I first saw Emelia at a carnival run by our neighborhood school to raise money. She was a striking woman with dark hair and blue eyes like mine, but seeing her made me feel a little like the sister who seems pleasant-looking enough until you meet her beautiful sibling. A few months later, Emelia and her daughter walked by our house while my daughter, Charlotte, and I were in the front yard. Our kids hit it off, dancing around with twigs. We arranged a playdate. After that first playdate, there was a second, then a third, then a fourth. We seemed to have a lot in common—we're both working moms (she's a lawyer, I'm a professor), and we parented in similar ways. Emelia and her daughter began strolling by our house regularly, stopping for a few minutes so the kids could play together upstairs. I liked the neighborly quality of those impromptu visits.
By October 2004, with the election looming, I noticed that Emelia carefully avoided looking at the John Kerry poster in my yard when she dropped by. At a time when I was having passionate discussions with everyone about the presidential race, Emelia and I never discussed the election. I realized that I wouldn't bring it up at moments when, with someone else, I surely would. Finally, when Charlotte and I were at her house one day and the girls were in the basement playroom, the topic of politics appeared suddenly, squarely there before us, unavoidable and inevitable.
“I'm one of those undecided voters,” Emelia said, and though I sensed that this was not quite true, I earnestly took it at face value. I talked about the mismanagement of the Iraq war, about the widening gap between the very rich and the rest of us, about the environment, about abortion rights.
Maybe to shut me up, she eventually said, “It just comes down to your gut. You have to go by your instinct, and I like Bush and I don't like Kerry.” Then she added, with a defiant look in her eyes, “I'm voting yes on Measure 36.”
The passage of Measure 36 would ban gay marriage in Oregon. I didn't know what to say.
“And it means a lot to me that Bush is Christian like me,” she said.
“Kerry is Christian, too,” I offered feebly.
She smiled and said, “Well, he's Catholic.”
As she walked Charlotte and me out, she said, “I hope you don't think I'm a freak,” as if acknowledging that in a politically liberal neighborhood, she was an anomaly. “I hope you'll still be my friend. That's the great thing about this country: we all get to vote for whoever we want.”
Holding on to her earlier comment of being undecided (even though by then it was obvious that it was untrue), I asked if I could bring by some newspaper articles for her to look at.
“If we all had to be as informed as you to vote,” she said in response, “nobody would vote.”
A few weeks later, Bush won. Measure 36 passed. My friends and I walked around in a rage, in shock. Two weeks after that, Emelia and her daughter stopped by for one of their impromptu visits. I could barely meet her gaze.
She told me about a lucky break she got at work. “This is the kind of thing you'll think is silly,” she said cheerfully, “but I prayed, and then minutes later, God answered my prayers—the phone rang and a great witness came through for the stand.”
At that moment, I couldn't have felt more alienated from her. I forced a weak smile, but I could think of nothing even remotely benign to say. I felt like a petulant child, a sore loser, but I also felt righteous. Didn't she understand the consequences of her vote?
But I also felt confused, as if my feelings were inappropriate. I wondered if any of this rage was misplaced jealousy: envy of her beauty, the equanimity with which she took things, her seeming confidence that life—and, by extension, the world—would turn out just the way she'd hoped. I couldn't decide if my fury had anything to do with those things, but I hated her and her blitheness. I hated her implication that the election was just another day in the life of capitalism. She seemed to feel that since we each got our own vote and had a right to our own opinion, there should be no friction in our exchange. By this logic, voting became purely one's own business, a matter of individual choice, not the stuff of community debate and consensus.
We didn't talk about the election. I couldn't bear to, and Emelia was a tactful, gracious winner. As she was leaving, she said that she and her husband wanted to have my family over for dinner. I said nothing. Over the next few hours, I couldn't stop thinking about her. I knew I should remain friends with her and, as they say, keep the dialogue going. I could learn a lot from her about the views of conservative Christians, and I could perhaps hope to nudge her in a more liberal direction.
But I couldn't do it. I e-mailed her and told her not to invite us to dinner. I told her that eating with her would feel like a betrayal of my queer friends and a betrayal of who my daughter might become—cherry-picking one among the thousand reasons why I couldn't be her friend. I felt self-righteous rather than righteous.
She did not write back. She did not stop by. I avoided driving down her street. I avoided the neighborhood park. I made myself a pariah. “Was that e-mail really necessary?” my husband asked, clearly annoyed. I told the other neighborhood moms what I had done, as if looking for absolution. One of them said, “You live by your principles,” but it sounded like an insult rather than a compliment, like there was something a little too self-important, something a little immature, about living by one's principles. I could tell that she thought I was a hypocrite, that I was as intolerant as I accused the other side of being. We stepped out of the discussion awkwardly, turning our attention toward the noise of our kids playing.
Maybe I am being too extreme, I thought later—but I couldn't treat voting lightly, like it was shopping. I did not want to play along with the illusion that politics could be discreetly cordoned off from daily life and that Emelia and I could carry on like bosom buddies.
Despite living only one street apart, I managed to avoid seeing Emelia for two years. Then, a few weeks ago, I saw her at Fred Meyer; as I pulled my cart up to a check stand, she waited in a nearby line. I froze, and then, slowly, as if afraid of tripping a wire, I turned my cart and walked off in the opposite direction like a coward, like a woman of grandiose gestures who lacks the fortitude necessary to see them through.
From the Fall/Winter 2006 On Principle issue
TagsCivic Life, Conversation, Politics, Values, Divides
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