To The Beach House: No Longer Brothers In Arms
". . . it was not knowledge but unity that she desired, not inscriptions on tablets, nothing that could be written in any language known to men, but intimacy itself. . ."
from To The Lighthouse (Virginia Woolf)
A few months after the Inauguration, Sam inherits a beach house.
Fine. Not as much inherits as… buys.
What happens is that he's standing in the cereal aisle of the Safeway's on Wisconsin, wondering if Apple Jacks are really that unhealthy when a woman, bending over a screaming baby and looking incredibly harassed, looses control of her shopping cart and rams it into his knees with the force of a small truck running into a brick wall.
He looks up, face screwed up in an attempt to look manly when it feels like he's just been stepped on by an elephant, and finds himself face-to-face with none other than Mallory, who blushes furiously, the hand not keeping a firm grip on the baby she's balancing on her hip planted over her mouth, trying in vain to stop wayward giggles from escaping.
"Hi," Sam says, rubbing his knees. He doesn't think he's seen her since the night President Bartlet won reelection, a lifetime ago.
"Oh, jeez," Mallory mutters. "Hey, Sam. Sorry about…"
"I'm okay," he assures, grimacing and trying to look brave. "Who's your friend?" He adds, grinning at the red-faced baby on her hip.
"Say hi, babe," Mallory tells her squirming son, holding him up. "This is Ethan," she introduces.
"Looks like you," Sam says, partly because the little boy does share his mother's shock of red hair, and partly because he doesn't know what else to say. "How have you been, otherwise?"
Mallory grins. "Engaged, married, pregnant, breast-feeding, weaning, and not sleeping." She presses a kiss on Ethan's head. "But that's how it should be."
Sam laughs, and because it's raining and he doesn't feel like carrying his groceries through half of Georgetown in this kind of weather, he invites her for some coffee and cookies at the Firehook Bakery next door. To his amazement she accepts, and they play catch-up for awhile. He slurps his lemonade and nibbles his peanut butter cookie as he listens to her revel in the joys of motherhood and complain about DC public schools, the weather, DC public schools, her teething baby, DC public schools, her husband's impossible schedule as a pediatric surgeon at Georgetown Hospital, DC public schools, and, finally, the trouble she's been having with her family's beach house on the Delaware shore that she apparently inherited from her father.
"… and the agency that used to rent out just went broke, and how I've got a 4-bedroom beach house in Delaware on my hands," she reports, glumly staring onto the wet parking lot outside.
"You could sell it," Sam points out, moving his plate just seconds before baby Ethan can make a grab for his cookie.
"I could," she sighs. "I haven't been up there since the summer after I graduated from Hopkins, and I don't think my parents ever went without me." She rubs her face. "Dad loved that place. He liked that he had it, even though he hardly ever had time to go, he was always talking about taking sailing lessons and having a big barbeque or whatever, and even though you knew it was never going to happen, you couldn't help but listen." She shrugs, draining her cappuccino, a fleck of milk foam sticking to her upper lip. "I wish I could sell it to someone who knew Dad, and who'd let me come visit once in awhile."
Sam stares at the ice cubes melting in his lemonade, thinking wryly: Oh, I am fortune's fool! "I'd let you visit," he says, unable to help himself. "How much are you selling it for?"
Mallory chokes on the last piece of her cheesecake. "Seriously?"
Sam shrugs. "Yeah."
And so it happens. They drive the two hours to Lewes the following Saturday, and Sam falls in love.
With the house. Obviously. It's a wooden beach house, grayed and frayed from summer sun and winter storms, with a muddy patch of garden and a hedge of wild roses surrounding it. There's an aged fan creaking overhead, and screen doors, and a basketball hoop dangling precariously from one of the walls. The rooms are spacious and furnaced like they would be, lots of wood and quilted bedspreads, and the effect is immediately welcoming and intensely familiar. There's a kitchen with a large table and a prehistoric fridge, and the ocean, large and gray, smattered with white flecks of foam and gulls crying overhead as they circle the sandy beach just a few steps from the wooden porch that looks perfect for long conversations.
"I love it," he tells Mallory. He's made more money during his time with Rubinstein, Gaylord and Finch than he'll ever know what to do with, and buying this house feels more seriously right than any other impulse buy he's ever made.
He comes home late on Saturday night, eyes gleaming and cheeks still red from the cold, strong Atlantic wind, and tells his fiancé he's sorry he didn't spend the day with her, but he's got a huge surprise, he was with an old friend and saw a house and fell in love, and, well, they've got a house on a beach now, isn't it great?
The problem is, Kenley misses the part about it being the house he's in love with, and also misses the part about it being great. Granted, it's been hard for her, the DC streets so obviously lined with women that would have been perfect for Sam Seaborn way back when, Ainsley Hayes, who's back in the White House and still as blonde, leggy and insane as ever; Laurie the call girl whom people still whisper about, and now Mallory. She's had enough, she tells him, throwing a coffee mug at him mostly for comic effect -though he ducks, and he's glad he did because it smashes and leaves an ugly beige stain on the pristine kitchen wall- and slamming the door behind her.
By Sunday night, all he's received is a dignified call asking him to be out of the apartment tomorrow at nine so she can pick up her stuff, and by the following week, it's clear to him that he's screwed up another engagement, and so, fabulous Kenley with all her LA money, exits the DC stage without much fuss.
Now that he's single again, he spends most of his free time -not that he has a lot of it- fixing up the beach house. He's quickly decided to throw a big party on Memorial Day weekend, and by then, a new fridge needs to be bought, Internet access installed, he needs a decent barbeque and new beach umbrellas and towels and the basketball basket needs to be fixed.
The problem is that none of the others seem to be as enthusiastic about the whole affair as he is. When he asks Donna if she and Josh want to come up to see the place while the President's spending the weekend in Houston, she says maybe, but Josh looks away and mutters something about not exactly having copious amounts of free time and wanting to spend it with his girlfriend, plus it's too goddamn cold anyway. When he calls CJ to make sure she's coming on Memorial Day, she evades him as well with an "Oh, I don't know if we'll be back from Ghana, can we just play it by ear?" that he finds profoundly disturbing. That night, over beers and a half-hearted poker game, he and Josh go through a few rounds scoffing at CJ's new jet-setting-turned-philantropic-play-it-by-ear lifestyle until Charlie, shuts them both up by telling them that CJ's worked harder than either of them in the past three years, and nobody deserves to live it up a little more. Sam and Josh look at each other sheepishly and don't say anything for awhile.
Charlie, incidentally, is excited about the house, and, Sam suspects, for motivations similar to his own. They don't talk about it, but he does drive up with him a couple of times to help him paint the porch, and they sit on the beach with two bottles of beer later, and Sam gives him advice on which classes to take, and Charlie pretends to listen.
Of course, neither of them really knows what their motivation might be, but a night in early May makes Sam able to put his finger on it. It's a Wednesday night, late but not too late, and he's just finished his last meeting for the day and read the last briefing memo he can stomach. He wanders over to Josh's office, hoping they can maybe grab a beer and find the time in the every-day madness to dream big, and he's stunned to hear a gaggle of voices filtering out of the Chief of Staff's half-closed office door. He pushes it open, and regards the scene in front of him. Helen Santos and Donna are sitting on one of the couches, each balancing a glass of wine in their hands and laughing conspiratorially at something. Peter Santos is curled up on the floor next to them, leaning against his Mom's knee and halfway through Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Josh and the President have their backs to him- Josh is sitting in his desk chair, feet propped up on the desk and throwing his hands wide in an argument, while President Santos is laughing heartily and shaking his head.
"Hey, Sam," a voice says below him, and Sam nearly steps on Miranda, who's lying at his feet drawing a picture of George Washington crossing the Delaware, crayons spilled around her like sprinkles on a birthday cake.
Everyone looks up. "Sam!," Donna calls out immediately, "Come help me convince this one here that she can't give a speech to the UN Security Council!" He laughs and wanders over to them, not really bothering to look at Josh and the President, knowing he'll see a picture of unity with no room for him in it. He chats with Donna and Mrs. Santos for awhile and then Peter asks him what a word means, and when he's done explaining that, they've moved on to discussing something that thoroughly confuses him. He sits there for a while feeling stupid, then wanders over to Josh and the President.
Josh interrupts himself mid-sentence, offers him a beer and clearly changes the conversation topic just so he can join in, and the whole thing is so awkward that after five minutes, he drains his beer, cites a headache, and leaves.
On the walk home, he thinks about families.
He's used to being the baby of every family he's ever been part of, used to being the little one that has to work twice as hard to get taken seriously by the big kids, the one that can still get away with daydreaming and believing in birthday wishes coming true, the one that doesn't have to have it together yet. At home, his sister graduated from college a year after he started high school, and he's got cousins that were married with kids on the way before he got his driver's license. Most of his friends in college were older, people he'd met through Debate or Model UN, some of them Grad Students who thought it was entertaining to hang out with this blue-eyed sophomore. And later, at the White House during the Bartlet years, which always feels the way family should to him, though a much more fleeting idea of it, he was the baby again. The little brother who bothered Toby, played pranks with Josh, and basked in the glow of CJ's myriad of embarrassing nicknames for him. He loved it, loved getting away with stuff because CJ would shrug and Toby would blink at him in an, Ah, youth kind of way that allowed him to get away with sentences that started with "We should be…" and "Oratory should raise your heart rate".
And now? Sam moodily kicks a pebble down H Street, watches it clamor and clangor as it falls into one of the gutters. Sure, he was left, back then, to win an election and do the right thing, and though that never worked out, he never would have thought that his leaving would mean the muffled disintegration of that fleeting family of co-workers and friends, He can't help feeling personally responsible, for leaving, for making more money than he could ever really need, for buying a house on the beach and flirting with Kenley in the California sun while his brothers in arms, his gangly big sister, his fathers battled Zoey's kidnapping, and the attacks in Gaza -he remembers himself gripping the edges of his chair very tightly that day, his knuckles taught and shining as he thought, simultaneously, Please, not Donna, and My God, Josh- and peace brokering in the Middle East, and then the most fought-over primary campaign in the history of the Democratic Party.
It shocked him, when he finally heard that Donna'd quit, Josh had left the White House, Charlie had graduated. It shocked him, to find that life went on without him.
But, he realizes, as another pebble scuttles down an empty sidewalk, gets lost in one of the bushes in front of one of the GW Law buildings, that's how families work. While he was chairing the Princeton Gilbert and Sullivan Society, his sister got engaged, and he wasn't even paying attention. Life happens. But the thing about families is, you never stop caring, and when it matters, you show up.
He remembers his hour-long phone conversations with Toby the previous fall, discussing everything from constitutional law to whether he should propose to Kenley to whether Santos was going to win and Josh and Donna were sleeping together yet, and studiously ignoring the elephant named "prison" looming on the horizon. He remembers Josh, flying out to see him, a silent plea of I've just lost Leo, and I can't do this alone.
There it is, Sam thinks, unlocking his front door. Even when they've got new friends you get to do couple-y things with, or a new life at a jetsetting Mother Theresa- they'll never stop being his family. Because they know what it was like, scrambling for something to believe in during those early days in New Hampshire, standing in the middle of a tropical storm, the words "And I'm gonna win" still ringing in your ears. They know what it was like, the dark days and the light, playing poker in Leo's office on Friday night, standing vigil by Josh's bed after Roselyn. These things are so much stronger than momentary feelings of insult or misplacement.
Sam shrugs off his coat and nods to his reflection in the dark mirror, satisfied. He glances at his to-do list for the beach house, and circles the basketball hoop, twice.
Memorial Day comes, and Sam remembers why he was so sure about this in the first place. They never did stop caring, and they're all here. CJ and Danny, CJ in a raw-silk empire-waisted top that may or may not be hiding a growing bump of her stomach, looking loose and radiant and gorgeous, and Danny, looking happy because she is and she's his, and there are so many bad metaphors he could build right now, about moons and suns, about orbiting and reflecting glow, but instead, he just beams at them and takes a swig of beer.
There's Josh and Toby, playing basketball and not saying much. There was a touch -more than a touch, actually- of awkwardness in the way they addressed each other when Toby came up the porch, and Sam realized they haven't spoken in what must be months. He watched Toby's solemn nod, Josh's anxious smile, and then, tension broken for the moment as Huck clambered up the stairs behind his father, took one gasping look at the ocean and burst out, "Oh, I love nature!"
Sam watches the twins build a sand Mount Rushmore on the beach, Molly taking a break to allow Donna to French braid her unruly dark hair as Huck carefully molds a nose for George Washington out of mud and water, Charlie bending over to instruct and help out.
Later that day, he chases CJ through the brilliantly blue ocean, tries to dunk her, reliving a childhood it doesn't really matter they never had together. She gasps and laughs, and later, digs her toes in the sand and glances at Danny fixing Huck's kite and admit with a bashful grin that makes his heart soar, "I didn't think I could be this kind of happy," and he just hugs her, wordlessly, and can't think of anyone that deserves this more than she does. He watches Josh and Toby play basketball for hours, silently, until the familiar action of the game and the strong, salt-smelling wind have cleared the air for them, blown the need to talk away with the same gust that, unfortunately, took Huck's kite. He watches Donna do cartwheels in the fine warm sand, Molly looking definitely impressed. He watches Josh pick grains of sand out of her hair as he hands her a sandwich, and press a kiss on her lips just because he can. He watches Toby and CJ's cautious interactions with each other, not hostile but circumspect, like there's an elephant in the room only the two of them are noticing, and he realizes that maybe not everything has to be cleared up this weekend.
Sam watches. He plays basketball and orders pizza, argues with Toby and tells stories for the twins, he takes a long walk with Donna to, finally, squeeze out of her how she and Josh finally happened, but mainly, he watches. He drinks them in. The smiles and the camaraderie -forced, sometimes, certainly not as easy as it once was- the roles they all so easily step back into. He hadn't realized how much he'd missed this- easy arguments, witty remarks, something incredibly light but charged with meaning, well, everything, to him. And something more- just them. How they are. Their personalities, their sheer presence here today. CJ's perfume lingering in the room, Donna's smile and the way it lights up everybody's face (and especially Josh's), Toby's mumbling that never stops being true, Charlie's dry observations and his defiant fidelity. Sam drinks it in- for him, but mostly, for those that can't, anymore. President Bartlet, in the throws of another MS attack, quite as bad as the one in China, frustrated and sullen, Abbey had said on the phone. And Leo, whose absence is sticking out like several sore thumbs, but who seems almost present, during this weekend, roaming the house where he was happy with Mallory and Jenny so long ago, watching them. Look at us, Sam prays in grateful, wide-eyed wonder, lying in the sand, blinking up at the sun, laughter and arguing ringing in his ears. Just look at us all.
The weekend passes, lazy, glorious, sometimes awkward, forced moments, where the fact that they've all been growing, and sometimes apart more then anything else, are made painfully obvious. Josh and Sam get calls from the State Department on Saturday afternoon about a bomb threat in Singapore, and can't tell Toby and CJ about it, and there sidelong glances and heavy silence suddenly threaten to overwhelm them. Saturday night, CJ and Danny get into a whispered fight about something or other, and everyone else tries to not look or feel terrified that whatever it is that these two have found and built in the past few months really might be too good to be true. Sam and Donna are leaning against the porch railing with a beer bottle, pretending to look over the ocean but really watching with interest as a rueful looking Danny approaches CJ's gangly figure, looking almost black against the backdrop of the setting sun. As the two walk back to the hose a few minutes later, their shadows eerily elongated in front of them and shyly holding hands as CJ throws her head back in laughter, Donna lets out a low breath of relief.
By Sunday night, they all have sand in their shoes and clothing. It's late and they're sitting on the porch that Sam pictured as perfect for long, expansive conversations, and all that's left is a comfortable lull in the conversation. Waves crashing, mosquitos buzzing. Donna has a mild case of sunburn on her nose. Josh looks jittery and longing to get back to White House, preferably now. Toby's swatting mosquitos, Molly asleep on his lap, exhausted from so much sun and grown-ups playing with her, while Huck's curled up in his own chair, his tiny fist clenched, eyelids fluttering. The rest, as they say, is silence.
Sam breaks it, for a moment. Raises his beer bottle and thanks them al for coming, tells them how much it means to him that they're all still here, as well and whole as any of them could have hoped to be. Finally, he offers his explanation for doing this. For buying this house from Mallory, fixing it up, and forcing them all up here on this weekend in May, insisting it had to be this weekend, and it had to be them.
"I just thought- every family needs a home," he says, shrugging and smiling as Donna impatiently wipes her eyes, CJ beams at him, fingers interlaced with Danny's, Josh looks sheepishly pleased, Charlie nods solemnly, and Toby places a kiss on his sleeping daughter's head, eyes suddenly downcast. "And I hope this can maybe be ours."
"Hear, hear." Toby's voice breaks the silence, then the others echo his call. Beer bottles and wine glasses clink in the night, fill the still chilly, still early summer, heavily salt-scented air, with the hum of a promise they won't break.
Sam glances up at the stars. Look at us.