Ms. Reina Goes to Washington: Ten Years Later
I can’t explain Washington, D.C., in the summertime. For a California girl, it was everything against what I had experienced before when it came to summers. There were no beaches or flip flops. Swimming pools and pedicures were things left best to my home.
DC summers came with lush green fields with fireflies skimming the grass while you kicked back with a cold beer, rich red brick buildings with history around every corner, intense summer rains that felt like a warm shower, humidity that would cause my hair to frizz like it never had and my glasses to fog up every time I walked out of an air conditioned building.
During those hot, humid months, approximately 4,000 students from all over the country will come to be interns every year, flooding the city with innocence, ambition and even more alcohol than what runs through Washington already. They are students who yearn to be more than cogs in the wheels of the world, but want to shape it to be better. In 2005, I was one of them, thanks to The Fund for American Studies’ Institute of Political Journalism, then at Georgetown University.
Ten years seems like a long time and no time at all. The contrasts play out every day. Time changes us, like rock hitting water where it eventually smoothes out the stone for us to become who we are.
It was ten years ago that I landed in Washington D.C. knowing no one but my friend Robert from college to begin a two-month journey that one of my teachers then called “journalism boot camp.” It led to eight-hour working days with extensive metro and bus trips, topped off with night classes. I still don’t know how we did them, and on top of it, I didn’t know how I found time to blog regularly for my own personal “Ms. Reina Goes to Washington.” But there were certain things I remember.
Ten years ago, I was going to be a journalist. I was accepted to an internship program in Washington, D.C., so I could have a better chance for a good future. I got a scholarship, and my mother was so excited she bought me a bunch of new dress clothes and suits at Nordstrom with a personal shopper. They didn’t feel right on me; they were high-necked, girly and strange for a chick who prided herself in wearing Supergirl pajamas to her pop culture class finals.
Ten years ago I boarded an airplane from Long Beach and headed towards the Watergate Hotel. I would order Chinese takeout from the shopping center underneath and watch The Princess Diaries from a luxury white-sheeted queen-sized bed before moving into my twin bottom bunk at an apartment across from Georgetown University. My friend Robert would join me in the morning after a red-eye. After taking a shower, he and I went looking for breakfast. All we could find is a pizza place open at 11 am along the waterfront of the Potomac. I stared at the Utz potato chips for sale on the counter. I didn’t realize that was the east coast’s version of Lay’s.
Ten years ago I met a crazy group of people who would become my classmates and friends. Together we would learn how to “sweat professionally” and navigate the city without the use of a car (our internship program didn’t allow us to bring them). This often meant buses and a lot of walking, even into the next state to use the Metro.
Ten years ago I would meet two girls and a guy who I would spend five days a week with navigating our way from Georgetown University to the northeast corner of Washington, D.C. for our internship. We would sit in the marble of Union Station waiting for our shuttle to take us after we got off the Metro, occasionally indulging in Godiva blended drinks. We ate lunch together every day in the cafeteria and make jokes, coming up with nicknames for each other. Mine was Stickies, due to my penchant for Post-it notes.
Ten years ago my just-dumped roommate was constantly bringing boys home, including a Marine that followed her home from the Pentagon City Mall. The boys in the apartment across from mine would stare at me and ask me questions as I went up and down the stairs to the second story of our walkup. I would hang out on the stoop in my red and black checkered Vans with my friends. One of the guys, who was an avowed communist, nicknamed them my “anarchy shoes.” It was different. I was different.
Ten years ago I had a boyfriend when I went away. He wanted to stay together while I was gone, which meant him crying and mewling to me every day on the phone about how hard it was with me being away. He made me feel downright guilty for being gone and having a good time with new friends as he was sitting at home alone with nothing but his new history degree.
Ten years ago he sent me roses and a teddy bear on my birthday. My roommates and I didn’t have a vase, so I cut off the top of an empty gallon bottle of Crystal Geyser, filled it with water and stuck the flowers in there. I was enamored with the idea of them. No guy had ever sent me flowers before, made any kind of traditional romantic gesture for me. It blinded me to the problems. It would do so for years to come.
Ten years ago I had an economics professor who was 6’4 and looked like an Sicilian mobster, yet when he opened his lips a pure Virginia accent would come out as he paced up and down the front of the classroom. He was unabashedly libertarian in this free market-based economics class. His favorite way to end a story was, “That ain’t gonna happen. That ain’t gonna happen. So you die. And that… would be a tragedy.” He offered to grade the first test on a curve, but that went straight to hell when the avowed communist scored 100 percent.
Ten years ago I went to places I never thought I would go. I sat in the room where the State of the Union is delivered in the most comfortable chairs I might have ever sat in. I met Bernie Sanders and asked him a question (yes, he was cool then, too). I visited the executive offices and journeyed through the state department. One day while getting on the bus to go back to the university, I watched then-VP Dick Chaney’s intense motorcade drive by. On my birthday that year, I saw then-president George W. Bush speak, and threatened with my friends to cross over to where the demonstrators against him were protesting. For the sake of not being arrested or kicked out of the internship program, we didn’t.
Ten years ago, I sat in classrooms where I would hastily scribble supply and demand charts and notes on moral relativity as the little crucifixes stared down at my Jewish face from the Georgetown University classroom walls. I spent a good chunk of time created controversies by saying things out loud that my fellow students would only whisper. Shockingly, these outbursts created some of my best friends on the trip.
Ten years ago I would journey to Philadelphia where I would work a convention booth for my internship company. The consultant on the booth was so impressed he wanted to hire me. My refusal was from that stubbornness that wanted to be a writer. My pride, as always, got in the way of my best interests.
Ten years ago I spent the fourth of July in our nation’s capitol. I went to a picnic in Maryland at my friend Rudy’s house in College Park. We then took the Metro back into the city, where I found my friends on the Mall and we ate berries in the humid aid and watched the most incredible fireworks in the shadow of the Washington Monument. We then had one of their friends drive us back to Georgetown, where we journeyed down into the famous Tombs and drank beers together. I rarely have known such perfection.
Ten years ago we laid on the grass in the courtyard of our Georgetown apartments watching Office Space projected onto a screen. We laughed as we saw our internships play out in front of our eyes onscreen. Shaking our heads at the guys in the short-sleeved button down shirts, we swore we would never become like this. We were going to be too busy changing the world.
Ten years ago, when it was raining in that courtyard, we danced in the shower of warm water while this Californian was taught how to do a proper slip and slide across the mud. Every thunderclap over our heads led us to cheer loudly. We screamed and laughed, not caring how muddy our clothes would be. That was what laundry was for.
Ten years ago, my friend’s roommate was just kicked out of our program for plagiarizing, but had left a watermelon behind in the apartment. My roommate had knives, so I volunteered to carry the watermelon over to cut it. Walking out the door, the cold watermelon immediately fogged up my glasses. I had to be led up the stairs to my apartment to cut the watermelon. To this day, it was the sweetest one I had ever tasted.
Ten years ago, two girls laughed nervously when my economics teacher was talking about the Holocaust in terms of government corruption. That 6’4 Sicilian with the deep Virginia went on a brutal tirade like I had never seen in my life, anger spewing from his pores. After class, as I was comforting him, he looked at me with sad eyes because he knew I’m Jewish, and how dare they laugh and insult the tragedy of my people. On the way back to our apartments, my African-American friends and I would talk about shared histories, how they felt the same way when people would make jokes about slavery. I saw more into being Jewish than I would have ever done being surrounded by a bunch of Jews.
Ten years ago, I ate dinner with my friends at a local restaurant they told me about this special African-American internship dinner that they were going to. They said, “You should come with us!” I laughed and held out my pale arm, responding, “Guys, I think there might be a problem with that.” At the same time I was flattered, because for a small second of our lives there was no race between us.
Ten years ago, I came back to Southern California. A part of me wanted to stay on the East Coast and try to make my life there, but I had a boyfriend waiting for me. Everyone said he was happy when I came home. I didn’t know how to feel.
Ten years ago, I was terrified my beloved grandmother would die while I was gone in Washington. When I returned home, she was there, in all her 4’10 glory. She was standing, holding the back of a chair in the dining room, and she stood so tall. Her face beamed, screaming the pride that words would never find. I was becoming the woman that her time would never let her be, and she loved every second of it.
And ten years passed, and the memories have ebbed and flowed. How different the world shapes us to be. We have had tragedies that have made us into the people that we have become, failures and successes that have been both public and private. We lost the innocence that made us the people we were back then, and yet somehow still retain shreds of it here and there.
Personally, I did things that I never thought I would do, both for better and for worse. I married and divorced, fell in love and fell apart, got jobs and lost them too. I moved around from here to there, closing old doors and opening windows filled with fresh air. And yet, there was something I couldn’t forget about the people who I made my life with in D.C., how they were different from everyone else.
Every year around this time we get invites to the alumni weekend in Washington. Every year, there will be a Facebook conversation amongst the groups of friends talking about how this year should be the year that we go. I haven’t seen any of them since that summer, although we will keep in touch from time to time. Even now, though, I miss them with every beat of my heart.
Sometimes I want to crawl back into that time. Life was a lot easier when there weren’t adult worries of illness and finances, when we still harnessed ambitions to change the world and then the world showed us its ugly side to kick it out of us. Yet I treasure every moment we had together in that summer, seeing the building blocks that it made for my existence and what kind of people it made us in the long run. We became us.
The time is past, but there are still so many good things from that Washington summertime. Even ten years later, I would not dare to forget.