He sat on the opposite side of the dais, on the raised platform’s low step. I was sponsored by then-senator Max Baucus, a Democrat, he by a Republican. Remarkably, this mattered. As with all things involving Congress, we — the U.S. Senate’s thirty teenage pages—were divided according to our sponsoring senator’s party. Even the plastic name badges we were required to wear listed whether we were a Democrat- or Republican-sponsored page. Duties (chamber preparation, door holding, message delivery, document distribution) and work schedules were coordinated out of our respective party’s cloakroom. And thus, when the Senate was in session, he and I lived largely separate lives—me seated on the dais’ left step, him on its right.
It was only our first month in Washington when Dante Alighieri brought us closer together. Because we didn’t yet understand how to massage the many rules governing our conduct, for the most part, we followed them. I remember the Senate wing’s bells had rung and the signal lights above the doorways were in a new configuration. The senators were voting in the chamber, and he and I were late. Votes were a rare bipartisan affair for us pages, and while his boss might forgive a few minutes’ tardiness, mine would never dare. Lateness was very much against the rules.
We hustled to the chamber, up the Senate’s grand east staircase. The clip-clop of my wooden-heeled shoes meeting the marble echoed through the corridors, a sound I loved because it made me feel more important than I was, or ever would be. He stopped mid-step, his hand gripping the stone balustrade, and turned back to face me.
“We should read Dante’s Inferno,” he said.
His suggestion being so absurd, I couldn’t tell if he was kidding. The staircase’s dim light drew out his cheeks’ peachy fleshiness, but the matter-of-fact expression in which they were arranged offered no additional clues. All I knew was that I couldn’t possibly tell him no.
He’d always wanted to read The Divine Comedy and I’d always wanted to be the kind of person who’d read The Divine Comedy. We visited the bookstore in Union Station near the page residence hall. He flashed a toothy smile from the register as he paid for the hardcopy, the Everyman’s Library edition with Dante’s portrait on the cover. On our walk home, he decided, oddly, that we should read it aloud.
Despite his perfect mouth, he was not a good reader. Rather than abiding by each verse’s self-evident ebb and flow, he paced Inferno’s rhythms as a series of unholy syncopations. Between his anything-but-divine oration and Dante’s cryptic text, I couldn’t understand a word. Maybe he couldn’t either, but he let me believe that he could. We were sprawled out on separate sofas in our dorm’s second-floor common room, the boys’ day room, that first time we read together. His Adam’s apple bobbed and his voice cracked and squeaked, yet he didn’t seem self-conscious. He’d been plucked from boarding school somewhere in the northeast and deposited in Washington for this interregnum as a page. I wondered if I would be like that too, would have that same grounded sense of self, had I not grown up in obscurity, on dusty plains far out west. He had SAT tutors and nicely cut hair and wore cologne and polo shirts with embroidered animals on the breast. I was—well, I was from Montana. Out of my element, too stupid to function, head-over-heels, one hundred percent in love.
The Senate’s recess weeks were excruciatingly dull. To fill the time, we pages would hide notes for each other in and behind the massive Sevres vases, gifted from France, in the Senate lobby. We’d do our calculus homework in the ornate President’s Room (strictly forbidden) and nap in the chamber (very strictly forbidden). He and I did our fair share of all that. But we read to each other too.
Paradiso was his favorite. By the time we arrived at paradise maybe two months into the semester, he had a girlfriend. One of his fellow Republicans. She laughed at all his jokes just like I did except, when her giggling stopped, she could kiss him. I only ever remember her kissing his cheeks. She would retract her lips and leave a ruddy blush that bloomed from one side of his face to the other, over his forehead, into his neck.
In March, our third month in Washington, the Australian prime minister Julia Gillard delivered an address to a joint meeting of Congress. Normally, the pages would stand at the back of the chamber. But in the last minutes before the speech, an usher hastened a line of us into a bank of still-empty seats, just a few rows from the House chamber’s dais. For some reason, we—the Democrats and Republicans—were mixed. There were a few House pages with us, too. His girlfriend sat next to him and I sat next to her and in front of me sat Nancy Pelosi. We made our best listening faces for Ms. Gillard, Australia’s first female head of government, and clapped at all the right moments. But what I remember most from the speech is how excited he looked, seated where our senators should have been—how his face lit and his mouth giggled, earnestly, when the prime minister processed up the center aisle. How he craned his neck and brushed away his bangs, the curve of his throat and the tousle of his hair inducing in me an ache so deep, my insides cramped and seized. That was the day I knew I’d found my bearings in the Capitol—because aching over my tormented heart while seated next to my first real love’s girlfriend as I clapped and stood and smiled for the Australian prime minister during her first and only address to the United States Congress assembled was, by then, absolutely routine.
It would have been impossible to separate my attraction to him and whatever feelings he had for me from the politics that surrounded us. We lived at the epicenter of American democracy. The week after Julia Gillard’s speech, Diane Feinstein, Democrat, introduced the Respect for Marriage Act a second time, a decade before it would eventually become law in December 2022. Weeks later, on my birthday, Jim Inhofe, Republican, offered a resolution condemning the Obama administration for not enforcing laws that defined marriage as being between a man and a woman. Pat Leahy, Democrat, just days after, introduced a bill to give binational same-sex couples the same immigration rights and benefits as heterosexual couples.
He and I sat on our respective sides of the dais every day, preparing the chamber and the senators’ lecterns, watching and listening to the adults litigate about us, around us. They squabbled like parents under the glaring C-SPAN lights. It felt like a chintzy and dated reality TV set, staged with bad actors always going off script. I wondered then, as I do now, if they knew that he and I were listening—if they knew that we heard both their words and their meanings, and that I knew to hate myself because of them.
By late April, we’d cast Dante aside along with the last of the rules and began collecting senators’ autographs (absolutely, and explicitly, forbidden). We snuck off after votes or the weekly caucus lunches, tracking down members as they departed for the Senate subway. John McCain, Republican, offered a wry smile and wrote “Donovan—get to work!!” above his signature in my autograph book. Daniel Inouye, Democrat, coming off a back elevator, pulled me aside into the Appropriations Committee room, a gilded salon on the Capitol’s first floor. He sat me in a chair near the head of the table and said, “Someday this could be your seat.” For a brief moment, I even dared to believe him.
Mike Enzi, the genial senior senator from Wyoming, reminded me of my grandfather, a fellow Republican with rural, western sensibilities. He ambled through the Senate slightly hunched, very non-threatening, wearing the kind face of a man who genuinely cared. He asked about me and my background as he wrote down a few words. I should have told him, then and there, as he grinned and penned, that he was talking to a queer. Maybe he would have been shocked, so shocked that he would have even dropped his pen. Dropped his pen like a fool, in front of this queer. If anything, that’s what I hate myself for now: not that I’m gay, but that I didn’t confront him. That I didn’t confront any of them in their obvious disdain for people like us, like me and him. I know it wouldn’t have changed their minds. It wouldn’t have reversed mild-mannered Mike Enzi’s vote against the hate crimes legislation bearing the name of that beautiful boy, his constituent, tortured, pistol-whipped, and left to die, tied to a rural Wyoming fence. But it would have felt good, probably. That’s how I knew it was wrong. Because if I’d learned anything as a young gay man, it was that something that felt good was almost certainly against the rules.
After a particularly successful day of signature gathering, he and I would compare our conquests and trade tips. Our goal was obviously quantity, not quality. Around forty signatures, he and the girl broke up. Now his cheeks reddened only for me. We kept hunting. My goal was fifty-one—enough to pass a budget. I ended with sixty, enough to confirm an ambassador.
I think we never admitted anything to each other—that we left every feeling between us as a suggestion—because of our hopes and dreams for our own separate futures. We wrote notes on official Senate stationery, addressing each other as “Dear Senator,” at just seventeen, anticipating our return to the Capitol, strolling through those chamber doors not in our navy page uniforms but as the senator from Montana. Or the senator from wherever he ends up. But these were still the days before Tammy Baldwin, Democrat—before she became the first. So no, we never admitted anything. We and our dreams were incompatible back then.
In May, Osama bin Laden was killed by U.S. special forces. The senators gave speeches and the Capitol Police drove us home from work in their big SUVs. Days later, only a few weeks before we left Washington, he had some sort of attack. He said it was anxiety, due to stress and “family stuff” back home. But I knew it was something else—something harder, more fundamental. Something only the two of us could understand. It led to a confrontation, but still, we admitted nothing. I denied every glance, every careful, grazing touch. He denied his blush, and having giggled even once. Then in June, our semester ended. So abruptly. I returned to Montana, heartbroken, my D.C. paradise lost.
Two years later, we spent one night together, one drunken night in Washington, the only time I’ve seen him since. He was an undergraduate studying in D.C. and I was in town for Barack Obama’s second inauguration. We both had tickets. In the days before the ceremony, I stayed with a friend and visited the Senate, as a guest this time, wearing one of those silly plastic visitor’s badges. I tried to poke into our old corners. It was forbidden. They meant it this time. No more cheeky notes deposited in the furnishings, no more scrambling up ornate marble staircases. That easy chapter of our lives had passed.
Our Inauguration tickets were for the standing section behind the reflecting pool. He and I arrived at the security checkpoint exactly at the opening time. The sky over the Capitol was aloof and gray and the air numbingly cold but none of that mattered because, on the Mall, we found hope. Obama used a word that morning that was a first for Inauguration Day: “Gay.” The crowd interrupted him with their cheers.
Yes, we found hope.
After, we went to a party where we got drunk with his friends. Still, we said nothing. Perhaps there was nothing left to say that we didn’t already know. Perhaps just agreeing to meet was acknowledgment enough of those truths never admitted aloud. Later that night, we crawled up some stairs to his room. For hours, we lay on the cold linoleum floor, his cheeks red and flushed, his legs held in mine. I combed his hair with the tips of my fingers. It felt so soft and fine against my skin. I wondered why I’d never touched it before.