Not many people know this, but Belafonte Garcia was responsible for the comeback of the artistic expression known as Air Guitar. He told me this on the day I met him. We were at the bar in my Washington D.C. hotel. I didn't believe him. But that hotel was an awful place, one of those silvery structures that attracted blue-suited men who visited the town on discreet business. It was easy to not believe in anything there.
I was in D.C. on assignment for a men's magazine, which was doing a story on "The Girls of the Presidential Election." Tongue in cheek (and actually protruding from it), the magazine had sent down a few writers to be the "embeds" for party presidential campaigns. Our job was to "discover and interview" the best-looking girls, and then have a photographer fly down and take their pictures. Perhaps because I was relatively new at the rag and therefore amendable to unwanted assignments, or perhaps because I had recently gotten drunk at a Hell's Kitchen bar with my editor and at one point in the evening found myself staring at him as he kissed a young woman who didn't know that he was married, I was assigned the (very) dark horse -- an alternative, slightly mysterious and mischievous non-official party organization known as The People For Good Change. It was an apparent offshoot of the League of Declarative Action, a branch of those global change organizations that wreck G-8 and WTO conference towns. The People For Good Change had a small office in Georgetown and would soon announce their candidate for president.
When my editor emailed the assignment, I immediately emailed back and asked for a better party to cover -- like, maybe a legitimate one. My editor responded with my flight and hotel information, with an added note assuring me that The People For Good Change had the "hottest girls" and that I would be "seriously happy" that I took the assignment. I was rightly insulted. But being single and dateless for the previous six months leading up to that email exchange, and also feeling the strong need to get over a previous relationship that had gone sour too soon, I'm not proud to admit that I was excited by the possibility of witnessing a photo shoot of the hottest girls in all politics, wearing nothing but wet campaign t-shirts and underwear. I sort of liked politics. I really liked hot girls. And I really, really liked the idea of scoring a date with a hot, politically minded girl.
Belafonte met me in the hotel lobby. I had no idea who he was then. I thought that I would be picked up by an intern for The People For Good Change. In fact, to many people in the know, Belafonte was already Bob Dylan, Che Guevara and a Guess? model rolled into one. He had run from tear gas in Seattle; he had walked nude down the streets of Cancun; he had helped AIDS victims in Africa. With these experiences and a Manhattan private-school education, he was the face of young, insurgent American politics, of a rebel in blossom, of cool. And, as it turned out, he was so much more.
But all I knew was that, upon first sight, he looked spectacular: hair locked in loose curls forming an afro in a golden shade; tall and thin, with cheek bones like a wooden puppet; skin like latte and eyes like a dirty glacier. A mix of Spain and Sweden from head to toe. His soccer jersey accentuated the look of a World Cup champion, but had he been wearing a tennis shirt I might have recognized him as possible contender at the next French Open.
He held out his left hand for me to shake; his right hand was stuffed in a pants pocket. He told me it was a pleasure to meet me. He suggested we get a drink at the bar, that The People For Good Change offices were closed so we might as well have a little fun and talk politics before hitting the town.
"Where are …" -- here, I felt funny saying it out loud -- "The People For Good Change?" I said. As far as I knew, The People had no idea I was seeking their hottest chicks; they thought I was doing a political profile. So Belafonte didn't tease me about how I'd see pretty girls soon enough.
"Meditating and yoga," he said. "I think it's important that everyone stay calm as the campaign starts to heat up, so it's lights out each day from 4 to 7."
It dawned on me.
"So, you run The People For Good Change?"
He laughed, and it was as big and sunny as I imagined Australia.
"That's a good question. I'm not sure who's running it these days. It's getting pretty hectic as we near the announcement of our candidate."
"I bet," I said, following him as he strolled across the cool marble of the lobby. "Is it you?" He didn't hear me.
We sat down at the cold steel bar. The blue room was filled with men and women in dark clothing, with cruel laughs, with suspicious eyes. It was around happy hour and we did not even come close to fitting in with the crowd -- me, in my pathetically retro clothing, and Belafonte in that yellow jersey. He wore sandals and soft pants. His right hand was still tucked in one pocket in awkwardly stylish fashion. I assumed that he had some sort of birth defect; I imagined his hand being small and withered. We ordered whiskey on the rocks. He lied to me, told me he liked my work. He even quoted from one of my stories on extreme firefighters who save pets from burning mountain cabins. He asked me what I thought of the run-up to the primaries.
"I think it's good for writers," I said. It had been a mess so far; anything that is a mess is good for writers. Though I worked at a shallow men's magazine, I knew that much. He seemed to get my joke.
"Who's going to be the candidate for your party?" I asked.
"You want the scoop? You'll get it soon enough. Just follow me around."
"Any hints?" Of course, I knew it was he, which was a ridiculous idea since he was no more than 30. And he knew that I knew. But he still played along.
"Our candidate is not so much a legitimate contender as an alternative voice," he said. "The purveyor of le resistance enfant."
He smiled. People often see magazine writers as publicists for their cause. I knew that much, as well. Perhaps it was an effect of our surroundings, but I was in no mood to play that role.
"So," I asked him, "mind if I ask what's wrong with your hand?"
He took it out of his pocket, opened it so that the back of his hand faced me and the palm faced his chest. It was neither small nor withered. His knuckles were smooth, his fingers long, and he had had a manicure recently. "Sensitive bones," he said. "I've broken it over 10 times, seven times by having someone shake my hand too hard." He wrapped it delicately around his drink and took a sip.
"No. I think my mother smoked when she was pregnant, but she won't admit it. Of course, that time I punched a wall might've had something to do with it. I try to keep it out of the way. I've gotten used to it."
I'm sure the look on my face expressed deep concern, or a strange fascination – here was a beautiful specimen who had such an odd physical fault. I decided to change the subject.
"What did you do before you were involved in this party?"
Belafonte put his hand back in his pocket. He drew in his thin, raspberry lips. He looked around, as if to make sure no one was listening.
"Well, for one thing, have you seen all those Air Guitar contests that have been popping up?" Underneath his voice, there was the bump of a laugh, as if he was about to tell a joke of which I'd be the brunt. But he was waiting for the right moment.
"Yes," I said. A year ago, as my first assignment for the magazine, I had even covered one of those contests. When I sent a copy to my parents, my mother said it was "neat," which meant that she had no idea what it was or what I was doing with my life.
Belafonte sucked back his drink, his eyes shifted.
"I started that craze."
"What do you mean?"
"Someone had to start it up again, right?" he said. "Designers start clothing fads based on old styles. Someone has to choose to play a certain single first before it's accepted by the radio masses. Someone starts everything."
"So, you're saying you started the Air Guitar craze. Or re-craze, since it was originally popular in the 1980s."
He nodded. "I held a political conference here about five years ago, which was really just an excuse to party," he said. "It was a collection of politically-minded, motivated, good-looking people from major cities -- alpha consumers, sociologists call them. People who are respected by their peers, who are considered cutting edge and cool. That's who make up our campaign office, by the way --"
"Cutting edge and cool people?" I asked. "That's your political party?"
"Yes. It's a valuable and powerful demographic untouched by other parties. Every other party is filled with frumpy geeks. Politics hasn't been sexy since JFK. But if you give these alpha consumers the message -- 'Vote for this candidate, he's good and right and cool.' -- they take it with them and influence others. It's amazing how it works. It's viral. You let already established trend-setting networks do your campaigning for you."
It made some sense, and this alarmed me.
"I mean," he said, "most candidates say what everyone wants to hear anyway. And most people just choose the person they think is the coolest, or whom their friends think is the coolest. That definition changes slightly with age, but ultimately you're voting for the geek you think presents himself or herself the best. And you always feel slightly disappointed with your choice. If only there were more …"
I wanted to return to safer ground.
"So, you started the Air Guitar re-craze like this?"
"Yes. I played Air Guitar in front of these alpha consumers at a conference event in a bar one night. I take it very seriously. I won my high school talent contest doing it. I was trained classically on real guitar, before I started breaking my hand. And people say when I do the air thing, it looks like I'm really playing."
"And the people saw you playing Air Guitar and they went back to their part of the world and spread the fad?"
"Exactly. It was an accident. I had no idea it would happen. But then I saw all these Air Guitar contests popping up --"
"You can't be sure it was you that started that," I said.
"I know," he said. "But I did. You should see me play. It's impressive."
This was a test. But Belafonte, cocky in a pleasant and handsome way, wasn't sensing how gullible I was. He was sensing how much I was willing to believe. There's a difference. And I didn't believe him. How could he possibly think he re-started a silly fad? And who would claim such a thing in the first place? It was an absurd idea, as absurd as running for president before the minimum age. It was impossible.
Until I witnessed him playing the Air Guitar later that evening at the Tombs near Georgetown University campus. I was drunk on both whiskey and Belafonte's charisma, which previously in the night had alighted us to three parties and four other bars where girls (hot ones) fawned over him and told me he was the face of new politics (not, as you might have guessed, the new face of politics, because, as his people repeated, he was doing something new). Then, at the Tombs, as The People For Good Change and assorted student types reached a certain level of drunken merriment in that damp bar, Belafonte had an intern put a song on the jukebox -- "Tom Sawyer" by Rush.
The Tombs' downstairs bar is designed at the center of the establishment, a square with wooden borders decorated haphazardly on any given night with the small chandeliers of half-empty glasses. Belafonte, with permission from the bartender, took his place behind that bar, his stage. And everyone leaned over, stood on tiptoes, leveraged themselves on bar stools to get closer, to scream louder as he performed. I pushed my way through the cramped crowd for a better look. And between two young women and the haze of clove smoke, in a tornado of sound, I saw Belafonte actually play that song on Air Guitar. I don't mean he played air guitar, like those frat-boy hacks everyone knew back when. I mean he actually played the song. He played it so well that when you watched him pluck at the air with that gorgeous, fragile right hand closed around an imaginary pick, or when you watched him move that fake instrument across his groin, you believed that the strings and neck and body of the instrument actually existed, that he was actually strumming every single note of that song in perfect time, that the music did not belong to the jukebox or some long lost band. It was his song, and everyone was listening.
Earlier in the evening, just outside the Tombs, I met Erica Bazar. She was co-founder of The People For Good Change, and she was very cool and very hot.
True to my magazine's cause, I had been tuned to the frequency of Hot Girls and during that night I had made notes on several that might make a good portfolio for the magazine. But also, I had seen so many hotties hovering around Belafonte that my senses on the matter had been dulled. Then, waiting for us outside the Tombs, I saw Erica, descendant of Balkan royalty, raised in Santa Cruz, California, schooled at Berkeley, wearing faded hip-huggers and boots and a slinky red halter top. Her flat stomach was bare in the cool autumn air. She was tall, with green eyes and a strong nose. I thought of the models that strolled in and out of a sculpting class I took in college, and how our teacher had said with each new entry, "It is your job to turn them into goddesses."
She watched us approach. She smiled at me as though we had already met, as though we had planned drinks in a workday email.
"Is this the writer?" she asked Belafonte.
"The one who will take our message to the world," said Belafonte in a big, intoxicated voice. I was his PR piece, but being drunk, I didn't protest. He descended the stairs to the bar, opened the steel door and was seemingly sucked in by music and shouts of recognition from inside.
Erica took my hand, held it firm.
"I didn't know you would be so charming," she said. I think she was referring to my wardrobe, because she touched the collar of my shirt as she said this. We followed Belafonte inside. The place was packed with cool people in their slender attire, in their big collars, in their youthful tones, listening to '80s music, doing shots, shouting over the music. Standing there, I worried that someone might recognize me as being a false sort of cool, like something quickly copied from the pages of a magazine and not original, not my own brand of cool. But Erica took my hand and led me to a small booth. We sat across from each other, surrounded by old wood. Someone brought us drinks. She told me how Belafonte had met her in a bar in New York. He was drunk but irresistible, with a personality that seemed to float from person to person, she said. They hooked up, and they realized in the weeks that followed that they shared a lot of the same political ideas. But they were no longer dating.
"We complement each other well, but we don't belong together," she said, sipping from her drink.
I nodded. The talk switched to "the movement," as she referred to it. She was the lead fundraiser for "the movement." The People For Good Change were pushing "the movement" forward; they were righting "the cause"; they were "changing things."
"What things?" I said.
"Democracy lives in our party," she said. "True democracy, freedom that's representative of the individual American, not corporate lobbies."
"So you're grass roots, populist."
"That sounds so old-fashioned. It's Web roots, email, IM, blogs, text messaging. The information age is here, but we're the only ones who seem to understand it. Other parties tap into it, but have you seen how silly they are? Even the ones that get the most out of it are desperately out of step. Voters react to it because they have nothing else. Now they have us."
I asked her about her party's platforms, and she told me. It sounded like the kind of messages every Liberal American wanted to hear but probably wouldn't believe, a Utopia transformed from the ashes of a problematic U.S., a place located somewhere between the dream-points of Marxism and capitalism.
"Is Belafonte the one who's running for president?" I asked.
She shrugged, but it was obvious. I thought of the connections between The People for Good Change and the League of Declarative Action. Erica had a natural smile and she would be featured in my magazine's portfolio, but I still felt the need to remain objective on political matters.
"Tell me this: Does the movement entail crashing world trade summits?"
I tried to picture her running from tear gas through foreign streets, throwing rocks at the windows of Starbucks, lying nude with others, spelling out a protest. It was not an inconceivable collection of images.
She shook her head. "The globals serve their purpose," she said. "But Belafonte broke away from them. He realized their purpose was to cause little explosions of revolution, but not to change things. Those people live for the fight. This, The People, is the better way to do it. Things won't change until the leadership of the most powerful country on the planet is with us. Until we get a person with a 21st century vision and understanding of the world. Belafonte is going to change things, not this time around, but some day."
"If not this time around, why do it now?"
"You've got to start somewhere. Third-party funding would be a nice step. But it takes time. This is the beginning of a new trend."
"Oh, yes. He told me how he would do it," I said. "Through cool people."
Erica leaned over the table, close to me. She looked as though she wanted to push the message through her green eyes. "But it's more than that," she said. "It's about our generation finally staking its claim. It's about young people finally taking control of their destinies from the Old Guard, leading the world and not destroying it. It will happen. It's just a matter of time. Yes, you reach young people through certain channels. But they have to want change. And they do. Do you see the gulf of separation between the Baby Boomers and us, their children? It's vast. It's based on technology and media. It's instant communication with a friend in Beijing. It's one thing to learn it; it's another to be born into it. Young people get it; old people don't. And it translates to an international perspective, a genuine New World Order. This is the first step of the movement."
I had hardly heard her, though the general idea registered. The music was loud, and also I had realized my grand idea to find a political hottie, the moment was here, but I had already fathomed that she was out of my league.
"Do you have a girlfriend back home?" she said.
She laughed. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't be so forward. I'm a little drunk."
"No, I don't have a girlfriend." I was suspicious of her intentions.
"Belafonte asked for you, you know. Your magazine was contacting parties to cover, so he read through a year's worth of issues and decided he liked your work. He knows what school you went to, where you grew up."
"I'm his shill then? I think I might disappoint you. My magazine isn't so deep."
"But it's cool," she smiled.
"You're just being nice to me so I'll say good things about your party."
"I'm not being nice to you," she said. "I'm nice to everyone."
Soon, the booth was filled with Erica's three friends, not to mention a paranoid sense of disbelief from my corner: Chloe, Mia and Kristina were all hot and cool; not as hot as Erica, who smiled at me often, but certainly on par with any of the women who had previously posed in the magazine that paid me. They were playful, with hair in blonde and brunette and copper penny. They were recruited by Belafonte, they said, from three of the top schools in the Northeast. They loved Belafonte, spoke of him in tones that alluded simultaneously to Hugh Hefner and Abraham Lincoln. They would do anything for him, for the movement.
I found myself thinking that Belafonte was certainly onto something. Maybe it was shallow logic, but the collective vote of my magazine's readers, numbering in the millions, was in hand if these were the representatives spreading the word. I pictured a campaign to pubs across the land: Belafonte's girls dressed in midriffs and shorts, passing out political buttons with Jaegermeister shots. And as I glanced around the bar, I noticed that handsome guys were as common as the sirens next to me. It bears repeating: These people were really hot and really cool.
The night lingered. We talked about The People's stances on healthcare, welfare, Medicare, taxes, terrorism and international policy, the environment, gay marriage, abortion rights, privacy, the legalization of drugs, etc. Someone mentioned Belafonte's desire to overhaul the government. I knew they had no chance.
We did shots. We told jokes. The girls laughed hardest at mine, and I knew why. But I still let them play with my hair, rub my thigh, giggle because I was blushing. The one next to me -- Chloe? -- showed me the Asian tattoo on the top of her right buttock. Another one -- Mia or Kristina? -- came back from the bathroom and told us that Belafonte was going to perform. We got up and made our way to the bar to see his startling rendition of "Tom Sawyer."
Erica's three friends followed the song with body shots and French-kissing. They were joined by others, and the whole scene reminded me of a late-night "Wild On E!" with an added intelligence quotient. Erica pulled me to the door. We were in the streets, walking in a pack. We were in a nightclub. I was standing by a bar, watching people dance in the silver light. "Brass Monkey" came on and the whole place seemed to float on its retro-primal beat. Erica lured me to the dance floor with her two index fingers, the sway of her nude hips.
Out there in the sweet-smelling, fake fog, she really knew how to move -- the perfect mix of letting loose and holding in her sexiness, just the right amount of parody to the wildest efforts. Across the dance floor, by the bar, I spotted Belafonte. He was leaning against a pole like a millionaire on his yacht, holding a drink in his left hand, his right hand pocketed. He smiled before turning away.
Not many people know this, but Belafonte Garcia revolutionized "flash mobbing" -- spontaneous, pointless gatherings organized at a certain time and location by email and blogs. Some other guy invented it as a prank, creating a crowd at a New York shopping mall. And others followed with similar stunts. But Belafonte immediately recognized it as a way to organize an energetic political rally. He gave flash mobbing a reason. He knew there was excitement in spontaneity. When you tie it to a political cause, there is purpose. Excitement and purpose are two ingredients of revolution. Flash rallies would become a staple of The People For Good Change movement.
I attended my first one on the afternoon after that first long night with The People. My cell phone rang at noon. I was locked in a deep form of sleep close to unconsciousness. The shrill call sent a bolt through my heart. I sat rigid, tried to rub away the night, which was encapsulated in the lingering smell of alcohol. I answered in a husky voice.
"Well, well, sounds like someone's been doing some late-night research." It was my editor.
I was dizzy; I was still wearing the same clothes. A hand brushed across my back. I jumped. Erica was lying beneath the covers of our shared bed. She smiled. Memory was just a word without images that might have completed the night. Did I have sex with her? It would have been among the most remarkable tragedies of my life because I couldn't remember a thing.
"Hello?" my editor said. "You there?"
"Yeah," I said. "Yeah. Boy, some party. Political, I mean."
"Good. So, when should we send the photog down there? Tomorrow?"
"No. Not yet. Give me another day."
"OK. Having trouble choosing, eh? I told you they had the hotties."
"Yeah," I said, searching my head for ideas just below the surface. Something was there that I wanted to say. "But also, there might be more to this story. This party is pretty out there. But they have interesting ideas."
"Listen, don't go New Yorker on me. Just give me the hot chicks. You get paid the same no matter what."
"Right," I said. "OK. I'll call you later today."
I hung up. I turned to Erica, who rested her cheek on her folded hands. Her eyes were sleepy. She seemed to recognize the look on my face.
"You passed out in the cab," she said. "On my lap. Do you remember?"
I had vague recollection of cab wind, of fingers running through my hair, of a few unkind words to a business-suited fellow on the elevator.
"Don't worry," she said. "You didn't do anything rude to me. You didn't do anything at all."
"Did I do anything to anyone else?"
"I'm sure the guy in the elevator will get over being called a 'slimy bastard.'"
"I'm not necessarily a good drunk," I said.
She pushed the covers down with a hand, then a bare foot. Her legs looked longer and more refined without the jeans. She was wearing a familiar t-shirt and boxers.
"I borrowed some of your clothes. I needed to get comfortable," she said. "I would have undressed you, too, but that seemed unfair." She smiled.
"Why did you stay?" I merely meant that I wanted to know why she seemed so interested in me – I wasn't a bad catch, but I wasn't spectacular either. Her interest didn't make sense. Erica clearly took the question to mean something else -- that I wished she had just left me alone to get over my drunk.
"I didn't feel like going home. Sorry. I was too tired."
She got out of bed and walked to her jeans and shirt, which were draped without ceremony over a chair. She took them to the bathroom.
My head hammered with new blood. I tried to catch up with everything. When she came out in the previous night's outfit, she told me my clothes were on the bathroom counter. I pictured them folded, holding the smell of Erica's skin.
"Belafonte was hoping you'd come by the offices this afternoon," she said. "There's a big flash rally scheduled. He'll announce his candidacy."
"OK," I said.
After she left, I fell asleep for another hour.
The offices of The People For Good Change were located on the second floor of a Georgetown shop. They were comprised of two rooms -- the main one, where (hot, cool) people sat on the scratched wooden floor or in chairs in front of three iMacs (one which played alternative music); and a small office at the back, door open, revealing an old desk and a mess of papers.
Belafonte squatted next to two girls who might have been part-time models for Sisley but were currently organizing flyers for the rally.
"Hey, Sunshine," Belafonte said. "Have a good time last night?"
Everyone looked at me. "Sure," I said, not entirely friendly. "When's the rally?"
"In a bit," he said, standing. "Come back to my office and I'll give you the lowdown."
We walked back. Belafonte followed me in. He closed the door, folded his right hand in his pocket, sat on his desk and faced me. He looked as though he might hold a pipe in his other hand -- a pose for a picture.
"You want the scoop?"
"You're running for president," I said.
He didn't pause. "I announce today. But that's not the real scoop."
"What's the real scoop?" I asked.
I had no way of knowing just how awful it would be. If future generations read this, they might glorify it as a moment when their lives changed, when their world turned on its axis in the opposite direction to the point where it would have never gone before. To a parallel time of possibility. But when I experienced this moment, it annoyed me in the worst way.
"Well, gee, how to say this," Belafonte said, for once looking awkward and unsure. He took a deep breath, looked me in the eye. "The truth is, my friend, I'm an alien life form."
He paused to measure my reaction, which must have been looked quite blank.
"My people," he said, "are from another planet that cannot be pronounced in your language. I'm running for president because we want to take over your country and the world without inflicting a lot of damage. We like humans."
I laughed. It was forced; actually, I wanted to cry. I had really liked Belafonte. He looked at the paper piled on his desk. He picked one sheet off the top with his left hand, and he ran it through a nearby shredder.
"Drives the FBI crazy to find shredded documents," he said. Then he whispered, "They're onto me."
"So," I said, pausing a second before daring to speak the words aloud, "my editor put you up to this. Where are the cameras?"
"There are none. This is not a prank. I know it's hard to believe."
An even longer pause. The pounding of my heart. Belafonte turned his head slightly, as if he heard it.
"Do you … really think you're an alien?" I asked.
I looked around the office for any weapons he might use to attack me or that I might use to defend myself. He was on the verge of a total breakdown or drug-induced freak-out, obviously. I saw nothing but files and books and one digital camera (with a lens cap on) and a computer.
"I don't think I am an alien at all," he said. "Being is not thinking. It is. And I am."
"I'm not sure I believe you."
"I know," he said. "But believe me. Ask me any question."
"OK," I said. "If you're trying to take over the world by becoming president, why not form yourself into a candidate that truly can run for president? Like, someone who's old enough, 50 or so, rich, connected, frumpy, out of touch --"
He waved me off. "What do you think I'm doing?" he said. "I'm not gonna be president this time around, or next. But by the time I'm in my mid-40s, with the cool networks working and with a healthy amount of media manipulation, I'll be set."
"And then what?"
"I'll get elected, and I'll run the country and the world."
"And what will you do? Will you kill us all?"
(It should be noted that every word that came from my mouth felt like a fat ball of rotten cheese -- bitter and strong and offensive, floating in the air and stinking up the room, though we were not supposed to acknowledge this.)
"Of course I won't kill you all. I don't have the capability. And no, my people won't kill you either. We're a peaceful, highly intelligent life form. There will, however, come a time when I announce that I am an alien. But what are they going to do? I'll be the President of the United States."
"Um, they could impeach you? For starters, you have to be born in the U.S. to be president."
"I was born in the U.S. to alien parents. New York's St. Joseph's Hospital. I can show you my birth certificate. We shed skins and flew back to my home planet, where I lived until I entered private school in Manhattan."
My editor was sure going to hear about this. Assuming this still wasn't part of the joke.
"Other questions?" Belafonte said.
"Is the whole People party filled with aliens? That would be sort of ironic, considering the name of it."
"Yes it would! But no. Just a few here and there, and others, in the form of cool people, spread around the world. We've also considered a run in Russian politics, but that's so unstable."
"Who in the party is an alien? Is Erica?" Of course she was an alien. That's why she wanted to sleep with me. But wait -- there weren't any aliens. Belafonte was just crazy.
"No, she's straight. Hot, but straight. We're not an item, by the way. She left me when she found out about me. And now it seems she's got something for you. I can sense those things." He looked at his watch. "It's about time to go. I'm sure we'll have many other discussions about this, and I look forward to them all. I want you there, writing about it. This is the scoop of a lifetime. Of eternity. But for now, you must know that this is strictly off the record."
"Uh-huh," I said. "If it's off the record, why are you telling me, a magazine reporter?"
He smiled and squinted. "I know why you're here, Scoop. You don't want a story. You just want hot chicks. You won't tell anyone about this, and even if you do your editor sure won't believe you."
"How can you be sure?"
Belafonte removed his right hand from his pocket. It was closed into a fist. He stared at me as he slowly opened his hand. And there, in his flat palm, I noticed a fold in the skin. It fluttered lightly, opened -- a large eyeball, spinning in colors. It was beautiful and disgusting. It blinked at me. Blinked again. I blinked --
-- and then I was walking to the Capitol, despite the distance, or probably because of it, with a group from The People For Good Change, including Belafonte. Our previous conversation was still clear in my mind. But I had no desire -- in fact, had an anti-desire -- to tell a soul about Belafonte's secret magical palm eye or his alien status. I simply wanted to see where Belafonte might take us. Also, I felt infinitely cooler, as if the eye had infused me with hipness. I was in the know. And I was completely comfortable with who I was, even though I had never been in such a delirious predicament in all my life. My previous girlfriend had left me because she thought I was too much of a homebody, as if writers are supposed to lead interesting lives. I wanted her to see me now as I walked down the streets of D.C. with the coolest people on the planet and a space alien presidential candidate.
I pulled out a pad and pen and started taking notes on The People For Good Change:
All ethnic varieties, wearing khakis, jeans, lots of black shirts and stylish glasses. Lots of hotties. Like a Gap commercial. Walking.
Along the way, we picked up people who would latch onto the small group as it passed. One fellow, wearing horn-rimmed glasses and a staunch look of determination, took a place next to me. He nodded curtly. I nodded back. We walked.
"Do you know about Belafonte?" I asked. I was just testing.
"Yes, he's brilliant. I hope he runs for president."
"He's not old enough, you know."
"It doesn't matter. All that matters is the effort. It's just the beginning."
(I later learned that this gentleman was a respected young professor of politics, and he, too, had seen the eye.)
At George Washington University, Erica met us with a cache of 50 students. With their count, we numbered over a 100. She said hello to me, spiced it with a half-smile. She knew that I knew. I wanted to talk to her about it, privately, but she took a place at the back of the crowd, like a schoolteacher keeping the students in line.
It was a bright day. The sun stretched its rays in angles that propelled us, in angles that released me from my hangover. I joined Belafonte at the lead. He wore a pale shirt with a big open collar, which seemed to offer a frame for his untamed hair. His hands were stuffed in his khaki pockets; he took long strides; his eyes were alive, searching the blocks ahead, picking up The People For Good Change -- Chloe, Mia, Kristina, Patrick, David, Jonah -- and the supporters they had collected.
By the time we reached the National Mall, the crowd was in the hundreds. Tourists stopped to see what the commotion was about.
As we neared the steps of the Capitol, we were greeted by hundreds more – a crowd that actually looked small in the expansive surroundings. But they all recognized Belafonte, who parted the crowd with his presence as they shouted and cheered. Someone handed him a bullhorn, which he held with his left hand at the top of the steps. He climbed atop a wooden crate.
As the crowd settled, I saw no fewer than two dozen video cameras recording the proceeding and its pockets of action -- someone handing out fliers here, someone kissing someone else there. Erica was being interviewed by a documentary-maker, but between questions she shot a glance in my direction and winked.
Not many people know this, but Belafonte Garcia was not a fan of political rallies, particularly ones put together by those not aligned with the government. Their nebulous format invited trouble -- a few bad apples getting arrested and spoiling the whole proceeding. And, even worse, Belafonte felt the rallies did nothing but serve to announce the attendees as overzealous wannabe politicos (at best) and stoned, violent weirdoes (at worst) when the footage later played out on newscasts to Middle America. Also, Belafonte told me that he had organized and attended enough rallies to realize that the message of the rally was often lost in the lack of organization. He said he had attended one particular antiwar rally when it dawned on him what the trouble was: People always felt the need to engage in those senseless political cheers, the ones that are designed to rhyme and simultaneously encapsulate a five-point platform message. Belafonte told me that he actually got embarrassed at that particular antiwar rally the previous spring when someone started a cheer attempting to link the president's corporate connections with the threat of a scheduled bombing campaign. They cheered:
Hey Ho, Mr. President,
We're tired of your corporate corruption
Sincerely, U.S. residents.
It was simple enough, and it nearly fit into the stanza, but its worst fault was that when attempted as a cheer by a large crowd it became a muddled mess. The trouble came in the second line, which was too long. Some protesters, trying to catch up to the beat set by the first line, would say "yourcorporatecorruption" all at once, trying to smash the square-peg phrase into the round-hole rhythm. And others would try a different approach, offering "your corporate cor-RUPT-ion," putting emphasis on that middle syllable of that last word for some reason, but loitering much too long on it, as half the audience had already begun the third line.
By the end of the cheer, it was difficult for the uninformed to understand what was being said. Three repetitions of this created nothing more than a strange cacophony of many voices.
That cheer, to Belafonte's irritation, was recorded on radio and disseminated to a national audience that evening and again the next morning.
"It sounded awful," he later said. "People listening couldn't have had a clue what was being said. It came off as this wild band of screaming, spitting heathens, when in reality they were simply struggling with an awkward rhyme."
Belafonte would not do that as he announced his candidacy. He would keep it simple; the simplest. And to do this, he would invent something new.
On the Capitol steps, he put the megaphone to his lips and spoke.
"Thank you for coming," he said as the crowd settled. "In the name of a peaceful, free, and most of all democratic world, I am Belafonte Garcia and I represent The People For Good Change!"
A cheer from the crowd. A nearly palpable edge of electricity around us, in the blue air (which, admittedly, might have been enhanced by the fact that I had been hypnotized by that palm eye).
"I'm here to tell you that I am running for President of the United States," he said. "But we're here for more than that. I am here to represent you and your beliefs. I am here to be the channel for good change. I am here to start a new generation of reformation, one that offers opportunity to everyone, one that finally brings a 21st century vision to create a better world for all!"
"We are here to make change. And change starts with questions. And we have many questions here today …"
He paused, surveyed the crowd.
"I ask you, what would happen if we all believed in our political system again? What would happen if we believed that we could make a difference and create a better world?"
Here's where it happened: Belafonte invented that new thing. As an apparent reaction to the questions he had posed, he let loose a sound that must've been stolen from his home planet's language. It's difficult to describe -- sort of like something between a raspberry and a Donald Duck quack, a noise that turned up at the end, providing a comical finish. I'll call it a "Pppssszzzack!" because that's the closest I can come to representing it in this language.
And in tandem with the noise he pointed one finger of his right hand (the one with the eye in the palm, though no one could see it), and he spun it around as if writing in the air. At the sound's upswing, he poked into the air, providing a period to end it.
It was a disconcerting sight, seeing this charming, good-looking alien-person doing something so foolish for the first time. It was as if he had suffered from a sudden onset of Tourette's. A few people around me laughed uncomfortably, and there was an extended silence before he spoke again, as if people didn't quite know how to react.
"So, what will happen when Social Security runs out?" Belafonte asked.
"Pppssszzzack!" he gestured.
"Exactly how many children have to die to gun violence before we change the laws of this country to protect them?" he asked.
"Pppssszzzack!" he gestured.
"Just what is the deal with your HMO?" he asked.
"Pppssszzzack!" he gestured.
I noticed that in the motion of his hand and arm was the clue to the cheer -- he was creating the shape of a question mark and dotting the bottom of it with a mimed period. He was asking a question, and providing a rhetorical end -- as if to say, "Isn't it obvious?" It was a thumb to the nose, a fingered bird, a Three Stooges' "nyuck, nyuck, nyuck," and it was directed at the Establishment. Most of all, it was simple. It was not a jumble of screaming voices, like the war protest cheer; it was a singular action that, while odd at first sight, was somehow understandable to any media audiences that might be tuning in.
"So, Congressman, you admit to playing partisan politics, and you have suffered no penalty?
"Pppssszzzack!" he gestured.
And some in the crowd copied the "Pppssszzzack!" Their attempts were laughable. But they didn't care.
The video cameras quietly whirred. Belafonte's presentation developed rhythm. With each question he gained momentum, so that his gestures became more wild and sure, and his voice became more passionate. He was a light-skinned MLK getting riled up about his dream. He was enjoying himself. He was finding a cadence. And every time he came to the end of a question, people copied him with their version of his salute.
I looked around. The whole scene resembled a loose representation of the Nazi pageantry, without all the bad intentions. With, in fact, commendable intentions.
Louder and louder and louder and louder. And with each decibel climbed, the impossibility of it all slipped away, like a football squad coming back from 20 down in the 4th, in one moment beaten and confused and cynical, and the next riding the crest of momentum's wave, pushed by the sound of their own voices --
"Is it right that the president offered false reasons to go to war, but today he suffers no consequence while soldiers pay the ultimate price?
"Is it right to hold someone in jail for a year without access to their lawyer?
"Is it right to keep a couple in love from marrying each other?
"Is it right to make personal choice a government issue?
As when he played Air Guitar, Belafonte was not a sponge of the environment but a processor. The energy buzzed in and he buzzed it back out in tiny lightning bolts of words, shooting them from a reedy Swiss-Spanish frame. On the very few news reports that followed, at the end of newscasts and not at the beginning, the footage used would announce him as an impossible left-field candidate. The silver-haired anchors would finish the story with a smile and a wink.
But like the best rock 'n' roll bands, the old people wouldn't get it at first. And some young people wouldn't know what to make of it, only that they liked it. They would have the desire to laugh a little at the sight of Belafonte acting up -- as if seeing for the first time Tina Turner succumbing to the beat or Mick Jagger flaring his lips. And they'd file it away. Then, at a party somewhere, the subject would be broached and the conservative boys would tell in loud voices how they heard Belafonte was gay, as if that mattered. But some girls would giggle about how cute he was, and others would say that he had some interesting ideas. At least he was doing something different.
"Just curious, but what would happen if we pledged $100 billion to eliminate use of fossil fuels in 20 years?
"Would we rocket to Mars instead?
A handful of cops had showed up. They were pushing their way through the crowd. One brandished his club, another radioed for backup.
"And who would rather be arrested for a peaceful protest," Belafonte said, "than live in a world without freedom?
"I am Belafonte Garcia, and I represent The People For Good Change!"
This was not a question, so he did not "Pppssszzzack!" But others did.
"Welcome to la resistance enfant!" Belafonte said. He held his right fist high, an exclamation point to the cheers. I half-expected him to open his fist, to ward off the approaching officers with cosmic rays of hypnosis. But he didn't.
"This rally is over!" he said. "Please disperse quietly and efficiently!" People did as he said. He stepped down and told the cops the rally was finished and he'd be going home now. But they questioned him and told him and a few others to lie face down while they cleared the area. They ended up giving Belafonte a ticket for holding a demonstration without a proper permit.
Belafonte's home planet was not accessible by rocket ship. Too far. But his society was advanced enough to accurately traverse infinite distance through space-time loopholes. They merely showed up, and no rocket fuel was used.
"Apparently, they'll come here in spaceships that look like giant eyeballs filling the sky," Erica said. We were lying nude beneath my hotel bedcovers, which smelled like sweat and detergent. "Everyone will look at the eyeballs and they'll be hypnotized, so that instead of attacking the ships they'll invite them to land. But they won't land. They'll disintegrate into the life forms that make up Belafonte's planet. Millions of them, covering the populated world."
"Do you believe it?"
"I don't know. I don't know why I shouldn't."
After hanging out with Belafonte and company at The People headquarters well into the evening following the flash rally, Erica and I had returned to my hotel and spent the night either having sex or talking about Belafonte's home planet. I no longer felt suspicious of her intentions. In fact, as we were surrounded by the impossible, the idea by comparison that we would have sex was not all that preposterous a notion. There was certainly chemistry between us; I felt she really wanted to hear what I had to say, and I felt the same.
"Do you remember those people who believed there was a giant spaceship behind that Hale-Bopp comet?" Erica said. "They strapped on their Nikes and took an overdose of phenobarbitol in order to reunite with their people. Remember? It happened in the '90s."
I did remember. It had made me feel cold and sick.
"Well, those people were just crazy," Erica said. "They never met their ship, because there wasn't one. Belafonte will never ask us to die. He wants us to live as long as possible."
"But he has secret intentions," I said. "Don't you think it's wrong that he's running for president and he has secret intentions?"
"Every candidate has secret intentions," Erica said. "Most of the time, theirs are worse and more selfish than wanting to take over and help a dying planet. Most of the time, the candidates simply want power. And in the process they are willing to sell out and do little things that inevitably lead to the death of the planet -- letting some company drill for oil, letting some gun go off in a child's hand, refusing to treat sick and contagious people because of what amounts to paperwork. These things negatively effect the Planet Karma and make things a little worse, a little closer to darkness."
I had never before given a second of my time to someone who used terms like "Planet Karma." But Erica was different. The times were different, suddenly shifted and altogether promising and spacey.
"But raising his hand and hypnotizing people without their permission -- I'm conscious that it isn't right," I said, "but because I'm hypnotized I just don't care."
"How is hypnotizing people worse than lying about what you plan to accomplish? Lying is a devious form of hypnosis. That's what the other candidates use. With this, your defenses have been taken down, that's all. You still have all your original thoughts and feelings. If you weren't hypnotized you would still like Belafonte."
And it was true. She asked me what I felt about the current president and I told her I thought him to be a malicious buffoon. Just like before. She asked me what I felt about my ex-girlfriend, and I told her that I was hurt and confused over why it ended the way it did. Just like before.
My cell rang. I answered.
"I saw your boy on the news," my editor said. "What the hell is wrong with him?"
"I told you, it could make a good story," I said. But I knew he wouldn't care, that my article would consist of a three-paragraph description of The People For Good Change, along with captions beneath the photos.
"He seems like a freak to me," my editor said. "But hey, that could add to magazine sales. When should I send the photog down?"
I wanted to tell my editor that he needed to meet Belafonte in person, so that he could speak to him and witness his charisma and then fall for the eye-in-the-hand trick. In fact, I would arrange that to happen whenever Belafonte asked. I was on his side now; I was part of the movement. But something about the sanguine expression on Erica's face as she watched me speak into the phone told me to just play along. A portfolio in the magazine was the first step. First, we'd win over the leering men. Then there would come a time when we were all hypnotized by Belafonte's magic palm eye.
"Send him down on the first flight available," I said. "I have enough girls for ten portfolios."
"Really?" my editor said, and I could picture his eyes glazing over at the thought. "Maybe I should come down and help."
"I don't think that's a good idea at all," I said. "Because of your obligation to magazine objectivity, you'll be forced to spend time at the other party offices, and they have mostly average-looking, uncool people."
"Right," my editor said. "OK. But you owe me, dude."
Erica and I went to breakfast. Over eggs, coffee and orange juice, we joked about how most presidential candidates resembled space aliens; how they were aliens to their own world and the people that lived in it.
"How would Belafonte be different?" I asked.
"For one thing, he'd be the first to admit it," she said.
"What if this is all just a ploy by him and his planet really wants to kill us and use us as an energy source?"
"I suppose they could have already done that by now. I think they really want to help us. They look in their timespace-scopes and see a planet that's dying," Erica said. She looked out the window at the people passing by without uttering a word, people who had no idea what was in store for them and the world. "I don't know, maybe the universe is pretty lonely and they don't want us to die," she said. "They want company."
The waitress put the check on the table. I slid it closer to my side, and I waited until she left with our dishes.
"So," I said, "what's it like to have sex with an alien? Do I even compare?" I hated myself for asking. I immediately felt I had lost any control I might have garnered in our time together.
"We didn't have sex," Erica said. "He wouldn't let me. And I left him once he told me what he really is. I just didn’t see it working out."
"Why did he decide to tell you that he's an alien?"
"I asked him that, too," she said. "He told me that he trusted me. And also, he felt that I was coolest girl he had ever met."
Hypnotized or not, I knew that Belafonte was, without a doubt, the best candidate ever for president of the United States and leader of the world. In the too-brief time that I spent working spin for The People For Good Change, I realized his only weakness was, in fact, that he was unquestionably the best candidate ever. That is, he was the best for reasons related to his alien status, and revealing the reasons could only happen if we simultaneously disclosed his identity.
For example, the technology available on Belafonte's home planet could end disease on Earth forever. It could also give us a clean, renewable and endless energy source, thereby eliminating pollution. And it could not only end global warming and environmental damage of any kind, but it could return the planet to its healthiest point in history, when the balance of life reached Vital Apogee (which happened, according to Belafonte, at 12:37 p.m. GMT on April 17, 1743). Hunger, too, would come to an end under President Garcia, thanks to practically immediate grass-roots efforts by the people from Belafonte's home planet; it turns out that, along with renewable and endless energy, they had also discovered renewable and endless food, which was quite healthy and tasty to most life forms.
This is not to mention the pacifying effects of mass hypnosis, which Belafonte and his people possessed and would use to quell the animalistic need for humans to kill one another (for any reason, including martyrdom, religious or government differences, rage, jealousy, genetic or psychological dysfunction, etc.). Instead, the extra energy created by not killing ourselves would be redirected to focus on loving our families.
And God. Belafonte's people apparently had more than simple theories. They owned a vast collection of highly descriptive knowledge, stored on ESP-disks, which they were apparently willing to share with us.
But, as the master of The People spin, with Belafonte coaching me, I realized that revealing these strengths about his ultimate mission before he became president would also require an explanation of his identity. And hearing that, I knew firsthand that people would accuse Belafonte of being crazy; I had thought it myself. And that would, of course, eliminate his chances of being elected.
Or, even if they did believe him and his drastic measures on a planet overhaul, many would still have second thoughts about electing him. For instance, can you imagine the lack of support from the entire healthcare industry if Belafonte used "Elimination of disease" as a campaign promise? Or the lack of support from the oil industry if you started boasting about that perfect form of energy? Or the lack of support from blue-collar NAFTA-haters if he proposed implementing his planet's Equal-All World Economy on ours? Or even the general "liberal pansy" hatred that would be lobbed by the right-wingers? It was simply a case of most humans not having the intuition to see the greater outcome of these proposals or assuming that, like most candidates who propose great things, Belafonte was just lying. They would bury him in the polls.
Another scenario: He could try to force his people and their technology on our planet before he was president -- say, in the run-up to the first caucuses. But he would do it without the benefit of presidential power, without the benefit of telling the military to keep cool, without the benefit of media manipulation, without the benefit of staving a worldwide panic before the aliens arrived. The aliens would simply fill the sky, and there would be a big fight from everyone who wasn't hypnotized. This scenario was very coarse, diplomatically speaking.
But if Belafonte spent time campaigning, getting involved, maybe running for Senate (but probably staying away from that route because it was so confining and non-revolutionary), throwing his hat in the ring every four years on an increasingly center-line platform (again, his politics wouldn’t matter, only that he got into office), and he hypnotized the right people along the way, and those people did their parts and influenced others who influenced others who influenced others, the momentum would build and Belafonte's best chance to become president would happen at age 42.
Once he was sworn in, Belafonte would then arrange for private meetings with military and world leaders so that he might clue them in (and hypnotize them, not to trick them but to help them understand). Then he would call for an international news conference. He would reveal his alien status and open his magic palm eye. At this point, a large percentage of the world would be hypnotized and open to the arrival of Belafonte's people. Then, as world leaders followed with news conferences of their own, the eyes would arrive in the sky.
But that was the key: for Belafonte to become president before everyone found out who he really was and what he was up to. And the agreed upon way to get to that point was to exploit cool people for their own good, then watch the trend spread. It was the only viable plan. And the fate of our planet was depending on it.
Shortly after returning to New York and filing my story, I quit my job at the magazine, broke my lease on my apartment, and moved to D.C. to dedicate myself to the cause fulltime. I performed this move without the slightest hesitation, despite my parents' general confusion over the idea and their utter lack of familiarity with The People For Good Change.
During those remarkable days I spent in Washington, I felt alive and proud of my work. The idea that we, The People, would succeed actually seemed a realistic possibility. Not an immediate one; it wouldn't happen for years. But it would happen.
Belafonte and I spent a good deal of time together that late winter and early spring. As flash rallies were scheduled, as legitimate presidential contenders engaged in real campaigns and debates, as a few curious media types called with questions, as the FBI phoned us pretending to be lunatics who wanted to bomb our headquarters, Belafonte and I would huddle for a lunch meeting each day and talk about the possibilities -- not of Earth, necessarily, but of the entire universe.
"The biggest weakness of humans is that they have no perspective," Belafonte said to me over soup one afternoon. We were sitting outside Dean & Deluca in Georgetown. It was one of those warm winter days that made me long for spring. Our paper napkins flapped quietly in the soft breeze. "It's not your fault. It's just that you haven't been anywhere other than your own orbit. If you never talked to anyone but yourself, you'd never have the perspective of other people. If you never lived anywhere but one small town all your life, you'd never have perspective on life outside your town. Same with your country. Same with your planet. You simply don't understand the perspective it gives you to see Earth from afar. Astronauts, especially the ones who went to the moon, are the only ones. Once they get high above the planet and see with their own eyes the biggest cities are absent from view; once they see for themselves that there are no lines on the map below; once they see just how small Earth is, it hits them: All the fighting you do with each other, it's irrational. It means nothing. Part of NASA's reintroduction to a gravitated life involves psychological counseling to deal with this realization."
Belafonte sipped from his bottled water. His right hand rested on the table, halfway closed. No one else around us seemed to recognize him, except for the two FBI agents dining nearby. I had thought the other candidates seemed so boring before I met Belafonte; now, compared to him, they seemed like living mannequins, like a mechanized theater show at Disney, saying the same things over and over again. We knew the lines, and still we paid to hear them.
"My planet is not that different from yours; it's just a few million years more advanced," Belafonte said. "We had help, too. Another planet came to us and said, 'Here's how you do this.' That's the way it has worked since the beginning. Someone showed someone fire, someone showed someone how to cook meat, someone showed someone how to shoot a gun. These days, my planet has a light of life on it that you might consider too bright, but we consider it essential to our well being. You see it here and there on Earth, in the reflection of the water at a certain time of day, in the tiny explosion of light that happens right after the sun goes down, in genuine laughter. Sometime in your life, you might think you see a ghost, something shifting in a hall and raising the hairs on your neck. But after a while you'll explain it away with simple facts. But those facts are based on what you know and not what is truly known. Again, perspective."
I wish I had written down everything he said. But everything he said was like that, and after a while I forgot how much sense it made; I figured all things made as much sense.
Spring warmed our tiny section of the planet. Legitimate presidential contenders fought it out over their political records while trying to lock down primaries. And Erica got me involved in yoga.
We attended class in the afternoons, after work. My body was preternaturally stiff and uncoordinated. But I learned the poses, and I became more flexible. I truly enjoyed the classes, because they taught me how to breathe, and because Erica looked so sexy bending this way and that way in her leotard and bare feet. I would make sure to always get a place on the mats just behind her, and as she would twist into new poses she would smile at me.
Since I had moved in with her, we had been hot and heavy, which made me feel like the coolest guy in the world, at least in part because her face stared out from the newsstands we passed on the sidewalks of D.C. She was on the cover -- albeit, in a small box in one corner -- of my former magazine. People were buying her, but I already had her. Inside the rag, the lone page on The People featured Belafonte standing in the grass in the middle of the National Mall, surrounded by a scantily clad harem that included Erica and Chloe and Mia and Kristina and a half-dozen others. He wore a loincloth and nothing else. He held his right hand high, closed into a fist. Loincloths saw a spike in sales thanks to the shot; donations to our party also rose significantly.
In the evenings, Erica and I would catch a cab back to her place, a small flat in Adams Morgan. We talked about many things: her mother and father in California; her relatives in the Balkans, their endless war, and how Belafonte's New World would change that history forever; her travels around the globe; her old boyfriend who still called. But it was the movement that fueled everything around us. We made love to the score of the movement; it was like its own soundtrack, something that provided mood and invigorated the air around us, so that we breathed it and slept in it and never quite washed it from our bodies. I had an undeniable sentiment that we were not only cool and onto something and doing the right thing, but that this was the only way to go and we were merely speeding the process; that any cosmic deterrents are absent when you are gliding in the direction of your own evolution.
We really liked each other. I probably could have loved her. But it never got to that point.
"I picked you," she admitted to me one night. We were lying in bed, listening to a CD. We had just decided that Belafonte's secret campaign theme would be the Radiohead line, "In an interstellar burst, I'm back to save the universe."
"What do you mean?" I said.
"We had narrowed our search down to three writers," Erica said. "I saw your picture. You looked so innocent."
"I thought you said Belafonte picked me."
"I lied," she said. She kissed me. "But look at you now. You know everything."
Not many people know this, but The People For Good Change didn't close their doors by their own volition, as it was reported in numerous media outlets. It was shut down in a secret FBI bust, not long after "The Girls of the Presidential Election" portfolio ran.
It was a Tuesday. Erica and I had spent our lunchtime picking up groceries for The People headquarters, and as we headed back with our recycled paper bags we talked about how we were looking forward to that afternoon's flash rally, which promised to be bigger than ever.
But when we climbed the stairs to headquarters, we were greeted by several men in dark suits and electronic ear pieces, some of whom were shuffling through People papers or unplugging People iMacs. We didn't have to ask what was happening. It seemed to make perfect sense that we were led away to separate cars located down a back alley.
We were interrogated individually, for hours, in bland rooms. My middle-aged questioners shared southern accents and unpleasant demeanors, as if they both had just recovered from passing kidney stones.
"Have you seen the eye in his hand?" they asked me on several occasions.
"I don't know what you're talking about," I said each time.
They left the room for a while, and when they came back they told me they needed to show me a video. It was taken by an undercover agent, they said, who had infiltrated The People For Good Change. They turned off the lights in the room, turned on a nearby TV. The video was grainy but one could easily identify Belafonte in it. He called the undercover agent back to his office, chatted with him. It was entirely familiar, and I hoped I didn't betray this as I watched. Soon, Belafonte raised his right fist and opened it. The video went bad. The lights came on.
"We lost a good agent to that," one of my questioners said. "Have you seen the eye?"
"I don't know what you're talking about," I said again.
There was more of this. It seemed like it would never end. Finally, one of the questioners left, and the other one sat down across the table from me.
"The People For Good Change office has been shut down."
"We believe the party aims to do harm, that it is a cover for a terrorist organization."
"You are free to feel what you want about it. You can fight, but if you do, we'll respond by releasing our version of the story to the media, and your life will never be the same. Your name will be connected to terrorism for the rest of your life. As it stands, your party is finished, and you are on our watch list, my friend."
We stared at each other for a moment.
He said, "You can do yourself a lot of good if you help us. We need you to help us find Mr. Garcia."
My heart skipped. He hadn't been caught. He had escaped.
"I have nothing to tell you," I said. "Nothing at all."
I met Erica at her apartment sometime after midnight. When she walked in, we hugged and kissed. She seemed too formal about it. She put a finger to her lips, took my hand. We walked to a pub near her apartment, which presumably wasn't bugged. We sat near a silent jukebox. The place had only a few patrons in it, drunk and bitter in the dim light.
"They didn't catch Belafonte," I said.
"He went home," Erica said. "He shed his skin."
She didn't blink.
"Is he coming back?"
"Not for a long time. He feels the time just isn't right. Not yet."
I think if I had been a better man, I might have known exactly what to say. But I was just a writer. From the first time I met Belafonte I felt helpless to the forces around me, like an unsure swimmer caught in a strong tide.
"What do we do until then?"
She held my hand. Her skin was warm.
"I'm going, too," she said. "Belafonte says I can't do anything here. The FBI told me to leave the country or they'd never stop disrupting my life. That's what I get for being co-founder, I guess."
I smiled a little, an attempt to be cavalier in the face of another pending heartbreak.
"Why are they doing this?" I asked.
She shrugged. "Why do they do any of the things they do?"
"What about your family?"
"I can still keep in touch with them through email," she said. "I'll explain to them somehow. I don't know. I guess I'll visit. What about you?"
I wasn't sure what she was asking. Was she asking what I would do without her, or was she asking if I wanted to go with her? I wanted to tell her that I had more interest in being with her than serving a political purpose. I wanted to say that; but I wasn't sure it was true. I wasn't sure I was willing to travel to another planet with her, in case it didn't work out. There are limits to anyone's dedication, especially in love.
"I guess I'll keep a low profile here," I said. She looked at my hand, held it to her lips and kissed it. "When do you go?" I asked.
"As soon as we leave here."
"Will you shed your skin?"
"Can I have it?"
She laughed, but it sounded downhearted. "I think that's more a figurative description than a literal one."
I drove her to the rendezvous point with Belafonte, in an open, dark field near a Dulles Microtel. It wasn't until after they had both said goodbye to me, after they had evaporated in a silent, twisting, rising light, that I wondered if I might see them again. I looked skyward, and in the infinite stars above I tried to discern the potential of the universe -- all the other life forms out there that might one day run for president. But I could only see how remote everything was: the boundless distance between bodies, each one so many light years away that it took light itself millions of years to travel from its source to my eyes; so far away that by looking at each star I was actually staring thousands of millenniums into the past. I wondered what each star looked like today, if such a thought was even relevant, if anything that happened on this planet mattered at all.
The answers were speeding toward me; I could feel it. It was just taking them a long time to get here.
[Forever after at http://eyeshot.net/belafonte.html]
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