When Donna was a little girl, a pigeon crashed into her living room window. She'd run outside to find it, to see if it was hurt, but found only a clump of black feathers and the sharp tip of a beak. She'd never found out if the bird had somehow managed to fly away, injured but still breathing. Donna had liked to believe that had been the case. She'd never liked things that hurt.
That night, the neighbor's cat hadn't mewled once. Donna thinks she should have paid closer attention.
She pays attention now. So many things are different now that she's looking at them. Straight on, not sideways and around corners, like she used to. She used to look at the world the way Josh falls in love: like how a crab walks, circling but never stopping, never taking the direct path and only attaining what could be grasped at the edges. She looked at things timidly before, as if to see their reality would be too much, would cause something terrible to happen.
Terrible things happen no matter what, so she might as well see them when they come. She didn't see the bomb, but it happened anyway.
Even before that humiliating night trapped with CJ, Donna wanted to do more. She thinks that maybe she's known all the things CJ said for years, that her accusations and truths weren't the surprise they seemed. Donna remembers asking Josh for more responsibility the night Air Force One couldn't land; she remembers his snarky reply, too, before he finally let her take point on Angel maintenance procedures. Donna remembers thinking at the time that maybe Josh had actually heard her. Maybe he was going to give her more.
She remembers getting a job offer a year earlier, an offer she had earned by taking her station as Josh Lyman's Gatekeeper and translating it into political currency. Josh had mocked her and belittled the job that night, and then expected her to let things stay the same.
She had. Donna thinks she should have paid closer attention.
Donna thinks she's been paying attention for longer than she'd ever realized. It was always only a matter of time before she outgrew the job. Josh doesn't realize it, but he's been training her in his footsteps since the day she hired herself.
CJ saw it. CJ saw it and told her that she saw it. Even before CJ, Casey had seen it and tried to get her to do something with it. Not even a full term in the White House, and there had already been the possibility of more.
It's been showing for quite some time.
Donna sees it now. She wonders how long it will take for Josh to finally see it, too.
Donna starts updating her resume exactly four minutes and thirty-eight seconds after Charlie leaves. She has no college degree and never made any such deal with Josh, but she thinks it's a good idea to be prepared. Just in case.
It never used to matter, not really. Donna's desk sits 83 feet from the Oval Office (she knows because when they first moved into the bullpen, Josh had her measure to make sure it wasn't closer than his office door; he'd never live the humiliation down, otherwise), and in Washington, that's not little. She wanted more from her job, sure, but wasn't making sure Bartlet's Bulldog was always exactly where he needed to be in order to advance the President's agenda important? The entire bullpen would cease to function without her to manage it; the mess that had awaited her when she finally shoved Josh and Toby back inside DC city limits still makes her twitch. She's been privy to some of the most important domestic policy talks of the administration -- the budget that stopped the government, that amazing first-year healthcare proposal -- and knows about even more than that. More than she should, anyway. She's never treated like an assistant, except for when she is. But sometimes she's treated like something more. Shouldn't that be enough?
Donna wonders how long it hasn't been enough.
She wants to see everything that's ahead for her, even if she really doesn't. Donna thinks that maybe Josh won't be the only one who sees her resume.
It's not a comforting thought. But she thinks it anyway, because the alternative isn't comfortable anymore, either.
She answers the phone, because that's what she's paid to do. It's all she's paid to do, really; the research and the policy summaries and the late nights when it's just Josh and her against Congress aren't really there. They're ephemera, like mirages in the desert heat. But linen and sunglasses and big black Suburbans can't protect against her against this, either; this wasting away, acquiescent at her desk as she confirms Josh's appointment with Senator Reynolds tomorrow, because that's what she's paid to do.
She answers the phone, and it tastes like smoke.
Sometimes Donna thinks she remembers the explosion. The fluorescent lights above the bullpen will flicker, and she sees a blinding burst of white fade into blackness; her chair wobbles, and she thinks she's being flung upside-down until nothing moves anymore; Josh will slam his door after a particularly grueling meeting on the Hill, and her ears fill with shock and screams and then nothing.
(The lights flicker because the White House and Congress are exempt from following the laws they pass; the rest of the country might be moving towards more energy-efficient bulbs, but not the government. Her chair wobbles because Maintenance is six months behind on their work orders, and chairs for assistants just aren't processed as quickly as desks for press secretaries. Josh slams his door because he always has, no matter how many times Donna's asked him not to. Donna has learned many things working for Josh, and her place in the grand scheme of things is one of them.)
Donna doesn't think she has PTSD. She knows the symptoms and the warning signs, knows all the little red flags that come with check-boxes for concerned onlookers. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is one more thing Donna knows from working for Josh, and she thinks she'd know if she had it.
She doesn't like to remember that Josh hadn't seen it in himself, that she'd been the one to figure it out. She doesn't like to think that if she's sick she'll be waiting for Josh to see it. One more thing she's learned is that nothing works in reverse.
Donna doesn't like to think it, but she does anyway. At least she'll know what's coming when Josh finally doesn't see her fade away.
After a while, Donna stops waiting for Josh to see. She knows it's a fool's errand, has probably known all along, but it isn't until a Tuesday at exactly 2:47 PM, Eastern Standard Time -- she sets her watch to the Naval atomic clock on the wall so that she's always on time; Josh's watch still sucks -- that she gets it.
Josh slams his door after returning from a particularly bad meeting on the Hill about 247. Donna doesn't even hesitate before flipping through her index and pulling out Senator Westing's contact information. Josh hates dealing with Westing, but he can get the three votes that Gomez needs on the fisheries bill, and Westing needs the White House's help to make sure the land use rider dies in the Finance sub-committee. Just to be safe, Donna also pulls Anderson's information. That'll be two more votes that come with her, and her re-election is too tight to bend away from the party. Josh will have seven votes to barter with Gomez and bring him back to their side of 247.
Exactly nine seconds after Donna finds Anderson's card, she hears Josh shout for her. She doesn't say anything, and doesn't get up. She's barely a month out of the wheelchair and still in physical therapy three times a week; her doctor would prefer four, but Donna doesn't have that kind of time.
Josh bellows; Donna stays seated.
Seven seconds later, Josh's door opens and he walks the five feet to the partition behind her desk. "Hey, listen, can you--"
She doesn't bother with the pretense; she just doesn't feel the strength anymore. Without turning around, she holds up the card with Westing's info. She feels him take it, and Donna returns to her typing. Josh's memo won't write itself, and he stopped talking her through them years ago.
Donna feels Josh's awkwardness behind her. He says he can feel her lurking; she can feel him hesitating, has always been able to. Its how they've always been: Donna hovering but never landing, Josh stalling but never actually stopping.
She's so very tired of hovering and stalling.
"And also, could you--"
She still doesn't look away from the computer as she holds out Anderson's card behind her head. It takes Josh nearly ten seconds to carefully take it from her hand. He waits again, but Donna just continues typing. Finally, she hears Josh's shoes as he scuffles across the worn carpet and back to his office, even over the din of the Operations bullpen. The door closes, and Donna allows herself to look up.
The office buzzes around her, a never-ending flow of activities into one another as the business of government is conducted. No one even paid attention to her stilted exchange with Josh; no one even blinks at her that she knew what Josh needed before he told her. Everything continued on as normal, because nothing abnormal had just happened.
She thinks this is it, this is the moment when she finally sees. Really, truly, honest-to-CJ sees. She knows how to anticipate what Josh needs because here, when it comes to this, she knows all the same things that he knows. At some point, it stopped being about him teaching her and became her simply knowing already.
Donna thinks she's known things for quite a long time.
Her hands never leave the keyboard, even as she silently has her epiphany. She promised a long time ago to never let finding herself interfere with her typing.
Josh will never say anything, she's sure of it. Donna will need to force him to confront the fact that normal just isn't working for her anymore. Normal hasn't been working for her for a long time. She needs more, and she knows that she can handle it. She's been ready for a long time. It's just a matter of making Josh see that. See her.
He's never been very good at seeing her.
But the good thing about still being Josh's assistant is that she's the one who controls his calendar. She can't be the one who controls his calendar anymore. Decision made, she writes herself into his 8AM breakfast slot for tomorrow. She uses pen.
If Josh won't see her for himself, then she'll take care of things on her own. She's gotten used to that.
Josh cancels on her the first two times she tries to pin him down and talk about her future. When he cancels the third, bolting down to Toby's office to talk about...she honestly doesn't even know. Donna knows everything Josh is dealing with right now, and she knows that whatever pressing matter he's holding between them like a shield is, quite frankly, bull.
As soon as Josh skids around the corner and out of Operations, Donna flips through her index and pulls out two cards. She'll keep trying to reschedule with Josh, because it's the right thing to do, but she can see how this is going to end. She knows things now.
Donna considers the top card in her hand, then opens up her bottom drawer, the one Josh never bothers to bend to rifle through even when he's feeling extra squirrely. She lifts up a few files, including one that has several copies of her most up-to-date resume, and sees the bumper sticker lying against the bottom. Russell for President.
Not the best choice, but not the worst. And better than a Republican in the White House, any day, even one like Vinnick. Donna thinks that no one will ever live up to two campaigns with Bartlet, so she shouldn't even try to compare.
Restlessness is killing her. Even if she's answering Russell’s phones, at least it'll be in a different city every day.
She closes the drawer at a normal pace and with normal pressure; it snaps shut with the expected click, no trace of slamming metal to be found. Donna picks up the phone and schedules a meeting with Will Bailey for this Thursday. She tries not to think of how quickly the front desk put her call through to Will himself.
Josh still isn't back, and Donna knows she can't avoid it forever. She puts herself down for Josh's empty 5:30 slot that afternoon, even though she knows how this will all end.
With far less hesitation than she felt calling Will, Donna picks up the phone again and dials.
"Hi, yes, I need to schedule a temp to cover my desk...Operations, Donna Moss...Starting Wednesday...No, short-term, but you should also put up a job posting...Yes, I'll be brining my formal letter down tomorrow...Thank you."
It's Monday afternoon now. Josh has until tomorrow night.
But Donna already knows how this will end. She can see it.
Donna quits, and she’s not even surprised that it comes to that.
Josh keeps avoiding the issue, no matter how many times she reschedules herself into the empty spaces of his day. Donna hopes that for once the law of averages will be on her side, and that Josh will stop scuttling away from her long enough to see what’s right in front of him.
She’s not the doe-eyed college dropout anymore, begging for someone to see her value. Lots of people have seen her value. More importantly, Donna knows her own value now, and she knows that she doesn’t fit at her desk anymore. She hasn’t for a long time, but then, Josh was never very good at looking at things head on.
Donna used to be like that. But the bomb came from beneath her, so it wouldn’t have mattered if she was looking ahead. She may as well be looking ahead.
It isn’t like the fights they’ve had before, with Josh hurling bitter, jagged recriminations at her while she tries to maintain her dignity in the face of his wrath. It isn’t like the times he tears her down, quiet and coldly logical in his assessment of her current situation. It isn’t even like the times he’s reprimanded her for doing something stupid to protect someone else, exasperated and disbelieving, as if he doesn’t understand how she could put someone else’s desires before her own.
He really has no idea, even after all this time.
When the moment finally comes, when Josh is running away from her for the third time that day, rushed but buoyant, full of promises that they would discuss it soon, just put it on his calendar…
It is just two words, and yet Donna has never felt so tired, even when she was only breathing with one lung. She feels as though her entire life up until this moment has abandoned her with the words.
Josh doesn’t even take her seriously, and he walks away. He says they’ll discuss it tomorrow.
Donna walks away too, but only she knows that they won’t discuss it tomorrow. Knowing Josh, they’ll never discuss it.
They probably won’t be discussing much of anything for a very long time. Donna is surprised by how much that doesn’t hurt. She thinks that maybe it should hurt.
Maybe she really is ready for this.
She’s meeting with Will tomorrow. She knows it’s just a formality, that she’ll certainly be offered something with the campaign. Right now, something unknown still sounds better than the obsolescence in which she’s found herself living. She needs more, and if not something more, than at least something different.
Donna passes the security desk at the north doors and says goodnight to the evening guard. She probably won’t be seeing him again for quite some time.
She pauses at the doors and turns, looking back at the rotunda once more. The beautifully designed room, ceiling open and high, makes Donna think of the cave paintings in France, thirty thousand years old and still telling stories of the people who once touched those walls. Every inch of the White House is covered in history, even her little desk in a crowded bullpen beneath glaring fluorescent lights.
Beyond the security desk, just off to the right, she sees the start of the hallway that leads to the West Wing. For a moment, Donna’s heart seizes in her chest, and she’s back in the hospital room in Germany. She can’t breathe and everything is getting tinier and farther away as oxygen struggles through blood clots in her chest to get to her brain.
Then she’s back in the White House, and the West Wing is just the West Wing. That’s all it’s ever been. Gaza is half a world away, and Donna can breathe just fine here. She steps outside and the air is chilled. It doesn’t smell like smoke or sterilizer. She knows this smell. It’s car exhaust and cigarettes and never enough time. It smells like DC.
Donna breathes, and she pretends for just a moment that it smells new.