blossoms, but I find the ethos of this one-trick-political-pony town as seductive as Patrick Bateman in American Psycho. Even the cashier at Trader Joe’s asked me what I did for a living as he bagged my groceries with the spatial reasoning of a Tetris champion.

For once, my social life seemed straightforward. I’d friend-zoned the entire District and felt great about it, because the last thing I wanted in the spring of 2011 was to get tied down to a guy in this ego swamp of a city.

Which is why, of course, I did not fall so much as face-plant in love that night at the backyard barbecue.

It was a hot, humid evening, and I was draining my second Cape Codder when the upstairs neighbor walked out onto the porch with a beer and a bowl of chips. He was tall, with sandy brown hair and the casual friendliness of a displaced Californian. “Hey, I’m Sam,” he said, extending his bear paw of a hand.

Between the sportsman’s scruff and the moss-green eyes, I was sure he had the cutest face I’d ever seen, even if it was still caked with mud from an all-day rugby tournament. Every time he looked at me, my heart flailed in my chest like one of those car dealership inflatables. When Sam laughed at one of my jokes, I nearly passed out. After an hour or so, I saw him saying goodbye to his friends when my song came on—Dr. Dog’s cover of “Heart It Races.” Before he ducked out, he whispered in my ear that Dr. Dog was one of his favorite bands, too.

“It was like lightning!” Sarah squealed on our walk home that night.

“Hasta la vista, boy hiatus!” Jade laughed.

“JD says Sam just asked for your number,” Charlotte said, smiling down at a text.

“Give it to him!” Emma yelled.

sam wasn’t like other young washingtonians. i mean, sure, he worked at a PR firm and was more political minded than I was, but so was everyone. And yes, he had volunteered on the Obama campaign in 2008, but everybody my age in D.C. had been involved in Obama for America—it was part of the standard D.C. pedigree: high school, four-year college, OFA. When I told people I’d been teaching in the fall of 2008, they squinted, confused. Why would I have spent 2008 teaching when I could have been volunteering for the greatest president we’ve ever had? The idea that I needed to start paying back my student loans after graduation—that even if I’d known about volunteering, I wouldn’t have been able to afford it—never crossed their minds.

But Sam got it, and got me. He loved that I was a teacher, that I didn’t care about business cards or job titles. We started to text all day and see each other every night, aware but unafraid of our breakneck romantic clip.

Two weeks after the backyard barbecue, Sam and I were in the checkout line at Whole Foods. As we unloaded our cart, I asked, “You’re my boyfriend, right?” and just like that, we were official. Two weeks after that, he was at my brother’s wedding, meeting my entire family in the middle of a stress torpedo. My mom liked Sam’s can-do attitude. (He fixed a bench in the front yard.) My dad liked his handshake. (Firm but not a death grip.) My little sister liked his Converses. My big brother, the groom, thought I was “fucking crazy” for dragging a brand-new boyfriend to a family wedding, “and Elizabeth agrees with me,” he said of his future wife over the phone.

But that night, while everyone danced under a big white tent in the backyard, Sam told me he loved me. We were about a hundred feet from my childhood bus stop. My brother was right: I was totally fucking crazy. Luckily, Sam was, too.

good partners help you grow, and they force you out of your comfort zone, and Sam did both in short order. His default mode was optimism. Between his kisses and his laid-back SoCal vibe, I felt so much more relaxed, as if a kitten were sleeping on my chest at all times.

Most nights that summer were drunken, musical dream walks. Sam spent his days at the PR firm, and his nights jamming in a band called Fear of Virginia. He knew all the underrated bars in D.C. and had so many friends I began to call him the mayor. We couldn’t walk down Eighteenth Street without his stopping to say hello to the dishwashers on break outside Lauriol Plaza or a crowd of former coworkers eating mussels at L’Enfant Cafe.

From the Corner of the Oval: A Memoir
by by Beck Dorey-Stein

  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction, Politics
  • paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Spiegel & Grau
  • ISBN-10: 0525509143
  • ISBN-13: 9780525509141