You savour these moments in the spotlight, swirling the attention like a fine wine in your mouth. All lenses narrowed on your charming smile, your blue eyes made bluer as your pupils contract to pinpoints, the only part of your body that shies away from bright lights. The reporters jostle for position, shoulders kicking toward the front of the stage. Ravenous, famished, churning the air as they sniff for political chum. I envy your ease in these situations, you slice through the tricky queries and lob back talking points, you smash the softball questions and ace the FAQs.
The moderator takes the mic and introduces you. The incumbent candidate for the First Legislative District of Pennsylvania, representing the City of Erie, Terrence Sullivan.
Back in college you earned the moniker The Terror for your inebriated escapades. Streaking nude through the girls’ dorm, crunching empty cans of beer against your forehead, prying caps off bottles with your teeth. We lived in different climes, even then.
On campus, you ruled the equatorial zone, swinging from the vines, beating your chest, mingling perfectly with the fraternal creatures, bursting with colour and cockiness and cacophony, quarterbacking on the football field and orating in Poly-
Sci classes. I surveyed the temperate zone, sitting cross-legged on a flat rock near the summit of a pine-topped mountain, content with the company of a red-tailed hawk circling overhead, while occasionally zig-zagging on the tennis court and examining petri dishes in the Biology lab.
Our forced co-habitation was a collision of unnatural intersections. A social experiment in random selection. As freshman roommates in Baldwin Hall, you wanted the top bunk, and I didn’t mind. I’ve never been particularly interested in negotiations.
I glance to my right and catch your eye as the cameras flash.
The years since we’ve graduated have been good to you, Pee-Wee. I remember when you rolled into our dorm room freshman year, tennis bag slung over your back. You introduced yourself as Herman Weiss, and the first thing I thought, right after I coined your nickname ‘Pee Wee’, was that your ridiculous ponytail would have to go. Now look at you, a top epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins wearing a decent suit, a passable haircut, and fashionable black glasses.
I know you don’t relish these events, too many people, too many questions, no time to dig deep into a topic. Sweat glistens on your forehead and you resist the urge to wipe it with your sleeve.
The moderator introduces you as Dr. Herman Weiss, a surprising challenger for a seat in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.
In less than two decades we graduated from best friends in college to improbable political opponents. Most folks think you don’t have a chance, you’re not a political animal, you’ve never run for office before, you’re up against a popular incumbent. And they’re right. But if I’ve learned anything from watching you operate in college, it’s to never underestimate you.
Like that time you took a Poly-Sci course ‘out of interest’ and we sat next to each other in class. You got top marks on every paper and test. But that last required element, to give a speech in front of the class, you were going to skip, even if it hurt your grade, because you avoided public speaking. I convinced you to try, and helped you prepare.
Don’t wipe your face with your sleeve, I advised, it makes you look desperate and sloppy. Don’t stare off into space for too long when someone asks a question. Look them straight in the eye and say, ‘that’s an excellent question, I’ll consider it and get back to you.’ If someone asks something you don’t want to answer, say ‘what we should be talking about is…’ and then introduce what you want to focus on. And whatever you do, don’t point with a finger, use your knuckle. That one made you chuckle. But when you gave your talk on ‘why policy decisions should be based on science’, the audience was in the palm of your hand. So I know better than to count you out.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see you shuffle a few index cards and set them on the lectern.
On my own, I was rubbish ‘at networking’ as you called it. You navigated the social streams with ease, spawning conversations, creating giddy whirlpools of women swirling round you, baiting their breaths. You loved being around people, laughing, slapping the men on their backs, a gentle slide along the upper arm for the ladies. Your battery was recharged by swimming with the school, buzzing with the hive, running with the pack.
The only time you were on your own for any length of time was when you got mononucleosis and were quarantined in the infirmary. Being immune, I brought you books and class assignments. You were miserable, not from the mono so much as from the isolation, left with your thoughts circling like a dog chasing his tail. I taught you some basic self-awareness practices, breathing exercises, a few simple chants, a guided meditation. As always, you were a fast learner, and the desperation dissipated.
Half way through Sophomore year you started to downplay your intelligence, you didn’t want to be called an elitist, you were a man of the people. You got ‘good enough’ grades even though you could have been magna cum laude. You moderated your drinking, no more streaking, though you still opened beer bottles with your teeth, until you chipped the front one. I wonder if you got that fixed yet, or if you keep it as a memento, proof that you’re good ole boy. I turn more fully towards you, seeing if I can spot the imperfect tooth.
You rotate your trunk to face me, grey eyes calm behind the black glasses. I remember the last time we talked, at the 10-year reunion. I was surprised you showed up, knowing how you don’t like big groups. We’d always had different political views, but that never got in the way of deep discussions, and we ended up at a local bar, sipping whisky at 2am, reminiscing about the old days.
It’s nice to see you again, but I wish the circumstances were different. You’re a chew toy in the mouth of the political machine and I’m the dog being sicced to rip you apart. I smile wide, showing my canines.
You’ve kept the chipped tooth. I nod in appreciation. The moderator asks the first question, something about what shenanigans you got up to in college.
Pointing my knuckle at the audience, I say what the voters really want to know is...