DISCLAIMER: The West Wing and its characters are the property of NBC, Aaron Sorkin and John Wells.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
SPOILERS: Set mid to late season 3 methinks.
Putting Words in my Mouth
Putting words in my mouth
I'm the voice of the establishment, a world champion bullshitter. Always have been always will be. Hell, it's my job, my vocation. And I love it, I love to talk, to expound, to explain, to hold forth, to chew the fat. Whatever euphemism you want to use. Until recently I wouldn't have changed it for all the tea in China.
But she reduces me to silence.
I'm tall, gawky, physically unco-ordinated, a total geek. There's a reason that my call-sign is Flamingo rather than Gazelle. If something is there to be fallen over, into or off from then I am your woman. Unless I'm concentrating really hard on it then my hands, my body language goes into chaotic overdrive to match my words. Why do you think I hold on to the podium so tightly when I'm giving a press briefing?
She is so small, barely reaching my shoulder, bird slender and totally self contained. Yet she commands our attention. She draws it to herself without apparent effort. Her interpreter is like a Greek chorus. He speaks for her but he is invisible to us. Our eyes do not leave hers. When she speaks, her hands move in a silent ballet. Every motion every inflection has meaning, nuance.
I'm loud, brash, my laughter is like machine gun fire. When I lose my temper my voice becomes strident, my tone acid enough to strip paint. Words can be weapons sharper than any knife, more deadly accurate than any bullet. The truth is that I like to get in your face but at the same time I'm terrified of confrontation. Unless I know someone really really well then I have a personal exclusion zone of about three feet. Few people very few get closer than that. Dad, Danny, Toby, Leo, Carol, Donna... And now Joey Lucas.
Her hand touches my arm and I am still, silent, totally under her spell. I hang on her every word, every gesture.
"Give us the numbers."
And effortlessly, or so it seems, she transmutes them into words. Sharp staccato facts that can decide the fate of a nation or a president. This they liked. That not so much. If we do this then this many people will vote for us. If we do that more will vote for us here but not so many there.
Her words weave possible futures, set in motion paths that could change all our fates. I try to follow to respond in kind but I am a babe in arms too much to learn and too little time. She stills my hands with an understanding smile.
"Speak," she commands. Her eyes focus on my lips, a tiny frown of concentration on her brow as I marshall my thoughts choose my words carefully. I have her whole attention after all. A part of me worries how much I crave her good opinion, how much of myself I have already willingly lost to her.
"I need to talk to you privately about this," I say, indicating the thick pile of printout. "Make sure we're getting everything out of it that we should be."
"Sam and Toby are writing it all up," she said. "That will tell you everything."
"I'm not a newsreader," I said. "I need to understand for myself without the spin. Not everyone will put the same gloss on this as we will. Once I'm in the press room there can't be any surprises. Not on this. Joey, can I take you to dinner?"
I can tell by her eyes that she's reading more than words. I hope she understands. She smiles and my heart inexplicably lightens.
"I would love to have dinner with you C.J. Where and when?"
I mentally consult my diary. I can clear tomorrow evening without breaking too many heads and this had better be sooner rather than later before I lose my nerve completely. I can get a good (discreet) table at Bartholemew's at short notice being a `face' has its perks sometimes - and its menu is eclectic enough to please most tastes. I make my suggestion and she smiles. Then I remember something or rather someone and glance up at her interpreter. She follows the direction of my gaze and I am almost astonished to see that she is laughing at me.
"I can cope on my own for an evening, don't worry, C.J.," she said.
"No offense," I said weakly to her assistant.
"None taken," he smiled. Oh god, was I that obvious?
Though we weren't meeting until eight I left the office or rather Carol threw me out because I was driving her nuts at five. I was a nervous wreck. It isn't a date, I kept telling myself. It's a meeting between two highly professional women and occasional colleagues seeking to forge a better working relationship.
Yeah, right. Deep down I knew all too well that I couldn't date Joey Lucas for all the reasons that I couldn't date Danny Concannon. Potential conflict of interest. And then of course there was the unforgiving nature of the world towards a relationship between two women. I didn't need that kind of grief in my life now and I really didn't want to lay something like that at the door of the President. He Jed Bartlett would understand and would back me all the way. POTUS might just have a problem or two and the Washington establishment, my precious fourth estate... Hell, they'd feast on my bones and dine out on it for months.
I wasn't quite anal enough to make a list of all the pro's and con's but I did sit and stare at my reflection in the mirror for an inordinate amount of time willing myself to see the evening for what it had to be - a business dinner and not a date.
I surveyed the contents of my wardrobe. I wanted to pitch this just right. The dark red Vera Wang was way too dressy, the plum Ralph Lauren suit I'd worn to the office too many times. Somewhere in between. And it would have to be something I could wear flats with. The poor woman was going to have a crick in her neck talking to me as it was. So, trousers black leather pants because they looked good and felt great (and I needed the confidence they gave me to be Claudia Jean and not C.J. Cregg), a white silk camisole top and a silver grey silk brocade overshirt. Low heeled black leather boots and matching black leather purse and simple understated stud earrings completed the look. Just a little make up and a spritz of my favourite perfume.
There I was done. It was half past six. I had over an hour to kill unless I wanted to be insanely early, even for me. Damn.
Joey was late slightly more than fashionably so and a little out of breath when she did arrive. A last minute hitch somewhere on the Pacific coast. I hadn't been panicking, not at all. Honest. But now she was all mine. She looked great, a long black skirt and strappy shoes, a cloud blue angora sweater that clung to her slender curves in all the right places. She wore a turquoise and silver necklace and matching bracelet and ear rings. They looked Mexican or Central American. I complimented her on them.
"They're Peruvian. One of the first jobs I got out of college was as part of an independent electoral committee monitoring elections in Peru. This was in the mid eighties. They were between military dictatorships having another go at free and fair elections. The set was a gift from someone I was close to at the time. They're something of a good luck charm for me," she said. I think it was the longest speech I ever heard her make.
"They're very beautiful," I said again. Dare I "You do look very lovely tonight."
I made her blush. "Thank you. You look very lovely as well."
I could feel the fire in my cheeks as well and took a sip of my wine to cover myself. I had ordered a grilled chicken and avocado salad, Joey had opted for the sea bass. Our order arrived just as the silence between us was starting to get a little uncomfortable.
Over the course of the meal we exchanged abbreviated life stories. I learnt that she didn't completely lose her hearing until she was five years old and she was the only deaf person in her family. They had always been her biggest champions. She had never attended a special school but always been integrated into the standard system. Several national organizations for the deaf and various pressure groups kept inviting her to work for them but she had always resisted saying that she could make more of a difference and portray a better image and role model for deaf people doing what she was doing. "I am wary of working for places where I am the `token' person," she said. "Being the token woman is bad enough without all the other tick boxes I am convenient for on their equality statements. I think that is why I prefer to work for myself, my own agenda."
I told her about my parents, my father's ongoing health issues and to my surprise, found myself telling her how difficult it was resolving the need I felt to be the `good daughter' and look after my father and the actuality of living hundreds of miles away and having a 24/7 job. "He understands, he says," I told her. "But with the Alzheimer's taking hold "
She nodded. "He must be very proud of you."
I nodded. "He is."
I quickly lost my self-consciousness at being watched so closely. And also figured why talking and eating at the same time is not a good idea, especially when your companion is lipreading. That was the only time she asked me to repeat something. I discovered that I loved the indefinable exotically alien quality to her speech patterns, the way she articulated certain words, certain sounds. Sometimes she signed as she spoke, out of sheer habit I suspected, but most of the time she relied on the spoken word alone. I was in awe of her as much as I was of anyone who spoke more than their mother tongue with any fluency.
We were contemplating dessert and a second bottle of wine when I noticed her Blackberry vibrating. It was next to her glass and I could hear the slight chiming noise as it resonated off the crystal. As discreetly as I could I drew it to her attention. She smiled, scanned the text message and frowned.
"C.J. I am so sorry. I am going to have to go. My problem child in California needs a bit more hand-holding. Can we reschedule dessert?"
"Of course," I smiled.
Part of me was glad of the respite. I was getting ahead of myself here. I wasn't sure what I was reading from her responses. The attention she was paying to me, my every word and gesture was both disarming and confusing. Intellectually I knew it was a byproduct of her unique communication skills. But it was the kind of behaviour I associated with romantic interest. It was confusing the hell out of me.
She stood up, laid a hand on my shoulder to forestall my own rise and gently and sweetly kissed me on the lips. I savoured it. There was no mistaking that then. "Until next time," she said. She laid her right hand on my upper chest for a moment, her fingers held in a certain configuration, little finger and index finger upright, middle and ring finger folded into the palm and thumb at right angles. She smiled, and left me sitting there, befuddled and definitely bewildered.
Almost two weeks passed before we could reschedule dessert and then it transmogrified into coffee and a donut from a stand (appropriately enough) outside the Department of Commerce. We were walking back to the West Wing from the suite of offices Joey's company had leased on 14th Street. Our solitude was illusory her interpreter and my security detail were only a pace or two behind us. I tried to use my newly (barely) acquired sign language and I made her laugh.
"Who has been teaching you?" she asked.
"It's difficult for me to get to regular classes," I said defensively. "My schedule is nuts at the best of times. So I got hold of a DVD. I've been learning off that whenever I get a spare half hour or so."
"I appreciate the effort, C.J., I really do. But " she smirked.
"I was never any good at languages," I mourned.
"Eyes as expressive as yours, you don't need to be," she said softly.
I could feel the blush heating my cheeks. I couldn't look at her.
"I didn't mean to make you uncomfortable," she touched my arm, signed that she was sorry, pressing her hand to her heart.
"It's the nicest thing anyone has said to me for a long time," I told her. "One thing I did learn " I copied the gesture she had made at the restaurant. "I know what that means now."
"You do." She smiled. "And?"
Staring deeply into her eyes, I formed my hand into the same sign. "I love you too," I whispered.
It was our third dinner date. We were hiding in plain sight at a White House function. I couldn't even remember what the occasion was. Honouring someone for something. I had it written down somewhere. It didn't matter. Claudia Jean was in love. C.J. however was still in denial. I was good at that. Too good.
I was in the red Vera Wang, she was in something floaty yet austere from a British designer, a dark blue with a silver weave that caught the candlelight. She was wearing the turquoise and silver set again. I know there were other people at our table but I felt as if, for a time anyway, it was just the two of us. I could watch the play of light on her pale skin and the natural grace of her movement all night.
I had a half formed (face it, half baked idea). Only if she agreed to it though. If Joey wanted me to, asked me to do it, I would resign my post. I still wasn't quite back in my comfort zone after the revelations about the president's health and the `lies' he had told. We still weren't all singing from the same sheet and I was having a hard time with some recent policy decisions for which I had to be the mouthpiece. Even though I hated to use it, my dad's own health issues provided me with a ready made excuse to make a graceful exit. I could pull the `good daughter' card, leave the White House to go and care for my father. And pursue a relationship with Joey. The plan had a certain elegiac quality to it. More so because I knew Joey Lucas would never ever ask me to do that for her. She knew how much my job meant to me. I don't think it was conceited to say that this was where and what I was meant to be.
But still, the thought was there. I had never contemplated giving it all up for anyone else before. Trouble was I didn't know if I had the courage to ask her the question.
Was it even fair to ask her the question? It put the burden of our relationship fair and square on her shoulders. If she asked me, if I said yes, if we did this, if somewhere along the line it didn't work out then I would always resent her for it. And would it be any easier pursuing a relationship if I was out of Washington? Dayton isn't the end of the world but I could end up seeing even less of her than I do now.
Her hand touches the bare skin of my forearm bringing me back into focus. A shiver ran through me. We've kissed precisely once and I am more aware of her physicality than I have been with any lover before.
"Is everything okay?" Joey asked. "You seem distant?"
"Too many thoughts, too many problems and not nearly enough solutions," I said ruefully.
"Are we one of those problems?" she asked. Her dark eyes meet mine. I see only acceptance and understanding. If I tell her that I want to pursue a relationship she will welcome it, if I tell her I do not, she will accept it.
"Perhaps," I said. Weasel-words I know but I've never been one to wear my heart on my sleeve. Charlie comes over, a look of quiet apology on his face, a slip of paper folded in his hand. I'm needed. There is, as always, a situation.
There was no fourth date. I deliberately pulled back and so did she. Neither of us wanted to hurt the other. Neither of us wanted to compromise our work either. We were adult about it, professional. I like to think no, I know we are still good friends. Another time, another place it might have worked, for a time at least. Here and now we would have to put it down to a might- have been, a road not taken.
Time will tell whether we get a second chance.
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