Title: Minutae: That Thing
Summary: A house move, a drunken evening and oh, so many choices...
Spoilers: Season One stuff, ITSOTG.
Disclaimers: Evie, Morag, Charlie and Alicia are mine. The rest by now you know are Mr Sorkin's
Thanks: To you all for reading and not laughing while I'm in the room
Category: New Characters/General
Minutae: That Thing
Guys you know you'd better, watch out
Some girls, some girls are only about
Lauryn Hill: That Thing (Doo Wop)
There are boxes everywhere now, strewn around my hall, out onto the stoop. This is it; this is the last of my life in this place. The boxes marked with a red cross will go into storage, along with the larger pieces of furniture, to await the day when I have the need for them again. They will sit in a warehouse somewhere on the outskirts of Washington and mark time without me, but I will remember them. I know what's in every single box, and each one is marked with a hand-written label. There's a list in my hand of every box and its contents, so if I need something I know exactly where to locate it. When I file, boy do I file.
The boxes with a green cross are going to my new apartment in Alexandria. The house is divided into two living spaces: upstairs and downstairs. I will live upstairs and I will share the space with Alicia Flowers, who will be 75 next birthday and who has lived in DC all her life. When I found the place I knew immediately that it was here that I would settle. There were little things about it that gave it a special allure: the fresh hanging basket of flowers outside the porch, the fact that our shared lobby is authentic and immaculate, and that the whole building reeks of Victorian charm and opulence. Alicia insisted on walking around with me: the house had been converted to two apartments about twelve years ago. Her sister, who is 78, had lived with her for the last twenty-five years until she met a man called Walter Herbert on a cruise the pair took around the Great Lakes last year. They fell in love over the summer and she now lives with him in Georgia. It's nice to know that love really can get anyone, at any time.
I asked Alicia why she didn't follow her sister to Atlanta, she answered simply that she was too tied to Washington. It was the little things for her too that would make all the difference: not being able to walk to the Deli in the morning, missing her bridge partners...she has found real independence and is not prepared to give it up. She has no wish to live with someone, she is happy alone, except of course for Edgar and Kennedy. I was concerned that Ripley might not get on with two elderly male cats, but as it happens they seem to get on just fine. Ripley has been there for three days now, and seems to treat the place like it's always been home. Everything in this move has just fallen into place, like it was just meant to happen. That's a good sign for a superstitious soul like me.
The moving guys are almost done loading the boxes now. Morag and Charlie are outside, waiting to drive me to the new place. As I've been standing here and thinking my house has finally emptied around me, and now it's just me. There's a part of Evelyn that won't be sorry to leave here, but there is the smallest part which will miss this place because it was the only time in my life I owned something this big. All this space, all this room was mine to command, and in the end I rattled around in one room like a pea in a whistle. The one thing I had always desired as a kid was the one thing that made my heart break as an adult. I never understood then what it would be like to have what you wanted, but to have no one to share it with...and how empty and hollow that could make everything else feel.
This however, is another part of my new life falling into place. This is part of the new life where I have people respecting my opinion, where other people actively want to be with me and enjoy my company. I have admirers: can you believe that? I still find it staggering. CJ Cregg doesn't however; she's always critical when I talk about the attention. She tells me I should be professional at all times and that it's dangerous to give in to such distractions. She's only saying that because I say the exact same thing to her. Neither of us is very good at taking hints when it comes to men: with CJ you just have to look at Danny to work that one out.
Me? Well, I think I may finally be open to suggestion.
Morag and Charlie drive me to the new apartment. It's late on a Friday and the traffic is not helping a quick transfer. We sit in the pick-up and I am forced to listen to The Eagles "Hotel California" I'm still too polite to ask him to turn it off.
"We hardly get to see each other any more at weekends" I make the comment to Morag, who is finishing a sandwich.
"Think about it, this means you're getting a life back"
"I had a life when I spent my time with you"
"No, you had half a life. Now you do stuff with the team, you have people at your own level to relate to. You never mixed socially at W&G. I think in all the time we were there you did one social function and that was it. Charlie went to more bowling evenings than you did"
"Charlie bowls a 198 average, I think he was better suited"
"I am still here you know. I'd thank you not to talk about me as if I was in Connecticut." Our lack of movement is frustrating Charlie.
"Have you any idea how much like my mother you sound?" Morag has being doing substitute mom on me for a while; she really is getting good at it.
"Well, then I'm having the desired effect... you've always been the one obsessed with how things look, well this looks healthy and normal. You see CJ in the evenings, you talk about things that I'm sure you and I never talked about..."
"You mean sex, don't you?"
"That thing is something I talk about with Charlie and nobody else"
Charlie perks up at the mention of the s-word: "Can we talk about it now?"
Morag smacks him on the knee and continues unabated.
"It's high time you got back out there, you're not getting any younger"
"Now you most definitely sound like my mother"
I reach over with my left arm and give Morag a hug. "I know, I need to start throwing myself about: not literally, but figuratively, and I will. As soon as I'm settled in the new place I promise I'll go out there and date. I'm sure I can find someone who'll play ball, CJ's got enough people lined up for me for starters"
Morag looks at me "I only have your best interests at heart"
"As do I" I quickly respond, and then look at my watch. We've moved about 100 yards in the last ten minutes. This could take a while. At this rate we'll get the boxes out and that'll be it, but that's not a problem in itself. There's got to be some stuff left for Sam and Toby to do tomorrow.
Sam comes to see me on Saturday morning. Morag and I unpacked bedding and Charlie put together the bed, and that was all we achieved when we arrived last night. I'm trying to find the mugs when the buzzer goes.
"You need any help?" Sam's voice is tinny over the ancient intercom.
"Don't happen to have any milk, do you?"
"I bring coffee and Pecan Danish"
"In that case I'll be down."
I rummage around for my dressing gown and stroll downstairs. Ripley is playing by the door, and when I open it she is momentarily startled and hares back upstairs with a squeal. Sam looks good in a sweatshirt and jeans. It's definitely beginning to feel like Spring outside.
"I bought you half of a housewarming gift" he announces, and hands me a paper carrier "I also bought you the briefing documents you left on my desk last night in your haste to leave"
"You couldn't afford a whole gift?"
Sam ignores me and stands waiting for a platitude.
"Thank you for your half a present and for breakfast Sam, what would I do without you?"
"Have no Pecan Danish" He really does have a wonderful smile, and my heart does flutter when it's directed my way. Yes, I know he's dating the Chief of Staff's daughter in an off/on way and that he has a strange obsession with women who could put "professional escort" on their resumes but... Lisa used to get jealous of me. That makes me smile in itself.
"What are you smiling at?" Sam looks curious.
"Don't mind me, I'm in a world of my own"
Only now do I invite him in and give him a quick lobby tour. As we're finishing up I hear the end door click and Alicia appears, attired in grey dress and long dark woollen coat. She looks nothing like her 75 years.
"Good morning, Evelyn: I assume you slept well?"
"I did, thank you. Alicia Flowers, this is Sam Seaborn. I work with him"
"You're the Deputy Communications Director, aren't you?" Alicia extends a hand, and Sam almost drops the tray with the two cups of coffee on in an attempt to shake it. I helpfully take the coffees as Sam turns on the charm.
"It's a pleasure to meet you, you have a wonderful home."
"I've lived here since birth, you know Mr Seaborn. My family moved here on April 16th 1923 from New York"
Sam looks at me and smiles. What is it about guys and women like this that always makes them think they're talking to their grandmothers?
"Would you mind getting the door for me Mr Seaborn? I have terrible trouble with the latch in the morning?"
So, here I stand in my dressing gown, coffees in one hand, Danish and Carrier in the other while Sam gets manipulated by a woman more than twice my age. He lets her out and stands for a minute at the door looking at me, and then wonders why I get upset and stomp upstairs.
I'm dressed now, and Sam and I sit on the now-uncovered sofa bed in the front room drinking and talking. It's just like old times, and that makes me feel immediately good about the day. I still have a good part of my old life with me now in my new existence. We talk about the mechanics of the White House for a while: the fact that since my arrival less egg seems to end up on the Presidential face. CJ is convinced that the President really does think now a little longer before he speaks, something he never used to do before. She is away this weekend; and has flown home to see her family. I've promised her a tour in the week and dinner. Toby has promised to call later today. He too has a housewarming offering.
"You'll be proud, we've been spectacularly co-ordinated in our choice of gift"
"Which would mean that if you've bought me the pitcher in a pitcher and bowl set, he has the bowl?"
"They're late 19th Century, you know. The pair will look very good on your dresser." Sam seems momentarily uncertain with his choice "We asked CJ if this was the one you were after, she was certain-"
"Yes, it's the one I liked, it's okay Sam. Thank you"
I lean over and give him a coffee-scented kiss, and to my surprise it produces a blush. He looks at me closely and then leans over and embraces me. It's a wonderfully natural and exciting moment all rolled into one, and I'm feeling even better when we finally release.
I sink back into the sofa bed and quietly curl my toes. I feel suddenly compelled to talk about anything except how I'm feeling at this precise moment.
"I'm assuming that, as my bleeper hasn't gone off since yesterday afternoon when I left, the world is able now to continue without me?"
"You've organised things to run pretty well in your absence: that's certainly a step forward"
Sam turns on the sofa to face me: he looks as good as I feel.
"I wish we'd had you there during the Campaign. Mandy was, on balance, a bad idea for lots of reasons"
"She isn't that bad. Your view of her's simply coloured by Josh, that's all."
"I honestly never got what he saw in her"
"I still don't get it. People are drawn together for lots of different reasons. Maybe it was fantastic sex"
We both look at each other and laugh simultaneously.
"I can't think of any other reason why he would have stayed with her for as long as he did."
Sam decides at this moment to finally give me an insight into why he left Gage Whitney.
"I think I was probably deluding myself in the end with both Lisa and my job in New York like that. We were together because everyone else thought we were perfect for each other, and in the end it was another guy who offered me the excitement and challenge I just wasn't getting. However good the sex was in the end it was ultimately about what made me happy for longest. Being with her didn't"
"So you ran away with Josh. Does he know you feel about him like that?"
Sam glares at me. "You know precisely what I mean."
"The relationship was like the rest of your life, it needed a new direction. Josh gave you a new sense of purpose and that path made you realise that your life was lacking in other places. He probably saved you the pain of a loveless marriage and a divorce settlement. Part of me does understand how you feel. I know until I came to the West Wing I really wasn't doing what I was capable of. The job pushes my expectations of myself"
"It's a commitment that expects you to give your best every day. That can't be a bad thing"
"It also helps to give you a good sense of perspective"
"Exactly: I know what's important, and this is." He waves his hand in an expansive gesture. "I do include you in this sphere of importance, I can't think of a time now when you're not working alongside me. I think we're part of a consummate team of professionals"
"...who by their own admission are lousy writers, poor public speakers and who have shoddy and ineffectual personal lives"
"We have bad points like everyone else"
He pouts at me and I can't help but laugh.
"You have a strong feminine side, don't you?"
Sam pouts even more and puts his hand on his hip. "I'm sure I have no idea what you mean"
I laugh at him some more, and he laughs at himself.
I look at my watch: President Bartlet will be crossing the Pacific now; the West Coast will be in sight. I've never been to Hawaii, and I could have caught a lift on the Presidential coat tails this time. Josh went instead, so I could move this weekend: otherwise it might have been another six weeks before I had a window. I must remember to thank him when I see him on Monday.
Sam suddenly stands up, ready for action.
"Well, as you have me, I think you should make the most of my abilities as a superior lifter and lugger. Where do you want to start?"
By the time Toby arrives at 3.30 the apartment is beginning to look like home. The front room is almost complete: the sofa bed is in what will be its final resting place and computer desk is up. I am connecting up my docking station and Sam is putting together the last of the bookshelves, more by luck than any particular adherence to the instructions. Toby appears at the apartment door with two large bags and his usual enigmatic look.
"Bagels and other items, as instructed" he announces "Your deli is an impressive experience, as indeed is your landlady"
"You met her coming up?"
"She was going out as I came in. She remarked that you already had the Deputy Communications Director up here, and were obviously looking to collect the full set"
"Did she try to charm you?"
"I'm open to offers"
"Toby, she's 75"
"And I've not had a date since last century, so should I be picky?"
I come up and relieve him of his bags, and then we exchange our traditional hug. It's become a bit of a ritual with him at weekends now: whenever we see each other we hug for between three and five seconds, dependent on company. Toby told me in a moment of alcohol-induced weakness it's the closest he gets to sex at the moment so he likes to make the most of any woman he gets to hold. I told him at the time he should get out more. He then ignored me for the rest of the evening.
Sam looks at Toby with distain
"I see you arrive just as I'm about to finish the last piece of manual labour"
Toby strips off his jacket and throws himself down on the sofa bed.
"I'm hoping I'm here just in an advisory capacity. Do I actually have to work to get fed?"
My "payment" for the boys' efforts is dinner. CJ, by her own admission, is a hopeless cook, and so my arrival has filled an important gap in the group dynamic: I'm now the mother figure. I found out very early in my employment at the West Wing that my skills in Domestic Science were a powerful weapon. If I so desire I can twist these two and indeed the Deputy Chief of Staff around my finger with a strategically chosen culinary experience. I check the bag of groceries that Toby has bought: nearly everything I asked for is there. I stick my head out of the kitchen door.
"Did I tell you to get rosemary?"
"Is it on the list?"
"Where's the list?"
"With the shopping, where else would it be?"
"Well, it's on the list. Would you like to offer a legitimate excuse why you didn't get it?"
"I was busy with affairs of state"
"...and practicing for any potential Grand Jury appearance, quite obviously"
I have a thought, and walk out into the front room.
"You don't really want to finish that, do you Sam?"
Toby stands back and admires his work. As soon as Sam left Toby quickly took apart a large part of what Sam had already built and began putting the shelves back together, but still without looking at the instructions. This has to be the way they write speeches. Most of them turn out okay, so... I'm concerned, as it's been an awfully long time since Sam left and it's no more than ten minutes each way normally to do a deli run. At least that's according to Alicia. She is 75, so maybe Sam decided to walk really slowly.
"Not bad" I concede. "I didn't know you had it in you. You don't exude the air of a builder"
"My great-grandfather was a carpenter" This is a piece of information that I wasn't previously aware of. "Anyway, I like a challenge"
"Is that why you work with Sam?"
"That's why I work with all of you"
I am drinking my first glass of Chardonnay. Toby eyes it with unbridled lust as I sit watching him from the dining table. Shaking my head, I go and give him the glass and go and get another for myself from the kitchen. As I return with the bottle, Toby is standing, looking at me.
"You confuse me"
"In what way?"
"You go out of your way to be accommodating. I find that puzzling"
"I find I get the best out of people when I'm working with them, and not against them. I know that's a difficult concept for you to grasp."
"You don't know me"
"Well, that's your problem to solve and mine to point out"
"Are you really interested?"
"Of course I am. Purely from a professional standpoint it's important to have a feel for anyone you work with. Sam's pretty easy, as I knew him before. CJ and I clicked pretty much immediately and despite some glaring differences in music tastes we do okay. Josh was always going to be difficult, so anything there is a bonus. Generally speaking I'm doing pretty well in most corners. I do pretty well with Toby too, he's just not happy to admit that people know him well. He sees it as a weakness"
He approaches me and walks a little too close as he goes to refill the now-empty glass.
"I see lots of things as potential weaknesses"
"Ignorance, deliberate stupidity, narrow-mindedness, racial intolerance...I hope you don't consider friendship in that list?"
"That entirely depends on the company"
"You're trouble is you're too clever for your own good"
"And you're problem is you can't leave things alone"
It's a Mexican Standoff. We are about a foot apart and Toby's fur is bristling. I'm not sure what to do next.
"I'll get there. You just need to give me time. I'm not as shallow as Sam or as blasť as Josh"
"No, you're unique. It's part of your charm"
He smiles at me, one of the rare ones that come from pretty deep down.
"Now stop slacking and finish the shelves"
I head back into the kitchen to finish the vegetables, and consider 'phoning Sam to see if he needs rescuing. At that moment the buzzer sounds.
Sam appears moments later with a full carrier. I can see a couple of bottles of wine sticking out of the top. "It occurred to me," Sam explains as he unloads the groceries on the table, "that you said you had no milk or coffee, so I've provided some, plus a few other luxuries no cupboard should be without.
"So, where's the rosemary, Sam?"
Sam looks pathetic. "I knew there was something else..."
I will go to the Deli and get it myself, and who knows, if I meet Alicia I can at least explain why I now have two stupid men in my apartment.
I see him walking towards me as I am returning from the Deli. He has three flower garlands around his neck and a large carrier under his arm. He looks, quite frankly, ridiculous. I wasn't expecting him: things must have gone really well for him to be here.
We meet at the foot of the stoop and look at each other.
He has his big boy grin on.
"I bought you a housewarming gift"
He hands me the carrier, and I look at him suspiciously.
"Would this be embarrassing to open in broad daylight?"
"Would you consider Hawaiian pyjamas embarrassing?
I take a peek in the bag.
"Loud, yes...embarrassing...well, I don't know"
"Gotta be an improvement on boxers and a t-shirt"
"You're never going to let that drop, are you?"
"Not while I can make you blush like this"
The colour is rising across my cheeks, he's right. He has the biggest physical effect on me of the three of them; sometimes he can just walk into a room and incapacitate me or indeed any woman within a specified radius. CJ says he's got special pheromones and that they even get to her occasionally. That's a conversation I'm looking forward to having when we've known each other for a while longer. I stand here in the early spring sunshine and shake my head at the man with the third most important job in the White House. Well, that's what he says, anyway.
I wonder if I can make dinner stretch to four.
It's a little after eight. Dinner was a huge success, and dessert has proven to be even more so. While Toby supervised Josh and Sam on the moving of the last pieces of furniture I made my second trip of the day to the Deli and returned to make double chocolate brownies with home-made chocolate sauce. The three of them now sit round my dinner table with half glasses of wine and chocolate around their mouths. They are talking about women in general, their ex-women in particular. I have just opened our fourth bottle of wine.
It's curious to be party to this conversation, but not to be treated as female. They talk around me like I was a guy, something that annoys CJ sometimes. This is one of the reasons she says she's so pleased I'm here, because finally she can have intelligent conversations that don't degenerate into sport or sex. Ironically most of the conversations we've had of late have been about the latter. She really doesn't do the former, and my baseball knowledge is only at neophyte level anyway. Sex is as good a place to start as any.
"Anyone for thirds?" I ask. Josh and Sam stick their hands up like little boys, and I provide them with a brownie each and a measure of chocolate sauce. Toby half pulls a cigar from his jacket pocket with a questioning look. I direct him to the kitchen. If he opens the window he can smoke what he likes, it'll give the place an interesting smell for a few days. As he passes me he gives me an empty glass, and I compliantly refill it for him and hand it back. He mouths a "thanks" before starting the business of lighting up.
Sam is swirling chocolate sauce around the plate with his finger, and he looks at me curiously for a minute.
"Where did you learn to cook?"
Sam giggles in that "I'm drunk and so will laugh at anything" way. I continue regardless. "My mother was very insistent that I should be well-rounded in all things domestic. I think in the end it's served me well"
"You think that it's a good trait in a woman?" Toby is now puffing away, but I notice he is directing the majority of the smoke out of the window.
"I think it's a good trait in anyone. It's a survival instinct. Eat, sleep, take care of yourself, basic things everyone should know"
"What about procreation?" Josh is probably the soberest one here, he's been very careful about how much he's drunk.
"Not really a survival instinct, more a recreation now I'd say"
Sam is now licking chocolate sauce off his finger. "You really don't seem to be embarrassed about talking about stuff like this"
"I work on the theory this is a normal adult level of conversation. The combined IQ in here's pretty high, I'd expect the subject matter to stay reasonably coherent, at least until we open the fifth bottle."
"You'd be prepared to talk about pretty much anything?" Sam asks.
"Anything. Try me"
"Can I ask you a question, then?"
I grab a chair from the table and park myself in the kitchen doorway.
"Okay. Is it personal?"
"Yeah, I suppose it is, is that a problem?"
"If you ask one personal question of me I get to ask one of you...fair?"
Sam looks a little unsettled by this...it could be the drink, though. Josh picks up his glass and takes a careful sip, and then moves his chair closer to the table. He's still on his first drink. "Sounds like a fair trade if you ask me Mr Seaborn"
"Okay, deal" Sam looks at me solemnly. "When's the last time you had sex?"
Josh is stunned. Toby coughs behind me. I just laugh: I did say anything.
"How exactly could you think that wasn't a personal question?" Josh looks at his friend in amazement
"Actually, believe it or not, I can" I look at Sam without embarrassment. "It's women who have the romantic notion of coitus. It's not the same for guys, I know that. I lived with one for almost ten years. It's less about the mind and more about the action itself: it's just less of a headfuck for guys."
The use of the f-word surprises both the "kids" around the table. Toby doesn't seem that fazed.
"You're saying we're just in the business of auto-stimulation a lot of the time?"
I look at him at the window, and he's almost finished another glass. He's a professional drinker, that much is obvious. Could you call him an alcoholic? Well, Max used to drink less than him and he went to AA voluntarily. I don't think I'm in a position to dictate terms in quite that way just yet. Maybe one day...
"I thought it was common practice amongst the male population." I suddenly look at Sam. "Okay, pop quiz, hotshot: when was the last time you auto-stimulated?"
"Yesterday evening" He says it without thinking.
"That proves the point, it's a reflex"
"But not everyone does it" Josh interjects. He is sitting and stroking the bowl of his glass in an unsettlingly rhythmic fashion. I wonder if he even knows he's doing it.
"Rubbish. Sam did it yesterday. Toby?"
"Thursday" he says without a pause.
"Are you embarrassed about it?" I look at Josh keenly.
"When and where?"
"Air Force One about eight hours ago"
At this we all dissolve into fits of laughter. I've never heard any of them laugh like this. It's wonderful and slightly bizarre to think that these three have a significant say in the direction of the President. At least they're all taking care of their own basic needs...
"I know it's not just about making yourself happy," I continue once I'm able to talk and not laugh, "I do understand that if there's a loving relationship involved it's a different set of rules. I didn't answer your question Sam: the last time I had sex was with Richard twelve days before he passed away. So, that's more than two years now."
"Don't you miss it?" Sam looks at me sadly
"Of course I miss it, but I'm not the kind of person who's just able to leap into bed with someone. Anyway, I know that this auto-stimulation game isn't just for the boys. Girls can do it too"
There's a moments awkward silence. I turn to Toby in an attempt to break it.
"Anything you desperately need to know about me?"
He takes a long draw on the cigar. I'm expecting a considered silence, but the question is already there.
"What would you have done if Sam hadn't pleaded your case with Leo?"
"I'd be working somewhere else, I honestly don't know. I didn't have a grand scheme as such; a lot of this was purely based on instinct. That didn't leave me much room for a back-up plan. What do you think I'd be doing?"
"Making more money than all of us put together, I'd suspect...especially if you'd gone to the West Coast" Josh swirls the contents of his half-glass around in his hand. "I heard you've gotten a couple of interesting offers"
Whoever his source is they're correct. I have had a couple of offers from Los Angeles, most recently from a possible democratic challenge to Bartlet for 2002. I wonder how much Josh actually knows, so decide to play it safe.
"I'm happy in DC. I have a distinct aversion to West Coast life. You needn't worry, assuming I'm still talking to you all tomorrow, I don't see the need to move again for a while"
Toby looks at me as I turn around and fish the bottle from the counter.
"It's only fair: ask away, whatever you like"
I desperately want to ask him if he's ever slept with CJ, because I'm pretty certain he has. CJ won't be drawn on the subject, at least not yet. If it did happen I'm pretty certain it wouldn't be common knowledge to the others around the dinner table. My slightly drunken curiosity will have to remain so. I decide to play it safe.
"Which one of these two is the most annoying?"
"Sam" No thought required there. He smiles and passes me his empty glass, which I refill again. Sam makes a deliberately glum face and throws a cork from a previous bottle into the kitchen as a token gesture.
That's two down, which only leaves...
"Do I get a go at this game" Josh has the big boy smile again. I wrinkle my nose at him.
"I get to ask first" I'm going to impose terms on this one.
"What did you ever see in Mandy?"
"It was great sex"
Not even a hesitation.
I look at Sam, and Sam nods. "We were right"
Josh is suddenly indignant "Since when has my love life been the subject of discussion between you two?"
"Since you dated someone who both of us just can't understand" Sam looks at him. "There had to be a reason, and it goes back to the fact that it was just stimulating you body, and not your mind"
"She really didn't do much of either." Josh decides to get his claws out.
"Now, that's just plain nasty. You were with her for almost a year, weren't you? Some of it must have been good"
"It was. I just have this irrational urge to attack her even when she's not here"
"Okay Josh, the floor is yours. Do your worst." I'll deflect his obvious embarrassment with some of my own. I'm suddenly not that confident I'll be successful.
Josh thinks carefully.
"If you had to choose between your career and motherhood, which would you choose?"
I'm taken aback, and blink a couple of times, then take a long drink from my glass.
"In this theoretical situation I couldn't be a mother AND have a career?"
"You have to choose one or the other"
"If it was with the right person..."
"Assume it is"
"Then I take motherhood every time"
Sam is taken aback. "I thought your career was important."
"It is, but it's not as important as a life with someone you love and products of that love. That's my major regret with Richard. We'd been trying for a baby for four months when he died"
I have to look away from the pair at the table for a moment as the memory causes a brief spark of loneliness. When I look back to Josh his eyes burn like sulphur, for just a moment. Then it's gone.
"Is there any chance of fourths? Sam has finished and is holding his plate towards me with a grin. I'm suddenly pleased to have something else to do that occupies my attention.
Toby and Sam have just left together, bickering like an old married couple. Josh, still being the soberest has stayed behind and has done the dishes. I've tidied the last of the moving mess in the front room away and I'm now ready to unpack the boxes for placement on my bookcases in the morning. I've just given Toby and Sam's present a clean, and the jug and bowl sit on top of my dresser in the bedroom. They do look good.
He emerges from the kitchen as I emerge from the bedroom
"I forgot to ask you, how was the trip?"
"It all went well. We should get the support we need"
"Good. Oh, and while we're on the subject of things that hopefully went well, how was the date with Joey?"
Josh blushes. "We had a good time. It was tough going without Kenny, but I did learn something"
He stands and slowly fingerspells his name: J-O-S-H-U-A
"I'm suitably impressed." I am, too. I know there's potential between them, they're both evenly matched intellectually and they share a lot of other common ground. Part of me feels he ought to have a long-term relationship, something longer than the two years Sam tells me he's managed with anyone else up to now. I suppose in the end it's what he loves more, and I was fairly convinced in the long run he'd rather be with the job first and a woman second. However, after the question tonight, I'm not so sure.
He now has his coat and is ready to go. The three garlands hang on my coat rail: I ask him if he wants to take one back as a souvenir
"You keep them. You can wear them with the pyjamas."
"They're very bright. I won't need a light going from the bedroom to the bathroom"
"They're not really the housewarming present, they were a bonus."
He pulls something from inside his jacket pocket. It's a picture, in a wooden frame. He shows me and I suddenly remember where it was taken. The day before Christmas Josh had rounded everyone up and insisted we all sit for a group picture. I'm in the middle, with Sam on one side and Josh on the other. He takes it and makes a space on the mantle, then puts it in place.
"You should always have your friends around you," he says simply.
As CJ says, he really is very sweet sometimes.
I feel the urge to spontaneously hug him and I do, and it catches him off-guard. He doesn't know what to do with his arms for a moment. When I break away from him he looks genuinely troubled, so I ask him what's wrong.
"Do you think it's bad to be with someone just for sex?"
"I don't see why it should be if both parties know what's happening. If it's just sex and there's not other details to consider, then it's probably fine. I wouldn't ask me, I'm not the best person to consult on such matters"
There is a loaded pause, and I decide to push my luck with him.
"Is that what it is with Joey?"
He looks at his shoes. "I honestly don't know how I feel."
"Then I think it's okay. If you didn't feel anything at all and you were doing it then I think that would be bad. If the jury's still out then fine, give it a chance"
"You were really in love with Richard, weren't you?"
Where the heck did that come from?
"Yes, or else I wouldn't have committed myself to him for what I thought would be the rest of our lives"
"Could you do it again?"
"Honestly, I still don't know. Richard was good at exploiting my weaknesses, I suppose. He knew how to bring me to a standstill, to incapacitate me in the best possible ways. It was always a fight, but a great fight, an intellectual and spiritual battle. I'm still looking for someone who has that ability to challenge me. I'm not looking for another Richard, though. He had his bad points as well as everyone else. I'd like to find someone different, but still someone who'd treat me as an equal, who'd understand what I want to do and occasionally allow me the opportunity to pursue a goal or two with their full support."
I've said far more than I would normally have dared. I stand and look at Josh in surprise.
"I'm not sure where that came from. I'm sorry"
"That's how you feel?"
"Then you have no need to apologise"
This time he hugs me and he means it. It's a long moment before we separate.
"I really appreciate the fact you cooked the three of us dinner, that you sat and coped with Sam's devastating lack of tact, that you let Toby smoke in the house. CJ sends him outside, you know"
"So I'm told"
"I'm really pleased that CJ now has a girlfriend whom she can really let her hair down with. I'm really glad Sam pushed your case with Leo because I now can't imagine anyone else in the job than you."
Now, that is a compliment I'm not likely to ever here repeated in public.
He stands now at my front door and smiles at me.
"Mandy was never good with the details. It's what you're best at"
"Presentation is everything"
"It is a lot more than that, you know"
"I know, but your position prevents you from showering me with praise"
"I don't want to getting ideas that you're ever going to be indispensable"
"Go home Joshua. I will see you on Monday"
The door closes, and he's gone.
Having exhausted myself at the gym and thoroughly worked off the remains of my hangover I return to the house on Sunday morning, ready to spend a day stacking shelves and hanging clothes. I'm lost in my own thoughts, thinking about the three men I had in my apartment the previous night. Intellectually they're all giants, but emotionally...nature is good at balancing her books. You don't get an excess of something without a deficiency somewhere else. Such is the way of the world. If I had to pick one to mate with, if the world depended on me choosing one of the three, who would it be? Josh would be the obvious choice, but both Sam and Toby have their merits. Three guys, indivisible perhaps. I'd have to do a real shift on my policy of no inter-office relationships. As my six months probation is almost up maybe I should reserve judgement until Leo finally signs my Contract.
I'm mentally working out the pros and cons of working with someone you're sleeping with when I hear someone calling my name. I'm halfway up the stairs, so stick my head over the banister.
"Could I possibly tempt you to some elevenses?"
Alicia stands below me with a plate of Danish pastries. The smell hits the top of my nose and suddenly the benefit of ninety minutes exercise evaporates.
It's a curious mix, Alicia's apartment. Most of it is undoubtedly stuck somewhere in the early 1940's, but the widescreen TV, DVD player and home computer are, most definitely 21st century. She has a selection of musicals on disc to die for, and I'm pretty sure that's a Home Cinema sound system tucked behind the lace tablecloths. The best of both worlds, I suppose.
"They all seem very sweet," she says to me suddenly, mid-way through pouring my tea.
"The boys you had upstairs last night. In my day if I had three men in my apartment whilst still single there would have been a lot of raised eyebrows"
"How do you know there were three of them?"
"I met Joshua last night as I was letting my boys out"
Ah. Please tell me he didn't say anything.
"He was very complimentary of you, my dear. He seems to really like you, they all do"
I look at Alicia with a different pair of eyes.
"What makes you say that?"
"You can always tell, you know. It was how I could tell with my sister. There was just something about Walter, he was... enthralled. They all see something of themselves in you. That's how it starts. They all see something in you that they're drawn to. You should feel flattered you have three to choose from"
I lean back in my chair and consider this bit of wisdom from a woman who's remained staunchly single all her life. Should I be talking any of this seriously?
"You really think I could have the pick of the three of them?"
"My dear, this is the 21st Century. I'd have thought now it would be perfectly acceptable to sleep with all of them"
I think I'm going to enjoy living here.