Author's Note: I hope no one will be offended by the subject-matter here, or my treatment of it. I'm not trying to advocate for, or be disrespectful towards, any type or group of people, any religion, or any religious beliefs or practices. The views and/or doubts described here aren't necessarily my own. I've just tried to present two thinking adults from different backgrounds, trying to make some sense of their lives. Please read gently.
For the sake of this story, I'm assuming the convention took place in August, and Donna's interview with Josh sometime a few weeks later. The exact date Rosh Hashanah falls on varies from year to year; we should probably think of this as taking place on a Tuesday early in an unusually chilly October, if there's to be any chance that the leaves would have started to turn in D.C.
This was first posted on JDFF in October 2005-after "The Ticket," but before "The Al Smith Dinner" aired.
It had seemed like a good idea at the time. Now that he was back in D.C. more often, now that he'd finally hired a staff member or two and was able to get a few hours' sleep every now and again, now that he had the odd moment once in a while to notice how his body was feeling. Not that he ever paid much attention to that. He probably wouldn't have done it if he hadn't bumped into Abbey Bartlet after that last, abortive meeting with Toby and C.J. at the White House, and she hadn't fixed him with a look like a gimlet and said she'd been talking to his doctor just the other day and if he didn't get his ass over there pronto he'd have to answer to her.
Abbey always scared the shit out of him; hell, she scared the shit out of everybody, even the President, and besides she'd said she'd consider trying to talk Jed out of this nonsense of taking Haffley's bait and pulling the rug out from under Matt Santos' feet on his education plan, which could hand the election to the Republicans and the next two judicial appointments into the claws of the religious right, because no matter what Vinick's own views on Roe v. Wade might be you knew his hands would be tied there—but she was damned if she'd go to bat for a campaign that was going to lose its manager to a heart attack just before the election, so she'd wait till she'd heard from Larry that Josh had been to see him before she did anything. Larry—not Larry of Ed-and-Larry, but Dr. Lawrence Roth, Josh's specialist since the shooting and Abbey Bartlet's old friend from med school—had fixed him with a look that was more like a power drill than a gimlet, and told him in no uncertain terms that, while Abbey was overstating the timeframe, he had to stop neglecting himself or he was going to end up like Leo last year, or worse.
Even then he probably wouldn't have done it if he hadn't run into Jon Epstein at an election fundraiser, and Jon hadn't introduced him to his wife Sharon, and Sharon and Jon hadn't both raved about the new facilities at the J, where she was teaching a creative writing class. Josh hadn't been to the J in twenty years—he'd passed on the invitations he'd had to speak there after Rosslyn—but he couldn't use the gym at the White House anymore, and the J was at 16th and Q, just a few minutes from the new Santos headquarters down at 16th and K, and he could afford the fees, and he really did feel like an hour—hell, even half an hour—working out two or three times a week would help him focus better the rest of the time. Maybe sleep better, too, when he got a chance.
And maybe there was something else, too, something that had been nibbling away at the edges of his consciousness for quite a while now, but he told himself he was only doing it because he needed a gym close by and the J was a good deal. It didn't have anything to do with the stuff he'd all-but-yelled outside the Oval that day more than a year ago, or with the stuff he'd said to Toby at Camp David; all that had been after Gaza, the stuff with Toby after Germany, and his head had been in a different place then, or that's what he wanted to think now, anyway. It certainly didn't have anything to do with Donna.
What he hadn't thought about properly when he'd signed up was that, if you were going to join the newly-renovated gym at the Jewish Community Center, you could expect to find it closed on a rainy Tuesday night early in October when the rainy Tuesday night was the first night of Rosh Hashanah. And you shouldn't be altogether surprised if, standing stock-still in the entranceway clutching your backpack and your gym bag like an idiot, you found yourself having to say "Sorry" to more than one person trying to get around you as they hurried in at the last minute, the men bumping into you when they tried to negotiate the doors while fumbling to get their yarmulkes on—or if, a minute later, you found yourself split in two by the sound of the shofar.
There was a stack of cheap cotton yarmulkes on a shelf just outside the room Bet Mishpachah was holding the service in, and a box of bobby pins. Josh wasn't sure what made him do it; he hadn't been to a service since his father died, and couldn't remember the last time before that. Maybe it was the shofar—music had always been able to turn him inside out, though those strange echoing notes were nothing at all like the Doobie Brothers or Schubert or Bach. Maybe it was something else, a visceral need he'd been trying not to be aware of as long and as hard as he'd been trying to ignore everything else his body and his mind were telling him he couldn't expect to keep on living without. His body or his mind, or his whatever-it-is-they-mean-when-they-say-soul, or spirit. Or just his messed-up heart.
If he didn't know why he was doing it when he walked in, though, he certainly didn't know why he'd done it when he walked out again a couple of hours later. It had been strange, sitting on a folding metal chair sandwiched between two men on one side who kept squeezing each other's hands throughout the blessings, and a pair on the other side who seemed to be a man halfway along to becoming a woman and a woman halfway along to becoming a man; at the point they were both at he couldn't have told which was supposed to be which, if it hadn't been for the yarmulke. Bet Mishpachah, it turned out, was an independent congregation intended primarily for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered Jews, though the earnest young rabbi assured the group gathered there that night that they welcomed everyone who was interested in participating in a multicultural, mutually supportive community. The liturgy had been rewritten to be gender-neutral and bias-free. Josh didn't have a problem with any of that, it just wasn't what he'd been used to once, back in Connecticut, and when he left he didn't feel any clearer about whatever it was that had prompted him to go in in the first place.
He walked the six blocks back to headquarters fast in the rain, then tried to dry himself off in the men's room. He was rubbing his hair with a handful of paper towels when Bram walked in.
"There you are," Bram said. "We've been trying to track you down for the last hour; what's the matter with your cell? Leo wants to see you; something about that education bill Haffley's pushing on the Hill. He's in your office."
"Shit," Josh said, balling up the wet towels and shoving them into the trash. He'd turned the phone right off when he'd gone into the service. Why the hell had he done that? He must be losing his grip. Lou was right, he really was the problem, or part of it, anyway. He took off down the hall, walking even faster than usual. Whatever it was he'd wanted back at the J.C.C. didn't matter, couldn't matter. He couldn't afford to let it matter; he had more important things he had to do.
But while he was talking to Leo, rummaging in his desk for some papers they needed, his eye fell on that file of press quotes he'd had to use the other day, and he felt his heart speed up and his breathing hitch. He shoved it under the others again, but it kept pushing its way back into his thinking whenever he let his guard down for a second. He worked late that night, didn't sleep well when he did get home. Driving in to work the next morning he acted on a sudden impulse and took a detour, dropping down into the park by Rock Creek. He pulled off on the shoulder near the creek, then took his wallet out of his pocket, slipped it into his backpack on the passenger seat, and got out. He was walking more slowly than usual as he made his way down to the bank, where he looked around, feeling self-conscious, hoping no one would jog by and stare. Then he stuck his hands in his pockets and pulled out everything he could find. At that hour in the morning there wasn't much—a few bits of lint, a dry-cleaning ticket, a couple of stray pennies that must have made it through the cleaners undetected—but he gathered it up and scattered it over the water, whispering the words he could remember under his breath.
"Rosh Hashanah," Donna said, trying to keep her voice patient and neutral, "is one of the most important days in the Jewish calendar. Or two days; it depends on who you talk to. It's the start of the High Holy Days, the ten days that lead up to Yom Kippur."
"Oh, yes?" said Mrs. Russell, in her irritating, little-girl voice. "What's that?"
Will had asked Donna to brief Mrs. Russell because the Vice President's wife was going to be the guest of honor at a luncheon given by the Montgomery County branch of Mothers for Peace and Justice on Thursday, and the speechwriter had included two innocuous references to the season in the text of the remarks the Second Lady was supposed to make after the meal. It had come out during her practice session that morning that she hadn't understood a word of these, and since at least half the women attending the lunch were likely to be Jewish, Will thought it might be a good idea to bring Mrs. Russell up to speed. Donna, with her encyclopaedic capacity for detail, was the first person he thought of for the job.
She could hardly refuse, but she wished he hadn't; there was something about the conversation she was finding unsettling. It was this inane woman, she told herself; how anyone could live in Washington for as long as the Russells had, and hold the positions they'd held and meet the people they'd met and still be so clueless about something that was, after all, an important part of the lives of a fairly large number of Washingtonians, was beyond her. It wasn't just Mrs. Russell, either; her husband, the man Donna and Will had tried so hard to put in charge of the country, was almost as bad. It made her blush. The Russells, she thought, were as narrow and parochial in their outlook as—as she had been once, but that was a long time ago, when she'd been barely more than a teenager. She remembered the first time she'd met someone who was Jewish, one of her professors at Madison, and how surprised she'd been when someone had mentioned his religion, and how intrigued. She hadn't really learned much about it, though, until—but she didn't want to think about that. A picture of a curly head and an irrepressible grin flashed across her mind; she closed her eyes and took a deep breath.
"Donna?" Mrs. Russell asked, sounding horribly sweet. "Are you all right?"
Of course she was. Of course she was all right.
"Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement, the highest of the High Holy Days," she said, hearing her voice go almost stern in antithesis to Mrs. Russell's. "Rosh Hashanah marks the beginning of the Jewish New Year."
"They have their own New Year, then, like the Chinese?" The "they" annoyed Donna.
"Yes," she answered. "And no. It's not really like the Chinese New Year at all, and it's not much like January 1, either; you don't go to a lot of big parties and get drunk and sing Auld Lang Syne. You fast, actually, all day, on Yom Kippur. You're not supposed to eat or drink anything, not even water."
"That doesn't sound very nice."
"There's a festive meal the night before, and one right after, when you break the fast. And people eat honey during the week, with slices of apple to dip into it, or pieces of challah. But you don't party and get drunk; the whole week from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur is supposed to be a pretty serious time, a time to think about all the mistakes you've made during the year before, and to make changes so the next year will be better."
"That's like our New Year, isn't it?"
"That part is, a little. But it's less about making resolutions to lose weight or not watch so much t.v., and more about fixing things that have gone wrong in your relationships—with God, and with other people."
"How do they do that?"
"You fix things with God by going to the synagogue and taking part in the ceremonies that wipe away your sins from the past year."
"Like going to confession before Easter?"
"A little. But that's not all you have to do. Jews are supposed to use the time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to heal their relationships with other people, too. They're supposed to go to anyone they've hurt or wronged in any way, and try to make things right with them."
"In one week?"
"In one week and two days."
"My, that must be hard to do. Imagine having to go to all the people you've ticked off during the year and—what? ask them to forgive you? I'm glad I'm not Jewish, aren't you? Oh, I didn't mean—you're not, are you? You don't look it."
Donna managed not to roll her eyes, but it was a close thing. "No, Mrs. Russell, I'm not Jewish."
"You seem to know an awful lot about it."
"I—" Donna hesitated. "I used to have a friend who was Jewish. He's not observant, but I asked him a lot of questions when I first met him, and he told me quite a bit about it. And I got interested, and read more."
"You were interested? Was he very good-looking, then?" She was smiling coquettishly, her head tipped to one side, her little-girl voice more grating than ever.
"I—" Donna had to pause for a minute, to gain some control. "I just found the subject interesting, Mrs. Russell. I'm always interested in learning new things."
"Of course, that's all it was." She laughed, a tinkling, feminine laugh that set Donna's teeth even more on edge than they already were. "I can see you know a lot of things, Donna. Tell me something else about it."
Donna thought for a moment, trying to remember.
"One tradition—I think it's called Tashlikh—is to walk to a river or a stream—it's supposed to have fish in it, and flow to the ocean—and empty your pockets into it. It's to symbolize casting off your sins."
"My, that's interesting. What else?"
"Um, well, you're supposed to go to shul, obviously."
"Temple, the synagogue. There's a liturgy you say there—I don't know any of it, I've never been. Oh, and you hear the shofar."
"It's a horn, a ram's horn. It's supposed to be a call to repentance, I think."
"Goodness. What else?"
"I can't think of anything else, Mrs. Russell."
"Well, that's all very interesting. I had no idea! Now, tell me again—it's Yom Kippur now?"
"No, Mrs. Russell, it's Rosh Hashanah now; Yom Kippur is next week."
"And I'm mentioning this in my speech because—?"
"Because you're speaking to the MontgomeryCounty chapter of Mothers for Peace and Justice, and Rosh Hashanah is about establishing peace and justice between people."
"Will they be serving anything special at this lunch that I should know about?"
"Well, it's a secular organization, but . . . I suppose because of the season they might serve honey with challah or apple slices. It's supposed to be a sign of the sweetness of reconciliation, and a promise of the good things to come in the next year, after you've fixed all the things that need fixing in your relationships from the last one."
Mrs. Russell looked thoughtful. "That's lovely," she said. There was a different tone in her voice; she sounded a little more like a woman, and less like a girl.
"Yes, I think so too," Donna said, finding her own voice suddenly choked, and her eyes stinging with unshed tears.
He really must be losing his grip, Josh thought. It wasn't like he believed in it. Not the whole thing, anyway; maybe not any of it—he didn't really know. It wasn't something he thought about very often; in fact, he'd gone out of his way not to think about it much for most of his adult life. Religion was about stuff you couldn't see and could never be sure of; he dealt in the concrete and the tangible, the here and now, and he liked to get results. The way he saw it, the history of his family, let alone the history of Jews in general, didn't encourage a warm, cozy belief in a protective God who looked after His people as long as they obeyed His laws. Not that his family had been deeply religious, but they'd practiced, once, at least as conscientiously as anyone else they'd known in their middle-of-the-road congregation. And look at what had happened.
That was simplistic, he knew. Any rabbi worth his salt would point him straight to the story of Job as evidence that suffering and loss shouldn't be allowed to overshadow faith in God. But he couldn't help it; he couldn't imagine having the easy comfort with the idea of God that Matt seemed to have. The psalms praising God's protection had, for too many years, seemed like mocking promises to him, and he'd long ago dismissed as pointless restrictions most of the teachings he'd studied so carefully for his bar mitzvah.
And yet he was Jewish. He'd never be able to think of himself as anything else, and he knew that the words and the traditions and the practices were deeply embedded in him, no matter how little faith he might have in them, no matter how little attention he gave them in his daily life. He wasn't sure why he was thinking about them now. He couldn't afford to let himself get distracted from his work like this. And yet his thoughts kept drifting back to the J, to the feeling he'd had, standing there in the entry to the building, that he needed something and maybe this was the place where he could get it, or find out how to go about getting it. He hadn't gotten it there, though maybe he'd gotten something; he couldn't kid himself, after the last twenty-four hours, that he didn't know what "it" was, what he wanted and needed, and it had very little to do with God or Judaism, and everything to do with— But he had no idea what to do about it.
He remembered the rabbi's voice, talking about the meaning of the High Holy Days and what they were for, talking about the symbolism of bread and honey. Looking out the window he saw the tree outside starting to change color, its leaves like yellow candleflames glowing against piles of heavy grey clouds in the dim late-afternoon light. It made him think suddenly of his mother lighting the Shabbat candles, his father's voice saying Kiddush. The warm smell of his mother's cooking filling the house, the cheerful voices, the music, the laughter. For a moment a picture of his empty apartment flashed into his thought, and he felt cold loneliness run through his veins into every corner of his body and congeal into a hard, cold knot in his gut. He was almost forty-six. And he'd made Donna—
But he couldn't let himself do this. He had an election to win, and only a month left to do it in. The phone was ringing, anyway. He picked it up, said "Yeah?" and swiveled his chair around so his back was to the window and the tree. But all the time he was talking he was hearing Toby's voice saying Donna had been in the car that exploded, seeing her battered face and broken body on the hospital gurney, the fear in her eyes. Hearing her voice tremble after he'd told her he couldn't hire her, seeing her blinking back tears when she thanked him for his time.
Donna glanced at the clock on her big, beautiful desk in her big, beautiful office in the Vice-President's suite. 5:05. There wasn't much to do around here anymore; she could leave if she wanted. She stirred the powdered chocolate mix into the cup of hot water she'd poured over it a minute ago, and looked out the window. There wasn't much point in staying, but then, there wasn't much point in going home, either.
The sky outside was grey, promising rain. The V.P.'s offices were on the side of the building overlooking LaFayette Square, and she could see the branches of the trees in the square moving restlessly in the wind, handfuls of yellowing leaves giving up their resistance, letting go and drifting towards the ground. It looked cold. She shivered a bit, and pulled her feet up under her, taking a sip of her hot chocolate and cradling the warm mug close to her chest. It didn't help.
She didn't know what she wanted anymore. It had all seemed so much clearer a year ago: she'd wanted change, she'd wanted a new job, she'd wanted to make a new life for herself that didn't revolve around Josh. She'd pushed herself so hard to come back to work after Gaza—had come back weeks before she'd had to—and then she'd been so tired, and so fed up with everything, and she knew she'd been snappish and hard to deal with from the moment he'd wheeled her through the White House doors. It was easy to blame the way she'd felt on the bombing, and of course that was part of it: it had been a horrible experience, and there'd been grief to deal with, and irrational guilt, and physical pain. She'd had a rough time for a while there, but she'd seen a psychiatrist at the hospital in Germany, and another at National Rehab—it was standard procedure now; she'd have been given time with a shrink after surgery even if she'd just slipped on some ice and broken her leg that way—so she'd been able to recognize the changes in herself and known why they were happening, and then she'd talked to Kate Harper and seen the person Kate recommended for a few visits, and, really, things had been much better after that. There was a difference between post-trauma stress and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and she hadn't gone the way Josh had after Rosslyn, thank God.
So she knew that, comfortable though it would be to use Gaza as an excuse, it wasn't the whole story. She'd felt—she didn't know what word to use—different—even before that bomb had gone off. Angry? Yes, that was part of it, a big part, though she wasn't entirely sure who she'd been angry with, or why. Josh, of course, for not taking her seriously enough, for having put her on the Codel when, as C.J. had pointed out, there wasn't any real need for her to be there, and having let her think that it was something important she was going to do. Herself, for having been so naively happy about the trip and having thought that Josh was giving her a big opportunity to grow and advance. C.J., for having told her the truth when her illusions had been so much nicer, and for having seen so clearly what Donna had hoped and believed that no one—except Amy Gardner, of course—could see, and for having more or less laughed at her for her ridiculous love for a man who was never going to be in love with her. Herself, for having been so obvious, and for having exposed herself to C.J.'s—well, it hadn't been laughter, really, but pity, with more than a touch of scorn. She'd felt ridiculous and humiliated that night, and by the time she'd got to Gaza she'd already started to build a shell around herself. A hard shell. She would not be in love with him any longer. She wouldn't be in love with anyone; it hurt too much. She certainly hadn't been in love with Colin; she'd known—or thought she'd known—exactly what kind of man he was and what he wanted from her, and she'd played right along, sleeping with him to get what she wanted, using him to get access to the real Gaza and prove something—to whom? C.J.? Josh? Herself?
Looking back now, she didn't like herself very much for that. What had she proven, after all, except that she could sleep with a man she didn't know and didn't care about, except in the most casual way. And she'd known that about herself already: she hadn't known Cliff Calley very well, either, when she'd slept with him, though at least he hadn't been such an obviously bad choice—there'd been some potential there, even with his position on the Ways and Means Committee, even with his being a Republican. At least he'd lived in the same city, and hadn't admitted from the start that all he was looking for was a round or two of casual sex with a pretty woman he'd picked up on the road. Not that she could blame Colin; sex without strings was all she'd wanted right then too.
He'd surprised her, when he'd shown up at the hospital in Germany, bringing flowers and kissing her and saying charming things in front of Josh, and then waiting while she went through surgery the second time. He'd turned out to be much sweeter than she'd had any idea of when she'd met him. But of course, he'd seen her blown up in front of him; it wasn't surprising, really, that he'd felt some involvement, some concern. His feelings for her hadn't gone very deep—there hadn't been time for that—and they'd parted easily enough when he'd had to leave, both of them admitting that they liked each other, but having no trouble accepting that they'd never be more than friends, when his life was in Europe and the Mid-East, and hers was thousands of miles away in the U.S.
Colin's coming to the hospital had been a good thing, though, because it had kept her from reading too much into Josh having come there too. It was just as well that she'd had that reminder that a man could travel a long way to see you when you were hurt, and bring you flowers, and show you that he cared about you, and it didn't mean he was in love with you—a little attraction, maybe, in Colin's case; not even that, of course, in Josh's.
And it was just as well that she'd had that wake-up call from C.J. before the trip: if C.J. had waited to say those things until she'd come back, she'd have been too far gone to pay any attention to them. But she'd been warned, and so she'd been able to remind herself, very firmly, that Josh was there because, like Colin, he knew her and he liked her and he cared what happened to her, but there was nothing more to it than that—not even as much more as there was with Colin, because if there'd been any hope of that, he would have shown it by now, surely.
There'd been times, once, when she'd thought he was attracted to her—years ago, when he'd seemed for a while to be deliberately preventing her from dating other men, or more recently, like that time he'd come to get her when she'd shut herself up in her apartment after almost losing her job to save Jack Reese's, and then he'd whisked her off to dance at that Inaugural Ball. She still remembered the way he'd looked at her that night, and the compliments he'd paid her; there'd been something there then, she was sure of it. But that had been a passing thing, because she'd been wearing a pretty dress and had her hair up and he'd actually noticed, for a moment, what other men saw right away. But it hadn't lasted, obviously. If there'd been anything there for him, he'd surely have shown it that night of the shutdown, when they'd been to a state dinner and she'd been wearing that really lovely bare-shouldered blue dress, and they'd come back to the office afterwards, and she'd brushed against him when she was getting some papers off the desk, and he hadn't reacted at all, he hadn't even noticed. So of course there was no reason to think his coming to Germany meant anything special. They'd known each other a long time; they'd spent a lot of time together; they were friends, though it was an odd sort of friendship, all mixed up with work like that. But that was all it was.
It hadn't been easy to accept that, though, after having him there by her bed in the hospital, and when she'd come back to work she'd found she couldn't just slip back into her old role with him and be happy about it. She'd never had to think about not loving him before; she'd just had to worry about not showing it. Now that she was actively trying to kill her feelings for him off, everything was different. She was more aware of his faults, and they bothered her more than they used to because she wasn't letting herself see anything else; she needed to be irritated by him, to find things to be angry with him about, because otherwise she'd just go right back to where she'd been before—and she knew now that life was too short, and she just couldn't afford to go on and on, loving a man who was never going to be in love with her. She'd had to end it; she'd had to. A fresh start, she'd told herself; I need a fresh start. The only way to get one was to leave, and so she had.
And it had seemed so wonderful at first. Will, willing to give her a better job, with real responsibilities and even her own office. She'd been so thrilled by that, she hadn't let herself think too hard about the fact that Will was able to give her that kind of job because he worked for the Vice President, not the President of the United States; there was a lot less competition for office space on his floor of the West Wing than on the main one, and for places on Bob Russell's team than on Jed Bartlet's. Some Vice Presidents carved out a lot of power and influence for themselves, but Bob Russell had come to the office through the back door, because of a deal made at a time when the President had been too shaken by Zoe's kidnapping to think clearly or act firmly, and as a result the V.P.'s office was occupied by a man who commanded virtually no respect from anyone, and wielded very little power. Josh had had a far more important job as Deputy Chief of Staff to the President than Will had as Bob Russell's C.O.S., and working for Josh she'd been working for the President, working every day for things that mattered infinitely more than anything she could ever do in this Vice President's office, even though her job in the White House had been so much less glamorous than the one she had here.
If it hadn't been for the election and all the excitement that went with it, she might have realized that. But she'd let herself get caught up in the thrill of the campaign, and in the heady idea that, as Will often said, Bob Russell was bound to be the Democratic candidate whether he was the best man for the job or not, and actually needed good people around him to guide him and direct him—by which Will meant Will, and anyone he chose to work with him. Donna had been flattered that he chose her. She'd told herself she was serving her country by helping to steer the man who might be President towards better policies than he would have chosen on his own. Now she wondered if she hadn't really been just serving herself.
In another job that might not have mattered—you're supposed to look out for your own career, aren't you?—but when the job was making a man President of the United States who wasn't fit to serve . . . . She couldn't really believe she'd been willing to do that. It had been one thing, maybe, when she'd first come to work here, when Russell had been the only real Democratic candidate on the field. It had been quite another when Matt Santos had appeared on the scene, with his intellect and his idealism and all the qualities that made him, perhaps not another Bartlet, but so obviously a better choice than Bingo Bob.
Eight years ago she'd left a job and a boyfriend and driven herself halfway across the country to volunteer to work for nothing to help get a man almost no one had heard of elected President, because she'd seen him speak on t.v., because she'd known at once that he had the kind of mind she wanted her country to have in its highest office. She'd fallen in love with Josh partly because he saw those things in Bartlet too, and was willing to give up the Sure Thing for the Real Thing, to risk everything he had for a beautiful ideal. And then eight years later, because she'd been trying so hard not to be in love with Josh anymore, she'd found herself working for a Sure Thing who, if he'd been elected, would have made a far worse President than John Hoynes ever would—and she hadn't been able to leave Bingo Bob and go to work for the Real Thing because that would have meant going back to Josh.
And now Bob Russell wasn't going to be President, and maybe Matt Santos was, and her wonderful job had disintegrated into trivialities like prepping Mrs. Bingo Bob for a five-minute speech so she wouldn't make a fool of herself in front of a lot of wealthy suburban women, any one of whom would probably have made a better Second Lady than Mrs. Russell did. And Donna didn't know what to do. She'd thought maybe she'd gained enough distance from Josh that she could go and work for Matt Santos without destroying herself, but all she'd had to do was walk into Josh's office and her poise had crumpled, and anyway, he hadn't wanted her.
He hadn't really been unreasonable about it, or unkind; having her quotes read back at her had felt like a slap in the face, but he was only telling her what she should have known before she'd gone in. People from opposing campaigns did go back and forth sometimes—after all, candidates who'd been rivals during the primaries often ended up on the same ticket in the end—but changing sides like that was tricky business; she'd heard Will say often enough in the early days of the primaries that Josh had better watch out that he didn't burn his bridges by going negative in his campaigning, because if he said too many memorable truths about Bob Russell they wouldn't be able to hire him when Santos lost. At the best hiring her after the things she'd said about Santos would have required a lot of spin, and Josh had made it clear that he thought Santos wanted someone who didn't need to be spun, someone the Congressman could trust.
Josh had also made it clear that he—Josh—needed someone he could trust. He hadn't said in so many words that that wasn't her any more, but that was surely what he'd meant. He'd said he missed her—missed her every day—but it could only be the old Donna he missed, the one he'd trusted for so many years, not the new one. Not the one who hadn't stood by him when he was up to his neck in disappointments and responsibilities. Not the one who'd gone to campaign for Bingo Bob. Not the one who'd left him, staring dumbfounded with disbelief in the middle of the office, without even a week's notice, without even a letter of resignation or an audible word of thanks.
Donna shivered again, and put the mug of not-so-hot chocolate down on her desk; she pulled her legs up, wrapped her arms around them, and buried her face in her knees. Her cell buzzed in her purse, but she ignored it. The wind was picking up outside, splattering raindrops and handfuls of wet leaves against her window; she didn't notice. All she could hear was the way Josh's voice had shaken when he'd said he missed her; all she could see was the pain in his eyes.
When Josh had been shot, she'd been more terrified than she'd ever been in her life before, or since. She'd spent the fourteen hours while he was in surgery and quite a few afterwards praying in every way she could think of that he'd get better, and he had, of course. She didn't really think her prayers could have had too much to do with that, but it was hard to be sure. She didn't go to church much; at Christmas once in a while, and friends' weddings, of course, that had been about it for quite a while now. She didn't know whether she believed in God or not; these days she mostly thought probably not.
There'd been times, though, when she'd felt sure she saw a pattern in her life, signs of some higher purpose, when things that had seemed hard or bad while they were happening had opened the way to something bigger and better than she'd ever have been able to plan for herself. Like the time she'd broken her ankle and Michael had gone drinking with his friends and hadn't come to get her, and she'd been furious with him and with herself for having left the Bartlet campaign to go back to him, and she'd left again and driven for two days, humiliated and ashamed and certain she'd find someone else working in her place on the campaign, or Josh would take one look at her and show her the door. And then he hadn't, and hadn't given her a hard time at all, hadn't even teased her about it—except with the flowers every year, of course, but that was later; then she'd been so amazed at the way he took her back without a single dig or complaint or rebuke. So amazed, and so uplifted, so sure she'd found what she was supposed to be doing at last and that everything else she needed would fall into place.
But here she was, eight years later, and right now for all she could see, if her life had any pattern to it, it was a pretty twisted one; she felt like a slogan in a fortune cookie: "Be careful what you wish for; you might get it." She had a good job now, a great job, really, a job most women would envy. She'd learned she had skills she'd never dreamed of, and could perform in a high-profile position, in public, under pressure, in ways she would never have imagined all those years ago. She could be proud of that: she'd gone out to prove something about herself, and she'd done it, and done it so spectacularly well she'd surprised herself. But as she looked around her office all she could think was that it was six o'clock and she was here by herself in this big, beautiful room, and everyone else on the Vice President's staff had gone home an hour ago, even Will, because there was nothing worth staying to do. Her office seemed empty, her job seemed empty, all her victories and triumphs seemed pointless and empty. And if she went home her apartment would be empty. Her heart felt empty.
She looked out the window. The leaves splattered against the glass were catching the light from her desk lamp and shining like yellow candleflames against the darkening sky and the rain. They made her think, unaccountably, of her father lighting the candles on their dinner table for their special family meals on Sunday evenings, and at Thanksgiving, and Christmas, and Easter. She thought of the smell of roast pork or roast turkey filling the house, her brothers' and her sister's voices talking and laughing, her parents' quieter voices, the warmth of their smiles. She thought of the little candlelit church they all went to on Christmas Eve, and the carols, and the children's pageant, and the ancient creche with its battered figures of kneeling cows and donkeys and shepherds carrying sheep over their shoulders like tired children wrapped in wooly blankets, and the baby Jesus with his arms held out, and the big gold star. Those things were all inextricably a part of who she was, she knew that; she'd always consider herself Christian, no matter what she thought she believed in or didn't, whether she went to church or not.
She thought about going to a church now, to sit and be quiet and try to get some idea of what to do. She had to do something; she couldn't go on like this. She uncurled herself from her chair and started to gather up her things, wondering which of the churches she'd been in might be the best one to go to, or whether she should just drive and pick one that looked open and stop and go in. But then, suddenly, it occurred to her that she knew what she wanted to do right now, and it wasn't going to a church at all. It was a strange idea—a really strange idea, for her—but it seemed strangely right for the moment, for the day, for everything that was on her mind.
She walked quickly on her way down to her car. Her cell buzzed again, and she reached into her purse without looking at it and switched it off; anything Will wanted could wait. Certainly anything Bob Russell wanted could wait. When she left the garage she didn't turn up 17th Street the way she usually did. Instead she turned onto Pennsylvania Avenue and headed west, but before she got to the bridge into Georgetown she dropped down onto the parkway and turned north. Rock Creek ran close to the road there and she could have just pulled off on the shoulder, but that was too public, too easy, too safe. Instead she kept driving till she came to the part where the park widens, and then took the little road that runs down into it, driving in as far as she could. Then she dug out the flashlight she always carried in her glove compartment, took her purse, and got out of the car.
It was crazy, she knew, coming here alone at that time of day; even though the rain had slowed to a drizzle and there was a little light left in the sky, it was dark here under the trees, and lonely, and probably dangerous. The trees loomed over her in a black mass on either side of the path. She moved the flashlight around in a slow circle, checking just to make sure there weren't any obvious muggers lurking nearby; there didn't seem to be anyone there. She could hear the creek rushing along its rocky bed, just a little way ahead, and she could smell it, too, a cold wet smell that mixed with the other smells of the woods around her, wet things and rotting things and, from somewhere, a tangy whiff of pine. She felt a little like an animal, sniffing the air, and she wondered suddenly what animals she might run into in RockCreekPark on a rainy evening just before sunset. Racoons? Foxes? Runaway dogs? She hoped they'd keep their distance. Holding the flashlight as steady as she could, she picked her way along the muddy path towards the creek.
When she got there, she paused for a minute, using the light to look all around, reassuring herself that nothing was lurking there, nobody was watching. She didn't know what sudden impulse made her flick the light up to check out the tops of the trees, but something did. She looked up, and gasped. She'd forgotten about the leaves. More of them seemed to have turned here than along the city streets, and they were spreading over her like a great vaulted ceiling, a protective canopy of warm and brilliant color, a hundred different shades of green and gold and red. They seemed to catch fire in the beam of light from her flashlight, and for a minute she moved it back and forth in playful circles, watching the colors burn and dance. When she dropped the beam down to the ground again, she realized she was smiling. She didn't feel nervous any more.
She set the light down on the rock at her feet and dug through her purse, scraping up all the loose stuff from the bottom. There was the end of a roll of wintergreen Lifesavers, a package of broken Saltine crackers she hadn't eaten with her soup at lunch, three crumpled tissues, and a handful of small change that must have worked its way out of her wallet somehow. In the interest of environmental preservation she shook the crackers out of their plastic wrapping; she hesitated a bit over the tissues, but decided they would probably break down quickly. Then she reached out and sprinkled everything over the dark, rushing water of Rock Creek.
She didn't know the right words to say, but it didn't really matter. The hard part would be finding the right words to say the next time she saw him, but she told herself that if she could come here alone in the dark on a cold, rainy night, she could do that too.
She drove home with the radio off, just wanting to be quiet and think. When she got there she let herself into her apartment building, wishing as she often did that the entry had a doorman; it would be nice to have someone to say hello to when she came home. She should move, now that she could afford something better, but until the convention she'd been too busy to think about it, and since then she hadn't felt like bothering. But there was a spring in her step as she climbed the stairs. She felt lighter, somehow, freer and more optimistic than she could remember feeling in a long time.
Her spirits sank a bit, though, when she turned the corner on the stairs and realized her landlord still hadn't fixed the light on her landing. It wasn't just a bulb—she'd taken her kitchen stool and climbed up herself to try to change it—it needed an electrician, but he hadn't got one in yet. There were lights on the landing below and the next one up, but they didn't do much to dispel the gloom on hers. She didn't like making her way up the last few steps and groping around for her keys in semi-darkness. She wished she'd brought the flashlight from the car, but she hadn't thought of it.
She didn't see the man sitting on the floor with his back against her door until she tripped over his legs and fell across him with a thump. She let out a squeal of surprise and pain. He let out a grunt.
"OW, damn it, what the hell—Donna? Is that you? Are you all right?"
"JOSH? What are you doing here?"
"I came by—ouch, I think you've broken my legs—and you weren't here, so I—why the hell is it so dark here? It wasn't like this when I sat down."
"The light went out and my landlord hasn't fixed it."
"That's the modern woman for you; she can leap tall buildings at a single bound, but she can't climb on a stepstool and change a lightbulb."
"It's not the lightbulb, it's the wiring, and who are you to talk about not being able to change a lightbulb? You let yours go until you're down to the last one, and then you make your cleaning lady do them all."
"I'm a busy man, I don't have time for these things."
"And I'm a busy woman and don't have time to go get an electrician's degree so I can fix that light."
"How long has it been out?"
"Days. A week, maybe. Stan said he'd get someone in, but it hasn't happened yet."
"He ought to have done it right away; it's dangerous like that."
"You're telling me."
"I think you broke my leg."
"I think I broke my knees, and it's all your fault. What on earth were you doing, anyway, sitting here in the dark with your legs stuck out where anyone could trip over them?"
"I told you, I came by, and you weren't here, and you weren't answering your phone, so I sat down to wait. I guess I drifted off."
"You must have been tired."
"Yeah, a bit, I guess."
"Haven't you been sleeping?"
"It's been busy; you know what it's like."
"You're always busy; you don't usually fall asleep at 7:00 at night."
"Is that all it is? I thought it must be the middle of the night."
"Just a bit after seven. But really, Josh, you need to look after yourself better."
"Yeah, I know."
"Did you sleep last night at all?"
"The night before that?"
"Not much then, either. I haven't really—not since—look, Donna, the reason I came by—"
"I wanted—I mean, I want—I need—"
"Oh God, Donna, that day, when you came in, when you left—"
"You were—I thought you were—Did I make you—"
"Yes, Josh." Her voice was quiet.
"I'm sorry. Oh God, I'm sorry, Donna, I'm so sorry. I didn't mean—I didn't want—"
"It's okay, Josh, I know you didn't want to make me cry."
"I'm so sorry, Donna."
"You don't understand." She wanted to say, I was crying because you said you missed me, but how could she say that without making a total fool of herself?
"I do understand. I made you think—I didn't mean you weren't good enough to do the job, Donna, I didn't mean that at all. You did a great job for Russell; you are good at this, you are. I didn't mean you weren't. I don't have a problem seeing you have authority, Donna, I don't. I'm so proud of what you've done. But we've got too much stuff to have to spin right now as it is, with Leo and all that, and the President not backing us on the education thing, and—and I just didn't see how I could sell it to the press, or to Matt."
"I know, Josh, I understand that, I do. I shouldn't have put you in that position, I can see that now."
"Yes, I can. But Josh—"
"There's more to it than that, isn't there?"
"To your not hiring me."
There was a long pause then. When he answered, his voice sounded hesitant, which was strange; Josh was never hesitant.
"I—yeah. Yeah, there was. There is."
"Can you—tell me?" She wasn't sure she could bear it, but she had to ask.
"I'm sorry, Donna, I—can't help it."
"Help what, Josh?"
"Help—how—" He was having a hard time getting the words out; his voice sounded tight and strange.
"How—oh, God. How you make me feel."
"You mean, angry?"
"ANGRY? God, Donna, no. Angry? You think I'm angry with you? Why would I—how could you think I'm angry with you?"
"Because I left, Josh. Because I left at a bad time, for the White House, for you. Because I didn't give notice and because I went to work for Bingo Bob and you can't stand Bingo Bob."
"He's—he's a nothing, Donna. He doesn't have even a tiny fraction of what it takes to do the job. He shouldn't be anywhere near the Oval Office, you must know that. He should never have been anywhere near the Vice President's office, either. I don't know how you could have gone to work for him."
"I'm not sure I know now either, Josh."
"But I'm not angry. I mean, I hated it when you were finding all Matt's weak spots and punching holes in our campaign. I hated that I had to try to fix them, and I hated that it was you, going after a good man for the sake of a bad one. But I couldn't blame you; I knew it was my fault. I wasn't angry with you, Donna; I couldn't be angry with you. Never with you."
"What do you mean, it was your fault, Josh? It wasn't your fault."
"Of course it was my fault."
"Because. Because I made you—" He broke off again. She could hear his breath going in and out, fast, as if he'd been running. He seemed to be looking down at his hands, rubbing them nervously up and down on the tops of his legs. They were both still sitting in semi-darkness on the floor in front of her door.
"Yes, Josh?" she asked softly, wondering what on earth he was going to say.
"Not—want—to work with me any more."
"Oh, Josh," she started, but he kept talking, the words coming out fast now, as if he couldn't keep them back.
"Because I made you hate me so much you couldn't work with me any more."
"JOSH!" Donna was horrified. "I don't hate you, I've never hated you. How can you say that?"
"You don't?" There was a tremble in his voice, the way there had been when he'd said he missed her. Every day.
"No, of course I don't."
"I thought you did."
"I—you said things, last fall,—and I just thought you did. For a while, anyway; I knew you must have forgiven me a bit if you were willing to be my deputy, and for the life of me I haven't been able to figure out why."
"Josh, why on earth would I hate you?"
"Because I hurt you, Donna." His voice was shaking badly now. "I made you get hurt. I sent you to Gaza, and you got hurt. You had a compound fracture in your leg; you had to have surgery for it; you had to do rehab for months. You punctured your lung. You had a—a pulmonary embolism and the surgery went wrong and they thought for a while you were going to have brain damage. How could you not hate me after that? And then I made you cry."
"Oh, Josh." Donna thought she was going to cry now. "I never thought. I should have thought. It wasn't your fault, Josh, I never thought it was your fault." How could she have missed that, she wondered, when she had told his girlfriend that he went through every day afraid that someone he cared for was going to get hurt and it was going to be his fault. But it had never occurred to her that he might be blaming himself for Gaza, or think that she was blaming him.
"You seemed so angry, afterwards, after you came home. With me. Not with other people; just with me."
"Oh, Josh." How was she going to do this? "I was frustrated, it's true. I wanted more from my job." It didn't seem right, giving such a partial answer, but how could she tell him the truth?
"I know that, I'm sorry. I know I didn't listen to you. I was so busy, Donna, and it was so hard, with Leo, and C.J. . . ." His voice trailed off.
"I know," she said softly. "I know. I'm sorry, Josh. It was a bad time for you, a really bad time, and I didn't help you, I just made it worse. I'm so sorry."
"I wish I'd listened better, Donna, I do. I can see now how frustrating it must have been for you. But—I guess I didn't want to listen, Donna. I didn't want to hear what you were trying to tell me. I knew you were fed up and wanted to do something else and I didn't, I couldn't—" He stopped and swallowed, hard. When he spoke again, he seemed at first to have to force the words out.
"I—I couldn't—think about—" He stopped and swallowed again. "About losing you, Donna. Not again, not after—you don't know what it was like, watching those pictures, hearing you were in that car, and not knowing, thinking—and I couldn't find anything out, it took so long to find anything out, and even then all they could tell me was you were hurt, you were bleeding, it was bad—" His voice was shaking more than ever, and Donna realized suddenly that he was starting to break down.
"Josh—" she started, but he kept talking, the words not forced now but pouring out desperately, as if, having started, he couldn't stop.
"Bleeding, they said, severe bleeding. That's all I knew for a while. Then they said you were stabilized, they were flying you to Germany, but they didn't know anything else, you could have lost your legs or your arms or—I didn't know. I had to tell your parents. And then I had to go to a meeting to decide what kind of response we should make. That Harper woman was talking about it being some kind of opportunity, and I flipped out. I think I started yelling something about killing everyone who'd done it and everyone who'd wanted them to do it and everyone who'd been happy about their doing it, and Leo pulled me out and told me I could go if I needed to, and I just ran. I grabbed my bag and I ran. I got on the first flight I could and all I could do was sit there and wonder if you'd still be alive when I got there, and what was I going to do if you weren't. I sat there reading the emails you'd sent, over and over, and they were so you—so thoughtful and so perceptive and so caring and so funny at times, and so beautiful, and it was like you were right there with me, but you weren't, you were lying in a hospital bed hours away and for all I knew you were dying. I was terrified you were dying, that you were already dead. And then I got there and you were all right, hurt, but they said you were going to be all right. I went into your room and saw you lying there and I almost cried, Donna. I just sat there and watched you all night, just watching you breathe, just looking at your face. You looked so beautiful. I'd never seen anything so beautiful. But if you'd lost your arms and your legs and your face had been wrapped in bandages and you were going to be scarred for life you'd still have looked beautiful to me, as long as you were breathing, as long as you were going to wake up and talk to me again."
In the faint light from the stairwell, Donna could just make out the wetness glistening on his cheeks. She could feel the tears running down her own.
"Oh, Josh," she tried again, but it seemed as if he was determined to tell her everything now, not to leave anything unsaid.
"And you did. You did. It was—I can't tell you what it did to me, Donna, when I heard your voice again. You were so groggy, and in pain, but it was you, you were back. And then it started all over again. I went out to that damned lunch, and when I got back you weren't there. There was blood on the floor, and your IV, and you weren't there. I ran down the hall looking in all the rooms trying to find you, yelling at anyone I saw to tell me where you were. And then I found you, you were in the OR, and your surgeon came and he told me—he told me—" He couldn't go on for a minute. Donna reached out and put her hand over his.
"It's okay," she said. "I'm okay."
"You weren't," he said, in a choked voice. "You had a pulmonary embolism. People die from those; my father—" Oh God, Donna thought, how could she have forgotten about his father? But she had.
"And I had to wait again. Your boyfriend was there, talking about Palestinians and Israelis and I thought, they did this because they hate Jews. They hurt you because they hate Israel and they hate Jews. And I'm a Jew. I'm for Israel, I have to be, it's—I can't explain how important it is to us, to think there's a place where's it's okay to be what we are, where it's not different, it's not strange to anybody, one place in the world where we can be sure that what happened to my grandparents won't happen again. But to get that place we had to take things away from other people, people who have nothing now, the people you talked to and wrote about—and oh God, it's such a mess, Donna, I don't know what to do. I can see why they hate us, of course I can. And if we'd never made Israel, they wouldn't; the whole thing wouldn't have happened, and you wouldn't have been hurt. But we had to, and we did. And because we did, you got hurt."
"Josh, it's not like that, it's not your fault. I told you it's not your fault."
"It is, Donna, it really is. I sent you there, when I didn't have to, when I should have taken you to Brussels the way you wanted instead. If you'd died, I'd never have forgiven myself. If—they said you lost oxygen during the surgery for the embolism. They said you might have brain damage. If that had happened, Donna, I'd never have forgiven myself. I don't really know how I'd have gone on living, if you'd died, or if you'd been hurt like that."
Donna was crying harder now, but quietly; he didn't seem to realize how she was reacting. "Oh Josh," she said again, squeezing his hand. "I didn't know. I didn't know you felt like that. I didn't know."
"You didn't know?" His voice cracked. She'd thought she knew him inside out and backwards, but she'd never heard this kind of emotion from him before at all; it staggered her to think how wrong she'd been. "What else would I have been feeling? What did you think, that I'd left the White House in the middle of the biggest international crisis we've had on our watch because I wanted to make sure I was still going to have someone around to type my memos? Everyone knew what I felt. Leo, C.J., Toby, Will, that damned Harper woman. Debbie Federer. The President. I think the guys in the mailroom knew, the guards at the front door. I couldn't have made myself more obvious if I'd hired a skywriter to put 'Josh loves Donna' in a big heart over half D.C."
"Oh God, Josh," she choked out, "I didn't know; I really didn't know. I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry."
He quieted down then. "Don't cry, Donna," he said gently, reaching out to wipe her face with his hand. "Please don't cry. And don't be sorry; you don't have anything to be sorry about. I know you don't feel the same way. It's all right. Really."
"You big idiot," she said then, leaning over and throwing her arms around his neck. "Of course I feel the same way. Why do you think I left?"
"L'shanah tovah, Josh."
"Do you know what it means, Donna?"
"For a good year."
"I don't want just a year, Donna. I want forever."
"So do I, sweetheart. So do I."
He tasted like apples, crisp and sweet. She tasted like fresh bread and honey.