‘Are you ready to go?’
Josh, face in palm, absorbed in a memo, takes about thirty seconds to realize that Donna is talking to him and standing expectantly in his office doorway.
‘Am I—’ He blinks a couple of times, straightening in his chair. ‘What?’
‘Ready,’ Donna repeats slowly, ‘to go. Check out for the evening. Leave the building. Put aside your troubles and let Tomorrow Josh worry about them.’
‘No, yeah, I get the concept of leaving work.’
She raises a skeptical eyebrow. ‘You do?’
‘I can’t go,’ Josh says. ‘I have stuff to do.’
A lot of it is stuff he’s redoing because Donna, rather than bringing him all of his work while he was recovering after Rosslyn, instead gave it to other people. At some point when she stops playing the I-acted-on-the-advice-of-seven-different-doctors card they’ll talk about her definition of the words “perfectly capable senior aides”, but that probably won’t be until at least twelve years from now.
‘But we have the thing,’ Donna reminds him.
‘You know,’ she says, pushing away from the doorway and coming a little way toward his desk. ‘We talked about it at lunch last Tuesday.’ At his quizzical look, she continues, ‘You had the steak sandwich with fries and I had the chicken salad? And some of your sandwich? And some of your fries? We talked about the whole thing then.’
‘Right,’ Josh says, because she sounds very confident about it. ‘Yes.’ He’s on his feet and reaching to accept the jacket she’s holding out to him before he frowns. ‘No. What thing?’
Sighing heavily, Donna says, ‘Why don’t I just explain on the way?’
‘On the way to what?’
She groans. ‘You’re making this so much more difficult than it needs to be.’
‘Donna,’ Josh says, warily, ‘“the thing” is starting to sound sort of like a kidnapping.’
Folding her arms, she admits, ‘I signed us up for a beginners’ salsa class.’
He takes a second to absorb that, then says, ‘Okay, I would rather be kidnapped.’
‘It’s a bit of fun!’ she insists.
‘What?’ she demands.
‘You thought you could trick me into attending a salsa class?’
‘Not trick you. Surprise you.’
He snorts. ‘You were so born for politics.’
‘Thank you,’ she says. She jerks a thumb over her shoulder, toward his open office door. ‘So shall we head over there?’
‘I’m not letting you coerce me into…salsa-ing or waltzing or funky-chickening or any other kind of dancing.’ He seizes the memo and stalks past her, not entirely sure where he’s planning on going, but knowing he ought to look purposeful.
‘Do you think you’ll be bad at it?’ she asks, swiveling on her heels after him.
Donna huffs and follows him out of his office, still holding his jacket. ‘You were supposed to fend off the crushing blow to your fragile male ego by trying to prove you’d be excellent at salsa dancing. By the way, I think you’d be excellent at salsa dancing.’
‘I think you’re wrong,’ he says, ‘and my ego isn’t so fragile that I can’t admit that.’
‘I’m a little hurt that you don’t want to dance with me,’ she says.
‘It’s not you—’ Josh begins, too quickly and without thinking, but is saved by CJ, who’s doing up her coat as she enters the policy bullpen from her office.
‘You’re going salsa dancing?’ she asks.
‘Josh is boring,’ Donna says.
‘I’m busy,’ he corrects. ‘Also only recently recovered from a bullet to the chest, thank you, so—’
‘You’re fine; I checked.’
Josh sighs. ‘Of course you did.’
Donna gestures from CJ to Josh. ‘Tell him he’d be good.’
‘If he won’t go, I’ll go,’ CJ says. ‘I haven’t left this place before 10pm in weeks; I wanna do something fun.’
‘It won’t be fun,’ Josh mutters.
Donna elbows him in the ribs and beams at CJ. ‘Great! It says you can just wear gym clothes, if you have them with you?’
‘Hey,’ Josh objects. ‘I thought this was meant to be our thing?’
‘Yeah, but you’re not interested,’ Donna points out.
‘I thought you might, you know.’ He frowns, not sure why he suddenly feels kind of put out. ‘Fight for me a bit.’
Donna shrugs. ‘I told CJ to tell you you’d be good.’
‘Yeah, which she conspicuously didn’t.’
There’s a brief silence.
‘Shall we go?’ CJ asks Donna brightly.
Donna slings Josh’s jacket over his arm. ‘Your ego’ll survive it.’
‘What’s this one o’ clock?’ Josh asks, emerging from his office, coffee mug in hand.
Donna doesn’t look up from the card she’s scribbling in. ‘You have an appointment.’
‘No, I don’t.’
‘You do,’ she says, neatly capping her pen and turning to look at him, ‘or why would it be on your calendar?’
Josh frowns. ‘It’s color-coded yellow.’
‘So that means it’s not work-related, but it’s happening at the office.’ He pauses for a second, thinking about her calendar system, which can only be fully understood by Donna and by people who have, say, a doctorate in pure mathematics. ‘Right?’
She nods. ‘Right. So?’
‘So, what’s the appointment for?’ he asks.
‘I made it for you. Do you want to sign this card?’ She waves it at him the way a parent might wave a toy to distract a small child.
‘No,’ Josh says firmly. ‘What’s the appointment for?’
‘It’s Chip’s birthday.’
She sighs. ‘He’s interned for you for four months.’
‘Tell me what the appointment’s for,’ Josh bargains, ‘and I’ll sign the card.’
‘A woman’s going to come in and teach you about meditation.’ She holds the card out. ‘Write something heartfelt.’
‘Haha,’ Josh says. He takes a sip from his mug. ‘C’mon, what’s it about?’
He stares at her. ‘You’re serious?’
‘About your wellbeing?’ She puts the card aside and stands up, folding her arms. ‘Yes.’
‘So you thought you’d have me talk to some kook about… clouds and whatnot?’
She squints at him. ‘What exactly do you think meditation is?’
‘I don’t know,’ Josh says, ‘and I don’t particularly care to find out.’
‘That’s too bad.’
‘Cancel it,’ he insists.
Donna holds her ground. ‘No.’
He casts about for an argument and strikes, he thinks, gold. ‘You think voters will be happy to hear we’re spending their tax dollars on quackery for White House staff?’
‘It’s not quackery,’ she says, rolling her eyes, ‘and of course it’s not taxpayer money; I’m paying for it.’
‘It’s part of your birthday present,’ she explains.
‘You’ll like it.’
‘I don’t want to meditate!’ he snaps. ‘You couldn’t have got me… I don’t know, something else?’
‘Do you want to hear the health benefits?’ she asks.
‘Yeah, sure,’ he says, huffing. ‘I don’t wanna meditate but I wanna talk about meditating.’
‘It helps relieve stress,’ she says, listing things on her fingers. ‘It can help you sleep, it can improve your concentration, improve your mood, it helps relieve stress—’
‘You said that one already.’
‘Well, between the MS investigation and running for reelection and, you know—’ she gestures at him, ‘—everything about you, I thought it was worth repeating.’
He sighs. ‘That’s fair.’
‘So? Don’t you want that? Because I want that, personally, for you.’
‘Can’t I relieve stress some other way?’ he asks.
‘Well, you wouldn’t try the yoga when I suggested it either,’ she reminds him.
‘That demands a certain level of flexibility, doesn’t it?’
She arches her eyebrows. ‘You might be very flexible if you tried.’
He almost chokes on his coffee. ‘Donna?’
‘We’re straying into potentially inappropriate territory.’
‘Whatever. You know I only suggest these things because I care about you, right?’
‘Fine,’ Josh says, after a second. ‘I’ll take the meeting.’
‘Good. Sign Chip’s card.’
‘Just this one,’ he warns, grabbing the card off her desk and turning to go back into his office, ‘and then never again.’
‘Yeah, that’s probably all you need for it to work,’ she mutters.
‘I thought you said you were taking me to dinner,’ Josh says, planting his hands on his hips.
‘I did say that,’ Donna agrees.
‘And yet instead we’re here.’
‘I didn’t say we were going for dinner right away,’ she points out.
‘Yeah, but it was implied.’
‘No, you assumed.’
‘Okay,’ he concedes, ‘but it did seem safe to assume that “dinner” meant, you know, sitting down to eat food and not futzing around in a rowboat.’
‘Well, you shouldn’t jump to conclusions.’ Donna climbs carefully down into the little boat, cheerful red with Cindy May painted in cursive on the side. ‘Are you coming?’
Her face falls. ‘Do you know how many strings Fiona had to pull so we could have this boat for a whole hour?’
‘This is your friend at the National Parks Service?’ he asks.
‘Then probably not very many. An hour?’
‘Yes, and you’re wasting it arguing with me.’
‘What could we possibly do for a whole hour in a rowboat?’ he wonders.
‘Well, getting away from the shore would be a good start.’
With a heavy sigh, Josh clambers down into the boat, wincing as it wobbles alarmingly. ‘“Josh, I wanted to do something nice for you for being such a great boss.” That’s what you said.’
‘This is nice.’
‘Maybe, if you don’t go in expecting to eat a cheeseburger on dry land,’ he grouses. ‘Did it ever occur to you that maybe if you didn’t try to trick me into doing things I might be more open to doing them?’
She laughs and reaches to untie the boat. ‘You’re saying if I said “Hey, Josh, come spend your evening floating around a reservoir” you’d have said yes?’
‘Well, I imagine you’d have pitched it better.’
‘You’re saying you’d have said yes?’ With the boat drifting gently away from its mooring, she grabs the oars and slots them into place.
‘Probably not,’ he concedes, and leans back against the stern, watching her as she pulls on the oars, the boat gliding surprisingly fast and smooth across the water.
‘You know your problem?’ Donna asks, after a minute or so.
‘I don’t think it’s really fair to ask me that when we’re surrounded by water.’
‘You don’t have enough zest for life.’
Josh’s eyebrows shoot up. ‘I’m sorry?’
‘I, on the other hand,’ she says, tugging on the oars, ‘am very zesty.’
‘Hey, I’m pretty zesty. I got in your stupid boat, didn’t I?’
She lets the oars drift for a moment. ‘Excuse me?’
‘It’s a great boat.’
Resuming her steady stroke, she says, ‘I could’ve gotten you paddleboarding, you know.’
‘No, you couldn’t.’
‘You’re feeling pretty confident, huh?’
‘We won a presidential election,’ she reminds him. ‘Again. I’m feeling very confident, and you should be too. How about windsurfing?’
He laughs. ‘Any hypothetical newfound confidence aside, could we stick to a vessel with sides for now?’
‘Sure,’ she agrees. ‘For now.’
‘This isn’t working,’ Josh says.
‘Do you give up this easily on getting bills through the senate?’ Donna asks.
He glares at the snarl of wool in his lap. ‘No. But those are, y’know. Actually important.’
She sets down her knitting needles and fixes him with a stern look. ‘And you don’t think this is important?’
‘Look,’ he says. ‘It isn’t that I don’t feel really, extremely bad for the oil-covered penguins, because I do, but maybe not enough to give up a rare free evening to knit adorable penguin cozies, which you seem to have covered just fine on your own, by the way.’ He nods at the collection of small bright woolen things piling up on Donna’s coffee table.
‘Do you know what happens to the penguins who don’t get an adorable penguin cozy in time?’ she asks.
‘Yes,’ he sighs. ‘I know about the poisoning.’
‘Specifically,’ she reminds him, ‘poisoning because they try to clean themselves after humans dump oil all over their home.’
Josh looks away from her big, sad, guilt-trippy eyes before he commits all his available time to penguin conservation. ‘Yeah, well, we’re trying to make it harder to do that.’
‘And I’m taking direct action.’ Picking up her needles again, she adds, ‘And I didn’t do it on my own. I rallied people to my cause.’
‘Like the pied piper in a cable-knit cardigan.’
‘That’s right,’ Donna says.
He watches her knit for a moment, occasionally checking the slowly forming penguin sweater against the pattern she’s got pulled up on her laptop. ‘Like who?’ he asks, after a bit.
‘Who’d you rally?’
‘Ginger, Bonnie, Carol, Margaret.’
‘So the usual suspects.’
Donna completes a couple of stitches before saying, smugly: ‘Toby.’
Josh gapes at her. ‘No, you didn’t.’
‘I did, too.’ She reaches for a jolly-looking red penguin sweater. ‘See?’
‘There’s no way Toby made that.’
‘How’d that happen?’ he demands.
‘Well, we watched the Yankees have their asses handed to them by the White Sox at the same time, and it seems as though watching your team lose is a great motivator for activities involving sharp pointy things.’ She smiles brightly at him. ‘When are the Mets next playing? We’ll reschedule.’
‘There’s no way,’ he insists, ignoring the jab.
‘Toby recognizes the plight of the penguins, Josh.’
‘I don’t believe you. You and Toby just hang out and knit stuff now?’
‘We also go to trivia night at The Hawk and Dove. You’d know about it if you’d looked at my e-vite.’
Josh stares at her for a long time, then nods at the sweater she’s put back on the pile. ‘I still don’t believe Toby knitted that.’
‘Oh, you wanna call Toby and tell him you think he’s some kind of knitting fraud?’
‘No,’ he retorts, ‘I think you’re some kind of knitting fraud.’
‘I think you’re jealous because Toby’s better at knitting than you are.’
‘Who isn’t?’ Josh asks, but picks up his needles again.
‘I can’t believe you got me to do this,’ Josh murmurs to Donna.
He says it half because he really can’t believe she got him to do this, and half because it gives him a good reason to lean forward and touch her shoulders, gone all freckly in the Hawaii sun.
‘Shh,’ she whispers back. ‘I’m trying to listen.’
Josh sits back, shifting on the small kayak, but soon has another question.
‘What’s the percentage of people who, uh, sustain massive head injuries falling off these things?’
‘It’s probably higher among people who don’t pay attention to the instructor,’ she says.
Since he actually doesn’t want to be berated for not listening by some twenty-year-old named Wade, Josh listens as they’re taught how to sit and how to paddle and how to turn the damn thing around, which ranks pretty high on Josh’s priorities. It’s Donna who interrupts his train of thought, sounding a little smug.
‘I told you I’d get you doing this.’
‘Yeah,’ he whispers. ‘I told you I can’t believe it.’
‘No, I mean years ago. When we went rowing.’
He thinks for a second. ‘You said you’d get me jet-skiing, not kayaking.’
She shoots a grin at him over her shoulder. ‘That’s tomorrow.’
‘This counts,’ she says, with an air of finality.
He sits back to listen again, but finds his attention wandering to Donna, and the hair escaping her braid (and exactly how it came to be escaping her braid, a few minutes before they left their hotel room).
And he leans again toward her, feeling compelled. ‘Just so you know,’ he whispers, ‘not that I’m not enjoying this, but also a lot of why I agreed to do it was ’cause you asked me to.’ He pauses. ‘Not saying that like you owe me, or anything. Just, you know. Saying. I’d try out a lot of new things for you.’
Donna takes a moment to reply, reaching behind her and feeling for his hand. ‘I know,’ she says eventually. ‘You already have.’ She falls quiet again for a moment. ‘You know what we’re going to do now you’ve said that.’
‘I get that it kind of undercuts the romance, but I really have to draw the line at jet-skiing,’ he warns.
‘Oh, no, you definitely can’t jet-ski,’ she agrees. ‘But you do owe me an evening of dancing.’
‘That I can do,’ Josh says.