Title: The Dragon's Rubies (3/3)
Author: Elliott Silver
Sam turned off the alarm before it sounded the next morning. Donna didn't move but he knew she was awake, if she'd slept at all last night. He hadn't; he'd spent it holding her as close as he could and watching the telltale sky brighten with blues that reminded him of bruises.
"Sam," she said as he threw back the sheets. "He might not say anything."
She was so beautiful in the swirling light as if the room was dizzy with bottled water. Swollen breakers seemed to crash over them both and he knew he couldn't yet tell her about the undertow, how it swallowed you whole into the sinking black depths of the ocean. He leaned down on the mattress with his clenched fists and she reached up to kiss him. That was how he knew Josh wouldn't let her go. No one in their right mind would let her go.
Because in the end, Josh was Gatsby and Donna had fallen short of Daisy. It wasn't solely her own fault, but his as well, because she stopped waiting and in doing so, tumbled far short of his dreams. She had rewritten the book with a different ending than Fitzgerald and Josh couldn't understand how.
They went to the White House together, not because Josh had seen them, but because they had been doing it since Donna suggested she wear his shirts so that they had fifteen to twenty extra minutes, the time it took to drop her off at her apartment so that she could grab something professional to wear. He stopped at Starbucks and bought her a Caramel Macchiato and then they went to the dark chaotic heart of the nation called the White House. They cleared security together and walked through the maze of architecture to the West Wing where she delved towards her desk and he kept walking to his office. She was wearing grey pants and the blue silk shirt that reminded him of the sea.
He was five minutes early to the meeting with Leo and Margaret pointedly directed him into the paneled space even though her boss hadn't arrived yet. Sam stood there and wondered what they were doing, really, because they weren't doing anything at all.
Toby came next, followed by CJ who was drinking black coffee out of a pink Lucite tumbler. Leo came, sloughing his overcoat and dropping his briefcase and papers with a crash.
"We've got a problem," he stated without preamble, his voice gravelly and suddenly old.
Josh came in then but no one turned to look at him.
"Ritchie gained four points on us," Leo continued, fishing out papers and handing them out. Sam took his and glanced at it. "And we dropped four points from where we were."
Toby cursed under his breath.
"We did some unofficial polling." Leo watched them all. "The first question was, Do you believe in President Bartlet's abilities? 40% said yes, 26% said maybe, and 18% said no. The second question was, Do you believe in Governor Ritchie's qualities? 44% said yes, 32% said maybe, and 9% said no."
"Joey Lucas?" CJ asked, looking up from her sheet. She still didn't look good, hadn't looked good since the play in New York.
"No," Leo answered.
"Who?" she asked and she swung her gaze at Josh. Joey had called and told Josh he was an idiot for his antics with Amy Gardner, or rather, Kenny had told him as fast as he could.
"Bill Yates out of New York," Leo answered.
"We need to unroll our videos now," Toby said. "We need to hit them back. We can't sit here and pretend we didn't assassinate the Qumari defense minister. We did it to save lives and because it's in our power to do that and that's why we're in government. We have to show them we actually do things right, that we do more things right than wrong, that we do more things right in a single day than their administration could accomplish in a year!" Toby was getting adamant.
Leo turned and looked at him. "What do you think?"
"These are the times that try men's souls," he said slowly. "The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods."
Everyone was staring at him now.
"Thomas Paine said that back when he was fighting for what they thought was right. They were fighting for a country and it makes us look little because we're only fighting an election. Like Toby said, we're not sunshine patriots and we don't back down from fights, especially the good fight. We've got the Everglades down and that makes Ritchie look bad in his home state. We've got the Environment, we've got Drugs, we've got Education, we've got the Budget and Economy. Our guy's got a Nobel Prize in Economics, for Christ's sake. They've got Tax Reform, Gun Control, and Social Security. We don't have Defense or Foreign Policy, but neither do they. Ritchie can play up his ideals for all he wants, but we've got the experience and the record to prove it. And the power of example is our greatest power."
He realized they were all looking at him.
"The power of example is our greatest power," CJ said, and she tilted her head the way she did when she was mulling things over. "That's pretty catchy."
"We're getting screwed here," Leo said and Sam didn't dare look over at Josh, "And the question is, can we rally back?"
"Yes," said Toby and CJ nodded.
Josh looked up. "Of course."
"What about the President?" Toby asked carefully.
Leo looked at them and smiled. "The President was going to kick Ritchie's ass with or without you. He just wanted to know whether you wanted a piece of the action."
Toby and CJ walked out first, Carol catching her boss with her briefing notes and folders as she headed towards the press. Leo disappeared into the Oval Office and they were left alone, staring at each other. Josh had his hands in the pockets of his suit pants.
Sam kept his gaze even. He had done things in his life of which he wasn't proud, but loving her wasn't one of them and he wasn't about to be contrite to the man who had let her go.
Josh didn't say a word but motioned him into his office.
"For her sake " Sam began as soon as the door snacked into place and then Josh hit him and the world blurred for a second.
"I thought you were my friend!"
"I am," Sam insisted as he turned around to face the Deputy Chief of Staff and Josh swung at him hard enough to send him back against the doorway.
"Goddamn it, Sam! You're fucking my secretary!"
Sam aimed straight for Josh's jaw not even caring about the rationality of a fistfight in the White House. Josh twisted back at the last second and the blow pummeled down on half his nose and lip and sent him careening back so hard he lost balance and toppled onto the floor. He was up in a second and came rushing at Sam when the door opened and CJ came in.
"That's enough," she commanded roughly as they both ignored her.
CJ came between them and when Josh still pounded at him, she clipped him one on the shoulder that sent him reeling off balance and reminded Sam never to get in a fight with CJ, even if she held a grudge against Josh for calling her a "paranoid Berkeley shiksa feminista".
"He's fucking my secretary," Josh intoned darkly and the room went silent as she came between them.
CJ managed a strained, "What?"
"Sam's screwing Donna." Josh shook off CJ's restraining hand and gingerly touched his cheek. A corner of blood had trickled from where his teeth had gouged his gum. He wiped at it with his index finger, smudging it across his chin.
Sam's knuckles burned and he flexed them as slowly as he could. Josh eyed him darkly. Leo left whatever secret meeting he was at in less than five minutes. In his office of power and the shadows of Valium and Johnny Walker Blue, he stared at them both and gave the ultimatum, but it was to Sam that he said it. "End it, is that understood?"
And all he could do was nod, because he had always been the outsider to them all, from the highest social background and except for CJ, the best job before the Bartlet campaign. He was the loner because he had no one. CJ had Toby who crossed swords with the President and who preferred solitude anyway. Leo and the President were good friends on most days, and old friends on others. And Josh was friends with them all, savior to Leo, confidante of the President, and general annoyance to Toby.
Sam was their dark horse, always had been and always would be, the maverick, the renegade. He was the one they never quite trusted all the way without quite ever being able to put their finger on it. If he had to think about it, he knew it was because he was too passionate, too concerned with right and wrong, and acted accordingly without due thought to professional political endeavoring. He'd deep-sixed them more than once, especially with Kevin Kahn and the campaign tape, much the same way Donna had lied about her diary with Cliff Calley. They acted the way they thought the world should be, forgetting that it wasn't.
Josh was the favorite, always had been and always would be. He would one day be President, though Sam didn't think anyone consciously realized that, least of all Josh. He was the dependable one, the one that they could trust to blackmail, backarm, or disarm friends and opponents alike. He was the one that could tell a lie with a smile and whose mild consistency was more valuable and durable than Sam's up and down brilliancy. No one would believe anything bad about him and that was where he was grand in politics and where Sam hated him concerning Donna. No one could believe she wasn't with him.
As for him, everyone had thought it would be Ainsley, Sam knew, who had been born with the silver spoon of privilege in her mouth and a bee in her bonnet, to avoid other less tactful metaphors, and the natural gift of argument. She was the finished, glossed, burnished, and wrapped product of a superior education, a family inheritance, and a Southern heritage that stretched back and back. Sam questioned how well people really knew him to make that assumption and hold such revered, hollow faith in it.
Instead he had fallen for Josh Lyman's girl. They were both crazy, clumsy people, stumbling over boxes or high heels, who could quote random facts and figures with a flair and who had lost their faith. They were unbelieving and unstable, but in the best of ways because they were each other's equilibrium, balance, sanity, proof-reader, take-out orderer, pancake maker, and peace.
Donna heard about the fight, as he knew she would. He didn't see her, but he saw the slushy ice pack on her desk and knew she was tending to the injuries he'd inflicted. Sam knew there had been an immediate meeting with Josh, Donna, and Leo that lasted a good deal longer than he felt comfortable with. But he knew that Donna had held her own and shown them her mettle. He also knew Leo and the President were pragmatic and realized without her, they would be without Josh as well and that was a loss the administration couldn't bear. And so there was white tension in the office, the way everyone's voices were muted when he came around in the dark house of terrors and secrets.
Professionally and politically, he functioned without her. His job did not include any stipulation requiring love or Donnatella Moss in it for him to be successful. And after the ultimatum, they both continued their jobs as they had before.
But there was leftover Thai food in his refrigerator and Maude was blooming riotously on his windowsill. Her apple shampoo was still in his shower and there was a load of laundry in the dryer that no one had taken out. His shirts mingled with hers and his Princeton sweatshirt smelled like Downy sheets again. Her Scope still sat next to his Listerine and there was a note on near the door that reminded them they needed dishwasher soap.
It was only when Sam returned home and found the still rooms empty, that the peace of iambic pentameter shattered. It didn't break like glass against the floor, like a mistake, but like molten glass slipping from a glassblower's torch, as if it could be stretched and strung and hardened past breaking, past pain, past everything. And Sam was reminded of Shakespeare, who in one single line could turn the world he had created upside down and on its head.
Never, never, never, never, never.
He took her sailing the last Sunday in May. Ultimatum or no, he called her on Friday night and asked her to go sailing with him on Sunday and when she said yes, he heard the relief in her voice. They drove out to the Chesapeake early in the morning in his black BMW. They barely said a word to each other as Sam untied the moorings to the 30-foot sailboat a friend never used, throwing the ropes onto the deck and maneuvering out into the wide gulf of water still the color of black pearls and oil slicks with the morning fog.
He ratcheted the sails with the swirling breeze and sent them flying out into the rising sun so that they left behind the marina and the city and the damning politics of the Bartlet administration. They had just gotten clear of the edges of land when the first rays of sun cleared the horizon and darted at them, slippery as golden fish. Then the melting ball rose up over them and Donna shielded her eyes as she sat on the bow and watched them skim the water towards infinite nowhere.
She wasn't really dressed appropriately for sailing and he knew in forty-five minutes when they hit the seaswells out on the open expanse of water, that he would give her his jacket and she would wear it and when he got it back there would be telltale blond hairs over it.
There was almost no one else out. Two fishing boats coasted by to their left, heading back towards the shore with the morning catch. Their voices were indistinct with their distance, if they were even the sailors' voices at all and not the ocean talking to him.
When they got further out into the ocean, the sun poured down over them in mounds and cascades of dripping light, throwing shadow and shade at odd angles on the ship. Donna edged out of the drenching heat and walked carefully on the tilting deck to stand behind him as he spun the wheel and kept them idling forward. He watched the crashing waves and just as she moved, turned the wheel against the wave so that the ship bounced under them. Donna sprawled towards him, clutching at his shoulders to right herself on the unstable flooring.
Sam turned his head back towards her. She didn't take her hands from his shoulders and instead as he steered the smooth ship towards the straight water, slipped her arms under his and knotted them around his chest, hugging him close as she rested her head on his shoulder.
Sam took one hand off the wheel and put it over hers, running his thumb over the top of her hand, where the veins under her knuckles drifted back to her heart.
Under them, the sailboat slipped over the water, casting up spray that misted over them. He could feel Donna's pulse against his back, the way the rhythm of her body speeded up with every swell they hit, the way her grip tightened when they skidded on faster and faster, the way she loved the sea, the way he did.
Her chin rested on his shoulder and he twisted his heads towards hers. Under her sunglasses, he saw her blink, twice, fast. Then she craned forward and kissed him, and he could taste sea salt on her lips.
"Take the wheel," he told her and nudged her in front of him. She set her hands on the vanished wood gingerly and as the nose of the boat tumbled into a wave, the wheel spun sideways through her fingers. He caught it and righted them.
"Hold it steady," he instructed her as she wound her fingers around the grooves.
"Now what?" she asked, looking to him.
"Feel that wind behind us?" he asked, and she nodded. "Always keep the wind behind you." She looked up at the billowing sails, the way they plumped forward with the force of the breeze.
"That's what keeps you going forward," he said and she leaned back against him, bracing herself as he let go of the wheel. "Feel the current under you?" he asked, holding his hands over the wheel and showing her the way the ocean was moving as she nodded. "Steer with it, not against it. You can't fight the sea; you have to work with it."
"Aim for the horizon."
Even from behind her, he could see the smile on her face at the way the seawind gusted against her, the way the white cold spray lufted over her, the way the wheel felt in her hands as the ship plunged forward. It was the same way he felt, that he could chart his own course out here and navigate by the stars, crossed as they may have been.
He let her guide them out into the depths of the ocean where nothing was visible except lengths of water falling off to infinity so that Sam understood how the mariners of old thought the earth was flat. He tossed anchor over and they drifted in the peace of waves and the lone bird that flew over them casting feathery shadows on the deck as if a cloud had fallen.
He sat in the shade of the masts and she sat between his legs. Her hair drifted over his lap, her arms layered over his thighs, her hands on his knees, as she rested her head back against his stomach.
"Why did you call?" Donna asked and a part of him knew she asked then, so if he lied to her, she wouldn't see his face while he did it. Donnatella Isabella was no one's fool.
Sam waited a wave and then another. "When I was six," he said, "my family went to the beach in Maine where we'd gone for years. It was summer and the water up there was still cold from a coast storm, but I went in anyway. I was up the beach where I wasn't supposed to be because the water was rougher there around the point."
There was a tension in the way she touched him, tensile and thick.
"I don't remember the undertow at all. All I remember is going under and being whirled downward against the bottom where the rocks and shells scraped at my skin and the water stung at the cuts so I knew I was bleeding. I remember the darkness even from behind my closed lids and I remember drowning."
He had never told anyone the story before, not even his parents when he had limped back to them and said shakily he'd gotten cut from diving and for no known reason, they had believed him. He'd been forbidden to go back in the water the whole vacation and that had been just fine with him. He told her how being held under had felt like falling asleep against your own will and how at the end he had almost given up. It had been his first lesson in his own fragility and strength and just what he would fight for.
"The hazards of the waters are their apparent transparency," he told her. "You think because you can see through them, that you know them and that you know where the dangers are. But in the end, the undertow never comes from where you expect."
She nodded her head very slowly. "I could leave Josh in a heartbeat, if that's what it took," she said and he knew just by the cadence of her voice that she'd had that conversation and said those words thousands of times in her head. "But I can't leave you."
"You'd leave?" Sam asked as the crushing realization hit him. She'd give up a senior job in the White House, the respect she had always wanted, and everything she had known for him, for this.
"No," she answered very softly. "I'd stay in this administration for you."
And in those few words, he understood all there was to understand between them. She could leave for him to unblemish his career as much as she could because that would be hard, but she would stay in the Bartlet presidency for him because it was impossible and because without Josh, there wasn't really a presidency. She would stay to be with him during blackouts and writer's block and trips to North Dakota because down in some part of her, she understood just an inkling of how much he needed her. And it was enough for her to volunteer for hell.
They'd gotten themselves caught in the net of presidential politics and nowhere did love get in. But it somehow had, and now that it was there, they had to do something, nothing, or everything.
"If I leave "
"I'll go back to making $400,000 at Gage Whitney Page," he said evenly. It was twice what the President was making and he would be home by 5pm most days. He would reconcile his principles to reconcile with the enemies he left there. "And I'll take you sailing twice a week."
"But if you stay with me, you could never be president," she intoned and the words echoed darkly off the sea behind him so that he heard her twice. "And I think you should be president."
"And I think I should have you." Sam waited a beat, maybe a beat and a half. He'd always had really bad timing. "I don't want the presidency," and he was surprised how easy the words were to say. He realized it was easy to say because he meant it. It was the first time he had ever told anyone, ever let the thought out of his own head and into the world where it could cause torrential damage.
"I'm serious, I really don't. I thought I did, but all I want is to write and maybe one day be as good as Toby, to someday be able to tell the truth without first telling a web of lies."
"I want something more than State of the Unions, international summits, ground-breaking policy, and running the most powerful country in the world. I want something more than I have."
"What if that's too much to want?"
"I don't think it's too much to ask," he said and he now understood the space between them and how to cross it. "I don't think it's too much to ask to have you."
"What's wrong with what you have?" she countered and her eyes were the color of lupines and larkspur and his sailboat sea where he was free.
"I don't have you." He'd had that answer for years.
They listened to the silence of the sea and how it talked to them. The boat rocked and they felt the churning the ocean waters under them. He rested one hand on the top of her head, weighting her towards him, the other on her shoulder. She was so still and peaceful he thought she had fallen asleep until she spoke.
He shifted and leaned up.
"Whatever mistake we're making," she began and took a breath that seemed to encompass the length and breath of the sea. "It is right."
"Donna," he asked and she twisted her head to look up at him. "It's not a mistake."
She didn't say anymore but when he dropped his arm down, she took his hand in hers and laced their fingers together like the woven knots sailors tied to keep ships at port. They stayed that way until the ocean turned a darker shade of blue with evening and he yanked up the anchor and took the helm. He changed sails and set the sailboat on the line of waves rushing toward shore so that they too charged land-ward and when they saw the edges of the bay, it felt like coming home.
"We're meeting with Bruno," CJ informed him as she swung into his office. Sam took off his glasses and looked up from the polling data spread on his desk. He'd talked to Toby and they'd talked to Leo and asked to have Joey Lucas run the same poll. Leo shrugged and agreed.
"What's up?" he asked as he got up from his chair stiffly.
"The Ritchie camp knows about you and Donna," she said as they walked down to the dungeons of the White House. "They're going to run with it."
"We knew they'd get it," he said, though he was unwilling.
"They want a resignation," she said and then he didn't say anything.
"Sam," she said, stopping him with her hand on his arm. "Listen to me."
He looked over at CJ and wondered how she had somehow become his ally in this. And he realized it was when she had fallen in love with her secret service agent, though she didn't think anyone had noticed, and knew that love came from strange places and most often, right beside you.
"Whatever happens in there, remember you're a snotty, arrogant, SFB asshole who went to Duke instead of Harvard, whose ideas are crazy and whose tactics are questionable, who gets us into more hot water than not and who we'd all love to kill at some time or other." She let go of his arm but he still felt her concern. "Then remember that she loves you and you love her, and if that's the only good thing to come of the administration, it's more than enough."
CJ wore her armor like a Victorian dress, buttoned high to her throat, but even she had learned that people rarely went for the jugular anymore and that it was the little pricks through the coats of mail that bled out more profusely than arteries, because those tiny cuts hurt worse and never killed you.
"Sam, stop burning your bridges and start walking over them."
And this from the one woman who a long time ago had told him the wisdom about relationships was not what they were, but what they looked like. A long time ago he remembered the Sam Seaborn saying he cared about what they were too. She had changed; he never had.
He opened the door and she walked through with her head up, and if she could go on after Simon, then he could too.
"Sam," Bruno greeted him as the doors whooshed shut behind them. "The man of the hour."
He sat down between CJ and Toby.
"Ok Sam, tell me this one thing, alright," and he paced around the table. "Are you really worth this much trouble?"
"That's an absent rhetorical musing, right," he shot back.
Bruno straightened up. His aides stared across the table at Sam with google-eyes. And Sam knew only one thing, that this was worth fighting for more than surviving an undertow.
"First things first," Bruno declared and kept pacing. His bald assistant kept tapping his Bic against his yellow legal pad. "You are having relations with Donna Moss?"
"Yes," he answered.
"Since January 17."
Bruno, who had been leaning on the table, almost collapsed. It would have been funny if it had been some other day. His assistant stopped tapping his pen.
"That's what," he asked in something akin to astonishment. "Almost five months?"
"And you tell me," Sam told them, leaning forward on the table. "It took the other guys to make you sit up and notice what was going on in your administration?"
Toby looked down at his lap; CJ was the only one who kept his gaze. Josh wasn't there and he was certain it had been planned that way.
"We've been "having relations"," he said, quoting with his hands, "for almost five months and you're going to tell me it matters now?"
"Sam, stop being idealistic."
"And why is it that we call our generous ideas illusions and our mean ones truths?" He stood up and starting pacing at the other end of the table from Bruno, who was now standing still with his arms crossed around his chest of his custom-made suit. "We say that the power of example is our greatest power, but when it comes to providing good examples we immediately step down and find something tawdry instead! We're just as bad as they are."
"CJ, what do you think?" Bruno turned the tables on her before he could continue his rant.
"I think this is the classic Washington scandal."
"Why? Because the Deputy Communications Director is sleeping with the Senior Assistant to the Deputy Chief of Staff?" Sam began pacing again. "That's bullshit."
"Life is not The American President, Sam!" Toby was irate as he only could be when someone demonstrated what he believed was insurmountable ignorance.
"No," she answered calmly as only CJ could. "Because you fell in love."
"I thought you said the classic Washington scandal was when we did something right," Toby interjected.
"Is falling in love not right?" she batted back.
"Enough," Bruno said, cutting the air with his hands. "This gets us nowhere."
Sam stared across the table at him and wondered how on earth this presidency could make sense of something as complicated as a nuclear arms treaty when it couldn't comprehend something as simple as love.
"We'll need to meet with Josh when he gets back tonight," he said and the room emptied until he and Sam stood at opposite ends of the table.
"Are you worth it?" he asked and this time the question wasn't rhetorical.
"No," Sam answered and breathed. "She is."
He only heard about that night years later when several bottles of Sam Adams Summer Ale and a new campaign had eased some of Josh's memories from their tethers. What pieces Josh didn't remember, Sam could only imagine from the black tar dreams that smothered him some nights when, only later, he knew all he could have lost and that the cost would have been unbearable in the worst way.
They had all been gathering for Bruno's meeting when Josh had opened the door to her apartment with the key he couldn't remember how he'd gotten, if she'd given it to him, if he'd stolen hers and made a copy, or if by some undefined magnetic force the brass trinket had stuck itself to him and he had known instinctively what it opened.
He opened the door for reasons unknown, reasons that would probably remain unknown for the rest of his life, at least to Josh himself. Sam thought Josh opened the door that night because somewhere behind him another door had closed, irreversibly.
He shut the door behind him quietly. He knew Donna didn't have a roommate anymore, didn't like cats because they made her sneeze, and after CJ told her Gail was the third Gail, didn't trust goldfish. The rooms were bizarrely cool for May and he figured the problem was, once again as it always was, that the building's heating/cooling system had crapped out. A pile of mail was balanced against all laws of physics on the arm of her couch, catalogues and a few haphazard magazines and credit card offers she hadn't yet ripped up and thrown in the trash. There was a thin brushing of dust on the little table by her couch so that when Josh reached across it, he left tracks on the surface. Two of the plants on her kitchen windowsill had dropped dead about two months ago, the one with the big green leaves and a small viney thing that looked like dead spiders. There were dishes in the chipped sink, two plates, two forks, a mug, and a potato peeler. There were crusts of mold along the plates and dark blobs of something coagulated and still sticky-looking on the silverware. When he opened her refrigerator, a lone egg, three sticks of margarine, four cans of Diet Coke and a Dasani greeted him sullenly. She had tucked up the yellowy sheets on her bed but left two of her shirts strewn there. He hadn't seen her wear them lately.
He left with the idea that perhaps she'd be where she shouldn't be and when no one answered the door there, he undid the lock with the key Sam had given him after he'd come home from the hospital, still feeling the bullet's trajectory in his flesh. Sam had said to come over any time, that he meant it. But that was back when they had still been friends.
There was a note to get computer disks and Earl Grey tea on a yellow post-it written in Donna's curling handwriting hanging sideways on the wall by the door. A pile of scribbled papers with Sam's notes and a stack of CDs toppled on the little table by his blue couch, the one that overlooked the massive oil painting of the three ships. He had flipped through the CDs, screening names like Mendelssohn, Vivaldi, and Rachmaninoff, and then oddly enough the Beatles 1 CD. There were also two Yo-Yo Ma CDs. Donna's tastes had never exactly run Van Morrison, he thought, as he walked unwillingly into the bedroom. A handful of dry cleaning bags were twisted over the door on their flimsy wire hangers. There were three of her suits, including the brown tweed that she thought made her look dumpy a classic Donna word - and five of Sam's starched shirts, a French blue, two plain whites, a silver grey, and a pink one Josh couldn't ever remember him wearing because he would have given him hell for wearing it. Her mauve silk shirt with the belled sleeves hung down on his closet over his white with white pinstripes. Sam's Princeton sweatshirt lay on his dresser. There was a pair of pantyhose in the trashcan and her opal necklace was on the top of his bureau where Sam usually dropped his wallet and keys. There was apple shampoo in the bathtub, a half-full bottle of Clinique foundation on the toilet tank, and a purple Gilette razor on the sink that he was sure wasn't Sam's. A hairy-leafed violet in a huge saucer with the word Maude on it sat contentedly on the kitchen windowsill, blooming outrageously perfect pink flowers the color he often imagined her laughter. There were no dirty dishes in the sink, but several empty boxes of Thai food in the trash and a Gilgarry's wrapper smothered in coffee grounds. And there was a note posted on the refrigerator on half a folded piece of yellow legal paper in Sam's writing: To Catch A Thief (Cary Grant!), Sat 1135, Channel 35 and then in capitals below it, underlined twice, Casablanca, Sun 1, Ch 47.
It was all so domestic and comfortable, as if they were living in it. And as he saw the load of clothes, whites, darks, and light colors heaped up on top of the dryer waiting to be folded and the note left on the refrigerator, he knew they were.
Living was what you did while you were waiting for the next night or next vote or next presidential election. Living was what happened when you stopped waiting.
He passed by the note for computer disks and Earl Grey on his way out and he almost took it with him, not as a reminder of what he was about to do, or because he was ever motivated to save his work to disk or drink tea, but because she had written it and she had never written him anything like that because he had never written her anything about Cary Grant.
He'd walked into Bruno's meeting almost forty minutes late, the same swinging careless stride as ever. Sam wouldn't remember it, but his eyes had seemed darker that night, the hollows beneath them deeper.
"It's over," he said and before they could all clamor. "I ended it."
Sam looked at her from across the table and felt her heart fall a little, knowing Josh had done something Josh when she knew all too well what Josh usually did. Honor wasn't a word for Josh; it didn't suit him. He fought for a cause, one that he didn't always believe in, but one that needed his fight.
That was when Sam knew about the dragon's rubies.
They'd left the White House that night separately, all of them except him and Josh who had always been paired together by some invisible cosmic force, fanning out in spokes across the metropolitan area. Sam never heard the story about what really happened that night, and as far as he knew, only Bruno and eventually Leo knew Bruno the next day and Leo the next week. He could have asked Bruno, but in the end, he didn't want to know, for more reasons than one. Even so, he heard whispers that disturbed him and it wasn't until years later that he got the first part of the story. Even drunk, Josh wouldn't tell him the rest.
Josh couldn't tell him, because Josh had gone to the devil and then he had walked back into that room with all of them and told them it was over, and in all the ways that mattered on the outside, it was. Donna remained his secretary for years, through the election and after it, and she kept him organized, if not to practicality, then at least to functionality.
Sam heard the bitterness in his tone that night and knew Josh wasn't proud of what he'd done that night and if Josh wouldn't tell him what had happened even when he was drunk, then Sam really didn't want to know. Josh had said he'd done it because of Casablanca, but the way Sam saw it, it was about that Sunday afternoon at one o'clock when he and Donna had snuggled down deep into the couch and watched Bogey and Bergman together. It was about the note he'd left on the refrigerator two days ago that said simply, An Affair to Remember, Tonight, 12.
Josh said suddenly as he had gotten into the cab to go home and the Sam Adams was doing its last bit of conversing, that he realized he had never been the one to carry off Guinevere's fluttering ribbons tied to the end of his jousting stick. And then he realized he wasn't even Arthur. Kay, Sam thought when Josh's knowledge of medieval British myth ran thin, or Gawain or perhaps there was even a Gatsby then, one of the nameless faceless knights of the Round Table whose lives and loves had been lost in the legend of Lancelot's flaring, dark-hearted sun.
"Why do you love her?"
They were sitting on the steps just outside Josh's apartment after leaving Bruno when Sam still had no idea at the time what had just happened except that they had been saved. They were eight of them, old cement stairs that bore the brunt of impatient feet and sullen weather. Sam remembered back when Josh had sat on them with the gang on them, outside for the first time since his almost-fatal shooting at Rosslyn. Donna had flitted around him, making sure he wasn't cold, didn't need another beer, reading all his prescription medicine tags to make sure the beer didn't have any adverse effects on him, although Josh was so quirky it would have been hard to tell. He had largely ignored her that night and Sam wondered when it had finally hit her that she couldn't love him forever. Then he thought about Josh and thought this was no less a momentous occasion, one that hurt any sliver less.
"She inspires me," Sam said, and knew Josh wouldn't understand that
because he wasn't a writer, didn't understand that highest compliment of them
all, of any. "She makes sense to me, I understand everything when I'm with
"What do you mean?"
"It's like when you sat in eight grade geometry and didn't understand logarithms and knew you never would and then suddenly at 34, I do. I understand why birds fly north, how Coriolis force occurs, the way to make a perfect pancake, why Whitman ended "Song of Myself" the way he did. I understand iambic pentameter and I understand peace and vindication and hope. It clicks. It makes sense. I understand what I never thought I would."
Josh was still angry.
"And what's going to happen when she no longer inspires you?" There was bitterness in his voice and Sam guessed if he'd lost what he'd always thought was his and realized it had never been, that he would have been the same way. It wouldn't ever be the same, their friendship, if it survived at all. It would simply be different, but Sam wasn't as idealistic as he used to be, and knew that few things in life were simple short of loving her.
"You should tell them you want the presidency," Sam said quietly. "You know I don't."
"You would have gone back to Gage Whitney Page for her."
"No, I would have stayed in this administration for her," Sam corrected as Josh looked over at him and finally he understood, at least, a little. He relented, because relenting was the last and only thing in the world he could do, short of surrender.
"I loved her too," Josh said at last, looking back over the street. They had all lost so much in getting where they were, and he wondered sometimes, whether they didn't lose so much more than they gained. Because in Josh, Sam saw the tale his mother had always told him as a child, the tale of the dragon's rubies. It was said when the slayer slit the dragon's breast, that blood did not spill forth, but rather a cascade of rubies in all cuts and carats and gushes of red. It was said that dragons did not possess blood because they could not die, and to rob them of their fortune was to take their lifeblood from them, to take their soul.
Sam imagined Josh that way, bleeding without bleeding, bleeding rubies.
"But you did the one thing I couldn't do you made her happy."
She rose off the couch as soon as he opened the door and closed it behind him so slowly that the lock snicked into place heavily.
"He's ok," Sam told her. There were six steps of space between them but he understood how logarithms worked, how they mapped out the world and made it navigational, how they explained space really wasn't empty. There was always a way to cross it, though like early navigators exploring a world they believed was flat, it wasn't always the way you thought and the stars directed you, and mostly, it came at a cost.
She nodded her head. "And you?"
She was wearing one of his grey tee shirts so old that the lettering had come off of it and he couldn't remember if it was from Princeton or Duke or whatever past that had chased him here to this dark place where he had found her. She had on a pair of jeans and bare feet and her hair glowed pale, the way the sun looked when he, even at age six, had burst to the surface after the undertow.
It was Leo who had the map of the world on his face who would explain it best in the years to come, who would wax unexpectantly poetic in the middle of a toast. Laurie had given him that insufferable geek bravado they all hated. Mallory had taken it away and replaced it with an uncertain swagger. Ainsley had given him quick reflexes. He couldn't even remember when he had stopped believing in truth and justice and promises, but according to Leo, only one person made him remember the good in changing the world and one man's actions, even if they left a Sam Seaborn shaped hole in the wall. Only Donna had given him back his faith.
She crossed the space floating on logarithms and put her arms around him, sinking her head against his chest so that he knew she understood too. He didn't doubt that she loved him. It wasn't a flashy, ostentatious love, this indefinable, undeniable thing between them; it was a quiet, restful love of solace and filled rooms and breath. It was imperfect and would never be easy undertows never were they knew it, hated it, and accepted it. He tilted her head and she looked up at him with her lupine and larkspur eyes. He touched his hands to each side of her face, ran his thumbs along her cheeks, and kissed her.
"Failing at first to catch me at first, keep encouraged," he said and smiled, one of the bright smiles that clutched at him and he saw things not the way they were, but the way they could be, the way he could change them.
"I stop somewhere waiting for you," she returned.
He had never understood before now, not in any of his Contemporary Lit classes nor in any speech he had written, but he understood looking at her. He hadn't understood the lack of punctuation at the end of Whitman's work and had gotten into roaring debates with his professors over it, arguing that a poet's forgetfulness did not make history but rather questioned his grammar.
But as she kissed him back, he knew Whitman and knew that some things went on forever and never ended. He knew the price of the dragon's rubies and the sin of Lancelot, and he loved her deeply enough to change his dreams and change the world.