the only moving thing / was the eye of the blackbird
When I sat there, in the shop, watching the snow turn into rain for the third time that day, I wasn't aware that I was waiting for him.-- Evening All Afternoon, Toby Ziegler
Of course, why would I be? I did not yet know that he existed, and there was no feeling of expectation, of anything coming. We have learned not to have feelings like that. The snow covers them, and the rain melts them. We forget we ever had them. There is nothing to come because nothing is coming but the rising and falling of each new day and the ending that brings us nearer to. In the times when these things happen, we figure these things out: what there is to live for and whether we can balance the idea of continuing, here, in this place where things are coming to an end, with the end of everything. This is not the end of everything; only of us. And yet I did not see those justifications clearly -- I could see very little. A store, a room, a network of invisible threads connecting invisible people who I never met and was beginning to think didn't exist, and a sheaf of papers that no one but me could read. A small dark island in a wide black sea.
But this is the kind of thing that gets me into trouble with my friends for being too depressing, and if you knew my friends, you'd know we don't define the word 'depressing' lightly. I'll go back to the start.
I went back to him, to New York, that winter. It was November, and everything was falling out of the sky -- snow, color, light. Or maybe it just seemed that way because my eyes were used by then to the glare of Californian sun, or because it seemed like failing, being back there. It sure seems like failing right now.
I'm writing this from California on what is turning into a pretty big pile of legal pads. I have no idea who I'm writing it for, or why I'm writing it at all -- maybe because there's no one left to read it but me. But I'll try to make it as clear as I can. So, first things first.
I came back home to California about a month ago. I'd been living in New York for a few years, with Toby. I came home to lick my wounds, I guess. Isn't 'home' the place you go to when there's nowhere left to go? Maybe I just missed the sunshine and the beaches. Coney Island isn't really the same.
My father is pleased to have me back, possibly because he's concerned that the Yankees may have turned me into something he doesn't recognize. It's good to see my mom again, too. I might even drive out to see C.J. and Danny. But, despite the fact that my life seems to be a constant journey between the East coast and the West, I don't see myself going back to New York for a while.
Let's go back a little.
It turned out, to no one's real surprise, that congressional politics is not my forte, or at least not as far as the good people of Orange County are concerned. I won the seat once, on the back of a campaign that only made sense against the backdrop of an original candidate who had actually died and the absolute craziness of that year; it only made sense because nothing else did by then. I was made Congressman for the California 47th and I swore to uphold the Constitution and serve the needs of my constituents. I swore a second, secret, oath to myself -- that I would forget what I needed to forget about the Bartlet White House, that I would not call Toby twice a day to ask his opinion on every meeting like some kid who still needs to hold his dad's hand when he crosses the street, that I wouldn't call Toby at all. It seemed important to be independent, at the time.
But that only lasted two years: I wasn't re-elected. My father, who still lives in the 47th in the house where I grew up and was just waiting around for my adolescent infatuation with politics to dim and disappear, offered me a job in his firm. Not just a job but a fast track to partnership (of course) and a corner office (naturally) and the tacit assumption that, in the battle of wills we've been having since I hit puberty, he was the victor and my career henceforth was the spoil.
I lasted one year and nine months, and then I caught the next plane back to New York.
Because I'm still my father's son (and presumably because it's possible to call the White House Chief of Staff to verify the claims on my resume) I got a good gig straight out of the gate. Not quite Gage Whitney Pace, but a name and a long trip into Manhattan every day to do battle with evil on behalf of good, doing what C.J. used to call my white knight impression. I do a lot of pro bono, because it's the only way I can live with myself, after the other thing; after walking away from the other thing.
I didn't know anyone in New York. I ran away fast, without checking any possibilities for friendship. After being away for such a long time, there was no one I could call. C.J. was running the White House, Josh was running the Santos campaign. There were a few people I could have called -- friends from college and contacts from the last time I lived in New York -- but nobody I really trusted. I felt vulnerable, pretty alone.
Except for Toby. Who was, of course, still stuck in D.C. on account of having been arrested for treason and not allowed to leave.
I was watching the news that night -- the night he was fired on CNN. I was in my kitchen, making coffee or pouring juice or something, I don't remember. I heard President Bartlet's voice and I started listening despite myself; I can't help it, even after all this time. And then I heard Toby's name, and you know the rest. After that I couldn't not call him, you know; even if I knew he would hang up as soon as he heard my voice, even if it took a week to get him to listen to me: I had to call him.
He sounded so defeated, underneath the bravado and the sarcasm, once I did get him to stop hanging up. I'd never heard him sound that way before. Toby's not the sunniest of men, I know, but he believes in better than we have and in trying, in keeping on fighting, or what would be the point of what he's done his whole life? He's an idealist, just like me. He just has a different way of showing it.
But, that night on the phone to him, I wondered if all that was over. He wouldn't talk about the specifics (which was fair enough, for an ongoing case) but after he told me who his lawyer was and I told him he needed a better one he refused to hear it. He certainly wouldn't let me do the job, even though I offered. But, more than that, he talked about it as though it was a foregone conclusion that this was what had happened to his life, to his career. It sounded like someone else's words in his mouth, to me. I guess the President's. Toby would never say it, even now, after the pardon and everything else, he won't be drawn, but I guess the President said some things that night, and his words have weight. They are particularly heavy for Toby; they always have been.
But when I asked if I could come see him, to my surprise, he did say yes. I think mostly because he was bored, but maybe also for other reasons. Anyway, I went to him.
He is New York, to me. He always was. He carries Brooklyn around in his pockets and wrapped around his shoulders like a coat. He's proud of everything that happened to him there, even the stuff that hurt. Every New Yorker I've ever met has been that way, but in him it always seemed more intense; or more instinctual, like Brooklyn was inherent, at a cellular level. I thought I felt that way about California, but now that I'm back here, again, I know I don't. I never did.
He never talks about New York with stars in his eyes: he loves the dirty back alleys as much as Central Park or the Brooklyn Bridge, probably more than those places. They feel more like home to him, I think. He loves it after the snow has fallen and every street is covered in slush and the imprint of shoes and boots and the tires of the yellow cabs. That's like poetry to him: the imperfection and the beauty it is possible to find in ordinary, broken things.
When I went to see him in D.C. that year, I felt like I was bringing New York back with me, back to him. I know it's stupid but it's what I felt, and maybe what he needed. We talked about the city more than we talked about him, or his thing, or any of my things either. We avoided the issues by walking through Brooklyn together while we sat in his apartment in Georgetown, downing beer and bourbon. He smoked cigars and tried to fool me that he didn't care anymore, one way or another. But his eyes were full of the night, and the darkness in the room clung to him, and I was worried about him, and had to bite my tongue.
I kissed him, of course. It has occurred to me, thinking this whole thing over -- me and Toby, Toby and me, the way we worked and the way we rubbed along together -- that I was much better at insinuating myself into his space, into his life, than I would ever have admitted to, or even really realized.
But I'm jumping ahead again.
The thing is that I'm gay. Or at least, functionally, emotionally gay. Bisexual. Whatever. For the last decade I've fallen in love with men, anyway. It's really hard to categorize this stuff and I'm insufficiently educated in the whole labeling of sexuality thing -- what we can adopt and throw away and stretch and shift and move the goalposts -- to really know what I'm talking about or feel comfortable putting a big label on it that might be one of those sticky ones that it's impossible to get off again. I need to get hold of Professor Kinsey and see what he can make of me.
I've slept with women, and I love women. I like to look at them and talk with them and go to bars and drink cocktails with them, but I have this whole problem with falling in love with them, in that I tend, on the whole, not to. I wasn't in love with Laurie or Mallory or the woman I was engaged to before my life went crazy and I started working for the President of the United States. But I fell in love with two men who changed my life, basically in the first ten minutes of my acquaintance with them. Those two men were Josh Lyman, and Toby Ziegler.
I met Josh at college. When I was at college, not when he was. He was a friend of a friend and he got drunk one night while visiting this friend of mine. I went over to my friend's dorm to give him back a really, really dull book I'd borrowed from him in an effort to not fail my midterms, and I met Josh.
He smelled bad and it was pretty clear that he wasn't going to impress anyone with his ability to hold his liquor, but then he opened his mouth. He started talking to me, talking about whatever stupid thing was going down in the news that day, telling me all about how he wasn't cut out to be a lawyer like I was setting out to be but he had a good job on the Hill and that was looking sweet (he used the word sweet, without, I thought then, the barest hint of irony). He was cocky and, once I'd managed to get together some coffee to shove down his throat, he started walking around the tiny dorm room in this crazy, strutting way that I couldn't help but get needled by. I thought -- for the first hour, I thought I didn't like him, I thought I couldn't stand him. But then we started talking about politics for real: injustice, process, the policies and deceptions of the crazy-ass Republican government we had at the time, and his voice changed, his eyes changed. His eyes went gray and serious and his voice became this soft thing that I was listening to the way I listened to my best lecturers; the way it turned out, a few years from that day, that I would end up listening to Toby.
We didn't sleep together for very long. There was a thing with a girlfriend and his heart getting repeatedly broken by this girl even though he would never admit it. He'd come see me every now and then, once he even came back to my father's place in California and stayed a week or so. We'd go to a bar someplace and get drunk and he'd tell me all about the progress of his career while he was still sober enough to boast, and then about the girl once the liquor had gotten hold. And then sometimes we'd somehow fall into bed together. I loved him and I know he loved me, but not in the same way. These days, I guess we're more like brothers. These days I guess both of us have moved on from that place. We were just kids then really.
With Toby, it was instant. I came to the Bartlet campaign in Josh's pocket, because he asked me, and I trusted him and what he told me about Jed Bartlet. It was snowing that day. Josh was in the middle of introducing me to everyone. Every five seconds he was sipped from a mug of the terrible coffee we had at the HQ. I could tell he was nervous and I was too -- I was his guy, after all, and if I finished by screwing this up it was his ass on the line -- but he was covering it well, or better than I was. I met Leo, C.J., and the Governor. Toby was late. He was the one I wasn't looking forward to -- the guy who would end up being my boss if it all turned out the way we wanted; the man who would be judging my every move for the next however many years we finished up with. A new father, I thought, at the worst. Someone else who'll tell me what I can think and what I can do and what I can't and by god, I'll want to run away, I'll want to run away home as fast as I can.
Well, he came through the door, wrapped up in a blue scarf and a big coat the color of the mud in the street, with a massive takeout coffee in his hand and a briefcase bursting at the seams with papers. He took one look at me and Josh's open mouth about to say something polite and introductory and he said, This is the new guy. It should have been a question but he didn't say it like one. His voice was like thunder, and wind rattling a piece of balled-up paper around on the street, and like the low notes on the clarinet I never practiced enough when I was a kid. There was snow in his hair and beard and I took one look in his eyes and got socked in the stomach by the huge sadness there, and the huge pride. I took one look at him, and I fell in love.
I've been in that place ever since, really. I know it's dumb but that's the way it is -- you don't get to choose these things, you just have to figure for yourself whether you want to lie about it for the rest of your life, or whether you want to face up to your heart and the way it happens to work. I've never lied. I've never really told anyone the truth before, either, but then I was never asked. It's assumed, of course; heterosexuality is assumed, and because I dated women and was engaged to Lisa no one ever really thought to ask. They might have wondered, I suppose. In particular, they might have wondered if they'd spent any time around me while I was spending time around Toby. But they never asked.
There's a snag, of course: I fall in love with men, for whatever reason, reasons don't matter, but Toby doesn't. Josh didn't either. In fact, both of them have been firmly in love with the same two women (two different women separately, of course, not both of them with the same two women at the same time) for years. And so I've felt pretty bad for the last as-long-as-I-can-remember. I've been in love with these guys who have their own stories, their own broken hearts, and in Toby's case their own kids with those women they've loved for a third of their lives. Guys who have declared themselves, both in front of me in public and directly to me in person, as 'not gay'. Heterosexual, then, presumably, or guys who sometimes sleep, or have in the past, slept with men; who go to bars with guys and talk to guys and maybe even like to look at guys, but who fall in love with women. So however I feel, it doesn't seem to matter. They don't fall in love with men.
Toby, being Toby Ziegler and having, as he does, a telepathic link into my skull and Cliff Notes on everything that happens there, knows exactly how I feel about him. He knows now, obviously, because I've told him, because we were sleeping together and living in the same apartment for two years. But he knew before, too. It's pretty much the only way I can explain what actually ended up happening. And even though I can explain the actual events that way I'm not sure I could give you an accurate gloss on what that might have meant for Toby; what he felt one way or the other. On bad days I think it was a combination of pity, amusement, and his need to get laid. On better days I can believe there was something else there, affection or something. I think, even when we just worked together, there was something -- a connection. You can't write the way we did, share everything with someone else that way and have your whole professional life bound up with the thoughts and ideas and beliefs of another person, and not have some fellow feeling for them. We were a good team. But beyond that? I don't know.
That night, the first night back in D.C. with him, with him again for the first time in four years, with nothing to do, before he was free to leave the District, before he got the job at Columbia, before the apartment in Park Slope, I kissed him first. We were in his kitchen. I was staring at the ancient cactus plant on his window sill and the paintings on the refrigerator which were signed in big, clumsy letters: HUCK and MOLLY. Huck had painted a huge tree with a canopy three times the size of the roof of the house it was standing beside. In the tree was a single bird. A blackbird, I think. There were wavy lines coming from its beak, to indicate a song, I suppose. It made me incredibly sad, in a quiet way that welled up inside my belly, to look at it. I don't know why, except maybe the innocence there. Maybe the way he'd written for DADDY at the top of the page. Molly had painted a dancer. It was pretty abstract -- huge swirls of color, pink and red and yellow, curling around the dancer -- but beautiful. It was amazing, actually, for the work of a five year old. But dancing is in Molly's blood -- it wouldn't surprise me now to know that she can do that kind of thing, but it did then.
A digression on the subject of beauty:
I've more or less said that I fell in love with Toby at first sight. Which may seem slightly odd. I mean, pick your matinee idol, or person around which immediate love and/or lust at first sight usually revolves -- Toby isn't it. Even I can see that, though it does set up my point nicely.
See, it's been pointed out to me that I rate fairly poorly on tests of visual observance. I think what it is is that I'm not interested, beyond a certain point, in beauty -- or what we think of as beauty: its signifiers, its orthodoxies and dogmas that shift and contradict themselves even as they seem eternal. I mean, I like mile-long legs and broad shoulders and nice suits on good-looking guys and nice dresses on good-looking women but, at the back of it all, once the thrill is over, it all seems a little empty, somehow unfulfilling. I'd say I was more interested in ideas; ideas like liberty, freedom, the pursuit of happiness in all its forms, both orthodox and not, and people who love ideas and find them worthwhile things around which to build a life.
I'd say all that, and though it's true, it isn't only those things that count. The first time I saw Toby I didn't know, after all, whether he was that kind of person. But what happened happened anyway, in spite of my ability to perceive beauty and Toby's looks.
So, a little litany of places on Toby's body that I've always thought worth one of the measures by which something is accorded some status as 'beautiful': poetry. I'm not a poet. I wish I was. But if I wrote poetry, I think I'd end up writing about him a lot. And I'd start somewhere near here.
The hollow at his throat, just where the pulse point is. Wide enough to fit my tongue inside, the whole press of a kiss, but delicate. Between his collarbones, it shades red when he's aroused and is the last thing to stop glistening as the sweat dries after we've made love. The place where I can't tell the difference between his vulnerability and his blank, awful strength.
His hands. He has unromantic hands -- a little chubby and blunt, prone to delicate flicks at wrist and knuckles that you'd call effete if he were any other guy. But they are hands you want to touch you. The first time he touched me I thought I'd come from just his fingertips brushing over my nipples. He's relentless: touches, caresses, slaps, tweaks, scratches, rubs, scrawls, all over my body; rewriting what has been written there.
Ankles. Another juxtaposition of strength and vulnerability; bone and delicate, soft flesh. I've kissed him there once (you'd be surprised how seldom it's possible to get below the knee when we fuck): I opened my mouth around skin that has possibly never seen the sun, or not seen it since the Sixties, and the bone underneath; it was like trying to swallow something too large for my mouth.
His belly, lately thinner but I fell for it when it was heavy and rounded, like a buoy -- impossible to sink. I wanted to rub my cock on it, against the hair and the weight and the heat; against the certainty of him, his body like a bulwark. I wanted that from the first day. He let me, twice. After I was done I clung on to him, both drowning and being saved.
(I could go on, but I won't. Beauty is what makes you feel safe, and lost, and like dust in someone's hand thrown up against the sky. And so, he is beautiful.)
Anyway, we were standing there in Toby's kitchen. He was making some more coffee and I was trying to look anywhere but at his face because I'd spent the last two hours, sitting on his couch and drinking his coffee and his liquor and breathing in his cigar smoke and the smell of his skin, realizing that I'd missed him, so much more than I thought. So I got to stealing glances at him, every now and then, trying to remember the exact tone of the skin then hidden by his collar and the shape of the hollow at the base of his throat which I'd tried before to fit my thumb inside, and then my tongue. But that's another part of the story -- I'll get to that, I promise.
He was done making the coffee. He poured it out and handed me my cup and it was just like it is in all those cliches -- our fingers touched as he passed the mug to me. And then it was like I couldn't stop looking at him and he was doing his thing where he stares at me until one of us -- me, I mean -- gives up and looks away. Only I didn't. Couldn't. Whatever. He laughed at me, using the minimum number of muscles of the face it is possible to use while laughing. His eyes were so dark -- he may have been much more drunk than he seemed, but I don't know. He laughed at me, then took the mug out of my hands, presumably because he knew what was coming next and didn't want a shirt front covered in steaming hot coffee. Then I kissed him. I lunged for him, so I knocked the mug a little on the counter anyway, spilled some coffee over my sleeve and my pants, and against my mouth he laughed at me again. He knew; he always does, it seems.
He broke the kiss after a minute or so, then took hold of my arm, gently, and said my name as thought it meant the same as stop. He smiled at me, then picked up my mug of coffee, refilled it from the pot and handed it to me again and pushed me towards the couch. Then he mopped up all the mess I'd made, washed his hands, and stood by the sink for a while, just looking out of the window. He sighed, very heavily, and I thought I'd pretty much screwed everything up. I mean, I had just been looking at pictures painted by his kids stuck to his refrigerator door, for crying out loud.
I sat on the chair opposite the couch planning ways to say 'I'm really sorry and I'll go as soon as I've drunk this and packed my bag back up again'. He came and sat down opposite me. We sat in silence for a while, drinking our coffee. I felt as depressed then as I'd felt for a good while.
He looked at me, over the rim of his cup and said, I thought we promised not to do this.
I smiled and said, It doesn't matter now, does it?
He looked at me, in that way which could mean any one of a hundred things, most of them disapproving. He said, I never thought I'd see the day Sam Seaborn gave up.
I haven't given up, I said. I just don't think there's any point in worrying what anyone thinks of either of us right now. Much less who we might have decided, in the next few minutes under the influence of all this beer and whiskey, to go to bed with.
Sam, there's really no --
Toby, come on. What does it matter, really?
He looked at me. He put out the cigar he was smoking, twisting its end into the ashtray with a single flick of his wrist. I still had the taste of that smoke in my mouth, that he breathed into me. My lips felt ashy, a little numb. He said: I've never seen you like this.
You like it? I asked him. I wondered what he meant even while I thought I knew. I hid from him when I was unhappy, I always did.
No, he said, not really.
He looked at me again; considering me, considering my unhappiness, I guess. It wasn't a critical look, as it might have been. I don't know how much of his own sadness he was projecting into me, probably more than I'd like to admit, but it wasn't pity, and it wasn't disdain. It seemed, to me, like he was hurt by what he was seeing.
Toby can be this almost frighteningly tender person. Whenever I've seen him with his kids, he's been that person. I've seen him be that way with Jed Bartlet. And when Josh was in hospital, after Rosslyn, and Toby and I went together to see him, he was that person with Josh.
It's disarming, because runs against what you think you know about Toby Ziegler -- that he's a frustrated anarchist, that he's angry and difficult and a damn genius, that he cares less about people in particular than he does about communities in the abstract, that he will hide every other emotion he has underneath his fury and his determination to do the best job he can. All of that is true, and in so many ways we are completely different people, but this is the strange thing: we fit together. He's dark and, I guess, I'm the light. Almost any opposite you can think of? Toby is mine. But it works; we work. I don't know if you've ever read anything much about John Adams and Thomas Jefferson but you've probably seen that documentary on Jefferson by Ken Burns or, you know, dimly remember some of the stuff your Social Studies teacher told you in the fifth grade. The Ken Burns documentary was on PBS the other day and I caught the end of it. I should have been working but I was home and I was thinking about him -- about Toby, I mean -- and I turned on the T.V. and this thing was on. One of the talking heads was describing their relationship, their working habits and their personal friendship. The guy said something like: Adams is a realist who is sometimes cynical and needs Jefferson's idealism to redeem him from that cynicism, and in the same way Jefferson can float away into a somewhat unrealistic set of assertions, but he's got Adams there to ground him. When I heard that I almost called him, just to hear the scoff in his voice when I gave him the quote and related it back to him and me. So you're saying, he would have said,That you're Thomas Jefferson? Yes, Toby, I'd have said, And you're John Adams. If we're talking about record-breaking levels of arrogance then I got you beat, pal. He'd have laughed, if I'd have come to him with this about a month ago. If I'd have whispered it to him, in our bed, with my hand on his dick. He denies it -- he denies it strenuously -- but he likes it when I let him know that I find his power sexy. Or at any rate, he used to.
The other thing the guy on the documentary said was this: It becomes clear what they have in common is a recognition that each of them is not complete without the other. I wouldn't have gone to Toby with that, in bed or out of it. But, as true as it was for Adams and Jefferson, personally, privately, in respect of the re-shaping of the great dream of American freedom and justice through words and ideas, as friends engaged in that enterprise together, as two guys who lived and died on these ideas, on those words, who tried and failed and overreached and got lucky; as it was true for them, somehow it's true for us too.
We have functioned as a partnership, in the past. The way Toby tells it it's a story about a put-upon guy with a hard job to do (him) getting used to an annoying apprentice with a certain amount of raw talent (me). Which is, you know, kinda true as far as it goes. Except that it misses out the heart-rending story of the abuse the apprentice suffered -- all really good stuff, by the way, about dictionaries being thrown at my head and keeping a list of how many synonyms for 'stupid' Toby has ever used to describe me. Which also leaves a lot of things out: how we developed our way of working within the first week of knowing each other, and how that method evolved into what I might as well call professional telepathy. Like Adams and Jefferson, neither of us would have been the same without the other. Toby's greatness is, well, great. Mine is debatable, but I'd have been a guy watching the inauguration of John Hoynes that January with a beer and a sense of vague dissatisfaction and my brain half occupied with whatever I'd brought back from the office for the holidays without him, and without Josh. As it was we lived and died on what we made together: the words we put into Jed Bartlet's mouth. We made that, crafted it, cared about it, fought over it. We were partners. And you don't like to see your partner suffering. At least, that's what I thought at the time. It's as good a segue as any. Back to the plot.
He sighed. He said again, with absolutely no inflection to his voice, No, I don't like to see you this way. Then he reached across the table for me. His fingers grasped my shirt sleeve, where it was loose against my arm. He pulled my hand across the table. He got hold of my wrist with his right hand and with his left hand he held mine. His hands were warm, like they always were before. He sat forward on the couch and he pulled my hand up to his mouth. He kissed my knuckles, then rubbed his thumb over the place he kissed like he was trying to wipe the kiss away.
I'm sorry, he said, like he didn't really know what in the hell he was apologizing for. His voice was tender, then he pulled on my shirt sleeve, pulled me up to my feet. I stumbled across the table, fell down beside him. I kissed him again. I pressed my mouth against that hollow at the base of his neck, just to see whether it was still the shape I remembered. His breathing was the only thing he couldn't keep perfect control of -- it was heavy, irregular. It beat against my mouth and the backs of my fingers as I stroked his neck with them. I kissed him again and he kissed back this time, violently, pulling at me, at my shirt and my shoulders, dropping his hands to the buckle of my belt. Well, you know what happened next, I guess. We fucked on the couch, and then again in his bed. That was the first time I slept with him, in the sense of falling asleep and waking up in the same bed. Doesn't seem like a big thing, but it was to me. It changed the way we worked.
Our love affair has always been interstitial. It exists between other loves and other duties and other things which seemed more important. It was what we did when the words wouldn't come, or when the words has done their job and we felt suddenly useless and dazed, or when we had exhausted the possibilities of what words could express; when we were empty and reaching, then we reached for each other.
We've never tried to use words to describe what happened between us, or what we meant to each other. We never talked about it together. We made dishonest attempts for other people and Toby would talk about me being like a little brother to him, talk about me like a man who had a younger brother and knew what it felt like -- the exasperation and the affection, the feeling of someone always clinging onto your sleeve; I talked about my boss, my mentor, the guy I was always trying to live up to, my friend. But those words don't work, they don't even come close. The only thing I can do is tell you what happened, and hope you understand; that you can grasp at least a little of what I mean. I have to leave the rest to poetry, or to Toby. I'm not a good enough writer for more than that.
We used to fuck after the States of the Union. Three times, so technically one Inauguration speech and two States of the Union, but the only person counting is me. The first time it was stupid, drunken jubilation -- champagne and applause plus the ache in our shoulders and our fingers from typing every goddamn word in the nine thousand five times over before we were happy with them and no one knowing that but us. The party was everywhere -- in the Bullpen, in the Roosevelt Room, even in the Rose Garden. I kept expecting the President to come banging down the corridors to tell us to keep it down. But we (Toby and I, Josh, C.J., Donna, Ginger, Carol, everyone) were in the Mural Room. We could hear the laughter, the music. Toby told them we were going for more beer. They clapped us out of the room -- the heroes. Halfway down the stairs Toby pulled me aside and kissed me. I guess, that first time, it was a 'well done, Sam' gift, but it didn't feel like one. He dragged me down the stairs by the tail of my tie and we found the nearest room and I sucked him off and he jerked me off and, while we lied to everyone about how much beer we hadn't been able to find down in the basement, I thought they must all have been looking at us, knowing what we'd just done, knowing it was me that wanted it and Toby that indulged me. I stared at the floor as much as I could, thinking, stupidly and frantically, that maybe I should just avoid anyone's eyes until my own eyes -- with their widened pupils and that way the lovesick have of communicating everything with the exact cast and color of their eyes -- had calmed down. I guess they were too drunk to notice, or else they all knew it all already and they didn't care. We are Democrats, after all. But it's easy to say that: sometimes when it's happening to you and the people around you and tolerance is not the abstract thing you have no trouble demonstrating over a beer with your friends, it turns out a little more complicated than you thought. Particularly when it's a guy and his deputy. Particularly when it's a guy and his deputy who work for the President of the United States.
The second time it was awkward: neither of us knew whether the other one expected anything, or if he even remembered. I remembered, of course, but I kinda assumed he didn't, or that he'd decided he didn't want to remember or what it implied about his sexuality. So when it was quiet that night and everyone had gone home (or to sleep somewhere there was a spare couch) and he came and stood in the doorway of my office and smoothed his tie down his chest without doing or saying anything else, I didn't know what he wanted. So he started it that time too, and eventually tried to fuck me over my desk without any lube, until we agreed, after a bit of negotiated rutting, on mutual blowjobs.
The third time, I called the shots. I tried to. He laughed at me basically the whole time, but he let me do the pulling, the asking, the directing of touches and kisses. He was drunk enough and happy enough and proud enough of me (I think) to let me have his body, for forty minutes or so.
We shouldn't have done it, not there -- in the office, in the White House, while we were still colleagues. We both knew that. It's not the same as the kind of casual fucking that happens on the campaign trail (so I'm told; Josh told me and he may have been embellishing). For one thing, by the third time it would have been all that was needed to completely derail the Presidency and kill our chances of winning a second term completely. We were on our very last scandal by that point and as much as I can't support the idea that two adults of the same sex deciding to sleep together can ever be shameful, I'm painfully aware that a good proportion of the American public does not agree with me. But that wasn't the reason we shouldn't have done it. I could have dealt with the bigotry and the prejudice if I'd been outed as gay in the media, holding hands with my boyfriend in the park -- like with Laurie, a guy's private life is private and maybe we could even have gotten serious about Don't Ask, Don't Tell and all the other gay-bashing policies we couldn't help but brush under the carpet, following some realization that these issues aren't just things that happen to other people. (Though probably not, as I bet C.J. would have found a way to point out to me with examples from all the times we've screwed over women's groups.) But, between two guys who work with each other, who both work for the President as top-level advisers? I don't think so. We were careful, or dumb-lucky, I don't know which, so we didn't get caught but we shouldn't have done it. And that's all I really regret.
Anyway, that was all it really was then -- we had rushed, exhilarating sex on our most significant days of jubilee. I was in love with him but that wasn't really important for a lot of reasons: chiefly that he was still in love with his ex-wife (a woman who kinda terrifies me, by the way, and whose bad side I do not want to meet at all, not ever) and the little matter of our jobs and the seemingly endless catalog of tiny successes and huge catastrophes we had to live through. And then it was time to run for re-election and there wasn't time for anything else. The next thing that happened was Toby getting Andy pregnant. After that I was really grateful that I had the job I had so that I could sublimate my feelings about the seemingly inevitable Toby-and-Andy happy ending into my work. I'd pretty much figured it would happen, one day, since anyone with half a brain who looks at them can tell that they still love each other, and one day they would realize it too, and then it would all be over -- married again, kids on the way, a big house, the whole heterosexual fairytale nine yards -- but the fact that a little part of me had always expected it didn't make it hurt any less.
Then I did something really dumb. There was a whole thing with a widow and Will Bailey really knocking my socks off with his commitment to the Democratic Party and the integrity of his message and the way he delivered it. Hearing Will speak really woke something up in me, and once he'd called me out on my complacency, that was it. I'd got so sick of banging around the White House, doing the jobs no one else wanted to and realizing that the sense of complete impotence I'd unconsciously tended for a long time had grown so big and inescapable that it was going to swallow me whole if I didn't do something about it but quick. I was also heartbroken and grieving and likely to do something stupid anyway. So I said I'd run in the California 47th. I said it knowing that it was amazingly unlikely to come to pass, yet feeling that it would anyway. Maybe if the Wilde campaign hadn't come good in the end and Will had called me from his hotel room just before he fell into unconsciousness for a week to say, thanks but you can relax, I would have found some other excuse to leave. I'm not sure I could have stayed anyway. I don't think I could have borne it, even though it turned out the way it did.
When I said there was nothing else I regretted? I was lying a little bit then. There was one more thing. A lost week -- the week Toby came to run my campaign in Orange County; the last week we ever spent in each other's pockets. But I'll get to that.
Back to me and Toby in his bed in D.C. three years ago. I woke up in his bed that morning. His chest was shoved up to my back and his breath was sour over my shoulder but, god, he was so warm. I don't know what it is about naked skin, why it's so intoxicating. It just is, I guess. Hormones and lust and that kind of thing. I lay there, luxuriating in it -- the texture of his chest hair against my back and, where his hand rested on my hip, the shape of his knuckles under my fingertips. I remember I had a morning hard-on anyway, but it got stiffer just breathing in the smell of his skin and shifting inside his arms. Once I turned to face him it was painfully sensitive, from just brushing against his belly. Of course, he was already awake. He grinned at me, kissed me with his sour mouth, then pushed me down on the bed, got on top of me and did amazing things to my cock. That's basically how we spent the entirety of my visit to D.C., until I was so tired that I was starting to wonder if I'd be able to get up and catch my flight back to New York. I got the feeling like he was asking me, in his own, determinedly non-verbal way, to stay with him. Bribing me with sex and intimacy so that he wouldn't have to go back to his dark places all alone. I guess friendly faces were in pretty short supply by then, but I had a job to set up and as much as I wanted to stay (I really wanted to), I couldn't. Besides, I said to him, I'm not sure it would help your case any to mention in passing that there's someone in your apartment -- a man -- who you've locked up for sex. I remember that he smiled at me, in that way that doesn't touch his eyes, and said, I really don't think it would surprise them at this point. Then he sighed, and called me a cab to the airport.
You see, this is what you've got to understand -- if I was broken down and tired, if I'd given up, as it pleased Toby to call my wandering lack of purpose and general existential malaise, then how much worse for him? Andy didn't want to marry him again, he hardly saw his kids even though he knew the reasons why were mostly excuses, his brother had committed suicide, he and Josh had had the fight that was really all about two guys not needing the same things from each other anymore but must have felt like one more goddamn thing, one more person leaving him, or just plain not wanting him. And then he'd done his own really stupid thing, out of frustration and pain, and got himself fired by the President -- the man he admires most in the world -- for treason. A betrayal, on both sides, and just about the worst end either of them could have imagined for their relationship.
If it sounds like I'm making excuses for him, then I guess you're right: I am. He chose to make that phonecall, leak the information. He chose to be pissed at Josh. He chose not to make the time to see his kids. I'm pretty sure he didn't chose for Andy to say no to his proposal, but it's been three years and you could argue that he should be over it by now. But he's my friend, and he had been hurting, and I hadn't been there to help him. I was just sick of it, all of it. And I don't feel like being fair and considered anymore.
So, I went back to New York. I got up in the morning, went to work, came back home. I called him, if not every night then very nearly. Sometimes he didn't pick up but most of the time he did and most of those times I think he was happy just to hear a voice on the other end of the line that wasn't anything to do with the mess he was in then. Toby kinda shut himself up in those few months, before his trial was due to start and before Santos won the election; before the pardon he didn't have much of a choice. He didn't see anyone and since most -- all, really -- of his friends worked either in the West Wing or in some other branch of the federal government, it wasn't like he could drop in on anyone for a chat. He saw Josh, I think. C.J. once. Andy brought kids round according to whatever schedule they had, but I think maybe I talked to him the most. I was certainly the only person who wasn't angry with him which, knowing Toby, he probably found incredibly irritating, but it may have done him some good as well. I think it did.
Of course, it all came to nothing in the end. President Bartlet signed Toby's pardon, he didn't have to go to jail, the guys on the shuttle were safe, and Toby got a reputation for moral heroism. Happy ending, right? Well, kinda.
I think it affected him much more than he'll ever admit, to me anyway. After all, he spent those months expecting to go to jail; he spent that time thinking about how, now, he would be repeating the pattern his father made, even, somehow, if I can play Pop Psych 101 now, becoming the father he'd spent so long rejecting. Combine that with the ultimate rejection from the President (Toby is absolutely the kind of guy who remembers every slight with total clarity but will find a way of pushing aside any compliment), and pardon or not, it had to have had an effect, and not a good one. When I saw him again, after he'd got the job at Columbia and come back to New York, he'd changed. He was quieter, older somehow, though all of nine months had passed since I'd last seen him. I'd say 'chastened', only I don't think he thought there was anything to be chastened by. Say, rather, self-aware in a way he hadn't experienced before -- he had been run up against his own frailty, and it was perhaps that which was shaming. He felt like a failure, I think, for the first time. All the lost campaigns and all the stuff we messed up when we were in office, that was just the way the game went, not a judgment of his capacity or his choices, or at least not a crushing, comprehensive, career-ending one; not a judgment of him as a man. This was personal, and it created a quietude in him, maybe because he chose everything that happened -- from beginning to end, he decided on that suicide run of a leak. Only the pardon was taken out of his hands, which is maybe why he was so adamant that he didn't want it and so angry when it did come. He yelled at me down the phone for about an hour and there was nothing I could say. But the next night he wouldn't talk about it; it was done, over. I think for a while he thought his life was over too, but that deep grief left him as well, or else he buried it so deep that he forgot it was there. The other thing was the understanding that if he had gone to jail he would have done to Huck and Molly what his father had done to him, with all that might have entailed. I wish I could say I was surprised that his response to that was to run away to New York, but I can't. But I'm not sorry he came, either.
So he came back to New York. He got an apartment in Brooklyn and a job at Columbia University shaping young minds. (That he actually likes teaching his classes is something else he'll never admit, but he does. There's a whole pontification angle that gets him off, plus some of the kids are actually pretty good at asking him questions he doesn't already know the answers to.) I carried on at my law firm. We'd both started writing again by that point, but hadn't yet told the other one we had. But that was how it started again: that year, in New York, 2007, just as winter was becoming spring.
One more story left, before I get to the last thing. The thing I really don't want to talk about but nevertheless feel like I have to document for this godforsaken exercise in futility. The lost week, in California. The week we had more or less to ourselves. The week during which we came closest to saying what we needed to say; when we promised not to ruin each other's lives.
I wish I'd had a gay friend, sometimes. You know -- someone older who'd been around the block a few times, who'd done all the dumb stuff, who wasn't obliged to, or scared not to, keep all his secrets dark. Why? Because he'd have been the one who would have taken me out for a drink one night when I was still young enough to listen and told me under no circumstances to fall in love with a straight man. He'd have seen, early on, that I was the kind of kid who was likely to do just that, and he'd have sympathized but basically kicked my ass into shape, and if he'd still been around when I met Toby would probably have told me to forget all about changing the landscape of American politics for the better just for now and get the hell back to New York. I wouldn't have taken his advice, of course, but it would have been nice to hear it from someone all the same.
Why did I keep it all secret? I don't know. Fear, I guess. And also stupidity. What with the whole thing with actually quite liking to look at women and date them and so on, I spent a long time pretty confused about what I was. I didn't think of myself as 'gay' even though I spent years in love with Josh, and then, the thing with Toby. That was just feelings and didn't count, somehow. It's funny, because if it had been someone else telling me all about his love life, some guy drunk and in confessional mood because he's so sick of being closeted I'd probably have said: man, you're probably gay, and that's nothing to be ashamed of -- don't let anyone ever tell you that it is. You're a good guy, you go to work, pay your taxes. Whose business is it anyway who you sleep with? Don't feel like you have to keep it secret, man. You don't have to lie about who you are. Some platitudes like those, and maybe a little bit of unconscious projection. Sometimes I think I'm the dumbest kid in school: I'd get so angry about Don't Ask, Don't Tell or some crazy, bigotry-filled (and unconstitutional, probably, but that's beside the point) law the Republicans were trying to pass. I thought it was all righteous Democratic ire. I mean, it was: these are issues that would be important to me even if I wasn't ... what I am, because hatred needs to be challenged and broken down and made to seem as small and low and stupid as it is if we're ever gonna change anything. But it wasn't just that.
Josh and I were just college kids, experimenting, nothing serious; no need to put a label on it. And my infatuation with Toby wasn't, I thought at the time, so very different -- it was the endless process of finding heroes to worship that I've always been prone to, because my history is as boring and predictable as anyone on the average psychiatrist's patient list and I was sure, deep down, even as a small boy, that my daddy didn't love me. I needed Toby to think well of me, to be proud of me; I admired him -- more than admired. He was the finest writer I'd ever encountered, as well as an incomparable voice within the Party. I keep comparing the way I felt when I was first getting to know Toby to how I felt when I first met Josh but it's true: they had the same kind of profound, life-changing effect on me. I've done things because of them that I never thought I'd do for real and their good opinion of me means more than I can say. Inasmuch as I've ever analyzed it I think my feelings for them come out of that same place -- that childlike need for the validation I didn't get when I was a kid. Some guys get under my skin that way, like I'm still that nerdy high school kid who got beaten up by the jocks and secretly wanted, in a place buried so deep he barely knew about it himself, one of the older boys to come rescue him.
Man, I sound like I'm in a bad romantic novel. But it's all true. It'd be pointless to lie about it now.
Maybe all that was fear, I don't know. It seems odd. Because if it was fear then it follows that I thought there was something to be ashamed of in my being attracted to other men and I would strenuously deny that there is. I'd be quite happy to stand up in any public venue and say as much, on record, for the papers. And yet I didn't and I kept it all inside and dated the women I was supposed to date and got engaged to the kind of woman my mother approved of (well, kinda -- mom wasn't keen on the idea of me marrying a journalist, in actual fact). I did all that without thinking about it. And more than that, I was the guy who they all expected to stand up and say idealistic things about being true and straightforward and unashamed of things there is no reason to be ashamed of. But I assumed I was the same as my friends. Or maybe I'm just much much better at denial than I thought. And a hypocrite to boot.
I should get back to the point. The week in California. Okay. Sit tight and I'll tell you a story.
I wrote him notes, letters; confessions, I suppose, that I never sent. I'm not much good but I guess he wakes up the confessional poet within. Sylvia Plath, without the suicidal ideation -- probably why I'm no good. I write because to write is to make sense of something, to impose order on situations and thoughts that are chaotic. And because words are a kind of sustenance -- a substitute for touching and tasting, when I've forgotten the way his mouth tasted and I'm not feeling pathetic enough to go out and get a shot of Jack Daniel's and a cigar so I can remember. The words remember for me. And they stop these feelings consuming me, until all I am is that one desire, eating itself, over and over. They add weight to the longing; stop it from lifting me up and floating away with me. They make it seem important, somehow, or at any rate a little bit beautiful. On my better days.
It helps, anyway. For a while.
So I wrote him postcards. I used flashcards as a freshman at college when I was trying to learn Spanish vocabulary and concepts in particle physics. Something I was taught as a study skill I didn't really need in high school but which seemed fun, sometimes; something to do when highlighting sentences and memorizing memory devices just didn't cut it. I don't know how much it helped at the time but anyway I had a stack of these things left over -- blank postcards I hadn't used, bound up in a couple of rubber bands, stuck at the back of a drawer in my desk at home. I found them one day, just rooting around for a legal pad that wasn't full of notes on the last set of big important speeches we'd written. I wanted something clean to start on -- a blank page. I could have just opened up a new document on my laptop, I know, but I wanted to write. I wanted the physical sensation of writing, the tightness and pain in the wrist that makes you feel like you've actually achieved something after you're both exhausted from the mental effort and wired from all the coffee. The college boy's equivalent of hard labor, I guess.
I found the cards at the back of the drawer. As I tried to untangle the rubber band it snapped and left a tiny welt on my hand. There were maybe thirty or forty cards, and naturally they all fell out of my hands at once, over the floor, over the desk. It seemed, at the time, to be a good metaphor for the whole situation. Anyway, I picked them back up and straightened them out -- three piles, equidistant on the desk. A blank tarot. I closed my eyes, and reached out for one from the middle pile. I opened my eyes again, and started writing.
As one city boy to another, perhaps it's strange that the things you remind me of most are always weather phenomena: your presence in a room makes it overcast, dropping both the pressure and the level of light while I stand there like a barometer, trying to get a reading for everyone else. Your voice gives me a headache, like the approach of a thunderstorm, but I long for it too: when the air is hot and stifling, and when the rainstorm comes I want to run out in it, and soak myself to the skin.
The first day I wanted you because there was snow in your beard and your hair, and I wanted to touch it, melt it with my fingers, have my fingers understand the textural difference between the melted snow and the short hairs underneath your lip.
Yesterday it was warm and you took off your jacket, loosened your tie and rolled up your sleeves. Late in the day you were thinking, sat in that big chair in front of the coffee table in your office with your feet up and your arms behind your head. The sweat stains under your arms made me think about the little pools hidden between the rocks, warmed by the sun, on the beaches where I went when I was a kid. I wanted to put my fingers there. I wanted to sit in your lap and press my cheek to that place. Sunbathing.
Okay, by now you know I'm avoiding the point. I know, I know. I'll tell you the story.
The President sent him down to me, I think. Toby didn't really tell me; he preferred to turn up, deus ex machina the thing for me, and then get the hell out of dodge. Well, that was the plan, I guess. It became clear as soon as I busted him out of jail that it was not going to go quite the way Toby, or anyone else, had planned.
We were never going to win the 47th. Of course. Or, Toby seemed certain of it and I was still praying for a miracle, right up until the last beat. The fact that I was praying should probably have been a good indicator of how much trust I had in my own propaganda, but I needed a thing, a hook: something to hang a dream on, which was all it was by then. But then Toby turned up, and, as gestures go, it was as good as I ever thought I would get, and then some.
After we left the bar that first night, we fell into a pattern that would follow for the rest of the week. Meetings in the day, banquets (so many damn banquets in one week that I thought I would burst), one more rally on the Tuesday, door-to-doors around the district with heavy concentration on any and all people who might have been persuaded to break for the Democrats, for me, and my right arm getting almost completely numb from all the hand-shaking and my voice scratchy from all the making nice with the Chamber of Commerce and the people in charge of the damn beaches, the people on the beaches, the people visiting the beaches from other states whose votes we didn't even care about. Toby was a good drill sergeant. If he'd had some kind of cattleprod arrangement, I would probably have let him use it. And not only for the, you know, the kink. Plus, by the second day I was so dead on my feet I would have done anything he told me. I was tired. I was beat. And my brain was full of the conversation we'd had in the bar that first night: no miracles, rocks thrown at my head, and my hero coming down to save my ass, or at least put a band-aid on it for me once the beating was over. Like I could possibly have got that conversation out of my head. His words were on repeat, in the background of my thoughts, all the time, like a radio station jammed on ZGG Ziegler Grand Gesture radio.
Those were the days. And at night we'd go back to that bar, and talk and plan. He'd speak mostly in orders and rants, naturally, because that's just what he does when he's nervous and he wants to do a job and he can't think about anything else. Or when he has to think all about the job for someone else. But he would also let slip these quiet things: little sentences that shouldn't have meant anything to me, except that I knew better; I know better.
Once everyone else had gone, that's how he was anyway. With the rest of my staff hanging around, Charlie, Josh and Will on the phone, he was smooth. As slick as Toby ever is, which isn't quite the usage of 'slick' as it would pertain to anyone else. I mean slick like the proverbial water off a duck's back: everything slipping off him, an answer for every problem and nothing touching him, nothing getting even close. He came up with some amazing remarks -- just remarks, one and a half paragraphs of platitudes and promises that he just reeled out like spun silver -- for the speeches, shouting them at me before I got out of the car for whatever thing I was going to. But when it was quiet and the day was finally over and we could stop for five hours together and grab a little sleep and a drink (or a couple of drinks; I think my tolerance for whiskey went up about 400% in that one week), he changed. He got quiet and, again, tender. Frighteningly tender. That was the first time, maybe.
I think it was because he knew I was scared, maybe even because he was scared too. Because sometimes Toby is the guy who doesn't know what he's had all along, until it ups and leaves him, stranded and lonely and lost; and sometimes he's the guy who sees it all coming, lying in wait for him, and he anticipates and anticipates, and the fear gets greater, and he knows he can't do anything but accept it. At least that's how it seemed, to me, in the middle of my own fear: his quiet, sad acceptance, and his pride, I think; not his pride in me but his fierce, uncompromising pride in doing a good job. I think the pride was his way of dealing with the inevitability -- he thought -- of our failure, though it's possible that that's my low self-esteem talking. If I had a therapist, I imagine that's what he'd say, anyway.
So, we went to the bar every night. We drank beer with whiskey chasers and we talked. At first about the campaign, of course, because we never had a problem with shop talk, quite apart from the fact that it was easier than talking about anything else that might have been on our minds -- new careers; the 'certainty' of humiliating defeat; how guilty I still felt about throwing Will Bailey into the lion's den as Toby's new Deputy; the fact that he still hadn't gotten Andy to agree to marry him despite how near the twins' due date was getting; and the little fact of my still being completely in love with him. So, we talked. And as we got more drunk and the nights got older and the campaign got closer to the finish, we talked about different things.
Then, of course, there was the whole thing where we stayed in the same hotel. Convenience, naturally, but not the best idea, under the circumstances.
So, no, it didn't stay all business for long. Well, it did take time. It took the closeness we hadn't had for months to restate itself. It percolated through, like rainwater through topsoil, through sand. Little touches; his hand on my shoulder, his notes in my margins. I missed his handwriting -- it was that stupid and that basic. It was the smell of him, those fucking cigars and the scent of the oil he uses on his hair. After -- after he hugged me, that smell was on my clothes, it was down my throat. And I'm quite happy to understand and admit that it was my heightened state -- my anxiety, my fear, my fatigue -- that did it, but I couldn't shake him off.
Out back of the bar, between parked cars that weren't ours, we kissed. It was more desperate that time -- both of us felt desperate. We scrabbled at each other's shirt fronts, pushed and pulled, wrestled like a pair of clichés. We made sure not to stand in the light but we were panting at each other's mouths like teenagers at a drive-through, except that I never did anything like that when I was a teenager.
We didn't have sex. I don't think he could have done that, and I don't think I could have let him even if he'd wanted to. At the time we both thought we were hurtling towards the time when he'd be married again, with kids and a big house, and that wife of his who scares me so much. This was a goodbye. And the seal on a goodbye. This was the better way we were both supposed to want; at the time, I think we even did, both of us.
So we just made out until we were drunk on it, touching each other, and stopping just short of anything else. Then we would stumble back to the hotel and fall into the $200 a night sheets and sleep until our wake up calls, and then do it all over again.
You're wondering what made this The Week? What made this one week so significant? Well, I'm not sure it would look so significant to anyone else but, again, you have to know Toby. The hug was enough for me.
It was the penultimate night. We hadn't drunk so much at the bar as had become our pattern by then. At any rate, there was slightly less stumbling and more in the way of compound sentences. We were kissing in the corridor of the hotel. I had my back up against the door of my room, looking up every thirty seconds to check no one was coming. He was kissing my neck and it was driving me crazy -- it always drives me crazy when he does that. He knows it. I believe it's part of some kind of plan to totally screw with my head. But then, I've come to believe that Toby Ziegler's whole existence is basically some kind of cosmic plan to screw with my head. Which wouldn't sound so exaggerated if you were me. Really. Trust me.
The door opened under my hand, either because it had been left unlocked or because at some point between the kisses I'd summoned the wherewithal to shove the keycard in the slot, I don't remember. Anyway, it opened. We almost fell inside. Toby was laughing at me.
He kept hold of my arm, kept me on my feet, then just pulled me over to the bed, walking me backwards, kissing me the whole time. We fell on the bed, but that was as far as it went. I stopped him and he looked at me, like he was saying no, of course not, Sam, what do you think I am? Which, as you can imagine, made me feel just peachy.
We made up some stuff about being tired. Kicked off our shoes and lay on the bed. I tried really hard not to look at the clock by the bed; he just stared at the ceiling. Like that for a long time, until I was almost asleep. Then he starting talking. It was easier to do half-asleep, with both of us looking anywhere but at the other. But it was still damned hard.
You're not coming back, he said.
He never actually asks questions, you may have noticed. Not ones he doesn't know the answer to. I think his ability to make a rising inflection may have been permanently damaged through long disuse.
I said, No, I don't think so.
That bad, huh?
Getting that way.
You'll invite me to your wedding, right? I said. I was trying so fucking hard by that point, not to just run the hell out of the door. I just kept on staring at the ceiling.
If you really want me to.
I kinda think I ought ... I don't know. It's like going to a funeral.
Thanks a lot, Sam.
I mean saying goodbye. A ritual. Those stupid crutches you don't approve of in other, weaker humans?
Yes, I get the point.
Anyway. Call me or something. When you get her to say yes.
I want to see the pictures. You're gonna look hot in your morning suit, there.
What? I thought we were done pretending, plus you just sucked my face off.
Can you not ... Just. Think of a better verb, okay?
I think I reached for his hand. Oh, screw it, I know I did. He had his sleeves rolled up and my knuckles collided with his watch. Kinda hurt, actually. There was a bruise the next day. I held his hand and he didn't pull it away.
I'll miss you, I said.
He said, Yeah, I know. Me too.
We fell asleep. At some point he woke up and went back to his own room. He tucked me in, after a fashion, and set the alarm to wake me up good and early. The next day was the last day of the campaign and after we were done crossing every 'i' and dotting every 't' we went straight back to the hotel and to bed, alone, for a good night's beauty sleep. And, on the next day, I won the election.
Another notecard. This one has coffee on it, which suggests that I wrote it in the office, though I don't remember doing any such thing. Maybe I just forgot.
Three days to go until the thing. Our first State of the Union. We've been here til midnight for the last week, longer maybe. Time is a little difficult to understand right now, sitting here right now with my veins running pure coffee.
I find myself thinking about the true (or the original -- the archaic if we go by the dictionary -- meaning, I suppose; you'd give me a lecture on the changing usage of words and how that relates back to me being a hopeless idealist with set feelings on what things mean and what value they have because you know me so very well) -- the true meaning of the word 'awful' when you're like this: a thing, or a person, who inspires reverential wonder, or fear.
You terrify me because you are a genius, and you make me understand that I'm not one.
You terrify me for good old-fashioned reasons like the way you yell at me at 1AM because we haven't pinned down that paragraph on the deficit or spending promises or how to make the economy something we can make 'the average American' understand. Just because I fight back doesn't mean I'm not scared. I am.
You terrify me because I cannot explain you, or what you've made of my life. You really are like the storm: the phenomenon that tears through you, or throws you across the room, drowns you, makes you unrecognizable.
The wonder, then. The wonder I don't have to explain. With love comes wonder: that this person around whom your whole world has begun to turn actually exists; that they have hands and feet and lungs that breathe; that they don't understand your understanding of their perfection, that to them it is just the business of existing, day on every sullen day each one like the last -- each day to them ordinary, and to you a proof of something that an earlier generation might have called grace.
The wonder of your name in my mouth, twenty, thirty times a day. As heavy as a kiss. I hold your name in my hands; a small beating heart -- a bird, perhaps, or a little dog: I've thought about it and I can't work out what you'd be if I needed to make you an animal simile, nothing seems to fit. You're the hurricane and the lightning storm and the silent depths of the ocean, and you're no more a bird than I am.
Awe and wonder: not such a bad tactic. I'm just sorry it's not going to win you anything you actually want.
And so we have come to the end. There's nothing left to tell you except why I'm not there now, in New York, sucking his cock and trying to figure out whether I'm grateful, lucky, or pathetic.
Yeah, we've reached the part of the story where I sound a little bitter, I guess. Personally, I'm okay with that since it's not like it's something I indulge in often and this is a record being written for an imaginary audience, just a setting-straight for my own peace of mind. There's no reason not to be honest about how I really feel. No one's ever going to read this. And so it shouldn't matter.
So now for the end, let's go back to the beginning.
I went back to New York in November of 2006, and in the following January, after the pardon was official, Toby came back too. I'd run away from my home, from my job, and, most importantly of course, from my father. And Toby was a refugee, running from everything, just as I had been.
A digression (you don't mind another one, right, imaginary reader?): on the subject of my father.
Here's the thing about my dad: he was my hero, for a long time. Or at least someone I'd placed on the 'right' side of the battle; someone who knew the right thing and believed in doing it, no matter the cost. I mean, why else does a man become a lawyer, right?
(I know, I know. I'm hopelessly naive. There's really no need to mention it again. Josh and Toby and C.J. and Lisa and Mallory and Leo have already rubbed it in just fine.)
Anyway. I was his only son (his only child, but I guess daughters wouldn't have counted -- and you can count that as tip-off #1, Seaborn Jnr.) and he expected a lot from me. You know, do well in school, go to Princeton, go to law school, follow him into the firm, etc. Basically be his genetic double. And I was there, you know. I drank the Kool Aid every day of my life. Sure, I wasn't quite what he wanted -- I've had the naivety lecture a lot during my life and, of course, there's been no real need to tell him why I'm never going to find that nice girl -- but, from his point of view he was doing a pretty good job with molding me, and it's not like being a counselor to the President and writing his speeches is too shabby. Good for boasting about anyway.
Okay, okay. I'm bitter, I know. I should shut up and show more respect. He is my dad, after all. We've patched things up now. We're on much better terms these days. Now that he thinks I've put all that political stuff behind me. See, my dad can talk the talk but he prefers cash in hand and the easily quantified virtue of an Upper East Side address and a corner office at a good firm. So what he'd make of his fag son quitting three jobs in five years and running back and forth between California and New York, partially because of some guy he's in love with, I don't like to speculate.
(Yeah, liberal Democrat or not, I'm pretty sure he didn't sign up for having a gay son. I think he'd hate the idea of me being a man who sleeps with other men, who loves other men. I think he's suspected for a long time, from well before I did. Some kind of masculinity failure that is invisible to me and everyone else I know, but to a man of my father's generation is there, clear as a street sign. One more damn thing.)
Anyway, after the thing with his mistress he and my mom talked a little and figured out whether or not they wanted to stay married (they didn't) and dad moved out and got to see more of his mistress (I'm not sure how she felt about that) and he and I started talking more. When we were first in the White House I used to email him every now and then with good stories, when I had time and didn't forget. I know, I know: break out the nominees for the Dutiful Son award 1998 through 2002. After his thing, though, we talked more. It was strange -- he couldn't pretend anymore, and that meant I didn't have to. I mean it's not like I told him my deepest secrets or anything, and it took me a long time to trust him again, but once I'd put the pillars of my inner morality back up, we got on better. I could be mad with him after that, and if you've ever been in any kind of relationship with someone you felt like you couldn't get angry with, you'll know why having broken that taboo made such a difference.
But that kind of thing goes deep, or else I didn't mend quite as well as I thought at the time. You gotta have standards, even for your heroes, right? And once you've stopped believing once, it's just a little easier to do it again: ask yourself the questions you don't want to ask and, more pertinently, listen to the answers.
Anyway, there was a thing with my father. No one's dad is as perfect as the brochures claim. I got over it. Which proves I can get over it again, I guess.
End of digression.
So. New York. January 2007. It was snowing, dirty sleet sticking to the windows and the shoulders of people's coats. And he actually came to me this time. Like Josh did, Toby found my firm, my office, got in to see me. I wasn't in the middle of a meeting (I was having lunch at my desk, actually) but the effect was the same: I got up as soon as I saw him, as soon as I saw his face, and ran the hell out of there. We got hotdogs from the nearest vendor as soon as we hit the street (he got to indulge his belly and I got to indulge my desire to see his oral fixation) and then we just walked around. Talked. Like the city was ours. Or, rather, like the city was his and had come alive for me because now he was in it too. He told me about the job at Columbia; I told him that was great because I was trying to come up with ways not to say 'Toby, you look terrible, man, what the hell happened?'. Except that I knew exactly what had happened, of course.
We walked around. We met up for a drink that night. I went home with him from the bar, and I never really left.
We fell into a pattern. In retrospect it was pretty much the same pattern we'd had for that week in California except that there was no imposed stop date. Neither of us had anything left to lose. We were both grieving too, I guess, in our own ways, and being with someone else helped -- it made it easier to bear until the time when we couldn't remember those hurts, and then all we were left with was what I experienced as 'happiness'. We were happy, I think. A New York love story, for a few years anyway.
And now I really have run out of stories to tell.
It lasted about two and a half years, Toby and I. Falling into a relationship like two kids in college, really -- sharing everything much too quickly, feeling affinities so strong and desperate that you're sure nothing could ever break them, but also that quiet, lurking sense of makeshift perfection: the people who fell into your life; the situation binding you together as much as more esoteric concepts like 'love'. I'm speaking for myself, of course. I guess Toby's reckoning would be a little different. I'm not sure perfection would come into it much.
Which is not to say he didn't care about me. I think he did. I think he cared a lot. He just had a problem admitting it -- to me, to the various other people you might think he would have wanted to tell, like his ex-wife and his children and our friends, and, obviously, himself. This is Toby we're talking about. And absent a grand gesture, he had no way to say what he felt, or any way to fit it into his life. So when 'real' life came calling, I wasn't someone he could have around the place.
That's all I'll say for now. It's still pretty painful to think about, and the words just make it worse.
One more notecard. Just one.
We were in a bar, all of us. Even Charlie came along. Celebrating. I was drunk, even though I promised myself, ages ago, after the first State of the Union, that I'd never drink too much around you. The reason for that promise soon became obvious.
I wanted to tell you that I loved you. You'd been banging around all day, alternating between frustrated and triumphant, all shot through with those seams of of depression and anger that run in you as deep as rock springs, even when we're winning. I wanted to tell you, somehow, that it'd be all right. It was stupid, but I wanted to; I wanted to give you something to keep the night out. I don't know why I thought that my heart would be a good present.
Anyway. I was drunk, so I did say it. Without any shame; just the way a straight guy tells another straight guy that he loves him: with a slap (more like a caress) on the back and just a little slur on the verb, maybe.
You blushed a little, just a little. It colored the lobes of your ears and suddenly I wished that we weren't in a bar with everyone we know, so that I could take that flesh in my mouth and feel the heat of your heart's exothermic shock on my tongue.
Then, naturally, you glared at me, and it wasn't just from embarrassment. You were pointing out that maybe I shouldn't tell the whole office our secrets, or the whole bar, or the whole District which, of course, is what I would have been doing -- if I'd followed through on my impulse, and kissed you, and done the things in my head that we have done, twice now, and damn everyone else if they can see right through into my brain.
I came home ashamed, and when I woke up this morning I was angry. What I can't decide as I write this is who I'm angry with: you, or me, or the whole damned thing.
"I had a crush on Beckett when I was in college," Sam says, after they've fucked and while Toby explains the plot of the novel he is definitely sure that he is not writing and why this plot is making him want to kill himself. The name is dropped by Sam, not by Toby. Toby makes little scoffing noises to accompany Sam's breathless comparisons. But he strokes Sam's hair anyway and wonders, like he does every time they find themselves in the same bed (and he hasn't found a verb he finds appropriate for the activity that takes place there), how they stumbled into this. Now that he thinks about it, it makes about as much sense as some of Beckett's stuff, but he thinks better of saying so to Sam.
"A crush on a dead Irish writer," he says, instead. "Why am I not surprised. Hang on, I am surprised: I thought you were a Dickens fan."
"I am," Sam says, looking up from Toby's shoulder with an expression redolent of a stunned kitten. "They're not mutually exclusive, Toby."
"No, no. Victorian serial novels and the Theater of the Absurd. Very much on the same shelf."
"Also, Dickens wasn't very sexy."
"Not as sexy as Beckett?"
"It was the hair, with Beckett, I think. He had great hair."
"Uh huh." Toby sighs, rather louder than he meant to, and denies utterly, in the privacy of his own mind, that he is hurt by Sam having affection for anyone with great hair. He follows this up with a valiant effort not to notice which, of the two writers, he himself looks more like.
"And the genius," Sam says, pushing his head up against Toby's shoulder. "I find genius difficult to resist, sexually."
After that, Toby can't stop laughing for about five minutes. And after that, Toby kisses him: the smooth plain skin of Sam's neck and chest so warm to his lips, and so ordinary that Toby cannot grasp, either between his fingers or as the product of the collision of his battered synapses, how its softness seems to signify both the opening and closing of world.
"So," Toby says, his chin propped on Sam's belly and Sam's legs open wide around his ribs, "Dickens. And Beckett."
"And Ziegler," Sam says, smiling, and his pupils very dilated, just exactly as Toby knew he would.
"You gonna rank them for me?" Toby asks, after he's done licking the fine hair around Sam's navel.
"As literary greats or in terms of sex appeal?"
"You sound like a 60s new anchor. Sex appeal." Toby says. "Are you sure you're not a time traveler? The forgotten half of the Quantum Leap story." He bites the flesh on the inside of Sam's thigh. Sam yelps, and Toby grins.
"If it helps you come out on top either way," Sam says.
"Is that right?"
"You know it is, Toby. Stop using me to prop up your ego."
"You think I need you to prop up my ego?"
"I think you don't like me being sexually interested in other writers. Particularly ones with all their hair," Sam says. "You're quite possessive really. And before you say it: I realize I'm forbidden from saying that to anyone else, you don't need to stipulate."
"I just want to make it clear," Toby says, resting up on his elbows, "That I am not, nor will I ever, buy you a house."
Sam laughs. "Don't need a house," he says, letting his head fall back on the pillow.
"No," Sam says, then yawns. "I don't care. I like this place. The apartment. New York." He sighs. "I like New York better when you're in it too," he says, and falls asleep.
Toby stays awake for a while. Sam's cock goes soft under him, just at the tender part of Toby's throat. As Sam shifts and moans in his sleep his thighs open around Toby's shoulders and arms, and it is possible to get comfortable. Toby re-arranges himself and rests his head on Sam's stomach. It is softer than it was when Sam worked out three times a week and Toby finds that he prefers it this way. He's feeding the kid beer and chips, burgers twice weekly, and as much chicken as either of them can handle. Toby has already begun to wonder whether he's trying to feed Sam into immobility; whether the way to get a man to stay with you is to make him fat enough, and contented enough, that he physically can't leave. Either way he likes the feeling of Sam's belly underneath his cheek, and he can't resist rubbing his beard there a little, just to get comfortable. Sam moans in his sleep again and Toby smiles to himself, kisses the soft skin and its fine, almost invisible hairs. He lays his head to the side, cheek to Sam's stomach, and watches the dust motes float through the shaft of sunlight coming in through the window. It occurs to him, in the few minutes that pass before he falls asleep, that he is happy.
"Did you ever do this before?" Sam asks, with the end of his pen half in his mouth so that Toby has to ask him to repeat himself before he even understands which words Sam has said, nevermind what they might mean.
"I mean," Sam says, "With ... I'm not your first homosexual experience, am I?"
At which point, Toby feels like the ground ought to have opened up and swallowed him -- or, had Toby's sense of vengeance been thinking more clearly, Sam -- whole. But of course it doesn't.
"Sam!" is all he can manage.
"Because, well, it's not that your technique is -- "
Sam grins, then explodes with laughter. "I'm just kidding. There's nothing wrong with your technique, Toby, I can, really, assure you of that."
Toby just waves his hands around. He has his mouth open but words refuse to enter or leave it, so he shuts it again. He doubts that there even are words in English that support the mechanics of this kind of conversation and if they do exist, he doesn't want to know what they are. He's not French and his life is not the kind of movie they show at the Tribeca festival.
"So, just asking. Any other guys? Beside me? Any crushes, adolescent fumblings? Any grand passions that you'd rather not talk about but could allude to, artfully, with your tortured silences and the movement of your eyes?"
Toby just glares at him. He refuses to help Sam out with this conversation.
"I could always call Andy, I'm sure she'd -- "
"Stop right there."
"Sam, that doesn't mean anything except that I don't want you two talking about me when I'm not privy to the conversation."
"I could tell you what she said. Afterward."
"No. Absolutely not."
"See, but that just makes me feel that you've got something you want to hide, Toby."
"It's not ... it's not. I'm not hiding anything!"
"C'mon. I mean, I know I'm good-looking and all but, really, Toby, this is too much."
"Shut up. Right now."
"Did he have a name? Is there more than one name? Or did you never get to find out his name because you ran away in the morning? Or never even stayed the night?"
"I'm curious, Toby! I mean, I knew you two years before I even knew you had a brother so I figure if I don't get proactive I'm never gonna learn anything about you."
Toby stares at him again. Blinks. "What ... what could you possibly have left to learn about me?"
"I kinda thought I'd made the nature of my query pretty explicit, Toby."
"You want a list of my ... " He sighs, heavily, "Lovers."
"More specifically, I'd like to know if any of them were male. Or male-identified."
"C'mon, Toby, GLBT has a T on the end of it, you know."
"You have been, really, not nearly busy enough at work recently."
"I'm just trying to put something back, Toby. Just trying to get with the active part of activism."
"By talking in acronyms?"
"The T stands for 'transgender', as I'm sure you know since you're not an idiot and were not, contrary to the belief of many, asleep during all those meetings on the Hill."
"We had a meeting about transgender people?"
"Several. But that's not my main concern."
"But I guess I can cross trans men off the putative list of people you may or may not have slept with before."
"So, any other male people? Or just me?"
"You're really kinda invested in this, huh?"
"Not invested. Well, yes, invested. But mostly curious."
"Yes, I have slept with mal -- with men before you."
"Sam, if you'd like, I can get the Yellow Pages up here and we can call the people listed therein with surnames that correspond to those people I slept with one by one until we get sent to jail?"
"Or you could just answer my question without getting defensive."
"Or screaming my name in my face."
Toby sighs. "Two men. Or ... well. One, really. Technically."
"The other thing was ... not so much a thing."
Sam rolls his eyes. "Polished communication skills," he says, under his breath but perfectly loud enough for Toby to hear. "Okay. So, two guys. One thing and one not so much a thing. And me. Thank you. That's all I wanted to know."
"You're done with the third degree now?"
"That was barely the first degree, Toby. I didn't even get out the torture devices and the unbearably bright spotlights."
Toby frowns at him. "You're a division of the C.I.A. all on your own, you know."
"It's the blue eyes," Sam says, deadpan, "They never expect evil to look this good."
Toby stares at him, for half a minute or so. Then he laughs.
"Yeah, you're the poster boy for evil. Why didn't I realize it sooner?"
Sam shrugs. "I guess you're not as smart as you figured, there, man."
"My verbal reasoning skills against your ability to fall over and get impaled on sharp things?"
Sam opens his mouth, and from there the argument continues in their usual vein. Toby declares himself the winner; Sam pays him his reward in fresh coffee and an excellent blowjob. The sun sets. The world continues, inexplicably, to make a strange kind of sense.
A day early in May of the final year of the first decade of the new millennium. Sunny, but not unpleasantly hot. The middle of the morning and they are still reading the papers, comfortably not talking, sat at Toby's kitchen counter, passing the coffee between them. Sam is eating toast, and getting peanut butter all over the Wall Street Journal. Toby is keeping tabs on Sam's little outbursts of joy and frustration in his peripheral vision. He is stifling a smile.
When the phone rings Sam starts to get up to answer it, but Toby pushes lightly on his shoulder. Sit the hell down and keep reading, Mister Seaborn. Sam smiles at him. Toby answers the phone.
" ... I just think you maybe should have called me, but ... Oh, sure, blame your mom. ... I'm kidding! ... No, it's fine. ... Molly, it's fine. I'll come pick you up. Have you got something to eat, some money? ... Well, I might be a little while, sweetheart. ... Well, I have to put the international spy ring I've been setting up since I last saw you to bed. ... Yeah, in the apartment. ... There's a set of secret rooms. ... Yeah! ... Yeah, kinda like the TARDIS, if you must. ... Okay. ... Okay. I'll see you soon, honey."
After a while Toby hangs up, aware that he's smiling.
"What's going on?" Sam asks. There is a smile on his face that is a tentative mirror of Toby's own; anticipatory. Toby feels his smile slipping as he looks at Sam's -- it is hard to stand that kind of white-hot hope.
Toby fiddles with his tie. "Ah, the kids are coming. Andy had a thing and ... they're coming." he shrugs. "They've already got off the plane, actually, so I'm using the wrong tense."
Sam grins. "That's great. A little quality time. I know you've been looking forward to seeing them."
Toby raises his eyebrows quizzically.
Sam shrugs. "When you talk to them on the phone. It's in your voice."
"Plus, their birthdays soon."
Toby looks at him. "Yes."
"So, what're we going to do?"
"Look, Sam, would you mind, maybe ... " Toby sighs. "This isn't easy to say."
"I haven't told them," Toby says, as evenly as he can, "Anything about you."
"I thought I was Uncle Sam? You know, like Uncle Josh and Aunt C.J. but without the unfortunate second meaning?"
"Yeah. It's not really the same thing."
Sam blinks at him. The smile on his face still hasn't faded. It looks appallingly hopeful, like he's trying to figure the way he's misunderstood what Toby is saying.
"Toby, I -- "
"You have to go."
"Where am I going exactly?"
"I don't know, a hotel or something. Somewhere else."
"Sam, my kids are coming. The plane is right there at Dulles as we speak. What do you want me to do?"
"What's so wrong with actually -- "
"Telling them the truth?"
"They're my kids, Sam!"
"And I'm sure they're old enough to understand if you just explain it to them with small words, Toby!"
"Look, every other time I've taken them somewhere or checked into a hotel with them and -- "
"And I've been around but not around, I know that, Toby, but don't you think --
"But this time there's no time for that. They want to stay over anyway -- "
"Well, what better time to tell them -- "
"Sam, it's not. It's just not a good time ... I mean, there's one more bed but I kinda need that for them -- "
"I actually can't believe we're having this conversation."
"Just. Get a hotel, get set up. I'll call you -- "
"When they're gone?"
"No." Toby sighs, rubs his thumb joint against his forehead. "I'll call you when they're here. We can, I don't know, do something. I hadn't really figured anything out but I thought the park, or -- "
"You just don't want them to see that we share a bed? It's fine that I'm here -- "
"Sam -- "
"Let me finish, please, Toby. It's fine that I'm here, that I see them, that I play ball with them and take them to the park with you, but it's not okay that they understand what's actually going on with us?"
"It's not ... I'm not ready to -- "
"Yeah. Okay. I'll pack a bag. Go on to the airport. I'll call your cell when I've checked in."
"Sam -- "
"Just go, Toby."
Toby stands, open-mouthed, with one hand on the door handle for a few seconds. He has made his face impassive because it's the simplest way to deal with this -- ignore it, deal with the problem at hand, get a cab, get to the airport on time, don't think about this right now, save this particular troubleshoot for later. He opens the door and as he steps out of it almost expects a lamp or a heavy book to collide with the back of his head, as happened a few times in memorable arguments with Andrea. But nothing happens. Toby closes the door without looking over his shoulder and heads down the stairs.
"So he left?"
"And went back to California?"
"Without actually saying goodbye or leaving a note or inviting you along?"
"Do we know why?"
"I think because I monumentally screwed it up."
"Imagine my surprise, Toby."
"Yeah, that's what I thought you'd say. I could really have saved myself the trouble of coming here, you know, just had this conversation in my head."
"Sure. Like you could resist coming to see me."
He looks up at her, smiles. Then sighs. "Yeah."
"Besides, I'm amused that you've finally come to me for dating advice, Toby."
"Well, I figured you were the expert there."
He flinches as she hits his arm with the back of her hand. "I've had maybe four dates, Toby. That's less than one a year."
"Yeah, but I bet you get asked more than once a year."
She smirks. "I do, as a matter of fact."
He holds his hands up, palms towards the ceiling. "And so, I come. A humble supplicant."
"A supplicant anyway."
"Should you be making offerings right now? Am I going to have to figure out where to put a case of frankincense and a dead black bull? Because I don't have a lot of space, Toby."
"I brought wine," he says, picking up the bottle and waving it at her vaguely.
"That's a libation."
"Not if you drink it all yourself. And since when are you the expert on offerings versus libations?"
"Molly's taking Latin, as I'm sure she told you, multiple times. You learn things. Actually I think I already learned it when I was her age just forgot it in a haze of alcohol and soft drugs. You know how it is."
He grins. "Yeah, I think I remember Congresswoman Wyatt lightly stoned. I liked you on pot."
"I know how you did, Toby."
He smiles at her and she smiles at him and he forgets, for a moment, why he's there at all. She's beautiful, in that ethereal feminine way that he has never understood but has been drawn to all his life. Then his brain jabs at him and reminds him of the emptiness of his apartment in Brooklyn and the other body that used to sleep there, tangled up in his thin sheets, and he sighs. Here, in her house in Maryland with the kids asleep upstairs, his body aches for that empty place that he left because he couldn't stand it to be there anymore, being run up, every night, against the evidence of his losses. One phonecall to her and an early flight out. He didn't even bother to pack a bag. Anything to be away from the walls that know him as well as she does, but are not nearly as understanding. The irony of running from a place where he has been shown up as a failure -- as a lover and a provider and a human being -- to the woman who rejected him twice was not lost on him, but he went anyway.
"Anyway," Toby says, "He left."
Andrea looks at him hard, then picks up her glass and drains all the wine left in it. She brushes a piece of imaginary lint off his shoulder, then just strokes his shoulder. Toby stares at her hand. Thin fingers. He smiles: it's not worth pretending these days.
"Man, Toby. I haven't actually seen you in this kind of state since ... well -- "
"Since that time you packed all your bags and left me in an empty house?" He says it quickly, with an attempt at a grin, because he's afraid of what else might follow the 'well'. She knows it too -- for a second there is a silence, a pact: these are the things we don't talk about, even now, even after everything. And then they both look away.
"You wanna, I don't know, tell me what you said or did or was it the usual Toby Ziegler charm offensive?"
"It was ... really really stupid."
"Well, obviously, I don't know Sam as well as you do -- "
"But based on how much crap I know he's taken from you in the past -- "
"That was at work, which doesn't count!"
" -- I'd imagine it'd have to be something pretty stupid, yes. Stop prevaricating and give me the scoop, please."
"You remember when you sent the kids over to me earlier than we planned and Molly called me to say she was basically at the airport and could I come pick her up?"
"Toby. Tell me you didn't ... "
"Yeah, I did."
"Wow. You're a really good boyfriend. By which of course I mean an incomparably bad boyfriend."
"Don't use that word."
"Toby, you've been a boyfriend before."
"Yeah, it just ... has different connotations now."
"I find your internalized homophobia very intriguing right now."
"Look, I'm not ... I just don't know how to do this."
"But you were never that great with women, either, so -- "
"My track record with beautiful women is impeccable, Andy."
"Yeah, me and that one girl from Coney Island with the glass eye?"
"I'm just saying -- "
"Shut up, Andrea."
"Anyway. I'm saying you're not the world's most sensitive partner -- for any or all genders."
Toby sighs, and pours out the last of the wine. "You would know, I guess."
"Yes, yes I would. As I believe the very fact that we're having this conversation proves."
"So, you kicked him out when the kids came to stay. What, a hotel or something?"
"Did you slip a few bills into his underwear first, or -- "
"No, I did not, and I resent the implication."
Andrea raises her eyebrows. "Not as much as Sam did, I'm guessing. And then he left?"
"Yes. I believe I actually said that already."
"I'm still not quite comprehending the magnitude of your insensitivity and issues with the relative worth of same-sex partners which led to you treating your lover like a combination of a mistress and a prostitute, Toby, you're gonna have to give me a minute."
She raises her eyebrows. "Go on."
"He only left after we were done taking the twins to the park for the day and playing happy non-conformist demographic-defying families. He'd tidied up the apartment and taken his crap back to his old place -- "
"Hang on -- he still had his old place? For, what, a year?"
"Two and a half. Sublet. Hence the hotel."
"Yeah. Anyway, he cleared out and then 'came round unexpectedly'."
"The kids really like him, I know. Huck talks about him sometimes."
Toby nods, and takes another swig of wine. "He said he didn't want to disappoint them. In case I'd said ... well."
"Wow, Toby. You have a talent for monumentally screwing these things up."
"It'd be funny if, well. If it was funny."
"What the hell were you thinking?"
"I don't know."
"Look, Toby, I know we never talk about this stuff and I know talking about feelings is anathema to you and, honestly, I've never been much for it either but -- "
"Yes," he says, quietly, looking straight into her eyes.
She looks at him, squeezes his shoulder. Her face is almost painfully sympathetic. "Okay. Okay, well, that makes things more interesting."
He manages a smile. "I'm glad this is amusing for you. Congress gossip mill a little slow right now, is it?"
"It is incredibly incestuous and boring. You have no idea how sick I am of hearing who's sleeping with who and how appallingly dull their sex lives are. If I wasn't such an upstanding pillar of the community I'd consider letting a raccoon loose on the floor or something."
He stifles a laugh. "Yes."
"Maybe institute a Take Your Daughter to Work Day. Molly could shake them up. Awkward questioning-asking is practically her major at this point."
"If our daughter ever shows any interest in journalism do I have your word that you will draw on every one of your not inconsiderable resources to dissuade her from such a career path? I don't think the Fourth Estate needs that kind of help."
"I was thinking C.I.A., actually."
"Oh, yeah, that's much better."
She laughs a little, then strokes his arm. "What're you going to do, Toby?"
"Stay here and drink myself into a coma?"
"I veto the coma on account of the children not needing an example in alcoholism from their father. And you're not answering the question."
"I don't know."
She looks at him, considering. "The bed's big enough for two."
"Andy -- "
She shrugs. "I'm just saying: the bed is big and the couch is old and uncomfortable. And if you're staying the night I'd sooner not have you snarling around my kitchen in the morning because you put your back out in the night. Doesn't have to mean more than it means, Toby."
He nods, slightly. "Okay."
Later, he goes to bed with almost all his clothes on, just his jacket and tie over the back of the chair in front of her dresser, his shoes by the bed, and the change from his pants pocket lined up on the bedside table. He tries to keep his distance because it seems wrong to do anything else. In the night she sighs and pulls on the front of his shirt, fingers caught in the spaces between the buttons. She curls up against his chest with an exhalation that sounds tired but also sounds like home. He holds her and allows himself to feel the softness of her skin underneath his fingers. Her hair smells clean and her skin smells sweet, heady. And remembering why it didn't work the first time, or the second, or the third makes it harder, rather than easier, to stop himself from jumping into that dark place again, just for the sake of getting lost, or learning how to make it work; that lesson he has never learned.
She makes little noises in the night, and shifts her thigh between his legs. He gets hard against her hip like a reflex and just after dawn she smiles at him, kisses his mouth softly, and unzips his pants.
"Doesn't mean more than it means, lover boy," she whispers. "Just shut up and call it a free gift."
He comes in silence, with his face pushed against her neck, and when he's done he holds onto her tightly. She strokes his shoulders, his arms that are bare to the elbow, his wrists, kisses his cheek, the line of his beard.
"I'm sorry," she says. "About all of it. I really am, Toby."
He kisses her and resists, manfully, he thinks, the temptation to do something more embarrassingly emotional. He presses his cheek against hers and she strokes the back of his neck. When his breathing has calmed down he moves, reluctantly, away.
"Any advice?" he says, after a while. "Except for not drinking myself to death and laying off the hooker references."
"Work it out."
"That's helpful, Andy."
"It's what I've got. You think I'm an expert?"
"You married me."
"I rest my case."
She kisses him again; he puts his fingers in her hair. "Call him," she says. "Call, write. Apologize. Grovelling would be good."
"I'm not sure I know how."
"Find it inside yourself, Toby. Exercise your inner penitent."
"I can't just stay here?"
She kisses his cheek and smiles at him, sadly he thinks. "No, Toby."
In the morning they see the kids off to school and Toby tries not to feel appalled by just how tight Huck hugs him or how proud Molly looked when he praised her English paper. He makes a mental note, two mental notes: Get Sam to talk to me again, and, Stop being a two-dimensional hero figure to my children.
The last straw is Huck asking, just as they're out of the door and Toby thinks he's home free, how Sam is and has Toby seen him lately. He should have seen it, of course, how inevitable it was that his quiet, sensitive child, the one who is developing a tendency towards the same starry-eyed adoration of him that was amusing in a grown man but well-nigh unbearable in a child who doesn't see his father as much as he needs to, should bond with Sam Seaborn.
"No, I haven't seen him lately," Toby says, after he's brushed the hair out of Huck's eyes and Huck has failed to pull out from under Toby's fingers. The kid's bangs are too long. Toby worries a lot that, with absolutely no peripheral vision and a propensity for day-dreaming, Huck will one day walk under a bus. "He's just working really hard. But I'll tell him you asked about him, okay?
Huck nods in his usual hyper-serious way, noting the information down in the highly indexed reference system of his world.
"Tell him I finished Great Expectations?" Huck says.
"I'll do that, kid. I'll tell him you have the same terrible taste in prose, okay?"
Huck grins. "It was good, dad! It actually even says 'classic' on the front cover, you know."
"Yeah, yeah. You're still young. You'll learn. Now go to school and prove me right, okay?"
Toby kisses him goodbye because neither of them care that fathers and sons aren't supposed to do that after a certain age, then kisses Molly who restrains her immediate impulse, which is to roll her eyes, then closes the door behind them.
From just inside the door Andrea says, "So. What to do now, Toby?"
At first, he walks around. High summer in the heart of Brooklyn and it is much too hot to think; too hot to do anything but get out of the apartment as soon as the coffee shops open, buy three large measures of their finest coffee-with-ice-in-it and sit staring at a blank page of his notebook until he feels vaguely faint.
It is like a sickness, in the beginning. He walks around with what feels like a 100 degree fever, feeling like someone has poured warm molasses into his ear in the night -- the death of Hamlet's father as written by Walt Disney. He cannot make sense of his thoughts, or ask his feet to move in a particular direction. He is just wandering -- walking around the city, around Brooklyn and latterly in Manhattan, going into his office at Columbia for refuge because he can sit there more or less undisturbed, with the blinds drawn down and the door locked. He feels lost, turned around. Maps are useless; someone has redrawn them and not informed him. And when he goes home the apartment echoes, or else feels suffocating, all the air dampened. He put it down to the heat and the loss of routine, and this strange feeling of being ill. He sleeps badly those first weeks. His dreams are vivid and terrible, and he feels tired when he has woken up from them.
It's someone else who notices, who names what he is feeling for him. His colleague at Columbia, the only other person on the staff of the Political Science department who prefers looking in on the center and dousing the fervor of ambition and breathless scholarship which fights it out there with the appropriate amount of sarcasm, Ursula Packer.
One day there is a knock on the door of his office at the university. Toby only realizes after the second set of knocks that he didn't remember to lock the door. He's left the blinds down, but if it's the person he thinks it probably is, that won't matter. Ursula wouldn't think too hard about trying the door; Toby thinks she probably wouldn't baulk at going through his drawers and papers if she really wanted something. So when he hears her call his name (Toby Ziegler, I know you're in there. I can hear your heavy breathing!) he doesn't bother trying to pretend.
"Yeah, come in. What d'you want?"
"Toby, has anyone ever told you that you light up a room? Even a room in pitch darkness - gee, d'you wanna die a slow death of a Vitamin E deficiency or something? What's with the blinds?"
"I was actually enjoying my privacy."
"You were hiding."
He bows his head a fraction. "If you prefer."
"I strive for accuracy in all things."
"Yeah, I've noticed that -- just the interpreting of the truth you come by with your accuracy that we disagree on. What d'you want?"
Ursula shrugs, then pulls up a chair and sits opposite him at his desk.
"Someone mentioned they thought you were skulking away in here. I was curious."
"I dispute the verb 'skulking'."
"Oh, sitting in here, all alone, blinds down, door locked -- or pretending to be locked -- with your computer off, no papers, not even a paperback to read, doing absolutely nothing, what's that? That's recreational for you?"
"Well, that I grant you."
"So you're not sulking? Or skulking."
He doesn't give her the smile she's angling for. "No," he says.
She smiles. "Okay. Toby, I'm gonna ask you a question now and I'd really prefer if you didn't take this as an opportunity to indulge that desire to pull off my head and kick it down the street like a soccer ball which you've nurtured ever since we met."
He raises an eyebrow, still not smiling. "Can't say that's ever really been on my mind."
"Well, it might be after this."
"Look, I know this isn't your thing, serious conversations, but, seriously, Toby, do you think you might be depressed right now?"
"As opposed to how I usually am?"
"You usually spend a month sitting in darkened rooms with your thoughts, doing nothing but brooding on the things, or the people, you've lost?"
Toby narrows his eyes. "Who've you been talking to?"
She smiles at him. "I'm more observant than you appear to have noticed, Toby."
"So it appears."
"I'm just saying, man. I wouldn't want to come to work and find out that my partner in sarcasm is out of commission."
"So your concern is totally selfish."
She smiles. "Totally."
"Then I concede you may have a point."
She nods. "Good. I thought that was going to be a lot harder. I have a wrench here in my purse in case it got a little hairy in here."
He does smile then. "Yeah."
"So what are you gonna do about it?"
"A lot of people," he says, with a big sigh, "Seem to be asking me that these days."
The book comes out of a confluence of events: Toby's nearest neighbor either installing a mining and tunneling outfit or building an ark in his apartment; the long summer vacation coinciding with newly record-breaking levels of heat and air pollution in the city as well as his children's trips to both Disneyland and Baltimore (the relative evils of which Toby is still puzzling over long after the book is finished); and the departure, three months earlier, of his lover from his bed and from his house.
It doesn't start out as the story it becomes, nor does Toby's reason for continuing to write it remain the same. It isn't the book he'd started already -- the one he'd talked about with Sam, planned and complained about for months. That book is long in the trash. This one is new but feels old. It lies heavily on his chest at night and fills his thoughts as he lies down to sleep, but at least he does sleep. And what book ever becomes the thing its creator imagined it would be? The speeches never worked like that; he doesn't see why a novel should be any different.
Toby doesn't write his own story down, or not in the shape he would have done if he had sat down with that purpose. But if he had sat down to do that, this is how it would have gone: Man meets boy, is confused and irritated by boy, realizes that boy is in love with him, decides to take care of boy because he feels vaguely guilty about not being able to return said love as he sees it, finally gets used to boy and then loses boy, abruptly and appallingly, over a continent, on account of a series of impossible events, while he wasn't looking, while he was failing to care.
Toby has been running after him, ever since he started looking.
At first he runs standing still, and this is difficult, and prone to mistakes and misunderstandings. And if Toby was writing this down, which he isn't, this would be where he would start. Later it becomes easier: it's just a story, just some way to stop thinking about what has happened; a way to pass the time. At the end, reading it over, he knows what he has done. It scares him. It exhilarates him, too, to know that he has made his confession: found his inner penitent. It is suggested to him, by the agent he found almost by accident, and by way of the breathless calls from the publishing house, that he has written something extraordinary, something literary. He doesn't know about that. He wrote a story, as honestly as he could, meeting the needs of that story as well as he could. He wrote it because he couldn't think of anything else to do -- any other gesture to make. He does not know, now, what he hopes for the book. For the moment, he will just let it go, and see what, if anything, comes back.
-- Review of Evening All Afternoon, The New York Times Book Review, 12th October 2011.
Toby Ziegler, whose other job was Communications Director for the Bartlet presidency -- a role from which he was unceremoniously fired as the result of an act described by then-President Bartlet as "treasonous" and by almost everyone else as "heroic", "fearless", and "patriotic" -- has created a new career for himself.
Ziegler was always an accomplished writer; the architect of the most memorable of Bartlet's speeches: notably the fourth State of the Union address, which brought President Bartlet back from the brink of disaster following the revelation of his undisclosed multiple sclerosis and subsequent censure from Congress. Ziegler was able to access the tender feelings of the American public and offer them a higher standard, a better dream, a finer argument. As a speech writer, his style was, as far as this reviewer can determine, plain but not without a distinctive kind of poetry; proud; attentive to the best principles of rhetoric and disapproving of sophistry. I know he got me to stand up and applaud more than once.
So maybe I can be forgiven for approaching this, Toby Ziegler's first novel, with trepidation. I admired the guy; I admired his work from another life and I've read too many first novels by people who really shouldn't have given up their day jobs to be completely sanguine about what I might find inside the pages of this fairly slim, blue-covered volume.
Well, I needn't have worried. Not as far as style and quality are concerned in any case. Ziegler is still one of the finest writers of his generation in any medium and that he now writes fiction as well as hiding his light under the not inconsiderable bushel of the Political Science department of Columbia University (his other new career) is a cause for celebration.
That said, there are a few things here that won't win Ziegler any new friends. For one thing, this is a love story. Fine, okay, you say. And what's so wrong with that? Nothing, except that it's a love story from one man to another man and there are some people in this great country of ours who seem to have a problem with that kind of thing, particularly when it concerns prominent liberals who have previously enjoyed privileged access to the President. Added to this, there is the problem of who the other man is. Just a character, right? I said this is a work of fiction? Well, yes and no. First novels often have an autobiographical bent and Ziegler's is no exception. This reviewer has never had the pleasure of Toby Ziegler's company but knows people who have and suspects that they would agree that the central character of this novel, Richard Kessler, bears a striking resemblance to him. This book is also, among other things, the product of decades spent in political service and the product of a great conscience evolving new concerns and different means of expressing them. But it also bears the weight of history and experience. It is personal, the way politics is.
So who is this other guy and what does he have to do with the personal nature of politics? Well, this reviewer suspects, based on the dedication and the unguarded descriptions, that the man in question is Sam Seaborn, who was Ziegler's deputy when they both worked in the Bartlet White House.
So far, so much controversy. But you don't care (I hope) who this guy sleeps with, you only care whether he writes good books as a result. Okay, I'll shut up and answer the original question.
This is a very fine book. The nearest comparisons I can make, inexact though they are, are to Beckett and Auster, in that this is a quietly frightening postmodernist take on identity, love, and legacy in a New York not quite like our own. The plot concerns two men who meet as a result of sharing their small working space -- a secondhand bookstore and its room in back -- and suddenly find themselves, as a result of a catastrophe that leads to the sealing off of the city under a hastily assembled government which seems to have a disturbingly totalitarian bent, needing to escape. Richard Kessler is a writer of political satire and dystopic fiction -- two genres he finds himself unable to legally publish in, post-'event'. He is an introverted, sullen man, disillusioned with his circumstances and keeping off the fear of what is happening to his country with black humor. Thomas Chase is the kid who rents the back room of the bookstore Kessler runs to keep his bank balance in the black. And it is Chase who creates the light against which the noble darkness of Kessler's character can blossom. He is a perfect idealist, a man of vision; someone you can imagine giving JFK a run for his money, were it not for one thing: his sexuality. Because Chase is gay and unapologetic about it, the dazzling career in politics and justice that might have been his seems impossible. It is certainly well out of reach in the dystopic, ghettoised New York of the novel.
Words, then, become the tools of the regime, but also the tools through which resistance is mounted and ambition is realized. New worlds are created, dreams are given shape and character as Chase and Kessler progress on their suicide run through the boarded-up city, seeking escape and salvation by means of illegally distributed pamphlets, fliers, and chapbooks in which stories are freedom. If all this sounds hopelessly idealistic and juvenile then, trust me, it is no less a masterstroke than the magical notebook of Auster's Oracle Night. These men live through their words, they achieve, they protest, they overthrow. They are a marriage of opposites reminiscent of Adams and Jefferson. And then they fall in love.
The events of the novel -- the curtailment of freedom of expression, of ideas, of bodies, of belief, are all, of course, warnings. Ziegler uses this nightmare scenario to point up the disenfranchisement and prejudice many of us experience right now, in this America that Ziegler, Seaborn, and Bartlet worked so hard to change. This book is about being gay but it is also about being black, or Jewish, or a woman, or being crazy, or anything other than white, male, 'normal', and part of that crucial 18-35 demographic. It's no surprise that Ziegler cares deeply about these issues but the tenderness with which he treats the theme is strikingly personal, and tantamount to a confession, or, perhaps, an apology. It is clear that he has loved people who have dealt with these injustices, even been such a person himself. The book is a warning, a truly American 1984; it is an apology for things the author felt powerless to change; it is, finally, a love story. The dedication which I mentioned earlier reads only: "For S.". This reviewer hopes that S. knows that he has now become part of America's new canon, and that he returns Ziegler's calls every now and then.
"So did you read it?"
"Good morning, Josh."
"Yeah, yeah. Did you read it? Because I'm tellin' ya now, Sam, this had better turn out well enough that it was a good enough reason for not coming to work for me."
"Okay, first of all, I told you why I wasn't coming back to the White House and particularly not to work for you -- "
"Bet if he'd asked you'd have come. I bet you'd sit in your old office all day and stare longingly through the window until he -- "
"Oh, you just wanna try denying it, Sam -- "
"Look, in your permanently strange and addled brain it occurs to you that this is all really funny but, you know, from my side of the fence -- "
"Not so much?"
"Not so much, no."
"You really didn't know he was writing it?"
"No. Why? Are you trying to tell me you did?"
"Well. I don't know. We talked a little -- "
"He called me. He said Andy was sick of listening to him moon over you -- and before you ask, yes those were his exact words, though I suspect they didn't start out as the words he would have chosen -- and he needed someone to sit on the end of the phone and keep quiet."
"That does kinda sound like him."
"My Toby Ziegler impression would not be up to scrutiny from the ears of his greatest fan, Sam."
"Would you stop that?"
"No, I really don't think I will."
"So he called you."
"And it would have killed you to call me?"
"He made me promise."
"Why does that not surprise me."
"He had some really creative ideas for punishments if I failed to observe his instructions, as well."
"That doesn't surprise me either. Though I pretty much thought you were less of a lily-livered yellow-bellied -- "
"White House Chief of Staff?"
"Leo McGarry would kick your ass."
Sam can hear the exhalation that accompanies Josh's sad smile over the phone. "Yeah, probably. I don't have the fighter jet experience."
"And I think that's something we can all be thankful for, Josh."
"I read it in Barnes and Noble."
"No kidding. You remember to buy it afterward? Or did you walk out of the store holding it tight against your chest, set off the alarm and get thrown into jail for petty theft?"
"It shouldn't shock you to learn that I managed to avoid a criminal record this time round."
"Or did he send you a signed copy?"
"I think that would have upset his ulterior motive in all of this, which was to freak me out as much as he could with a book, apparently written for me as some kind of bizarre literary substitute for spiking my coffee with LSD so that I become increasingly convinced that I'm some kind of parallel universe in which everything has ceased to make sense."
"Whoa. That was ... that was building up for a little while, huh?"
"A little while, yes. Possibly since 1998."
"You know, you could maybe have saved yourself a little trouble by sorting this out in 1998?"
"Now I'm taking dating advice from you?"
"Just a little wisdom from a parallel universe, Sam!"
"Yeah, well unless you have time machines over there, it's a little late."
A little pause.
"So you really -- " Josh begins.
"I always knew, you know."
"Well, Josh, there was that little thing when you and I spent six months -- "
"That was completely different."
"Oh yeah? How was it different?"
"We were in college! Everyone experiments in college!"
"See, this is why I was less than enthusiastic about telling everyone I know. That everyone I know is or once was a prominent member of the Democratic Party and should therefore be a little bit less egregiously homophobic -- "
"Hey, hey! I am not homophobic, Sam! I'm just -- "
"What? Trying to find the funny? Having a little fun mocking me? Or just not wild about the idea that you were a little bit gay too, once upon a time? And you're trying to tell me that isn't homophobic? This isn't a joke, Josh. This is my life and at one point it was my damn career and it would be great if people could be a little less cavalier about how funny it is that they knew all along that I was gay!"
"No, you're right. I'm sorry. And I have no problem with ... what we did."
"Real convincing, Josh."
"I mean it! It was just a long time ago and ... "
"You moved on?"
" ... Yeah."
"Good. And I'm not homophobic."
"I know. You just ... I don't know. Some things aren't funny. And there's a difference between ... "
"Sam -- "
"There's a difference between not supporting prejudicial laws and hate crime against gay people and being okay with sharing a beer with one, with your best friend when he ... " Sam swallows, and draws breath, but not for long enough for Josh to interrupt. "And patronizing liberal attitudes about legislation and saving minorities with the full force of their heterosexist assimiliationist agenda -- "
"Sam, I'm not that guy. None of us are that guy. You know that. You know I'd break through any ... I'd do anything to ... if someone was gonna curtail the smallest and most insignificant of your rights, don't you think I'd be there in the time it takes to make one phonecall to bring the whole wrath of the federal government down on their heads? If someone was trying to make you feel lesser than or ... or hurt you -- "
"I know, Josh."
"It's a little funny, though."
Sam allows him the exhalation of breath which will have to stand in for a laugh. "Maybe a little."
"Mostly because it's Toby. And the only way to deal with Toby having feelings for anyone is to make a joke out of it."
Sam laughs, properly this time. "Yeah, I guess."
"Are you gonna call him?"
"I don't know."
"You should really call him. It's not every day a guy writes a book for you."
"Not even in my life."
"Call him, Sam."
"Did you like the book?"
"I haven't formed an opinion yet."
"Oh, c'mon, Sam, it's -- "
"I can't quite fit my head around the idea that it exists."
"See, to me that sounds like you liked it."
"I'll call you tomorrow."
Toby walks through Central Park. It is the first day of January 2011, a year which sounds almost impossibly futuristic to Toby, and it is snowing, though not heavily. He looks over his shoulder and tries to find his footsteps as they come into the park from the front gate. It's an impossible task -- fifteen other people, plus their children and their dogs, their bikes, the sleds pulled in by the kids, have already entered behind him and made mush of his tracks. Even though it's New Year's Day the entire population of Manhattan appears to have better things to do than sit in awkward, drunken silence with their extended families, and so have come to the park instead. Toby turns around again and pulls up his collar, and carries on walking.
It's beautiful: the park, the colorless sky, the ordinary trees and grasses transformed by the coating of snow. Even the slush on the paths and the gritty snowmen standing on the curb seem like New York poetry to him, all the better for its imperfection and its ostensible ugliness.
He is making his way toward a bench. In his hand is a very thick Sunday newspaper on which he intends to sit when he reaches the bench in order that his ass not freeze to the thing. He's hoping -- he actually has his fingers crossed as he walks -- that the person that he is coming to meet will actually be there; that he got the message, that he didn't just push the button for messages on his answering service and then hit delete immediately after he heard Toby's voice.
It was a desperate act, done because it's been months since the book was released and he's heard absolutely nothing. Everyone else has gotten in touch, whether in shock or in amazement or, in C.J.'s case, completely knowing mockery. They were happy, if slightly surprised, for him -- they couldn't believe it, Toby thinks, and yet it also makes perfect sense to them. His ex-wife laughed at him after she started, without the slightest word of preamble or greeting, to read out to him some of the tenderer passages from his own book down the phone, and make fun of him for killing off the wife of the main character to whom Toby himself bears such an apparently obvious resemblance. It was nice, she said, to read all about that in graphic detail. It was, in fact, a fun conversation all round. But Andrea's contention was that, since the years he apparently spent with Sam while neglecting to tell anyone about it were, as far as she could tell thinking back, among the happiest years of his that she had ever been witness to, he should maybe try to go back and fix it. Toby said to her that, though it was to be understood that he never actually uttered these words, maybe she had a point. Hence a message on Sam's answering machine that may or may not have been picked up; the last attempt: following phonecalls and letters, even a postcard from Coney Island that got straight to the point: come back to me, he had written, and we'll figure all this out. In the phone message he had made promises he does not know how to keep: about confessions and coming out and admitting, as much in public as it is necessary to be -- understanding, as Sam must, that he won't be walking in the goddamn Gay Pride Parade any time soon -- that he is in a thing (a relationship, or the words he can't use over the phone, the words which only work in prose: a love affair) with another man. Whether that makes him gay or closeted or bisexual or Sam-sexual or whatever the hell it means, there it is, he said. I'll say it, he had said, into the phone after three big glasses of Jack, I'll say it to whoever you want me to say it to, just please come home, Sam. Come home. The next morning, when he'd woken up with a splitting headache and a sense of having done something irrevocable, he decided to go for broke. He left another message, simpler. Less grovelling, he thought.
Meet me in Central Park. New Year's Day. Midday. That bench off the path, near the little bridge that you like -- that you liked. If you want to talk about this. And then he'd hung up.
It was early December then, and Christmas seemed far off. He went to work, taught his classes, fended off interviewers, and took calls from his agent that mentioned prizes -- and not only prizes he'd never heard of only awarded to novelists on their first time out. There had been no return calls from California, so he decided to put it out of his mind, as much as he could.
The kids came for Hanukkah and stayed for Christmas, their little heathen holiday. Huck finally got the telescope he'd wanted for a year and half, having passed the secret test of waxing and waning interests that Toby had set him by staying crazy for astronomy, space, and the possibility of seeing some of the secrets of that strange and distant place one day. The three of them went up on the roof of Toby's building to watch the stars, wrapped up in blankets and wearing three pairs of socks each. Huck set the thing up by himself without recourse to the manual (such as it was) and trained it on the usual things -- the moon, Orion, a star that might have been Venus, Toby wasn't sure. Molly and Toby stood beside him, watching the city while pretending not to keep a watch on Huck, who they both know to be the weak point -- the vulnerable one, even in the throws of scientific discovery -- in their triangle. His daughter stood quietly inside his arms, holding onto his gloved hands with hers, gazing out at the river, and Toby thought: my god, I'm happy. All it takes is these two kids, and a rooftop in Brooklyn. Then he remembered, and, though the happiness did not fade, it changed -- to accommodate a lack, a far-off longing; a fourth corner, as yet still missing.
The kids went home for New Year's and, as usual, they clung on to him; they didn't want to leave. Huck in particular was heartbroken, and not for the first time it struck Toby that he has made at least two people who love him, and don't want to be parted from him. He hugged his son tight and tipped a nod to Molly, the same message always: look after your brother, don't let him stay too sad for too long. She nodded back, and soon after that their plane left. Andrea called him once they were home safely and they stayed talking awhile, telling stories about what the kids had gotten up to. Toby found that he didn't want to hang up. By then he had remembered what date it was.
New Year's Eve was dark and sullen. The snow began then. Molly called him to say that it was snowing there too and that Huck was making a snowman and that she wished he was there too. I do as well, kid, Toby had said, remembering the compactness of his daughter's body in his arms; the perfect smallness of her shoulders and her hands. I do as well.
Before she hung up the phone Molly had said, quietly, Don't get lonely, daddy. He had joked that she was obviously taking this whole thing where she looked after the men in her life very seriously but she didn't laugh. Really, dad. You need someone with you. You should call Aunt C.J., or maybe Sam. When Toby asked her if her mother had told her to tell him that she only chuckled a little. Maybe, she said, but I kinda think she's right. We only want you to be happy, you know. He told her it was a conspiracy and she laughed in earnest, Yeah, dad, it's so terrible that you might get to be happy. Anyway, gotta go. I love you. Bye! And she was gone.
Toby didn't sleep much on New Year's Eve, what with the fireworks and all. But even with the radio on and the curtains drawn to block out the noise as best he could, nothing helped. He had felt like this once before, a long time ago, but going through it all again seemed abhorrent -- too much to expect of him. And yet, there he was, waiting. Hoping that this was the trick that would work. He fell asleep eventually, as the snow started falling again. He did not remember his dreams.
The bench comes into view. It's in the middle of the park. There are numerous people (parents, children, plus dogs of all kinds) milling around. On the bench a man is sitting. He's wearing an enormous black overcoat that still isn't big enough to obscure the squareness or stiffness of his shoulders, on which enough snow has settled that Toby gathers he may himself be late.
Toby stops in the middle of the path and exhales warm breath into the cold air. He pulls at his coat, fiddling a button open and closed. His tie feels tight and uncomfortable. He sighs, then starts walking again.
Toby sits down, heavily, on the bench, beside the guy, careful not to touch him in any way.
"Hey," Toby says, more quietly than he meant to. He can't seem to make his voice any louder.
"Hey," Sam says.
"When did you get in?"
"This morning. Early plane. Really early." Sam yawns. "Man, I'm tired."
Toby steals a look at him. He looks tired too -- lines under his eyes which weren't there before and, underneath the loosely wrapped scarf, a suggestion of strained skin and visible tendons at the neck that Toby doesn't remember from before.
"I wasn't sure you'd come."
"I wasn't either, until I got on the plane."
"I wrote you."
Sam turns his head for the first time, smiles at Toby. "You wrote me a book."
"A book that is being tipped, as I understand it, for any amount of awards."
"Well that I wouldn't know."
"Sure, of course not. Any amount of awards which may include the Pulitzer and you're telling me your agent hasn't called you to tell you not to be too rude to anyone who calls you up on behalf of a major newspaper?"
"She actually hasn't prepped me that well."
Sam laughs, quietly. Then he says: "You wrote me a book, Toby."
"I didn't entirely write it for you."
"Apart from the dedication."
"Moment of madness."
Sam chuckles again. It is a warm sound, and it makes Toby think of a summer still a long way off. Sam leans against Toby's arm a little as the laugh ends, then moves away.
"Did you ... " Toby starts, then clears his throat, pulls at his tie. "What did you think? Of the thing?"
"Sam -- "
"C'mon, I'm allowed a little -- "
"Light mental torture?"
"I loved it," Sam says, and Toby feels the bottom drop out of his stomach. "I really loved it, Toby," he says.
-- Sam Seaborn's diary, 12th October 2010
I was reading the papers this morning, like I do every morning.
(I do this every morning and yet this is the first I've heard of this book, the first I knew that it was being written, or that it was finished, or that it had been published to a public who won't know what's hit them. You have to wonder -- or, at any rate, I do -- exactly how this has escaped my attention. I read the review pages, the culture pages, the books and publishing pages most particularly. I never miss them, and yet I've heard nothing about this. I imagine that if I'd saved the papers from a month or two months back, and if I went through them, I would be able to see articles or mentions in boxes at the side of the main content that had previously been invisible to me. It is astonishing, that kind of denial, but I know that it's the case.)
I was reading the papers. I got to the reviews in the NYT. And after that, I don't really know what happened.
I read the review in the NYT, and then I found the reviews of the same book in the various other papers -- New Yorker, New York Review of Books (that they are all New York papers is just terribly unfunny irony) -- and, though the NYT review was the clearest, the most dazzlingly unreal in the sense that it undermined everything I thought I understood about reality, they all agreed.
And anyway, there was the dedication.
I went out to the nearest bookstore. It happened to be a Barnes and Noble and though it felt quite wrong to seek out this particular book in a chain store, expediency was a more important consideration than atmosphere.
I went straight to the back of the store, to the last bookcase where the Zs were lurking. Scanned across -- David Foster Wallace, H.G. Wells, Patrick White, Oscar Wilde, Richard Yates, Banana Yoshimoto -- twice as many Ws as there are Ys and three times as many as there are Zs, nowhere much to hide at the end of the alphabet -- Yevgeny Zamayatin, and, there he was: Toby Ziegler.
I experienced dissonance with reality when I slid the thing out from among its companions. I felt the way people say they felt when they experienced something inexplicable: I felt that I was watching myself from above. There were three copies, and I picked the middle one, just because it felt right.
The cover is an astonishing shade of blue, like every cliche color blue you can think of, all at once: oceans, skies, your lover's eyes. If it had been anyone else's book and about nothing I cared about I still would have wanted to buy it just because of the color of the cover. It made me jealous of synaesthesics. Really badly jealous. I imagined it tasting of a kind of blue raspberry taffy, flavored with milk, and then smoked. Which to me felt pretty irresistible, unconvincing though it sounds.
I opened it to the first page, the title page. Turned that page. I checked the Library of Congress cataloging data --
And the page facing that, the dedication.
Ziegler, Toby, 1954 --
Evening All Afternoon / Toby Ziegler
It read, For S.
I tried to think of other 'S's, and couldn't. I wondered if he'd met some woman -- a Sally or a Sarah or a Sheila -- and couldn't bear the idea. Or some other man. Stephen or Simon or Sean. That was, naturally, even worse. Or exactly as bad. And I couldn't think of anyone.
I read the blurb on the back of the book
and found it hopelessly trite and overwritten, though the quotes (a dazzling meditation on love and the power of imagination; a new standard in dystopian literature) didn't seem to mind.
New York is different now. You wouldn't recognize it. The citizens are afraid. The skies are darkened, and there seems no possibility of dawn.
But one day, the posters appear, and then the leaflets, and then the books.
In the midst of a broken city, two people come together and begin to prove, quite by accident, that words can save the world. And so Thomas Chase and Richard Kessler become crusaders against the tide of darkness threatening to overwhelm the city, and themselves.
I noticed neither mentions the homosexual love affair angle; leave that to the reviewers. Don't want to jeopardize sales.
The store was quiet. It was still early, and most of the people in the store were after the coffee and the magazines and not the books. And down in Z row, it was even quieter. There was a chair set in the centre of the three-sided rectangle the shelves made; one of those chairs that are meant to be comfortable but aren't, just in case you forget to buy the book. I pressed the book close to my chest, like it was a hundred dollar bill I was scared to drop, and sat down.
I woke up about two hours later.
I did buy the book straight afterward.
-- addendum, October 13th ~1A.M.
I read it twice. In the bookstore and again just now. It's a short book, after all. A short book I'm having trouble accepting the existence of.
The review wasn't kidding, or exaggerating. It's a very fine book. It's also a love letter. In the margins, between the lines, in the choices of the verbs and the breadth of the imagery (I mean, imagery! from Toby!), it's a love letter. There are lines in this book that prove that. Lines, whole paragraphs, the whole damn thing. If you read it as a person who spent four years with the author, who went to sleep with his syntax singing in your head like a lullaby. There is also no way, if you are reading this book as that person, that you don't know who this book was written for.
I haven't eaten, and I don't think I'll be able to sleep much. At all, really. And it's probably a good thing that I'm not pregnant. Though I suspect that I'll lose any amount of clients and money tomorrow at the firm instead.
He wrote a love letter, and he dedicated it to me.
New Year's Day. Manhattan is curiously sleepy. The way it is at Christmas, the morning after St. Patrick's Day, and, in certain districts, at Passover and Yom Kippur. It makes Toby feel watchful. Like he needs to look around each corner to check for near-invisible spies. There are the usual amount of yellow cabs but no one there to hail them. The pedestrian traffic seems mostly to consist of guys picking up the garbage and the more intrepid tourists, checking to see if New York snow is any different from the snow they have (or don't, Toby supposes) in their own countries.
They are out, walking again. Sam is still wrapped up in one of his unconscionably expensive overcoats and a silk scarf; clothes Toby figures he didn't get much use out of in California. They suit him better than the tee shirt and unbearable cut-off jeans uniform Toby always assumes everyone in Venice Beach wears, even in January. In the dull grey light of Manhattan, his tan looks painted on and emphasizes his stupidly long black eyelashes to a degree that is quite unreal. And yet Toby cannot stop sneaking looks at him, when they stop at intersections, or Sam breaks their silence to tell Toby that he's interested in whatever is being displayed in a certain shopfront.
As much as it is redundant to say, even to himself: 'this person is beautiful to me', without sitting down with a legal pad and a good pen and putting some effort into a decent metaphor, Toby doesn't know how else to describe or express the reaction he has to Sam's profile, or the tight set of his shoulders as they wait for the 'walk' light with their hands snugly shoved into their pockets.
These things are easier to say in prose.
Later, back at the apartment, silence is still easier than words. Toby makes coffee, toast, considers starting on something more elaborate involving steaks and potatoes, or hamburgers, possibly salad, until he realizes he's overcompensating and only looking for ways to avoid just sitting, in the continued silence, on the couch with Sam. It is Sam who speaks, between mouthfuls of coffee.
"I got two weeks off work."
"I don't have to go back for two weeks."
"So ... I guess we can -- "
"Relax, Toby, I don't think we're gonna need a series of seminars on homosexual -- or bisexual, which really, you know is a better -- "
"Sam," he says, quietly.
"Sorry. Well, no I'm not sorry. But probably no seminars on relationships, the nature of love, closeted behavior -- "
"Yeah, you're convincing me, Sam."
"I may have thought about this a little."
Toby nods, unable to decide whether to deem 'unremittingly careful and sombre' or 'still riding on the high of Sam being back in New York' the appropriate mood for his face to express.
"Yeah," he says, noncomitally.
Sam laughs, quite unconvincingly, Toby thinks. "It's fine, Toby. We'll talk. Walk around. Do the thing. Like a vacation."
In the time between this agreement and the time for bed Toby is pathetically grateful for the consistently woeful reporting on CNN and Fox News: Toby would rant and want to throw things at the television (sometimes he does, usually something less heavy than a book and less solid than a shoe, just for instance) whether there was anyone watching the thing with him or not, but having Sam there makes it a lot more fun. He gives Toby an audience, which makes competitive sarcasm a great deal more satisfying. Then he starts joining in, and Toby remembers: a cascade of quiet evenings that became mornings without their noticing, their debates, their arguments echoing through the Bullpen like the calls of night birds. His body remembers, and reacts accordingly. He spends the rest of the evening with his legs crossed away from Sam, constantly drawing attention to Glenn Beck's insane stupidity by way of a distraction. Whether for himself or for Sam, he isn't certain.
Eventually, Sam yawns, and says goodnight. They do not kiss. They have barely even touched since the press of their arms, sitting on the bench that afternoon. Toby tries not to think about this as he does the dishes, checks the apartment door, closes the windows in the living room, switches off the television, brushes his teeth nice and slow; does everything he can think to do to avoid going into the bedroom and getting into bed and seeing what happens next in this surreal little dance of possibly love.
The moment can't be put off forever. Toby pushes the bedroom door open as quietly as he can, still not entirely sure that he'll find Sam there, rather than in the other room, tucked in under Huck's Buzz Lightyear covers. The light is still on. There is a pile of Sam's clothes folded neatly on the chair Toby usually throws his own over with little regard for the standard of his house-keeping. Toby smiles. It's really impossible not to.
Sam has his eyes tightly closed, head pushed into the pillow. He has made himself look small in Toby's bed, taking up as little space as he can. Toby undresses while watching him and listening to his breathing. He looks like a little boy, in his white tee shirt and his blue boxer shorts, curled up around himself, for all that his thighs are as thick as Toby's thigh and forearm put together and his shoulders make a perfect square among Toby's pillows. His hands are drawn together, under his chin. He's frowning. He is perfectly still.
Toby throws his tie and shirt and pants onto the nearest chair, balls up his socks and pops them into the corner of the room.
"You're avoiding the bed?" Sam says, without opening his eyes or moving his head.
Toby stands and stares at him for a moment. "No. Just."
"Taking my time."
"I thought you were asleep."
"I'm getting there."
"And my less than lightning speed nighttime routine is interfering with your sleep?"
"A little bit, yes. Not as much as this conversation."
Toby sighs. He sits on the bed and picks at his undershirt, smoothes it pointlessly over his stomach. Then slips under the covers. Sam is at the far edge of the left side of the bed. Toby lies on his back with his hands folded over his belly, his head slightly turned to left.
After a while -- long enough for Toby to feel sleepy despite the uncomfortable position -- Sam says, "Toby?"
"I don't even know how to say this -- "
"Sam, just -- "
Sam sighs in a put-upon way and reaches out to pulls on Toby's wrists and brings his arms up around his shoulders. Toby blinks at him and shifts his hips to bring himself closer. In the center of the bed is the depression Toby has made from sleeping alone in it and neglecting to turn the mattress. It gapes like a crater, and they are falling slowly into it. Sam pushes his head into Toby's chest instead of into the pillow and Toby feels, for a moment, exactly like he does when one of the twins barrels up, looking for a hug, and knocks all the wind out of him. He pats Sam's shoulders, until the pat has calmed down into a stroke. Sam breathes out a long exhalation and shifts a little more, trying to get comfortable and into a position, vis a vis his face against Toby's skin that maintains -- Toby assumes -- the desired level of contact without also cutting off his oxygen supply. Toby arranges his arm loosely around Sam's waist and wonders how he's going to get any sleep.
"Just," Sam says, quietly, voice muffled, "Like this?"
"You want to cuddle?" Toby says, before he can stop himself.
Sam opens his eyes, tips his head back and looks at Toby. He looks stern, which might have been funny, but tired too, which isn't, and Toby finds himself opening his mouth to apologize without even thinking about it. Sam speaks first.
"I want you to hold me, and possibly shut up. And since it was hard to ask for -- "
"Sorry," Toby whispers.
Sam sighs heavily. "Toby, it's just ... I don't know, with the thing, and you, and -- "
"You want to sleep," Toby says.
"Think about it tomorrow."
"And you want me ... " He sighs. It is still impossible to say; not in the real world, with Sam's real body pressed up against his own, pulling off the incredible trick of being needy and imperious at the same time, that isn't so incredible if you factor in that this is Sam Seaborn, and anything is possible.
"I just want you to be there until I'm unconscious." Sam yawns. "It feels like ... it feels like if that happens, maybe it'll make sense. Or something."
"I'm not going anywhere, Sam."
"It's your bed. Where would you go?"
"No. I mean ... I'll ... be here." Toby gives up, and pulls Sam close to him and begins to stroke his hair. "Just go to sleep, okay?"
Sam smiles, and aims a kiss at the bit of Toby's skin closest to his mouth at that moment, which turns out to be the place where Toby's collarbone turns into the meat of his shoulder.
"Okay," he says.
Toby does fall asleep, eventually. More from the bizarre exhaustion of feeling that he must stay perfectly still in case he disrupts Sam's rest (even though he's pretty sure that Sam is tired enough to sleep through most things), and the mental exhaustion of wondering, worrying: what this is, what it might turn into, and what it might not. When he wakes up they are tangled together still, too many limbs and the prickle of hair against unexpected areas of his skin. Sam's head is still under his hands, though his palm has dropped to the back of his neck. He shifts onto his back in the bed, which pulls Sam's head down almost to his stomach, where he makes a little noise in his sleep and cuddles up with what looks like perfect contentment. Toby spends a minute or so, breathing in the morning-in-Brooklyn smell coming in through the open window, just stroking that place at the nape of Sam's neck. He still feels tired, incredibly tired.
-- Sam Seaborn's diary, January 2nd 2011
My contention, after having thought it over for a few months, was that it didn't actually change anything -- just having written a book and dedicated it to someone. That the book happened to contain a love story between two guys that may or may not have borne some resemblance to Toby and me didn't prove a damn thing. I loved the book, I really did, and I was incredibly touched by the dedication (though I didn't tell Toby as much, not at first) but the basic fact remained -- the world thought he was a straight guy, what with his ex-wife and his two children, and after all, 'S.' could really be anyone.
Toby disagreed, of course, and pointed me to the New York Times review and the comments to the online version of the thing speculating about how long we'd been having an affair and whether or not it affected any of President Bartlet's policies towards the gay community. He read a few out for me in his best 'how can you be this much of an idiot, Sam?' voice. He even Googled 'Toby Ziegler and Sam Seaborn' and the second hit was a recent blog post all about how great it was that prominent politicians don't seem to feel the need to lie about their sexualities so much anymore and besides wasn't it refreshing that there's some really good literary fiction with gay protagonists around these days?
I told him that neither of us are politicians anymore; he sighed at me and couldn't meet my eyes and said that wasn't the point.
The gesture was the point, of course. And now I'm starting to think that I -- and everyone else -- will have to revise their received wisdom about Toby Ziegler and grand romantic gestures, because this makes two now; selling his soul in the hope that someone will love him back. I just wish I found it easier to believe that a book is the same as a big house on Circle Street and kids and trying again and making the second time work out better than the first.
So maybe it isn't just the extent of the gesture and its influence, but that I can't trust that it really does mean what it purports to mean. It seems too much to hope -- more than I could safely have allowed myself to hope for, before, when I knew that he loved his ex-wife and one day the world would stop kicking him in the head.
We walked around a little, just around the Park in the snow. It was incredibly cold but beautiful. The sky didn't seem empty this time around. More like a clean canvas, for something new to be begun on. There were loads of kids around us, skidding on the ice and burying their sleds in the snowdrifts. Toby laughed at them, and he actually sounded happy, or else relieved; relieved of a great weight. I wondered what that was at first, what had been happening to him that he hadn't told me about yet; it didn't occur to me until we were back at the apartment and I was staring at the pictures on his wall and the view out of his window, that it was probably me.
A few nights pass, and instead of getting easier, day by day, almost as the very minutes pass, Toby finds it harder to mend this; to fix the invisible crack in this new picture of their lives. It baffles him. It is like trying to have a conversation with an invisible friend; he feels that if he reaches out to touch him, Sam will just disappear, in a blaze of atoms and strained, thin, awful hopes. Sam says nothing, only writes in his books. Toby gets the feeling that he is being punished. On the fourth night Toby makes it into the bed first. He has done two interviews and an hour's signing downtown and he is drained and cranky and not in the mood for whatever this is. He felt like telling the bright eyed young men who came up to him with his book in their hands, hoping that they'd found some kind of cross between a prophet and an approving professor, exactly what he would be going home to tonight.
I mean, he would have said, You write a guy a book and you think, just maybe, that he'll cut you some slack. But the world continues to turn and my luck with romantic partners of either sex still absolutely blows. I haven't got any answers for you, guys; I don't even have the right questions lined up yet.
He figures telling any of this to Sam would pretty much come off as hopelessly self-pitying. He's even forced to admit that he believes this to be the correct response. So he goes to bed first, at just after ten in the evening, and wraps the covers up around his shoulders, high as his ears, and tries not to think about anything at all. As he falls asleep he realizes he can't hear the noise of the television anymore; Sam must have turned it off, the better to work on his mysterious manuscript of many pages. He writes constantly, it seems to Toby. One of the manuscripts is an ordinary journal; the other, is not. Sam will not show either book to Toby, or give away anything about the contents of the other book, no matter how cunning Toby's questions have become. It doesn't seem to Toby that Sam gets any less work done with the TV on, and he has a freakish ability to both write what Toby suspects -- jealously, he admits, and without having actually read a single word -- is sickeningly good prose and critique the sentence structure employed by Fox News's moronic reporters at the same time. He works that way because it's still Toby's apartment, and he is in charge of the TV remote just as he is the lease and the bills and the rest of the sorry mess. It hurts, in a tender place low in Toby's belly, to know this.
He pretends not to wake up when Sam comes to bed. In fact he's been awake for the last three hours, not counting odd handfuls of minutes, here and there. He's turning into an insomniac in his old age. Either that, or the other thing.
Sam gets undressed with his back turned to Toby. The length of that back catches the moonlight coming in through the window. Toby feels like he should turn over then; stop looking, stop desiring what is obviously no longer his to desire. But he doesn't. Sam strips down to his boxers, then takes them off too and hides them away in the laundry basket with hardly a sound. He puts on pyjama pants. He walks over to the window (which means walking all the way past the end of the bed) and stares out for a few minutes. The moonlight makes his face seem bleached; his blue eyes milky pale. He heaves out a big sigh, and then turns toward the bed.
The only other person Toby has ever shared a bed with on a longterm basis was pretty cold-blooded -- her skin always needed him to touch it, or gently to blow on it to make it warm. Sam is definitely warm-blooded, and Toby always half-expects that his skin will burn when it is touched. If it was being touched.
Together they make the bed almost intolerably warm, even for January on the Eastern seaboard. Toby sticks one foot out of bed; Sam throws the covers down to his waist for a while. Neither of them touch the other one, whether by design or chance, Toby doesn't know anymore. He wants to, desperately, but he just doesn't dare. Not yet. But he sleeps: within minutes of Sam settling down, Toby is drowsy, listening to the city noise filling up the room, swallowing up the silences between them. Toby is asleep before Sam is, with the frown taken from his face by the darkness, already dreaming.
-- Sam Seaborn's diary, January 5th 2011
This afternoon we lay on your bed without talking. The window was open and through it, Brooklyn sounded. California doesn't sound like Brooklyn, and I'd missed the sound of the ill-mannered, crazy, coffee-drenched, amazing creative hideout that is the New York borough which you carry around in your pockets. I could hear the slush underneath people's feet. I heard at least two people slip on the ice. We were cold, just wearing shirts and pants and socks and the warmth of each other against the wind and the noise of the streets. I listened to it and didn't need to say anything else.
You always stroked my hair before. You were the first lover I had who really did that, or at least did it like you did -- ponderously, like you were trying to figure something out. Not like you were soothing me (why would you do that?) or as though this was the one part of my body that yours was fascinated by. But like you were trying to solve a problem: the pressing problem of what the hell we were doing in bed with each other.
On the bed today I pushed my head into the shallow cave between the end of your ribs and the start of your abdomen. I curled up next to you but only my head was touching you. You didn't stroke my hair. You didn't touch me at all.
You've hardly touched me, since I came back. It almost feels like you think you're being watched, like you're on the lookout for people who might tap you on the shoulder and tell you to stop that, stop giving that nice young man (and I'm forty-two years old, so what the hell is he thinking? I can make my own damn choices, I'm not a kid he has to look after, not anymore) the run around, stop leading him on. As if, to prove that you care you must prove that you don't, and we go back to keeping secrets.
In bed, at night, you don't touch me. Then it's like you're afraid. Of what I don't know. What does Toby Ziegler, conqueror of women's hearts, have to fear from me?
I guess you're afraid that I'll leave again, obviously. But I don't think that's all it is.
Was the book enough? you're thinking. Is this enough? Have I done enough? Do I need to do more? I don't know how to say it. I've already said it. I've said it in my way, on my terms, and I'm here, aren't I? I'm trying. Why aren't you listening? you're thinking. Why isn't this enough?
I think you're worried that if you touch me, if we fuck, if we fall back into that same pattern, you will think that I believe that's all it is: just fucking, just two bodies, two not-quite-friends who share a bed, who have shared a life that is now over and have made a shadow imitation of another one together. You're also frightened that your body's automatic will carry over into your brain: that you will start to believe that's all it is, too. You're frightened because you don't know how we started this and you don't know how to end it; you don't want to end it, it appears.
I think I'd need to write a book to understand, too. If I hadn't known from the start.
Toby has begun to dream about touching him, since doing it for real is too hard. He wakes up with the taste of Sam's skin in his mouth -- the swell of his belly, the tanned place at the base of his throat, the v of his spine as it follows to his ass. His mouth, his own mouth, is always opening around these places to take in smell or taste or the air around the movement of Sam's body. He wakes up from a half-dream one night with no breath in his chest, feeling like he's choking on his own saliva. He takes in a series of deep, rasping lungfuls that are loud and horrible because he can't help it; because he feels like he is drowning or choking or about in any other way, to die.
It wakes him, of course. Sam is awake on the second jarring inhale, with his hand on Toby's back, rubbing little circles, it's okay, just breathe naturally, through your nose, Toby, it's okay. It's okay..
"Bad dream?" Sam asks, once Toby has taken in enough air to be sure that he isn't going to faint, and has coughed up half a fistful of spit and choke. Sam's hand has stopped moving and is just placed, quietly, in the center of Toby's bare back.
"Yeah. I guess."
Sam smiles. At least Toby thinks he does; in the half-light he can't really tell.
"Was I there?"
"With, I don't know, a pillow over your face or something?"
"Something like that."
"I'll try not to smother you, Toby."
"I'm very reassured of that, Sam."
He smiles, and takes his hand away from the middle of Toby's back, leaving a warm spot soon made cold by the night air behind him.
"Go to sleep."
In the second before Sam turns and shifts down into the pillows again, Toby thinks that Sam might kiss him -- mouth pressed to cheek, like any two people in bed with each other the thousand thousandth time. The exquisiteness of being taken for granted. Toby stills, and waits in that second. Sam turns away. Toby watches him for one more second, and then turns into the pillows himself.
-- Sam Seaborn's diary, January 8th 2011
I think I understand, now.
We aren't interstitial, anymore. This thing isn't something we are writing in each other's margins. Yes, we both have jobs and you have a family and we both have things we want to do, but none of those things stand in the way, anymore. No one cares who we sleep with except us, and no one cares who we love. We are both living in the margins now. And, so, if you do love me, there is nothing you can use as a wall between you and me and an answer to the question I never asked you anyway. There are no more reasons not to try to use words.
Of course, you did use words. Quite a few of them actually. I mean I haven't actually counted, but I'm guessing fifty or sixty thousand. But not to me. Not here, in this apartment, in the bed, in the middle of the night when I wake up and you're there with me and there's no reason to pretend because if you pretend when you're in bed with your lover in the middle of the night you'd better be damn sure you're a good actor, and I mean Oscar-winning good, and you are good but you aren't that good.
So there are no words, and you still haven't touched me. I think perhaps I should do what you did, and write a book to make sense of this, while I wait. It's almost funny. Waiting on you, seeing those arguments get played out in your head. It'd be funny, if it was someone else. But it's us. It's this.
"What are you writing?" Toby asks. In trying to free his voice of any kind of inflection it becomes high and treacherous, yet strangely flat.
Sam is sitting at the kitchen counter, bent over a notebook, and he doesn't look up. It's January 10th, and Sam isn't due back at his firm for another four days. Instead of addressing the issue of what the hell he wants to do with his life, he has been sitting in Toby's kitchen, scribbling in notebooks and on the back of old takeout menus, like a kid newly infatuated with the topics put forth by the tutor of his creative writing class; a kid who clearly thinks that it is vitally important that every word be recorded, in case they pass into nothingness overnight.
The act of watching Sam write creates a kind of tension in Toby. It is lonely, somehow, to look in on it, from the outside, though Toby doesn't remember ever envying the knowledge of each inch of Sam's creative progress before. It just seems, perhaps, like something they used to do together and then did not do at all, and now do only separately, in different rooms. Like, Toby thinks gloomily, various other things we used to do together.
He's covered at least two pads now. It might even be a book. This too creates a nervous reaction in Toby, though a rather more explicable one.
"I don't know. Maybe something."
He turns around, gives Toby a smile. "Can't rush these things."
Toby smiles back. "No."
"It's probably nothing. It's just ... it's good to write again, you know?"
Toby nods. "Yeah."
"I don't want you to look at it yet," Sam says, rather too quickly for Toby's comfort. He looks up from the book with a conciliatory expression on his face. "Sorry."
Toby holds his hands up. "Fine. Don't come running to me when you've burned all the notebooks and desperately want to hang yourself."
Sam smiles again. "I'll be sure not to do that, Toby."
Toby stands on the spot for a second, bouncing on his heels a little. "Which is not to say ... You know, if -- "
"I know. If I want it gutted with red pen, I know where to go."
Toby nods. "Okay."
"I just don't really know what it is yet, you know?"
Toby looks at him. He is wearing a white tee -- the one he usually wears only underneath a shirt. Blue jeans that are slightly too tight. The back of his neck, creased as he turns round to look at Toby over his shoulder, is a different color from his cheeks and the dark places at his throat. Toby wants to kiss him, wants to grab the front of his t-shirt and drag him into the bedroom and fuck him and not wonder until afterward whether that would make the things he has yet to say any easier to come out with, to admit to.
He says, "I think I have some idea about that, yeah."
-- Sam Seaborn's diary, January 12th 2011
Today you asked me this question: why didn't you call? after you'd read the book. why didn't you call me?
It's the first question you've asked me that sounded like you really wanted an answer. Or, maybe just the first time you stopped being scared long enough to demand an answer, even though you asked it gently. Gentleness is irresistible, when it's yours.
The subtext was simple, of course: you knew what I was saying, but you still didn't call me. Why not, Sam? If you loved it so much, the book, then why didn't you call?
Another way of asking the same things. Why isn't this enough.
I didn't have a good answer, so I palmed you off with excuses -- that I was scared (I was), that I wasn't sure (I didn't specify what my uncertainty was about, and I think you thought I meant something I didn't -- I knew that I was meant to see that book and know it was written for me; you're a good communicator, in written words, anyway).
So, why didn't I call him, afterward? It's a good question.
It was hard, to admit. And I was beaten and humiliated, before. Pride's a real son of a bitch that way. It was hard to admit that I still felt exactly the same way, having thought it over and realized, afterward, all the different ways that he screwed me over because he was scared and stupid and holding all the cards in his fists: I felt exactly the same way, and I missed him, so fucking much. He's it, for me. And I still don't know if we can work it out, any more than I did then. So, was I just waiting for time to pass? Some other indication? Did I want to make him hurt, and beg? Not really. If Toby is in pain I don't want to see it unless I can fix it, and I couldn't, and I didn't want to exacerbate it. I don't want to be the cause of it, no matter what.
I almost did call him, at 2A.M., that first night. October 13th. To say the stupid things that would have embarrassed both of us. I'm not even sure which of us would have hated it more. It sounded pathetic, in my head. Not like us. So I turned off my Blackberry and unplugged the cables on the landline, and I went to sleep trying to think about something else.
Why didn't I call you? Because I didn't believe I was that lucky, even though I could see that I was, in black and white, right there on page one. When you've been taught, all your life, in lessons and in experience, that you don't just get handed the things that are important to you, that it's never that simple, it's hard to understand that, sometimes, you really are that lucky. I was looking for the catch, I guess. Or the reason I deserved the miracle. I couldn't find it. And so the next time he asked me, I went.
And now, I'm just waiting.
It is the last day. The last night, in fact. Sam is due back at his job in Orange County tomorrow, sometime after nine but the boss's son gets some leeway and there's an early flight. Toby made sure the whiskey came out at seven P.M. sharp but Sam hasn't taken a single sip from the glass Toby poured for him, four hours ago. He's been writing, most of the night, ignoring food and drink like the whole future of this manuscript depends on it being finished here, in this apartment. He is sitting curled up in the corner of the couch with his socks sagging at the toes and the legal pad on his knees, while Toby watches the news and tries not to say something desperate for want of anything to say at all.
Toby wonders later if Sam's refusal to drink was deliberate: a calculated act designed to get Toby to drink the whole bottle himself. He prefers not to think of Sam as a cunning person -- since it undermines the whole fabric of his belief system, such as it is, and also makes him feel staggeringly insecure -- but he has begun to admit that the theory is much less unreasonable than he had first imagined.
Either way, desperate things eventually come to his lips.
During the commercial break he mutes the TV. It is showing a particularly insufferable piece of propaganda for the kind of luxury car Toby will never be able to afford no matter how many books he apparently seems able to sell or indeed be able to drive around a city like New York where no one drives anyway and exactly why can't they pay some attention to regionality when they pick the wretched commercials. He opens his mouth to say as much to Sam, but, slightly slurred yet still showing some evidence of logical thought and the fossilized remains of polished communication skills, something rather different arrives on his tongue.
"Sam, the book. I wrote it ... I wanted to say -- what you can't just say to a person, standing right there. Or what I can't say, anyway. And I'm sorry, that it's not more ... That I couldn't say more than that. Better, more publicly. I thought it was enough, obviously I was wrong."
Sam looks at him. It's a rare look -- the one Toby doesn't get very often; the one hardly anybody gets very often except the most right wing of right wing Republicans and the people who write the copy for Fox News. Sam looks at him like he's an idiot.
"I don't want you to drop to your knees and tell me about your broken heart, Toby. I don't know what gave you that impression but let me assure you, that would freak us both out, and I'm really not sure which of us it would freak out more."
" ... Okay."
"I already know how you feel. I don't need ... I don't know. All the things you're supposed to need for some reason that, frankly, I've never believed wasn't just social conditioning and the general moral bankruptcy of advertising companies that -- "
"Sorry. I just ... I don't need that from you. It's what you're supposed to need but ... I don't. That's not who you are. It'd be stupid ... to make you pretend, make you play-act all that crap that ... oh fuck, I don't know."
Toby smiles. He kinda thinks he ought to not, that this is too serious a conversation for smiling, but he can't help it. Despite the distinct feeling that this is all useless and nothing he can reasonably be expected to do will be whatever magical act Sam is waiting for, he's been smiling more since Sam came back. It is like this is a vacation for him, too, even if it has been all in his head and dreams, from the reality of his skeleton of a life; the kind of vacation other people had, when they were kids, down at the beach or at a cabin in the woods, actually enjoying themselves. Sam makes him feel like a kid playing in the mud out back of a cabin, drawing up a more beautiful, more marvelous world around himself, until he disappears from ordinary sight.
"Nothing. I just ... you looked like you kinda zoned out there."
"Sorry. I was just thinking about something. Did you ... were you still talking?"
Sam smiles again. The regular smile this time. "No, I was more or less done."
Toby nods, quiet again. "Okay."
"So, I'm saying -- "
"You don't know?"
Sam chuckles. "Yeah. I have no idea. I hate living in California, and I hate working at my father's firm like I'm some kid fresh out of college, having to walk down those streets every day that ... " He stops, swallows. "Anyway. I loved the book, I love New York. And ... there's you."
Toby shrugs. "If ... if you want. I mean, this place isn't ... "
"Yeah, until you demanded that we move to somewhere 'nicer', like apartments in Park Slope come up every day!"
"I like the apartment fine, Toby."
"Okay," Toby says, in a more prickly way than he intended. Sam just keeps on smiling. "What are you grinning at?"
"Just you," Sam says.
"I'm funny, huh?"
"Not 'funny' so much as slightly ridiculous. In a very lovable way."
Toby looks at him. A look he hopes reads as searching when all he's really going for is enough time to gather his thoughts and have some fucking clue what's going on here.
Sam laughs, properly, making a noise like a cheap car starting up. Toby just carries on staring at him.
"I think I may have driven you crazy, you know, I don't remember you being this easy to bamboozle before I turned you gay. Of course it could be the Jack Daniels, I guess."
"Sam -- "
He laughs again. "It's okay, Toby, you still have plenty of deniability, and we don't ever have to use those words with other people."
Sam smiles, and lets his arm rest against Toby's. "Yeah."
"I missed you," Toby says, quietly. "I didn't think that was actually possible."
Sam shifts on the couch, puts his pad and pen down on the floor. "There are a couple of cliches," he says, looking straight ahead with his elbows on his knees, "That I could use to fill up the silence here. But you'll have to guess them."
It is easier to touch him tonight than it has been for the last two weeks, and whether it's the alcohol, the deadline, or all the loaded words that have been flying around, Toby doesn't know, or care. He strokes Sam's shoulder, just his knuckles along the blank space just below the seam of Sam's shirt. Then Toby puts his fingers into Sam's hair. Sam exhales, heavily, and then becomes very still. Toby strokes his hair for a while, though it doesn't seem to make Sam any less tense, then he leans in and kisses Sam's cheekbone, as gently as he can.
"Stay," he says. "Please stay."
It's not exactly like it was with Andy, standing in an empty kitchen with his own desperation and stupidity echoing around the room along with his voice. Then it was a precipice: jump in, and we'll see where we land. Hope it's somewhere good. He understood nothing, but trusted anyway; in her, in the kids, the whole dream; in what she wanted, and he wanted to give her.
Tonight, the air is warm and close, drifting in over the radiators, and through the crack of open window the noise of the city is lying on top of the sound of his voice like a blanket. Everything is warm and everything feels safe. They made this home already, now all they have to do is live in it.
"There are jobs," he says, with his fingers at Sam's throat, "Or Columbia. If you wanted. And all the law firms you can eat."
Sam smiles, just a little. His chin drops as he chuckles, just as far as Toby's hand. Toby catches his chin, strokes the quarter-milimeter of stubble that has managed to grow there since the last time Sam shaved, two days ago. Toby thinks he's been letting himself go for the sake of whatever he's writing; when he wakes up in the morning and the first thing is the pad and his pen and a thousand words before he showers. Toby usually brings him a cup of coffee when he's almost done, and gets just the shine off his glasses as acknowledgment.
Sam clears his throat, and Toby withdraws his hand.
"I don't want to work at Columbia. And I can't stand the idea of being a lawyer anymore."
"Okay. No more law." Toby says. "So, what?"
"My bank balance can stand a little slacking off, Toby, no need," he says, but smiling, "To practice your lecturing skills on me."
"Hey, I'm just curious."
"I want to finish this thing I'm writing."
"And that's really all I've got," he says, finally turning to face Toby. "In terms of plans."
"You figure out what it's about yet?"
"Novel? Play, what?"
"I think it's poetry, actually. I'm no good, not yet anyway, but I think it's poetry."
"Lots of money in poetry," Toby says, smiling, letting his hands drift to Sam's shirt cuffs. He pulls at them, gently. "You're gonna be rich, Mister Seaborn."
Sam laughs. "It helps if you already have a reputation."
"'Having already entered "the new American canon", Sam Seaborn has ventured into the stormy waters of creative expression himself, with a new collection ... about which we as yet know nothing'."
"That's funny, Toby."
"We have to get the same reviewer to do your thing that did mine, obviously. This would make his day."
"The First Couple of American letters?"
Toby laughs, and this makes Sam's head jerk around, like he doesn't want to miss it -- this spontaneity of joy.
"Brooklyn's a great place for writers."
"I know. Don't we get, like, discounts at the coffee houses and free travel after 1A.M. on the Subway?"
"I think it would probably destroy the whole economy of the borough if we did, Sam."
Toby's hands have moved to Sam's thigh now, one motionless at his hip and the other tracing circles on the flesh, through Sam's thick jeans. He is less immaculately still now. It seems to Toby a little less like he is fending off something -- disappointment, or vulnerability. He's a little more like Toby always sees him: not afraid to leap.
"Yeah," he says. "Probably."
"So ... you could stay. Write a book. Walk around. Indulge your inner hippie."
"More likely that I die from a caffeine overdose, I think."
"I think if that were a thing, one of us would have succumbed before now."
Sam smiles at him again. "Well, maybe."
Toby caresses him. Long passes, from knee to hip, and little detours at the tender part of his right wrist, where the cuff has come undone. Neither of them say anything for a while. Sam leans back against the couch again, and Toby carries on touching him: without intent, no suggestion behind it. More like another vacation; a little holiday around a body. Somewhere beautiful.
Eventually Sam says, "Do you know why I came to New Hampshire? To the campaign."
"Because Josh asked you, and you trust him."
"No. Well, kinda, I guess. That's not all of it, though. You know Josh, he has that way of carrying an idea around with him -- you can see it in his eyes, the way he walks, the way he talks about someone. He talked about the President that way. And I wasn't completely sold, you know. I'm still kinda uncomfortable with the idea of just getting up and leaving your life -- "
"Despite how many times you appear to have done just that, Sam," Toby says, quietly.
"Yeah. Bad habit, I guess. But it's still not easy to do. Gets harder, of course. Though with Lisa and Gage Whitney and all that stuff, I don't know how it could have been harder. Maybe I was just looking for an out, I don't know."
"And he gave you one. Josh."
"The idea did. I mean, Josh came to me, and god, I'm glad he did, but. It wasn't because Josh said so. I didn't do it for him."
"I did it because it felt right. I couldn't sleep, that night after he came to see me in New York, the first time. I couldn't get to sleep. Lisa almost kicked me out of the bed because I couldn't keep still."
"Hard to imagine," Toby says, under his breath. Sam smiles, but carries on:
"I wanted it to work out. And I was sure it would, but at the same time, I didn't really dare hope. Until something came along to say, you know, it's gonna work. This thing is a dream we can believe in."
"Josh was the sign."
"I didn't know you were as superstitious as that, Sam."
"I'm not superstitious, Toby. You're the one with the elaborate apotropaic rituals."
"You just don't like spitting in public."
"If you say anything right now that could be construed as a gay stereotype or even a play, elaboration, or riff on such a stereotype, Toby, I swear to god -- "
"What?" Toby says, with his fingers around Sam's wrist. "What're you gonna do?"
"I can throw down with the Brooklyn hood. You don't scare me."
"Yeah, sure. I could knock you into next week."
"Your clichés say different, Ziegler. C'mon, it's okay to be scared. I won't hurt you much."
"Shut up, Sam," he says, taking hold of Sam's wrists and holding them bound together in Sam's lap, leaning in close so that his breath falls on Sam's mouth. Sam tilts his head back, not smiling, not breaking eye contact. Toby follows, pushing Sam's hands down between them, then flicking his leg over Sam's to straddle him.
"You're tough, all right," Sam says. "But you're not all that tough."
"Is that right?"
"I believe that it is, yes, Toby."
"Why don't you show me?"
Sam smiles, just a curl of the lip. He pulls his hands out of Toby's grasp and gets hold of Toby's face. "You wrote me a whole book. You've been afraid to touch me for two whole weeks when before you'd -- Well. You wouldn't have been exactly timid. You're so scared you can't think straight, and I never had to lift a finger."
"That's not actually true," Toby says, tilting his head, letting Sam's hands follow him. Sam tugs on his beard, at the sides, where the hair is longer. "You had to leave."
"Yes, well. You never did appreciate me."
"If I say that I do now ... "
"Do what, Toby?"
Sam smiles, closes his eyes and tips his head right back. Toby takes his opportunity: presses his mouth against Sam's throat, right on the pulse point. Sam moans, very quietly and, underneath Toby's hands which are braced on Sam's hips with the thumbs just brushing the teeth of the jeans' zip, Toby feels him get hard quickly.
"I told you my position on the things you're meant to say, Toby."
"You prefer gestures?"
"I think they're more your style, as far as that goes."
"And does this count?"
"The book counted."
"From the first page, Toby. It's not me you have to convince."
Toby kisses him again, because it's easier than trying to work out what that remark might mean right now. He kisses Sam underneath the jaw, then with Sam's bottom lip between his teeth. The whiskey seems to have worn off; he doesn't feel drunk anymore -- this is adrenaline, and the possibility, the threat, of being as lost again as he was last year, which frightens him. It seems that fear is a galvanizing force.
Sam has his hands pushed up against Toby's chest, balled up in fists. His breathing is heavy with pleasure, as though Toby already has his hands on his dick. His eyes are clear, though, and slightly aloof, as though he's looking forward to finding out where this is going to go.
"Do you want to stop screwing with me?" Toby says, in between kisses.
"You picking your words carefully there, Toby?"
"Just answer the question."
"No, I don't want to stop screwing with you, because I'm kinda enjoying it, as it happens."
"Okay, okay. Funny boy."
"Oh, you're asking a different question?"
"Yes. I am."
"You wrote a whole book. You had almost a year to think about it. And you still don't understand."
"I'd understand better if you didn't talk in riddles quite so much."
Sam raises his head and pulls Toby's down, kisses him. After the kiss he says,
"I'll stay. I'd like to stay, if you want me to."
"I said I did, Sam!"
Sam grins. "See, now I believe you."
"You didn't believe me before?"
"I did. I wasn't sure you did."
"You are actually impossible to talk to right now. How much beer did you have?"
Sam laughs. "I had absolutely no beer at all, Toby, but there's an empty bottle of Jack doing your thinking for you right now, I don't know if you remember."
Toby kisses his throat again, and along the line of his jaw. He begins to unbutton Sam's shirt and pull at the tee shirt underneath.
"I want you to stay," Toby says. "Stay and be a poet, I don't care. You can sit on your ass on my couch for a year if you want to. Just stay."
"With you?" Sam says, against Toby's mouth.
"With me. Stay with me."
The conversation moves to the bed, where it becomes more athletic and less verbal. Sam's body, no longer a foreign country but somewhere Toby knows the language and has tested his fluency many times, where he went native for two and a half years and half, still seems beyond any words he can think up. It may only be described with touch and taste, in moments that cannot be recorded, or kept. Toby thinks he has has learned now not to try to keep him: he will -- of course, Toby trusts now -- always come back.
Toby tries to keep him anyway.
Sam's little whimpers. The way his cheeks color as Toby pushes him down into the pillows. The strangeness of his fingers in Sam's mouth and Sam's fingers in his. The way they laugh, both of them, at the times when the glamor breaks and it's only the stupidity of bodies wanting new highs. His wrist pressed against Sam's mouth, the skin being bitten, almost breaking. His hands in Sam's hair and spanning the back of his neck as Sam blows him, brushing the sweat-heavy hair back off Sam's brow, and the way Sam looks in the middle of it, like he's just run in off the track after breaking the four minute mile. The length of his back. The hairlessness of his chest and his arms which is perfectly natural but makes it feel, to him, as if there is too much skin -- overwhelming him; a body to jump into, somewhere he can drown. The whiteness of his semen over Sam's belly when he comes. The way Sam says Toby's name when he comes, like he always did before, without fail, every time, like he was trying to remember, in case there wasn't a next time.
-- Sam Seaborn's diary, January 14th 2011
We had serious conversations afterward. We fucked all night, pretty much, but in the morning (well, in the early afternoon) we talked about money, rent, whether our Park Slope life would work out in the apartment with the two beds. It got a little more difficult when I brought up the kids and how much I really wanted to not be kicked out on my ass the next time they came to stay. To give Toby his due, he looked awful. He never really looks guilty as such, because he's too good at hiding, but his nervous gestures were out of control -- much pulling on his tie and rubbing his forehead. Which almost made me laugh, except I was still trying to give him a hard time, and so had to keep a straight face.
But he promised -- an actual, verbal promise -- not to hide me away from the kids, not to lie to them, even by omission. I know they're only eight coming up nine, but it's not like they don't live in the modern world after all, and with a mother with impeccable liberal credentials no less. Toby makes out, pretty unconvincingly, it's true, that he's scared they can't handle it, but I don't buy that. Kids understand. They can see the evidence of happiness.
Anyway, they probably already know is what I'm betting. Andy has these ways. Cunning ways. That's why I'm so scared of her. But I know the kids like me. At least I hope they do. I'm a little scared of them too. They are so much his, so profoundly part of him, that it frightens me, sometimes. But I've seen him with them, and that is enough -- startling, encompassing joy enough -- to compensate.
I didn't make my flight, of course. I have to call my father, which is a conversation I'm really looking forward to. Maybe I'll send him a postcard from Coney Island.
it marked the edge / of one of many circles
-- Sam Seaborn's diary, 1st February 2011
He never says anything. He still doesn't, and I don't think he ever will. I think he believes that words aren't made for those reasons, for those purposes that we are meant to put them to. There are things that are too big for words: the things we talk around. After all, as soon as you've said I love you it no longer has any meaning, and therefore stops being true since, if you should mean anything, you should always mean that. I know: I read it in a book.
Between us, it functions as a kind of intimate trust. You don't say this and I won't say that, don't even ask me, Sam, what the hell are you thinking? The subtext is plain enough. In the white spaces he has written: I trust you: not to not need this, not to understand that it is understood, but to have faith that it is there and that it is huge and suffocating and wordless. Have faith that I mean the things I don't say as profoundly as the things I do. 'Love' is a big word that is too small for how I feel; it would be like writing you a sonnet in shorthand; it offends my sense of proportion and my belief in what words can do, and what they can't; I would need to write you a book to explain it all.
It's actually colder here now than it was on New Year's Day. My dad calls me up with the suggestion -- the temptation -- of permanent 24/7 three hundred and sixty-five day a year sunshine in his voice. He's giving in a little. He's stopped telling me about every single new client and the color of every sunset. When I told him about Toby and I he just grunted, and said okay, son, which proves what I know, which is absolutely stone dead nothing.
It's cold here, so we spend most of the evenings in bed. Or we bring the covers over to the couch. He's writing another book (You really don't have to do that just yet, Toby / I want to, Angela -- Angela is his agent -- I'm not done just yet) and I'm finishing my first. We don't talk about the writing as much as you'd think we would. I think that's another of Toby's apotropaic rituals, actually: just in case. Since I'm writing poetry I can afford the luxury of analysis, and pondering, for a whole evening, the exact line of his jaw in order that my similes are more precise.
I'm not afraid to say anything to him, anymore. But I tend not to say The Thing because I know it makes him uncomfortable, as though one side of the promise to silence we made is slowly eroding. It isn't, but he wouldn't understand that, so I don't say it often.
I want to. I want to breathe it into his mouth every time we fuck. I want to write it all over his body. I want to be able to pull open my chest and see it written there, in the place where I can feel it being written, in blood and sinew: I love him.
I'm the opposite of him, of course. I believe that words give a powerful thing extra power; I believe that words make a heart come alive; I believe that striving to find the right words to put around the unsayable things is one of the acts that makes us most truly human.
As it is, we have a promise. Well. An agreement, actually. Between us the words are silenced; it is like they don't even exist. We find other ways to say the words that other people attach to the end of long-distance telephone calls as a promise, or a covenant, or the assurance of safety. He says things with his body; I have learned his language. For everyone else we have written words and given them shape and form and bound them up and sent them out to live in the world: this is what we are, and what we mean to each other, and you can call it a love story, and you can do anything you want with that story, including turning the last page then putting down the book and never thinking about it again, if you want.
He's asleep now. On the couch with his glasses slipping down his nose. He is the kind of person who looks exceptionally angry while sleeping. Sometimes I kiss him awake just to see that expression change into something else; usually it's something good.
It doesn't matter if I write it here. This whole thing has been working up to this anyway. So here goes nothing.