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When the Bough Breaks

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Bob taps the pencil against his knee and glances at the clock for the tenth time in as many minutes. Between the ticking of the clock and the clacking of the typewriter and the tattoo of Carl’s heel against the floor, he expects he’ll go crazy any second now, jump up from his chair and smack Carl on the head with a rolled-up copy of the Post and demand to know what’s taking him so long.

Instead, he settles back against the wall, lets out a silent breath through his nose, and says, “It isn’t that bad, is it?”

Carl doesn’t even look at him. He has taken over Bob’s desk while Bob sits cross-legged on the bed behind him, staring at the back of his head, at that mop of hair he wants to thread his fingers into and pull

“It’s pretty bad. Don’t know who taught you to write.” Carl stops typing and picks up his red pen and leans over to peruse the stack of pages sitting next to him on the table. His expression is flat and his voice is flat, but Bob can read him pretty well these days anyway. The relaxed line of Carl’s mouth means its bad but not burn-it-all bad. And the flick of his wrist when he scratches out a line with his pen means he’s having fun with this.

“I guess you think you’re Shakespeare, huh?” Bob says. He whacks himself a little too hard with the pencil. He imagines a tiny eraser-shaped bruise is forming just below his kneecap.

“Shakespeare has no place in investigative journalism, Woodward.”

“I’m not sure that’s what we’re doing anymore, Bernstein.”

This book deal seemed like manna from heaven when it came to them, but now, a few months on, it’s become tedious. The work is important, but it isn’t the same as chasing down a new story. He misses the feeling he gets when a new piece of the puzzle slots into place. He misses facing down a potential source and seeing that flicker of surrender in their eyes when they decide they’re going to talk. And he knows Carl misses it too. He can see it in the way the empty packs of cigarettes pile up on the desk and the way he’ll wake up in the middle of the night to Carl knocking on his door, as urgent as if they were facing down a deadline.

Well, they do have a deadline, but the criticality isn’t there.

“Listen to you, looking a gift horse in the mouth,” Carl says, glancing over his shoulder. “If you don’t want the money, I’ll be happy to write the whole thing myself.”

Bob snorts. “Nice try.”

The truth is he doesn’t give a damn about the money. If he wanted to get rich, he would have chosen a different profession. He would have gone through with the Harvard Law thing like his father wanted him to. For all Carl’s bellyaching, Bob knows he doesn’t want the money either, or he wouldn’t have dropped out of college to pursue reporting. It’s eerie, if he thinks about it. Both of them were called to The Washington Post as if by some power larger than themselves—as if by fate, Bob thinks when he’s lying awake at night wondering how much longer before Nixon gets ousted, how many more articles they have to put out to make it happen. Maybe if they’d never met, a couple other reporters would have uncovered all this eventually, but it doesn’t feel like it. It feels like he was meant to meet Carl, and they were meant to do this together.

But what are they meant to do next? This scandal is far from over, but it won’t last forever. Nothing ever does. Bob wants to know how far this partnership goes, but he doesn’t know how to ask, and he doesn’t know what he'll do if he doesn’t get the answer he wants.

“Hey, how about some more coffee?” Carl asks as he starts typing again, his fingers flying over the keys. “If you’re just gonna gripe, you can at least be useful.”

Bob sighs and gets up from the bed. The coffee pot is the only appliance in his kitchenette. The trashcan overflows with paper bags and burger wrappers and styrofoam cups. It wasn’t long ago he had a modest house and a wife and came home at the end of the day to a home-cooked meal, but she wasn’t happy when he turned down Harvard either, and he can’t say he blames her. Anyway, he likes it better like this. The stained countertop and the dust bunnies in the corners and Carl clacking away in the other room. This feels like home enough.

He brings two steaming mugs back into the other room and sits one next to Carl’s wrist. Carl picks it up without looking, grunting his thanks, then takes a long drink. “This chapter’s almost done,” he says. “I’m not sure I can untangle the mess you made in the last paragraph, but I’m doing my best.

“Don’t cut too much,” Bob says. Instead of returning to his perch on the bed, he leans his hip against the table and looks down at Carl, cradling his mug in his hands.

“We don’t need this level of detail, Bob. No one’ll care.”

“The details are important,” Bob insists. They’ve had this conversation what feels like a hundred times, but he’s never budged an inch and he doesn’t plan to now. “That’s how we know we’re right, when the details get confirmed.”

“That’s how we know we’re right, but the public isn’t putting this together themselves. They’ll take us at our word.”

“Don’t you ever get tired?” Bob asks, setting his cup down on the table and crossing his arms over his chest.

Carl looks up. “Of what?”

“Of arguing with me.”

That pulls a rare grin out of Carl. It appears and disappears in a flash, but it lingers in his eyes. “With you?” he says. “Never.”

———

At work the next morning, Carl comes over with an extra coffee and watches Bob hunt and peck at the typewriter for a couple silent minutes before he launches into a rundown of the research he’s been doing. The only thing anyone wants to talk about these days is the tapes, but there’s only so much reporting they can do on the subject before they start repeating themselves. Carl says he’s heard Nixon is hopping mad, but it doesn’t take a secret source to know that. Nothing is new anymore, nothing is exciting, and Bob is tired.

“What do you say we get out of here for a while?” he says, getting up from his chair and shrugging into his jacket.

Carl lifts his eyebrows at him, but he doesn’t say no. They emerge blinking against the mid-morning sunshine, Bob picks a direction at random, and they walk, Carl chattering about nothing important and struggling to keep up with Bob’s long strides. The city teems with life during the day, and Bob enjoys getting lost in it. It makes him remember why he moved here in the first place, the thrill of being in the city around which the rest of the world spins. Those shmucks on Wall Street think they have influence, but they would be nowhere without a stable, democratic government—stable being the operative word. The people here in D.C. hold everything together. Or at least they’re supposed to.

And if D.C is the center of the world, then it feels like he and Carl are the center of the center. Readership for the paper is up. People are more engaged than they were a year or two ago. The two of them—along with other dedicated journalists—are holding up a massive lens for the American people to look through. Yet as they walk down the street, no one looks twice at them, no one stops them and asks for the latest scoop, no one recognizes them at all. It’s strange feeling that important and that insignificant at once. It’s strange knowing that if he said all this out loud, Carl would understand, and it’s even stranger knowing he doesn’t have to say it out loud. One look at Carl, one shared look, and he knows they’re thinking the same thing.

“What’s on your mind?” Carl asks once his well of political diatribes has run dry without a single peep from Bob.

“What do you think will happen?” Bob asks, shoving his hands deeper into his pockets. “After the book, I mean?”

“Oh, I don’t know.” Carl slows a little, his brow furrowing, and Bob is forced to shorten his stride too. “Hopefully they’ll have nailed the bastard to the wall by then, but if not, I’m sure the book’ll help. Then there will be trials—”

“No.” Bob shakes his head. He knew he didn’t ask it right, but he doesn’t think he has it in him to ask it right. Not completely, anyway. He settles for: “What do you think will happen to you and me?”

If that sounds funny to Carl, he doesn’t let on. In fact, it seems to sail right over his head. “We’ll be fine. After this, we’ll be guaranteed jobs for the rest of our lives, at any paper we want to work at. And the world won’t run out of crooks any time soon, that’s for sure.”

“You think you’ll stay at the Post?” Bob asks.

Carl shoots him a narrow, sideways look. “I don’t know. I haven’t thought about it.” He watches Bob for a few steps as if to see how that lands, but Bob only glances his way and then looks down at the ground, keeping his expression neutral. “Why, you thinking about leaving?”

“No, no.” Bob shakes his head a little too vehemently and says again, “No.”

But Carl latches on anyway. “Going after the head of your party put that bad a taste in your mouth, huh?” he says, knocking Bob in the ribs with his elbow. “You thinking of giving up journalism altogether?”

It’s the kind of ribbing Bob would normally take with a good-natured roll of his eyes, but he’s not in the mood now. Not in the mood lately at all. “Come on, Carl.”

“What, lost your sense of humor?” Carl swats him on the arm this time, and Bob grimaces and jerks away.

“Stop it,” he says. “I’m just…thinking about what comes after all this, alright? That’s all.”

Carl stops walking then, and Bob stops with him, turning toward him with a frown. “Look,” Carl says, serious now, like he’s finally realized he can’t rib Bob out of this funk, “I get it. This story…it’s the first time I’ve felt like a real reporter. I’m worried about what comes next too, and whether I’ll ever have this feeling again, but it’s no use worrying about it now, right? Fuck—for all we know, we’ll still be digging on this one for another couple years.”

“I guess,” Bob says. What he doesn’t say is that it just feels like clean-up now. What he doesn’t say is that he isn’t sure a couple years is enough time. He wants what he and Carl had at the very beginning, and he wants it forever. But he can’t say any of that, so he turns away and starts walking again.

They reach the National Mall, and Bob points them in the direction of the Washington Monument on instinct. It’s funny, he thinks, that their very first president didn’t want the job, and their most recent one wanted it so bad he stooped to dirty tricks to make it happen. One thing Bob knows for sure: they won’t be erecting a monument to Nixon once all the dust settles.

“I was just starting to feel cooped up in there,” Bob says, answering a question Carl didn’t ask. He hunches his shoulders against a sudden gust of wind coming across the mall and turns his head to watch it ruffle through Carl’s hair. “You know what I mean? It’s makes me feel claustrophobic.”

“Claustrophobic?” Carl sounds confused, but Bob looks at him, really looks at him, letting him see the every bit of the frustration and fatigue and directionlessness he’s been struggling with, and Carl’s eyebrows go up and then furrow together, and he nods once, understanding. “Yeah. I get it.”

They walk around the Mall for another fifteen minutes, or maybe twenty, and somewhere back at HQ Bradlee is probably wondering where Woodstein ran off to, but Carl never suggests they turn back. He follows Bob’s lead, keeping up with his anxiety-driven pace, and doesn’t complain about he chilly fall wind or the droves of tourists they have to weave through or the fact that they left their coffee behind to get cold. And if Bob’s mood has improved some by the time they do head back to work, he’s sure it has nothing to do with the walk and everything to do with the company.

———

The problem, as Bob sees it, is that the tension never broke. The whole time he and Carl were running down leads and putting out articles and uncovering pieces of the puzzle, he was sure there would come a tipping point, a moment where everything fell into place and they could say, There, we’ve done it!—but instead he feels like someone keeps piling weight on his chest, and all he’s doing is sitting around waiting for it to crush him.

He’s sure Carl would laugh if he knew. For him, it’s more about the journey than the destination. He can swan himself from one task to the next, one thought to the next, and never alight for long on anything, but Bob needs time and space to breathe, to figure out the world and his place in it. If he collects too many details, it’s because the details make the big picture, and the big picture makes him sane. He can’t live his life one typed word at a time. He needs to know where it all ends.

“Hey, hand me that stack of papers on top of the TV, would you?” he says, gesturing impatiently. He’s the one behind the typewriter today, and Carl has been pacing back and forth between the bed and the couch with his face shoved in their notes, stopping every now and then to take the stubby pencil out from behind his ear and circle or annotate a passage. At Bob’s behest, he snatches up the papers and turns to deposit them on the table in one smooth movement, but he doesn’t look up, and he barely loses his momentum. When Bob looks at the floor, he half expects to see that Carl has worn a track into the carpet. “Why don’t you sit down a minute? You’re driving me crazy.”

Carl glares, but he does stop his pacing. He tosses the notes on the bed and comes to lean against the edge of the table near Bob’s elbow, fishing a cigarette and his lighter out of his pocket. Bob asked him at least three times not to smoke in here before he gave up. Lately he’s been resigned to it, doesn’t even bother to scowl anymore, but today it plucks at him. He stares pointedly at Carl’s fingers where they cup around the cigarette to light it, but Carl doesn’t even notice.

“I’m starting to wonder if we should hold off on finishing this book until it’s all over,” Carl says on an exhale, smoke forming a cloud between his face and Bob’s.

“We don’t know how long that’ll be,” Bob says. He waves a hand in front of his face and barely resists the urge to pluck the cigarette out of Carl’s hand and put it out. “Could be months, could be years. We don’t even know if any of these guys will face any consequences.”

Carl crosses his arms over his chest. “It just seems like we’re ending on a cliffhanger, doesn’t it? I hate cliffhangers.”

Bob sympathizes, but he doesn’t care to have an argument about it. The publisher is in control of this story now, and they have to deliver what they promised. Neither of them have a choice in the matter. “That just means we’ll have ‘em on the hook if we have to write a follow-up,” he says. He tries to sound optimistic, but his voice comes out hard and confrontational, like it does too often these days.

“A follow-up?” Carl watches him carefully as he takes another drag from his cigarette. “What do you mean, a follow-up? Like another book?”

The incredulity in his voice rubs Bob the wrong way. Would another book be so bad? Has all of this really been so unbearable? Sometimes Bob wonders if Carl still feels the same way about him as he did the day they first started working together, when he had nothing but contempt for Bob’s writing and only tolerated him to get brought onto this story. Maybe Carl has never gone beyond simply tolerating him. Sure, they eat meals together, go for walks together, work together late into the night, but all those things can be explained away as being part and parcel of their partnership. All this time Bob has been wondering if they’ll keep this up afterward, but he hasn’t considered that Carl may not want to.

“Don’t get all bent out of shape,” Bob says, his voice a little too sharp. “It was only a thought.”

“Alright.” Suddenly Carl is straightening up, pushing off the table to stand by Bob’s shoulder with his fists clenched at his sides. “What’s eating you lately? You’ve been acting funny for weeks now.”

Bob doesn’t look up, but he can feel his face getting hot. “What do you mean, funny?”

“Funny like you’re thinking of taking a flying leap out the nearest window. Funny like you did before you told me about who Deep Throat is.”

“You’re being paranoid, Carl,” Bob says calmly, though his heart is pounding at his ribs.

“Like hell.” Carl’s hands flex in Bob’s peripheral vision like he’s thinking of reaching out to him, grabbing him. “If you know something important…if we’re in danger again…”

Bob jerks his chin up, his jaw clenching. “No, it’s not that.”

“Then what?” Carl does grab him then, a hand fisting in his shirt and dragging him to his feet. It’s a miscalculation if Carl means to look him in the eye, because this close, Bob looms over him to an almost comical degree. “Listen,” Carl says, clearly gearing up for a nice lecture, “if you can’t be honest with me, then I don’t know how—”

Bob doesn’t realize he’s taken Carl by the shoulders and backed him into the wall until Carl stops talking abruptly, his eyes wide. His mouth hangs open, that infuriating mouth that never seems to stop running, and it seems like the logical next step is for Bob to lean down and lick inside, like that’s the answer to the question, the reason he’s been acting strange. And goddamnit, maybe it is. Carl tastes exactly like he should, like cigarettes and coffee and overwhelming bitterness, and Bob groans in what should be disgust but is much closer to relief, palpable and immediate and all-consuming. This feels like exactly what he needed, to get this close to Carl—or maybe closer even than this. No more awkwardness, no more careful distance, no more tension thrumming in the air between them, threatening to snap.

He gets to savor that relief for only a moment or two before he realizes Carl’s mouth is a dead-fish gape beneath his. Fear sets his stomach churning and he stiffens, his fingers tightening on Carl’s shoulders as he prepares to push himself backwards and away. Far away, preferably. Across the room. Out the door. Maybe if he puts enough distance between them, it will be like this never happened.

But just as he goes to pull away, Carl grasps his tie and pulls him in hard, almost violently, so their teeth grind together and Bob’s breath gets shaken out of him. Carl kisses him like he’s trying to win an argument, his lips bruising and his breath gusting hard and fast against Bob’s face. Bob reaches up and sinks his fingers into Carl’s hair just to have something to hold onto now that his knees threaten to give way. His heart pounds in his throat where his tie bites into his flesh, pulled taut by Carl’s hand.

“Is this it?” Carl asks between bruising kisses. “Is this what you’ve been moping about?” His voice is almost mocking, the same tone of voice he uses when he’s scratching out a paragraph Bob has written, one he thinks is silly and extraneous. “Can’t fucking believe you—”

“Shut up,” Bob hisses, but he doesn’t really mean it, and when Carl pushes them both off the wall he goes willingly and lets himself be tugged along by the tie. Carl nearly trips over a pair of Bob’s shoes and then again over a stack of books, but somehow they make it to the bed in one piece and fall onto it, just missing the wadded up sheets in one corner and the stack of manuscripts in the other, which Bob nudges to the floor with his knee.

“We should talk about this,” Carl says as his yanks Bob’s shirt out of his pants.

“Not now.” He doesn’t want to stop long enough for his heart to calm down or his mind to catch up with him. This is pure instinct, like chasing down a lead or probing for a source’s weak spots. It’s better if he doesn’t think.

He goes for Carl’s belt, and Carl follows his lead, and soon they both have their shirts rucked up and their pants shoved down and their fingers wrapped around each other. Bob hasn’t touched a man like this before, but instinct seems to serve him well here too, judging by the way Carl’s hand scrabbles at the back of his neck and then twists in his tie again to pull him even closer. It’s no surprise Carl won’t shut up even now. He speaks filthy encouragement right into Bob’s ear, making him blush and and tighten his grip. He can’t decide if he wants to rut against Carl’s stomach or fuck into his fist—their hands keep getting in the way of their hips and their hips in the way of their hands—but it’s good, so good.

“Harder, come on,” Carl begs. Or maybe it’s an order. Either way, Bob is happy to give him what he wants. He moves both hands to Carl’s hips and thrusts against him hard enough to move them both up the bed. Some of their notes are stuck under Carl’s back, and he can hear them crinkle as they move together, but he pays it no mind. They can get ruined for all he cares. Both he and Carl have gone over them enough to have it all memorized anyway.

Carl’s head falls back to expose his throat and Bob moves in to mouth at his throat, wishing he’d taken the time to get him out of his shirt. Next time, he thinks. Next time they’ll do this slowly, after a long night of work when they’re both barely awake or first thing in morning when neither of them is operating under the buzz of too much caffeine. When he isn’t driven by months worth of restlessness and frustration and Carl isn’t making it worse by mouthing off at him. “Who’d have guessed,” Carl says breathlessly, wrapping the end of Bob’s tie around the flat of his palm. “A nice Republican boy like you.”

Bob loses it, then. He drives forward into the circle of Carl’s hand twice more and comes apart, grunting into the crook of Carl’s neck and gripping his waist hard enough to bruise. Carl writhes under him, thrusting up against his stomach another handful of times before he’s adding to the mess between them, hissing his name—not Bob but Robert—in a way that makes Bob shudder and curse.

Afterward, he can’t move, doesn’t even want to lift his head from Carl’s neck, so he’s grateful when Carl feels around for the wadded-up sheets and uses them to clean them up before chucking them on the floor. “Guess we’re working at the laundromat later,” he says, full of fond exasperation, and Bob can’t help but laugh weakly at that.

“I guess so,” he croaks.

“You want to get off me? You’re heavy.” And there’s the old Carl again, fondness gone, but somehow that’s better. Bob peels his head up off Carl’s shoulder and flops to the side, so he’s wedged in next to the wall, and runs both hands through his hair, smoothing it down. Carl looks over at him, eyebrows raised expectantly. “Well?” he says.

“Well what.”

“Well, you never answered me. If this is why you’ve been so jumpy the past few weeks.”

Bob scrubs his hands down over his face, mainly to hide his smile. “No,” he says, “but I think I’m alright now.”

———

A couple hours later they make it to the laundromat, and Bob shoves his sheets into one of the machines while Carl sits on the one adjacent and watches carefully, like he’s expecting Bob to screw it up. It’s gotten late, and they have the place to themselves. Even the sidewalk out front is deserted, giving them the illusion of privacy, but Bob reminds himself not to trust it. Now isn’t the time to shift over and sink his fingers into Carl’s hair again, no matter how he already misses its softness, the way it falls over his knuckles like water.

“Are you sure it’s safe to put that navy tie in there?” Carl asks. Bob isn’t sure how he ever hated this expression on him, the one where his features are all scrunched up with skepticism, his mouth pressed into a thin line.

“It’ll be fine,” he says. “I know what I’m doing.”

He can feel Carl watching him while he pours in the detergent, Carl’s gaze prickly on the side of his face, but he doesn’t give him the satisfaction of meeting his eyes—at least not until he’s turned the machine on and has nowhere else to look.

“Robert, dear,” Carl says dryly, leaning back on his hands, “remember when our lives used to be exciting?”

“Hmm.” He planned to jump up and sit next to him, to turn the conversation back to the book or maybe whatever parts of the Nixon story they have yet to tease out, but now he changes course, slotting his hips between Carl’s thighs and reaching for his hair after all. Who cares if someone walks by? They’ve been in more dangerous circumstances than this—and loved every second of it. “Used to be?” he asks. The more he leans in, the better he feels, even as his heart threatens to beat out of his chest.

Carl drops his gaze to Bob’s mouth, and his own curls at the corner. “Maybe you’re right.”

“It must kill you to admit that,” Bob says, and kisses the next smart reply right out of his mouth.