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Episodes: Relationship chicken


Emily VanDerWerff

Sep 27 2016

8 min read



(As we head toward Election Day, I thought I'd share a few anecdotes from my political past. They won't take over the newsletter, but I have enough of them of interest to keep your attention, hopefully.)

In the summer of 2008, unemployed, desperate, and believing I would never work for a newspaper again after I quit the last one I worked for in disgust, I got in a car to drive halfway across the country, to Indiana, to work, for free, on Barack Obama's election campaign.

I didn't as much believe in him, or in his plans to right the country, as I believed in the idea that he might somehow help me figure out where I had gone so very wrong. It was the first and last time I ever felt that way about a politician, but it was some powerful stuff. And yet going to Indiana was less about Obama than it was about me, about the idea that I could still find strength in myself to do something huge.

When I said goodbye to my wife and departed, down the long, pothole-strewn alley behind the apartment we had just moved into a few months earlier, the radio played, randomly (and I swear to you this is true), Simon and Garfunkel's "America."

That song is emptier than you think it is.


I don't want to say that a marriage can't survive two months apart. When I started at Vox, I went to DC for a couple of months, and though it was tough, my wife and I weathered it and came out the other side stronger. (It certainly didn't hurt that she visited a couple of times.) But when I left for two months that summer, I think we both half-suspected I wouldn't come back.

I was eventually stationed in a little town named Vincennes, where I worked as the second in command under a brilliant young woman we'll call Becky. She had been largely a one-woman operation in Vincennes, one of those towns where Obama was hoping to run up just enough of a youth vote to lose by smaller margins than Democrats usually lost by, and there was more need for me there than there was in Evansville, where I'd initially been sent.

I quickly came to like Vincennes, which reminded me of the South Dakota towns I'd known as a kid. I stayed with a farm couple, and on my first night in their guest bedroom, the husband refused to take "anything" from me as an answer when he asked what kind of music I liked.

But that was who I was trying to be right then -- not a definite person so much as someone who had his boundaries filled in by committee. I didn't care what music was playing, so long as I wasn't the one forced to choose.

Anyway, on Vincennes Main Street, at an ice cream parlor a few doors down from the Obama campaign office, I met a girl.


In my defense, the ice cream was really good. She seemed to be the only person working there after a certain time, and when Vincennes slid toward evening, essentially everything on Main Street closed anyway, but for our campaign office and the ice cream shop. (They also served coffee, I believe.)

She didn't mind talking to a lonely guy in his 20s, who had not expected life to be as hard as it was. And I guess I looked at her and thought, hey, why not?

In case you couldn't tell from the part where I drove all the way to Indiana, instead of working from California and taking a couple of weekends in Nevada, like everybody else I knew working for the campaign was doing, I was looking for excuses to blow up my life. It's why my parents, staunch Republicans both, didn't push me too hard on blowing what little savings I had on this crazy plan, even when I was leaving their farm at 4 in the afternoon to make a 13 hour trip to Michigan.

I kept latching onto ports in storms. I think I embarrassed myself a bit with a friend I stayed with on the way to Indiana, in hopes of making a good impression on her, and ice cream girl was nice and seemed to like my jokes. I've never been good at distinguishing customer service from romantic interest. Becky thought it was weird how much ice cream I was eating, but she also appreciated having me around until 1 in the morning, when we'd lock up and head into an Indiana perched on the edge of fall. So she didn't say anything.

Indeed, the only person I told about ice cream girl was my wife. She thought I should go for it.


So, right. My wife was still back in California, living her life, and going to work every day, and very slowly disintegrating, and also feeling like maybe we should blow up our lives, but not entirely sure how to do that. (I don't know if you've actively tried to blow up your life, but it's harder to do than it seems. Most of the time, it's best done as a drunken mistake.)

So a couple of nights before the election, she kept egging me on about ice cream girl. And I realize how weird this sounds, but you also have to understand that we have always told each other everything. It would have been weirder if I hadn't told her, to my mind. She was ready. I was ready. The fact that I didn't (still don't!) know her name beyond "ice cream girl" didn't occur to us as a problem.

I asked my wife what we were doing, why we were playing relationship chicken. She said she didn't know. We were each waiting for the other to slip and provide the definition for our new selves: the one wronged, an ex-spouse, but one with justice on their side.


When I walked over to the ice cream store that night, it was closed. She was leaning against the hood of a pickup truck with her seemingly very young boyfriend, kissing him, and she smiled to say they had closed early for lack of customers.

I had missed, somehow, how young she was. Probably only 22, but for someone in his mid-20s, that felt like an ocean of a gap.

I called my wife. She didn't answer.


Obama won. He carried Indiana. The crew in Evansville won that county, which surprised and delighted us all. Vincennes voted Republican, but by less than usual.

Vincennes is still there, I presume. The farm couple is still there. I tried to talk to Becky a few months after the election, but she never wrote back. My parents gravely warned me that Obama would doom the country to hell, but here we are, eight years later, and some things are better, and some things are worse, and we keep crawling, but maybe upward. I left my clunky old laptop in Vincennes, and had to have it shipped. I never thanked the person who did it for me, and I still feel bad about that.

A few days after the election, I drove home faster than I should have. I blew off family, because I wanted to get back. Some part of me could hear the emptiness in the chords of "America" all over again. I left early winter snows in Nebraska for the blue night of Arizona and then, finally, California.

I hugged her when I saw her, but I wasn't there any more, and neither was she. A few weeks later, she said, "This isn't working, is it?" I never had to sleep with someone else to blow up my life; I just had to leave long enough for both of us to realize how little we knew each other any more. We stood and stared at each other like strangers for a long time, and then I made a chicken parmesan.

I didn't see ice cream girl again after that night. I just looked up the ice cream place in Vincennes online, and Yelp says it's closed. Google street view proves inconclusive.


Episodes is published three-ish times per week, and more if I feel like it. It is mostly about television, except when it's not. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox Dot Com.

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