published August 8, 2019
A small-town mayor running for president makes some changes to his image.
(Hey y’all! Been thinking about this story for a while. Big thank you to the anonymous commenter on my last story, “Progressive,” who suggested I try a story from the point of view of the person being changed for, well, a change. This story is my attempt to do that. It also is definitely my longest story yet - I’ve got 2 chapters written, but there will soon be 3 or 4 - so bear with me while I lay the groundwork with this chapter. If you pay attention, it’s not hard to see where it’s going; let’s just say the number and type of tags are going to balloon in the next chapter. Good things come to those who read. Enjoy, and as always, all feedback and suggestions are welcome - this story is all about feedback.)
My suit is blue, my tie is red, and my shirt is white. This tests well with voters.
My arms are freshly pumped from a morning at the gym, and while I don’t have the kind of body where you could really see it through the sleeves of my two-piece suit, it’s a good habit left over from the military, and it tests well with my other constituency - my boyfriend.
Except my boyfriend is not happy right now.
This tests poorly.
“I’m just not sure what you’re trying to tell me with this,” he says. “Or, I think I might be sure, but I’m sure I don’t like it.”
“Babe.” I’m not normally a ‘babe’ guy - honestly, I’m more of a ‘dude’ guy - but Parker likes ‘babe,’ and right now, it’s beneficial for me to do anything Parker likes. I have two minutes to get on his good side. “You’re definitely overthinking this. This isn’t, like, a series of orders that we’re going to have to take. This is just something that my advisers, uh, advised me to do. And they use some state of the art tech to make the process as cutting-edge as possible. They say Michelle and Barack did it. That’s cool, right?”
I begin to knead his shoulders - he usually likes that too - but my cold iron cufflink presses against Parker’s neck, and he flinches away.
“It is extremely debatable if that’s cool,” he says. “You’re asking us to let a focus group give feedback on our relationship. On if the two of us are…what? Likeable? Shippable? Electably, respectably gay?”
“Of course we’re respectably gay!” I say, and he stands up, and instantly I know this was the wrong thing to say.
“What does that even mean?!” cries Parker, and suddenly it’s like we’re on our first date again, with Parker raising his voice in the one French cafe in Mason City, Iowa, because he was getting so carried away discussing why Kesha’s (Ke$ha’s? Kesha’$? I never followed this stuff like Parker does) personal and artistic freedom was important to all of our freedom. This was two months after I’d left the military, two weeks after I’d first come out and gotten on Tinder, and two weeks before I’d deleted my Tinder for good. Because sitting there in the cafe, watching Parker yell, I had known: here was everything I’d been missing, everything I’d told myself I couldn’t have but now I could. Driving humvees through deserts may seem brave or exotic, but to me it mostly felt like restraint, like hiding in the camouflage closet and biding my time til I could get back home to Iowa and serve my country the way I really wanted to: by running for office as a proud gay vet. It kept me going, but at the same time, it all felt so cynical.
There was nothing cynical about Parker, with his brown hair and scruff, his paper-thin warm-colored H&M button-down unbuttoned over a t-shirt, his work as a freelance artist, his yelling about art and about Kesha and about how Kesha obviously counted as art. To me, sitting in that cafe, in my extremely buttoned button-down and my best pair of khakis, with my blonde buzzcut and my semi-stocky farmer’s-boy-turned-soldier’s build, Parker seemed like the most brave and exotic thing I’d ever seen. And when he stopped yelling at no one long enough to smile - at me - I understood what dream had really kept me going this whole time.
I just need him to calm down long enough to help my advisers understand that as well. And I need that to happen in the next ninety seconds. “Presidential candidates get everything vetted,” I say. “Not just relationships. I’m putting my whole life in front of the country, and you -” I place my hands on his hips - “are a very important part of my life. So if people are going to say things about you, isn’t it good that we know what they’re going to say now?”
“I think we know what they’re gonna say,” Parker says. He places his hands over mine but doesn’t take them off his hips. “Scruffy proletariat artists aren’t presidential spouse material. Especially scruffy gay artists. And I don’t want to sound rude, Bran, but when you hear this from this focus group, I think we know you’re going to want to do something about it. Or want me to do something about it.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Okay, again, I really don’t want to be rude.” Parker sits gingerly on my lap. I’m worried his jeans will wrinkle my suit pants, but this feels like the wrong time to bring it up. “But Branden, you didn’t go into the military just for love of country, and you certainly didn’t do it for some macho oo-rah fun times. You did it because you understood that being a veteran looks good when you’re running for office. And if someone tells you I’m not the kind of boyfriend that looks good when you’re running for office…”
He rests his head on my shoulder.
“…I’m afraid you’ll understand that, too.”
I want to hold him close in my arms. I want to push him off my lap onto the floor. I compromise and wrap my hands firmly around his shoulders.
“Look at me. Look at me.” He looks at me. He’s pouting, and part of me wants to find it cute, but most of me needs him to snap out of it in time for this focus group - so, in the next sixty seconds. “I will not dump you for my career. I will not have to dump you for my career. I am so confident that they will love you that of course I agreed to us doing this focus group. ”
This does not seem to have the desired effect.
“Oh, well as long as you don’t have to dump me,” he says, his deadpan fully terminal. “What do you want me to show them, Bran? You want me to show them good old family values?”
Suddenly he pulls himself further up my lap, so that his legs are wrapped around my waist, and he leans down into my ear.
“Because I can do Family Values,” he whispers, and suddenly my whole farmboy face is burning bright red.
Family Values. It’s a game we play, sometimes, when I’m drunk or need to let off steam, though if Parker had his way we’d play it a lot more - it’s the kind of thing he’s had more years to get used to, the kind of thing I’m still exploring about myself. It’s me coming home from City Hall in my best suit - or stepping out of the room and putting my best suit on, if I haven’t just come home from City Hall - and Parker in the kitchen, wearing only an apron and a jockstrap, and maybe oven mitts to hold a pie. It’s me taking off my jacket and throwing it on the floor, and making him run to hang it neatly on a chair by the kitchen table, his ass completely exposed in its thick pink jock band when he bends down to clean the house, my house. It’s me grabbing him around his slim hips, pulling him into me so he feels me through the crotch of my suit, and the nothing at all that I’m wearing under the crotch of my suit, and his fingers hunting for something to hold on to, my chest, my suspenders, my tie, and me making it easy for him by taking away all those pesky, overwhelming options, by wrapping my hands around both his wrists and twisting him around, around and over the kitchen table, and putting both thin wrists in one hand so I can unzip the crotch of my suit, and pushing up and over, up and over, up and over his exposed, defenseless ass, just rubbing myself on him, just giving him a taste of what’s to come, of what has to happen when the head of the household, the mayor of Mason City, comes home to his - his - to what’s his -
“Mr. Mayor?” There’s Jeri, one of my advisers, pushing the door open a crack. Parker is off my lap in lightning speed, but that’s a problem too, because then my lap is open for the world to see, and my lap is currently very, uh, seeable. And damn every Irish farmer in my family tree, because I can feel that my face is as red as my tie.
Parker, not leaving me totally defenseless but still not done fucking with me, either, leans back in the other seat, kicking his shoes up and into my lap, like we’re sitting on a sofa at home and he wants a foot massage. A conveniently crotch-obscuring foot massage.
“Come in,” he sing-songs, and Jeri steps in, doorknob in one hand, weird fancy state-of-the-art focus-group-tracking iPad type thing in the other.
“Mayor Murphy,” she says. “Mr. Llewyn. They’re ready for you. Are you-?”
“We’ll be right there,” I say. “Just a moment, please.”
Jeri nods and steps back into the hall, but doesn’t close the door all the way - clock’s ticking, she’s clearly saying. My advisers are very no-nonsense. That’s part of why they’re vetting Parker - Parker is amazing. I have to believe everyone will see this. But Parker is not one hundred percent free of nonsense.
“Do not do Family Values out there,” I hiss in his ear, half reprimand, half plea.
“Can’t do it if you don’t make me go out there,” he whispers back.
“Too late for that.”
“Clearly.” He strides toward the door, raising his voice performatively. “But this is great. I bet this focus group finally lets you fix everything about your life so you can be the perfect candidate.”
Ding! As he says this, Jeri’s fancy iPad type thing lights up in the hall and makes a weird noise, halfway between a bell and a bloop. She must be powering it on.
“I - I - ” I search desperately for the right words as I follow Parker out the door. “I bet you’re actually going to be happy that we did this!”
Ding! The damn iPad goes off again, but I don’t have time to worry about that. I straighten my red tie over my white shirt. I smooth down my blue two-piece suit. And I follow Parker into a small room full of twenty good American citizens in folding chairs, eating pizza and waving politely when we enter.
This will clearly not be as bad as Parker thinks.
This is exactly as bad as Parker thinks.
It doesn’t take two minutes before the first stinker of a comment comes flying in.
“First of all,” someone says, “maybe you guys should consider coordinating dress strategies? I mean, one’s in a suit and one’s in jeans? And the suit’s not even that good. Sorry, Mr. Mayor. You just might want to take some pride in your appearance.”
“He’s got better suits,” Parker responds, “and I frankly think it’s great that we have different tastes in -”
“Subjects of the focus group are asked to refrain from commenting until afterward,” Jeri says quickly, tapping at her iPad thing and releasing another ding! “Who else has a comment?”
“Well, second of all,” says some guy with pizza grease in his mustache, “it’s weird that you’re not married.”
Ding! I’m beginning to think that’s not the device’s ‘powering-on’ noise. It appears to be some sort of confirmation of recording, and it also appears to be insanely aggravating.
“That’s true,” says a woman in the back. “Don’t get me wrong, I know people live together without being married, but you have to admit it raises questions, right? It’s not typical president behavior. You can’t just be loosey-goosey millennials living in sin. People want to see your commitment to each other made clear - you should want to make it clear.”
Parker’s hand digs into my thigh, but I don’t think it’s the machine bugging him so much as the comments.
“Oh, come on,” says a college-age girl eating the veggie pizza. “How regressive is that? This isn’t the 1950’s. The wedding ring and picket fence are not the end-all be-all, even in Iowa.”
No ding for this, which weirdly annoys me even more.
“Maybe not for you,” says a man in his fifties, a man wearing a GLAAD t-shirt. “But you don’t know what it’s like for LGBT people in the public eye. If you’re gay, you have to be twice as traditional so people don’t get scared.”
“Well, I don’t mean to sound ‘re-gressive,’” Pizza Mustache drawls. “Y’all can do whatever you want in the privacy of your own homes.”
“Oh, sure, in the privacy of their own homes,” GLAAD eyerolls back. “But out in the streets, they have to be more or less straight people, but better.”
“It feels like we’re talking more about everyday citizens,” Jeri says, “and not so much about citizens running for president. How do you feel specifically about Mayor Murphy and Mr. Llewyn’s relationship in the context of a presidential candidacy for Mayor Murphy?”
Forty eyes survey us. Twenty mouths chew pizza thoughtfully.
“Well, you have to admit it’s not what you think when you think ‘first lady,’” says someone near the aisle. “He’s not exactly Cape Cod gentility.”
“That’s cuz he ain’t a lady at all,” Pizza Mustache observes trenchantly. “What would you call him? First Boy?” He chuckles as the device goes Ding!
Some of the crowd clearly find this distasteful - Parker isn’t moving a muscle, just looking straight ahead, staring at a spot on the wall - but it’s the woman in the back who finds a way to keep things moving:
“I mean, there are other things than terminology that are unusual here,” she says. “Like Parker’s job. Or jobs.”
And that gets Parker’s fingers in my thigh again, which is fair, because here it is: the meat of what we’re here for, of what he’s afraid of hearing, of what I’ve been steeling myself to hear since I first realized I was not falling in love according to plan.
“‘Mural painter and freelance artist’ just doesn’t seem like a traditional job for a first lady - uh, first partner,” she continues. “Though then again, I suppose I don’t know what exactly a traditional job for a first lady is.”
“I mean, if we’re being really traditional,” says a professor-looking type who’s been silent thus far, “the vast majority of first ladies, historically speaking, haven’t had any jobs. This was back when only the husband was supposed to work. Most first ladies have been homemakers.”
“Oh, come on,” protests Veggie Girl. “This is getting so off track. And do we really want a president who’s really traditional? Traditionally, those women were able to be supported by their husbands because their husbands were lucky prep school products who rose to success off of Daddy’s money.”
Ding! Ding! Ding! The machine is going nuts. This seems to encourage Veggie Girl, who continues:
“But let’s not erase the accomplishments of women - even if First Ladies haven’t worked in traditional forms of labor, they take up…causes. Initiatives. Like Michelle Obama! She didn’t practice law in the White House, but she took up the initiative of promoting fitness. And she looked it, too!”
Veggie Girl scores one last ding! She sits back in her chair, looking strangely proud.
“Couldn’t hurt for you to do something like that,” the woman in the back says, waving a hand generally at Parker - wait, no, at both of us? It was too vague to tell, and also too ridiculous to consider. Except Jeri doesn’t seem to think so.
“Expound on that,” she says.
The woman shrugs. “I mean, you’re both handsome enough. But have you seen Justin Trudeau? These days, you have to be a model to get attention. Hell, the current first lady literally is. And with all due respect, Mr. Mayor - you were in the military, right? You’d never know it from your whole grad student vibe. People are scared right now. They don’t want a student - they want a strongman. That’s what gets in the White House these days - the model and the strongman.”
You guessed it: two dings.
“Well, if we’re going to discuss the current President, why don’t we just throw everything out the window?” says GLAAD. “That man proved that none of the old rules still apply.”
“Ow Contrairy,” Pizza Mustache proclaims. “He proves that people want a return to good old family values.”
Parker and I make sudden eye contact at those words. In his eyes, I see: us at home, me on the couch, remote in one hand, beer in the other, him kneeling on the carpet, mouth between my thighs, licking and kissing his way up to his prize. And in his eyes, I see: I was right. This is insane. Get us out of here. And I have to admit: he’s got a point.
“What he proves,” GLAAD persists, “is that these days, a president can do absolutely anything he wants, in broad daylight, and get away with it.”
This seems to delight Jeri, who’s already opening her mouth to ask a follow-up question as the machine dings again. But if I have anything to say about it, that’ll be the last ding that machine ever makes.
I stand up and clap my hands.
“Well, thank you all so much for coming,” I say, with high volume and high spirits and no time for Jeri to interject. “I gotta go take care of some work at City Hall, but this has been eye-opening, isn’t that right, Parker?”
“Positively eye-widening,” Parker says. It’s Return of the Killer Deadpan. But the focus group is too busy grabbing their bags and last slices of pizza to notice.
Before I can say anything to Parker, Jeri is whisking us down the hall, tapping furiously at her device.
“That was great,” she says. “Great, great. Terrible that you cut it short, because it was so great, but on the bright side, it was great. We won’t roll all this feedback out at once, of course - incremental is best with these sorts of big changes - but I think we got some really helpful stuff today.”
Parker looks like he’s ready to provide some scorching feedback of his own, but I quickly say, “could you give us a moment, Jeri?”
Jeri doesn’t even look up as she leaves, so engrossed is she in her loathsome device.
I turn to Parker.
“So,” I say.
“Rry?” He asks. “So…rry? For what just happened here? Is that what you want to say?”
“That was bad,” I admit. “There were some real stinkers in there. But you heard what Jeri said - we don’t have to do all of it -”
“She said we don’t have to do all of it at once,” Parker corrects me. “And I can just see what’s going to happen. You’re going to agree to one change. Then another. Then another, and another, and then you’ll have agreed to all of them. And it’s not the changing I mind. Really it isn’t. Because I love your ambition.” His eyes are welling up, and my stomach twists.
“What I mind,” he continues, “is the thought that you might leave me behind to get what you want.”
As Parker storms out, I know better than to follow him. Ever since that first date in the cafe, Parker has needed to yell, to let his feelings out, to express himself. I love that about him. And I know that when he’s done with that, that’s when he can get back to smiling at me.
Absentmindedly, my right hand goes to fiddle with my left hand, pulling and twisting at the ring there. Its polished gold matches the gold of my cufflinks, the ones that pull together my navy blue three-piece suit. They help the sleeves of the suit hug my arms snugly, just like the gold buttons on my the silk vest that encases my barrel torso. It’s a little showy, but I like to look good. (Unbidden, a voice echoes in the back of my head: You just might want to take some pride in your appearance.)
And really, it’s not the ring that brings out the cufflinks - I like to think the cufflinks bring out the ring. The ring is the real star of the show.
Because my wedding ring reminds me of what’s important. It reminds me that even if Parker’s mad at me now, we’ll find a way to get through this campaign together. And I will never, ever leave him behind.
(Another voice, rolling quietly down the back of my brain, like a tiny snowball rolling silently off the top of a mountain: It’s weird that you’re not married)
Because after all, we’re married. And when you’re married, you’re not just a team.
You’re a family.