1. Your reputation precedes you, and you stare anyone down who dares to disagree. You’re halfway up the ladder and still climbing, young but getting older by the second, and your rank is never increasing fast enough. Push faster. Push harder. Lose yourself in phone calls and speeches at three in the morning; forget your own name. Remake yourself when necessary. You never had a filthy mouth before Washington but you adapted. Morals don't matter. Nothing matters but work and power and the two are intertwined like snakes in love. Offer your tender body to the snakes, naked and whole. Offer your arm to anyone else. Lift your sleeve only when necessary; never forget when this makes someone reveal their whole hand. Use their information and discard them as an ally. This is Washington. They should know better. Be the first in line to show them why.
2. They shouldn't care how you look, but they do. Sell your plaid schoolgirl skirts and tights. Donate your white blouses and saddle shoes. Remove your headband; put on makeup, not too little, not too much. Find a suit, fitting but not too tight. Take your medication. Don't let them call you a slut. Don't be plain. Wear tinted chapstick, no flavor; look natural. Don't eat in your office at less than six hour intervals; don't eat with your hands at official dinners. Don't be a neurotic, fat freak. Vomit junk food but only at home. Don't starve; don't digest. Live alone but not with a cat. Sleep at your boyfriend's house twice a week. Remember that the walls have eyes. Never open your blinds.
3. Law is practically a foreign language and you know it better than almost anyone by the time you finish school. You never wanted to be a lawyer, but a law degree looks great on someone hell bent for the white house. Use it as a talking point at dinner parties. Talk circles around lobbyists and senators until you end up where you belong. Then, let Selina talk. It will be your turn again soon. It’s all part of the plan.
4. Dan Egan is all white teeth and expensive cologne and dead eyes. He’s a toxic piece of shit and something alights in your brain, something rare and stupid.
I want to fuck him.
It was never meant to last, of course. You know yourself better than anyone else and it’s crystal clear before you begin that on the first day you’ll be insatiable and by the third day you’ll never want to see him again. He’s mental food poisoning clouding your brain; you fuck so much that you forget to eat, but when it’s all over it’s hard to explain why at one point that was true.
His headspace is too similar to things you’d rather forget. He’s ironically raw by letting off an increasingly empty air in your presence, and it gnaws at your skin. He never learned that you can’t win by bottoming out; this makes him weak. You have no time for weak people.
Pretend that's not why you leave him; say that you're bored and the sex is bad. Keep his vulnerability close to your chest as future leverage. You are better than this. You will win.
5. Set your enemies up for success so that their fall is more crushing, more permanent. Have them answer to the people; politicians will protect each other, but constituents are hungry. Do not let them eat you. Give your colleagues your forearm and give nothing but a smile to anyone else. When you’re on top, your past will be clean and the wolves and zombies will continue to fight beneath you. Create a shell around yourself for when they get bored. You will be safe. You are safe. Refresh your chapstick in a hand mirror so your lips don’t get dry. Put it back before the whole office sees. Don’t run the risk of anyone thinking you are too human; don’t seem invincible. Zombies and wolves are hungry for blood.
6. Your sister is an art school dropout, a career waitress, and an unsuccessful painter but she has a husband and she has always been good with kids so in your parents’ eyes she is the golden child. You, Amy, are cold and unfeeling, a barren uterus, a relationship wasteland. You, Amy, have a biological clock that is ticking. Look at how good your sister is at wiping the noses and sticky fingers of your cousins. She’ll be a great mom someday. We just want what’s best for you. Everything changes when you’ve had a child. It would soften your heart. You, Amy, could do with being a little softer.
You have no plans to be soft, warm, biological. Your path is new and childless and you will stick to it. Don’t knife yourself under pressure with complacency; the path is well trod and boring. Don’t be like your sister, not now, not ever. Forget the rare, terrifying dreams of forced motherhood that sometimes wake you in a heavy sweat. Take your birth control on time every single day, all of your pills down the hatch at once. Don’t get pregnant. Don’t get pregnant.
7. You graduate high school at fifteen as valedictorian. Trying hard wouldn't have been necessary but you did anyway and now you have ten college classes under your belt along with a high school diploma. Everyone wants to know what you will do next; you tell them that you want to be president, and no one doubts your conviction. Next stop: Harvard.
Poli sci is ridiculously easy and gives you plenty of time to pursue college forensics. You kill it regionally, statewide, and then take third at nationals. You work for the Democratic Party in PR for the 2000 election. You're president of the pre-law club, the poli sci club, and a member of college democrats. 'When do you sleep Amy?' everyone asks, and it produces a rare laugh. You don't. It's unnecessary, just another hurdle to overcome.
Sometimes it feels like you're going too fast but it's fine. It's fine
8. One morning you wake up and you are underwater. It’s five AM and your lungs have filled to the brim or deflated maybe; they’re crushing you like twin weights and keep you glued to the mattress, staring up at the spackled ceiling. Six o clock comes, seven, ten, one pm, five pm, five am. You haven’t moved, not even to pee. Your brain is too cloudy; it has never, ever been cloudy. Something is terribly wrong.
Five days later (thirteen missed classes, five lost gym visits, three canceled meetings) you find yourself trudging to campus health services about what can only be some sort of concussion that you acquired in your sleep. They ask you a bunch of questions and then refer you to, of all people, a psychiatrist.
‘This must be a mistake. I’m not crazy,’ you tell them, but a kindly nurse pats your shoulder and encourages you to try it out.
He writes you a diagnosis (bipolar disorder, anxiety) and sends you on your way with pills. You take them on time every single day until and after your symptoms are gone. The psychiatrist becomes something of an acquaintance who you pay for prescriptions; your meetings with him are brief, well-spaced, and businesslike. It’s one of the best relationships with anyone you’ve ever had.
You become conscious of your sleep and the times you take your medication. You invest in a sun lamp and journal your mood religiously for an entire year. You don’t go to therapy, not then, not ever. This is all chemical, impersonal. You can beat this on your own. You can beat this. You can beat this. You can beat this.
9. You’ve always had questionable eating habits, preferring studying over snacks, but your junior year of college is when you start engaging with them, encouraging them. You don’t want to be as thin as the heroin chic that’s in nowadays, but you’re not as tiny as the female senators you’ve met thus far and that is problematic. Fatness is changeable and you’ll be damned if something that simple will get in the way of your dreams.
Maybe it’s cliché to crash diet for reputation, but some clichés are there for a reason and it’s so good to hear that you look good in a suit or in a little black dress. They say being a woman is a double-edged sword, but it’s two knives: one sharp, one rusty. Pick a knife. You can’t always choose the one that’s clean.
This is you, brandishing your femininity like a rusty blade. This is you, refusing to choke. This is you succumbing to a parasite of choice.
Don’t think of your sister.
10. Let people know when they have displeased you. Learn phrases from foreign languages so you can tell the French, Swedish, Finnish ambassadors – you have made my day hell. Vous avez fait mon enfer de jours. Du har gjort min dag helvetet. Olet tehnyt minun päivä helvetti. Command respect. Give looks that kill. Call for backup if necessary. Fight back if they try to pull you away. Don’t back down.
11. Boyfriends are fucking dull, so to compensate you date trainwrecks that aren’t meant to last a week. You laugh it off as bad taste in men, but the truth is you rarely have a taste in anybody. It’s just easier to date poorly than to not date at all.
Selina expects you to not have a personal life, and it’s such a fucking relief to not have to try like you did before you worked for her. On sleepless, thankless nights, it’s nice to close your eyes and thank fuck that you finally have an excuse to be single.
12. There is a soul-sucking element to DC that turns higher-ups from human to Other. Even the best people fall for it eventually. It would make a great zombie story if normal people told it. You are in government. You know better. In Washington, morals are a rusty knife. You need to choose something cleaner if you want to stick around. Choose the system instead; it can make you invincible. The only cost is your soul.
13. Do not forgive weakness. Do not forget incompetence. Don't be afraid to make enemies; be wary of friends. Do not mark your betrayed with a Judas kiss in tinted chapstick. Swivel away in sensible heels and smirk at their vulnerability. Teach them humility; install self-doubt. Confidence is something you have to earn.
Don't think of the medication in your sock drawer.
14. You’re thirty-four and you have two knives. They are behind your back, and your hands are tied together. You cannot feel the blade to see if they are rusty or clean, and their handles feel exactly the same. Let’s say the knives are choices. Let’s say the knives are men. Let’s say both knives are your career, but the cleaner knife has a paper doll hanging off of the tip. Pick one. The train is coming and you’ll need it to untie yourself from the tracks. Hurry up before it’s too late.
15. The first time you step foot in the white house as an official employee, you close your eyes and breathe deep. This is where you were meant to be. This is why you are here. You open your eyes, and pull yourself up taller, straighter. Your history, your family, your financial, married, medical status – all of it falls away as you make your way to the Vice President’s office. The door is heavy, but you push it open just forcefully enough, and smile. You extend your hand to the Vice President when she comes over to greet you.
‘Madame Vice President. Amy Brookheimer, Chief of Staff. Pleasure to meet you.’
Never take it for granted that she remembers your name.