Donald Trump is playing the crowd, and he is smart. I didn’t know how smart he was until he turned the tables on Hillary during the final debate. Until I heard him say that he didn’t pay taxes because lawmakers–like her–gave people–like him–the loopholes not to pay them.
I remember where I was when I first experienced such a player. It was just after sunset on a summer evening, late enough for me to retreat to the cocktail lounge above the restaurant that I managed beside the intercoastal waterway.
I must have been drinking already, and it must have been at a time of night when the lounge was emptied of patrons waiting for their names to be called for a table downstairs, but also before dinner guests followed their meals with a with night cap or two or three; because I think this was the night that I sang a duet with the pianist.
How do you keep the music playing? How do you make it last? How do you keep the song from fading too fast?
I was a melancholy twenty-year old, but that tune haunts me still.
How do you lose yourself to someone,
and never lose your way?
The man I loved picked out a townhouse and a packaged life where I tended home and family, and he arrived late after an unexpected business meeting, and I did not complain, even with a candlelit dinner waiting.
I know the way feel I for you is now or never.
The more I love, the more that I’m afraid,
That in your eyes I may not see forever.
On this night that my memory is resurrecting, my father came up to the lounge with his new girlfriend just as the bar crowded with regulars–those intimate enough with the owner (my uncle) to stay after hours.
Maybe it was the music and the wine, but my heart was so loosened that evening, and I found myself, sitting across my father, sharing the depth of my concern about my younger siblings who had been caught up in the debris of divorce, my mother’s affair, her alcoholism, my father’s abandon.
Even with the necessary self-absorption of a twenty-year old, I cared. Deeply.
My sense is that Hillary, given her lifetime of service, despite her imperfections, cares deeply too. She is a mother after all and that role historically isn’t as disposable as fatherhood, if for no other reason than biology.
Hillary would never say, could never say, that she wasn’t very interested in caring for children, or that it was her partner’s role to do so. She certainly couldn’t say what her opponent said in relation to his third wife:
I like to have more kids. I mean, I won’t do anything to take care of them. I’ll supply funds and she’ll take care of the kids.
This was the wife my first love wanted. This was the wife my father had in my mother. This was the only woman I knew, and I didn’t want to be her.
My father turned to me, to the rare offering of my vulnerability, to the open anguish of tears, to the heartache the wine had released…
I know what you should do. You should drop out of school and take care of all your sisters. Forget going abroad to study. Stay home. They need you.
My father laughed as he said this. A mocking laugh. He knew about my dreams. He had helped cultivate them throughout my childhood, as his first born, and in the absence of any sons.
I think I had surprised him. With intelligence. Curiosity. Capacity. I don’t why I should have. His mother was supposedly brilliant. She started school in the third grade. Studied both French and Chinese at college. Took extra classes in the summer. Would have been entering her senior year at 19.
But he only recalled her as a raging, drunken woman who held too much power and blamed him for the life she gave up to become his mother, and the mother of his brothers, and the wife of the surgeon who cheated on her, like my mother cheated on him.
My father took me into the operating room at 13. Let me scrub. He was surprised I didn’t feel sick or faint. He had been wheezy himself when his father had taken him into surgery.
At 16, he hired me at his office. Allowed me to assist with minor procedures. Talked to me about what it might mean to be a female physician. How I would always feel the pull between home and work. A pull that would never end. A pull he didn’t have to consider.
I think he felt bad for my ambition. For the unfairness of it. Like I had felt for my young son when he pulled his doll to his chest and talked about nursing his own babies one day.
What my father didn’t know, was that I had already considered dropping out of school, of suing him and my mother for custody, of purchasing a house with my accountant boyfriend in which all 5 of my siblings could live.
“Her life must revolve around mine,” my father screamed on the night that I’ve always remembered as the ax in their marriage. I was a freshman in college, home for weekend. All three of us were sitting at our large wooden kitchen table. I tried to make him understand that my mother needed time to be herself.
That year, I watched as she disappeared, first behind her eyes, and later behind the bottle, and finally in the arms of the youngest man she could find without going to jail.
At the time I saw my father as a cruel and hopeless bully. He had fired me from his office one morning while I was still in bed because my mother was overwhelmed by laundry.
But I know now that he was threatened. He wanted the world to stay the same. He needed to know that he was successful, and this was something almost impossible to measure in a place like home or in relationship to a woman or children.
Trump was right that Hillary and her kind made it possible for him to live like he’s lived. We all have. But let us not confuse his being right with righteousness.
His upper hand isn’t played in service of humanity.
He is playing us.
Because he can.