All characters belong to Aaron Sorkin, John Wells Productions, Warner Bros., & NBC. Props to Carl Dennis. Standard disclaimers apply. Please send feedback. Why Nineveh Is Still Standing Violet
This is what the world is like, under its skin.
It's what they used to call the smoke-filled room, but without any smoke, without much mystery. Two floors underneath the earth. Naked walls, empty bottles and coffee cups, black ink on white paper, air paralyzed by climate control. No moisture. No sleep. No exit. Five of us. Four men and one woman.
"He's never going to speak to us again," Sam is saying for the sixth or seventh time. He looks around for an argument, looks in my direction. But there's not much to say.
"Oh, he'll speak to us," Leo says. "I imagine he's choosing his words very carefully."
"I mean he's never going to work with us again." Sam puts his glasses on, takes them off again. "He's gonna be out of town when there's a close vote, he's gonna be in California when we're in New Hampshire--"
"And can I just say that I never liked him?" Josh interrupts. Josh should not look that alert. There's something wrong with him, being awake. The rest of us are still in the fog. C.J.'s eyes are ringed, unfocused or focused on the table or the floor. Not on me. "Can I just say I thought we should've gone with Willey to begin with?"
My pen rolls across the table with one flick. "No, Josh, you can't. That's lousy construction."
He glares at me. "I still don't like him."
"You worked for him," Leo points out.
"Yeah, well, I work for you..."
Leo scoffs. "Toby? You're closest."
Josh doesn't duck fast enough. The flat of my hand connects with the side of his head. The smack noise is satisfying. "Ow."
"He's gonna be in Florida when we're in Iowa. He's kissing babies while we're quoting Gray's Anatomy." Sam slumps in his seat. "We're Healthgate, and a theme song on CNN, and he's running a damn Rose Garden campaign."
C.J. says something into her fingers. We all look at her. "What?" Leo says.
"We can always bump him off television," she repeats. She rubs her temples, stray hair snaking over her fingertips. "He's the guy we send to funerals. We're the big show. Whether that's good, not good, I don't--"
"Iowa," Josh blurts.
We all look at him. Iowa. Shit. "That's in, what, just over two weeks?"
"He can't go," C.J. says. "He can't, we can't do thousand-dollar plates right now."
"Right." Josh yawns, rocking his chair. Now signs of wear are starting to show. "We already have enough people who think Bartlet's a lemon and they want their money back."
"So we're back to Hoynes." Sam leans forward as Josh goes back. He picks up my pen and spins it across to me. "Hoynes'll do Iowa. And don't think he won't jump on it and ride."
Leo nods fractionally, points his chin in C.J.'s direction, but his eyes slant away from her. "You were gonna go out there with the President."
"Yeah." If the rest of us are tired, C.J.'s through it and out the other side. Something hollow in her face reminds me: we were at a funeral thirty hours ago. Still have the same tie on, and her face is still set in the same lines. "But obviously, now, we need--"
"We need someone out there. The President's in a tough situation; he's not dead. And some Democrats need to be reminded." Sam's shoulders shift visibly when Leo says this. "It's just an overnight thing."
She should argue. She should state her case for staying. She drops her hands into her lap and looks at them as if they're new to her. "Okay," she says.
Josh tilts his chair back further. It would be funny if he went over. Comic relief. "We're gonna have to talk about making an announcement."
"Or not making one." My throat is dry. The ventilation in here is crap. "Normally, I am not in favor of letting the President write for himself. But in this case I think he pretty much covered the ground."
"An official announcement," Josh insists.
"And I'm saying, it's hard to be much more official than 'I'm running and I'm going to win' from the mouth of the President."
"About that--" Sam begins.
Leo stops him with a wave of his hand. He's smirking just a little. "When was the last time any of you people took a shower?"
Josh swings forward, elbowing my arm and making Sam lean away. "Come on, Leo, I was stuck out in the rain for like half an hour. That doesn't count?"
"Smells like a locker room in here. I should send you home."
"It's the middle of the afternoon," C.J. says under her breath.
This is greeted with silence; we've all been thinking it's the middle of the night. There are no windows in here, and artificial light dulls my senses. Like lack of sleep. There were moments of clarity last night, and this morning. Now things are blending. My watch tells me it's four p.m. My head disagrees.
"Yeah," Leo says. He stands up. "Yeah. Okay. And you should be back at your desks. We'll do this tomorrow with a fresh pot of coffee." My mouth waters automatically at the word coffee. That's a little alarming.
We file out toward the stairs. It will be like coming out of a movie. Impossible to believe, under here, that there is still daylight and activity. Much easier to talk strategy because the practical world is out of sight. Underwater, you can comprehend the importance of air.
Ahead of me, Sam swipes at his face, trying to push away exhaustion or something else. Josh puts two fingers on C.J.'s arm as he takes the first step up, mutters, "We'll fix it." She doesn't say anything. Leo is behind me, watching. Waiting to see.
Sometime around two a.m., running on a second or third wind. Playing with words as the bullpen empties out. Relieved. Realize. Reiterate. Repeat. Relieved. It will sound stupid no matter how we phrase it, no matter how we cover it. Moving the starting line of this campaign another step back. This is my first incumbency. It should have been an asset. We're relieved. Focusing on something that matters.
Carol stops outside my door to tell somebody invisible she's on her way out. That woman is subtlety personified. So C.J. must leave before me; she must have decided to wait. She's there by the gate, coat drawn tight around her. It's not raining now, but the pavement still glistens in places. She keeps her head down. "Why didn't I fix it right away?"
"No, that's what you're wondering. Why didn't I fix it right away? How can we just say I fucked up when I didn't immediately bite my tongue in half?" Her hair falls forward in a diagonal shimmer. She takes a few rapid steps away from me. "You and Leo and Josh and Sam, you're standing around debating it, and I'm crawling the carpet of my office but that doesn't mean I don't know what you're thinking."
She needs to slow down. "Of course you know. Public screw-ups are not exactly unprecedented in your tenure."
"Thanks." C.J. steps directly into a puddle. It spatters up around her ankles. She sucks in a hissing breath. "That helps so much, to be reminded this isn't the first time."
"I meant everyone." She knows that; she must know that. She folds her arms around her chest and walks even faster. Trying to keep up, to get her to listen to me, is uphill. "You know what I meant."
Normally, her laugh is beautiful. Now it's ugly and awkward, a bird plucked bare. "Here's what's funny," she says. "Danny giving me apologetic head-nods in the hall. It's already all over the networks, the Internet--I don't photograph well, Toby, you know that. And Matt Drudge has the single most hideous picture. I look like the Crypt Keeper. It's already out there and Danny thinks I give a damn that he's gonna have to lead with it tomorrow. Like it's not quarter past too late."
This is dangerous, when she sounds this high, fragile, giddy. My own voice is carefully low. "You photograph better than Josh."
"And better than you."
"But not Sam."
"Don't be funny." C.J. grinds her teeth. "You think it'll be okay?"
She forces honest answers, sometimes. "I don't know."
"You guys probably think you could have fixed Watergate with a typewriter, a few reams of paper and a good supply of blank tape."
"I'm on intimate terms with failure."
She jerks away before my hand even reaches her arm, self-contained. Under her coat, her muscles are taut, her vertebrae misaligned. "You are," she says, voice clipped, and stops walking so suddenly we nearly collide. "I passed my car."
She covers the ten yards back to her Nissan in a few long strides, legs flashing. She peels out from the curb like she's driving the Batmobile. There's no pursuit. The prints of her heels show on dry squares of sidewalk. My car's another block away, if it hasn't been towed. A wind comes up to follow me. It's cold for this time of year.
Multiple sclerosis, re-election, Haiti. Subpoenas. Tobacco. A stock market that quivers as technology fails to produce infinite profits, as venture capitalists get their illusions shattered. One of our oldest forests is burning down in Wyoming. They're still wiping up oil off the coast of Delaware. Debating airport security and death and taxes. And every other idiot with an idiotic agenda in his hip pocket is thinking he's about to have his day in the sun. All of this is standard operating procedure for the richest, safest country in the world.
We're providing plenty of drama and crisis for the world. One would think that everyone else might be content to sit back, watch the collapse, wait on the fringes for the empire to fall. But while the shit is hitting the fan here, the Ukranians managed to accidentally shoot down a Russian airliner on its way back from Tel Aviv. The Indians and Pakistanis are playing chicken on the border. Paramilitarists are assassinating ex-congressmen in Colombia. AIDS will account for two-thirds of all deaths in South Africa by 2010. And thousands of people are willing to explode the earth for a clump of sand currently assigned to the nation of Israel. Standard operating procedure again.
As a nation, we've been working under the theory that we are united, that there's some kind of common faith. We're all bearing the torch of liberty; we're all keeping warm by its flame. It makes me wonder if this is the best humanity can do. The answer to that is not comforting. It would not be outrageous to believe that we've failed, as a species. But this morning Josh is practically skipping around the halls. He rebounds, grinning, out of Sam's office and into mine before my first cup of coffee's even finished. "You like campaigning, Toby."
"I hate campaigning." The last of the coffee is cold and acrid. "I just think we'd probably get a little opposition if we declared ourselves dictators for life."
"You're a campaigner." Josh whistles a few bars of something unrecognizable. "Even Richard Nixon has got soul..."
"Okay, that needs to stop."
"I'm just saying." He sits down on the couch, pops up again like an inflatable clown, dizzy with energy. "You have to get fired up here, Toby. We get to beat the odds."
"We're not beating the odds. We're the incumbents. We've got the money, the connections, the clout we didn't have three years ago. We're supposed to win. We're Goliath."
Josh frowns briefly at my words, but springs back into a suspicious smile. He looks so smug there ought to be canary feathers around his mouth. "Well, we'll make our own fun, huh?"
"What's going on?"
He drops onto the couch again. "Leo's bringing in Bruno Gianelli."
Suddenly my head hurts. Not enough coffee in my system yet to make this tolerable. "Great. We've been short of ego around here. We haven't made our quota."
"He's good at his job," Josh says.
"You should've given him mine."
He thuds the back of his skull against the wall. "Yeah, his name came up in that conversation. But you know, if we'd been stuck in here with Bruno, or David Rosen, we'd miss your sunny presence."
"Yes, I'm Little Miss Sunshine."
Josh chuckles. "Joey says the swing numbers are static. Bruno's coming in next week, try and fix that. I guess we're gonna have to live with that. You can work with his people, right?"
The prospect of working with Bruno and his people does not fill me with any of Josh's joy. "I haven't killed you yet."
"Even though you try almost every day." He pauses. "How's C.J.?"
He assumes there's an answer, expects me to have it. "Ask C.J."
"I don't want her to think I'm hovering. I mean, Leo's had her benched for two days. She can't be thrilled about that."
There's the urge to jump up and pace around the room. But Josh is the manic one. My fingers drum on the arm of my chair. "You think we could have fixed Watergate?"
"You and me?"
"And Sam and Leo."
He smirks again. "We could've sealed that thing up tighter than Seth Gillette's sphincter."
"Get out of here."
"'Kay." He stretches, gets back on his feet and struts toward the door.
"Josh?" He turns back to me. "What's going on?"
"I'm gonna do a thing."
Sometimes he's too easy to read. "Tobacco. Don't be--"
His foot makes circles on the floor. "It's a noble cause."
"Sure it's a noble cause. They're all noble causes." Standing up makes my vision blur to black, briefly, as Josh starts to walk away. "Don't be stupid."
"Get ready to throw out the welcome mat," he calls. He rounds the corner and is gone.
The rubber balls are a habit that need to be broken. They stay in their drawer. There are papers to read--C.J.'s highlighted my copies, the wash of yellow over important paragraphs, lines of red ink in her wobbling, pretty hand--and statements to write. According to the Times the entire government of Norway has resigned for unspecified reasons. Nancy and Henry are handling the daily briefings, and we're waiting for Bruno Gianelli. The siege is on.
Days run into each other, dominoes falling into an indecipherable design. It doesn't seem like we leave work at all. Maybe we haven't. C.J. starts briefing again. She steps down from the lectern, retreats into her office with Carol circling the perimeter. She emerges for meetings, too quiet, smudged makeup, lines on her forearms from the edge of her desk. She bumps into people in the halls but rarely trips and never stumbles. She's always watching her feet.
Appropriations gives up the money for tobacco. It's a flag for Josh to wave against the wind of what Leo termed extracurricular nonsense. An umbrella to an avalanche, but it's enough of a victory to keep him moving this week. Even though Joey Lucas shoots doubtful looks at his back receding down the hall. Even though Bruno and his people walk into our White House like it's their campaign headquarters. Bruno machine-guns through the introductions--"Sam. Toby. Doug. Connie."--and disappears to argue with Leo about office space. We watch each other across Sam's desk, waiting for the first argument to begin.
Doug Wegland lights the match. "So, where is it going to happen?"
"The official announcement?" Sam wrinkles his nose. "That high school, two weeks from yesterday. Thought that was settled."
"No, where in the official announcement--"
"Which I still don't think is necessary, since it's been announced already. Cat's kind of out of the bag."
Doug ignores my interruption. "Where in the speech is he going to apologize?"
Sam flinches noticeably, leans back. Not good. "He hasn't yet," the woman--Connie--adds helpfully, tossing her hair.
"Thanks," Sam manages, regaining a little balance. "I actually did watch the interview and the press conference. He came clean of his own volition."
"Too little, too late." Doug leans toward us, hands on the back of one of Sam's chairs. "It doesn't negate the fact that he lied."
It's tired and weak but it needs to be said anyway. "He didn't actually lie."
An unpleasant smile stretches across Doug's face. "Knock yourself out trying to sell that technicality to the press. See how it plays in the Midwest. It took you guys three years to come clean of your own volition. That really looks like you have nothing to hide."
"We've been having this conversation for a month." My words make Sam frown a little. Everything he's thinking is there in the set of his mouth. Way to present a united front, Sam. "We're not gonna send him out there to beg forgiveness."
"Why not?" Connie asks.
"Because he's the President, not a disgraced schoolboy. He didn't break his mom's vase."
"He didn't lie," Sam adds.
"The sooner you get over that," Doug says, "the sooner I can work with you."
Work with us. It's hard not to laugh. "Do me a favor, take a look around. This is Sam's office. Mine's on the other side of that wall. That's our bullpen." There's a knock on the frame of the open door and we all look up. "This is my assistant."
"Phone call, Toby." Bonnie hands me a note and is gone again. Her handwriting is angular and precise.
"I'm gonna have to take this." Sam's abandoned puppy look, Connie's look of speculation, Doug's critical stare--they follow me around the corner. My desk is less cluttered than Sam's; folders stacked instead of piled, the laptop aligned parallel to the lamp. My chair squeaks. The red light on the phone blinks impatiently at me. Press the button, pick it up. "Mr. Justice."
"Toby." Mendoza's voice is low, resounding, authoritative. The kind of voice that should exist to read life-and-death decisions. He was born for this. "How's the weather over there?"
Hard to sound casual. "It's been a little intemperate."
"A little hot under the collar, I'd imagine." Mendoza laughs. "I sent a note to the President, but I figured there was a lot on his desk at the moment."
"I'm sure he appreciated it."
"I'm sure." There's a second of silence. "How long was this in the works, Toby?"
No way to know how long Leo thought about this, what the President was planning, before it was pushed to the surface. The blinds are slanted open on the window to Sam's office. He walks around his desk, waving his hand, clenching his jaw. "Not long enough."
"You're waiting for the hearings to start?"
"Something like that." Doug squints, his face close to Sam's. He must have raised his voice, but the words are unintelligible to me. Connie sits in her chair with a calm expression, murmurs something. Doug and Sam ignore her completely. "They're saving the subpoenas to take the news cycle from us."
"Don't worry about them." Mendoza says this with certainty, with confidence. He hasn't been in this building in a while. "Don't worry about the lawyers and the media. Give some credit to the American people. The President is a good man, and as far as I can see, he didn't break the law."
Sam paces out of the rectangle of the window and then back into my line of sight. Doug is standing firmly still. My throat is dry. "No. He didn't break the law."
"Then this too shall pass, trite as it is to say. Just keep running the country."
It's painfully obvious that he's not a politician, as clear as it is that Sam's losing the fight in the next room. But there's no reason to say that. "We're glad to have your support, sir."
"I'm glad to give it." He pours that rich, reassuring voice into the words. We say goodbye and hang up.
The light seems dim even though it's the middle of the morning. My bloodstream needs coffee. My back aches. Getting older every day. A few steps out the door, Doug's voice reaches me, scornful and louder than he probably realizes:
"...total clusterfuck, it made a bad situation worse, and she ought to take the hit for it!"
The silence is as total as it can possibly be, with phones and footsteps and televisions. We have literally stopped in our tracks. Doug rolls his head from side to side, uneasy for the first time. Sam's face is glassy. "You don't ever speak that way in this building," he says quietly.
"Doug didn't mean," Connie begins, biting her lip. Sounds like she's had practice with those words.
"I don't care what he meant." Sam glances past her and sees me. He exhales through his teeth and shakes his head slightly. Doug and Connie start to follow his gaze, but my back is already turning. The silence is replaced by a buzz in my ears. The door of my office slams much harder than it was meant to. Coffee's not going to help anymore.
The first full-fledged meeting we have with Bruno's people doesn't go much better than the informal ones. It's possible that stress pushes me a little out of line. It's also possible that Doug Wegland is a prick. Bonnie and Ginger watch me warily most of the day; Leo calls for me late in the evening. He watches me enter his office, folds his hands like a high school principal. Without preamble, he says, "You gotta lay off on him."
"Doug, Bruno, the Tate girl, you've gotta lay off on them. And you know it. They're doing what I hired them to do."
He's right, of course. That annoys me. "I'm doing what you hired me to do."
Leo picks up a memo on his desk. "Yeah," he says.
"I have no problem with Connie Tate."
"And you respect Bruno Gianelli." He raises his eyes to look at me over the edge of his glasses.
"I sure as hell don't expect you to like Doug. I expect you to give him the room to help us."
The floor is unsteady underfoot. "Leo, he comes in here thinking he has some authority in this administration. He's making pronouncements to my staff, about my staff--"
He quirks an eyebrow. "He doesn't work for this administration; he works for this campaign. It's a distinction you're going to have to adapt to over the next seventeen months."
Strange to be on this side. Strange to empathize, suddenly, with every candidate that ever told me to shut up. "We do know what we're doing around here."
"I know. But allow for the possibility that Bruno's people also know what they're doing." Leo stands. He picks up his briefcase and walks around me, to the stand holding his coat. "The thing in Iowa, that's in four days."
He eases one arm into a sleeve. "I want you to go along with C.J."
My hand goes automatically to the back of my head. "Leo, you're sending her with a babysitter?"
"Of course not." He cocks his head. "We can't trust Hoynes. We need people out there to remind the Party who's still in charge. Hell, I'd fly out myself if I could. And I need you to stop letting Doug and Bruno and--" He stops. "What's her name?"
"Right. I keep wanting to say Sharon. They're putting you off your game, and you of all people--" He breaks off again, sighs and finishes putting on his coat. "It's just an overnight thing."
There's a tone Leo takes when he's made a decision, final as a slammed door. He's using it now. "You keep wanting to say Sharon?"
He snorts. "They're not bad people, Toby. You know that. And you ought to talk to Sam."
He heads down the hall, leaving me in the doorway, in the semidarkness. A few seconds pass, or maybe an hour. Leo's right, and it's still annoying. Sam is probably still in his office. There's time to check on him, on my way out.
We're flying commercial, which is something slightly more enjoyable than facing a firing squad. "It's better than root canal surgery," C.J. says. "But I only know that because I've actually had root canal surgery. Buckle your seat belt, would you?"
"There are ten planes ahead of ours. We've been stuck on the tarmac for three-quarters of an hour." A stewardess brings me Jack Daniel's in a plastic cup, only ten or fifteen minutes after taking my order. The first sip of whiskey rolls down my throat like smoke. "We're not in a rush."
"Look at it this way." She wiggles a little in her seat. "I've had plenty of jobs where nobody would spring for first class travel."
"I've had plenty of jobs where they'd put me in the cargo hold."
She snickers softly and turns to the window, so it's impossible to tell if she's smiling or frowning. Her drink is a screwdriver, bright between her clasped hands. She raises it to her mouth, like a child, and looks like she must have when she was seven years old. But her shoulders are hunched too far forward. "We're not very good representatives of the President," she says.
"No. I'm too tall and female, and you don't know enough useless information about Micronesia." She doesn't turn around. "If people paid a grand for this dinner, they're getting the shaft."
"Which is why I think this is a bad idea to begin with." She crosses her legs, making her skirt whisper. "Who are you going to vote for next year, the guy who screwed you or the guy who showed up?"
She doesn't pull her arm away when my hand brushes it, but she doesn't look at me. "Give me solutions. I know what the problems are. Give me solutions."
"Solutions?" She stares out the window. The landscape shifts outside. "We're moving."
The stewardess comes down the aisle, checking seat backs and tray tables. "I've got to take your drinks."
C.J. downs the last of her screwdriver and passes the cup over. Jack Daniel's is different; it needs to be savored. "I'll hang on to this."
"Sir, during take-off, I'm afraid--"
"I'll hold onto it very tightly."
The stewardess watches me take a sip. She scowls at me and gets a small smile in return. Finally, she sighs, gives up and walks away. Small victories. Five minutes later the plane takes off into relentless, limitless blue. No piercing the clouds today. The sky is too clear.
After a while the plane levels out. "What time is it?" C.J. asks.
"Twenty after four."
She twists her hands together. "We're going to get there, we'll have less than an hour to get ready for the thing. Do you have a hotel reservation?"
The thought hadn't crossed my mind until she says it. "No."
"Well, that's great." She laughs incredulously. "It's going to be full, you know. You won't be able to get one."
"I'll depend on the kindness of strangers."
She sits up in her seat, her back rigid, straight and nervous as a moth pinned to velvet. "We all depend on the kindness of public opinion, and our numbers haven't gone up. Our numbers haven't gone up and we had to go outside to fix it. You don't like that. Josh and Sam don't like it either. And it's because of me."
Oh, God. "It's not because of you."
"It's largely because--"
"Because the President withheld information from us." It's an effort to hold my voice down. "Which is under the bridge, anyway."
"Under the bridge?" Her voice rises as another flight attendant comes along with moist towels. She runs hers back and forth under her thumbs. Her fingernails glint faintly. "It's not under any bridges at all. This is what the next year and a half are going to be about. We haven't even gotten hit with the first subpoenas yet. Do you realize how much this is going to cost us in legal fees?"
My divorce lawyer was two-fifty an hour and he was cutting me a pretty decent break for New York. We had a conversation about that once, during the campaign. The first campaign. "Unfortunately, I do."
"I was planning for retirement." She moves away from the wall a little bit, tucking her towel into the pocket on the back of the chair in front of her. "Goodbye, ERA; goodbye, mutual funds. Goodbye to your ill-gotten stock market gains."
"People don't take our jobs for the money."
"And yet we make more of it than most of America. Did I ever complain about taking a pay cut before? Give me a little credit for being a reasonable human being."
"I give you plenty of credit for being human." My drink is gone. Could call and request a refill, but the stewardess would probably attempt to drive a stake through my heart.
"Yes. You do. But I'm a woman. So I must be taking everything too personally." She casts a scornful look into empty space. "Can't be the other way around."
"You think I'm taking things--" The air up here is too dry. "You think I'm taking things too personally?"
"I think sometimes there aren't other ways." C.J. licks her lips, looks right at me for the first time in days. Weeks. Her eyes ask other questions, unspoken and innumerable. Then the pupils narrow and the lids lower, and she doesn't look seven years old anymore.
She leans over me and picks up my wrist. The front of her gray silk blouse spills open, revealing an expanse of maple sugar skin. Impossible not to look. "What are you doing?"
"Checking the time," she says. She turns the face of my watch toward her with her right hand, but her left curves insistently over the inseam of my pants. Well. Okay.
"Yes, it is." She kicks her shoes off and stands up. "We're going to have to hurry. I hate hurrying."
She slips past me, moving slower than she needs to, allowing plenty of time for me to appreciate the contours of her body. There's a bony guy across the aisle, early twenties; his eyebrows shoot toward the ceiling. Wish he wasn't watching. It's been a while since we've done this. C.J.'s legs are impossible; it's impossible not to stare. She leads the way down the aisle to the closet-sized lavatory without looking back.
She likes to do the same things every time we have sex. It's not as boring as it sounds, since it includes everything either of us knows how to do. But now there's no time or space. As soon as the door closes, she is against me. A rectangle of light fluoresces overhead. No shadows to hide in. Almost no room to breathe.
Two buttons ping off the wall as the front of her blouse comes apart. Her breasts fit perfectly under my hands. Hold her closer. It's like praying. Her shoulder blades sharpen into my chest. Then she moves my hands down and apart. Skirt up around her waist, her stockings tear. She rolls them to her ankles, steps out one toe at a time. She wears nothing underneath. Her hipbones stand out, surrounded by hollows. Touch them. Hold on. Hold her closer.
There isn't really room to turn, so she unbuttons me by reaching behind her. How does she do that? Who cares how she does that? Just let her do it, get her knees apart, lean a little way forward. Slide a hand over and up. This is lifting, releasing, time pausing, and when she's ready she tells me by arching her back.
She grips the edge of the sink, over water drops and splattered soap. For leverage. There's softness, strength, heat. Feels like she's burning up, right there. Want to kiss her right now, taste that spot on the side of her neck. Probably would sprain something trying. One of us is too old for this and one of us is too tall. She smells like cleanliness. Soap, shampoo, a little sweat, her perfume dying. What kind of sick fuck thinks about perfume right now?
Right there. A little further. Leverage. God, she's moving faster. All right. Let's go. Her forehead against the mirror, wonder if it chills her. Her face relaxes a little. Think she likes this. The shirt sticks to her skin. Her back gleams through it. She glows. Deserves someone better. Right there. One of these days my knees are going to give out. She likes this. She looks at me over her shoulder. Her mouth moves. She's saying my name.
"Toby," she's saying, "I'm gonna--"
Need, she's saying, but she doesn't need to, my fingers are already moving. She likes this. She hums in her throat, biting into her lip. The pitch rises. Lifting. Up. Almost. Maybe? Yes.
She always presses her eyes shut like that, always, right there.
She might fall over if there was room. There isn't. Hold on, tighten my hands, don't lose the balance now. Her face in the mirror, she's almost smiling for the first time in a week. Don't fall. Here we go. Right there. This is catching fire. This is--this is--God. Almost there. Right there. Right there. Right there.
It's harder to get dressed in this enclosure than to do the opposite. She's worse off than me, less presentable, but it's not as if the smell wouldn't give me away. Reach around her waist to wash my hands off in the sink. She tips her head back. Just for a second, her hair fills my vision. Then she's shoving me backward, out the door, almost smiling. Definitely glowing. Then the door closes again. She must lock it, because there's the red-lettered sign. Occupied.
The stewardess glares at me in passing. Probably she's the one in charge of wiping down the bathroom. Back at my seat, the weariness starts to set in. This wasn't very smart. The skinny kid across the aisle smirks while he cleans his glasses. Like we're in some fucking fraternity. Everything is that simple. He must be disappointed when he doesn't get a high-five. After a while C.J. comes back, red-faced but neat, her buttons fixed somehow. She squeezes past me, touches me as little as possible, sits in her window seat. We don't talk. The plane keeps flying.
Iowa is humid and hot and unwelcoming. My tuxedo suffers only minor damage from the baggage handlers. We change in her hotel room. She sings in the shower, but the words are drowned out. It stops before the bathroom door opens. Steam surges out through the gap, followed by one long damp arm and "Hand me my garment bag?" She takes it from me and the door closes again, leaves me standing out here like a gentleman. Even know how to tie a bow-tie by myself.
It gets dark outside. C.J. finally emerges, wearing something light and lilting, the color of almonds. The neckline follows her collarbone. Silver around her throat and wrists, glittering at her earlobes, and a bronze shimmer on her eyelids. "Do I look tired?"
"I feel like hell." She turns back to the mirror to dab at her cheekbones. "I look like Fess Parker in heels."
"You're fine. We're going to be late."
"Did we ever go to fun parties?" She plays with her hair, making no noticeable difference. "Did we ever just go out and drink and dance and have a good time, and not have to worry who we were impressing?"
"I was never invited to those kind of parties." Want her to smile, but she doesn't. "I've been doing this too long."
"You and me both, sister." She cranes her neck and blinks at her reflection. "God, this is going to be unpleasant. Have you called Josh?"
"Yeah." My hand taps the phone in my pocket. "Sam's starting work on the address. And Taiwan pulled out of the APEC summit."
"China didn't send Li Yuan-Zu a letter; they got huffy and took their toys and sent their delegation home."
"One question." She spins around, hands on her hips. "Do you have any idea who Li Yuan-Zu is or why this matters?"
It's a good question. "I'm not entirely certain, but I don't think Josh was either."
"I figured. Well, we don't work for State." She looks past me, at the digital clock by the bed. "We're going to be late," she announces. This is supposed to be new information. We walk quickly to the elevators.
The banquet hall is filled to the corners with tinkling dishes, watery pseudo-jazz music, important Democrats in expensive clothes. And the odors of cologne and bland food and schmoozing. Everyone looks at us and then pretends to look away. We might spontaneously combust, or key their cars, if they don't keep an eye on us. The Vice-President raises a glass of ice water in our direction. C.J. accepts champagne from someone, swallows audibly, and walks toward him.
"Claudia," he says, offering her his hand and a wide, white campaign smile. He doesn't notice the quick downturn of her mouth, shakes her hand and moves on to me. "Toby."
"Sir," she echoes. "Thank you for adding this event to your schedule. We know it was short notice."
"That's what I'm here for." He's still grinning, talking to her but looking at me. "Short notice is in the job description, right? Taking over a speech, it's no big deal. How're you guys holding up?"
Any answer to that will sound either arrogant or defeated. Naturally Hoynes knows that. C.J. doesn't miss a beat. "We're keeping up with the country's work."
"Good, good. Don't let the press circus get to you." Hoynes opens his arms conspiratorially, saying he's our friend. He's on our side. Conceited bastard. "They're sharks. Right, Terry?"
The reporter seated at the table behind Hoynes chuckles. "Yes, sir."
"Just keep doing what you're doing," he says. "And hey, enjoy the food and drink. God knows it's been paid for, ten times over."
We start walking away. At the same moment, he turns to greet a lobbyist with a pinched face, bright red hair, too much makeup. We get fresh drinks and seats at a table near the bar. Far from the middle. Out of the loop. "Keep doing what we're doing," C.J. grumbles as Hoynes maneuvers toward the front of the room. "He'd like that, wouldn't he?"
"You said it yourself." You'd think they could have spent some of the take from this thing on comfortable chairs. "Hoynes is the stand-in. We're making sure everyone here knows that."
"Except no one here wants to talk to us." She sits beside me, runs a hand through her hair. "And we're not going to look that Presidential when we're being heckled by a prosecutor and fifteen members of Judiciary."
"It'll be a shitstorm." She looks like she expected me to reassure her. But she forces honest answers. "It'll be ugly and embarrassing and it'll slow us down. It'll drag on until the public is sick of it, and then the press, and then it dies out and the next shitstorm comes along. It's what we do."
"It's not what the government should be doing."
"Maybe not. You want to move to England and work for the Prime Minister?"
She looks out across the room, smiles at scattered familiar faces. There are tentative waves and mouthed hellos. They have to thaw, we'll be here all night. "They're going to make you look corrupt," she says through her teeth. "They're going to say you were part of a widespread conspiracy to defraud the public."
"I know the drill. They'll say the same things about everyone."
"Not me," she says. The Governor of Iowa greets us quickly as he passes. C.J. takes a long drink of champagne. "They're not going to paint me as a Machiavellian genius. They're going to put up that tape, and the Kashmir thing from the winter before last and say, 'Look at that stupid girl; she doesn't know what she's doing.'"
Wadded up, my napkin fits perfectly into my empty glass. We want this to be over. Governor Vilsack is taking the microphone. He gives a brief, ingratiating introduction, mentions Bartlet only once: "We all regret that the President was prevented from attending..."
Hoynes handles it with more grace and better writing. "I'm proud to have had a hand in the Bartlet administration's victories, against foreign powers that threaten our liberty, against unemployment and crime at home. Victories against those who would rob us of our civil liberties, against those who would rob our seniors of their protection and our children of their future." He takes credit for the handful of things we've gotten right. Implies that he's not proud of our shortcomings. Sticks it to us, makes sure he doesn't even call Bartlet the President. He gets the resounding ovation he wanted.
It's possible to look like you're clapping without making significant sound. We're both doing that. "Jerk," C.J. mutters. "I bet he kicks puppies. I bet he drowns kittens."
My voice is subdued under the clamor of applause. "It's better to be dumb and good than smart and evil, in America."
"No, it's not." C.J. flounces back into her chair and reaches for one of the fresh drinks that have been appearing on the table when our heads are turned. She gulps it down. "Not in any real sense, and not in politics. When this is over, you'll be a bad guy, but you can go write your book and do the talk shows. You can."
The ice in my whiskey is turning to water too fast. "I'll be looking forward to that. I'm particularly fond of Oprah."
"You know you can." She points the rim of her glass at me. "I'll be a damn punchline at dinners like this. I'll be the incompetent Press Secretary you kept around because you could control me. Wave; Tommy McSorley's looking at you."
My hand goes up before the old man's even in my line of sight. "Because I could control you?"
"Or because you're fucking me." Her cheeks are flushed, but she's composed. "Take your pick."
"Of course. But I can't prove it to a jury. Neither can you."
There should be something to say but it doesn't come. Somebody freshens the drinks again. "Leo wanted me to hire you."
"I know." She grimaces at the bubbles in her glass. "Do you think Hoynes got beat up a lot in grade school?"
We spend the rest of the evening making jokes at the Vice-President's expense, mingling with drunken lobbyists and money-men and trophy wives. Nothing deeper. We don't get out until after one-thirty. The pinched-looking lobbyist steps into the elevator with us. She twists her bright orange lips into a smile. "I was sorry the President couldn't make it."
"Thanks, Dixie." How the hell does C.J. remember these people's names at this point in the night?
The lobbyist stays on the elevator when we get off. "Just talkin' 'bout Shaft," C.J. hums as the doors close.
"You're not well."
She whips her key-card in and out of the slot. "You think you're coming in, do you?"
"It's warm enough. I could sleep on a bench in the park." The pale fabric of her dress is soft between my hand and her waist.
She steps into the room, tottering on the high heels she doesn't actually need. "Take your tie off, would you? It's too hot to be dressed that way."
The tie comes off, and the jacket too. She crosses the room, hovers over the air-conditioner. "How do I turn this thing up?"
"I don't know."
"I'm going to melt." She points an elbow at the ceiling, expertly unfastens the hook and zipper that hold her dress up.
Andrea has a small tattoo in the center of her lower back. She was engaged to a symphony conductor once. He asked her to prove herself in a bizarre way, a single musical note inked in deep violet against her spine. C.J. faces the window and shimmies out of her almond dress, letting it drop around her ankles. She peels the rest of her clothes off. Apart from a freckle or two, her back is blank and snowy as untouched paper.
"Let me wash my face," she says, and floats away into the bathroom. The hotel room looks like they all do; this could be anywhere and everywhere in America. Lying back on the bed makes it jounce, makes the ceiling ripple slightly, unless it's my eyes.
Blink, and her hand is shaking my arm, and it's daylight. "Wake up," her voice urges, "wake up, wake up. Wake. Up."
Her face is blurred and bowed toward me. Strands of hair standing on end, clinging to her neck and eyelashes. She smells of toothpaste. My head and mouth are stuffed with cotton. "...Time is it?"
"About five. I'm done in the bathroom. We have a flight, remember?" She stands up, tucking a blouse into a blue skirt. "I can't believe you didn't hear the alarm."
"I can't believe you're moving around that fast." Sitting up blinds me; standing is going to be worse. "I can't believe I was asleep."
"Well, you looked like you needed it." She brushes her hair into some semblance of control. "I never want to be here in the summer again. I spent the night practically draped over the air-conditioner."
"You could have slept in the bed."
"You're too hot." She rubs lotion into her wrists, throws my luggage onto the bed. "Come on. We have to get to the airport."
"I bet it's cooler." Her image swims as my feet hit the carpet. "In Washington. Some wind off the ocean or something."
"Sure." C.J. shoves me toward the shower. "Great climate."
She's quiet in the car and in the terminal. Her eyes are bloodshot and directed away from any sources of light, and from my face. The early flight is remarkably empty. After take-off and coffee, C.J. moves across the aisle to a vacant row. She puts the armrests up to sleep, her legs bent against the seats, hands under her chin, headphones on.
She's become inured to background noise. Her music is up loud enough for me to hear: a distinctly feminine flutter and howl. It mixes with the roar of the jet engines. The words are incomprehensible. Commercial flight is surreal. C.J.'s breathing is even, not labored at all. She wakes up after we've begun the descent.
The shock value of the Oval Office diminishes with experience. It can't keep sneaking up on you, like the first time you come through the door and find yourself in a scene from a Capra film. Still, the round walls contain an air of reverence. It hushes tempers and voices, steadies the mind. At least it's supposed to do that. Josh exchanges a look with me as we step inside.
The President is behind his desk, signing his name to some official letter. He looks up as Leo waves us in. "This year's Nobel Peace Prize is going to be awarded jointly to the U.N. and its Secretary-General," he declares.
Josh looks thoughtful. "Well, that's good, right? We weren't rooting for someone else?"
"A compliment for them is a compliment for us," Leo says, sitting down on the sofa.
"What I like is that the game of football was a nominee." The President takes his glasses off, leans forward with his elbows on the desk. "The U.N., the Falun Gong movement in China, Richard Holbrooke, Fidel Castro, and football. Clearly they didn't open the voting to the public. How was Iowa?"
"Hoynes killed." His smile of compassion flashes in my memory. "Looked good, sounded good. It'll play. I don't like him looking like the leader of the party."
"We'll take care of it next Monday," Leo says. He gets to his feet as the President stands and comes around to the front of his desk. "Crop subsidies passed the House; we need position papers."
"I've been reading up on agriculture," the President adds. "The current plan does a lot of good for grain and cotton farmers. Doesn't so much subsidize fruit, vegetable, and livestock farmers."
"We don't like the people who grow fruits and vegetables?" Josh asks.
"Not as much as we like the ones who are producing Wonder Bread and Jockey shorts, I guess."
"Position papers," Leo says. "By Sunday?"
Josh nods. "We can do that. How's the weather looking in New Hampshire?"
"Glorious," the President says, folding his arms. "Low sixties. Might dip to fifty-eight while we're there."
"Abnormally cold up there." Leo gives a small smile. "How soon you forget what it's like."
It's gaining on three years since we've spent any time in New Hampshire. The Bartlet family farmhouse is handsome and elegant and vividly American. It looks perfect in magazine spreads, but it's seen some ugly conversations. And the political arguments, probably, are nothing compared to the ones we don't know about.
Josh's train of thought, for once, is running close to mine. "Is the First--"
Leo makes a sharp, small motion with his head. Enough to close Josh's mouth. There's a split-second that reminds me of Andi. Andi and myself and 1996. Locked bathroom doors, separate travel arrangements, shredding bar napkins, springs of the couch stabbing my back in the middle of the night. Then it's past and the President is speaking to me. "Sam's not off to a great start on the speech."
"Yeah." Not quite agreeing, definitely not arguing.
"It's a hectic time; he's having problems with the people. Whatever. You'll get it together." All the force of his personality and his office is invested in the words. Executive order. He glances back and forth between Josh and me. "You'll get it together."
"Yes, sir." We keep eye-contact for another split-second. Then it's broken and we know we're dismissed. Josh leaves through the reception area. Leo inclines his head and leads me out to his office.
"Sam's off his game," he says. "He's writing crap."
The door closes softly behind me. "With Doug and Bruno as back seat drivers, I can't really blame him."
"Well, we can't afford it right now." Leo sits down behind his desk. "Hoynes was good in Iowa, huh?"
Leo's couch is oddly shaped and stiff, but it gets comfortable when you spend a little time on it. Only learned that a few weeks ago, sitting here late, bouncing a ball off the wall. We talked about Hoynes that night, too. "He's not one to miss an opportunity, Leo. And Sam was right. He's pissed at us."
"He can get on the very long line." Leo lets his eyes linger on my face. Not sure what he's looking for.
"Yeah, most of Iowa was pretty studious about ignoring us."
"Stop," he says, tapping the side of his hand on the desktop. "Stop that. Stop focusing on the people outside this building until we've put our own house in order."
"Leo--" My voice comes out sounding thick. Most of Iowa, not wanting to look at us, faking smiles because we're tainted and we might be catching. It's a dressed-up version of every restaurant in Washington, during the last month or so. "Our own house?"
He draws back, face clouding. "C.J. offered me her resignation."
The breath leaves my lungs forcefully. Feels like being punched. "When?"
"Not until after the announcement. Obviously, coming so soon after the disclosure, it would look--"
"When," my voice says. "When did she offer it?"
"A week after the Haiti blunder."
"And you said--"
"--that it wasn't the time to consider it yet," he finishes for me. "It's not something we can worry about right now."
Standing up too fast makes my back hurt. Can't stay still. "She didn't say anything to me."
"I imagine she figured you'd try to talk her out of it." He shakes his head at me. "It might not be the worst thing. It'd draw some fire. We could sell it."
It was in this room that he told them, Josh and C.J. and Sam. In the next office where he told me. And outside, on the portico, where he said it would never come to impeachment. Only a few yards distance. "We rushed this thing out of the gate, Leo. Something like this was bound to happen."
"There are any number of proverbs that deal with this," he says. "What's done is done. Everyone needs to be ready to move onto what's next."
Our eyes meet. An unpleasant pulse beats in my temples. "You remember what it was like in New Hampshire?"
"Cold as hell," Leo says, not looking away.
We're both thinking of Cal and Jerry and Mack and the other guy. Both thinking about being unprepared and unprofessional before the staff turnover. The way things turned around--it was a first in our experience and in history. No one else has duplicated it. Leo knows this, and is quiet too long.
"See how it's going with Sam," he says somberly, barely moving his lips. "Settle things down in there, maybe you'll be up for the Peace Prize next time around."
"Maybe." Hate being the first to look away, the one to leave the room. His eyes burn the back of my collar until he can't see me anymore.
Air Force One wings northward, coastline and clouds slurring away below us. This intricate metal monster moves with grace through the darkness. Night flights make us poets, the President said, and it's true for whole minutes at a time. Then the mood is shattered.
"We're starting over," Sam bellows, and storms into the conference room white-faced with frustration. He drops heavily into his chair. "Back to page one. Can we all get together on 'My fellow Americans'?"
"It's a little trite, don't you think?" Bruno cracks. He sits across from me. Sam on my right, Connie on the diagonal. Doug paces near the walls. The seat at the head of the table stays empty. "A little on the nose?"
Sam rasps out humorless laughter. "Maybe we just give him bullet points and have him do the whole thing as improvisational theater."
Doug twirls a pencil in his fingers. "As long as he improvises an apology, I won't have a problem with that."
"Let's talk about the D section," Bruno says quickly.
We could repeat this conversation maybe a dozen more times tonight. That would be fun. "The problem with the D section is that the B and C sections suck."
Doug glowers at me. "I thought we decided B was okay."
"B is not okay. B is--listen to what you've written here. 'Like any American citizen, I want to see this country's future safeguarded, as its potential soars into the future'."
"It's a little awkward," Bruno says.
"A little awkward?" My pen scratches across the page. "It's irredeemable."
"First of all, 'like any American citizen'? He's not like any American citizen. We don't want people thinking he's like any American citizen."
"And let's not forget about the American citizens who shoot FBI agents and burn abortion clinics," Sam chimes in.
"And the word 'future' is in that sentence twice, which is at least once too often."
Sam chuckles. "Yeah, because I don't get it. Are we worried about the future or something?"
"We can fix the language," Connie says.
"They don't really give a damn about the language," Doug complains, rapping his knuckles on the top of a chair. "Toby, I didn't come in and piss a circle around your desk."
"You were brought in," Sam says. His mouth narrows to a dash. "You were brought in to help. You've been here a week and a half--"
"--And we've gotten nothing but static from you--" Doug cuts in.
"--And we've been here three years. Would you like me to give you a tour, show you where the bathrooms are?"
"Sam." My arm nudges his. "We have to get this done. We should've been locked by now."
His face is angular and plaintive, marble and shadow instead of flesh. He exhales through his teeth. "Yeah, okay."
Connie rifles through her draft. "Let's just look at the conclusion and work our way back."
"We'll try," Doug hisses, pulling his chair back over to the foot of the table.
"Yeah." Sam sounds bitter. It doesn't suit him.
Bruno hesitates, then nods. "Toby, take a walk with me?"
Need to stretch anyway. "Sure."
Out in the corridor it feels like being on a plane, with the curved wall and the rounded windows. Bruno leans against a panel. "Doug seems to have gotten the impression that you don't like him."
"Now where would that be coming from?"
"Out of the clear black sky." He waves at the windows. "I get that you don't like us, Toby. I'm just not sure you know why."
He looks surprised at my laughter. "I need a reason?"
"We're gonna help you keep your job, Toby. You need a reason. Especially because you know an apology's an effective way to go."
Bruno shakes his head. "I'm gonna go check in with Leo."
He walks away. C.J.'s down the opposite direction, sitting near the Press Corps. She knows she's being watched, it shows in the way she lifts her head. But she doesn't turn to me. The sound of a book being slammed onto a table makes me turn around and go back into the room. We land on a naval base in New Hampshire a couple hours. The President's speech is not done. Nothing is done.
The first break we have happens at Anthony's. The last time we were here it was still dull and dingy and crimson. They've since touched it up with polished brass railings and blue light. And a pool table.
C.J. rolls a second ball into the pocket. "I never learned how to do this. I told you that."
My cue clanks against the railing. "You didn't say anything to me."
"You noticed that, huh?" She hugs herself, arms sealed tight under her ribcage. "Leo was talking out of school."
"Did you, or did you not--"
"Of course I did." She breathes roughly, her chest trembling. In. Out. "Leo wouldn't lie to you."
Move closer to her. There's danger here, in the dizziness of her voice and the smudges under her eyes. Danger in the way she already looks far away. "What exactly is it supposed to fix if you leave?"
"Could you not?" She puts her knuckles to her mouth. "People weren't supposed to know."
Tempting to pull her hand away from her face, but we're in public. "You can't possibly think you're going to just curtsey and exit stage left."
"I don't curtsey. It hurts my knees." She shrugs and looks past me, down to the floor. "Look at Charlie sitting all by himself."
"Zoey's coming up tomorrow."
The lights cast a sheen on her blouse and her face. It misses her eyes. "You should talk to him. You seem to be in the mood to do outreach. You should play a game with him."
"I'm playing a game with you."
"I'm going to the hotel to do my homework on crop subsidies and RU-486." She watches her feet as she starts for the stairs. "Do me a favor and keep this, keep this--"
"God, C.J., I'm not gonna grab a megaphone."
"I didn't think Leo would either," she shoots back. Her hair shines through the crowd until she reaches the door.
Charlie wins my pocket money. Sam goes a couple more rounds with Doug and Bruno. Josh bounces loudly off the walls and winds up sick on the curb, Donna giving him a lecture with mixed exasperation and amusement. The hotel has cramped hallways, painted an institutional mint green. C.J.'s room is two doors down from mine. She makes me knock two or three times before she opens the door. At last she answers, wearing a huge Hoyas T-shirt that comes to her bare knees. "What?"
"I have the feeling I've been hustled."
She puts her chin down. Her voice is oddly pitched. "By sweet little Charlie?"
Two steps forward put me over the threshold. "I have the feeling someone knew ahead of time that he could play. I think I got taken."
"Imagine that." Her laugh is like a cough. "Is that all?"
"It's a bad idea and you know it."
"Oh, boy." She hugs herself again. "Well, close the door before the lecture, at least."
We're standing maybe three feet apart. Seems like more. "Exactly what is this supposed to fix? A flurry of editorials pointing out that we can't expect the American people to be loyal when--"
"When you can't even keep your own staff on a leash?" Her foot taps on the beige carpet. Her toenails are painted scarlet.
"That's not what I was going to say."
"Tell me you didn't make notes before you came down here."
It had been hard to resist. She knows me alarmingly well. "I didn't. Listen to me. It'll look like you couldn't handle the pressure. It'll look like we couldn't maintain a staff during crisis. It'll be a blow to the administration, no matter how we time it and spin it. You leave, you're playing right into their hands."
"They," she says. She sits down in the room's one scuffed wooden chair. "I don't have the luxury of saying I don't care what they think, Toby. You should've covered a briefing or two for me. What they think is all I have to go on, and all they can think now is that I fucked up."
"They're getting over it."
"Nobody's getting over it!" She hears her own voice echo and her eyes moisten. "And if they are, well, wait until next week, when we're in front of a jury and they're playing the fucking blooper reel over and over again. That'll serve as a reminder. And when it comes down to a choice, when someone's got to be jettisoned..."
She trails off. It'd be nice to tell her that won't happen. Nice if there was some guarantee. "It was one mistake, C.J."
"It was my mistake." She shakes her head back and forth slowly. "What happens in a month, when Katie and Steve and Danny are shooting me down at every turn? When people won't come near me in public? When you walk in my office behind Leo and you can't even speak to me? 'Sorry, C.J., it was a good run, but the President needs to ask for--'"
This is spiraling quickly out of control. "You leave, and you're only giving them ammunition."
Shakes her head, negating everything. "I leave, and I don't get pulled under."
"You don't believe that."
She doesn't. She shouldn't. She should know how good she is, that this kind of weakness is what our enemies are counting on. She does know those things, but she's still shaking her head. No. No. No.
"C.J." Her eyes flicker in surprise and warning when my hand touches her arm. "You're not the kind of person who needs to be told things."
She doesn't smile, but she doesn't flinch, and it's not long before her hands are drawing me down. Awkward, this half-standing position, and it quickly becomes kneeling. She pulls the big T-shirt over her head in one fluid motion. Her hands fumble at my shirt front, but her body is more interesting than mine.
The notch at the base of her throat tingles, tastes of powder and perfume and sweat. Tastes of travel and warmth. Her nipples are hard and dark and hot against my tongue. Like embers from a coal fire. No. That's incredibly stupid.
When my hands reach her hips she wiggles, slides out of gray cotton panties and kicks them away. The chair is at a precarious angle, have to hold on to her knee to keep us both from going over. The insides of her thighs yield under my teeth. She's talking.
"You can't just make it go," she says. Doesn't matter. She arches up like the edge of a seashell, but she opens easier than a shell does.
No way to measure time while this is happening. No way to know how long she's been wrapped around me, one foot braced on the floor, one heel banging on my back. Her flesh scalding my mouth. Being careful of my teeth and fingernails on her. Against her. Inside her. Further. Careful about falling.
Above me she's voicing words, demands, questions, "do" and "don't" and my name. She tries to cover her mouth. No. Free one of my hands long enough to take hers away from her mouth. She reaches blindly for balance, catches hold of the edge of the desk. Pushes her hips forward, a cup to sip from. Syllables mix in her mouth until she's only asking for more. Give her whatever she wants. There's wetness the texture of honey, the taste of stars dissolved in sea-water, searing and distant and salt.
The muscles in her thighs vibrate. After a while her sounds aren't words at all. Her head is all the way back. Don't need to see her eyes close and open to know when it happens.
Sometime, an indefinite time later, we both need air and water. The chair comes flying forward. Feels like being drunk or stoned; the room is a haze. She stays collapsed in it, watches me fill two glasses from the tap in the bathroom. She glows, watching me sit down on the bed. The water is cold and metallic.
"You know," she says, out of nowhere, "the Victorians believed that women couldn't control their sexuality. That they had to be forced to remain chaste, or they'd get wild and hysterically lustful."
Really not sure how to respond to that. "Sure."
She's giggling, ringing and sweet, and it breaks through the fog. She lifts a hand to the light switch. "Who would've thought, Toby? I'm a Victorian."
The lights fizzle out and she crosses the room, leans in for a shallow kiss. She takes my fingers into her mouth, licks them clean. Her hands are busy, gentle, and expert. Her palms are soft, right there. This is familiar and slow. And--
The room goes bright and dark again.
Wake up abruptly, watch the early light strike her face. She looks relaxed and young. Deserves better than this. Her eyelids tremble, then tighten. She pretends to sleep for a while longer. Then a conscious frown. "You need to leave," she sighs. She won't look at me. But she's right.
Late in the afternoon. Twenty-four hours to go and we still don't have a speech. The high school is picturesque, generic New England. The band practices incessantly. Did we actually need the band? Yes. These things are essentials, along with photo opportunities and handshakes. Standard operating procedure.
Sam sits with me in the first row of chairs. We write, edit, scribble, argue, start over. But the words start coming now, first in a trickle, then in a flood. Leo comes by to check our pulse; later, we stop to stretch. Doug and Sam are almost on civil speaking terms. Moronic signs are stacked in the aisle. Glad to find a Sharpie, to fix this.
"Bartlet For President," Josh reads over my shoulder. "That's really sad. Good thing you're making alterations."
"It's quicker than ordering a bunch of new signs."
"And cheaper. Plus, maybe he changes his mind again, and you can start writing 'Bartlet for Homecoming Queen.'" He plays a drum riff on the top of a folding chair, in an odd counterpoint to the band. "I was sure we were done, Toby. I was sure--Answer B. You know?"
"I know." This day is aggravatingly bright. "I don't like being outside."
"I'm not crazy about crowds and rope lines." Josh shades his eyes from the sun. "Maybe this is all for nothing. Maybe we're already screwed and we don't know it. But, hey. That's, that's politics, right?"
My hand aches from gripping pens and markers. "That's government."
He smiles. "I was sure we were already done."
"Not so much, now," he says, and walks away whistling.
C.J.'s not far behind him. She comes up casually, long shadow creeping along ahead of her. "I want the First Lady to do the introduction," she tells me.
"It'd look good."
"More than that. It would look right. Husband and wife and their beautiful daughters." She yawns. "The problem's that she doesn't want to do it."
There was a long stretch of time when Andi would have eaten nails before she'd have shared a platform with me. The reverse was also occasionally true. The sun is screaming here, but the air is crisp. "If you're looking for a new field, steer away from marriage counseling."
She doesn't laugh, only tosses her hair off her shoulders. Her arms hang sleepy at her side. "I'm trying to put the best event together. And Leo agrees with me."
Don't ask what they've agreed on. "I made you a sign."
She holds up the square of poster-board so it throws a square of shade over her head. She reads my print silently at first, then repeats it. "'Bartlet is my President.' Okay. How's the speech going?"
"I hate the English language!" Sam hollers from across the lawn. "Gonna learn Japanese!"
"We're making progress."
"I see." C.J. reads her sign again, then sets it down in the grass. "Nothing's official today, Toby."
Playing with words, watching her stroll away. Campaign strategy. Exit strategy. She takes out her phone and calls someone, probably Carol. Leo isn't wrong. We could sell this, if we had to. Relieved. Resigned. Re-elected. But there's less than a day, and there are pages to write. No time. Sam drifts back over. We work. It's all we can do.
The apology doesn't happen in the speech. It happens in the classroom, seconds before, not a second too soon. Doug Wegland can't be wrong all the time. He's invited back to the farmhouse, afterwards, along with Bruno and Connie. They trade glances and decline.
The primary living room of the house is showered in taste, all antique wood and creamy carpet. It's inviting and flawless. So we tear into the case of Heineken on the back porch. "They don't know what they're missing," Sam proclaims. "Hanging out in a smoky bar on a night like this."
Josh coughs. "The President's starting to rub off on you."
"Seriously. Breathe that." He does so, tranquilly. "They're missing the party."
"The party," Josh says, "is where we are."
"We're party people," C.J. says dryly. She leans back on the wooden steps, face tinted indigo by the twilight. "It went well, I'll give you that."
"Well?" Josh swigs his beer and elbows C.J. "It was better than that. Better than we expected. Some people here wrote a remarkable speech." He beams at Sam and me. "But I won't mention names, because I've heard we're pretty smug as it is."
Sam smiles. "Well, it worked, anyway. The cheering came from the right place."
"Which would be?"
"The socks." Sam looks at me. "It came from their socks."
He's young, still ludicrously young. My voice sounds embarrassingly old. "It was one speech. It was a pebble."
"We'll have new numbers tomorrow." Josh creases his forehead. "They won't be as good as we're hoping. And RU-486 will stir up the Ann Coulters out there."
"Hoynes is going to Florida in August," Sam adds, wilting a little.
"Subpoenas," C.J. says, dropping the temperature a few degrees.
"And we have to raise money when we can't even sit at the table." Another unpleasant thought hits me. "And we have to work with Bruno Gianelli for another damn year."
The silence circles us for a long time. Then: "Fuck it," C.J. says, and sets her beer down.
Josh stands, wavering, beer in hand. "I'm gonna go find the President and shake his hand."
Sam follows suit automatically. "The, the President's--"
"Taking a little personal staff time," C.J. supplies.
"Oh." Josh's eyes widen. "Oh. I could shake Leo's hand, I guess."
Sam's expression turns brittle at the speed of a shutter-click. C.J.'s mouth firms in recognition. The same look is probably on my face. Josh studies his hands for a moment.
"I'm going to go see if I can find Donna," he says.
"And I'm going to find the bathroom. I hope." Sam follows Josh toward the French doors, pauses at the handle. "Hey, Toby. We could drive back to Washington, do some antiquing on the way."
"Or I could kill you and bury your body in the horse pasture."
They disappear inside the house. C.J. brings her legs up to her chest. "I'm not dancing," she says. Maybe she inches a little closer to me.
"It was hard to tell."
"It's not all better now. I'm not happy. I won't be happy tomorrow morning. And it's going to cost us." She rests her head sideways on top of her knees. Looks me in the face. "No welcome back speech, huh? No 'I knew it all along'?"
"I'm glad," she says. Her eyes are deep and uncertain. Not shining, not smiling, but looking straight at me.
The last of my second beer goes down smooth. "You're not the kind of person who needs to be told things."
She nods, gradually and gravely. Yes.
We drink without speaking until Josh and Sam come back. Then we talk about Jerusalem and Iowa, about John Hoynes and Kofi Annan and the common man. Color drains out of the sky. There's only a minor breeze to move the darkness around us. The house, the field, the beer. One cigar. One pack of cigarettes. Three men and one woman.
This is a world that has been lacerated and stitched and waits to heal.