Last summer, when I was 21 years old, I spent three months in Washington, interning at a small political magazine and taking in the sights and sounds of the U.S. capital.
It was not my first time in town. I had visited as a child, and again two summers ago, dutifully touring the Smithsonian museums and the national monuments. But it was always as a tourist, and my emotions were by turns lost, detached, and fascinated.
It would be different this time around. Walking along F Street on my first day of work, I soaked in the warmth emanating from the morning May sun and the irrepressible energy that is characteristic of youth and freedom and hope. Around me, dozens of young, similarly hopeful interns scurried to their respective offices, the boys in ill-fitting suits carrying backpacks and the occasional briefcase, the girls in identical pencil skirts and ballet flats, toting Longchamp bags in every color imaginable, their carefully made-up faces already shiny with sweat.
I'd gotten lost that day.
In the course of my stay in Washington, I would go on to lose my way many more times. Maybe because I was in a foreign place, the rules simply fell away, and the experiences were never intimidating, always exhilarating. I ventured to Farragut Square to listen to live bands and buy Asian tacos from fusion food trucks. I walked up and down the loggia at Union Station, past astrologers reading faded Tarot cards and street vendors selling fresh fruits. Once, I spotted a woman with a facial tattoo large enough to give Mike Tyson a run for his money. Most weekends, I made the trek to Georgetown, blowing my meager salary at Dean & Deluca and the charming boutiques in the neighborhood.
One thing I did learn from roaming the streets of Washington was that a pretty dress and a killer pair of heels are not enough to conquer the world, contrary to popular college belief. This particular bit of wisdom came to me after a memorable episode in which I was trapped in the fire escape during a political fundraiser -- my own Scarlett O'Hara moment. Having a good head on your shoulders takes you a lot farther, I realized.
So, in a display of professionalism, I designed my first business cards on the Staples website. While those of my colleagues were simple -- plain, white, to the point -- mine were deliberately vintage-looking: faint yellow with gold piping and a fancy, barely legible cursive font. More than one recipient of the said card expressed sheepishly that they couldn't read my information. It was a good way to break the ice, I consoled myself to no avail.
I also ventured into my first cigar bar in the hopes of running into "sources." A more seasoned journalist had let on the juicy information that chiefs of staff often congregate there in the evenings. That was all it took for us to rush there one day after work -- only to be met with a steep bill and smoke-saturated clothes. Needless to say, there were no chiefs of staff in tow.
And then there were the little moments: the countless panels and conferences and even more happy hours. Listening to a lot of Rihanna and Fun. during my hour-long ride to and from work, my fellow commuters engrossed in the Washington Post or crossword puzzles. Occupying a space in time -- a fragment, really -- when Obamacare, Eric Holder and Bain Capital were household -- or officehold -- words. My first reader emails. "Your intelligent and literate writings are a pleasure to read, and an inspiration to us older readers," one read, which I read and reread and treasured.
One day, all of this would feel obsolete. Obamacare would recede to our distant memory. The president himself would go down in our history books. But the way the last rays of the sun rippled across the evening sky above the Potomac, painting it in washes of pink and gold, capturing the Wordsworthian spots of time, would stay with me.
In Ulysses, Tennyson wrote, "I am a part of all that I have met." Indeed, my summer experience in D.C. -- my first taste of the real world -- has been enriching and profound. It has empowered me, yet I feel more humble than ever; I am more worldly, but my thirst for knowledge is as insatiable as ever. I surrendered many dreams to reality, but weaved even more.
I was lucky. I lived in a Washington as it should be, a Washington of the mind, the Washington of my youth and dreams. The District has fused with my idea of perfection, but it was far from being perfect. Getting off the Judiciary Square stop one day, I was struck by the drugs and poverty that confronted me, a far cry from the material abundance of Georgetown and Foggy Bottom, reminiscent of Jacob Riis' How the Other Half Lives.
Instead of ruining my romantic conception of the city, this discovery cemented its place in my heart. I am now on the cusp of adulthood, and the knowledge and baggage that come with it scare me even as they excite me. In many ways, Washington -- sweet, sweet Washington -- exists between me and the unknown. It is my Neverland.
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