I lose it on election days. It’s the waiting. So many months of anxiety and fear and hope and by the final hours I could eat my own arm.
When the polls open at 6 a.m., I’m already in line. In my neighborhood — Rogers Park, on the far North Side of Chicago — this means walking a block north to the pizza place on the corner, voting booths set up parallel to the salad bar. That’s where I voted in the 2012 presidential election. The 2014 gubernatorial election. The 2015 mayoral election — general and runoff — and the 2016 State’s Attorney’s race.
I’m ready. I’ve done my research. I’ve got my ID, my phone-ready guide to the Illinois Judicial Retention Ballot and, as the years passed by, my son; first in a baby backpack, then patiently drawing pictures, now at my side asking questions: What is the electoral college? What is a primary? Who is Laquan McDonald? Once, election officials were late to let us in and the crowd in front of the pizza place started devising a plan to break down the door. “Isn’t that illegal?” my son asked in a too-loud whisper, and a woman squatted down to his eye-level and said, “This is our civic duty.”
I’ve tried early voting but my nerves can’t take it. I cast the ballot and am immediately insane, obsessively watching the news, the returns, the polls, the commentary, the editorials. Everything else is on hold. We have to get through today.
One of the many, many things that have made the 2016 presidential race unbearable: It hasn’t been a day. It’s been five hundred and eleven. I repeat: five hundred and eleven days of this shitshow.
I would like to be professional. I would like to be thoughtful. I would like to be respectful of the democratic process.
I would also like for this to be over.
I’m ready. I’ve done my research. I have my ID, my phone-ready guide. I head into the early-morning darkness with my now-8-year-old son, but instead of north to the pizza place, we go south to the student union at a nearby college. “Why do we vote here now?” he asks. Later, I learned that the pizza place was under new management, but in the moment I make up answers — more people have registered this year, maybe there’s not enough space? This is parenting in an election year: a child poses a question, a grown-up tries their best. He came home from the playground one day and asked what pussy meant. He came home from school and asked if his friends would be deported. He asked why he could play with squirt guns in the front yard but his cousin could not. He asked why his uncles can’t eat at certain restaurants in Indiana. He asked why some people in North Carolina can’t use the bathroom that they want to use. He asked why I cry sometimes while I read my students’ essays and I tell him a partial truth: “The writing is so good it makes my heart hurt,” because the whole truth is too much to bear: so many of them are writing about sexual harassment or assault.
During the 2004 US presidential election, I lived in a one-bedroom flat in Prague, teaching for an American study-abroad program. A month before I’d left Chicago, I fell in love — we’re talkin’ lightning bolts. He was a web designer. He could work remotely. We decided he’d come with me. We decided to give it a shot.
I was 28 years old; new language, new culture, new relationship. We wandered around our dream of a city, cobblestones and castles, everyone outside, bars full, laughing and music and happy-drunk. My class was on Kafka. We read his journals as both literary playground and historical document. “Germany has declared war on Russia,” he wrote in August 1914. “Swimming in the afternoon.”
One night — in candlelight, drinking absinthe — we were approached by a woman named Marketa, a financial advisor who spoke five languages. “I have an important question,” she said. “There will be voting soon in your country. Which one are you for?”
This was not an isolated incident. People came up to us in the grocery store, the metro, bars and kavarnas. The United States had invaded Iraq the year before, an action the majority of the Czech people overwhelmingly opposed, and Bush was deeply despised. “Do the American people like him?” we were asked. “Will the American people stop him?” and “Will the American people allow this?”
We told Marketa we’d sent absentee ballots for Kerry.
“Good,” she said, sitting down. “Now we may be friends.”
We set the alarm and crawled out of bed at 2 a.m. to watch the presidential debates in real time. I remember Bush saying he tried to put a leash on his daughters. I remember Kerry saying nothing was black and white. I remember a woman saying her family had traveled abroad that summer and was shocked at “the intensity of aggravation at how we handled the Iraq situation.” She turned to Bush. “What is your plan to repair relations with other countries?”
Around the world, hundreds of thousands of people leaned forward.
“I love our country,” he said.
“I love our values,” he said.
“People love America,” he said.
Around the world, we exhaled.
The possibility of Bush winning never entered my head. He was behind in the polls. The international media openly mocked him. Anti-American graffiti was everywhere. With friends and strangers, Czech and expatriate, it was a joke, like Yeah, right. “It’s not your fault,” they told us. “He stole the election. It will all be fine in November.” I remember this every time someone says that Trump can’t win.
Prague is made for fall; gray and eerie like the original Grimms’. On Nov.3, 2004, the morning after Kerry conceded the election, we wandered around our adopted city, its cobblestones and castles. It was quiet. We went into bars and people stared into their drinks, no shouting or laughing or music. Here is my privilege: I’d always voted for the candidate who I thought would make my country better. I hadn’t considered my vote as a thing that could better the world.
That night, we got a message from Marketa:
I would like to cry! Shit! I don’t understand people who want to have so bad president! Don’t be sad please I like you very much and I’m sorry about your bad president. I wish you better time my darlings.
“Bush won,” I wrote in my journal. “Swimming in the afternoon.”
During the 2008 US presidential election, I lived in a condo across the street from the Aragon Ballroom, a legendary rock club on Chicago’s North Side. My now-husband and I bought it when we came back from Prague, just after we eloped and just before our son was born, the one-two-three punch of the American Dream. At first, it was perfect; our own little world three stories in the sky. We’d sit on the balcony and listen to live shows through the Aragon’s open windows: Yeah Yeah Yeah’s, Pixies, Flaming Lips.
We’d sit out there and work; me writing, him building a website about art.
Then — snap your fingers — the housing crash. The Great Recession, it was called, like the title of a novel, fiction as opposed to reality. We tried to keep up with bills, to make it to the end of the month, to peel me out of the postpartum depression that almost leveled us. My memory of this time is fuzzy; a fog, a soup. I fed my son. I tried to sleep. Obama talked about hope. I have family in Alaska so I remember Sarah Palin, pit bulls and lipstick.
Something I still can’t shake: during the debates, McCain put air quotes around the words “health of the mother.” Literal air quotes, his fingers like bunny ears, his voice all disdain. I was just on the table. I could still feel birth in my body, pushing and bleeding and tearing. Six weeks later, at a routine checkup, my doctor found a cyst on my ovary and I had emergency surgery. I was lucky. They caught it in time. I had health insurance through my husband’s day job. I had friends who took care of me and my baby while I healed from the incisions, the depression, the fear.
Shortly before the general election, I started a new job in the faculty development at an arts college across the street from Grant Park. It’s true that we needed the money. Our condo was worth less than half of what we paid and we were trying to buy ourselves out, not to mention childcare, medical bills, the one-two-three punch of the American Dream.
But this is true, too: I loved the work.
I want to place you here, the fall of 2008. Obama won the election and our city was a dance party. You could feel it: walking down the street, riding the L, strangers high-fiving. I’d been living in such a bubble; my baby, my body, everything inward. Stepping back into the world at this particular moment was a gift. It made me remember my capacity for joy.
He gave his acceptance speech in front of 240,000 people at the exact spot of the 1968 Democratic Convention. I watched the setup from my office window; the stage, the audio, streets shut down and people lining up for miles. Crowds were still too much for me so instead we had a party filled with family, blood and chosen.
I held my tiny, perfect son and listened to the president on my television. Next to me, my dear friend Khanisha sat with her 6-year-old daughter on her lap. “Mommy!” she said that night, her eyes on Obama, his words like salve, his skin like her’s. “I can be president someday!”
One of the many, many things that have made the 2016 presidential race unbearable: the single story politicians have told about Chicago, broken-record-style and smug from behind the podium. They talk about our statistics but not our experiences. Our grief but not our joy. Our violence but not how we fight it. Our violence without looking at its causes.
Years ago I had a conversation about voting with my Uncle Chuck, a man who, when he was 20 years old, went to Alaska for a summer and never left. He spent his career working for an oil company. He’s a hunter, filling my tiny Chicago freezer with caribou and moose. He leans right, though some things about the Republican platform tick him off, in the same way that I lean left but am an often frustrated Democrat. It’s true that we don’t see eye-to-eye politically; the economy, health care, gun control, you name it.
Still, I love him fiercely.
It was 1996, the first presidential election where I was old enough to vote. We were in the kitchen in Wasilla (no, you can’t see Russia from his house). At the time, I was working in a brunch restaurant to pay off my student loans, about to start graduate school. I remember we talked about drilling. About national parks. About guns. What was good for Alaska, what was good for Chicago. I yelled a lot, I’m sure, but something hit me like a lightbulb, lightning bolt, ton of bricks. He was voting for the candidate who he thought would make his community better. I was voting for the candidate who I thought would make the country better.
Fast forward two decades to the pizza place on the corner; research, ID, phone-ready judges. Every time I walk into a voting booth, I ask myself who this is for. Me? You? My kid or everyone’s kids? My neighborhood or the whole damn city? This country? This world?
We’re having a party on election night. Family, blood and chosen.
At first I said no. My plan for election night involved a dark room with Twitter and a bottle of Maker’s Mark. My husband has been patient these last few months, gently suggesting I take breaks from the internet and watching the news, and instead go for walks (“Is The Walking Dead the best thing to watch right now?”) and sending me rapid-fire gifs that remind me of my capacity for joy — Beyoncé dancing, Beyoncé smiling, Beyoncé pulling a pizza out of her hair. But everyone has their breaking point.
“Hell no,” he said, stomping around the apartment. “We’re getting champagne. We’re getting cupcakes decorated with bad hair. We’re inviting a ton of people and we’re going to celebrate and whatever happens, we’ll be together.” His tone implied a goddammit at the end of the sentence, but he didn’t say it because our son was in the room.
“Mommy,” my son said, putting a hand on my arm. “It’s the first woman president.”
This summer, I let him stay up late to watch the conventions. He was falling asleep in my lap when Clinton came out to accept the nomination, and when she walked onstage, I started to cry. These were not quiet, dignified tears streaming down my cheeks, mascara left intact. We’re talkin’ gaspy, gulpy sobs. We’re talkin’ faucet-snot. The truth? I was surprised. I hadn’t expected that reaction, didn’t know how deep it had been living in my body. Recently, my 90-year-old grandmother called to tell me she’d just voted for a woman. "In my very lifetime!” she said. I got the same call a week later from my mother. You could hear their excitement across the miles, the years.
My son felt me shaking and looked up, afraid. Mom crying is a scary thing. A year ago I took him out of school for the first showing of The Force Awakens, and when the lightsaber flew into Rey’s hands, I sobbed in the movie theatre. That one surprised me, too. Later, I explained how desperately I’d needed a girl Jedi and he nodded. He understood. Kids are made of stronger stuff than any of us. Now he looked back and forth between me and Clinton on the television in her white galactic pantsuit. Me, Clinton. Me, Clinton. “I get it,” he said finally, snuggling back into my lap. “It’s like Rey and the light saber.”
This is where I’m supposed to say that I’m voting for her policies, not her gender. That I don’t agree with all of her policies, but that’s okay. That human beings are capable of holding multiple feelings at once, and to love something is to try and make it better.
All of that is true. I’m just tired of saying it. I’ve been saying it for five hundred and eleven days.
After the election, I’ll say something new.
Megan Stielstra is the author of Once I Was Cool. Her work has appeared in the Best American Essays, the New York Times, Guernica, and The Rumpus, and she performs regularly in Chicago with 2nd Story and the Paper Machete live news magazine. Her next collection, The Wrong Way To Save Your Life, is forthcoming in 2017 from Harper Perennial.
Megan Stielstra is the author of Once I Was Cool. Her work appears in the Best American Essays, New York Times, Guernica, and the Rumpus, and she performs regularly in Chicago with 2nd Story and the Paper Machete live news magazine. Her next collection, The Wrong Way To Save Your Life, is forthcoming in 2017 from Harper Perennia
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.