TITLE: Still Fighting It
AUTHOR: Luna (firstname.lastname@example.org)
ARCHIVE: Ask me. And check out http://www.sparkgirls.com
CATEGORY: Set after "Red Haven's On Fire." R for language.
NOTES: Sam belongs to Aaron Sorkin & company. Barry Seaborn belongs to me. This story belongs to Jae Gecko, on the occasion of her birthday.
SUMMARY: "Thirty years later, the same intensity is present in the set of Sam's shoulders. It's possible that no matter how much everything changes, nothing changes at all."
Still Fighting It by Luna
You always feel old in February, even though you've never spent it anywhere cold. You feel ancient pulling up to the hotel, where the kid who parks your car is half your age, and the girl at the front desk is ten years younger than that. But when you see your son sitting at the bar, the years fall away from you like a shower of snow.
The little boy still shines out from Sam's face, bright and unspoiled in the blue of his eyes as he raises a thick square glass to his mouth. Over the phone he sounded nervous, even urgent, his voice distorted in a way that made you willing to drop anything and hit the freeway. Yet, as he sets his drink down, he's still your impossible, lovely son. Your instinct is to run to him, scoop him up, smooth the hair back from his forehead.
You walk over with your hand held out. "Hey, Sam."
He startles a little, even though he knew you were coming, turns, and stands up to shake your hand. Awkwardly, you clap an arm around his shoulders. "Dad," he says. "I'm sorry I called." A crooked smile. "I mean, I'm sorry I interrupted your dinner."
"Don't worry about it." You let go of him, look him over. At arm's length away you can see the smudges under his eyes, the exhaustion. Red rises to the cheekbones in his chalk- white face, and you can see he's nervous. It makes you nervous, too. You sit down on the stool next to his and say, "Obviously, you've had a busy time of it."
"I thought I knew what a campaign schedule was like," he says, shaking his head as he sits back down. "I didn't think it was possible to sleep *less* than I did on the road with the President without hallucinating, or something."
You squint at him. "Are you hallucinating?"
"I don't think so. Let me ask that flying fish over there." He laughs. You hadn't heard him laugh in a long time, and the sound is drier, cooler than you remembered. "Let me buy you a drink."
"Let me." You signal to the bartender, who barely looks old enough to serve drinks. She bounces over like a cheerleader and begins chanting the wine list. You wave a hand to distract her. "I'll just have a beer. Heineken. In a bottle," you add, before she can go off into another routine about what's on tap. "And another--"
"Absolut, over ice," Sam says, looking down into his glass. So he's drinking seriously tonight. It's in your head to comment, but you bite down and shut up.
The bartender skips away. Sam keeps looking into the glass as if nothing has ever been quite so fascinating. He doesn't lapse into anxious, aimless chatter the way his mother used to do. A cheerleader of your youth. You don't want to think about Deirdre right now.
With the impeccable timing that must run in the family, Sam glances at you and says, "I spent Christmas at Mom's. She was--the holidays are tough for her."
You don't flinch. Not much, anyway. It's nothing new. You wonder if he remembers Deirdre's crying fits on Thanksgiving mornings and Christmas eves, Pacific-scale waves of wretched and inexplicable tears. You remember; you used to move baked goods and gift-wrapped sweaters around like sandbags piled against the flood. She always felt everything so sharply it cut her apart. No reason she should have changed.
Out loud, you say, "I know she wishes she saw more of you." The words are so hollow there's an audible clunk. Sam gives you a look that might have been pitying, if he was a smaller person. But if he expected you to drag your old guilt out and gnaw it over, well, it's hardly the first time you've let him down. You shrug. "I know we both hoped you'd be staying out here a while longer."
The bouncy bartender brings your drinks. When you tip her, she grins like a toothpaste ad. Sam takes about half his vodka in one swallow. "You know, it's not like I was expecting to win." His voice comes out a little scratchy. "I honestly never even expected it'd get to the point where I'd actually be running. One day I'm walking on the beach with a rookie campaign manager, and the next..." He twists the glass in his fingers and replaces it perfectly in its ring of condensation. You see a small boy in his frown, small hands struggling with Gordian-knotted shoelaces. "The next, I'm a failed Congressional candidate."
Your throat feels tight. You drink some beer, cold turning to a warm buzz on the way down. In the ranks of glass bottles behind the bar a thousand miniature reflections of you stare back. Little old men, the color of dust. You run a hand over your head and shift on your seat so that you're facing Sam instead. "Did you learn anything?"
Sam blinks, still fidgeting with his glass. "From my campaign?"
"Oh, yeah." His fingers slide through his hair, an automatic gesture unsettlingly like yours. People do say he looks like you, though you've always thought he was his mother's child. You think of saying so--he'd probably find it reassuring--but he's looking past you, his sky-colored eyes unfocused. "It should've felt microcosmic," he says. "Working on a district scale, I mean, compared to the national level, with a constituency so big we only really saw it through poll numbers. Compared to the kind of ideas we threw around in the State of the Union..."
You sit and drink as he swims around in the thought.
"Or tried to," he says, after a while. "Only, it didn't feel at all like a small thing. I met people. I talked to a lot of people who didn't like me or agree with what I, I stand for. And it was me, it wasn't somebody else I was trying to sell them on. It felt...honest."
On the last word, he blushes again. Slowly, you set your bottle down. "Carry that back to Washington," you tell him. "I have the impression it's a rare commodity."
He doesn't act as though he's heard you. His face throws back the bar light and you find yourself remembering again: the glitter of winter sun on the ocean, not a mile from where you sit. Deirdre said she was freezing, even in an oversized sweater, and she was calling Sam to come back to the car. Sam had to hear her, hear the rising needy note in her voice, but he wandered on down along the waterline. His back was to you, his dark hair sticking straight up. Maybe he was looking for the perfect seashell. Whatever it was, his ears were closed to you and Deirdre. He was off on his own, searching.
It was February. It was the day after you'd met Linda and commenced the long slow project of shattering your family. You remember, thirty years later, because the same intensity is present in the set of Sam's shoulders. It's possible that no matter how much everything changes, nothing changes at all.
"Short notice or not," you say, "I'm glad I got to see you before you went back."
"I'm not sure I'm going back," he says.
"What do you mean?"
"I'm not sure I want to--I'm not sure I *can* go back and work in the White House now." His shoulders are hunched forward, his fingers curled tightly around his glass. "Which is kind of why I called you tonight."
"Why couldn't you?" You lean away from him, sideways against the bar. "I have to say, Bartlet would be an idiot to lock you out."
"It's not like that." He pauses, and the crooked smile flickers at the corner of his mouth. "And thanks, I think. But I meant--well, there's an election in two years."
You're surprised. You cover with a smile, a nod. "This county isn't as far to the right as it's often pretended to be," you say. "And the Republican Party isn't as close to the center. You could take it easily in two years, Sam."
"Hmm." He lets out a long breath. "But I was talking about, Anne Daugherty's probably going to run for Governor." His voice shrinks, almost down to a whisper. He looks past you again, into invisible shifting sands. "So there's going to be a fight for her Senate seat."
He shivers as he says this. Your instinct is to let out a war whoop and buy a round for the entire place. Your mouth is hanging open, silently. You close it.
"Here's the thing." He tips his glass up and gulps down every last drop of liquid in it, and some of the ice. "If I'm really going to do this, it means I'll be raked over the coals by every political operative in the state. I know. I've done the raking, before. But if I do this, it has to be honest. It has to be the real thing, or I might as well go back to corporate law."
Sam says 'corporate' like a dirty word. You've worked for one corporation since you graduated, another way you're not noble enough. Maybe if you'd done some time as an itinerant berry-picker, you'd be a better parent. "Well," you say, uselessly.
"I have to think about this. I have to get a lot of things clear." He turns fully in his chair and looks at you head on. He presses his lips into a thin line. The tendons of his neck are visibly strained. "Dad." His eyes close and open. "I'm. I'm not. I'm not as straight as I've often pretended to be."
"Straight about what?" you say.
A split second later you hear yourself, and bite down on your tongue hard enough to make your eyes water.
Sam freezes. "I meant, uh, you, you know what I meant." He coughs. "Don't you?"
"I'm not sure." Your voice is dull. You're shaking your head. "Sam, you've always had girlfriends."
Though you realize, as you say this, that you can hardly remember any of his girlfriends' names, much less remember their faces. Even Lisa's a blur, an underdeveloped Polaroid, and come to think of it, why didn't Sam marry her? Your son. Still single, and always so soft-edged, so quick to tears. A stone sinks to the pit of your stomach. You wish you were shocked; that would feel better.
"...Not the case," he's saying.
You haven't been listening. "What?"
"I said, it's not one thing or the other. You're wrong if you think that's how it is." He breathes out, hard. You can hear his teeth grinding. "I'm not gay. And I'm not straight. And I've been...trying, for years..." He struggles, forces himself to keep staring at you, one hand white-knuckled on the edge of the bar. "Tonight I decided that I'm not going back to work in the White House. So, I'm getting things clear."
Your hand moves on its own, picks up your bottle and brings it to your mouth. You drink until there's nothing left. It swirls in your stomach and you want something stronger. But you have to drive back to Santa Monica, and you don't want the bartender, or anyone else, anywhere near this conversation; you don't want to be in it yourself. You let out the sigh you've been holding back, and the annoyance comes with it. "Jesus Christ, Sam, I'm so glad you called me."
It's like you punched him. He recoils from you, as far as he can without falling off his barstool. You can't do anything but look straight ahead. The bottles flash heatless light back at you. Your tongue hurts, and the inside of your mouth dries out like sand a long way back from the highest tide.
"You fucking hypocrite."
You've heard him say all those words, but he's never spit them at you like that. You pull back, increasing the distance. His mouth is in that narrow set, his jaw locked tight. His eyelashes are wet, though, and the little boy looks out through them. Even as he's muttering, "I don't believe this. How can you--how *can* you?"
Already you can feel a headache beginning. You rub two fingers against your temples. "I didn't mean--"
"Where were you when I called you?" He raps his knuckles against the bar. "You were having dinner. You were with her."
"Her name is Linda."
Sam hesitates at this, but only for a second. "You weren't who I thought you were for ten minutes out of the last three decades, and I've had to learn that. I've had to accept that. I've had to be okay with it, because you're my father, anyway." He's raising his voice and choking on it at the same time. "Tell me. You did that for so many years. How can you sit there and have the balls to be angry at me for who I am?"
"I'm not angry." As soon as you say this, you know that you are, that anger is vibrating along your every muscle. Anger at the mental movie you can't help playing, anger at the very idea of your son--yes, you're angry. At the idea. You pick up your bottle and let the last dregs of beer fall onto your tongue. It's not enough. "Sam, you just told me you're going to run for the United States Senate," you say, as quietly as you can manage. "Then you throw this, 'I'm- not-this-I'm-not-that,' you throw this thing at me. What in hell did you expect?"
Sam's voice dies, and you glance up to see the bartender hovering. She flashes her teeth and leans forward a little, just enough so you can't miss the way she fills out her dark green apron. You can't tell whether or not Sam's noticing. "Can I get you anything else?" she asks eagerly.
You want to say yes. You almost do, but Sam shakes his head. He stands, shoving his barstool aside so that its legs screech on the wooden floor, and he heads for the door. The bartender's face falls. You shrug an apology to her and get up to follow your son.
He's standing outside the lobby doors, facing the street and the mist that glows under the copper-colored streetlights.. His white shirt glows, too; he doesn't have a coat. That doesn't explain why he's trembling. "You wish I hadn't called you."
You fold your arms across your chest. "I'm not going to applaud, no."
"God." His hand rakes through his hair again, clenches and falls back to his side. "It's not as if this is a Sunday picnic for me. I told you because I knew I had to. You don't have to be thrilled, but you--you have no right to be pissed at me." He kicks at something, a pebble on the sidewalk. "You, of all people, are in no position to judge."
The entrance to the hotel is framed by square brick columns. You brace a hand against one of them and inhale. The air stings like salt water. "Are you still beating that high horse?"
You can't believe you said that out loud.
Sam spins around to face you, light and shadow fighting over the clean angles of his face. "Say that again." He sounds like a schoolboy spoiling for a playground fight. It's almost funny. No, it's not funny at all.
"Me, of all people." You raise your eyebrows. "You're damned right I don't have to be thrilled to hear you're-- bisexual, or whatever you want to call it. I'm not thrilled. You think that makes me a monster? Don't answer that. I know what you think. You've certainly never been shy about handing down your own moral judgments."
"It's not like that!" His voice cracks. He rocks his weight back onto his heels. "I have never once done anything remotely like--"
"And I'm your father, anyway." You push off the wall and come to stand in front of him, your eyes exactly level with his. "And I live with a woman, Sam, and you can't even bring yourself to say her name."
The fire blazes up in his face, visible even in the semidarkness and crisscrossing shadows. His eyes, the same blue as yours, dilate and look almost black. His chin drops to his chest, and when he lifts it again, his expression makes your chest hurt, pain in a place where something broke a long time ago.
"It's not comparable," he manages to say.
"Fine." You hold your hands up in surrender. "I'm sorry, Sam. You want me to be honest."
"Yeah." He lets out a long breath and rubs his eyes with the heel of his hand. "I guess I deserved that," he says, so softly you're not sure he meant you to hear it.
"I guess I deserved what I got more," you say.
Your shoulders are tight as fists. You roll them backward, trying to loosen them, knowing how badly they'll cramp up on you on the way home. The valet is nowhere to be seen. He's probably around the back of the hotel, tooling around in your Mercedes, screwing up all the mirrors.
You wipe a hand across your forehead. "Over Christmas, you told your mother, didn't you?"
Sam makes a sound like a cough on its way to becoming a chuckle. "I tried," he says. "She--mostly she was interested in the probability of grandchildren."
It's always been hard to tell Deirdre anything she doesn't want to hear. No reason it should be easier for her son than for her husband. "Your generation is different," you say.
He shoots you a doubtful look. "Is that supposed to be an excuse?"
"It's a statement of fact." You move away from him, a little, filling your lungs with the sharp salt air. "One that, if you're serious about that Senate seat, you're going to have to acknowledge."
"Gee, I never thought of that." Now he does chuckle, in that dry, chilly way. "I am serious about it."
"I didn't think you'd have mentioned it if you weren't."
"I'm serious about it because I still think..." He turns away from you, pacing back to the hotel doors. You stay where you are. "I still think that things can change for the better," he says, with sudden, surprising strength. "If we stop making the excuse that they can't be changed at all."
This is your son, and he's same little boy who always seemed surprised when he stepped in the ocean and the ocean was cold. Who had to be knocked down over and over before he learned how to plant his feet against the tide. You still hear the summer of that battle in his voice. He's still fighting it. And in his eyes, you're seeing something that just might win.
"We don't always have to approve of each other," you say.
He turns around, haloed by the light from the lobby. "Okay."
"You know, I'm not a monster." You twist your fingers together. "I'm not a saint, either."
"I never thought you were," he says, in a way that lets you know he did, once.
"Two people who are half-good and half-awful can make a horrifying mess out of a marriage."
"And maybe..." You weigh the air in your hands, and you know exactly what to say. "Maybe everything good, everything worthwhile about two people can be distilled into one life. For my money, that's you, Sam. I don't have to be thrilled with you this minute to know that."
For several seconds his face gives you nothing, no more reaction than a mask. You wait. It happens the way a sail fills out with the wind, slowly and then completely. Sam smiles his whole, familiar, genuine smile.
There's nothing else to be said, and you say it perfectly.
He scuffs his shoe, turning his bright face toward the pavement and then toward the hotel. "Let's go in," he says. "Let me buy you another beer."
You're already tired to the bone. "I should get on the road," you say. Out of the corner of your eye, you see the valet coming around the side of the building, throwing away the end of a cigarette. "Another time. Are you staying here?"
"For one more night. I'm flying home--" He shakes his head. "I'm flying back to Washington tomorrow afternoon. I have to get out of my lease and pack, that kind of thing. I have to say my goodbyes." A cloud drifts across his face. You wonder who he's leaving behind--no, you don't want to know. "I should get back by the first week of March."
"When you do." You take a step toward him. "We'll have dinner, properly."
"Yeah." Sam swallows and tilts his head. "Maybe I, I could come up to Santa Monica."
You think of Linda. You can see her, right now, stretching out on the sofa the way she does, with her blonde hair falling over one of its arms and her ankles crossed on the other. She is comfortable, there and almost anywhere else, and she'd probably make Sam comfortable, too. Still, it's hard to picture them in the same room.
You catch Sam's eyes and nod. "You're always welcome. You know that."
"Thanks," he says. He says it with something special in his voice, so that the word drifts through the air like a snowflake on a solo flight. Then he holds up one hand, gives you a small wave, and turns away. He walks into the lobby. You watch until he's out of sight.
A couple of yards behind you, the valet coughs. "Sir?"
"Yeah." You dig into your pocket, find your ticket and hand it to the kid. The night is clear. You squint, and in your mind's eye you can see past the streetlights and the quiet road, between the row of stores opposite to the shoreline, and the sea. The stores used to sell T-shirts and now they sell expensive vegetable juice, and even though you can't read their signs, the knowledge makes you feel your age. It's so strange to be back here. It must be just as strange, for Sam.
Questions buzz around your head like fireflies. You want to ask him how far ahead he's planned, once his loose ends in Washington are neatly tied, how he's going to make this magic work. You want to ask him about grandchildren.
The kid drives up with your car. You take your keys, tip him a few dollars, and get behind the wheel. A vague pain twinges in your back and is gone. It will come back.
You go home.
[end. feedback lights my fire.]
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