Part 6 of 6
Abbey and Josh sat in silence for a few minutes. Then she unfolded her legs and stood up. "Stay there, Josh. I'll be back in a minute." She left the room and headed for the telephone in her kitchen. Josh closed his eyes again. The warmth from the fire felt good; he was always cold these days. It wasn't long before he was asleep again.
Abbey came back a few minutes later, sat down in the same chair she'd occupied before, and watched him sleep. Such a fine man, she thought. Such a remarkable one. And she knew remarkable men; she was married to one. Josh was different from Jed in many ways, but he was very like him in some. Not quite as intellectually brilliant, to be sure, but brilliant enough. Brash, arrogant at times, thoroughly irritating—Josh, like Jed at his age, had all those qualities in spades; they came with the territory when a man was that intelligent. Josh annoyed the hell out of her more often than not, but there was a boyishness about him that she had always responded to—that grin was irresistible—and a sweetness that tugged at her heart. Mother of three girls, she had always had a soft spot for the boys she'd never had, and Josh had come to seem like a son to her. She knew Jed saw him that way, as did Leo. She sighed; how was it possible for two highly intelligent men to care so much about a younger man and yet be so blind to his quite obvious needs? And Josh wasn't capable of looking after his needs himself; he was entirely too immersed in his job, too devoted to it. To Leo. To Jed. To the whole idea of fixing the world, of making a difference in it.
There was a tap on the door. She got up and opened it; one of the night staff was holding a tray with covered dishes on it. She thanked him, took it, and brought it to the table beside the chair Josh was sleeping in. Then she touched him gently on the shoulder. He sighed without waking, turned his head towards her, and rolled his shoulder closer against her hand, as if human touch was something his body craved. She squeezed his shoulder gently and held her hand there for a minute, then patted him lightly until his eyes opened. "Sit up slowly this time, Josh," she ordered. "Mrs. Bartlet? I'm sorry; I didn't mean to fall asleep again." "You need it. I'm going to make sure you get a lot more sleep very soon, too. But first I want you to eat something."
Josh sat up and shook his head to clear it. "Eat? I don't really think I—" "Yes, Josh, eat. I want you to try. If that crap you described is the sort of thing you keep in your fridge, it's no wonder you haven't been able to keep much down. And skipping meals sucks for your ulcers, as well as for the rest of you. I've had the kitchen send up some of Manuel's matzah-ball soup. It's very low sodium and very delicious; Zoe and I both love it, which is why he always has some in the freezer. If it does come up there's a bowl here, but I think you might be able to manage this."
She had taken the cover off the soup bowl while she was talking. Josh breathed in the scent of his childhood, and reached for it without any more argument. Abbey put the tray on his knees and watched his face when he tasted the soup. He broke into a tired grin. "As good as your mother's?" "As good as my grandmother's, which is really saying something." "Eat it up, Josh. It's what you need." "Penicillin," he said, smiling, and swallowing another spoonful. "What?" "Jewish penicillin, that's what my father always called it." "A lot better-tasting than any penicillin I've ever taken." "Me, either."
He managed to eat the entire bowl of soup and even, after resting for a few minutes, a few bites of the baked custard the kitchen had also sent up. When he finally put his spoon down, there was a touch of color in his face. Abbey was extremely pleased.
"Good plain food. Old-fashioned medicine. Our mothers weren't stupid; this is what you should have been getting all this time. You won't get it in a hospital, more's the pity, and you won't get it in the convenience-foods section of your local Safeway, but you can get it here, and I'm going to make sure you do from now on. There's a whole list of things you can probably keep down without ever having to light up a joint. Not that I have a problem with your doing that, either, when you need to, but it is addictive; the less you depend on it the better. You do need to pay more attention to the quality of what you eat, Josh, though God knows how you're supposed to do that with the hours my husband seems to expect you to put in downstairs. Take-out and fast food is all you've ever had time for."
Josh nodded, stretched, and broke into an enormous yawn. Abbey laughed. "You need plenty of that, too. I'm not going to let you go home tonight, Josh. We have sixteen—can you believe it? sixteen—guestrooms; you can take your pick, but I think you'll be most comfortable in the one we use for Zoe's friends." "I can't stay here, Mrs. Bartlet," Josh started to protest, but she cut him off with a stern look. "You can't do anything else. You're in no state to drive yourself home, and I'm not planning on sending anyone to drive you. I want you here, under my eye, just in case that soup does come up again later. And I'm planning something quite delicious for your breakfast." "I really can't, Mrs. Bartlet; I'm one of the President's staff, not one of your friends." "You're one of our very good friends, Josh; surely you know that by now. In fact, you're more than a friend, you're family. Zoe thinks of you as her big brother, and Jed thinks of you"—her voice was suddenly huskier than usual—"as a son. As do I. And as a son, I'm not giving you a choice here. Can you stand up, or do you need a hand?" Josh was really too tired to object any further. He pushed himself shakily to his feet. She wrapped a steadying arm around his waist, and led the way to Zoe's friends' favorite bedroom.
Josh was all tucked up in the big bed, about to drift off to sleep, when he thought of something. "Where's Donna?" he asked sleepily. Abbey smiled. "I sent her home when the party was over. You can see her tomorrow." "Tha's good," Josh mumbled, and he turned onto his side, wrapped an arm around a pillow, and slipped into a very deep, absolutely dreamless sleep.
It was almost noon when a knock on the bedroom door woke him the next day. "Josh? Are you awake?" "Yeahhh," he mumbled groggily, opening his eyes and blinking with surprise at the unfamiliar room. "Really? Are you sure?" The voice sounded amused. It was a familiar voice—very familiar. "Yes, SIR," Josh exclaimed, sitting straight up in bed and running his hands over his face and eyes. At least he didn't have to worry about morning stubble these days.
The door opened silently and the President walked in. He was carrying a tray. "I'm sorry to wake you, Josh, but Abbey didn't want you to go any longer without something to eat." He set the tray down next to Josh on the bed, and sat down himself beside it. "Sir, what are you doing?" Josh asked. He felt completely bemused and utterly embarrassed. He was wearing yesterday's t-shirt and boxers. He was in bed. He hadn't showered since yesterday morning. And he was being waited on by the President of the United States.
"Obeying my wife's orders and bringing you something to eat."
"I—you shouldn't be doing that, Sir."
"What, I shouldn't be obeying my wife? You've got a lot to learn, Josh." He smiled, reached over, and patted Josh's hand. "Don't worry about it, son; I can still carry a tray without breaking something, although God knows the staff around here try their damnedest to keep me from doing anything myself. Abbey has other ideas. And I wanted to talk to you."
"So start eating, Josh. Abbey isn't going to be too happy with either of us if you don't. And she's already quite thoroughly pissed with the pair of us."
"She is, Sir? Why?" Josh asked, confused. Abbey Bartlet hadn't seemed angry last night; she'd been unexpectedly kind, motherly even.
"She's been talking to your doctor, Josh. Your—oncologist." Jed surprised himself by finding the word hard to get out. He was still coming to terms with what Abbey had told him. "Dr. Garcia-Hamilton isn't at all happy with you, so naturally Abbey isn't either. It seems you haven't been showing up for your treatments. Or returning her calls."
Josh flushed and looked away. "I was going to today. I've just been busy."
"And that's why Abbey's pissed with me. For letting you be that busy. And for not noticing that you shouldn't have been. I'm pretty pissed with myself about that, too, Josh."
"I'm sorry, Sir," Josh said in a very quiet voice, still looking away. "I guess I should have told you."
"Don't apologize, son. I understand why you didn't want to. But Josh—missing your treatments? THAT makes me angry."
"I'm sorry, Sir," Josh said again. They sat for a minute without saying anything. Then Jed said, gently, "It wasn't just about the bill, was it? Because we put some important bills through in September that took a lot of your time, and I gather you managed to fit the chemotherapy in then."
Josh kept his eyes turned down, and fiddled with the edge of the bedspread. "I—no, Sir, it wasn't. Just about the bill. I—I just—it was just—I went through kind of a bad place for a while there, is all, Sir. I'm sorry."
"I don't think you're the one who should be apologizing here, Josh. You've got a lot of friends, you know; people who really care about you, who would find it pretty hard to take if anything happened to you. But we're all so damned busy trying to solve the world's problems that we can't see the ones right in front of our faces, even though they're the ones that matter the most to us."
"Yes, Sir. I know."
They sat quietly again for a minute or two, before Jed said, his voice a little rough with emotion, "Abbey told me what you told her last night. About the numbers, the statistics. She said to remind you that they're only numbers, Josh. There are so many factors that come into play in determining which side of that equation a person ends up on; the medical community is only just beginning to think about, let alone understand, the role played in recovery by the intangible things—a patient's attitude, his state of mind, the support he has from his family, his friends. You've beaten way worse odds than those, Josh. You did it when you were shot. You did it when you took a liberal governor from New Hampshire who was running a hopeless, two-bit campaign and put him in the White House. But you didn't do it alone."
"No, Sir, I never thought I—"
"You didn't do it alone," the President continued without pausing, in a meditative voice. "None of us did it alone. It took Leo, and you, and Toby, and Sam, and C.J., and Hoynes—yes, Hoynes—as well as me to get us here. It took our families. It took the assistants who were with us then—Margaret and Donna—and all the volunteers—it took all of us, working together, to get here, and it takes all of us and all the people who have joined us since to get anything done in any given day. I get the glory, and I take a lot of the blame, but let us never forget that every step forward that we've been able to take in the past six years, every bill passed, every schoolbook paid for by a new program, every child vaccinated or taken to the doctor because her parents don't have to worry about health insurance, every inch of parkland preserved and every drop of newly clean water—every tiny bit of progress we've made has been made by US, not by me alone. The history books will talk about Bartlet's bills and Bartlet's presidency, but it's our bills, our presidency, Josh, yours and mine and Leo's and Toby's and C.J.'s and Sam's. Mrs. Landringham's and Mrs. Federer's presidency. Charlie's and Margaret's and Carol's and Ginger's and Bonnie's and Donna's presidency. I wish I could write that in the books, Josh, I wish I could tell them that there is no President of the United States, there's only a Presidency, and about a thousand people working together to fill that role and do its work. Maybe I will. Maybe that's what I'll write about, when this is over and I'm in my Presidential Library, writing my memoirs—I'll write about you, all of you, and everything you've done to make this country and this world a better place to live in. But I'm going to need you there to help me remember, Josh, so you'd better plan on being with me. We all need you to be there; we need you with us. And you need us. You can't do this alone, Josh, and you don't have to. So stop trying to, and let us help you. And you'd better start by eating some of that breakfast Abbey had the kitchen send up; she's going to skin me alive if that tray isn't a lot lighter by the time it goes back downstairs again."
Josh grinned a little at that. "I'll try, Sir."
"All of it?"
"All of this food, Sir? I doubt I can manage—"
"All of what I just said, Josh."
"Yes, Sir. I'll try."
"You'll call your doctor and start the treatments again?"
"Yes, Sir. I'll call her today."
"Good. There's another thing; Abbey wants you to move in here for a while."
"I couldn't possibly, Sir!"
"I'd like you to too. Think about it, Josh. If you're more comfortable in your own home, of course, I'm not going to force you. And we can pay for whatever help you need in your own home, if you'd rather. But we'd like to have you here."
"Just think about it, Josh, okay? Either way, you're going to be getting your meals from our kitchen; Abbey wants to know that you're getting food that's good for you that you can actually eat. I'd kind of like to know that myself. If you decide you'd rather be in your own place, we'll send your meals over to you."
"I'm not taking any argument on that one, Josh. Oh, and you're officially on sick leave, as of today. So don't even think about coming into the office."
A couple of hours later, Josh walked slowly up Wisconsin Avenue in Georgetown. It was a beautiful afternoon; the sky was that deep, clear blue one only seems to see in the fall, and the autumn foliage was at its peak. The sun was almost hot, and although he felt no inclination to take his jacket off the way most of the people around him had, he was enjoying the warmth on his face. He felt better than he had in ages: still slow and weak, but without that dragging feeling of nausea and exhaustion. Even the ever-present headache had subsided to a comparatively gentle background noise. He knew the feeling wasn't going to last, but he definitely wanted to appreciate it while he could.
He was still trying to sort out the thoughts and emotions that had been hurling themselves at him for the past twenty-four hours. He felt like a different person from the one who had woken up after two hours' sleep and dragged himself to the office yesterday morning. That man had been at the end of his rope: exhausted, empty, sick, and sick of himself. He hadn't just been ready to quit; he'd already done it. The thought he'd been most aware of had been a dull curiosity about how much longer he was going to have to endure the farce of getting through the day. The only thing he'd cared about had been getting the education bill passed. He'd figured it might be the last thing he'd accomplish and he'd cared desperately about getting it done, but he hadn't been able to find any joy in doing it at all.
And then he had stepped out of his office and seen Donna smashing her coffee mug, seen the tears running down her face, and it was as if someone had flipped a switch somewhere inside him and all the feelings had come rushing back. Not necessarily pleasant feelings; he'd been distressed that she was crying, horrified that she wanted to hurt herself, frightened half to death. But along with those painful emotions he'd been aware of a deep sense of relief: he did care about something, about someone; he hadn't entirely forgotten how. And when he'd been able to comfort her—when he'd seen her respond to his words and his touch—he'd felt a warmth and a delight that he'd stopped expecting for himself.
Those feelings were still with him, and they were mixed with other emotions that surprised him as well. Relief at not having to hide anything any more. Gratitude for the love and caring that the Bartlets had shown him. Physical comfort at having eaten and slept well. And a shocking hopefulness, not so much about his chances for the future—he was still unwilling to invest too much in that—as simply for the day. He was actually looking forward to the next few hours. He had a plan, and he was going to enjoy carrying it out.
The plan involved shopping, something Josh normally detested. It amused him to find himself so excited by the prospect of a shopping expedition. He ordinarily had little interest in buying things for himself—his new watch had been a spur-of-the-moment purchase, and the satisfaction it had given him had taken him genuinely by surprise—while the prospect of having to buy gifts for other people always sent him into a panic. It was a task he farmed out to Donna whenever possible. But today, on this brilliant fall afternoon, he was going shopping for a present, and he couldn't think of anything he'd rather be doing.
And here was the shop now, just a few blocks from his townhouse. You could tell from a glance into the bay windows that it was one of those exclusive little stores Georgetown harbored, tucked in among the hip restaurants and the funky, transient boutiques—places that had been there forever, catering to Washington's rich and powerful elite. Josh certainly belonged to the powerful elite, but he never felt the need to buy things to prove it. He wasn't rich, exactly, but he was a long ways from poor, either; his father had left him some money, and his government salary, though a small fraction of what he could have been making privately as a consultant, was a lot more than he ever spent on himself. It would never have occurred to him normally to go anywhere near a shop like this. Yet here he was, going into this one for the second time in so many months. He felt a quickening of excitement as he climbed the brick stairs to the elegant colonial door. He knew exactly what he wanted, and he had no doubt that he was going to be able to find it here.
About an hour later Josh left the shop and started to make his way back down Wisconsin. He was getting tired now, and stopped for a breather at a coffeeshop. The little tables under the green awning were full, so he stood just outside the awning in the sun, leaning his back against the brick wall. The sky was, if possible, an even deeper shade of blue than before; the trees along the Avenue seemed to be showing off every possible shade of gold. Looking up into the branches closest to him, he was captivated by the beauty of the shimmering leaves against the azure sky. Pure light, he thought. He couldn't really find any other words to express what they made him feel; it was the same way he was sometimes left speechless when a shaft of sunlight or the cone of light from a desk lamp illuminated Donna's hair. Looking back down from the trees for a minute, he was somehow not at all surprised to see Donna herself actually walking down the street towards him, her arms full of parcels. Why not? She hadn't had an afternoon off in weeks. Of course she would take advantage of her newly free time by having lunch out and going shopping in Georgetown.
He watched her as she came nearer. Her attention was focused on a pair of small boys being pushed in an enormous stroller; they were beaming at her, and she was beaming back at them. He thought he'd never seen anything more beautiful than that smile; it lit up her face more brilliantly than the sunlight lit up the leaves or her hair.
"Hey, Donna," he said, when she was close enough to hear him. She turned towards his voice and stopped, looking surprised.
"Hey, Josh. What are you doing, holding up the wall?"
He smiled, almost shyly. "Just resting. And—looking."
"At what?" She turned around to see what he could have been looking at.
"At the leaves."
"They're beautiful, aren't they? All those shades of yellow, against that blue sky. I love this time of year."
"Yeah. Yeah, they're—amazing. I was just standing here thinking—you wouldn't think they were dying, would you? They're so—full of light."
His voice was quiet, easy, but Donna felt her stomach turn over, her throat constrict. She had to turn her head away a little so he couldn't see her face. It was a minute before she could answer him. "Yes, they are." They stood there together quietly for another minute or two, looking at the trees, before she added, "Only they're not. Not dying. The trees, I mean."
"The leaves are, though," he said, sounding just a little sad.
It took everything she had to keep her own voice steady, her tone light. "But they grow back again. They're not the tree itself; they're just part of it that comes and goes. Like—like hair. The trees are just—shedding."
"Shedding? Like a dog?"
"Yeah, like a big, furry, smelly dog. But it all grows back again. The fur, and the leaves."
"A big, furry, smelly dog? Donnatella Moss, you are suffering from a serious deficit of poetry in your life. It's a good thing you don't have to write speeches; you'd lose us a lot of points on the inspiration thing." But he was laughing, teasing her. Donna caught her breath.
"A big, furry, smelly, drooly dog," she answered, firmly.
"Well, I really needed that image to go with my beautiful trees," he moaned. And then he grinned, flashing his dimples. "Want to get some coffee?"
"We could drink it out here. I don't want to be inside; it's too nice a day."
He opened the door and steered her inside, dropping his hand on the small of her back the way he so often did. At the counter he insisted on paying for both of them. They took their coffees back outside and sat at one of the little tables that had opened up under the green awning. Donna noticed that Josh ordered a decaf latte, when he normally took his coffee strong and black, and that he hardly touched it. They sat for a few minutes in a companionable silence, Donna sipping her drink, Josh cradling his in his hands, both of them looking at the light pouring through the canopy of golden leaves overhead. Then, quite suddenly, Josh reached across the table and put his hand over hers. "I'm sorry I've been such a jerk the last few weeks, Donna. And I'm sorry, really sorry, about the way I acted—that day. About what I said. You didn't deserve that."
Donna stared at him, her mouth actually dropping open a little in disbelief. She couldn't seem to find her voice. He kept talking, quietly. "I was having a bad day. A few bad days, actually. But that's no excuse for taking things out on—"
"Josh!" she interrupted him, finally managing to get her vocal chords to work. "Josh, stop it. I can't believe you're apologizing to me."
"I want to," he said simply. His hand was still resting over hers. She noticed again how cold his skin felt, even though he'd been holding the warm coffee.
"No," she said. "No. I'm the one who should be apologizing here. What I said to you was awful. I don't blame you for having been angry about it; I wouldn't have blamed you if you'd never wanted to talk to me again."
"I could never do that, Donna," he said, wrapping his fingers around hers now and squeezing a little. "I couldn't. I know you didn't mean that the way it came out. I knew it at the time, really, or I would have known it if I'd stopped to think instead of just reacting. And, Donna—I didn't mean what I said either. Never. I could never mean that I didn't want you to be my friend. You're the best friend I have, Donna; the best friend I've ever had. I couldn't—I'm really sorry I said that."
"Not as sorry as I am that I said the things I did, Josh," Donna said, her voice starting to choke up with tears. She stopped and blinked, not wanting actually to cry in public. He was squeezing her hand tightly now.
"Don't, Donna. Don't," he said. "It doesn't matter."
And then he reached across the table, took the coffee cup out of her other hand, set it down, and folded both her hands together in both of his. "Donna," he said, "there's so many things I need to talk to you about, so much I want to say to you, but right now—" She looked up, and was surprised to see that he was blinking too, his eyes suspiciously bright. He was also smiling at her. "Right now, I just want you to know I didn't mean that and I never could. And I want to give you this." He took one hand off hers, reached into his pocket, and slipped something under her fingers on the table. She stared at him, and then down at the little package in her hands. It was a long, narrow box wrapped in heavy, expensive-looking paper tied with wide, expensive-looking ribbon. She looked back up at him, questioningly, and he nodded, still smiling, but looking nervous, too. "Go on. Open it. Please."
Her fingers trembled as she worked at the paper. Inside was a box with the name of a well-known Georgetown jewelers stamped on its elegant top. Donna thought her heart had stopped. She had trouble shaking the lid off, and Josh laughed a little as she struggled before it came away. When she saw what was nestled inside, she gasped. All the color drained out of her face, and then flushed back in again, leaving her pink and breathless. "Josh! Joshua Lyman, are you insane?"
It was a watch, of course. A watch not unlike the one she had lost and cried about the day before; the face was the same shape and color, the band the same general style. But there all similarity to the lost watch ended; even without a glance at the name written in tiny, discreet letters on the face, one could tell that this was a watch from a different league altogether. It was heavy, elegant, beautiful, and obviously very expensive. It was, in fact, the same make as the watch Josh had been wearing for the past month or so, the watch she had thought he must have been given by a rich girlfriend he'd met in the Hamptons.
"No," he said simply, and looking at him she could see embarrassment and pleasure and something else—was it anxiety?—all playing in his face at the same time. "No, I just—I hope you like it." His voice was husky. "I can take it back and swap it for something different if you don't."
"Like it? It's—it's beautiful. It's gorgeous. Of course I like it; I love it. But Josh, it must have cost a fortune. You've gone completely out of your mind."
"No, I haven't," he said again, sounding stubborn. "I've always wanted to give you something decent. I'm sick of waiting to do it."
She looked him in the eyes for a long minute, then looked down at the watch again, and back at him. Then she pushed her chair back, stood up, and stepped around the table. He stood up too, rather shakily, for the hug he thought was coming. But Donna didn't go for the hug. Instead she took his face in her hands and looked, almost sternly, into his eyes. "Joshua Lyman," she said firmly, "you are a beautiful man. A beautiful man. And I love you." And then she pressed her lips fiercely to his, and he wrapped his arms around her and pulled her tight against him, and they stayed that way for a very long time, kissing each other under the green awning with the mermaid on it, entirely oblivious to the fact that half Washington was strolling past them on the sidewalk.
Later that night, lying in bed with Donna's hair spread out over his chest, Josh let his thought wander back over bits and pieces of the day. There had been his conversation with Marilyn Garcia-Hamilton, in which she'd given him hell, reminding him in no uncertain terms that chemotherapy wasn't something you could just play around with. She'd ended on a more hopeful note, though, by saying that there were still a number of options available that they could discuss. He'd made an appointment to see her on Monday. There had been the salesman in the jewelers, the same Eastern European man he'd bought his own watch from; he had laughed a little at seeing Josh again so soon, and had said, in his heavy accent, "So, you want to buy time again, Mr. Lyman?" And of course there had been Donna: Donna kissing him wildly outside the Starbucks on Wisconsin Avenue; Donna sitting beside him on the sofa in his living room, her arm wrapped around him and her head on his shoulder while he tried to explain everything; Donna sweeping away all his fears and protests with her passionate insistence that he take her to bed. He smiled a little wryly, thinking about it now; he could hardly have been her ideal lover, with his bald and wasted body, but she had been quite convincing about wanting him anyway. He hoped she hadn't just been taking pity on him. She'd been almost angry when he'd voiced that fear, and in a way he understood; he couldn't imagine Donna in a condition he wouldn't want to make love to. It was just hard to believe she might really feel the same way about him.
And he remembered standing outside Starbucks, looking up into the trees and their leaves. He didn't believe in a traditional God; he hadn't been able to wrap his mind around that idea since he'd first learned about the Holocaust and had realized what had happened to his family. His sister had died about the same time. But today he had been flooded with a sense of being part of something larger than himself, something good. He couldn't really put it into words. It had to do with the way he'd felt when he'd broken through that protective distance he'd wrapped around himself and had been able to comfort Donna the day before; with the way Mrs. Bartlet had brought him matzah-ball soup and the President had carried a tray into his bedroom and talked about his being a part of the Presidency; with the way the light had poured through those trees outside the coffeeshop, turning every leaf to pure gold. He remembered what that had made him think of, what Donna had said. Tree, or leaf? he wondered. Which was he? He didn't really know. He just knew he was tired of the darkness—the anger, the hopelessness, the fear. He wanted to be like the trees. Or the leaves. Whichever—it almost didn't matter. He just wanted that brightness, and the strange thing was, that even before he'd fully realized what he wanted, he had it. He felt peaceful, untroubled. Happy, even. Full of light.
He looked down at Donna's hand, which was wrapped in his, resting on her chest. She was still wearing the watch he'd given her; she'd refused to take it off. He thought again about the little European man in the jewelry store, and smiled. Yes, he wanted to buy time again. Whatever it cost him, it would be worth it. He was going to buy all the time he could get.