In the end, of course, a true war story is never about war.
- Tim O'Brien
He associates himself with writing. Associates writing with words. Words with everything. Power. Commitment. Everything.
There was a semester in college--eons ago, now--when he took psychology classes. The human mind was a dark, fascinating world to explore, although he retained precious little of what he learned. None was helpful. The only thing that has stayed with him from his semester of psychological study: word association. Word: association. That one-hour lecture, he has always carried with him. Linking one thing to the next.
Sky: blue. New York: home. Marriage: failure. Jack: Daniels. Lies: betrayal.
There are specific things he will always associate with CJ. Too many things, he has begun to think. Because sometimes someone can mention sending medical aid to Africa, and it will lead him to thinking of her hair sliding into her eyes. Almost anything can be associated with her, if he thinks about it long enough, but specific things hover just behind his eyes. CJ: Silk. Bath towels. Dancing. California. The ocean. But more than any of those tangible things, for him CJ is want. He wants her body, her company. Heart: Soul. He wants her. And he wants her to want him.
His father couldn't pay for his college. They'd needed to save the money for David, whom his father declared would actually do something with his life. You didn't need college to write. Shakespeare didn't. Dickens didn't. So, Toby won scholarships and worked odd jobs. Though those got him through four years at a college beneath his ability, he had to take room and board from his sister. During the day, Gilah would act happy and cheerful, reflecting the sunlight. She hid her sadness through carefully straightened hair and a homemade wardrobe she could brag about. But at night, through the thin walls of their small, decrepit apartment, Toby could hear her crying.
Her boyfriend's number had been drawn in the lottery in the spring of 1974. He'd left for Saigon four months later, as Toby began his first year at the City College. It was the end of the school year, ten days before finals, when he held his sister's hand as she watched the news. April 30, 1975. Saigon had fallen; the Americans were coming home. Not victorious, but safe.
She jumped up then and looked happier than Toby had ever seen a Ziegler. "He's coming home, Toby! He's finally coming home!"
"That's great, Gi," he told her, wishing he could share in her ecstasy.
"Oh, don't worry, little brother, we won't kick you out. You can stay with us for as long as you need."
He smiled, then, too.
His favorite part of the day is late at night, when she knocks on his office door, or accepts him when he knocks on hers. He wants this all the time. This sense that work and social lives can coexist peacefully. He wants all of her, though he knows it is too much for her to give.
These late night office visits were on hiatus in the spring. Spring: Tragedy. The association occurred to him at the start of June, as he watched the deepening purple crevices beneath her eyes.
He hated himself in May. Because of her. He watched as she admired the man sent to protect her, wished it could have been him. He longed to comfort her when he was taken away.
Things have been better since the summer solstice. Like the sun, she had traveled the furthest away from him, and then slowly began to come back. He wanted more. Couldn't ask for it.
Things are closer to the way they used to be. It will seem casual when she comes to him, like she is asking if he wants lunch in the mess. She will knock on his door like she has countless times before and they will drive to his apartment, barely speaking in the process. The sex will be good, maybe great even, and they will sleep for a while. She will leave before he can ask her to stay.
He went with his sister to the terminal. He couldn't help but smile at her, a twenty-four year old woman bouncing like a girl half her age. He laughed as she wriggled her fingers and bit her lip.
"Gilah. Settle down. He's coming home. He'll be here."
Gilah began fidgeting more when the first man came off the plane, and the fidgeting increased exponentially with each one to follow who wasn't her boyfriend, until finally every last soldier had left the plane, and there was no one left with them in the terminal. She looked at Toby with arched eyebrows and eyes round with uncertainty. "I don't understand," she said. "Where is he? He's not here."
"He's not here," Toby confirmed.
"Well, where is he?" The first trace of hysteria crept into her voice.
"Let me go ask someone." He removed his sister's death grip from his palm and went in search of someone who appeared important. Someone who would know answers. Uniform: responsibility.
He looked around at all the men not too far from his age, hugging loved ones. Wizened soldiers unable to maintain their stoicism. Kissing babies, relieved young women, tired-looking middle-aged mothers and fathers. The air around him was thick and fresh at the same time. Too much emotion confusing the atmosphere.
He panned the terminal, until he found what he needed. Three soldiers, holding clipboards, huddled together. Potential for authority.
He walked closer, a little timid. He wasn't one of them. "Uh...excuse me." He cleared his throat as three pairs of eyes turned on him, waiting for the point. "Excuse me. Uh, is that, is that everyone?"
"Is what everyone?" one of them asked.
"On the plane. Is that everyone, that's getting off?"
The one that spoke looked at his clipboard, scanned the room quickly. Instead of an answer: "Who are you?"
"Toby Ziegler. We're here to pick up my sister's boyfriend, but he didn't get off the plane?"
The soldier glanced at his list again, scanned the room again. Didn't ask for the boyfriend's name. "Where's your sister?"
"She's, uh, over here." He led the man to where Gilah's feet had welded to the concrete beneath them.
He stood back, gave them space as the soldier told Gilah her boyfriend would not be getting off the plane.
The first time he met CJ, she was young. He was at a fundraiser for his candidate, a congressional candidate running with no hope at all. It was a low-dollar event, aimed at the young professionals in the California 10th. It was held in the living room of a friend of the candidate, and Toby was in the kitchen, trying desperately to avoid an interaction with some young slick lawyer who wanted to talk shop.
He heard CJ before he ever saw her. She was yelling, though about what, he isn't sure anymore. Abortion, he thinks. Maybe Title Nine. A women's thing. The noise sent him in pursuit. He was in the mood for a good show.
It wasn't hard to pick her out of the crowd. Hard to miss the shouting six-foot tall girl. She was yelling at a sniffling kid in a three-piece suit, and he remembers being, if nothing else, amused by a woman who would yell so loudly at someone who was probably a stranger in a room full of strangers. Her adversary was the same weaselly lawyer he'd been desperately trying to avoid, but here was this woman, standing nose to forehead with him.
"What the hell? Are you even actually a Democrat?" Her voice was almost as impressive as her height. And eyes. And legs.
The lawyer's lip snarled up one side, and one eye narrowed, so the right side of his face appeared shorter than the left. "Come on, I'm not going to argue about this with some college intern who doesn't know what she's talking about."
Toby stepped in. He didn't want any prominent lawyers getting hit at his candidate's event. "Excuse me, I don't think we've met." His best politician's voice, aimed at CJ, his back inches from the chin of the lawyer.
She glared one last time at her opponent before she turned her focus to him. "No. We haven't. I'm CJ Cregg, and it's nice to meet you, Toby Ziegler."
He could feel the first traces of a smile. "I didn't actually, you know, introduce myself."
"You're in charge of O'Neill."
He ducked his head, uncomfortable with being recognizable. "Yeah."
"Yeah." She bent her knees and tilted her head a little, so her face was beneath his, looking at him. "And I'm CJ Cregg. I'm running Janet Torrey's campaign."
His head lifted involuntarily. He wasn't easily surprised. He turned back to the lawyer, who was no longer standing behind him. "I...I thought you were an intern."
"No. I finished grad school two years ago. I'm running Janet Torrey's campaign, but I think I mentioned that."
She smirked at him. If a smirk could ever be endearing, hers was, and he thinks now it might've been when he knew he'd never get over her.
"Ah. She's...state senator?"
She sighed. "Well, not yet. But she's running for state senator, yes."
"Why haven't I seen you at these things before?"
"I just started. Janet's husband ran her campaign through the primary, but his boss said he had to pick one job or the other, so Janet hired me." She was standing close to him, so their chests are less than six inches apart. He thought about Andi, probably at an event just like this, three thousand miles away. Andi always knew the meaning of professional space. He made the mental note to call her when this thing was over.
"Yeah. So how'd you get all the way out to the Bay Area? I'm assuming you're not local."
"It's a long story."
"I'd like to hear it."
It was tempting. Almost too tempting. Luckily, he glanced around him and noticed O'Neill seemed bored.
"Yeah, listen, I should get to work. Not that I wouldn't, you know, rather stand here with you."
A winning smile. "No, I understand. You have a race to win. But listen, what are you doing later? Maybe we could get a drink?"
"Oh...uh...I'd love, but...I should tell you, I'm engaged."
She chuckled. "I'm not trying to seduce you, Toby Ziegler, I just thought maybe you could ...I don't know. I've never run a campaign before. I'm really better with PR. With the political thing, I'm new. I'd like to hear what you had to offer for advice."
He shuffled his feet, considering. She might not be trying to seduce him, but he couldn't promise the other way around. But things were serious with Andi, even if she lived on the other side of the country. Andi: distance. Still, he wouldn't cheat on her.
"I'd better not."
"Oh...okay. Well, it was nice to meet you, anyway, Toby. Here, I'm giving you my card. If you ever get bored, give me a call." He took the little rectangle of card stock, brushing her fingers in the process. He still has that card.
Gilah cried at the terminal, and didn't stop crying for three days. Toby hovered around her, bringing her coffee, and water, and aspirin when he sensed she needed it. Once she stopped crying, she went back to her job as a nurse at New York Downtown Hospital. After a week or two, life was nothing but a slower version of itself. Gilah went about her daily tasks as if nothing was wrong. Still, Toby could see the sadness in the slump of her shoulders.
She still cried at night. It was loud and harrowing, and Toby tried to block it out as best as he could. She would scream her boyfriend's name. His name. What the hell was his name? Toby can't remember. Jacob? Joseph? It wasn't Josh. He'd have made that connection. He can't remember now, all these years later, but Gilah would cry out the name in the night, and Toby will never forget that.
"I thought you might be bored," CJ said as a greeting, when he answered his hotel door, the weekend after the fundraiser.
"Uh...how did you know where I was staying?"
"This place is famous for giving obscenely cheap rates to democratic politicians."
"Ah, of course. So you just...took the chance."
"It was a pretty good one. Because, you know, here you are." She pushed herself through the doorway, before he stepped back to invite her in.
"Did you want to come in?"
"No. I want you to come out." She took on a defiant stance, hands on hips, a teasing glint in her eyes.
"You mean go out?"
He played with the pen between his fingers, tapping it against his palm. "I need to...I should get to work."
"Fair enough. I'll walk you. And if I happen to need to stop for lunch, you can't hold that against me."
He felt an odd need to smile around her. That impulse took years, and many, many miles to smother.
"Fine. But I told you. I won't let you seduce me."
"Oh, I wouldn't worry about that, my friend." She flashed a grin at him before striding ahead of him out the door.
They went to lunch, and remained friends through November. He went home to Andi, and CJ took a job as communications director for San Francisco's Democratic mayoral candidate.
They stayed in touch, talking on the phone, writing postcards and letters. She hugged him at his wedding, and flew to New York to calm him when his mother died. He tried to be there for her in return. He tried to be someone she could rely on. It might have been in vain. But when she would break up with a new asshole, he would tell her it was for the best. He would tell her she deserved better. He would mean it.
The pattern continued. They needed it, relied on it. Pattern: relief. She never accepted his pessimism when he lost another race. She believed in him. Believed that someday, he would cancel out all of the losses with something great. She didn't lose her races. He would've believed in her even if she had.
She didn't show him her pity when Andi left. Never said it was for the best, even if they both knew it was. But she was there for him. Let him just breathe over the phone if he needed it. She promised him comfort wasn't always about talking.
She was miserable in Los Angeles, it was obvious in the way her laughter was softer, her quick comebacks not as quick. So he did the best thing he could to pay her back for saving him too many times. He came and got her.
Funny, how things can change so drastically with just a phone call. It had been nearly three months when the Army called their little apartment, and told Gilah that they had someone waiting for her at their base, if she could please come and collect him. She was confused first, then jubilant. It could only have been one person.
Toby offered to go with her, but she refused. It was something she wanted to do herself. They called mid-morning, and she came home at dusk. She kicked the door in, and brought with her a tall, thin man, with unkempt hair that seemed longer than it could have been. He wore camouflage pants and an army green T-shirt. His expression was bare.
Toby couldn't help but stare at this man. This veteran, whose slumped shoulders looked displaced upon such a strong back.
"Toby! Say hello," Gilah commanded when she had kicked the door shut behind them.
"Oh, uh, hey. Welcome home." An empty stare in return. "So, how're you, you know, how're you feeling?" Still, the empty stare.
"He's pretty tired. He's had a long...year, actually. He needs his rest," Gilah explained. It wasn't hard for Toby to sense that she was explaining to herself.
It was hard not to laugh at how badly CJ fit in when they got to Manchester. People don't wear turquoise camisoles in December in New Hampshire. She didn't fit in, and she didn't know anyone, so for the first week she hung close to Toby. He didn't mind.
But of course it wasn't long before she'd won over the entire campaign staff. He watched as Sam tried to charm her and Josh joked with her like he'd known her for years. Even Leo showed his respect for her faster than he showed it to most.
One night, like most, Lois tended him his Jack Daniels, but as he tipped her he turned around and spotted CJ laughing and dancing with Sam across the loud and smoky bar. He watched her. She was glorious.
Josh came in, caught him staring. "You'd better go stop that. Sam's on the rebound, you know."
"Shut up, Josh." But he found himself walking purposely across the room, anyway. He'd never cut in on a dance before. He wasn't known for his suaveness. Still, he found himself tapping on Sam's left shoulder, hoping he wasn't embarrassing himself too badly.
"Uh...excuse me. Do you mind if I...?" He gestured between Sam and CJ. CJ raised an eyebrow and Sam's face showed horror. Sam had been terrified of him in the beginning.
"Oh, sure, Toby. I'll see you later, CJ." He threw a smile at CJ as he made his hurried exit. Toby moved in front of him and put his hands where Sam's had been, but pulled her closer. After too long, she relaxed.
Dancing with her was addictive. Once he knew she was responsive, he couldn't stop. He can't remember the sequence of events leading from dancing to ending up with her in his bed. But it lasted on and off for most of the first campaign. There was never any formality about it. He never said, "come home with me," and she never said, "I don't think we should do this anymore."
After the campaign, it was less frequent. Sporadic nights fueled by need, loneliness, alcohol. There were episodes, interludes, where bringing her home would almost become status quo. But even when she went home with him three, four, seven nights a week, they would always leave separately. Hours apart. Time: Space.
The Veteran spent most of his first week home sleeping, wandering into the kitchen every eight or ten hours for a glass of milk or any food he could salvage from the nearly barren cupboards.
On the eighth day, Gilah came home from work exhausted, declaring all she needed was a night of mindless television. Toby sat at the fold-out card table they used for dining, reading his tattered copy of All the President's Men for the sixth time, while his sister molded herself into the sagging gray nylon couch, entranced by their small black and white television set.
After a while, he heard Gilah make a purring noise, and glanced up to find the Veteran standing behind the couch, combing his fingers through her hair. Gilah turned around and grinned.
"Hey, babe! Rhoda's on! Come watch!"
Wordlessly the Veteran came around the couch in the same slow, languid drift that was signature to his movement. He kissed Gilah's temple as he sat, but kept his arms at his side when she rested her head on his shoulder. He lasted in the open with them through the rest of "Rhoda" and all of "Marcus Welby", before he lifted himself up off the couch, placed a hand on Gilah's head, and trudged back to his room.
It's an early night, tonight. Early for them at any rate. He finds himself in her threshold at a quarter to eight.
He doesn't knock, clears his throat instead of speaking.
When she looks up, he rocks on his heels. It's his way of saying "let's go."
Without preamble, any explanation, she says, "I think I'm going to the gym tonight."
She doesn't say the rest out loud. She doesn't say, "instead of going home with you."
He wants to ask, "Did I do something wrong? Did you come to your senses?" but he doesn't, because that would be too close to a conversation about their relationship. That would scare her further away. Instead, he says something more logical. Logical: safe. "I thought it closed at seven."
She stares at him a minute, early signs of a smirk playing with her lips. He hopes she isn't evaluating which witty line to use about him and physical fitness. She shakes her head, but she won't ask how he knows about the gym. How he only remembers details selectively.
"The White House gym closes at seven. But I'm going to go to my gym. I haven't been there in months. I need to start going again."
"Ah." There is nothing to say to her. He could say something about how she looks great the way she is. How he doesn't want her to get too thin again. How he knows she'll run for hours if they let her, and she'll burn today's calories and yesterday's and last week's. But he won't say it. This isn't that kind of conversation. And he won't say anything else, because he won't let her hear his disappointment. Pity is the last thing he wants from her.
"Yeah. And, my gym is open until eleven. Because they actually understand the lives of people in this town. So, I'm going to go now, since it's still early."
He shuffles. "All right, well. I'm going. Have fun...with the gym." He says it just before he turns to leave. His visit has been pointless and suddenly he feels out of place, loitering at her door. He turns on the balls of his feet, feels his shoulders hunch as he makes his way past Carol's desk.
To his back she calls, "Good night!" It sounds like an apology.
All he can do to accept is raise a hand to acknowledge he has heard.
It wasn't lost on Toby how similar life in the summer of '75 was to the way it had been five or six years earlier. In junior high, and the beginning years of high school, he'd been expected to help with three things: housework, earning extra money, and baby-sitting.
He was always expected to look after David. His brother was only two years younger, but he was the baby, and their mother worried. And this summer, he felt the same way. It wasn't that the Veteran was ill. After the first ten days he wasn't even weak. But there was something unsettling about his disposition, and Gilah worried. Just like their mother, and their mother's mother before her.
That summer Toby worked four days a week in a bakery, for a robust middle-aged widower, too jovial for his situation. Toby worked the counter and odd jobs, running errands and fixing signs, from six a.m. until two in the afternoon, at which point, Mr. Bianchi would send him home with an armful of day-old bread, and muffins and danishes on the slow days. Gilah had impressed upon him that he must check on the Veteran when he got home, as if the grown man were a new puppy.
The Veteran was always in one of two places when Toby came home. Some days, Toby would find him sitting in the living room, in the white wicker chair Gilah bought at a flea market for five dollars. The Veteran would sit in the chair and stare at one of several focal points. A batik throw draped across a wall, a mural sized poster of Jim Morrison on an adjoining wall, the small window facing the alley next to the building. Often he would hold a snapshot of Toby and Gilah, that their oldest sister Deborah had taken of them at Rockefeller Center. The Veteran would gaze through the glass of the picture frame, and even from across the room, Toby could feel the Veteran's eyes burning through the photograph. When the Veteran was in the living room, Toby would mumble hello as he made his way to the kitchen to deposit the bread. Bread: Money. The Veteran would look up, without a word, and stare blankly as Toby passed.
Most days, the Veteran was not in the living room. Toby would take the bread to the kitchen before making his way to the master bedroom. There he would inevitably find the Veteran lying on his back in the middle of the made-up bed, staring somewhere beyond the ceiling. He never turned his head when Toby entered, and Toby would always leave without disturbing him. Without disturbing him further than he must have already been.
Once Toby had checked on the Veteran, he would settle in his bedroom to read the Times. If Gilah was working the second shift, and she usually was, it was his job to cook dinner. He would cook soup or pasta with sauce from a jar. If they could afford it, he would add chicken or ground beef. And of course, they had their bread.
Gilah would come home, too tired to stay quiet, so she would rouse the Veteran out of bed and then chatter at her men throughout the late meal.
Gilah's chattiness was the reason it took Toby twenty-three days to realize what was eerie about the Veteran. Gilah called and said she would have to work a double shift, so Toby and the Veteran were left to themselves for dinner.
Toby made macaroni and cheese, and cursed himself for being nineteen years old and eating something so childish. Still, it was what they had, so he made it. He called for the Veteran, who sauntered to the table just outside the kitchen, five minutes after he was called.
The men sat, and ate in silence.
Toby looked between his copy of Newsweek and his plate, occasionally looking up to see the Veteran staring blankly just over Toby's right shoulder. He ate mechanically, with no apparent interest in his plate.
Toby waved a fork toward him. "Is it not good?"
The Veteran looked at him, but didn't answer.
"I say, is it not good? I can heat it up...I can put it in the oven for a minute, if you want."
The Veteran tilted his head slightly to the side, but remained unresponsive.
"It's really no problem. It'll just be a minute."
The Veteran looked down and stabbed at the noodles on his plate.
"So, it's all right, then?"
The Veteran looked Toby straight into the eye as he took his bite. Silently.
And that's how Toby made the connection. Vet: Voiceless.
The next night he waits for her to come to him. She doesn't. He curses his immaturity as he goes to look for her in her office. The office is dark.
At the end of a week of nights spent alone, he wonders if things with CJ have ended for good, without his knowledge. If it was supposed to end, this is how it would happen. No "I'll always love you." No "We'll still be friends." They don't need to say those things. Saying them doesn't make them more true. And in his experience all things end. Beginning: End. But a story must have a middle. It must have a climax. Their relationship hasn't had a denouement.
She hasn't treated him differently at work. Not really. Things have been busy, so if she's been purposely avoiding him, he can't say for sure. They were in South Dakota for a day at the beginning of the week, which averted their focus. And her press briefings get longer every day. Still, he can't help the disappointment that she's been leaving earlier in the evenings. He can't help but wish she'd at least say goodbye.
Toby didn't need to ask Gilah if she had realized that her boyfriend refused to speak. Wouldn't, couldn't, shouldn't. It wasn't important. The Veteran didn't speak, and Toby's sister knew, had known since she'd picked him up at the base more than three weeks earlier. It was obvious in her chatter, and worry, and the look in her eyes which Toby had, until now, assumed was exhaustion.
Thursdays were Toby's day off, so most weeks he would sit with Gilah and eat stale bagels from the bakery for breakfast. The Thursday after he realized, when he came into the kitchen, the Veteran was sitting at the table, staring at the photograph on the coffee table across the room, his hands wrapped around a mug of tea. Toby went through his process of making coffee and preparing a bagel, and then came back out to the eating area, as Gilah stumbled sleepily from the bedroom.
Her eyes always lit up when she saw the Veteran. "Morning, babe! Sleep well?" She bent down to kiss his cheek, and Toby saw the flicker of despair when her boyfriend didn't answer her. But as she stood up, again, the Veteran lifted a hand to cup her cheek, and the spirit came back to her face.
That day, Toby was scheduled to choose the fall semester's classes with the college registrar. When he met with his advisor, he chose to put off statistics, creative writing, and classical political thought, in exchange for taking a series of psychology courses. Intro to psychology, cognitive psychology, abnormal psychology. He was determined to discover what would have caused the Veteran's non-communication.
It's 11:30 at night. Not too late. He's been sparring with Doug for the better part of fifteen hours, so he isn't tired. He's pumped full of adrenaline mixed with a dozen cups of coffee.
CJ called a full lid three hours ago. He watches her whenever he has a free minute. She's tired. It has been written all over her for days.
They're all tired. The traveling is catching up to them, and Leo has demanded they go home and sleep. It might be their last chance for five weeks. They're under orders to go home and sleep for eight hours, but Toby has plans to use at least three of those hours to catch up on his work.
He is settled at his desk. Josh dragged Sam out a few minutes ago. Bonnie was gone when Toby came back from staff, and he can see Ginger gathering her things through the office blinds. He can't hear the printer whirring or the fax machine squealing. The world is quiet.
He is all alone, which he prefers. He's battling education, working on a speech for the upcoming Chicago trip, and in the back of his mind he is brainstorming remarks for the first debate. He is in his element, completely focused on the important work, without the distractions of running the office during the day. He is immersed in concentration, so when he notices her, he has no idea how long she's been leaning all her weight against his doorframe. Her eyes are barely open and her hair has fallen out of the sculpted shape it had this morning, and into her face. The way she's idling in the doorway, he thinks she might have forgotten what she's doing. She doesn't notice that he's staring at her, waiting expectantly until she speaks. He taps a rhythm with his pen until she looks up, seemingly surprised to find him.
"What?" He wishes at moments like this that he was a gentler person.
She shifts her weight. "I skipped dinner. And lunch. And, you know, every meal since breakfast yesterday."
"You shouldn't do that."
"Yeah, so, listen. Do you want to go get something to eat? With me?"
"Why don't you just eat at home?" Why is he arguing? Not jumping at the opportunity?
"I haven't been grocery shopping in months. There isn't any food in my house."
"There must be something." He can't help but rationalize for her. He wishes he could.
"No, there isn't. I ate my last pop tart this morning."
"Your last pop tart?"
"Pop tarts? Really?"
"There isn't any food in my house!" She's exasperated and soon she'll give up, and he won't let that happen.
"Where did you want to go?"
She raises an eyebrow at the non sequitur.
"To eat. What are you hungry for?"
She blinks, waves a hand in the air. "Oh. Oh, anything. I'm just hungry."
He looks at his laptop, thinks of all the things he was going to finish tonight. She shuffles a bit, and seems unsure of herself. As if he would ever turn her down. He closes the laptop, puts it in his briefcase as he searches his desk drawer for car keys. Finds them as the brief case snaps shut. He flings it over his shoulder, grabs his jacket, and goes to her. She smiles softly at him as he nears her, and turns to lead the way. As they walk down the hall, he lets a hand hover around the small of her back.
The semester went underway, but Toby could not diagnose the Veteran. He learned of Freud and Jung. The limbic system and the frontal lobe. Neuroses and psychosis. But nothing on the motivation of the voiceless.
It was that semester, in cognitive psych, where he learned to associate words. He began to think of words to match. He didn't love psychology the way he loved politics, the way he adored writing, but it was fascinating, this new use for words. Even if the classes weren't serving their purpose.
Things at home remained the same, though Toby wasn't there often enough to know for sure. He knew that the Veteran still didn't talk, and Gilah still worried. Still wished if nothing else, she could hear answers.
Toby worked the early evening shift at the bakery, and took eighteen hours of class each week, so his time at home was spent studying in his bedroom. Except of course that he still made dinner.
He would make dinner and the three of them would sit and eat, and Gilah would babble on about her day, though now all three knew that it was not exhaustion that caused the chitchat. It was fear. None of them wanted the emptiness that would come if Gilah was quiet.
He drives and waits for her to spot a suitable place for late night dining. He can tell without asking that she is not in the mood for bar food tonight, so their options are limited. He drives a block or two up Connecticut. until she tells him to pull over without saying where they are going. He parks and she doesn't wait for him to put a quarter in the meter before she saunters to the large glass window. He watches her walk, notes that the sway in her hips is smaller and slower. Wishes there was something he could do to fix that.
The street is dark. The street lamp looming over his head has burned out. The only lights are coming from the next block, and the light from the neon sign behind him. He squints to find the slot, then drops the coin and goes to stand next to her. She is peering in through the wall-length window, trying to see around the deep red curtains blocking access to the interior.
He spots a menu taped to the door, and notes that it's a Chinese restaurant. He pivots a step backward and tips his head up to look at the flickering neon sign.
"CJ? We're eating at a place called the Magic Wok."
She quirks her lips upward a bit. "I know. We're taking a walk on the wild side." And the way she says it, shapes it out with her mouth, he knows she is spelling the word "wok" in her head.
Without bothering to watch him roll his eyes in mock exasperation, she pulls the heavy glass door. It opens and a bell chimes, as an indication that they're open. Toby steps around the door again and looks for the hours on the menu. Open 24 hours.
They step into the dark, cramped restaurant. The fluorescent ceiling lights are buzzing their final rays, so the only light comes from behind the counter at the back of the restaurant, the red and green neon of the overhead menu.
They walk through the center of the restaurant, empty red booths lining up like a receiving line while they make their way down the aisle to place an order. He can hear her breathe in her exhaustion, burying it inside her so no one will see, as he stands inches behind her. Though he knows it is forced, the smile she flashes at the cashier, a blonde girl up entirely too late for a school night, looks genuine.
"May I help you?" the girl asks, with a Slavic accent that he can't quite place. He checks the menu again, to make sure they've gone in the right door. She doesn't look like the image he has of Chinese food employees. Her eyes are the color of ice cubes, and her hair is almost as white as her flawless skin. Her expression carries the plastered cheerfulness he thinks is embedded into the heads of all fast food employees.
CJ returns the smile, turns to Toby. "Do you know what you want?"
He glances at the menu, "Uh. Beef with broccoli. Fried rice."
"To drink?" the girl asks.
He looks at CJ, who has her eyes closed while she thinks he isn't looking. "Nothing. Water."
"And, ma'am?" CJ doesn't look up.
"CJ? What did you want to order?" He is about to tug lightly at her elbow, but she pops her head up and reapplies the smile.
"I'll have chicken lo mein. No rice. And an egg roll. And iced tea?"
"Yes, ma'am. Thank you. And this is for here or to go?"
"For here is fine, thanks," CJ tells her. It surprises him how willing she is to be out like this. Toby pays for the meal, and CJ leads him to a booth in the front of the restaurant. She leans over and parts open the heavy curtains. Through the window he can see the humidity lingering in the air like a ghost.
CJ's eyes are closed again, and he doesn't try to distract her with conversation. She won't want to talk about work, and these days, there is little else they would be comfortable discussing.
He watches her until the blonde girl brings their food. Her eyes open as soon as she feels the third presence, and again she smiles convincingly at their server. When the girl retreats CJ turns her gaze to him, and he feels tired just looking her in the eye. He wants to tell her she should sleep more often, but nagging is the last thing she wants.
She looks at him for longer than she has in ages, and he knows she knows what he is thinking. She shakes her head and blinks.
"Thank god, I'm starving."
"That's what not eating does."
"Yeah, yeah." She doesn't argue, instead picks up her fork and winds a group of noodles around it. It is a huge bite, too much. She makes a choking sound and raises her left hand to help guide, or block, the noodles that can't make it in. She chuckles at her own eating habits as she uses a napkin to wipe the brown sauce off her lip and chin. He can't stop staring at her.
They eat in silence because she's obviously too tired and hungry to chat. He steals glances every few seconds, and doesn't care if it annoys her. He's reassured by the fact that she's eating. Half of her lo mein is gone and she is dabbing sauce off the plate with her egg roll. He watches her take the bite and can't help but wish she was as mischievous as she would have been nine months ago. Nine months ago her bare foot would've been running all the way up his leg by this point in the meal. He would've been encouraging the meal to end as quickly as possible. Now her exhaustion is contagious. He wants to leave, but it isn't excitement that's persuading him.
Finally she drops her fork. "God, I was hungry."
"Yeah. You ready?" She rises before him and waits for him to climb out of the booth. He follows her, and it occurs to him he has no idea what's coming next. His mind is reeling for a subtle way of asking, "your place or mine?"
She parks herself at the passenger side door, waiting for him to unlock it. When he does, she settles herself in the seat, adjusting the seat belt. His Dodge is too small for her long frame, and he always waits to move the car until she's gotten comfortable.
He drives north another block hoping she'll give him some direction. He'll need to go west to get to her house, and south to get to his apartment.
"I'm so tired. I'm just gonna go home and throw myself at my mattress and sleep for hours." And that's the end of it. She wants to go home. He wants to go with her.
But of course he doesn't. He makes the eight-minute drive to her townhouse in five because it is after midnight and the streets are empty. He thinks of New York. There is no such thing as a quiet neighborhood in New York City.
He pulls up to the curb, and doesn't put the car in park while he waits for her to get out. She won't invite him in, and he is angry at himself for being angry at her. He doesn't say goodnight-doesn't even turn to watch her-as she opens the door.
When she is completely out of the car, she leans back in. "Thanks for dinner, Toby. I needed it." She rests a hand on the passenger seat for leverage and moves in, planting a kiss on his cheek. The kiss isn't chaste. It is long and loving. Meaningful. A mixture of softness and security that is easily associated with CJ. It's what he needed.
She smiles slightly and he can't help but look at her now, when she isn't touching him anymore. He doesn't return the smile, but he knows she sees his appreciation in his eyes.
"I'll see you tomorrow," she says just before she shuts the car door. He watches her climb the steps to her door before he pulls away, feeling a little less frustrated, a little more satisfied, than he has in days.
It was dinnertime. Gilah had the day off, so she offered to cook. She'd prepared something from a box, and as she set plastic dishes on the foldout table, Toby sat reading the Sports section of the Times, lifting the spread pages as Gilah set his place.
"Toby, would you go tell him it's time to eat?"
"You can't do it?"
Gilah glared. "Please? I'm doing this." She waved her arms at the table. "It won't kill you to talk to him for four seconds."
"Toby! Just go!" her voice was sharp, a whine and a command.
He sighed his response, "Yeah, okay," and trudged to the bedroom, wondering aloud when Gilah had developed such a penchant for dictatorship.
His knock on the door was apprehensive. He didn't wait to walk in, because of course, there would be no answer. He'd expected to find the Veteran lying on his back on the bed, staring at the ceiling, the way he'd found him countless times since he'd been here. But the bed was empty.
Brow furrowed, Toby walked around the bed, to find the Veteran sitting cross-legged on the floor.
"Uh...hey...Gi says it's time to eat."
When the Veteran looked up at him, his eyes were wide and glistening. They stared at each other before the Veteran finally moved his gaze to the floor in front of him. And that's when Toby noticed it. The large black handgun inches from the Veteran's foot. Now they were staring at the gun. Both of them, neither moving, silent men drawn to the small weapon. It looked heavy.
"I hate guns." A simple, straightforward sentence with the power of the gun at the Veteran's feet. Toby's eyes were wide as his companion's.
"I fucking hate them, Toby." His voice was small and stale from disuse. It was sandpaper on glass, cautious and rough, but it was fierce.
"It...uh...what is it...uh...why...uh, yeah. Me too. I hate them too."
"They were all over the place over there, man. All over the fucking place. Like, all I ever heard, man, were the fucking guns. And God! The helicopters! Jesus. The fucking noises. They just...you hear the fucking choppers and their fucking stuttering and buzzing, and all the..." He stopped to breathe. Inhaling serenity, exhaling the demons. Breathing: calm. "Do you know what it was like over there, Toby? Do you?"
Toby shook his head. The roles were turned. He was mute.
"You know, even if I hadn't been too fucking scared to sleep, I wouldn't have. You couldn't over there. All that noise. I couldn't sleep with the noises. Have you ever heard a missile scream?"
Toby stood frozen. There was nothing to say. He didn't know.
The Veteran was quiet again. He stared at the handgun, while Toby's eyes shifted from the gun to the other man's agonized face.
"You know, I was...I was...I..." When the Veteran's voice broke, it sounded to Toby like the Veteran broke with it. He closed his eyes and swallowed visibly, rocking back and forth once. His eyes popped open and he cleared his throat. Toby could hear the vocal chords scraping against each other. "I was there...when we evacuated Saigon. I was walking toward the helicopter, and this woman...she was, I don't know. She was Gilah's age. My age. And she was holding this baby, fucking screaming and crying. The baby and its mom. She was begging me. I tried to walk past her. You know, pretend I didn't see her, but she was grabbing onto my shirt and shit, like dragging herself along. She begged me to take them with me. But what the fuck was I supposed to do? The guys, they were trying to get me on the helicopter. But I couldn't. I don't know, man, I just couldn't go. I wanted to, but, I listened to all the death and destruction, and I looked at this girl and her little baby. And, fucking Christ. I couldn't get on the helicopter. I can't explain it." He snorted, and Toby wasn't sure if it was a laugh or a sob. "Just as well though, that helicopter fucking crashed on its way out."
Toby shuffled his feet, clenched and unclenched his fists. Looked back at the door, cursing Gilah for making him come in here. "So, uh, how...how did you get back?"
The Veteran's face was laced with fear. It wasn't the width of his eyes. It was their depth, and the horror deep inside them. He opened his mouth to speak several times. Once a choking noise made it out, and then finally, "I don't even know, man. I don't even know."
Toby had no words. He watched the Veteran settle down, lost in a place Toby was thankful he'd never been, would never be. After minutes, or hours, or decades, even, the Veteran reached behind him and pulled a wallet from a duffel bag beneath the bed. He flipped open the wallet and pulled out a tattered, yellowing card. It took Toby a minute to recognize it as a draft card.
"Look at this. Look at this shit. I was going to be a teacher. I was going to teach kids about history."
"I thought...couldn't you have gotten a deferral?"
He shakes his head, and there is derision in his voice. "I thought I'd go for honor. It was my duty to go."
It was respectable, what the Veteran said, but there was an element unspoken in it that was horrifying.
"You could still be a teacher," Toby finally tried. "You could still do it."
Another chuckle, filled with something like despair, and something like madness.
"Yeah," was all the Veteran said.
"Well, anyway, Gilah's waiting. Come get some food." Toby glanced once more at the Veteran before he turned and left the bedroom. He had just closed the door when he heard the shot.
It has been four days, and she has come to him every night. They've gone back to the Magic Wok each time. He's not sure if he's imagining it, but she seems to have more energy. Two nights ago, she was willing to talk to him about work as they ate. Last night she laughed, and it was the most beautiful sound he had ever heard.
Her briefings carry the same easiness, sexiness they used to. When she teases Josh, it doesn't sound forced the way it did all summer. And when she smiles. When she smiles it is real. That smile: Bliss.
Things aren't perfect. They can never be perfect. But it is promising, that she is coming to him. Tonight when she knocks on his door, she doesn't linger, she swoops in and flops on his couch, legs flying up on the coffee table.
He has to smirk. "Comfy there, CJ?"
"Mmhmm." Her eyes fall shut and she sighs, a sure sign of weariness, but her lips are quirked into a smile. She looks relaxed.
"Did you, you know, did you need something? Or were you just here because my couch is better?"
She waves a hand in the air. "Oh, a bit of both. Thank god it's Friday."
"Yeah, cause we never work Saturdays."
"True. But, you know. Do you remember the days when weekends existed?"
"I try to block out the Seventies as much as possible."
She chuckles, but the smile fades enough that he notices. "I can only imagine. I believe I would pay money to see you with bell-bottoms. And hair."
He snorts, to hide his distaste of the subject and his delight at the resurgence of this side of her, in equal measure.
"How late are you working tonight?"
"I don't know. Josh left. Something about Amy, I tried not to listen. So we're done with education for the night. Want to eat?"
"Now that you mention it..."
"Back to the Magic Carpet Ride?"
"Actually, I was thinking something different tonight. I think I've had as much MSG as my body can handle for one week," she looks at him expectantly, but there is no air of mischief.
He checks his watch. It's almost eleven. "Did you have someplace in mind?"
She shrugs. "No."
He weighs his options, decides there is really only one. He tries to veil the tentativeness in his voice by mumbling. "I have food. At my apartment."
Her eyes are huge, staring at him.
"I could...I could cook something."
"Toby," she chastises, "I'm not letting you cook for me."
"Why not? Because! Why not."
The abrupt sound of lead exploding through tissue and jawbone, embedding itself somewhere inside the Veteran's brain, left Toby's feet locked to the burnt orange shag carpet beneath him. His back to the door, head jerked at an angle, his eyes looking nowhere, everywhere, mind scrambling to process the tumult. He has a vague memory, as it was only a vague sensation, of Gilah running past him, bumping his shoulder as she threw herself at the bedroom door. Panic impaired her motor skills, so her frantic jiggling of the doorknob was useless. Finally she pounded on the bedroom door, shouting for the Veteran to open up, though she had to have known. Toby broke out of his reverie as Gilah finally captained the door.
The rest of his memory of the Veteran's death is associated with the five senses. Sight: all that blood. Pooling everywhere, absorbed into the thick curly carpet, like a sponge. Blood dripping from the bed behind the body, splashed against the overhang of the comforter, modern abstract art. Smell: The burning smell. Burnt flesh, and boiling blood, and a cooked meat he didn't want to consider. Taste: the powdery residue lingering in the air, harassing his tongue through his gaping mouth. Touch: The doorframe, which he clutched, the last pillar standing after the collapse. And sound: screaming. Gilah's loud, hysterical wailing, meant to wake the dead. Unsuccessful.
He drives, as always. She's been walking to work. Saying she wants to get in the exercise before it gets too cold. He doesn't ask what happened to the gym. Doesn't want to risk that she might go back.
They pull into his parking spot, and she follows him into the large apartment building and into the elevator. When the doors shut, she is fidgeting and biting her lip. He doesn't want to know if she is worried that he's going to ask her to stay the night.
They make their way into the apartment, and as Toby flips the lights on, CJ stops.
She shifts from side to side, then glances around the apartment. She has an odd, embarrassed look on her face.
She laughs uncomfortably. "I was just thinking, I, um, I like your apartment."
"You've seen it before."
"Well, I know. But I've never...it's usually dark when I'm here. I've never really looked at it." It's shocking to think about, but he knows she's right. It's always been night when she's been here, and they've always been preoccupied. "I mean I've never stopped to look at the books on your bookshelf. I don't even know what you have as a music selection, Toby!"
"Well, you're here now. Look around. Roam free, as you will. See what you will see."
"I think I will. Now go make my dinner."
She winks so quickly he isn't sure if it was actually there, but when he retreats to his kitchen he almost feels like whistling. Home: Heart.
He puts chicken and pasta on the stove, then walks into the living room, ready to offer her a drink. He knows he has coffee, scotch, milk, and water, but he's sure there must be a bottle of wine somewhere. He's about to open his mouth, but instead he closes it and watches her. She's tapping her foot and arching her neck to read every title on the multiple shelves, bending at the waist when she has to. He can't see her eyes, but the tilt of her head is pointing to the music shelf, and he wants to know, as always, exactly what she's thinking.
"What are you doing?"
She swivels around looking like she's been caught going through her mother's jewelry box. "Hmm?"
"I said, 'what are you doing'?"
"Oh, well, I was just trying to figure out your music taste here, Toby."
"What about it?"
"Well, let's see... we've got Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Lou Reed...and one Bob Dylan LP that, from the looks of it, you bought when it first went on sale...so, let me ask you something, Tobus, why don't you like any singers that actually, you know, sing?"
He loves that she's relaxed enough to tease him, but he still has to fight. "Like whom, for instance?"
"Oh, I don't know. Anyone!"
"There is nothing wrong with my taste in music."
"I didn't say there was! I was just pointing out a similarity between your preferred artists, that's all." She bats her eyelashes in a way that tells him it is not nearly all.
He rolls his eyes, though he doesn't mean it. "Fine. What do you want to drink?"
"Whatever is fine."
He nods and she follows him back into the kitchen. He pours her a scotch, adds extra ice to water it down. She sits at his kitchen table, cheek propped in her hand, elbow on the tabletop. He's intrigued, though not surprised, by how comfortable it all feels. Having her watch him cook her dinner.
He serves her and she smiles softly. "You really didn't have to do this."
When they're finished she gets up and wanders back into the living room while he does the dishes. When he comes out to join her, she is surveying the photographs overcrowding his mantle. He clears his throat so she isn't startled when he comes up behind her.
They are quiet. Her finger moves from frame to frame, examining each, as he stands back, watching her. After a long moment she twirls around, and their bodies are inches apart. She looks at him, and he can't uncover the secret her eyes hold. Her mouth is set straight, but her eyes aren't sad or angry. They are shimmering, but they aren't wet. They don't even seem tired. And it isn't the alcohol, because he knows how her eyes look after one tumbler of scotch, too.
She looks at him and then she looks down between their bodies. Her hand is toying with the sleeve of his shirt, just above the wrist. He's going wild looking between the widow's peak of her forehead, the spot on his shoe where she is staring, and her fingers, that are almost touching him. It's amazing, how much he's missed this closeness. Proximity: hope.
Words interrupt his reverie. "Um," she mumbles, "thanks. For dinner."
She raises her head slightly. Her giant hooded eyes show him gratitude, appreciation, and something else he doesn't dare name.
"It was...nice. It was nice of you."
He wants to touch her now. But he won't. "You're welcome."
She looks up at him and smiles, it isn't a big smile, but it is enough for it to catch him. "Julia Child would be proud." Her fingers have moved an inch or two, and are tickling his forearm.
"Bon appetite," he deadpans.
She looks back down at her hand. "I don't understand how you're so willing to take care of me."
He stares at the part in her hair. "Why wouldn't I-CJ-of...of course I'm...willing."
And without warning, her head lifts and she's kissing him. She's kissing him like it's the first time. She still has her hand on his arm, though now it's a firm grip. Her other hand is on his cheek. He's holding her to him at the waist, and never wants to let go. She begins walking, pushing him with her by the mouth.
As she guides them to his bedroom, he takes the opportunity to remove both of their clothing. And as they reach the bed, and she slides beneath him, still relentless in her kissing, he remembers everything he adores about her.
He couldn't begin to know how long he'd been staring at the Veteran, slumped awkwardly between the bed frame and the floor. Legs out, right arm and shoulder on the ground, left elbow and slumped, loosened head hanging from a ledge created between the mattress and box springs.
Gilah knelt by the Veteran's side, sobs wracking her body, convulsing her as she hunched over him. Toby couldn't go to her, couldn't find a phone, couldn't move. He only thought, if he'd just known why the Veteran hadn't spoken until now, if he'd gained that knowledge, then this would have been different. Gilah would not be hyperventilating. The Veteran would be more than a dead body on the floor.
Eventually, Toby made his way to the kitchen to phone an ambulance and the police. From the kitchen he couldn't hear Gilah, or maybe she had worn herself out. Shake'n'Bake was a greasy black rock garden on the stove, so he shut off the burner as he dialed. He gave the authorities the right address, told them the presumed cause of death. The operator hung up before he was ready. He took the phone receiver and let himself slump to the floor, remaining silent as he waited.
He wakes up and she is gone. It's not surprising, nothing new. For a moment he wonders if he dreamed her last night, but the pillow next to him is indented with the shape of her head and shoulders. He lies still on his back for a moment, hoping this doesn't mean she'll avoid him for the next week.
He gets up and goes about his morning. Shower and shave. He comes out of the bathroom, wrapping a towel around himself, wishing she was still in bed, rubbing her eyes as he emerged. He goes to his dresser, imagines her long, magnificent arms snaking around his bare waist as he digs clean clothes out of the drawers.
He dresses, wondering what she'll be wearing today. Hoping again that he can see her outside of a briefing. He sighs, shakes his head to get her out of his mind. Coffee will help. When he makes his way out of the bedroom through the living room, to the kitchen, he can smell it already. Wonders if it is a bad sign that he is hallucinating coffee fumes. But the pot on the counter is full when he looks at it. He furrows his eyebrows and looks around. Full stop. CJ is sitting quietly at the kitchen table.
Gilah was never the same after the death of the Veteran. She was no longer bubbly, and no longer loquacious. Even her physical appearance dulled. She left her hair wild and curly, stuffed in to an elastic band at the base of her neck. She wore her nursing uniform almost all the time. Her crisp white shoes not quite making up for the loss of brightness in her eyes. She kept to herself, and developed a hatred for the city, with all of its noise.
Toby lived with her for another two years, watching her wither away. In those two years, it was he that worried, because she no longer worried about anything. She didn't care.
Finally, Deborah, sick of her younger sister being so morose, introduced her to a successful man who worked in advertising. He was outgoing and fun-loving. The most boisterous man Toby has ever met, with proud, straight shoulders that made him seem taller than he was. His name was Greg.
At her family's urging, Gilah agreed to go out with him. She came home from the first date as if she had driven home from the drug store, detached from the event. But she agreed to see him again, and continued to see him for a year. As the couple grew more serious, Toby could see the forlorn look in her eyes, the unhappiness in the set of her mouth.
She came home one night, as Toby was sprawled on the couch, reading the Communist Manifesto. Gilah came in, her whole body drooped, as if there were shackles around her ankle.
"Guess what?" she asked him, no excitement in her voice. Only flatness.
He hoisted himself up, and watched her over the top of the couch. "How was your date?"
"It was...Greg was transferred. He wants me to go with him. I'm moving to Denver."
"You're what?" His eyebrows nearly touched his receding hairline.
There was no gleam in her eye. "I'm getting married."
He stared at her. She was boring to watch. Gilah: Torpor. Apathy. Dullness.
"You're getting married."
She nodded, silently.
"Why?" His voice wasn't soft. It was deep and incredulous. An engagement was not something that needed sympathy.
She didn't answer. Her eyes closed, mouth collapsed, head drooped toward the floor. Behind the wisps of hair which provided a curtain for her eyes, Toby spotted a tear falling to the floor.
"Why?" he repeated, softer this time. He reached out for her hand, but there was too much distance, so his arm was left dangling over the edge of the sofa. Her answer was a sniffle, so he persisted. "Why?"
She met his gaze and gave him the saddest smile he had ever seen. "Because, little brother, Greg will always have something to say."
She is sitting at the kitchen table, hands wrapped around a Bartlet for America coffee mug. She hasn't looked up. She's staring at a framed photograph.
It's utter shock, seeing her there. He should be elated, except she hasn't looked up yet, and he doesn't like the look on her face. He walks around her to see which picture is so fascinating.
"CJ?" She looks up. Her face is pale and her eyes are misty.
"Who is this?" Her voice is quiet and scratched. "One of your sisters, right?"
He peers over her shoulder, recognizes the picture immediately.
"Yeah. That's Gilah."
"Where were you?"
"Uh...Rockefeller Center. She and Deb made me go ice skating."
She smiles, only a little. "How old were you?"
He puts a hand on his forehead, counting back. "I don't know, nineteen? Nineteen, I think."
She is quiet again. Staring at the picture like she is memorizing it. He watches her, wants desperately to know what she's thinking. Her breathing changes and he sees moisture in her eyes. He finds the chair next to her, and sits so their gazes can meet. "CJ?"
She doesn't answer for some time. He looks at the picture, wants to see what she sees. Whatever she sees must be more than his association for that picture. "What is it?"
"It's just...god, Toby. She looks so sad."
In the picture Gilah is smiling and laughing, her arm swung over Toby's shoulders. "What are you talking about?"
She sighs, and doesn't look away from Gilah's face. "I don't know." She shakes her head. "Forget it."
"No. What do you mean?"
"Her eyes. They look so...lonely."
It is all he can do not to reach out to her right there. He stays still. "It was a hard time."
He has her attention. "Why?"
"Her boyfriend was in Vietnam, at the time."
Her eyes are wide. "Did he make it back?"
"For a while. He shot himself in the mouth three months after he got home."
She closes her eyes and her chest heaves. Her breathing is forced, painful and heavy. The weight of the world is a hard weight to bear.
"That's awful," she whispers.
"It was," he agrees.
They are quiet again, her eyes closed, his trained on her. Finally, he stands; he needs coffee. But before he can walk away, she grabs his hand. "I'm sorry, Toby," she says. It is only a murmur. "I'm sorry."
He has no words to give her, so he leans down and kisses the top of her head. She looks up at him and her eyes are heartbreaking. He kisses the bridge of her nose as well.
"What was his name?" she asks after another silent minute.
"Oh...it was...I have no idea. It started with a J, possibly. I don't remember."
"With a J? John? Josh? Josiah?"
"No. I don't remember."
"A J name. Jeremy?"
He stares at her. "Yeah. Jeremy. That was his name." The Veteran's name was Jeremy.
She picks up the frame and brings it close to her somber face "I'm sorry about Jeremy, Gilah," she whispers.
When she looks at Toby there is a tear lingering on her eyelashes, but she blinks it away. She sighs away the sadness. And when she looks back up at him, she is transformed. They stare at each other until his eyes are dry. Eyes: Search. Search: Discovery. She sets down the frame and stands to meet him.
She leans back against the counter top, and he follows. "Gilah. She lives in Denver, now, right? She's the one with three boys?"
He has to clear his throat. "Yeah."
"So, she's all right."
"She is." She's never been the same, but he doesn't need to tell CJ. She knows.
"She's all right," CJ says again, as if she is reassuring someone. Reassuring herself.
She tugs on his tie, so he steps closer. She gives him a kiss, and it gives him hope. He puts his hands on her hips and she relaxes into his touch.
"So, you know what I was thinking?"
She smirks. He still loves that smirk. "Well, it's Saturday. So, I was thinking, if I finally went grocery shopping this morning, before work, then tonight we could go to my place. I could cook for you."
"CJ," he chides.
She chuckles. "Fair enough. You'll still cook. But I think it's time we went to my house." She adds as an afterthought, "It's nicer than this place."
He can't help it. The moment ripples through him, like her words, until he laughs out loud.
"What?" she demands, slightly angry, mostly amused. She bats his arm for effect.
"Nothing," he promises. "No, nothing. It's fine. Your place. It's fine."
"You're sure? It was only a suggestion." She squirms a little beneath his hands.
"I'm sure." He tightens his grip, steps closer so that he is almost pressed against her.
She fiddles with his tie. Her head is bowed, but he can see the quirk of her lips. He leans in and tilts his head so their brows are touching. When he takes a step closer and straightens his back, their lips are within a teasing distance. He will never have enough of this, right here. Her.
Her head lifts up, partially, so when she speaks, she is almost kissing him. "I'm just saying. You went with me to the Magic Wok four times this week. So, tonight...it's you know, it's whatever you want."
Too late, he thinks. He's kissing her now.