Authors: Emma McLaughlin
To the unforgiven girls“How do you do that while raising children and being a husband and leading a party and running a country and traveling the world, pursuing a vision of democracy? You build walls, you compartmentalize, you make sure that no one ever knows you completely.”
—Mimi Alford, teenage mistress of JFK
It was graduation weekend, long after midnight. Parents had been packed off to their motels, or talked into making the drive home alone with U-Hauls affixed to their tails. The air had chilled and there was a fire in the hearth of that sagging house, which someone else rented the year before and someone would rent the year after, the unchanging backdrop to an unchanging drama. Of course we wanted to think our year was different, our heartbreaks, our pregnancy scares, our Fs in organic chem, but they weren’t. There was nothing unprecedented about us. Even the enormity of graduating into the worst job market anyone could remember was being played out before fireplaces just like that one on campuses across the country.
We shared beers and bongs, and random liqueurs bogarted at Christmas, looking at each other with affection intensified by a calcifying nostalgia. Someone in our group within the group placed a bottle down on the sticky wood floor and gave it a spin. Just truth or drink. Because by this point we’d made out with whoever we were going to; no point forcing the issue.
My best friend, Lena, her ticket to LAX on her folded quilt upstairs, laughed and nudged me into the impromptu circle, curious to see what I’d finally disclose at the zero hour. She kept stroking her newly straightened hair that made her look like Jennifer Hudson’s younger sister, a preparatory step for the financial job she was about to start on the other side of the country.
What would I do without her?
I looked over and saw Mark still trying to get closure with his ex-boyfriend. Ashley was trying ’shrooms, because if not then—when? And the bottle had slowed in front of Willow, who was telling the story of her first penis. Something about a dropped suit at summer camp—more innocent than her interrogator was hoping, but, hey, she answered the question. That was the only rule.
I saw the time on a phone vibrating its way under the sunken couch and my chest pleated in. The hours were dwindling. I knew I would stay up until Lena and I shared a cab to the train station. This would all be over and my internship would begin and I wasn’t ready. I dropped my head on my freckled arms, my ginger ponytail flopping like a cast anchor. I wanted one more day on a meal plan. One more class to walk to. One more free movie.
I looked up. The bottle pointed at me. “Jamie,” Mateo prompted, rubbing his curls off his forehead still covered by a smattering of acne.
“Oh, shit, she’s giving me one of those Jamie smiles. Uh-uh, I’m not letting you off. Lena.” Mateo looked to where she stood behind me. “Anything left you want to know?”
“What’d she get on her Spanish final, did she let that skinny guy from sophomore year sleep in my bed, andwhereare my red shoes?”
I laughed as Mateo shook off her suggestions. “Okay, Jamie, for a shot of Patrón and the last Mallomar. First time you gave a—”
Before the media thought they knew everything about me, before a bunch of lawyers at the Office of the Independent Counsel tried to know everything about me, before one mandidknow everything about me, I was a girl with secrets.
When I arrived at the White House the President was our shared responsibility, beyond also being the adjective attached to everything in the building. The Rutland administration. The Rutland agenda. The Rutland luncheon. He was the word in every fifth sentence, a ubiquitous stamped signature, a photograph over the royal-blue carpet on the way to the staff entrance. Under normal circumstances he would never even have known my name, but I unwittingly entered the White House at a time when we collectively sidestepped normal as a nation.
As a Vassar poli-sci major, my ambition had been for a job in urban development—before my scope rapidly widened to include anything without a name tag. My wealthier classmates had staved off the demoralizing hunt with grad school applications, but my debt already verged on not-get-out-of-bed paralyzing, so I applied for summer internships, the longest of long shots being for the White House. As much as I couldn’t afford it, I prayed the unsalaried credential might be the key line item to differentiate my résumé. I’d heard that was especially true at Starbucks.
I’ll never know for certain, but I assume it was the recommendation from Lena’s mom, Gail, a major political fundraiser, that tipped the scales. Whatever it was, one day I was resigned to moving home and picking up shifts at Chili’s, and the next I was sprung via Amtrak from Poughkeepsie to the West Wing.
I was assigned to the Department of Scheduling and Advance. Our mandate—which became my word of the day: my mandate, his mandate,their mandate—was to ensure that the President, the First Lady, and the traveling circus that is the press corps all got where they were supposed to go, be it New Delhi or Foggy Bottom.
The day this story starts, really starts, began with an absolutely insane marathon-length meeting. I’d been there only three weeks and was still getting used to the formalities; that morning the paid employees got to sit in cushy ergonomic swivel chairs around the conference table, while the junior staffers camped on the hard folding chairs behind them. And then there was us, the interns, standing pressed against the wall, with our practiced look of aggressive gratitude. I was wearing the black pumps I’d gotten at DSW that I thought epitomized the job, but of course were knockoffs of knockoffs and could only have been comfortable if I’d had Barbie feet. We’d been standing for maybe two hours by this point and I decided to surreptitiously slip a foot out and rest it on the floor.
To my right, Perfect Brooke sighed in slicing disapproval. If the interns had broken into a dance routine, Perfect Brooke would have led it. It would be the most boring dance routine you’ve ever sat through, but the show would be a hit anyway because that’s how Brooke’s life worked.
I’d naively thought this was going to be like the first days of college, where you form a ragtag clique with some kids on your dorm floor and go to the cafeteria together. Not that you’d hit it off with everyone, but usually there’d be at least one keeper and eventually you’d build a posse. After growing up just outside Chicago, being in a city like D.C. felt energizingly familiar, but my casual suggestions to Yelp a cool bar were met with suspicion. There was this slim hope hovering in the air that someone might be offered a permanent position at the end of the ten weeks, and my fellow interns were ready to club each other with their binders to get one. (It was basically a dowdily dressed version of the Hunger Games.) So, from what I could tell, the other interns went back to their Airbnb sublets, rubbed themselves with theFinancial Times, and listened to NPR until they climaxed.
Leaving me to subsist on a constant stream of texts from my college friends, who’d scattered to take refuge in their C and D plans,while I spentwaytoo much time in my own head. Hence, as the meeting entered its third hour, I was focused on my feet, on a potential job I was waiting to hear about, on Perfect Brooke’s derision—oh, and that I needed to pee. Badly.
Just to remind you, Congress was digging in against passing the President’s budget because they were still pissy about losing the election four years earlier. So America had been operating for months on a “continuing resolution,” not dissimilar, I thought, to the credit card making it possible for me to be there. It was set to expire in two days if his demands for social service funding weren’t met, which would effectively bring the government to a screeching halt.
A President and First Lady’s schedules are need-a-new-definition-for-it tight on a normal day, so the prospect of being up to a week behind had thrown us all into a wrestling match with the space-time continuum. “What are we telling the Prime Minister?” one of the staffers, whose name I could never remember, asked insistently as he squinted at the dry-erase board. It was a heated land grab for every minute—and it had come down to a standoff over Uruguay.
“What are we telling the Prime Minister?” the department head, Margaret, repeated blankly, a marker hanging limply at her side, the aroma of which was making all of us ever so slightly high.
“Yes,” the staffer repeated. “Am I removing POTUS from the teachers’ union on June twenty-second so they can meet?”
“The teachers’ union luncheon,” another staffer growled, tugging at his loosened tie, “is attended by fourhundredmembers. Citizens of the United States. Registered voters. It cannot be moved for bullshit face time with Uruguay. Stop asking, Gerry.”
I reminded myself that Bushy Eyebrows was Gerry.
“Great!” Gerry threw up his arms, flashing dampened Oxford pits to the room. “I’ll just tell the Prime Minister of Uruguay that Chris thinks his country is bullshit.”
“It’s an election year, Gerry,” Margaret, whom I’d come to regard as imperturbable, reminded him with straining calm. But, capitulating, she put out a hand surgeon-style and the staffer closest gave her a fresh napkin to replace the saturated eraser. She wiped out the work of the last hour, eliciting frantic keyboard taps from those who’d yetto finish their transcription and a groan from everyone else. Except me; I was savoring a tiny prickle of pride because I’d brought that napkin. That napkin had no idea when it was stuffed in the metal dispenser at Capitol Bakery that morning that it was destined for greatness. I had grabbed a stack when I abandoned the coffee I was about to treat myself to in favor of two dozen oven-fresh sticky buns, which I ran in to work in hopes of making the day feel a little less cage-matchy—only to find the meeting that had been threatening for days was kicking off. So my buns were congealing into hardened globs in the kitchenette, but my napkins were there—they were helping.
“Okay. Potential government furlough scenario. Starting back at day one.” Really? Surely I couldn’t be the only one who had to chug a liter of water after commuting in the 95-degree heat. There had to be others desperate for a bathroom break.
The D.C. humidity and I were introduced when I stepped off the train with my life folded into two bulging suitcases. It’s what floating in the Dead Sea might feel like—if instead of floating you were trying to walk to the opposite shore. With luggage. It’s not as if Chicago doesn’t have heat waves, but at least there the lake air keeps things moving. In grade school we learned the capital was born on swampland, but hoofing it in your one Ann Taylor Loft suit is something else entirely. I spent a full five minutes a day admiring that the founding folks didn’t just say fuck it. Not that it wasn’t anenormousprivilege just to be able to stand against that wall. It was. Huge. It was just hard to keep the wide-eyed expression of appreciation in place when one had to pee oh so badly. Brooke was probably wearing a catheter.
“Don’t you have to pee?” I whispered to Brooke.
She shot me another disapproving look. In retrospect, it would have taken more than a sticky bun to win over Brooke. Maybe if I’d spiked it with something—Xanax? Celexa? What’s the one that makes you a nice person?
I chewed the inside of my mouth and shifted my attention from the web of abdominal pain to the job offer I’d been waiting on from the Los Angeles City Planning Commission, an email that could already have been on the phone I had to leave at my desk. It was possible,as I stood there, that I already possessed an actual job with health insurance and everything. Which meant a place with Lena in L.A. And a paycheck. I was going to kiss that check and make a copy, frame that, and then cash the check and buy myself a proper bottle of wine.
Gail’s pied-à-terre, which I was staying in, with its White House view and uniformed doormen, was full of proper bottles of wine. The kind sommeliers study. I perpetually felt like I was failing it when I sat on its custom carpet and played omgpop or reheated a frozen burrito in its chef-grade oven. Weeks prior, I could have thrown back my shower curtain to find seriously anything—a hook-up, a moonshine contraption, a performance art rehearsal. Now I knew what awaited me—a wall of showerheads I couldn’t figure out and a shelf of Chanel products for the rare occasions when Gail swung through. I should explain that Gail still credits me with saving Lena’s life when Health Services misdiagnosed her appendicitis sophomore year. Lena’s never been entirely sure whether Gail was more thankful that I got her to St. Francis in time or that I took notes for all her classes.
Margaret threw her hands up. “We’re now just repeating options we ruled out an hour ago.” No one denied it. “Okay, lunch break.” I attempted the most dignified version of scrambling over everyone I could muster.
Peeing crossed off, I swung by the kitchen to reheat my goodwill tour. “Pecan bun?” I pimped, and a passing staffer nabbed one. “Thanks,” he said, blowing the heat off as he chewed. I held one out to Brooke, but she looked as if I’d taken it to the bathroom with me.
“Allergic to nuts?” I determinedly offered her the opportunity to soften her rudeness.
“No.” She covered the papers she’d just started to work from as if I might have wanted to filch her tedious assignment over my own tedious assignment.
“Oh my God, I’m so hungry I could eat your brain zombie-style. Seriously, cut your head open with this pen so I can eat it.” A slight brunette appeared, arms full, carrying a massive patent-leather tote she could easily have climbed inside of. She dropped her iPad andbinder on Brooke’s desk to grab a bun as I took in her statement bangs, python-print wrap dress, and open-toed wedges. Definitely not one of ours. “It’s just wrong that these things have, like, a stick of butter in them.”
“A stick?” I asked. “No. Maybe half.” She wasn’t much older than us.
“Two halves,” she said as a man in a tight suit approached us and she scooped up her things with her forearms, licking a caramel string off her finger.
“Rachelle.” He literally snapped for her.
“Thank you,” she said to me. “You’re a genius. An evil genius.” I watched her leave, feeling like I’d just missed the last van pulling out for senior week.
Brooke picked up her brown leather bag. “Do you want to come?” she asked with a resignation that implied I was clinging to her ankles.
But maybe this was the moment. Maybe a friendship was about to form. Maybe outside this building Brooke became someone else entirely. “Uh, sure.”
I followed her brisk stride while I fruitlessly checked emails on my phone. I told myself it was okay. It was barely past ten on the West Coast; plenty of day left there to hire me.
I asked Brooke if she knew who Rachelle was here with.
“Some PR group getting footage for the campaign,” she answered as she walked.
“Funny, the thing she said about eating my brain,” I offered.
“I can see why you’d think so.”
Getting to like you, getting to hope you like me . . . “So, where are we going?”
“To buy lunch.”
“I have a peanut butter sandwich in my purse.”
She didn’t respond as we exited into the flattening heat. Everyone had initially assumed from Gail’s address that I was a fellow trust-funder, but the logo on my dad’s polo was definitelynota pony. As I was unable to share a favorite Hampton, memories of trips to Europe, or any opinion on my mother’s personal shopper’s taste, it became rapidly apparent we wouldn’t be exchanging friendship bracelets.
“Gross,” Brooke muttered, pulling her starched blouse away from her chest. I realized she was wearing The Shirt. It had an extra button between the cleavage and collar, designed for D.C. women to achieve neutral modesty on the four-inch drop from uptight to whore. I’d been debating sucking it up and buying one.
Brooke informed me that she had to get cash and, letting go of any hopes of banter, I followed her into the ATM while composing a text to my similarly inaccessible sister asking her advice about the purchase. Erica, whose Titian hair magically stays pin straight while the curl of mine is more reliable than a barometer. Whose nose is the thinner, perkier version. Who’s an inch taller, a size four to my six, and whose pores, even through adolescence, were never visible. She grabbed all the good genes and I got the leftovers. Four years older, Erica lived in Manhattan, where she continued to evade my lifelong attempts at preemptive consultation. Her opinions about my choicesafterthe fact, however, flew like sniper fire. At our grandmother’s suggestion, around fourth grade, I was signed up for an Irish clog-dancing class, which I loved. The pageantry, hair ribbons, and rhythms were a revelation. But I was all of five minutes into rehearsing in our bedroom when Erica decreed that either the clogs went or I did. I gave it my best, slapping my bunny socks on the hardwood, but Saturday’s practice always found me queasily unsure of what I would produce once wearing the actual shoes. Needless to say, I quickly retired and was back to watching Nickelodeon with the sound down.
I imagined her reading my inquiry between stock trades, or whatever it was she actually did as an analyst. I’m certain that my missive was two sentences and three exclamation marks too many, that I reread it twice, and added a “you rock!” before hitting Send.
“Drugstore.” Brooke’s bag hit my arm as she pushed out the door on what was passing for our lunch date. Three weeks earlier, I had not had to trail people.
I texted Lena while I waited.“Nostalgic for shower vomit this morning.”
“Nostalgic for finals—3 term papers in 48 hrs—didn’t know how easy I had it.”She bemoaned the brutal pace of her new position at a wealth management firm in Beverly Hills.
Brooke signaled from the long line that I should go next door to the deli and start on that long line.
“When you get a minute (hahaha),”I typed as I walked,“find out how I can turn the AC down from your mom?”
“That shit is set at freeze. Menopause, bitch.”
“Aw, menopause—we DO have things to look forward to!”
“Don’t believe you,”she responded as I went inside the deli.“Am going to die at this conference table.”
“No word on job yet. Getting worried.”
The phone went quiet and I knew she had to jump.
I glazed over at the TV above the beer fridge—in D.C. even the delis are tuned to CNN. The blandly attractive face of Brianne Rice came onscreen. I was a freshman when she’d come forward claiming that the President had made “sexual overtures” at her when he was the junior senator from Pennsylvania. Her accusations drove what was pretty universally considered to be one of those Swift Boat smear campaigns that inevitably come up during an election.
Lena and I had debated the veracity and relevance of that claim over French toast sticks. I remember wondering if Brianne was telling the truth, and then being fairly sure she wasn’t, and then it didn’t matter. While it was hard to imagine that our President, whomPeoplehad dubbed “Dreamy-in-Chief,” would make a rebuffed pass at anyone, more germane to everyone was that his wife was beloved. While public opinion of him vehemently split the country, it was universally agreed that Susan Rutland was a First Lady who, in her spirit and style, elevated us. It was inconceivable that she didn’t captivate his heart as she did the world’s.
I tried to hear what was happening as I watched footage of the Supreme Court, which is never very exciting footage. Rutland’s legal team had kept the case at bay by claiming that, as a sitting President, he couldn’t be sued. In breaking news, the Supreme Court had agreed to hear their argument, which made the heads of those in line tilt up.
But suddenly someone else pulled my attention. “This place is packed,” a boy with both the tan and air of one who’d just hopped down from a lifeguard chair addressed me. “What’s the deal? Are their Doritos a particularly good vintage?”
“It’s a convenience thing,” I answered, lifting my restricted intern pass, which I wore on a lanyard as if it granted me backstage access to Adam Levine, though all it really allowed me was to follow a tight route from security to my desk. “Like the restaurants on the turnpike.”
“Sorry, but if that’s a dig at Arby’s we might have to take this outside.”
“Sir.” I put a hand to my heart. “What girl wouldn’t pay a toll to get a meal from under a heat lamp?”
He grinned. I guessed he was on vacation or en route to one. Perhaps down to the Carolina beaches. I’d heard some people our age were actually doing these things. Backpacking around Europe, sitting on docks, drinking at lunch. The door opened again and Brooke pushed in with a blast of the summer I’d never have again. “Why’s everyone here?” she asked with annoyance, cutting in front of us.
“Sorry,” I mouthed to him as she grabbed a diet something from the case.
His warm breath was unexpectedly at my ear. “I just heard about this jazz thing in the park tonight. You know about it?”
I nodded. “I’m not let out of my cage very often, but yes, I do.”
The harried lady at the register beckoned and I stepped up to get an iced coffee while Brooke curated her chopped salad. When I glanced back, my eyes met the boy’s as they telegraphed his interest. I had no idea how to parlay this into anything. On a small campus, parlaying had been unnecessary. An awkward coffeehouse introduction could be followed by a mailbox run-in followed by the eventual beer-goggled hook-up. Restricted geography was on my side. But now I realized I’d have only one-shot chances with people, and the prospect that I might end up living alone with cats seemed very real. He finished paying and, to my total surprise, handed me the ripped-off top of his résumé.Oh, sothat’swhat we do now.
I surreptitiously read his scrawl as Brooke positioned her salad in her tote.“Concert starts @ 7. Meet me at the south entrance?”I flipped it over to see his name, Josh Wright, cell phone, and email in a sturdy, masculine font.
As we stepped outside, I smiled down the straw into my iced coffee,thinking of Josh. Jazz in the park with Josh. “You don’t have a boyfriend,” Brooke stated as she slid her Wayfarers down off headband duty.
“No, no I do not.” Brooke mentionedherboyfriend with a frequency that rivaled our fellow intern Todd’s ability to work having been a Senate page into any conversation. The boyfriend’s name was Bentley. Bentley was doing some business thing in London. Bentley was playing some sport thing in a league. I imagined Bentley wearing The Shirt and pearls, his big feet stretching the elasticized backs of Brooke’s Tory Burches.
I took a long slurp, thinking of the intermittent string of discarded flannel shirts on the floor of my dorm room. “Nothing serious. Not since high school.” The guys at Vassar had been so repulsively tentative: perpetually half-high, too in love with their film projects—theirvision—to really come for anyone in a grand romantic gesture kind of way.
Not like my first boyfriend. In junior high I’d started studying every afternoon at the Naperville town library to avoid Erica, and I had a crush on Mike Harnet from the first time I saw him in the stacks. He had moved with his family to New Orleans from Norway because his dad was a musician. I loved how he spoke—his English was pretty perfect, but his inflection was highly formal, and it made me think of Tolkien and wizards and fairies. He had a mop of short black hair, a still-pink scar on his temple from dueling a playground slide, a braces-free smile, and a declared mission to determine a favorite book in every single section. One rainy day when I got up from my spot, I returned to find a Post-it left on my science textbook. He’d written, “?” When I looked up, he was watching me from between the stacks. We stared at each other like that for a moment, suspended. Then I marched down the deserted aisle and thrust the square of yellow paper at him, feigning annoyance. Mike lifted his finger, then slowly circled it as if about to land anywhere on me. A foreign heat popped open in my chest and radiated downward.Oh my God,I thought.Oh my God.He leaned in very slowly until the warmth of his chapped lips landed on mine.
That was our first kiss.
So I worried. In the years that followed, I worried that I was incapable of feeling something for someone who didn’t know how to initiate.
We followed the shade of the awnings, passing the frame store with that ubiquitous dorm-room poster of the woman applying lipstick while the shirtless guy watches. “I miss that.” I gestured with the tip of my straw.
“You know, The Look.”
“How he looks at her. Appraises her. That thing where you can see it in their eyes—they’re in.”
“Right. Okay, Jamie.” I did not picture Bentley giving Brooke The Look. “Can I offer you feedback?”
“Sure!” I said automatically as if she’d offered me ice cream.
“I just think you should . . .” She turned her wrist, her thin Cartier bracelets staggered on her arm hairs. “Be beige.”
She nodded as though she’d cleared her conscience and continued across the street. I took a long drag of my straw.What?“Sorry, just to clarify.”
“Beige is . . . ?”
She let out a how-do-we-solve-a-problem-like-Maria sigh as we arrived back at security. She unrolled her sleeves and closed her ninety-dollar button. “Beingcharming,” she said the word derisively, “doesn’t inspire confidence. We just thought you should know, okay?” She gave me a flat smile and went through the screener.We?I stood there with my face beating. I did not get that place. At all. I tugged out my phone as she walked off, willing it to beam me out of there—Ijustneeded that job to come through.
• • •
For the remainder of that afternoon I still didn’t get any word, but I did manage to book multiple hotel-room blocks, schedule a magnitude of press-corps bus charters, and locate the largest dining room inSkokie that had a “homey feel” while seating nine hundred some-odd people. And furtively search everything about the adorable Josh Wright all the way back to his fourth-grade intramural soccer photo. Here’s what I knew: (A) always adorable, (B) possessed over a thousand Facebook friends, including the handful we had in common, and (C) was from—wait for it—Los Angeles.
• • •
Finally I was there, having the kind of night I thought life after college was going to be full of. I was a girl working for free right in the heart of it all, reclining on the grass as the waning sun streaked the sky orange. “If the intern program needed a brochure, the cover should be a picture of us here, now,” I said to Josh as I took another sip of wine he had the class to bring to the concert with two plastic cups.
“I don’t think they’re pitching a lifestyle.” He smiled and leaned back on his elbows.
“Come on, hovering-with-the-hope-of-getting-chosen is totally a lifestyle.”
“In L.A., too,” he said. “My dad once got handed a head shot while having his teeth cleaned.”
“Sorry, I meant to say homely hovering.”
“We have homely. Despite the mayor’s best efforts, we even have old people and the disabled.” He tipped his head to my shoulder. “So I’m sure I can find some homely for you when you come out.” I suddenly remembered that I hadn’t checked my email since I ran out to meet him. I sat forward to root in my bag and realized I’d left my phone in my desk.
He slid his from his pocket. “It’s a little after nine.”
“When’s end of business out there?”
“Now-ish. This doesn’t have to end. Come on.” He grinned. “I’ll walk you back.”
We strolled beneath the magnolias as he told me about Wesleyan. We compared if-I-don’t-get-off-campus-I’ll-shoot-someone trips into the city. We laughed about his roommate’s obese pet rabbit who hated him and waited every night for him to get into bed before leaping onto his head. We lamented over job searches—hisjust passing the one-year mark. “Well,” I said, slowing as we approached the guard booth. “You can wait here—I’ll text you if I get stuck—”
“I’ll come in with you.”
“Yeah, right.” I grinned.
“But you work there.”
“Not really. I mean, I definitely don’t have clearance to bring anyone in—I could meet you at a bar. Or if anyone needs me to do anything and it takes me more than twenty minutes, we could meet up near your hotel?”
He tipped back on his heels. “Okay. I was kinda thinking . . . I don’t really have a hotel, actually, not in the budget—Dad’s getting a little uptight with the bankrolling at this point. My flight’s first thing. I was just gonna wander, but, wow, it’s so humid—and the mosquitoes. How about I wait at your place?” He leaned in to kiss me.
I stepped back. “Um . . .”
“Come on, Jamie.”
“I’m staying at a friend’s mom’s place, so I can’t—”
“Oh. I get it. Well, maybe we can meet up later,” he said, looking up and down the block, so abruptly over me. “Which way is the Metro?”
I pointed, suddenly not feeling like an object of desire so much as an easy mark. Like Homeaway.com crossed with Nerve.
He didn’t even wave as he walked away.
Inside, the vapors of wine turning rancid in my mouth, I strode quickly to my desk, where my phone was vibrating in the drawer.
“Mom?” I answered, voice loud in the near-empty office.
“Hey, you have to resend me that email about visiting you for the Fourth.” She sounded distracted. I pictured her at the old computer in the living room, the phone clamped to her shoulder as she slit the day’s mail from its envelopes, heels slipped off and knee-highs soon to follow.
“Okay.” I put in my headphones so I could check for the job offer while talking.Please let this day be erased by this email, I thought.Save me, save me, save me . . .
“The thing is, we weren’t sure how Erica was going to get to you from the airport.”
“She can take the Metro, it’s super easy. Or there’re buses. And there’s always a cab.” Gmail downloaded.
“It might not be a good weekend for her to get away, with her work.”
“You two could always come without her.” I knew the answer to that one.
“We’d like to see her, too,” she reminded me.
“Of course, great.” And there it was. From the City of Los Angeles, as if the whole population had weighed in on me. I clicked it open, my eyes darting to read that they were reluctant to inform me . . . at this time . . . they would keep my application on file . . . if.
“Everything good with you, bug?”
“Yes, great. You guys okay?”
“Yup, all good,” she said, and then I heard the soundtrack of whatever my dad was watching recede. “So get this,” she continued in a hushed voice, and I knew she’d stepped onto the top of the basement stairs. “Baker announced he’s retiring this fall.”
“So that’s good, right?”
“Good?” Her voice rose, and I could see her dropping her head against the phone the way she does when she’s reached the day’s end.
“Because he’ll finally be gone,” I reasoned. Ten years ago Chip Baker, coach of Chicago U’s football team, fired Dad when he tumbled off the wagon in the preseason.
“Well, sure. But first he’ll be everywhere. You know how this town feels about him. Your father hurled the remote at the screen. Oh, there’s Erica calling me back. So, if she’s a go we’ll see you on the third?”
“Can’t wait. And let me know if there’s anything special you guys want to do while you’re—”
“Great. Love you.” She hung up. I sat at my desk, now hoping I would be spotted and pulled in to do something—urgently—that I could accomplish—brilliantly—and reclaim this incredibly crappy day.
I was brought back by a text from Erica responding to my shirt question, hours later.“No.”
An empty apartment waited. The anesthetizing whir of its appliances. Too many more days with Brooke and her “people.” Followed by Chili’s. And my parents.
A headache from the cheap wine building, I tugged my ponytail out of its elastic band and walked quickly down the empty carpeted hall, shaking out my hair. I dropped my head back, letting out a breath to the dentil molding high above.Fuck. Fuck!This was so not how this was supposed to go. I should have applied to more places, sucked it up and moved home, saved the money that could have put me closer to escape than defeat, been more beige. Suddenly two Secret Service men emerged from the opposite office, passing swiftly. And then, just like that, there was the President, so much taller than me, the solid warmth of a muscular arm grazing me as he strode past in a white dress shirt. His sandy-blond hair glinting in the lamplight, a hint of spiced deodorant in his wake. The magnitude of it spun me around.
Between two ficus trees potted in Ming bowls, twisting to gaze over his shoulder, this happened and I know it with absolute certainty. At that jet lag of an age, in that drought of a time, on a day when being called inconsequential would have been a promotion, the most powerful man in the world gave me The Look.
And I was the only one who saw it.
You often hear newly engaged people say with a bemused, grateful look on their faces: if I hadn’t missed my usual bus, if I hadn’t gotten the address of the bar wrong, if I hadn’t gone to that party Ireallydidn’t want to go to, then I never would have . . . But for that second encounter to occur, the universe didn’t just manifest a measly spilled drink or stalled subway.
Sometime after midnight, a text came in from Margaret confirming what CNN was already saying. No last-minute budget compromise had been arrived at. The U.S. government was shut down. I clicked around the channels, seeing the same banner passing beneath every sitcom rerun:All non-essential federal employees are required to stay home. Meaning allnon-employees would be essential.
The next morning, I stepped out into a rushless rush hour. In the schoolyards, parents dressed in sweats were milling instead of dashing off. There was no line at Starbucks. But the drugstore was already completely out of laundry detergent, which tells you all you need to know. Washington standard is to work seven days a week until you have an embolism, but for once the salons were going to be packed. And the vets. And the mechanics. Long-overdue thank-you notes would be writtenandmailed.
I rounded the corner to Pennsylvania and, even with a few blocks to go, could already see the news vans. The correspondents were trying to summarize the situation for the treadmill crowd: the President wasn’t backing down and the Senate Majority Leader was being a dick, more focused on breeding miniature Pomeranians—his honest-to-God hobby—than on bipartisan resolution. He had a tiny one the size of a furry clementine, named Ronald, that he carried to work with him, like Elle Woods. While voting aggressively against gay marriage. So there was that.
The interns filed inside the eerily empty building, half buzzing with conjecture about what might happen to or for us, the other half struck apprehensively silent as if this had all been an elaborate plot to harvest our organs for aging congressmen.
Brooke, nostrils flared, strode in with what I’d call a Jonestown level of purpose. Headband unprecedentedly left home, she was letting the river run.
“Okay, guys.” Margaret emerged from her office, clapping. Everyone was instantly rapt. “Triage time. For the duration of the furlough, all interns are going to be moved . . .” She paused, and we all visibly leaned in. “Upstairs.” She dropped the last word like the Christmas stocking full of bearer bonds she knew it was.
We had been given a hasty tour through the executive offices the first day, mostly, it seemed, so we’d know the fire exits. A hand had been tossed in the direction of the Oval Office. But now we were goingupstairs.
Brooke turned to me as we all scrambled to grab our possessions. “I am going to kill this.”
I believed her.
• • •
The interns were pooled into one very determined, inappropriately euphoric, workforce of people who wanted to kill it. But what became quickly apparent is that few had the clerical skills to do so. While they could prepare an opinion for a senator or make Graydon Carter a dinner reservation, they were lost when it came to anything that could be farmed out to a highly trained hamster. And I was suddenly grateful for every vacation I ended up monotonously filing by my mother’s side at her insurance firm while my friends were candle dipping. And these guys were learning semaphore.
We were set up in the pen down the long corridor from the Oval Office, where the President was on the phone trying to use backchannels to get the Senate Majority Leader and his little dog to return to budget negotiations. It wasn’t going well. We knew this because every time the door opened we could hear distinct—and gratifying—swearing. If you’ve ever sat around calling your elected representatives fucking assholes, imagine hearing the President do it.
At noon a few of the interns were dispatched to get subs, then at seven they ran out again for pizzas. We took turns keeping the coffee fresh and the water cooler full. By eleven, Margaret said anyone who wanted to leave, could. No one did.
Around midnight I hung up with the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, who had given me twenty-step instructions to a two-step task he obviously would have preferred just doing himself. It was like explaining putting on pants to an alien. I scrolled through the late-edition headlines, trying to get some sense of where this was going and paused on a small article, a human-interest link from theChicago Tribune.A patron had commissioned a bronze statue of Baker that would be placed in Lincoln Park on my dad’s jogging route. I reached for my phone.
“Good morning,” he greeted me brightly, as he always did when I called home after midnight. I love his voice, the hint of an Irish accent from his childhood before his family moved to the South Side. I had always liked talking to him when Mom and Erica were in bed because he seemed to appreciate the company. The only time he slept well, Mom says, was when he drank. “What are you doing?”
“Still at work,” I answered quietly.
“Ma says they called you guys in.”
“Yep. I’m down the hall from the Oval Office. Not too shabby.” I tilted my head down as Todd glanced over, his nostrils dancing disdainfully.
“Eh, Rutland picks and flicks like the rest of us.”
“You don’t know that,” I said, smiling. “Bluebirds might bring him a silk handkerchief, or North Korean children—we don’t know what secrets this guy keeps.”
“I just saw about the statue,” I said.
He paused for a second, probably taking a swig from his O’Doul’s.“You know, Jamie, it may just be my age, enlarged prostate or whatnot, but I can’t get through my run anymore without needing to take a big piss. I’d not been sure where to go—the men’s rooms are a little sketchy at that hour and the woods can be buggy. So they’ve just done me a favor.”
“Okay then, so long as you’re taking it in stride.”
“Love ya, kid.”
“You too, Dad.” I hung up, smiling.
• • •
I have no idea when I eventually got home or what time I got back in the next day—in my mind, I passed through Gail’s apartment as if on a conveyor belt, swapping out clothes and swiping on deodorant. The news channels were already saying that the presidential bid of the presumptive Republican nominee, John Partridge, had gone from dubious to posing a tight race.
Anxious, we tucked our heads and hit our piles. Just before lunch the political media film crew came back. The tan man in the tight-fitting suit stalked around with the tip of his rimless glasses between his lips and then jumped on Brooke’s desk. Rachelle, the girl who’d wanted to eat my brain, arrived, carrying coffee in one hand and a half-eaten apple in the other. She registered our confusion.
“Hi. Okay, so Geoffrey, here, is setting the camera angles. We want to show that you guys are all still hard at work.” She tried to keep her eyes on him as she brought us up to speed, the shifting making her look even more nervous. “This isn’t a vacay.”
Without actually acknowledging her, Geoffrey gestured for the apple and took a bite. “You,” he said, mouth full.
“Me?” I pointed at my chest.
“Switch with him,” he ordered. “That’s an Asian cluster.”
“We don’t want this to look like a cafeteria,” Rachelle explained as Geoffrey thrust the core at her.
“Thank you,” Rachelle said to me as I moved while seemingly weighing whether he wanted her to keep it. “That’s great.”
“It’ll do,” Geoffrey conceded. “Your hair works for me—natural?”
I nodded over the twenty or so people between us, feeling my faceturn the same red as they commenced filming. “Don’tlook at us,” Geoffrey said sharply. “Busy! Busy! Busy! And serious.”
“Like you’re at a very busy funeral,” Rachelle offered. A few awkward minutes passed while I stared meaningfully at the work of the guy whose desk I had taken.
“Fuck!” Our faces flew to Geoffrey as his darkened over the coffee. “This is . . . skim.”
Rachelle winced. “I’m so sorry—”
“Cut!” He summarily dropped the cup in Brooke’s trash, sending liquid sloshing onto the side of her desk. “Just fucking cut. You and you and you—Lucy!” Geoffrey pointed at me.
“This way, please,” Rachelle implored us, looking miserable.
Having no idea what was happening, we trailed Geoffrey and the cameras.
“How’s it going?” I asked her tentatively.
“I’m thriving on this,” she muttered.
“Really? He seems like kind of a . . .”
“He is. It’s my mantra. ‘I’m thriving on this.’ But I’ll be on the verge of convincing myself and then he opens his mouth.”
“Plus you have that lovely apple core there.”
“I shall sleep with it under my pillow.” She gave me a sidelong smile.
“Now stay,” Geoffrey instructed as we were rounded into the Oval’s reception area. Pick the most intimidating thing you have ever done in your life. Go ahead. I’ll wait. Now multiply that by ten.
The Deputy Chief of Staff came out of the office. She was in a twill pantsuit and sneakers, literally ready to run to the Hill at a moment’s notice. “Oh great, perfect timing,” she said to Geoffrey. “Let’s get that youth footage—show this as a vibrant,youngadministration and that what Partridge makes up for in seniority he lacks in having any fucking idea what’s going on.” I was starting to wonder if this was some kind of election-year tic, everyone overcaffeinatedly narrating their purpose.
She pushed the door open and the President stood from behind his carved desk. For us. For a split second, I imagined he did a little double-take at seeing me again. But I couldn’t swear to it. We shuffledin, past the eagle seal in the carpet.Holy shit.That was all I could think.Holy shit.
“Hi, guys,” he welcomed us casually, hands resting on the hips of his trousers. “Where do you want me?”
“Oh, that’s just fine, Mr. President,” Geoffrey said, unctuousness replacing his irritation. “If you could just sit there? And work, perhaps. Maybe they can huddle—or take turns passing you things. It’s just B-roll, so there’s no sound.”
“No problem.” He reseated himself and picked up his tortoise-shell frames.
“If you wouldn’t mind, sir, might I suggest no glasses?”
“Makes me look my age, huh?” Rutland smiled. “I don’t usually have a huddle of interns around my desk. What should I . . .”
Geoffrey snapped his fingers in my direction.
“Jamie,” I said in response.
“Jamie, can you hand him a folder?”
The deputy materialized a folder as the camera started recording. I crossed to the President’s desk. We made eye contact as I handed it off—his were so much greener than in the pictures. The side I’d held had a visible damp handprint.
“So, sorry.” Geoffrey shook his head. “It looks like she’s serving you—”
“A subpoena,” Rutland joked presciently. Yes, really.
“I was going to say a steak. Why doesn’t she come around the desk and you could show her something?”
“As if I care about young people understanding things?” Rutland added dryly. As directed, I stepped closer while he opened the file and leaned down to point something out on the blank paper.
“Sir, I’m sorry, sir, your, uh, hair,” Rachelle entreated. Geoffrey cut his eyes at her, but she was right to say something. It had flopped in his face like those pictures from his college days. He puffed his lower lip to blow it up. I noticed he had little freckles along his lip line that must always be airbrushed in photos. His skin was handsomely sun-lined, as though he’d spent a lot of time outdoors doing wholesome things in his almost fifty years. Like his was a life well lived.
“Perfect, let’s keep moving, shall we?” Geoffrey cooed. Rutland leaned forward and the crest of thick blond hair flopped again, revealing a few silver strands. “Sir.” Rutland puffed harder.
“Don’t you use hairspray?” I asked. The two guys from Stanford stepped back as if I’d farted out my mouth.
Rutland put down the folder and looked me square in the face. “The second you start wearing spray you have relinquished your humanity. I wear foundation for the cameras, sure. I’ve even been known to powder. But I draw the line at spray.” How could I not have smiled?
“Cut,” Geoffrey trilled.
“I think we got it,” Rachelle added.
“Have we?” Geoffrey said as if amused, but causing Rachelle to gulp as though later he’d be shouting that question with a raised wire hanger. “Thank you, sir, we appreciate your time. As my lovely assistant has so astutely noted, we’re all set.”
Rachelle backed the interns out of the room, bobbing like a pack of grateful Mitsubishi executives.
The President smiled and the door shut. And that could have been it. The story I tell my grandkids. But spilled drinks and stalled subways . . .
• • •
By the third day I had lost a disgusting amount of sleep, but I’d met Rachelle, a potential friend, and had a great anecdote to reenact as soon as I was with actual human beings and not the Orcs I shared an office with.
The fed-up mood of the nation was impossible to ignore. Partridge gave a speech, the thrust of which asked,Does Rutland hate America?“Commanding words from the Republican nominee,” Wolf Blitzer commented in the nightly recap. “Yes,” the correspondent agreed. “Whatever else comes out of this budget standoff, I think we can agree Governor Partridge seems to be experiencing real personal growth.”
I snorted my cold coffee. “Oh good,” I said, grabbing a napkin. “Silver lining found.” The Orcs looked at me strangely. “I mean,c’mon, it’d besucha shame to shut down the whole U.S. government if Partridge wasn’t going to get to grow as a person. Maybe he’ll make a vision board? Or refinish a bureau.”
“That isn’t funny,” Brooke reprimanded.
But she was contradicted by a deep guffaw from behind us and all turned to see the President holding his sides, his shirttails untucked. Everyone leapt up. “Thanks, Jamie, I needed that.” We all startled at my name. Then I remembered I’d told him over the sweaty folder. And he was a politician. “Sit, sit—it’s the middle of the night.” He waved us down, but nobody moved. There was silence where there’d been breathing. “How are you guys holding up?”
No one knew who was supposed to answer.
“Great, sir.” Todd actually swung his fist in the air, adding, “It’s a pleasure to serve.”
“Is it?” Rutland asked wryly, but his gaze returned to me.
“The pizza’s not bad,” I said with the hint of a shrug.
Rutland walked over to the pile of boxes. He pulled out a long-cold slice and, for want of a napkin, slid it onto a piece of stationery. He leaned on a desk and we watched him take a bite, his eyes closing for a moment as he chewed, his exhaustion evident. “We really appreciate you all being here. You’re making it possible for us to hold their feet to the fire.” On the screen over his head the ticker read,Rutland one-term President?“National Parks were closed today, passport applications went unprocessed, veterans went unserviced, the CDC was shut down.” His chewing slowed. “Gutting Medicaid isn’t an option—this all can’t have been for nothing.” He gestured in a way that seemed to encompass not just the shutdown, but his administration. “Well, thanks for dinner. And the hard work. I’m heading to the residence,” he said as if someone might askusfor the President’s whereabouts. He walked to the doorway, eighty or so sets of eyes on his back. “Gonna try to grab an hour of sleep. I suggest you all do the same.” He stopped and turned, his gaze locked on me for a second.
I knew I should say “Sir” and nod, but I just smiled. Like I was at a party we might leave together.
I dropped back in my chair and plunged my attention to the columns of numbers, aware of the eyes on me, the flush creeping up myneck. Flipping the folder closed, I reached for the next one, sensing the snide thought bubbles popping up around me. I heard my phone buzz in my bag, and, grateful for the activity, checked it.
“Hey James. Recently moved to NJ. Trying to resist the impulse to get big hair or start crime cartel. Hope all’s good in your world. MH.”I stared at the initials. Mike Harnet. On a normal day—not that I knew a normal day, having been cannon-shot from college into the White House, but I believe on a normal day—I would have contemplated what this meant and how to respond for minimally an eternity. If he had texted me even a month earlier, I might have finally broken down and told Lena about him so she could analyze his every possible meaning. But the text had arrived at that moment when, for the first time in a long time, a new Look had fritzed my brain.
Mike Harnet is someone you think you know a lot about. I know a lot about him now, too. But then I just thought of Mike as someone I was long out of touch with, and, with everything else going on, I did what had heretofore seemed impossible: I forgot about it.
• • •
By the fourth day of the furlough it seemed like every hair in the city had been trimmed, every dog groomed, every hedge manicured—people here, across the country, and in unstable economies around the world were ready for this to beover. Germany said something that roughly translated to “Get your shit together.” Standard and Poor’s threatened to downgrade U.S. credit, and by nightfall, Rutland’s approval rating had plummeted.
Meanwhile, on what felt at the time to be the cringingly trivial front, I had run out of clean clothes. So I borrowed a blouse from Gail’s closet and threw on my uncomfortable-but-clean H&M hook-up bra that I had optimistically brought to D.C. because, well, I didn’t picture Todd and his ilk being the norm here.
Todd, whose face was permanently pink from rubbing it to stay awake. As my mascara (mandatory for redheads) prohibited me from doing the same, I instead pushed my index fingers into my temples and blinked up at the fluorescents until a white buzz brought me back. I’d stopped trying to make Margaret love me. I was just tryingto survive without making the type of clerical error that would cause a butterfly effect to unknown people in unknown parts of the world years from now.
Rutland, reelection and legacy slipping away, had taken to lapping our bullpen in jeans and a faded polo, eyes on his loafers, motioning us down each time he passed, but we popped up anyway, like we were doing the wave. Brooke permanently hovered over her chair. She probably played a sport.
Sometimes Rutland would walk and talk with his Chief of Staff, Amar Singh, tossing a softball between them. It was something to see Rutland up close, presidential uniform abandoned, a ketchup spot on his shirt from lunch, hair unruly, and caring so deeply about incomprehensible numbers that to him were a line of too-real people that stretched from the Pacific to the edge of his desk. And it occurred to me that, on one level, he was exactly who you’d want doing this job, while on the other, he was so not cut out for it. My grandmother would have said, “He’d give away his last potato,” and not as a compliment. It was actually her gravest insult, thrown my way most memorably in fifth grade when I let the neighbors think I broke their garden gnome so Erica wouldn’t get grounded right before the Spring Dance.
As they walked, they agonizingly agreed on the points of capitulation they would reapproach the Majority Leader with in the morning, each one a social-service bloodletting. My stomach burning, I stole another of Todd’s TUMS.
Sometime close to midnight Margaret dropped a fresh stack on my stacks, this one bound in a distinctive red rubber band. “Jamie, run this to the Chief of Staff’s office. We needed these signed off on two hours ago. Don’t stop walking until you’ve put them in Singh’s hand—even if you have to push into the men’s room to do it.”
His assistant’s chair was unoccupied. Emboldened by Margaret’s instructions, I knocked and pushed Singh’s office door farther open. The dimly lit room was packed with briefing reports, stacked waist-high from the floor, and on one wall was a framed silk illustration of that blue elephant, the one with all those arms and the kind eyes. Beside it, the door leading to the series of private rooms that connectedSingh’s office to the Oval was open and I thought I heard footsteps. I walked quickly through, stepping out of the light, and felt for the switch. The chandelier revealed that I was in the executive dining room. The door across the room slammed shut. Admittedly it was a childlike instinct that propelled me the length of the polished table toward the crystal knob, hand outstretched, like the famous fictional girls I grew up reading about. The ones who sought a garden, a city, a rabbit—or a man. On the long list of prohibitions I carry now, I would never open a slammed door. But then, I think it was the slammed door that drew me the hardest.
Unable to see, I heard it first. His breathing. Tight and irregular. A wheeze—like dying. “Sir?” I don’t know how I knew that the form standing in the shadow outside the sliver of light was him, and not Singh, but I did.
“Shut the door,” he spoke on the inhale.
“It’s Jamie, the intern from Scheduling, and—”
“Do you need me to call someone?”
“Shut the door.”
I did, stepping in, and not out as he maybe—probably—meant, confining us in the windowless black. I had no idea what room we were in. “Do you need an inhaler?” I asked. I felt the darkness move and moved toward it. “Sir?”
I took another step. I could smell him now, the vestiges of cologne, a faint sweat. I felt a hand brush my leg and dropped the papers. I reached out and he clasped it, hard enough to hurt.
“Sir? Are you having a panic attack?” I knew what that was. “Sir?”
“Greg.” The syllable. Technically a correction. But also an invitation, one he would explain months later, that allowed me to say, “Breathe. Through your nose.” I felt him buck. “I know. It feels like you’ll die. Like you won’t be able to draw enough air in, but it’ll actually force everything to calm. Trust me.” I took an exaggerated breath through my nostrils, adding my other hand to his. “Greg?” I heard him try, his fingers crushing mine. “That’s good,” I whispered.“That’s good. You’re doing good.” His grip relaxed, his breathing slowed.
It took me a few moments of us standing like that—in the perfect darkness—to realize he was crying.
“It’s okay,” I said, like I would to a little boy, though I didn’t really know that it was. Or probably knew that we weren’t anywhere in the vicinity. “It’s okay.”
His hand pulled slowly into himself, not letting mine go. I took a step, permitting my body to make contact with his.
Then, sensing a second tacit invitation, I allowed my head to tip, coming to rest against his chest, the worn cotton of his shirt damp from his perspiration. We stood like that, breathing in tandem, the world outside on pause. His other arm wrapped around me. I knew his face was tilting down and I let mine tilt up. When his lips contacted mine they were wet and salty.
I was so outside myself. I wanted to tell him to stop so I could catch up enough to actually be there in his kiss, but I also knew once he stopped that this moment—this astonishing moment—would become a strange shard in my past.
“Fruity.” He pulled away to murmur his first word in the after of whatever this was.
“The Binaca of Washington.”
“My grandfather used Binaca,” I said, immediately cringing.
We heard the phone ring on the other side of the wall. “Shit.” He abruptly stepped back, leaving me off-balance, a chair-rail molding hitting my hip. “I have to . . .”
He opened the other door, and I could see a slice of the eagle’s wing in the Oval Office carpet. We squinted. “You can . . .” He indicated the door I had come in.
“Okay.” He nodded, and then it was dark once more.
I didn’t linger. I returned straight to his private dining room, glancing briefly in a sterling candelabra to smooth my hair before shutting the light off. Then, instead of barreling back into Singh’s office, I tookthe door that opened onto the public hallway that ran parallel to the private rooms I’d just invaded.
Brooke was approaching, her arms piled with briefs.
We both froze. Her expression was inscrutable.
Stalled subways, spilled drinks, a few extra seconds fixing my hair—what would it have taken?
The papers.“Shit,” I said out loud.
Suddenly I heard footsteps pounding behind us in the hallway. Rutland overtook us, striding a few feet on to Singh’s returned assistant, tossing the binder with the red rubber band inside—“Have him sign off on these and get ’em to Margaret ASAP.” He pivoted and walked right past as if I were invisible.
I watched Brooke look from his departing back to me, the way something in a terrarium snaps down its furry meal, as she processed that the President was finishing the errand I’d been tasked.
I found control of my feet and walked back to the pen.
That night none of us went home.
I kept my face away from Brooke’s, glued to numbers I couldn’t make sense of, names that blurred, my mind stuck as I found myself gripping my own hand under the desk to understand the pressure of his fingers. Trying to pinpoint where his terror had led him to kiss me like I was a sip of water in sun-blasted sand. I felt the nuclear sensation of, if only for a few heartbeats, being the answer for the man to whom the world looked for answers. As I sat there, the very high of his need was key-cutting into my brain.
Just past dawn I was taking another swig of tepid coffee as someone called at the TV, “Turn that up!” It would be the clip eventually viewed over seventy million times on YouTube, but that was the first time anyone saw it: the Majority Leader giving that impromptu interview to a fan with a cell phone. Unlike Rutland, he looked like he’d just strolled off the fairway. “It doesn’t surprise me that he’s made us wait a week,” he blustered, even thoughhewas the one refusing to come to the table, buoyed by the rising tide of popular sentiment. “And he should be forced to waitanotherweek,” he said in a hairpin turn of logic toward the truth of his own inaction. “It would serve him right. He’s inconsiderate. He once forced me to leave Air ForceOne by the back door. We never got a thank-you note for that copy ofMoby-Dickwe gave his son, and he hasneverinvited me to Camp David. He’s just rude.”
We all know what happened next. Public opinion whiplashed so fast even Fox couldn’t spin it. And to this day you can’t Google him without getting a picture of his head on a baby’s body.
I snuck out so I could be at Ann Taylor when they opened. I charged one perfectly cut suit and a blouse with darts. I vowed to get a really great haircut and new makeup. Because I was following the evaporating trail of a cigarette down the street that I wanted to inhale again.
I walked back through security, thinking I looked like a high-powered attorney, my old suit and Gail’s blouse balled in my bag.
“There she is,” Brooke said flatly.
“Here I am,” I replied brightly. “I had a job interview,” I added to explain my makeover.
“So you didn’t hear?” she asked as I realized she was clearing the administrative drifts on her desk into a box.
“All right then,” Margaret said, making her way through the room, collecting the all-access passes from the interns. “Back to the basement.”
I looked up at CNN’s confirming ticker—and just like that, it was over.
I wasn’t going to tell. Ever. I had decided minutes after the furlough ended, when I abruptly knew for certain that this was a contained experience, that I was going to keep an unmade promise to an absent man. There was no way for me to let him know that he didn’t need to be afraid of my telling, but he didn’t. Because I couldn’t imagine disrespecting the searing memory of his lips searching out mine that lit something deep inside me every time I replayed it. Each day my silence would build his trust. Then years from now he would pause somewhere, reading in a beach chair or rising in a ski lift, and think,wow, that Jamie, I could really rely on her. I wish I’d let her in more. I needed her and she was perfect.
And I felt important.
But then Lena came to visit a week later and I grossly underestimated the friendship deprivation tank that I’d been living in. Add the lubrication of a split bottle of white at the Indian place and, well—it popped out while we were standing in the midst of a throng of Adams Morgan bar-hoppers. Her frozen yogurt dripped onto her knuckles as she just stood there, slack-jawed. We stared at each other with wide, inebriated eyes. “Holy shit.” She dropped her voice while the suited revelers parted to pass us on the sidewalk. “You’re being serious right now.”
I wiped my napkin across her fingers, wishing I could suck the last few seconds back. “Let’s ditch these and see if we can get one of those guys to buy us a drink?” I proposed, a technique I’d used in the past to move the conversation off things I suddenly regretted bringing up, like my dad punching a wall parents’ weekend.
“Nuh-uh.” Lena withdrew her hand. “No way are we just returning to our evening.” Spotting a garbage can, she grabbed my cone and tossed it along with hers while I flashed to coming upon Greg, the sound of his labored breath. She turned back to me. “How?”
I shook my head as the mental sparkler I’d burned to the point of dust reignited. “I don’t even know.” The strip was at full throttle. It was the last place to be having this conversation that I never should have started. Girls burst from the bar behind us on the pulse of a throbbing bass. Giggling, they attempted to ballast each other.
“You did—that—and you didn’t tell me for aweek?” Lena crossed her arms while I rubbed my sticky skin with sticky napkins. “I’ve been talking so much about my middle-school crush’s best friend hugging me at a bar that I’m actuallyhoarseand you’ve been sitting onthis.”
“I feel like we’re going to be all face-lifted in our rocking chairs and you’re going to, I don’t know, slip in that you had a kid I never heard about.”
“God.” I shuddered. “No. I only want the kids you will hear about.”
“I’m being serious.”
“No, you do this all the time. I tell you everything, every fucking thing.”
“No, you talk and you’re the one with all the funny stories and everyone thinks you put it all out there, but then there are certain things where you do this weird look-over-here—when it comes to family—guys—and I’ve been thinking about it—”
“You’ve been thinking about it?”
“Don’t you trust me?” Her brown eyes searched mine. This was the last thing I wanted. It was, in retrospect, an unfortunate moment for Lena to hit her wall. I told her that I did trust her, because I did—because she was my most important person—and then I had to prove it.
“We ended up in the private hallway that connects the Oval Office to his dining room and he kissed me.”
“Holy. Shit.” She lifted her hands to her cheeks.
I nodded, the wine swinging my head into a deeper dip.
“We need to—I don’t know what—get more drinks. And candy.”
I pulled her in for a hug and begged her to just come live with me and follow me around everywhere. “Please? We’re rent-free, and I’ll pay you in cheap Indian food.”
“One, nothing is free when it comes to my mother, and, b, stop stalling.” She weaved her arm though mine to direct us toward the nearest liquor store, our flip-flops flapping in unison.
• • •
The next morning we were too hung over to venture out and made do pillaging Gail’s frozen flax waffles while I helped Lena play through whether this was the right moment to quit smoking. (It wasn’t.) We camped with the balcony doors open, the frigid and humid air canceling each other out. “You know this makes us bad people, right?” Lena called from the kitchen.
I reminded her that I’d once embarrassingly insisted we not only compost in our dorm room, but use one roll of toilet paper for a week. “I think our carbon footprint can sustain a little wasted AC.”
“Jamie?” She came to the doorway, finishing off a spoonful of peanut butter.
“Yeah?” I asked from the couch.
“You hooked up with the President of the United States.”
“Kissed. ‘Hooked up’ is an exaggeration.”
“The President of the United States knows that you taste—”
“Ugh.” I dropped my face into my magazine until I heard her resume foraging in the fridge. This was the only detail I had given her beyond the kiss, and while I didn’t love myself for it, I felt I had told her only the part of what transpired that was mine. Nonetheless, I was relieved to hear her phone from the bedroom. “Is that Kelly Clarkson? Someone’s calling you!”
“Shitshitshit.” She careened past me and answered in the grown-up register previously reserved for professors.
“What? Oh my God, what’s wrong?” I asked when she reappeared.
“The Tuesday client meeting got bumped up and they want me to come in right fucking now.”
“Shewants me to come in.”
“Does your boss know you’re on the other side of the country?”
Lena shook her head. “It doesn’t matter.”
“But we had the rest of the day!” I felt a childish sense of panic.
“What? I’m just—”
“This is my job.” She crossed her arms.
“What?” I said quickly, but we both knew the thoughts that hung between us. That I didn’t have a job being the kindest. That I made out with my boss’s boss’s boss, the harshest.
“Nothing, just—I need to check flights. I’m sorry.”
• • •
I tagged along to National because my revised plan of readingGone Girland changing toenail polish could accommodate the scheduling addition. Slithering her suitcase at full speed around the dawdlers, dressed in the Escada suit she’d wear directly from the airport to the office, Lena looked like she’d fly the plane herself if they let her. Jogging alongside her, dressed in the sweater hoodie and cutoffs that I would wear directly back to an empty apartment, I looked like her assistant. At best.
With a few minutes to spare before she passed through security, we found chairs across from the monitors. I sipped from my water bottle and we reminisced about when we had everything we needed within a two-block radius—food, post office, library. How an ID swipe granted us access to all of it.
She pointed to where my phone lit up beside me with a text from Mike’s number. As this was the last moment I wanted to finally tell herabout him, I dropped it in my bag. It had been over between us for so long by college that I’d never mentioned him and as I sat there, I acknowledged to myself that Lena was right. When people talked about high school, about firsts, I’d found it was easier to say nothing at all.
On the TV overhead, Mrs. Rutland was doing jumping jacks with a group of elementary school students—throwing herself into it until she was flushed and perspiring, with seemingly no consideration to vanity, which only made her more beautiful. A boy who had lost fifty pounds on her Fit for Life program beamed, leaning against her as she put her arm around him.
My face dropped to my Tretorns as awkwardness settled over us. “I mean, not that it matters,” I said quietly as the broadcast moved on, “because this wouldneverhappen again in a million years, but maybe they have an arrangement?”
“You’re part of an arrangement?” she repeated.
“No, Lena, I’m notpartof anything.”
“I always think how many wives would be surprised to find out they’re inarrangements.” The same sourness permeated her that did whenever she referenced her father.
“Lena, this isn’t—I’m not going to break up a—I’m not going tomarryhim. Jesus.”
“So that’s that, then?” She sought confirmation.
“Look, the planets aligned and a rock star grabbed me for five minutes in heaven—two minutes! It’s not like we’re having a thing. I couldn’t even make a thing happen if I wanted to,” I tried to reassure her, despite the fact that, in total honesty, I wanted to. “Nobody can get to that man who isn’t supposed to. I mean, unless he takes to wandering the basement or hanging in the staff ladies’ room.”
“So if he was, you’d do it again?”
I stared at her. “This is a pointless conversation.” I stood up, wishing I were wearing pants. “And I’m sure you have to go.”
Lena pulled out her driver’s license, looking down longer than necessary, and I feared my disclosure had stained something between us. “In the morning now I walk out to the kitchen and it’s my mom and I’m like, ‘You’re not my friend. Where’d my friends go?’ I’m a total bitch, but I can’t help myself, I just miss you so fucking much.”
“Me, too,” I said over the swelling in my throat, as I was gripped by What Ifs. What if I got stuck on the East Coast or, worse, back home, and couldn’t afford to visit her? What if her job took off and she got even busier, if that were possible, and made all new friends, and our lives diverged into the high-flying money manager and the barista? Was this just—it?
“Somethingwill come through.” We hugged as I struggled against tears and she told me there was no one else like me.
“You, neither.” I forced myself to let her go.
Back on the metro, so palpably without her, I tried to pull myself together but couldn’t. Memories tumbled, making me alternately smile and tear up. The time Lena called a dorm meeting because someone had taken a shit in the middle of the student lounge and she grilled us like Hercule Poirot. The time she put my grandmother’s silk scarf over the lamp for hook-up ambience and burned a hole right through it. The Ferragamo one she bought me couldn’t really replace the sentimental value, but I never told her. I knew she felt awful. Then I was thinking about my grandmother and family—and suddenly I remembered Mike’s text.
Given what you know about him, it’s probably impossible for you to understand why I responded. But I can only tell you the story as it happened, and with Lena’s plane taking her farther from me by the minute, I felt a desperate need for unvarnished connection. Mike had always known what to say to calm my panic. In fact, he’d been the one to help me through my first attack. It was a summer weekend after sixth grade. The firehouse carnival. The plan had been to “run into each other” and do one ride together. Instead, Erica had shown up with a tongue pierce. More than a few beers down Dad had gone ballistic, and as soon as Mike saw the state I was in he turned in a way that encouraged me to follow. There behind the tents he squeezed my palm and told me to breathe through my nose. The colored lights were blurred by the hazy heat and the thumping house music amplified my heart. I remember that he finally started dancing goofily until I was laughing. He looked so relieved, and it was only then that I realized how much I must have scared him.
“Hey there. I just graduated, actually. Interning at the White House. Gladto hear all is well. Take care. JM.”Feeling the phantom flutter in my pained chest, I stared at my phone and wondered, would that be it?
“Which house is that?”pinged right back. Followed by,“Really proud of you, James. Not surprised at all.”
I smiled and wiped my cheeks.“Just dropped my best friend at the airport,”I replied.“Lonely.”
“In a room full of people,”he responded as the clouds shifted outside the curved glass.“I’m lonely, too.”
I managed to leave it at that.
• • •
I was pulling my ticket out to exit the station when I discovered Rachelle’s card in my bag and sent her a text at the first glimpse of sky. She texted back,“Drinks, pronto,”and sent me the address of a restaurant by the water where she knew the bartender. When I arrived, an older crowd was finishing a late brunch, and I apologized for my appearance.
“Please.” She dismissed me, looping her thin arm through mine to weave me around the umbrellaed tables. Rachelle, looking like an MTV stylist had dressed her to deejay a military lunch, was wearing a khaki romper with gold buttons and matching platform espadrilles. “I’m so happy to be out of my apartment I could scream,” she said conspiratorially. “My roommate, who, like, subsists on spray margarine, is doing her calorie splurge tonight and won’t stop talking about what she’s going to order in. It’s disgusting.”
I commented that this explained her wealth of knowledge about sticky buns.
“Oh, no. Everyone knows that.” She looked genuinely concerned. “Don’t they?”
“I didn’t,” I admitted as I hopped on a bar stool.
“My first job was at Cinnabon at the Tucson mall. I smelled like cinnamon for the entire summer.” I loved how she talked, like she was gargling her words at the back of her throat. “Which is a turn-on for guys, that’s a fact. Not that I wanted to turn on a single one of my customers.” She shuddered before trotting to the other end of the bar where the waitresses were placing their orders. It felt so good to havesomewhere to be. She returned with two glasses of something orange. “Sex on the Beach. I know it’s cheesy, but I have to order that when it’s summer and I am nowhere near sex or a beach.”
“Oh God, I thought it was just me.” I sipped from the stirrer straw. “I imagined the program would be packed with cute smart guys.”
“Oh honey, Josh Lyman is a myth. I’m sure there is some cute lurking here somewhere, but it’s like a treasure hunt.” She pulled the potato chips over to us. “It’s so good to talk about something other than how many points are in pad Thai, you have no idea.”
We covered what brought us there, our impressions of it, and how not there we wanted to be. “I keep wondering if I had more than five dollars a day to spend if I’d be experiencing a whole different city,” I mused. “If I wasn’t one trip to the library away from being asked out by Artie with the candy-cane-striped walker—”
“You wouldn’t, I can tell you.” She waved her short red nails. “This August marks year five for me. Jewish is Georgetown’s idea of diversity. I cannotbelieveI haven’t gotten a job in New York yet—when I graduated I was so convinced, I actually put a deposit down on a place in Greenpoint. Everyone cool from boarding school and college is there. I see the parties on Facebook and the nights out and I’m still going to the same lame bars—only I’m not, because I have no one to go with—it’s like I totally got left behind. I thought I’d meet people at work, but they’re old and they suck.”
“Yeah, your boss is—”
“The love child of Kim Jong Il and Leona Helmsley. He’s imperious and condescending and there’s just no winning with him. And political PR is just lame.” She finished her drink. “I wanted to be in entertainment. I grew up near Canyon Ranch. All those celebrities coming and going, the private planes, the limos with the tinted windows.”
“It sounds glamorous.”
She snorted. “It was glamorous-adjacent.”
We shared our first impressions of each other. “You seemed very, um . . .”
“Un-D.C.?” she offered hopefully.
I put my finger to my nose.
“Lucy, that’s the nicest thing you could say to me. Okay, so what’s with that Brooke girl? We hate her. And we need another round. Don’t move.”
A bomb couldn’t have moved me. After the discomfort that had tinged my weekend, it was delicious to be seen with fresh eyes. When she returned, Rachelle told me with great intensity, “Rachensity” as I would come to call it, about her soul mate in the form of Matt McGeehan. “Matt was a year ahead of me at the school my parents shipped me off to so they could finish their lovely divorce without worrying about accidentally decapitating me with a flying plate or something. He was just—it. He was inGodspell—I think he had, like, one line, but he opened his mouth and I was just done for.” The planets had shifted because he’d recently friended Rachelle and they’d begun a flirtation. “And . . . he’s moving to New York. It’s going to happen, right?”
I wanted nothing more than for that to be true for her. “Emphaticallyyes.”
Her hands crossed over her chest before clenching mine. “You’ll totally find a job, too. No doubt. Just take it on like a rattlesnake on fire.”
• • •
The next morning I emerged from Gail’s apartment with my eye sockets aching from the night’s snake-on-fire LinkedIn/Monster/craigslist binge. In the light of day, nude modeling probably didn’t require a pros-and-cons spreadsheet.
Margaret had left a Post-it on my desk,“See me,”and I immediately freaked, running through all the tasks I’d been assigned the previous week. I had quadruple-checked the hotel reservations, emailed the confirmation numbers, gotten kosher meals arranged for theHasidic Timesreporters—
“So, Jamie . . .” Margaret looked up from behind her buried desk.
She nodded as if trying to remember what I was doing there. At least my offense or oversight wasn’t blinding. “Yes,” she repeated, lifting a finger in the air to detain me while she jogged her memory.“For you.” She swiped a laminated ID from her stack of folders. “To ferry communications. Requested by the Oval Office.”
I looked down at the words “Full Access” and heard my pulse swoosh in my ears.Why, how?!
She repositioned her mouse. “Okay?” she asked the screen.
“Oh, Jamie,” she said sharply.
I turned back in the doorway, a cold heat breaking—did she know? “Yes?”
“We may have a position opening up and I wanted to gauge your interest in staying on after.”
“A paying position?” I asked stupidly, dumbfounded.
“Until the revolution.”
“Um, yes. Of course. Yes!”
“Great.” She returned to her email. “We’ll talk more. I have this fire to put out.”
Back at my desk, the plastic card clutched between my sweating hands, I felt like an invisible chorus was hitting its high note. A job. An actualjob. Okay, not in urban development, and not in L.A., with Lena. But still, ajob. And in a year—or maybe two—I could be positioned to really move to L.A. properly. Get a used car and a mattress filled with more than air. I had to get it, Ihadto.
I stared at the pass—he’d requested this? He’d requestedme? The sparkler ignited—the heat of his grip, his fingers spreading across my back—waitwaitWAIT. I was misreading it. I had to be. An intern in each department must be given a pass to make deliveries. This was totally standard and I was getting all worked up over—
“What. Is. That?” Brooke looked down with crossed arms.
“I know what it is. Why do you have it?” She snatched it.
“What does she have?” Todd bounded over with an exuberance not usually seen in anyone past puberty. “We get all-access? Hey, John?” Todd leaned over John’s computer. “Sorry, man. But we get all-access now?”
John thought for a moment as we all waited breathlessly. “Grab me a Coke, Todd.” Dismissing him, he pulled two dollars from his wallet.
Brooke slung the pass back to me. “This is fucking bullshit,” she muttered. Ignoring her sucked-in cheeks, I looked toward Margaret’s office, expecting her to emerge momentarily with an errand.
I went to the ladies’ room and gave my armpits a splash-down with paper towels and industrial pink hand soap. I chewed gum, pushing it over every tooth. I looked around the tiled room as if there might be a round brush and hairspray hiding somewhere.
For the rest of the day I whipped my head up every time Margaret came out, the other interns whipping theirs to me in turn. I typed things, scheduled things, emailed things. At eight o’clock, I raced home. I waxed things, bleached things, polished things. I tried on every combination of everything I’d brought to D.C. My finger hung suspended over a billion dollars in lingerie charges. I managed not to succumb, if only because it would cost another billion dollars in shipping. I woke up an hour early to blow out my hair.
And then I waited. For three straight days, I was Saturday-night-ready for twelve hours at a stretch.
And here’s what I learned about a suit that Fits You Perfectly: what at first zip feels like a reassuring sense of having your curves hugged morphs, on day four, into the suffocating feeling that you’re rolling in on yourself. I was no longer marveling at how this skirt showed my thighs so much as staving off grabbing a plastic knife from the kitchenette and hacking at the center seam until I popped open like a pack of Pillsbury crescent rolls.
And I was hungry—from being too nervous waiting for the pending nothing to eat. And tired—from levitating over my mattress waiting for the pending nothing to sleep. And then Margaret sent me on a delivery!!! “To the WHC office to get an approval form stamped.” (Opposite of exclamation marks.)
I took the folder, reminding myself not to hang my head. I felt like an asshole. An asshole whose cheap, scratchy lace underwear had just chafed its way into a thorn crown of humiliation. I went upstairs to the appointed destination, two long hallways from the President, each urn and guard and grown-up I passed underscoring my naiveté. As soon as I made the delivery I went to the nearest ladies’ room, tuggedoff the assaulting thong, and shoved it deep into the garbage. I was done.
“Jamie.” Gerry pointed me to Margaret’s door as soon as I returned to my desk. I looked at him questioningly, but he was back to his phone call.
“Oval Office.” She handed another file off. I stood there dumbly. “Jamie?”
“Yes, sorry. Yes.” I took it and turned back to the stairs, one heel in front of the other, my mind blasted quiet. I arrived at his secretary’s desk, the imposing everything around us making me feel like I had imagined that he had kissed me when I was just two rooms away. Had I? I mutely lifted the file to her.
She smiled over her bifocals. “You can go ahead in, dear.”
I managed a nod and walked past her to the open mahogany door. The midday sun was streaming through the windows. His desk chair was empty. “Ah, Margaret sent you.” I turned to see him coming from his washroom, his white sleeves rolled, the light catching the blond hairs on his forearms.
“Yes, I . . .” I raised the folder in front of my chest.
“Why don’t you have a seat? Save you a round trip.” He took it from me—inches away—and then leaned back against the edge of his desk, sliding on his glasses. It was impossible to reconcile that this man, at utter elegant ease here, had been hunched over and shaking. I perched on one of the two blue silk settees that faced each other. I was maybe five feet from him. He gazed at the documents. I crossed my legs, quickly wiped my palms on my skirt, and then clasped my hands.
I remember thinking that I should say something, but the First Dog spoke instead, growling to himself as he rolled over in his executive dog bed. “My cousin had a Portuguese water dog when we were kids.” My voice was too loud.
“They have insane energy.”
“Yes.” He took off his glasses.
“Did you know—I’m sure you know, but trainers recommend they wear these weighted jackets and carry bricks or bags of flour when they go for walks in order to tire them out.” Maybe, given thepanic attack, he had blacked out the entire encounter. “I guess they’re bred to be seriously hardworking.” Maybe he didn’t even remember it. Maybe ferrying this folder was just a general request that happened to fall to me.
“Sadly, no fish to herd into nets here.”
“Isn’t that crazy? Herding fish into nets. How would that work, really? Do they bark at the water? It sounds like a synonym for a Sisyphean task.”Why am I talking about this?
“I wanted to pass healthcare reform, but that would be like herding fish into nets!” he said gamely.
He smiled. It was a specific, rope-line smile. I crossed my legs tighter.
“I’m going to be a few minutes.” He glanced at the open door to his secretary’s office.
“No problem—I mean, of course.”
“Do you want something while you wait?” His eyes held mine. My mouth went dry. He cleared his throat, laying the file on his desk. “Water, or a soda?”
“Yes, a Coke,” I managed. “Please.”
He walked behind my couch through the doorway to the room where we had kissed and I tightened one palm on the other as the grandfather clock ticked. The dog snored. It was taking a while, longer than it would take to go to a refrigerator and pull out a can. I turned and was totally unprepared to see him standing in the door frame, his expression serious, set on me. He took a beckoning step back, his fingers at his sides, twitching as if he wore a holstered gun.
I could see his secretary at her desk, but he remained intent, so I crossed the carpet. He stepped against the wall, indicating I should pass, and I realized what we had been in the last time was actually a short hallway with four doors—one to the Oval Office, one to the dining room, one to his study, and the last one, toward which he was directing me, to a dim, windowless powder room. Within a breath he was behind me. I could feel him standing there, his frame creating a shadow from the hall light. I started to turn but he said, “Please,” so simply that I froze. We stood like that for a few seconds, maybe longer.
“Are you okay?” I asked, not daring to move my head. “How have you been?”
“No.” His voice was low. He stepped closer. Right behind me, touching. And again, I felt surprised by the firmness of his frame, the flesh-and-bloodness of him. I didn’t lean back, didn’t move, didn’t know the extent of what his “please” was requesting. I thought I could feel his heart through my back—could feel him bend to my hair and the warmth of his breath as he inhaled me.
“I want you,” I heard myself tell both of us the truth, “I do.”
His forearm circled my waist and his mouth was on my neck as I felt myself tilted forward against the marble vanity. My palms braced on the cold stone as he pressed himself against the back of my legs, his hands roving down to the hem of my skirt, tugging it up. I tilted my head back, twisting to find his lips as he made contact with where I’d been waiting for days. At the discovery that there was no fabric to delay him he moaned into my mouth, slumping forward. I reached down to caress him through his trousers and he gripped my hair, a second from coming, I knew—but he pulled my hand away. Our eyes caught in the mirror as he slid one hand into my bra, the other inside me until I couldn’t not—not—his palm flew over my mouth as I shuddered. I dropped to my forearms from the relief.
I turned around to finish reciprocating, but he stopped my hand and shook his head, both of us panting, our foreheads dropping together as he gathered my face into the deepest kiss.
The bathroom door was still open beside us. Trembling, he tugged down my skirt and nodded me out. I stood in the shadows of the silent hall, my breath returning. I didn’t know where I was supposed to wait or for how long. There were pictures along the wall in gilded frames and I forced my dilated pupils to zero in on one. He was in shorts and a Nantucket T-shirt, sitting on a porch. And he was laughing. Really laughing. Susan, her tan dark against a pale yellow bathing suit, lay with her feet in his lap and he was tickling her, the space between them soft and familiar, not hard and panting. There was nothing about that captured moment—which, judging from Susan’s haircut, was not long ago—that I could convince myself looked remotely arranged. It looked real, like love.
Which meant this was . . . what?
The toilet flushed and he emerged, wiping his bangs back. He looked at me as if he knew me and pulled me into a tight hug, but my eyes were locked on the picture, trying to analyze which of these two embraces was real. He brushed the hair off my face before going to the small bar in his private study to get me a Coke. Weaving his fingers through mine, the feeling of his wedding band intruding between my knuckles, he led me out of the shadows and then released my hand as we stepped into the sun.
“Great, thanks for waiting.” He circled his desk for the manila folder, extending it for me to come and take.
“Okay, thank you.” I turned away with it; the dog stirred.
“You can take your soda.” He motioned for me to flip the tab.
• • •
That night, Lena’s IMs pinged with the speed of Morse code as I pushed my toes against the sharp sisal rug, where I’d slid to charge my laptop in the nearby outlet.“It’s bad, right?”I typed, my hair almost dry from the shower I’d sat in trying to make sense of the afternoon.“He’s really married.”
“And you don’t want to be the porn he can’t risk downloading,”she typed back.
I dismissed it as a mischaracterization based on what I had shared, or rather not shared, about our first kiss. But if I was honest with myself about it, we hadn’t held each other or even really talked. This was undeniably—“He’s really married.”I gripped my forehead.
A moment later she responded.“I’m choosing to take comfort in that, you know, as a citizen.”
“I just wish it had been bad. Or awkward. Or a letdown. It was so—there’s some connection here that is just, well, as you have identified, base. Which is why I will heretofore deliver papers in not just panties, but a snowsuit. Hemmed in razor wire.”
“So back up—they might offer you a job? Will you take it? I’m not saying pleasenopleasenopleaseno. Except that I am.”
“There’s no way it’s going to happen. The competition is beyond fierce. I mean even if it does—and it’s such a long shot—I don’t think I should stay here, do you?”
“Agreed. I think nude modeling might be the healthier choice.”
“Thanks, Mom.”I hit Send and was startled by the sound of the landline in Gail’s room. My parents were the only ones I’d given the number to. I jogged down the hall.
“Jamie?” The voice hit me like cardiac paddles.
“It’s Greg. Rutland,” he added his last name to clarify.
“Hi.” I glanced at the digital clock. Two fifteen in the morning. Was this a booty call? Did I care?
“Am I—I didn’t wake you?” he asked.
“No, no, I was just, um, chatting with a friend. How did you find this—”
“Getting your file took a level of strategizing that put my efforts in the Middle East to shame.”
“I don’t know how I should feel about that.”
“I was gunning for flattered.”
“Accomplished.” Smiling, I sunk down onto the crisp duvet, so far beyond flattered. Wooed. To put this in context: at Vassar, if a guy held the cafeteria door for you, he’d consider himself Lord Byron.
“I didn’t know if you’d answer, or this Gail—”
“No, she’s—I’m just using her apartment for the internship. I’m alone.”
“It isn’t Gail Robinson, the RNC fundraiser?”
I cringed. “She’s really a nice person.”
“She’s brilliant,” he conceded. “Partridge’s best asset.”
“Well, I kind of saved her daughter’s life, so she’s overlooking my politics,” I said quickly, trying to tacitly communicate that the thing we were tacitly not acknowledging was explicitly safe with me. “I mean, she’s never here. And that’s—she’s not here. So, um, yes.” I waited. Was it the right answer?
“Look.” I heard him blow out. “I’m sorry about today and also the, uh, other day. That’s why I called, to tell you that.”
“Oh. Okay.” Neither booty call nor flattery—I was, apparently, being triaged.
“I didn’t intend to—I wasn’t planning,” he continued.
“I don’t seem to be able to think clearly around you.”
Then he laughed the same deep laugh he had that first night in the bullpen, and I realized that was something the public didn’t know about him—what he sounded like when he cracked up. “So what brought you to the White House?” I was unsure why he wanted to keep talking, but it felt like an opportunity.
“Tell me you’re not calling me to poll?”
He laughed again. “I want to know.”
“Well.” I shrugged as if he could see me. “I had a complex strategy my generation is really perfecting. First I applied for every job in America. Then I applied for every internship.”
“So it wasn’t me,” he joked.
I rested my other hand on my stomach. “You’ve been an unexpected bonus.”
“Funny, that’s just what the Majority Leader calls me.”
I laughed. “It’s really mind-boggling that anyone takes him seriously.” Through the opening in the closet door I saw the shelf of Gail’s wigs. “Can I ask you something?”
I almost brought up the panic attacks, but I lost my nerve. “Do you ever just want to throw your hands up?”
“Go back to waiting tables?”
I smiled. “I mean, just lose it. How do you keep slogging through when everything you try to do is flat-out lied about? I mean, when Pence got up on the House floor and said that ninety percent of Planned Parenthood’s budget goes to abortions, how did you not immediately run to the Rose Garden to say, ‘Are you fucking kidding me?’ ”
“Or when Republicans now accuse you of being a socialist whenyou’re just trying to keep the funding for the programstheystarted? Their selective memory is astonishing.”
“Yeah, well, those people have given me more than a few gray hairs.” He sidestepped the question. “I have advisors saying I should color it . . .”
“You don’t think?”
I realized he genuinely wanted to know. “It’s undignified. Presidents go gray.”
“That’s me, Mr. Dignified.” He cleared his throat. I flashed to the picture of him tickling Susan like they were everyday people. I knew I should bring her up, remind us of her realness—if only so he could tell me what I was missing, what the public didn’t know that would somehow make this okay. Dignified.
I bought myself a second. “Even when eating pizza off a memo, hard to pull off.”
Running through every possible comment or question I could phrase, I realized that my broaching her was the equivalent of dousing the conversation with a fire hose. And, much as it shamed me, I couldn’t risk it. “Where are you right now?”
“In my study. On the couch with a million pages of briefs that need to be read before sunup.”
“Depends on your definition. And how much you like numbers.” Another sigh. “If an issue makes it to my desk it has no solution. I’m asked to make the shit calls where someone gets fucked.” It was the honest version of his stump speech.
“I’m so sorry. But you seem to be handling it—I mean you—”
“Right,” he said quietly.
“No one could breathe under that kind of pressure.”
“I sense you could handle it.” It felt like he’d just bestowed his strongest compliment.
“Well, thanks, but it’s understandable is all I’m saying.” I wanted to find an implicit way to reassure him.
“I doubt that. People don’t like to picture their leaders poleaxed.”
“Does it happen often?” I dared.
“More than it should, which is not at all. Tell me something about you. About Jamie from Illinois.”
“Um . . .” I thought. “Okay, my cousin’s dog, the one I told you about today?”
“Well, she was a ridiculously beautiful dog, calendar-worthy. But total Cujo. She’d dig up crap from the backyard and then run with it. But not, like, bones. She found this rusty pickax and would growl terrifyingly if we went to take it away from her. All the fur around her muzzle turned orange. And she’d race through the backyard and we’d sit with our legs up under us at the picnic table so she wouldn’t take off a limb as she passed.”
He laughed again. “Family picnics, I never had that. Must’ve been nice.”
“Hm,” I said, hearing how it sounded up against my memories that weren’t. Then I thought of his mother making stuffing with Kathie Lee and Hoda. She seemed like someone who had picnics—I was surprised to hear otherwise. And in this tenuous space between us, it felt weirdly inappropriate for me to follow up.
“Are you close to them?” he asked—because he could follow up.
“Um . . . well, they’re coming for the Fourth, so . . .”
“You didn’t answer the question, says the man who knows how not to answer a question.”
I mustered a small laugh.
“They’ll be proud of you, I’m sure,” he said gently.
“I hope so. They haven’t visited me since freshman year, so . . . yeah.”
“Back to this dog,” he swiftly offered, seemingly sensing my discomfort. “Sounds like a candidate for a watch list.”
“Or to be unloaded on unsuspecting cousins,” I countered.
“See, impossible decision made.”
“Yes, Afghanistan is just like that.”
“That’s really why I brought it up.” Tumbling downhill in the rhythm of our banter, I fully flirted. “Aren’t you taking notes?”
“I want to call you again.” My breath caught.
“Okay,” I said into the dark.
“I’ve laughed more in a few minutes with you than I have since the correspondents’ dinner. I want to think of you sleeping peacefully while I sit here and sort through this shit-mess.”
“Then think of it,” I said, wanting peace for him, too. Not knowing how to say that without sounding ridiculous. Not wanting him to go. Afraid he’d want to call me again but never would. Afraid I hadn’t said enough—or too much—to get him to reach out.
“Good night, Jamie.”
“Good night, Greg.”
It had begun.
I spent the next week or so hovering in this new idea of myself, like a downtrodden, oh, I don’t know, intern, who had just discovered her superhero alter ego but couldn’t tell anyone. I walked the streets in my new suit, looking like any other office drone, and the people I passed on the concrete had no idea I was the balm craved by the man in charge of it all. Eager for confirmation that I hadn’t hallucinated the whole thing, I bought an extension cord and slept with the phone by my head.
I tried to focus on work, on submitting my résumé, on my parents’ pending visit and not letting ludicrous daydreams like being the next Carla Bruni creep in. I actually tuned in on myself having a heated debate about whether I would stick with American designers or dare to go foreign like Jackie.
The Friday of my family’s arrival we were slammed. With the campaign at full throttle, everyone was trying to figure out how to compete with Partridge, who had nothing better to do than cross and recross swing states, eating corn dogs and telling factory workers who his leveraged buyouts had put out of business that he was the only man who could find them new jobs. Meanwhile, Rutland was hampered by this little country he had to run, so it was our department’s job to coordinate with the campaign to make his routine public appearances double as election opportunities. Of course July Fourth weekend was identified as the prime occasion to score patriotic points, and I think the DNC would have shot him out of a cannon if they thought he could stick the landing.
Between the logistical details of essentially staging a giant pep rally on the grounds and all the President’s extra travel, the atmosphere in our office had the tension of a timed chess match. In the midst of this, Margaret’s secretary got a summer flu and I was pulled in to assist (read: hold binders and hand over Post-its) at a meeting among her; Abigail Stroud, the First Lady’s Chief of Staff; and Max Fishman, the head of the campaign to maximize—
“Love.” Which, believe it or not, was the Secret Service’s code name for FLOTUS. “Susan needs to be on the ground every day from now until November sixth,” Max said insistently, bordering on angrily.
Abigail, who was six feet in flats, leaned toward—and over—Max. “Look, Susan wants another four years of this as much as the next person,” she said in a weary way that made it sound like the next person was a Republican. “But you know the deal.”
“I don’t care,” Max said, red rising from his collar like a cartoon of a boiler. “She makes people fall in love with him, and weneedthat right now. Thanks to that furlough, we’re behind in the polls, behind in fundraising, and what we have is a wife with an eighty percent approval rating.”
“This is Adam’s senior year, and Susan’s made it clear she isn’t going to run herself into the ground making up for Greg’s mistakes.This”—Abigail circled her hands at the building around us—“will be over one way or another. She’ll honor the agreed-upon number of public hours per week—that’sit.”
After they left I asked Margaret about Abigail, who seemed like the last person someone as genteel as Susan would want as her representative.
“Oh no, it’s the opposite. Someone like Susanneedsa bulldog like Abigail to advocate for her.”
“Isn’t that the President’s job?”
She didn’t answer.
• • •
I met my family at the airport because it was only my dad’s third time flying. He couldn’t get over how much smaller the seats were than onhis last trip. “I had my knees under my chin, my feet in the lap of the couple in front of us, and my head resting on the baby behind us. Mind you, it was a very comfortable baby.”
The first time he flew, he was a six-year-old moving to America. The second was to visit me Freshman Weekend. My parents hadn’t been in my dorm an hour when the call came in from the San Francisco police—after so many near misses, Erica had inevitably been in a car accident. Only it turned out what actually happened was that she was so wasted, she got out of the car on a hill without putting it into park and it rolled through someone’s fence and pitched into their hot tub. Which probably would have been a civil matter if she hadn’t punched the cop who arrived at the scene.
They spent the rest of the weekend on the phone, missing everything, and Gail discreetly stepped in to be my surrogate. I remember trailing Lena along the Sunday brunch buffet at the inn where Gail was staying, praying the lump in my throat wouldn’t give way to tears over the Canadian bacon. Erica got sober shortly thereafter. Honestly when it came to my graduation and Dad begged off, I was relieved.
“All right, Dad, you’re going to want to stay straight on the Potomac River Freeway,” I instructed from the passenger seat of the rental he’d insisted on despite my explanation of the Metro. I looked over to make sure he’d heard me and realized he was wearing the Izod that Erica and I gave him for Christmas. Meaning that Erica gave me her Amex and I signed the card from both of us.
“This is absurd,” Erica grumbled from the backseat, where she was emailing with her office. “We’re so close, we could’ve walked. Why’d we wait in line an hour to rent a car?” I was mystified, too—mostly by the expense, but I think the idea of having the car for the weekend gave him a base, like a snail’s shell.
“Take the ramp toward Rock Creek Parkway.” I gestured at the sign.
“And why didn’t you just get the GPS?” Erica added.
“It was thirty-five extra dollars a day,” Dad answered, “which means something to some people.” And we were off.
“D.C. isn’t really a walking city,” Mom added brightly, patting Erica’sknee from where she sat beside her in the backseat. I don’t remember when she started sitting with Erica—possibly before I was born—but they both said the passenger seat made them queasy.
“Mom, when were you in D.C.?” I asked.
“Oh, you just hear that.”
“Another left on Virginia and here we are!” I announced as we pulled into the circular drive.
“Well, isn’t this fancy,” Dad said.
“I hate these postwar apartment buildings.” Erica unbuckled herself.
“Doesn’t it feel claustrophobic?” Mom asked as we got out. “Being squashed in by so many people?”
“No more than your office does,” I answered. Mom worked in the city for Midwest Mutual, where she’d been the assistant to one mid-level manager but eventually served seven of them, making their days go smoother. Watching her, the fatigue, the need to vent at night what she’d kept herself from snapping all day, made me want to grow up to have an assistant, not be one.
“Dad, follow the driveway around to the garage—Gail has a space assigned to her apartment. It’s 8K.”
“I didn’t think of that,” Mom considered as Erica unloaded the bags.
“You hair looks nice,” I complimented Mom as we walked to the brass elevator bank. She had darkened it from her usual box red.
“I don’t know who I think I’m fooling with all these freckles, but what if I was a brunette for a bit? I could wear pink.” She gestured to her cardigan.
“I have a standing appointment every three months for lasering,” Erica responded as the door opened. “I am going out like Nicole Kidman.”
I looked at my very speckled arm.
“Well, some guys think they’re cute.” Mom wrapped her own speckled arms around our waists and squeezed us. “And they’ll want to kiss every one.”
Erica wriggled out of Mom’s embrace. “My head hasn’t fullycleared from the flight.” The wheels of their overnight bags made a soft purr against the tan carpet. As I pulled out my keys, I watched my sister do this thing she does, her eyes dropping momentarily to the middle-distance as she performs what I think of as a full-body inventory. It’s always followed by a pronouncement. “I need coffee.” Like that.
I can’t imagine being so in tune with myself. At that moment I needed a job—and occasionally I remembered to floss. I could have lived on Frosted Mini-Wheats until someone was actually trailing behind me with a hacksaw, begging to take my diabetic leg.
Stepping inside, my eyes landed on the annoyingly steady red light of the answering machine. Not that he’d have left a message. But then it didn’t occur to me that he ever would have called in the first place. Or bent me over a sink.
“Okay!” Snapping myself back to the present, I started talking with the animation of a campus tour guide. “This is the place!” I actually walked backward across the living room, arms outstretched. While I objectively knew I was just borrowing Gail’s high-thread-count life, I was still proud of where I’d momentarily landed. “Isn’t it amazing?” I pulled back the drapes to reveal the White House, my money shot.
Erica threw her palm against the glare. “I’m seriously getting a headache.”
“How about some water, hon?” Mom asked. “Jamie, can you get her water?”
“I, um, of course.” I turned to the kitchen, but Erica helped herself to one of Gail’s Fijis from the glass-front mini-fridge. She sat on the couch, placing her manicured fingers to her temple. Her sleeves dropped back and I noticed she really didn’t have freckles anymore.
Mom sat beside her, face drawn in concern. “Can I get you anything?” she asked.
“Ma, I’m fine, I don’t need anything. I just need coffee, and could you—” Erica’s arm thrust out.
I leapt to redraw the curtain, the room dimming.
“Fucking asshole!” Dad blew in, slamming the door. “The parking guy was a total prick. Why are we sitting in the dark?”
“I’m so sorry,” I said. “What happened?”
“If I ask you where the spot is, obviously I don’t know.” My father jabbed his fingers repeatedly between his chest and the floor. “If I knew, I wouldn’t need to fucking ask now, would I?”
Erica kept her head tucked to her knees.
“Would you like a drink?” I offered.
“Always.” His usual line.
“I got your favorite!” I pulled out a liter of Irish lemon soda I’d tracked down at a gourmet store in Georgetown.
“Oh.” His face fell. “Doctor said I’m not supposed to have anything acidy anymore. Just the whiskey.” He winked. I poured him a water.
“So you guys are sleeping in Gail’s room, and I thought Erica could share the guest room with me—”
“That’s a lot,” Erica interrupted.
“Okay.” I regrouped. “Why don’t you take my room and I can sleep out here.”
“No, I’ll sleep on the couch. It’s fine.” She looked up. “Just with you breathing and everything.” She hunched her shoulders and flexed her palms. “I’m not good with people in my space.” She volunteered this less like an embarrassing shortcoming and more like an affirmation at a self-awareness retreat. This was another thing I always forgot she did—these pronouncements of her self-defined limitations as if they were assets in her catalog description.
“No, sure.” My phone buzzed. Bushy Eyebrows summoning me. “I’m so sorry to leave you guys, but I need to be back by the four o’clock meeting. You can order a cab to the restaurant if you don’t want to drive again. Um, I thought you might be tired from the trip—”
“Great.” Without letting me finish, Dad crossed the hallway to Gail’s room. “Here?”
He kicked his shoes off and sort of dove onto the bed.
I turned to Mom and Erica. “So I made a reservation at Grafiato at eight. It’s supposed to be amazing, all small plates. Rachelle wants to join us—you guys are going to love her—”
“I thought it was just going to be the four of us,” Mom said.
“She has to work tonight—she won’t stay long.” I wanted them to see my whole life here, meet my friend. “And then I thought—the weather’s supposed to be nice—we could take a stroll to the Lincoln Memorial.”
“Sounds great.” Mom stood, ready to nap herself. “Um.” She leaned into me. “It’s not too pricey, is it? Because the tickets were a fortune.”
“My treat!” I said, instead of mentioning how frequently she shuttled to see Erica.
She smiled, pivoting between us. “My girls,” she said warmly, some memory playing behind her eyes. “I love it when we’re all together.” She kissed my forehead and then retreated to the bedroom. I watched her slip off her pants and fold them neatly over Gail’s vanity chair before closing the door.
“Do you want to nap too?” I asked Erica.
There was the inventory, followed by a tiny head shake before she looked at me with a hint of a smile, relaxing a bit as my parents drifted off. She pulled out her laptop. “I’m going to work. We’ll see you at eight—if Dad and I haven’t killed each other. If it’s just me and Mom at the table, that’s your cue to take the car from the valet and dump it in the Potomac.”
• • •
Embarrassed that I was the only intern who took my dinner break to break for dinner, I nonetheless enjoyed Rachelle going toe-to-toe with Dad. “I’m sorry, I studied Irish literature in college and it was the most depressing thing I haveeverread.” She touched my dad’s arm. “You do know what Greek gods are capable of, right? Turning people into trees, moving the seasons, spitting souls out of hell?” She explained to the rest of us, “Irish gods are all scrabbling over one potato. It’s like they never got the playbook. No one tapped them on the shoulder and said, ‘You can make more potatoes.’ It is the most pathetically depressing mythology you will ever read. I think in one story someone invents an umbrella and then it has a hole in it.”
Dad laughed until he had to dry his eyes with his napkin. Erica finished her dinner, then mine, then Mom’s.
• • •
“Rachelle’s a spitfire,” Dad said as we approached the steps to the Memorial, Mom and Erica a few paces behind us.
“I’m so glad you guys like her. It’s taken me a few weeks to find someone to hang out with.”
“Everyone’s—?” Dad tipped his nose up with his finger.
“Yup. And it’s not just the money stuff—they’re snobby in a way I never encountered at school. Lena could forget sometimes, like she’d ask why I didn’t replace my phone when I dropped it, or something, but she’s never snobby. Here it’s like someone fired a gun and they’re scrambling to find the connections they’ll need to get where they want to go and they decided on the first day I’m not it.”
Smiling, I gazed up before we started to climb. “I don’t care if you wear Confederate underpants, I dare you not to find something moving about Lincoln lit up at night.”
It passed through my head that I should tell that to Greg if he ever did call me again—
“It’s disgustingly humid.” Erica interrupted my thoughts, tugging her pale blue blouse away from her chest. “Do we have to be climbing steps?”
“I know.” I sighed in commiseration. “I’ve given up trying to get my hair straight.” Of course, Erica’s had only flattened farther to her head. It was lank, sure, but at least it wasn’t conspiring to resemble cotton candy when she wasn’t looking.
“I thought night might be better,” she continued. “It’s not. People say New York’s humid, but it’s notthisbad.” Or she’d already have had legions of coping strategies. “And Peter has good air-conditioning at the loft.” My parents’ ears visibly pricked up at the mention of her boyfriend. All we knew was that they’d met in the program, he came from money, and he worked in real estate development. “This is disgusting.”
“Bug, my feet are starting to blister.” Mom touched my arm apologetically and I saw she was wearing the slingbacks she bought for my cousin’s wedding that had never fit properly.
“Okay, let’s head back,” I conceded before we’d even made it under the columns.
Without protest, they immediately turned and started down. As Dad marched ahead, Mom slipped her arm through Erica’s and mine and I could smell her perfume—a department store scent she’d worn forever. “Maybe tomorrow we can off-load your dad at a movie and go shopping.” I couldn’t ever remember shopping with both of them as adults, having been scarred by the checkout counter screaming matches of Erica’s adolescence. Erica would ask for something we couldn’t afford—Dad would say he hated it to the point where he was insulting her. Mom would get stuck in the middle, wanting to mollify Erica, but still truly unable to afford whatever it was. By the time I became a teenager, Mom was so worn down, I probably could have come out of my room wrapped in a tatami mat and she wouldn’t have noticed.
“Oh, actually, I’ll be in Georgetown,” Erica said, continuing to flap her shirt away from her stomach, revealing bands of hard muscle.
I could feel Mom tense. “You will?”
Up ahead we saw Dad answer his phone.
“Oh, yeah, Stacey—you remember Stacey, from high school?”
She thought for a moment. “Not the girl with the lip ring?”
Erica blew out through her nose. “Oh my God, Ma, that was, like, a hundred years ago. She works for a lobbyist now. I told her I’d meet her for lunch.”
“Okay.” I could feel the Outlook calendar pop up in Mom’s field of vision likeMinority Reportas she shifted the day—and her expectations. “Well, we’ll hit the museums when they open and then meet up with you after lunch.”
“I’m going for a run in the morning.” Mom didn’t even bother to ask if Erica could skip it. “And then I’m going to a meeting. But I’ll catch up with you guys later—” She stopped short as all three of us saw Dad lob his phone into the gutter. Mom immediately ran over, scrambling to her knees to retrieve it.
“Dad, what happened?” I tried again.
He stormed away from us, then whipped back. “Fucking assholes!”
“We got that part,” Erica said flatly. The kind of line that would have gotten her a smack when we were kids.
“It was Cullen.” He turned to Mom as she pushed herself to her feet, cell phone in hand.
“Who’s Cullen?” I asked.
“Fucking asshole, that’s who.”
“Dad!” we said in chorus.
“He runs the citywide athletic program—decides which programs get funding.”
“He’s cutting your funding?” I was stunned. They still hoped to sell the house one day and retire someplace hot and cheap. They’d never make it if Dad lost his job.
“Not yet, but he can if he wants to—what did I do with the keys?” He patted his pockets. “They met tonight. They’ve decided to make a special presentation to Baker at the Thanksgiving game. Get all the boys—getmyboys”—he thumped his chest—“on the field to present that piece of shit with some trophy.”
“Dad, I’m sure you can—”
“One hundred percent participation, that’s what Cullen kept saying,” he continued as Mom pulled the keys out of her purse. “One hundred percent.”
Erica swiped them from Mom’s hand and shut herself in the backseat. The three of us were left looking at each other.
“Well, we’ve got tomorrow night,” Mom comforted herself as she got in next to Erica. “That’ll be fun.”
• • •
When Bushy Eyebrows finally nodded that I could leave the office, it was already sometime after midnight. I quietly let myself in and immediately saw that Gail’s couch was empty. I put my keys down on the side table in front of Lena’s high school graduation portrait in its heavy sterling frame. The straps of her Vera Wang dress were strategically placed to hide the tattoo intended to rile Gail. What I wouldn’t have given to be coming home to her that night.
Getting some ice water, I went out onto the balcony where Ericawas leaning against the metal railing. “I didn’t know you still smoked,” I said as I slid the door shut.
“I don’t,” she answered without even turning around, a strong plume blowing over her head. “It’s better up here—there’s a breeze.”
I stared into the distance, the hovering moon and the languid heat making the city, which usually feels like the world’s largest open-air library, unexpectedly romantic. I wondered what Greg was doing at that exact moment and if it included picturing me sleeping peacefully.
“How’s work?” I asked.
“Oh God, don’t do that.”
“Ask me like you’re Dad.”
“I wasn’t,” I said, not even sure what she meant.
“I’m in line for a good promotion this fall. No one seems to mind that I finished college at night school, Miss Summa Cum Laude, as long as I’m there twice the hours as everybody else.”
“He knows you work hard.”
“Does he? Because I think the expression he uses is ‘failing upward.’ ”
I studied her profile. “Is it fun? I mean, do you enjoy it?”
“I did fun.” She looked out, her slim freckle-free wrists resting on the bars, the wind ruffling her cotton slip, and I marveled at this incongruity that’s always been there between the delicacy of her features and the intensity of her energy. She’s like an orphan in a Japanime cartoon wielding a samurai sword. “Dad has to deal with his shit,” she said forcefully. “If he did the program, went to meetings, he could accept responsibility for his life, for his disease, instead of continuing to blame Baker for all his problems.”
“Well, he’s sober now,” I offered lamely.
“He’s a fluke. No, he’s worse than a fluke, he’s a fucking time bomb, and it’s not fair to Mom.” She stubbed out her cigarette and lit another.
“How’s Peter?” I asked something Dad would never ask.
“He wants to have sex a lot.”
I raised my eyebrows.
She shrugged. “It’s common for guys in AA. They can’t use, so they eat too much—or exercise too much—or both. And sex becomes this calorie-free permissible thing. We’re working through it. I need to feel needed for me.” The last sentence was one of her pronouncements.
“I’m seeing someone.” I blurted out this exaggerated truth realizing I’d been dying to tell her—get her opinion, her advice.
“An intern?” she asked, flicking her butt off the balcony.
“No, actually, he’s, um, on salary. He’s super cute, in this kind of unexpected way. He smells like mulling spices, and he’s really funny—”
“Is it a sex thing?” I loved this side of Erica. The side that would come home smelling like Boone’s, get under my Barbie sheets, and give an unsolicited explanation of finger-banging. “A sleepaway-camp kind of thing?”
“You had sex at sleepaway camp?” I asked.
“I never went.” By the time I was in fourth grade, her tutors and learning specialists and behavioral therapists were already eating through our parents’ income. I spent summers at the Y or riding my bike to the town pool with friends. “I don’t know—I guess so—he knows I’m just passing through and he’s—he’s permanent. Well”—I shrugged—“as permanent as anyone in the administration is.”
“Yeah, it is.”
“Nothing hotter than temporary.”
“Right.” I let that assessment sink in. “Right.”
“You want it to be more?” she asked.
“No, no—that’s not really . . . on the menu.” I chewed my lip, enticed by the smell of her freshly lit match as she fired up another cigarette. “Can I have one?”
“I’m low.” She blew out through her nostrils. “I’ve moved in with Peter.”
“Wow, okay,” I answered, because we’d somehow shifted back to her.
“What?” She tensed.
“It’s not a big deal,” she said in a way that meant it was.
“No, of course it isn’t,” I reassured her. “I mean, itis. But not like that.”
“Don’t tell them—I can’t deal with their shit right now. Jamie, you have to promise. Not until they’ve met him, and I don’t know when I’ll be ready to let that happen.”
“No, no, of course.” Even though I’d never had a relationship with them that entailed getting their shit—they didn’t yell at me. I didn’t snipe at them. Or disappoint. And I never sounded over them—she always sounded so completely over them, as though they were just this problem she had to manage until they died. Then I wondered if that was how she talked about me to her friends—so over me.
She returned her full focus to the view and I knew she was finished with the conversation—whatever she needed, she had gotten.
“Um, I guess I’m going to try to sleep.” I needlessly pointed to the glass door.
She didn’t answer, and as I sealed myself back in the recirculating air I shivered, wondering if she was right, if the hottest thing about me was that I was leaving.
• • •
I spent Saturday morning confirming that all the union leaders being flown in for the fireworks were getting face time with POTUS. And that their wives were being entertained by the First Lady. Who had planned, according to Abigail, to “get through the day” by showing them how to prepare Oreo banana pudding. Rutland had made an off-the-cuff remark on the campaign trail about loving it and it will dog the man till he’s dead.
I found Mom waiting for Dad at the museum café, flipping throughReal Simple, and watched her for a moment before crossing the concourse. She was wearing her best clothes for this trip; I knew that. Her favorite twin set and her good linen pants. At graduation I’d noticed that she looked older than the other mothers. It had been hard for her, commuting back and forth every day, being the only link to stability and health insurance, needing to be sure she didn’t lose her job as Dad moved in and out of various juniorathletic programs, his confidence tattered after Baker fired him from his dream job. She couldn’t leave work for the school plays or doctor appointments, and he didn’t know how to navigate us through that stuff.
One Halloween we almost missed trick-or-treating because the strap broke on Erica’s tutu, then one of my cat ears ripped off and Dad had to sew our costumes back together, cursing the whole time and making us promise, on pain of death, not to tell her. Now it sounds kind of funny. It wasn’t.
“I gave up somewhere between air and space. Any word from Erica?” she asked as I set down my tray at her table.
I needlessly checked my phone, knowing I hadn’t felt it buzz. “Nope.”
She reached over to break the edge off my cookie. “Has she said anything to you about Peter?”
“Oh, nothing.” She swirled the straw through her iced tea. “It’s just that she doesn’t have the greatest track record and she won’t even let us meet him.”
“You can’t really judge her life now based on before.” I took a bite of salad. “She seems fine.”
She nodded down at the plastic cup. “No, you’re right.” Looking up, she reached across the Formica to squeeze my hand. “Thank God for you. If I’d had two girls like your dad. . . .”
“You think she’s like him?” I asked, a little taken aback. “I mean aside from the obvious.”
“Are you kidding? That’s why they rile each other up.” She took more of the cookie. “I’m just grateful you focused on the scholarship, waited until college to date—you’re on the pill, right?”
“Look, I’d rather you were a bad Catholic than a good mother right now.” I smiled as she glanced at her watch. “Your dad’ll be here any second.”
“How’s he doing with this Baker thing?”
She didn’t answer.
“Erica thinks he needs to accept responsibility,” I paraphrased her.
Mom’s eyes flashed. “Does she now? He has been sober for eight years. Enough said.”
“Okay.” I put down my fork, thinking of those nights he wove into the house, the time he fell asleep in the flower bed, not sure how she was calculating that. “I’ll need to get going soon.”
She dropped her hands on the table. “Really? They’re not paying you.”
“No one at my office sees their families. And theyarepaid. I’m sorry,” I said, even as I saw a slide show of school auditoriums full of parent audiences that didn’t contain her. “It’s just that there are no jobs out there right now—”
“You’re smart. You’ll find something—” She stopped herself, spotting Dad making his way across the grand hall. “Don’t talk about the job stuff, okay? I don’t want him to have to worry about you.”
• • •
That night we waited with what felt like all of humanity for clearance to the White House lawn. “Oh my God, am I late? I’m totally late,” Rachelle answered her own question as she squeezed in where we were shuffling toward the metal detectors. “They’ve closed offeverything,but I meaneverything.” As she spoke, she kissed my parents’ cheeks, and even Erica’s, blowing right past Erica’s recoil. “How long have you been standing here?” I admired how at ease she was.
“Not long,” Mom lied.
“We really hoofed it today,” Dad said with crossed arms and a set brow.
“And I never properly rehydrated after my run,” Erica added.
I pulled my ID and ticket out and they followed suit. “This—this—” Rachelle looked through the fence, where we could see the stage draped in bunting, the building majestically lit.
“Is the single greatest place to celebrate July Fourth, unless you own Macy’s,” I finished, and she grinned and squeezed my hand.
“Miss, your face.” A security guard instructed Erica to remove her sunglasses.
She looked up for him, squinting against the sunset. As soon as he cleared her, she put them back on.
“Oh for fuck’s sake, Erica,” Dad scoffed.
“I’m taking care of myself—”
“So, here we are,” I cut in, tipping up onto my toes to try to see what—if anything—was happening on the stage. “Where I work,” I couldn’t help adding, because the tickets I could have traded for a kidney were being treated like something they showed up for as a favor.
“Stop being such a—”
“A what, Dad?” she baited him, all of us shuffling forward on the crowd’s heels.
“Erica, let it go,” I implored.
“Fucking princess.” Just as he said it, he was pushed so hard by someone trying to get through that he teetered off balance.
“Jim.” Mom grabbed his arm before turning to me. “Can he sit down?” she asked.
I pointlessly looked in the free inches to my left and right for a chair.
“I bet there might be something at the comfort station,” Rachelle suggested, pretending she wasn’t standing in the middle of whatever this was with my family. I shot her a look of gratitude as it occurred to me that in the same situation Lena would have just clammed up, adding an extra frosting of awkwardness. “I’ll go check. Be right back!”
“I’m fine,” Dad said as she elbowed away. “My knee is fine.”
“What’s wrong with your knee?” I asked.
“It’s been acting up,” Mom explained.
“Getting help isn’t being a princess,” Erica, stewing, shot back at him. “Knowing your boundaries isn’t being a princess. We can’t all be tough Irish fuckers, or whatever you call yourself.” Mom tried to take her hand. It was Freshman Weekend all over again. Except this time Erica was ruining it in person.
Suddenly the crowd rippled as the Secret Service cut a path for the President, clipping ropes up with the speed of FoxConn employees. We stepped back off the red carpet I didn’t even realize we’d beenstanding on, our toes on the edge as Greg made his way toward us in his khakis, shaking hands, slapping backs, Susan right behind him, her hair twisted up smartly against the heat. I was stunned—I’d had no idea he’d be walking the lawn, and I instinctively shrank a little behind Erica, my face turned to the ground.
“Jamie!” I looked up, taking in his delight. Susan moved on to greet the Majority Leader’s wife. “Are these your parents?” the President asked of the gobsmacked people on either side of me.
“Y-yes. Mom—Betsy McAlister, James McAlister, this is—”
“Gregory Rutland, great to meet you.” He pumped their hands while they stared at him, speechless.
“And this is my sister, Erica,” I added as she whipped off her shades.
“Lights give you a headache?” he asked.
“Yes,” she almost whispered as if she were hearing from a psychic.
“Susan, too. She wears tinted contacts to get through these things.” He turned his attention back on my parents. “Your daughter was a real trouper during the furlough. Couldn’t have pulled through without her.”
My parents didn’t seem to understand his language.
“All the interns,” he added. “They were our cannon fodder. Heroic.”
“You having fun, sir?” someone to my left asked, thrusting out a photograph for Greg to sign.
“Nothing better than celebrating our nation’s independence. On nights like tonight it’s always good to see friendly faces”—he glanced at me as he handed back the autograph—“amid not-so-friendly faces.” He tossed his head in the direction of the Majority Leader, who was making his way up the line with Ronald, but I will always think he privately meant Susan. Everyone laughed. “Well, enjoy the fireworks.”
He moved on.
My parents turned to me.“The President knows your name?”Mom asked when he was out of earshot.
I watched his broad back as he worked the crowd. I could feel the electric jolt of his hand slipping between my legs, and my name feltlike the least of what he knew. “Well, there weren’t very many of us here during the furlough and—you know—politicians are good with names.” With remembering what’s important to people.
“Jamie,” Mom marveled, looking younger from the thrill. Basking in her full attention, I beamed.
“I don’t like him.” I heard the words, but still had to turn to confirm it was Dad’s voice and not one of the “unfriendly faces.”
“What?” I asked.
“I don’t like him. In person. He was . . .” He struggled, his face darkening. “Glib. Politician-y. I—”
“Okay, this is a migraine,” Erica announced, cutting him off. “I’m going back to the apartment.”
“I’m with you,” Dad agreed. He turned to follow her toward the exit. And I realized Mom was right: ultimately theywerethe same, leaving me and Mom to be the other pair, but we were just—not. With an apologetic look over her shoulder, Mom, confused, followed them, quickly swallowed into the crush.
No one suggested one of them stay with me. No one asked if I was coming.
I remember feeling momentarily suspended as the sky bruised black, my inhale trapped, ribs flared, lips parted.
Then I was moving before I realized I was moving. Aggressively elbowing my way in an arc to wriggle into a spot down the line. “Excuse me, pardon me, forgive me.” I made a few inches where there were none, anger abutting me, the velvet pressed against my hips. But I didn’t care. He spotted me, his face shrinking as he saw my watering eyes, and he hugged me.
He hugged me.
Over the next week I had to bully myself to leave the vicinity of Gail’s landline for anywhere other than the office, living to get back inside those seconds in which I sought rescue and for once in my life found it waiting. For Rachelle, I framed my hermit status—not untruthfully—as a budget issue. But there was no arguing when she showed up Sunday morning, sucking her third iced espresso, her Groupon app loaded with Chinatown mani/pedis. Dressed in a vintage Vivienne Tam Mao-in-pigtails minidress, she followed me around the apartment as I reluctantly collected myself, making little “let’sgo-let’sgo-let’sgo” claps.
Matt McGeehan had swung through town. The previous night she’d been stunned to run into him at a cocktail party she’d expected to be tedious. Instead, they talked forhoursbefore he’d had to leave with friends. But he’d suggested they meet for coffee before he went to the airport, and the possibility that he really meant “coffee” necessitated emergency full-body grooming—“So find your other fucking flip-flop and let’s GO already.”
It was one of those thickly wet days where you felt trapped in a water balloon simmering in the sun. Plus, we weren’t the only ones trying to cash in, so the tiny unair-conditioned salon was packed with girls dissecting their big weekend dates—those accomplished and those they still hoped to make happen. It was torturous to sit silent among all that strategizing chatter and not stand in my bucket and beseech, “Help! The President of the United States grabbed me—I know,me!—now what?!”
“I’m going to wear my eyelet sundress with a great bra peekingthrough. Nude lips, bronzer . . .” Rachelle planned her Look, as she would call it. I used to tease her that I was going to pull her building’s alarm one night just to see what she’d wear to the street. But I loved her for her costumes, and more so for what they revealed about her sense of the ever-present opportunities awaiting. Her favorite story was about Jerry Hall, from Nowhere, Texas, who used her pageant money to get to the coast of France. Once there, Jerry put on her bikini, curled her hair, threw on platform heels, and went to the beach proclaiming, “I am getting discovered today!” And she promptly was. Rachelle was perpetually straightening her hair and proclaiming her intention to succeed.
“Butwhereis this sex actually going to happen?” Rachelle, test-running her pending date, had arrived at The Deed. “My roommate’s random-ass acquaintance from Semester at Sea is crashing. Plus this girl’s—and I use the term loosely—boyfriend is lying in the middle of my living room like a downed elephant. She said depression, but he’s so obviously sleeping something off. He has this smell—just stale—like socks on a road trip with the windows rolled up. Maybe if I smoke on the walk back? It would at least fill Matt’s nostrils while we get to my room. I was going to leave a candle burning, but that seemed, like, trying. And dangerous. Oh my God, you are so lucky to live alone. You can doanythingat your place. I can’t even imagine.”
My anything consisted of a singular activity: phone-staring. At the nail parlor, surrounded by estrogen being channeled into finding/getting/keeping The Guy, I panicked that I should be doingso much more.
“The way he hugged me last night was just so . . . it went on that second too long, you know?”
I felt a wave of déjà vu—junior high school, sitting on the dog-haired carpet of someone’s den, the same smell of polish remover making me light-headed as I forced myself to refrain from talking about Mike. “Um-hmm.” I focused on flipping through the week’sPeople, slick from drying oil.
“I can’t just ask Matt to come back to my place. Unless hewantsme to ask him because he’s too afraid to put it out there.” She snappedher fingers. “Maybe I’ll offer him a cigarette, steer him in the direction of my apartment . . .”
And suddenly I was facing the photo I’d been turning away from all week, the White House silhouetted, fireworks illuminating their faces. Greg, one arm around Susan, the other around their sixteen-year-old daughter, Alison. Their seventeen-year-old son, Adam, laughing, the little lines around his eyes just like Greg’s—
“Matt’s ex was a total bitch. She wore this perfume handmade on a farm in Italy—thatgirl.”
I looked around for somewhere, anywhere, to toss the magazine. Instead I flipped it over on my lap and put my bag on top as if to smother the intruding reality. I turned to Rachelle, mouth open to tell her. “I . . .”
Deeply immersed in her possibilities, her brown eyes returned my intense gaze. “Sky.”
“Sky Hoppey. She and Matt were together for junior and senior year. Forever. But every time we talked, there was always such athingthere. Matt looked content with her, I’m not an idiot, but with me he looks . . . intrigued. Don’t you think that means something?” God, I wanted it to.
But then I felt the pages adhere to my sweaty thighs, afraid the image would be transferred onto my skin like a Cracker Jack tattoo. “Don’t you?” Rachelle repeated urgently, lifting her freshly depilitated brows as the balloon popped outside and heavy drops spattered the street.
I honestly didn’t know what I thought—for either of us. “Of course.”
• • •
Half an hour later, I made a sloshy beeline to my bathroom, the remnants of sodden tissue still between my toes. Shivering, I twisted on the hot water and was just peeling off my shorts when I heard the ringing. I flat-out ran.
“It’s raining,” he said as though he’d just looked up.
“I’m aware.” I beamed at the ceiling. “I am, in fact, soaked.”
“Are you, now.”
“I was out in flip-flops.”
He laughed. “I want to be out in flip-flops.”
“Pink ones? Do it. Your public awaits.”
“So . . .”
“Do you want to hang out?”
I jogged in place, my fists jabbing the air as I strained for a casual response. “Sure. Meet you at the Crystal Mall Smoothie Barn in, say, thirty?”
“How about a yogurt beneath the ficus in my office. It’s relatively quiet around here this afternoon.”
“I don’t know . . .” I pretended to hedge.
“I could hum some Muzak.”
I laughed. “You’re dating yourself.”
“Come over, Jamie.”
• • •
As the founding architect had so aspired, it was impossible to imagine I could ever feel unintimidated approaching the Oval. If the jewel-toned brocades behind his secretary’s Chippendale desk were intended to check the demands of those at the height of their power, the effect on my twenty-one-year-old self was such that my legs literally trembled.
Jean looked up from her novel to welcome me. “He just stepped out, but you can go ahead in, dear.”
“Thank you.” I tugged at the blazer I’d thrown on over my sundress in a last-minute insecurity fit. The lamps were on, casting a warm glow against the dark sky. Behind his desk there was a new addition to his sterling framed photos: Alison’s ponytail flipped over her shoulder as she gazed at those fireworks. Looking away, I cauterized my shame while hastily reaching up to tug out the one I’d spent ten minutes brushing into place.
“Jamie,” Greg called as he arrived behind me from the receptionarea, looking relaxed in a loden polo that matched his eyes. “Thanks for coming in.”
“Hi.” I waved.
“This’ll be good.” He rubbed his palms as he passed Jean’s desk. “We can go over those details and you can get them in to Margaret tomorrow morning. Save us all a meeting.” Jean continued reading. It’s true what they say. Greg has the ability to reset your perceptions through sheer force of presence. He’s notoriously rerouted more than one foreign leader between their arrival and departure. And that afternoon he radiated a decorum that made me immediately ashamed of the erotic curiosity that had brought me there.
“Yes, well.” I buttoned my blazer as I walked over to meet him. “I’m glad I could help.”
“Hell of a day out there.” He dropped his broadcasting tone as he crossed the threshold, leaving the door purposefully open.
“Have a seat.” He sat on the blue couch and I cut across the oval, avoiding treading on an eagle wing to sit opposite, unsure of the script we were reading from for Jean.
“So you wanted to go over some scheduling?” I glanced at the doorway.
He stared at me. “You look like summer,” he said, his voice much quieter so that only I could hear. “Cheesy?”
I nodded. But truthfully it was the most romantic thing anyone had ever said to me. To this day it probably still is.
“You just . . .” He shrugged. “Do.”
“Thanks.” I smiled and he blushed. He was blushing. “So how was your thing yesterday with N.A.S.A.? There was a lot of discussion about whether the fans in the tent would be too noisy—were they?”
“Didn’t even notice, so there’s your answer. It was sad, honestly. Strange. I hate that that era is coming to a close under me. No more final frontier.” He sighed. “What did you do last night?”
“I, um.” I stared at the phone. “Went out—with friends.”
“To a bar?” He picked up his glasses from the coffee table between us.
“Yes. Yup. Just a few drinks out.”
“Fun.” He fingered the frames.
“It was no state dinner, but it was good.”
He blew a huff of steamed air on the lenses and cleaned them with the hem of his shirt. “Only someone who has not suffered through a state dinner would say that. I bet you were fending them off with a stick.”
“Well, you know,” I demurred. Contrived demurring. His brow dropped and he folded his glasses back on top of his papers. Was that why he called? To make sure I hadn’t spent the night out? It’s strange looking back to think I was so flattered, taking his signs of possessiveness as some sort of currency. As if it could be cashed in for having a real relationship.
“Sir, your lunch is here,” Jean called.
“Great, thanks.” He hopped up to greet the server and take the tray. “Hope you don’t mind. I’m starving.”
“No, please eat.”
“It may not be the Crystal Mall.” He set it on the coffee table between us, the muscles of his forearms momentarily defining. “But!” He gestured to three tall glasses. “Mango, strawberry, and pineapple—no, not pineapple—peach. Tell me you’re not a blueberry. Or tell me you’re a blueberry and I’ll have one sent up.” He looked hopeful. “Christ, say something.”
I was stunned. “You made me a smoothie.” My hands crossed below my collarbones. “Threesmoothies.”
“I love it. Any of them. Peach, I guess.”
Beaming, he handed it off to me and removed the silver lid to reveal a cheeseburger. “You want to split it?” I shook my head and he disarmingly slid down to the floor at the coffee table to hunker in. “So did your folks have a good time at the party?”
I took the straw from my mouth, unsure if we were going to acknowledge how I sought him out after they bolted. “Thank you for that.”
“I was just giving thanks where thanks were due,” he tossed off, studying me for a moment.
I held his gaze with an appreciative smile before daring, “I mean it.”
“You didn’t answer the question.”
“That’s funny coming from you, Mr. Evasive.” I took a sip, smiling to myself as I realized we had an in-joke. “It was great.”
He grinned, wiping at his mouth.
“What?” I asked.
“I’m starting to be able to interpret your positive summations.”
“Oh? Care to translate?”
“That one was something closer to ‘not so great.’ ”
“They’re just . . .” I shrugged. “My sister’s kind of the main attraction. As she should be,” I hastened to add, out of habit. “She’s overcome a lot. A learning disability—which my dad treated as a discipline issue. By the time she was formally diagnosed she’d kind of come up with her own way to cope, which took so much to kick. You’re probably picturing some mess, but she’s, like, the total opposite.”
“So you two are close.”
“Yes.” I put down the glass, unprepared for his interest.
“Did you tell her?” he asked without pause.
“I told her that I was having a . . .” I didn’t know how to name what was happening between us. “But not that it was you.” I watched for his response, but he continued chewing. I pushed the fact that Lena knew from my mind. It wasn’t as though I’d told her everything. “I know not to just spout off about this.”
He set down the burger. “Let’s be clear, Jamie. I’m not now, nor have I ever, telling you what to do.”
“I know.” Stung by the indirect directive, I leapt to change the subject. “So you’re an only child, right?”
“Wrong. But it’s nice to know you haven’t Googled me.”
“Brother or sister?”
“And did you tell him?” I dropped my voice in imitation.
“That would be difficult.” He balled his napkin. “He’s dead.”
“Oh my God, I’m so—”
“No.” He reached across to me. “I didn’t mean it like that. He died in Nam. One of the last casualties. I was ten. Then it was just me and my mother. But Sam was that same thing for us, the—how did you say it?”
Greg wiped a stray dot of ketchup marring the E Pluribus Unum on the plate’s rim before pushing the tray to the side. “I used to watch Sam shave before he’d go out. He had this antique kit with the brush and everything. He’d wink at me in the mirror. Bright, smart, smooth.”
“And now you’re the President.”
His eyes were focused somewhere in the middle distance. “I was certain I’d get that kit when I left for college, but my mother couldn’t part with it. She was . . .” He screwed his face up and then exhaled. “Out in the woods I had this makeshift zip line, all of four feet off the ground. I’d pull myself up to the jerry-rigged platform he built for me and, you know, zoom.” He shot his palm into the air like a plane. “Sam’d hide things under the base—liquor, condoms. I’d leave him messages sometimes. That’s where I found the note he left me.”
“Rolled up in an old Coke bottle.” He looked down, noticing a small rip in the seam of his worn khakis. “I reread it whenever I visit.”
“What did it say?”
“Jean!” We looked over as she stood from her desk. “What can I do for you?”
“I’m going to go out now for some lunch.” She came to the doorway, tying a rain bonnet under her chin. “Will you need anything?”
“We’ll be fine, thanks.”
We heard the outer office door click closed. We were alone. As alone as the President ever was.
“It’s weird to be higher than you,” I said, referring to my position on the couch. The rain started to pelt the glass.
“I like it. Go ahead. Decide something, anything.”
“Ummm, college tuition shall now be subsidized by the tobacco industry,” I decreed.
“Done.” He threw his fist up.
“That’s all it takes?”
“Yup.” Lightning flashed. “I’ve never told anyone about that shavingkit,” he said, unaware—or perhaps not—of the potency of having earned his secret.
“If Erica died, I think my family would spin off into space or something. She’s the thing we’ve, I don’t know, figured out how to do,” I admitted—sharing it to forge something with Greg. He nodded, and that potent combination of past pain and present recognition, which informs my desire even now, pulsed beneath my ribs. The thick air from outside seemed to be seeping in. “Let’s open a window. Can we?” I stood to break the intensity of his gaze.
I heard him follow me over to the heavy gold drapes bordering the French doors. “My men are just outside, Jamie.”
“Right. Sorry. I know it’s raining, but it looks like there’s a breeze. It would be nice to get some air . . .” I turned and he was inches from me.
“If I were twenty years younger . . .”
“You’d what?” I asked, meeting his eyes.
He cupped the back of his neck with his hand. I dared to lift my finger to his hip, to the rip he’d been worrying into a hole, feeling the warmth of his skin as I darted it inside. He pulled my hand away. “I hoped we could just . . . I’m trying to be good.”
“Okay,” I breathed, his hand hot around my wrist. We stood like this, me looking into his chest, him peering down.Don’t you think that means something?Beyond the glass and the ever-present guards, the wind tossed the branches. Suddenly he bent my arm behind my back, stepping me to the wall between the windows. He dropped to his knees, gripping me to rove under my hem before pulling me onto the floor. His mouth warm, his tongue darted into the side of my panties, the lace edge cutting into my skin. There, beside his desk, the sky flashing, the rain beating, he took me in until I was gripping at his hair and turning my mouth into the rug to muffle my cry.
Then I was limp, the seismic undercurrent rendering my surface still. “Was that okay, baby?” He lifted his head to implore so tenderly, I was reminded instantly and acutely that this man was in a relationship. Only guys who’ve loved touch like that, care like that. He was trained to ask . . . from kindness. It was habit and I was the beneficiary. I reached down to lift him up, to reciprocate, to sear anyone elseout of both our minds, but he rolled onto his back to hold me against him until his body was able to relax. We lay like that, my ear pressed against his heart, his thumb stroking my cheek, until the rain slowed and our breathing quieted. We talked about books that had changed us, camping in backyards, bad teachers we’d had, why the French refuse to put a satisfying ending on a movie. When we finally returned upright sometime later, we hugged each other fiercely. “God, Jamie, it’s never enough time with you,” he said into my hair. Passing Jean as she returned with a dripping umbrella and pleasant smile, I was dizzy from the attention.
• • •
I walked home slowly, flooded by impulses to open a bottle of wine, eat a box of chocolates, dance atop a table to Beyoncé—anything to keep my endorphins skywriting and stave off the doubt I knew would creep in by morning.“OMG HE KISSED ME!!!!”Rachelle’s text came as I stepped into my elevator.
At that moment, I just wanted to be lounging in the unforgiving plastic chairs of the cafeteriaso badly. Sunday morning. French toast sticks. Nothing more pressing than comparing the triumph of last night’s touches and glances.“Me, too!”I texted back, since getting Lena to celebrate with me threatened to be more complicated than I had the space for, and no longer just because of the logistics.
My phone rang a second later. “What?!”
“I hooked up,” I blurted, hastily adding, “with this guy in my office.”
“Oh my God! Who? This just happened now?”
“You don’t know him. He called me in to work, I thought, but he really wanted to see me.” I told myself toshut up. “Want to take a victory lap?”
• • •
“Matt Mc-Gee-han kissed me!” she shouted the way Oprah used to announce her guests as she walked in. We ordered dumplings, shared our successful one-liners, and inhaled the lingering cologne on our skin. While Rachelle’s hook-up consisted of what could reasonably take place under a restaurant awning before Matt got in a cab, it wasstillseriously gratifying. Given that there were over three hundred men it could have been, I was careful not to specify the office where mine had occurred, referring to Greg only as “he,” and Rachelle, delighted just to have a partner to burst through the finish line with, didn’t press it just yet. So, having given in fully to one temptation for the day, I managed to partially stave off the other.
• • •
Slightly hung over but still skywriting, the next morning I eagerly stepped in when Margaret asked for me. “Do you have a delivery?” She didn’t, but informed me that one of her staff was sick, so Dana was taking over his work and I was going to assist her.
A harried Dana handed me a binder without even looking up. “Get the proposal hammered out and then get a copy to Security for vetting. And then get a meeting scheduled with FLOTUS—”
“A meeting with the First Lady and the kids—”
“To make final itinerary tweaks.” My feet struck the ground—below ground. Feet lapped by hell flames. “Don’t tell me you’re going to be all star-struck and tongue-tied. I asked for you because you seemed the least maintenance.”
“You asked for me?”
She dropped her head. This conversation was taking so much longer than she’d anticipated.
“Yes, no maintenance.” I saluted, and returned to my desk with the binder, which contained the plans for a weeklong trip for Adam to check out colleges before they were back in session. Meetings with professors, private campus tours. Most important, trying to simultaneously stay off TMZ and under the radar of “elitism” accusations. (From Partridge. Who went to Yale.) I stared at one of the notes scrawled in the margin of a spreadsheet.“POTUS to join?”
• • •
For two weeks I plotted every mile of the pending tour, while trying to resist absorbing any information that colored the President’s familyinto the people they were from the silhouettes I needed them to be. Alison was a vegetarian. Adam wanted to meet with the biology and chemistry professors. Susan traveled with her own pillow. That was the one I couldn’t deflect. Did she have only the one? Did Greg lie in bed and stare at the empty space? Did he miss her?
So those were my days.
My nights were spent sitting in the tub for too long, the phone stretched to the bath mat—even though it was always much later when it rang, two, three in the morning. He called—the records show he called—at least every other night, keeping me on the phone for hours sometimes. To tell me jokes, ask about my life and my day, and yes, believe it or not, seek my advice.
I want to make that point about the calls, because I know that’s not what people remember.
• • •
When the scheduled day arrived and everyone but those the trip was for had vetted the itinerary, I contemplated feigning food poisoning. But I couldn’t allow myself to wuss out, couldn’t live with the idea that I couldn’t even face her—them. Which made zero sense compared with what I apparently could live with, but that’s what it was.
I’d been informed POTUS would join “if able,” but I didn’t imagine he’d see my name on the agenda and come. But then, I had no idea what mental box he’d put me—or them—into. I wanted him to join us so I could finally know. And I deeply didn’t.
Utterly unaware of all this, Dana had taken the time to blow-dry her hair and appeared to have gone all out with the tinted ChapStick. She repeatedly cleared her throat on the way up to the First Lady’s office, then, as we were about to walk in, lost color when she realized she’d forgotten her binder. “Make small talk,” she instructed as she flapped off in her Bally slingbacks.
I was ushered through the waiting area into a butter-yellow room, the same color as the swimsuit Susan wore in that photo, and I wondered if it was her favorite. The linen shades were drawn against the morning light, preventing the subdued floral on the settee from fading.
“Hi, I’m Alison.” The President’s daughter put down her phone to come over and shake my hand, the mature gesture incongruous with her shorts and tank top. She wore a dirty string anklet—the kind we made for each other in middle school—that many swims and showers ago was pink and purple. I wondered if there was another girl out there wearing its match. If its dogged permanence had been a point of contention for the campaign stylist; if her parents cared.
I found my voice. “Hi, I’m Jamie. Dana will be here in a minute.”
“I think it’s just going to be us, anyway.”
“I mean, my mom’s secretary and Adam and mine’s. Adam’s working and my mom’s got another thing.”
“But isn’t this trip for Adam?” I asked.
Her eyebrows lifted as she shrugged, to telegraph that she was accustomed to the absurdity. “Ten meetings per half-step taken, right?” she quoted her father.
Small talk, small talk. “Adam has a job?” I asked what I already knew.
“Yeah, some research study at American U. A premed thing.” She stayed standing, and I’m uncertain which of us sat first.
“I’m so sorry to keep you waiting, Alison.” Dana sailed back in, perspiration beading her nose while Abigail and another woman trailed her. “We’re eager to get your feedback. We want to be sure you have anawesometime!”
Alison’s eyes flickered to mine. “Yes, me too, thanks,” she offered, waiting for them to continue. I was mostly aware of her poise, her manners. Of how many rooms she’d sat in listening to places she would go and things she would do that were not remotely of her own choosing. As they briefed, she occasionally eyed her phone buzzing with texts she didn’t read. “What about Vassar?” she interjected, sending me into a small coughing fit.
“Oh, we didn’t know he wanted to—did Adam want to visit Vassar?” Dana asked, scrambling through her notes as if Diane Keaton were playing her.
“My dad’s suddenly all into it. For me. He says he thinks if I wentthere, I’d turn out well.” She shrugged as a hot flush blasted up my neck. “I mean, I just thought if there’s time—”
“Oh, no, of course, we can make that happen!”
“There isn’t.” Abigail cut Dana off. “We have to bang this out before the convention. Next year.”
Alison’s eyes glazed. “Wow, if Dad gets reelectedandAdam goes off to college—Adam’s what makes this bearable.” An embarrassed smile immediately broke and she hastily stood. We followed to our feet and she shook our hands again. This very real, lovely girl with her father’s eyes and mother’s mouth. “I mean, it’s all awesome,” she said, blushing from her admission. “Whatever. Thank you.”
And it was laid excruciatingly bare. My recent fantasies of First Ladydom, my debates over American designers versus foreign, were laughable, embarrassing. Wrong.
• • •
The next morning was a Saturday and I, marinating in self-loathing, with my twenty-second birthday just hours away, called Rachelle, herself marinating because Matt had posted pictures on Facebook with a girl hanging on him at what we couldn’t decide was a bar or a house party, which was akin to trying to decipher the caliber of bullet speeding toward you.
“And Geoffrey was extra wet sand in my bikini this week. We need out of Dodge,” she said. “Meet me in Chinatown.”
• • •
We arrived in Manhattan on the Fung Wah bus by lunch, without a destination or host. We had Facebooked our arrival, expecting immediate invitations, but instead walked for hours, wending north up Broadway. Rachelle shopped, I consulted. Dusk fell. I’d have thought Lena would have at least suggested a restaurant, but all she posted was, “Too hot for NY—yuck! Love from the beach!” I know she meant it to be funny, but it rankled.
“I could call Mathew,” Rachelle offered—any opportunity to reengage.
“To ask if we can crash on his couch? I’m not letting you do that.I’ve been there.” I thought of all the times after Mike left that I reached out, the pretenses, the questions only he (and Wikipedia) could have answered, each one met with a silence that etched my humiliation deeper. “It does not lead to the sex.”
She narrowed her eyes. “If I just fucking lived here, we’d have sealed the deal this week and I’d be his girlfriend right now.”
“I’m so sorry. We can solve this,” I insisted. “We’re two adult women! With cell phones! Your other friend hasn’t called back yet?”
“She’s in the Hamptons—wait, we’ll surprise your sister!”
“Mysister,” I repeated skeptically.
“She’ll love it.”
“Inside she’ll be doing a Snoopy dance. Don’t overthink it.”
If she was remotely close to dancing, Erica didn’t let on. Three women she was entertaining snacked around a white marble kitchen island while something with rosemary was cooking. “This is Sara, Megan, and Blair. Guys, this is Jamie and . . .”
“Rachelle,” she reminded her, stepping in around me. “So great to see you again! This place is in-sane. Do you rent or own?”
“Sorry to interrupt,” I said quickly as I joined Rachelle, who was taking in Peter’s Chelsea condo, the high-end everything, the floor-to-ceiling windows looking down Sixth Avenue. “We were just meeting some people and I thought we’d say hi before heading home.”
“But, oh my God,” Rachelle talked over me, “if we didn’t have to take the late-night Chinatown bus back that would beamazing. The drivers are so sketch.”
“Well then you should stay,” Erica said on an inhale, ribs visibly splaying.
“Carrot?” Megan offered. “Your sister forgot there are only four of us.”
“I’ll eat it all,” Blair said through a full mouth. “I was at the office all day, which kicked off with one optimistic wheatgrass shot and bottomed out with one four p.m. hot dog.”
“Whose Goldman bag is that?” Rachelle flung a finger at the tote by the door as if it were the face of Jesus in a bowl of Jell-O.
“Guilty.” Blair raised her hand.
“That’s so random.” Rachelle turned to her, full wattage. “Do you know Mathew McGeehan, in the associate program? Just started in June—”
“Blair isn’t working with associates at this point,” Erica said, putting a period on the inquiry.
“Of course.” Rachelle grabbed a Parmesan twist and cracked it in half. “He’s just a friend of mine. From boarding school. Had to ask. God, I can’twaitto get to my ‘at this point.’ My boss is a round hairbrush in my asshole.”
I pivoted to Erica. “It smells delicious—what did you cook?”
“Fresh Direct,” she corrected me.
“I’m shocked that guys are always asking me on dates if I can cook,” Blair said. “Apparently my distaste for it reveals a deep character flaw about me—worse than being an addict.”
“They really want a mommy,” Sara answered.
“Well,Icook,” Megan said proudly.
“I swallow.” Erica refilled her Perrier. “Ovens are for shoes. Ten-minute countdown. Plate up.” She handed me one, our eyes meeting for a second. “Mad Menseason finale,” she explained.
“It gave mechills.” Rachelle was emphatic.
“Don’t say anything!” Megan plopped down on the cowhide rug.
“I’ve been chained to my desk, so no spoilers here,” I reassured them. I had no context for the world of AA, had to get subway directions to her apartment from a stranger, but I knew how to watch TV in a group.
“Best show about alcoholics ever made,” Erica said, making a spot for me next to her on the low couch.
Blair spun around from the floor. “Oh my God, how fucking sick is it they’re opening a Magnolia on the same block as our meetings? There’s going to be, like, a worn groove in the sidewalk.”
“We should just meet there,” Erica agreed. “Occupational therapy. Talk while we frost. So much better than church.”
“You go to church?” I couldn’t help asking.
“The basement,” she clarified, eliciting a laugh from her friends.
I considered this for a second. “Churches give me the willies.”
Suddenly she leaned over and kissed my forehead just like Mom. It was so unexpected I didn’t dare breathe.
So I thought Erica was happy we came, in her Erica way. And while Rachelle was already planning her Tumblr feed of the adventure, I quietly studied a sister I’d overheard on the phone and seen piling into cars, but never been invited to join.
• • •
A few hours later, having seen everyone off, Erica shuffled back to the kitchen where we were attempting to tidy up. “Blair’s a trader?” I asked. “Have you known each other a long time? I always wondered if the meetings put the friendship track on warp speed.”
“Yes.” She piled her hair into a makeshift bun as she took in the mess, dropping her head to the side. “What are you looking for?”
“Saran wrap. You want to save this stuff, right?” I continued searching drawers.
Erica reached into the back of a cabinet, placing the yellow box on the counter. “You don’t need to clean up.”
“Oh, we don’t mind. It’s only eleven, we were thinking we could—”
“I have a race tomorrow,” she informed us. “Check-in is at seven a.m.”
“So you guys are welcome to stay, but you need to sleep now. Leave the door unchained for Peter.”
“Can I take a quick shower?” Rachelle asked.
Erica pointed her to the guest bath. “The fresh towels are rolled under the sink.”
We cleaned in silence, the only sound the running water until Erica’s cell rang. I was surprised to see my mother’s number at this hour. Since she wasn’t moving toward it, I answered. Erica crossed her arms, her jaw jutting abruptly to the side. I looked away. “Everything okay?”
“Jamie? Oh, I’m sorry, I meant to call Erica.”
“I came up to see her.”
“You did?” Her voice brightened. “Oh, that’s great. Her roommate isn’t there, is she? She’s a pill.”
“Maureen’s away this weekend.” Erica watched me lie for her, expressionless. “That’s why she invited me up.”
“Well, I’m happy to hear it. That makes me feel better, actually.”
“Is everything okay?” I asked again.
“Yes,” Mom said too forcefully. “You guys have fun, just—have her call me, okay?”
“Sure.” I hung up and felt the vague downward pull of insecurity. “She wants you to call her.”
“Why’s Mom calling you at eleven at night?”
“To talk,” Erica said with annoyance, picking up the sponge and rubbing at the counter.
“How often is she calling you to talk?”
“More often than I have time for.”
“I don’t know, Jamie. Dad, life, work. What difference does it make?” She threw the sponge in the sink.
“Are you mad that I came?”
“No! It’s fine, just . . . for starters your friend is—she takes up a lot of space. And it’s weird! It’sweirdthat you just showed up. A call would have been—whatever, it doesn’t matter.”
“Well, I had to get out of D.C.,” I said defensively, not bothering to remind her about my birthday. “Rachelle is fun, Erica, she’s not—”
She slapped her palm on the counter. “What do you want, Jamie?”
“The guy I’m seeing. He has a girlfriend.”
Her expression shifted, her surprise satisfying.
“And it’s all—it’s—I feel pretty gross about the whole thing.” I was prodding for the kind of pronouncement that was her forte and, on some level, aching for the judgment marbleized through it. “I mean, do you think it is?”
“Gross?” she said in a way that made me embarrassed for the word choice.
“Actually, he’s married.” She pivoted and walked away down the hall. “Please tell me what to do.” She returned with a set of bedding and snapped out a flat sheet, her expression impassive. “Please?”
“Fuck, Jamie, no.” She said it as if I’d tried to throw her a scorpion.
“Erica, I’m asking—I need help with this. It’s really big. I don’t know if I can handle—”
“No. Jamie, you can’t just push your way in here and—no.” She lifted her hands. “I can’t. I’m already dealing with Mom, and no. No.”
“You can’t,” I asked her, my voice thickening, “or won’t?”
“You don’t get to put this on me—”
We heard a sneeze and turned to see Rachelle dripping in her towel. She smiled as if this were all totally normal. “Did you say you had a hair dryer?”
• • •
Rachelle saved me. She got me out of there and into a speakeasy beneath a barber shop, or maybe it was a store with a barber’s pole in the window—either way, I remember it was on the Lower East Side. She deposited me on a banquette, worked the room to procure drinks, and then, once I had something muddled in each hand, ran out for snacks.
“The next time you say your sister won’t like something, let’s go with that.” She plopped back down to unwrap a cellophaned bagel and place it ceremoniously before me.
“What’s this?” I asked, whiskey and sugar defrosting the block of hurt in my stomach.
“In about . . .” She checked her phone, the glow momentarily illuminating her smoky eyes. “Two minutes, it’ll be your birthday.” She tore open a box of Shabbat candles and stuck one in the hole, lighting it with her Bic. I made my wish as instructed, exactly what you’d expect. The music got louder and we sipped yet another cocktail as she lolled her head to me on the worn velvet. “So . . . married?”
“Kids?” she asked.
“Yeah.” I peered at her in the lantern shadows that shifted with the crowd. “I know, I feel like shit about it.”
“So that’s why the office hook-up. Does he come over? Is he going to leave her?”
“No. I don’t know. No.”
“Aw.” She squeezed my knee affectionately. “My very own other woman.”
“Uck.” I took another long draw. “There are two versions in my head: one where I’m meeting my soul mate under less-than-optimal circumstances that we will somehow rise above. And one where I’m evil.” I hoped that hearing it out loud would make it feel less corrosive, but it was the opposite. I hated myself.
“The whole soul mate thing issupposedto be messy. There’re a thousand stories where someone leaves the wrong person—Sky Hoppey—to meet the right one. Oh God, it’s not the guy with the ‘Don’t Frack with Me’ cuff links and the wedding picture on his desk where his wife is wearing a cape? At least tell me it’s not him.”
“Definitely not him.” Which kicked off an inquisition that I was determined, despite my prior lapses, would lead nowhere, except eventually (though the memory’s fuzzy), to dancing with a group of Polish—Scottish—tourists—construction workers? I quickly realized that my seeing a “married guy at work” was infinitely sexier in Rachelle’s world than the mundane detail of the guy’s actual identity. Given the less-than-virile workforce of my office, a name would have taken my story from fabulous to pedestrian and perhaps even tawdry, so she happily left him a mystery and called him my Mister Man.
Later, as we fought passing out on the dawn bus back to D.C., our arms looped precautionarily through our bag handles, Rachelle smiled at me with closing eyes. “You’re amazing.”
“I am?” I asked, the black thickness taking hold. “You mean disgusting?”
“I mean . . .” I heard her murmur with the brightening skyline looming above. “I have to get to New York. My life has to start here already. It just . . . does.” Her hand still holding mine, her grated breathing mixed with the traffic funneling us into the tunnel.
• • •
Squinting against the whiskey clamor in my skull and the maw of guilt in my stomach, I managed to find my way back to Gail’s and a ringing phone. Greg greeted me by very quietly singing in my new year. “I had to call,” he said softly.
Gripping the receiver to my shoulder, I clutched Gail’s keys. “I leave in nine days,” I leveled at him.
“You can’t go.” His anguish took me by surprise.
“I have to.”
“I don’t want you to.”
“Fuck, Jamie, I’m risking the world to sing you ‘Happy Birthday.’ ”
The thoughts I’d been locked in with came bursting from their dehydrated compartments. “But I can’t—how can I—keepdoing this? I’m not allowed to want it to go where it can’t. And I can’t make sense of—I need you to make sense of—more sense—”
“You can handle this, right? Jamie?” He shut me down.
Looking back, I realize that he was revealing what he believed: we didn’t deserve to ask for a solution to our situation, only for the capacity to withstand it. “Of course.”
“In three years, I won’t be running for anything ever again and no one can tell me what to do. I love you, Jamie.”
“Only when I’m with you does any of this feel like I thought it would. I’ve made so many mistakes. Mistakes that should have been undone a long time ago.” Did he mean Susan? “But then I chose a public life and those doors closed to me. I know I have a lot—everything—I know that.” There was a pause. I sensed him struggling for the words. “But somehow along the way, happiness became something I had to . . . trade in—until you.” We stayed on the line in silence. “Let me make a wish for us on your candle, too?” he asked tenderly.
• • •
In an unprecedented turn of events, the essence of that birthday wish—however conflicted—was granted. I was so unaccustomed to getting what I asked for that Margaret had to repeat herself. “A full-time junior position.”
“You did a solid job prepping the college trip. Dana says you were like a robot. So you accept?”
I swiped my pass and jumped over Brooke’s foot, which I swore was extended to trip me. Texting Rachelle and then Lena, I took the stairs two at a time.
“Jean, I got a job!”
“Junior staffer. I’m so excited! Is he in?”
“The President is in meetings all morning,” she said stiffly. I looked over my shoulder to find Amar Singh sitting by the door in his bow tie. He looked at me strangely.Fuck.
“Right. Margaret sent me up to ask—because she needed to schedule some time to review—to update the President—on the college trip. And of course I wanted to tell you the good news, so I offered to come up instead of calling because you’ve been so encouraging to me. So—thank you.”
“Well, you’re very welcome, dear. I’ll call down to schedule that review once we get an opening.”
“Which I’ll tell Margaret. Okay, then. Thank you!” I punched the air goofily, nodded at Singh, and left with a dry mouth.
• • •
The news of my promotion rapidly circulated throughout the department. But no congratulations were forthcoming. While she admitted it wasn’t fair, Lena still felt rejected. I kept reminding her thattechnicallyL.A. had rejectedme,until I felt like I shouldn’t have had to keep saying that and she should have just been happy for me. Coupled with the poisonous nausea as I waited for Greg’s admonishment for rushing to his office unbidden, it was not at all how I’d imagined finally getting a job would feel.
Then, on nearly the last day of my internship, my desk phone rang.
“Department of Scheduling and Advance, Jamie speaking.”
“Meet me in the south hall on the way out to the chopper,” he instructed. “About ten after four.” And he hung up, leaving me suspended in adrenaline.
I used my lunch hour to case Wm. Fox & Co., looking at pocket squares and cuff links I couldn’t possibly afford. In addition to my note of apology, I hunted for something that might delight him enough to overlook my misstep. I passed my hand over the tie tables like I was spreading a freshly shuffled deck. And then I found it—royal blue with a quiet white pattern suggestive of the tiniest lightning bolts. And at 4:07, palms sweating, I walked the administrative carpet with it tucked discreetly into a manila envelope.
His security rounded the corner. And then it was him, in his black pinstripe suit. We both continued looking straight ahead as people chattered in their offices abutting the corridor. Phones rang and were answered.
“Oh, great.” He slowed, and his detail stopped. “Could you, uh, bring this to Margaret?” He tugged an Oval Office envelope from his bag.
“Yes, sir. She just asked for me to bring this up to you, actually, but I’m happy to bring it to Jean—”
“That’s fine.” He grabbed my envelope in return as he walked on. I held mine casually until I crossed the threshold of the ladies’ room, where I locked myself in a stall. I broke the seal and breathlessly tugged out a small orange box that looked like the ones Gail kept stacked in her closet. Hermès. I slipped off the ribbon to discover the most beautiful silver—ring? It was too big to be a ring. A thumb ring? I opened the diminutive brochure. A scarf ring. Fingering the equestrian links, I opened the card.“To your future. Congratulations, G.”
And there was a book. J. D. Salinger. Leather bound, inscribed with,“Many Happy Returns.”I flipped to the page where he’d stuck a Post-it:. . . walking toward her quickly but with a slow face, reasoned to himself, with suppressed excitement, that he was the only one onthe platform who really knew Franny’s coat. He remembered that once, in a borrowed car, after kissing Franny for a half hour or so, he had kissed her coat lapel, as though it were a perfectly desirable, organic extension of the person herself.
Wow. WowwowWOW.A future. Of happy returns. I hugged the presents as if I were pulling him against me and floated out of the stall—into Brooke. She looked at the orange box at my chest and the Oval Office envelope, her eyes narrowing. I washed my hands, staring her down in the mirror. I grabbed a towel, collected my treasure from the counter, and walked out. Her last day could not come fast enough.
And neither could my first.
I don’t remember how I got across town to the address where I’d been directed, numbly clutching that stupid cardboard box with the few possessions I’d accumulated at the White House rattling around. I kept thinking I should fucking stop at a deli and grab a plastic bag and dump this clichéd thing that made me look so—rejected. Instead I carried it in a fugue state until I found myself following a guy I’d been assigned to down several flights toward some sub-basement’s subbasement, my body, stomach, and will to live all sinking in tandem.
“The stairwell’s a little Gringotts,” he said, briefly touching his tented fingers to the raw concrete walls, and it took me a second to realize he meant Harry Potter’s underground bank. “But the bullpens are bright.” I trailed his narrow back down yet another flight. “And I’ve found a small vitamin D supplement keeps the suicidal tendencies at bay.”
Still reeling, I couldn’t compute what he was saying. I also wondered how he got away with just a V-neck over his oxford. Maybe this place was more casual than one would think?
“Here we are.” He held up the ID dangling from his red lanyard to the security panel and the door clicked. “See? Bright.” He had a bemused sardonic energy, implying he didn’t want to be there, didn’t want to have to say what he was about to say, and wished he could just narrate his life with thought bubbles.
“Yes. Yes, it is.” The fluorescents banked off the unbroken field of polished white linoleum, making it feel as though I’d be processing the recently deceased in an Albert Brooks film.
“You have Tabby’s old desk.” He led me across other people’s paths, everyone moving in focused silence as if weaving a tartan in a Vassar dance recital. “And voilà,” he said flatly, gesturing toward a battered metal desk surrounded by a field of the same. “Hot tip: make sure you clean your phone. After Nicaragua, Tabby didn’t like anyone meddling with her things, including janitors. Alrighty.” He bit the inside of his mouth as I set the box down. “I’m over there once you get yourself settled, and welcome to the Department of Homeland Security.”
There’d been a mistake. There had to have been a mistake.
“Just remind me to help you get your cafeteria pass.”
“Um, you know—sorry,” I prompted him.
“Paul,” he reintroduced himself. With his unlined face, blue eyes, thick black hair, and a cleft in his chin like a cartoon hero, I guessed he was only in his early thirties.
“Yes, Paul, I don’t think I’m going to be here that long.”
“Planning to get fired?” he asked dryly.
“No.” I blushed. “Help with the pass would be great, actually—yes, thank you.”
“I’ll come get you at one.”
Not if I’ve chained myself to the White House fence first.“Perfect.”
“And I’ll give you your assignment as soon as your security clearance finishes processing.” He started to leave, but then pivoted back. “They usually have that done in advance—when you interview.”
“Right. I was—um—sent here.”
He graciously nodded, but it seemed to make as little sense to him as it did to me. “Okay, then.” He returned to his desk and I looked down at the coffee-stained blotter Tabby left behind—still torn down to December 2008. I couldn’t let myself sit, because then I’d be there. Really there. I picked up the phone, wiped the receiver across my thigh, and dialed.
“Office of the President, Jean speaking.”
“Jean, hi,” I said quietly, “it’s Jamie McAlister.”
“Does Margaret need something?”
“Um, no—actually—that’s why I’m calling. I was supposed to start officially working for her today, but when I arrived this morning Iwas told I’d been reassigned to anunpaidinternship at the DOHS.” I felt the clammy rumbling of a panic attack threatening. My loans would come due at Christmas. A thousand dollars a month.
“I’ll put you straight through to personnel.”
“Right, of course.” Not the President of the United States. “Thank you—um, Jean?” I halted her.
“Can you tell him I called?”
“Of course, dear,” she said warmly. I hung up as soon as I heard the musical hold. Dropping into the chair, my eyes on the phone, I irrationally expected it to ring immediately.I’ve fucked it up, I thought. Were those goodbye gifts? Was that his way of telling me this was over?Please, I bargained,just let him forgive me for rushing to his office, and I vowed I’d never be impulsive again. After a few long minutes, I picked it back up and dialed the one person I could consult without having to redact this story.
“I just realized I put my underwear on backwards,” Lena greeted me.
“How did you know it was me?”
“It’s so good to hear your voice.”
“Sorry, I’ve been so busy here. Miserably busy. But I just found out I’m bonus eligible this year, so that’s cool. I feel like my boss can totally tell about my underwear and it’s—”
“I’ve been banished.” I tucked my head and put my hand over my mouth.
“Lena, he punted me to the Department of Homeland Security. To anotherinternship—”
“I know, right?”
“No, I mean, that’s the government government.”
“Like, not the white building with the fancy china and not Congress, passing bills on dog food—these are the people who can drop you down a well. Jamie, stop. Seriously, get out, go home,” she said bluntly.
“Have you had your coffee yet this morning?” I tried cajoling her.
“My opinion can’t be turned on a latte. There’s no solution here. I’m sorry, there just isn’t.”
“Lena, I’m getting a cafeteria pass, it’s not Guantánamo. I just need to talk this through. We used to talk about thingsbecausethere was no solution—that was the core criterion. Hour ten dissecting Malik was not going to make him love you.”
There was a silence.
“Lena? You still there?” I was about to call back when she finally responded.
“I’m uncomfortable, Jamie. Like, in the pit of my stomach. I asked my mom—”
“As a hypothetical friend of a friend—”
“What other friend of a friend lives in D.C. and works—fuck—workedat the White House?”
“Exactly. I can’t talk to you about this anymore.”
“Are you kidding? You were mad at me because I didn’t share enough. I finally—look, there’s no ‘this’—I just—I don’t know what to do.”
“I told you what to do. You don’t want to hear it. Jamie, get on a plane or get on my mother’s couch—what does it matter which coast it’s on—and learn how to bartend.”
“While you earn real money and start your career?” I was stunned. “You sure you don’t just need a maid?” Her arrogance, my jealousy, the years she’d spent spotting me cash so we could do things at her level, all bubbled over.
“Jamie, that’s not—I gotta jump,” she added hastily, hanging up.
Heart audibly pounding, jaw set, my brain spun around one word like a weather vane: Ican’ttalk to my best friend about the one thing I really need to talk about. Ican’ttalk to Greg and find out what the fuck just happened here. Ican’tquit the only opportunity I have right now. And Ican’tbe the sad broke girl on her rich friend’s couch.
When Paul came to collect me for lunch, I’d tracked down a bottle of Fantastik from the closet. That phone sparkled.
As we sat across from each other, the rushed movement of those around us getting food, getting it down, and getting out of there as fast as possible created an audible rustle like wind through a cornfield. He picked at his roast beef sandwich. “So you have no personnel file.”
I startled, pulled out of my imaginary pleadings. “Well,technically, I’m not personnel yet.”
“But we don’t really do interns. We’ve had, like, three since I’ve been here and they were all kids of senators and generals. On their way to West Point—mayonnaise.” He snapped his fingers, twisting around like some packets might be sneaking up on him. “That’s what I always forget. So, are you somebody’s kid?”
“Um, my dad runs an intramural program on the South Side of Chicago, so no.”
He took that in. “It’s just that everyone elsewantsto be here,” he said, opening a lemon yogurt, and I couldn’t tell if he was including himself.
“Of course,” I agreed, unprepared for the job interview this was turning into.
“No, I mean, theywantto be here. Since 9/11. It’s like patrolling the Arizona border to them—even if they’re just braiding paper clips. I’m only telling you this because you got popped over here from the White House, which means you did an exemplary job. But you showed up this morning looking like you were trying to find the nearest Red Cross gymnasium.”
I was mortified. “I—I am very excited to be here. It’s an honor. I just had a rough morning—family stuff.”
He nodded. “No, my first day was rough, too. But we promote internally, so if you prove yourself like you did there, you could land a position.”
“Thank you for sharing that. I appreciate it.”
He peered into his yogurt. “I came from the White House.”
“You did?” I asked through a full mouth.
“Originally I started in Rutland’s office back in Harrisburg.”
“What was he like?” It came out before I could stop myself.
He considered for a second while I tried to temper the signs of my curiosity. “Even then, him being the President just felt inevitable. Likewe all heard ‘Hail to the Chief’ when he walked in the room. Anyway, from there to the campaign—and . . .”
“They placed you here—why?” Everyone knew Rutland had taken only a handful of people from Pennsylvania.
“Eventually. It was a huge promotion,” he said in a way that connoted the exact opposite. “Keep your friends close,” he added airily. His cell vibrated and he glanced at it, blowing out “fffff” like he was about to say fuck.
I asked if he was okay and he abruptly stood, still staring at the phone.
“My ex wants to stop by tonight to get his steak knives,” he said as if he had just bitten into something acidic. “Only they’remysteak knives and I will happily furnish him with my credit card statement from our ski trip to prove it.”
“That sucks,” I said.
“Thank you for lunch,” I said as he raised his tray. “And I’m really sorry.”
“Well, just try to look like you want to be here and you’ll do fine.”
• • •
That night, with razor wire in my chest and nothing else to go on, I priced out flights to L.A. I was determined to be a grown-up and look at this pragmatically, stay focused on what had happened to my fledgling career. Even if the DOHS position transitioned into a paying job, I could spend years waiting on promotions to gradually move up out of the earth like a seed in Siberia. Advancement at the White House had felt like it could lead somewhere, open doors to unforeseen possibilities. That DOHS basement felt like it would lead to scurvy.
“I don’t get it,” Rachelle said on the phone from a VP campaign stop in Des Moines, where Geoffrey had forced her to lug the equipment through the muddy state fair. “How does your guy have the power to pull off something this big?”
“He doesn’t,” I rushed, stubbing out my third cigarette. “Not power—exactly. Just . . . influence.”
“Ooh, influence, Ilikeit. Jamie, reframe: how many girls can say they’ve been banished? He wants you so much he can’t even handle having you in the same building.”
Despite doing her best to find me a silver lining, I was desperate to regain some control, and pressing “purchase” on Expedia seemed the only way to achieve it. I told Rachelle we could talk more when she came back, but for sanity’s sake I had to reserve a flight in two weeks to L.A. It was enough time to give my notice, nut up to grovel to Lena, and pack. I drank till I could pass out. But the ringing phone soon invaded my dream.
“I woke you,” he said, sounding unapologetic.
I bolted up, the slap hitting me afresh.
“Jamie?” he asked uncertainly.
“I use some of my free time to sleep, yes.” I sounded cold, which only made me sadder.
“You called Jean.”
“To tell you I’m leaving.” It felt so good to say, I queasily realized that I may have booked the flight for only that reason.
“But I got you the post.”
“Um, actually, Greg,” I corrected him, anger flaring, “Igot myself a job at the White House by rocking my internship and not being all Children of the Corn.Youbanished me.”
“I’mkeepingyou.” He was shocked.
“Keeping me? Like a pet?” I was completely put off.
He took one of his characteristic pauses. “Singh made some strong suggestions after he saw you outside my office. That internship was our compromise.”
“And I’m sick about that, but why didn’t you tell me—”
“I’m in the middle of a campaign.”
“I just don’t understand how you need to follow anyone’s anything.”
“Jamie, I surround myself with smart people and I listen to them. That’s how this works.” He blew out hard and I pictured him looking at his desk, running his beautifully freckled hand through his thick hair. Would I get a chance to tell him that now—that I thought he had beautiful hands? It wasn’t something you shared after being banished.
“I need to go—”
“Jamie.” He snatched me back, the receiver already halfway to the cradle. “It’s just until after the election.”
Relief shot through me, contained by my skepticism, like a charge through a wire. I lifted the phone back to my ear. “Really?”
“Yes, of course! Why else would I have to listen to Singh?”
“Why didn’t you tell me that? Call me before I had to carry a box across town like an idiot.”
“Um, you know, Ms. McAlister, I’ve been busy,” he imitated me as a blush drowned my own freckles.
“Uh, what could possibly be more important in, you know, the world, than my job assignment?” I joined in the joke to show him I got it, I was chastened.
“Listen, I just need to keep my head down until November,” he said, his voice intimate again.
“No, of course.”
“Then I’ll bring you back.”
“You will?” I threw my arm out in the dark—it was all I needed to hear.
“Yes!” He was almost laughing at me. “Margaret’s pretty pissed at me as it is. Competent non—what did you call it?—Children of the Corn people are hard to find. You just need to trust me.”
“I do,” I said quickly, wanting to wrap his voice around me with the sheets. “I hope you trust me, too.” He had given me what I’d prayed for, something I could finally count on—a plan for us. It was almost as though everything up to that point had to happen so I could have it. I wanted to return the favor of providing relief. I sensed how important this was, keeping him at ease, and reminded him, “I would never betray you—never. You know that, right?”
“You’re special,” he said softly.
“Like, needs extra help?” I demurred.
“No, really, you have a—a light around you that I can’t get enough of. An energy like no one I’ve ever known. This between us—this is—”What—whatisthis?“Fun.” Such a small, dumb word, but he said it as if it were cupped in his palms and he was trying not to spill it. And I felt protective of him all over again.
“When I hear those pundits tearing you apart on TV, I just want to reach in and break their noses.”
He laughed deeply. “You’re hired—oh, shit, there’s the other line. It’s daytime somewhere.”
“Of course.” I hated to let him go. “Greg?”
“You have my vote.”
“Well, that’s good. Illinois’s a swing state. Night, Jamie.”
I canceled my flight.
• • •
It was hard not to feel as if I were in a Greek myth, given the gift of hearing Zeus say I was special. Yet each time I replayed the memory, it faded, losing its potency, leaving me desperately needing a new memory to run thin. But there was none forthcoming.
Over the following weeks, on the sleep of someone with one ear open, I followed the campaign map and tried to immerse myself in my new internship, striving to prove myself as if word might get back to Greg that I’d collated three file archives in what Paul said was record time.
On line for an iced coffee to break up the monotony, I checked Facebook and saw that Kenny Richmond had announced he was gay. I immediately texted Lena. I hadn’t even counted out my change before the phone rang.
“Why now?” she asked as a greeting. “Why not on any given day at one of the gayest schools in the Northeast?”
“And why September?” I countered, raising my cup to the barista in the sign for thanks, phone clamped to my shoulder. “Why not back during Pride month?”
“Where is he working?”
“Wells Fargo, Boston.” I pushed outside into the tenacious heat.
“What does Wells Fargo have that Vassar didn’t?”
“Or Boston, for that matter,” I added, pulling down my sunglasses.
“It’s like going to France and waiting until you get back to Trader Joe’s to try Brie.”
“I miss you.” It popped out. She didn’t respond. “Lena?”
“I’ve been busy,” she answered tightly.
“Me, too. This new placement”—Paul’s much-appreciated euphemism for internship—“is super time-consuming. But I love it,” I added, because she’d made it clear that I couldn’t be staying there for any other reason.
“That’s . . . great.”
“Yeah, though,” I said, setting the groundwork for November, “I still think if something opened up at the White House, I’d go back, you know, maybe after the election.”
“Oh. How’s your family?” she asked politely.
I sat on a bench in the marginally cooler shade, unable to believe that this was us. That things could have gotten so strained. And I still wasn’t entirely sure why. Was it me, what I did? Or was that just the excuse? Were we friends all those years because she’d had only a few hundred people to choose from and now she had all of Los Angeles? “My what?”
“You texted that your mom was calling Erica late at night—is she worried about her?” she flailed.
“Um, she idles there and you never ask about my family,” I had to point out.
“That’s not true.”
“I meant it as a good thing.” The ice in my drink was already transforming into a watery top layer.
“Jamie, I have to go.”
“Look, my mom says the RNC’s just waiting for Rutland to sneeze wrong. You have to be beyond careful. They’re searching for anything—anything—to hang him on. If the Supreme Court rules that Brianne Rice’s case can move forward, the way my mother’s friends are talking, they’re going to mobilize behind Rice and it’s just going to make them bolder.”
“It’s disgusting, the way she’s gone after him with this trumped-up witch hunt.”
“How can you say that now?” she asked too vehemently.
“Thisis not that. For you to even compare the two—”
“Fine. I’m sorry. But I know.Iknow I voted for a liar.”
“No, you don’t!” I was shrieking, but I couldn’t reel myself back.
“You’re doing that D.C. thing, Jamie, and you don’t even see it.”
“Pretending the truth is flexible.” She sounded pained, furious.
“And this has nothing to do with Greg and everything to do with your dad.” Bringing up his infidelity was a low blow, and I didn’t know why I’d dealt it.
“Okay.” I could hear her breathe. “I see now why you don’t tell anyone shit. Because then they can’t throw it in your face.” She hung up.
I wanted to call right back and tell her,I’m sorry! I’m on the next plane!And,Greg who?And,Wasn’t that crazy?
But I didn’t. I didn’t. Someone thought I was special and I wasn’t ready to let that go.
• • •
The Indian summer gave way to the first burst of an autumn that reflected my mood. The splashy reds and oranges arced overhead, forming a passionate canopy above my mind filled with equally passionate anticipation.
But as the chilling nights rolled on, one after the other, silent, the leaves drifted into the gutter, and my lust smoked like a damp fire in all that gray. The pumpkins were carved, the pumpkins were lit, and now they were starting to rot. And still he hadn’t called.
Matt McGeehan had changed his Facebook status to “In a Relationship,” and Rachelle and I were collectively spending too much money on crap wine and cigarettes. Halloween night she invited me to a DNC phone-banking party at the Marriott. It still amazes me that wherever I go, Halloween is the universal equalizer. Even there, in the nation’s capital, we looked like a roomful of prostitutes working a pledge drive. I thought I was being pretty conservative in my navy yoga shorts and red tank top, my hair knotted up with a braid of rope I got at the hardware store; my red hair and blue brain had inspired me to go as a swing state. But I was surrounded by an astonishing amount of fishnets and cleavage, ass cheeks and high heels. The guys sported fake mustaches, crotch padding, and chest wigs, making it hard to tell what they were costumed to be, other than just generally repulsive.
“Hello?” the next person on my list answered.
“My name is Jamie and I’m calling from the DNC on behalf of President Rutland—”
“He can go fuck himself.”
“Thank you for your time,” I said, jumping down to the end of the approved script.
“Ew.” Rachelle practically tossed her receiver on the table. She was dressed as a very sexy version of the Majority Leader’s miniature Pomeranian. You have to take my word for it. “In hindsight, phone banking on Halloween was a horrible idea. Are we going to get through to a single sober person?”
“Doubtful.” A man dressed as Callista Gingrich leaned in between us.
“Oh my gosh, Paul!” I leapt up. “What are you doing here?”
He sized up the room like he was expecting to run into someone. “I’ll go anywhere for a free Oreo.”
“Iloveyour costume,” Rachelle complimented.
“Ronald?” he appreciatively confirmed hers.
“Thank you. If one more guy calls me Toto,” she said as we made the lady next to us move over so Paul could sit and filled three more Dixie cups with Hi-C. Suddenly, outside the double doors, the hallway air flashed white. “Is that him?” Rachelle pushed her chair back as I leapt up.
Paul nodded affirmatively, like this was all in a day. “Leaving the fundraiser downstairs.”
We scrambled around our folding table and out to the grand staircase lined with Secret Service, skidding to a halt. “We just want to . . .” Rachelle pointed over their shoulders. I assume that since we obviously couldn’t conceal a weapon in those outfits, they let us get close enough to peer between them. “Oh, this just made the story of tonightsomuch better,” she said, sliding her phone out of the waistband of her faux-fur hot pants.
We watched him glad-hand his way across the lobby toward the exit, each person twirled inside his green-eyed charisma for a moment they wouldn’t forget. Caught up in the excitement, Rachelle smiled and squealed at me as if we were at our first rock concert. Istared, allowing myself to drink him in, fully opening every memory until my skin ached and I was jealous of every patted shoulder, every pressed palm. “I’m so sick of feeling outside everything.” Rachelle was suddenly deflated.
“Like I’m on the other side of the glass from life and I can’t seem to break through.”
“When do we get our turn, Jamie?” I knew she was staring at me beseechingly for a pep talk, but I had no answer and just couldn’t risk taking my eyes off him. I needed to memorize everything about how he moved and smiled and waved to get myself through the remaining days. In all the frenzy, I don’t know what made him look up.
But he did.
• • •
After another hour, we gave up on polling and decamped to a bar Paul suggested. The place was packed with people who were Halloween drunk, half-naked, and ready to make a mistake. Rachelle was surreptitiously scoping, elbows clasped at her side, straw pursed between her glossed lips, while Paul lifted on his toes, actively scanning. “Shit.”
“What’s the plan?” Rachelle asked like a Charlie’s Angel, immediately fierce behind her whiskers and pink nose. “Dumping a drink, begging for more, making out with someone else—how you wanna play this?”
Paul just blinked his false lashes. “I’m such an asshole.”
“No—why?” I touched his bare arm. “That wasn’t on Rachelle’s menu.” I ducked my head and peered between the elbows and boas to see a group of guys getting bottle service in a booth. “Which one?”
“Dressed as a milk carton—I bet he’s the one percent,” he said, sounding gutted.
“He’s really hot,” Rachelle acknowledged, patting his back. “Even in that costume.”
“He underplays it,” Paul said wistfully like it was a phrase from his diary.
“How long has it been?”
“Two months. Let’s get out of here.” Paul grabbed his jacket. “I’d thought if we ran into each other—Halloween was kind of our holiday and we had an in-joke about Callista, but look at me—this is ridiculous.”
“Want me to take you home—we could pick up ice cream?” I asked.
“No! No, that isnotthe story,” Rachelle intervened, taking his jacket back. “Paul, a guy who I think is government cheese is checking you out. You’re going to let him buy you a drink, swap stories and maybe saliva. Tonight’s the night to feelbetterabout ourselves,” she said vehemently. “Jamie.” She swung to me. “Donkey wants you.”
“What?” And the moment it was out of my mouth, this guy wearing long ears swept me onto the makeshift dance floor. Beyoncé’s “Ring the Alarm” was playing, and I remember he had incredibly strong legs.
I don’t know who bought the drinks.
At one point I looked over and Paul was deep in conversation with the wedge of cheese and Rachelle was kissing someone wearing a white towel who was a Bill fromSchoolhouse Rock. And then she left with him and Donkey programmed his number into my phone and the next thing I knew, I was helping Paul stumble into a cab. “How’d it go?”
“Awful.” He clutched for the door handle. “He was boring and arrogant and I had to keep looking like I was having a blast, which just made it ten times worse.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“Fucking Rutland,” he muttered as we swerved and he listed into me.
“What?” I pushed him upright.
“I’m just a little over him right now. Not that you’d understand. You ran out of that ballroom like Justin Bieber was downstairs.”
I tensed. “So? Everyone reacts to him like that.” I squinted against an oncoming car with its brights up.
“Spoken like a staffer.” He stared out the window. “She denied it, too.”
“Who denied what?” I asked.
“Brianne. That’s why he left.”
“Who left? Paul, what are you talking about?”
“Tom.” Tears dripped out the corners of his heavily lined eyes, but his voice remained steady. “Him and his friends—ourfriends. They think I’ll be a fucking embarrassment, a turncoat, toxic for Tom’s career.”
“Sorry.” Drunk, adrenalized, confused, I scrambled to catch up. “What does Brianne Rice have to do with you?”
“Nothing,” he said, wiping his hand under his nose. “That’s what Tom refused to get. Just because I worked with her—witnessed one small thing. I’m one of hundreds of subpoenas they served in her case, which isn’t even going to proceed. As if the Supreme Court is going to rule against the fucking President. It’s a nonissue.” His face contorted and he put his palm to his stomach.
“What’s a nonissue?”
“My having to testify against Rutland.”
That’s when he puked.
• • •
I don’t know how long Gail’s phone had been ringing by the time I got Paul to his door and my key in the lock.
“What are you doing?” Greg was breathing heavily.
“What areyoudoing?” I unpeeled the vomit-crusted Lycra and flicked on the bedside lamp.
“Picturing you, leaning over the balcony like an angel—”
“I wasn’t leaning.”
“You have the most beautiful body. Your breasts, your thighs. I love touching your wet—”
I was sober. I stank of sour liquor and Oreos. Paul’s words still clanged in my aching head. Greg was finally calling, but I was a million miles from wherever he was. “I’m taking my clothes off.” It was true.
“You wearing a bra?”
The smell was so bad I wanted to throw everything out the window, but it was across the room. Who doesn’t own a cordless phone? “Yes.”
“Are you touching yourself?”
. . . “Yes.” If rubbing my arms against goose bumps counted. “Where have you been?”
“I miss you so fucking much.”
“Seeing your smile tonight—I live for that smile.”
“My smile?” I sat on the bed, my feet throbbing from standing.
“I miss your voice, how it’s just a little bit husky, your skin, your freckles, God, they’re so fucking cute, the way you smell, like flowers and sex. I want you here with me right now. Always. I want to taste you. I want to hear you make that sound, how you groan when you come—” I heard him shudder.
The heat clicked on.
I rested back, mind reeling from all these new gifts, things I would always know. He thought I had a beautiful body. I would need to write it all down immediately before I jumbled what he missed and what he wanted with what he lived for. I let myself imagine him blissed out in my arms. I waited for him to speak.
A few minutes passed before I realized he’d hung up.
• • •
Paul came in late to work the next morning with a dry-cleaning reimbursement for me. I didn’t push him more about Tom—or Brianne. I knew he was mortified. And I knew he was lonely. And I understood both.
Election night was only four days later, less then a week for me to run both potential takes on that phone call until my brain hemorrhaged. Was I the love of Greg’s life—or a sex line? When the silence became unbearable, when I wanted to push myself to pull the trigger on leaving D.C. (if only so Gail’s phone could ring on unanswered as he realized what he’d taken for granted), I would imagine every scathing thing Lena would say if I called her—which I didn’t. The fact wasLena’s dad had married the woman he left her mom for. And he and his new wife had been together for years. They had kids. So which was the mistake? The “mistress” or the first marriage? I decided that’s what I’d become the face of for her, pushing away the possibility that she was right—that truth had lost its moorings and I was submerged.
Paul had invited Rachelle and me to an election party near the office and as we walked from work, it felt like the city had reached such a frenzy of animosity, I half-expected the opposing parties to be coming down the street snapping their fingers like the Sharks and Jets. Rachelle was waiting on the corner, hunched in her red coat and jumping in her heels to keep warm.
“Ronald,” Paul greeted her.
“Callista.” She acknowledged him with a tilt of her head before abandoning any pretense of restraint and skipping up to us. “I’m sososo sorry if I made you barf from those shots.”
“And I was worried no one would want to talk about it.”
“We all do it.”
“No,wedon’t.” He dipped his chin into his herringbone scarf. “Youdo. Because you’re twelve. I’m a hundred. Can we please go upstairs and eat shrimp now?”