Tell me about the others. Tell me all their names.
Sam feels as though he has been here before. He has, in the most literal sense. This particular bed is unfamiliar but the body that warms it is not and it hasn’t been that long, not really, it only seems so to Sam, who is incapable of counting every blank second, and wishing he was still back there. Before this body he remembers very little, understands less, but he tries. He tries to remember the names.
It is slow. It always is, for him, because great stretches of time pass between each discrete touch, between each episode of intimacy. He had been afraid, before, that Toby would give up on him, lose interest, decide that if Sam couldn’t ask, he was done demanding and coaxing and ambushing; too much work for too little reward. Because Toby’s fluency was never in doubt, and his great ability, his leaps of inspiration from pressure point to pressure point on Sam’s skin, drawing them together, making maps of different islands each time they did this, undid Sam’s confidence, such as it was. It’s intimidating to be with a guy who, when he has all his clothes on, is one of the most self-conscious you’ve ever met, and naked is some kind of sexual virtuoso. Sam is aware that he has blushed and stammered and over-compensated, and it’s still a little shameful to think about, even now.
But Toby never did give up. It still puzzles Sam, lying in bed with him, with his hands marking pieces, marking places, writing his graffiti on Sam’s walls.
He cannot think himself back into desire, he discovers. In the fallow times, when there is no one filling up the corners of his mind and the parts of his body that remember, every once in a while, how to want things, it seems alien to do so, to give up inviolability for the sake of a kiss he isn’t even sure he wants that much. It is easier to think about work and go to sleep chaste and wake up bothered by dimly thought-of things, existential things, rather than the possibility of seeing the shape of someone’s back, or hearing the echo of their voice.
When the seed has been planted he is nervous and clumsy, and come harvest he is starving again, having waited through the summer for the crop to grow. When it’s love, like it is now, it grows slowly, by stages, checking back every night and scaring off the crows that will pluck the seeds out. But he has never yet seen the crow that could unpick Toby Ziegler.
-- I fell in love with you. And then after that I wanted to fuck you.
-- Huh. You’re a weird person, you know that?
-- You’ve told me. Often.
-- Well, I just wanted you to be clear.
-- And it’s appreciated.
-- So tell me. I’m interested.
-- All of them?
-- Yeah. Tell me their names.
Brian, senior year of high school, falling in love because to do otherwise wasn’t an option. Being seventeen didn’t give you an option. But still twisting away from the points of contact, cutting the threads, the thin red threads, that joined their two bodies together, once or twice, in the spring of 19-whatever-it-was. Brian thought it was shame. Projecting. But he hadn’t been ashamed, just confused.
James, junior year of college. The English professor. The quiet hands. And he’s learnt it better now, understands what he wants better, understands that, sometimes, he does want it. Jimmy was older, and safer. Handsome, in a way that Toby would perhaps find eerily familiar. A version of his father who gave a damn whether he even existed. They used to fuck in Sam’s dorm room, in complete silence, always waiting for Sam’s roommate’s key to clang in the door.
No one, for a long time. For such a long time that he began to think that part of his life was over. At the time, this did not particularly trouble him.
Josh. After law school, colliding a couple of times inside the grey areas of the D.C. social digram. At the time they thought they were in love and they thought they would have to change, change everything, to fit the rest of their lives around that fact. Then they understood, somehow, that it would be them who changed, and then it all fell apart.
A guy in a bar, after Josh, after all that ended. No name. No face that he can remember. Sam gave him a blowjob. Afterwards he threw up in the street outside. But he slept that night, finally slept again.
Another guy, a week later. Same trick, same outcome, same deadened, black sleep.
About a month after that one of his friends set him up on a date with a nice girl they both knew, someone he was assured had had a crush on him for ages. They drink a lot and they laugh a lot and when they get to the bedroom Sam realises that he can’t do it, can’t get hard, can’t do anything. But she was a nice girl, so she didn’t hold it against him.
Lisa. But for people who were planning to get married they didn’t actually fuck that much, and with less enthusiasm than you would think. Now, she feels to him like a badly written episode of a TV show he no longer understands why he watched in the first place. He’s confident that he did love her, but he cannot remember why.
Laurie. Which was impulsive, and protective, and arrogant, and all those things felt powerful, and like things he needed to be, the kind of person he needed to be, at that moment, and that’s why he did it and even as he did he couldn’t believe he was going through with it.
Toby. From then, from before then (from the day you walked into the headquarters, with snow in your beard and words in your mouth, my name in your mouth, and I don’t believe in love at first sight but that’s what it must have been, must have), it was always Toby. And longing can make people do the kind of things that make no sense.
Another nameless guy. In New York, that time, somewhere far enough away from home. Less throwing up this time.
One in, where? Colorado, he thinks, a rare vacation. Everyone thought he’d gone out on the boat; he was in a dive bar with his arm around this guy’s waist. When he was younger, it was easy -- easy to start, anyway. He had (has) no instinct for it -- for this, for this set of rituals, jealously guarded -- but even he can feel the room change as he walks into the middle of it. They peal towards him, sighing out appreciation like dumbed bells. And it scares him, it always did. He is aware he is doing it (oh god yeah right there oh yeah baby fuck me bend over bitch oh yeah fuck yeah) to fall down a hole in his own mind: somewhere black where he can be bruised and shamed and alone. Every cock in his mouth takes him further away; every dick up his ass quietens whatever it is that wants to make itself heard. And, after a year at the White House in which he has not slept more than four hours a night, he sleeps a whole day through, peaceful.
-- So what you’re trying to say is that you’re deeply screwed up.
-- Thanks a lot, Toby.
-- No, I kinda like it.
-- Oh fuck you.
-- It … it isn’t something … I don’t …
-- Yeah. I know.
-- I know.
-- It’s just … just how I am, I guess.
-- Like I said: screwed up.
What it never occurs to him to ask is: then why are you here? What in the hell are you doing here?
Sometimes it’s like he will disappear completely inside the confines of Toby’s larger, more real, more honest body. The red threads that have bound them together have grown, knitted like rope around Sam’s knees and Toby’s wrists, and when they are together it is hard to remember, sometimes, what he thinks about things, what his opinions are, what his boundaries are, what he would still refuse to do, even if it was Toby asking him.
Sometimes Sam wonders what it would have been like to love him and to stay away. Then he tells himself that he already knows: he spent four years like that, caught up in Toby’s orbit, unable to get away or to get any closer.
It was the first time he’d been in love with someone he knew -- knew -- was completely straight, not open to experimentation, not even a little bit curious. And it was the first time he’d been in love with someone who was in love with someone else. He supposed, in his lucid moments, that, really, to have got to thirty-two before experiencing that particular milestone made him pretty lucky.
In a way he found it liberating to watch and listen and smell the smell of him on his own clothes when he took them off at the end of the day. Not to have to touch, not to need to get into that whole thing. It was good to impose some distance on his heart, keep all the atoms of his love affair bundled around the body of his boss on the other side of the room, nothing to do with him, not really. It ought to have hurt less, that way, but it didn’t.
You came to me and you said something, I can’t remember what it was, exactly, but it amounted to: I know you’re not coming back, and the subtext, in your eyes, in the way your hand lingered as it pulled your tie straight down your chest was, and I know why, too.
I cried the night that you told us you were going to be a father. I didn’t even know why, I think. I just realised, while I was taking off my shirt in that bedroom that little hotel that smelt of damp and ambition, that my face was wet, that I couldn’t see. I think I thought I was, I don’t know, having a stroke or something, maybe the crab puffs had been a really bad idea that night. I sat on the side of the bed and tried to work it out -- some guys drink, I said to myself, and some guys play poker or pool, and C.J. does that thing where she watches whatever the popular movie of the moment is and picks it apart mercilessly, so maybe your way of releasing stress has become to leak a little from the eyes. Maybe it’s just that. It’s a stressful time. When is it not a stressful time? Don’t freak out. And usually I’m not very good at lying to myself, but I did pretty well that night. I just cried, because it seemed like I needed to. In retrospect, I’m not sure it helped that much.
I didn’t see you for a month, after the thing, after I left. And the first time I saw you again, the first night, bailing you out of jail, after we’d counted up and remonstrated and called home and said, yeah, we’re fine. After all that, you kissed me.
I wondered, at the time, whether it was the contrast between the two of us that was confusing you: what you got from Andy and what you got from me: a chase, studied disinterest, a soft body, two children, or, a desperate longing, a protege, a body you didn’t understand, and some kind of muddy legacy. Red hair and dark hair. A woman and a man. A big house in Maryland, or a peripatetic wandering around America, looking for somewhere it could work.
Maybe you just wanted someone who would agree to kiss you, someone you didn’t have to work for. And, boy, you knew where to come. I don’t know, and I won’t ever ask.
One week of twenty hour days and motel rooms across the hall from each other. I didn’t even need the damn room, but I took one anyway. And about half-past ten every night, you’d knock on the door and I’d let you in and you’d kiss me again and then you’d start, you’d start to eat me up, just like a fairytale ogre. I don’t remember (I probably blocked it out -- why ask the awkward questions when you’re getting what you want?) whether I minded being a bulwark for you to break your frustration against. I suppose I didn’t. Or not enough. It felt like you were trying to break me apart, into my constituent elements, into my atoms. You didn’t want me to stay standing, you didn’t want me to stay silent. You wanted the question, and I wasn’t going to ask it. I liked being broken. I could close my eyes while you were fucking me and imagine myself disintegrating against your body, in a cloud of dust and blood. It was peaceful, in a way.
I didn’t see you again for years. I don’t think I even called you. I thought about you every day, though, until it made me sick.
When I saw the President on the news and heard in say your name like that, I thought I’d call. I thought I’d offer this time, and maybe I wouldn’t even take no for an answer. I didn’t expect it to work.
These are the things I won’t ever tell you. You already know them all.