Title: When we weren't speaking
Authors: Pene and august
Email: penelopody at hotmail, appelsini at hotmail
Codes: Josh, Kenny
Rating: in this story, Josh is shot and also fucks Kenny. we believe only the first needs to be disclaimer-ed.
Disclaimer: any similarity between persons or places mentioned herein and actual persons living or dead, persons invented by another, actual places or places you might once have been is entirely unintentional and coincidental. except for you, Francis J. Mullinger. give us back our red shoes.
Note: sometimes we make things up.
Acknowledgements: to Christinecgb who edited us. and Luna who answered some emergency questions
Summary: the first time he didn't see it coming.
When we weren't speaking by Pene and august
I. In which Josh remembers his youth
When Josh was twenty-four he spent four days in Vegas with a translator who worked in his office building. She read the New Yorker to him in Cantonese and fed him in their hotel bed.
After the shooting, during his apartment exile, he spent afternoons trying to find her. It was much more than a decade since he'd seen her; he didn't remember her name but couldn't forget the most amazing mouth of his early twenties.
Using his cane, he meets Donna in his hallway. "I think I'm having a mid-life crisis."
She brushes past him, briefly resting a hand on his back. He follows her into the kitchen. "Donna, your boss just told you he's having a mid-life crisis. You'd think, you know, you'd be a little more concerned. It could be all toupees and sports cars from here."
"Toupees and sports cars?"
"Sports jackets and white shoes. I'll start thinking that Mandy Patinkin can actually sing."
"Death-bed confessions, Donna. You have to take me seriously, the law says so." He eases into a chair at the kitchen table, still sore skin stretching with movement. She doesn't laugh, never laughs anymore, and he isn't sure if he even finds it funny.
She says, "Josh, I know how much you make. You'd have to take out a loan to buy a sports car."
They eat in silence, (and he wondered whether he would have left, if he could have.)
II. In which Josh believes himself invincible
The bathroom light blinks out while Josh is brushing his teeth. He has spare bulbs somewhere, but in the semi-dark the ceiling looks far away and he's never spent a lot of time looking in the mirror. Two days later the kitchen light and one of the living room lamps hiss and flicker to black almost simultaneously. Josh glares at the dead bulbs. He's never liked the feel of that fine powdery glass between his fingers. He leaves them.
It's possible the sound of a blown light bulb is a little like the sound of a gunshot. Josh wouldn't know anything about that; he heard Karen Carpenter sing, "I'm on the top of the world" and then he was in darkness.
For the first few weeks he had trouble remembering the particular combination of medication he was supposed to take. Donna tried to make rhymes ("when it's blue you take two") but it was Sam who made him a spreadsheet with a boxes to tick off. Josh is quietly confident in being smarter than most people he meets. Josh answers directly to the President of the United States. Josh ticks off boxes on charts like he's in grade school.
(See Josh run.)
It's possible the sound of a blown light bulb is a little like the sound of a gunshot. Josh wouldn't know anything about that but he tries to keep the fact that his house is in partial darkness a secret for as long as possible. He feels strangely confident about it; ushers Donna out of rooms before she has time to notice. He starts thinking he doesn't need light, doesn't need electricity. He gave back the card but he has an advantage: when they're writhing from madness and Mad Cow disease, he'll already know how to live in the dark.
He starts to think that maybe he's invincible.
III. In which Josh goes back to work
Mostly, Josh hates that everyone knows.
The Surgeon-General compliments his lovely scar. The guy he buys beer from knows he was in surgery for fourteen hours. Gives him free beer. Tells him he's brave. He can't trust that when people say, "Hi, Josh," they just mean, "Hi, Josh," not, "Sorry to hear you got all shot up."
He winces while shrugging on his suit jacket and catches Ginger eying him sympathetically. She blushes and looks across at Bonnie. He thinks he might strip off and run naked through the building, plans to run along the terrace outside the oval office, red scar and ribs reflected on each window. Come catch me, motherfuckers.
Josh can't meet Ron Butterfield's eyes in case Ron looks guilty. Instead he approaches a newish agent in the lobby.
"Hey," Josh says.
"I'm Josh. Lyman." Josh shifts on his feet. The secret service guy nods.
"And you are? Josh asks.
"Agent Rudy Hamlin, sir."
"Nice to meet you, agent." Josh tries to sound casual, glances across the wide cream room, but there's nothing to say except, "I was wondering if I could take a look at your gun."
Rudy doesn't pause. "No, Sir, I'm afraid you can't."
"There are protocols."
"What if I were, say, the President?"
"Not even then."
The week before he was due to leave the hospital, the Enquirer published photographs taken in his hospital room. He doesn't recognise himself in them. CJ denounces the paper at a press briefing. The White House receives thousands of letters praising Josh's bravery, calling him a hero.
Later, CJ says to him, "well, at least you know you've arrived. You know when the fucking Enquirer's rooting around in your rubbish that you're someone, Joshua. You're America's hero."
There are ways in which words (bravery, heroism) lose their meaning in this. For every hand that shakes his, mouth that says, "Welcome back," he can't shake the fact that there was no choice in these events, that he never had a chance to see it coming.
"I'm sorry, sir." The agent repeats and he means to move Josh along.
He wants to take the agent's gun and hold it as far from his chest as possible. He wants to look square into that dark hole, 'cause the last time he never had a chance to see it coming.
IV. In which Josh finds Kenny on a street corner
Josh is contemplating the strength of bones when he finds Kenny staring at a stop sign on the corner of Marsden and Union. The sight of Joey's translator transfixed by a street sign is enough to momentarily shake Josh's preoccupation.
"You don't have these in-?" Josh stops speaking when he realises he doesn't know where Kenny is from.
Kenny doesn't turn to face Josh. "There's a joke in this sign, somewhere. Between Wittengenstein and Freud. I don't know how it goes but the punch line is "sometimes a sign is just a sign."
"Does Joey know you roam the streets writing college dissertations about semiotics and council property?"
Kenny turns to Josh, finally, and shakes his hand. Josh notices a scar running from Kenny's thumb to his wrist. He thinks he's never seen Kenny alone before and wonders where Joey is.
"Joey's sick," Kenny says, without prompting.
"I didn't – Is she alright?"
"She's just sick. She'll be fine." A level pause, purposeful and revealing because then Kenny says, "It's great to see you, Josh. You made it back to work so quickly."
Josh has started thinking about Mariah Carey in situations like this. Intellectually, he knows hearing, "There's a hero, if you look inside yourself" is enough to make anyone put their hand through a wall. Still, Josh reaches out to lean against the street sign and makes contact with the post a little harder than he should have. The dull thud spreads in his hand.
He contemplates telling Kenny how he wonders about invincibility. How sometimes he believes his bones can no longer break and imagines stepping off a curb to test this theory.
"The thing about street signs, Josh, is that they only rely on one sense. There's colour and words but that's not enough if a person's blind."
"You know, I think if a person's blind and driving, we've got bigger problems than the street signs not appealing to all five of their senses."
Kenny laughs and, "Yeah, you're right."
Kenny speaks differently when he's not translating. Josh is thinking about Joey in a terry-towelling robe and about the scar running from Kenny's thumb to his finger.
He thinks of Joey and it's Kenny's voice in his head.
He says, "I was gonna grab some take-out. You wanna join me?"
V. In which Josh and Kenny get drunk
Turns out Kenny can speak four languages fluently, three more conversationally. He's worked as a translator for the U.N and interned with a Democratic pollster while he was in college. He learned to sign because his sister was in a car accident when she was eight. She died four years later. Josh doesn't tell him they have sisters in common.
Josh doesn't ask many questions and Kenny offers answers unprompted. Josh is grateful for a conversation not cloaked in concern. Everybody knows he was shot, even Kenny, and Josh can't pretend that isn't true. He has trouble finding the energy to make sure everyone is all right with what happened; with assuring people that he's all right with what happened.
Mostly, he feels like he's being babysat. Mostly, he hates that everyone knows.
He's so used to dealing with Joey directly, he's surprised by Kenny; by his easy, unfolding conversation. Josh sneaks a secret side glance as they walk to his apartment. Kenny's telling Josh about leaving the U.N. and says, "I found I was saying the same thing to people, just in a different language."
Josh only speaks one language and sometimes not even that well.
He says, "I speak one language and sometimes not even that well."
Kenny laughs and surprised, Josh does too.
"So why aren't you- You and Joey have worked together for so long. Why aren't you-" Josh falters.
"Why aren't I a pollster? I don't know, why aren't you President?" Kenny takes a bite of his chicken. While Kenny chews, Josh fiddles with the label on his beer bottle, pushes his chair back a little and plants his feet on his coffee table.
Eventually Kenny says, "I like being an interpreter because it's someone else's words." He looks across the room, maybe uncomfortably. His eyes fall on the basketball resting precariously on top of the bookshelf between the Truman biography and the wall. Josh was almost seventeen when his dad got the ball signed by Bill Walton. "Dear Josh," it says in thick black pen. "Do well in school".
Josh peels the label completely off the beer bottle, "I kept that at work but then, you know, Toby started his ball thing and it seemed like an easy target." He balls the label up and watches it spectacularly miss the bin. "We used to play a few games, before it got nasty. The President banned it."
"A President who banned basketball. I'm glad I didn't vote for him."
Josh's feet hit the floor. "Didn't vote for him?"
"No, it's not-," Kenny laughs, "I didn't vote for anyone. There are a lot of things I didn't agree with in Bartlet's campaign. Well, your campaign, I guess."
"Things you didn't agree with? Fuck, we make decisions I don't agree with every day, but, but you-"
"-you gotta suit up?"
"You gotta suit up!" It's possible Josh is jumping in his seat. "Decisions are made-"
"-by those who show up," Kenny interrupts, "Yeah, I've read that speech. Except, Josh, I know how decisions are made. Don't talk to me like you're giving the Marjorie Dupont lecture. This is what I do for a living."
"Agitator! You're an agitator. You're the reason Seth Gillette is cooking our ass."
Kenny knocks his beer against Josh's and smiles. "And damn proud of it."
"Does Joey know this? That you're a, a, a-"
"-an agitator?" Kenny laughs. "Joey knows everything about me."
Josh is slightly embarrassed, he says, "You better watch out. They're still posting agents outside my building, they'll bust in here with a laugh that loud."
"They're still posting agents?"
"He's, you know, they figure some day guys with guns will try and break into the place."
"Guys with guns?" Kenny laughs. "I grew up in South Central; we took one in the chest for gym class." And then, after the silence, "Oh Jesus. I'm sorry. I didn't-"
Josh waves the apology away; the gesture is heavy, familiar.
His fourth beer pops open, and everyone in Washington knows Josh can't drink. Especially Josh who has to squint to peel the label off the bottle.
When Josh thinks of Joey, it's Kenny's voice in his head. Kenny shifts in the chair, coughs out emptiness in his throat. He has hands that hold words, a voice that captures others. Three voices in one man and as Kenny leans forward to rest his bottle on the desk, Josh wants it all.
VI. In which Josh is surprised
So Josh kisses Kenny. It's beer and it's warm.
"I didn't- I wasn't… expecting that." Kenny's hands still on his bottle and Josh stares. He'd never imagined those hands could hold a kind of silence.
Josh lies easily, after all these years, after this year: "Yeah, me either."
Kenny's standing close enough that he's just blur and beery breath and dark grey suit. Josh squints at him. All Josh's practice not looking at translators makes it possible that Josh has never actually seen Kenny. He certainly can't remember how Kenny looks.
Josh is a smart man so he improvises, "You look good,"
Josh is always forgetting the words. But it doesn't (ever) matter. Kenny moves surely, pressing his cock against Josh's hip, pressing Josh against the wall. Josh presses back.
Around Josh's tongue Kenny says, "Oh God," as though he's genuinely surprised at this.
Kenny says, "Oh God," again as Josh slips fingers under Kenny's belt buckle and tugs.
Josh lowers himself, winces as his knees thud the last two inches to the carpet but he looks up and grins past Kenny's cock to his foggy face. Soon Kenny's hands are in his hair, and Josh smiles around the cock in his mouth. Next those hands will sign politics and figures but they are both Josh's now, and they tighten and tighten in his hair.
VII. In which Josh considers love
Josh has never been in love. At fifteen and listening to Eagles songs in Lynn Schwartz's carpeted bedroom he learned to smile and nod at all the right times. But every time he starts something he remembers to nod and forgets what he's supposed to say.
Josh never wanted to be in love. He's seen young girls, tanned legs spread, holding in their stomachs while their shining mouths lie slack. He's seen men left alone, the dark and the drink running rings around their eyes. He's seen that bright fizz of terror when one hand unexpectedly brushes another.
Kenny calls and it's not Joey speaking.
"How's the head?"
Josh lifts a hand to pat his hair and says, "This head? Yeah yeah," as though he's never thought about his head before. It hurts. He wonders if he knows everything there is to know about Kenny now.
"You want my number?"
Josh doesn't write it down but says, "Thanks, man." and he suddenly remembers Kenny's eyes, set firm in his face. "I got things, late-"
"I know, Joey'll be there," Kenny says. Kenny's voice is easy.
Josh doesn't ask, "Will you?" cause even if Kenny's there Joey will be too. After Josh hangs up he buries the phone under a defence briefing.
He growls a "Go away" as Donna stands under her bright hair and lists things at him, also brightly.
There's an ache in Josh's knees and jaw and eyes. "Go away," he tries again.
"I've told you before-," she begins and is still talking as leaves.
Josh never wanted to be in love. But he took a bullet and he got back up. He took a bullet in the chest and he's still standing.
(Look at Josh now.)
VIII. In which Josh buys Joey a drink
Someone killed two military boys in Guam, both newly recruited eighteen year olds and both from Oklahoma. Sam can sing even the girl parts of the musical. Those are two of tonight's reason for Josh leaving the West Wing late, badly in need of a Tylenol and sleep.
Outside Joey is standing on the kerb, arms by her sides. And Kenny is half way down the street, hands in his coat pockets.
Before he reaches her, Joey says, "Joshua," and turns around. She has, perhaps, some sort of heightened sense of smell. Or she knows his shoes and felt the pavement shake.
"Hey. You okay?"
"Walk with me?" she says, and he does. All the way to her hotel, where the bar is wrapped around a twenty-five foot water sculpture and he buys her a gin and tonic, no ice.
"You look well," Joey says as they sit beside a tiled stream, strewn with potted palms. A frost-haired woman in Middle America's yellowest jogging suit glances up at Joey's slightly too loud voice, then looks away in embarrassment. Joey doesn't notice.
"I hate this bar," she says. "All the running water."
"Why'd we come here then?"
"There's a word for that," he says.
"Fear of running water." He can't remember it and frowns. "Sam would know, he used it in a speech once."
"Potamophobia," Joey says. "I'm not afraid of running water. I'm embarrassed by the waste. And the reverberation wears me out."
Josh tries to imagine what it would be like to hear nothing, tries to imagine shutting his eyes and effectively eradicating the world. It's like wearing blinkers. "They probably recycle it."
There's a little white bowl of mixed nuts and Josh throws some in his mouth. Peanut, peanut, peanut. Josh never thought to be afraid of running water. But then Josh never thought to be afraid of bullets.
"What was the speech about?" she asks.
Josh can't remember that either. "Tourism."
"I thought about going along with you to your room, that night in L.A." Joey says. And it occurs to Josh that Kenny might not tell Joey everything.
"You thought about it?"
"I might have come," she says, "but it seemed risky."
Josh shifts in his chair and Joey meets his eyes.
"Yeah," she says and turns to watch the water running over the blue tiles.
"So, where's your shadow?" Josh asks and feels kind of cheap. Joey doesn't answer but she's not looking, anyway.
IX. In which Josh calls Kenny to ask a question
Someone (Donna? Leo?) has been siphoning work, keeping Josh's desk clear and leaving Josh with nothing to consider but 3:57am, 3:58am, 3:59am. He tries counting sheep, treaties, Governors who've become President, white supremacist groups. He doesn't want to switch on the bedroom light. (Though he's pretty sure it still works.)
Four blocks from Josh's apartment they're working on some shiny new building development, all attic windows and balconies. By 6:30 he's walking past. This early in the morning the equipment has a kind of deliberate sullenness, as though each bulldozer and each crane is waiting for something to do with its huge tires and oiled parts.
Another block and Josh buys a paper and a bagel. It seems every bereaved family is inviting donations to stop the live animal trade in lieu of flowers. Josh is tired.
"You want more coffee, love?"
"Thanks." The waitress is wearing red sneakers in honour, he supposes, of it being before seven on a Saturday morning.
Josh's mother ran a perfect house. No pets, no dust, no shoes on the furniture or sneaker prints on the walls. When Josh was eight he drew a tiny penis behind the chest of drawers in his bedroom. It took him half an hour to move the big wooden chest away from the wall. His mother found the drawing in minutes.
He remembers her face, blotchy with fury. "Get out of my home," she said. She packed a bag. She didn't call him back until he'd reached the corner of Maple Drive, almost a block away.
His mom relaxed a bit as they got older. Joanie never had a bag packed for her.
Josh turns to the crossword and decides to call Kenny.
"What's an eight letter word for impatient?"
Kenny breathes out loudly and then says, "Restless."
"Yeah." Josh doesn't write the word down. "So, you free for dinner tonight?"
X. In which Josh fucks Kenny, again.
Three floors up, a window is open and through it Kenny is pulling a t-shirt over his head. There are plants in pots on the narrow window ledge. Kenny moves past the window and Josh presses the buzzer for number 307.
"I didn't expect you on time," says Kenny as he opens the door. "Aren't you supposed to be an important person?" He smiles and it's suddenly clear this is a date. Josh doesn't point out that he's the kind of important that can't afford to run late.
"I'll just grab a jacket," says Kenny and Josh is left gazing at some sort of Zen structure where water bubbles over a pile of grey on grey stones.
Josh was almost 28 when he let Jamie fuck him up the ass in the upstairs bathrooms of JR's. Jamie's head was too large for his wiry body but he had cheekbones, a Scottish accent and a degree in cryptography. More than that Jamie had a sure way of shifting his weight inside his jeans so all eyes were on him. Josh knew how he wanted that confidence, wanted to pin it down and fill himself with it. Instead he was moaning and grunting against the slightly damp bathroom wall with his pants puddled around his shoes.
Four months later Josh was in hospital, sporting an unexplained rash across his chest and belly. He spent four days listening to the peeping machines in the infectious ward, with doctors muttering HIV from behind the blue hospital curtains. He didn't call his parents. Eventually the doctors said "just a virus" and let him go. It was enough to knock a kind of sense into him.
"Japanese?" asks Kenny and Josh smiles.
They leave their shoes on bamboo mats at the restaurant door and sit with their legs stretched out in a pit in the floor. Josh is poking at his sashimi with chopsticks when Kenny places a hand over his.
"You know, I had this little crush on you," says Kenny and Josh can't believe there is any man this brave in the whole world. "I think this might go good places."
Seven words, Josh counts them, seven words out of Kenny's mouth and suddenly they have a future together. Josh is out of breath, like he's been running. Kenny's saying, "-and in L.A., I thought, I don't know. I thought about coming to your room."
Josh thinks about L.A.; thinks about Kenny coming to his room and finding Joey there. He thinks about the box his mother gave him to keep in the trunk of his car for emergencies. He notices the way Kenny's scar flexes with every movement of his hand. He wonders whether that's what the scar along his chest looks like.
He feels out of breath, like he's been running. Mostly, in his life, he's been a good guy. He's done the right thing. Yet when he says to Kenny, "I'd like to kiss you" it's not exactly what he means.
Kenny tastes like soy and sake and doesn't notice Josh can't sleep.
XI. In which Josh rewrites history
Professionally speaking, Josh hasn't been concentrating and suddenly it's the thirtieth anniversary of the end of the war in Seneket. Sam never had an older cousin who came back from Seneket so he's surprised when everyone forbids him to call the anniversary a celebration.
Toby, whose tour of duty there broke him, somehow, says, "Because they lost half a generation's men, and we lost three-hundred."
"Because we freed a country from a dictator who called himself a god," says CJ. "But it's not a celebration either way. And you're not wearing that tie, Josh."
Josh changes his tie, wets his face in the bathroom and decides he's a pacifist.
"Josh. Leo's office," says Donna through the bathroom door.
Josh pushes Leo's office door a fraction too hard and it thuds against the wall. Leo eyes him grimly. Joey is speaking. "These are new numbers and we're noticing some shifts in terms of people's views of the President as a responsible family man. I'm convinced this is the time to go pushing amendments to the Child Protection Act."
Josh can detect nothing new in the space between Joey's fingers and Kenny's lips.
Leo nods. "Josh?"
Josh is distracted by Joey's fingers. "It's a neat parallel. Someone shoots at the President, the President looks out for the little man, for the kids. This can only do us good."
In the room only Kenny isn't looking at Josh as he speaks. Kenny's eyes are on Joey so when, after a fraction, she signs "excellent" and smiles, Kenny is right there.
XII. In which Josh remembers being shot
Josh makes coffee the way his mother taught him. One scoop per person and an extra one for the pot.
"You want me to get up there and change the light bulb for you?" Kenny asks from the living room and Josh quells a hint of irritation.
"No thanks, man." Josh turns back to plunge the coffee. As he pushes down he realizes, too late, that one coffee-plunger leg has slipped off the bench. The coffee is dark brown and scalding hot across his arm.
"Ff-uck." (Come catch me.)
Kenny is through the door soaking a tea towel in cold water before the pain even hits.
"Hold this to your arm."
Josh nods. Blinks. Kenny presses the wet tea towel against Josh's arm.
"Just. Hold still, Josh." Kenny's voice is steady and low and they stand there, still, for several minutes. When Kenny peels the towel from Josh's skin there's a reddening welt across Josh's forearm.
"Must hurt like hell," says Kenny. "You'll be fine. You have a drug store nearby? We can get some of those burn bandages or whatever."
"I'm okay," says Josh and Kenny breathes easier. "Come here."
Josh perches himself on the kitchen bench and pulls Kenny to him with his one good arm, presses his knees to Kenny's hips. As Kenny leans in Josh presses his burn to Kenny's side and feels this new, raw pain with a sort of wonder.
That night in Rosslyn every second opened into its tenthousand parts. A flash, his foot thudding on concrete, a heavy jolt in his abdomen. Underwater voices. Even the sirens were a sluggish burble, sound after sound. Everything happened slowly.
Kenny draws back to look into Josh's face and frowns a little. "Let me get you some ice, yeah."
Josh nods. Kenny opens the freezer, rummaging through it with his back to Josh. Josh knows the shoulders, knows the skin under Kenny's shirt. He thinks he could explain how slow it all was that night. And that even then he didn't see it coming. Couldn't stop his blood welling warm and thick between his fingers.
XIII. In which CJ buys Josh a drink
Josh is sitting at a bar with his eyes closed, attempting to identify individual nuts by taste. Peanut. Cashew. Peanut? He rests his elbows on the bar and tries to name every bar in the city that has mixed nuts. Ike's, Madam's Organ, Union Street. Remington's. He'd have been a millionaire if he had invested in nuts.
Cashew. Peanut. Almond. Almond. Peanut.
On his right, a chair spins and CJ says, "Buy you a drink, Madam?" She flags down a bartender, says, "Get the little woman anything she wants. I'll have a beer."
Josh looks up. "Two." He adds, patriotically, "domestic."
Ginger-haired and looking all of twenty-two, the bartender says, "Sure thing, Mr Lyman."
CJ tosses a tip on the bar, "Your groupies are everywhere, Joshua."
Josh slept with one of his groupies, once. She lived in a share- house, had dark green sheets and pictures of Elvis above her bed. The sex was awful and while he waited for her to fall asleep he counted her suits hanging on the other side of the room.
There are two televisions above the bar. Josh tips the bartender and watches CJ on television. The non-television CJ says to the bartender who mysteriously knew Josh's name, "Hey, buddy, wanna switch that thing off for a while?"
Josh knows CJ well enough to know she won't watch herself unless she has to. He also knows her well enough to know the question that's coming next. The television above the bar flickers to a point and then blacks out. The jukebox is playing Dusty Springfield and CJ says, "so is this the thing where I need to be worried about you?"
Josh thinks of all the times CJ has taken Toby back, all the times they've sat at this bar. He says, "no."
"I'm just saying, it's only been a couple of months since, you know, and you're making what I can only surmise is a major lifestyle change with Joey Lucas' interpreter."
Josh says, quietly, "It's not a major lifestyle change."
CJ is silent for a moment and then swivels in her chair to face him. "Oh. Is this why you didn't want to be set up with my friend Louise?"
"No, I didn't want to be set up with your friend Louise because she habitually quotes Jaws III."
"I wouldn't say it's habitual."
"Jaws III, CJ. The bad one, when even Dreyfuss and Spielberg refused to return."
CJ laughs and waves for another drink. "You used to have a thing for Joey Lucas."
Josh doesn't tell CJ that he still does. "Yeah."
"But you're sleeping with Kenny."
Josh stares at the blank television. "I guess so."
CJ touches Josh's forearm gently where the bandage bulges a little under his shirt. "How did this happen, Josh?"
When Josh looks at her, CJ is nothing but kindness. "I knocked over a pot of coffee."
CJ lets her hand rest on Josh's. Protective. "How did Kenny happen?"
"I don't know. He was standing on the side of the road. He has this scar on his hand. I don't know." Josh wants to say something like, 'because he has all the words' but no one speaks like that in real life.
XIV. In which Josh makes an offer
Kenny's eyes have this new red rim of concern and there's something terrifying about that look. Because Josh was okay, he thinks he remembers being okay, when Kenny didn't wake to read the newspaper before him. And Josh is okay enough to realise four and five come after three and there's at least a page missing from his newspaper each morning.
"What, are you censoring the news?" Josh asks, annoyed. "You know I get the paper at work."
"No," Kenny's response is too ready. "I just like to know what's going on."
"Before I do."
"I'm worried about you, Josh." And Josh knew that answer, too, before it came. Remembers it, even.
At night over burgers in the back room of the Rembrandt Kenny says, "I'm sorry. I just want to protect you."
Josh thinks Kenny missed out on that long ago. Instead he says, "I know," and tries to smile. He's never seen Kenny so grey. Burger juices drip down Kenny's hands and fall from his wrist to land back on his plate.
Josh thinks about the morning he walked into a grocery store that'd just been robbed. The clerk was sobbing behind the counter and Josh stepped over broken glass to pick up the box of cereal he wanted. There was a welling in his throat and Josh had never before remembered the sound of glass under shoes, the smell of gunpowder burnt skin. He walked home quickly, barely made it inside before the vomit pushed through his lips.
Josh swallows, looks at Kenny and wants to leave the Rembrandt. "You look exhausted. Let me take you home."
Kenny's hotel room is far above the city. Yellow light rises from headlights and streetlamps below and seeps through the window and under the sheets. Josh presses his knuckles to the naked curve of Kenny's spine. "You want me to take you to the airport in the morning?" Though it's not the kind of thing you can unsay and Josh has to be around for a photo op in the White House gardens.
"Thought you had to be at that photo op tomorrow." Kenny rolls over.
"And we have to give our driver something to do anyway. But thanks." Josh can hear the smile in Kenny's voice. Kenny shifts closer and kisses Josh with his tongue, one arm groping about beside the bed for a condom.
"Roll over," he says.
Josh spreads his legs and presses his face against the mattress. Kenny's thighs are warm between Josh's, all lean damp muscle under skin. And Josh is spread open and hard against the bed. Maybe Josh wants to remember this tomorrow night when he's home, living in the dark. But he feels desperate. He feels like he's stealing the last of something.
XV. In which Kenny calls from California
There are about a hundred fourth graders in folding chairs on the slightly damp front lawn. The President is squinting a little in the sun and saying, "So who's gonna take over from me when I'm done?"
Most of the kids stick a hand in the air.
"You reckon you could do a better job here than I'm doing?"
Some kid has the bad judgement to nod earnestly. His mother or teacher smiles approvingly.
"Come on up here, then," says the President. "And give me some advice." The kid clambers forward and earnestly shakes the President's hand.
"He's worse than Cosby," mutters Toby, to Josh's left. "The kid looks cute now but just wait for him to be some sort of crazed libertarian."
"I'm expecting the worst," says CJ, her eye on the press.
Josh keeps catching sight of planes in the distance overhead. Their lurking metal bodies seem so unlikely, with nothing but air between them and the ground.
The President's saying, "Of course you'll concede that keeping interest rates low may offset the contractionary impact of reductions in the cyclically adjusted deficit without triggering inflation." The kids nod and giggle.
Josh thinks of Kenny, of the space between the air and the ground, thinks of all the things he can't stop.
He says, "I'll be in my office" and feels their eyes on his back as he crosses the lawn. Blades of grass stick to his dewy shoes.
Inside Donna is tussling enthusiastically with a filing cabinet drawer. Ginger is waving a blue binder at Bonnie and complaining loudly about Toby. Leo is yelling for Margaret. Josh closes his office door and when the phone rings he doesn't pick up.
Kenny leaves a message. "Sorry to have missed you. Give me a call at the office if you're around."
Three or so hours later. "Heading out for dinner with friends, but I'll call when I get in."
"Dinner was good. Hope you're okay. I hate that I'm not gonna see you tonight. Give me a call, hey?"
A day goes by before Kenny leaves another message. All short sentences.
"How's D.C? I miss you. Call me."
It's become habit, leaving the phone to ring. Josh scrunches his face, winces through the tone and tone. There'd been moments just before sleep when Josh's brain clung to Kenny. He'd stretch out his foot; brush his toes against the back of Kenny's calf. Need was awkward and ugly.
This time, "I guess you're busy. Joey says hi."
And finally, "I didn't expect- Look, I don't know what's going on, Josh."
It's a Sunday night and Josh sits in the dark and listens to the message again.
XVI. In which Kenny arrives at Josh's door
The thing with Mandy (the end of the thing with Mandy) taught Josh how to break up with someone. Taught him how to make it clean. But then they were carnivores, and truth is neither wanted to stay around long enough for it to sting.
It's different with Kenny. Josh had a chance to see this coming and still-
Kenny arrives on Josh's doorstep; satchel slung over one shoulder, paper bag of groceries in the other hand. Kenny sings Paul Simon in Josh's kitchen and can make flowers from carrots. Mostly, in his life, Josh's been a good guy. He's done the right thing.
Josh says as Kenny walks past him, "You came a long way just for the weekend."
Kenny washes vegetables in the kitchen sink. Josh feels a kind of panic as Kenny says, "It's no big deal, I had some vacation time owing. Thought I'd spend a couple of days in D.C."
And although Kenny doesn't say, "With you", it's what he means. Josh doesn't want Kenny to take a vacation because of him. He watches the knife in Kenny's hands slice quickly through carrots and radishes. It stings to see that bright blade so close to fingers.
Kenny says, "Joey was afraid she'd have to bail me out with the phone company." He grins a little, ruefully. And Josh thinks that Kenny has no right to be kind.
Still, Josh reaches out and runs the back of his hand along Kenny's forearm. Still, he eats the vegetables. Still he says, later in the dark, "I missed you." And even though Josh wakes repeatedly in the night, frightened that Kenny's up and changing the burnt-out light bulbs, it's a kind of truth.
(Close your eyes and I'll kiss you.)
XVII. In which Josh thinks about his mom
After the shooting Sam said, "But for a team of brilliant surgeons and two inches of a miracle this guy's dead right now." Josh stood straight with his back against the door and marvelled at the ease with which Sam articulated his anger. He wished he could hold it down long enough to name it, to talk about it.
Kenny's satchel hangs from a chair, dirty dishes pile in Josh's sink. Kenny's fingers are in Josh's hair. It's more than the words when he says, "I missed you, Josh. I've been so worried about you."
Josh knows he missed Kenny but not enough to carry the weight of his concern. He wants to say, "There are things I wouldn't know how to tell you. There are things that stick in my throat, still." He wants to say, "I can't keep you safe Kenny and I don't know how to fall in love when I know that."
Instead he says, "Sssh," and pulls Kenny down on the sofa.
And then Letterman's saying, "A lot of people don't know this about me but I'm actually clinically blind; I mean, I haven't seen a thing in fifteen years." Kenny draws circles on Josh's chest. Josh's shirt feels thin under that steady touch. Somehow Kenny is always speaking with his hands, so even this is a conversation.
Kenny traces the scar on Josh's chest as though it's a code he can decipher, a language he already speaks. He says, bright eyed, "We- Joey and I, the whole office, the whole office and half of California, Josh, we were all pulling for you that night."
Josh's heart is beating much too fast. And there is no language for these moments.
When Josh thinks about the shooting, he thinks mostly about his mom. There are a thousand ways he wishes he could have stopped her picking up the phone, stopped her thinking she might be the only one left alive. It's not guilt, exactly, but something close enough.
His mom stayed with him in D.C. during his first week out of hospital. All the drugs that ran through his system means he remembers only his peripheral vision and the back of her hand wiping away her tears. He couldn't stop her crying so instead he tried to stay awake when she watched afternoon television. He tried to let her know he was okay.
Josh's skin stretches tight across his chest sometimes. There's a way in which he's embarrassed about the messy scar under his shirt. Sam was right: but for a team of brilliant surgeons and two inches of a miracle, Josh is dead right now. So that every time he takes off his shirt he remembers his breathing in is borrowed. He can't name it, can't pin it down (couldn't stop it) but knows it's so much more than ten inches of puckered red flesh.
Kenny's gripping his shoulder and Josh thinks he can't keep Kenny safe but, at least, he can stop this. So when Josh says, "It's not that this thing isn't-" he means to say, "You're not what I expected" and maybe, "I can't do this." He means to say that he's scared. Of course, Kenny's accustomed to reading the whole story from someone's fingers and lips.
They're in Josh's living room, standing either side of the sofa.
Kenny nods slowly. "I thought it worth a shot, though," he says.
Kenny's never left stuff at Josh's place but when he goes Josh doesn't know what to do with the half glass of Merlot on the coffee table.
XVIII. In which Josh-
Joey's been brought in on the new welfare package so every couple of weeks Kenny turns up in a meeting. He's not really speaking for himself and there's a new silence about him.
CJ eyes Josh judiciously. "Joey's gonna be at this thing tonight," as though Josh didn't know, as though Josh hadn't made Donna retie his bowtie three times. CJ holds Josh's lapels and shifts Josh's suit on his shoulders.
Through the arched windows of the State Room the night is perfectly black and clear. Kenny's hands and lips are across the room. Josh watches, in between insulting Amy Gardiner and apparently women in the workforce, single mothers, recent immigrants, philanthropists and Eleanor Roosevelt, while deriding Toby's taste in artwork.
Still, Joey startles him when Kenny says, close, "Are you avoiding me?"
Joey laughs. And when she laughs so does Kenny.
She says, "Don't look so scared, Joshua." When she walks away Kenny turns with her. Joey knows everything about Kenny and Josh knows nothing.
Back to the Big Block of Cheese Main Page