White Christmas

It's snowing again. Spotlights flood the outside of the White House with light, but at this late hour most of the windows are dark. In the West Wing, just one shows a desk lamp still burning. Thick clouds of snow blow past it, the flakes dancing in wild swirls and crazy flurries, hurling themselves against the glass like swarms of ice-winged moths desperate for light and warmth.

Behind that one lighted window, Josh picks his head up from his desk, rubs a hand over his face, stretches, looks outside, sees what the snow is doing, and sighs. She's supposed to come back tomorrow. No—glancing at the clock, which says 4:03—today. Well, tonight, probably; she won't leave any earlier than she has to. They won't leave any earlier than they have to. Who would?

He flinches a little at that thought of "they," even though he's been telling himself for weeks now that he's cool with it. He just doesn't trust the guy's driving, that's all; he's a Republican, you can't trust them with anything. And he isn't even a Republican from a northern state, who might have some idea how to drive in this stuff.

Not that Josh would trust Donna to do it on her own. She ought to know what she's doing, coming from Wisconsin, but she banged up her car once and hurt herself in a storm there in April, and anyway, she always drives too fast, zipping down the highway and darting in front of trucks and out again in a way that makes his stomach churn whenever he's with her, though he tries not to let it show. He likes to put his foot on the gas as much as any guy when the road is clear, but he believes in keeping a safe distance from monster vehicles that could flatten you to the pavement in the blink of an eye, and in staying off the roads altogether when conditions are bad.

Of course, he can handle snow if he has to—you can't grow up in Connecticut without learning how to drive in bad weather—but he doesn't trust other drivers to have a clue, especially down here in D.C., where everyone flies into a panic at the sight of a few flakes. And maybe he's lived here too long himself, because his stomach is tightening at the sight of the snow now, and what kind of reaction is that from a Connecticut guy like him?

Damn Leo and his helicopters, anyway, and damn Donna and her speedloving Republicans, and—no, he doesn't mean that. Just damn the Republicans. Republicans, for God's sake; why does she always go for Republicans? She said this one was honorable. That's what she said about the last one, too, and look what he was willing to do to her. She's so trusting. So—innocent. She needs someone to take care of her. . . .

He snorts at himself then, knowing how ridiculous that thought is. She's no high-school girl. She knows her way around town, probably better than he does, or she wouldn't be off enjoying herself at the Washington Inn, while he's been sleeping at his desk on Christmas night.

Not that it matters to him that it's Christmas. It isn't his holiday. That's what he always says, anyway. It's always bothered him a little, though, that he has to say that, that he feels like he'd be betraying his family if he let himself enjoy Christmas-time the way part of him has always wanted to.

"Why can't we have a Christmas tree?" he can just remember asking when he was small, dazzled by all the lights and glitter that brightened so many of his friends' houses and transformed the old village center into a magic kingdom for weeks on end. "Why can't we have one, too?" He hadn't understood why Santa didn't come to their house; he'd thought it must mean he'd been bad, like the song said. It was Joanie who'd explained.

He'd been comforted, of course, when she'd told him that they weren't bad at all but were carrying on the traditions God had laid out for them thousands of years ago. It still hadn't quite made up at the time for the stocking and the tree, though. Lots of the other Jewish families they knew had stockings and trees, but his grandfather would have hit the roof if they'd done anything like that, even though they weren't particularly religious in other ways: didn't keep kosher or make much of a fuss about the sabbath; didn't go to temple much, except on the High Holy Days, or when his grandfather was visiting.

But as Josh got older he'd often thought that there wasn't anything particularly religious about Christmas, either, the way most people celebrated it: it was a winter festival of lights and gift-giving and over-eating, whose traditions could mostly be traced to northern pagan rites, or to modern, commercial ones. The spark-plug of the capitalist economy, he remembers someone at Harvard calling it once, and he'd laughed and agreed.

He's long since stopped caring about hanging stockings or decorating Christmas trees, of course; by the time he was ten, he'd even learned to take a stubborn pride in doing things differently from other people at this time of year. But he's never entirely managed to stifle the feelings that slip by his defences sometimes when he's walking home past all those lighted windows, when he glances in and sees everyone else celebrating with their families around their fireplaces, their dinner-tables, their glimmering trees: the cold and lonely feelings of being an outsider looking in.

He sometimes wonders what it would be like to have something special to do over this holiday, or someone special to do it with. He's lost touch with most of his old friends since he started working in the White House; they've never really understood his schedule or what the job is like, why he doesn't have time for phone calls and emails and visits. Sam is back in California, too busy himself to take time for Josh much, though Josh does try to email him once in a while. C.J. is home in Ohio for the holidays. Will is in Brussells; Charlie's with his grandmother and aunts and sister; Leo's with Mallory and the Barlets in New Hamphire. But it isn't Leo or the Bartlets or Charlie or Will or even C.J. or Sam that Josh wants to be with anyway.

Toby would understand Josh's mixed feelings about Christmas, but Toby is with his father, and needs to be left alone with him to sort things out. Josh hasn't gone to all that trouble to get the old man into the White House to intrude on their time together afterwards. He could have gone to see his mother, of course, but, much as he loves her, he really hasn't wanted to do that. It would be different if his dad were still alive, but his absence is still palpable whenever she and Josh are together, even five years later, even in the Florida condo that has no associations with his father at all.

That's half the trouble, actually. Josh isn't comfortable in Florida; it's never seemed like home. The condo is too new, and the weather down there too warm; it just doesn't feel right to Josh at all, especially in December. He'd been more attached to the place he'd grown up in than he'd ever want to admit. And he can never get through a visit with his mother without her asking, with a shadow in her eyes and a sigh in her voice, when he's going to get married and give her grandchildren. He hates the question—hates knowing he's making her unhappy, hates the fact that he can't do anything about it. You can't just make yourself fall in love, can you? Or make yourself fall out of it, if you've fallen hard and deep for someone you can't have.

Sitting there in his office, watching the snow batter on the window at four in the morning, Josh finds himself suddenly wondering where home is, anyway, and if he'll ever have one. His apartment isn't really home. Oh, it does for one, most of the time, but there isn't anything about it that really draws him to it—or why else would he be here, at four o'clock in the morning, the day after Christmas, when he could be back there in his own bed? Why else has he spent the last three nights dozing at his desk, or, when that got too uncomfortable, huddled up on the couch in Toby's office, drinking Toby's whisky to get himself off to sleep? This place feels more like home than his own home does, which is, he thinks, a sad commentary on how much time he's spent here over the last four years: even when he has the choice now, he doesn't feel like leaving. And that's more than sad, really, it's pathetic, because what is he going to do four years from now when he has to leave?

His mouth feels stale and dry, and his head is throbbing, the unsurprising result of having drunk as much as he did a few hours ago, when he was trying to buy himself a little peace. But he's still too clear-headed to be able to lie to himself about the real reason he's stayed in the White House this weekend: not just because it feels more like home than his apartment does, but because there are people here. The cleaners, the cooks, the Secret Service—there's always someone awake and moving about the place, even on Christmas, even after Leo left. Leo had stuck with him for a couple of hours, trying to get that church roof in Bethlehem fixed, but he'd finally packed it in and said he'd better get home if he was going to be fit to travel with Mallory the next day. He'd told Josh to take himself home too. Josh had said he would, but he hadn't. He couldn't face it.

His apartment was too quiet, too—empty, he'd thought. Which is ridiculous, because the place is, in fact, so jammed with stuff you can barely make your way from one side of it to the other without falling over something: all those boxes of things he'd taken away from the house in Connecticut when his mother sold it and has never found time to unpack and put away, not to mention all the rest of his usual clutter, have really silted it up over the last couple of years. But it still feels far too empty. Most of the time he doesn't think about it, but this weekend. . . . Josh thinks of the big picture window, staring blankly back at him in the middle of the night, and feels a shiver run down his spine.

Damn it, he'd thought he had it together now. It's been two years; he's been doing fine. He even talked that Commander Wonderful into asking Donna out when she wanted him to; if that isn't a sign of sanity, he doesn't know what would be. Not that anything that happened two years ago was Donna's fault, but he knows he wasn't always exactly rational in some of the things he said to her back then, some of the things he did about her dates.

It isn't like he could have had her himself, even if she'd wanted to. And she hadn't wanted to. There'd been a while there when he'd thought that maybe, just maybe. . . . But then he'd found out about the President's MS, and everything else had gotten swept away in that. And just a few months later Donna had slept with Cliff Calley, and perjured herself in front of a Congressional committee over that damned schoolgirl diary she'd kept, and Josh had had to bail her out, and he'd gotten so churned up about all of it that he'd realized he had to do something to change the way he'd been thinking about her, so he'd started dating Amy Gardner.

He's always liked Amy. He's known her for a long time; she'd been his roommate's girlfriend at Yale; they have something like history together, and that always strikes a chord with him. She's intelligent, too: you can really talk with her, argue with her, and he needs that. Intellectual debate is what he lives on; he's never been able to understand guys who want to date women less intelligent than they are. Amy certainly isn't that.

But if that had been all she was, he might never have felt anything for her. It was the balloons that really got him: there was something childlike about them, something sweet and almost innocent about her wanting to make those balloon animals for her nephews, about the way she'd thrown that ridiculous water balloon at him when he was walking down the street. He's always been a sucker for innocent and sweet. That might surprise anyone who knows his dating history, but it's true, just the same: he's seen a hint of it in every one of his girlfriends, even Mandy. Or he's imagined he has, anyway; the way things always turn out, he's probably been wrong most of the time.

Or maybe the problem is just him. Unwilling to open up, unwilling to take emotional risks, unwilling to commit—unwilling, or unable. He knows the shtick. They all say the same things, more or less, when they're breaking up with him. And they're probably right. He's talked to shrinks about it, but it hasn't made any difference; he can't seem to change himself that way.

He needs to feel safe, one of his therapists said. Doesn't everyone? he'd asked. Yes, but apparently he has a higher need for emotional safety than most people do, and has to learn that all relationships involve risk; he has to be willing to take that risk on, or he's going to be alone for the rest of his life. Somebody else told him that he'd never be able to sustain a serious relationship until he lost his fear of his loved ones dying. He'd snorted at the time, and snorts again, remembering it now. How the hell is he supposed to do that? Who ever loses their fear of the people they love dying? And when you've had it happen to you. . . .

But he doesn't really think that's the problem, anyway. He told Toby the other night that he'd give anything to have his father back, or his sister. He meant it, even though he knows perfectly well that, if by some miracle of sacrifice he could actually get them back, he'd still end up losing them again some day. That wouldn't stop him, though. He'd jump at the chance if he could; he'd take any risk at all if it meant he could just be with them again, even for a day. He isn't a loner; he wouldn't rather be alone. And he isn't a coward. He just. . . .

He doesn't know what he just. He just knows that, in the end, he hasn't felt what he needed to feel to let himself get more involved with any of the women he's ever dated. The moments of sweetness that touched his heart when he'd first fallen for them have always ended up disappearing into a morass of other things: politics, usually, and competing agendas, and anger—lots and lots of anger. Sex only prolonged the problem; sometimes he wonders whether that sweet sense of connection and togetherness that it brought was ever anything more than a delusion. He can look at his girlfriends' pictures later and remember what made him fall for them; he can and does miss them long after they've broken up. But even when he knew they were going to dump him if he didn't move things forward, he'd never been able to bring himself to ask any of them to move the relationship to another level, to make a life with him. He could never picture it; he always got a cold knot in his stomach whenever he tried to, and he had just enough sense of self-preservation not to try to force himself into something when his stomach was so clearly telling him to keep clear.

He thinks it would be different if Donna—but he can't let himself think about that. She does work for him, and even if she didn't, even if he could get her transferred somewhere else, even if she didn't mind that—and who wouldn't mind being transferred out of the West Wing, out of an office a few yards from the Oval, when everyone except a handful of people at the very top of the administration would kill to get a job like hers—it wouldn't make any difference anyway. She doesn't think of him that way. If she did, she would hardly have asked him to get her a date with another guy.

And she had. She asked, and he did it, because he wanted her to be happy, and now she's off spending Christmas with this other guy in a five-star resort in the foothills of the Virginia mountains in the snow. In the snow, damn it. He wonders how the hell Jack Reese came to get so lucky: even if he, Josh Lyman, could get a room at the Washington Inn somehow—and how in the name of anything had a Navy commander managed that, when the White House Deputy Chief of Staff couldn't?—he'd never get snow with it. How often does it snow in Virginia, for God's sake, even down there near Front Royal? With his luck, it would rain instead.

And Donna must be loving the snow. She always wants a white Christmas. She starts talking about it in November every year, sometimes October, even: talking and singing, driving him crazy, but secretly he thinks it's sweet that she cares. She loves hot chocolate, too, and gingerbread cookies, and peppermint candies, and those little miniature Victorian villages that people put on their mantelpieces, that light up. She loves Christmas carols and ice-skating and snow-angels and watching kids playing in the snow. She even loves playing in the snow herself; she's a kid at heart in a lot of ways still. More than anything else, that's what he loves about her. She cares about things most people he knows pretty much stopped caring about when they left college and moved into the real world, things he often forgets to care about himself: injured birds, and people's feelings, and playing in the snow. It's what Amy's water-balloons had reminded him of, a little bit. But with Donna it's the real thing: it's who she really is, what she's all about. At least, that's how she seems to Josh.

He wonders if she and Jack Reese went for a walk in the snow yesterday and threw snowballs at each other. It would be exactly her idea of the perfect way to spend a white Christmas. The thought makes his insides clench and his hands go cold. It's ridiculous, he knows, but it bothers him even more than the thought of all the grown-up things they quite certainly have been doing. Not that he wants to think about those things, either, not at all, but there's something about the idea of Donna not just having sex with Jack Reese, but having fun with him—something about the thought of her showing another man her sweet and innocent and child-like core—that makes it hard for him to breathe. Damn Leo and his helicopters, anyway. Damn Reese and his Republican honor. Damn the Washington Inn. Damn the snow.

And besides, the snow is making the roads dangerous, and she and Reese are going to be on them in a few hours driving back to Washington: it had better clear up before they leave. Josh scowls at the window and pulls his phone out of his pocket. A minute later he's cursing the automated voice telling him to expect more snow on and off throughout the day. He'll have to wait a bit—it's too early now—but maybe, just maybe, he should call and tell her to take another day. He needs her here; there are things they ought to be getting done; but. . . .

Everything inside him freezes a little around the edges at the thought of Donna spending another night at the Washington Inn with Jack Reese, but that's better than the thought of her driving down country roads or I66 or the Beltway in a snowstorm with a Republican at the wheel.

He fiddles with the phone, wondering how soon he can call her, dialing WE6-1212 over and over until his fingers are as numb as the rest of him. The report never changes: Freezing rain. Icy roads. Snow.

Outside the flakes keep dashing themselves against the window, frozen little moth-like creatures aching for a way in out of the cold.