Josh sat on the bed in his darkened hotel room and stared at nothing, trying not to relive the last five minutes in his mind. He was a career politician, he had endured difficult social moments before, many of which he had caused himself. But he'd never before felt such excruciating awkwardness with someone whose presence had once been an automatic in his life. For the better part of a decade he'd barely have registered Donna's presence in the elevator, because he'd have just assumed she would be there, usually with his bags, always with some kind of commentary on the hotel they were staying at. Donna loved reading the hotel amenity books, cataloging all the features they would never find time to use. She'd have been passing him notes about the ad buy, and probably teasing him for trying to use his cell phone in the elevator at all.
She'd have unlocked his door for him with a snarky quip, just like she did, but then she'd have followed him in to steal his little soaps and make sure he didn't forget to take the top cover off the bed. Donna had a particular horror of those things after a television special she'd watched once, and she was sure that Josh would get a terrible disease by so much as laying on one. She'd have supervised him hanging up his suits, probably told him he was doing it all wrong, and adjusted everything to her satisfaction. She'd have reminded him to set his wakeup call and breezed out again, leaving his room smelling familiar and homey because it smelled like her perfume. She definitely would've turned on the light so he wouldn't be sitting here in the dark on the dangerous top cover, breathing in the antiseptic smell of midwestern hotel room and wondering what the hell had happened.
He leapt to his feet, keycard still in his hand, and barged back into the hallway, crossing the scant few feet of space with determined strides and raising his fist. He paused with it inches away from Donna's door, poised to knock. What was he going to say? 'Why did you leave me?' 'What the hell were you thinking?' 'How could you possibly be seriously campaigning for Bingo Bob?' None of those conversational gambits seemed even a little fruitful. He wasn't even wholly sure he wanted to know. But how long could he go on this way, feeling torn in half whenever she was nearby? Even his romantic breakups had never been as bad as this. Those had been easy by comparison. Both parties had been ready to move on, nobody had been left feeling like something was left unsaid or undone. There was closure.
He curled his hand once more and rapped on the door, hard. He could hear soft footsteps on the other side, count the seconds of hesitation that were her looking through the peephole. That was good, Donna was too trusting for her own good most of the time. He wondered if part of her hesitation was deciding if she would open the door at all. But the chain slid back and the door opened, and there she was, looking tired and rumpled, with her layers of cold-weather gear stripped away and her blond hair crackling with static from the dry air. He saw her look at him with speculation and caution, saw her relax slightly and smile as she noticed the key in his hand. “Did you lock yourself out?”
“No,” he said, shoving the card into his pocket, “or not yet anyway. I need closure.”
“What?” she asked, staring at him.
“Look, can I come inside?” he asked impatiently. Standing and having an after-midnight conversation with a member of the opposition in the hotel hallway was not something he wanted to have to justify to any onlookers.
Donna looked ambivalent, but stood aside to allow him into the room. Donna obviously hadn't given up her hotel room during her sojourn in South Carolina, so her room was already lived-in. He spotted her favorite green blanket spread out on the bed and could smell the air freshener she liked. It was a bright, warm room that seemed bizarrely at odds with the cool, reserved woman who studied him as the door closed. “It's very late,” she observed neutrally.
“Barely midnight,” Josh countered, running his hands up and down his arms as though that would warm him up. His phone rang in his pocket; he'd forgotten about Stewart and the ad buy. He silenced it without looking. “You didn't used to blink at late nights on the campaign trail.”
“I was twenty-four,” she pointed out dryly. “And I have a wake-up call set in just under four hours. What do you mean about closure?”
“I mean closure!” he insisted, his voice rising slightly in pitch and volume. “I mean knowing what the hell you were thinking, quitting without notice in the middle of a national crisis, I mean having some faint, nebulous concept of how you could possibly have decided that working for Bingo Bob was better than a career in the White House! I mean hearing from you why you never even bothered to say goodbye besides leaving your phone number with the temp! I think you owe me that much!”
Her eyes sparked but she didn't engage, just stared at him levelly while his words echoed into the silence and his righteous indignation began to sound vaguely foolish. He'd have thought her barely affected until he noticed her hands were clenched into white-knuckled fists.
When Donna spoke, her words were barely above a whisper, but he'd known her long enough to hear the scream of rage in them. “I made eight appointments with you, Josh. I begged for a scrap of your attention so that I could talk things over with you because for some godforsaken reason I valued your advice and I wanted your approval. Maybe I wanted to feel like after eight years of making my life all about you and your needs, I was worth twenty minutes of your undivided attention. I didn't have a career in the White House, I had a job, and I was good at my job, and me doing my job helped you and your career, but that didn't give you the right to ignore me and belittle me and make fun of me whenever I wanted to do something more. Even on the day I quit I tried to talk to you, I gave you my pathetic little speech about what an honor it had been to work with you and how I appreciated it, but you shut me down and walked away and that was the extent of your goodbye to me, so fuck your closure.” She spun on her heel and if this hadn't been her hotel room, she'd have definitely slammed out the door, but as it was, she gave him her back and stared out the window. “Oh, and I didn't have to give notice. The only vacation time I took in six years was after Rosslyn and after Gaza. I traded it in lieu of notice.”
Josh stared at her back and couldn't think of what to say. He had arguments, good arguments. He was a politician, for god's sake, he could argue about anything at a moment's notice. But he'd never seen her so angry or frustrated before, and he'd certainly never seen it directed at him with such quiet vitriol. How long had she hated working for him? What portion of the Josh and Donna show was performed with her just acting a part? He finally found his voice, more out of gut-level habit than anything else. “It was the White House, Donna. We had an asteroid hurtling down on us, the President was in the middle of the worst MS flareup of his career, half the senior staff was in China on a trip I was supposed to have been in charge of! I didn't have time for lunch meetings for anybody while I was busy trying to hold the administration together, and I'm sorry if that hurt your feelings!”
She didn't turn around, but he could see her subtle flinch. It should've been satisfying, a palpable hit, but it made him feel vaguely ill instead. “It was the White House, Josh,” she parroted back softly, gripping her own elbows and keeping her attention focused on the window. “There was always another crisis coming along, always another excuse. I don't believe you didn't see it coming a mile away. After I came back to work, for awhile I was sure you wanted me to quit. In Germany I thought we were...” She trailed off, picked up again. “You were my best friend and after I came back you barely looked at me anymore. People asked how I was doing and if I was feeling all right, but you treated me like the help.”
“But you were-” he began automatically, his mouth in defensive-banter mode and moving before his brain.
She cut him off with a wave of her hand. “If you finish that sentence, we are done permanently,” she warned in the same soft voice.
“I'm sorry,” he murmured.
“Coming back to the White House at all was so hard, but it was the one thing I knew how to do. I didn't want to be a movie of the week or go on talk shows to pretend like I'd done something braver and more meaningful than not dying in an explosion that killed four good men.” He could see her face now in the reflection from the window, her eyes as empty as her voice as she stared into the snowy dark. “I didn't understand why I was alive when they all died. I mean, I read the reports and heard what they told me. I was on the lucky side of the car, in the backseat, I weighed less so my neck didn't snap, the way the car was crumpled kept enough pressure on my femoral artery that I didn't bleed to death.”
Josh wasn't sure he could listen to any more facts like that, not in that detached and clinical whisper. “Donna...”
“You want closure, Josh, but I haven't got any to give you,” she told him, her voice harsh but still barely conversational volume. “I haven't even got enough for myself. It feels like there's a part of me that's always going to be sitting in the backseat of that car, and you're probably the one person I really trusted who could maybe understand how I feel, but you were more interested in forbidding my imaginary dates and making sure I was keeping track of your luggage. Kate Harper pushed me into counseling and it helped, but it's not the sort of thing that just goes away. It did help me realize that I was never going to be to you what you were to me, and that my expectations for you were unreasonable. So I was hurt, and I was angry, and I was frustrated. I wanted to find a way to fix things somehow, but there was no way to do that when you wouldn't even talk to me. So I left.” She shrugged and lifted her eyes so they met his in the window. “That's all I've got.”
Josh could feel the silence crushing his chest as he stood and stared at her, five feet and a thousand miles away. There were a million thoughts in his head, but not a single one of them would consent to be tied down and arranged into a coherent sentence. Of course she'd had post-traumatic stress, of course she had needed help, how could he not have noticed? The physical injuries had been obvious, but she'd been so insistent on doing things herself that he'd quickly taken a very hands-off approach, maybe too far in the other direction. He thought about earlier, when the scene in the elevator had seemed so strange because he was hyperaware of someone he'd gotten used to taking for granted. He thought about the Christmas where she'd planned to use her vacation time, then canceled at the last minute so she could talk to Leo and Stanley and make sure Josh didn't do anything dangerous to himself. The image flashed across his mind of Donna sitting alone in her tiny apartment this past Christmas with a drink and wishing for anything to make the noises and images stop, but it was too unbearable for his mind to hold on to.
“Donna, god...” he rasped, running a hand over his face and up into his hair. “I'm sorry... I should've realized. If anybody noticed, it should've been me. Are you... are you okay?” he ventured, not sure he had the right to ask.
“More good days than bad,” she told him, feigned casualness covering whatever real emotion was under there. “My Stanley's name is Elizabeth, but she does a good job and she's willing to do phone consultations.” She smiled humorlessly. “The Russell campaign pays health benefits, so I can pay for her and the physical therapist, too, whenever we're back in DC.”
“Yeah,” he agreed hollowly, with no idea what to say. “Santos for President hasn't quite got all that nailed down yet.”
“You should do something about that,” she told him soberly. “When's the last time you saw your doctor?”
“I've been a little busy.” He vacillated between his usual defensiveness and a warmth that she still cared enough to ask. “I'll probably go next time we're in DC for a few days. I'm overdue.”
“That's good.” Her smile was thin, but a little more real this time. “It's late, and we have to be awake in three and a half hours,” she reminded him. “You should probably go to bed.”
“I don't want to- I can't leave things like this,” he told her honestly. “You're going to tell me all this and send me off to bed?”
“It's late,” she repeated, “but that's just tonight. There's still tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow,” he agreed, feeling his stomach unknot a little bit. “I'll come find you tomorrow, and we'll talk. I'll buy you food.”
“That sounds good,” she agreed, finally turning to actually look at him.
He began to move towards the door, then paused. “Donna, what did you mean by you were never going to be to me what I am to you?”
She looked down quickly, then back up. “Tomorrow, Josh. Goodnight.”
“Goodnight,” he agreed, and left quietly. His keycard went in on the first try, but the room was still dark and cold. He set the wakeup call and laid down, but it took a long time to fall asleep.