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Beto and Sasha: The bizarre experience of watching my college boyfriend run for president

Beto O'Rourke and Sasha Watson on the Coney Island boardwalk in 1995. Handout photo by Sara L. Press.1 / 2
Beto O'Rourke and Sasha Watson visiting El Paso, Texas, in August 1995. Handout photo by Sara L. Press.2 / 2

On an afternoon in January, I sat in the library of the school in Boston where I teach, gathering my things after a faculty meeting and checking my email one last time. Already half-closing my laptop, I saw a message with the name "Beto" in the subject line.

I paused for a moment, prickling with what it might mean. Then, I read it. The message was casually worded, a simple request.

"Someone wants to interview me about Beto O'Rourke," I said to a colleague across the table, absorbing the information as I relayed it.

"Really?" he asked. "Why? Do you know him?"

"Yeah," I answered. "We went to college together."

I shut my laptop and stood to go. I'd been wondering if a message like this one would come, but, even so, I was surprised by the door it suddenly opened between the present and my past. On the train home, I emailed Beto.

"I mentioned your name to him," he said of the reporter. "I don't know why they're doing a story about me in the '90s, but I'd rather he talked to people who knew me well than people who didn't."

And so, a few days later, I found myself in the strange circumstance of sitting in my car on a late-winter afternoon and recalling - with a stranger - life in my early 20s, and what it had been like for Beto and me to fall in love. Over the course of our 45-minute conversation, I talked about the dorms where Beto and I lived, the astronomy classes he came to with me so that we didn't have to spend an hour apart, and the studio apartment he moved into after he graduated, where we often gathered with friends to eat takeout and listen to music.

Hanging up the phone felt like pulling myself out of a pleasant, painful whirlpool, the car filled with a wash of long-unvisited but still-familiar memories. I shook myself back to the present and shifted into drive. It was time to pick up my son from school. As I navigated traffic, I felt the disconcerting realization settle in: The story of Beto and me would be public now, my own memories woven into a narrative I'd watched develop on computer and television screens for months.

I've received more messages from reporters since then, but I've mostly stopped responding. Their questions have gotten less interesting, and I don't have much to tell them that they want to hear. "No, he wasn't a wild partyer," I might say. Or, "Yes, I know he's said he smoked pot," but, "No, I don't have any specific memory of him doing so."

They don't see a story in the fond or funny recollections I might offer, but there is a story, I think, and it's not in the "salacious details" one reporter told me he was seeking. Instead, it has to do with seeing a person emerge from the long tunnel of memory and shared history to stand in the public eye; about seeing someone become more than a person - or maybe less - when he's turned into a symbol.

It was September of my sophomore year at Barnard College and Beto's senior year at Columbia when we first sat together and talked at a party. He'd dated a friend of mine from high school the year before, so we'd known each other for a while. I hadn't thought about him much, though, since he wasn't one of the rebellious artist-types who took up my time. He was a quiet guy, someone's boyfriend; he wore a baseball cap backward and left every party early because he had to get up the next morning to row.

But now he and my high school friend had broken up, and he'd quit rowing, so he was staying out late. We lounged among other people on a thin dorm-room mattress, leaning toward each other to shout over the music.

"Let's go outside," he said eventually, his eyes wide. "Do you want to?"

I liked the way he was looking at me, so I yelled back, "Yes!"

Five minutes later, we walked past trays of fruit into a bodega on Broadway. I can remember the precise flavor of that warm September middle-of-the-night, the sense of being very far from childhood and of entering what seemed at the time like adulthood.

I turned to glance at Beto's tall, loping figure next to me, and he leaned in to catch the moment of our encounter.

"Sasha!" he said, his voice brimming with excitement.

"What?" I asked, suddenly shy.

And, as if it were the most thrilling prospect in the world, he asked, "Do you want to get a bagel?!"

I laughed. I did, I wanted a bagel.

A few months later, I went with Beto to his hometown of El Paso for the first time. His father, Pat, took us up into the mountains one night after dinner. We drove along a winding road, and eventually Pat stopped. We all got out, and he gestured down toward the city, glittering beneath the vast night sky.

"See that?" he said. "Where the lights change?" I leaned in to Beto and looked. There was a line winding through the city, the lights a slightly different shade on one side than on the other.

"That's the border," said Pat. "Juarez on that side, El Paso on this one."

It was a revelation to me that we could stand on the edge of this great big country and look down at Mexico and Texas stretched alongside one another. This was the West, this was Beto, and there was so much here that was new to me. For one thing, in New York he'd gone by Robert; that was what I'd called him. Now I found that his family, his oldest friends, his bandmates all called him something else. And, as Beto, he was different. He wasn't some quiet guy; he was the eldest son, the big brother, the leader of his small gang of artists and musicians.

One evening, on that visit to El Paso, or maybe a later one, we all gathered in the living room of one of Beto's oldest friends. It was Arlo's 22nd birthday, and a crowd of us curled up on couches beneath his mother's big oil paintings as people played music. Arlo sang, in his passionate, tender way, and the others joined in for lines from Neil Young's "Powderfinger":

And I just turned twenty-two

I was wondering what to do

And the closer they got,

The more those feelings grew

The music went on for a long time that night, and the lines kept returning, surging up in joy, in fear, in sadness, in joy again. That question of what to do, of who we would be and how we would make meaning of our lives, was with all of us then, all the time.

It was Beto's idea to rent the ice cream truck in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the next summer. Along with a group of his El Paso friends, we'd landed in that Southwestern city and promptly realized that seasonal jobs were scarce. Beto saw the ad in the paper: Work independently, make thousands in a week, drive an ice cream truck! He convinced us that this was the perfect answer - we'd get to hang out together, explore Albuquerque, talk to people, eat ice cream! In the days and weeks that followed, we drove around adobe neighborhoods selling Rocket Pops and Fudgsicles. Beto and the others brought guitars, and we turned off the ice cream truck jingle and sang Jonathan Richman songs out the window.

But by the end of the summer, the ice cream truck had lost its glow, and Beto spent long days driving alone through suburban neighborhoods, the jingle playing as he sold ice cream bars to kids. I was working in a restaurant by then, waiting tables and flirting with one of the dishwashers, planning for my upcoming spring semester in Paris. Beto and I were still in love, though, and I was sure - most of the time - that we would stay together.

Six months later, we broke up over the phone, me in my Parisian family's guest room, and Beto in New York. Life had changed in the year and a half since we'd talked at that party: Now he was lonely and unsure of what he was doing in New York by himself, while I was speaking French, translating poetry, hanging around book markets with new friends. There was no cataclysmic event or terrible disagreement, but we were 21 and 22; we had our whole lives to figure out, and it didn't seem like we could do it together.

We stayed in touch, though. When Beto decided to move back to El Paso several years later, he visited me on Long Island, where I was writing for the East Hampton newspaper. I drove him to a used-car dealer, and he bought a pickup truck. After we went for a swim, I waved goodbye and watched him drive off. He wasn't sure exactly what he would do back in El Paso, but it was clear to him - and to me, too - that it was the right place for him to do it.

In the years that followed, I moved back to New York, where I fell in love again, went to graduate school, taught French, wrote a novel. Then I got married and moved to Los Angeles. When Beto came through town, we all went out for drinks. He was recently married, too. "She's wonderful," he said, when I asked what she was like. "So beautiful, and such a pure, good soul."

I eventually met his wife as I passed through El Paso, giving readings and teaching writing workshops to promote my book. Amy was the director of a school and pregnant with their first son. Beto was newly elected to the city council.

"Did you ever think he'd go into politics?" Amy asked me.

"No!" I laughed.

But it also made sense. It was Beto looking out for the people he cared about, like he'd always done, but on a bigger scale now. He seemed happy then, and even happier when I saw him feeding his son in a high chair in his and Amy's dining room.

Eventually I moved back East, where I had a child, taught high school, wrote. We weren't in touch much, but I kept current with what Beto was doing: He and Amy had three kids now, and he'd made a successful run for Congress. When I saw other old friends of ours, we wondered at the idea of Beto as a politician, Beto in Washington.

Seeing him run for Senate last year, though, was something new. I was no longer one of a small group of friends who watched him at a distance, but a member of the public, and I followed his campaign along with tens of thousands of people. Like many others, I was deeply moved when he spoke about NFL players and why they were justified in taking a knee in response to the killings of young black men in this country. Like many others, I watched his concession speech to Ted Cruz in a race that no one had thought could be so close. I read articles in which writers compared Beto to Obama or Clinton and suggested that he might run for president. I don't know that I've experienced anything so bizarre as opening a newspaper or a browser to see Beto placed next to these larger-than-life political figures. Stunned, I asked myself: Would he do that? Would he actually run for president? I didn't ask him, though, figuring he must be exhausted after the Senate race, and flooded with questions and requests. Anyway, maybe all of this had made him into someone else, I thought. Maybe I didn't really know him anymore.

Then one night in January, my sister asked me on the phone, "Hey, have you been reading Beto's Medium posts?"

"No," I said. "What's he writing about?"

"He's on a road trip," she told me. "It's funny - he's just kind of driving around by himself, talking to people. There's a post where someone tells him he looks like that guy Beto O'Rourke, and he says, 'Oh yeah, I get that all the time,' and then a few minutes later, he's like, 'No, wait, this is too weird. I am Beto O'Rourke, that's me.' "

I laughed. That was Beto's sense of humor all the way through, and his inability to tell a mean joke right behind it.

"People are saying it's some kind of stunt leading up to him announcing that he'll run," said my sister.

I got off the phone and read the posts, the one where he said he was "in and out of a funk" and those where he described his conversations with the people he met. I could see, very clearly, the sensitive, questioning person I knew, and I thought, "Oh, this doesn't seem like a stunt. It seems real."

So I wrote to him: "Hey, how're you doing?"

"I'm struggling with whether or not to run for president," he wrote back. Then he added, "That sentence sounds as nuts for me to write as it is for you to read."

I felt for a moment like we were still in our early 20s and had somehow found ourselves here. Check this out, he might have said. It's nuts! And it did seem nuts that Beto was asking himself this question, and that so many people were watching and waiting for him to answer it. How had he arrived in this place, on that road trip, the question of what to do amplified to the level of the nation and the presidency? When I saw opinion pieces that held him and that road trip up as an example of white male privilege, it kind of blew my mind: All I could see was Beto, making what must have been the most difficult decision of his life.

And yet, when I stepped out of the familiar channel of our connection, I could understand the criticism, too. In a year when a host of brilliant, driven women are running against the worst example of a white man many of us have seen in power ... well, yeah, a good-looking white guy on a road trip, trying to figure out what to do, might seem a little angsty, a little ... privileged. This was, after all, someone who had recently met with Obama and who would, soon after, sit on a stage with Oprah, joking and discussing a possible run. And so I found then that I could see him in two ways: as the person I'd long known and as the politician who might or might not be able to beat Donald Trump in the next presidential election. It was hard to see those two people at the same time, though. I had to switch back and forth between them.

When I see him held up as a symbol - of hope or privilege, of the brilliant future or of the not-progressive-enough present - part of me might think, He's not those things. But, for many, he is. When I look at it this way, the casual cruelty of the memes and comments I see on social media feels less personal. It reminds me that, no matter how familiar, Beto is no longer the 22-year-old I knew so well.

This is what it means, I realize now, to be a public figure, but it's also what it means to be an adult. As we put together lives, take on the care of others, as we build the things we build, we all come to stand for something more than just ourselves and our own private histories. I see this in my own life, where I might represent things to my students - whether it's trusted wisdom, infuriating authority or clueless adulthood - that seem, to me, to have little to do with who I am. I know enough to let them make what they will of me, to listen, and then to go on trying to offer them something meaningful and true.

A few weeks ago, I sat in my living room and watched Beto walk onto a stage in El Paso, kicking off his presidential campaign to the sounds of the Clash. When he talked about the border, I knew how long he'd been gazing down at the line winding along the edge of this country. I recognized him then, both as the person I'd long known, and in the campaign and possible presidency he described. When my son laughingly chanted his name along with the crowd on television, I felt those two images of him come together. Mixed with my admiration of the candidate on my screen that day was something else: I'm proud of those young kids who longed to make something beautiful of their lives, and who, now, are doing it.

This article was written by Sasha Watson, a reporter for The Washington Post.

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