If We Break
In 1992 I was living in Portland, Oregon, trying to reinvent myself as a social activist and tree-hugging liberal. I barely understood climate change but proudly wore my love planet earth T-shirt. With my flowing bohemian dresses and Birkenstocks, I pretended I knew something about the alternative music scene that was exploding there at the time. I couldn’t name three bands, but I could sway and groove with the best of them. I was twenty-three and working for the year as a volunteer with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC). Having grown up in working-class Chicago, I had no idea what the Pacific Northwest even looked like before I arrived, and the year in Oregon was as ambitious as anything I’d ever set out to do. I was yearning for new experiences and dreaming about who I could become.
I lived in a rambling Victorian house with seven other volunteers. We were strangers to one another but shared the belief that we could make a difference. I listened to heated discussions about the environment, the impact of logging, and what needed to happen to protect the planet. “Yeah,” I would add, nodding along. But I knew as much about logging as I did about space flight—zero. My south side Chicago neighborhood was populated by Polish and Irish laborers who were busy trying to make a living and weren’t talking about carbon footprints. But my roommates taught me to not only recycle but compost. At dinner, we passed a talking stick to make sure everyone was allowed to speak their mind without interruption. During one meal, a roommate commented on how quickly we were going through toilet paper and suggested, in all seriousness, that we each use no more than two squares. You might as well just use your hand, I thought, secretly continuing to make a toilet paper mitt.
When it was time to make the grocery list, we’d all sit down to talk about what we wanted. Gourmet coffee was all the rage in Portland, but I didn’t drink it. “If we get expensive coffee, can we also get Diet Coke?” I asked. The answer was a resounding no.
That was the year I learned that beans didn’t always come in cans and that you had to be able to tell your organic products from your nonorganic. When I inadvertently bought the wrong honey, my roommates delicately explained to me that the nonorganic honey contained pesticides. “Who knew?” I said with a smile. “Honey seems so straightforward.” That night I wrote a note and taped it to the honey bear’s chest: “I’m sorry I wasn’t enough. I was just trying to bring a little sweetness to your lives.” The bear, with his note, stayed on the counter all year.
I had been working since I was twelve, but it had been selling hot dogs at Comiskey Park, home of the White Sox, and washing dishes at a party rental store. In Oregon, I worked with adults living with mental illness, and I finally felt I was doing something that mattered. My previous four years at St. Mary’s University in Winona, Minnesota, were spent playing pool and drinking cheap beer, not sitting around debating social policy. My roommates now seemed like they’d been in the fight for social justice their whole lives while I was just getting started. But regardless of where we’d come from, JVC put us all on the same playing field. We each had an eighty-dollar monthly stipend and we explored the city together, seeing live music and hiking through the parks.
After a few weeks, I found myself dancing with a shaggy-haired volunteer who came from a little state I’d barely heard of. His name was Hunter Biden. As he swung me around that night, my heart started to beat just a little bit faster. He was shy at first, but I never stopped talking. After that night, whenever I would see him and he’d smile at me, I would feel my entire body respond. I’d never met anyone like him before. Despite the longish hair tucked behind his ears and his ripped-up jeans, he carried himself with the elegance of a movie star.
For weeks he and I found ourselves talking on the porch at every JVC party. When a few of us went to a bar the night after Thanksgiving, my eyes stayed only on Hunter, and at closing time, he walked me home, where all of my roommates were fast asleep. He and I sat in two old armchairs in a living room strewn with mismatched furniture, and I waited for him to make a move. It was our first time alone together, and the room hummed with our energy. After what seemed like hours of talking, I couldn’t take it any longer. I stood up and walked over to his chair, climbed onto his lap, put my arms around his neck, and leaned down for a kiss. Fireworks! From that moment on, my life would change in ways I’d never imagined.
Suddenly we couldn’t be apart. We walked the city for hours holding hands, and talked on the phone every night we weren’t together. I didn’t see the point in going anywhere if I couldn’t be with him. In the mornings he’d walk with me to the nonprofit where I worked, on the first floor of an Episcopal church across town, and walk home with me afterward.
While I was still trying to figure out who I was, Hunter carried himself with a confidence and maturity I’d never seen before. When he told me about the bond he had with his dad and his brother, I’d never heard a man talk so openly about loving his family. They were not just close but shared an emotional tie that seemed stronger than any I’d heard of before. When I learned that, as boys, he and his brother, Beau, had survived a car accident that killed their mother and baby sister, it felt like one more reason why he was special.
Hunter was effusive about our love too, and when he focused his attention on me, it was intoxicating. For the first time in my life, I believed that I might actually be beautiful and smart and unique, all because he said so. Just a few weeks after our first kiss, we started planning our future over Hefeweizen beer. We sat for hours, scheming about how we’d spend the rest of our lives together. First we’d get married, then I’d find a grad school program in psychology while Hunter went to law school.
We talked about our lives back home, describing every family member, every close friend, in detail. We examined every significant childhood memory and each former sweetheart. We were excited by the parts of our pasts that aligned, celebrating them with all the naïveté of early love. We both had Irish roots? Amazing! We’d both been raised Catholic? Incredible! We both loved to read, we were both idealistic dreamers. And most important, we shared a close relationship with our families. What separated us, though, was significant.
Hunter had grown up the son of a U.S. senator. His girlfriend before me was a DuPont heir. At the old estate where he lived, he had a tuxedo hanging in his closet—a tuxedo he used fairly regularly. Where he came from, lineage was a real thing.
Me? I came from Chicago’s working-class streets. I’d always felt loved and appreciated by my parents, but my life had a grittiness to it, and my childhood was more practical than aspirational. Dinner at my house was served with paper towels and often included mac and cheese out of a Tupperware bowl. There was never talk of being special.
Hunter tried to tell me that he came from a middle-class family, but nothing about his life looked remotely middle-class to me. Months later, when I went to his house for the first time, I explained to him that the middle-class families I knew didn’t live like this, let alone working-class families like mine. “Hunt,” I told him, “a kid from a middle-class family does not have a ballroom.”
The night before I flew home from Portland to Chicago to be with my family for Christmas, Hunter helped me drop off gifts to my nonprofit clients living on their own in subsidized housing. He’d bought a beat-up old car, and we drove all over the city making our holiday rounds. It was so late by the time we got back to my house that we decided to stay up all night; my flight was at the crack of dawn. But as soon as we turned on the movie La Femme Nikita, we were asleep. When we woke up, I’d missed my plane.
I was panicked, but Hunter was calm. He was going to make sure I got on another one, so we jumped in his car. It wouldn’t start. “No problem,” he said, and found us a public bus.