TITLE: Chance To Make It Real
AUTHOR: S.N. Kastle
SUMMARY: Josh and Sam work together and fall in love, lose touch and find themselves. A first-time story. Also, the next time, the time after that, and the time they got it right. Not necessarily in that order.
SPOILERS: Up to and including "Somebody's Going to Emergency, Somebody's Going to Jail."
RATING: R, but mostly not.
THE SHORT LIST: Thanks to my editors extraordinaire: Jae, for all kinds of backup and thickening the plot, and Sabine, for economics lessons, good D and incidental music. And thanks to Mango House Counsel T1 for locations and the Prom Queen's duet. Disclaimers/source info/add'l thanks at end.
THE LONG VERSION: Collect them all any time at http://home.earthlink.net/~shanak11/chance.html
AUTHOR'S PREROGATIVE: I cannibalized like mad here, so if it seems familiar, keep reading. Originally posted 8 May 2001.
ATTENTION ARCHIVISTS: Please *replace* my story "As Years Unfurl" with this piece. With the exception of list archivists, you may post this *only* if you link directly to my site.
FEEDBACK: Please. Love it? Hate it? Just write: firstname.lastname@example.org
DISCLAIMERS: Not mine.
SOURCE INFO/ADD'L THANKS: Dialogue, characters and stolen plot lines are Aaron Sorkin & Co.'s. They are used without permission but with good intentions. Soulful looks are courtesy Bradley Whitford and Rob Lowe (and a few inspirational stares from Charley Lang) and are poorly reproduced as written words. * Bruce Springsteen rules! This story literally would not have been written without "Thunder Road." * What I didn't rip off from Aaron or Bruce came from The Graduate, which was instrumental to the Grand Gesture. * Edith Wharton wrote, "You despise my ambitions; you think them unworthy of me." * Please visit our sponsors: www.grapefruithead.com/ourboys and www.geocities.com/jaegecko/ * I highly recommend The Adams-Jefferson Letters, edited by Lester J. Cappon. * Michelangelo Signorile's Queer In America mapped the '91 political landscape, www.signorile.com. * International freedom of press info is courtesy The Freedom Forum, www.freedomforum.org, and Reporters Without Borders, www.rsf.org. * Two bears in a forest and much more: www.AesopFables.com. * At a crucial moment, David Whitford conjured the spirit of his brother -- and Josh -- for Esquire (May 2001), and got me unstuck. This one's for assertive people rendered passive by their accomplishments. * Zeke explained the laws of physics and never asked why I was taking notes. * Dafna played Where's Pete? * Anna tried to sneak past Capitol security guards with me. * And, of course, as always, for Chris.
Chance To Make It Real by S.N. Kastle
You can hide 'neath your covers
And study your pain
Make crosses from your lovers
Throw roses in the rain
Waste your summer praying in vain
For a savior to rise from these streets
BACK BEFORE HE and Josh had taken all of about a minute to make the worst decision of their lives, Sam had known how to spot a compromise. Sometimes he'd been wrong about how much the deal was worth, but he'd always recognized the transaction for what it was. That was before he'd learned to be vague about the things that mattered most, before he'd fucked everything up.
Sam had once thought he would go to Harvard, had been sure of it since he was 12 and his father had grudgingly admitted that USC, his own alma mater, was not exactly the Harvard of the West. The thin envelope had been a quiet disaster made loud by the downturn of his father's mouth, and Sam had never quite regained the ground lost to that disappointment. Which was nothing compared to his mother's sickened shock that summer after graduation, when she'd walked into Sam's room and found him with their Spanish exchange student, Marco. Her expression had been so still, so devastating, that he'd begun to think that she had turned to stone. Then she'd turned around and closed the door behind her. When Sam tried to explain -- they had been comparing scars, he'd said in his head, preparing the speech -- she had blithely insisted that she didn't know what he was talking about.
And Sam had been sure several times that he was going to get married, that he would find the stability that his parents so fervently desired for him. But then Miranda decided she was a lesbian after all, and he and Krissy never would have made it past planning the rehearsal dinner, and Lisa... Lisa had decided that running off to New Hampshire in the company of his old friend Josh meant he really was an incurable faggot after all, a conclusion that -- having found the two of them tossing a week's worth of clothes into a duffel bag, laughing and counting shots like it was a game of one-on-one -- she chose to share with their co-op neighbors and half of Manhattan by yelling down the hall as they left.
"I'm sorry," Sam had said to Josh. If he could just get it right, he could finally stop apologizing for all the things he could have done better, for having thrown so much of their time away. "I'm sorry," he had said again as they'd pulled out of the parking garage. "She runs out of adjectives pretty quick."
It was weakly offered explanation, to which Josh had nodded slowly and said, "Yeah," like he'd remembered something else, like it had been the start of a sentence or something more significant, but then their momentum had been halted by a homeless woman shrieking at the intersection of 96th and Lex.
Sam's apartment had grown dark around him, and there was this repetitive banging noise coming from the street. He flipped on a lamp, crossed to the door and heard Josh's muffled voice. "Are you in there or what?" Josh yelled, and Sam wrestled with the knob. When the door popped open, he almost hit himself, and Josh came within an eighth of an inch of knocking once more, right on Sam's forehead. They each took a step away, and Josh backed off the stoop but didn't fall down.
"D.C. cellular sucks, man," Josh said, rearranging his limbs like nothing had happened. "Where have you been? I've been calling and calling, and it's just been busy. I thought you'd gotten DSL."
"Yeah," Sam said, moving out of the way.
"Yeah?" Josh had dropped his overcoat on the couch and was digging around in the small kitchen's refrigerator, finally emerging with a beer in each hand, which he held up victoriously in a mock-Nixon wave. Sam had been living in the townhouse since a week before the inauguration, and Josh always acted like he lived there, too, taking what he wanted from the fridge, from the cabinets, turning on the TV without asking what Sam wanted to watch. And then Josh went home at the end of the night, and Sam usually slept alone. "So why was your phone busy?"
Sam looked down at his hand, saw he was holding the black cordless phone from the bedroom. "I guess I forgot to hang it up," he said, shrugging. He wondered if he had that stone-statue look that his mom had perfected over the years. He wondered what she'd looked like when the delivery guys realized they'd sent the bedroom set to the billing address instead of the apartment she hadn't known existed, and if his dad had had a reason. His dad had always had a reason -- not an excuse, he would say, they're not the same thing. No room in that house for excuses. At least now they knew why.
Josh set the beers on the counter and gave him a hard, serious look. "What's going on?"
"What?" Sam's ears were buzzing, the operator's voice rattled in his skull, and his foot was asleep. He flexed his toes and looked at the Sam Adams bottle, trying to decide if he was thirsty or if he even liked the taste of beer anymore.
"What's wrong?" Josh ducked his neck a little, trying to catch Sam's eye. Sam looked away.
"Nothing." Sam wanted to put his head down and go to sleep. But the question of whether or not he liked beer wouldn't let him alone, worried at the edge of his cognitive skills and prevented his escape. It was in his fridge, so he'd probably purchased it himself. So he must like it. But he couldn't be sure. It could have been there for Josh.
"*Sam*." Sam's head snapped up and he stared at the middle of Josh's chest, the place that had had a big hole a few months before, when everything really had changed in an instant. Josh sounded the way he did when somebody made a horrible mistake. He never used that tone of voice with Sam, even when Sam was ruining everything, even when Sam was standing in a hospital and couldn't figure out the right things to say, the only sounds from beeping and wheezing machines. "What the hell is happening?"
Sam put the phone down on the counter and took a sip of the beer. It was reassuringly bitter, like the day had been. He finally met Josh's eye and located a few of the words he could remember well enough to speak aloud. "Nothing new," he said, and Josh flinched, and it was possible Josh thought he meant about them, but he didn't, not really.
"What are you talking about?" Josh sounded scared, or maybe angry. Sam wondered if he should be scared, too. Sam took another sip, because the bottle was in his hand. He recalled as if from far away that icy beer on a hot day could be the most refreshing drink. But it was February. And his hands felt cold.
"I just..." Sam started to explain about the beer, about the cold, about the black phone that he wished he'd never answered. "I'm sorry," he said instead, because excuses only satisfied the ones who made them. "I don't think I can talk about this."
"Are -- are you okay?" Josh asked, and Sam remembered when they hadn't had to ask that kind of question.
Josh shook his head. "No, just... What's going on?"
Sam took a long swallow, wished he had a long-necked bottle so that he could tilt it up and flash a smile at Josh like they were in some bar, like he just had to figure out the best way to start a conversation with an intriguing guy. That was the real purpose of beer. He tried to smile. Josh reached out and touched Sam's hand and the transference of warmth from Josh's skin to his own was like a jump-start. "I just -- I found out -- my mother called..."
"Oh, God. Is it your dad?"
Sam nodded. He wished Josh would guess it all, so he could just keep nodding and not open his mouth again. But now Josh had a glassy look in his eyes and Sam could taste the fried chicken he'd eaten in Illinois before they were dancing, before Donna grabbed Josh's arm and told them why Josh's dad hadn't been answering the phone. "No, I mean, not that," Sam said, feeling like an asshole. "He's okay. Well, not okay, but he's fine."
Josh cleared his throat and closed his eyes for a second, as if, because he couldn't see, the pain wasn't so evident on his face. Sam pulled his fingers out from under Josh's hand, which he turned over like a fallen leaf to let their palms rest against each other. "Sam?" Josh was quieter now. "Sit down."
"Because you're, uh, you should tell me what's going on."
On the long list of ideals and people Sam had failed in his life by compromising at all the wrong moments, Josh was first, and most of it had been because they'd never talked about what was going on, not really. He wasn't sure they could start now, even if the possibility that Josh could help him forget for a while was tempting. Sam moved his hand away. "Why should I sit down?"
"Because I'm, uh, starting to worry that you might, like, fall over."
"Would you catch me?" Sam asked, hating how much he sounded like his father, asking some stupid, redundant question. Once, when his mom had been visiting and he and Lisa were fighting, she'd said, "You're just like your dad." And he'd been confused, but vaguely proud. Because there were a lot of ways that he was nothing like his dad, especially after all those years. He hadn't been back to California since Super Tuesday, except for work, because there were too many long silences around the dinner table, too many moments when Sam thought maybe his dad knew exactly what Sam had made of his life.
Josh nodded slowly, seriously. "I'd try," he said, before smiling a little and stepping out from behind the counter. "But you might injure something vital first. Come on, sit down."
Sam let Josh lead him by the elbow to his couch, and he let Josh put an arm around him, because without the counter it seemed more likely that he might actually fall. Sam sat there stiffly until he could breathe in and out without thinking he might actually cry, and then let himself lean into Josh's chest. He told the story in short, staccato sentences: "Apartment." "Girlfriend." "Twenty-eight years." Josh tightened his grip on Sam's shoulders and rubbed the back of his neck.
Sam exhaled, a deep Josh-sigh full of regret and lost years and the taste of flat beer and cold fruit. Somehow, during a minute when he hadn't been paying quite so much attention to his surroundings, he and Josh had managed to convince themselves that there were more important things, like running for president. And nothing had been the same since, and it all defied reason.
"It's just, there are certain things you're sure of," Sam said, feeling the steady rumble of Josh's patched heart through the wool suit jacket.
"Yeah," Josh said, his voice distorted and sonorous. "Like longitude and latitude."
"Yeah," Sam said, repeating that back to himself, knowing it was something he could remember. Josh 1997.
Well now I'm no hero
All the redemption I can offer
Is beneath this dirty hood
With a chance to make it good somehow
Hey what else can we do now?
Except roll down the window
And let the wind blow
Back your hair THE DRIVE TO New Hampshire had been the longest 250 miles of Josh's life. First they'd had to get out of the city, two hours of riding bumpers and grinding gears inch-by-inch just to hit Westchester, which put them in the heart of hellish I-95 Friday traffic under cover of a spitting and sputtering storm. The rain clouds faded into a deepening dusk and eventually a clear, starry sky glowed through the moonroof as they circumvented Boston and caught I-3 where it split off to Nashua and points beyond.
Later, Sam told Josh that he'd spent the night before toggling between environmental disaster research and road maps that traced a squiggling path up the Northeast coast, just in case he needed to make a quick get-away. When he was a kid, Sam said, he had drawn a 10-year-old's sketch to navigate the suburban Scyllas between the silences of his split-level three-bedroom and the Greyhound station -- neighborhood bullies and the house with a police cruiser parked out front -- Just In Case. That was what he'd called the map, he'd whispered sheepishly to Josh.
Just in case, Sam had figured out how to get to New Hampshire on his own. Which was fortunate, because since their first abortive attempt at apologetic conversation, they hadn't spoken a word. Not one. At first, it had been kind of funny, like a game, like who would blink first. And then Josh kept looking over at Sam, thinking that the motion would be obvious in Sam's peripheral vision and he would turn and say, "Hey," and all of it would be okay.
But Sam's hands were rigidly adhered at 10-and-2 and he kept staring straight ahead as if the road might split open and swallow them whole. As if the sleek Jeep Cherokee wouldn't protect them from the nutcase weekenders. As if they had nothing to talk about.
When they passed the turnoff for his hometown, Josh almost asked Sam to be let out. His parents would think he was nuts but they'd feed him and let him spend the night and borrow a car. Because this -- this part was all new to him, too, and *fuck* Sam for acting like Josh knew what was supposed to happen next. Josh had thought that it would be different this time, that the two guys voted most likely to bore their girlfriends to death with incessant chatter might find just a few words they could borrow for their own to talk about how everything had changed. They'd give them back when they were done, he swore, if for just two minutes they could admit they were both scared to death.
Yesterday, it had been easier. It had been three years and there had been a lot that *wasn't* said, but they'd been able to conquer the power of speech. Now they were in motion but silent like an old TV with the sound turned off, like the end of The Graduate when Dustin Hoffman and Katharine Ross were on the bus and seemed to realize that after all that running around, they still had to find a way to make their lives work together. He'd had an argument with his date at the film festival in Cambridge, about how there was no way the panicked expressions the characters had worn could be translated into a happy ending. He'd been sure that if he had just the right look on his face when he tracked Sam down again, they would somehow find themselves in New Hampshire and happy together, all the rags of their other lives lying at their feet.
For a political strategist, he admitted to himself, closing his eyes and letting the rumble of tread on asphalt rock him into a bleary stupor, he could be unbelievably stupid about the way things actually worked. He'd always considered it a strength -- that it was what facilitated his undaunted leaps of faith, and that being so sporadically fearless might be what made him brilliant in politics and not merely good. But he wasn't feeling very smart just then. He was exhausted and his skin itched and his suit felt like it had shrunk.
"You awake?" It was Sam, who hadn't lost his voice after all, and everything would be okay if they were talking again. Josh sat up in his seat, nodding. "We're in New Hampshire," Sam said, sounding somewhat happy and a little tired.
Josh sounded a barbaric yawp and Sam actually laughed out loud. This was where it was all going to start for real this time. Things would make sense. "It's not far to Nashua," Josh said, squeezing the arm rest and looking out the window over the fields lit by a half-moon. He glanced at the clock. Eighteen minutes after midnight. Leo would still be up when they got there. Josh had promised he was going to go get them the world's best speechwriter, and he had.
And he had. He grinned widely at Sam, who cocked his head away from the road for a moment to acknowledge his presence. Sam smiled back, shifted his eyes to the rear view mirror. "Where are we going?" Sam asked, as if maybe he was talking about more than just the road.
Josh couldn't remember the name of the hotel where the campaign staff was staying. He wasn't sure he'd ever even asked, he'd blown out of there so fast once he'd told Leo how right it all was, how he'd be back with a secret weapon. "Uh..." Josh trailed off, afraid that the wrong words might plunge them back into silence. "I should probably call Leo." Sam nodded, pulled the cell off the charger between the seats without looking and held the phone out in Josh's direction. When he took it, their fingers touched briefly around the curved edges of the plastic and nobody pulled back right away. Josh's hands shook a little as he dialed. "Busy," he said aloud, hanging up.
"Well, there can't be that many hotels in a town the size of Nashua," Sam said. "The population is only about 80,000." Josh wasn't sure why he'd doubted that Sam could find the way. Sam always knew the details, and his instinct about hotels was a nice little theory. They went to the Best Western. The Econo-Lodge. And Marty's Seven-Dollar Heaven, on the off-chance that Leo had lost both his mind and his wallet. By then it was almost 2, and there were more places than they'd thought, and Sam started calculating under his breath how many hotels cities should have per capita. Leo's phone was still busy. Josh was still waiting for his empty stomach to settle from the half-day spent churning on the road.
He shook his head as he walked out of the third place, and he saw Sam shrug through the front glass as the passenger-side window slid down with an automatic hum. "Should we get a place to crash anyway?" Sam asked, leaning across the seat. "We can find them tomorrow."
"Not here. The chick who helped me had dirt under her nails."
"So I think she was also the cleaning woman. Let's go back to the Best Western." Josh opened the door, climbed in. Sam hadn't really moved back to his side and their shoulders collided as he settled into the seat. "This isn't a sign," Josh said suddenly, needing to convince them both.
"You know," Josh said. "That this was, uh, a bad idea."
"It's not a sign."
"I know." Josh ducked his head and shook out his neck, not sure at all.
"And it's not a bad idea, Josh. Seriously."
He sighed. "I know." He did. Hearing Sam say it made the difference, though.
"We'll find them tomorrow."
Sam leaned back, shifted the car into first and pulled out of the circular driveway. Josh's window was still open and his hair blew in the breeze manufactured by their movement down the road. He breathed in, inhaling the smell of cut field-grass and maybe wheat, if he actually knew what wheat smelled like and if they even grew it here. He told himself that his eyes were wet because of his allergies and not from some overwhelming sense that all was finally right in the world.
They cruised past an open diner and before he could raise the suggestion, Sam was slowing down and making the turn. "We haven't eaten," Sam said, and it was nice to let someone else decide. Josh sniffed and blinked and nodded, still looking away. The restaurant was empty except one night-shift cook and a young waitress with her blonde hair in a ponytail. She waved her hands in the vicinity of the empty dining room, looking for all the world like a spokesmodel at an auto show. Josh wondered if she was registered to vote.
They settled into a booth by the window and ordered breakfast from Steph, who had traded shifts with her boss and was still only 17, and whose parents had walked precincts for Bartlet the first time he ran for governor, she said. She didn't know where the campaign people were, but she brought them hot, fresh coffee anyway.
"Every vote counts," Sam said. Steph carried over eggs and pancakes and a newspaper. "Headquarters are in Manchester," she said, pointing to an article. "You guys want real New Hampshire maple syrup? I won't charge you extra." "YOU DIDN'T CONSIDER that they could be in Manchester?" Sam was enjoying this way too much. "You know, what with that being where he's from and all?"
"Okay, yeah, very funny, we've established that I'm an idiot. Can we just pay the bill and go get a room now?" Steph smiled at their bickering. She thought they were cute, Josh realized, and then she actually said so.
"Cute like a married couple, I mean," she said, like that cleared things up. Josh let her have all the change even though it made a ridiculously large tip and headed for the car.
At the Best Western, they left the Jeep in the parking lot, not the driveway, and Josh sent Sam to check in. "I already woke the guy up once," he said, plopping on the small couch in what passed for a lobby. He picked at the taupe-and-blue paisley pattern, rolling nubs of pilled fabric between his short nails and palm and trying not to fall asleep.
Sam called his name and pointed at the elevator and he somehow managed to rise to the occasion. The doors opened at four -- probably because Sam had pushed the button, Josh thought groggily -- and he followed down the hall to the left. He'd avoided hotels for a while. They felt too much like liaisons, like overpaid executives meeting under-appreciated girlfriends between business meetings. Hotels were so depressing and, if everything went as planned, he'd be living in one or another for the next year. With Sam, no less.
Sam handed him a key. "Where's your room?" Josh asked, immediately feeling sleazy for asking, like he was going to get drunk off the mini-bar and come banging on the door at 5 a.m. Just because they were finally alone together didn't mean that he hadn't walked away from what they could have had years before, or that Sam would still want it, or that either of them could so easily dismiss the reasons that some of the letters went unanswered. Even if everything he'd done in the past 48 hours had been with Sam's voice in his head.
"Same as yours," Sam said. "I got us a double."
That woke him up. He wasn't so sure anymore where either the conversation or night was heading, and he kind of wanted to be in charge again. "Uh, on campaigns like this you usually get your own room."
"Well, I paid for a double --"
"A double bed?" His voice cracked. "Wow, go all out there, Sam."
"A double *room*. Typically furnished with two beds. You want to go back there and wake the guy up again --"
"This is fine." It could be better than fine. What the hell had just happened? He realized Sam had stopped walking and was standing in front of a door, fumbling with the lock. Josh went back down the hall toward him. "It's only for a few hours anyway," Josh said, "just so we can shower and change and maybe take a nap." And he hadn't at all meant it to sound that he assumed they'd be doing those things together, but there wasn't a good way out of that one.
"Yeah." Sam opened the door to reveal a small room with two double beds and one truly ugly painting of a grizzly bear hung above the center nightstand. "Do you even have any other clothes?" Sam asked as Josh dropped his backpack on the far bed.
"Uh-huh." Sam raised a questioning eyebrow. "On their way," Josh said. "After I told Hoynes I was jumping ship I somehow convinced my secretary --"
"Former secretary --"
Josh grinned. "Yeah," he said, and then swallowed his smile. "Yeah, I, uh, convinced Janet to go to my place and pack some stuff."
"I hope you didn't have her send it to Nashua."
Yeah, that Sam, the one who never let him get away with just being clever. Josh laughed to himself.
"You didn't, did you?" Sam asked.
"I told her to call Leo first."
"What a brilliant idea. You think he'll tell her to send the stuff to Manchester?"
"We sound like a married couple, Josh. Do you think that's a problem?"
"I'm taking a shower," Josh said, scratching at his neck, not answering because he figured it was his turn to be silent. "Do you think they have acid rain in New York?"
"They have everything else."
When he got out of the shower, Sam was propped up on Josh's bed, or the one he'd thought he claimed with his backpack, wearing dark red boxers and a white, short-sleeved undershirt. He was watching Headline News.
"There's nothing on," Sam said pre-emptively. "I checked."
"Is there, uh, something wrong with the other bed?"
"Oh -- the swivel thing on the TV stand is broken. I couldn't get it to turn."
"'Kay." He walked around the bed Sam was sitting on and grabbed his bag, taking it back with him to the other bed. Some red-headed anchor, not Lynne Russell, a different one, was talking about nuclear waste.
Josh was wearing the same boxers he'd had on for two days, since he'd left D.C. at the crack of dawn on Tuesday morning, and even having rinsed the sludge from his hair he felt a little grimy. But he'd shaved on auto-pilot, and he suddenly remembered a clean shirt in his backpack, which was only a little damp from when the bag had been soaked through. He sat on the edge of the bed as he pulled the soft cotton over his head, sucked in his gut a little and tried not to feel old and worn. The red L.E.D. of the alarm clock read 3:30, which meant that for over a day he'd been running on little more than some kind of crazy renewed faith in politics and love and the possibilities the world might yet have to offer him in his late thirties. But he was still tired.
Sam swung his legs over until they were facing each other across the narrow aisle of blue patterned carpet, which was cut of the same cloth as the couch downstairs. Josh stood up, not sure where he was going, and Sam rose, too.
"I just wanted to say --" Sam walked over and turned off the news, came back to face Josh again.
"No, I mean. I want you to know..."
Josh nodded. They had to admit that whatever it was they'd saved each other from would have been much worse than the frightening blank slate that lay ahead. "I do," he said.
"If you hadn't come back to get me, I would have come anyway," Sam said. "If I knew you were here."
With the TV off, it was completely silent. "Really?"
They were only maybe 18 inches apart, their bare feet practically touching on the thinly padded floor. Through the V-neck, Josh could see the tanned, smooth skin of Sam's chest and he avoided Sam's eyes by staring at the tender ridge of collarbone as it disappeared under the hem. God, he was still so beautiful. There were times when the most shocking thing about the two of them was that Sam had ever given him a second look. Let alone a second chance. He still couldn't believe he was trying to ask for a third.
"I couldn't stay there. It was... I was just dying, working for those people. And getting married? I mean, it's not like Lisa and I were -- we weren't very committed to the whole thing."
So she *had* meant something by that, Josh thought.
"It was just --" Sam shook his head. "That doesn't matter. I'm not sorry I left. I couldn't have seen you yesterday like that and *not* left. I just wanted you to know that."
Josh wanted to say thanks. Or, please don't let me fuck this up again. But there weren't any words in his throat, and his knees were almost bumping Sam's across the narrow aisle between the beds, and he sighed like there would be an answer at the end of the breath.
And then he kissed Sam, just barely, just letting the top part of his lips catch the bottom of Sam's, and it was possible his legs were shaking. He could feel Sam's hands on his just-shaven cheeks and his own tongue pressing into Sam's syrupy mouth and the heat of their chests approaching each other. But then it was too hot. It felt like a fever, or a summer night in D.C. without air conditioning. He was dizzy, and he broke away and sat down hard on the bed.
Josh was trying so hard to make the vertigo stop that he'd sacrificed control over the rest of his body. He could feel the muscles in his stomach twitching and he was getting hard, and then Sam's hand was on his thigh and he looked up. Sam was squatting on the floor in front of him, one arm out to keep from falling over, and he was saying "I'm sorry," and Josh shook his head emphatically because, damn it, Sam hadn't done anything wrong.
"No," Josh said. "No. Don't --"
"It's just -- maybe we should wait. I thought you -- I don't know."
Sometimes, it was like Sam thought Josh had all the answers, and that was never true. With Sam, he didn't know what the hell he was doing most of the time, but he knew he wasn't very good at stopping.
"No," Josh said again, surprising himself with how much he did *not* want to wait anymore. What had he thought was going to happen once they got to New Hampshire? He'd had some vague mental image of the two of them poring over position papers and speeches and travel itineraries, and maybe sometimes being the last guys standing, the ones still hyped up at 3 a.m. who went to go get a beer together. And, maybe, sometimes, letting what happened happen. But it was happening already.
"Because, you know, this time yesterday I was lying awake on the couch in my office, thinking about you, and now --"
"I know," Josh said, and this time he did. Together they'd been able to figure out a lot, and this couldn't be so much more difficult.
Sam sat up on his knees and pulled Josh down into a hug, letting his mouth slide into Josh's neck like how they'd held each other for a second in Sam's office the day before, but not letting go. And then Sam's hand was sliding up under Josh's shirt, and they were kissing again, but even Sam's tongue was moving slowly, like Josh's whole mouth was unexplored territory, and Sam pushed Josh back up onto the bed but didn't increase the pace. Josh tucked his fingers inside the elastic band of Sam's boxers but didn't pull them down. They'd never done it like that, casual and patient, like they knew they had all night and maybe the next, too. Sam was running his hand up and down Josh's arm, not quite tickling him, and when Josh closed his eyes for a second he thought he might fall asleep, and that might not be the worst thing that had ever happened when he was with Sam.
Because Josh was exhausted, but he was sober and this wasn't something that he could fake his way out of in the morning. He knew he'd still have to see Sam the next day, because they'd run too far together to take off alone. So that meant breakfast, and then finding Leo, and then finding a way to make all the rest of it work. It meant saying yes to all the things he'd spent so long refusing. And he wanted to say yes -- he did -- but he wasn't sure if he had ever known what was supposed to come after that.
Sam was lying there on his side, looking at him like they had forever, running a hand through the fine brown hair on Josh's stomach, not rushing anything or asking for too much, and Josh's heart surged. All the questions, the midlife confusion -- that was all about this man. This was where Josh was supposed to be, with Sam, in New Hampshire. They were going to get a good man elected president, and they were going to find a way to do it together.
"It's different now, isn't it?" Sam asked, in that tone of voice that only exists in bed at 4 a.m.
"Yeah," Josh said. "This time it's the real thing." Sam 1991.
Show a little faith there's magic in the night
You ain't a beauty but hey you're all right
Oh and that's all right with me THE BEER WAS flat. Sam hated flat beer more than just about anything in the world except, possibly, songs by the Pet Shop Boys. But despite the presence of both, he had to admit that he was having a decent time. There were worse things than being young and on his own for the summer.
He had six more weeks of working for Matthews, who unlike the other, much more sensible congressmen, took only a week's vacation in late August. On the plus side, a summer aide actually had a chance to do some work. And then Sam was off to New York, where his sojourn into Beltway business would undoubtedly be eclipsed by 100-hour weeks and decent suits and overpriced apartments and rampant crime.
But that would all be in the fall. The influence that being a New York lawyer would have on who he'd be in 10 years was still an unknown factor, he thought, nodding along to the dance music and watching Josh drink his beer. They were supposed to be meeting Harry here, because he'd declared -- somewhat dramatically, Sam thought -- that it was the only place where they might all be drunk enough to agree to the bill. So Sam and Josh were drinking at JR's, this gay bar off Dupont Circle, and trying not to admit that there was no chance in hell benefits for gay partners of civil servants would make it out of committee, let alone past the CBO or to the president, certainly not that president.
But, whatever, he was young and a little drunk, and the more flat beer he drank, the less he cared it was flat, and the more he danced around a little bit against his slice of wall, the less he cared if Josh could tell how much he envied the good-looking men their ease of touch, the casual way a hand would wander from waist to ass to the back of a neck without anyone looking both ways. There was a monstrous elk's head hung above the bar and the brick walls were pocked with stained glass windows, and everyone was too busy to notice either. The Pet Shop Boys stopped abruptly and there was a momentary battle between the air conditioner and the circuit breaker, and if they had to choose between the atmosphere being cool or loud, Sam would have gotten rid of the music in a second. But then everything whirred into place again, and Sam smiled almost unabashedly, because he had been babbling about Thomas Jefferson, for Christ's sake, and even bad music was better than that.
Josh leaned in to be heard over the noise. "You're in a good mood," he said, and his breath danced around Sam's cheek and Sam shuffled his feet and tried to concentrate on the reason they were there. It was good to know someone as brilliant as Josh, someone who obviously would be only more powerful in the years to come. Someone that far up the food chain really had no reason to have spent the past two days trying to convince Sam he might have more to offer to the world than an affinity for contract law, but he had, and Sam kept trying to listen, because he sensed that Josh what was trying to tell him was important.
Sam nodded, held up his empty glass and lobbed a silent question in Josh's direction before moving off to the bar for refills, where he ran into Harry. Who was otherwise occupied with a cute, short, Latino guy wearing a fishnet top that made him look like a Madonna backup dancer. Sam leaned over, shouted an order to the bartender and finally tapped Harry on the shoulder.
"There you are!" Everything about Harry was oversized -- he was at least 6'4", maybe 250 pounds, and he had a voice that could have been heard in Virginia if the Erasure song hadn't been turned up so high. "Where have you been?"
"Over there --" Sam shouted, pointing at Josh, who was leaning against the picture window and coolly appraising the scene as he tugged at the fraying edges of a Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers T-shirt.
"He doesn't seem like he's having a very good time," Harry said.
"You're having fun," Harry said, not asking. Sam shrugged again. Josh had spotted them and was weaving his way over, but it was a long, narrow, crowded bar, and by the time they were all assembled, Harry's friend had wandered off and the new beers were waiting. Before Josh could say hello, Harry had followed the guy and it was just the two of them again.
"Well, that went well," Josh said, leaning in again. "I think our total inability to express anything about the bill should go a long way toward them signing on."
"I'm still not completely sure I understand why they wouldn't," Sam said, and he bent in, too.
"Because they know as well as we do that it will never go anywhere. It's not the real thing. You've got to have a great idea -- great, not just a compromise -- and you find a way to make it work in the real world. That's real. Harry knows they'd rather not waste what little clout they've gathered on something that's not."
Josh always got the big picture, Sam thought. Josh staring at the bartender, who was leaning over the counter and making out with some guy in a cowboy hat. "Speaking of clout," Sam said, a little too loudly, trying to recapture Josh's attention, "what's up with this Pete Williams thing?" It was the open secret of Washington that summer, that there was going to be some big expose of the Cheney aide's closeted gay life. If any of the press corps would take it on, which seemed unlikely, as all the reports so far kept naming the same anonymous "Pentagon official."
Josh rolled his eyes. "Whatever," he said. "If the Secretary of Defense wants to have a gay spokesman while thousands are getting their asses kicked right out of the Army for doing the same thing in the privacy of their own homes --"
"It's wrong, Josh." If he couldn't say that much while standing in the middle of a gay bar, he really shouldn't even think twice about politics.
"Yeah," Josh said. "It sucks big time, and it's only gonna get worse." Sam got that Josh liked to play the wizened, cynical old staffer, but sometimes he couldn't tell if it was because Josh truly didn't care or if he was trying to say that governing was more difficult than it looked. Sam smiled, just happy to be there, having the conversation. "Let's have another beer," Josh said.
After two more, Harry stopped by to say he'd decided they were "cool enough" to call him on Monday and get down to business. Outside, the warm, humid air made the alcohol's effect seem more pronounced, and Sam stumbled over his feet as they walked toward the parking lot. And that was enough for Josh to convince him he'd be better off not driving, and for Sam to agree that he could probably crash on Josh's couch in the name of pedestrian safety.
The one-bedroom apartment was small and a little messy, and he spent 10 minutes on the bare wooden floor gulping water from a gallon jug Josh had handed him before realizing there was no furniture. He could see a mattress on a metal frame through the bedroom door, and a desk lamp plugged in beside it, resting on a stack of books. There were a lot of books, and some unpacked boxes.
"You don't have a couch," he said as Josh sat down beside him with a bag of Granny Smiths. Josh gave him an apple in response, and for a while they didn't speak, just sat in a silence punctuated only by the electric hum of the window box fan and the crunching of tough apple-skin. The fruit was cold and tart and seemed to anchor his spinning thoughts, and Sam felt like the summer was suspended in motion, like New York was just a shimmery dream in another life and he could stay there with Josh forever. "You don't have a couch," he said again, and Josh nodded, standing up to refill the water.
"I'll sleep on the floor and you can have the bed," Josh offered, not quite sounding as if he meant it. Sam stood up, waited to see if his legs would be shaky and, when they weren't unduly so, took a few steps. Josh turned around from the sink, his reddish-brown hair a little matted with sweat where it wasn't frizzy from the wet air, and just stared at him. The jug was in his hand, elevated a few inches above the counter, and Sam could see the line of Josh's bicep curve past the T-shirt's sleeve. Sam felt a trickle of sweat slide down between his shoulder-blades and stared back. Josh's face was frozen in a half-smile that was somewhere between quizzical and aw-shucks, and Sam wondered if Harry had been right, if Josh had been uncomfortable. It didn't seem like it to him, especially just then.
Josh finally brought the water to his lips and drank, swallowing again and again. Sam took another step. He had to say something. He was good with words, that was what everybody -- even Josh -- said about him. He just couldn't think of any at that particular moment. "So, did you have an okay time tonight?" he asked finally, and Josh, after a moment, nodded as he wiped his mouth.
When he twisted back to the sink, Sam let his feet carry him where his vocabulary couldn't and, in slow motion, slid his right arm around Josh's waist. Josh froze at first, then Sam could feel the man's stomach muscles relax again as he leaned back almost imperceptibly. He smelled like Mennen deodorant and beer and the fecundity of a southern summer and, in what felt like fractions of millimeters, Sam moved closer until he could reach around and capture Josh's mouth with a simple, momentary kiss that deepened into breathless exhortations.
They stumbled their way into the bedroom and onto the mattress and through a couple of mumbled rounds of Have You Evers, and they both said they had, so Josh's shirt came off and the taste of apples in Sam's mouth was subsumed by the saltiness of Josh's skin. And Josh wasn't being quiet anymore; he was whispering Sam's name and groaning and pulling at Sam's hair and Sam realized that he could have gone right to New York, could have missed all of this, could have forgotten what faces men made at their most beautiful moments, but he didn't, he hadn't, he wouldn't, and then Josh was pushing at his forehead and saying, "Wait, wait, wait," like a chorus, like the incessant beat of some stupid dance song.
Sam fell back onto the bed with a groan. "What?" he said, not a little aware of the exasperated whine his voice held. "What?"
"What? Do you want to stop?"
"Yeah. No." Josh rolled onto his side to face Sam. "This isn't... It's not that easy."
Sam couldn't help grinning. "Yes it is," he said, letting himself flirt a little. He was, after all, in Josh's bed. He could probably admit now that he liked Josh, had been trailing along after him all week on the off-chance that he hadn't been misreading the occasional, scrambled signal.
Josh shook his head. "I can't..." He sighed. "I can't have you think this is, uh, going somewhere."
"I'm going somewhere," Sam said. "In September."
"No, I mean, um, go anywhere. Look, you were the one who brought up, you know, uh, Cheney."
"Josh, I don't think... I mean, he's DOD. It's not like I think every Congressional staffer should have their own parade or something."
"It's not that simple," Josh said. "I mean, I'm not... There's a bigger picture here." Sam put his hand on Josh's naked waist and Josh didn't shrug it off. Sam tilted his head up and kissed Josh lightly, then more severely, until he was shifting his weight to lie on top of Josh. When they broke away, Josh opened and then closed his eyes again, gathering some kind of strength.
"Look," Sam debated. "Is there anything anyone could say that we could reasonably disprove? We can't change the fact that we got this far."
"I don't, I'm not saying... Just, am I -- I'm not a horrible person for wanting this, am I?"
"No," Sam said firmly, kissing his neck, running his hand down the outside of Josh's thigh. "Absolutely not."
"No," Josh said, and Sam had never really heard him sound confused before, but he did. "For wanting *just* this," he said, like Sam would actually know the right answer, would set them on the right path.
"Just this?" Sam asked. Josh nodded. "You mean --" Josh's eyes were squeezed closed, and Sam wondered if it was because Josh didn't want to see what they were doing. "Just now, you mean, just tonight?" Josh nodded again. Sam stopped kissing him, leaned over to turn off the light, and then started again, harder and deeper and lower. Setting a deadline meant there was more to do, more to be done quickly, and he'd always gotten an A in More. It would be good. It would be fine.
In the morning, in the bright light shining through a thin sheet hung as a curtain, Sam woke first. Josh looked almost happy, the caustic shield softened into restful content. Sam pulled on his underwear, wandered into the other room, where the bag of apples still sat in the middle of the empty floor. He went to the bathroom and then over to the sink, where he found the discarded jug of water and rinsed out his mouth. When he turned back to the bedroom, Josh was leaning against the door frame, wearing a pair of boxers and the Tom Petty shirt. Sam extended the water; Josh shook his head.
"I'm going to get dressed," Sam said, and when he saw Josh it all came back, and he couldn't quite remember when he'd lost his clothes, or why they'd made a deal. Josh didn't say anything, watched as Sam found and put on his pants and shirt. They stood facing each other, not speaking, and Sam tried to convince himself that just because it wouldn't happen again didn't mean they'd done something wrong. Josh sighed. Sam leaned in and kissed the corner of Josh's mouth. Josh nodded, and Sam left. Josh let him. Josh 1991.
Come take my hand
Riding out to case the promised land THE MORNING-AFTER feeling had lasted longer than the hangover, just barely, and not really in any of the ways Josh had expected. He could still taste Sam's sour-apple mouth and feel Sam's toned arms gripping his back as he'd come, and even a second cup of coffee wasn't doing much to clear the haze. He knew that he should call, should find a way to put the crashing want into words, should say something as simple as "Come back here."
Sam had tripped off the curb and yelled, "Catch me," and he had. He knew Sam was the stronger one, and that it had been Josh's idea in the first place. But the part of him that always chose the underdog had wanted at least one of them to have the guts to say, fuck it, it can be more than that. We can be more than just that, and the rest of the world can just go to hell. He wanted to devour Sam whole, to send their bodies hurtling into some other time-space continuum where their suns fed off each other's energy and the orbits crossed every thousand light-years.
And then it was Harry on the phone, and Josh remembered why they'd made the promises in the first place, and that Sam was practically still a kid, and he couldn't keep pretending he hadn't turned 30 and things weren't different. Josh wanted to slam his head onto the old metal desk until he had a concussion and could convince himself it had all been a dream, that there wasn't some bigger picture.
"So, I've got a meeting this afternoon to talk about the bill," Harry said in his booming voice, and Josh had to hold the phone away from his ear and work on separating the personal from the political, because he was a Democrat but he wasn't that kind of Democrat.
If he closed his eyes, Sam was nibbling on his neck, his naked legs sprawled on Josh's thin mattress, dark against the off-white sheets. It was only the tan that made Sam seem like a California boy, Josh had decided that first day in Matthews' office when they'd met. That and the half-mouthed grin and the confident but gentle way he'd shaken Josh's hand. He was a California boy from a Bret Easton Ellis novel, not a Beach Boys song, less surfer than social sycophant. But in a sexy way.
"Don't," he said.
"What?" Harry was a few decibels short of a shriek.
"Don't have the meeting," Josh said, and then scalded the roof of his mouth with the coffee. "I'm, hmmm, not sure it's such a good idea."
"Josh, I'm being serious. In two hours I have to go convince them this thing is going to work."
"It's not going to," he said. He kicked his foot against the bottom drawer of the desk. Should he have said no? Sam had all but invited himself back to Josh's, like they were swaggering through the quad after a frat party and might just accidentally wind up in the same bunk bed, and really, why the hell not. Josh's mom had always told Joanie that all you had to do to get a boy to kiss you was look him in the eye long enough. And she had been right.
"Is he pulling out?" Harry asked, and Josh got the feeling that if he answered wrong half of Queer Nation would be outside the congressman's house by morning.
"No, he's not pulling out. He just..." The congressman was in Florida and Josh hadn't even talked to him since Thursday. But that was his job, to figure out what was worth their time. At some point he really had to start making decisions like this on his own. "Harry, he just really doesn't give a shit. And I -- honestly? -- I can't, like, figure out why you do either."
"Oh, you know, just those little things like *health insurance.*" That felt like a slap, and Harry's outrage kept building steam. "What's going on? Friday you were all over this. Friday you would have made out with me if I had just said we were in."
"Harry, I'm not -- I'm not saying gay partners shouldn't get benefits."
"Yes, you are. That's what you just said."
"I said I didn't think this bill was a good idea." It had all been a profoundly bad idea. He tried to focus, sat with his elbows on the desk and rubbed his face. Being alone, in his office, made it easier to see the uselessness of what they'd been trying to do. "I think you know I'm right," he said. "We've got, what, *one* potential co-sponsor? Who's from Massachusetts and will always get re-elected even if he supports gays. We're not going to get a third of the Democrats, let alone more than maybe one Republican if we're *supremely* lucky, and for the next year you're going to be reading angry letters to the editor about how the homosexuals want special rights again."
"You know that, and I know that, Harry, but do you really think the Wall Street Journal editorial board knows that? At best, no one notices because they're too busy fighting about gays in the military. At worst, your guys look crazy and radical and it will take you months to make up the lost ground. It will be Christmas before anyone will even take your calls."
"Is that a threat?"
"Oh, for crying out loud, like I have that kind of power." His chair squeaked. "Listen to me. I'm -- I'm on your side here."
There was a long silence, and then Harry said, quietly for once: "That's what I'd heard."
"That you were on our side," Harry said, sounding a little wounded. Josh wanted to call him a drama queen but wasn't sure if he was allowed.
"Harry, you know -- you *know* that I support gay rights. You know my boss does." Harry *still* wasn't talking. Josh leaned back and played with the phone cord. Belatedly, it dawned on him that they weren't having the same conversation. "Uh, what are you saying?"
"You've been to JR's before," Harry said.
"Uh, yeah." It was true. He'd gone with Gary and Matt once in the spring and then met them again after the pride parade. "Was that supposed to be, like, a secret?"
"You tell me."
"You know, I have, I've got gay friends other than you, Harry."
"We're not friends."
"No kidding," Josh snorted. Harry was just being a drama queen. And it *wasn't* a secret, damn it. "I went to JR's twice, maybe three times, with some guys I know from the Hill. And once, I think, to that other place over on P Street -- uh, Badlands?"
"Good for you," Harry said, sounding sarcastic, bordering on mean. Josh sighed. It was going to be okay, if Harry could be sarcastic. "You're so progressive," Harry continued. "You should get a special medal. It's like your dad going to Selma to register black voters, only sexier. You're a fucking radical. *Excuse me.*"
"Harry, what the hell?" It hadn't ever been about being a radical. It was just about Sam. Maybe. Maybe it was just about being 30.
"What's your little friend think about all this?"
"Who?" The question was out of his mouth before he realized.
"The cute one." Josh made a noncommittal noise and tried to play dumb, which he'd long ago learned was a lot easier to pull off over the phone. "Sam," Harry said at last.
"What about him?" He was trying so hard to keep his voice even, which probably meant he sounded like a 15-year-old caught doing something that still seemed a little wrong.
"You think he only goes to JR's with his gay friends? What's *he* think about dropping the bill?"
Jesus. He was *not* going through this whole conversation again, not over Sam. It was time to cut and run. "Harry, you think if Matthews thought this was so great he'd send some kid? I'm telling you what you already know -- it's *not* a great idea, and it's going to cost you way more than you'll get in return. Don't put this out there just to be able to say in some fundraising letter that you got two co-sponsors. That's just embarrassing. Let's wait another couple years, or go after the military thing. Let's do it right."
After a minute, Harry grunted in agreement. It was over, then. Good. He sat back.
"You want to go to JR's tonight?" Harry asked, in what Josh could only hope was a peace offering.
"Is this a test or something?"
"Harry, it's been a long week."
"Still?" Josh smiled and put his feet up on the desk, wondering if he had to be gay to get called a drama queen.
"Next time, okay? Really."
"Yeah. We better get your backing on the military thing."
"You should really be on our side, you know."
"Yeah, I know." The call clicked off, and Josh let his neck hang over the back of the chair in exhaustion. What a nightmarish conversation. The phone rang again. Josh yelled out his door to Maria to pick it up and grabbed the day's Post, scanning headlines.
Maria ducked her head around the door. "It's someone from Matthews' office."
"Who?" Josh asked, but he knew.
"He didn't say. Want me to find out?"
"Take a message." She wasn't at all intrigued. Josh still couldn't believe they'd managed to get the least curious, least likely-to-gossip secretary in the city.
She came back in a minute and handed him the top copy from the carbon pad -- "Sam Seaborn, W/R/T legislation" -- and went out to get him a sandwich. With regard to the now-dead legislation, Josh thought, and realized this meant he didn't have to see Sam again. Didn't have to or didn't get to? He wasn't sure which was better. He wasn't sure it was anything more than just a drunken, stupid night.
Again, the phone. He let a deliberating hand hang over it. Shit. He was a congressional staffer. He couldn't just avoid the phone. "Josh Lyman," he answered.
"Hey," Josh said. Matt Skinner had spent 15 weeks in Con Law defending Bowers v. Hardwick and Josh had almost never forgiven him for it. But Matt was smart and, well, his dad had always said that if you didn't know your enemies they weren't enemies, they were just excuses. He looked down at the pink message slip. "You're not going to believe the conversation I just had with --"
"Josh, did you see The Advocate?"
"Uh, no, Matt, I don't really --"
"They did it. About Williams."
"You're kidding." Josh had been so surprised to have had Sam mention Pete Williams. Where had Sam heard about that? Gary and Matt had told Josh in May that a reporter was calling, and he'd thought it was one of those open secrets that only people with the same secret got to know. Josh wasn't sure what that meant about him.
"It names him, and it has all these quotes from guys whose friends slept with him. I can't believe they ran it."
"Has anyone picked it up?" Josh flipped through the front two sections of the Post. Nothing. He wondered if Maria would go get a copy of the magazine for him.
"I don't think so. This guy I know at Defense says no one even asked a question at today's briefing."
"Well, that's... good."
"Yeah," Matt said. It took Josh a second to realize that Matt sounded scared. "Anyway," Matt said, "I just thought I'd give you a heads-up."
"Because, you know." Josh didn't know. For a deranged moment he wondered if he and Sam had been followed, if someone had seen Sam leave his place Saturday morning. He was overreacting. He was totally overreacting. "Because you guys have talked about the military thing," Matt said. "And Cheney's been strangely all over the map on that. So you might get a call or something."
"Oh," Josh said, feeling stupid and paranoid. "Yeah. Thanks." Pause. "You okay, Matt?"
"Yeah." Josh didn't believe him. "Well, Gary's in it."
"Gary. Is one of the guys who says he knows someone who slept with Pete."
Josh put his feet back on the floor, leaned over the desk. "Pete?"
"You just called him Pete. Do you guys know him?"
"No. Uh, Gary used to go to these dinner parties at this guy's house and he was there sometimes." So it was a lot of dinner parties. Josh hated dinner parties.
Maria walked in, balancing a turkey club on a can of Tab and somehow managing to set them both on his desk without knocking anything over. Josh waited until she left. "Shit. Have you talked to him?"
"Wait, he's named?"
"No. But I know it's him."
"Maybe it's just someone who sounds like him."
"Josh..." God, could it really still be Monday? He unwrapped the sandwich and popped open the can. "Josh," Matt started again. Matt sounded like such a bitchy fag, Josh thought, not at all fondly. He was such a hypocritical asshole.
"What?" he asked, crossly.
"It was me."
Josh swallowed the bite of turkey, heard the phone on Maria's desk ring. "What was?"
"I'm the guy Gary knew."
Josh sat up. "Wait," he said. Jesus. "You're saying -- you're one of the guys who --"
"Wait, you --" Maria bent around the door, making some kind of hand movement that looked like half a round of Charades. "Hold on," he said to Matt, hoping he didn't sound rude. "What?"
"Sam Seaborn again."
"Fuck." He crunched the aluminum can between his fingers, thought about throwing it.
"Josh? Does that mean take a message?"
"It means tell him to fucking grow up and just wait for a minute while I deal with an actual problem."
"You want me to say that exactly, or can I paraphrase?"
"I'll take a message." She gave him a questioning look.
"Like, now," he said sharply, the picture-perfect asshole boss he'd always sworn he'd never become, the old white guy in a tie who had no appreciation for his administrative assistant's dry wit and eternal good nature. She left, and he sighed. "Matt?"
"What was that about?"
"Nothing. Nothing." He pushed the food away, feeling sick to his stomach. "When did this happen?" he asked wearily.
"It was a while ago. Before Gary and before, you know, he was always on TV."
"I didn't mean..." Josh rubbed his temples, looked at the closed office door. "Matt, can I tell you something?"
"Yeah," Matt said, sounding distracted.
"I -- ah, nothing," Josh said. "Never mind. It's going to be fine."
"Yeah. Go call Gary."
"Yeah," Matt said. "Thanks. See, this is why I have straight friends. Guys make a lot more sense when they're not hung up on other guys."
Josh grunted. He didn't know many men who weren't hung up on their boss, their dad, whoever had played quarterback to their second-string. He said goodbye, hung up and yelled Maria's name. He wondered why she never mentioned going out with guys. She came to his office door, looking like she was considering something violent. "I'm sorry," he said, meaning it for a lot of different reasons, most of which he knew she'd never get.
"I took a message," she said. Sam 1994.
The radio plays
Roy Orbison singing for the lonely
Hey that's me and I want you only
Don't turn me home again
I just can't face myself alone again MIKE AND MELISSA had gotten a new apartment in the Watergate building. It was 2,000 square feet, with a book-lined office for Melissa and a studio with an adjoining darkroom for Mike. There was a guest bedroom, in which Sam and Krissy's matching Armani luggage rested. There were two full bathrooms and a covered balcony. Sam was leaning over a wrought iron railing, and to his right there was a stainless steel mini-fridge, the kind that came with a wet bar, plugged into the external outlet. There was a flower arrangement, something with eucalyptus, on top of the fridge. There was an insulated chrome ice bucket and four cut-glass tumblers on a small table beside it. There were two sleek black chairs. There was a view of the Lincoln Memorial.
The housing market was a good reason to live in D.C., Sam allowed, not that he ever thought of giving up New York anymore. Passing the three-year mark had felt like a coming of age. It was like a sign that he'd been right to stay through that first rough year, when everything seemed to revolve around being overworked and feeling lonely and having sex that rarely took place in a bed or lasted longer than a few minutes. Then he'd met the right people, and now he had a better job at a better firm, a better apartment, an enviable social circle with old names and new SoHo lofts, and a fiancée who was both smart and beautiful. And, better, she understood him.
The party was far more lively than the weeknight wine tastings to which he'd grown accustomed. Through the closed glass sliding door, Sam could hear Tony Bennett's Unplugged album and people getting drunk. He was more than a little wasted himself. Krissy hated it when he got plastered. Sam didn't care enough to argue about it, especially given how rarely they fought about anything. That's how he knew it was right that they were getting married.
But tonight, he'd felt a little worn out from a day in the car and three before spent on the beach in the sun, and he'd let himself have Jack and Coke instead of Chardonnay. That had been his drink in law school, Jack and Coke, or sometimes, if he was feeling reckless, lots and lots of beer. But he didn't drink beer anymore, unless he was traveling or in some Village dive when Kris was out of town, because beer always wound up tasting like men's spit, and usually it was easier not to have that flavor in his mouth when he was kissing his girlfriend. Fiancée. Yeah. He was getting married. That part was still new. He was glad about it. They were going to have a tastefully huge wedding where his mother and Kris' mother could cry together.
The night was cool, for mid-August, and there was a little breeze off the Potomac. Sam stretched his torso out over the railing and let the wind play across his face, thought about the guy from Oil and Gas on the eighth floor who'd jumped out of his Fifth Avenue penthouse co-op.
He tried to remember where he'd met Mike. Probably at Tracks, because Sam knew it was in those weeks when he had stayed out all night fucking anything that moved, trying to convince himself that one night spent with some self-deluding, second-tier political hack who'd never even called him again was not going to be worth remembering in the years to come. It wouldn't even be worth remembering his name, so Sam tried to convince himself he didn't, and still every time he was in D.C. it was all he thought about.
Someone pulled the door open behind him, and Sheryl Crow was wondering again if she should leave Las Vegas, and when the glass slid shut, he could hear Krissy's voice over the dimmed chatter.
"Sam, you know how you always say this is such a small town?" He turned toward her, smiling, because it was just like her to gently bring the party to him if he was going to be so reclusive and self-absorbed.
"Hey," Josh said, looking a little embarrassed. He was wearing dark dress slacks and a light blue button-down, undone at the neck, like he'd come right from work. His smile was loose and maybe a little drunk, and the dimples were as deep as they'd been that first day they met. Sam had been in Matthews' office when this unfurled mess of legs and arms and crazy hair had flown into the room and immediately taken over the conversation. Josh was like a Woody Allen movie, his speech dyspeptic and his brilliance translated through a filter of neuroses, but when he'd shaken Sam's hand and smiled, his cheeks had dented into parentheses and Sam had needed to sit on the edge of the congressman's desk because he'd felt dizzy.
Sam sputtered a little, tried to remember how men said hello.
"I was just talking to this nice woman" -- Josh leaned his head toward Krissy, who had her hand tucked in the bend of Josh's arm -- "and she tells me that her, uh, boyfriend --"
"Fiancé," Krissy said, laughing, as if they'd already run through the scene once and Josh kept getting the same line wrong.
"Fiancé," Josh said elaborately, doing a passable imitation of Krissy. "Excuse me, that her *fiancé* is this lawyer named Sam Seaborn who I just *have* to meet right away." Whom, Sam thought, making himself smile. He took two steps and reached out to shake Josh's hand.
"And then he said you two had already met!" Krissy came over and wrapped her arm around Sam's waist, pecking him on the cheek. He'd forgotten, in an hour, how small she was, how skinny, how suddenly insubstantial in form.
"It really is a small town," Sam managed, wondering how if that was true six weeks had passed in which they had not once seen each other.
"Josh works for Congress. For..."
"The minority whip," Josh finished, nodding at Sam like of course *he* would understand what that meant, and for a second Sam was annoyed on Krissy's behalf, because she wasn't stupid.
"Yes, sorry, right," Krissy said. "I -- I hope this isn't rude, but do you think the DUI is going to make it difficult for him to get enough votes on the Mayh amendment for the bill to pass?"
"Uh, you know, uh --" Josh looked at Sam. Later, Sam would want to say that he hadn't looked back. "I can't really, I'm, you know, it was a long time ago. I mean, he was 19. He didn't lie about it. And, I mean, nobody knew who he was back then."
"That's great, Josh," Sam said, reaching back to steady himself against the railing. "That's great for you. You've done well." He tried to remember what floor the apartment was on, how high up they were. If it was really true that people suffocated before they hit the ground.
"Look at him, Mr. Modest." Krissy squeezed his waist and detached herself. "I'll let you two catch up, then. I'm supposed to go talk dresses with Melissa."
"Dresses?" Sam asked, only half-listening as he took in that Josh looked aged but not old, tired but not worn. He'd lost a little hair, maybe, but appeared wiser for it. There were brackets around his eyes to match the lines left by dimples. He looked fit. He looked good.
"Wedding dresses," she said, heading for the door. Krissy was as happy in that minute as she had been in the little seafood restaurant in Hilton Head, eggshell blue box laying open on the table. He felt light-headed and a little nauseous.
Sam turned to look back out over the city, trying to breathe evenly, as she disappeared back inside. After a minute, Josh came and rested his elbows beside him.
"I have to warn you," Josh said. "I'm a little drunk. There was this thing after work and then Melissa has been force-feeding me martinis." It was the kind of thing people said only when they felt like somehow they needed to prove it.
"No reason to stop now, then," Sam said. This was what men did: They drank together, and it was not a disaster. It was the way the world had worked for eons. It had been three years, and they were both, in a manner of speaking, professional conversationalists. He walked over to the mini-fridge, and bent down to see what it held. "Uh, gin and tonic? Or there are these little bottles of Glen Ellen Chardonnay."
"White wine is for yuppies."
"Gin and tonic it is." He wondered if knowing it wasn't even good white wine made him a yuppie. His fingers stumbled over the ice tongs and he rose with a drink in each hand. The gin was still only lukewarm.
"So..." Josh trailed off as he accepted the glass and took a long sip.
"So," Sam said. He couldn't look at Josh.
"So, how do you know Mike and Melissa?"
"Uh, I know Mike," Sam said. "From, um, I don't know. A while ago. You?"
"I know Melissa."
"Oh really?" Sam asked, as if it were so interesting. "From where?"
"Probably the racquet club," Josh said, and Sam was opening his mouth to ask which racquet club, but Josh hadn't been serious. Sam laughed a little, to show he got it. Josh turned toward him a notch and reached out to finger the edge of Sam's cuff; when he brushed the button, he pulled away like he'd touched something hot. "Uh, nice shirt," Josh said hoarsely.
Sam's chest felt magnetized, adhered to the railing through an electrical field that stilled any movement in return. He whispered, "Thanks." And, before he could stop: "Calvin Klein."
"Oh," Josh said, standing up straight. "So, uh, what does Krissy do? She couldn't, uh -- she couldn't stop talking about you long enough to tell me."
"She's an editor. With Simon & Schuster. She's great."
"Ah, yeah, she seems great."
"Yeah, she's great." Sam had made a double and he was still almost done. He bit into an ice cube, felt the frozen shard disintegrate in his mouth and swallowed hard. The cold left a sharp path down his throat.
"And she said you have a good apartment."
"Yeah, it's great." He searched for synonyms. "It's huge, actually. Great location." Great. "Uh, wonderful building, nice doorman. You know, the holy grail."
"The holy grail?"
"Uh, yeah," Sam said. "You know. Location, staff, size. The troika of Tribeca real estate."
"How could I forget?" Josh was looking at the river, his enunciation flat. "Who knew all you'd be giving up by going corporate?"
Sam struggled for a word of protest. Josh sounded like Selden, from Edith Wharton, that queen of aristocratic suffocation. Brilliant Selden and poor Lily and "Why do you make the things I have chosen seem hateful to me if you have nothing to give me instead?" It was always the men in her novels who were the real fuck-ups, full of lust and insight and never an ounce of courage. It was the women who wanted to transgress their painted fortunes for the sake of grand love.
"Yeah," Sam said. It was the men who were too scared to ask for what they wanted, even when it was standing right in front of them.
"And you're getting married." Josh swirled the liquid around in the glass.
"Yeah," Sam said, wondering if anyone read House of Mirth anymore. "Uh, probably in April, maybe May if we can't get the church she wants."
"Well, good for you."
Josh was a really bad liar. "Yeah," Sam said. It *was* good. It was what he wanted. There was nothing to be given him instead, and it was what he had chosen, and it wasn't a damn American tragedy. It was his life, and he could do much, much worse.
Josh reached out again and touched his wrist, briefly. "I'd just never quite pictured you married, Sam." Josh was swallowing his words as he spoke, and Sam wondered if that was out of some kind of anxiety or just the way he'd always talked.
"Really?" Sam asked, and then groped for anything that would cover the sound of such an obvious question. "I never told you about Miranda?"
"Uh, no," Josh said, looking away. "Who's Miranda?"
Sam, belatedly, was grateful to Josh for not pointing out that they didn't really know each other all that well. The way he'd remembered it, they had communicated those kinds of histories to each other, even when they hadn't spoken. "She was my college girlfriend," he said. "We almost got married my first year at Duke."
"So what happened?"
"Well..." Shit. "Well, she was a lesbian, actually."
Josh laughed. "Well, that -- that'll do it," he said.
"Yeah, well, it wasn't like that, you know."
"Wasn't like what?"
"At first, I mean. I mean, it wasn't like she fell in love with some woman while we were together or anything. We just didn't think it mattered."
"You didn't think it mattered?" Josh laughed a little. "Sam. Come on."
"We just thought... We didn't know that there was a difference between caring about each other and sometimes wanting to mess around and building a relationship together, that's all."
Josh sighed. Sam loved how Josh was always sighing, these deep weight-of-the-world exhalations inflected with subdued desire. "That's a lot," Josh said, and Sam put a hand on Josh's back. Josh was turning around, and Sam's hand came to rest on Josh's stomach, and he still didn't want to take it away. Sam thought maybe he was drunk enough to have lost that valve between wanting something and doing it, or at least that was what he'd be able to tell himself later. He tackled Josh against the railing, kissing him like it was the only thing keeping them both from hurtling over and Josh was biting his lip and Sam didn't care if someone was watching or he was sloshing his drink against his shirt. He had enough left in him to be stifled and care about those things or to keep touching Josh, and it wasn't much of a contest.
His hand descended from Josh's abdomen down against the front of Josh's pants, where he could feel enough of an erection to think he should keep going, so he did, cupping his hand around it as best he could through the fabric. He could taste vermouth as their lips moved across each other's mouths and somewhere in the distance he could hear Stephen Tyler singing "Crazy" and that was how he felt just then, completely crazy for this man.
And then Josh was pushing him away, hard, and grabbing him under the armpits and shaking him a few times -- "He's, uh, having a little trouble standing up," Josh was saying in his ear, too loudly. "I think he's had too much to drink."
He could smell Krissy's hair as she grabbed him around the waist and slipped her slender shoulder under his. "Thanks," she said, he guessed to Josh, before stage-whispering to him, "Someone needs to go to sleep, I think." Krissy wasn't strong enough to move him against his will, and finally Josh took her place and walked him back into the apartment.
"Don't make a fool out of yourself," Josh hissed at him as they opened the door, and Sam tried very, very hard to walk in a straight line back to where he'd left the guest bedroom. He stopped at the door, and when he turned he could see Krissy still standing at the end of the hall, shaking her head to herself before turning around and leaving them alone.
"She's gone," he said, turning the knob and staggering into the room, where he tripped over a suitcase and fell face-first onto the big bed. He could hear Josh sigh. The hall light was cut by the angle of the closing door, and when Sam managed to roll over it was dark and he could barely make out Josh's silhouette.
"You're drunk," Josh said, sitting on the edge of the bed.
"So're you. And I'm not that drunk, I'm, I'm just happy."
"This -- this is what you look like happy?"
"It's been a while," Sam said, and he didn't want to remember how long that meant, because he *was* happy, damn it, and why shouldn't he be for a change? He was tugging at Josh's belt to pull him closer. "C'mon. Come over here."
"I'm drunk, Sam."
"Yeah, so am I. It doesn't matter."
Sigh. "I guess it doesn't."
The fact was, it didn't matter because they didn't want it to, Sam understood later, when he could remember most of what had happened but seemed to keep confusing the things they'd said aloud with what their bodies had been talking about. But there were things he knew for sure: Josh had laid flighty little kisses across his chest before going down on him. Josh hadn't let Sam take their pants off all the way, even though he'd kept trying. Josh had buried his face in one of the goose-down pillows when he was coming, trying to stay quiet even though the music had still pounded through the bedroom walls.
When he'd awakened, Krissy was sleeping next to him, and they were both on top of the covers, probably because he'd been too heavy to move. The sheer curtains didn't block the brightness at all, and it felt like he'd stretched a muscle in his thigh. NEW YORK WAS reassuring in its frenetic pace and matter-of-fact declarations, and being back in a city where happiness mattered less than success helped him keep his mind on what had made him excel in the first place. He was checking messages on the hall phone while Krissy immediately started unpacking, like always, and when he fumbled for a pen, he cut his finger on a business card in the pocket of his suit jacket. He made himself wait two days.
"This is Josh." The voice interrupted six minutes' worth of Schubert through the speakerphone, and Sam sat straight up at his desk and pawed for the receiver.
"Oh," Josh said.
"Yeah, I know. Sorry, I think my secretary's on strike or something. She stopped announcing my calls yesterday, just out of the blue. You, uh, back in New York?"
"Yeah, since Sunday."
Shit. Sam gripped the edge of the ebony table and made himself take a deep breath. "I found your card," he said, because in the 10 seconds since Josh had picked up he'd started thinking that maybe Josh had given it to Krissy and she had put it in the coat, and it didn't mean anything, and now he had to know at least that much or he might go crazy again.
"Yeah," Josh said.
"I wasn't sure..."
"No, I'm glad. I mean, I thought..." He trailed off. "So, how's your job?"
"Your job. Uh, Krissy said you're really happy at this new firm, uh..."
Jesus. "Gage Whitney," he said, not wanting to think about Krissy.
"Yeah, right. How's that going?"
"It's... It's fine, Josh."
"I just, we, uh..." Was Josh nervous? "We didn't really talk. About what we've been up to."
"No, no we didn't." Josh didn't speak, so Sam went on. "Uh, it's a big firm. But it's good. The people are... They're fine."
"That's good. That's -- shit. Can you hold on?" He could hear Josh wrap a hand around the mouthpiece and, through his fingers, fragments of yelling -- "What do you mean he's changed his goddamned vote?" -- and Sam felt a sudden nostalgia for people who argued about things that mattered. Then, "I'm back."
"Hey..." Sam said.
He could hear Josh smile. "Hey..." It was one drawn-out, three-letter word, and Josh was letting it last forever, like a gift.
"You have to go," Sam finally said, saving him the apology.
Josh sighed. "Well, yeah, I do."
"They don't call him a whip for nothing, right?"
"Yeah," Josh laughed. "Yeah." And then, in a rush: "Listen, can I call you? I mean, when I'm not in the middle of things and we can, you know, talk."
Or get to know each other, Sam thought, for the one moment when the reality of the situation and his wooly memories collided. He read off the number for his direct line.
"Ah, okay," Josh said, before yelling to someone that he was on his way. "I've really got to go."
"Okay. I'll talk to you later."
"Yeah." Josh 1994.
Don't run back inside
Darling you know just what I'm here for
So you're scared and you're thinking
That maybe we ain't that young anymore SAM ALWAYS DID this. Maybe that was too strong, Josh thought, because it had only happened twice. But it felt like always, and it always felt the same. And if there was some restless, reckless thing in him, it would have to go its own way, because he wasn't shifting everything around this late in life.
With women, it was simpler. It never lasted long enough to require much beyond the basics: No, I don't want to meet your parents. No, you can't have a key. No, it's not going to last forever. He'd met one guy in three years whose presence sparked a tenth of the interest Sam had lit, and Josh had fucked him almost out of spite for what he might have admitted to himself, had his gift for spin been less efficient. And then there were more women, increasingly nasty conversations as he found less and less patience for the stupid games that men and women got stuck in as soon as they tried to do something other than have sex.
But he and Sam could just talk. They had two conversations in one week at the office, and then Sam called Josh at home from his cell on a Friday night. Sam was sitting on a bench at Lincoln Center, and Josh was thinking about maybe going out to a bar, but they talked for two hours. And at the end Sam said he'd walked out during intermission of a play and never gone back, and Josh wasn't sure what that meant, or what was expected in return.
It was easier on the phone. He could concentrate on what Sam was saying without getting lost in the angle of his jaw. They were just talking politics, and baseball and the absurdity of modern rock music, and Josh always tried to hang up before he'd given too much of himself away. But then he called Sam from work for arcane figures to beef up an argument, even though he had staffers to do that kind of thing. He bypassed LaGuardia and flew direct to Hartford for the holidays because New York airports were too damned crowded in December. His mom kept asking if he'd met any nice girls, and he kept checking his voicemail.
The Wednesday after New Year's, they were talking about California passing Prop 187, and Josh had been trying to explain how Washington was making him feel old and how he thought Brennan was maybe going to offer him a job, and Sam had been quiet, and he was never really quiet on the phone. Finally, Josh asked why.
"I just..." Sam sounded so young when he tripped over words. Josh had stopped thinking of him as such a kid, which helped make Josh feel less old. Sam coughed, shuffled around in the big office with a view of the Empire State Building. He knew that was unfair, in the sense that he was ostensibly charged with some share of the nation's upkeep and Sam was, like, shuffling papers to make sure they had the right signatures. Except Sam was the kind of guy who seemed to deserve gilt entryways and floor-to-ceiling windows just by virtue of being Sam. "I'm going to be in D.C. on Friday," Sam said.
"Oh," Josh said, knowing he sounded excited but he felt more than a little confused. He had a meeting Friday and a date Saturday. But it was a stupid meeting. And the girl was probably a stupid girl. She worked for USAID, but still.
"For work," Sam said.
Oh. "Right." The girl couldn't be *that* stupid. She'd gotten the job at USAID, after all. He could take her to Nora's and they could drink scotch.
"It just felt weird not telling you that," Sam said.
Weird was an understatement. It was like saying the defense budget was big. It was trillions of weird. Josh mumbled something that might have sounded like okay.
"Because I -- we could... Shit." Sam laughed a little. Josh tried to smile but it was possible that his jaw was broken. "I don't know what I'm trying to say."
Josh cleared his throat. "You've got work stuff?"
"Yeah. I'm going to Philadelphia tonight and then down to D.C. Friday morning. For a meeting. I have a meeting."
Josh let his mouth loose for a second because his bitten tongue was throbbing. "Wow," he said.
Josh licked his teeth and played with the paper clips on his desk. He closed his eyes and thought about how hydrogen atoms in the sun melted into helium. It was a force of nature. "I'm just suddenly struck by the fact that I have no idea what to say," he said. "That doesn't happen very often." Sam was heart-stopping, speech-stopping beautiful, and seeing him could be a disaster.
"I just, I didn't want to be there and --" The next part came all in a single breath: "To be there and be thinking about you and not having told you, and I wasn't sure if you'd want..." Sam exhaled, the sound waves slapping through the line. "You know."
"Yeah," Josh said, hoping he did. It sounded like he was supposed to be the one who knew those things.
"I mean..." But, the thing was, he didn't. "I don't know," he said. "If that's such a --"
"Yeah," Sam interrupted, and Josh was glad for it. "That's what I thought."
"No, I mean I really don't know," Josh said. "I'm not sure. Are you sure?"
"That it's, you know, a, um, good idea."
"No," Sam said. "I'm not sure, I mean."
They were a fucking matched set, Josh thought. "It's a good thing neither of us really, like, requires precise use of the English language to do our job," he said instead.
"Yeah," Sam said. He had this low, even laugh, like it wasn't for public consumption. "Look," Sam said, stopping again. "Okay, look. I'll be at the Mayflower."
"Friday night and Saturday night, and then I'm leaving from Union Station at, I think, eight on Sunday morning."
Josh sighed. "So," he said.
"So now you know. Which is why I called. To tell you. That I would be there."
"Okay." He thought about taking Sam to The Palm. The thing about D.C. was there were always men eating together at flashy, powerful restaurants, and it was always about business. Josh wondered if it was really always about business.
"So, see me, don't see me, it's okay. Really. Just, if you want to call, that's where I am. You don't even have to see me. You can just call. Locally. No long-distance involved."
"That's what I'm worried about," Josh said.
"Yeah, I know," Sam said. They were quiet and in the background Josh could hear a woman calling Sam's name. "Look, I've got to go."
"Okay." It was possibly the most unhelpful thing he could have said.
"I'll see you," Sam said. "Or not. Okay, I'm hanging up now before I say something even more idiotic than what I've managed in the past five minutes."
"You're not an idiot, Sam." Sam was what his grandmother would have called whip-smart. His dad said it, too, like, why haven't you called that whip-smart girl, Josh? She really likes you.
"Okay, well, at this moment you have no proof to the contrary, but thank you for that all the same."
"I'm just going to hang up now," Sam said, "just so you know, you know, that I'm not hanging up on you."
"Just with me."
"Uh, yeah. Really, I'm saying goodbye."
"Goodbye, Josh." Sam hung up. THE MAYFLOWER HOTEL had a promenade down the middle where people used to see and be seen in their gowns and white tails, and where Coolidge had held his inauguration ball. There was a lot of coming and going, even at 11 p.m., men in slick suits and women in little cocktail dresses walking hand-in-hand down the vaulted halls. Josh sat at the bar across from the main desk, nursing a scotch and soda and playing with the antenna of his cell phone. He wished that he could bum a cigarette from someone without looking like an idiot, because maybe then he'd feel less like he was loitering. He tried not to think about people who only saw each other in hotel rooms.
The napkin under his drink had the hotel's number printed in gold ink. He watched the clerk pick up the phone and put his call through, and having to say Sam's full name almost made him hang up. Sam answered on the first ring.
"Hi," Josh said. It had been five days since they'd spoken. He'd been sitting at the reflecting pool at the Lincoln Memorial, surrounded by tourists who had no idea what havoc the city could wreak on a life, that there were real people living there among the monuments. He was looking up toward Melissa's apartment, and who cared what had happened in the parking garage there if Sam was back in his life.
"Uh, hi." Sam's voice sounded tired. There was rustling, and then Sam was clearer. "Hey," he said. "Hello."
"I think we got that out of the way without making too much of a mess," Sam said, and some things never changed, and one of them was that with Sam, Josh didn't always have to be the person who made a joke.
"You weren't asleep?" Josh asked.
"No," Sam said.
"No. Just watching TV."
"Some TV. I don't know, a movie or something. I wasn't really paying attention."
"What were you doing instead?" Josh asked, delaying the inevitable.
There it was. Josh let the confusion blur into a simpler, more selfish emotion: "About me?"
Sam's voice was light. "Well, now that you mention it... Where are you?" He sounded puzzled.
"Uh, I'm downstairs." Josh glared at the woman who'd sat down at the next table over until she got up and left.
"I'm in the lobby," he said.
"You're in the lobby?"
"At the bar," Josh said. "I couldn't figure out if I should come up."
"They told you my room number?"
"Well, no," Josh said. It was so Sam to think of something like that, right then, and not any of the other things. "I hadn't quite gotten that far, actually."
"Do you want to come up?"
"I don't know."
"Ahh." Sam sounded like he had that first night, when Josh had tried to stop them. Like Josh was making it more complicated than it had to be, and Sam was trying to be nice by not pointing that out.
"Do you want me to?"
"Josh. What do you think?"
"Don't be like that, Sam, I'm being serious."
"So am I." But Sam's voice was bright again, like he thought he'd already won.
"I can't quite summon the levity to joke about this right now, Sam."
"Josh, if it isn't fun..."
"Then what is it?"
"Exactly," Sam said. "Does it have a beat you can dance to?"
"I'm not really having fun with this moment," Josh said, only half-lying. Because Sam, on the phone, was always fun. And, also, much more safe. In person, Sam brought his own laws of physics.
"Then come up," Sam said.
"Yeah?" He wasn't sure, and he knew it was obvious. What if one day what went up didn't come down? What if Sam was the greater-than-equal force that pulled Josh out of orbit?
"Okay, I'm just going to say it."
"Room 1492," Sam said.
"So now you know."
Josh knew. He thought that Sam was right to have guessed he'd already won. He stood up and walked toward the elevator. "Like Columbus," he said, pressing the up button twice. The porter snickered.
"Congratulations, Josh, you can go on to the second grade."
"I just mean, I can't forget it now."
"Then you should just come up," Sam said, as if it were always that easy. "Because otherwise it's just going to rattle around in your head like a damn nursery rhyme until you get all cranky and hurt someone, like the bellman, or your nice new secretary, or someone you don't even know, just because you can't forget."
"I don't know the bellman." Josh looked at the guy with luggage, and the guy hit the Up button. "I don't think."
"I mean, it's going to drive you crazy, Josh."
"What does it take to get you to stop talking?"
"Come upstairs." The elevator dinged. JOSH WAS GOOD at faking it. Or he thought he was, usually. With Sam it was more difficult. Sam actually knew what he was doing. Josh knew, in the sense of fitting tab A in slot B, and in the sense that even when kissing men felt completely different from kissing women -- bonier, firmer, scratchier -- it was still, essentially, kissing, and because Sam was a little shorter, he still had to bend down. Although women always tasted like lipstick first and Sam just tasted like a wet mouth.
So Josh kept kissing Sam, and then in fits and starts he would realize that he didn't really know what he should do next. And Sam would step back, and make sure Josh was merely waiting and not wanting to stop, and then Sam would take off another piece of Josh's clothing and move them a step closer to the dark blue bedspread.
It had all been easier when they didn't really know each other, Josh thought. This time, he kept hearing Sam's words in his head, even when Sam's mouth was clearly occupied, and the words kept distracting him from using his own hands very much. He kept hearing Sam say "weird," the word reverberating with each touch.
Sam had left Josh spread out on the bed on his back, wearing only his boxers and feeling very exposed, as Sam switched off the light and shed his own clothes at a moderate, not-quite-striptease pace that was driving Josh crazy. When Sam climbed across the covers on his knees, Josh propped himself up on his elbows. Sam's skin was so warm, and so smooth, and Josh realized that he'd never done this sober but he still *felt* drunk. Sam took Josh in his mouth, and Josh sank back against the pillows, sighing. He could see Sam's neck bobbing, and the muscles tied to it in his back rippled as if underwater. And there were some things that, no matter how smart they were, girls just did not do as well.
Then they were kissing again, Sam on top of him, and when Sam sat back a little, Josh knew what he wanted to ask.
"I want to --"
"Yeah," Josh said, letting his eyes wander and his hands play around the edge of Sam's hipbone. Sam was hard. For him. With women, you never really knew. Even if he still couldn't quite believe it, he knew about Sam. He just didn't know what to do next.
Josh nodded like he was sure.
"Yeah," he said, and he wasn't exactly lying, and Sam knew what to do after that.
When "weird" had been replaced in the echoing chambers of his brain with this noise Sam made that might have counted the letters of Josh's name among its consonants, Josh was hard again. Sam was lying on his stomach on the white sheets, the covers pushed down around their feet. Sam looked like he was sleeping, his hair disheveled. It was January, and Sam had a newish tan, except around his ass, which looked like a different continent, a sandy island in a sea of browned flesh.
Josh thought about Columbus and explorers, and then he bent in to kiss the ridge of Sam's vertebrae, one of the ones in the middle. And Sam rolled his neck out and made a pleased kind of noise, so Josh did it again. He thought about conquistadors and pillaging. He was plundering, and he wanted that to be enough. THE MURMUR OF room service woke Josh, and he grabbed the covers up around his waist and turned away from the door. Sam carried a carafe of coffee to the dresser, and it was too late for Josh to pretend he was still sleeping, so he asked what time it was, voice scratchy and breaking.
"I missed my train," Sam said, and Josh noticed that he was already dressed, chinos and a sweater, shoes on. "There's room on the 10 o'clock, but nothing else until tonight," Sam said, still standing by the edge of the bed, peering down at Josh. "So."
Josh was stiff and his mouth was full of pond-scum and it was way too early to be leaving a sentence like that unfinished. He'd gotten so used to saying no, you can't stay. Except, he was in Sam's bed, and he'd stayed. Shit, he was in Sam's bed. He was sore, and he wasn't ready to remember why. And he wondered what would have happened if Amerigo Vespucci had just said, fuck it, I like Italy better. He sat up more and rubbed his face with his hands. He was not going to say yes. He couldn't. He shook his head.
Sam turned and walked to the bathroom, saying "I'm almost packed" back across his shoulder.
Josh felt creaky and very, very naked. "Uh, okay," he said, looking for his pants. They were folded on the chair beside the bed, along with his shirt, also folded, and his socks, folded into a pair. It was like his mother had stopped by to tidy up. "I'm just, uh, going to get dressed, then," he said, because the last person he wanted to think about then was his mother. He pulled on his slacks.
"Do you want coffee?" Sam asked, coming back toward him and his voice was very small, and Josh felt like a schmuck again. Fuck. This part, at the least, he thought he knew how to fake.
Josh took one step, closer, stopped, finished buttoning his shirt. "No, I'm just gonna --"
"Yeah," Sam said, clipped. Josh could see exactly how much it was costing Sam to be so calm.
Josh took another step and bent forward to kissed Sam a little. "I'm just gonna call you," he said, like that was what he had meant all along, and Sam looked like maybe he believed him. Sam 1997.
My car's out back
If you're ready to take that long walk
From your front porch to my front seat
The door's open but the ride it ain't free "SAM, YOU HAVE got to stop working." Josh was hanging around the Manchester offices watching hockey and yelling over his shoulder every time there was a penalty. "It's after 10."
"I have to finish this speech." The governor was going to a First Amendment conference in New York City, and it was going to be on C-SPAN. And, maybe, CNN.
In New Hampshire, at first, it had all seemed easy. Too easy, Sam knew later, but when it was happening, when he was reading reams of research -- actual acres' worth of trees, some of which were about saving trees -- and trying to write two consecutive sentences that might see a speech's final draft, it didn't seem like work.
The things that he'd expected to be hard, like getting all these people to think he could make them stand up and applaud, turned out to be easy. Yes, there were egos, and there were differences of opinion, and everyone was an expert on something and usually it was the same thing. But the campaign was for all intents and purposes a collective meritocracy, where if they did it right, did it the best, things were okay. It was complicated, and it was new, but half the other staffers were making it up as they went along, too.
CJ wandered into the room from somewhere else, spinning a ballpoint pen between her fingers like a debate camp drum majorette. "You're not billing 100-hour weeks anymore, Sam," she said, still twirling and walking in this hyper-coordinated way. Sam had never gotten that pen thing down, even when sitting down.
"Hey," Josh yelled again. "You know what Madonna said about free speech? She said it was better than sex. Madonna. Better than sex. Put that in." CJ threw the pen at Josh and he ducked.
In New York, it had never been about being the smartest. Being smart helped, but mostly it was about taking all the credit and paying other people to do the shit work. He'd paid the packers, the movers and his old secretary, who had made sure that none of the packers or movers stole anything from the apartment while Lisa was off in Barbados with Carl, whoever that was. He'd paid to put the boxes in storage, left the furniture and let his lawyer take care of the rest. He'd lost money on the sale of the co-op, and even that seemed appropriate.
Everything he and Lisa had had was a negotiation, a bargain they'd struck that required no loyalty except in public. One night at a party, he'd been trying to pick up this guy who was just angular enough to maybe be a model and there was Lisa, who had thought Sam was funny, had thought he was a challenge. She'd never had enough guts to realize that rebelling against her society-page mother by fucking half the avant-garde photographers in Manhattan didn't really count if she still had to bring a lawyer home for show. He'd lost almost three years thinking he was getting the better deal, but at least they'd never pretended it was supposed to be much else.
And, before that, with Krissy, he could have lost more -- he could have been 65 and living in the suburbs and still settling for the correspondence Josh had decided was safer, whatever that meant. A week after coming back from D.C. that time, Sam had found a package on his desk with a book inside, The Adams-Jefferson Letters. It was inscribed, "Maybe we should write more," no signature.
"Chilean sea bass or the mussels mariniere?" Krissy had asked, looking at him like he was supposed to care. She had been asking that all month, like she had nothing more intellectually stimulating to consider than different kinds of seafood for the rehearsal dinner, and Sam was sick of the whole wedding thing and what it was doing to her. Stacks of bridal magazines on the nightstand, rough drafts and second drafts and third drafts of seating charts, and when they argued over where his parents were supposed to sit at the head table, she'd said something like, "You don't know a thing about normal families," and it had been too much, or maybe not enough, and he'd said so. He'd gone to The Grill and written four pages in longhand on a legal pad about Adams and the Barbary pirates, and then added two sentences to the end that really mattered: "Krissy and I broke up. When can I see you?" What he'd gotten in return was eight pages in a tightly-knit scrawl about Jefferson and Edward Livingston, nothing more or less, and, after another week, a phone call at the office, like nothing had ever happened.
"Come have a drink with us," CJ said, putting a hand on Sam's shoulder and trying to steal a look at the text. He slapped the laptop shut.
"I'm not doing this for the money, you know," Sam said, and when she'd stepped back he opened the computer again and cut out five of the eight words from his last sentence.
"No kidding," CJ said. She kept saying she missed her swimming pool, and Josh kept offering to get her one of those kids' plastic tubs to drag behind the campaign bus. "Come on." She started turning off lights, kept going into the other room to get the other lamps. Josh switched off the TV, stood up, walked over behind Sam and put a hand on the back of his chair.
Toby stuck his head in the front door of the office, and the closed blinds crashed into each other like a bell. "What's going on in here?" he yelled, and Josh moved his hand away.
"Uh, Sam won't come have a drink with us," Josh said.
"People, are we going?" Sometimes, Toby just ignored Josh and Sam, which made Sam think he noticed.
"I have to work," Sam said again, giving up.
"Did you explain about the karaoke?" Toby asked, turning on the TV just long enough for the score to flash across the screen.
"I was just getting to that," Josh said.
"CJ," Toby said, with deep admiration, "can do this thing --" JOSH COULD BARELY walk. Sam and CJ were both trying to help him down the hotel hallway, and either Josh really was just that side of alcohol poisoning or he was merely being a pain in the ass, but either way they must have looked pathetic. When they turned the corner and bumped into Leo, Leo scowled, and Sam felt like he should apologize.
"You're gonna put him to bed, right?" Leo asked, rolling his eyes, and Sam thought that maybe the rumors about him and the drinking were all true, that maybe he was one of those drunks who thought everyone else was, too.
"Yeah," Sam said. "I don't really think he can be trusted to find it himself." He tried to sound responsible.
"Like you can talk, Sam," Josh slurred into his shoulder.
"Shut up, Josh," CJ said. They leaned Josh against the wall and Sam dug around in Josh's coat pocket for the keys. Josh tried to grab his hand and Sam pushed him toward CJ. CJ had her knees locked like a point guard and caught him perfectly.
"Don't forget tomorrow, Sam," Leo said, as Sam opened the door.
"Yeah," Sam said. "Seven?"
"Seven-thirty," CJ said, because she had to be there, too.
"Okay." Leo walked off, shaking his head like an assistant principal, and CJ started shuffling forward, kicking Josh's feet ahead for each step, and by that point Sam was pretty sure Josh was just trying to be a pain in the ass. The two of them looked like some kind of fucked-up marionette, and Sam couldn't help laughing a little. Whatever, he was at least as drunk as Josh.
CJ sort of threw Josh back at him, and Sam caught him, and for a long second they were just embracing, and then Sam pushed Josh down on to the bed and stepped back. Josh never told Sam not to touch him, but Josh never touched him back. Not sober, at least.
"Don't call me that. Joshua."
"Promise me you'll do that thing again, that song, when I'm maybe sober enough to sing backup."
"G'night, Claudia Jean," Josh said dismissively.
"Oh," she said, and Sam winced, because CJ wasn't stupid. Nobody questioned how he and Josh were always the last to make excuses at the end of late-night conversations, but that didn't mean nobody knew.
"Good night," Sam said, and CJ nodded, shutting the door behind her.
Josh was laying on his back, swinging his legs off the edge of the bed.
"Josh, how many margaritas did you have?"
"Four," Josh said, holding up two fingers.
"You're such a lightweight."
Josh was humming the Beatles song that some girl wearing a Denver Broncos T-shirt with a voice like Billie Holiday had belted out in the bar. Josh's version was less soulful but more heartfelt. He was fucking up the lyrics and slamming his fist into the bedspread to punctuate the percussion. "I want you!" Bump-bump-bump. "I want you so bad." Bump-bump-bump. "I want you so ba-aa-aa-ad, it's driving me mad, it's drive-ing-me-mad. Nah-nah-nah, nah-nah-nah!"
Sam kept laughing, because even though it turned out that political types were pretty good at letting loose, he and never Josh got to go out and get wild. "Okay," he said, squatting down to pull off Josh's shoes. "If you're trying to channel John Lennon, I think the evening is officially over."
"Not yet it isn't." On the third try, Josh managed to prop himself up on his elbows.
"Come on. Do you know how long it's been? It's been forever. It's been, like --"
"Two days." After everyone had left the old friends to talk of earlier times, they'd make their way back to Sam's room, or sometimes Josh's, and sometimes they'd get a little sleep.
"Two days! That's longer than forever."
"No, it just feels like it."
"We're not trying to set a record or anything, are we?"
"No," Sam said. "I don't think so. Not that kind, anyway."
"Then get over here."
Sam really wanted to stay, to just doze off next to Josh, who was passed out on the bed, still half-dressed, because Josh had fallen asleep twice while they were trying to get each other's clothes off. But that was just a bad, bad idea, so he pulled his pants back on over his erection and turned off the lights.
His room was around the corner on the same floor, and he was halfway between the two when he heard Leo call his name. He stopped walking but couldn't bring himself to turn yet. He paused for a second, spun around.
"What, did he put up a fight?" Leo asked.
"What?" Sam looked at his watch, because he couldn't look at Leo. It was 3 a.m. "Oh," he said, and he felt 17 years old all over again. "You know Josh." Leo nodded in this incredibly paternal way. "He has one drink and he gets all chatty. He has two and suddenly he's a Jimmy Stewart filibuster." Sam forced a laugh, and Leo chuckled a little, too. "So, it's seven tomorrow, with CJ?"
"Seven-thirty," Leo said.
"Okay. I'm going to sleep," Sam said, turning left. Leo started to walk down the hall in the opposite direction, back towards Josh's room and his own beyond it, and then turned around and came back.
"Is everything okay?" Leo asked, and Sam's hands shook a little as he played with his own room key and realized he'd been walking the wrong way.
"You look kind of... Your shirt is buttoned wrong."
"Oh," Sam said, looking down. Shit. "Uh, yeah," he said, and wondered if this was why they called it spinning. "Josh cranked the heat up. I kept turning it off, but... Well, he was drunk."
Leo looked like he wanted to say something, but didn't. "Okay," he said, nodding, walking off again.
"Seven?" Sam called after him, not quite able to leave the conversation like that.
"Seven-thirty," Leo said sharply. "Don't be late, Sam."
"Leo, if I keep getting it wrong, I'll be early." SAM GOT IT wrong, and he was early. He hadn't slept much. Josh had slept late and CJ got sent to go rouse him for the 10 o'clock staff meeting. Josh was hung over and cranky and the office was crowded. The governor was even more cranky than Josh and the meeting had been a disaster. Bartlet kept asking, "Which one's Josh?" and every time he did Josh looked a little more queasy and a little less sure of what he was doing there.
Everything was 10 times more difficult than it should have been. He'd been working on the final paragraph of the speech for four hours, and it still sucked. He'd been trying to find Josh for the last 45 minutes but it was possible he was in a meeting with Leo, Margaret wasn't sure, but Leo's door was shut. A volunteer sitting at Josh's desk just stared at him strangely when he popped his head in the door, so he walked back to the hotel, alone. He was sitting in the lobby waiting for someone to have dinner with and staring at the last page when Josh sat down across from him.
"Hey," Josh said, sighing as he leaned back into the cushions of the couch.
"How's this?" Sam asked, leaning forward. "Jose Cabezas, an Argentine photographer with a particular skill for capturing the faces of long-sequestered cocaine lords from our War on Drugs, was found handcuffed to the steering wheel of his burned-out car, shot twice in the head." He looked up for a reaction, and Josh was staring at Sam's chest, looking tired. There were a dozen people milling around, talking about a wedding the next day.
Sam cleared his throat, went on: "'The alternatives are clear,' one of Cabezas' compatriots said. 'Remembering or forgetting, peace or violence, freedom or silence. Or, quite simply, life or death.' Life or death. In Latin America, in Argentina, freedom of speech is a matter of life or death. How could it be less important here at home?"
Josh grunted and sighed, but didn't say anything. "Our First Amendment," Sam continued, trying to spin his pen around his fingers, "is the guarantee we give citizens that such atrocities will never happen inside these borders, and it is only by full protection of that guarantee that we indeed can call ourselves a democracy." The pen fell to the floor.
"I don't think you can say that," Josh said. Sam put the printout on the carpet and felt under the couch for the pen, couldn't find it.
"Because," Josh said, "it's just going to piss people off." Josh was still mad because Sam hadn't told him about Leo until mid-day, he thought.
"It's the First Amendment." Sam had spent eight hours on the last page of that speech, and all Josh had to say was no, like that was where he thought the real power was, in reining people in.
"I know, it's just --"
"We're not in favor of the First Amendment anymore?"
"No, of course we are. But --"
"Can we just give the whole dueling banjoes thing a rest?" Sam asked wearily. Maybe Sam was the one who was wrong, because he thought that the real power was in bringing people to their feet. He was sick of Josh telling him no.
"Just, do we have to be *so* in favor of it?"
"Josh, it's the First Amendment!"
"I know, but it's also the biggest thing we've done yet, and it would really suck -- I mean, it would *really* suck -- to piss off everyone who's not an absolutist right off the bat, just like that."
"You can't mess around with the First Amendment," Sam said.
"I know --"
"No, you know, do you? Because it's really -- I mean, there's a reason it was the First Amendment."
"Because, uh, we decided not to include it in the Constitution? And anyway, weren't there actually, like, 11 things on the Bill of Rights originally?"
There had been 12, actually, which he hadn't expected Josh to know. "Because without it, none of the rest of it means shit," he said instead. "Without an absolute interpretation of the First, democracy doesn't mean a thing, because there's no one to say when the government's fucking it up."
"It's 'life or death,' right?" Josh rolled his eyes. "Sam, come on, it's not like that."
"You know, before you go climb in bed with Danny Concanon, you might think about what that means."
"Danny is a good journalist," Sam said, but Josh knew that.
"He's a reporter, Sam, like the all rest, and if he thought there was a story here, he'd go for it. I mean -- for crying out -- you -- you can't just let them print anything, Sam."
"What?" Two guys were standing at the front desk, ringing the bell over and over again and Sam was so fucking sick of hotels and fighting over things they all agreed on.
"Just stick to being vague," Josh said, more quietly, because people were probably watching them.
"Because being vague is really going to help people remember who we are in November," Sam said, standing up. Josh didn't follow him.
"Because we have to win first," Josh said, ducking his head. "And then we can let the Supreme Court argue about it."
"Jesus Christ, Josh, when did you become that guy?"
"What?" Josh stood up.
"Nothing," Sam said, turning to walk away.
"What guy?" Josh yelled after him. "What fucking guy?"
Sam spun around and came back, their faces close like they could start kissing. But they weren't going to. "The guy who -- when did you decide that you got to say no?"
"That's my job, remember? You make up great speeches about the shit we've all decided is worth being vague about."
Sam stepped back. "Then what do you need me for?"
"I need --"
"Oh, whatever," Sam said, and this time he wasn't going to come back to argue the point. "I wouldn't want you to say anything, you know, that might violate your version of the First Amendment. Write the damn speech yourself. While you're at it, we don't really need the Fifth or the Ninth, either. I'm sure that will help pick up a few votes." "YOU KNOW," JOSH said, closing the hotel room door behind him, "it was free speech that made Jefferson and Adams stop talking for all those years."
Sam tried to remember his parents fighting. It was possible they didn't really talk to each other at all. "With the Sedition Act?" he asked, still looking out the window.
"Yeah," Josh said. "Because Jefferson pardoned Livingston after he slammed Adams."
"Yeah," Sam said.
"These amazing men, these statesmen, and they just stopped being friends."
"They lost 12 years," Sam said, remembering.
"So why are we even talking about this thing?"
"I'm just -- this thing is hard," Sam said. "Harder. Than I'd thought."
"All of it. I can't be vague *and* inspiring, Josh."
"We do need you." Josh put a hand on Sam's shoulder and an arm around his chest from behind.
"I can't do vague," Sam said, inclining his forehead until it hit the cool surface of the glass.
"Okay," Josh said, kissing his neck. "So be inspiring and let Toby vague it up."
"Do you?" Sam turned and Josh caught his mouth.
"Hmm?" Josh mumbled between moments.
"Need me? In, like, the absolute sense?"
"I -- yeah." SAM WAS GETTING dressed for dinner when Josh said he thought maybe it wasn't going to work.
"You can't ask me to act like everything is normal while you keep fooling yourself into thinking this is, you know --"
Sam was flicking a piece of mud from the bottom of his shoe. "Wait, what?"
Josh was busying himself with the bedspread.
"That's what you think? You think we got caught because we're doing something wrong? Jesus, Josh. All this time --"
"No, all this time we've been running around like, you know, it was such a great secret that we just had to keep it to ourselves."
"I don't care!" Sam yelled, and they were back to yelling again. "I'll call Danny right now and get him to break it the way we want to, and I'll go on fucking Meet the Press tomorrow."
"Tomorrow is Thursday."
"Whatever! I can convince them that this makes us a better candidate, seriously."
"Oh, no," Josh said. "No. *We're* not the candidate. This is not something we spin."
"So we're back to no." Sam sat down on the end of the bed and Josh tugged at the cover once more, gave up.
"Fuck, Sam." Josh sat beside him.
"No, I mean..." Sam sat straight up so their shoulders didn't touch.
"It's like the speech, Josh. You can't have it both ways."
Josh sighed. "How did I end up having to choose?"
"Because you're that guy. And Bartlet and Leo and everyone need you to be that guy. It's not all horrible."
"Yes, it is." Josh leaned his head onto Sam's shoulder. "It really is."
Sam got up, because he couldn't stand to have Josh touching him while they did this. "You have to be that guy, and I have to be vague, or else why did we come to New Hampshire in the first place?"
"Because -- to -- shit." Josh rubbed his face with his hands and sighed again. "Because this is supposed to be the real thing."
"Maybe that just doesn't mean what we thought it did."
Josh stood decisively, and Sam hated him in that moment, hated his confidence that it could be so simply undone. "You know -- you know, today, I hired a new assistant."
"You had an old assistant?" Sam asked, and for a second it was like nothing had changed, and then he remembered what they'd just done.
"Well, she kind of hired herself. And you know why?"
"Don't change the --"
"Ask me why."
"Josh, you can't just change --"
"Ask me why."
Sam couldn't believe this was what they were left with. "Why?" he asked, not caring.
"Because she wanted to know why this campaign couldn't be a place to find herself. To start over. And, you know, I couldn't come up with a good answer. I mean, isn't that why we --" Josh leaned against the door.
"Yeah," Sam said, caring, hand on the knob, not opening the door yet, because they were going down to dinner but they weren't coming back together. "We found this," he said. "So. Maybe we just need to --"
"Maybe we just need to, you know. You *know*."
"Be those guys," Josh said, blinking slowly.
"Yeah," Sam said.
"The ones who put other stuff first."
"Yeah." Josh 2001.
Well the night's busting open
These two lanes will take us anywhere
We got one last chance to make it real
To trade in these wings on some wheels IF IT HAD been any season other than winter, fixing the thing with Sam would have seemed easier, more natural. Winters in D.C. were flat and mild compared to when Josh was a kid, and when it snowed, everyone in Washington went crazy anyway. But it hadn't really snowed that year. There had been months of dull, empty skies, or maybe that was just how he'd been feeling.
If it had been spring, they'd have been driving with the windows down and the radio blaring, and he could have turned to Sam and blurted out what he'd been thinking. In the summer, they'd have been talking about baseball, and rooting for different teams would have given them something in common again, something to argue about other than work. Even fall would have been better, even an October thunderstorm, when it was like the universe was trying to tell him something and all he had to do was listen hard enough and he'd get the help he so desperately needed.
But no one was telling him what he needed to hear. Since Christmas, and maybe before that, Josh had really been wanting to talk to his dad about all of it, about being a survivor. He thought maybe his dad would have something to say about being the one who took the bullet. About getting to reassure those left untouched that everyone who mattered had made it through the war.
Josh kept having the stupidest, most useless questions run through his brain. Like, would Sam have thrown Josh to the ground if they'd been there by the gate together? Had it been so long since they'd let their bodies touch that Sam would have hesitated and it all would have been the same, or, worse, would Sam have been the one hit? And what the hell had been wrong with Sam that day in the hospital, when he'd stood there, completely silent, even though it was only the two of them? Just having Sam there should have been enough -- a year before it would have seemed like enough -- but it wasn't. None of what they had left was enough for him anymore.
He kept wanting to tell his dad about Sam, to tell him the whole thing, even though he knew he'd never have considered the possibility if his dad were alive. He wanted to say -- this guy, this guy Sam, he knows the origin of words. He knows the Constitution like it was his first language. He knows the way to get there. And now that your son is so damn lost he's punching out windows just to feel alive again, this guy Sam might be the only thing left that makes sense. He might be the only thing that ever did.
He wanted his dad to say, fuck the weather, if this is what you want, go get it. SAM'S CELL KEPT ringing and ringing, and he wasn't answering Josh's pages. Sam's home number was busy, which made even less sense, because it wasn't like they had the kind of job where they could just stop picking up the phone. But even so, he'd never expected to find Sam like that, wrecked and stammering, his expression like a marble statue with smooth, blank spaces where there should have been eyes.
Sam hadn't been quiet much since they'd gotten to the White House. There was always something to stand up and shout about, and there wasn't much room for a speechwriter's silence unless it was a pause for laughter, and those moments of dead air never lasted long, not the way Sam wrote. He'd been right about that much. The rest of it Josh had all wrong -- despite the hundred different ways Josh tried to ask what was going on, Sam wouldn't tell him. "Nothing new," Sam said, and Josh was blindsided by everything he'd messed up until it became clear that Sam wasn't talking about the two of them.
Sam looked like he was reeling, and Josh kept wanting to push Sam down onto the couch and unbutton his jeans, push a hand up underneath Sam's shirt along the ridges of his stomach muscles and ribs. He wanted to take Sam to bed and let the storms begin. He wanted to be anyone but the asshole who was mentally undressing his best friend while everything fell apart. He stopped himself at playing his fingers on the curve of Sam's shoulder and finally Sam quit trying so hard to sit up straight and fell onto Josh's chest. Josh held him tighter, brushed the back of Sam's head with his thumb.
"It's just, there are certain things you're sure of," Sam mumbled against his breastbone, but it sounded like Sam couldn't think of an example.
"Yeah," Josh said, dragging his fingers through the short hairs at the nape of Sam's neck. "Like longitude and latitude," he offered, wishing he knew what was supposed to come next.
"Yeah," Sam said, sighing again and sneaking a hand around Josh's waist, and it was just like how gravity always won, always trumped the pull of great masses to keep planets in orbit. Josh's other hand came down off the back of the couch to take Sam's. There had been lots of back-slapping and arm-hitting and long looks that never went anywhere, ninth grade all over again, but it had been so long since they'd really touched. His heart was racing, out of practice and breathless at how real Sam still felt, how substantial and meaningful lying there against his Humpty Dumpty chest.
He ducked his head and let Sam's hair tickle his nose, and Sam squeezed his hand. He leaned forward more and caught the edge of Sam's ear between his teeth and Sam's back stiffened. Josh hmmphed and sat up straight like he'd never moved. And then Sam was untangling their fingers and sitting up, and Josh's arm was pushed up at this weird, dislocated angle, and to fix it he had to scoot away on the couch.
Sam cleared his throat and shook his head, and then cleared his throat again. "Why did you come over, anyway?" Sam asked, like they'd been having a conversation with a beginning, middle and end.
"Uh, I need a reason now?" Josh said, and because he was trying so hard not to sound flirty, he sounded confused, and he wasn't confused. Not really. Sam had gotten confused there for a second, maybe, had thought he needed comfort but maybe not the kind that came with Josh's hard-on pressing into his side.
It was just that Pete Williams had been on one of the bullpen TVs, reporting for NBC, and all morning the president had been tossing off Jefferson quotes like they were box scores, and Matt Skinner's office had called, and for some unknown reason Ainsley had been carrying around a five-pound bag of green apples. And it wasn't raining, and it wasn't New Hampshire, but it was unnerving. Sam had spent all day on the Hill, some meeting with some congressman, and normally Josh would know who and why, but he hadn't really been paying attention to work things, he'd just been sitting in his office trying to calculate the odds. He'd been staring at the tallies on his chalkboard, trying to arrange the reasons Why and Why Not into two discrete columns.
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