She returns in the middle of the worst heat wave the city has seen in years.
He’s managed to sweat through three layers of clothing between the White House and Georgetown and when he sees her, he thinks he’s doing just that. Seeing things. He’d like to play it off like he doesn’t trust the hazy lines of heat rising off of the pavement but, really, it’s her that he doesn’t trust.
They come to stop at a street corner, which is to say he comes to stop at a street corner. They do not meet in the middle. That’s not a concept Amy fully understands.
(This is a lie.
She’s a smart woman, commands your respect even if it comes with your hatred, and this is Washington. She understands compromise until it no longer suits her to do so.
He moves towards her and she stays in place. Waits.)
“How are you – “
“ – so tan?”
“I was going to say not melting.”
“No one’s thrown a bucket of water at me yet,” she says, wry smile, and he laughs. Swallows down the excuse that she just hasn’t been back long enough. “I heard you got married.”
“I heard you got divorced.”
A year and a half summed up in two sentences; it smarts. “You didn’t happen to hear that I got re-elected somewhere in there too?”
“Well, the President.”
“Yeah, I think he might have had something to do with that.”
Her mouth quirks at the side, enough to let him know she’s toying with him.
“You want to go somewhere and talk?”
“About your love life?”
“You want to go somewhere and talk?” He asks, again, and this time she nods.
Amy leaves during her very own perfect storm of self-made controversy not a year into the new administration.
She doesn’t get fired this time; she goes out on her own terms, and the statement that runs in the Post doesn’t sound a single thing like her.
“What are you going to do now?”
“I’m thinking Tahiti.” Her palms press flat against his chest; the door is cracked. “You want to come with me? For old times’ sake.”
“What about the lumberjack?”
Not what about his job, or what about Donna. That’s his hang up. The lumberjack, her boyfriend, the competition in a race that he isn’t even in but could be. He likes to know his odds.
He’ll hate himself for that, for a long time.
“He’s not really a sun and sand kind of guy,” she says, eyes locked on his and open mouthed, like she could swallow him whole, and there’s a certain draw to that within himself that he’s never been able to completely understand. “Too much plaid.”
“He could change.”
“People don’t change, J.”
Josh marries Donna the following winter; Amy doesn’t send so much as a postcard.
The stools in the café are too high to be comfortable; her feet don’t quite touch the ground.
“They asked me to run for office.”
He chokes on his iced tea. “Not for President though right? Cause, I’ve got to say Amy, there’s only so many more presidential campaigns I have it in me to run.”
“Who said I would’ve asked you?” He frowns. “Besides, it was a House race. Connecticut’s second is up during midterms and all five districts are held by white men.”
“You don’t live in Connecticut.”
“Which is why they asked me a year ago.”
“And who asked – “
“I said no.”
“That wasn’t the question.”
“Don’t pretend like you don’t know how this works. Someone asked me a favor. I said no.” She dabs at her mouth with the clean edge of a napkin. “We were always better at working behind the scenes anyways.”
“You going to marry her?”
She pops an olive in her mouth as he sits. Santos’ first term is still Josh’s third, and his feet have long since been tired by the fifth inaugural ball. These things tend to lose their sparkle, after all.
Her eyes don’t.
“And with that, he runs for the hills.”
“Amy – “
“You should. She’s good for you. You smile more.”
“As opposed to?”
“As opposed to what?”
“You said I smile more. As opposed to when?”
There’s a count of three where she contemplates him, a slight quirk to her lips, before she downs the rest of her martini, wiping her mouth against the back of her hand. It’s far from dainty but her lipstick stays in place, red to match her red dress at what is essentially the biggest Democratic victory party of the next four years, and the irony is not lost on him. He reads it as intentional defiance.
He reads it wrong but that was always their problem.
Someone is always looking for a fight.
“You should ask her,” she says, and the weight of her hand on his shoulder stays with him for the rest of the night.
She meets with Santos on Tuesday morning – your former Director of Legislative Affairs on line one, Mr. President – and forgoes lunch with the Executive VP of NOW to sit in his office, perched on the corner of his desk, a copy of H.R. 39 partially underneath her.
Amy says old friends with a dismissive hand gesture that indicates she means just the opposite. She never was really here to make friends.
His assistant flits in and out, takes his lunch order with barely a glance in her direction, and when she leaves Amy leans down, asks, “Are you sleeping with her?”
(Sam found her, during the re-election campaign.
Twenty-six and jaded, a political science major from Northwestern who didn’t have the money for law school or the grades for scholarships. Josh had gone through three secretaries in four years and Sam had said there’s this woman, Jill, that I want you to meet like he was setting Josh up on a date.
She hadn’t liked him much, at first, had fallen for the title before she came to find that the needy, oftentimes cranky man behind it tested her patience. She still brought him coffee in the mornings and there was no sane way to make her understand why he had to tell her to stop, but there was a certain ambivalence to the way that she talked about herself that he took comfort in. She was from someplace in New Hampshire. Her father’s job had something to do with the government. She wanted to go to law school somewhere. There was nothing for him to attach himself to.
Sam found her and then Sam quit. He thinks someone was supposed to fix someone else here but the treatment plan never quite took.)
“She’s pretty,” she says, anyways. “You always did like blondes.”
“There are other chairs here, you know,” he tells her, and there’s a HUD bill that they need to get through the Senate on his desk but her legs are eye-level and she draws first one hand and then the other up underneath the hem of her skirt like she’s fixing the thigh-highs she isn’t wearing. He sees a glimpse of black lace, pulled taut at the edges, just before she slides them down her thighs and off her ankles, and places them in the drawer of his desk with a smirk.
He tells Jill to cancel lunch.
Before all of this, before marriages and inaugurations, before he knows what it’s like to run a hand down the length of Donna’s spine, her body bony and fragile in ways that he finds truly terrifying (he almost lost her, he almost lost this, he almost always loses everyone), or to taste the third coming of victory, there is a campaign stop in Charleston.
The rain is constant, alternating between a steady drizzle and an out-and-out downpour, and they will come to blame the weather for the unfilled seats rather than the state’s history of shading red. The alternative is too defeatist; November is still a long way off.
It still drives him to drink, weak constitution and all, and this time there is no one to dissuade him.
It’s not that he ever needed a reminder of his own limits, it’s just that sometimes Josh dabbles in self-destruction, or the temporary illusion of it. This is not six drinks in an hour or a handful of pills. This is a fuzzy, vaguely warm calm that spreads and a bad headache at six in the morning, head bent over a toilet if need be. This is doing something you shouldn’t for the sake of it, for the freedom of it.
Sometimes it’s other things.
Sometimes it’s rumblings that Amy Gardner is in town and the sound his knuckles make as they rap against the door to her hotel room, not unlike the heavy sound a too full glass makes when set down on an old wooden table, right before the liquid sloshes over the edge.
“I’m seeing someone,” she says.
There is nothing but an empty living room behind her and, beyond that, a bed.
Her hand curls loose around the edge of the door, too nonchalant for this to be considered anybody’s last stand.
(I’m seeing someone, she says.
You can come in, she says.
By then, she will have turned away from him, the door left wide open.)
Afterwards, he is frazzled.
He is the only one.
Amy breezes out and Jill breezes in, and so it’s just him, tie crooked around his neck, losing the same memo twice in half an hour until his assistant pins it to the slab of corkboard on the wall like she’d rather be aiming for his forehead.
“The First Lady’s office is on the line for you,” she says.
She means your ex-wife.
She isn’t quite cruel enough for the tone it would require.
Amy, who left her underwear in the drawer and him half-hard in his pants, certainly is.)
Donna is the one who leaves.
Their marriage is a rerun of the Josh&Donna show, circa Jed Bartlet’s first term, and fraught with all the same imperfections. He takes his work home with him, both his exuberance and his irritability carrying over, that half-demanding, half-possessive tone aimed at her in their bedroom instead of in the office. He’s the exact same man he always was, a little more jaded maybe, the boyish charm wearing a little too thin; the difference here is her. The difference is that Donna left the halls of the west wing years ago because she deserved better and she’ll pack a suitcase and leave him on a weekday in September for the same reason.
Love, the sentiment both recognized and declared, changes nothing.
(He wonders, sometimes, if maybe he loved her from the moment he saw her standing in his office in New Hampshire, talking on his phone and flipping through his calendar like she belonged there, like she’d always been there and always would be.
He wonders, sometimes, if maybe he never loved her at all.)
“I’m leaving,” she says, sitting across from him in their living room that used to be his living room, and then again from the doorway, louder, desperate, and not once does he say a word. Joshua Lyman, who can argue a point straight into the ground and then some, who always knows just the right thing to say to get a Senator to vote the way he wants, doesn’t say a damn word.
His expertise doesn’t extend to this. It never has.
The door closes.
(You’re hit-and-run, Josh, he thinks, Amy’s words playing on a loop in his mind, that dry tone of hers, and he wants so badly to tell her that she’s wrong even now, years and years out. He wants to throw it in her face that he’s the one who stayed, he’s the one who got left behind, like it’s something to gloat about, only he can’t.
He doesn’t have her number.)
Josh goes home alone and spends the better part of Wednesday surrounded by people who know no other words than need and want, wishing he’d stayed that way. He doesn’t see Amy again until happy hour has long since passed but when he does it’s in a bar in Foggy Bottom, perched on a stool.
“How long are you planning on staying?”
She flashes a smile. “Why don’t you buy me another drink and then we’ll talk.”
He does and they don’t.
Instead, she asks about the HUD bill and whether or not he’s heard about the democratic congresswoman from Nevada who’s putting together an exploratory committee and looking towards the 2014 race. Tells him the bill won’t pass and reams him out for not taking backing from EMILY’s List seriously enough. It’s like old times, except no one’s job is on the line and he doesn’t sit there pretending that the part of him that finds her unbelievably frustrating isn’t the same part of him that wants to take her up against that wall and kiss her quiet.
“My flight leaves Friday morning,” she tells him. “I’m not staying.”
He can’t think of anything to say that doesn’t imply he might want her to, so he doesn’t say anything.
(For all that the concept of love is blurry when applied to Donna, he knows for certain that he never loved Amy Gardner.
They are the same in too many places; loving her would mean loving those same parts of himself, and he’s always enjoyed the delusion of being the better guy.)
Instead, he nods. Instead, he orders that second beer.
This is not a love story.
There’s your disclaimer.
If anything, this is a political drama. A thriller, if we’re being generous. Amy always hated the modern romantic comedy and Josh never had time for that sort of thing. Maybe it was the other way around. They were never your typical moviegoers.
They were never your typical couple.
So they don’t flee the bar and end up sitting on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and there is no split bottle of wine on the lawn of the Washington Monument. She doesn’t take the last Metro train inbound back to her hotel and he doesn’t kiss her while standing upright in the empty rail car like the reckless teenager he never got to be, that last lurch before the train comes to a stop throwing them off and making her laugh against the corner of his mouth. He doesn’t take her out to dinner on her last night in D.C., toasting old memories, and she doesn’t invite him back to her room.
What happens is this:
Amy takes a taxi back to her hotel and Josh drives back to his apartment. Her flight leaves Friday morning as scheduled and he doesn’t even remember that it is Friday until after half of the building has cleared out for the weekend. They don’t talk for three months, not because of a fight or feelings of regret or any other singular excuse, but because neither one presses pause for long enough to pick up the phone.
Josh starts looking towards the next election, starts shopping around for viable candidates that he can make himself believe in, and Amy throws her weight behind the congresswoman from Nevada, who consistently polls in third place before the race has even truly started. Everyone’s talking better and brighter things. No one’s talking continuing where they’re at now, no one’s singing Matt Santos’ praises, no one’s talking about him at all.
(“He was a good president,” Amy had said, in that bar, the wrong tense. “He just wasn’t a great one.”
Mediocre is the word Toby uses, long-distance from New York City, and Josh doesn’t like to start fights that he knows he won’t win. Not anymore. He’s gotten far too old for that.
They can say these things in good conscience now. Santos has already been re-elected; the White House is theirs for another four years, and he can stomach all of the synonyms for the words ordinary and unexceptional that his friends and colleagues, not to mention the press, throw at him.)
“I told you so, J,” she’ll say, months later, and the congresswoman from Nevada has a name and now she has the Democratic nomination for President of the United States. Amy will beam like a proud parent, watching her child cross the stage on graduation day, and come Monday it will be Josh asking her for a job. It will be the way her lips twist, the teasing tone in her voice, as she tells him she never thought she’d see the day.
He’ll buy her a drink in a bar in Iowa and outside it will be snowing.
This is not a love story.
(The thing with political operatives is that, like the politicians they help to get elected, they tend to be excellent liars when they need to be.)