Title: Turning Myself Into You
Author: Jae Gecko
Category: Josh/Sam (slash)
Rating: NC-17, but mostly not.
Disclaimer: Sam Seaborn and Josh Lyman belong to Aaron Sorkin, who is a far more talented writer than I am. Everybody else is mine.
Archive: Yes to list archives; all others please ask. Archivists, please *replace* the old version of the story with this new one!
Summary: Sam and Josh's early history, from Sam's (first-person) perspective.
Feedback: Send to email@example.com
Website: http://www.jaegecko.com/ for the rest of this series and a couple of standalones.
Notes: Most fan writers get to take very the first story they ever wrote and shove it into a drawer somewhere, never to look at it again, but since I've built an entire universe with my first story as a foundation, I don't have that luxury. As my writing has improved, I've gotten increasingly embarrassed that so many people have continued to read "Turning Myself Into You", but I couldn't exactly remove it from the Web, as it would have disrupted the continuity of the series. Hence this rewrite. (And yes, "The Real Thing" is next on the agenda for this sort of treatment.)
Despite the growth spurt, the *story* is essentially the same one I wrote back in December of 2000. It's got about 95% new material, including a bunch of additional scenes, and the dialogue now sounds more like the Sam and the Josh people already know from the rest of the Turning universe stories, but the events are all the same. It still takes place from November 1985 to May 1986, it's still inspired by the flashback scenes in "In the Shadow of Two Gunmen", and it's still my own creative stab at explaining how Josh and Sam knew each other and the look on Josh's face when Sam said he was about to marry "Lisa" in 1997.
Acknowledgements: To all of my readers who went through the original with a fine-toothed comb and helped me figure out what was wrong with it, but especially kelly m., who's got a sharp eye, a sharp brain, and a sharp tongue, all of which were sorely needed. To ellen m., Shana, and Sabine most of all, for knowing New York and sharing that knowledge with me. To Joshua Kadison for "Jessie" and Colin Hay for "Freedom Calling", which together form the ever inspirational unofficial theme songs of the "Turning" universe (one song per protagonist, please), and to the Tractor I originally stole the title from. And finally, to my amazing beta team (Minna Leigh, Elizabeth Collins, Adina Reeve, and Anna-Maria Jennings), for seeing the promise in the original and helping me to realize it here.
Turning Myself Into You by Jae Gecko
I'd showered and dressed without fully waking up, my brain crying out for my morning dose of caffeine. It seemed to be crying out so loudly, in fact, that I almost didn't hear the sharp clank as I knocked over the empty six-pack my roommates had left in the doorway to the kitchen. Stumbling four more steps to the table, I caught myself against it as I fell, and grimaced when my leg banged into one of the ugly orange vinyl chairs that had come with the house. Great, just what I needed, another bruise. At least the weather'd gotten cool enough that I'd no longer be wearing shorts on the weekends.
My sweaty palm stuck to the magazine on the table, leaving a smudge on a full-page picture of a bunch of airbrushed, somber-looking guys -- Duran Duran, from what it said. As I peeled my hand from their faces, my eyes fell on the charming additions Greg and Rick had made to the picture. The redhead with the eyeliner had "I love cocksuckers" scrawled onto his T-shirt, and the one with the long brown hair had a crudely drawn erection. The haughty blond guy had gotten off comparatively easily with only a big triangle scribbled onto the side of his bare arm. The ignorant bastards hadn't even drawn it with the point facing the right way around. I shook my head.
Pressing my lips together, I crumpled the magazine into as tight a ball as I could manage and tossed it into the trash. What a way to be reminded that I'd fallen asleep pretending not to overhear my roommates snickering about "a washed-up bunch of British faggots". I stalked over to the kitchen counter.
Hearing a grunt, I looked up to see Greg standing in the doorway in light blue boxers, half leaning into the doorframe in that morning stupor that made him only marginally more coherent than he was normally. I suppressed a scowl and reached for the coffee pot. "Those your beer bottles?" I asked, pointing to the six-pack now lying scattered on the floor.
"Huh?" He blinked, confused, then looked down and nudged one of the bottles with his foot. "Oh, yeah. You making coffee?" he asked, rubbing his eyes, his voice still thick with sleep.
The pot was still full of yesterday morning's dark brown sludge. *Not for you*, I barely refrained from saying, emptying the pot into the sink. "Sure," I said instead, rinsing out the pot and grabbing a new filter from the cupboard as I removed the damp one full of yesterday's coffee grounds and set it on the counter.
"Hey, could you make it a little stronger today? I almost fell back asleep by nine yesterday morning, you know what I mean?"
I clenched my fingers around the edges of the filter holder and paused, my hands hovering over the counter. A surge of rage rushed through me and settled in my throat, where I held it in check. "You know what?," I said slowly, not looking at him. "I'm late."
"Huh?" Greg repeated, and I dropped the rinsed filter holder onto the counter. "See you tonight," he called out as I grabbed my backpack and stormed through the back door to my car.
Twenty minutes later, stuck behind a green semi in the rush hour traffic I never managed to avoid, I realized I was probably angrier than I had a right to be. I'd known these guys were jackasses when I'd moved in three months ago. I'd only taken a room in that rundown, cockroach-infested house because it was close to the Major Deegan, allowing me to easily escape south to the Times offices in Manhattan every weekday morning, and because an unpaid internship had meant finding a place I could afford on savings. I'd been aware within a matter of days that there was no way I'd be able to bring a guy back to that place overnight.
Assuming that was something I'd still want to do, anyway.
I drummed my fingers on the steering wheel, wondering for the thousandth time whether I was just using my persistent fantasies about that fiery Irish lesbian as an excuse not to tell anyone I was gay. I'd been pretty convinced of it during my last two years at Princeton, but then Deirdre had been there, hanging around the GAP offices and disrupting both my tidy revelations about myself and my first attempt at more than a one-night-stand with a guy.
It didn't feel like just an excuse, though. I really was ready to start talking to people about it, as long as I *was* actually gay. It was a simple practical matter -- I didn't want to declare myself "out and proud" if I was only going to end up falling for another girl. I didn't know of a single gay editor of a major newspaper, and prominent gay attorneys weren't a whole lot more common, either. While I was willing to fight that battle if I had to, I wasn't about to jump into it with both feet until I had everything figured out.
That didn't mean I couldn't speak up and call my roommates on it when they were being homophobic assholes, though. I let out a slow breath as I shifted to the far right lane to let a guy in a silver Corvette pass me, and the knot of anger in the back of my throat released a little. Next time I'd confront them, and damn the consequences.
I parked in a structure near Rockefeller Center, I walked the rest of the way to the Times and took the elevator up to the news department. I grabbed a quick cup of coffee from the machine in the mail room, pausing to inhale the fumes for a moment before heading down to the office where they stashed the interns. Corey, a gawky, bespectacled Northwestern grad currently assigned to one of the beat reporters, waved at me through the window as I approached from down the hall.
"Your supervisor left you a note on your screen." He pointed at the terminal where I'd been sitting yesterday.
"Good morning to you, too," I responded, my voice a mixture of sarcasm and cheer.
Corey shrugged. "It sounded urgent."
*Everything Lauren asks me to do sounds urgent.* "She's- she's just energetic," I tried to explain, and Corey gave a rueful laugh. Getting assigned to one of the assistant news editors was a coveted position for an intern, but in order to make up for that sort of good fortune, I actually had to work with the woman.
I walked over to the long table where the terminals were and sat down in front of the one on the far end. *Finish Block ag spch scrpt ASAP! Top priority!!!* the note read in Lauren's harried, scrawly handwriting. The word 'top' was underlined three times, possibly to match the three exclamation points. I removed the note from the screen and stuck it to the table.
"I think she wants you to finish transcribing the agriculture speech," Corey deciphered.
"Yeah," I sighed, remembering how it had nearly put me to sleep yesterday. It took a special skill to speak at a single pitch and tone for an hour, and the Secretary of Agriculture seemed to have made an art form of it.
Checking the tape in the transcriber, I placed the headphones I'd left lying on the table over my ears and settled into a familiar groove. "Not all of the challenges ahead are overseas," the Secretary's monotone droned when I depressed the foot pedal, and I paused the tape by releasing the pedal as I typed the words onto the screen.
"Some are right in our own backyards," I muttered to myself, predicting, and pushed down on the pedal again. "Some are right in our own backyards," the voice repeated in my headphones. I drained the last of my coffee.
Keeping a close eye on the slow progress of the tape as the spool on the right grew fatter, I repeated the process of listening, pausing, and typing countless times over the course of the next hour. I brightened somewhat when the Secretary uttered the words 'in closing', but he rambled on for another five minutes after that -- which, of course, translated to at least fifteen from the perspective of the transcriptionist -- and a sour feeling formed in the pit of my stomach that I couldn't shake. It wasn't until he made a reference to "not letting the grass grow under our feet", though, that I had to rip off the headphones and throw them down on the table.
"Who *writes* these things?" I snapped, leaping to my feet.
Corey jerked his head up from his desk. "Huh?"
"It's boring as hell, it uses every cliche you can think of at least once -- I mean, if President Reagan had to appoint someone like Block to be Secretary of Agriculture, you'd think he could at least manage to get the guy some decent speechwriters!"
I turned halfway away from him, trying to force myself to relax. "It's been a rough day," I said, a little more calmly.
Corey raised an eyebrow. "It's only nine-thirty."
"I guess that means it can only get better, right?" I responded, trying to sound hopeful, and he scrutinized me from behind his thick glasses. "It's my roommates," I offered. "My roommates are jerks."
Corey laughed, and his half-concerned expression cleared into one of comprehension. "Tell me about it. One of the guys I live with washes his underwear in the kitchen sink and hangs it up to dry on a clothesline over the stove."
I turned away from him and looked out the window at the people moving around down on the ground, appearing like nothing more than tiny specks of color. Even from this high up, though, I could still tell they all had a purpose, just like everything did in this city. The name of the game in New York was deciding where you wanted to go, and then getting there as quickly as you possibly could. Everything had a clear destination, some predetermined path that it set out to follow, bulldozing everything else in its way to get there.
Everything, it seemed, except me.
The sour feeling in my stomach wasn't really about Block's speech, or even about my jackass roommates. It was all me. This internship was something I'd just fallen into. I knew I was supposed to feel like I'd grabbed the holy grail of aspiring print journalists, a year-long internship at the New York Times, but I couldn't shake the feeling that I was living someone else's life. Everyone I knew -- my parents, my friends back at Princeton, even Lauren -- was expecting me to use this opportunity to get my feet wet with a real newspaper and then propel myself at breakneck speed down a career path that would turn me into my generation's Ben Bradlee. I was no longer sure whether that was what I wanted. If it ever had been.
I started, turning my head to see Lauren's stout, slightly hunched form bustle in through the open door in a manic flurry of motion, her hands flying out from her sides. Her voice was abrupt, but she was smiling, and I relaxed a bit. "You doin' okay this morning?" she continued. "Everything goin' all right?"
I opened my mouth in a futile attempt to respond, but she crossed the room toward me and plowed on at twice the normal speed of human conversation. "Listen, I'm gonna be stuck in a meeting all morning. I'm gonna need you to finish editing this copy right away, okay?"
She shoved a stack of papers against my chest, and I reached out involuntarily to grab them. "I was just transcribing that-"
"Forget about that," she barked, sweeping her hand through the air in a gesture of dismissal. "This is top priority, okay?"
"Oh, but before you do that, on the bottom of that stack are the press releases we got in last night and this morning. Could you go through 'em and see what ones we might be able to use?"
"You want me to do that first?" I queried, my voice cautious.
She gave me a vigorous nod, making a sharp pointing motion to accentuate each point. "First the press releases, then the copyediting, and then-"
"Then the transcription. Right."
"And Shelley's at an appointment this morning, so could you maybe work on this in my office, and answer the phone if it rings?"
I glanced down at the transcriber on the table. I didn't know whether to be grateful or irritated at the interruption. "Uh, okay."
"You're a doll," she grinned, dashing back across the room. "Later, then."
"Right. Have a good ..." My voice trailed off as I realized I was talking to Lauren's back as she rushed out the door. "Meeting," I said to the empty space she'd filled just a moment before. Corey snickered from his desk.
I scowled, grabbed my coffee mug, and set off down the hall. Stopping by the mailroom first for a refill, I headed into Lauren's office, trying to think of this sort of glorified secretarial work as character-building rather than demeaning. At least she'd left me a nice, quiet room to work in.
Shoving some of her papers to one side, I held up a red pen and grabbed one of the press releases. It was a candidacy announcement -- probably the first of many, given the timing -- and from the address at the top it looked like the guy's office was right around the corner. *Former State Assemblyman Michael R. Silverstein is expected to announce his candidacy for the U.S. Senate on Friday at 5 PM at the Legislative Office Building in Albany. The event is open to the public.*
My eyes skimmed the rest of the half-page of text recounting the candidate's triumphs in the state assembly and his ardent support of new funding for education. Setting the pen down, I took another sip of coffee, my eyes finally resting on the second-to-last paragraph. *Prior to his election to the Assembly,* it read, *Silverstein was a teacher at John Dewey High School in Brooklyn, as well as a small business owner. In 1970 he founded Brooklyn's well-known Excellence Tutoring Service, together with his sister Cheryl, in which he still owns a share.*
I leaned back in Lauren's big black swivel chair and laughed out loud as the phone rang. Maybe certain types of bad writing were worthwhile after all, just for the sheer amusement value. "Lauren Fillmore's office," I announced as I picked up the receiver, suppressing a chuckle and trying to sound professional.
"Yeah, this is Josh Lyman from Silverstein for Senate. Could I speak to Ms. Fillmore?"
Josh Lyman ... my eyes flew to the top of the press release. Sure enough, there was the name, right between "For immediate release" and the address. *Contact: Joshua Lyman.* I pinched myself on the arm, barely holding back a fresh wave of laughter. "She's in a meeting. Would you like to leave a message?"
"Uh ... I should probably speak to her directly," he stammered.
"She said she'd be tied up all morning," I said, still grinning. "Is there something I could help you with?"
"Are you her assistant?"
"I'm an intern."
I could hear him breathing on the other end of the line, but he didn't say anything. "Ms. Fillmore is my supervisor," I added.
"No, I don't think ..." The guy let out an enormous sigh. "Listen. This is gonna sound like a huge thing, and you don't know me from Adam, and you're probably not even allowed to do what I'm about to ask you to do, anyway, but I've got to ask, because my ass is gonna be grass if I don't. You don't happen to have anything to do with press releases, do you?"
"Sometimes," I said noncommittally, looking down at the one in my hand. "Why?"
"We sent over a press release this morning with- with a couple of errors in it. And we'd like to send you guys a corrected version, before it goes out and, like, embarrasses the Times, or ... well, us."
"Errors?" I tried to sound innocent.
"Yeah, just a couple of little th-"
"You wouldn't happen to mean the part where you guys said the candidate owns a share in his sister?"
"That would be the main one, yeah," he squeaked.
"Oh, that went to press an hour ago."
"Whaaat?" The guy groaned like he was being strangled. "Oh, God."
"I'm kidding, I'm kidding."
"You're *kidding*?" His voice cracked, and even from the other end of a phone line I could hear him jump out of his chair. "All right, funnyman, I-"
"Sorry, didn't mean to scare you. I figured you'd know the Times wouldn't go to press this early in the day. We wouldn't print anything that bad, anyway."
"You just- you almost gave me a heart attack!"
"Sorry," I repeated. The guy sounded out of breath, and I felt a stab of guilt. "My supervisor's the one who takes care of press releases for the news department, and she hasn't even seen it yet. I've got it in front of me right now. If you can get me new copy within an hour or so, I'll just replace this one with that one, and no one will ever know."
"It's no trouble."
"You're not kidding this time?"
I laughed. "Not this time."
"I'll courier it over right away," he exhaled, sounding relieved.
"You know, you really should get somebody else to write your press releases."
"Thanks a lot," the voice on the other end of the line growled. "It was a perfectly fine example of a press release except for that one little line, okay?"
"You wrote it."
"It's a year before the election!" he sputtered. "We've got a staff of two right now! I've had enough to deal with without-"
"At least get someone to proofread. It really would help." My lips turned up in a huge grin.
"I'll have you know I was a Fulbright scholar, and I'm just one year shy of a Yale law degree, okay? It's not like you're talking to a moron. And who are you, anyway, some journalism school weenie who-"
"I have a bachelor's degree in politics from Princeton," I answered, keeping my voice level.
"What's somebody like you doing fraternizing with the enemy?"
I raised an eyebrow. "The enemy?"
"You know, the press. The primary audience for spin."
"If I know how to play both sides of the game, I figure I can do whichever of them I choose better than most people who try to do just one," I said matter-of-factly.
He snorted. "Well, you're arrogant enough to work in politics, anyway. If you decide before next November that you're on the wrong side after all, give a call over to the office."
I could hear him smiling, and I smiled back. "Okay."
"Hey," he said, his voice dropping both in volume and in pitch. "Thanks for doing this thing."
"It's no problem. Good luck with the campaign."
I set the phone in its cradle and tapped my pen against Lauren's desk. This guy probably didn't even know how good he had it, working for a candidate with a tiny staff, at the very beginning of a congressional campaign. I sifted through the copy Lauren had given me to edit and sighed.
I'd written papers about political campaigns, as well as the occasional article or editorial, and for the course I'd taken in congressional politics, we'd had to do a project on how we'd finance an imaginary political campaign. I'd even spent a semester in Washington earning course credit as a congressional aide. But I'd never really seen the inside of a campaign -- never had the opportunity to get an up-close look at how they really worked. I grabbed the edges of the swivel chair and spun slowly around in it, closing my eyes.
"You know what they're making me do now?"
I opened my eyes again and placed my feet on the floor, halting the chair's motion. Corey was standing in the doorway, looking irritated. "What are they making you do?" I asked him.
"I'm supposed to finish transcribing that ag speech," he groaned. "You're right. It's awful."
"Sorry," I said, smirking.
"How do you slow down the rewind on the transcriber? I can't get it to go back just a little bit without using the buttons on the unit."
"Don't press the foot pedal so hard. Just nudge it gently."
"Hey, Corey? Have you ever worked on a political campaign?"
Corey's eyes widened. "Are you kidding? I took a full load every semester for four years and worked at the student paper at the same time. When would I have had time to volunteer for a campaign?"
I exhaled slowly through my nose. Maybe that was what you had to do to end up here. "I don't know -- over a summer, maybe in '84?"
He shrugged. "I've had an internship every summer since just after my sophomore year."
"Yeah." I swiveled the chair one half turn and fiddled with the fabric on the arm.
"Hey. They're going to let you do real stuff soon."
Corey was hovering awkwardly in the doorway, a vaguely worried expression on his face. "By the end of this year you'll have your own byline," he clarified.
I pressed my lips together in a tight smile. Two years ago, that would have sounded like everything I could have wanted -- my name on an article in the New York Times. "Maybe."
Corey turned around and headed back down the hall, and I removed the spiral-bound notebook from my back pocket and opened it to my neverending to-do list. I crossed out 'dishes' and underlined 'take out trash', appending 'send in law school applications' to the bottom.
I threw my jacket over my shoulder as I rounded the corner on the way back to the parking garage, nearly running into a freckled delivery boy. "Hey, watch where you're going!" he chided, struggling to maintain a grip on the box he was carrying.
"Sorry," I said, chagrined, and reached out to help him steady the box, letting my jacket fall to the ground. The kid pushed the parcel involuntarily toward me, and I staggered under its weight. "What have you got in here, rocks?"
"Campaign bumper stickers, I'm pretty sure," he corrected, retrieving it from me as he regained his footing. I looked down at the destination label on the box as I let go of it. 'Silverstein for Senate', it read, and a smile crossed my lips as I remembered the the favor I'd done for one of their staff a few days ago.
"Thanks, man," the kid nodded, and leaned into the door.
I picked my jacket off the ground and followed him in, buoyed by the coincidence that I'd just happened to end up here. The delivery boy headed straight for the back of the building to a windowless first-floor office. I held the door open for him, and we both walked inside.
The room was still in that initial moving-in disarray, but the sturdy, expensive-looking desks standing off to the right and the brightly-colored posters lying, unrolled, on the ground made it clear that it would look slick and professional when it was done. Their flawed press release had said that the office was on West 44th, though it hadn't occurred to me until now that an address like that meant the candidate had to have someone with pretty deep pockets backing him. That combined with the flurry of media attention that had surrounded Michael Silverstein over the last few days meant that he probably even had a chance.
"I hope you're not staking your political future on this guy, Josh," I heard a voice say as the door swung closed behind me, "because with Skyler running, Silverstein doesn't have a prayer of making it past the primary. Skyler's a known quantity in Washington already. You think Joe Blow in Syracuse is going to have the foggiest idea who Mike Silverstein even is?"
Looking around the large, still mostly empty room, I attempted to discern where the voice was coming from. Several boxes lay strewn about on the floor and on five or six unfolded card tables, and there were two offices along the back right wall, both of which had light blue bedsheets temporarily tacked across them as makeshift doors while they were moving things in. The delivery boy coughed, struggling with the box, and one of the sheets flew open, sending tacks flying as a tall, lanky guy in jeans and a black polo shirt appeared in the doorway.
"You can just put that on a table somewhere," he said, ignoring the sheet as it fluttered to the ground and barely glancing at the delivery boy. "Mike Silverstein has run for State Assembly four times, and he's won every one of those races," he said to his sparring partner, running a hand through the mop of curls on his head. "He's got a flawless voting record. He's a good public speaker, and he's getting better every day."
A tall blond wearing a suit and tie followed him out into the large room, and the curly-haired guy gave him a cocky grin, folding his arms. "But you know what, Jack?" he continued. "None of that is what's really gonna matter. In the end, the most important reason why our guy is gonna win is that *your* guy is gonna lose. When Silverstein finishes a speech and is done working the rope line, he's always gonna come back to us and say: 'How did that go? Did I connect with the audience? Could we have made our point better?' Skyler, on the other hand, will head straight for the car. He won't ask you how well the speech went because he doesn't give a damn about how his speeches go. Instead, he'll be asking about what's going on back in Washington, or what his wife's making for dinner that night. And that's gonna roast him in the polls before he can even get started."
The blond guy's face was so red he looked ready to explode. "But in 1984-"
"A year and a half ago Skyler was a different candidate," the first guy insisted, cutting him off. "He had that drive that you need to win. He wanted to be a Congressman more than anything. Now he's running for Senate because that's the next notch on his belt, not because he's actually got anything left to accomplish."
The guy in the suit stalked toward the door, but the curly-haired guy danced along behind him, taunting. "He's arrogant, he's lazy, he's condescending, and people are *noticing*. So while your guy may have better name recognition, in this case that's gonna work *against* him, because the people of New York have already had the chance to see for themselves what an insincere *asshole* Dick Skyler really is!" he yelled, leaning out the door as the suit disappeared down the hallway.
The guy turned back around, letting the door swing shut again. His eyes were blazing, and he had a self-satisfied smile on his face. Stepping away from the door, the guy was apparently too fired up to notice the delivery boy fleeing the office before he could claim his tip.
"Howell Raines wrote an editorial about upcoming campaigns to watch. Said Skyler was a shoo in for the nomination," I offered.
"Yeah, I saw that one," the curly-haired guy said, swaggering over to the table where the kid had left the box. "Howell Raines is full of shit."
"I hope you didn't just turn your best strategy over to the opposing team."
"Oh, that bastard already knew everything I told him." He tore the first piece of tape off the box. "I just wanted to see the look on his face when I said it."
"I take it you know this guy?"
"The guy who just left."
"Yeah, he's- I know him." He paused, the box half-open, as if only just realizing I didn't belong there. "Can I- can I help you with something?"
"You must be Josh Lyman." I held out a hand for him to shake. "I'm Sam Seaborn."
He took my hand and shook it, his forehead wrinkling into puzzled lines. "Oh, right, from ..." His voice trailed off, his face betraying the struggle that was occurring in his brain, and a few seconds later, he let his breath out in a loud sigh. "You know, I have *absolutely* no idea who you are," he admitted.
I set my jacket down on top of one of the boxes on the floor. "Sam Seaborn. From the Times. We talked on the phone the other day." He squinted at me. "The press release," I reminded him. "You know, Silverstein's sister ..."
"Sam ..." Josh nodded, suddenly smirking. "You're Lauren Fillmore's intern. The funnyman from Princeton." He pronounced it like it was a title.
"Sorry about that, again. It was a bad day."
He sat down on a folding chair and put his feet up on the card table. "There are people who'd say I deserved it," he dismissed. "So what brings you over to the office? The candidate's still in Albany."
"I just figured it was pretty unfair of me to insist that you to get someone to proofread your press releases without actually helping you find somebody to do it," I said, not quite realizing I was going to propose that until it was out of my mouth. "Are you taking volunteers?"
"Ah ... I guess that depends on who's offering." He raised an eyebrow. "Are we talking about you?"
I nodded, feeling a rush of excitement at my own suggestion. "Sure, if you guys will have me. I mean, I work at the paper during the day, but it's right around the corner, so I could come by in the evenings." I leaned against a chair and smiled. "I figure if I'm already doing one unpaid job anyway, I might as well do two."
"How's your boss gonna feel about you working on a campaign? Don't they make you guys sign a boatload of documents saying you won't do anything that might possibly look like a conflict of interest?"
"You mean so I won't turn over any of the confidential information I learn from the top-secret copyediting and transcription I've been doing?"
He shrugged. "I didn't say it was reasonable."
"No one's told me I can't volunteer for a campaign." No one had said it outright, anyway.
"You got a car?"
"I commute from Yonkers every day."
"By car?" he asked, incredulous.
"I'm from L.A.," I tried to explain. "We drive."
"Well, that'll come in handy." He stood, stepping toward his office. "If you're going to be answering phones or anything like that, you're probably gonna want to read some of the stuff we're putting out about the candidate. Let me just get you a draft of a flyer-"
"Michael R. Silverstein," I interrupted. "People who know him well call him Mike. He grew up in Brooklyn. He's Jewish. He attended New York City public schools, earning a full scholarship to NYU, where he got a bachelor's degree in secondary education with a specialization in social studies."
Josh turned slowly around to face me, his eyes wide.
"He did a law degree at Yale," I went on, "but returned to Brooklyn after that to teach high school and set up a tutoring service with his sister, who now runs what has become a highly successful and lucrative business. He left education for politics in 1976 and moved to Albany, working as chief of staff for Senator Todd Ellis before being elected to the State Assembly himself in 1978."
He opened his mouth as if to say something, and I hesitated, but his expression turned into a curious smile, his eyes sparkling. Walking back to the card table, he leaned against it and motioned for me to continue.
"He's best known for chairing the committee on Alcoholism and Substance Abuse, and for sponsoring innovative legislation on education reform. He's been reelected three times, and for the past two years he's served as majority leader. If he didn't have his sights set on federal politics, he'd almost certainly serve a fourth term. He's never been married. He's socially liberal, fiscally pretty moderate except when it comes to education and welfare reform, and he's running on a platform of increasing funding for inner-city schools. He's generally regarded as a really nice guy, by his friends and enemies alike, which, given the line of work he's in, is saying a lot. He's well-known and respected in the city and to some extent in Albany, but if he wants to win this, he's got to present himself as someone who represents the whole state. Get out to Buffalo. Elmira."
I shrugged. "I read the paper."
"I bet you do," Josh laughed.
His eyes traveled slowly down my frame and back up again until they finally met mine, and I returned his gaze with intense focus. With a warm, dry hand, he grasped mine as I held it out to shake, our eyes locked on each other.
"I can only stay until the summer, at which point it looks like I'll probably be heading off to law school."
He nodded slowly, grinning. "It's a deal."
Neither of us looked away at first when the door swung open, but when it closed again, Josh dropped my hand and shifted his eyes toward the slick-looking man in a tie who'd just walked in. He was older, maybe forty-five, with a distinguished-looking gray peppered through his black hair in all the right places.
"Hey, Mark, c'mere." Josh bounced up from the desk, looking completely pleased with himself. "We've got ourselves our first volunteer!"
"Hi," the older man said to me, and turned immediately to Josh. "What are you talking about?"
"This is Sam, Sam ... Seaborn, right?" he questioned. "Sam, this is Mark Anderson, Silverstein's campaign director." He turned again toward the other man. "Sam's gonna volunteer for us."
"You mean now?"
"Well, this time next year might be a little late-"
"But we're not really set up to deal with volunteers, yet." Mark's words had a definitive tone to them, and Josh's eyes flew open, but the campaign director just smiled at me and continued. "Why don't you come back about a month before the primary, maybe at the beginning of the new year? Right now we're still a tiny operation."
"Um. Okay." I looked from Mark to Josh and back again. Josh looked outraged.
"Wait," Josh said to me. "Just- just a second." He grabbed Mark by the arm and pulled him over to his office, pushing the older man inside. Josh fumbled with the sheet, tacking it across the door again, and turned back toward me. "Don't- just don't leave," he said, hands in the air with both hands spread wide in a gesture of appeasement.
"What do you think you're doing?!" he yelled, ducking under the sheet.
Mark's voice was hushed. "Josh, we're not set up for-"
"Mark, this guy- this guy has a political science degree from Princeton, he's an intern at the New York Times, and he wants to work for us for nothing!" Josh yelled, ignoring the fact that there was no way the improvised door was going to block their conversation. "We are not, and I repeat, *not*, gonna turn him away and tell him to come back in January!"
"If we're taking volunteers now, who's going to take the time to set things up so they can do their jobs?" I heard Mark ask, and I walked back over to the box where I'd left my jacket, tying it around my waist. "Who's going to train them? Who's going to find them work to do? We don't have money budgeted to hire even a part-time volunteer coordinator, yet."
"I'll do it."
Mark's laugh carried easily out into the main room. "You as volunteer coordinator? Come on, Josh, be serious."
"I *am* serious!"
"You'd scare them off, and that's the best-case scenario."
"Not this guy," Josh insisted. "He's *smart*. He's not gonna take any of my crap, or anybody else's, for that matter."
"Don't you think you're already wearing enough hats without taking on the role of volunteer coordinator as well?" Mark asked, sounding weary.
"I'm not talking about doing it permanently, just until we've got a bigger team."
There was a long pause. I looked down at the industrial blue carpet, studying it intensely.
"Come on, Mark," Josh said finally. "He's good. I'm not gonna let him walk through that door -- he wouldn't come back. Take a look at him! He wants to get in on the ground floor, and if we send him away, he'll go find somebody else to work for."
Mark let out a long sigh. "If you're really willing to do the legwork, I'm not going to stop you."
Josh burst through the doorway, jubilant, the sheet coming untacked again and falling back down to the floor. "Welcome on board," Mark said, nodding at me. He drew aside the sheet leading to his own office and flicked on the light, disappearing into the room.
"Look, if it would make things easier, I *could* come back later," I suggested to Josh. "I really just wanted to give you guys my name-"
"You're not backing out now, are you?" he said, beaming. "I've got plenty for you to do."
I felt my own lips turn up at the corners. "Okay."
"Hey, are you hungry? There's a little diner just up the block."
I drew in a breath, considering that I had the option of either eating dinner out or putting gas in my tank for the week, and Josh seemed to sense the hesitation. "I'll pick up the tab," he added. "Hell, the *campaign* can pick up the tab. It'll only be a few bucks."
"In that case, sure."
"Sam and I are going to go get some dinner," Josh hollered over his shoulder as he bounded out the door and made a straight shot for the sidewalk.
The sun had gone down, but it was still unusually warm for a New York November. Josh walked quickly, leading the way down the block. "So far I've mostly been doing fundraising-type stuff," he chattered, bouncing over to my other side. "Meeting with people, making lots of phone calls, essentially kissing a lot of asses while Silverstein's been off kissing babies. What we've been missing up to this point, though, is somebody who can do some of the paperwork. Answering letters. Writing press releases. That kind of thing."
"I can do that."
"I know!" He opened his arms wide. 'That's what makes it so perfect."
"Mark didn't seem so sure."
Josh shook his head. "Don't mind Mark. He'll come around."
"He's okay. He's known Silverstein for about fifteen years, and they really trust each other. He's just a little old-school, you know?" He grinned, giving a little skip with his feet. "In any case, it really doesn't matter, because you report to me." Leaning against the door to the restaurant, he stepped inside, and I headed in behind him, feeling a sudden lightness in my own step at Josh's infectious excitement.
The diner was set up cafeteria-style, and I followed Josh's lead as he grabbed one of the yellow trays and retrieved a roast beef sandwich from the assembly line of food laid out in front of us. Retreating to the soda fountain to pour myself a glass of water, I slid into a booth and leaned back to watch him dig around inside his pocket for a few stray bills to pay the tab. He was tall enough to loom over most of the people behind him in line, but still more graceful than gangly. He moved quickly, not with the hyperspeed native New Yorkers tended to possess, but with a kind of limitless energy that seemed to bubble over onto anything he touched.
"You said you were in law school?" I asked him as he finally slid in across from me.
"Yeah, I'm supposed to be in my last year at Yale," Josh responded, picking up one half of his sandwich. "I'm taking this year off to work on the campaign, but I'll have to go back after it's over."
"What's Yale like? I've been filling out their application."
He picked up a piece of lettuce that had fallen out, and popped it into his mouth. "Does this mean you're gonna be exchanging your journalist's notebook for a career in the judicial branch?"
"Maybe." I gave the table leg a nervous nudge with my foot. This wasn't something I'd voiced aloud to anyone, yet. "I guess you could say that the more I work in the newspaper business, the more I think I'd be happier doing something else," I confessed.
"You think law might be it?"
I nodded slowly. "I'm not sure I'll want to be a trial attorney, but I'm really interested in constitutional law, and I have a good head for details."
"Well, that much I've noticed."
"How about you?"
Josh leaned back against the back edge of the booth. "Oh, I'm on the 'law school as a rite of passage into a political career' track. This is pretty much the life I want -- it's just taken a while to get here."
"It looks like you're doing okay to me. You must have impressed somebody if you're running a congressional campaign at your age. What are you, twenty-four, twenty-five?"
"Twenty-five," he said, shrugging, but he couldn't quite suppress his pleasure at the compliment. "It's just politics, you know -- half of it's about the people you know and the other half's about making sure you say the right thing to each of 'em at the right time. Anyway, I'd've been done with law school and already in the thick of it for this upcoming election year if I hadn't spent a year in England on a Fulbright."
"Hey, don't knock England," I chided. "The only place I've really been is Washington, and that was just for a semester."
"Well, that's where I'm headed next, if I do my job right. Silverstein says there's a place for me on his staff if he wins. Just a few more classes, and I'm there."
"Do you think you might ever run for office yourself?"
Josh took a sip of soda through his straw. "Yeah, probably. But a candidate- these days a candidate spends so much time trying to look good on television that most of the time he doesn't actually get to do much decision-making, you know? I dunno. Sometimes I think I'd be better off behind the scenes, pulling strings, making things happen." He shook a finger in the air. "Now, if we could just do away with these pesky elections, I'd be right there."
"Josh Lyman, dictator of the formerly free world," I snickered.
"Got a nice ring to it, doesn't it?" Reaching for his cup, Josh took another long drink of his Coke, slurping against the ice at the bottom of the glass. "*You'd* make a good candidate, though," he added, fixing his eyes on me. "You'd look great on television."
I laughed and looked down at my plate, feeling suddenly disarmed, but when I looked back up at him, he was grinning as if it had been a joke. "Anyway, Yale's terrific," he continued. If you're actually planning on working as an attorney someday, it's definitely the only place to be."
"I've been looking at Duke, too."
"Duke!" Josh made a rude noise. "Why would you want to go to Duke?"
"They have a really good program in constitutional and civil liberties law. That, and it's warmer in North Carolina than it is in Connecticut," I admitted.
"Hey, you're talking about my home state, there!" He reached across the table and gave me a light swat on the arm. "You may be a wimpy California boy, but that's no reason to ruin your legal career before it starts."
"At this point I think I'm going to apply to both. I already took the LSAT in case I decided on lasw school after all, and theres no problem on that front, but there are all sorts of other things that could keep me from getting into one another. I'm definitely going to tour both schools before making a decision."
Josh fingered a potato chip, holding it about six inches from his mouth. "You know what? I've got to drive out there tomorrow afternoon, and I'll be heading back Saturday morning. If you think your supervisor would let you take a day off, why don't you tag along and I'll give you a tour of the university?"
I felt myself grinning at the idea. "Lauren's always saying she'd rather I come in on the weekends, anyway, so I'm sure that would be no problem. Thanks, that would be great."
"Do you want to meet me at the office when you're done at the paper?"
"Speaking of the office, though, I'd better get back there." Josh glanced at his watch and popped the last of his sandwich into his mouth.
I looked down at my own plate. "Yeah, and I should finish this and head home. I've still got a commute ahead of me."
Josh pushed himself up from the table. I was reluctant to end the conversation, but all at once it hit me that I'd be sitting in that office every evening, working on a campaign, immersing myself in everything I'd studied back at Princeton. This wasn't the last meal I'd be eating at this diner. "Hey, Josh? How much of what you said to that Jack guy was posturing?"
"What do you mean?"
"Are you- are we really going to beat Skyler in the primary?"
Josh reached down and clasped my shoulder, his fingertips grazing my bare neck at my collar. "With the two of us on his team? Hell, yes." He gave me a squeeze, sending a charge of electricity down my back, as if he was transferring a tiny portion of his energy into me through the pores of my skin. "This is gonna be great," he murmured, his eyes sparkling again, and then he let go and shot me one last grin over his shoulder as he bounded back outside.
I reached up and rubbed the back of my neck where he'd touched me. It was still tingling. Closing my eyes tightly, I leaned forward against the table, pressing my forehead against my fist. "Great," I whispered, wincing. "Just- just perfect."
"Nice car," I admired, laying my backpack into the trunk of Josh's white Cadillac, careful not to scrape the paint.
"Yeah, yeah, I know," he groaned, slamming it shut. "My friends at Yale call it the Grampsmobile. But I bought it from my dad for a song." He walked around to the driver's side door and climbed in, pressing a button to unlock my door, and I buckled my seatbelt. This thing had white leather seats.
"With this early a start it shouldn't take more than an hour and a half," Josh said, his voice bright, both hands on the wheel as he maneuvered the car out into Manhattan traffic. He shoved a tape into the cassette deck, and the sound of an orchestra filled the space around us from four directions.
I cast a surreptitious glance into the back seat to find an untidy stack of old newspapers and the remains of several trips to McDonald's lying on the back seat. The mess suited him; it formed a sharp contrast to the dignified illusion of the car. The only thing that didn't seem to fit the picture was the pink and white shell about the size of a human fist on the dashboard, like something you might find in a beachside resort's gift shop. I found myself wondering why he kept it there.
Okay, so maybe I liked this guy.
Josh steered the car onto the onramp for the interstate, and I turned to stare out the window. This had been so easy in college. When you met a guy at an event sponsored by the Gay Alliance of Princeton, there weren't any games to play -- it was only a question of figuring out whether he liked *you*, not whether he liked *guys*. With Josh, though, there were no pink triangles or quick, unobtrusive mentions of certain bars. There wasn't a single outward indication that he was anything but straight, unless I chose to interpret his frequent touching as flirtatious, and that would almost certainly have just been wishful thinking.
"You're awfully quiet."
"Just thinking," I mumbled, keeping my gaze focused on the side of the road.
"I've got some people to see at the law school in the morning, but I could meet you for lunch and then show you around. You know, introduce you to some people."
I turned back to find his hands planted on the wheel and his head cocked halfway toward me. "It's really great of you to do this," I said.
"Sure." He reached over to turn down the music. "You know, it's a pretty good time to be planning a career in law."
"What do you mean?"
"Economic boom, materialism run amok. The most nurturing environment in which to grow a legal eagle."
"You sound so thrilled with your chosen field."
"Just wait until *you're* a year from finishing." Josh cupped his hand around the steering wheel, sliding it down to the bottom. "I should talk, though -- this has got to be the worst time in decades to get started in politics."
"For a Democrat? Come on, take a look around. We've got a grinning puppet in the White House who everybody in the nation adores, an arms race that's out of control, a bunch of fascists in the Senate led by-"
"A Democratic House, a Congress that's finally doing something to stop Reagan from sending military aid to the Contras, a reformer in Moscow and a summit planned in Geneva. Looks pretty good to me."
Josh turned his head and shot me a long look. "I can't tell whether you're delusional or just yanking my chain."
"I'm just saying that the world looks a lot brighter than it did a couple of years ago."
"And we're finally ripe for the Democratic cavalry to come in and save the day, wrestle the mantle of power away from the big, bad Republicans. Is that it?"
"It could happen."
"It's not gonna ..." Josh shook his head and laughed. "I mean, getting Silverstein into the Senate is one thing, but man, if you think we're gonna grab the brass ring this time around and take back the White House from the most popular President in the history of the office, you're gonna be one disappointed first-year law student come this time next year."
"Why are you doing what you're doing, if you don't believe we can really change anything?" I asked him, raising my voice a little. "Why bother?"
"Maybe I think a baby step is still worth something," he answered, but it sounded like he wasn't quite sure he meant it.
"But if nobody's willing to dream the big dreams, all we'll ever *get* is baby steps."
Josh looked over again at me, a curious smile on his lips. "How about you? Why are *you* doing this? Why Silverstein?"
I hesitated, not quite sure how to answer that question. I was tired of spinning my wheels, and Silverstein happened to be there? He was a good candidate, and he had a real chance of winning? I was impressed with his choice of staff? "I've always wanted to volunteer for something," I finally said, "but in college I had my hands full trying to keep my grades up while I was editing the Princeton student paper."
He snorted. "I may not be a journalist, but I can spot when somebody's evading a question. Why *Silverstein*?"
"Well, I agree with what he wants to do to raise standards in public schools." I wondered how deep Josh's loyalty to Silverstein went, but his eyes were on the road, revealing nothing. "But I guess- I guess it could have been pretty much anyone," I admitted.
He glanced over at me, unsurprised, and I continued. "I mean, I'm in New York, I want the experience of working on a congressional campaign, and Silverstein really is the Democrat who looks most promising. I'm just not sure he's-"
"The real thing," Josh finished. He let out an enormous sigh. "Yeah, I know."
Josh was silent for a moment, and I watched him as his expression changed from conflicted to resigned. "He's an old friend of my dad's, and he's a good guy. I mean, he's a *really* good guy. And he wanted me here, and I needed the experience. But you're right, he's not the real thing. He's too nervous. He's *such* a nice guy that he's used to pleasing everybody, you know? Besides, he's a one-issue candidate. In the long run, he probably would've made more of a difference on the school board back in Brooklyn."
"A cynic would say the real thing doesn't really exist," I said, trying to sound encouraging. "You know, that anyone who's really got what it takes to be a decent politician wouldn't want to do the job."
"But you're not, are you?" Josh turned his full attention toward me, his eyes searching my face.
"Not what?" I managed, catching my breath.
Josh looked away again. "A cynic."
"No," I whispered.
Between the seats, at the parking brake, the back of Josh's hand brushed mine. At first it was just the lightest of touches, easily dismissed as accidental, but he didn't withdraw it. For at least ten or fifteen seconds, his hand rubbed gently, almost imperceptibly against mine, moving to the rhythm of the car. A tingle ran up my spine and lodged itself in my throat, but I didn't take my hand away, either.
Josh finally gave a little cough and moved his hand to cover his mouth, returning it to the steering wheel, and I moved mine to my lap. Almost dizzy from the electric charge against my skin, I stole a glance at Josh, but his eyes were focused on the road, his thoughts seemingly absorbed in the traffic and the music. I blinked. I'd imagined it, I told myself. He probably hadn't even been aware our hands had been touching.
The sudden silence between us continued as he took us out of suburban New York traffic and past the state border into Connecticut, and I turned my attention to the changing scenery outside my window. The coastal highway took us over several bridges as we drove past Stamford and Norwalk, and the terrain grew noticeably rockier. It wasn't until we passed over a particularly long stretch of water just past Bridgeport, though, that Josh's mood intensified, his excitement mounting with the rapid approach of home.
"See what I mean about getting out of the city?" He reached down to press a button on the armrest, and my window rolled open a crack. "Smell that," he said, inhaling deeply.
The wind pressed my hair against the side of my head. "Smells like air."
"Exactly! You won't find *that* in New York. Hey, you know what?" He glanced quickly at his watch. "*Plenty* of time. Sam, my man, I'm taking you to the beach."
"You've been living in Princeton for four years, and now you're in the city. When was the last time you saw the ocean?
"It's been a while," I admitted.
"It'd be a five-hour plane trip to get to the ocean from all the way out here, and I really don't want to miss that tour tom-"
"The *Atlantic*, funnyman," he growled. "The *real* ocean."
I grinned. "There's an ocean on this side of the country?"
"All right, that's it." Josh swerved abruptly into the right lane, cutting off a guy in a pickup truck behind him who let loose a long honk of his horn. I braced myself against the dashboard as he made a sharp right turn onto an exit ramp. "I'm gonna make you take a look at a real beach this evening if it kills me."
"Just don't kill us both before we get there, okay?"
"This California boy here is gonna have a new respect for the east coast and its beautiful beaches when I'm done with him," he boomed at an imaginary audience.
"You may not be aware that the Pacific is nearly *twice* as large as the Atlantic."
"You may not be aware that you sound like a high school science teacher when you talk like that."
"Deeper, too. It stretches 9600 miles from the Arctic to the Antarctic, and contains a full forty eight percent of the world's seawater. I'm just saying."
Josh peered warily over at me. "You're making this up. Nobody can pull random figures out of thin air like that."
I shrugged. "Look it up."
He turned his head to face me, his eyes questioning, and I smiled at him, shrugging again. He returned the smile as he realized I wasn't kidding. "You really aren't normal, you know that?" he admired, and my grin grew wider.
Josh turned down a side road onto the route that ran along the ocean, his eyes gleaming with excitement. I turned my head to look out the window, my eyes suddenly taking in a breathtaking view of a rugged Connecticut beach. "Okay, tell me what you see *now*," he prompted.
"Lots of rocks," I deadpanned.
"This is what a beach is *supposed* to look like, Sam! None of that pristine Hollywood crap."
"If you say so," I said, struggling to keep from smiling.
Pulling over at a wide expanse of land overlooking a short pier, Josh grabbed his black trenchcoat and bounded out of the car almost before turning it off. I closed the door behind me and zipped up my blue windbreaker against a sudden gust. There was no one else in sight -- not a single car, not a single pedestrian.
I followed Josh across the beach in the direction of the pier, watching him as he picked up a stone and wound up to throw it as hard as he could toward the ocean. He stopped for a moment just to watch, and then turned around, looking triumphant. "So?"
"It's a pond."
He opened his arms wide. "Come on, tell me this isn't pretty damn incredible."
"It's a beautiful pond," I conceded, nodding.
"If this was California, it'd be full of- full of ... beach umbrellas and hot dog stands!"
"That's because if this were California, it'd be about eighty degrees out." I wrapped my arms around myself, tucking my icy fingers underneath them.
"My grandfather had a house in Bridgeport that looked out over a beach like this. We used to drive down for a couple of weeks every summer, and the best part of the whole visit was always getting to eat dinner in the dining room in front of this huge picture window, looking at all *this*," he said, emphasizing the word with an outstretched arm. "Us kids would always fight over the seat with the best view."
My gaze alternated between Josh and the waves as we stepped out onto the pier, inhaling the salty air. Walking the length of it, he crouched down to swing his legs off the edge, and I sat next to him.
"Do you know what you'd be good at?" he said thoughtfully.
"Speechwriting. You're wasted on press releases." Josh kicked the wooden pier with both feet. "Silverstein is still working on his stump speech. He can't decide what should go into it and what he should leave out. You could give him some input."
"I don't think Silverstein would be interested in getting help on his stump speech from a first time volunteer with only a bachelor's degree and no real campaign experience. The guy hasn't even met me, yet."
"I can't think of anyone else from our little group who'd do a better job condensing the message of the campaign down to a five to seven minute speech anyone would understand. Can you?"
My heart raced at his confidence in me. "Well, if the only other option is the guy who had the candidate owning his sister in a press release, you may be right."
Josh snorted, grinning. He leaned back on his arms against the pier, and I watched his trenchcoat fall open. The waves rushed in my ears, and I shivered as the chill coming up from the water combined with the sensations provoked by his presence. "Are you cold?" he asked me.
"Ah, the poor California boy, trapped in the frozen North," he teased, taking off his coat.
"No, wait, *you'll* get cold," I protested.
"I've got a hardy northern constitution," he said, reaching over to drape it over me. In a broad, showy gesture, he swept across my right shoulder to tuck the coat around my arm, leaving his own lying there. My eyes blurred as I stared out at the water. If that was supposed to feel paternal or mentor-like, it definitely wasn't having the desired effect.
I didn't dare look at him, but we sat there for what must have been a full half hour, watching the sun set over the Atlantic in the November cold. Josh's arm rested gently across my shoulders, and though neither of us spoke, it all felt so perfectly right that it seemed we might just be able to sit like that forever, with nothing else in the world but water and shoreline and the two of us.
As the last rays of sun finally faded into twilight against the horizon, Josh dropped his arm and stood again, offering me a hand to hoist myself up. We walked back to the car and drove into New Haven in a companionable silence, entering the city and arriving at Josh's apartment just as the world went completely black around us.
"I've got somebody to sublet the place for the second semester, but for now it's just standing empty," he explained as he slid his key into the lock, swinging the door open to reveal a large single room. I set my backpack down in the entryway, and Josh stepped past me to the kitchen.
Sitting down on the sturdy couch, I lifted a leg to set my foot on the edge of the coffee table, but returned it to the floor when I noticed that the piece looked like something that might have been handed down through generations. "Water's all I've got to offer tonight," Josh said as he leaned over and handed me a cup. "We'll have to pick up a few things tomorrow."
"That's fine, thanks."
He walked back across the room to close the curtains. "Do you want to take the bed and I'll sleep on the couch?"
"It's your apartment," I answered, my throat feeling a bit raw. "Just give me a pillow and a blanket or something, and I'll be fine."
Josh crossed the room again to the closet near the entryway and dug around in it. "I've got to be over at the law school at eight. You can sleep in if you want, and I can come back for you." He turned around, tossing me a quilt, a pillow, and a fitted sheet, in rapid succession.
"I can come over with you. I'm used to getting up early."
Josh sat down next to me on the couch, so close that his arm brushed against mine, and he leaned back to prop his legs up with the coffee table. Feeling suddenly claustrophobic, I sprang to my feet. "So. I should get ready for bed."
"Bathroom's right over there," Josh gestured back toward the entryway.
Retrieving my backpack from the floor, I headed into the bathroom to brush my teeth, and when I emerged into the room again, I found Josh stretched out on the bed in his boxers. I looked away immediately, but glanced back again when I realized his attention was focused on the mail he was sifting through. He was propped up on his elbows, the dark brown hair on his chest visible from where I was standing, his neck arched and sloping down to the curve of his back.
I forced myself to stop looking and turned back to the couch, tucking the sheet around its cushions. That was it; the man was straight. Josh was just a friendly, affectionate straight guy, and he was totally oblivious to the effect he was having on me. I lay down on top of the quilt, staring up at the ceiling.
"Just a sec, I'll get the light." The bed creaked as he stood and padded across the room to the switch, and then the room went dark.
I undressed down to my own boxers and wrapped the quilt around me. It would be easier this way, I told myself, swallowing hard. Josh and I would hang out together on the campaign, we'd get to be friends, it would be okay. My admiration for him could be fully platonic, like it had eventually been with Deirdre. After a few months, I'd been fine with just working alongside her, listening to her laugh, enjoying her company. The same would be true with Josh. This didn't have to be some colossal disappointment.
"Hey, are you- are you comfortable over there?"
I waited long enough to make sure my voice would come out level. "Sure."
"It's just- if you're not, there's- there's plenty of room here." His low tone flooded my skin with goosebumps. "It's a pretty big bed."
I couldn't make my throat stop constricting long enough to respond, so I wordlessly lifted the quilt from my body and stood, feeling my way along the coffee table to the baseboard of Josh's bed, running my hand along its edge. The blood was rushing so loudly in my ears that I was sure he could hear it. I hesitated only a moment before sliding between the sheets, my back to Josh, and I heard him shift position to make room for me.
I could sense his body, close to mine but not touching, my skin prickling as if he was running a hand along the air only inches above my arm, only a fingertip's length away from my ribcage. I imagined those brown eyes tracing and retracing the lines of my shoulder, sending waves of energy coursing through me. I held my breath as long as I could so that he wouldn't hear it catch in my throat, silently willing him to reach for me, to absorb me with his arms, to touch his lips to the back of my neck and complete the excruciating pleasure I felt lying beside him. He never did.
"Hey, Sam?" Lisa called over to me from the other side of the campaign office. "If they're going to show a clip, it'll be right after this commercial break."
I looked up from my desk. The assistant media director whod been working with us for a month as we geared up for the primary looked almost as excited as I felt, standing three feet from the television with her face flushed and her arms pressed against her chest. I put down my pen and joined her, claiming the chair she'd unfolded for me.
"Do you really think they're gonna show it?" Charlene asked her, her expression dubious.
Lisa smiled nervously. "Rodney said they might."
I stared at the screen as a smiling pair of twins finished attempting to convince me to buy their chewing gum, and the station cut back to the news. I recognized the venue where Silverstein was due to speak that night, and felt my face erupt into a grin as a pretty young reporter began reading her text from the teleprompter.
"Senator Moynihan may be the most well-known of our faces in Washington, but it's another New Yorker who's getting top billing at the conference sponsored by the Manhattan chapter of the United Federation of Teachers this weekend. Michael Silverstein, former State Assemblymember and candidate for-"
"All *right*!" Charlene yelled out, turning around. "Hey, Josh!"
I heard footsteps as Josh rushed over to stand behind my chair. "Shh! This is it!"
The scene shifted to the inside of the venue, the camera catching Silverstein standing behind a podium. "Texas sells oil, Idaho grows potatoes, and Michigan makes cars," he said in the dignified, sincere tone that had brought him this far, "but this state's most valuable assets are the minds it produces. From finance, advertising, and publishing here in New York City to scientific research at our universities from Buffalo to Long Island, we're the country's intellectual leader."
I leaned forward, mouthing the words along with him through my grin. This was the third time now that I'd heard my own text emerging from Silverstein's mouth, but I knew I'd never tire of it.
"Creating the best public school system in America right here in the state of New York isn't a matter of choice," the candidate read. "It's a challenge we have to take on and win unless we want to start drilling for oil in Syracuse, growing potatoes in Buffalo, and setting up automobile manufacturing plants in Manhattan."
Lisa ran over to my side and grabbed my arm. "How did you know- I mean, this was supposed to be just a local thing! I didn't- I don't even think *Rodney* knew-"
"I heard you mention to Josh that you guys were hoping one of this series of speeches might get picked up statewide," I explained, "so I figured it wouldn't hurt to expand the context to at least the other major cities. There'd have been no harm done if they hadn't shown it, and there was enough potential for a big payoff that I decided to throw it in."
"He knew because he's *brilliant*," Josh said, slapping his hands on my shoulders and letting them rest there, and I was sure they could all see the pride swelling inside of me.
"That was a long clip," I heard Charlene say. "Silverstein's got a buddy at the station."
Josh leaned his forearms against my shoulders and set his chin on my head, the fingers of both of his hands rubbing excitedly against his thumbs. I lurched forward a bit in my seat, but didn't pull away.
The scene shifted back to the outside of the venue again, and the reporter concluded her story. "Silverstein got yet another boost to his campaign this evening, when U.S. Congressman Dick Skyler made the surprise announcement that he will be withdrawing his candidacy to spend more time with his family."
For a long moment, we all just stared at the screen, and then Lisa broke the silence. "Did they just say-"
"I'm on it," Josh yelled, pushing himself to his feet and running over to his office.
I looked over at Lisa. Her eyes were pointed in the direction of the television, but she seemed to be looking past it. "That's got to be a mistake. Their people would've told us before they told the media, right?"
"I don't think the station's fact-checkers are that incompetent," I said, feeling a bit out of breath.
"I mean, Skyler's been slipping off the radar for a few weeks," she continued, "but this is- if this is true ..."
Lisa's voice trailed off. The television droned on in the background, but we weren't really hearing it. None of us said aloud what I knew we were all thinking -- that if Skyler had dropped out, the primary was taken care of.
As Josh's door slammed behind us, I stood and we all whirled around to face him. He looked stunned for a moment, and then his face erupted into an enormous grin. Charlene jumped into the air and let out a cheer. I leaned down to Lisa, laughing as I grabbed her and picked her up. "Over a month to go, and we just won the primary," she said into my ear, and I set her back down on the ground. She leaned back against my hands as I held her. "We won!"
The collective elation in the room was intoxicating, and it didn't take long for Lisa to convince us all to close up the office for the rest of the evening, gather together all the staff, and walk down to a bar for a celebration. We claimed a large oblong booth in the corner, and I slid in behind Harriet, the other volunteer, leaving room for Josh to file in next to me. He ordered the first round for everyone, and when Lisa proposed a toast to Dick Skyler, a laugh of amusement and relief accompanied the conventional clinking of glasses. Mark and the candidate joined us briefly before retiring for the night, and I'd never seen Silverstein look happier.
I stopped after one beer, thinking of the drive home, but Josh matched Charlene and Harriet drink for drink until an entire row of empty glasses lined the table in front of them. As the hour grew later and the table rowdier, I watched our group dwindle to six, then four, and then finally, to just me and Josh and Lisa.
"You know, it's nights like this, when you really feel like you've actually made a difference, that jobs like this one are like nothing else in the world," Lisa said, shaking her head into the last gulp of the beer she'd been nursing all evening.
"I'll drink to that," Josh said, raising a wobbly glass and clinking it against hers.
"Almost makes me want to chuck this law school idea and just do this."
"We'll have to get new numbers now, right?" I asked Josh. "We're going to have a ton to do tomorrow."
"Hey, you trying to ruin the evening?" Josh scolded. "We can we worry about all that *tomorrow*." I felt him reach under the table and rest a hand on my knee, and I inhaled sharply through my nose.
"All right, I'm out of here," Lisa announced, reaching across the table to give Josh a hug and me a kiss on the cheek as she stood to leave. "See you in the morning, Josh."
"See you tomorrow," he called out after her, removing his hand from my leg to wave. I rubbed the empty space it had left and looked away.
"Why so serious?" Josh slurred a little as he cocked his head. He leaned against his fist, propping himself up by his elbow on the table.
"I think you may have had a little too much to drink, Mr. Lyman," I teased, evading the question.
"I only had three beers."
"Well, if that's true, then you're a really cheap date." The words slipped out of my mouth before I could stop them, and Josh grinned, reaching over to touch my arm. His eyes gleamed, and my back stiffened in response.
"Come on, let me drop you at your apartment on my way back to Yonkers." I pulled my arm away, letting his hand drop.
"I've got my car today. I had to pick up the thing for the-"
"You're definitely in no state to drive."
He leaned back. "I guess you're right."
"If your car's in the garage, it'll be fine overnight. Let me drop you at home."
"Yeah," Josh said, nodding slowly. "Yeah. Just- just let me get a couple things out of it, okay?"
It wasn't until we stood that I realized just how far gone he was. He tossed his backpack over one shoulder, weaving his way to the door, and I threw some money on the table and rushed over to his side to ease him through it. "You only had three beers?" I asked, propping him up.
"Yep," he confirmed, stumbling out into the cold air. I zipped my coat and then reached over to button up his. He looked almost comically innocent as he stood there, letting me dress him, and my heart swelled with longing.
"Aren't you glad now that the California boy's got his car?" I teased, steadying him with my arm around his waist as we walked.
"You're in New York," he insisted, stubborn. "In New York, you've got to take the train. It's like, the law, or something."
I laughed. "You know, sometimes I've got to wonder what they've been teaching you at Yale."
"Hey," he mumbled into his collar.
"I mean seriously, Duke is looking pretty appealing all of a sudden."
"How many times do I have to tell you that Duke is a-"
"A place for rich southern boys who can't get into a real law school," I quoted as I pushed open the door to the parking structure and helped Josh up the stairs. "You've said. A couple of times, now."
Josh spread his hands out in front of him, tripping over the last step. "Exactly!"
"I have to wonder, though, how that could possibly be all that different from a place for rich northern boys who didn't make the cut at Harvard."
His eyes widened as he looked over at me and made a mock-wounded noise just as we reached his Cadillac. Throwing his backpack on the ground, he tackled me, pressing my legs against the back bumper and laughing. "Listen, funnyman-"
"Careful, you're going to scratch your rich northern car," I snickered, struggling as he grabbed my shoulders and attempted to pin me down. I landed on the trunk with a thud as my footing faltered, and Josh fell against me. Feeling my heart start to pound, I shifted slightly, and my smile disappeared as all the muscles in my face tensed at once.
"You've got to go to Yale, you know." Josh's chin was almost on my chest.
"Because I don't belong with all those rich southern boys?" I tried to joke, but my voice came out breathy.
"Because you belong with me," he said matter-of-factly.
I pushed him off of me, and he staggered back a few steps. "Your stuff," I mumbled. "You've got to get your-"
"Yeah," he interrupted, fishing his keys out of his pocket. I steadied myself against the car as I watched him fumbling, trying to find the keyhole. He was drunk, I told myself -- drunk and teasing. I inhaled a calming breath.
Josh grabbed a stack of papers out of the back seat and shoved them loosely into his backpack, slamming the door behind him. I turned to go, but he paused and held his fingers on the door handle for a moment, finally reopening it and reaching for the shell on his dash that I'd noticed on the drive to New Haven. He tucked it under his arm.
Still shaken, I didn't touch him again, not even to hold him steady. We walked up to the next level of the structure in silence, since Josh seemed to be finding it difficult enough to concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other. It wasn't until we reached my ancient Ford Escort that I put a hand on his shoulder to guide him into the front seat and closed the door before climbing in through the driver's side.
"You're a good speechwriter, Sam," he said as I pulled out onto the street, his speech still slurred.
"Thank you." I had to struggle to keep my voice level.
"You're a good friend." He reached across the car and placed a hand on my arm, and my own hand shook against the steering wheel. I couldn't feel his skin through my thick coat, but I could imagine it. I swallowed, feeling the sweat beading on my forehead.
The streets were clearer than my head, and it only took about ten minutes to reach Josh's apartment. I felt his eyes on me the whole trip home, but I kept my own fixed on the road, my thoughts tumbling around non-stop in my head.
"Thanks for the ride," he said as I pulled up in front of the building. "I had a good time."
"So did I. We've really got a chance now. That's- that's great."
"Yeah." He shifted in his seat, and the shell he'd retrieved from the car fell from his lap to the floor.
"What's with that, anyway?" I finally asked.
I pointed at the floor. "Where'd you get the shell?"
Josh bent down to retrieve it, hiding his head for a moment. "K-Mart," he said, sitting back up. "Blue light special, fifty cents." His expression was teasing, but there was something else behind it.
"What?" I felt my forehead wrinkle in confusion.
He laughed, but he didn't sound like he was enjoying himself. "I guess I keep it for luck," he said finally.
"It's dumb," he insisted, shaking his head. "It's really, *really* dumb."
I didn't respond. I just watched him, listening to the cars drive past us on the street. Josh sat there, looking out the front window, and then finally he spoke again. "Have I ..." He inhaled sharply. "Have I told you much about my family?"
"I know your father is an litigator, and that he knows Mike."
"This shell was- it belonged to my sister. She found it on the beach when she was about ten."
"You have a sister?"
"I don't." There was another silence, shorter this time. "I did. She- she died. I mean, it was a long time ago," he said, dismissing it with a wave of his hand. "Back when I was a kid."
"How did it happen?" I asked, my tone low and calm.
Josh's eyes were unfocused, or perhaps focused inward. "It was- there was a fire. In our house."
"I ran outside while it was happening, but Joanie ... well, she didn't make it. But her shell was- it was fine. She kept it in this metal box inside the top drawer of her dresser, and that didn't catch. So I keep it, like- like for luck, you know? Because it was lucky, like ... well, like me."
I felt something stir inside of me. Josh's eyes were dry, but mine were stinging, as if his tears had been transferred to a receptacle that could more easily hold them, one that hadn't already long since dried up. "Josh," I said softly.
"It's- it's ridiculous." He turned and looked out at the sidewalk.
"It's not," I insisted. All I could see was the back of his head. "It's okay," I tried to reassure him.
"No, it's just ..." He laughed an uncomfortable, raspy laugh, like a cough. "I don't know why I said anything. I don't know why I told you any of that. I guess- I guess I must trust you."
He pivoted his body back around and leaned in closely enough that I could see the pores on his skin, the dark stubble forming on his lip. I watched his Adam's apple bob up and down as he swallowed, slowly moving toward me and burying his head in my shoulder. He held still at first, his forehead pressed against my clavicle, but then he began to rock slowly from side to side, alternately hiding his face beneath the fabric of my coat and turning it inward, toward me. "I trust you," he whispered into my neck, his breath hot against my skin in the December cold.
Simultaneously warmed and frozen, I felt my muscles quivering, all of the nerve centers in my upper body suddenly relocating to the place where my neck met my shoulder. His breathing was heavy, yet even, as if he was in some hypnotic trance. I felt a jolt as his lips met my skin, not quite kissing but caressing, moving first across my throat to the other side of my neck, then up to my jaw. And then they were on mine.
Instinct took over, and I welcomed him, pressing my own lips back into his, exploring first gently, then more firmly, until our tongues ultimately intertwined and melted together. I raised a steady hand to his face and moved it around to the back of his neck, weaving my fingers into his hair, stroking the outline of his ears, longing to finally experience him, all of him at once.
Then Josh's hand was on my shoulder and he was pushing me away, gasping. "Sam- Sam, no. I can't do this."
It was as if someone had opened a window and knocked us both over with a cold rush of wind. His face was pale, and he looked like he was trembling from his very core. I leaned back and retreated to my side of the car. "Okay," I managed to squeeze out.
"I mean, I'm not- I'm not ... I'm not gay," he said haltingly, stumbling over the words that coursed through me like a searing pain. I looked away from him and stared out the window.
"I'm not, Sam," he insisted. "It's- it's the alcohol-"
"Okay." I tightened my fingers on the steering wheel.
"I mean, you're a good friend-"
"Get out, Josh," I said quietly.
"Go inside," I demanded, more firmly this time. "Go to bed."
I heard him grab his things and open the car door, but I didn't turn around to watch him leave. As soon as he had slammed the door behind him, I drove off, refusing to look back even to see whether he was too drunk to find his keys. The anger welled up inside my chest and crashed through the rest of my body in rhythmic waves, but I didn't know whether I was more furious with Josh or with myself.
"And then Peter -- that's the older one -- he finds the present I left him under the tree, and he's so excited just to see his *name* on the package." Lisa put her empty coffee cup on the little table next to her. "I swear, I could have given him cans of chicken soup or something, and as long as it was wrapped in Santa Claus paper and said 'Peter' on it, he'd have been happy."
Lisa hugged her legs to her chest on the couch, tucking a finger underneath her green legwarmers. "Then he rips off the wrapping paper," she described, making a wide ripping motion with her hands, "and he says: 'Thanks, Aunt Lisa! It's just ezzactly what I wanted!' And then my mom asks him what it is, and he says: 'I don't know!'"
I smiled into my coffee. "He sounds great."
"His little sister's a holy terror, though. An adorable and frighteningly intelligent holy terror, but still a holy terror. After Christmas dinner, she somehow managed to scale the baby gate and make it over to the fridge with all the leftovers in it. When her mother and I found her, she had a drumstick in one hand and a hunk of white meat in the other, both with several tiny bite marks in them."
"She looks up when we come in and I swear, she growls. Two years old, and she *growls*! And then she puts on this low, guttural voice, and through a mouthful of turkey, she says: 'Meat! Meat!' Then when my brother comes in and tries to take it away from her, she curls up into a ball around the turkey leg, chanting: 'No! *My* meat!'" She leaned forward as if to share the moment, her throat erupting in a peal of laughter at the memory, and I managed a quiet chuckle.
"At our place it was just me and my parents having dinner at home," I said, shaking my head. The most adventure I'd had over Christmas had been trying to convince my mother that nothing was wrong, despite the fact that she'd seen right through my attempts at holiday cheer from the moment she'd picked me up at LAX.
"No turkey-wielding two-year-olds?
I shook my head. "No excitement on that level, no. Not unless you want to count the day I almost committed matricide in order to put the next-door neighbors out of their misery."
"Oh no, what happened?" she groaned.
"I didn't think I could listen to her tell one more person what a great career I was going to have at the New York Times. I had to break it to her that night that I was applying to law school."
I looked out the window, watching the thick flakes of snow covering the ground with a blanket of white. The sharp contrast with the California weather of the past week brought back every moment of the scene in front of Josh's apartment, which played over and over in my mind like a movie whenever I closed my eyes.
"Was she okay with that?"
My eyes followed a guy with curly brown hair and a black trenchcoat down the street, and I watched him grab the hand of the girl next to him. "She was a little upset that I hadn't told her already ..." I responded, letting my voice trail off.
Lisa sat up and put her legs on the floor, reaching over to lay her hand on my arm. "Hey, are you going to make it over to the office this evening?"
I turned back toward the table and stared down at it, my eyes losing their focus. "Uh ... I don't think so."
"You really should come back at least by tomorrow, because I'm going to need you to-"
"Lisa." I ran a fingernail along the edge of my coffee cup, digging wedges into the styrofoam. "I don't think I'm going to be coming back to the campaign."
"What?" She stared at me. "What are you talking about?"
"It's a busy time," I insisted, trying to shrug it off. "I've got a lot to do at the paper right now, and I'm really not going to have a minute to spare."
"You think I'm going to believe that *January* is suddenly the big rush period in the news department at the New York Times?" She wrapped her thin fingers around my wrist in a firm grip. "Sam, what's going on?"
I looked her in the eyes, hesitating. "There's somebody at the office I'm not getting along with very well," I admitted.
She dropped her hand from my wrist and spread her palm on the table. "You're going to *quit* over a personality conflict?"
I shook my head. "It's a little more complicated than that."
"Mark is hardly ever *in* the office! He's on the road with Mike most of-"
"It's not ..." I looked down at the fingers of my left hand. They were wrapped around the edge of the table, my knuckles white. "Just let it go, okay?" I said quietly.
"Hey." She leaned in toward me, trying to catch my eye. "You know we'd really miss you, right? You make a big difference."
I looked up at her across the table. "And that's the only reason I haven't walked already."
She studied me, her mouth half open as if she wanted to say something, but she never voiced the thought. "I haven't made up my mind yet," I added. "I just wanted to let you know."
"Does Josh know?"
"Josh knows." If he *didn't* know, he certainly should've been able to figure it out without much effort.
"All right." She let out a soft sigh. "Let me know what you decide, okay?"
"I will." I shifted position in my seat. "Can we-"
"So you sent in your applications to law school?" Lisa blurted.
"Yeah," I answered, shooting her a grateful look. "Where did you end up applying?"
"Harvard, Duke, and Michigan. I'm leaning toward Harvard, if I get in. How about you?"
"Yale and Duke."
"Oh, you *did* apply to Duke?" She sounded pleased. "Wouldn't it be funny if we both ended up there?"
I nodded, smiling slightly. "We'll have to check in with each other when we hear one way or the other." I certainly would have less of a reason to go to Yale now, after all, even if I did get in.
"Let's plan on that."
An awkward silence grew between the two of us, and Lisa coughed as I turned to look out the window again. "You have to get back to the office," I said finally.
I stood, and Lisa joined me, reaching over to weave an arm around my waist. "Hey. I hope that no matter what happens, I'll still get to see you occasionally?"
I smiled. "You will."
"All right, then." She gave me a squeeze and let go as we walked out the door together and turned in opposite directions down the street. "Have a good day. Don't work too hard."
The mob of people seemed impenetrable as I walked back to the Times, or perhaps my image of them just reflected the dense, swirling mass of thoughts in my head. As I stood on the corner across from our building waiting for the light to change, a kid wearing a Walkman rammed headfirst into my right shoulder. "Asshole!" he screamed into my ear, and I flinched, stumbling back, before moving on.
I rubbed my shoulder and glanced around me as I walked. I knew the city was far less harried than it'd been just before Christmas, but after the week in California, it somehow seemed even worse. Two of the other interns were out sick with the flu, and it suddenly struck me that I could feign illness and head home, myself. The last thing I wanted was to be stuck in a busy news office for the rest of the afternoon.
My mood darkening with every step, I took the stairs to work off some of my frustration and walked down the hall to my desk to find a note from Lauren. *Gne hme sck*, I was able to decode.
"Lauren's sick?" I asked Corey.
"I think she's got that flu that everybody's coming down with. She said there's a stack of printouts on her desk for you to run through."
"Great," I groaned.
"At least it's real work," Corey shouted after me as I walked back down the hall.
Nodding at Shelley, I walked through to Lauren's office. I left the door ajar as I sat down at her desk, rubbing my eyes with both hands as I closed them, resting them for a moment. *Focus*, I finally told myself, brushing aside several other stacks of paper to make a clear spot on the desk to look at the printouts.
"I think he'd probably still be in Lauren Fillmore's office," I heard Corey's voice from the hall, and I looked up to see Josh in the doorway. I was almost too exhausted to be surprised, but I felt my heart skip a beat anyway.
"Hey," he said casually.
"Can I, ah- can I come in?"
I shrugged. "It's not my office."
"Okay." He stood awkwardly in the doorway and leaned his hand on the doorframe. "Did you have a good Christmas?"
"What are you doing here, Josh?"
"I was- Lisa told me ... I thought we should talk." He hesitated for a moment. "We need to talk," he repeated, more firmly, and stepped inside.
"What is there to say?"
I stared at him with cold and challenging eyes, but he didn't meet them. The bastard couldn't look at me.
"I was drunk, okay? I didn't know what-"
"Yeah, yeah, you didn't know what you were doing. It was just the alcohol. Funny, I thought that was a man kissing me, not a glass of beer. I must have been mistaken."
He glanced nervously out the door. "I just meant ..." Stepping further into the office, he finally looked over at me. "God, you're not making this easy."
I leaned back in Lauren's chair, and Josh's eyes darted back away and fixed on the ground. "If I'd been sober, I wouldn't have been such an ass about it," he mumbled.
"Josh, you ..." I shook my head and sat up straight again, staring him down. "I've spent the past two months doing this little dance with you, remember? You touch me in the car, and then you take your hand away and smile like you were just kidding. You invite me into your bed and lie there, wide awake, watching me, but God forbid you might actually lay a finger on me."
He rubbed the back of his neck and looked over again at the open door, blushing a deep red, and a fresh wave of anger urged me along. "You make every excuse to touch me around the office, and then you pretend that it's just because I wrote a good speech or had a good idea. That kiss was just the tip of the iceberg, so don't you try to tell me now that it was all about one night when you had a little too much to drink."
Josh walked over to the door and closed it, leaning back against it. "I won't try to tell you that."
I glared at him as if the impact of my look could knock him over, my frustration creating a huge lump in my throat that I couldn't dislodge. I hated myself for being glad to see him.
"I'm, ah." Josh ran a hand from his forehead to his nose and coughed. "I'm- I admit I'm- I'm like, attracted to you, or something. I just don't- I mean, I've never. Like, *never* ... with a guy. I mean, I like girls. I really, really like girls."
I pressed my lips together, and Josh stepped back toward me. "But then you show up, and ... I dunno. I mean, I've never met a guy like you. You're so ... and I find myself wanting to ... and I don't know what to do about it, you know? Because I've never- I mean, I've never felt this way, and it's just ... weird."
He let out a long sigh. "No, not weird like *weird*. I mean ..."
I raised my eyebrows at him, and he began pacing slowly back and forth in front of Lauren's desk. "I just- I don't know what it means. For me. I mean, here I am, running my first big campaign. This is all I know how to do, Sam. I can't- I mean, I'm not going to ..." He reached down and picked up a pencil from the desk, gripping it so hard it looked like he would crush it. "It's not like wanting a girl. It's not that simple."
"You think this is simple for *me*?"
"Of course it isn't!" he exploded, stopping in mid-stride. "But how does that make things any *better*? It just ... this is all so goddamn complicated, you know? For you, for me ... I almost had myself convinced that I'd do it, just- just let you go, never see you again. God knows it would be easier that way."
His eyes bored into me as if he could see every thought in my head. "Except of course it wouldn't be," he said quietly. "Because then I'd- I'd ... I'd never see you again."
Josh opened his hand, letting the pencil drop, and it clattered to the floor. His gaze was so intense that it made my chest tighten, and I tried to swallow but found my throat too dry. He leaned closer, his legs brushing the edge of the desk. "And I want to. Keep seeing you. I want to, ah- do more than see you. I mean, I want- I want *you*. Right now, even, I could-"
A shiver down my back propelled me to my feet, and I heard Lauren's chair roll away and hit the wall. The surface of my skin felt raw, every tiny hair on the back of my neck standing at attention. Josh moved silently to the other side of the desk, as if mesmerized, until he was directly in front of me, his lips parted and his eyes riveted to a single spot on my face. Laying both of his palms flat on my chest and holding the rest of his body still, he craned his neck forward and kissed me, lightly, on the lips. I could hear him breathing as he drew back, his face flushed and his eyes wide with astonishment.
I leaned into him, pinning his arms between us, and kissed him back, harder this time. He gasped as I reached up to pull his head closer, and he stepped back just far enough to free his arms before folding them around me.
When I finally let go, Josh was panting, his eyes half-closed. "So what happens now?" I asked him.
"What, ah- what do *you* want?"
I hadn't dared rehearse this conversation in my mind. "If- if we're going to try this, I need to know what the rules are going to be. I can't deal with the part where you kiss me and then try to tell me you didn't really mean it."
"I mean it," he said, smiling, and kissed me again as if to prove it. The scent of him made me feel a little drunk, and he pressed back when I stumbled against him. "I mean it."
Withdrawing from his touch just enough that I could watch him, I ran a hand across his face, his neck, his shoulder. With every detour of my fingers I braced myself for any hint that he was going to flinch, but instead he leaned closer, shivering at the contact, returning it. There was no uncertainty in his touch now.
"You know we're not gonna be able to tell anyone, right?" he whispered, his face in my neck.
I let my hand fall. "What do you mean?" I asked, though I already knew exactly what he meant.
"I mean we can't talk to *anybody* about this."
I took a step back from him, staring, and Josh shook his head. "You want me to list off the reasons?" he insisted, his fingers resting on my belt, just inside my waistband. "One, we're both working on a high-profile congressional campaign, and *the* cardinal rule for campaign staff has *always* been to keep our hands off the volunteers. Two, you really shouldn't try that hard to ruin your own career before you even have a chance to start law school. Three ... Sam, I'm- I'm a politician, okay, and I want to stay one."
"How much of all that really just comes down to the fact that I'm a guy, and you're a guy, and guys aren't supposed to want to kiss other guys?" I tried to sound resolute, but his touch was warm enough that it came out halfhearted. "How is that going to change if nobody ever questions it?"
"You know how goddamn *annoying* those rose-colored glasses of yours can be, sometimes?" he teased, grinning.
His eyes pierced mine, and I felt surrounded by them. "Okay," I conceded.
"Okay, I won't tell anybody. Okay, you've got a point." I slid an arm around his waist. "Okay, you're worth it." When Josh kissed me again, then, holding me tightly against his chest, any lingering doubts I had were crowded out by the reassuring pressure of his body against mine.
When I found myself almost sprinting over to the campaign office the next evening, I made myself slow down. Removing one of the straps of my backpack from my shoulder, I reduced my speed to a stroll, telling myself that if I'd already managed to wait a day and a half to see Josh again, I could wait another ten minutes to make sure I didn't crash into anything on the busy Manhattan sidewalk.
It hadn't been like this with Carol, not even at the beginning; we'd spent so much time together from day one that I'd never had a chance to miss her. And then later, with David, it'd been more about the sex than anything else, and while I'd sometimes had the occasion to miss *that*, it certainly had never been this strange, dull ache in my chest if I hadn't seen him for more than a day. I'd always figured I was immune to this sort of girlish teenage obsession. I smiled, remembering the way Josh's lips had felt against mine in Lauren's office, and was amazed that I could feel this happy to be proven wrong.
Pushing the door to the building open, I headed straight back to the office. "Hey, Sam," Charlene greeted me, standing up from her desk and stretching her arms. "You gonna be able to stick around a while tonight?"
"Sure," I answered, my eyes darting back to Josh's office. His door was closed and the light was out, and I felt a twinge of disappointment as I surveyed the rest of the mostly empty room. Lisa was stuffing envelopes, and from the radio on Charlene's desk Whitney Houston was crooning some fantastically overplayed love song. "Last night I just had to stay late at the paper to meet a deadline," I explained.
"Great. Could I get you to answer the phone if it rings? I've got to run."
"I'm outta here, Lisa," the office manager bellowed, grabbing her coat and pushing the door open.
Lisa waved at us from the back corner. "See you, Char. Hey, Sam."
"Hi." I hovered near the door for a moment, finally taking two steps into the office. Behind me the door opened again, and I spun around expectantly, only to find Charlene standing in the doorway again.
"Forgot my purse," she explained, rushing in to grab it before heading back out.
"Want to pull up a chair?" Lisa called over to me.
I walked over to the table at the back of the room where she was sitting, unfolding a chair from against the wall and peering down at the work she was doing. "So, you're putting pieces of paper into folders."
"It's a thrill a minute around this place tonight," she said cheerfully, grabbing another set of pages from the table in front of us and placing them neatly into a glossy folder with a smiling picture of Silverstein on the front. I reached over and made my own tidy stack, imitating Lisa's motions. My head jerked up as I thought I heard the door squeak open one more time, but it was just a kid standing in the hallway, leaning his back against the glass.
I glanced over at Josh's office. "So, where's Josh this evening?" I asked, as nonchalantly as I could.
"You know, I honestly don't know. He left about fifteen minutes ago, but I can't imagine what he'd be doing out of the office when he's got that thing to write."
"Did he say when he'd be back?"
Lisa shook her head. "Nope."
I inhaled deeply. He was just busy, I thought, rubbing my forehead distractedly.
"Got a headache," I said, realizing I actually did.
"I can turn the radio off. They already played our spot."
"No, it's okay," I insisted, shaking my head, but Lisa sprang up and walked over to Charlene's desk, silencing a commercial for the Coney Island amusement park. I could hear her footsteps as she walked back over.
"It was just crazy today at the paper," I tried to explain. "My supervisor and two of the other interns are out sick with the flu, and it seems like there's three times as much to do."
"C'mere, stress puppy," she chided, grabbing my shoulders and starting to rub. I relaxed a little against her hands, letting the envelope I was holding drop onto the table.
"You can head home if you want, you know," she encouraged. "There isn't really much for you to do tonight, anyway."
"No, that's all right."
"Lemme guess," she said, working a kink out of my neck. "You're not getting enough sleep."
"Actually, I slept better last night than I have in at least a month." It hadn't been the first time I'd dreamed about Josh, but it had been the first time the dream had ended on more of a hopeful note than a melancholy one.
"So you're coming off a sleep deficit on top of the stress. Yep, those two things together, bam, instant headache."
"Diagnosed by a Columbia MBA. It doesn't get any better than that."
She pulled my head back against her stomach and glared down at me, her hair brushing against my temples as she squeezed them. "Hey, smart-ass, I was pre-med for two years."
"Would I lie to you?" Climbing back into her seat, she grabbed another packet of pages from the ever-dwindling pile.
"I'm okay, really. If *you* want to head out, though, I can finish this up and lock up when I'm done."
"Would you? I'm supposed to meet Ron and Becky for dinner, and-"
"No, it's fine. I'll just put each of these into an envelope and seal them up?"
"That would be great." Standing back up, she kissed me on the top of the head. "Thanks for the help."
"It's fine," I leaned back to tell her as she grabbed her coat from the chair behind her desk. "See you tomorrow night."
"See you," she said, heading out.
Alone in the office, I found the room quiet enough that all I could hear was the clock on the wall. The stack of pages dwindled into nothing as the completed kits grew in number, and I felt the minutes creep by as I sat there. Grabbing a dry sponge from Charlene's desk, I locked the door briefly behind me, and stopped at the sink in the men's bathroom to wet it.
I stared at my reflection in the mirror. "He had a meeting, or something," I insisted to the uncertain-looking guy who looked back at me. His expression didn't change, and I made a face at him.
I put the sponge down on a plate as I sat back down at the table, stuffing the folders into envelopes and wiping the sponge across them to seal them. Finally, I stacked them into the box Lisa had left and glanced at the clock. Josh had been gone for an hour. I turned my chair so that my back was to it, but I could still hear it ticking.
Finally, about twenty minutes later than I usually left for the night, I grabbed my coat and my backpack and headed out, turning off the light and locking the office door behind me. Shoving my hands into my pockets, I attempted to empty my mind as I walked back to my car. I reached over to unlock the door.
Startled, I spun around to see Josh standing about ten feet away from me, leaning against the wall, his arms folded. He was grinning. "Uh, hi," I stammered.
He sauntered over to me, looking quickly around to make sure we were alone, and pulled me against his chest. Burying his head in my hair and inhaling deeply, he drew me back again and curled his hands around both sides of my face, his tongue seeking mine. He arched his neck, dropping his hands and pressing our foreheads together so that his eyes seemed to merge into one. "I've been thinking about doing that all day," he whispered, his voice low and scratchy.
I took a step back, looking down at my car. "I've been at the office all evening. You didn't have to wait this long."
"Were you worried?"
"It did occur to me to wonder whether you might have decided to get yourself out of the office tonight because you didn't want to see me."
His finger traced a path along the line of my jaw. "I decided to get myself out of the office tonight because I didn't think I could keep my hands off of you," he teased.
I jerked my head away from him, unlocking the door to my car and tossing my backpack into the back seat. I pushed my chin forward, and my forehead wrinkled in a scowl.
"Hey, come on."
"Come on what?"
I turned around and glared at Josh, watching his expression turn from playful to alarmed. "Okay, maybe it was stupid."
I shook my head angrily, sitting down in the front seat and staring at the steering wheel.
"I just didn't know how I should act around you, in front of, you know, Lisa, and Charlene, and everybody." Josh bent down to touch the back of my neck. "I mean, if I let even one tenth of what I've been thinking about you show on my face, it'd all be over."
I leaned away, letting Josh's hand drop. "So, what, you're going to flee campaign headquarters before I get there every evening from now on so you don't have to run into me?"
"Of course not." He crouched down, letting his hand rest on my leg. "Come on, I said it was stupid."
I turned back toward him. He had that goofy grin on his face. I felt myself melt a little as he leaned in and kissed me again, but I managed to pull back and look him sternly in the eyes. "You're definitely going to have to learn how to work in that office while I'm there, because I'm not going anywhere."
"You'd better not be." He nuzzled my neck, running the tip of his nose along the inside of my collar. "God, you feel good."
I drew back again, not quite as resolutely this time. "Do you want me to drop you at home on my way out to Yonkers?"
"I can't convince you to spare yourself the drive and crash at my place?"
His eyes were dancing, and he was grinning like an idiot, and I knew with every remaining functioning brain cell in my head that there was no way I could resist him. "Get in," I told him, feeling a smile begin to tug at the corners of my mouth.
He sat there next to me as I paid the attendant for parking, but when I pulled out into traffic, he lay a hand on my leg. I felt my muscles tense as I depressed the brake, and he moved his hand higher. "If you make a right turn on 42nd, you can-"
"Josh, if you don't take your hand away, I'm going to be making a right turn into the next oncoming car."
"Sorry," he snickered, not sounding sorry at all, and removed his hand.
Josh's eyes were glued to me for the entire drive, but when I finally parked a few blocks from his building, his attention shifted to the street around us. I walked a few steps behind him, watching him glance nervously around as he unlocked the front door and dashed up to the second floor. He looked over his shoulder as he swung open the door and finally closed it behind us.
The one-room apartment was tiny, with barely enough space for a double mattress on the floor and a tattered couch inches from it. Unlike his apartment in New Haven, this one contained almost no furniture and no pictures on the walls, and was obviously not intended to be permanent. "Welcome to chez Campaign Staffer," Josh said, gesturing around at the room. "Sorry it's not the Ritz."
"It's not so bad." I grinned, sitting down on the couch. "You should see my place."
"Can I- can I offer you something to drink?" he asked, stepping into the tiny kitchenette. "I've got some- some Scotch over here somewhere, and most of a six-pack in the fridge." He crouched down, his hand visibly shaking as he opened the door to one of the lower cupboards and sifted through the pots and pans.
Standing, I walked the few steps to the kitchenette and put my hand on his shoulder, and Josh knocked a pot over with a clash. "We don't have to do anything you don't want to do, here," I said gently. "I'm okay with just sleeping on the couch."
Turning around, he shook his head and stood, pushing me clumsily against the side of the stove. "Do you think I'd get a minute of sleep knowing that you were lying over there on my couch all night?" he breathed, pressing his forehead against mine. I could feel his erection against my leg through two layers of pants, and arousal surged through me like a waterfall.
Leaning over, he immersed his face in my hair and inhaled deeply. "You're so beautiful," he murmured into my ear, running his nose along its edge, and I shivered. I reached up to weave my arms around him, pressing my palm against the small of his back and snaking my neck around to brush my lips against his. I was rewarded with a soft moan and an eager tongue in my mouth, and I kissed him back, astonished at his sudden lack of hesitation. "God, you are so beautiful," he repeated, gasping, as he came up for air.
Encouraged, I held up one of Josh's hands and interlaced my fingers with his, my eyes searching his face for any expression of reluctance as I led him over to the mattress on the floor. Finding myself immediately pushed to the ground, I drew in a surprised breath as he collapsed against me and crushed me against it in a mass of arms and legs and lips. Josh's lips wandered impatiently over my neck, his hand at the zipper of my pants. "Sam," he panted, fumbling with the metal. "I want- I don't know ..."
Moving his hand away, I pushed him gently off of me so that he was lying with his back flat on the mattress. "Relax," I said, resting a steady hand on his chest. "Wait."
I shook my feet out of my shoes and then sat up to remove Josh's as well, feeling his eyes on me the whole time. Carefully, I unfastened his belt and his pants, sliding them off. My own erection tensed at the sight of him through his boxers, and my mind flashed back to watching him, half-naked, in his apartment in New Haven. I'd hardly dared to imagine this at all, then, and I certainly couldn't have conceived of this sort of enthusiasm.
I unbuttoned his shirt and pulled his arms through it, reaching underneath the T-shirt to feel the soft fur on his chest. His breathing quickened as my fingers grazed his nipples, and he reached up himself to free himself from the shirt, tossing it carelessly over the edge of the mattress. Moving my fingers down to his boxers, I eased them over his hips, and Josh let out a low moan and gripped the sheets as my hand brushed against his erection. I grasped the base and turned my head so that my lips were almost touching the tip. "Is this okay?" I whispered.
He tossed his head back in a sputtery laugh. "My God, Sam, could I *be* any more obvious about what I want?"
"Just checking," I grinned, and took him gently into my mouth. The neighbors apparently forgotten, he moaned first softly, then loudly as I took in more of him. Almost immediately, he screamed, his body tensing with orgasm as he crumpled against the mattress.
Scooting up so that I was propped up by my elbow, my head next to his, I watched his chest move up and down as his breathing slowed. His eyes flying open, he stared at me as if I had drawn aside a curtain and shown him the sun, and I felt my face grow hot. "Hi," I grinned down at him.
Josh's eyes crinkled at the edges as he laughed again, turning his head away for a moment. His throat bobbed when he swallowed, and when he looked back, he raised a hand to touch my cheek, shaking his head in wonder. "Sam," he murmured, his voice breaking as he caressed my name.
Suddenly feeling the discrepancy in our states of dress, I sat up to unfasten my own pants and slide both them and my boxers over my hips. I watched a smile dancing at Josh's lips as I reached up to remove my shirt, his eyes following my every move. With a light touch of fingers, he reached out to stroke the hair on my stomach, and I felt all of the muscles in my abdomen clench.
"You are- you're magnificent," he breathed, moving his hand up along my side. The feel of him finally against my bare skin sent agonizing shivers across every inch of my body, and my erection surged.
My breath coming in fits, I moved his fingers down and clenched them around it, and he grasped it tentatively and began to stroke. His grip faltered and his touch was hesitant, but it was Josh, and I'd waited so long for this that it honestly didn't matter that his hand was shaking. It only took a few moments, and I collapsed against the mattress in release.
My eyelids fluttered open as I felt his lips brush against mine, and I found him gazing nervously down at me, his eyes wide and vulnerable. Smiling, I pulled him against me, feeling his warmth, and met his gaze. "Remind me to thank whatever gods thought I deserved someone like you," I whispered, still breathless.
"That's really corny," Josh responded, his anxious expression melting into a grin. I lifted my head and buried my face in his neck.
Shifting position, he rolled off me and turned onto his side, his fingers resting on my chest as if to maintain the connection between us. "That's it. You're going to Yale."
"Don't I get a say in this?" I teased, reaching up to stroke the hair at the back of his neck.
"Nope. If you pick Duke, I'll just drive down to North Carolina and bring you back, so it's pretty pointless to argue with me."
I pushed him back onto the mattress and lay my head against his chest, closing my eyes, knowing I wouldn't have argued with that, anyway. I could certainly imagine a worse fate than starting law school with this incredible sensation of being able to take on the world and win.
It hadn't been the best sex I'd ever had, but whenever I closed my eyes, even just to blink, Josh's hands were stroking my back, traveling over my thighs. His fingers were always trembling with that wide-eyed wonder that made him seem more sixteen than twenty-six, yet behind that I could always see that incredible brilliance and confident swagger topped off with a cocky grin, serving as a constant reminder that this was no teenage boy, but the most amazing man I'd ever met.
Or maybe all that meant it *had*, in fact, been the best sex I'd ever had, by some technicality at least, because I'd never still been able to feel the touch of another person's lips by the following evening. Every angle of his body seemed to be seared onto my memory.
"Penny for your thoughts."
"Hmm?" I looked up to see Lisa standing over my chair and felt my face grow as warm as she must have felt standing indoors in that winter coat. I wasn't about to share these particular thoughts with her.
She took a step closer and raised an eyebrow, and I felt the heat in my cheeks turn up a notch. Lisa couldn't have stood more than five feet, but when she got that determined look on her face, nobody seemed taller. "Or maybe not," she grinned. "It looks like the thoughts you're having tonight are worth more than a penny."
"You'll never know," I deflected, standing.
"What are you doing, anyway?" She looked down at the empty desk in front of me, then back up at me. "Didn't Josh give you any work to do tonight?"
"Uh, I haven't seen Josh yet."
"He didn't leave a note?"
I crossed my arms and shrugged, looking down at the floor, and Lisa sniffed. "What's gotten into that man, leaving our star volunteer without a job when we've got deadlines?"
"I assume he's been busy."
Lisa rested one hand on the corner of her pocket and reached the other one around to the back of her neck to pull her hair out of her coat. "Well, if he doesn't have anything for you to do, can I get you to come with me? I've got to go pick up a bunch of stuff for the victory party, and it'll take two of us half as long to load it into the van as it'll take me alone."
"Sure, hang on -- just let me grab my coat," I told her as she let the door swing closed behind her.
Retrieving my gray winter coat from a table near the front door, I locked the office and headed out through the back entrance to meet her in the alley. I found the van already idling with Lisa in the driver's seat, and I climbed in through the other side. "Why isn't this stuff being delivered?" I asked her as she shifted the van out of neutral and pulled into traffic.
"My uncle knows the shop's owner through the union, and they've offered to give us the stuff free of charge. We're supposed to consider it a donation."
I nodded, impressed. "Wow, that's great."
"Yeah, isn't it?" she smiled, her eyes on the street as she dodged an old man in a hat who'd decided to use the middle of the road as a crosswalk. "We figured if they were going to do that much, I could certainly make the effort to go pick it up. It's really just a few boxes."
As a navy blue Volvo coming from the opposite direction made an illegal left turn into the intersection right in front of us, she slammed on the brakes, and my hands shot out against the dashboard to keep myself from lurching forward too far. "Goddamn Pennsylvania drivers," she swore under her breath, following the disappearing license plate with her eyes. "He's probably from Philly."
"You know, I keep forgetting you're a New Yorker until you get behind the wheel of a car," I mused.
She flinched a little, and her eyes darted over to me. "Sorry."
"Did you ever think about going back to Columbia for law school?"
"Not seriously. God knows they tried to get me to apply, but I'm ready to leave. I mean, I'm almost twenty-four, and I've never lived anywhere but this city. It's time."
"Well, if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere," I said brightly.
"So they tell me. We'll see, won't we?"
She turned into another alley, rolling down her window as we approached a smiling, waving black man in a blue Yankees cap on the loading dock behind one of the buildings on the left side. "Everything here's all yours," he called out to Lisa, indicating the boxes on the dock with a wave of his arm.
"Thanks so much. And give Sean a hug from me. You'll be hearing from Mike, too."
The guy held up one arm, his fist clenched in a gesture of encouragement. "You guys just win, you hear?"
"We will," she yelled after him with a grin.
There were sixteen boxes in total, most of them not at all heavy, and it only took about five minutes for us to load them into the van. "So, what's in these, anyway?" I asked, lifting my last armload into the back.
"Posters and table skirts, mostly. A few small banners, too -- the big one for behind the podium will be delivered right to the hall." She set her own last box into the back and glanced down at the label on it. "And ..." she said ominously, pulling the tape off of one box and reaching inside, "T shirts for the campaign staff!"
Lisa pulled out a crumpled fistful of dark blue fabric and tossed it in my direction, and I caught it in mid-air and held it up against my chest. Bold red and white block letters spelled out 'Silverstein for Senate'. "So I've been promoted to staff, now?"
"I think that happened ages ago," she said, climbing into the van. "You've made yourself pretty indispensible."
I grinned, climbing back in after her and sticking the T-shirt into the pocket of my coat. "I'll have to take that up with Charlene, then. I think somebody forgot to tell her to put me on the payroll."
Lisa looked pensive as she guided the van back out into traffic, glancing at the boxes behind us in the rear view mirror. "You don't think it's bad luck to pick this stuff up now, do you?" she asked.
"Bad luck?" I looked over at her, and the worried lines on her forehead told me that she was completely serious. "Lisa, we can't lose. You said it yourself. If a blizzard hits the city on Tuesday, we're still going to win."
"I know that. It just seems like this incredibly overconfident thing to do."
"If we *don't* pick them up now, there's not going to *be* a victory party."
I kept my eyes fixed on her. She looked unconvinced. "We can't exactly tell everybody to go vote and then sit there and wait in the hall while we run out and buy decorations," I reminded her.
She inhaled a long breath. "It's just- that sort of thing has always bothered me. I don't even like it when people wish me a happy birthday until midnight on the actual day. It just seems like tempting fate. If you articulate too clearly how close you think you might be to getting what you want, something else is bound to interfere."
"This doesn't sound like the same woman who insisted we had to celebrate our win back when Skyler dropped out of the race."
"Maybe you bring out the optimist in me," she shrugged.
"Well, I'm here right now."
"True, you are." She cracked a smile.
I reached over to touch her arm, giving her a nod of encouragement. "I've seen the polls. I think we're safe to plan for the victory party."
"Okay, my inner optimist is convinced," she grinned, pulling back into the alley behind the campaign office.
Lisa opened the back of the van, leaving the keys in the lock, and grabbed a box. "Hey, you want me to unload the van by myself?" I asked her. "There's really not that much here, and it's not as if you don't have better things to do."
"Would you? That would be great. I have a whole list of phone calls to make."
"I think you're *supposed* to make the volunteers do the scut work," I said with a smile, and she reached over with her free arm to give me a hug before heading inside.
I set the open box of T-shirts on top of a heavier one on the bumper, holding them both still with my hip and one arm as I slammed the door to the van closed and locked it behind me. Balancing the two boxes carefully, I walked up the concrete stairs and pushed open the door to the building, and the open box spilled mountains of dark blue fabric all over the ground as I crashed into Josh. Dropping the remaining box, I crouched down to pick up the T-shirts. Josh fell to one knee and began stuffing them into the box as well, his expression remaining carefully neutral.
"Sorry," I said, pausing for a moment with my fist clutched around a shirt. I stared at him, waiting for the usual ribbing about my clumsiness. He didn't say a word, didn't even meet my eyes.
Retrieving the last shirt from the ground, I stood, and Josh followed suit, brushing the dust from his pants. "I think I must have seen you and lost my balance," I teased, reaching out to rest a hand on his arm.
Josh jerked back as if my fingertips had burned him. "Don't."
"Don't- don't touch me at the office," he hissed, looking over his shoulder.
"Uh, okay." I stepped back, bewildered, remembering all the times Josh had leaned against me while sitting in a booth at a restaurant or lain his hands on my shoulders during a meeting. "I think we're alone, though. Unless you're expecting a horde of cameramen to come in through the back door any second."
"You know, you're not even half as funny as you think you are!" Josh snapped, and a wave of shock crashed through me, knocking me back another step.
Josh rubbed his forehead and ran his hand along his face to the hair at the back of his neck. "Look, I've- I've got to run," he mumbled, glancing at the door.
"I'll see you in about an hour?"
"Yeah." He pushed the door open and ran out without looking back.
I stared after him. This morning he'd threatened not to allow me to leave his bed all day, and had only given in and let me go after I'd agreed to meet him back at his place no later than eight-thirty. I clutched my hands to my chest, feeling my face twist with confusion.
Shaking off the moment, I forced myself to finish unloading the boxes into the campaign office, stacking them into rows along the far wall for Charlene to deal with the next day. I made eight trips between the van and the office, and Lisa remained on the phone throughout. Finally I stood in front of her desk, jangling the keys to the van in front of her to let her know that I was going to park it and then leave for the day. She gave me a thumbs up as she spoke into the receiver, and I headed out to make sure the campaign didn't get yet another parking ticket for loitering too long in a loading zone.
Finally alone with my thoughts as I left the office, I reflected on what had happened with Josh. Explanation Number One occurred to me as I was driving the van back to the lot where we stored it: Perhaps Josh was just in a bad mood. It happened sometimes -- okay, more than sometimes. That was certainly the most optimistic scenario, that Josh had been on his way to a particularly irritating meeting, and he hadn't been relishing the thought of having to sit through it. It was possible.
Explanation Number Two, which I dwelled on a little longer as I was walking between the lot where I'd parked the van and the garage where I'd left my own car, was somewhat more frightening. Maybe it was like he'd said yesterday -- maybe he was so afraid of letting what he felt for me show on his face that it was easier not to be around me at all, and I'd startled him by showing up in the stairwell. He didn't think he could trust himself not to betray his feelings for me in front of the others, and that scared him. That one was certainly possible, too. Maybe even likely.
And then there was Explanation Number Three, which I finally allowed to penetrate my consciousness when I was most of the way to Josh's place. Maybe he'd taken a day to really think about this relationship, and had changed his mind.
I swallowed hard and looked up at Josh's apartment building as I parked my car. I'd just have to hope it wasn't that one.
Approaching the building with increasing trepidation, I rang the bell and was buzzed inside immediately. I walked slowly up to the second floor, and when I found the door to Josh's apartment ajar, I hesitated for a moment and then pushed it open. "Hello?" I called out. "Josh?"
I felt the door tug out of my hand as it slammed behind me, and I spun around to see Josh standing against it. He slid both arms around my waist and leaned toward me, pulling me against him.
"Hi," I responded, reaching my arms up to push myself back from his chest, more than a little bewildered.
"God, I missed you."
He shook his head, his eyes wide with amazement. "How could I miss you when I just saw you this morning?"
"You saw me this evening, too," I reminded him sharply.
"Yeah, uh." He took half a step back, rubbing his forehead. "Sorry about that. You surprised me, you know, with the T-shirts and ... and I was already late for, uh- coming back here. To make dinner."
I turned around to see three trays lined up on the floor near the mattress. The one in the center had two covered pots on it, and each of the others had a place setting and a single candle on it. I dislodged myself from Josh's arms and stepped over to them. "You made dinner?"
"Yeah," he grinned. "I had to swipe the trays from campaign storage."
"I can't believe this." Shaking my head, I knelt down on the floor, opening both pots. One of them contained a limp mound of spaghetti noodles, and the other was full of tomato sauce. The fear and irritation drained from my face and were replaced by a grin.
"It's just spaghetti."
I scooted over to sit on the mattress in front of one of the trays, looking up at Josh. "Nobody's ever made me dinner besides my mom."
He scowled. "Your *mom*? Great comparison, there, Sam. Real romantic."
"Well, I figured the romance was already taken care of by the candles."
"It's too much," he said darkly, sitting down next to me.
"No, no. It's terrific." I reached for him, putting an arm around his back and bending down to plant a kiss on his neck. "*You're* terrific," I clarified, and was rewarded with a smile.
"Well, don't get too used to it," he warned, pressing a fingertip to my chest. "Once we get closer to the summer-"
"I promise." I drew him closer in a long, slow kiss, his lips soft against mine. "I could definitely get used to this part, though," I admitted, smiling against his cheek.
"I already have," he agreed, tracing a line around the outside of my left ear with his fingertip.
In one swift motion, he pushed me back against the mattress and rolled on top of me, and I held myself in check for only a moment before pressing my hands into the small of his back. Inhaling a contented breath as I leaned back to let him run a tongue from my chin to the hollow of my throat, I removed Explanation Number Three from my mental list of possibilities.
"Shouldn't we eat?" I panted, pushing a bit reluctantly against his right shoulder.
"Eat?" I heard a faraway voice at my chest say as Josh moved down to unbutton my shirt.
"You know, food? Your dinner's going to get cold."
"Dinner, right." Josh pushed himself up with both arms and looked over his shoulder for a moment at the three trays he'd set up, and then he shrugged. "The hell with dinner," he growled, turning back to press the full length of his body against me and pushing his tongue between my lips again.
"Sam, can I see you in my office? Right now?"
At the tension in Josh's voice, I looked up briefly at his office door, and then my eyes darted across the room to Lisa. We exchanged a worried look as I stood, grabbing the envelope from Charlene's desk in front of me.
Josh was staring at a stack of papers on his desk when I entered his office, both hands buried in his hair. "Close the door," he demanded, and I reached over to push it shut with my right hand.
"I just got off the phone with Mark," he said, resting a finger on the telephone on his desk. "He just called an emergency staff meeting for this afternoon."
"This afternoon? What time?"
Josh looked at his watch. "Like, *immediately*. As soon as he can get himself and the candidate over here."
"Before the dinner?"
Josh's eyes bored into mine. "He says you know all about this already, so I want to actually hear it from you."
My mind flew back to this morning, when a staff writer from the metro desk had approached me at my desk at the Times, an envelope in his hand. "I don't have to do this," he'd said, "but I thought the folks over at Silverstein for Senate might want to know what I ended up saying."
"What's this?" I'd asked, my heart suddenly racing as I'd opened the envelope and scanned the text of a short piece on Silverstein's alleged romantic relationship with a New York education lobbyist. "Why- why are you giving this to me?"
"Save it, Seaborn," he'd said, dismissing me with a wave of his hand. "I know you've been volunteering for them, and frankly, I couldn't care less -- it's not as if you've been writing about it. I like Silverstein, too. It kills me that he won't comment, and not just because it would have been a better story if he had."
"They weren't willing to speak on the record about this?" I'd asked in disbelief.
"Nope," he'd responded. "If you can get them to say something, though, I promise I'll be more than fair."
"I can do better than letting you hear it from me," I said now, reaching inside the envelope and handing Josh the article. "It's supposed to come out in tomorrow's paper. They don't name her, but they do talk about the potential conflict of interest."
Josh's expression went from angry to incredulous and then to terrified in a matter of seconds as his eyes flew over it. "It won't make the front page," I told him, "but it's pretty damaging."
"How did *you* get-"
"I went in this morning to finish something up, and one of the staff writers handed it to me."
Josh lay the article on his desk with extreme care, like it was a bomb that could go off at any second, and cupped his chin in both hands, staring at it.
"It's Sandra Verne, isn't it?" I asked.
He leaped to his feet, striding across to the far corner of his office. "How should I know? I don't even know if it's true! I don't know a damn thing!" He spun around to face me, his face red. "Why the hell didn't you come to *me* with this?"
"Josh, you- you haven't exactly been available, okay?" We'd hardly exchanged more than two words at a time in the office since we'd started sleeping together, and this morning had been no exception -- he'd picked up his phone the moment he'd seen me in the doorway to his office, refusing to look me in the eye. I clenched a fist behind my back.
"Well, what do you expect? I've been trying to set things up- this is our first big fundraiser in months!" He planted both hands at his waist, clenching tight fingers around his belt. "What did you do, drive it over to Mark at the university?"
"I called the facility, and they got a message to him, and he called me back at Charlene's desk."
"You talked about this on the *phone*, out there in the-"
"Would you rather have had me sit on it? Or wait for you to decide you could-"
"Did anybody hear you talking to him?"
"Just Lisa. Harriet and Kathy were outside, and Charlene's not in this evening."
I glared at him. "What, you're not trusting *Lisa*, now?!"
Josh locked his fingers together at the back of his neck, letting his elbows hang down to his chest, and stared at the floor.
"Do you know why there would've been no comment from the campaign?" I prompted. "I mean, the guy talked to somebody over here, and whoever it was refused to discuss it. That's not going to work, you know? We can't just decide not to talk-"
"I *know*, Sam, Jesus." He sounded hoarse and desperate. "I- I need to think about this." Disengaging his fingers from his neck, he sat back down at his desk, leaning his weight against his arms and stooping over in an imitation of an arthritic old man.
I moved toward him automatically, reaching a hand out to touch his shoulder. "Josh-"
"Don't." He jerked away, his voice cold with fear, and his eyes shifted over to the closed door. "I need to think about this," he repeated.
I withdrew my hand as if he'd slapped it. "Fine," I said through clenched teeth, slamming the door behind me as I walked back out.
Lisa snapped her head up from the paperwork on her desk. "Whoa. Are you-"
"You might want to brace yourself for one hell of a staff meeting."
"Do I get to see the piece first?"
"Josh- Josh has it, now." I stumbled back to Charlene's desk, supporting my weight against the back of her chair.
"Hey." I heard Lisa's chair scoot back as she stood and walked toward me. "They're not going to blame you. You did the right thing, here."
The door swung open and Harriet slipped in, followed quickly by Mark and the candidate. I blinked when I saw Silverstein's harried expression. He was a remarkably attractive man, but right now his eyes were sunken and his face was lined, and it added years to him. He took off his trenchcoat and draped it over the back of a chair in short, sharp gestures, as if it pained him to move.
"Sam." Mark reached out a hand for me to shake. "Thanks so much for bringing this to our attention."
"I'm glad I could help," I nodded, clasping it.
"Could I ask you to man the phones for a while?"
"Charlene couldn't make it in today, so I'm doing that, anyway."
"Hey, Mark?" Lisa questioned. "Maybe Sam should sit in on the meeting?"
He inhaled slowly, nodding, betraying the first hint of his uncertainty. "Yes. Okay. Sure." Turning to Harriet, he gestured in her general direction with an open palm. "Would you- I'm sorry, it's Anita?"
"Harriet," she corrected.
"Of course. Harriet, would you be able to answer the phones while we meet?"
"No problem," she shrugged, and Mark nodded, walking swiftly over to his office and swinging open the door, flicking on the light. Silverstein, Lisa and I followed, and we all claimed chairs along the outside of Mark's desk as he walked around to sit behind it. Josh walked in last, still looking angry. He closed the door behind him and leaned against it.
"Where's Frank?" Josh asked, surveying the room.
"He's on his way. He had to come in from Queens."
"He's talking to some people. We'll have to brief him later."
"Well, swell. We didn't really need anybody here empowered to make decisions about media relations issues, anyway." Josh shook his head and pierced Silverstein with his eyes. "Is this true?"
The candidate nodded, and Mark reached over to put a calming hand on his shoulder. I watched the rage erupt into Josh's eyes as he stared at them. "Okay, I've just gotta know -- was there a *reason* why nobody bothered to tell me about this?
Silverstein let loose a long sigh. "Josh-"
"I was just wondering if it was, like, some new plan of yours." Josh's glare was focused on Mark. "You know, make sure the strategist doesn't know anything about the big ugly scandal lurking in the background, so we can keep him on his toes. Make sure he's-"
"Josh," Mark warned, his voice tightly pinched. "Sit down."
Josh planted himself in the last remaining chair, beside the candidate. He lay his palms along the edge of Mark's desk and sighed. "Who's got the story so far?"
"Just the Times, at this point," Mark answered, "but as we all know, that's just the beginning." He turned to Silverstein. "Is there any way we can still make this go away?"
"You think we should deny it?" Lisa asked.
Mark gestured confidently in the air with both hands. "They've been careful. They've never been photographed together. The tabloids won't care if they don't have a picture, and the real papers won't touch it if there's no proof. Do you think we might be able to sweep this under the carpet?"
I felt an icy wave of disillusionment rush over me, and Silverstein echoed my mental cry of protest. "I won't do that," he insisted quietly.
"I won't do it, Mark."
Josh shook his head slowly. "Sir, with all due respect-"
"I agreed -- reluctantly, if you remember -- to keep the thing with Sandra a secret, but I won't deny it outright," Silverstein said, a bit more vehemently. He was still staring at Mark, who was beginning to look a little sick. "I'd sooner drop out of the race."
"Sir, can we at least consider it?" Josh argued. "We've got to face facts, here -- you're already perceived as weak on the issues. At this point you're running mostly on your education plan. If the public starts thinking you're under the thumb of the lobbyists on this one, we're dead in the water a month out from the primary."
My disappointment expanded into outrage, and I leaned forward in my chair. "Excuse me, but can I say something?" I interrupted.
Josh stiffened visibly. "Go ahead, Sam," Mark allowed.
"Dingell's been in the House for thirty years, and he went through something pretty similar a few years back. He even married her. There was some minor fallout, but by the time the election rolled around, it was already old news. If we address this now-"
"Dingell was already one of the most powerful men in Congress when that happened," Josh countered. "This stuff doesn't roll off us in the same way. Come on, Sam, you *know* that."
I narrowed my eyes at him, feeling rebuked by his condescension. "How about Senator Hamilton of Idaho?" I suggested, my voice growing increasingly agitated. "His brother's a farm lobbyist. Landslide victory, first time out!"
"Hamilton- Hamilton didn't live with his brother, and he wasn't ..." He turned his head to glance at Silverstein. "Pardon me, sir." He turned back toward me. "He certainly wasn't *sleeping* with him. Hamilton deflected criticism by staying neutral on that issue, and nobody who reads the papers is ever going to buy that Mike's neutral on education. Besides, you can't choose your own brother, and this-"
"Lots of people think you can't choose who you fall in love with, either," I snarled.
Josh slammed his palms down on the desk. "No, but you can damn well choose whether or not you throw your entire career out the window over one lousy little relationship!"
I must have stood up then; I'm not entirely sure. All I knew for sure was that my eyes were stinging, and I wanted to reach across that desk, grab him, and throw him up against the wall. I heard the folding chair clatter to the floor behind me, and out of the corner of my eye I saw Lisa looking at me in alarm.
Mark cleared his throat, breaking the silence. "Lisa, Sam, could you give us a minute?"
My eyes were still locked on Josh's in an angry glare, and I barely felt Lisa's hand on my arm. "Sam?" I heard her say, her voice coming from deep inside a cavern. "Sam, let's go get a coffee. Sam. Come on."
I was shaking as I let Lisa lead me to the coffee shop, her hand guiding me by my elbow. There was still a hint of a leftover winter chill in the air, but I was so numb I didn't even notice I wasn't wearing a coat. My thoughts were an indecipherable, swirling mass, my emotions coiled so tightly in my chest that I could barely access them. It hardly registered as Lisa pushed me into a sitting position on a couch, and a few moments later when she shoved a coffee into my hand, I looked up at her and blinked.
She sat down next to me. "So. What's going on?"
"What's going on?!" I exploded, sitting bolt upright. "Those guys are back there blowing all the work we've done in the past five months with the *stupidest* political move I've ever heard of! That's what's going-"
"You're not just upset about what Mark said."
"Of course I'm upset about what Mark said!"
"I know." Her voice was calm, soothing, and I felt the coil in my chest loosen almost imperceptibly. She put her hand on my arm, and this time I could feel it, tying me to the outside world like an anchor. "But there's something else, isn't there?"
"They're wrong about this in so many ways, it scares me. They've gotten *direct* questions from the press, and at first they wouldn't comment, and now they're going to deny it? Not only is this one of the most ethically unambiguous issues I can imagine, it's also plain common sense that you can't deny something outright after you've refused to talk about it. Any half-decent journalist is going to smell a rat right off. The Times has obviously checked the story out thoroughly enough to print it, and nobody's going to believe a denial after that! It would be political suicide!"
Lisa sipped her coffee. "If you want to talk about it, I'm listening."
"You have some personal investment in this, and I'm ready to listen to you, if you want to tell me about it."
I folded my hands in my lap. I was almost furious enough with Josh to tell Lisa the whole story. Almost, but not quite. I inhaled sharply, letting the breath back out in a slow hiss.
"It's your call," she prompted.
I leaned back against the couch. "I've- I've been there, sort of. In Silverstein's position. I mean, I've never run for office, obviously, but I've- I once had to hide a relationship because people were convinced it would hurt somebody's career."
Lisa nodded slowly.
"I just think it's a *shitty* thing to ask someone to do." My voice came out bitter and prickly, and I clutched at my forearms to calm myself.
"He did it willingly."
"Yeah, but you heard him, Lisa. Mark *asked* him to keep quiet about this. He didn't want to do it, but that jackass convinced him to, anyway. And now that the truth is coming out, he and Josh want to talk him into lying about it? We should be supporting Silverstein, coming up with ways to make this work for us, not trying to convince him to go along with brushing it under the carpet."
Lisa lay a protective arm across my chest, and I leaned my head against the back of the couch and stared up at the ceiling. "I mean, yeah, he's a public figure and all that, but this is his *life*. Doesn't that count for something?"
"You're right, but you know what? They're going to figure that out. These guys aren't evil or stupid, they're just a little stunned right now. You've got to give them half an hour to get their bearings."
I shook my head and sighed, and Lisa continued. "It was just a dumb idea Mark tossed out there because he was scared. They'll discuss it, they'll come to the same conclusion you and I have already reached, and then Josh will come up with some brilliant spin on the whole thing and we'll be ready to go. It's just going to take them a little while to realize that."
I lifted my head to look at Lisa, and she smiled at me. "If they're still being stupid in half an hour, *then* you and I get to chew them out."
I felt the corners of my mouth twitch, and I wrapped my arm around hers across my chest. "Okay."
She pulled me closer to her and gave me a fierce squeeze. "We can't let this tear us apart. If we're all fighting each other, that's what's going to kill this campaign, not Silverstein sleeping with Sandra Verne."
I drew in another slow breath, shaking my head. "God. Silverstein's sleeping with Sandra Verne."
"It's a mad, mad world." Lisa leaned her head against my shoulder, running her hand along my side. "Whoever *your* Sandra Verne was, I hope she's aware that she didn't deserve you."
I grinned down at the photocopier, my eyes fixed on the ever-growing stack of pages on the output tray, but what I was really seeing in front of me was the text of the letter I'd retrieved from my room in Yonkers the night before. Only realizing after driving out there that it had been weeks since I'd picked up my mail, I'd headed straight for my desk to find four letters from my mom, an invitation to join Princeton's alumni association, and two letters with law school return addresses in the upper left corner.
I'd torn open the one from Yale and stared at the opening lines *Dear Mr. Seaborn, We are pleased*, and for most of the night I'd lain awake on my bed, feeling as if my face might fall off from smiling. It had taken me nearly half an hour to open the one from Duke to find another glowing acceptance, but it had already been as clear as the ocean on a Connecticut beach where I'd be enrolling this fall.
"Don't forget to give a copy of that letter to Josh."
I turned my head toward Charlene. "That- what letter?"
She put her hands on her broad hips and raised both eyebrows at me. "The one you're photocopying. The one we're supposed to send out several *thousand* copies of by- where *is* your head?"
"Right," I blushed, still grinning. "I'll be sure to get him one." I'd get him a copy of the other letter, too. Maybe we'd even plaster the walls of our apartment with it in the fall.
Charlene removed the two-inch stack from the output tray and shook her head at me. "I think everybody's a little off, today," she muttered, glancing over at the table on the other side of the room where Harriet and Kathy were seated, already folding copies of the same letter and laughing like schoolgirls. Walking across the room, the office manager plopped the new copies on the middle of the table. "Gotta keep you girls occupied," she explained, and both of them groaned.
As the photocopier ground to a halt, I grabbed the top copy of the campaign letter and shoved it into a folder, walking over to Josh's office. Passing the desk where I'd set my jacket, I impulsively snatched the Yale acceptance letter out of the inside pocket, unfolded it, and lay it just inside the folder, on top.
Mark was sitting next to Josh at his desk, the two of them poring over a graph. "We're gonna have to send him out west again," I heard Josh say glumly.
"It's unavoidable," the campaign director agreed. "Hey, Sam," he said, looking up.
"Hey," I nodded at Mark, handing the folder to Josh. "Here's some stuff for you to go over."
Josh kept his eyes fixed on the page in front of him as he reached up to take the folder from me. "Thanks."
"I think you're going to want to look at this right away. It's pretty important." I battled with the smile that was threatening to spread from my eyes to my lips, and Josh opened the folder and stared down at the page for a moment. Turning pale, he slammed it shut and pushed it off to the side of his desk.
"That letter could definitely have serious repercussions for the future ... of the campaign," I teased. "We should probably talk about it."
"We'll talk about it later," he snapped.
The smile fled my face. "I think it's important enough to talk about now."
"Later, Sam. Can't you see I'm in the middle of something?"
"What's this?" Mark asked, concerned. "What could have repercussions for the future of the campaign?"
Rubbing the back of his neck, Josh scowled down at his desk. "Nothing that can't wait," he insisted, and finally looked up and met my eyes with a cold and angry glare. "Right, Sam?"
I pressed my lips together. "I just thought you might want to take a break and go get a cup of coffee with me, and we could talk about it now."
"Sam, I said I don't have time for your asinine little memo right now! We'll talk about this later!"
"Screw you. Don't do me any favors."
Fuming, I stormed out of Josh's office and joined Harriet and Kathy at their table, grabbing a stack of letters. Kathy stopped mid-giggle and stared at me, and Harriet looked down at the envelope in her hand. For about five minutes, all that could be heard was the rustling of papers and an occasional cough.
The thoughts were still churning in my head, but suddenly they all seemed crystal clear. I thought past the fantasy of the life together in New Haven that Josh and I had spent so many nights discussing, finding it to be just that -- an illusion, a fiction. Reality would be so much harsher: a year of only being able to touch Josh, or even talk to him, when we were alone in our apartment. A year of pretending to my professors and any mutual friends that we were just roommates. A year of acting like we barely knew each other whenever we saw each other on campus.
Harriet finally broke the silence. "So, Kathy, has Mr. Right told his wife about you yet?" Her tone was nonchalant, and Kathy choked, raising a hand to her mouth. Harriet turned toward me, removing her glasses, her brown eyes wide. "Kathy here has been carryin' on with a married man."
"Oh, God, this isn't happening," Kathy mumbled, looking stricken, and turned to me. "They're separating. It's really not what it sounds like."
"Wasn't he supposed to tell her last week?"
"His daughter's sick, Harriet. He's promised he'll say something by the end of the month."
"So meanwhile he's got one for his bed and one for show. I'm sorry, honey, but that just ain't right. If he ain't willin' to just be yours and yours alone, he ain't worth nothin' to you."
"I *really* don't think Sam cares about any of this," Kathy insisted, grabbing the end of her ponytail and flipping it back.
"So tell me, Sam. Who's the lucky girl who gets to warm *your* bed at night?"
Kathy slapped both hands on the table. "Harriet!"
"I'm just askin'. Sam don't mind, do you, Sam?"
"Oh, I can't believe- I *don't* know you." The younger volunteer stood and walked over to a box in the corner, grabbing another stack of envelopes.
"My bed's been pretty cold for a while, actually," I said, remembering that I'd spent precisely one night there in the past four months.
Harriet leaned back in her chair, tilting the front legs off the ground. "Hear that, Kathy? Sam don't got a girlfriend!"
"You really don't have to take this, Sam, honestly. Just tell her to go screw-"
"I haven't had a girlfriend for about two years," I said truthfully.
Harriet pointed at Kathy. "Well, right over there is a fine-"
"*Harriet*! Jesus!" Kathy shouted from across the room, rushing back over to the table and glaring at the older woman before turning back to me. "Sam, I'm sorry about this. She thinks she's my mom, or my big sister, or something, but really she's just a pain in the ass."
"I'm just sayin' that Sam here is a nice young man with a promisin' career and a pretty face, and he's single, too. The rest is up to you."
We all looked up when Josh's door slammed, and I scowled into the envelope in my hands as Harriet and Kathy burst out laughing. "See?" Kathy said, swatting Harriet on the arm. "You're going to get me in trouble with the boss."
I sat in stony silence for another half hour, creasing, stuffing, and thinking. After our single, conflicted year together at Yale, Josh would go off to Washington. I'd be stuck in law school alone, only able to see him when it fit into his schedule and his career plans, never allowed to tell a soul how much he meant to me. I listened to Harriet and Kathy continue to bicker, but kept my thoughts tuned to another frequency deep inside my head, watching my dream of a life with Josh turn into a nightmare as reality grabbed me by the throat.
It couldn't last, not this way. Something would have to change.
When Josh finally emerged from his office, jangling a handful of subway tokens as if to put them on display, I glared down at the sealed stack of envelopes in front of me. "I'm gone for the night," I heard him say as the door swung closed behind him.
The familiar signal always grated, but this evening it felt like sandpaper on the underside of my skin. I knew I was supposed to wait a few minutes and then leave for the night myself, meeting him at my car. It occurred to me to wonder how long he'd wait in the parking structure for me to show up, if I just took the train home to Yonkers to sleep.
I jumped up from the chair. To hell with waiting. "I'm heading out, too."
"See you, Sam," Kathy said, and Harriet and Charlene both waved as I grabbed my jacket and charged out of the office and onto the street.
When I reached my car, Josh had just unfolded a newspaper and was leaning back against my bumper to read it. I stopped for a moment and stared at him, and then I rushed over to my car and unlocked the door, not looking at him. "Hey," he said, obviously surprised to see me so soon. I unlocked the passenger door to let him in. "You didn't-"
"If you tell me I didn't wait long enough to come out here, you really are taking the train home tonight," I said, keeping my voice carefully level as I looked in my rear view mirror before shifting my car into reverse.
He coughed, pulling on his seatbelt. "Ah. Congratulations," he said finally.
"Thank you," I answered, my teeth clenched.
I paid the parking fee and pulled out onto the street. Feeling Josh's hand suddenly on mine on the gearshift, I jerked it away, my eyes still on the road ahead of me. He turned away from me to look out his own window, and I drove the rest of the way in an awkward silence.
As I was pulling into a spot in front of Josh's building, Josh craned his neck, combing the street for familiar faces, and my anger surged. "Do you want me to wait in the car for ten minutes and then come up?" I asked him, my voice thick with sarcasm.
"For God's sake, Sam, would you shut up?"
Josh kept his eyes carefully on the stairs as we walked up to his apartment, and I slammed the door behind us, throwing my jacket onto the couch as I sat down.
Josh stepped into the kitchenette, paced the length of it several times, and finally sat on the mattress in front of me. "What the hell is going on, here?" he asked, annoyed.
"What do you think is going on?"
"If this is all payback for what happened in my office, you're totally overreacting!"
"*I'm* overreacting?!" I asked, my voice high and incredulous. "I'm not the one who wouldn't even dare to congratulate his lover on getting into law school!"
"I'm the one who should be upset about that little trick, okay? Why the hell do you do things like that? Do you *like* to watch me squirm? What if Mark had demanded to see what was inside the folder?"
"You *could* have told him I was excited about going to Yale, and wanted to tell you about it."
"Don't you think he would've suspected something was up after your little smartass remark about the 'future of the campaign'?"
"No, in fact, I don't. Unlike you, I don't believe the world is looking over our shoulders trying to figure out whether or not we're lovers," I sneered. "You could have said: 'Congratulations on getting into law school, Sam. I'm proud of you. Let's go do something to celebrate.' Nobody would have turned an innocent remark like that into anything tawdry!"
"What, you think Mark is a moron? He'd have figured it out!"
"So what if he *had* suspected something? Just what would be so goddamn terrible about that?"
"Sam, you know what would be- even if everyone on the campaign was fine with- with this -- and that's by *no* means a sure thing -- they'd *still* let me go!"
I snorted. "Silverstein wouldn't let you go for this. He wouldn't dare."
"He'd be *right* to let me go for this! His deputy campaign director has been screwing one of the male volunteers! It's gonna be hard enough to win this after Sandra Verne -- the last thing this campaign needs is a sex scandal on top of it all!"
I flinched, pulling further away from him. "This isn't about some salacious tabloid scandal, Josh, this is about your life, and mine!"
"Well, it sure wouldn't fit the image we've been trying to cultivate, and you *know* people don't want anyone who deviates from that image anywhere near a campaign."
"We do our jobs, and we do them well. Anything else is *completely* irrelevant! They shouldn't care about that sort of thing!"
"But they *do*!" Josh exploded, standing up. "They care! If you ignore that, you lose elections, and you're not worth a damn thing to anybody!"
I turned away from him and stared down at the mattress, where I'd woken up wrapped around him just yesterday. Where we'd spent so many nights enthusiastically laying our future out in front of us like a road map. "So people like us are supposed to let polling data dictate to us who we can love?" I said quietly. "For the rest of our lives?"
Josh sat down next to me on the couch, and I felt the side of his leg brush against mine. "The voters care about a hell of a lot of really ludicrous things. They care how the candidates look. They want 'em to sound smart, but not so smart that it makes *them* feel stupid by comparison. They care about the staff not being too black or too white or too Washington-insider or too controversial in *any* way. You're not gonna change that, Sam, and trying to fight it just handicaps the good guys."
Josh ran a single finger along my neck, and I felt my muscles clench beneath his touch. "Can't we argue about this some other time? Sometime when we're not supposed to be, like, *celebrating*?"
"Josh," I said quietly. "I'm not going to lie anymore."
He recoiled from me as if I had hit him. "What are you saying?"
I turned to face him, looking him squarely in the eyes. "I'm saying that I can't keep doing this. I can't keep pretending we barely know each other when what I really want is to write my name next to yours on the mailbox downstairs. I want to rub your shoulders when you're tense without worrying who might see and what they might think."
"I want to leave the office when you do without pretending we're going our separate ways. And when you're on television, I want to be able to yell out to everyone who's watching with me: 'See that man standing behind the candidate, off to his left? That's Joshua Lyman. Brilliant campaign strategist, arrogant son-of-a-bitch, the most wonderful man I know, and *my lover*'."
He shook his head vehemently, his face drenched in irritation. "That'd never work. Not in a million-"
"It won't if you won't let it, that's for sure!"
"Would you *please* be reasonable, here?!"
"I'm sick of being reasonable. It hurts too much."
"I've worked too hard, okay? I'm not going to risk it all over-"
"Over one lousy little relationship," I finished bitterly.
Josh flinched. "That was a cheap shot."
"It's what it all comes down to, though, right?"
"That's not how I feel about you!"
"But however you feel about me, the fact that you might lose your job over this still matters more."
Josh drew in a breath at the edge of finality in my voice, his face contorted in something that looked like a sudden rush of fear.
"Don't you think I know it isn't just the job?" I choked. "You're ashamed of me. That's the real reason why you don't want to tell anyone -- you're still hoping that one morning you'll wake up and feel nothing at all for me, and then finally your nightmare will be over."
My eyes dared him to deny it. He didn't.
"You know what, Josh?" I stood, gathering whatever was left of my strength and dignity after four months of an exhausting cycle of exhilaration and desperation, and met his eyes. "I deserve better than that." Shaking, but determined, I walked out the door and shut it firmly behind me.
I shivered in my shirtsleeves against the spring wind, furious with myself for leaving my jacket behind in Josh's apartment, as Lisa's blue Chevette pulled up in front of me. She reached over to unlock the door, and I climbed in, taking a long enough look at her to realize that she was wearing a bathrobe before turning to stare at the dashboard.
"I'm choosing to assume it's not a coincidence that you asked me to pick you up at an intersection only a block from Josh's apartment," Lisa said, her voice level.
Leaning over, I lay my forehead down on the dash and clutched my arms to my chest over the knot that had formed there. What a horrible, stupid mess. "No," I finally said, sounding feeble and useless.
I leaned back against the seat as she shifted the car out of neutral, staring back at Josh's building as we pulled away from it. It disappeared and was replaced by dozens more nearly identical to it as we turned a corner onto another residential New York street.
It all could have happened anywhere, in any of those apartments, to anyone. That guy looking pensively off the edge of his balcony at the street below -- what secrets was he keeping? Did the woman sitting on her front step refrain from answering all but the most direct of questions about her life to keep the whole story from getting out? What was the old man shutting his curtains afraid people would be able to see if they looked inside?
I pressed my eyes tightly shut as Lisa pulled into an empty space in front of her building and turned off the car. Glancing back over at her, I felt a pang of guilt, remembering I'd gotten her out of bed for this. "You know, this was a bad idea."
"If you mean calling me, that was no problem. If you mean the circumstances that led you to call me, well-"
"My car is still back at- back at Josh's. I should go home," I murmured, and then I realized I didn't really know where home was, anymore. I clutched my stomach, suddenly afraid I would throw up.
"Sam, you're not going to drive all the way out to Yonkers like this. Certainly not in the middle of the night."
"I- I got you out of bed."
"Yes, and now I'm up, and I'm inviting you in."
I looked down at her lap, and she put a hand on my leg and gave me a gentle squeeze. "Come on, I'll make you a cup of tea."
I leaned back, closing my eyes again. "Okay."
I stood on wobbly legs when she opened the car door, and she wrapped an arm around my waist as we walked two blocks to her apartment. "My roommates are both gone for the weekend, so you've got either the couch or your choice of beds," she said, not quite managing to keep her tone light.
"Thanks," I mumbled, stumbling into the building as she unlocked the front door.
She guided me to her blue and white striped couch upon opening the door to her apartment, and five minutes later she had set a pot of tea on the table in front of me. "So why don't you start from the beginning," she prompted.
I felt a hot mug against my fingers, and I extended a hand around it and lifted it to my lips, aromatic waves of mint reaching my nose. "I've been- we've been sleeping together since January. Thinking about it since- since before that. Since before you joined the campaign."
"Wow." Her eyes unfocused for a moment, her expression unreadable. "I had no idea."
I snorted. Josh would have been pleased to hear that.
"I mean, looking back, a lot of things suddenly make a lot more sense, but the two of you have really hidden this well."
I hid my face in the mug. The heat from the tea scalded my lips, but it felt strangely soothing. "That was the way he wanted it."
"Is this- is it serious?"
"I thought it was. It's over."
I nodded, and she reached over to touch my face, my pain reflected on her own features. The horrible nausea threatened my stomach again, and I felt my eyes start to sting.
Unwrapping my fingers from the mug, she set it on the table, pulling my head down into her lap. I closed my eyes and let her stroke my cheek. "What happened?" she asked.
"I told him I couldn't lie anymore. He's too ashamed of me -- or of himself, or something -- to really make it work."
"What a jerk."
"*That* part you already knew, though." I gave a little laugh, like a hiccup. "He'd argue that he's just being practical, here. That he wants to go somewhere within the party, and I was the noose around his neck."
Lisa's legs stiffened against my face. "You're certainly not the noose around anybody's neck!"
I coughed to release the breath in my throat, and she clasped a tight hand around my shoulder. "There are- there are gay politicians!" she yelled. "Hell, Tim Schwartz has an openly gay chief of staff!"
"Josh is ambitious."
"Josh is a fool."
"Thanks," I said, my voice rough with emotion.
Her hand stopped stroking my cheek as she clenched it into a fist, her knuckles turning white, her fingernails digging into the soft lump of flesh on the heel of her hand. Then, finally, she released it, letting out a long breath at the same time, and the muscles in her leg relaxed. "I guess I assumed it was one of your professors at Princeton," she said, a little more calmly.
"The mysterious woman who broke your heart because her career was more important to her than you were -- I thought she must have been a professor." She laughed nervously. "It never occurred to me that the relationship might still be going on when you told me about it. Or that she was really a he."
"Does that bother you?"
She shook her head. "Of course not. It's just- I guess I hadn't pegged you as gay. Wait a minute, didn't you say you were once involved with a woman from the Princeton paper? Carol, right?"
"Yeah, for about a year."
"Are you bisexual?"
I felt Lisa shrug. "Some people are. My brother is. He had a boyfriend for six years, and now he's married with two kids."
I couldn't remember why it had ever seemed so important to call it something. "Probably," I said listlessly.
"Are you ..." She hesitated.
"Are you still planning to go to Yale?"
As if the name of the university had dislodged a rusty bolt and knocked it free, my memory flew open, releasing the thoughts of that November trip to New Haven, when it had all begun. The red sky of a sunset over jagged rocks on a Connecticut beach with Josh's arm lying companionably across my shoulders. His pride at introducing me to his con law professor, and that smile when he'd sparred with me afterwards, teasing me about the attempts I'd made to impress the man. That fumbling, breathless night in his apartment, when I'd felt the touch of his eyes in a way I could only have imagined feeling the touch of his fingers.
The only night, ever, together in that bed.
I pressed my eyes closed, and Lisa stroked the length of my arm. "I still haven't toured the Duke campus, you know? Why don't you and I drive down to North Carolina together on the weekend and see what we can find out? It'll be good for you to get away from the city."
"Yeah, we should do that," I said, trying to sound enthusiastic, but it came out hoarse with pain.
"Hey, hey. We don't have to. It was just a thought." Lisa shifted position to lie down behind me on the couch, laying my head on the coarse fabric of a couch pillow and spooning around me.
"I just- I can't think about any of that right now," I choked, and she lay an arm across my chest.
"That's okay. Shh."
"Making any plans for the future just feels-"
"Shh. No plans, see?" She lay her face in my hair and kissed the back of my neck. "It's okay."
A dam burst, and a flood of tears flowed out of my eyes, soaking the pillow. Lisa held me tightly to her as I sobbed. "Oh, Sam. It's not fair. It's not fair," I heard her whisper, over and over again.
"But how are you going to get down to North Carolina without a car?" The amazed tone in my mother's voice carried clearly across the distance.
I wiped the sweat off the back of my neck with a washcloth, crumpling it into a ball and tossing it across the room into the laundry basket, and leaned back in my desk chair. "Lisa's got a car," I said into the receiver. "We're thinking about renting a van, anyway, with two of us moving down there."
"When am I going to be able to meet this Lisa? Are you going to bring her home with you in July?"
I rolled my eyes, grateful she couldn't see my expression through the phone line. "We're *still* just friends, Mom. Same as last time."
"I just thought that with you two moving down there together and everything-"
"We're sharing a moving van, okay, not an apartment. Anyway, I might still get my car fixed -- I haven't decided, yet."
"You're *sure* you don't need us to send you any money."
"Mom, I'm all right," I insisted, letting loose an exasperated sigh.
"It's just- going back to school is going to put yet another strain on your financial situation. We really want to help you, honey."
I shuffled the papers on my desk into two neat stacks, mentally labeling them "current" and "past" before tucking them into file folders. "I can probably get a couple hundred for the Escort. I'll be fine. Maybe I'll do some freelance writing, too. I've got some contacts."
"So just a couple more days left of campaign work, huh? Are they going to make it without you?"
"Um." I fingered the bottom edge of my shorts. "I actually ended up leaving the campaign a little while ago."
"You didn't tell me that! Did something happen?"
"I just- I needed the extra time to pack, and with the car and everything-"
"You're *sure* you don't need us to pay to get it fixed."
"I'm really sure, Mom. Really."
"Okay. I just worry about you."
"I know. I'm fine." I trapped the phone between my shoulder and my ear, rubbing my eyes as I stood, and tucked the two file folders into the box on my desk.
"So, *are* they going to make it without you?"
"They're getting a lot of new volunteers now, with the students out of school for the summer. I'm sure they'll be okay."
"Well, it sure sounded like you were really carrying them. I'm sure they didn't fully realize what a gem they had in you until you left."
I felt a sudden sharp pain in my chest, and I lifted the phone from my desk and carried it out into the hall. "They had a lot of good people, Mom," I said, unable to keep from sounding wistful. "Lots of them."
Walking past the front entryway, the large wooden door open so as to let the fresh air in through the screen, I stopped mid-stride and stared as I saw Josh standing on my front step in cotton pants and a white dress shirt. I blinked, but it was definitely Josh glaring at the doorbell as he pressed it forcefully again and again, trying to make it ring. Hearing my footsteps, he raised his head, giving me a sheepish smile.
"Uh, Mom?" I said, still staring. "There's somebody here. I've got to go."
"Okay, honey, take care. I love you."
"Love you, too." I put the phone down in its cradle and set it on the floor. "Hey," I said to Josh, still staring at him through the screen door.
"Hey. Your doorbell doesn't work."
"It's been like that since I've been living here."
"Do you, uh- have a couple of minutes?"
"Sure." I reached over to push the door open, feeling trapped in some surreal avant-garde film where you could just think somebody's name and he'd appear. "I was just- talking to my mom." He followed me into the living room.
"You're moving out," he said, lifting his backpack higher to dodge the boxes.
"Yeah, it's that time." I turned around to face him, scrutinizing him.
He shifted his weight from one leg to the other, rocking back and forth, and coughed. "Uh. Silverstein's numbers are down out west."
"I heard. I'm sorry."
"But hey, we're bringing on board a new assistant media director. He's a real attack dog, and he's from Buffalo, so he knows the terrain. So that's good."
I nodded. "Good."
"Starting to gear up for the summer."
Josh looked down at the ground, raising a hand to the back of his neck and running his fingers through his hair. "We, uh- we really- it's not quite the same without you there." He looked back up at me, smiling a little. "Charlene won't stop complaining about Harriet."
"I'll have to drop her a card or something once I'm settled in."
"Yeah. Uh, I can- I can write you a reference letter, if you ever need it. Or something. For anything, I mean, if I can help you get a staff job-"
"I don't think I'll be doing any more political work anytime soon, actually."
He winced a little. "Ah."
"Law school, you know, I'm going to be pretty busy," I explained.
"Yeah. Okay." Josh turned and walked away from me toward the front window, looking out it at four kids fighting over a basketball in the street. His shoulders were stiff, his arms pressed tightly to his sides, and he leaned a hand against the peeling yellow paint on the window frame. He looked so out of place in this dump.
"Can I get you something to drink?" I offered.
"No, thanks, I really can't stay," he said, his back still turned.
"What brings you by?" I asked finally.
He turned around, struggling visibly for an explanation. "I was, uh- in the neighborhood, so I thought, you know, check out the suburbs, look in on the locals, that sort of thing."
I couldn't help but crack a smile. "You were in the neighborhood? I'm pretty far off the beaten path for someone who lives and works in Manhattan."
"I- I thought I'd bring you your jacket." He zipped open his backpack, handing me my blue windbreaker.
Reaching over, I took it from him. "Thanks."
"I didn't know if I'd be seeing much of you once you got to New Haven, or if you might need it before I got back there this fall, so I thought I'd-"
"I'm going to Duke, Josh."
"Ah." Disappointment flooded his face, and my heart lurched. "Okay."
"So yeah, it was a good thing you brought it over," I added, my voice shaking.
"Lisa's going to Duke, too," he said slowly.
"Lisa hates me."
I winced at the thought of yet another promise broken. "I'm sorry. I- I won't tell anyone else."
Josh held up his hand. "Hey, I trust you, remember?" He smiled wistfully.
"I remember," I said, returning the smile along with the sentiment.
For a split second our eyes locked, and all at once I could sense the connection that had existed between us from the beginning. In that moment, it was as if we were both looking into a common well of shared experiences, and we each knew the other was reliving the same memories: memories of discovery and of pain and of skin on hot skin and of two lives that had been woven together far too briefly. Josh looked down at his backpack and cleared his throat, severing the tie, and I took a step back, my eyes suddenly stinging.
"I- I have something else for you, too," he said hoarsely, digging again in the pack and pulling out the shell he kept in his car. "I, uh- I want you to keep this. You know, for luck."
I shook my head. "Josh. I can't take that."
"If you're passing up a chance to go to Yale to go hang out with a bunch of rich southern boys, you're gonna need all the luck you can get," he said, forcing a grin.
"But that's- that was Joanie's. You need to keep it."
"It's yours, now," he said, stepping toward me and holding it in an outstretched hand. "Come on, take it. I really- I'd like to- I mean, I want to be able to think about you having it. I want- I wanna know it's, you know, like, with you."
The gold swirls in it shone as I reached over and wrapped my fingers around it. It was heavy for its size, its surface smooth and cold. "Thank you. I don't- I don't know what to say." My voice sounded creaky, like the hinge of a door swinging open and then closed again. "Thank you," I repeated.
"Hey, can I call you?" he said impulsively.
I felt my eyes grow wide, and Josh frowned a little. "If that's okay," he said, backpedaling. "I mean- I wanna be able to- to be your friend. Unless you-"
"No, I'd- I'd like that. Just, um, I'm going to be pretty busy with moving in and everything, so maybe you could wait until the fall?"
"I'll be in the phone book. Or, technically, considering the fact that we'll be in different cities, the directory assistance databa-"
"So. You should probably-"
"I should- yeah." He turned, walking quickly back toward the entryway, and I followed him, setting my jacket down on top of the television, still grasping the shell.
As we reached the front door, Josh raised his arms as if to hug me goodbye, but dropped them back to his sides at the look on my face. He coughed, averting his eyes and staring at a stain on the frayed carpet, and I swallowed hard, letting him turn toward the door.
He raised his fingers to the handle, his shoulders hunched with resignation, and hovered with his hand there for a long time, as if gathering strength. I heard him inhale a long breath. "Look, you were right to say that you deserve better than me," he said, still facing the door, "and I'm not gonna argue with you. But there was- you were wrong about one thing, one big thing -- I never wished I could stop loving you. I- ah- I wanted you to know that."
He pushed the screen door open and let it slam behind him as he walked down the sidewalk to the street. I watched him walk slowly away, his hands shoved deep into the pockets of his pants. He didn't look back, but as I lifted the shell to my ear and heard the soft rumbling of my own heart within it, I could almost feel him there with me again.
That fall at Duke, when the leaves turned rusty orange and the wind grew cold again, I would find my eyes drifting away from the dense verbiage of my contract law book and toward the swirling brown and gold of the shell that sat on my desk. I would find myself reaching for it and holding it to my ear again. I never decided whether it sounded more like the waves of the ocean on a Connecticut beach, or like whispered promises that would never come to pass. But it always, always sounded like Josh.
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