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You and Me in a Rowboat to Rio

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And in the morning, you said it isn't far to go
and the waves left salt-streaks in your hair.
And in the middle of the night, through the Gulf of Mexico,
you said we're more than halfway there.

And when we got there, we found a little action,
made some big dinero, made it fast.
And now we're making love under the waves upon the moonlight.
Never mind the splinters in your --

You and me in a rowboat to Rio.
        - Eddie From Ohio, "You and Me in a Rowboat to Rio"

 

Some rich relative had given Sam a week in a Florida timeshare and the next morning the entire West Wing was trying to be his best friend.

Josh brought him a cactus at lunchtime. "You're taking me with you, right?"

Sam looked up from his notebook and frowned. "What is that?"

Josh flopped down into a chair. "What?"

Sam prodded the tiny terra cotta pot with the end of his expensive pen. "It appears to be a variety of prickly pear or possibly a barrel cactus afflicted with a life-threatening disease."

"I dunno," Josh shrugged. "It's a cactus?"

Sam leaned back in his chair and played with his pen. "You brought me a cactus."

"I did."

"Why did you bring me a cactus?"

"Let's talk about Florida now and how you're bringing me with you." Josh drummed a brief solo on the arms of his chair.

Sam laughed. "Actually, I was thinking more along the lines of taking someone with whom I'd have a chance at getting laid."

Josh nodded quickly. "Oh, because women are really turned on by correct grammar."

"Be nice," Sam said.

"How long is the trip?" Josh changed the subject.

"Eight days, seven nights in the fabulous Key West Fisher's Resort. First class flight, and a luxury rental car to meet me at the airport."

"Yeah, Sam, I gotta go. I think there's something I'm supposed to be doing." Josh crossed to the door. "Enjoy your cactus."

"You think Ainsley would come with me?" Sam asked.

"I think a straight, blonde, Republican woman would be right at home in the rainbow-flag capital of Key West, Sam," Josh said. "Clearly."

"Be nice," Sam said again, and Josh shut the door behind him when he left.


Ten years ago it had been Florida. Four days of Sam with his hair in his eyes and silvery sand stuck to his brown legs.

They'd been idealists then, energetic flat-stomached hyperintellectual twentysomethings in swim trunks, racing each other along the beach. They'd picked up girls in Miami bars and got them drunk off cheap tequila. Sam had sailed, Josh had tried to learn to surf.

There was this one picture, a girl named Candace had taken it, of Josh with a plastic cup of beer in each hand, and Sam with his chin on Josh's shoulder and his arm around Josh's bare waist. Moments after the shot had been snapped, Sam had tackled Josh to the ground, spilling both beers, and it had all been because of a fight about turtles and hibernation, or something, but Candace had managed to catch them at just the right moment, pre-tackle, post-grab, that made it look innocent and intimate and fabulous. That one Josh had brought to work, and he kept it in a notebook in his desk drawer where not even Donna had found it.

It was the summer after Sam graduated Princeton, the summer he'd come to work in the House where Josh was floor-managing for the Minority Whip. It was the same summer Josh started going to the gym again.

Four days in Miami and they'd slept every night in the same motel room, Sam on the bed, Josh on the floor, trading off. Except the fifth night, Josh stayed out with a girl named Alice and didn't get in until five am. He found Sam waiting up for him, watching a rerun of "Newhart" and eating pizza.

"I got us pizza," Sam had said. But the look he gave Josh said he felt betrayed, abandoned, jealous. Josh left to brush his teeth and went to sleep on the floor.

But he never forgot the look in Sam's eyes, pizza sauce on his t-shirt and the laugh track of "Newhart" underlining Josh's embarrassment. He'd gone out with Alice to take his mind off Sam. And here Sam had been all along, hurt that Josh had spent the evening with anyone other than him. It wasn't exactly an offer, but it was enough, and Josh swore to himself never to let an opportunity like that pass him by again. Because the next time Josh ever thought he could have a chance with Sam Seaborn, he'd take it. And all the Alices and Jeanines and Mandys could let someone else buy them a drink.


There was knocking on his office door, and he clapped the notebook shut and closed the drawer before hollering, "Come in, Donna!"

Except it was Sam, with the cactus.

"We have to find someone to water this thing while we're gone," he said with a grin.

Josh grinned back. "It's a cactus, Sam."

"The Cow's Tongue Prickly Pear, when in a hostile environment, wants to be watered approximately every four days. And kept out of drafts."

Josh looked at him.

"I looked it up," Sam admitted. "But the website was in French. I translated it myself."

"So it may have said stick this thing in the snow and don't water it at all." Josh raised his eyebrows.

"Yeah," Sam said. "Basically."

Josh gestured for Sam to sit down in the armchair, which he did, kicking his feet up on Josh's desk.

"So Ainsley said no?" Josh tossed a pen in the air and caught it.

"Apparently she burns easily."

"Okay. And you asked Mallory?"

"She's got class," Sam said.

"Too much class to go out with a guy like you," Josh said. "So what number am I? Three? Four?"

Sam squinted. "Roughly," he said. "Laurie has to work, and Cathy, I think, hates me."

"You invited Cathy before me? Why not just ask Donna, in that case?"

"She burns too," Sam said. "And I think Cathy told her to hate me."

"Well," Josh said, leaning back in his chair and staring down the length of his nose at Sam, who looked adorable and sheepish in the leather armchair, "when do we leave?"


Packing had been a bitch. Josh had too recently seen Sam shirtless to feel comfortable baring his own pasty chest next to Seaborn's six-pack, but all his t-shirts were white and too big and made him, he feared, look like an old man. On his way to the airport he'd stopped at a thrift store full of seventeen-year-olds and purchased a green vintage tee advertising "Pittsburgh's Finest Brewhouse and Bail Bond Office," but the whole thing made him feel like he was trying too hard. He'd wear a suit on the beach, damn it. He wished they were going to Juneau instead.

He'd brought the photo from work, though. He felt like a dork for doing it, but he'd stuck it in his dayplanner and it was too late now because they were in Florida again, and Sam was smiling and wheeling his luggage on a rented cart, and Josh tripped down the corridor to catch up with him.

Sam had sunglasses on and looked like a movie star, and Josh felt somewhat liberated, peeling off his jacket and walking down the underpass to hail a cab. It was his first real vacation in probably four years, and if he squinted just right, watching Sam struggle with his laptop and his shoulder bag, it could be ten years earlier, with two friends still excited to get to know one another out to do nothing but have a good time.

The sun was leaving, and the cab took them down route 1 across the bridge to the Keys. Sam had one arm out the window, fingers tapping on the roof of the cab, and Josh couldn't imagine being anywhere but here.

"Look at the water," Sam said, sounding like he was in love.

"Hey, you know, was I supposed to bring a swimsuit?"

Sam turned to him and grinned. "Only if you're concerned about scaring the fish."

"I have no worries," Josh said in a superhero voice, "I am invincible." Something rang. "Impervious to such fish that would-- My phone is ringing."

It was Donna, accusing him of crimes both great and small. "It's on my desk," he told her, hanging up.

"Everything good?" Sam asked, pushing his sunglasses to the top of his head.

"I think Donna called me a threat to everything pure and just. Then she told me to wear sunscreen."

"So everything's good."

"Everything's great," Josh said, watching Sam watch the water.


When they pulled up in front of the beachfront Fisher's Resort, Josh had almost convinced himself to bring up Alice, to bring up the last trip and tell Sam he was sorry. Fortunately Sam paid the cab driver and then decided he was hungry and Josh never got to mention Alice, saving himself the thrill of feeling like an idiot.

The condo was all done in pink and shells and wicker, and in the bedroom there was only one bed.

Last time, it hadn't been a problem. They were kids, young men who would rather be caught dead then caught asleep in bed with another guy. But now they were grownups and supposedly past all that stigma, though while Josh had spent the night in more than a few beds with more than a few guys in the years intervening, he was fairly certain Sam had not.

"Guess they expected me to bring along someone with whom I'd have a chance at getting laid," Sam said.

Josh shrugged and wondered if he should say something.

"It's okay. I'll take the couch," Sam said, setting his bag on the chair.

"You will not," Josh said, throwing his own bag on the floor and going over to inspect the couch. "It's your trip."

"Whatever," Sam said, disappearing into the bathroom.

The couch was weird and tropical, made from bamboo and held together with twine, with a long pink cushion that was tied down at each corner. Josh sat down carefully. The bamboo groaned; so did Josh.

"There is something definitely not right about this!" he called to the empty room.

"What?" Sam yelled from the bathroom.

Josh wiggled a little and the couch wiggled with him. "Oh, yeah, this just--" He shook his head. "This isn't right." He bounced a few times and something cracked underneath.

"Sam!"

Sam appeared, wiping his hands on his pants. "What is it, Josh?"

"I'm not sure, but I think someone wants us to believe it's a couch."

"It does have some of the qualities one would expect to find in a couch," Sam pointed out.

"It only looks like a couch," Josh insisted. "When in fact it is an instrument of pure evil."

"Sure," Sam said. "Maybe you'll feel better after you eat something."

"I can't believe you're trusting the couch's word over mine. After all we've been through," Josh huffed.

Sam stuck his hand out. "Get up."

"You need to sit on this couch with me," Josh declared, grabbing Sam's hand. "So you can fully understand the level of its wrongness."

Sam planted his heels and grinned while Josh tugged on his hand. "We need to eat," Sam reminded him. "And you probably need a sedative."

"It's very important that you sit on this couch!" Josh insisted, pulling at Sam's hand, liking how warm it was and hoping maybe if he pulled hard enough Sam might end up in his lap.

"I know," Sam said, like he was just getting a new and great idea. "Why don't we eat?"

Josh stopped struggling, but didn't let go of Sam's hand. "You did say you were hungry."

Sam blinked. "I did. I am."

"Then let's eat," Josh said, letting Sam haul him up with both hands.


They drank for a long time after dinner, at a scampi place right on the water. Sam talked, mostly. Josh listened.

Through half pound of king crab legs and some strange Spanish cornbread, Sam went on a little bit about Ainsley, a little bit about work, and Josh couldn't remember the last time they'd just sat down and talked. They'd both been so busy lately and any socializing had been done as part of a group.

"Mrs. Bartlet told me Mallory's interested," Sam was saying. Josh waved his hand for another bourbon.

"Interested in you? Fat chance."

"Very interested," Sam said. "She has an itch."

"Maybe she's allergic?" Josh raised his eyebrows.

"Ha," Sam said. "You know what advice Abbey gave her?"

"She's Abbey to you now?"

"Don't fall in love with a genius, Abbey said."

"It's good advice," Josh said. "Having been in love with one or two myself."

"Is this something I should be worried about?" Sam actually looked concerned. "I'm thinking my job is going to prevent me from having any sort of significant relationship. In fact, I'm fairly certain. Of that fact." He drained his drink, and the refills appeared.

"You weren't too smart to sleep with a call girl, I'll remind you," Josh said when the waiter had left.

"I'm serious," Sam said. "Do you think a stupid girl would sleep with me? Laurie isn't stupid."

"She's not as smart as you are."

"No one's as smart as I am," Sam said, only half joking.

Josh nodded. "Except me."

"You're not even close," Sam said, again only half joking, and Josh knew it. That fact had irked him the first handful of years, until he realized that Sam's blinding brilliance came with the side effects of being klutzy, arrogant, and freakishly out of touch with the things normal people knew, like plots of "The Simpsons" and the names of the Spice Girls.

"Do you want to sleep with a stupid person?" Josh asked.

Sam thought a minute. "I've always wondered what it would be like."

At the bar, a Puerto Rican guy in a green tube top kissed a white guy with a goatee and magic-marker caps stuck through his earlobes.

"You remember how well we did last time we were down here?" Josh turned his attention back to Sam.

"I remember how well you did," Sam said.

"I was just trying harder than you were," Josh said. "You were twenty-one. You could have had anyone on Spring Break in South Beach. You just weren't paying attention."

"I'm clueless like that," Sam said.

Now the Puerto Rican guy had gotten up from his stool and was straddling the white guy, shoving his hands down the back of the white guy's jeans. Josh and Sam watched them a while.

"Do you think a gay man would ever be attracted to me?" Sam asked now.

"Maybe a stupid gay man," Josh said, shaking his head. "And stop being maudlin. We're on vacation."

"I'm not hip enough," Sam said. "How can you be friends with someone so uncool?"

"It makes me look better," Josh said. "If you ever started being cool I'd have to dump you and hang out with Toby."

"I'll tell you something," Sam said.

"Please do."

"I didn't really ask Ainsley to come. Or Mallory or Donna."

"Or Cathy?"

"No, I asked Cathy. Just to see if she hates me."

"And she does."

"Apparently."

Something started squirming in Josh's stomach and he leaned a little closer in toward the table. "So why me?"

"I want to sleep with a stupid girl," Sam said. Josh's throat hurt.

"You've mentioned that."

"I know it's terribly condescending of me. I'm aware of this. But I'm thirty-one years old, Josh."

"Don't rub it in," Josh sneered.

"I want to sleep with a vapid blonde chick who doesn't mind being called a vapid blonde chick, who has never tuned in to a presidential address or filled out a census or read Hart's 'Concept of Law.'"

"You want to sleep with a stupid girl," Josh said, as if he'd only just now gotten it.

"Exactly."

"And why is that?"

"I'm not sure," Sam said, after a pause. "Do you think it's a good idea?"

"Not really," Josh said, draining his drink and thinking he wanted another.

"No?" Sam looked thoughtful. "Any reasons? Beyond the obvious ones, that is."

Josh felt unbearably pissy. "You're the genius, you figure it out."

Sam got quiet, picked at the flaking varnish on their table for awhile and then said, "Yeah."


The next morning, Sam and Josh went to the beach to comb for a stupid girl. Sam brought his laptop and sat under a big red and white umbrella and it was like yesterday had never happened.

"That's not going to get you very far in your pursuit, you know," Josh said, rubbing suntan lotion on his forehead. "And when did my forehead get so big?"

"When you started losing your hair," Sam said, not looking up from his laptop. "And I promised Toby I'd finish this thing."

Josh shrugged.

"And by the way, that's a ridiculous t-shirt you've got on," Sam said.

Josh looked down at Pittsburgh's Finest Brewhouse and Bail Bond Office. "I know," he said. "I've had it forever."

A couple yards away, a sixteen-year-old-ish kid with a hairless chest and leather sandals was straddling his boyfriend who was buried in sand. The boyfriend's hands broke through the ground like earthquakes and reached up, all sandy, to pull his friend's face toward his. Josh couldn't tear his eyes away and he felt lecherous and creepy.

"They look like they're having fun," Sam said, and Josh tried to pretend he'd been doing something else.

"Mm," he said.

"I don't think I was ever that young," Sam said. "Or looked that much like an Abercrombie and Fitch model."

"You still do," Josh said, before he could stop himself. Sam looked uncomfortable and went back to his laptop.

"This glare is making things impossible," Sam said, a few minutes later. "I'm going to go back to the hotel."

Josh wanted to say something about stupid girls, but found a piece of gum instead. Sam trudged off through the sand with his laptop tucked under his arm, and Josh pretended not to notice how many people were noticing Sam Seaborn.


Josh's back hurt from sleeping on the scary bamboo couch, and it was four days into the trip with not a single moment that could be identified as actual fun.

Sam had sailed exactly twice, leaving Josh on the beach with "The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin: A Novel," and had spent the rest of their time in the hotel room, hunched over his laptop.

It started with a fight.

"I just, I don't understand," Josh said. "You wanted to meet a stupid girl. You brought a swimsuit."

"Two," Sam called from the bathroom. "Two swimsuits."

"Two swimsuits," Josh said. "And you've barely left the hotel."

"I have to finish this thing," Sam said.

"We're not having fun," Josh said. He heard Sam spit into the sink.

"Go out, then," Sam said. "Have a good time. I'll be here."

Josh turned around without a goodbye, and left the hotel before Sam came out of the bathroom.


In the scampi bar Josh met a guy named Parker who was stupid, and Josh bought him a drink. Parker led him to a small table in the corner, and Josh was vividly certain Parker had done this before.

"You said you work in the actual White House?" Parker sucked on a pink frothy something with an umbrella and a twisty straw.

"The actual White House," Josh said.

"Dude. Have you ever met the President?"

"I hope to, someday," Josh said. "I hear he's a nice guy."

Parker looked at him over the top of his drink. "What is he, a Democrat?" he asked.

Stupid, but pretty, with black shaggy hair tucked behind his ears and a necklace made out of chunky wooden beads. He had a tattoo of a poppy on his left chest. Josh could feel Parker's bare foot along the inside of his calf under the table, and he swallowed hard.

"Yeah," Josh said, trying to keep his voice even and casual. "One of the good guys."

"I think I voted for him," Parker said. "When I went to get my driver's license renewed."

"I'll tell him. He'll be very pleased."

"You think?" Parker actually looked impressed.

His foot had found the inside of Josh's thigh, and Josh thought about sliding his chair away when he felt Parker's toes poking at his crotch. He tried not to yelp.

"Uh, yeah," Josh said.

"So, you staying around here?" Parker asked.

Wouldn't that be a trip, Josh thought, coming back to the room with this guy. "Not really," he said, waving a hand in the air. "You?"

"Oh, I live here, dude," Parker said. "My crib is like three blocks away. And, uh, I think my brother's out with his girlfriend's kid tonight."

Now Josh did pull his chair away, and Parker's foot slid off and fell to the floor.

"So you want to come back? I've got a phat sound system and some kind bud my bro brought back from Cali."

Josh processed "phat" and "kind bud" and even "Cali" for a little while, finishing his drink. "Yeah," he said. "Why the hell not?"

"Sweet," Parker said.

Josh didn't get up. "You know," he said, "I don't even know your last name. Or, like, anything about you."

"It's Parker," Parker said. "And, um, I used to be really into the Dead a lot?"

Josh laughed out loud. "Okay," he said.

"You too?" Parker said.

"Sure."

"And, um, I dunno, man. Some day I want to just kick it and go someplace spiritual. Like New Mexico."

"New Mexico," Josh said, thinking about cactuses.

"So, you ready?" Parker stood up.

Josh dug in his pocket for his wallet and slapped a few bills on the table. Then he stood up too. "Sure," he said, again. "Why the hell not?"

He almost collided with Sam at the door.

He almost collided with Sam. At the door.

Sam.

"Oh," Sam said, speaking to Josh but looking at Parker, who was shirtless and shoeless and had his hand on Josh's ass.

"Oh, man," Parker said, removing his hand and looking from Sam to Josh and back again. "Are you in trouble."

It was either a question or the truth, Josh couldn't tell. Stammering a little bit, he turned to Parker. "Um," he said.

Parker held his hands up, palms out, and looked at Sam. "I swear, I never touched him," he said. "I wouldn't do that, man."

Sam blinked a few times, staring straight ahead, and Parker took off down the boardwalk.

Josh wanted to sink into the ground, or better still, go home where it wasn't Florida and he wouldn't want Sam so much.

Behind him, someone dropped a beer, the bottle shattering on the concrete, and when Josh turned around again, Sam was gone.


He looked for Sam in all the places he wouldn't be, but finally found him sitting on the beach.

"Sam?"

"Yes?" Sam said, sounding like he was behind his desk instead of sitting on a beach a thousand miles from home.

Josh realized he had nothing to say, nothing easy at least. He was sorry, but he couldn't say that without explaining the rest of it -- how Florida was supposed to be special, was supposed to be them away from Washington, them together and alone and possibly in something like love -- and he was sure he couldn't say that to Sam, who was his best friend and not stupid at all.

Josh sat down next to him, rested his forearms on his raised knees and helped Sam stare out at the ocean.

"I, I'm sorry," Sam sighed, digging his heels into the sand.

"God, Sam! For what?"

Sam sighed again. "For ruining your...night."

In the strange mixed light from the neon signs behind them and the moon above them, Josh could just make out Sam's face, and it was the face he got when he couldn't find the right word. It was so familiar to see him frustrated and dissatisfied with himself that Josh laughed and leaned back on his elbows to breathe the dark warm sky.

"What?" Sam asked in his annoyed voice, and that was familiar too, and Josh laughed and stretched his legs out in the sand.

"He was a vapid blonde chick," Josh explained, kicking his sneakers together and feeling half of Key West skitter through his shoes, "and you have nothing to worry about because he wasn't any fun."

"Josh," Sam said slowly.

Josh sat up and waved his hands. "Oh, no no no. That's not what I meant. I mean, what I meant, is that you're not missing anything by not sleeping with stupid people. Because they're dull and not very interesting and can barely string two words together and don't understand even the most basic function of the government and certainly wouldn't recognize the objective case of 'who' even if bit 'em on the ass! Uh..." Josh tucked his chin in and inhaled through his nose, pretty sure Sam knew exactly what he'd meant now even if he hadn't before.

Sam shifted around to face him, one leg out to the side, the other bent inwards, like he was doing yoga, or stretches before running. "Josh."

And there was that cocky Seaborn grin, like the kid had it all figured out, like it was still ten years ago in Miami and the only thing Sam had to worry about was where he'd put his beach towel and if he had enough cash to buy shots at the bar. It was the Sam in the picture Candace took, Sam right before he'd tackled Josh.

"Ngh," Josh swallowed.

"With whom," Sam said, and kissed him.

It was careful and soft, and Sam's hand was on his thigh, but then it was on his chest and Josh was on his back in the sand, with Sam pressed against him, and they were kissing on the beach, and Josh had wanted this for so long. Sam whispered something in his ear, and Josh laughed with one hand in Sam's shiny dark hair and Sam smiled back and Josh wouldn't need a picture this time because this time he had Sam.