The man’s a widower.
That’s the real tragedy of it all. And when you’re in a position like his, you can’t keep your tragedies close to your chest.
This, ironically, makes the whole affair easier. There’s no need to dump any baggage at her feet, she gets it hand delivered to her by her son to read each morning, along with her coffee and a hangover from whatever she’s done the night before.
Not that she does much, mind you. But after two decades in show business she should be able to handle her liquor better. It must be a familial thing, something passed down through the bloodline.
Her parents had been teetotalers. It checks out.
But he’s not one to drink. He likes his wits about him. So does she. You needs to have your wits about you in a situation like this. Sin doesn’t come by Medda naturally. Being a Baptist, even a lapsed one, makes you conscientious of every misdemeanor you take, no matter how small.
No matter how quick.
No matter how good it feels, in the moments afterward, when you’re alone with him.
(To those wondering, Teddy is indeed as muscular and broad shouldered as the photographs and inscriptions say.)
(As for carrying a big stick...Well, Medda’s still a lady. And ladies never kiss and tell.)
He’s sitting upright now, fumbling to reattach the buttons on his shirtsleeves under the dim light of the apartment. He squints, the way he always does when he first puts on his glasses, and it causes his face to press into itself like an accordion; mouth and mustache and glasses and thick brows stacked on top of each other like an unappetising sandwich.
She could help him. Maybe turn on a light or even button the shirt up herself.
But she’s not his maid.
And it’s satisfying to watch the man struggle a little. It gives her an edge in the power dynamic, knowing that America’s beloved Rough Rider deals with buttons and poor eyesight and general ineptitude like the rest of the general population. He finally secures the top of his shirt, then grabs for the pants, giving her an ample view of his rear as he bends over.
“They’re thinking of putting me on the Republican ticket.”
“... Is that so?” Medda stretches her arms above her head and stares at the ceiling.
“You’re not surprised.” He says this as a statement, not a question.
“Hobart’s funeral was what, two weeks ago? And McKinley’s been after you for a while.”
“We always did work well together.” His pants are now in the proper legs, and he starts fastening his suspenders.
“You worked well together until you went off to play soldier-cowboy in Santiago.”
“My greatest victory.” He turns around and gives what he must think is a debonair grin.
“And that’s why you’d be a terrible Vice President. You’re gonna get antsy the minute you move to DC.”
“Be good for my career though.”
Medda snorted and rolled over on her side, dragging her hand on the floor to feel around for her corset. “And what’s there to do for you after Vice President?”
President. That shouldn’t have surprised Medda as much as it did. The man was after all pretty much fine tuned to the role. Harvard educated, old money bred, the double blessing of military and political service.
Not to mention the family...
“Have you told Edith yet?”
A dim shadow falls on her hand, and he bends over and gently hands her the corset. His face is eclipsed in darkness.
“No, I haven’t told Edith.”
Medda was once told by an older lady of the stage that the first rule in any relationship like this is to never mention the wife. It can drive a man to guilt, or to anger. And God knows how many women were destroyed by an emotional man.
It took twenty years of trial and error to know which ones weren’t going to snap the minute their significant other was brought up. And now, a veteran in her field, she could finally relish in the freedom of discussing whatever she wanted. And she wanted to talk about wives. She had spent enough time around married men to earn the right to talk about their damn wives.
Especially his wife. Mrs. Roosevelt number two.
The same wife who had made a big scene of putting her gloves on before she went to shake her hand after Medda’s solo performance at the Casino Theater nine months ago to the day.
The same wife who apparently is known to entertain her guests with minstrel shows at the governor's mansion. Or at least that’s what the social pages say.
Medda of course can’t confirm.
She’d never been invited.
“If you go to DC...” And she pauses, because she needs to say the right thing here. But she doesn’t know what that quite is. “New York will miss you terribly.”
“That’s still a big ‘If’.” Her back is now to him, and he’s lacing her corset, a firm rhythm of tugs going up and down her spine.
“We both know it’s not an ‘If’. Who’s McKinley up against next year, Bryan? That man is too big hearted for his own good. McKinley already has a good repertoire with the people, and if he’s got you, well…”
One final tug, and Medda readjusts her bosom in the lacy shell. She turns to him, and they’re so close for the first time that day she can truly see all of his features, that nose and those eyes and a million other little details that are exclusive to just her, and only her.
In the dim light he almost looks handsome.
“You should take it.”
One bushy eyebrow raises slightly. “You think so?”
“It’ll be the least you can do. Even if you don’t win, it’ll show that you’re a good sport, dedicated to the party. That’ll look good on a presidential ticket, eventually.”
“I’d like to continue this though, in one way or another. We could still try…”
He looks so hopeful here. It’s almost too painful to bare.
What has she done to herself?
This was supposed to be brief, a romp for the summer where nothing was expected of them and everything tangible seemed so far away. It was easy for her to get sucked in by the fantasy of it all, and he was more than willing to comply, until both were so deeply entwined in each other neither wanted to let go.
He’s a widower.
He’s lost one wife, and a mother just before that.
He goes to women fill the giant gap in his heart. And for a while Medda was willing to comply.
But Medda can’t be his wife. She can’t be his mother, she can’t be his rock, she can’t be with him when the very idea of their relationship would destroy them in the public eye.
So she purses her lips. “We’ll see.”
He leaves through the back entrance. Medda doesn’t watch him go.
Instead she closes her eyes and holds that final image of him in her mind. She savors his face one last time, then lets it fade, piece by piece, til he’s just as blurry as his profile in the dim of the theater dressing room.
She won’t say goodbye. That just makes things too permanent. He’ll simply stay back there, growing less and less tangible, sealed forever into the recess of her mind.
And then he’ll be nothing but a memory.