Title: A Campaign Thing
Author: Candle Beck
Spoilers: Through 'Two Cathedrals.'
Archive: Aye, let me know, if you would.
Disclaimer: Characters herein depicted belong to Aaron Sorkin, Bradley Whitford and Rob Lowe. No money is being made off this story.
Summary: Sam's addiction was Josh.
A Campaign Thing by Candle Beck
Everyone who works on a political campaign has an addiction.
Addiction is in the natures of the people who would voluntarily assume the insane, all-consuming responsibility of an election, especially a national race. Campaigns mean absurdly long hours, lousy pay, no sort of job security, no guarantee of victory, no guarantee that their candidate will even turn out to be worth voting for, much less worth destroying themselves trying to get elected.
Campaigns mean months of thin, scuffed living in hotel rooms, skin scraped raw on the dry, abrasive carpets as they lay on their stomachs, propped up on sharp elbows, poring over issue ads and wrestling speech language back and forth for hours. Campaigns mean unending strings of local diners and coffeehouses and stale Continental breakfasts, and families not seen for weeks and months on end.
Campaigns engender circular, philosophical trains of thought that come on buses at steady threes in the morning, the fabric of the night black as tar and soft as lake water, watching the whole smooth country roll by at seventy miles an hour, in a constant state of motion, city to city, event to event, checking newspaper racks to learn the name of each fresh town, until they began to wonder, confused and weary, if they woke up enough times not knowing where they were, would they eventually wake up not knowing who they were either? If they spent all their time in the nameless enveloping space that separates real locations, driving between towns on the blank, indistinguishable gray highways, traced like red and blue veins on the map, would they eventually go astray in that nothingness, get lost in the places that were nowhere, would the void eventually be all that they could see? If they lived long enough in the semi- reality of never sleeping in the same bed twice, never seeing the sun rise more than once over a certain ridge of buildings, or tangle of trees, or range of hard snowy mountains, if they continued this surreal nomadic existence, peering in on the stable, well-lit lives of their prospective constituents, if they felt more and more like phantoms, as if the physical expanse was no longer their element, as if they belonged to some mysterious other plane, some invisible dimension that would make sense of them, if they no longer hung onto anything, not even memory, because their heads were full of the next stop, the next speech, the next day, the next month, too much to do in the future for them to worry about what would become of the past, if their lives continued to play out loose and unanchored in this strange too-bright world, in the moments between time, in the emptiness between places, would they eventually slip through the cracks of the universe, vanish like faded ghosts from the earth that was no longer a home to them?
The epidemic of addiction wasn't what was surprising; what was surprising was that any of them had survived the campaign at all.
Across the country, wherever the campaign went, littering all the regional Bartlet for America headquarters, the sprawling farmhouse in Manchester, the hotel suites where the lights and TVs were never turned off, the leased offices with big glass front windows that were completely papered with signs and banners, the sun fighting its way through the clash of red white and blue, scattered throughout them all, was the paraphernalia, the guilty evidence.
There were packs of cigarettes with cheap Bic lighters resting on them dotting desks and perched precariously on the sloping tops of computers. In bottom drawers and at the bottoms of briefcases, there were curved silver flasks that spun the reflection of the overhead fluorescents into shifting stripes of white, gleaming so bright it hurt to look at them. On every flat surface, in every drink-holder in every car or bus or train or plane, in every free hand, there were endless Styrofoam cups, ceramic mugs, Thermoses warm to the touch, lidded cardboard cups from Starbucks or the local place on the corner, the whole staff downing oceans of coffee, clinging anxiously to their steaming drinks like talismans, staying constantly wired because it was the only means by which to get through the thirty-hour days, the only way to deal with the frantic speed of their lives. Dusted with lint from suit pockets, buried under day-timers and clutches of keys and lipstick tubes in purses, hidden away, were dusky orange prescription bottles, rattling with cloudy white pills, shiny red and yellow capsules, medications that no one talked about, until one staffer sidled up to another and asked with jittery hands if they had anything to keep them up, to put them asleep, to make them forget the stupid gaffe, the shot-down policy suggestion, the speech that had bombed in front of the city council.
Campaign addictions were strange, though. It was like it didn't count if you only indulged for the hectic span of the campaign. Drinking yourself numb every night was okay, as long as you gave it up after Election Day. Self-destruction was acceptable as long as it only lasted until November. A staffer might be asked, with a cigarette burning between their fingers, if they smoked, and they could answer, completely innocently, with smoke falling from their lips, "For awhile in college, but, no, not anymore," not even thinking twice about it, looking genuinely surprised when their obvious mistruth was pointed out to them.
Sam's addiction was Josh.
He didn't know when it began, exactly, but at some point Josh had become a drug to Sam, powerful as heroin, streaking pure and silver and effortless through his veins.
Sam would wake up after three or four hours of sleep (if he was lucky) in whatever hotel room had become his newest home away from home, and be intensely, epically tired, the kind of exhaustion he could write a doctoral thesis on. He would drag himself out of bed, stumble to the bathroom with his chin practically resting on his chest, his shoulders sloped, yawning uncontrollably, shambling into the shower that he made as hot as he could stand, his skin going lobster-red, turning his face up into the spray to try and force some liveliness into his body. He would get dressed and always miss a button on his shirt, or leave a shoelace trailing untied behind him like a stray dog following him home, his jacket a soft map of wrinkles from being stuffed inconsiderately in the corner of his suitcase. He would head down to the daily breakfast meeting, his mind not working right, his muscles all cramped and protesting loudly. He would sip at his first cup of coffee, keeping his eyes down, responding monosyllabically to any questions, monosyllabically on a good day, sometimes barely even managing a grunt in acknowledgement.
And then Josh would come swinging through the doors, bee-lining for the senior staff's table, already a mess of hair and bright ideas, talking about what they were doing now, what they would be doing later, what they should be doing next, what they could be doing if they could just go five minutes at a stretch without pissing off the entire political system.
Josh's conversation was like a series of bottle rockets sailing through the sky, colorful and showering an arc of sparks behind. He was energy personified, infectious, setting off a chain reaction in Sam, animation dashing through him, from his head to his chest to his arms and legs, out to the tips of his fingers, the whole surface of his skin tingling, like he was statically charged. Sam would feel himself rush with adrenaline, his eyes going wide and rapt, his spine snapping straight, and he would start to fling words back at Josh, he would start laughing and scribbling things on paper napkins, he would be light and excited, he would be ready for the day.
Toby would grouch over his breakfast and carp, "Well, aren't we Little Mary Sunshine. God, I hate morning people."
Sam knew better, though. He wasn't a morning person, he was a Josh- person, and occasionally he thought that that should be more upsetting than it was, but he couldn't find it in himself to care.
Sam told himself that it was just a campaign addiction, so it didn't count. It was just a campaign addiction and it would pass. After the race was over, Josh would lose the fascination he held for Sam, he would stop needing Josh to jump-start the day, stop searching compulsively for Josh in every room. Josh would go back to being a friend, a colleague, nothing more, and Sam would be free from his obsession.
And if sometimes, times when sleep deprivation made his vision shiver, times when he had forgotten to eat for two days and was burning fiercely on wild nervous adrenaline, times when he was laughing so hard he couldn't walk straight, times when the full silver-coin moon caught the corner of his eye, times when the air felt like glass, if at these resonant, profound moments he found himself wondering what the skin of Josh's neck tasted like, what it would feel like to span his hands across Josh's body, what kind of sounds Josh would make if Sam clenched his hands in Josh's hair or raked his teeth down Josh's hip, if sometimes he found his mind meandering into such unpredictable imagery, well, that was okay, that was nothing to worry about, that would fade with time too.
Sam figured his occasional, unsteady desire was just an extension of his addiction, just more evidence of how Josh had changed his neurons and altered the chemicals in his brain. There had been a few guys in Sam's past, foggy half-remembered interludes in dorm rooms and the backrooms of bars, hurried grasping moments that always seemed like a good idea to Sam's drunk, two a.m. sensibilities, until he woke up in the morning with a hangover and stubble burn on his stomach, not regretful so much as utterly confused, feeling like the previous night had been lived by someone else.
Wanting Josh, wanting a man in the broad light of day, stone-cold sober, wanting him for longer than about an hour, was vaguely unnerving, but Sam decided that it didn't mean anything, not really. He blamed the campaign, rationalizing that living on the trail was basically like being drunk all the time. He would eventually sober up, come November, and he would be able to put all this insanity behind him.
In the meantime, he didn't bothering trying to fight it, sensing that it would be a futile struggle. Sam was in the halcyon stage of addiction, the early euphoric window of time when the highs were ecstatic, the lows non-existent, his drug of choice readily available, and the possibilities of dependence, of withdrawal, of overdose, seemed miles away and absolutely ridiculous. Sam was living in the moment, as all addicts do, not caring about the next day, the next month, the next twenty years, not caring if regret and misery awaited him, because now, right now, at this second, he could turn and catch Josh with his eyes, he could see Josh grinning at him, he could get up and cross the room and put his hand on Josh's arm, he could get his fix and be captivated, magnificent, perfect, flying, completely lost.
Josh was just a campaign addiction, and Sam knew that he would get over it, someday.
And then one night his addiction came to him, and it turned out Sam didn't know anything at all.
* * *
It was the middle of December, the campaign beginning to pick up steam as the primary season rushed closer, the days feeling like sand in an hourglass, funneling down faster and faster. The staff, culled seemingly at random from across the country, thrown together and getting to know each other in the midst of a whirlwind, was still a little rough around the edges (Sam had once likened their group to a `ragtag bunch of pirates, swashbuckling on the high seas,' and Josh had laughed so hard he almost cried), but there was energy in their offices, all of them giving everything they had to their work, eager like kids on some romantic adventure, and Sam was joyous, delighted, he couldn't imagine how he had ever lived in any other way.
They were in Manchester until Christmas, a theoretical break from the grind, which ended up meaning that they only worked about ten hours a day instead of sixteen, mapping out their campaign strategy and travel schedule for the new year. Most of the staff was staying at a hotel in town (though Leo had a guest room in the Bartlet family farmhouse), and they were all being treated like crusading heroes by just about everyone they met, every person in the entire state apparently having at some point met Bartlet, shaken his hand, seen him speak, voted for him, worn his campaign button, driven with his bumper sticker on their car, known a fella who had a cousin whose son had been in Zoey Bartlet's kindergarten class.
For those few reprieving weeks in Manchester, it seemed like there was no way they could possibly lose, like they might as well just rent apartments in D.C. now, one less thing to do.
New Hampshire in the winter was unreal, beauty like Sam had never known, everything smooth and white and endless. There were meadows, actual honest-to-God meadows, which they drove past on the way out to the farmhouse, pure clean fields laid out like spotless napkins, framed by dark straggles of forest, the sky rolling out above a long blue pearl. The whole world was covered in snow, it all looked so soft, and Sam felt bundled and safe and young, wide-eyed staring up at the December night's sky, because he had never in his life seen so many stars as he did in New Hampshire, in the winter.
Sam was in his hotel room, writing an email to his dad on his laptop computer, extolling the glories of New England, and Bartlet, and the staff (he had a blast coming up with ways to describe Toby, snickering to himself as he wrote, `If multiple abstract concepts could somehow produce offspring, Toby would be the spawn of Disgruntlement, Sarcasm, Poetry, Tactlessness and Wisdom. Wrap it all up in a sports coat, slap a beard on it, give it a shot of whiskey and a cigar, and that's Toby.'), and the season, and everything.
Sam's dad had been surprised when Sam had called to tell him that he was quitting Gage Whitney and going to work on a political campaign, asking "What's the candidate's name?" three times. His dad was the first person Sam thought to call, ducking into a phone booth at a gas station somewhere between New York City and New Hampshire, chucking a small fortune of quarters into the slot to reach California. Sam had been terribly nervous that his new and spontaneous career change would disappoint his father, that it would seem like a foolish and irresponsible whim to the elder Seaborn, a flight of fancy that Sam had ruined his life for and would no doubt regret. After hearing all that Sam had to say, his father had asked simply, "Do you know what you're doing, Sam?" Sam had looked through the glass of the phone booth at where Josh was standing by the car, filling the tank, stage- lit by the fluorescents that made the gas station a glowing island in the middle of the darkness, and Josh was staring off towards the north, staring off into the beautiful night, and Sam had said, "Yeah, Dad. I know what I'm doing." And that had been good enough, that was all his father required of him, his voice, crackling through the wires, going robust and excited, and Sam had been filled with the confidence of his father's trust in him, his father's simple and immediate assumption that if Sam knew what he was doing, then it must be the right thing to do.
He kept his dad up to date on the campaign, emails and phone calls and postcards keeping them connected wherever Sam went. The campaign was like a test he'd gotten an `A' on, running home proudly eager to show it off, as if he was saying, `Look at what I did, isn't this neat?'
He was just about to send off the completed email when a knock came on his door. Checking the clock, Sam saw that it was past one in the morning, and wondered who the hell was still up lurking at this hour.
Opening the door, Sam thought, `Of course, who else would it be?' as a smile looped across his face.
"Hey, man," he said, greeting Josh easily and stepping back to let him into the room.
Josh grinned at him, a little dazed around the eyes, looking tired and happy. "Of all your many fine features, I think my favorite is that you are awake to keep me company in the small hours of the night," he declared, stripping off his overcoat and tossing in the general direction of the chair.
Rolling his eyes, Sam replied, "And here I always thought ours was a friendship based on mutual intelligence and respect, rather than the fact that we both keep insane schedules."
"Hey, night owls have to stick together. Otherwise, we'll be taken down one at a time by . . . I don't know, bats or something."
Josh flopped back onto the bed, letting out a huge, exaggerated groan of satisfaction. He pulled his arms up over his head, gripping the headboard as he stretched the long day's tension out of his muscles. His soft flannel shirt rode up a bit, exposing a strip of pale skin low on his stomach, which was really not the kind of thing Sam needed to see at one in the morning, when he was tired and kept forgetting why it would be a bad idea to sleep with Josh, Josh who was seriously not playing fair, all stretched out like that with his eyes shut and his clothes rumpled.
Sam averted his eyes and crossed to the desk, bending over his computer to send the email and shut the machine down.
Propping himself up on his elbows, Josh asked, "What were you up to, by the way?"
Sam slanted him a quick, sly grin, "Why, just sitting around, waiting to keep you company, of course."
Laughing, Josh rose into a sitting position, pulling his legs all the way onto the bed. "You should be so lucky," he retorted, and Sam tried, exceptionally hard and with a total lack of success, not to silently agree with him.
"I was writing an email to my dad."
"Oh." Sam looked up at Josh's reticence and saw a look of vague distress sketched on his friend's face.
"What?" Sam asked.
Josh shook his head, shrugging with a rueful smile, "Oh, nothing, you just make me feel like the worst son in the world. I haven't talked to my parents since Thanksgiving, and that was just a real quick phone call from the airport in Des Moines. You're over here, writing emails, you're like . . . Super-Progeny."
Sam snorted. "Do I get a cape?"
Josh had found the remote control and was idling trolling through the channels as he teased Sam, smirking, "Nah, but maybe some tights."
Sam came to sit at the foot of the bed, and Josh shifted to lie on his stomach, looking for all the world like a kid watching Saturday morning cartoons. Josh's random commentary about the programs that flickered past drifted down around Sam like falling confetti, and he leaned his head back against the bed, sighing contentedly.
Finally settling on an old episode of M*A*S*H, Josh let his hands hang down over Sam's shoulder, their heads close together.
On the television, three of the doctors rested in their olive-green army tent, drinking martinis from their homemade still.
Pointing to the screen, Sam said, "That's historically incorrect, you know."
"What, they didn't have martinis in the 1950s? Because I'm pretty sure that would be a lie," Josh responded.
Sam shook his head, "No, that doctor-Jones? There were no black Army surgeons during the Korean War."
"Well, the show's intended to be an allegory for the Vietnam War. The movie too."
"I'm just saying, a little historical accountability."
"Sam, the series ran for more than three times the length of the actual war during which it's supposed to have taken place, and this is what bugs you?"
"I have a fine mind for details," Sam said, defending himself.
Josh replied with a grin skipping in his voice, "Funny, I was gonna say you're an obsessive-compulsive nitpicker."
Sam made a sound of mock outrage, and turned his head to shoot a retort back at Josh. He didn't realize how close their faces were, however, and his nose brushed along Josh's cheek, his mouth resting for a half an instant on the line of Josh's jaw.
Sam jerked back like he had been burned, his face flushing dark and mouth dropping slack in shock. He caught a brief glimpse of Josh, saw the surprise clouding his eyes, and then Sam snapped his head back around, so fast his neck cracked.
Sam stared at the television, not seeing anything but dull green and dirt gray. He tried frantically to think of something to say, something about Alan Alda, or the army, or how neither Vietnam nor Korea were ever officially declared wars, but technically just `police actions'. He couldn't think of anything, and he knew as the silence scrolled out that every second was making it worse, making it more awkward, giving more weight to that sheer moment when his mouth had been on Josh's skin and lighting had bolted through his body.
And of course Josh was going to want to talk about it, of course Josh would demand that they dissect and analyze this until both their heads caved in. Josh had never been one for letting things go, he was the kind of guy who would scratch a mosquito bite until it was bleeding and left a small white scar.
Sam kept his eyes stubbornly forward, and forced careless levity into his voice. Maybe if he pretended it didn't matter, pretended he hadn't noticed anything remarkable about what had just happened, maybe he could convince Josh to treat it the same. "What's up?"
No, Josh was definitely not in the mood to let this go. There was a catch in his voice, something rough and low. Sam tried not to hear that, tried not to feel Josh's warm breath falling near his ear, tried not to think about how close Josh was behind him.
"Did you want something, or do you just like the sound of my name?" Sam asked, his voice sharper than it should have been, his knees up and his hands squeezed tight in the crooks of his legs. He wanted to stand, cross the room, wrench open the door and flee into the clean white night, run away from the harshness in his chest and the steeping tension of the room, but there was nowhere to go, he was stuck to the floor, stuck in the moment, and stuck with Josh, who was going to wreck him in a few seconds, Josh was going to say something that Sam wouldn't be able to recover from.
But then Josh's hand was in his hair, smoothing it down like Sam was a puppy, and then Josh was curving his fingers around the back of Sam's neck and gently swiveling him, tilting his face up, bringing Sam to meet his eyes.
Josh was looking down at him calmly, a slight smile drifting on his face. "I do like the sound of your name," he said simply, and then he leaned forward, fitting his mouth to Sam's, kissing him sweetly, the two of them linked together at an angle that was odd and skewed and perfect.
To his credit, Sam's moment of frozen shock was barely a nanosecond, not long enough for Josh to decide that he'd made a mistake. Sam pushed upwards, into the kiss, and opened his mouth against Josh's. There was a groan, buzzing simultaneously from both of them, and then Sam's hand was gripping the collar of Josh's shirt, feeling the button pressing hard into his thumb, which was something random and unimportant that he noticed with far too much clarity, considering the situation. Sam pulled Josh's lower lip between his teeth, and then swiped his tongue deep into Josh's mouth, catching all there was to taste. Josh's hand on the nape of Sam's neck slid down under his shirt, his palm warm on the smooth skin between Sam's shoulder blades.
There were several minutes that felt like decades and seconds, both at the same time, and then Josh was panting, and grinning, and saying, "Sam. Sam."
"Mmrph," Sam replied, distracted, sucking on Josh's neck. He hit a spot near Josh's pulse and Josh gasped, his head falling back, and Sam made a note of that for later.
Josh, short of breath and half-laughing, "Sam . . . I'm . . . dude, I'm getting a crick in my neck."
That didn't really seem like the kind of emergency that was serious enough for Sam to stop kissing Josh, but he lifted his head anyway, saw that their contorted position did, indeed, look fairly uncomfortable for the other man. "Oh," Sam said, stupidly, kiss- drunk and confused as to what exactly was being asked of him.
A vaguely uncertain moment elapsed, Sam staring up at Josh as if waiting for further instructions, fully aware that they both looked a little debauched, eyes dark and needy, mouths wet, hair tousled and tangled, collars wrinkled, the air whistling in and out of their lungs.
"Well, come on, get up here, for Christ's sake," Josh implored, rolling his eyes, exasperated and beaming, hooking his hand under Sam's arm and tugging him upwards. Sam, coming to his senses, wasn't about to turn the invitation down, and scrambled onto the bed, a tad more ungainly than he intended, but grace was a necessary sacrifice at such a time, he decided.
With Sam settled on his side next to him, Josh seemed to suffer a moment of doubt, and he hesitantly raised his hand, placing it on the other man's hip. "Listen," Josh said, casting his eyes down, "I don't . . . I don't really know what's happening right now. This is . . . I'm kinda at a loss, here, maybe."
Sam knew this was a discussion they needed to have, knew it was central and vital to what would become of them, but the only thing he could feel was Josh's hand, warm and steady on his side, and Sam replied, fighting off stutters, "You're not going to stop, though, right? I mean . . . don't stop," feeling like he was back in high school.
Josh smiled, wicked and sweet, raising his eyes to Sam's again. "No, I'm not going to stop. Idiot."
Sam thought he should probably protest the insult, at least make some assertion of his lack-of-idiotness, but then Josh was leaning forward, tipping him onto his back, his hand sliding under Sam's shirt onto his stomach, and then he was sinking back into Josh's mouth, into his heat, and Sam thought, giddily, that if being an idiot meant he got to sleep with Josh, then goddamn, but he'd be the biggest idiot the world had ever seen.
* * *
When Sam awoke, it was pitch black and he was cold.
He was confused for a moment, thinking disjointedly that he shouldn't be cold, there was a good reason why he shouldn't be cold. Then he realized that there were no blankets, and he remembered Josh tossing the covers away, saying, "Who needs blankets, you're basically a space heater, all on your own," as he lay back down, curling around Sam, both of them warm and sweat-slick.
But now Josh was gone, and Sam was cold.
Sam sat up, and for half a second hope skyrocketed through him, and he spun, his eyes flying over to the bathroom, begging desperately, silently, for the light to be on, for noise to skitter out, for Josh to emerge, and smile at him, and crawl back into bed, and chase the cold away.
But the bathroom was dark, and then Sam knew for sure.
Sam dragged the covers off the floor, and twisted himself up in them, burying his head, squeezing his eyes shut as tight as he could, and thought that he shouldn't have expected anything else, he should have known that this would happen.
* * *
And the next day, Josh wouldn't meet his eyes, and Sam should have known that would happen too.
There wasn't much going on, a brief staff meeting at the governor's farmhouse, a strategy session about how much attention they should pay to South Carolina, a speechwriting powwow that ended in Toby irately dismissing Sam after less than an hour of the younger man being unable to keep a steady train of thought or come up with anything that didn't sound like it was being composed by a particularly dense eighth grade student.
Sam sat in his hotel room until he couldn't stand to anymore, then wandered around Manchester until he couldn't stand that anymore either. He got back with his fingers and the tip of his nose frozen and white, hoping that the tingling numbness in the hard bones of his face was frostbite.
He sat in front of his laptop for a long, stagnant period of time, his fingers still on the keys, a blank document page floating whitely in front of his eyes. His mind felt stalled, choked off, he couldn't think of any words to write, he didn't even know whether he wanted to write an email or a speech or a letter of resignation or what.
When the knock came on his door at a quarter to three in the morning, Sam had known that would happen, too.
He put his elbows up on the desk and pressed his fists into his eyes, hard enough to make painful barbs of light skewer through his head, stayed like that for five minutes, and then got up and answered the door, and Josh was still standing there, with a mark on his neck that Sam remembered, vividly, applying with his mouth.
"So I guess we should talk," Josh said, not moving.
Sam scoffed harshly, throwing his hands up into the air and turning his back on Josh. "Sure. Yeah. Fuck, let's talk."
Sam crossed the room and leaned against the desk, crossing his arms over his chest, pushing his fingers hard against his ribs, feeling the line of an old fracture from a bike accident when he was twelve. His dad had come to pick him up at the hospital, and pressed Sam's hand to his own collarbone, letting him feel the rift in the bone there, from a car crash somewhere in his father's dim past, and Sam had said, "Cool," forgetting to cry or be in pain, and Sam's dad had laughed and scrubbed his hand through Sam's hair.
Josh came in and shut the door behind him, staying half-turned for a moment, his hand on the doorknob, his eyes down, not looking at Sam.
Sam was impatient, saying sharply, "So, talk, Josh, for Christ's sake. Are you waiting for an engraved invitation?"
Josh shot his eyes up, anger sparking in them. "Look, Sam, I told you I didn't know what I was doing. Don't pretend you're handling this any better than I am."
Sam raised his eyebrows in disbelief. "I'm sorry, I don't remember skulking off in the middle of the night while you were asleep."
Flushing, Josh looked down, and he spoke staring at the floor, his voice dull and so unlike his usual tone that it unnerved Sam. "I know . . . I know I've messed everything up. I freaked out, I woke up and you were there, and I just . . . I didn't know what to do, I felt like I couldn't breathe." He sighed, pulled a hand across his face. "I ran. I . . . I ran away."
Josh's voice broke, and his body followed, his shoulders falling, his head dropping down, like the physical effort of admitting his actions had wrecked him. It wasn't something Sam had ever thought he would see. Sam shifted a half a step forward, involuntarily, instinctively moving towards Josh, but he stopped himself.
Pulling his head up, Josh met Sam's eyes, said evenly, forcing himself not to collapse, "I'm sorry, Sam."
In a whisper barely loud enough to be heard, Sam asked, "For what, Josh? For running away? Or for . . . for what we did?" And Sam was holding his breath, unconsciously, because he didn't know what he would do if Josh said it was the second one.
Something flitted past in Josh's eyes, something dark and quiet, and Sam knew he was going to tell him the truth.
"For running away."
Sam nodded, slowly, and moved forward. He came to stand in front of Josh, and put his hands on Josh's shoulders, sliding them back so his wrists rested on Josh's collarbones, his fingers brushing down Josh's back. Josh sighed, and swayed towards Sam, but only for a split second. Sam said, "It's just a campaign thing, Josh. It's weird because it's happening here, and now. Everything's so temporary, it's all so . . . strange. It's not anything so terrible or life- altering. It's just a campaign thing."
Josh let out a low, shuddering breath, and tilted forward, so slowly, until his forehead rested on Sam's shoulder. Josh didn't put his arms around him or anything, was just still for a moment with his head on Sam's shoulder. He spoke, his voice hushed, and asked, "Can you really do that? Can you really have it just be a campaign thing?"
Sam pulled Josh's head up and kissed him, brief like a promise, and then told him, "Yes."
And Josh kissed him back, and wrapped Sam up in his body, and robbed Sam of his heart, and Sam tried not to hear his father's voice telling him, "Don't lie, Sam. No good can ever come from you telling a lie."
* * *
Thus began their campaign thing.
Josh would come to Sam late in the night, in the small hours, to borrow a phrase. Sam tried to think that it was still just keeping Josh company, kind of. Same as he always had, opening his door to Josh and watching the bad late night TV shows, listening to Josh make jokes and throwing balled-up paper at Wolf Blitzer, with who Josh was involved in some intricate, years-old, most likely imagined battle of wits.
Except of course it wasn't the same, it couldn't possibly be further from the same. It wasn't the same when they made out during the commercials, and then usually right on into the show, forgetting the television was on at all until one of them rolled over the remote control and blasted the volume, shocking them apart. It wasn't the same when Josh bit Sam on the hip, making Sam cry out loud, and Josh put his hand over Sam's mouth to keep him quiet, and the whole next day Josh avoided shaking hands with anyone, hiding the neat smile of Sam's teeth marks on his palm. It wasn't the same when Sam somehow got his head stuck under Josh's T-shirt, his mouth searching after Josh's nipples, and Josh had to throw out the shirt because the elastic of the collar was all stretched out of shape. It wasn't the same when Sam accidentally knocked Josh out of bed in the middle of night, and then awoke flying, being dragged to the floor, landing with a thump on top of the other man, blinking down at him, and Josh said, "You want to sleep on the floor, we'll sleep on the floor," and Sam asked, "Didn't me falling on you hurt a little bit?" his voice thick and blurry, and Josh replied, "'s worth it," already most of the way back asleep, making Sam both his pillow and blanket, everything he needed, down on the floor.
It wasn't the same when they didn't talk about it, keeping it safe and unacknowledged, pretending it didn't matter because it was just a campaign thing, it wasn't anything real, it wasn't anything that needed words.
No, it really wasn't the same at all.
Every night that Josh came to him, they would destroy the dark with their bodies, take down the sky, and try not to call out each other's names too loud. Then, later, the night exhausted, beat out of them, Josh would leave him alone, in the bed, on the floor, every night replaying that first night, though it wasn't Josh running away, Sam knew, it was Josh protecting them, knowing that they couldn't be caught together in the morning, it wasn't Josh running away, except for that it was.
And one night, when Sam knew it was too much, Josh had his shoes in his hand and his coat slung over his arm, was already halfway to the door, and the room was all shadows and silence. Sam levered himself up on one arm, the sheet falling down to his waist, and Sam said, "Stay."
Josh shook his head without turning around, said hollowly, "I can't."
Sam couldn't see right, couldn't tell if it was the darkness or his eyes, and he said again, "Stay," quiet, clear.
Josh turned to face him, and Josh's eyes were fever bright like in a dream. "Someone will see me leaving in the morning," he said, firmly, like he was arguing for some particular wording on a health care speech, giving good reasons for why he was right, showing how his opinion was better, smarter, the logical choice.
Sam was tired of being smart, tired of arguing things with reasons. "Stay."
"Sam, no," and Josh's voice might have broke, or might have gotten stronger, Sam wasn't sure.
There was a long moment, Sam still and aching, and then Josh's shoes hit the floor with two muffled thuds, the soft rustling fall of fabric as his coat followed, and then Josh was pulling off his shirt, and climbing back into the bed, and saying, "All right, you pushy son of a bitch. All right."
And Sam wasn't sure if this was really happening, because he had no reasons, he had no logic on his side, he'd offered nothing that should have convinced Josh, it didn't make any sense, so Sam asked, confused as Josh found his way back into his arms, "Stay?" his voice small.
Josh covered Sam up and found a good spot for his head on Sam's shoulder, and replied, "Yeah, I'm staying. I'm not going anywhere."
Sam was having trouble deciding whether this campaign thing was the best or the worst thing that had ever happened to him. He was having trouble figuring out if Josh was saving him or ruining him.
Sam stopped calling Lisa around this point. Well, that wasn't entirely true, he still called her, but the calls certainly took a nosedive, both in number and quality. It wasn't two or three times a week for an hour or more, now it was more like once every week or two, and he only called when he knew he'd have to hang up within about fifteen minutes or so.
When Sam had left New York, in a flood of rain and stellar expectations and Josh with his magnificent grin, Lisa and he had left things up in the air, theoretically still engaged, just moving the wedding date back, until Bartlet won or lost or Sam came to his senses (the last possibility clearly the one Lisa expected would come to pass any day now). Sam knew that he wasn't breaking things off with her, because he would never do that for something that was just a campaign thing, but he suspected, in the black-and-white part of his mind where he was too self-aware, that he was pushing her to break things off with him, and that often didn't seem like such an awful idea. It was strange, for him to feel that ambivalent about it, because Sam had spent the better part of two years being very much so in love with Lisa, but it wasn't something he let himself think about too much.
There were a growing number of things that Sam didn't let himself think about too much.
Sam kept thinking back to the question his father had asked him, back to that night in a phone booth halfway between New York and New Hampshire, Sam kept hearing his dad say, "Do you know what you're doing, Sam?" and every night when Sam went to sleep with Josh's taste like the sun in his mouth and woke up alone, every night when it was three in the morning and he was sitting cross-legged on the bed, the television all white fuzz, waiting for Josh, every time he forgot where he was, every time he was sure that the whole world was nothing but light, every time he found himself more lost than he had ever been before, every day, every night, Sam would be unable to fight off the knowledge that he didn't know what he was doing, he didn't have the slightest fucking clue.
* * *
By March, the campaign was going badly.
Bartlet had lost three of the early primaries after winning the New Hampshire opener (a predictable victory, but because it was the first, it had nonetheless been nerve-racking, and when Josh had come to Sam at two in the morning after the celebration, they hadn't even made it to the bed, their lips crushing together so hard both their mouths would be swollen the next day, CJ making jokes about bar fights, they had crashed against the wall, nearly punching a hole in the cheap plasterboard, bruising Sam's shoulder blades, which neither of them noticed until after, and Josh spent a hour apologizing, terribly distraught, Sam touched and amused by his guilty distress, and they fell asleep with Josh's hand gently cupped over the discolored skin, the tender gesture a perfect bookend to the violence of their desire), and as Super Tuesday approached, the governor's numbers were tail-spinning in Michigan and Ohio, big industrial states whose voters perceived the governor as arrogant and condescending, who somehow viewed his intelligence as a liability.
Bartlet still hadn't bothered to learn any of his staff's names, his near-constant impatience with them sparking like subway tracks. That afternoon, he had ripped apart a speech Sam had been painstakingly working on until five in the morning, Bartlet dismissing the delicate phrases after the briefest of cursory glances, snapping sharply, "We can't do this, we can't do affirmative action and welfare benefits in one of the most blue-collar districts in the Midwest. This is simple stuff, you should have learned this on your first day." Sam was stung, deeper than he would admit, feeling stupidly young and worthless. He hadn't let himself cut his eyes over to Josh, because Josh would look at him with either pity or disappointment, and Sam never wanted to see either of those directed at him from Josh.
They were in Detroit and everything was the same color, the sky and streets and buildings flattening into a scarred, uniform plain. The clouds were dirty and dull steely gray, the ground hard and scoured of any green.
When he had returned to their hotel after the governor's early afternoon speech, Sam had hidden himself, finding a blank unmarked door at the top of the twentieth flight of stairs, the lock busted, and he had shouldered it open to fall out onto the roof, crushed gravel under his shoes and impending rain clouds pressing down on him.
He stood staring out across the pitched roofs which arrowed upwards, the sun gone but night not yet fallen, that odd half-way time of the day just before dusk sets in, when five in the evening looks identical to five in the morning. Fingers of dark smoke itched from the chimneys, and somewhere in the clash of concrete and metal, a dog was barking, fitful and echoing high above the city.
Somehow Josh found him despite Sam's attempt to disappear. Maybe Josh had seen him duck through the broken roof door, maybe he had caught sight of Sam from the street, standing silhouetted against the pale sky like a figure cut out of paper. Maybe Josh just always knew where Sam was, instinctively, the way Sam's Uncle David always knew which way was north, could point out the direction even if he was in a mineshaft miles below the ground, born with a compass inside him.
Sam heard the slow squeal of the door's hinges, then the hard metallic bang as it fell shut, and knew that Josh was behind him.
"Don't jump, Sam, you've got so much to live for," Josh said, his voice picked up by the wind and carried hollowly to Sam's ears. Sam knew Josh meant it to be a joke, but the words were drained of intonation by Josh's exhaustion and Sam's terrible mood, and Sam deliberately took a step towards the low curb that ran along the lip of the roof, tilting forward meanly, peering down at the patchwork grid of the city, spread out like a game board twenty stories below.
Josh came to stand next to him, the jagged gravel crunching under his feet. Sam could sense Josh's hand twitching, wanting to reach out and take hold of Sam's elbow, tug him gently back to a safer place, where gravity wouldn't twist so gleefully around him, where the wind wouldn't whip Sam's coat like a flag, violent and with a power all its own. Josh didn't let his hand find Sam's arm, though, Sam's whole body tense and ready to jerk away from any attempt at physical contact.
They stood for a moment, watching the shadows creep up the heavy walls of the buildings. Sam could feel Josh's eyes on him, Josh's gaze having weight same as the full rays of the California sun that rested on shoulders like warm, gently protective hands. Sam wouldn't let himself turn to face Josh. He was angry, frustrated as all hell, and reveling in it, drawing his harsh, dangerously frayed temper around him like a cloak.
"Think we can see Canada from up here?" Josh asked lamely, the feeble attempt to start a conversation crash-landing in the space between them.
"I don't know," Sam replied flatly, his lack of interest crystal clear in his terse voice.
Josh sighed, or at least Sam thought he did, the sound almost lost in the fleet wind. "Look, you shouldn't take what he says so seriously," Josh began, and Sam wanted to punch him. "He's just tired, we're all tired, we're on edge, he doesn't mean anything by it."
Sam spoke with rage crackling in his voice, "You know what, Josh? I'm getting real tired of you defending Bartlet." Sam shifted to nail Josh with his furious eyes. "Maybe he's not just tired, maybe he's not just on edge, maybe he's just an asshole, you ever think of that? He's not what you thought he was, why can't you just admit it? You dragged me away from my home and across the country, and for what? He's not the real thing, Josh, I don't know how you could have ever thought he was."
Something was falling in Josh's face, his expression going stricken and anguished. Sam didn't care, he felt unruly and savage. He was intentionally picking out the words he knew would cut the deepest, something fierce and wicked driving him to rip Josh to shreds, beat him until Sam's fists were bloody and Josh's face was deformed and unrecognizable.
"I mean, do you even get what you've done? What the fuck am I doing in Detroit, for Christ's sake? I'm a thousand miles away from my life and everything that matters, and it's all your fault!"
Cruelty, blinding silver and as sharp as an icicle, was streaming from Sam and Josh was staring at him helplessly. Sam knew him so well, knew what would hurt the most, what would cause the most damage, knowledge he never thought he'd use like this, but Sam was feeling disconnected, watching from a distance as he decimated his friend.
Josh rasped out a response, his words tearing and rough with pain, "Your . . . your life is here. With me."
At once, Sam collapsed back into his body, blinking at Josh in surprise. That was something that was very close to acknowledging all that was between them, that wasn't at all what he had expected. Sam found his anger rushing from him, quick and swift like water flooding out a hole in a dam, until he was empty, washed clean.
"Josh," he breathed out, unsure and stunned, and watched the wind dragging through Josh's hair, and couldn't find any more words.
Suddenly something snapped inside Josh, a string breaking, his whole body trembling, his eyes shuddering closed, like a flash of pain had ripped through him. When Josh pulled his eyes open again, and raised them to Sam's, the agony there staggered Sam.
Josh said, his voice all shattered, "I'm sorry," and the words seemed to undo him, his face twisting like he was about to cry, and Sam was overwhelmed by a wave of regret and guilt that was shocking in its force. Whatever had made him lash out so intensely and determinedly at Josh was utterly extinguished from him as he stared at the other man.
Sam tried to say Josh's name again, but there was no air inside of him. Josh spoke again, moving a shuffling half-step closer to Sam, "I'm sorry. I'm sorry."
Sam reached out, wanting nothing but to wrap Josh in his arms and apologize, take it all back, do whatever he had to do to get that look out of Josh's eyes. Sam's hands fell on Josh's shoulders, and Josh choked back a wracking, devastated cry, burying his face in the crook of Sam's neck, hiding his eyes in Sam's coat. And Josh kept saying, over and over again, the words like sobs, "I'm sorry. I'm sorry, Sam. I'm so sorry."
Moving his hands to the back of Josh's neck, weaving his fingers together, frantic with the need to make this right again, Sam whispered, "Hey. Hey. Josh, hey." It was the only thing he could say, all his beautiful language had fled, his mind wiped blank. Sam was nothing but scared to death by the look on Josh's face, the look that had been seared forever into Sam's brain. Josh's hands were clinging to the back of Sam's coat with desperate, terrible strength, and all Sam could say was `hey,' like he was calling to Josh from across some unspeakable distance.
Sam didn't know what Josh was apologizing for, if it was for drawing Sam out of his carefully-constructed life, leading him across the country with a promise of the real thing, if it was for the fact that Josh's real thing was turning out to be anything but, if it was for starting this campaign thing between them, messing everything up, if it was for the knowledge they both struggled to ignore, the knowledge that refused to fade away, the knowledge that neither of them were good enough men to have it be anything other than a campaign thing, neither of them were willing to go through what it would require for the two of them to be something more, something true.
Josh moved his hands up to mirror the position of Sam's, clutching the back of Sam's neck, their arms crossing like swords between them, shifting to rest their foreheads together, the two of them closer in that moment than they'd ever been before, hanging onto each other with all their strength, breathing the same air, and Josh closed his eyes against the unreal pain and whispered into the wind, "I'm sorry. I'm sorry."
And Sam was frozen with terror and sadness, and all he could do was breathe the air from Josh's lungs and feel the night falling around them, and Sam was fragmented, he was in pieces, and he knew he would never be whole again.
* * *
That was the end of their campaign thing. Josh stopped coming to Sam in the night, and Sam stopped waiting for him.
Sam told himself that it was for the best, for it to end like that, simply and only affecting the two of them. It didn't end in a tabloid, or with some embarrassing revelation involving the whole staff. It didn't end with Sam breaking his knuckles on Josh's jaw, or Josh casually ripping out Sam's heart and flinging it into the street. It ended as cleanly as could have possibly been hoped.
So there was really no reason why it should hurt the way it did.
There was really no reason why it should continue hurting for as long as it did, why it should continue aching within Sam like a phantom limb for the rest of his life.
* * *
When Sam was eighteen, his dad had taken him to the airport, putting him on a plane for Princeton, on the last day of August.
Sam had lived his entire life in Southern California, where the sun was steady and bright, flooding through the valley, sparkling off the ocean. He had never spent longer than two weeks at a time on the East Coast, a few cold silvery Christmases spent with extended family in Boston, a school trip to Washington, D.C., in April when all the trees were exploding pink and white, never getting anything more than a taste of the other side of the country.
All through Sam's last summer, every party had been drenched in sentimentality and endless, gnawingly repetitious goodbyes, all his friends acting like they were going off to war, and Sam had heard the same jokes over and over again, about him freezing to death in New Jersey, cautionary tales about poor unprepared Californian transplants who'd been unable to handle the existence of actual weather, way out there on the opposite end of the continent.
Most of his friends were going to UCLA, USD, Stanford, schools in Santa Cruz and Berkeley, almost everyone staying within the state, and they all thought he was crazy, leaving behind the warmth and the beach and the pale blue skies and the unbearable beauty of the Pacific Coast, leaving behind everything he had ever known, to go live in New Jersey, of all the godforsaken places. Jersey didn't even have a baseball team, how would Sam be able to stand it?
Sam would laugh and shrug and be a good sport about it, but he couldn't fight the niggling sense of unease that began to grow as his freshman orientation loomed, the X-ed-off days on the kitchen calendar marching closer to the date that was vibrantly circled by a blood-red marker, the square scrawled, `SAM LEAVES,' in his mother's quick hand.
Every morning, eating his breakfast of cornflakes while leaning against the waxed Formica counter, Sam had found his eyes magnetically drawn to that crimson ring, reading the words a million times, thinking irritably as the summer wore on that his mother could have written almost anything else, and it would seem less foreboding. Why not just write, `Princeton,' on the day of Sam's flight? Would that have been too obscure? Would his family have gotten it mixed up with another seminal event having to do with the Ivy League school that they were involved in on the same day? Why not, `Sam goes to college'? Was she trying to conserve words for some unknown reason? `SAM LEAVES,' in those bold capital letters like a yell, made Sam's going away seem like a terrible, tragic experience, like he was being taken to prison, or embarking on a suicide mission in the jungles of Africa, some dire calamity from which Sam would never return.
Sam began to hate any mention of the East Coast, a dark feeling sinking in his stomach whenever he thought of it. Reality was setting in, the growing awareness that he would be utterly alone at Princeton, no one to help him should he begin to stumble or fall. A full appreciation of the sheer size of the country he was crossing was coming to him more and more with each day. It was six hours by plane, the prohibitive cost of a ticket back meant that Sam wouldn't be able to come home for the holidays; it would be his first Christmas not spent with his family, the first Thanksgiving when he wouldn't good-naturedly suffer his father expansively cajoling `what they were thankful for' out of everyone at the table, Sam and his sister rolling their eyes at the sappiness of the tradition, their mother smiling, her gaze warm and laughing over the festive candlelight.
By the time the actual day had come, the calendar's black X's meeting the red circle, Sam was treacherously close to being petrified. He was shaky, faltering with a constant unease, his brain terrorizing him with slideshows of all the possible catastrophes that could befall him. Masochistically, he was helpless to turn his mind away, compulsively picturing himself being defeated by the first true challenge of his young life, letting everyone down, being revealed as a fraud, not smart enough, not strong enough, nowhere near good enough, making a disaster of a monumental opportunity.
Doubt grew and Sam never felt less grown-up than he did those last few months before he left everything behind.
On the way to the airport, Sam and his father had talked about the business trip his dad had just returned from, and the Dodgers' middle infield, and the Cuban Missile Crisis (his dad marveling over the fact that Sam knew more about the events of October 1962 than his old man did, despite his father having actually lived through it, his dad ribbing Sam good-humoredly about being too smart for his own good, the distinct undercurrent of pride in the elder Seaborn's voice robbing the jibes of their potency).
They didn't talk about college, tiptoeing around the subject like it was a grizzly bear they were trying not to wake up. They didn't talk about moving away, or the fact that every mile they drove tightened a vise in Sam's chest, and Sam wondered if the throbbing, airless pressure would follow him to the East Coast, if the pain would stay with him forever.
In the airport, they stood before the long belt of glass windows that circled the terminal, gazing at the planes taking off. Sam always watched the planes, as far back as he could remember, every time he'd ever been in an airport, and almost always with his dad standing right beside him, the uneven progress of Sam's growth punctuated by the way his perspective crept upwards, in fits and starts, from his eyes being level with his father's knees, then even with the man's waist, then as high as his ribs, then tall as his shoulder, then staring directly at his dad's nose, Sam measuring his life on the upright ruler of his father's figure.
Sam liked to see the airplanes speed up, faster and faster like the building roar of a crowd, then the split second before the wheels left the ground, the second during which Sam always found himself holding his breath, and then the break from gravity, the plane rising on an impeccably straight line to become a small glinting silver spear cutting through the sky.
When Sam was a kid, airplanes taking off had seemed like the culmination of all human endeavor, an absurd, irrational sight, those huge heavy machines that had no business splitting clouds, winging through the air, held up by nothing more than the intelligence of people who believed they could fly.
His father stood with his hands in the pockets of his suit coat, his eyes tracing the planes leisurely, a faint smile dancing on his lips, like there was some private joke playing in his head. Sam's dad carried himself with simple dignity, quiet assurance, his head up, his shoulders thrown back, his blue eyes, identical to Sam's, keenly inquisitive.
Sam snuck quick, covert glances at him from out of the corners of his vision, unconsciously straightening his posture, pulling his shoulders up, tilting his head at a confident angle, distributing his weight evenly so that he wouldn't slouch, trying to replicate his father's easy poise, his effortless composure.
Watching the planes take off, his stance a dim echo of his father's, Sam wondered if his dad had felt like this when he had left for college, but the idea of his father being scared was jarringly incongruent, it fit nowhere within Sam's view of the world. Sam's anxiety was just one more way in which he had fallen short of his father's example.
Saying goodbye to his mother that morning had been more embarrassing than sad or unnerving, because she had cried, and clung to Sam, and he wanted to close his hands on her shoulders and push her away, hating her needy grasp, wishing she would get a hold on herself. Sam had no idea how to say goodbye to his dad, the man he looked up to exactly the way a son should look up to his father.
Travelers milled around them, dragging suitcases and backpacks and duffel bags, plane tickets sticking up out of their pockets like students raising their hands in class. Every language of the world was being spoken, foreign words and phrases darting around like hummingbirds. Weary families on London time slumped together on molded orange plastic chairs, husbands' arms slung around the shoulders of their wives, little kids sitting at the feet of their parents, playing with toy cars, running the tiny rubber wheels over the shoes of resting passengers, up roads made of pants legs.
It occurred to Sam that this terminal was a place where lives began. Train stations, bus depots, airports, raw heartbroken stretches of desert highways-people come to these places to leave, to come home, to start over, to find their way back to what they had lost. Last- ditch confessions of love, tearful reunions, families being split apart, all the key moments that marked a person's existence like signposts, they all had in common these places of motion, places of arrival and departure, places where every corner of the world was at your fingertips.
Sam's dad asked, his voice jovial and grand, "So, are you excited?" It was the first thing either of them had said that even obliquely broached the fact that when Sam's plane left in a half an hour, it would be the last time the two saw each other for most of a year, the span longer than they'd ever spent apart before.
Sam swallowed hard and thumbed frantically through his mind, looking for the words that would hide his uncertainty from his dad. No matter how scared out of his mind Sam was to be leaving, that fear wasn't the worst-he was even more aghast at the thought that his father would suspect Sam's cowardice and apprehension, Sam would do anything to prevent that.
"It's . . . it's pretty far, you know?" Sam said feebly, his voice cracking slightly, feeling frustrated and disjointed, dully unintelligible, his quick mind deserting him.
There was more to it than that, there were things Sam wanted to say to his father, and certainly things his father wanted to say to him, but they weren't things that an eighteen-year old boy could say to his dad, not when the boy was trying as hard as he could to be a man, trying to be brave and steadfast, trying to be the kind of son a father could be proud of.
There was too much between them, dreams and bloodlines and songs they both sang with the same wrong words, the well-worn history and idealized memories of every family. There was a blurry, sun-drenched childhood in which Sam had believed in no one as much as he believed in his father, and his father had never known his capacity for love until the perfect spring morning his son was born.
Sam was already thinking ahead to the handshake that they would say farewell with, reminding himself to wipe the sweat off his palm inconspicuously, grip the other man's hand firmly, keeping his wrist strong, making good eye contact, the same handshake that the father had taught his son when the boy was twelve years old, the honest unwavering handshake that inspired trust and confidence. Sam was thinking of that handshake, even though he had never felt less trustworthy in his life, and praying that his father wouldn't see the dismay shading his eyes, he was using all his strength to hold himself together, there was no room in him to find a way to articulate the crucial, utterly overwhelming tumult that ransacked through him.
There were things that fathers and sons couldn't say to each other, not in this place where lives began, not at this moment when a man was watching his child take his first steps into the real world. Some things are too vast to be expressed with words, some things break your heart before they can make it to your tongue.
Before them, planes were taking off, because people believed in flight. Around them, people were coming home, and leaving home, being lost and found like mittens, and the destinations of the world were moving lightly through the air.
Sam stared out at the long ribboning gray runways, and wished with everything in him that he could see the course of his life, see what would become of him. He thought that even if he was shown the fulfillment of his worst fears, even if he was shown failure, and humiliation, and defeat, even if he was shown a disastrous life on the wrong side of the country, next to the wrong ocean, under the wrong sky, it would still be better than this beating worry within him, this insecurity like a disease sneaking through his veins, corroding his strength, a rusty scrape in his mind.
In Sam's future, there was a brilliant, meteoric track through Princeton, and an equally illustrious career at Duke. There were friends who would be more dear to him than any that he had when he was eighteen years old. There was a love of the snow and the true winters of the Eastern Seaboard, which he would discover only a few months after the time when he had stood in an airport with his father and tried to be stronger than he was. There were women who would bewitch him, and men who would baffle him, and he would only ever talk about the former when uncles elbowed him and asked, their faces slanting with conspiratorially suggestive grins, "How's your love life, tiger?" There was an unprecedented rise through Gage Whitney Pace, positions granted to him years before he expected them, and there was a woman named Lisa, waiting for him at the end of every day, with who he would believe with all his heart that he was in love.
And in his future, wreaking in and out of his life, dangerous and scattered like landmines, there was a man named Josh Lyman, who would be the end of Sam. There would be an embrace in a law office and questions asked on a city sidewalk that had no answers. There would be the two of them in a getaway car, speeding north to New Hampshire, driving out of the rain, talking so fast, their words tumbling over each other and getting jumbled up in laughter and the young, amazed expressions on both their faces. There would be an addiction, building through the days and weeks and all the interchangeable towns and cities, until it was as vital and definitive a part of Sam as his fingerprints, and Sam would need Josh the same way he needed air.
There would be a strange, aching campaign thing, inexplicable and unacknowledged and inviolate, flaring with moments of tenderness and beauty that would make Sam feel like his life was made out of crystal, exquisite and delicate and breathtaking, always trembling on the edge of being shattered. There would be mouths pressed to skin, and forearms knocking against ears in clumsy embraces, and hair in Sam's eyes, and heat, and motion, and tongues dragging over ribs, and hands twisted in bedcovers, and the taste of sweat, and bruised shoulder blades, and no way to make sense of it, and moments that were everything. Just . . . everything.
There would be a five o'clock in the evening that looked like five o'clock in the morning, on a rooftop in Detroit, scarred by the wind, when Josh would beg Sam's forgiveness and Sam wouldn't have the words to say anything that mattered, and they would be ruined together. They would try with everything in them to hold onto each other, but their hands would be lacerated, their fingers fractured, their grips torn away, and there would be a hole inside Sam, a ghostly, hollow vacancy echoing in the place where his heart had been.
There would be a good man elected president, a man who turned out to be the real thing after all, and on the velvet November night when the networks announced the winner, all the world would be empty save for the one grin that illuminated Sam from the inside out, made him shine like a spotlight, made him sadder than he'd ever been.
There would be gunfire, one black, unmerciful night in May, and harrowing fear like an animal caught in his throat. There would be a Christmas full of soaring string music and broken glass, and Sam would watch, helpless, as Josh fell apart. There would be a phone call in the middle of a rainstorm, and Sam's father would topple the foundations of the world, sending everything into anarchic disarray, making a riot out of universal certainties. Sam's existence would go chaotic and fragile and precarious, all his known landmarks disintegrating in the wind, and he wouldn't be able to find himself on the map. There would be deception, and a tropical storm, and their real thing would be dying slowly, in secret, and then not so secret anymore.
There would be a middle of the night when Sam wouldn't have anything left to have faith in, all his fathers having betrayed him, all his sacred tenets disproved, any evidence of God abolished from his reality, and the only thing he would want to see was a pair of dark eyes and a brilliant smile, because maybe then he would be home again.
There would be Josh and Sam, together in every way that two people could be together, hating each other and loving each other and annihilating each other and needing each other and shoving each other away, friends and lovers and enemies and rivals and brothers and, occasionally, every so often, during slow lavender dawns, the only two people on earth.
Sam couldn't see any of that. He was only eighteen years old, excruciatingly, impossibly young, and he was blind to all that would come, in an airport a half an hour before he was lifted off from California and flung out into the blue.
Years later, tracing the twisting path his life had followed, he wouldn't be able to decide if he would have gotten on the plane, had he known then what he would learn.
Sam was doomed, there was an apocalypse in his future, but he didn't know it then, he had never even heard of a man named Josh Lyman, the two, if they met on the street, would pass each other carelessly, as strangers, and Sam's heart was still his own.
There in the terminal, on that day in the sweetly dying twilight of the summer, there was only Sam, and his dad, and their muddled, stuttering conversation, which shivered and keened with all that was not spoken. Sam had said, "It's pretty far, you know?" when what he had meant was, "God, Dad, I'm so scared, what if I can't do it, what if I end up all alone out there?"
His dad put a calm hand on his son's shoulder, and Sam turned and looked at him, with the uncomplicated eagerness of a boy who never stopped believing that his dad could fix anything, make any problem better, his dad who was everything Sam wanted to be, his dad who Sam knew for sure could do no wrong.
Sam met his dad's eyes, and they were the same height, and Sam had once thought that when he was as tall as his father, he would be a man.
His dad's face was lined and his hair was gray, but strangers had always been able to tell that they were family, and Sam had always pulled his shoulders straight and felt so proud whenever anyone had said to him, "You're his spitting image, boy, you sure are your father's son."
Sam's father sighed and looked at his son, his lying blue eyes like mirrors, and it seemed that he had heard everything that Sam had not said, because he replied, his voice clear and certain, "Don't look back, Sam. Never look back."
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