Disclaimers in part one.

Why Nineveh Is Still Standing (2/3)

We're flying commercial, which is something slightly more enjoyable
than facing a firing squad. "It's better than root canal surgery,"
C.J. says. "But I only know that because I've actually had root
canal surgery. Buckle your seat belt, would you?"

"There are ten planes ahead of ours. We've been stuck on the tarmac
for three-quarters of an hour." A stewardess brings me Jack Daniel's
in a plastic cup, only ten or fifteen minutes after taking my order.
The first sip of whiskey rolls down my throat like smoke. "We're not
in a rush."

"Look at it this way." She wiggles a little in her seat. "I've had
plenty of jobs where nobody would spring for first class travel."

"I've had plenty of jobs where they'd put me in the cargo hold."

She snickers softly and turns to the window, so it's impossible to
tell if she's smiling or frowning. Her drink is a screwdriver,
bright between her clasped hands. She raises it to her mouth, like a
child, and looks like she must have when she was seven years old.
But her shoulders are hunched too far forward. "We're not very good
representatives of the President," she says.

"No?"

"No. I'm too tall and female, and you don't know enough useless
information about Micronesia." She doesn't turn around. "If people
paid a grand for this dinner, they're getting the shaft."

"And Hoynes."

"Which is why I think this is a bad idea to begin with." She crosses
her legs, making her skirt whisper. "Who are you going to vote for
next year, the guy who screwed you or the guy who showed up?"

She doesn't pull her arm away when my hand brushes it, but she
doesn't look at me. "Give me solutions. I know what the problems
are. Give me solutions."

"Solutions?" She stares out the window. The landscape shifts
outside. "We're moving."

The stewardess comes down the aisle, checking seat backs and tray
tables. "I've got to take your drinks."

C.J. downs the last of her screwdriver and passes the cup over. Jack
Daniel's is different; it needs to be savored. "I'll hang on to
this."

"Sir, during take-off, I'm afraid--"

"I'll hold onto it very tightly."

The stewardess watches me take a sip. She scowls at me and gets a
small smile in return. Finally, she sighs, gives up and walks away.
Small victories. Five minutes later the plane takes off into
relentless, limitless blue. No piercing the clouds today. The sky
is too clear.

After a while the plane levels out. "What time is it?" C.J. asks.

"Twenty after four."

She twists her hands together. "We're going to get there, we'll have
less than an hour to get ready for the thing. Do you have a hotel
reservation?"

The thought hadn't crossed my mind until she says it. "No."

"Well, that's great." She laughs incredulously. "It's going to be
full, you know. You won't be able to get one."

"I'll depend on the kindness of strangers."

She sits up in her seat, her back rigid, straight and nervous as a
moth pinned to velvet. "We all depend on the kindness of public
opinion, and our numbers haven't gone up. Our numbers haven't gone
up and we had to go outside to fix it. You don't like that. Josh
and Sam don't like it either. And it's because of me."

Oh, God. "It's not because of you."

"It's largely because--"

"Because the President withheld information from us." It's an effort
to hold my voice down. "Which is under the bridge, anyway."

"Under the bridge?" Her voice rises as another flight attendant
comes along with moist towels. She runs hers back and forth under
her thumbs. Her fingernails glint faintly. "It's not under any
bridges at all. This is what the next year and a half are going to
be about. We haven't even gotten hit with the first subpoenas yet.
Do you realize how much this is going to cost us in legal fees?"

My divorce lawyer was two-fifty an hour and he was cutting me a
pretty decent break for New York. We had a conversation about that
once, during the campaign. The first campaign. "Unfortunately, I
do."

"I was planning for retirement." She moves away from the wall a
little bit, tucking her towel into the pocket on the back of the
chair in front of her. "Goodbye, ERA; goodbye, mutual funds.
Goodbye to your ill-gotten stock market gains."

"People don't take our jobs for the money."

"And yet we make more of it than most of America. Did I ever
complain about taking a pay cut before? Give me a little credit for
being a reasonable human being."

"I give you plenty of credit for being human." My drink is gone.
Could call and request a refill, but the stewardess would probably
attempt to drive a stake through my heart.

"Yes. You do. But I'm a woman. So I must be taking everything too
personally." She casts a scornful look into empty space. "Can't be
the other way around."

"You think I'm taking things--" The air up here is too dry. "You
think I'm taking things too personally?"

"I think sometimes there aren't other ways." C.J. licks her lips,
looks right at me for the first time in days. Weeks. Her eyes ask
other questions, unspoken and innumerable. Then the pupils narrow
and the lids lower, and she doesn't look seven years old anymore.

She leans over me and picks up my wrist. The front of her gray silk
blouse spills open, revealing an expanse of maple sugar skin.
Impossible not to look. "What are you doing?"

"Checking the time," she says. She turns the face of my watch toward
her with her right hand, but her left curves insistently over the
inseam of my pants. Well. Okay.

"It's late."

"Yes, it is." She kicks her shoes off and stands up. "We're going
to have to hurry. I hate hurrying."

She slips past me, moving slower than she needs to, allowing plenty
of time for me to appreciate the contours of her body. There's a
bony guy across the aisle, early twenties; his eyebrows shoot toward
the ceiling. Wish he wasn't watching. It's been a while since we've
done this. C.J.'s legs are impossible; it's impossible not to
stare. She leads the way down the aisle to the closet-sized lavatory
without looking back.

She likes to do the same things every time we have sex. It's not as
boring as it sounds, since it includes everything either of us knows
how to do. But now there's no time or space. As soon as the door
closes, she is against me. A rectangle of light fluoresces
overhead. No shadows to hide in. Almost no room to breathe.

Two buttons ping off the wall as the front of her blouse comes
apart. Her breasts fit perfectly under my hands. Hold her closer.
It's like praying. Her shoulder blades sharpen into my chest. Then
she moves my hands down and apart. Skirt up around her waist, her
stockings tear. She rolls them to her ankles, steps out one toe at a
time. She wears nothing underneath. Her hipbones stand out,
surrounded by hollows. Touch them. Hold on. Hold her closer.

There isn't really room to turn, so she unbuttons me by reaching
behind her. How does she do that? Who cares how she does that?
Just let her do it, get her knees apart, lean a little way forward.
Slide a hand over and up. This is lifting, releasing, time pausing,
and when she's ready she tells me by arching her back.

She grips the edge of the sink, over water drops and splattered
soap. For leverage. There's softness, strength, heat. Feels like
she's burning up, right there. Want to kiss her right now, taste
that spot on the side of her neck. Probably would sprain something
trying. One of us is too old for this and one of us is too tall.
She smells like cleanliness. Soap, shampoo, a little sweat, her
perfume dying. What kind of sick fuck thinks about perfume right now?

Right there. A little further. Leverage. God, she's moving
faster. All right. Let's go. Her forehead against the mirror,
wonder if it chills her. Her face relaxes a little. Think she likes
this. The shirt sticks to her skin. Her back gleams through it.
She glows. Deserves someone better. Right there. One of these days
my knees are going to give out. She likes this. She looks at me
over her shoulder. Her mouth moves. She's saying my name.

"Toby," she's saying, "I'm gonna--"

Need, she's saying, but she doesn't need to, my fingers are already
moving. She likes this. She hums in her throat, biting into her
lip. The pitch rises. Lifting. Up. Almost. Maybe? Yes.

She always presses her eyes shut like that, always, right there.

She might fall over if there was room. There isn't. Hold on,
tighten my hands, don't lose the balance now. Her face in the
mirror, she's almost smiling for the first time in a week. Don't
fall. Here we go. Right there. This is catching fire. This is--
this is--God. Almost there. Right there. Right there. Right there.

Right.

It's harder to get dressed in this enclosure than to do the
opposite. She's worse off than me, less presentable, but it's not as
if the smell wouldn't give me away. Reach around her waist to wash
my hands off in the sink. She tips her head back. Just for a
second, her hair fills my vision. Then she's shoving me backward,
out the door, almost smiling. Definitely glowing. Then the door
closes again. She must lock it, because there's the red-lettered
sign. Occupied.

The stewardess glares at me in passing. Probably she's the one in
charge of wiping down the bathroom. Back at my seat, the weariness
starts to set in. This wasn't very smart. The skinny kid across the
aisle smirks while he cleans his glasses. Like we're in some fucking
fraternity. Everything is that simple. He must be disappointed when
he doesn't get a high-five. After a while C.J. comes back, red-faced
but neat, her buttons fixed somehow. She squeezes past me, touches
me as little as possible, sits in her window seat. We don't talk.
The plane keeps flying.

*

Iowa is humid and hot and unwelcoming. My tuxedo suffers only minor
damage from the baggage handlers. We change in her hotel room. She
sings in the shower, but the words are drowned out. It stops before
the bathroom door opens. Steam surges out through the gap, followed
by one long damp arm and "Hand me my garment bag?" She takes it from
me and the door closes again, leaves me standing out here like a
gentleman. Even know how to tie a bow-tie by myself.

It gets dark outside. C.J. finally emerges, wearing something light
and lilting, the color of almonds. The neckline follows her
collarbone. Silver around her throat and wrists, glittering at her
earlobes, and a bronze shimmer on her eyelids. "Do I look tired?"

"No."

"I feel like hell." She turns back to the mirror to dab at her
cheekbones. "I look like Fess Parker in heels."

"You're fine. We're going to be late."

"Did we ever go to fun parties?" She plays with her hair, making no
noticeable difference. "Did we ever just go out and drink and dance
and have a good time, and not have to worry who we were impressing?"

"I was never invited to those kind of parties." Want her to smile,
but she doesn't. "I've been doing this too long."

"You and me both, sister." She cranes her neck and blinks at her
reflection. "God, this is going to be unpleasant. Have you called
Josh?"

"Yeah." My hand taps the phone in my pocket. "Sam's starting work
on the address. And Taiwan pulled out of the APEC summit."

"Why?"

"China didn't send Li Yuan-Zu a letter; they got huffy and took their
toys and sent their delegation home."

"One question." She spins around, hands on her hips. "Do you have
any idea who Li Yuan-Zu is or why this matters?"

It's a good question. "I'm not entirely certain, but I don't think
Josh was either."

"I figured. Well, we don't work for State." She looks past me, at
the digital clock by the bed. "We're going to be late," she
announces. This is supposed to be new information. We walk quickly
to the elevators.

The banquet hall is filled to the corners with tinkling dishes,
watery pseudo-jazz music, important Democrats in expensive clothes.
And the odors of cologne and bland food and schmoozing. Everyone
looks at us and then pretends to look away. We might spontaneously
combust, or key their cars, if they don't keep an eye on us. The
Vice-President raises a glass of ice water in our direction. C.J.
accepts champagne from someone, swallows audibly, and walks toward
him.

"Claudia," he says, offering her his hand and a wide, white campaign
smile. He doesn't notice the quick downturn of her mouth, shakes her
hand and moves on to me. "Toby."

"Sir."

"Sir," she echoes. "Thank you for adding this event to your
schedule. We know it was short notice."

"That's what I'm here for." He's still grinning, talking to her but
looking at me. "Short notice is in the job description, right?
Taking over a speech, it's no big deal. How're you guys holding up?"

Any answer to that will sound either arrogant or defeated. Naturally
Hoynes knows that. C.J. doesn't miss a beat. "We're keeping up with
the country's work."

"Good, good. Don't let the press circus get to you." Hoynes opens
his arms conspiratorially, saying he's our friend. He's on our
side. Conceited bastard. "They're sharks. Right, Terry?"

The reporter seated at the table behind Hoynes chuckles. "Yes, sir."

"Just keep doing what you're doing," he says. "And hey, enjoy the
food and drink. God knows it's been paid for, ten times over."

We start walking away. At the same moment, he turns to greet a
lobbyist with a pinched face, bright red hair, too much makeup. We
get fresh drinks and seats at a table near the bar. Far from the
middle. Out of the loop. "Keep doing what we're doing," C.J.
grumbles as Hoynes maneuvers toward the front of the room. "He'd
like that, wouldn't he?"

"You said it yourself." You'd think they could have spent some of
the take from this thing on comfortable chairs. "Hoynes is the stand-
in. We're making sure everyone here knows that."

"Except no one here wants to talk to us." She sits beside me, runs
a hand through her hair. "And we're not going to look that
Presidential when we're being heckled by a prosecutor and fifteen
members of Judiciary."

"It'll be a shitstorm." She looks like she expected me to reassure
her. But she forces honest answers. "It'll be ugly and embarrassing
and it'll slow us down. It'll drag on until the public is sick of
it, and then the press, and then it dies out and the next shitstorm
comes along. It's what we do."

"It's not what the government should be doing."

"Maybe not. You want to move to England and work for the Prime
Minister?"

She looks out across the room, smiles at scattered familiar faces.
There are tentative waves and mouthed hellos. They have to thaw,
we'll be here all night. "They're going to make you look corrupt,"
she says through her teeth. "They're going to say you were part of a
widespread conspiracy to defraud the public."

"I know the drill. They'll say the same things about everyone."

"Not me," she says. The Governor of Iowa greets us quickly as he
passes. C.J. takes a long drink of champagne. "They're not going to
paint me as a Machiavellian genius. They're going to put up that
tape, and the Kashmir thing from the winter before last and
say, 'Look at that stupid girl; she doesn't know what she's doing.'"

Wadded up, my napkin fits perfectly into my empty glass. We want
this to be over. Governor Vilsack is taking the microphone. He
gives a brief, ingratiating introduction, mentions Bartlet only
once: "We all regret that the President was prevented from
attending..."

Hoynes handles it with more grace and better writing. "I'm proud to
have had a hand in the Bartlet administration's victories, against
foreign powers that threaten our liberty, against unemployment and
crime at home. Victories against those who would rob us of our civil
liberties, against those who would rob our seniors of their
protection and our children of their future." He takes credit for
the handful of things we've gotten right. Implies that he's not
proud of our shortcomings. Sticks it to us, makes sure he doesn't
even call Bartlet the President. He gets the resounding ovation he
wanted.

It's possible to look like you're clapping without making significant
sound. We're both doing that. "Jerk," C.J. mutters. "I bet he
kicks puppies. I bet he drowns kittens."

My voice is subdued under the clamor of applause. "It's better to be
dumb and good than smart and evil, in America."

"No, it's not." C.J. flounces back into her chair and reaches for
one of the fresh drinks that have been appearing on the table when
our heads are turned. She gulps it down. "Not in any real sense,
and not in politics. When this is over, you'll be a bad guy, but you
can go write your book and do the talk shows. You can."

The ice in my whiskey is turning to water too fast. "I'll be looking
forward to that. I'm particularly fond of Oprah."

"You know you can." She points the rim of her glass at me. "I'll be
a damn punchline at dinners like this. I'll be the incompetent Press
Secretary you kept around because you could control me. Wave; Tommy
McSorley's looking at you."

My hand goes up before the old man's even in my line of
sight. "Because I could control you?"

"Or because you're fucking me." Her cheeks are flushed, but she's
composed. "Take your pick."

"That's bullshit."

"Of course. But I can't prove it to a jury. Neither can you."

There should be something to say but it doesn't come. Somebody
freshens the drinks again. "Leo wanted me to hire you."

"I know." She grimaces at the bubbles in her glass. "Do you think
Hoynes got beat up a lot in grade school?"

We spend the rest of the evening making jokes at the Vice-President's
expense, mingling with drunken lobbyists and money-men and trophy
wives. Nothing deeper. We don't get out until after one-thirty.
The pinched-looking lobbyist steps into the elevator with us. She
twists her bright orange lips into a smile. "I was sorry the
President couldn't make it."

"Thanks, Dixie." How the hell does C.J. remember these people's
names at this point in the night?

The lobbyist stays on the elevator when we get off. "Just
talkin' 'bout Shaft," C.J. hums as the doors close.

"You're not well."

She whips her key-card in and out of the slot. "You think you're
coming in, do you?"

"It's warm enough. I could sleep on a bench in the park." The pale
fabric of her dress is soft between my hand and her waist.

She steps into the room, tottering on the high heels she doesn't
actually need. "Take your tie off, would you? It's too hot to be
dressed that way."

The tie comes off, and the jacket too. She crosses the room, hovers
over the air-conditioner. "How do I turn this thing up?"

"I don't know."

"I'm going to melt." She points an elbow at the ceiling, expertly
unfastens the hook and zipper that hold her dress up.

Andrea has a small tattoo in the center of her lower back. She was
engaged to a symphony conductor once. He asked her to prove herself
in a bizarre way, a single musical note inked in deep violet against
her spine. C.J. faces the window and shimmies out of her almond
dress, letting it drop around her ankles. She peels the rest of her
clothes off. Apart from a freckle or two, her back is blank and
snowy as untouched paper.

"Let me wash my face," she says, and floats away into the bathroom.
The hotel room looks like they all do; this could be anywhere and
everywhere in America. Lying back on the bed makes it jounce, makes
the ceiling ripple slightly, unless it's my eyes.

Blink, and her hand is shaking my arm, and it's daylight. "Wake up,"
her voice urges, "wake up, wake up. Wake. Up."

Her face is blurred and bowed toward me. Strands of hair standing on
end, clinging to her neck and eyelashes. She smells of toothpaste.
My head and mouth are stuffed with cotton. "...Time is it?"

"About five. I'm done in the bathroom. We have a flight,
remember?" She stands up, tucking a blouse into a blue skirt. "I
can't believe you didn't hear the alarm."

"I can't believe you're moving around that fast." Sitting up blinds
me; standing is going to be worse. "I can't believe I was asleep."

"Well, you looked like you needed it." She brushes her hair into
some semblance of control. "I never want to be here in the summer
again. I spent the night practically draped over the air-
conditioner."

"You could have slept in the bed."

"You're too hot." She rubs lotion into her wrists, throws my luggage
onto the bed. "Come on. We have to get to the airport."

"I bet it's cooler." Her image swims as my feet hit the carpet. "In
Washington. Some wind off the ocean or something."

"Sure." C.J. shoves me toward the shower. "Great climate."

She's quiet in the car and in the terminal. Her eyes are bloodshot
and directed away from any sources of light, and from my face. The
early flight is remarkably empty. After take-off and coffee, C.J.
moves across the aisle to a vacant row. She puts the armrests up to
sleep, her legs bent against the seats, hands under her chin,
headphones on.

She's become inured to background noise. Her music is up loud enough
for me to hear: a distinctly feminine flutter and howl. It mixes
with the roar of the jet engines. The words are incomprehensible.
Commercial flight is surreal. C.J.'s breathing is even, not labored
at all. She wakes up after we've begun the descent.

*

Concluded in Part Three.

 

 

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