Donna’s leg is cramping by the time the taxi reaches Josh’s building. The sunburn on her shoulders is throbbing, too, and she’s fairly certain Josh is pissed at her.
She knows this move. He gets upset and refuses to talk about it, letting the aching thing fester, turning it over and over and over in his head. They’re just over the hump of one of these not-fights, and she’d really love it if they didn’t find themselves in the throes of another.
He’d grabbed her hand on the plane, refusing to let her go, but his other fingers had scratched slow patterns into his jeans for hours. His jokes took on a sharp edge at LAX that Donna didn’t like, and he’d stopped talking after the re-route through Chicago.
For a while, Donna thought it was just because they’d gotten up so early and with the delays and connecting flights... Traveling through four airports in 12 hours isn’t her idea of a good time, either, but Josh is being snippy, and something is rattling around in his brain. It feels like one of his old bouts of moodiness, which, in a way, is comforting. It’s a little bit like the old them, like a pale echo of their stupid fights in the bullpen. But Donna thinks back to the sunny beach on Maui, and, really, whatever this is started days before the cross-country hop back to DC, and this time, she’s not entirely certain of the problem.
She’s tried to make up for this newfound silence with chatter of her own. Silly things, like why Hawaii doesn’t observe Daylight Savings Time, and also serious things, like how she intends to take the Chief of Staff position. Josh congratulated her on the latter and indulged her for a while on the former, then pretended, badly, to nap.
Everything had been going so well, too.
“Is everything ok?” she asks him in the back of the taxi. Their hands are resting on the middle seat, close but not touching. Those few inches might as well be the Grand Canyon for all that Josh seems interested in touching her at the moment.
“It’s stupid cold,” he says, looking out the window and sniffling.
Donna shivers a little and her breath puffs in the air when she steps out of the car, frowning because his comment is painfully true. It’s like a slap to the face, an unpleasant burning in her lungs. Never mind that Josh knows she wasn’t asking about the weather.
Goosebumps erupt on her arms as she reaches to tug her suitcase from the trunk.
A hand wraps around her elbow. “Here, I got it.”
Josh sets the suitcase beside her and slams down the trunk, ruffling her hair with the whoosh of it. The morning light is a frozen blue, the pale sun shining down on him, halo-ing behind his head. His nose is freckly where he got sunburned the first day on the beach. She finds it profoundly charming.
“Thanks.” Donna steps back and hugs herself, wondering whose stupid idea it was to come home. Another fine shiver zips up her spine. “C’mon,” she says, dragging her bag up the stairs, the wheels clunking on every step, “I want to get inside.”
Josh follows her for a moment, then takes the stairs two at a time and digs through his pockets. He looks back at her, sheepish. “Do you have—”
Donna dangles her key in front of his face. He snatches it from her fingers, pointedly ignoring her wide smile.
They pass a few people in the lobby getting mail. The same maintenance man that’s worked there forever, Ernie, waves a hello at Donna, and she wonders if he can detect the difference in her and Josh. Do people guess that they’re together? Can Ernie sense that they’ve… changed? Or does it look like every other time they’ve walked in here?
Upstairs, Josh kicks through the newspapers piled by his door, letting Donna in first. He inhales deeply, juts out his bottom lip, and dumps his bag in the entryway.
Donna glances sideways at him, the weirdness of the last 72 hours prompting her to reach over and grab his wrist, her thumb skimming over the blueish veins showing through his skin.
“Thanks for taking me on vacation. I don’t think I’ve seen that much sunshine in…” She looks up at the ceiling, squinting. “A year, probably.” It’s not quite the sentiment she’s going for, but with Josh she’s learned that small steps are better, easier for him to process. To blurt out everything she’s feeling, now, would be…ill-advised.
Maybe that’s what all of this is. Maybe her pronouncement that she couldn’t work for him anymore jolted him into a panic spiral. Maybe her putting a time limit on their… this, pushed him into the vacation proposition. Because he wanted to include her in his life going forward and didn’t know how to say it. But maybe he decided, in the heat and sun and sand, that it was just too much all at once. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time he’s tried to put some distance between them.
Donna hasn’t brought up the timeline at all, curious to know what he’ll say, but her desire to spend time with Josh, only Josh, has overridden any sense of urgency in her questioning. She desperately wants him to be the one to say it, the direct no-dancing-around-it declaration that he cares for her.
Josh looks down at their hands, almost surprised to see them intertwined. He blinks a couple of times, shakes himself, and then pulls her close, his other hand drifting low on her waist, low enough that it wouldn’t be appropriate in public. The thunk of her purse dropping to the floor startles Donna even closer.
He drops a kiss on her mouth, lingering and warm, and it’s what Donna has been waiting for all day. Her eyes close, a bloom of heat rising under her skin.
“Thanks for coming with me.” His lips brush over hers when he speaks.
Her eyes stay closed and Donna relaxes into him, muscles loosening like she’s been holding herself together with pins waiting for him to say something, half-dreading that it might be something terrible. They’re pressed together so tight she wonders if he can feel her heartbeat hammer against his ribs.
“We should do it again, sometime.” She presses her cheek against his, a little out of relief, and hugs him around the neck. Running her fingers through his hair, she elicits a funny scrunch of his shoulders. “You should go take a shower,” she whispers. “You smell like a plane.”
Josh nuzzles her, trailing the faintest of kisses along her jaw. “I’ve never found you more attractive.”
That makes Donna laugh, but his nose is cold on her cheek, so she shoves him playfully. In the recesses of her mind, she wonders when he started to think she was attractive, when he started to notice. “I’m guessing there isn’t anything to eat,” she says, changing the subject and pulling back from him, “with your exit, pursued by bear, last week.”
“Not a bear, Donna. A beautiful, if not overly talkative, woman.” Donna frowns, and he releases her with a final squeeze, laughing all the way to the bathroom. Being home seems to have loosened something in him, too. “There might be some cereal in the kitchen. No milk.” He shuts the door but then peeks out, one side of his mouth quirked up. “At least I hope not.”
Donna just rolls her eyes. She hears the shower start up and can picture the pile of clothes Josh has just dumped on the floor.
Relaxing for a week has been delicious, but, like Josh she expects, it has left her a little itchy in the mind, and she doesn’t know what to do next, hovering between apprehension about all the things she’s missed and guilt for not being… satisfied.
To have captured his attention so completely, to be the sole focus of his maelstrom of energy for an extended period of time without interruption, it’s been exhilarating. As soon as their hotel room door had shut, they’d stripped down to their underwear and fallen into bed, peeling away the awkwardness and stilted conversations built up over a long painful year. His touches had been gentle and patient; hers… less so. It’s the most supreme luxury, she’s learned, to lounge in bed with him, feeling his hands skim over her bare back, to drink cold beer with him on a veranda and laugh about their overly inquisitive mothers. To not have to question whether or not he wants to be with her.
But then, after a couple of incredible days like that, everything seemed to go pear-shaped. Josh thought he’d hidden it, but she could tell. He smiled a beat too late at her jokes, carried that pinched look on his face, parroted her questions back at her instead of providing answers.
As she attempts to tamp down those thoughts, Donna wanders into the kitchen to examine the contents of his cupboards. He really doesn’t have any food, just old pasta and a wilted head of lettuce in the fridge. Honestly, she’s pleasantly surprised to find a vegetable of any kind. He probably hasn’t been eating right for a year.
Not a box of cereal in sight. Blegh.
Still feeling itchy, her eyes alight on their suitcases, and she drags them over to the washing machine. Digging through their vacation clothes, Donna examines a pair of Josh’s boxers. She runs a finger along the stripe of waistband. They’re soft and well-worn. It’s weirdly intimate, like when he had walked around her German hospital room in his socks. Some sense that he wears his suits and ties like armor, strutting around the White House and campaign HQ like a rooster, and when he removes even one layer, she gets a softer more exposed version of Josh. She’d like to see more of him.
The boxers get tossed in the wash, and Donna sits back on her heels, idly pushing her thumb deep into her skin and rubbing along the length of her thigh.
Their conversation about where she would be staying in DC had been brief. Brief and unsatisfactory. ‘Do you want to go back to CJ’s when we get home? No. Good.’
So now, she feels a bit at sea. They’re slowly reclaiming their old rhythms, but what about this, this right now? This is new. Does she help herself to one of Josh’s sweatshirts? Does she get to wear his socks when her feet are cold? Decide what brand of peanut butter to buy? Make room on the shelves for her books?
More questions than answers.
Josh pops out from the bathroom, his hair damp and plastered to his head, curling at his collar. “I could really go for a pizza. You want a pizza?”
“It’s ten in the morning, Josh.”
His eyebrows lift. “Oh, yeah.” He retreats into the bedroom and then reappears, rolling a dark sweater over his t-shirt. Donna watches as his shirt rises, then falls, hiding away the trail of hair below his bellybutton. She doesn’t imagine that Josh missed it.
Arms crossed, she leans against the bedroom door. Josh seems to be totally oblivious to her confusion at both ends of his mood swings. Warm and tactile one minute, standoffish and awkward the next, and absolutely fine about keeping her in the dark. Well that’s just spectacular, isn’t it? Just spectacular for him.
Josh mimics her stance. “Coffee and doughnuts?” His face is so open and hopeful that Donna can hardly deny him.
Her mouth curls up. It’s not like she wants noodles and slimy lettuce, anyway… “Eggs are better for you,” Donna says. “Diner over on Prospect?”
“They don’t—” His eyes dart back and forth. “Wash their spoons.”
“Or any of the other silverware, I’d guess,” Donna says matter-of-factly. “That’s what makes it the best diner, Josh.” As if they haven’t had this debate before.
He indulges her. “Fine.” His smile is wide now, almost like he can’t help it, and the twinkle in his eyes nearly blinds her.
Donna bites the inside of her cheek. She’s drawn to him, captivated. Can’t help it. She crosses the hallway to maneuver his arms around her and kisses the side of his mouth. A heavy sigh lifts his chest up and down, Donna along with it.
Even though they’re back in Josh’s normal apartment that’s as familiar as her own, heading to the diner they’ve gone to for years, the sheen of having him like this hasn’t worn off. His smiles are just for her. His kisses are just for her. But what else?
Tucked in his embrace, Donna feels her heart constrict. Why won’t he talk to her? Surely, he can’t be confused himself. She thinks she made herself very clear in their hotel room. He can’t possibly think… “Josh—”
“You smell like a plane,” he whispers, almost at the same time, his lips in her hair. Abruptly, he pushes away and herds her to the bathroom.
Whatever she had planned to tell him is lost. “Hey!” Donna says in a mild protest. “You’re not allowed to move me around. I am a free and independent—”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Hurry up. I’m starving.” Josh nudges her through the doorway. Donna pauses when he blinks slowly at her. “I saw that, by the way,” he says, barely disguised teasing in his voice.
He just trails his eyes up and down her body. It makes Donna feel like she’s been dipped in warm wax. “Hurry up. I’m starving,” he says again.
She’s never showered faster.
Josh holds her hand the entire time they walk to the diner. He’s being sweet to her, again, lightly laughing at the silly face she makes from the temperature change of their immediate surroundings, a mere 40-degree drop.
It feels good for Donna to stretch her legs, even if she has to wear a wooly hat and can feel the damp parts of her hair freeze.
They still hurry the last block to escape the cold, their breath puffing out in clouds. The bells above the door jingle, and Josh ushers her inside the diner. His body spasms from the residual chill, and he hops comically, breathing into his hands.
A waitress waves them over to an empty booth and pours two black coffees.
“You thought I was joking before, didn’t you?”
Donna sniffles and flips through the menu, intrigued by the brunch options. A waffle with strawberries isn’t beyond the realm of possibility. “When?” Out of the corner of her eye, she sees Josh start to rub his thumb against his fingers.
Definitely a waffle. It is her last day of vacation, after all.
“When I said I found you attractive.”
There’s a greasy film on the surface of the coffee. It’s perfect.
“I guess,” Donna says idly, looking at the grilled cheese section. She twirls a spoon in her mug, stirring in the cream. “I just spent half a day on a plane.”
“Well, I wasn’t. Not at all.”
She looks up at him. Silverware clinks and the hum of other peoples’ chatter makes up for the silence that suddenly sits between them.
Josh’s eyebrows are sky high, his forehead wrinkled. The rest of his face is hidden behind his menu, even his eyes. He’s so tense, she’s surprised his shoulders aren’t up to his ears. Ok, then. Yet another backslide into seriousness.
“All right,” Donna says, absolutely at her limit. “What’s going on?” This is so stupid. He can’t just talk to her? After all they’ve been through, he can’t tell her what’s bothering him?
“Nothing.” His fingers drum on the table; he’s thinking awfully hard. Donna can practically hear the gears in his brain turning, spinning faster now that she’s caught on.
She waits a beat. “Josh, are you lying to me, right now?”
“No. Of course not! God, Donna.” Overly defensive and too quick. He’s lying. She doesn’t even have to say anything. A moment later he confesses. “Yes.” He’s still hiding behind his menu.
Donna sighs. “Josh, what’s going on? You’ve been weird since the night we had those fish tacos on the beach.” A fluttery feeling, not a nice one, rises in her chest.
He clears his throat and tosses the menu down. The tops of his cheeks are lightly flushed. Embarrassed Josh is a sight she normally relishes. “You said the sublet on your apartment is coming up at the end of the year.” He’s watching her with a forced casualness that tickles something in the back of Donna’s brain. His voice goes thin. “That’s not too far away.”
Donna tilts her head. That’s… not what she’s been expecting. “Yeah. I decided after the election that I wanted to find someplace new. I already notified the landlord and told Lisa she can take over the lease. New job, new apartment. Just makes sense.” She tries to be blasé, but it doesn’t land quite right.
Josh smiles one of his loose, imprecise smiles. “Where will you look? You’ll probably be able to find something closer to work with the salary bump.”
“It’d be hard to make less money than I did before.” She means it as a joke, one of their old routines to cut through this awkward small talk, but Josh looks unhappy.
Before she can apologize or explain or something, the waitress comes back. They rattle off their orders, anxious to get the woman with unfortunate timing out of there as quickly as possible.
Donna inhales through her nose. She studies him for a moment. “Josh.”
He looks back at her like that day in Virginia when he apologized for kissing her, confused but earnest. He hadn’t committed anything back then, just hedged, stumbling over his words in case he’d upset her. His lips are pressed together in a line, now, and he blinks slowly.
“Oh my God. You’re doing this now? Here?”
Josh rears back, stung, and looks around the diner with the same type of wide-eyed panic he’d expressed when Donna had once accidentally touched his neck a little too familiarly when tying one of his bowties. He’d scooted around his desk, knocking over briefings and even his phone—which Donna then had to clean up—and fled his own office. After that, she’d had to force her feelings down deep.
“Josh!” This is the thing she’s been half-hoping for and half-dreading, an explanation, and he’s going to do it in public. It’s not really his fault. She knows he doesn’t plan it this way. But maybe, a little part of her thinks it might be nice if he did plan for her. “You’re going to say something important, aren’t you?” Her hands are icy.
“Do you… Do you not want me to?”
They must make quite a tableau. Two people so besotted that their legs are unknowingly tangled together with torsos as far apart as the booth allows, desperate to avoid humiliation.
“You’ve been mad at me for a couple days, now.” Donna swallows, forcing herself to press on when Josh’s face goes blank. “After… after I asked about your mom, it seemed— Well, it seemed like you stopped wanting to be there after that.” Vocalizing it feels like a bruise on the heart. “So, if that’s what this is about, then, no. I don’t think I want to hear it.”
Josh’s jaw fully drops. “Donna, I’m not—I wasn’t… mad at you. That doesn’t even,” he says, sputtering, “that doesn’t even make sense.”
“Like sense has ever mattered for you.” She mutters it under her breath, but Josh hears and shoots her the stink eye.
They’re both furiously silent for a moment.
He rips open another creamer cup and dumps it in his coffee, stirring so viciously that it splashes on the tabletop. It’s going to make him queasy later, Donna knows.
The line between Josh’s eyes deepens, frustration practically coming off him in waves. The feeling is certainly mutual.
Donna wilts like a week-old flower when she sees the miserable turn of his mouth and rapidly rummages around in her mind for any clues to help her see daylight. There’s nothing. “So, if...” she says, careful now, “if you aren’t mad at me, then what’s the problem? You’ve been so hot and cold, lately, I’m not…” Her voice goes quiet, fingers tracing through the loose sugar crystals on her napkin. She squeezes her eyes shut. “It’s like it was before, a little, when I was never sure how much you wanted me around, and I don’t know… I don’t know if I can deal with that up and down, again.”
It’s not a repeat of the timeline, or a formal ultimatum, but it’s brushing up against that awfully close.
“I panicked,” Josh says, his words falling out onto the table like a brick.
“What?” Donna’s brain shorts out as she struggles to stitch it all together. “Why?”
Her waffles and his omelet and toast appear just then, breaking the bubble of tension, giving Donna some breathing room. The waitress eyes them with something that looks like suspicion when she refills their coffees but has the good sense to otherwise leave them alone.
As soon as she’s gone, Josh starts up again, leaning over his plate, his voice low and urgent. “I started to panic, I think, when you asked about my mom. Because it was nice of you. Because it made me happy—so happy, Donna—that you would ask about my mom on our vacation. It was thoughtful and… I liked it.” Josh is absently shredding the edge of the paper placemat, and his eyes flit between hers, back and forth like a tennis ball over a net. “I know I have this history of waiting until the last minute, so I just wanted you to… know. I liked that you were someone… who knew me well enough that you would ask. That you are that that person. And I started thinking…” He glances down. “That having you around on a regular basis, with me—it’s a nice feeling.”
Donna’s tilting off her axis, ready to slip out of her seat.
There’s a hint of a smile at the corners of his eyes when Josh pushes her plate closer. He’s certainly more at ease now, seems to at last understand that her mind is in chaos. “Eat your breakfast, Donnatella. It’s getting cold.”
Feeling a little dizzy, she picks up her fork and starts shoveling in her waffles, letting Josh continue. She’s still not entirely sure where he’s going with this but can count on her hands the number of times that he’s approached a rational discussion of emotions, and she’s not about to stop him.
He spreads a messy layer of jelly on a piece of toast, watching her. “And if I could be that happy with you all the time when I wasn’t working—spending twenty-four-seven worried about the education plan or polling data—then what the hell have I been doing all this time?”
The maple syrup glues Donna’s throat shut. She flashes back to all the time she spent at her desk, in meetings, on dates with other men, worrying about the ridicule and potential discipline they both might face if anything ever happened, but still unable to stop craving his attention and affection. Then, the misery she’d endured trying to prove a point, trying to keep Josh and work as separate entities. And now, this. Josh as something else entirely, a… what? What exactly is he trying to say?
“You being happy is what made you so moody after the fish tacos?”
Josh swallows hard, twirling his fork in the remnants of his omelet. “Yeah, sort of.”
Donna kicks his ankles underneath the table.
“Ow!” He looks back at her in amazement.
She can feel her face warming with temper. “You— You—” It takes a couple of tries for the words to come out. “You could have said something, instead of acting like a pouty teenager this whole time. You should’ve said something.”
“Well, you, you know… You make me nervous. I wasn’t sure how you would take it. Maybe you decided I wasn’t what you thought.”
Donna has to close her eyes at their collective stupidity and vaguely wonders how it is possible that they both stumbled across the same absurd thought. Hearing it said out loud makes it sound so incredibly idiotic. “Josh, I think by now I know what you’re really like.” She dips the corner of her napkin in her water glass, using it to clean the syrup from between her fingers, giving her something to do with her shaky hands. “You being happy makes me happy. I asked about your mom because I like her, and I think you should call her more than you do.”
He’s quiet for a moment, but a small smile tilts his mouth back up. Donna’s not sure if he’s reassured. She is, unquestionably, not. All this because he’s… happy.
“So, I had a meeting Ron Butterfield the other day.”
Donna rubs the bridge of her nose, feeling a headache building. “Josh—”
“Just hang on. I’m getting to the point. I swear.” He pulls her hand away from her face and settles it between the two of them, stroking down her palm. “Once the president-elect takes office, I’ll be getting a Secret Service detail.”
“Yes, Josh. I know. They searched me before they let me in at CJ’s.”
He shakes his head, perhaps disturbed by the thought of someone considering Donna a threat. “Right,” he says. “Right. Anyway, Ron said they’re going to set up in the empty one-bedroom next to mine.”
“And I was thinking…”
Donna nearly strains something trying not to roll her eyes at his cageyness, but he’s being sincere, and she doesn’t want to hurt his feelings or arouse that all too delicate sensation of self-consciousness.
“I was thinking if we—” He gestures between them, presuming she knows what that means. Donna keeps her face purposefully neutral, her pulse beginning to race. The threads of this disorderly confession are slowly starting to align. “If we’re together, then it might be nice for those guys if we were in the same place a lot of the time. You know? So they don’t have to set up two stations or go back and forth so much.”
Donna feels an expansion in her chest. Undercutting that, though, is a familiar strain of annoyance. She pulls her hand from his. “Joshua, are you trying to ask me to live with you by comparing us to a two-for-one sale at Macy’s and suggesting that it would be more convenient for the Secret Service that way?”
The waitress is back again, dropping off their bill, and definitely hears what they’re talking about. She directs a raised eyebrow at Josh.
He frowns and glances at her nametag. “Thanks, Patty. Great eggs today,” he says, obviously impatient to resume the conversation. When she doesn’t take the hint, Josh has to prompt her, his voice tight. “You can go, now.”
Patty huffs and stomps off.
He’s looking down at his lap when he speaks again. “I was trying to get through all the arguments before the question, so you wouldn’t be able to think of a reason to say no.” He fumbles with his mess of a wallet, pulling out a couple of bills, and finally looks up at her, something like shy anticipation in his eyes. “I just… Is that something you would want?”
It’s so sweet. Donna’s initial instinct is to jump across the booth and do terribly unladylike things to him, to say yes and smother him with kisses, but they are in public, and she has her limits. It’s more than she hoped for, far more, and, yet, there’s a lingering uncertainty between them that gives her pause. It’s the uncertainty that made Josh think he had to have arguments ready to convince her to move in. It’s the uncertainty that makes Donna believe he’s maybe not ready to have her permanently.
She thought, perhaps stupidly, now looking back on it, that the vacation had been his romantic declaration. Only… only, it was more complicated than that. Always complicated. Josh hadn’t thought it through, just reacted to Sam’s demands, and never mind what it all might mean. He’d caught on late and reacted… poorly. He’d panicked. He said so himself.
Perhaps it’s that her heart is now made out of tin foil—crumpled up so many times with disappointment that it’s been reduced to a hard lump in her chest—which keeps her from saying yes right away.
“I’m not saying no.”
Josh’s face falls, his eyes flinty and unreadable. “But.”
Donna folds her hands together and sits up, prim like she’s at a job interview, but it’s so… not that. “It finally occurs to you that you have significant relationship-type feelings for me…” Josh didn’t exactly say that, but Donna is reading between the lines, here. “Despite the fact that we’ve been having sex and you took me on vacation—you asked me, Josh, remember—and you panic? That’s your first reaction? And then, after behaving like a child for days, you ask me to move in with you? How am I supposed to have any confidence that you won’t panic again when your closet is suddenly half-full of my clothes? I’ve seen you with women before, Josh. If things don’t work the way we want them to, you’ll start hiding in your office, expecting me to what? Just disappear?”
Josh stiffens and glances around the diner to see if anyone heard. He doesn’t meet her eyes when he turns back, pinched and pale.
It’s an idle thought, but Donna thinks maybe, even subconsciously, this is why he asked in a diner… because he thought she might get upset and wanted to make sure she didn’t get too upset. That, she discovers, makes her sad down to her bones. Always a slick operator, her Josh.
She hates that she’s upset him, hates that they’ve hurt each other, but she’s got to have her say. All these years between them with half-spoken truths and light touches that promised more. It’s time to sort themselves out, for real. More than anything she’s hoped for before, she hopes that the next thing out of his mouth will convince her that he’s in this.
Josh rubs a hand through his hair and lets out a breath. “This is our second date,” he says, his lips barely moving.
Donna can only stare. “What?”
“You always said my relationships went off the rails on the second date.”
“Josh, I’m not saying no. I told you that.”
His head snaps up. “So, what do you want from me, then?”
It becomes clear to her with the simultaneous ding of the order-up bell. She hasn’t explained it to him, and he is confused. The one time she had been crystal clear—leaving him—she’d given him no context, no explanation. Not a real one, anyway. He thinks this is their second date, counting Hawaii as what? One long extended date? Even before that, lunches at The Pig, flowers for their anniversary, and that time he’d come to her apartment with an “I’m sorry” pizza… Retroactively, they’d been on many, many dates.
All that’s left to do is get on the same page. Easier said than done, of course.
Donna uses her feet to push herself solidly against the vinyl seat, disliking the sticky feeling on her jeans. “When we… in the hotel in Houston that first time— I’d been waiting for that for eight years, Josh. It wasn’t new for me.” It’s the scariest thing she’s ever said to another person. “I just want to know that I haven’t—” Donna’s voice breaks. She tries to cover it with a cough, but Josh notices, bending to be closer to her. “I want to know that I haven’t wasted all this time. That I won’t be disappointed. Because I will, Josh. If this doesn’t work? That’s the worst thing I can think of. Do you know what I mean?”
Her heart is pounding, blood rushing in her ears, but when she lifts her head, Josh is gazing at her like she’s the first spring day after winter. Warmth begins to churn underneath her ribs.
“I… didn’t know.” Josh says, leaning his mouth on a crumpled-up fist. “I’m so bad at this. But— I don’t want to be.”
Donna smiles thinly. She thinks it’s unlikely that he didn’t even suspect but files that away for later. “It’s not that you’re bad at it, I think.” She bites her lip. “But that thing you do where you decide to go for it on your own… You have to stop it, Josh. I thought you were mad at me!”
“I told you I wasn’t. I never was, Donna.”
“But I didn’t know that. I spent the last three days convinced that you were going to send me on my way when we got back. That you didn’t want me.”
The waitress, who for a while now has made herself miraculously scarce, returns with a steaming carafe of coffee and a revived sense of hospitality after her little tiff with Josh.
“Patty, get out of here.” Donna is the one who dismisses her this time, maintaining eye contact with Josh. “We’re having an important discussion.” She briefly registers that there is a dangerous glint in Patty’s eye and considers it the finest example of restraint she’s ever seen when coffee is not dumped directly in her lap.
Josh seems to recognize that it’s time to go. He pulls out some extra cash and drops it on the table, holding out his hands in a conciliatory gesture between the two women. “C’mon,” he says, grabbing Donna’s hand. “We should get out of here.”
Donna jams her hat back on, grabs her coat, and stomps out, Josh trailing behind. She makes it outside and takes a big gulp of cold air, exhaling in a gust. It’s all just— It’s just a lot.
Carefully pulling her coat from her hands, Josh helps her into it and zips it up. He doesn’t try to take her hand when they start walking, but his fingers are twitchy like he wants to. Hunching down into his coat collar, he says, “You can do whatever you want, Donna. I’m sorry. Really. I didn’t mean to keep you in the dark. I always…” He sighs, bringing his hands in and out of his pockets like he can’t decide what to do with them. “I always get to this point and I freeze up. I don’t know what to say or how—”
“Jesus Christ, Josh,” Donna snaps, her patience dissolving. “Would you just be quiet for a minute?” She waits for him to settle. She’d wait an hour, a week, eight years for him, but he needs to listen. “I don’t need you to say the right things, I just need you to say anything. I want to know that you’ll talk to me if there’s a problem. I want to know that you want this, that you’re invested in it, that you want me. Because… because I want you.” The last comes out barely more than a whisper.
The crosswalk signal has turned to the little walking man, but when Donna pulls on Josh’s sleeve to move, he’s rooted to his spot. Someone jostles her from behind, running to catch the light. Josh grabs the front of her coat to steady her and reels her in, kissing her deeply. Donna’s arms hang awkwardly at her sides because she’s so surprised.
Josh’s mouth is tight from the cold, but he’s enthusiastic as ever, barely letting her breathe. Their lips separate with a wet pop. “I do want you. Of course, I do, Donna,” he says, panting. “I’d be a crazy person if I said I didn’t, and a liar and all other kinds of stupid things.”
It’s like the sun’s come out. Like someone has filled Donna’s sails with enough air to cross the entire ocean. It’s big, expansive, this feeling. Winning-an-election big. Fireworks-on-the-Fourth-of-July big. She opens her mouth to speak, but Josh cuts her off with another kiss.
“Get a room!” someone shouts.
Donna directs her middle finger in their general direction, too occupied with Josh’s tongue in her mouth to accurately aim. Eventually, she has to pull away. They’re both steaming.
“Stay with me,” Josh blurts out, seemingly unable to help it, tugging on her elbow to cross the street. They’d missed the last light. He seems a little alarmed, now, like his pleading has to be done in a rush. “Please stay. Please. I’m sorry it took me so long to realize, and I’m sorry I panicked. That’s just…me.”
He’s been gesturing wildly, spiraling into a place that Donna didn’t want him to go. She slips her hand into his and he goes silent. The tips of his ears are turning pink, but Donna can’t tell if it’s because he’s embarrassed again or if it’s from the cold.
“I’m saying yes, but it’s a preliminary yes. If I’m going to give up a place of my own, I have to know that you’re in this with me, Josh. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. I’m not asking that of you. I never was. I’ll understand if you have to cancel dinner because the president needs you. I might have to do that myself, sometimes.”
“Okay. Good. Great.” Josh says it like he’s been relieved of every single one of his burdens. “I’m… I’m going to try really hard not to mess this up, to prove it to you. It’s— You matter a lot to me, Donna.”
She squeezes his hand. Josh squeezes back. “Okay, then.” Donna’s pretty sure they’re both wearing ridiculous smiles as they walk the rest of the way to his—their apartment. Her lips feel a little bit chapped and her nose is starting to freeze, but she really couldn’t care less. She’s light, walking on air. If Ernie the maintenance man hadn’t known they were together before, he sure would now. “We should go get some food,” she says, thinking of their meal prospects for the coming days.
“We just got done eating.”
“No. I mean home food.”
Josh skip-jumps a little, dragging Donna along, then stops her abruptly. “What brand of peanut butter do you like? If you eat crunchy peanut butter, then, I’m sorry, but this isn’t going to work.”
Donna laughs in his face, so, so happy.